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.


Memory Loss
March 8, 2010, 10:22 pm
Filed under: Peace Corps Romania | Tags: , , , , , , , ,

I woke up last week and couldn’t remember anything I did last Spring.

I closed my eyes and let my violet aura spiral around against the dim, and tried to think of distinct events that had occurred. Slowly, I recalled the big things– my week long “best vacation ever,” into Ukraine, and an extended weekend trip to Iasi with Directoara and Pisto. That was all– it was hardly enough to frame three months of activity. I didn’t feel like I was so busy/overwhelmed that time had ripped by (my most stress-filled time of my service was before Spring, in February).

I came here, to my blog, and glanced over my entries for March, April, and May of 2009. Nothing out of the ordinary happened– really, the entries are fairly banal. A funny misunderstanding in the teacher’s lounge, a beautiful afternoon hike to what eventually became my favorite place on the half-mountain behind my site, and lazy weekend afternoons focused on food and friends. There was nothing extraordinary, or life-rattling.

That sort of ‘ordinary stuff,’ seemed to be consistent throughout my first Romanian Spring. In addition, the only other pattern I perceive is that I spent a ton of time outside. I love the outdoors, and was eager to shed my winter layers of wool and explode out into the bloom of Romanian sunshine. Maybe it was that state of pastoral intoxication that helped blur the time.

More likely, however, life passed easily because of that mundaneness earlier mentioned. Come Spring, I had been in Romania for about a year. I had developed a stable comfort level, and my life had developed distinct patterns and frequencies. To that effect, not every moment felt completely novel and uncertain– rather, I was able to coast a little bit and focus on the simpler, smaller things– wind in leaves, exploding wild flowers, and embedding sun into my skin.

Last year I felt comfortable– this year I feel adored. Hence, I could presume that this second Spring will pass with even less tug than the first. The week that the weather warms into a stable state conducive to my being outdoors, then I’m sure away I (and these last 6 months) will 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

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.

Business Picnic

Today’s school schedule was shifted around a little, in order to accommodate the Romanian ‘teză,’ which is a giant, country-wide test that decidedly affects a student’s high school and university options. The teză was administered in the late-morning, which pushed back the beginning of the regular, afternoon hours.

Thursday’s are my easiest day– I teach one hour to my bright and polite seventh graders. My class time was re-scheduled and shortened from 3:40 to 4:10.

I went to school an hour early, however, to discuss an upcoming project with my directors. Luna was more feisty than usual. Three minutes into the conversation I remember saying “God help me– I’ve barely arrived and you’re already making fun of me,” and she liked this and laughed.

Luna and I sat and discussed logistical things coming up in June–things she wanted me to decide in that exact moment and that I didn’t have a lot of information for. Such was the nature of the thing, but Luna still knocked me around a little. “This is an interrogation–I’m the ‘securitate!'” she said, a reference to the Romanian secret police that terrorized dissenters and enemies of the state under the communist regime.

As it often does, our conversation shifted into the realm of food (the great unifier, I’ve found). Directoara came and stood behind Luna as I tried hard to remember what I ate every morning with my host family (gazda) in Ploiești during my ten week Peace Corps training. I struggled a little, although I had eaten the same large and wonderful meal every morning for over two months.  I temporarily forgot the Romanian word for hot dog, and before it came to me Directoara suggested “virșli.”

“No, it’s not that,” I said. “In fact, I’ve never heard of that.”

“You’ve never eaten virșli?” Directoara said. “Wait a second,” and she whipped out her phone and made a quick call. “Are you still at the piața? Good. I need you to get something…”

Luna eased her questioning and instead we started talking about how great writers are ‘unusual’ in comparison to the rest of us and thus develop a predisposition for bad habits in order to cope. 20 minutes later, Pișto came into the director’s office carrying a small and carefully tied blue and white striped bag. He set it before me, and directoara brought over a bowl. She carefully untied the bag, and took seven slices of white bread out and lined them into the bowl–it overflowed and crumbs fell everywhere.

Inside the bottom of the bag, were four long, crimson red, grease-sweating sausages on a small paper tray with a giant dollop of French mustard in the center. These are virșli, and they look and smell amazing.

“All you need now is a beer,” Pișto joked. I told him I’d have one if I didn’t have to teach.

And now, a room full of middle-aged Romanians watched me dig my fingers into these oily and amazing sheep sausages, and dip hunks of bread into the mustard and eat happily. They watched intently as I swallowed my first few bites.

“Did you like it?” Luna asked. And I nodded happily and told her they were super.

