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.


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.”