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.


Cabana Voie-Vodu: Part III

This is part 3/3 of this post.

Capsuno and I woke simultaneously at 10:00 AM. My eyes burned, and my mouth was dry and scratchy. I had left in my contacts–terrible decision. Now, I couldn’t open my eyes because the contrast of morning light and eyelid hurt too bad. Tears streamed down my face. I somehow peeled the contacts out of my head, and shoved on glasses. If I looked too far to the right or left, my eyes burned and teared up again.  Whining aside, things would ultimately be okay.

Capsuno and I dressed up in snow pants and jackets, and walked back to the dining room. Pisto had made two big pots of warm Mamaliga (kind of a simple polenta) mixed with fresh cheese, eggs, and a little pork sausage slices. There was instant coffee, and two types of fruit salad. I ate much, until I had a tummy full of heavy breakfast. I could’ve gone back to bed.

Pisto teased Capsuno and I for sleeping so late., but Vitzo and B-dan said they had gotten up only a few minutes before us. I didn’t feel bad. I actually felt really good. Comfortable and smiley and warm, even though my eyes were puffy and red.

Vitzo and B-dan left–Vitzo had tutoring appointments at noon. Capsuno, Directoara, Pisto and I went to the steep, ice-covered hill and grabbed two sleds leaning against carved stone embankment. Romanian sleds are fantastic. They are all wood and metal. They have two long, round runners along the base. There is no plastic, or fancy colors. They are difficult to steer, a little heavy, and, best of all, they go really fast.

I hopped on a sled and rode it down the steep driveway. I almost veered off the bridge at the bottom into the river. Then I hit a series of bumps that rattled the lump of corn meal and cheese in my happy belly. It was fantastic, and I laughed out loud.

Capsuno came next, rattling down the hill, legs flayed out, short squeaks piercing through her rust red, second-hand jacket. When she finally stopped herself at the bottom of the hill, her expression was a mix of terror and dumb joy. The emotion was articulated perfectly by the next thing she said: “I don’t know if I liked that.”

So, the four of us trekked up the valley of Voie-Vodu. The snow was 5-6 inches deep, and light. I instantly felt an electricity inside me. The trees themselves seemed like an undefined patchwork of white hanging on black branches–the green over exposed by the blaze of late morning snow-shine.

I occasionally pulled Capsuno on the sled, or she would pull me. Pisto and Miora played the same game. We passed massive, three story cabanas made of carefully placed wood, like Lincoln Logs. They looked warm, cozy, mysterious. They were keeping secrets. Capsuno gazed at them, longingly. “I want one of those someday,” she said, half to me, and half to herself.

We turned back after a mile and a half, maybe more, and pulled each other down the road. We began a snowball fight with Pisto. We gave each other snow baths. It was so ridiculously idyllic that it seemed like some Eastern-European fairytale. But I’ve become accustomed to moments like this in Romania: the land of quiet dreams and rugged simplicity. Sometimes for the better (at moments like this) and sometimes for worse, when it frustrates.

At the Cabana, we veered right, following a small, one lane road along the river. I told Pisto I didn’t want to turn home, yet. Exasperated, he said “you walk and you walk and suddenly you realize you should have turned around two hours ago.” Capsuno hit him with a snowball for me. He almost pushed her face down into a fresh pile of horse manure.

We made our way back: back past the river, back up the icy hill, back past the snarling dogs, and back into the warm dining room. The children whose father owns the cabana were there. One carefully prepared a large pot of tea for the rest. The two oldest boys cooked food. The youngest girl swept and labored to collect dirt in a warped dust pan. Each child had their task, and each worked laboriously, without complaining.

Directoara, Capsuno and I toasted our fairy-tale weekend with a small shot of Tuica. Pisto refused: he had to drive. I’ve noticed that Romanians take drinking and driving very seriously here, although I’ve never seen anyone pulled over– for drunk or reckless driving or even for speeding.

We put our bags in the trunk, and slowly plodded home. Exhausted, eyes burning, I held Capsuno’s hand and stared out the window. I tried to reflect on my fairy-tale story, to think of all the chapters my fantasy life here in Romania has written. My eyes flicked over the passing scenery, but my mind was much deeper. I was remembering that I had volunteered for all of this. That Peace Corps and my community were actually paying to have me present here. That I had come here to open myself to a community in need. And instead, when I had opened, this entire country of make-believe had rushed in.