The Transylvania Joem: A Young Peace Corps Volunteer in Romania

Beginning to Say Goodbye
June 12, 2010, 5:47 pm
Filed under: Peace Corps Romania | Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

The first of my real Romanian ‘goodbyes,’ began this week: on Wednesday, June 09, I gave away my cat, Cosette.

I’ve had Cosette since late September/early October of 2008– just a few weeks after I came to Petrosani. Thereby, she has lived with me for about 18 months– from kitten to cat-hood. I gave her to a 6th grade student, Dana,who has a little, wood home on the steep hillside behind my school. Dana has three other cats, and an enormous garden for them to play in. My reasons for giving away Cosette are many, but they also hinge on my assumption that the “better-life,” I envision here for her outweighs the supposed heartache for me that might linger in her little mind. I can only presume.

I was to meet Dana at the beginning of the small dirt drive that winds behind the school, up between homes to the crest of a hill where she lives with her mother and father. I cat-napped away the afternoon alongside Cosette, sharing some sweet dreams for the last time, then I delicately placed her and her favorite lamb ‘doll,’ into my cat crate, and walked to the meeting place. Early along the way, a fourth grade student saw me on his bicycle and accompanied me for the duration. I was secretly thankful– talking to a student made me seem more comfortable and accustomed to this strange event– carrying a crying cat around on the street. It also made me less aware of the scores of curious eyes contemplating me as I walked by.

I found Dana waiting for me with another student, Mădă. Before I could pass Dana the case she asked if Cosette was heavy.

“Nu,” I replied.

“Ok,” said Dana. “Come with me.”

I unhesitatingly followed. I figured Dana needed me to carry the cat the rest of the way to her new home. I obliged. As we walked, Mădă and Dana squeaked to each other. Cosette quieted– sniffing at the air carrying scents of farm-fresh green onion (she loves to munch the leaves), and the smell of domesticated duck and pig wafting about the early-evening twilight.

We passed through Dana’s gate, and continued upwards and across to her house. “Teacher– stop here,” she quickly commanded. “And close your eyes.”

They had a surprise, I figured, and again I obliged her. I gently set Cosette down on the dirty track next to the wood shed, in the shade of short, budding plum trees. Now a tiny, delicate hand took mine and began to guide me away. Dana’s tiny fingers carried me up a steep, and I begin to hear whispers hiding in the washing breeze blowing through the cottonwood and birch branches. I heard “1– 2– 3–”

“… SUPRIZĂ!” called out a half-dozen voices. I opened my eyes and saw a handful of students– mostly 6th grade– standing in a small clearing before me. In the nearby trees were violet ribbons tied to the lowest branches, and alongside them blue balloons filled with confetti. Blankets were arranged around a TV table, which was covered in paper plates and cups. There were poppy-seed and sesame pretzels, and orange soda. Best of all, was a hefty chocolate covered cake with a whipped-cream cursive “Good-bye” scrawled across it– the handiwork of someone’s mother.

I passed out squares of cake, and the girls brought Cosette up the hill, hefted her out of her crate, and carefully cradled her in their arms. She was content, and dozed. The boys chatted excitedly with me about America, and each of them promised to learn English even better next year so that they could come see me in America when they were older. I told them if they made it to my country, they most certainly had a place to stay.

After the cake was all gone and the soda had been sipped and splashed about, we cleaned up the clearing and wandered down the hill to Dana’s house. There I met her father– a farmer with a gentle limp in his left leg. He played his wood flute for me, and proudly presented me with a tall glass of țuică harvested from those same small trees shading us in the dwindling sun. Dana’s mother appeared and offered me a hand-made black and white fabric bag, to remember them by.

The boys got to sip the țuică too, and the few of us took a short walk through my town’s central park before I excused myself and wandered home. I got into my apartment and instinctively looked for Cosette on the large rug in the hall. “Ah– right,” I thought to myself when I realized she wouldn’t be there, or anywhere. For the first time in 18 months, I was really, truly alone in my apartment. I missed her, but I also felt ‘filled,’ by the memory of her. Something holy ineffable had been left behind in me, and would remain despite the lack of her physical presence.

