The Transylvania Joem: A Young Peace Corps Volunteer in Romania

Karma Bank

I was in București on Monday, the 28th, to put my mother and brother on an airplane to London. Thus culminated a 2-week long family marathon of eating and site-seeing. The visit went well– mom and bro made memories, and flew out feeling fulfilled (and exhausted). After a half a month of playing ‘tour guide,’ I was excited to have some quiet time, and to re-introvert into myself and recharge.

Thus, I spent the morning in București with a few quiet cups of coffee and a long, long shower at my hotel before I entered into a flurried flash of over-due email correspondence at the Peace Corps office. I left my bags there, and in the early afternoon I met up with Phoenix and we took a tram to the București mall for a lazy couple of hours. I had an enormous and expensive ‘americano,’ at a cafe, and then we sat in a big Barnes & Noble-esque book store where we parked on a couch and flipped through hard-cover poster books, and read and translated some of Phoenix’s favorite Romanian poems. I hadn’t done that sort of thing in a while (and did it so very often in the states) and I realized how much I had missed it. Coffee and culture marry nicely.

At 8pm or so, we stopped into some sit-down place to have Romanian style quesadillas (made with ham and mushroom, and served with ketchup). My train home was a little before midnight, but I still had to run back to the Peace Corps office before it locked up to grab my bags. I was gambling– I had the vague notion that the office closed sometime around 10, but I wasn’t entirely certain. If I was wrong, or was late, I’d be forced to pay for a hotel room in Buc., which would be an unhappy turn of events.

Phoenix and I paid for our food, and walked to the tram station. When we arrived, we found a dim ticket office– it was closed, and Phoenix had no extras. I still had about an hour and fifteen minutes, so we decided to walk (hurriedly) to the next station and hope that there would be an open ticket booth there. We puddle jumped along, but found another dark, little, ticket stand. We would have to chance it and get on the tram anyway, thereby risking a massive fine if a ticket controller were to stop us. I didn’t have a choice– time was running out.

So, for safe measure, I decided to spend all of my saved karma.

The appropriate tram pulled up almost immediately, and Phoenix and I rushed on. The tram was almost empty, which meant it was less likely for a controller to appear to check tickets. Phoenix pulled out her electronic bus pass– she had tried it on the last tram, but it had read empty. Now, it suddenly beeped to life and showed that she had enough money for 3 more rides.

Phoenix walked me to the metro station at Piața Iancului, and, after a short goodbye, I ploughed through the gust of cavern air. My metro card had one last credit on it and, again, there was no one present to sell new ones (I needed one more trip to get from the office to the train station). I also had only two RON left in my pocket.

Alongside the metro’s electronic gates, was an ATM. I withdrew enough for a train ticket, and then some, and used the last ‘trip,’ on my 10-trip card. The metro I needed arrived as I bottomed the stairs– this was also fortunate, as metros are spaced at almost 20 minutes (or more) this time of night. I sat down in a seat and began nervously folding the empty card. I bit my nails. I was sweating. I felt that this attempt was all but hopeless– ‘why would the office be open until 10pm,’ I gruffly asked myself. I imagined that there was no possible way I would be making it out of București, that night.

I transferred lines at Piața Victorei– in doing so it is necessary to climb stairs near one of the station’s entrances. I saw a woman perched on a stool inside the ticket kiosk. I gave 8 RON for another 10 tour pass (I’ll be in București at least 3 more times before my service ends), and approached the metro line that runs south in sync to a woosh of cold air and the serendipitous squeal of slowing metro wheels. I dashed inside the train.

After two stops, I exited at Universitate, and flew up stairs and across marble corridors into the darkening night. There are two, long street-lights between this place and the Peace Corps office– both flashed green for pedestrians as soon as I approached them. As I turned onto the final street where the Peace Corps office leans into the city’s background, I began to run. I had somehow made it from the first metro station to the office in about 20 minutes– a heroic effort– but fruitless if the office was closed.

I came to the guard-booth at the gate (the Peace Corps office is really a large  two-story house, with a massive basement, beat back into the urban camouflage of București’s side-streets), and saw no signs of life. The lights were off– I dejectedly pressed the call button on the intercom and heard silence. So it goes.

‘Clik-tik’ went the door. The night guard peeked out from the opening– he had been sitting inside, in the dark, doing I-don’t-care-what. I was happy to see him.

