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.


Răscoală – Rebellion
January 11, 2010, 9:31 am
Filed under: Peace Corps Romania | Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

I’ve written before that Romania’s dark, fog-covered forests seem to me the birth-place of fairy tales. I celebrated New Year’s Eve at a small cabin in a place called Răscoală, which means uprising. Răscoală is a shepherds’ community settled onto a set of small hills underneath some of the biggest peaks in the Carpathians. Miner, Tanya, Directoara, and Pisto were all present. It was cozy and extremely pleasant.

Tanya took hundreds of pictures. I’ve ripped the best ones, and posted them to my flickr account in an album which can be accessed here: Revelion 2009-10

Peace Corps and Tattoos

My post “Tattoos” is my most popular Peace Corps blog post, according to my stats page. I’ve realized that most of its hits come from search traffic that include the phrases “Peace Corps,” and “tattoos.” Hence, it seems pretty clear that potential volunteers are sifting through blog pages trying to find some enlightening words regarding Peace Corps’ official stance on body art, and how that pertains to a volunteer’s service.

So, here’s my experience with tattoos and piercings, in the Peace Corps:

When my Peace Corps Placement Officer called me late in March of 2008, to discuss my placement in Eastern Europe, at one point he asked about my tattoos. I have couple-inch-wide bands wrapped around both forearms, just below my elbows. They are completely visible when I wear short-sleeved shirts:



My Placement Officer said the tattoos could be a problem, as tattoos are not prevalent in other parts of the world, and carry a negative stereotype. He told me it would be best if I covered them at all times, and kept them hidden from public view. This spooked me, and I went out and bought multiple sets of UnderArmour forearms sleeves to wear during the summer months. I started composing imaginary stories about gross scars, or bad elbow joints, to tell.

When I got off the plane in Romania, one of the first questions I asked a current volunteer was whether there was a heavy stigma attached to tattoos and body art.

“What? No,” was his casual reply. “Lots of people here have tattooos and piercings.” And he was right.

When I met my directors for the first time (two middle-aged women) I wore long sleeves, despite it being the end of July. When they commented, I showed them my tattoos, and they asked “why would you hide those from us?” It was no big deal, and it was certainly no novelty. One of my best friends at site, Miner, has massive tattoos streaking across his shoulders and down his sides. One out of three guys at my local gym has a visible tattoo.

No volunteer that I know of in Romania, male or female, has ever been discriminated against for having tattoos or piercings. Granted, I receive more attention for them, but no more so than I did in America. I know female volunteers working in small towns that have nose piercings. These are modest in comparison to some of the glittery lip studs a few of my students have.

In retrospect, I figure that my Placement Officer was warning me merely as a matter of policy. In his defense, he had never been to Romania and he had no idea whether the culture really was aversive to body art or not. I imagine that the Peace Corps stance, world-wide, is that tattoos and piercings are a sensitive issue, and should be approached delicately.

I think there is some benefit to this, as no two Peace Corps regions, or countries, or country programs, or even towns are similar. What’s acceptable here in the Jiu Valley may not be in the more traditional Romanian regions of Maramureș, and Oltenia.

But, my advice to any potential/future PCV is this: piercings and tattoos will probably not cause any problems for you at site, despite what your Placement Officer says. Peoples of other countries will typically be flexible about this issue, as you’re an American ambassador, and body art is well-known element of US culture. People will certainly be curious, or fascinated by any tattoos that you have, but your inks will probably never be villified, nor will they ostracize you.

That said, there is time and place for everything. Contact a current volunteer in your assigned country, and see what they have to say. Also, be sensitive to professionalism, and how that relates to your work assignment. For example, I always wear long sleeves when I teach, so that my tattoos are covered. I do this because my directors and I have discussed the issue, and all of us agreed that covering my tattoos while I teach is a good, professional gesture. Almost any American educational institution might ask me to do the same.

October 26, 2009, 11:03 am
Filed under: Peace Corps Romania | Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

Part of Romania’s uniqueness is the balancing act it plays between its old-world heritages and its simultaneous attempts to step into modernity.  However, it’s clear that mentality moves at a slower pace than industrial progress (for better or for worse), and this leads to some interesting hybrids of that ‘old’ and ‘new’. I’ve written about this juxtaposition before–the ways in which the new democracy and the old ideals sometimes swirl together.

Therefore, it’s not uncommon for me to see families of pigs rummaging through nearby trash dumpsters. They’re not wild, by any means–a nearby farmer simply feels confident enough to let them wander around the town in a sort of ‘urban free-range,’ feeding. It terrifies me because these pigs are enormous. From tail to snout, they’re probably as tall as I am, and they weigh at least 3-4 times as much. Despite their size, they seem anything but dangerous–they happily sift through the trash munching up any foodstuff that’s remotely edible.

