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.


August 4, 2010, 8:12 pm
Filed under: Peace Corps Romania | Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

Harlem and I tried to leave Turkey on Monday, July 26th.

The bus website listed the time of departure as 5PM. Thereby, Harlem and I showed up at the respective travel office at around 3:40, PM. When we arrived, the place was dark, and its sliding glass door was opened ever so slightly. Bad omens.

Inside, we found a friendly, albeit sleepy, Turk sprawled into two of the arm chairs in the adjoined waiting room. He happily explained to us that, during the summer, the bus leaves Istanbul at 3:00 PM, and that our only option was to come back the following day, at two.

I worried that we’d be imposing on Duygu, by suddenly staying at her place another unexpected night. I considered checking into a hostel for the evening, if only to alleviate our presence from her, our wonderful hostess.

Outside, we explained the situation to Dugyu, and her eyes widened. She excitedly hugged us both.

“One more day with Harlem and Joem!” she exclaimed.

So, we still had a place to stay.

The next day, Harlem and I were on time. We hugged our wonderful hostess goodbye, and took our 20 minute shuttle from the travel office to the main bus station in Istanbul. On the way into Turkey, our bus had been completely empty. Honestly, there were four other seats filled. Today, however, it was quite the opposite. Harlem and I were fortunate to grab two empty seats alongside each other, and there we sat and read and sweated something fierce.

I had noticed that there was a group of young Romanians in the back of the bus (4 men and 4 women), but we were too far away to share words. I put in my headphones and slept hard until the Turkish border with Bulgaria. I am lucky– I can sleep any time, and almost anywhere.

At the border, our stewardess frantically relayed some unhappy news to us: the entire bus needed to be emptied, including its massive intestines filled with cargo, so that customs officials could inspect the entire thing.

Harlem and I went to work alongside the 4 young Romanian men– together we emptied out the bowels of the bus. The contents of it were a little irregular:

  1. Thousands of pre-ordered pastry containers, ready to be folded into shape and used by some Romanian cafe that sold sweets.
  2. Enough car parts to re-build an entire Dacia.
  3. A half-dozen boxes of single-serving water bottles.
  4. A felt chair that resembled a recliner. It was royal blue, and had a steel support frame.
  5. A blue tumbling pad, also royal blue.

We emptied out the bus as fast as possible, and then stood by to rest as a few customs officials noted the contents and checked the nooks and crannies of the passenger compartment.

“What was with that chair?” I asked Harlem. “Why would you come to Turkey just to buy one of those?”

Harlem laughed and agreed, and we continued to comment on all of the weirdness that we had just unpacked.

“Well– whatever. It’s a good thing all of those guys were on the bus,” I mentioned. “They’re all jacked.” It was true– each of the young Romanians was in great shape, and it helped make quick work of all the heavy cardboard boxes & car parts from the cargo hold.

Next was a waiting game– for reasons unknown to us, we were informed that we would be waiting here at the border for an undisclosed period of time. A nearby Romanian man who made this trip often speculated that we’d be stuck for at least two hours.

So, to pass the time, I did one of the things I do best– I started jabbering. I started a conversation with two of the young Romanian men, Cătălin and Alex. I asked them what they were doing in Turkey.

“I’m an acrobat, and Alex is a juggler,” Cătălin replied. “We’re in a traveling circus troupe. We go to different countries and perform.”

“No way!” was my reply.

And it was so– Cătălin grabbed his laptop out of the bus, and showed us a couple of videos of his troupe juggling and flipping and tumbling. One special section showed the acrobats using a plank to launch one another into the air, where they would gracefully twist into a big blue recliner hoisted up onto a steel pole– the same recliner that we had pulled from the baggage hold of the bus. Later in the show, they flipped each other right-side-up onto a familiar blue tumbling pad.

Jabber Mouth

“Yeah, Joem is a little bit of a jabber-mouth.”

I turned my head over my shoulder and listened to Zeynep’s voice hum a response to Harlem through the phone. He chuckled.

I smiled and looked to my right through the passenger window. This hidden harbor just south of Turnuc, Turkey, was lit by full-moon fire cresting over the heavily wooded hills that lift themselves up out of the Mediterranean. All around us, the ambient lights of mansions hovered above the sharp curves where Duygu rolled us along, up and up over a steep pass and back down into the belly of the Turkish resort town of Marmaris.

