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 Poet’s Pallbearer

I have recently been really digging a Romanian poet, Nichita Stănescu.

Stănescu was one of Romania’s most beloved contemporaries, and a lot of my Romanian friends (young and old, alike) can easily recall at least a few lines of their favorite Stănescu poem upon request. I’ve been strumming through some of Stănescu’s works online, and I still find the most exquisite to be “Poem” (curiously, the title is written in English):


Spune-mi, dacă te-aş prinde-ntr-o zi
şi ţi-aş săruta talpa piciorului,
nu-i aşa că ai şchiopăta puţin, după aceea,
de teamă să nu-mi striveşti sărutul?

As I was returning from Istanbul with Harlem, we sat in a hot train compartment, somewhere between the cities of Craiova and Târgu Jiu. With us were two young, beautiful, university students, and an old man. The man’s hair was frizzy and wild, and as he talked, a single tooth hooked out from the center of his upper gum into the air. The man happily drank from a two liter bottle of orange Fanta– but the soda had been poured away and replaced by a thick, crimson wine.

I softly spoke to Harlem in English– I have grown accustomed to casting out a bit of my English in trains. I am no longer deathly afraid of revealing my foreignness, and I’ve found that it’s a great way to meet people and have itsy-bitsy adventures that help pass the lethargy of ‘train-time.’ The old man took the bait, and asked where we were from.

As we conversed in one part English and two parts Romanian, somehow we came to that ubiquitous poet, Stănescu. The old man and I recited “Poem,” together. He chuckled happily, and then cocked his head and quickly fixed one of his squinting, wild eyes into mine.

“You know that I was a close friend of Stănescu,” the man asked, as if I was already well aware.

“Seriously?” I gasped. “Are you being sincere?”

“Yes,” the man said. “In fact, I helped to bury him, at the funeral.”

Some conversation continued on, but, as often happens to me, my mind overwhelmed my five senses. If I have ever asked you a simple question, and then forgot to listen to your answer (as I often do), this is what has occurred: a curtain of thought has been pulled down over the world in front of me. In that moment, I was contemplating this chance meeting with a man that had buried one of Romania’s greatest artists (and my favorite Romanian poet). I snapped back to attention as best I could, but I was still astonished at this coincidence. A buzzing smile soon fixed itself onto my head, and drowned out everything else occurring inside of me.

At the man’s station, he casually finished his two liter bottle of wine, and pulled an old baseball cap onto his head. He stood over Harlem and I, and put on his most serious of expressions. “We go different ways now,” the man said, “but our souls will know each other forever.” He then gave me his warmest smile, and was gone. Some slight doubt lingered in the compartment– were his words honest, or were they just the drunk ramblings of some (clearly adept) storyteller? To be honest, I harmlessly believed every single word that man said.

And now, for me, these words carry more powerful meaning than ever before:


Tell me, if one day I would catch you
and would kiss the sole of your foot,
is it not so, that you would limp a little, after that,
from apprehension so as not to crush my kiss?

The Second Greatest Coincidence
November 6, 2008, 11:06 pm
Filed under: Peace Corps Romania | Tags: , , , , , ,

The following is 100% true:

The teachers are striking today, so my trip to school is for show. Instead of teaching, I will receive three bags full of foods from three older women that love me. I have to make room in my fridge for jars of sour soup, buttered rice with parsley, plum compote, and minced-pork cabbage rolls–everything wrapped lovingly in old ice-cream containers, rubber bands, sandwich bags, aluminum foil. After I put these away, I thirty-second myself back to school to throw away the moldy Jack-O-Lanterns from the sixth grade Halloween party.

On the school front steps some of my fifth grade girls wait in the slim, fall sunshine for dance practice. I get a handful of short hugs. The shy one that I love most makes me promise that I’ll come by her dad’s apartment this weekend for a movie. During the movie I will probably eat egg soup and bread, or a tomato and pate sandwich with beer and instant coffee and a big shot of brandy. The girl tells me, in Romanian, “we will be waiting for you,” like she always does. Her dad (Miner) says the same thing. Her aunt, my director, does too.

My other director, Luna, asks me to walk with her to the ATM while the school secretary faxes my tutor reimbursement form to Peace Corps. Luna and I walk along the block-shaded back road behind main street because it’s warm and sunny today, and we both dressed too warm. I would’ve dressed cooler, but today the guilt got me: I receive reprimands from the forty women I work with whenever I’m inappropriately dressed for the weather. I have realized that I don’t dress for situations–I go for a median. Jeans and a thin long-sleeve are generally all I need.