It was the same thing I felt on Friday when all of my most adored students came to me after the closing bell ceremony. They cried, and they hugged me, and they choked on half-sentences filled with words of “favorite,” “promise,” and “miss.”

And, thereby, a lesson I learned a long while ago had been affirmed (as it often has in Peace Corps, and will continue to be): I am better for the amazing love and relationships I have had, despite the inevitable heartbreak of their ending– and they always will end, in one way or another. Existence is transcience, no matter how hard you want to hold on.

But be assured that Love creates Love– and the holy connections of friendship we encounter strengthen on themselves, and leave a person more solid and complete than they ever were before. Despite the sadness of the goodbye– that thing Kerouac calls “the too-huge world vaulting us,” he also reminds us to be steadfast, look ahead, and “lean forward to the next crazy venture beneath the skies.”

And I lean on.


La Reducere

I have a weakness for good denim.
I admit it. Before I came to Romania, I spent over $600 dollars on three pairs of jeans. Despite this, I don’t really consider myself a big ‘brand-name,’ guy. I’ll take anything from a second hand-shop (except underwear): jackets, boots, t-shirts, shorts, sheets, even towels. Thankfully, Romanian second-hand stores usually carry great gear, for cheap. However, resist as I might, I always find myself browsing the racks of expensive, well-sown, tight-cut jeans at expensive stores in bigger cities. Every time, however, I have escaped without buying a single pair.

My unblemished record was ruined today.
I was on a weekend ‘excursion,’ with a handful of my 6th and 7th graders. I did the same trip in early April with students from the nearby Industrial High School, and went for a repeat with the same professor of history, Einstein. I had a more clearly defined ‘chaperone’ role this time around, but I still really enjoyed myself and found plenty of full moments to write some more smile lines.

And I even found alone time to shop.
I wandered into New Yorker— a sort of European styled Urban Outfitters meets Pac Sun. I found a couple of great pairs of jeans on sale for 90 RON each– like 30 bucks. I wasn’t planning on buying any more clothes before I was back state-side, but I figured it’s better to buy a few good pairs here, for cheap, than to spend the ostentatious amounts that I most certainly would back in America 45 days from now.

My name is Joem, and I am an addict.
I walked into my apartment after 72 hours away. Along with my jeans, I was carrying a fresh-baked loaf of wheat bread, and various veggies. I had feta and farm-fresh eggs in my fridge. I was stoked to make a scramble. I went to light my stove and was devastated by the sudden memory of luke-warm coffee early on Friday morning.

My gas bottle was empty.
I ate a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, and moped around the apartment a little. I resolved to call Morrison, my rad landlord, although I assumed I would have to go without warm food for at least the next day. I beeped Morrison and he called me back a few minutes later. Happily, he told me he would be over later in the evening and we would go fill up my gas bottle together. See, I’d do it myself but I don’t have the proper tools, nor do I have a car to lug the empty (and then much heavier when full) bottle the multiple blocks to the place we ‘load’ the bottle. Morrison told me that we had to wait until it was late. I asked why.

“Because it’s not exactly legal,” he said.
Morrison and I go to a place that’s supposed to be for commercial vehicles only. I’m not sure what sort of deal Morrison has made with the guys who work there late night, but he always gets his gas bottles filled there, and it’s dirt cheap. Before I met Morrison, I had to pay about 45-50 RON to get my gas bottle filled. Now, I pay a little over half of that.

It was a good day to get things “la reducere.”

Haunted Hotels

The last month and a half I’ve been sleeping one or two nights per week in a hotel– the HP in nearby Petrosani. Frequenting a hotel with my own place nearby would probably only indicate a few possible scenarios– and most of them dubious. One presumes that either: I’m having an affair, or that my apartment is undergoing such massive and complete renovation that I can’t stay at home. Happily, I have neither to report. The truth, however, I consider to be much more atypical and interesting.

