The Transylvania Joem: A Young Peace Corps Volunteer in Romania

The End of a (Big & Beautiful) Chapter
September 3, 2010, 5:37 pm
Filed under: Peace Corps Romania | Tags: , , , , , , ,

I’ve been back in America for about 2 weeks. I got home on a Friday the 20th, and ate a big Mexican dinner with my family. I partied on Saturday with a bunch of old friends, and moved up to Fort Collins, Colorado, on Sunday. On Monday, the 23rd, I began life as an official student, again.

Since then my life has been GO! GO! GO!– but in a good way.

None of this feels surreal, or heart-breaking. My time in Romania was perfectly ‘framed.’
I came. I saw. I experienced. I thrived. I loved and was loved. I grew and grew and grew.
And now the time has come to move on:

Closing time– time for you to go back to the places you will be from.
Closing time– this room won’t be open ’til your brothers or you sisters
So gather up your jackets, and move it to the exits– I hope you have found a friend.
Closing time – every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end.

I love you, Romania. Thank you for everything.
And now I’m on to the ‘next crazy venture beneath the skies.’

Take care. Namaste & Numai Bine.
JoeM out.


Sprint to the Finish

Run, Joem. Run.

I am mid-sprint through the very end of my Peace Corps service. Here’s the brief break-down:

I went camping and took an epic 8 hour hike with Harlem, Morrison, and Miner. We drank cherry liqueur, broke teeth, waded freezing rivers, navigated dense fog, caught 14 trout and collected 3 bags of mushrooms, jaw-dropped beautiful scenery, chased sheep, smiled.

The next morning (at 4AM) I trained down south to spend two days with Pisto and Directoara, at their country home. I guzzled all of the home-made wine and garden-ripened tomatoes that one person possibly could. Bulging and buzzed were the best things to be.

I went back home for four hours, and then immediately took another train to Brasov, to play all day with a few of the beautiful, young souls I met at my Retezat camp about 6 weeks ago. All of those train trips constituted about 1300 kilometers in 4 days (and a bunch of cramped, terrible train-naps).

I was home one full day before I participated in my last Romanian wedding. In attendance were some sparse Americans from Alaska, a score of Bulgarians from the American University, in Sofia, and a slew of Romanians– and they brought the party. And the party was rocked. And I was way-whisky drunk and sweat-soaked and it was all so wonderful.

Yesterday was St. Maria’s day, so I munched all afternoon in Morrison and Petra’s garden. Come nightfall, Miner and I partook in one of our favorite activites– watching illegally acquired blockbuster films, fresh released. Ever seen THE EXPENDABLES in only Russian? We have.

Tonight I’m going to a birthday dinner at Leddy’s.
And the following few days are filled with coffee/juice dates, packing and, of course, home-cooked meals.

I recently relayed my schedule to my former Country Director, kg. And he said:

“(It’s) very tough to watch the days slip away, but it is indeed great to see you are sprinting to the finish. There’s no other way to go.”

So, sprinting I go.

‘We Are the World’

July 1st marked the first day that members of my Peace Corps group could officially close their service (COS) and return to the US. These first few July days, a few Americans began boarding planes in București to ‘light out’ for new adventures, away from Romania.

30,000 feet below, I stood and watched these planes drift in hanging blue space until their specks dispersed. I thought long ‘goodbyes,’ then my eyes dragged and dropped onto the ridges of the rocky Carpathians surrounding me in Retezat National Park. An unsummerly, strong wind ran hard over the surface of Lacul Bucură, and tugged at my thick, wool sweater and stocking hat before it went along its way. The sun played peek-a-boo.

Without turning, I looked over my shoulder at a small group crouched onto a set of rocks 20 meters behind me. It was comprised of two of my fellow volunteers, Kat and Kev, and 10 high school students from their town.

Kat and Kev had organized an outdoor, student-leadership excursion, and I was fortunate enough to be asked along as a counselor. The kids participated in sessions on leadership values and ethical decision making. We played team-building games, and discussed/implemented ‘leave no trace,’ back-packing philosophy. We camped at the largest glacial lake in Romania (Bucură), and took a day hike up to one of the largest peaks in the country. I do not doubt for a second that the experience changed some of those kids for the better, forever.

