The Transylvania Joem: A Young Peace Corps Volunteer in Romania

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.


Memory Loss
March 8, 2010, 10:22 pm
Filed under: Peace Corps Romania | Tags: , , , , , , , ,

I woke up last week and couldn’t remember anything I did last Spring.

I closed my eyes and let my violet aura spiral around against the dim, and tried to think of distinct events that had occurred. Slowly, I recalled the big things– my week long “best vacation ever,” into Ukraine, and an extended weekend trip to Iasi with Directoara and Pisto. That was all– it was hardly enough to frame three months of activity. I didn’t feel like I was so busy/overwhelmed that time had ripped by (my most stress-filled time of my service was before Spring, in February).

I came here, to my blog, and glanced over my entries for March, April, and May of 2009. Nothing out of the ordinary happened– really, the entries are fairly banal. A funny misunderstanding in the teacher’s lounge, a beautiful afternoon hike to what eventually became my favorite place on the half-mountain behind my site, and lazy weekend afternoons focused on food and friends. There was nothing extraordinary, or life-rattling.

That sort of ‘ordinary stuff,’ seemed to be consistent throughout my first Romanian Spring. In addition, the only other pattern I perceive is that I spent a ton of time outside. I love the outdoors, and was eager to shed my winter layers of wool and explode out into the bloom of Romanian sunshine. Maybe it was that state of pastoral intoxication that helped blur the time.

More likely, however, life passed easily because of that mundaneness earlier mentioned. Come Spring, I had been in Romania for about a year. I had developed a stable comfort level, and my life had developed distinct patterns and frequencies. To that effect, not every moment felt completely novel and uncertain– rather, I was able to coast a little bit and focus on the simpler, smaller things– wind in leaves, exploding wild flowers, and embedding sun into my skin.

Last year I felt comfortable– this year I feel adored. Hence, I could presume that this second Spring will pass with even less tug than the first. The week that the weather warms into a stable state conducive to my being outdoors, then I’m sure away I (and these last 6 months) will go.

Răscoală – Rebellion
January 11, 2010, 9:31 am
Filed under: Peace Corps Romania | Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

I’ve written before that Romania’s dark, fog-covered forests seem to me the birth-place of fairy tales. I celebrated New Year’s Eve at a small cabin in a place called Răscoală, which means uprising. Răscoală is a shepherds’ community settled onto a set of small hills underneath some of the biggest peaks in the Carpathians. Miner, Tanya, Directoara, and Pisto were all present. It was cozy and extremely pleasant.

Tanya took hundreds of pictures. I’ve ripped the best ones, and posted them to my flickr account in an album which can be accessed here: Revelion 2009-10

Peace Corps and Tattoos

My post “Tattoos” is my most popular Peace Corps blog post, according to my stats page. I’ve realized that most of its hits come from search traffic that include the phrases “Peace Corps,” and “tattoos.” Hence, it seems pretty clear that potential volunteers are sifting through blog pages trying to find some enlightening words regarding Peace Corps’ official stance on body art, and how that pertains to a volunteer’s service.

So, here’s my experience with tattoos and piercings, in the Peace Corps:

When my Peace Corps Placement Officer called me late in March of 2008, to discuss my placement in Eastern Europe, at one point he asked about my tattoos. I have couple-inch-wide bands wrapped around both forearms, just below my elbows. They are completely visible when I wear short-sleeved shirts:



My Placement Officer said the tattoos could be a problem, as tattoos are not prevalent in other parts of the world, and carry a negative stereotype. He told me it would be best if I covered them at all times, and kept them hidden from public view. This spooked me, and I went out and bought multiple sets of UnderArmour forearms sleeves to wear during the summer months. I started composing imaginary stories about gross scars, or bad elbow joints, to tell.

When I got off the plane in Romania, one of the first questions I asked a current volunteer was whether there was a heavy stigma attached to tattoos and body art.

“What? No,” was his casual reply. “Lots of people here have tattooos and piercings.” And he was right.

When I met my directors for the first time (two middle-aged women) I wore long sleeves, despite it being the end of July. When they commented, I showed them my tattoos, and they asked “why would you hide those from us?” It was no big deal, and it was certainly no novelty. One of my best friends at site, Miner, has massive tattoos streaking across his shoulders and down his sides. One out of three guys at my local gym has a visible tattoo.

