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.


‘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.

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.

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.

Miss the Amazing
June 28, 2009, 10:38 am
Filed under: Peace Corps Romania | Tags: , , , , ,

MB and I were sitting across from each other. Both of us perched Indian style, backs straight, attentive. There was an open and half emptied bottle of wine nearby. The conversation was so heavy that even the light oozed lethargic, barely slithering above the bristles of my rose petal Romanian rug.

And this beautiful, intimate moment birthed one of the most salient epiphanies of my recent memory. I had already realized that the greater my life becomes, the more wonderful and amazing the souls that I will crash against. And I say crash because it’s always a big thing. It pierces my skin and rattles my bones and all of that body stuff that surrounds the ‘me’ is swept away so that these two souls can intertwine into each other and touch in some way that extends beyond the physical into the supermassive black hole of spirit that is out there always and cannot be touched. And it is poetic inescapable–clearly–as I write these gaudy words in an attempt to brush against that untouchable ineffable that comes when we experience the holy of the world.

It is a crash of kindred. The kind that could make a whole universe.

The new epiphany was this: I must learn to miss the amazing ones. We will meet and love and laugh, but ultimately and relentlessly and always we part ways onto our separate adventures. The amazing cannot sit still–they have a big world to save, and that necessitates a life that hums and burns with the motion of new experiences. The amazing cannot rest, even at the soul crashes.

It’s like Ben Harper says:
“I hate to say I love you/
because it means that I/
will be with you forever/
or will sadly say ‘goodbye.'”

And forever is far too long, and we aren’t made to last. So the goodbyes will always come heart-breaking and hard. But I told MB that I love him and appreciate him and always and forever I am a better human-being that we have been friends. And that may be the greatest (and only) thing that I, this little human being, can do.