I blurted out Romanian apologies and an explanation. He calmly took my ID and wrote down my information, and the time of my visit. He took me to the volunteer lounge, and waited quietly outside while I grabbed my duffel and messenger bag. I think he said 4 words (no sentences) the entire time. We walked back to the gate and he casually motioned towards the door and told me good-bye.

I was sweaty, smelly, jittery, fraaantic, but relieved. My muscles ached from anxious tension, and my breath was still shallow from adrenaline, and it dragged. I was a hot mess.

I walked back to the metro– it’s the cheapest and easiest way to get to the train station. This time, I had to wait a while, but I didn’t mind– I now had 2 hours before my train home left București, a full metro pass, both of my bags, and enough money to make it back to site. I said a silent prayer to the universe: ‘thank you for all of the ways that you helped me tonight– I am grateful for your grace.’

As I tried to slow my breathing and recollect, a high-school boy approached. He was selling few-month-old magazines. He hit me up for change, and explained that he needed money for bread, and his baby brother, and a train ticket to a nearby monastery for a pilgramage, and the rest of the usual begging blah-blah that I typically ignore. This time, I gave him a handful of singles, and told him to have health, and ‘only good.’

I knew that I had just maxed out my good Karma– I immediately needed to start making some more.


The Best Place in Bucharest

My last few travels through Bucharest (Bucuresti), Romania’s capital, have brought me to what I consider the best place in the city: Lipscani.

Lipscani was the commercial center of Bucuresti during the middle ages, and its glory days continued onwards into the 20th century. All of Bucuresti was heavily bombed by the allies during World War II, however, which affected Lipscani’s presence as a commercial district. In 1977, a massive earthquake rocked the south-eastern part of Romania, during which much of Lipscani fell into disrepair. The entire area was tagged by Ceaușescu (Romania’s communist dictator until 1989) to be destroyed and rebuilt into the cookie-cutter ‘blocs’ that cover so many other places in Romania.

Fortunately for Romania, this never happened, and the area stayed ‘asleep,’ and untouched for a few decades.

Now, Lipscani is waking up, and is seeing massive restoration efforts. The result is some of the oldest and most authentic architecture in the entire city. Spires, twists, stones and domes everywhere.

And Lipscani is, to this American-born boy, the most progressive part of the city.
In Lipscani, you can find expensive sushi restaurants, and underground German eateries.
In Lipscani, there are skate shops, tea huts, and importers of all sorts of beautiful paisley and tye-dyed things from Nepal and India.
In Lipscani, you can find dried quinoa, hookah bars, and Guinness on tap.
In Lipscani, you can bump into stumbling Scottish soccer hooligans rolling and cursing from one UK pub to the next.
In Lipscani, you can find alternative life-style clubs carefully tucked under black awnings next to massive wall-sized murals of street-art.

So, in Lipscani, you find the city-feel that pervades places like London, Vienna, and Berlin.
So, Lipscani is the place in Bucuresti that feels like other cities in the EU, sometimes for better, and sometimes for worse.

From Piața Universitații, head south, towards Piața Unirii. Walk on the right side of the street. Across the street from the massive, glass-covered mall with large TV ‘steps’ there should be a quiet, cobble-stone pedestrian street. Look for the massive cowboy sign (which may be removed soon) or a staircase disappearing down to traverse across the main boulevard. That’s where you want to be.


Lipscani is inside the red circle

Follow that little, cobbled street into Lipscani’s belly, and disappear for a long while.


These five ‘city posts’ concern a trip I took through central Europe, beginning on July 2nd and ending late in the evening of July 14th
(Berlin, Dresden, Prague, Salzburg, Vienna):

I spent July 2nd in Bucuresti, as my begin-by-Berlin flight left at around seven in the morning. The “traveling-through” problem of Bucuresti was heavy on my mind–the airports frown upon sleep overs, and most Bucuresti hotels are really expensive. I’ve recently heard rumors that Bucuresti is the sixth most expensive city in the European Union. Whether this is real or reach, my humble Peace Corps salary necessitates that my excursions through the capital city be as… thrifty… as possible. The cab ride from the Peace Corps office to the airport alone can be 50 RON on offpeak hours (and depending on the driver). But, as often occurs, the universe provided me with a cheap and comfortable alternative, provided that I was prepared for adventure.