On our walk back, we discuss the upcoming American election. We both wish Obama would win. Luna tells me she likes him because he’s younger, and represents a new era of thought and change. I smile and squeeze her arm in reassurance. Luna asks me when I’ll run for politics. I tell her I’m a good boy, but not good enough for politics. I also say I don’t have the belly for it. She tells me it’s something I should consider, as she believes I’m articulate, charismatic, and capable of changing the world. Kind words, but I can’t help and muse that I probably project none of those things when I speak to her in Romanian.

If I could’ve, I would’ve really said that I’m unable to live and die for just one political system, and that it’s the freedom of the whole world I’m interested in. I’m not tied to any one government or country to hold close no matter how salient it has been to me as I’ve been grown. But I cannot. So I squeeze her arm again and take the stringed compliments kindly.

Luna thanks me for my company as we climb the school steps. The secretary has the fax receiver to her ear, and tells me the Peace Corps number isn’t working, but she’s trying one more time. This time, as I stand in the doorway, the fax goes through. The secretary jokes that I must have good Karma–I admit that I didn’t know Karma was a word to be used in Romanian. I then joke that this can’t possibly be true– that I have the sort of Karma that soothes a stubborn fax number. Luna gets stern for a second and tells me that it’s so.

I wander away from school to meet my wonderful site-mate, SMK, and walk and talk for a little before she leaves tonight for a week-trip to Turkey. We do what we do well–spew gratitude for our Jiu Valley and offer each other favors in gestures of good will. As we walk, I see that my favorite second-hand store has received a shipment today. I make mental note.

SMK continues to her work and I retrace to my second-hand store. I wander about, touching cheap nylon hats and quick glancing across rows of kids’ clothes. Along the back wall is a line of new winter jackets, just received today– the day I don’t have school because of the teacher strike.

I crank the jackets across the rack and an older man approaches from my side. He has just tried a jacket on, disapproved, and placed it on its hanger to hang back on the rack. The zippers swing, and some immediate familiarity flashes. They read DNA, and DNA is my favorite winter clothing brand. When I was a ski instructor for Vail Resorts, my tangerine and ash ski uniform was built by DNA. I bought a black DNA under-fleece from the employee center at Keystone, and ultimately brought that same black fleece here with me to Romania.

The second-hand jacket is great–large, and black and red for 40 lei, which is approximately $13. I open the jacket abdomen and feel a twinge of recognition. Across the small, white bit of address tag is a sharpie’d serial number. I know exactly what this means: Vail Resorts does this to track which employee uses the jacket, in order to ensure that it’s returned at the end of the year. I turn the jacket over. There’s a large H sewn into the middle of the back. H stands for ‘Heavenly,’ Vail Resorts’ mountain in Lake Tahoe. There’s a spot over the heart where a velcro name tag might go. I have about 6 of these name tags in my drawer in Morrison.

The severity of the coincidence begins to sink in. Somehow, a Vail Resorts employee sold this one-season-old jacket in such a way that it came across an Atlantic ocean and European continent. It passed into my Peace Corps country, and up roads or railways into the Jiu Valley to my little mining town. The jacket was placed in my favorite second hand store the Monday I had no school because of a one-day-long protest. An old man returned it to the rack in front of a former Vail Resorts employee who has “warm, waterproof, nicer/ winter coat” on his second-hand list taped to the violet of his bedroom wall.

I can’t believe that this sort of thing could happen. I told my friend, DP that it’s essentially unfathomable. She told me to fathom it, and she’s right: I have the jacket in my closet for proof. I told DP I don’t deserve this sort of karma. She says clearly I do. Two of the wonderful women in my life have soothed my karmic confidence, today.

I’m reminded of a note I taped to my bedroom door when I was living in south Denver after college. I wrote it in black sharpie on a small, white bit of scratch paper after I meditated one afternoon. It’s still one of the most salient thoughts I’ve ever had. It was:

“Is the path happy?
The path is happy.
The happy path is.

I’m going to make the same note, and tape it to my bedroom door here in Romania as a simple and significant gesture of gratitude. And then I’ll go to my little kitchen and heat and eat some homemade sour soup.