No volunteer that I know of in Romania, male or female, has ever been discriminated against for having tattoos or piercings. Granted, I receive more attention for them, but no more so than I did in America. I know female volunteers working in small towns that have nose piercings. These are modest in comparison to some of the glittery lip studs a few of my students have.

In retrospect, I figure that my Placement Officer was warning me merely as a matter of policy. In his defense, he had never been to Romania and he had no idea whether the culture really was aversive to body art or not. I imagine that the Peace Corps stance, world-wide, is that tattoos and piercings are a sensitive issue, and should be approached delicately.

I think there is some benefit to this, as no two Peace Corps regions, or countries, or country programs, or even towns are similar. What’s acceptable here in the Jiu Valley may not be in the more traditional Romanian regions of Maramureș, and Oltenia.

But, my advice to any potential/future PCV is this: piercings and tattoos will probably not cause any problems for you at site, despite what your Placement Officer says. Peoples of other countries will typically be flexible about this issue, as you’re an American ambassador, and body art is well-known element of US culture. People will certainly be curious, or fascinated by any tattoos that you have, but your inks will probably never be villified, nor will they ostracize you.

That said, there is time and place for everything. Contact a current volunteer in your assigned country, and see what they have to say. Also, be sensitive to professionalism, and how that relates to your work assignment. For example, I always wear long sleeves when I teach, so that my tattoos are covered. I do this because my directors and I have discussed the issue, and all of us agreed that covering my tattoos while I teach is a good, professional gesture. Almost any American educational institution might ask me to do the same.

Business Picnic

Today’s school schedule was shifted around a little, in order to accommodate the Romanian ‘teză,’ which is a giant, country-wide test that decidedly affects a student’s high school and university options. The teză was administered in the late-morning, which pushed back the beginning of the regular, afternoon hours.

Thursday’s are my easiest day– I teach one hour to my bright and polite seventh graders. My class time was re-scheduled and shortened from 3:40 to 4:10.

I went to school an hour early, however, to discuss an upcoming project with my directors. Luna was more feisty than usual. Three minutes into the conversation I remember saying “God help me– I’ve barely arrived and you’re already making fun of me,” and she liked this and laughed.

Luna and I sat and discussed logistical things coming up in June–things she wanted me to decide in that exact moment and that I didn’t have a lot of information for. Such was the nature of the thing, but Luna still knocked me around a little. “This is an interrogation–I’m the ‘securitate!'” she said, a reference to the Romanian secret police that terrorized dissenters and enemies of the state under the communist regime.

As it often does, our conversation shifted into the realm of food (the great unifier, I’ve found). Directoara came and stood behind Luna as I tried hard to remember what I ate every morning with my host family (gazda) in Ploiești during my ten week Peace Corps training. I struggled a little, although I had eaten the same large and wonderful meal every morning for over two months.  I temporarily forgot the Romanian word for hot dog, and before it came to me Directoara suggested “virșli.”

“No, it’s not that,” I said. “In fact, I’ve never heard of that.”

“You’ve never eaten virșli?” Directoara said. “Wait a second,” and she whipped out her phone and made a quick call. “Are you still at the piața? Good. I need you to get something…”

Luna eased her questioning and instead we started talking about how great writers are ‘unusual’ in comparison to the rest of us and thus develop a predisposition for bad habits in order to cope. 20 minutes later, Pișto came into the director’s office carrying a small and carefully tied blue and white striped bag. He set it before me, and directoara brought over a bowl. She carefully untied the bag, and took seven slices of white bread out and lined them into the bowl–it overflowed and crumbs fell everywhere.

Inside the bottom of the bag, were four long, crimson red, grease-sweating sausages on a small paper tray with a giant dollop of French mustard in the center. These are virșli, and they look and smell amazing.

“All you need now is a beer,” Pișto joked. I told him I’d have one if I didn’t have to teach.

And now, a room full of middle-aged Romanians watched me dig my fingers into these oily and amazing sheep sausages, and dip hunks of bread into the mustard and eat happily. They watched intently as I swallowed my first few bites.

“Did you like it?” Luna asked. And I nodded happily and told her they were super.

Luna laughed and clasped her hands together. “He’s one of us!” she said, and I smiled and ate til nothing but a few slices of bread remained. Lately, I’ve become aware of how seamless and easy my life seems to be– that I am so ridiculously spoiled that an afternoon meeting at school can become an earnest conversation on great literature and ultimately end with me being brought and fed warm food until I’m full.

Misunderstandings Can Be Hilarious

The sweaty, May afternoon I arrived in Buchurești to begin my Peace Corps Service, I didn’t speak a single word of Romanian. Not even ‘hello’.