In early April, I met Marley. Marley has become my first close, Romanian friend in Petrosani that is not twice my age. Marley is someone to go to bars and clubs with, or to watch intensely-deep movies with and then expound upon all the abstract “what ifs,” that humans in their teens and twenties are so insatiably drawn to. Whilst I adore my eight Romanian “moms,” and appreciate them endlessly, it is also simultaneously true that we are still separated by the perspectives and responsibilities of an entire generation. Marley and I are connected by the perspective embedded into being members of the Millennial Generation. It also helps that she speaks fantastic English, has a progressive mindset, and has experienced America (namely, San Francisco).

Marley lives in the HP. Her family controls and operates the place for the state, and, as a result, Marley and a few members of her family all live in different rooms scattered throughout the building. Therefore, Marley has her own room perched up on the farthest corner of the third floor– that’s where I’ve been staying.  I should make it clear that our sleep-overs aren’t intimate. Marley and I are not romantically involved– we’re just good pals. Again, I press that the reality of the situation is crazier than any gossipy fiction one might muster.

On Saturday night, Marley and I were over at Harlem’s, smoking hookah. We stood and stretched and initiated the steps to get ourselves out the door and on our way into the night. “You sleeping at my place?” Marley asked me, and I told her that I would. We had a cab pick us up from Harlem’s and drop us off at the reception of the HP. We went to the front desk to grab some bottled drinks, and make small-talk with the receptionist.

Marley turned towards the elevators and froze.

“What’s the elevator doing at floor five?!” Marley called out into the lobby. She didn’t turn to look at the receptionist or I– she just stared at the red, digital ‘5’ buzzing above the elevator’s call button.

“I don’t know,” said the receptionist.

“Oh my Gd,” growled Marley. She angrily clacked forward and jammed her finger into the silver dial. She leaned against the wall alongside the lift door and raised her eyes to the ceiling and let her voice echo out into the dim lobby: “bântuit.”

I recognized that word from my Halloween lessons with my kids. Bântuit means ‘haunted,’ in Romanian.

The elevator door shook open and the two of us stepped inside the mirrored room and watched the doors close. “The fifth floor is closed– no one is allowed up there.” Marley said, her eyes still staring off into a place above us. “Once a girl was up there, and got like really sick and vomited blood and there was glass in her blood, like from a mirror– and now that place is closed and no one goes up there.”

“Really?” I asked– I hadn’t heard Marley tell this story before. “We should go up there!”

“No way!” Marley said as she walked out of the open door on the third floor. “I never go up there.”

I believed her– that the elevator had somehow mysteriously perched itself on the 5th floor (it’s supposed to idle on the 3rd) is far from the strangest thing that Marley has experienced. She has told me stories about faucets opening themselves, or doors closing randomly, or even voices yelling things from her bathroom. A few of Marley’s friends have seen/heard these things and refuse to stay at her place– it frightens them too much. This is why Marley invites me over– she’s afraid of sleeping alone. As of this moment, I haven’t experienced anything supernatural there.

“That reminds me of a movie filmed in Colorado,” I said. “It’s about a haunted hotel– I saw that you have it downloaded on your computer. Do you want to watch it?” I asked, and Marley said that she did.

So, that same night Marley and I stayed up and watched two thirds of THE SHINING before she began to doze off. We finished the movie the next afternoon, and Marley said that she liked it. “And did it scare you?” I pressed.

“No. Not really,” she smiled. It made sense– I guess a movie about haunted hotels probably seems redundant when you live in one.