Last Wednesday, as I walked home from school, I was relatively unshaken to find two cows grazing alongside the entrance steps to my apartment building. One looked up at me, with her enormous, unsurprised, brown-cow eyes before she continued grazing. The second was completely unaffected by my presence, and ignored me altogether. Nearby, two teenage boys with pierced lips and red camouflage hoodies played music out of their mobile phones and joked as cow #1 swayed and ate less than five feet away from them.

And, a few nights later, I went to Miner’s and watched an illegally downloaded copy of  “Surrogate,” while we drank a beer or two. I left at 12:30AM, and walked down the steep hill from Miner’s apartment building to my own. There, alongside the road, was a mare alone in the dark. She had no bridle or lead, and there was no one else around. The mare sniffed through a few piles of dirt before finding a mouthful of wet, fall grass to eat. I approached her slowly, and clicked my tongue, and held out the flat of my palm. She smelled me lazily, quickly determined that I had no food to give, and turned away from me to sniff out more clumps of grass.

A taxi rolled by, with its bright, blue, neon ground-lights burning into the moonless dark. Unphased by me or by the horse on the side of the road, the driver blasted techno as he sped on. I watched the cab quickly turn a corner, then pulled my own brown and black camouflaged hood over my head, and continued my short midnight walk home.


For a direct response re: having tattoos in the Peace Corps, please read my post, “Peace Corps and Tattoos.”

Before I came to Romania, my Peace Corps Placement Officer and I had a talk about tattoos. I have two inch wide ‘bands’ on both of my forearms, just below the elbows. My PCPO told me that tattoos are a sensitive issue in Romania, and I would be well-advised to cover my tattoos in public. I heeded his advice, and bought four sets of Under Armour forearm sleeves. I began to think of potential explanations & excuses for them.

Then I came to Romania, and found that tattoos are all but ubiquitous (especially in larger towns), and now I am glad that I can wear short sleeves unabashedly during the warm summer months.

Last night, I called Miner and asked him if I could stop by his place to hang out. Miner has a mandatory ‘concediu’ which means he gets a paid week off from the mine. I walked over to Miner’s at around 8 o’clock, and knocked on his door twice. I heard talk inside, but no one answered. I then realized that there was another noise coming through the door–the familiar racheting voice of a tattoo gun. I turned Miner’s door handle, found that it was unlocked, and snuck inside.

Miner was lying on his pull-out couch, facing the back mattress in nothing but athletic shorts. Miner’s friend, Rome, was bent over him, scratching a tattoo into Miner’s left shoulder. We shook hands, and I was immediately encouraged to pour myself some țuica from the plastic, orange soda bottle nearby.

Miner already has a long tattoo curving from his right shoulder, around his armpit, and extending past his hip. Tonight, Rome was building another one on the opposite side. I watched Rome sketch a sort of detailed phantom head, with rotting teeth and empty eyes. Behind the phantom was a wincing angel, surrounded by fire. Farther down was a demon, and it reminded me of the Fantasia version of ‘Night on Bald Mountain.’

this image has given me nightmares

It made my tattoos, drawn from quotations by Percy Shelley and Plato, seem unbelievably conservative by comparison.

We watched most of AC/DC’s ‘Stiff Upper Lip’ live from Madrid while we finished the țuica and Miner occasionally winced and cursed. Rome asked me if I wanted a tattoo too, but I visibly balked a bit. He smiled and said he’d give me a few weeks to think about it.

Reaffirming Our Future
March 22, 2009, 3:47 pm
Filed under: Peace Corps Romania | Tags: , , , , , ,

When I ask my students about their families, I’ve become accustomed to hearing a few things.

Most of my kids have more than five siblings, and the age difference between the youngest and oldest is about 20 years. These families often live in snug, one bedroom apartments.

Most of my kids have at least one family member that works in a foreign country: Spain, France, Italy. Sometimes even America, but not often. This parent seldom comes home more than once a year. I have a sixth grade boy, Baller, who has two parents working in Portugal. He speaks fluent Portuguese, as well as Romanian. He says that he stays with his aunt. When I ask him why his aunt never comes to parent meetings at the school, he non-nonchalantly replies “Mr. Teacher, she doesn’t care.”

If a student says their father is NOT working abroad, then it can almost certainly be assumed that dad is a miner at one of the six below-ground operations in the nearby area. The mining life is dirty, hard, and, above all, dangerous. In the fall, there was a set of explosions at the mine that killed 13 people.

In fact, I can easily think of over a half dozen students who have lost parents in work-related accidents (not all in the mine).These students have patterned personality tics which range from extreme shyness to egotism. They have a more difficult time socializing with their peers (although they’re still reasonably well liked).