Duygu dropped me off on the main drag, and I fast-walked to a nearby bar, Malibu, where I was set to meet two, new, British friends for a night of bar-hopping. I had met them earlier on a jeep safari by jabbering to them. Without phones in this foreign country, then only way for us to meet again was to pick a place and time, and hope that nothing intervened.

The problem was, Harlem, Duygu and I had spent all evening in Turnuc, diving into clear, jade waters and lying under a palm frond pagoda as the sunlight rusted and broke apart into starry sky. I hadn’t showered, was still in my swim-suit, and was in no shape to go dancing. So I deferred my plans with the Brits and we arranged a meeting point for a few hours after.

I went back to my hotel room, and showered away sea-salt and the last dredges of suntan oil while Harlem and Duygu sat on the balcony and drank beer. After I was clean and clothed, I joined them.

“You know earlier when I called you a jabber mouth, I meant it as a compliment.”


“I mean– look where we are right now. We’re sitting on a beach balcony in southern Turkey with Duygu, drinking beers. This wouldn’t have happened if you weren’t a jabber-mouth.”

Harlem was right– we’d only met Duygu in February because of my will to run-my-mouth.
“I know you mean it well,” I said. “Thank you. Besides– I know I’m a jabber-mouth. I’ve accepted it. It doesn’t bother me.”

The three of us cheered our beers and took long sips. I stayed anchored in the fading conversation, for a moment. While I am a jabber-mouth, I wouldn’t call myself extroverted either. I’d simply say that I love people so much that creating connections fills me up with a little bit of holy fire.

A pertinent, personal lesson of my Peace Corps experience has been this: my friends are the family I have found for myself. I jabber to see what’s inside of you, and to discover whether or not you are one of my kindred ones.

So, when I jabber to you, it’s a challenge: I want you to show me just how hard you shine.

Haunted Hotels

The last month and a half I’ve been sleeping one or two nights per week in a hotel– the HP in nearby Petrosani. Frequenting a hotel with my own place nearby would probably only indicate a few possible scenarios– and most of them dubious. One presumes that either: I’m having an affair, or that my apartment is undergoing such massive and complete renovation that I can’t stay at home. Happily, I have neither to report. The truth, however, I consider to be much more atypical and interesting.

In early April, I met Marley. Marley has become my first close, Romanian friend in Petrosani that is not twice my age. Marley is someone to go to bars and clubs with, or to watch intensely-deep movies with and then expound upon all the abstract “what ifs,” that humans in their teens and twenties are so insatiably drawn to. Whilst I adore my eight Romanian “moms,” and appreciate them endlessly, it is also simultaneously true that we are still separated by the perspectives and responsibilities of an entire generation. Marley and I are connected by the perspective embedded into being members of the Millennial Generation. It also helps that she speaks fantastic English, has a progressive mindset, and has experienced America (namely, San Francisco).

Marley lives in the HP. Her family controls and operates the place for the state, and, as a result, Marley and a few members of her family all live in different rooms scattered throughout the building. Therefore, Marley has her own room perched up on the farthest corner of the third floor– that’s where I’ve been staying.  I should make it clear that our sleep-overs aren’t intimate. Marley and I are not romantically involved– we’re just good pals. Again, I press that the reality of the situation is crazier than any gossipy fiction one might muster.

On Saturday night, Marley and I were over at Harlem’s, smoking hookah. We stood and stretched and initiated the steps to get ourselves out the door and on our way into the night. “You sleeping at my place?” Marley asked me, and I told her that I would. We had a cab pick us up from Harlem’s and drop us off at the reception of the HP. We went to the front desk to grab some bottled drinks, and make small-talk with the receptionist.

Marley turned towards the elevators and froze.

“What’s the elevator doing at floor five?!” Marley called out into the lobby. She didn’t turn to look at the receptionist or I– she just stared at the red, digital ‘5’ buzzing above the elevator’s call button.

“I don’t know,” said the receptionist.

“Oh my Gd,” growled Marley. She angrily clacked forward and jammed her finger into the silver dial. She leaned against the wall alongside the lift door and raised her eyes to the ceiling and let her voice echo out into the dim lobby: “bântuit.”

I recognized that word from my Halloween lessons with my kids. Bântuit means ‘haunted,’ in Romanian.