I love class 8b. They can handle advanced topics, and I never EVER have classroom management problems with them. There’s a reason for this:

In a given period, only the same five students will show up for class. These are my English all-stars– they are hard-working, focused, and talented. It’s a crap shoot as to which of the other students might show up (if any), but I recently realized that I’ve sort of wrecked the learning curve for them: that is to say that I’ve become so accustomed to only having the best students in this class attend that the lessons are typically way to difficult for any other members of the class to comprehend or participate in. It’s become a downward spiral– the weaker students have a tendency not to come to class, so I plan my lessons to be challenging for the higher achievers that do come, which encourages the weaker students to ditch.

But now, with 3.5 weeks of general school remaining, and murmurs of a long-term teachers’ strike set for June, senioritis has hit hard.

Last week, I guest taught a lesson on creativity to the best class of 8th graders in the best school in Petrosani. They killed it. One girl defined creativity (in English!) as a manifestation between imagination and reality. Another boy contradicted me when I asked what constitutes creative talent because, according to him, everyone has the propensity for creative ability. They ended the period by writing gorgeous little Cinquain poems about forests and beaches and city streets. I was stoked.

I couldn’t wait to teach the same lesson to 8b. I was certain they’d rock it.

However, 20 minutes into my lesson today, I looked out across my 8b class and unhappily chewed my lip– I saw heads down on desks; I listened to two boys having a private conversation in the corner; I asked Prințesă who her favorite Romanian poet was and all I got was a strained look as a reply. “Teacher,” she said earnestly, “I am so tired.”

“I can tell,” I said.

So, for better or for worse, I acquiesced to their senioritis, dug into my bag and pulled out a pile of post-card templates that I’ve been using for sixth grade. I took my ‘craft kift,’ filled with scissors, glue sticks and colored pencils out of my nearby desk, and I let the kids design and color their own post-cards for the final half hour of class. I saw signs of life, and smiles– acquired cheaply, perhaps, but I’m not too sure I had a better option.

“Please come to class next week,” I told them all in Romanian. “I want to take photos off you, to remember you, and I will have a surprise to give you,” and they all promised that they would. Mom recently sent me 300 post-cards lauding Colorado, and I have resolved to write one to every single one of my students. With the end of the year uncertainty looming, next week may be my only chance to hand out these cards– and it may well be the very last time I interact with some of my beloved students from 8b. Yikes.

Okay, București

I haven’t always been kind to Romania’s capital city, București (Buc.), in my past posts.

I had found the city unwelcoming, dirty, and over-crowded. Aside from Lipscani, I hadn’t really found any good places to pass time while in the city. Thereby, I made my visits as short as possible, and I made my distaste for the capital well known.

Recently, a close friend, Phoenix, took issue with this. Phoenix was born in Buc., and has lived there her entire life. When another friend, ZB, and I remarked on why we didn’t like the place, Phoenix took to its defense and had this to say:

Bucharest is a bustling city, filled with life. Unlike other cities that have been turned into museums for the sole purpose of attracting tourists, Bucharest is not trapped in time. Its beauty lies in the fact that it has a heart of its own.
The greatest thing about living in a developing city is that I feel like I’m contributing to its every heartbeat, whereas, in a city where one bumps into history at every corner, I can’t help but feel small and insignificant, a mere on-looker.

(Yeah– her English is pretty phenomenal)

Thus, Phoenix invited me to the big city that she calls home to offer me a ‘local’s tour,’ to see if I wouldn’t change my mind. I took her offer, and ruck-sacked down there for a long weekend.

I arrived on my mid-5AM train, and rode the two metros necessary to come to Universitate, in the center of the city. I rose up out of the metro station at approximately 6AM, and found a different, docile București around me. The ground was wet with recent rain, and covered with the ‘burn bright pink then blow away,’ flower petals ubiquitous on the trees during the Romanian Spring. The easy light bounced around the newly constructed park on the corner alongside the hospital– a massive bronze violin hung calmly in the air. Birds sang from trees I had never noticed before.

“Okay, București,” I said, “You’ve clearly put your best foot forward.”

