Spuneti, September 2004
Looking through my email today, I happened to notice a message from Peace Corps Training announcing group 19’s site placements. Though I’m not well acquainted with the group, I was eager to see who was placed where. For me, site announcements left me feeling a little depressed. A security leak in the system informed me slightly before the big Oscar-themed gala that I was soon headed to Eforie Sud, a small town on the Black Sea Coast. I had visited the coastal city of Neptun with my group not long before, and the thought of returning to the area worried me. Among my memories of my three-day stay there were getting hit in the groin with a volleyball, severely burning my arms and legs, being accosted by a mustachioed gypsy, and hearing 50 Cent’s “In the Club” blasted outside my hotel room day and night no less than 47 times. I remember taking lots of pictures, thinking I’d never be back. “Well,” I figured. “I’ve never been to this ‘Eforie Sud’ of which they speak. How bad could it be?” I consulted the experts at Lonely Planet. It took some searching, since they didn’t even bother with a sub-section for the town. I had to look under the Northern Dobruja general section, which collected it with other local towns in the garbage bin of “concrete jungles of the late 1960s,” these “dilapidated, dying resorts.” I needed a second opinion. I found a perpetually positive Volunteer friend with a Rough Guide. “Chin up,” she said. “How bad could it be? Let’s just see what the Guide says, hmm? Hmm. ‘Squalid, depressing, and not worth a visit.’ Well, good luck with that.”
This wasn’t fitting in with my plans. In my site placement interview, I remembered asking for a place in the mountains and expecting a small, rural town filled with simple country folk. Sure, they’d be suspicious of me and my big-city ways at the beginning, but I’d slowly win them over, regaling them with stories of “iced-cream” and motorized carriages, and generally catching them up on the last 100 years of history. We’d wear animal skins in the winter and sing folk songs to keep us warm. I might even have a rival or two – a young buck with something to prove. But I’d charm him too, and we’d secure our hard-won brotherhood by exchanging crude friendship bracelets.
So I tried to look surprised and excited when they called me out in front of the group to present me with my site announcement prize. Getting stuck with a seemingly has-been tourist village had me feeling cheated and overlooked. It all reminded me of my sixth grade summer camp when at the closing awards ceremony I was deemed “Most Likely to Eat Apple Pie.” In neither case did the prize seem the result of much personal consideration on the part of the organizers.
Looking back, I came to site last summer with kind of a poor attitude. My town had all the sounds, smells and appearances that I thought it would. Not only was I disappointed, but I felt twice as alienated because everyone around me was having so much fun. It was like being at a party that I wasn’t invited to and couldn’t leave. I decided to shun their party to make myself feel superior. I began to venture out of my apartment in daylight only once every two days or so, rubbing my eyes and covering every part of myself with clothing like a recluse in a fallout zone. On a subconscious level, I also hoped people might notice my strange appearance and absence and reconsider the direction of their lives. Like some seaside-exiled Grinch, I thought I’d teach the people of Eforie Sud a lesson for having fun without me and living in a town and country that didn’t fit my romantic expectations. I’d show them how they were wasting their lives on the beach! Some part of me thought I’d accomplish this by walking around town in my winter clothes, perhaps pausing every few minutes to gaze at the horizon thoughtfully and shake my head disapprovingly. “Who is that somber young American man dressed in corduroy pants and a wool shirt who stays inside his apartment most of the day feeling sorry for himself?” they’d say. “He’s really teaching me a lesson about how I’m wasting my life here on the beach.”
So I’m happy to say that things have changed after a year. After getting through a generally boring and cold winter where my tourist town turned into Tumbleweed Alley, I was happy to see the people return this summer. My town’s not the prettiest, but it has an understated charm. Heading down to the beach in June, I found that it was easy to join the party, since there’s really no way I could stand out any more than the average Romanian beach tourist, with their luminous sunburns, screaming toddlers, and bright orange shirts that say things like “You Can’t Touch This” with an arrow heading southward. I began to admire the shamelessness natural to beach goers the world over, such as when morbidly obese men and women here discard even their thong bikinis to stand with only their feet in the Black Sea, stretching their arms open wide and pointing their exposed loins eastward. It seems no matter where you’re from, the lure of the sea is strong, drawing away your inhibitions and making every man, woman and child feel like a varitable Zeus. It’s enough to make you fall in love with it. Looking along the coast, my Grinch heart grew ten sizes. I bought a Frisbee and even started wearing shorts. I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else right now.
I thought about all of this as I scanned the list of group 19 site assignments to see who my lucky new sitemate is. Who, too, may be born again by the summer sun, shaowarmas and unceasing Manele? Kelly Henshaw of Mangalia, I’ll see you on the other side.