The elevator door shook open and the two of us stepped inside the mirrored room and watched the doors close. “The fifth floor is closed– no one is allowed up there.” Marley said, her eyes still staring off into a place above us. “Once a girl was up there, and got like really sick and vomited blood and there was glass in her blood, like from a mirror– and now that place is closed and no one goes up there.”

“Really?” I asked– I hadn’t heard Marley tell this story before. “We should go up there!”

“No way!” Marley said as she walked out of the open door on the third floor. “I never go up there.”

I believed her– that the elevator had somehow mysteriously perched itself on the 5th floor (it’s supposed to idle on the 3rd) is far from the strangest thing that Marley has experienced. She has told me stories about faucets opening themselves, or doors closing randomly, or even voices yelling things from her bathroom. A few of Marley’s friends have seen/heard these things and refuse to stay at her place– it frightens them too much. This is why Marley invites me over– she’s afraid of sleeping alone. As of this moment, I haven’t experienced anything supernatural there.

“That reminds me of a movie filmed in Colorado,” I said. “It’s about a haunted hotel– I saw that you have it downloaded on your computer. Do you want to watch it?” I asked, and Marley said that she did.

So, that same night Marley and I stayed up and watched two thirds of THE SHINING before she began to doze off. We finished the movie the next afternoon, and Marley said that she liked it. “And did it scare you?” I pressed.

“No. Not really,” she smiled. It made sense– I guess a movie about haunted hotels probably seems redundant when you live in one.

The Irish Pub
April 15, 2010, 3:16 pm
Filed under: Peace Corps Romania | Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

Harlem and I had planned to meet our students and Domn E in Medias, on Friday, April 9th. Thus would begin a three day trip with students and teachers from my general school, as well as from Harlem’s high school, in Petrosani.

Harlem and I rolled into the Medias train station a little while after noon. We sleepy-leg stepped out into some sunshine, and glanced about our surroundings.
We had a few hours to kill, and a couple empty stomachs to fill.

Instantly, our eyes fell on the same thing– directly across from the train station was a building with a large sign out front that read “McGowan’s Pub,” and an Irish flag swimming about the spring breeze. We both hooted and hollered, and gave each other those half ‘man-shoves,’ that symbolise mutual accord.

“We gotta!” Harlem laughed, and “we gotta!” he excitedly repeated.

Inside, we found a happy menu listing the long-lost beef-burger with fries. Happiest of all, were half pints of Guinness on tap.

As Harlem and I swigged contently, we looked about the place. The entire bar was filled with young hipsters smoking ciggarettes and downing espresso. Most of their eyes flicked across the flat-screen TVs with gold-leaf frames.

Like it'd all been transplated from a bar back home.

The waitresses were sweet and smiling, and the walls wore real-wood panelling, and all sorts of western-bar accoutrement. I saw the Beetles in one corner, flanked to a side by a print of Ali knocking out Foreman in Zaire. On the opposite end of the bar was Tyler Durden fully decked in his infamous red leather. Audrey Hepburn and Marilyn Monroe sat alongside him. Best of all was behind me– the duke and his dog, gazing off into some hazy blue sky in the American south-west.

All of these things were not so much authentic Irish as a strong testament to the cultures that flank either side of the north Atlantic. We, being good beggars, were able to forgive this mis-arranged hodgepodge of pop culture and focus instead on our burgers and beers.

A surprise of unimaginable proportions.

The Poet’s Pallbearer

I have recently been really digging a Romanian poet, Nichita Stănescu.

Stănescu was one of Romania’s most beloved contemporaries, and a lot of my Romanian friends (young and old, alike) can easily recall at least a few lines of their favorite Stănescu poem upon request. I’ve been strumming through some of Stănescu’s works online, and I still find the most exquisite to be “Poem” (curiously, the title is written in English):


Spune-mi, dacă te-aş prinde-ntr-o zi
şi ţi-aş săruta talpa piciorului,
nu-i aşa că ai şchiopăta puţin, după aceea,
de teamă să nu-mi striveşti sărutul?

As I was returning from Istanbul with Harlem, we sat in a hot train compartment, somewhere between the cities of Craiova and Târgu Jiu. With us were two young, beautiful, university students, and an old man. The man’s hair was frizzy and wild, and as he talked, a single tooth hooked out from the center of his upper gum into the air. The man happily drank from a two liter bottle of orange Fanta– but the soda had been poured away and replaced by a thick, crimson wine.

