A Letter from Romania

    This letter is from Andy Trincia who is in training in Romania to become a business Volunteer (CED--Community Economic Development). He will become an "official PCV" on Aug 16th. Before joining the Peace Corps, Andy was a corporate communications executive in the financial services industry.

    June, 2002

    Dear Family and Friends:

         I sat down at a tiny wooden table and was served fresh bread, cucumbers, salami and sheep cheese. Cornel and Silviana Mocanu, 30 and 28, and their daughter Ioana, 3 1/2, had just welcomed me into their home. I was the first American they’d ever met and I was their guest for the summer. I’d been in the country four days.
         They do not speak English and I exhausted my Romanian in a few minutes. I brought out my Romanian-English dictionary and started tossing out words, attempting to string them together into thoughts and phrases. We passed the dictionary back and forth, sometimes smiling, often confused. At one point, while asking me about the Peace Corps and how I left behind family, friends and a beach lifestyle, sold my car and most of my belongings to come to Romania, Silviana looked up a word and pointed to it: curaj — Romanian for “courage.”
         I gestured to them that they, in fact, were the courageous ones — to share their home with a stranger from America. I pointed to the words for generosity and hospitality. I presented to them small gifts from the USA: framed photo of a sunset down the street from my apartment in California, Jelly Belly candies and fancy soaps. I showed them photos of my family and places I’d been around the world. They loved all of it. By the end of the night, my fingers were stained with ink and the dictionary looked like it had been used for weeks.

