Spuneti, March 2005
It’s been said many times that PCVs in Romania do nothing better than complain. Since this is largely true, it’s worth examining. Taken as a whole, most of our complaints are pretty ridiculous, the product of a group of people with too much free time, an inflated sense of self and unrealistic expectations. Complaining begins in force during PST (“Can you believe they made us go to that boring session on safety and security? Those animals!”) and only seems to increase over time.
But then there are those with legitimate complaints. I’d include in this category a friend of mine in group 16, who we’ll call Ben. Ben wanted to do meaningful work for his local managers, but they weren’t interested in using his skills. In terms of work, anyway, this hasn’t been the experience he hoped for. Though Ben has never said it, I’m sure there have been many times when he’s wondered if his time here has been well spent. So for Ben and everyone else who’s ever felt the same, I offer the following story of hope and redemption.
I wasn’t feeling especially good about my work as a volunteer even before I met Florin. It was late January, and it hadn’t been a good week at school. While trying to distinguish Martin Luther King from Martin Luther, I inexplicably and with conviction told two different classes that the religious reformer was also the inventor of the printing press. Later, while talking about Valentine’s Day, some other students said that it was because of my Valentine’s preaching that Dragobete is a dying holiday, and that all we ever do in class are “stupid games.” So I was feeling like a misinforming, dumb-as-rocks cultural imperialist when I boarded an overcrowded Rapid from Bucharest to Sinaia.
For anyone having doubts about the value of American influence abroad as I was, traveling on a Romanian train isn’t recommended. I’ve spent a lot of time trying to imagine how anyone could collect such a dizzyingly horrendous assortment of pop music as is piped into the compartments of so many trains here. Since most of the artists featured on these broadcasts are American, it’s a testament to the typical Romanian’s ability to withstand the cruelest of punishments that, forced to listen to this garbage, they don’t riot and throw me out the window. When I entered my compartment to the sound of “Living La Vida Loca” blasting from the speaker above the door. I found my seat between a burly old woman and a middle-aged man with an enormous hair coming out of the top of his nose. The two stared ahead stoically, Ricky’s ubiquitous vacuity just one more trial.
After a few minutes of pretending to read, I sensed I was being stared at. I looked up to the seat across from me to see a greasy, crazy-looking young man with startlingly bad acne grinning at me. As I really didn’t feel like talking, I gave him a half-smile and went back to my magazine, thinking he’d lose interest. He didn’t.
“Where are you from?” he said. I ignored him, staring at the page and scratching the back of my neck. I hoped he’d get the point.
“HEY!” he shouted. “I SAID, WHERE ARE YOU FROM?”
“Ah,” he said, nodding. “I don’t like your country.” He kept looking at me, as if I was supposed to respond to this. I went back to my magazine, cursing myself for not taking a later train.
“What are you doing here?” he said. “Romania sucks.”
“I teach English, in Eforie Sud.”
“That’s stupid, we already speak English.”
I thought about explaining Peace Corps’ three goals and the whole cultural exchange thing, but then I noticed the sweater he had on backwards and the shoes he had on the wrong feet. I decided not to bother. But he wasn’t finished.
“Hey! American! Do you know about Dracula?”
“Do I know about Dracula?”
“Yeah, I know about Dracula.”
“Do you know about the impaling?”
“I think so.”
“How do you know about this?”
“Well, I’ve seen some movies, and – “
“You Americans, all you know about is Dracula. Have you been to Sighisoara?”
“How have you been there?”
“I’ve lived here for a year and – “
“Did you know Dracula was born there?”
“How do you know that?”
“Well, I – “
“Have you been to this hostel?” He handed me a brochure from the Gia Hostel in Sighisoara. I scanned the front. At the bottom it read “Come and have a look and you’ll stay longer than you thought!” I took this to mean that the owners might bind you and force you to work in the less-advertised Gia Brothel.
“I don’t think so. Have you?”
“Then why did you give this to me?”
“It looks nice.”
After a few moments of awkward silence, he had more to say.
“I know what you’re thinking,” he said, smiling sheepishly.
“You do?” I said. I was just wishing I had put my headphones on sooner.
“Yes. And I am not a gay. No, I just like to meet people from around the world. I knew you were a foreigner.”
It was here that he introduced himself as Florin. He was on his way to Brasov, where he lives and does odd jobs “mostly in tourism.” It seemed strange to me that someone with no attention span, cultural sensitivity, national pride or an ability to dress himself would be hired to do anything, much less to work in tourism. But why make an issue of it. He asked for my cell number, and I felt safe in giving it to him, since I had exchanged numbers with people on trains many times before and never heard from any of them.
“Hey!” Florin said. “Do you know about Counter-Strike?”
After what seemed like hours of conversation, we stopped in Ploiesti to the tune of “Take my Breath Away.” Florin eventually got back to basics, asking me again why I was in Romania, but this time allowing me to answer his questions. I told him, as concisely as possible, about my job and Peace Corps. He seemed to listen attentively. I grew bolder, even sentimental. I gave him all my reasons for devoting two years to serve here. How I too wanted to meet people from around the world, make a difference, grow as a person. In the end, I felt I had expressed myself with understated grace.
“That sounds really stupid,” he said. “You don’t get paid? I wouldn’t do that. And we don’t need the help of foreigners. And we already speak English. You should go back to America, it’s much better. Bush! What do you think about this Bush?”
Back on CFR radio, we had reached a new low with “You’re in the Army Now,” a cautionary tale about the standard downfalls of military service. As Florin droned on about international politics and American incompetence, “unbelievable” was the word that came to mind. Unbelievable that I this song was written. Unbelievable that it was recorded. Unbelievable that anyone allowed it to be played. Unbelievable that I had to sit and listen to it as well as this nutcase across from me criticizing my job and values and home. I kept quiet, but this was just what I didn’t need to hear. Sure, he was insane and harmless, just as my students with their complaints were young. But when you’re already feeling down, it can be hard not to let people like this get to you.
Florin got up to use the bathroom, giving me a much-needed break. It was then that the woman who had been reading a magazine silently next to him spoke up.
“Don’t listen to him,” she said. “I think he’s a little crazy. It’s great what you’re trying to do here.”
After saying goodbye and getting off the train later, I thought about what she had said. Maybe she was right. Maybe things like tangible outcomes and appreciation were unrealistic. Results took time and you might never see them, but they happened, often in ways and to degrees you didn’t expect.
About three weeks later on Valentine’s Day, back in my apartment watching The Young and the Restless, my phone rang with a text message:
happy valentines ross!
it was nice to meat u!
ur the first american
i meat. i like u! enjoy
romania! ur friend