The Transylvania Joem: A Young Peace Corps Volunteer in Romania

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.

America is the Exception
February 14, 2010, 1:33 pm
Filed under: EuroTrip | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

“Food is a central activity of mankind and one of the single most significant trademarks of a culture.”
Mark Kurlansky

In Kurlanksy’s sense, what does our  American food attitude say about our culture? In the USA, we happily crowd around full tables for common feasts but a few days per year. My favorite holidays were always Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Independence Day, not necessarily because of their historical significance, but rather because they were food-days spent with family and friends. We sat around, enjoyed casual conversation, and immersed ourselves into multiple courses of amazing, home-cooked meals.There was music and cheer, and little pretension.

As an American, somehow a few sparse days per year of this seemed to suffice. It wasn’t until I moved to Europe and experienced its ubiquitous table culture and hospitality that I realized that, we as Americans, are the world-wide exception of gastronomic norms. In other countries throughout our Earth, food culture is a daily event that stimulates the senses and emotions. Scent and taste flex their little, sensory muscles, and the presiding sentiment is one of contentment– like the world couldn’t possibly become any righter.

In America, we are satisfied with our meager helpings of this soul goodness because we are unaware that it could exist in greater quantity. Despite our abundance as one of the most advanced nations in the world, this simple and fruitful culture of joy has been thrown to the wayside. It is sad and unfortunate, and I would be happy to make my life’s work one of re-sowing it into American culture– if only because it can make you feel so damn good.

Imagine for a moment, that you have traveled to a foreign city— one of the largest and most significant in the memory of mankind. In a place teeming with over ten million lives, you are literally a tiny, foreign speck drifting through the cityscape. In this place, you constantly meet locals who are kind, and even excited, that you have come to their home. At the request of a few of these new friends, you accept a dinner invitation.

I did such a thing– while in Istanbul, Harlem and I went to dinner with two Turkish girls, and in a way that was completely novel (as I am still unaccustomed to it by my American upbringing) it became my best memory of the trip.

The girls, Zeynep and Duygu, took us to a small fish restaurant in Taksim, the ‘new district,’ of Istanbul. Inside, tables were grouped together in family-style fashion, so that the only thing separating us and the guests next to us were a few inches of white table cloth and salt and pepper shakers. Every table in the place was packed with young Turks, and almost all were in groups of four or more. Alongside our table, there was a group of 12 Turkish women our age (with a few, fortunate men scattered throughout). Zeynep and Duygu ordered for us, selecting a few appetizers from a massive tray of small sample bowls brought by a waiter. We were also able to select our fish in the same fashion– fresh, gutted specimens were brought out on a wooden block to help us make our choices.

Zeynep ordered Raki, the national Turkish spirit, and taught us how to drink it– first by pouring a clear shot into a high-ball glass, which becomes a cloudy white (due to the Ouzo Effect) when water is added. Turks sip a little Raki, and then immediately cleanse the palate with a drink from an accompanying glass of water. This smooths the edges of its intense, anise flavor, and you’re left with a full lingering echo of its sweetness. Raki is sipped often, and usually with an accompanying “şerefe!”  (cheers).

It was in this scene that I enjoyed the most amazing dish of my trip: grape-stuffed dolmas. Stuffed grape leaves are common in this part of the world– in Romania, sarmale (as they’re called) are stuffed with pork and rice and savory spices. They are usually topped with sour-cream, and they are heavy and the true epitome of ‘comfort food.’ In this restaurant, the  leaves were stuffed with wild rice, some long-grained grass, and tiny shriveled grapes. The result was something amazing– crisp and sweet. Duygu offered me hers, and I resisted for only a half second and only out of knee-jerk politeness.

But, good food is not enough to constitute culture. I think that, perhaps, this is where we Americans error. Our restaurants are sterile, and the timing and efficiency  of a meal matter more than the pleasure derived from it. Excellent food and exquisite atmosphere alone can not substitute the authenticity of what it is that makes us human– that sort of airy ineffable is the glue that holds the physical of these senses and places together. Hence, what came next was what made the night my most salient.

As we sat and ate and squeezed through the gaps in our language barrier, a trio of Roma musicians entered the restaurant. They had four instruments between them, and fox-stepped to a spot between the tables. Suddenly, one of them whistled loudly and the trio exploded into song. Crashing rapids of Turkish verse accompanied by tangerine, fiddle, and a sort of slide guitar washed across the dining room.

Every single Turk in the restaurant, paused, bloomed into a slow smile, and then began to sing.

This little band blared over a half dozen traditional Turkish songs– songs embedded into the memory and common culture of the people surrounding us. The young dozen women next to us were swaying and calling out words in chorus. Zeynep stood up at our table and let her hands flutter about while her hips sparked to the beat. I had forgotten we were in the land of belly-dancing until that moment. I glanced around the room and saw many of the other young women doing the same.

Harlem and I were dumbfounded. We both had gooey grins smeared across our faces. In that most beautiful of moments, our ability to be profound– even articulate– had been stripped away. “This is awesome,” we mouthed to each other, over and over– and, more apporpriately, we were even able to muster an occasional “oh, my Gd.”

That moment was one of the most crystalline visions I have ever had of the way that life should be. It was a spontaneous combination of the culture of food and song, peaking in a beautiful little crescendo of sensations, and overall ‘good’ feelings. The greatest thing was how fully the people around me embraced the moment– there was a common connectedness in it that sweetened the air and made the walls bleed a violet light.

A culture of joy exists so effortlessly and free in the world. I am grateful that I have come into contact with it, for it has made me a happier human being.