I softly spoke to Harlem in English– I have grown accustomed to casting out a bit of my English in trains. I am no longer deathly afraid of revealing my foreignness, and I’ve found that it’s a great way to meet people and have itsy-bitsy adventures that help pass the lethargy of ‘train-time.’ The old man took the bait, and asked where we were from.

As we conversed in one part English and two parts Romanian, somehow we came to that ubiquitous poet, Stănescu. The old man and I recited “Poem,” together. He chuckled happily, and then cocked his head and quickly fixed one of his squinting, wild eyes into mine.

“You know that I was a close friend of Stănescu,” the man asked, as if I was already well aware.

“Seriously?” I gasped. “Are you being sincere?”

“Yes,” the man said. “In fact, I helped to bury him, at the funeral.”

Some conversation continued on, but, as often happens to me, my mind overwhelmed my five senses. If I have ever asked you a simple question, and then forgot to listen to your answer (as I often do), this is what has occurred: a curtain of thought has been pulled down over the world in front of me. In that moment, I was contemplating this chance meeting with a man that had buried one of Romania’s greatest artists (and my favorite Romanian poet). I snapped back to attention as best I could, but I was still astonished at this coincidence. A buzzing smile soon fixed itself onto my head, and drowned out everything else occurring inside of me.

At the man’s station, he casually finished his two liter bottle of wine, and pulled an old baseball cap onto his head. He stood over Harlem and I, and put on his most serious of expressions. “We go different ways now,” the man said, “but our souls will know each other forever.” He then gave me his warmest smile, and was gone. Some slight doubt lingered in the compartment– were his words honest, or were they just the drunk ramblings of some (clearly adept) storyteller? To be honest, I harmlessly believed every single word that man said.

And now, for me, these words carry more powerful meaning than ever before:


Tell me, if one day I would catch you
and would kiss the sole of your foot,
is it not so, that you would limp a little, after that,
from apprehension so as not to crush my kiss?

Pig Slaughter
December 23, 2009, 9:52 pm
Filed under: Peace Corps Romania | Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

*Warning: Graphic details.

On Thursday, December 17th, Harlem and I took part in a pig slaughter. I woke up at 7:30 in the morning, and reached over my head to touch the slick, ceramic tiles of the ‘soba’ behind me. It’s warmth was passing away– the coal and splintered stumps of wood just memories of heat ground down into ash during the night. The sky was grey outside, empty of light and full of cloud and cold.

Harlem and I rose slowly and drank a few glasses of water from our nearby jug, then layered ourselves liberally in warm clothes. A cold snap had come in the day before, and all of southern Romania had been pressed down by snow and hard wind. In this little village, about 20km north of the Danube river in the South Western corner of the country, the temperatures fell under -15C whenever the sun went away.

I smothered my feet in two sets of thick, hand-made wool socks, and shoved them into a pair of rubber work boots. My toes hugged themselves together in a tangled mess. Harlem and I left the main house and walked through the courtyard to the kitchen to drink coffee.

In Romania, a farm house typically has a kitchen that is ‘outside’ of the main structure. The kitchen is enclosed, but usually uninsulated. This is helpful during the summer when cooking in the stale heat is unbearable. To compensate during the winter months, these small enclaves are warmed by their ceramic ovens, which have metal surfaces to boil water and heat food.

Harlem and I squatted on tiny benches, barely big enough for a single adult to rest on. We contemplated our coffees, and I chewed on the eternal grinds floating in the bottom of my cup. Finu, a neighbor, was already there. None of us said anything– Finu is  silent by nature, and this day was nothing extraordinary to him. It merited no extra words. Conversely, Harlem and I prepared ourselves in quiet for an event that we had never seen before.

Pisto came to us, and said “it’s time, boys.” He had his lamb leather hat cocked onto his head, and the hilt of a long knife snug alongside his calf in his right rubber boot. We followed him to the small, chain-link yard where the pig shed was propped into one corner. Finu took a section of rope and disappeared inside.

I glanced at Harlem, but his eyes were on the walls of the shed. So were Pisto’s. Time stepped up its pace, grabbing against the rough edges of this morning moment. It was like when river current suddenly catches upon the rocks in a steppe. Everything moved together, tightened, quickened, blurred. The sow began to scream.