I took care of some nondescripts down at the PCRo office, took a walk with some fellow volunteers, and then hustled again over to Universitate to meet Phoenix at the National Theatre. We hunted down a cofetarie– I caffeinated while we expounded philosophically. Then we spent the first half of the day making our way to the Botanic Gardens where we sat under a stretching Oak tree (I think it was) and discussed all sorts of the good stuff– life, love, stress and setbacks.

“Okay, București,” I thought, “You can be invigorating, rather than exhausting.”

We did this ’til my tummy couldn’t take it no more, and I needed foods. We ate in Lipscani (of course), and then wandered to what would become my new favorite place in Buc– I had felt before that there weren’t enough beautiful, ‘green,’ places inside of the city– that all of București was covered in concrete. It turns out that I just didn’t know where to look.

Phoenix took me to Parcul Cișmigiu, a 42 acre^2 park in the center of the city. It has trees so lush and dense that the sun simply floats over the top of their canopy, and there are innumerable paths dipping and ducking alongside exploding flower beds and over the limpid ponds that criss-cross throughout the place.

Phoenix and I stopped on one of these stone bridges, and watched bikers coast by and rented rowboats snake underneath us. We took turns singing French lullabies as the dusk died and the incandescent lamps hummed like our chorus line. Phoenix paused briefly to eavesdrop on a threesome of Spanish speakers wandering by, and I softly sang a new solo: “okay, București– I suppose I can learn to love you a little.”

The Irish Pub
April 15, 2010, 3:16 pm
Filed under: Peace Corps Romania | Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

Harlem and I had planned to meet our students and Domn E in Medias, on Friday, April 9th. Thus would begin a three day trip with students and teachers from my general school, as well as from Harlem’s high school, in Petrosani.

Harlem and I rolled into the Medias train station a little while after noon. We sleepy-leg stepped out into some sunshine, and glanced about our surroundings.
We had a few hours to kill, and a couple empty stomachs to fill.

Instantly, our eyes fell on the same thing– directly across from the train station was a building with a large sign out front that read “McGowan’s Pub,” and an Irish flag swimming about the spring breeze. We both hooted and hollered, and gave each other those half ‘man-shoves,’ that symbolise mutual accord.

“We gotta!” Harlem laughed, and “we gotta!” he excitedly repeated.

Inside, we found a happy menu listing the long-lost beef-burger with fries. Happiest of all, were half pints of Guinness on tap.

As Harlem and I swigged contently, we looked about the place. The entire bar was filled with young hipsters smoking ciggarettes and downing espresso. Most of their eyes flicked across the flat-screen TVs with gold-leaf frames.

Like it'd all been transplated from a bar back home.

The waitresses were sweet and smiling, and the walls wore real-wood panelling, and all sorts of western-bar accoutrement. I saw the Beetles in one corner, flanked to a side by a print of Ali knocking out Foreman in Zaire. On the opposite end of the bar was Tyler Durden fully decked in his infamous red leather. Audrey Hepburn and Marilyn Monroe sat alongside him. Best of all was behind me– the duke and his dog, gazing off into some hazy blue sky in the American south-west.

All of these things were not so much authentic Irish as a strong testament to the cultures that flank either side of the north Atlantic. We, being good beggars, were able to forgive this mis-arranged hodgepodge of pop culture and focus instead on our burgers and beers.

A surprise of unimaginable proportions.

Petrila 1
April 15, 2010, 1:29 pm
Filed under: Poetry | Tags: , , , , ,

A kiss goodbye
abruptly ends at a 3AM cabstand–
hi-jacked by Hemingway’s melodrama
that ruins me somber and wet.

In the frail quiet I fixate
on the distance to all light (left
only in street lamps writing
the bloom of the sleet).

Two terrified vagabonds scream
breaking my mid-street reflection–
they shout at my black shape and
they shriek “VOID” into their colorless world.

You bastard saint of heartaches and
coddler of my manic loves;
I reject you in orchestrated week-sleeps,
but I worship you in cold rains.