Hence, the last 10 months I’ve become well acquainted with all of the emotions that linguistic misunderstandings can create. There’s the frustration, the apprehension, the confusion, the sheer terror. Today, however, I had my favorite sort of language misunderstanding: the hilarity (about as good as misunderstanding can get).

I was sitting in the teacher’s lounge  mindlessly thumbing through the Condica (a large lesson planner where teachers list what they taught to each class that day) and letting a nearby conversation  wash over me warmly. Directoara was discussing something with my community mentor, Ledy. My brain tuned to attention just as Ledy was walking out of the teacher’s lounge for class.

I thought I heard Ledy say:
“Barbat este mai destept decât gagici.”
Translated, this means: Man is more intelligent than chicks/babes.

I was… shocked. By and large, gender equality may not be as strong in Romania as it is in the United States, but my school is full of progressive-minded, confident women. Directoara herself has teaching degrees in three different subjects. It was difficult for me to really gauge her level of intelligence when I was just struggling to understand the basic meaning of conversations, but as I’ve gotten closer to Directoara I’ve realized how brilliant and well-balanced she is.

Still stunned, I tentatively asked Directoara if Ledy had really said what I had heard.
“No,” she explained in Romanian. “Ledy said that ‘Barabaș is more intelligent than Jichici.’ Two boys from class 8A,”
Then, as the implications of my misunderstanding sank in, Directoara began to laugh uncontrollably.
She was so amused she decided to tell every teacher that then walked into the teacher’s lounge what had happened.

I could have been embarrassed, but, in all honesty, I wasn’t. I didn’t feel frustrated, apprehensive, confused, or terrified. I couldn’t feel any of these things because I was suffocating–bent over the desk in front of me, laughing so hard I couldn’t breathe. It was hilarious.

Reaffirming Our Future
March 22, 2009, 3:47 pm
Filed under: Peace Corps Romania | Tags: , , , , , ,

When I ask my students about their families, I’ve become accustomed to hearing a few things.

Most of my kids have more than five siblings, and the age difference between the youngest and oldest is about 20 years. These families often live in snug, one bedroom apartments.

Most of my kids have at least one family member that works in a foreign country: Spain, France, Italy. Sometimes even America, but not often. This parent seldom comes home more than once a year. I have a sixth grade boy, Baller, who has two parents working in Portugal. He speaks fluent Portuguese, as well as Romanian. He says that he stays with his aunt. When I ask him why his aunt never comes to parent meetings at the school, he non-nonchalantly replies “Mr. Teacher, she doesn’t care.”

If a student says their father is NOT working abroad, then it can almost certainly be assumed that dad is a miner at one of the six below-ground operations in the nearby area. The mining life is dirty, hard, and, above all, dangerous. In the fall, there was a set of explosions at the mine that killed 13 people.

In fact, I can easily think of over a half dozen students who have lost parents in work-related accidents (not all in the mine).These students have patterned personality tics which range from extreme shyness to egotism. They have a more difficult time socializing with their peers (although they’re still reasonably well liked).

But, despite the lack of a ‘stable’ family environment, these kids give me hope. Despite that hardship that lives at home, they have wonderful souls. Despite their ever-present loneliness, they smile and laugh often, and they love to give hugs. They excitedly practice their English with me whenever they can–on the street, at the store, through my ground-floor kitchen window as I cook.

There is one beautiful seventh grade girl, Prințesă, who exemplifies this goodness. On Tuesday, she came to school three hours early for an English competition. On Thursday, she did it again for French. On Saturday, I saw her at a exposition put on by a local NGO that works to develop connections between Romania and France. Prințesă sang in French, and did a French/Romanian proverb presentation with two other girls. Prințesă accomplishes all of this while maintaining a perfect ’10’ (straight A) average in every subject (almost a dozen different classes).

I was talking to Directoara last night, at Miner’s birthday party. I mentioned how Prințesă is an unbelievably hard worker, and is endlessly polite and friendly with me. “Aw, poor girl,” Directoara said. “Her mother works six days a week and I think that her dad isn’t around. [Prințesă] is alone.” It probably shouldn’t have surprised me, but it did.

That a well-adjusted, confident and friendly 13/14 year old girl must fend for herself while simultaneously being so focused on school boggles my mind. If anything reaffirms our future, and the inherent goodness of the human soul, for me it is our young ones. They give so much of themselves, despite receiving so little.