    So began my stay with a wonderful Romanian gazda, or host family. Peace Corps pays them enough per week to feed me and cover extra utilities, but they donate my room. As a result they’re all in the living room/bedroom for the summer. I asked them why they did this and they said it was a combination of curiosity about the United States and for the experience.
         Cornel is an accountant at a construction company and Silviana is a high-school librarian. Ioana (ee-Juan-ah) is a beautiful pre-schooler with earrings and a lively personality, and she wonders why I drink their tap water through a filter. Right now she has chicken pox (thankfully I’ve already had it).
         They live in a small house on the industrial edge of Campina, an oil town of 40,000 almost two hours north of Bucharest. I’m happy to report that this place is much nicer and less polluted, but has its share of stray dogs, industrial and Communist scars and ugly bloc apartment buildings. Overall, it’s a pleasant city and reminds me of the American Midwest with tree-lined streets and parks and a busy main street. But there are pockets such as the open-air market, and other areas where peasants and Roma people (“Gypsies”) congregate, where the ramshackle buildings and Third World-look could be Latin America.
         The Mocanus keep chickens in the backyard — we eat fresh eggs — and they have a pig and a small garden from which we eat fresh onions, strawberries and raspberries. Silviana is a great cook but the totally organic food is repetitive — soups, eggs, chicken, cheese, ham, bread, a polenta-like dish called mamaliga and of course, beer.
         Every morning I see primitive, horse-drawn carts going by and hear roosters crowing — and oh yes, dogs barking. I’ve gone running a few times in the neighborhood, only to be stared at by old ladies in kerchiefs and have dogs chase me — or dodge an occasional goat or unattended horse in the road. But I will not be deterred! Peace Corps provides “dog dazers” that emit the sounds that dogs hear that we can’t — it works.
         The Mocanus have no car, but have a phone and cable TV, spartan furniture, a kitchen with Barbie-sized appliances and no other modern conveniences. Despite heat and humidity, air-conditioning is found only in nice restaurants and fancy stores. Unlike some towns in this area, we have running water every day, but it’s only hot for a few hours at night.
         They’ve marveled at my laptop, Sony Discman and digital camera. They seem content, but like most Romanians, struggle to make ends meet, save little and rarely can treat themselves. Dining out twice a month, Cornel tells me, would wipe out most of their combined salaries.
         We talk a lot about our respective countries, politics, the economy, the widespread corruption in Romania, the 1989 revolution here, all kinds of things. The money and opportunities in America blow their minds. One evening, Cornel asked about prices of cars back home. I tried to think of a moderately priced car, a VW Jetta. When we did the conversion from US dollars into Romanian lei, the “E” for error came up on my calculator with too few zeros. Sometimes I hear and see things that make me believe that EU membership for this place is still a long way off, perhaps a decade or more. The Economist magazine ranks Romania’s standard of living between Libya and Lebanon and the per capita GDP is about par with Namibia and Paraguay, to give you an idea.
         I’m in Campina with a group of four other business Volunteers and the rest of our colleagues are scattered in similar towns in this county (like a U.S. state) within 90 minutes of here. We meet up as a large group in the pit that is Ploiesti once or twice a week for technical training (economy, teaching, medical, history/culture). It’s been fun to hear everybody’s stories and experiences — most gazdas speak at least some English or have teenagers who do — that seems to be the age bracket with English skills here, along with some professional people. The vast majority of people speak no English. I imagine this is different in Bucharest and large university towns.
         We’ve had some interesting speakers including some U.S. Embassy staff. One representative from the business area told us that a Hollywood film company is up in the mountains filming Cold Mountain [a novel by Charles Frazier]. While they are saving money here over the true setting of North Carolina, a quick legislative push in Bucharest raised hotel taxes literally overnight — adding $3 million to the overall tab for the film. This is an example of why many foreign companies are still reluctant to do business here.
         Training is going well but it’s tiring (3 people have headed home so far). After 4 hours of Romanian each morning, we work on group projects and presentations, run errands, maybe hit the Internet cafe before going home to the gazda for yet more Romanian. As a group, we spend a LOT of time together and that’s been a challenge at times. Though still in training, we’re responsible for community projects. After meeting with Campina’s mayor, a former Communist leader, we decided to develop a tourism brochure for the city, which has a couple of historic sites and is on the way to Transylvania and the mountains north of here. Additionally, we will be offering seminars to high-school students on resume writing, job interview skills, English business terms and finance. Today we met with a youth group to help us recruit students — and learned that many students in town already heard about our arrival and plans. One joked that if we offered a session on obtaining a visa to the United States, that we could gather hundreds of students.
         Last weekend I visited Busteni (boo-shten), a beautiful small town at the base of 8,000-foot cliffs in the southern tip of Transylvania, less than an hour from here. The mountains and towns of Busteni and nearby Sinaia were a pleasant diversion from Ploiesti and Campina and provided a first glimpse of the beautiful Romania we’d heard about. One colleague remarked that for the first time since arriving in Romania, he felt like he was in Europe. The towns are touristy, in fact, among the few in Romania — which Lonely Planet describes as the “Wild West” of Eastern Europe. Of course, “touristy” is relative compared to many other places in the world, but it was nice to see modern hotels and prosperity. Also notable were the many BMWs, Audis and VW Passats whizzing by — carrying mostly wealthy Bucharest residents on weekend jaunts. We did a five-hour hike that showcased spectacular scenery but the trails are marred with obscene amounts of litter.
         There’s one ancient cinema here and we caught the new “Star Wars” for equivalent of $1.15 — odd that it was here already when all other films are very old. Also playing: “Gladiator” and “Vanilla Sky.” All are in English with Romanian subtitles. On a funny note — on two occasions I’ve had Romanian men on the street yell variations of the F-word at me, while smiling. They don’t know what it means but know the word from American movies and think it’s some kind of greeting. This has happened to some other Volunteers.
         Tomorrow, all of our small groups are being dispatched throughout Romania for 3-day visits with current PC Volunteers to watch them in action. I’m being sent to Iasi (Yash), the 3rd-largest city in Romania, known for its major university and history. It’s about 12 miles (20km) from the border of Moldova, formerly USSR, in the northeast part of the country. This will be my first experience on Romanian trains — a 7-hour trip — and I’ve been bracing for the worst.
         Thanks to all who commented on my last email. I really want to keep this up as a record of my experience and to inform friends in the States, as well as some of my foreign friends on this list. The Peace Corps mission is mainly to transfer skills and knowledge to poor countries, but the other two legs of the stool are to educate people in other countries about America AND educate Americans about other countries. I hope this will do that. I’ve taken some digital photos and hope to send some eventually.
         Internet speed has been terrible, so I wasn’t able to reply to all. My apologies. But I’ve found a faster cafe today, so things are improving.

Best, Andy