The Transylvania Joem: A Young Peace Corps Volunteer in Romania

‘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.


Okay, București

I haven’t always been kind to Romania’s capital city, București (Buc.), in my past posts.

I had found the city unwelcoming, dirty, and over-crowded. Aside from Lipscani, I hadn’t really found any good places to pass time while in the city. Thereby, I made my visits as short as possible, and I made my distaste for the capital well known.

Recently, a close friend, Phoenix, took issue with this. Phoenix was born in Buc., and has lived there her entire life. When another friend, ZB, and I remarked on why we didn’t like the place, Phoenix took to its defense and had this to say:

Bucharest is a bustling city, filled with life. Unlike other cities that have been turned into museums for the sole purpose of attracting tourists, Bucharest is not trapped in time. Its beauty lies in the fact that it has a heart of its own.
The greatest thing about living in a developing city is that I feel like I’m contributing to its every heartbeat, whereas, in a city where one bumps into history at every corner, I can’t help but feel small and insignificant, a mere on-looker.

(Yeah– her English is pretty phenomenal)

Thus, Phoenix invited me to the big city that she calls home to offer me a ‘local’s tour,’ to see if I wouldn’t change my mind. I took her offer, and ruck-sacked down there for a long weekend.

I arrived on my mid-5AM train, and rode the two metros necessary to come to Universitate, in the center of the city. I rose up out of the metro station at approximately 6AM, and found a different, docile București around me. The ground was wet with recent rain, and covered with the ‘burn bright pink then blow away,’ flower petals ubiquitous on the trees during the Romanian Spring. The easy light bounced around the newly constructed park on the corner alongside the hospital– a massive bronze violin hung calmly in the air. Birds sang from trees I had never noticed before.

“Okay, București,” I said, “You’ve clearly put your best foot forward.”

I took care of some nondescripts down at the PCRo office, took a walk with some fellow volunteers, and then hustled again over to Universitate to meet Phoenix at the National Theatre. We hunted down a cofetarie– I caffeinated while we expounded philosophically. Then we spent the first half of the day making our way to the Botanic Gardens where we sat under a stretching Oak tree (I think it was) and discussed all sorts of the good stuff– life, love, stress and setbacks.

“Okay, București,” I thought, “You can be invigorating, rather than exhausting.”

We did this ’til my tummy couldn’t take it no more, and I needed foods. We ate in Lipscani (of course), and then wandered to what would become my new favorite place in Buc– I had felt before that there weren’t enough beautiful, ‘green,’ places inside of the city– that all of București was covered in concrete. It turns out that I just didn’t know where to look.

Phoenix took me to Parcul Cișmigiu, a 42 acre^2 park in the center of the city. It has trees so lush and dense that the sun simply floats over the top of their canopy, and there are innumerable paths dipping and ducking alongside exploding flower beds and over the limpid ponds that criss-cross throughout the place.

Phoenix and I stopped on one of these stone bridges, and watched bikers coast by and rented rowboats snake underneath us. We took turns singing French lullabies as the dusk died and the incandescent lamps hummed like our chorus line. Phoenix paused briefly to eavesdrop on a threesome of Spanish speakers wandering by, and I softly sang a new solo: “okay, București– I suppose I can learn to love you a little.”