Luna laughed and clasped her hands together. “He’s one of us!” she said, and I smiled and ate til nothing but a few slices of bread remained. Lately, I’ve become aware of how seamless and easy my life seems to be– that I am so ridiculously spoiled that an afternoon meeting at school can become an earnest conversation on great literature and ultimately end with me being brought and fed warm food until I’m full.

Cabana Voie-Vodu: Part III

This is part 3/3 of this post.

Capsuno and I woke simultaneously at 10:00 AM. My eyes burned, and my mouth was dry and scratchy. I had left in my contacts–terrible decision. Now, I couldn’t open my eyes because the contrast of morning light and eyelid hurt too bad. Tears streamed down my face. I somehow peeled the contacts out of my head, and shoved on glasses. If I looked too far to the right or left, my eyes burned and teared up again.  Whining aside, things would ultimately be okay.

Capsuno and I dressed up in snow pants and jackets, and walked back to the dining room. Pisto had made two big pots of warm Mamaliga (kind of a simple polenta) mixed with fresh cheese, eggs, and a little pork sausage slices. There was instant coffee, and two types of fruit salad. I ate much, until I had a tummy full of heavy breakfast. I could’ve gone back to bed.

Pisto teased Capsuno and I for sleeping so late., but Vitzo and B-dan said they had gotten up only a few minutes before us. I didn’t feel bad. I actually felt really good. Comfortable and smiley and warm, even though my eyes were puffy and red.

Vitzo and B-dan left–Vitzo had tutoring appointments at noon. Capsuno, Directoara, Pisto and I went to the steep, ice-covered hill and grabbed two sleds leaning against carved stone embankment. Romanian sleds are fantastic. They are all wood and metal. They have two long, round runners along the base. There is no plastic, or fancy colors. They are difficult to steer, a little heavy, and, best of all, they go really fast.

I hopped on a sled and rode it down the steep driveway. I almost veered off the bridge at the bottom into the river. Then I hit a series of bumps that rattled the lump of corn meal and cheese in my happy belly. It was fantastic, and I laughed out loud.

Capsuno came next, rattling down the hill, legs flayed out, short squeaks piercing through her rust red, second-hand jacket. When she finally stopped herself at the bottom of the hill, her expression was a mix of terror and dumb joy. The emotion was articulated perfectly by the next thing she said: “I don’t know if I liked that.”

So, the four of us trekked up the valley of Voie-Vodu. The snow was 5-6 inches deep, and light. I instantly felt an electricity inside me. The trees themselves seemed like an undefined patchwork of white hanging on black branches–the green over exposed by the blaze of late morning snow-shine.

I occasionally pulled Capsuno on the sled, or she would pull me. Pisto and Miora played the same game. We passed massive, three story cabanas made of carefully placed wood, like Lincoln Logs. They looked warm, cozy, mysterious. They were keeping secrets. Capsuno gazed at them, longingly. “I want one of those someday,” she said, half to me, and half to herself.

We turned back after a mile and a half, maybe more, and pulled each other down the road. We began a snowball fight with Pisto. We gave each other snow baths. It was so ridiculously idyllic that it seemed like some Eastern-European fairytale. But I’ve become accustomed to moments like this in Romania: the land of quiet dreams and rugged simplicity. Sometimes for the better (at moments like this) and sometimes for worse, when it frustrates.

At the Cabana, we veered right, following a small, one lane road along the river. I told Pisto I didn’t want to turn home, yet. Exasperated, he said “you walk and you walk and suddenly you realize you should have turned around two hours ago.” Capsuno hit him with a snowball for me. He almost pushed her face down into a fresh pile of horse manure.

We made our way back: back past the river, back up the icy hill, back past the snarling dogs, and back into the warm dining room. The children whose father owns the cabana were there. One carefully prepared a large pot of tea for the rest. The two oldest boys cooked food. The youngest girl swept and labored to collect dirt in a warped dust pan. Each child had their task, and each worked laboriously, without complaining.

Directoara, Capsuno and I toasted our fairy-tale weekend with a small shot of Tuica. Pisto refused: he had to drive. I’ve noticed that Romanians take drinking and driving very seriously here, although I’ve never seen anyone pulled over– for drunk or reckless driving or even for speeding.

We put our bags in the trunk, and slowly plodded home. Exhausted, eyes burning, I held Capsuno’s hand and stared out the window. I tried to reflect on my fairy-tale story, to think of all the chapters my fantasy life here in Romania has written. My eyes flicked over the passing scenery, but my mind was much deeper. I was remembering that I had volunteered for all of this. That Peace Corps and my community were actually paying to have me present here. That I had come here to open myself to a community in need. And instead, when I had opened, this entire country of make-believe had rushed in.