And, at the very least, it gave me a few of my most favorite Romanian memories:

— Diving into a small glacial pond so cold that the second you lifted your head out you couldn’t help but yawp hard and hearty at the top of your lungs.
— Teaching the kids a beautiful, French lullaby that I’ve had buried away into my heart and head for about a decade and a half.
— Spreading out sleeping bags and lying back to count falling stars (for a few of them, for their first time ever).
— Passing along that ubiquitous Jack Kerouac quotation that becomes my mantra when goodbyes seem too sad to suffer.

The last day was melancholy– despite being exhausted, a little dirty, and tired of ‘hiking food,’ none of us really wanted the experience itself to be over. 10 minutes before the first train parted us at its non-station stop, I began my goodbyes. I hugged each of my new friends deep– I smiled sincerely and ached oh-so-hard on the inside. I hugged Kat and Kev goodbye, knowing full well it would be a long while before I saw them again.

And, as the kids climbed into the train ,I blew them a kiss and was reciprocated repeatedly.
And one particularly bright boy recited a little French line he’d had trouble with all week: “Nous sommes la monde,”– we are the world. For the first time, he said it perfectly. It broke my swollen heart in half, a little.
“You’re beautiful,” I told them, as the train pulled away.

And I meant it with all of my half-broken heart.

My Best Memory

Our Close of Service (COS) conference  was two weeks ago. COS explicitly marks the ‘beginning of the end’ of the Peace Corps experience. At this moment, I have less than three months of teaching to complete, and fewer than six months in Romania, overall. Now, more so than ever, I am astonished by how quickly my service has passed. It has felt like a quick moving river of time, distinguishable only by the ‘before’ and ‘afters’ of big events, and the cyclical changes in the seasonal weather from hot to cold and hot again.

Despite suddenly finding myself on the home-stretch, I have noticed that my Peace Corps service can (and continually does) surprise me. Case in point, during COS I was fortunate enough to experience my loveliest memory of, not only my Romanian adventure, but of my life, in its entirety.

COS was in one of Romania’s most beautiful cities– Sibiu. Sibiu was a European capital of culture in 2007, and certainly smacks of some of the ‘big names,’ farther to the west– Prague most immediately comes to mind.

The major high-light of Sibiu is Piata Mare— or the “Large Square.” This square has existed since the beginning of the 15th century, and has always been the historical heart of the town. Late on Tuesday evening, March 14th, I found myself wandering through this square with four of my closest souls. We had just finished a slow dinner in a brick-lined basement, long and narrow with tables squeezed against one side. The waiters wore traditional Romanian outfits, and a flute and accordion player occasionally erupted into cheery song. My four friends and I drank a few tall carafes of warm wine and ate great food, but, most special of all, was the ease in which we interacted with one another. All of our little social barriers were down, and we were enjoying playing and embarrassing ourselves before one another. These are the sort of friends my life is blessed to be lined with.

Now, our appetites extinguished but our thirsts piqued, we climbed out of that basement into the deepening night and found ourselves washed over by the true last snow of the Romanian winter. Heavy, wet flakes blew about and stuck to every single surface, and feathered the tar of our dark jackets.

We came into Piata Mare, and, in a moment of pure genius and inspiration, I bent down and scraped together a snowball from the shivering bricks. I threw it– hard– into the shuffling mob of my four fellows, and PAF!– it erupted onto a shoulder, and suddenly ‘it’ was on.

We giggled and screamed and hucked snow at one another in zig-zags across the square. We all threw hard, and we all threw well. No one escaped untagged. I know that I clearly stopped at one point and thought to myself “how blessed I be,” to have experienced such a thing– and then my reflection was broken by a snowball to the gut and I was back into the fray.

When finally our little hands were too red and wet to go on, we found another basement to sit in– this one a bar called “Old Friends,” where we played turn after turn of “fuck, chuck, or marry,” over a round of coffee which led into a few rounds of beers.