Through a professional contact, I found a cantaloupe-coloured French monastery on a quiet street in northern Bucuresti. I met the kind-hearted head-“frere,” Martin, and he let me sleep there for free (but first I needed to move furniture back into my fresh painted room) and welcomed me to dinner (if I wouldn’t mind doing all the dishes afterwards). Coffee, oven-baked bread, and jam were mine to enjoy the next morning (as I’d be waking up before the monks). I left a 20 RON donation on the dresser for good traveler’s karma, and took a cab for only 7 RON to the airport.

Berlin is buzzing, and the immediate first word that blinks into my brain for it is “young.” Perhaps inappropriate for a city present in the world since before the 1200s, but the most fantastic and interesting parts of Berlin are, to me, in its modern history. This is a city completely re-born of red phoenix fire in 1989, blasting hard and high into the cosmos of the modern world order.

Street art is ubiquitous in Berlin, which was a surprise for me. The East Side Gallery is a giant preserved portion of the Berlin Wall, and every few months new artists are allowed behind the metal chain link surrounding it to re-define what it says. However, city graffiti extends beyond the wall to almost any sprayable surface. From quick scribbles to massive, building high works by Blu, Berlin feels like a sprawling concrete canvas.

Our hostel, comebackpackers, was in the Middle-Eastern section of Berlin. This boy (me!) who loves exotic food celebrated by immediately eating a spicy falafel sandwich. During either of the twelve o’clock times, I could get a doner kebab wrap for 2.5 Euros, which was BY FAR some of the cheapest eats of the entire trip.

I took the Sandeman’s New Europe Tour of Berlin, which is a free tour directed at youth. Our tour guide, Sunshine, is a performance artist, originally born and raised in California– she was brilliant and bright. The New Europe guides operate on tips only, but they present the information (tons of history, anecdotes, factoids) in their fun, accessible, curse word-laden ways. My favorite story, as Sunshine told it, was about Berlin’s most infamous icon, the Bradenburg Gate (I apologize if my rendition is hazy and/or incorrect–feel free to correct me in the ‘comments’ section of this post):

Napoleon invaded, liked the gate, and took it to Paris following the Prussian defeat in 1806. The Germans weren’t happy about this, but they immediately vindicated themselves by defeating Napoleon and recovering the gate in 1814. The Prussians removed the oak leaves (symbols of Peace and Knowledge) from Victoria’s hands, and replaced them with an Iron Cross, the symbol of Prussian Rule. They then renamed the square under Victoria’s chariot to ‘Paris Platz.’

What does this mean? That now the Goddess of Victory was holding the Iron Cross over Paris Platz.
Or: ‘German Victory over Paris.’

But the best part is this: prior to being stolen by Napoleon, Victoria looked straight down Unter den Linden–the main drag of Berlin (like the German ‘Champs Elysee‘). Once she was recovered, however, the Germans put her at a slight angle, so that she would look down and to the left at a particular site in the square.
That particular site would eventually become the French Embassy.

Proof that, indeed, Germans have a fantastic sense of humor.


Holocaust Memorial: I was able to see all the touristed city sites, and of those I definitely recommend the Holocaust Museum. It is underneath the haunting Holocaust Memorial, just a short way from the Brandenburg Gate. It’s a small space, but it’s brilliantly organized to inform (and devastate). Of particular note is a room with a projector that, one by one, displays every name  of every Jew murdered in World War II. A voice states a few simple facts about that person, in both German and English.
It takes over six years for the display to honor each person, before it repeats. It’s a soul-stopping way to get a concrete sense of what 6 million missing lives means.

Pergamon Museum: I  was always planning on seeing this spot, if only to drink in the Pergamon Altar with my own eyes. Once Sunshine re-recommended the museum as a whole, however, I was more excited than ever to wander through its heavy, heaving marble halls.
And the altar was gorgeous, but not my high-light because I remember the exact moment when I passed into the room holding the restored Market Gate of Miletus. I was so stunned I couldn’t breathe. That second alone might very well have been worth my entire time in Berlin. I admit that I’m a super sensitive soul, and it doesn’t take much to fill me with joy and wonder.
But, be assured, that moment was a wicked holy and significant one. I imagine that very few people have ever stepped into that chamber without uttering an “oh my Gd.”
It is that amazing. It is that unexpected.
Go there.