Cabana Voie-Vodu: Part II

This is part two of the blog which began here.

In the dining room, B-dan and Pisto poured me half a short juice glass of tuica, and left to put wood and fire in the grill outside. I wasn’t ready to stand in the snow, so I made a half-assed effort to help Vitzo and Directoara prepare each part of dinner. They didn’t allow me to do much, however, so eventually I pulled a chair alongside the soba, and talked quietly with Capsuno for a while.

Before long, the boys returned and pulled me outside away “from the women.” At this point, my Romanian comprehension had plummeted; it was late evening and my empty stomach had quickly helped me build a buzz. So I was content to occasionally listen to B-dan and Pisto; maybe even interject a small word or two, but my mind continuously wandered into the dark woods for a while. Mostly, at that moment, I was cold. The entire patio was covered in ice, and I could feel the freeze seeping up my boots and slowly gnawing its way into my feet.

Pisto beat hanging snow off the roof with a shovel. Directoara came outside with warm wine, and offered me some. Pisto refused for me, said that spiced wine is for women, and poured me another glass of tuica. Capsuno came too and we huddled together close until Pisto, also buzzed, came over to tease us. He threw his arms around Capsuno, or showed me how to dislocate someone’s knuckles by squeezing their hand a certain way. He did it to me a few times, and I watched -in pain- as my joints bulged awkwardly out of their sockets, just short of popping. I asked Pisto how on earth his hands were so strong. He told Capsuno and I that he’s an electrician in the mine, which means he has to have strong hands. He also recounted most of the dozen of times he’d been electrocuted, complete with well practiced movements. “I have thick callouses” he said, and, to prove his point, he reached into the grill and adjusted the humming, red charcoals with his bare hands. Capsuno might have squeaked softly when he did this. I definitely winced.

I slowly became so cold that I was uncomfortable, so I silently shifted away into the indoor dining room. Disappearing from places is one of my favorite games to play when I’m drunk (I was on my third glass of Tuica, and each glass was deeper than the one before). I warmed my snow-burned feet a little (the temperature had dropped to zero Fahrenheit outside) and I picked at the almost-vegetarian salad Directoara had made special for Capsuno.

So as not to be (more) socially awkward, I tromped back outside where Pisto had begun to pile scorched pieces of dripping pig fat onto slices of bread and red onion. I had this same meal a week before alongside the frozen river with Pisto and Directoara. Once in a while, it’s a delicious treat. Twice in one week, it’s kind of gross.

Pisto also put about a kilo of grilled pork-loin onto a plate. Directoara, B-dan, Vitzo, and I hungrily wrapped slices of white bread around each hunk of meat, and hungrily devoured these little, hastily made sandwiches. Capsuno watched–she’d eaten so much pork product on her host-family’s farm that she’d recently declared herself a vegetarian. She admitted to being a little jealous, however, but she held to her conviction well.

After every single piece of meat had been snapped up, we finally relocated to the dining room. Capsuno was a little tipsy as well–she’d had a handful of servings of that wonderful, ‘women’s’ wine spiced with clove and cinnamon and orange rind. Capsuno and I sat and talked, while Pisto put a bit of music on the dining room CD player. The two Romanian couples were invigorated, and danced happily. Capsuno and I were tired, and we sat close and talked softly. Pisto periodically came over and tried to get us to dance, but we were tired and stubborn–his continuous dip from ‘silly’ to ‘drunk’ made us a little uncomfortable. No hard feelings to hold onto, but it was most definitely an indication that my bed time had come.

Capsuno took the lead and excused us, and I shook hands with the boys. We both said our ‘noapte buna’ to everyone.  Capsuno and I went back to the bunk house, and relocated our bags to a different room. Our new place had a large single bed (as opposed to two doubles positioned with every available inch of the wood floor space pressed between them): we wanted to be able to snuggle close for warmth. There was also a makeshift heater (a plug with wires running to a set of coils in a concrete block–very ingenious and ‘do it yourself’) which provided heat. I was so tired it made me lazy, and I couldn’t find the motivation to drink water or take out my contacts. I’d suffer the consequences when I woke up.

I hurriedly climbed into bed, and hugged Capsuno close when she got under the quilts and comforters (she’s always so warm). Almost immediately, I found a sleep so deep and undeterred that my dreams were stifled into absolute stillness.

Read the final part of this story here.