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.


Remember And Guilt Will Become Gratitude

The following is the most unexpected, personal epiphany I have learned during my Peace Corps service:

Last Thursday, I celebrated my 25th birthday. It was my second birthday in Romania, and effectively marked the first week of my second year of service.

I knew that my community would lavish undue amounts of hospitality and love onto me–such is their way. As a result, on Monday, May 25th, I began a list in my daily planner of every gift I received. I kept it until Friday, the 29th.

At the top, I wrote, “TANGIBLE GUILT,”
because that is how these presents made me feel, at first.

At times, the gifts would make me grit my teeth, and tense my arm and back muscles awkwardly.
I’d immediately think about school projects I wanted to complete, but hadn’t started. I’d think about broken commitments, or times that I was cranky or unresponsive. In short, all of this good made me remember the few bad things I’d done. I was determined to make myself feel unworthy for this  outpouring of love.

But, at one point, I remembered.
I thought of the time that Luna took me to the nice grocery store to buy me food for an upcoming train ride. I felt guilty and decided to flatly refuse her offering. There, in the snack aisle, I told her I would not take anything that she bought, and that I felt uncomfortable.

For the first time ever, Luna angrily narrowed her eyes at me. “You are annoying me,” she hissed. She stared at me intensely, and I had an enormous realization: she was trying to perform an act of kindness–and I was ruining it by feeling guilty.

You see, guilt is the response that is created when we have done something wrong. Guilt is what we feel when we have the realization that we have erred. And somewhere along the way, I have developed a guilt complex that whines in the face of the good intentions of others.

I realized that, not once, did I implore or beg Luna to buy me snacks. I didn’t give ‘hints’ to try and manipulate the situation–in fact, Luna is far too clever for that. Had I tried to manipulate her, she would have immediately known.

Luna was there with me because she cares for me, and loves me like family. And in feeling like I had done something wrong, I was spoiling this love. There in the snack aisle, I apologized, gave Luna a hug, and helped her pick out my favorite train treats–unsalted peanuts, bagel chips (pizza flavored), Honey Nut Cheerios.

And I tried to remember this realization at school all week.
My arms and back would relax, and my jaw would soften. I would remind myself that: no where along the way had my intentions been deceitful or dishonest. That these gestures from my kids and colleagues were acts of compassion, and I would do well to reciprocate them as such. Refusing this love only extinguishes it–and that rather than stifle this tangible affection, I should revel in it and let it burn beautiful and bright as it so deserves.

Guilt has no business in the realm of hospitality and kindness.
Gratitude is the only appropriate way to reciprocate that care.
A receiver with the best intentions should never stifle the best intentions of someone who cares enough to give.