But, despite the lack of a ‘stable’ family environment, these kids give me hope. Despite that hardship that lives at home, they have wonderful souls. Despite their ever-present loneliness, they smile and laugh often, and they love to give hugs. They excitedly practice their English with me whenever they can–on the street, at the store, through my ground-floor kitchen window as I cook.

There is one beautiful seventh grade girl, Prințesă, who exemplifies this goodness. On Tuesday, she came to school three hours early for an English competition. On Thursday, she did it again for French. On Saturday, I saw her at a exposition put on by a local NGO that works to develop connections between Romania and France. Prințesă sang in French, and did a French/Romanian proverb presentation with two other girls. Prințesă accomplishes all of this while maintaining a perfect ’10’ (straight A) average in every subject (almost a dozen different classes).

I was talking to Directoara last night, at Miner’s birthday party. I mentioned how Prințesă is an unbelievably hard worker, and is endlessly polite and friendly with me. “Aw, poor girl,” Directoara said. “Her mother works six days a week and I think that her dad isn’t around. [Prințesă] is alone.” It probably shouldn’t have surprised me, but it did.

That a well-adjusted, confident and friendly 13/14 year old girl must fend for herself while simultaneously being so focused on school boggles my mind. If anything reaffirms our future, and the inherent goodness of the human soul, for me it is our young ones. They give so much of themselves, despite receiving so little.

Pig Fat and Frozen Water
January 11, 2009, 3:00 pm
Filed under: Peace Corps Romania | Tags: , , , , , ,

One of my favorite weekend activities as a volunteer in Romania is to go grilling with my school director, and her husband, Pisto (Peesh-doe). I did it a few times in the late summer and fall, and each outing became one of my ‘favorite’ Peace Corps moments. After a wonderful (but brisk) day at the very end of October, I assumed any further grilling would inevitably be postponed until Spring. But this is not so.

Last night, I hustled over to Miner’s apartment. Miner is Directoara’s younger brother, and is one of my closest friends here in Romania. Most nights, Miner asks me to if I would like to spend the night, since his apartment is warmer than mine. Every time before this, I’ve politely declined. I usually use my kitten as an excuse.

This time, however, Miner mentioned that, if I stayed over, he and I could go grilling with Directoara and Pisto in the morning. Grilling along the Jiu River, even in winter time, means salted red onions on bakery-fresh bread with a slab of smoked and  grilled slanina–pig fat. Not something I eat often, but a special treat when the occasion allows.

The company and activity both seemed promising, so I accepted. Miner and I drank a few beers, and watched ‘Max Payne,’ and ‘Hancock’ with subtitles. I slept in Miner’s daughter’s room(one of my students) who was staying with her mom. I pushed a giant, plush Speedy Gonzales doll off the bed, and took the battery out of the excessively loud clock on a nearby night stand, and I slept well. It was warm.

For breakfast, Miner and I had a couple cups of sugared coffee made with an ibric (Turkish coffee apparatus), and Pisto and Directoara picked us up at around ten. We drove up narrow canyon towards the cabana of Lunca Florii (flower meadow). I watched the temperature gauge in the car hover around -8C (about 17F) even dipping as low as -12C in the shade (10F).

We came to our usual spot: a place where the canyon widens a little past a bridge and a set of small summer houses. We brought a tarp alongside the frozen river bank, collected wood from nearby, and set a fire in our grill. I drank hot, spiced tuica and wine. I ate home made sausages, chicken breasts, and marinated calf liver. Best of all, was the pig fat and onions and bread.

A little too cold to talk much, our conversations often stilled into soft moments of sipping and chewing. I flexed my hands and feet repeatedly to keep them warm, and I shifted often to avoid smoke and to stay out of the shadow of a large spruce that blocked the sun’s short path in the sky.

Between bites I looked down the valley, and noticed where our smoke had collected into the cooler pockets along the rock walls. The trees were covered in frost, and as the sun made it’s small hop from east wall to west the trees caught light and little stars made fire on sporadic branches. An emaciated and timid dog appeared, and we threw her meat. The small bits she would eat. The bigger pieces she hurriedly took in her jowls down the road, presumably to a puppy or two. She always came back quickly.

Occasionally, a car would speed by with people partaking in one of the local winter activities: attached to the bumper was a long piece of rope, and a family member or two would grip the other end, about 15 feet away. They sat on rickety old sleds, with long green and red runners. The cars bounced and shook them along the icy road. Always they were laughing, and sometimes they would wave before they passed into the narrowing bends farther up valley, where the walls and trees strangled the road against rock and river bank again.