There were no words of preparation, or orders from Pisto. The moment had come unannounced. Finu came out of the pig shed, with the line tied to one of the sow’s back legs, and we all rushed to it. We pulled her backwards along the snow, about 20 feet, to a vertical wooden support holding a piece of metal siding over a corn storage container. Finu wrapped the cord around the beam, and Pisto told us to let go. Harlem and I obeyed, and Finu tied a quick knot.

“Grab the legs!” Pisto yelled, “and turn her over.” The four of us heaved and puffed, and rocked the sow back and forth, trying to get her off balance onto her side. She kicked and screamed until Pisto yanked her front legs sideways and she toppled over. Harlem and I grabbed her back legs by the ankles–they were slippery with brown slime and snow. We both used one hand on each leg to restrain her, while Finu held her front legs. Pisto pulled the knife from his boot and put his weight onto her shoulder. I braced myself against the wooden beam and held hard. I watched the tip of the knife steady itself along the sow’s throat.

A voice somewhere deep inside of me muttered a soft “goodbye.” The tip of the blade pushed into the throat and the skin held for a moment, resisting in a flash of shallow dimple before the pressure succeeded and the hilt followed the blade to the skin. Pisto flicked his wrist left and right, slicing the jugular without at all increasing the size of the wound. The wind pipe was severed, and the screaming stopped.

Time slowed again. I became aware of the tension in my arms holding the kicking legs against the warm, soft belly. Their floorless dance slowed and rippled into stillness. After 30 seconds, Pisto told us to let go. The four of us stepped away and rubbed snow onto our hands to wash them. The sow held on, resisting whatever it was that she was experiencing. Pisto put his weight on her throat, forcibly pumping more of her blood onto the ground. She kept on, like she was finishing some pig-like prayer, and needed just a little more time.

A neighbor’s cat slunk over the fence. It dodged the sow’s twitching front legs and came to nip at the large, congealing bits of blood on the ground. Pisto wiped his blade on the side of his pants. The sow finally said ‘amen.’

We moved her onto a sled, and dragged her to the courtyard outside of the kitchen enclave. The rest of this was all pig preparation. We took a short break to drink hot, plum moonshine spiced with pepper, cloves, and sugar. It got me a little drunk, and I snuck inside to sit a while, and warm my aching feet. Those rubber boots couldn’t hold away the cold.

Finu went home, and Pisto went to work. Harlem and I helped Pisto with what we could, which wasn’t much. He burned and scraped the pig’s skin. He sliced away the head, and opened it’s belly. He divided the organs apart, one by one by one by one. We made a half dozen different dishes over the course of the day–things boiled, things sauteed, things to be smoked. The entire pig was used, except for a few pieces passed to the  dogs, chained to their small houses by the front gates. They danced and yipped happily when I approached with my red-stained, cupped palm. They knew exactly what I was carrying–they had been waiting for this the entire year.

I am relentlessly intense, did you know? The entire day, I tried to draw significance from this moment. I had a subconscious recording inside of me that said “what have I learned here?” on a loop sewn onto itself and that never slowed. In American culture, I feel like we try to hide from the reality of death. We resist our knowledge that it exists, brush away it’s presence, or forget it entirely. When this inquisitive American boy touched death for one of the first times in his life, an answer to his “what have I learned here?” question had to be found.

I think it was something to the effect of, “A: my death will be insignificant.” In Hollywood, a hero’s passing is grandiose, with the fate of an entire world perched on the outcome. Did our sow dream of being a superhero, selflessly giving herself to a greater cause? Did she fantasize that she would be remembered forever and have her image blazed into copper statues? “Where are my hymns of praise and thanks?” she must have thought, “and  where are the teary eyes sewn into the hem of my forever memory?”

I think that most of our deaths, mine included, will pass quietly. There will not be a “this is it–ready yourself” moment. Will I be in any position to compose and deliver a set of “last words,” so extraordinary that they’ll rock human souls and alter the fate of the world? I doubt it.

Instead, when whatever death feels like passes over me (I imagine it’s a druggy, warm docility), I would count myself lucky to be alongside at least one loved one. In that moment I might wish for one thing only: to turn in their direction, and for a voice deep inside of me to mutter a soft ‘goodbye.’

Harlem posted pictures from the pig slaughter (and the rest of our week in the country). They can be accessed here.