A Volunteer's Life in Romania

    Unforgettable Faces

    from Andy Trincia (Romania 2002–04)

    THERE ARE ALWAYS faces you never forget, especially when traveling or living abroad. Sometimes it’s a stranger you’ve befriended or simply someone with whom you had a chance meeting, perhaps a person who performed a brief act of kindness. Maybe you learn their name — or not. In my travels over the years, there are certain people I’ll never forget. Faces.
         For example, Mele, a young man I met some years ago at a tasty taqueria in Oaxaca, Mexico — a proud Mexican with Indian heritage who volunteered to take me around his hometown, even talking his way past armed guards at the state capitol to show me incredible murals of Benito Juarez’s heroics. Or the poor Vietnamese couple living on a tiny fishing boat in Halong Bay, who gave me, a friend and our guide a much-needed lift when our rented boat began to leak. As a thank-you, I presented to them a few bucks, cigarettes and airplane-sized bottles of Jack Daniels, all of which were recommended to me as useful gifts in Vietnam. I’ll never forget their broad smiles, which stretched their tough skin, weathered by sea and sun.
         The gregarious owner — almost cartoon-like — of a fabulous tapas restaurant in Mallorca, Spain; the high-ranking Cameroon politician I met in Morocco, where he was trying to drum up tourism for his country; one of the most beautiful women I’ve ever seen, a shy clerk in a remote roadside convenience store in Iceland; and an ever-so-hip Bulgarian couple who stopped me and another Volunteer on the street in Sofia last summer, offering unsolicited directions amid the Cyrillic signs and head-shaking yes’s and nodding no’s that so confused us. There are many faces from many memorable moments.
         Here in Romania, which has been my home for going on two years, too often the faces are, well, just plain sad, or suparat in Romanian. Poverty, slow progress, a string of economic and political disappointments for its citizens since the 1989 fall of communism, as well as a fatalistic, glass-is-half-empty culture, are the main reasons. At times we Volunteers get caught up in this, especially in the gloomy days of winter, and I’m sure we, too, look sad. I’ve gone through entire days here without seeing a single smile.
         So all the more reason to be relieved, even thankful, when you do see a smile, or meet an upbeat, motivated person — what a huge difference that makes for those faces now etched in my mind. Sure, there are faces I wouldn’t mind forgetting from my time in Romania. Countless moments of rudeness and certain callous remarks linger in my mind, along with more pleasant memories. As I begin the homestretch of my service in Romania, I want to remember those people who, despite the tough surroundings here, try hard at work and life, remain positive and unselfish — and inspire, perhaps unwittingly.
         Take a mid-20s lawyer named Ioana from Brasov, Romania. We recently shared a train compartment for a 9-hour journey, but only talked near the end. She was on her way to Hungary to see a medical specialist, for a second opinion on her hearing, after getting bad news from three different Romanian doctors. She is slowly going deaf. The determination in her dark eyes and on her face, not only to overcome the hearing problem, but to flourish in her career despite a corrupt system and other hurdles — not to mention learning English from TV shows and movies — is admirable. She is a true optimist in a land with too few of them.
         Or the elderly farmer I encountered last summer during an outdoor competition in the rugged area of north-central Romania. Our team stopped mountain biking for a water break, but we also were discussing the map and directions. Though all of us speak enough Romanian, we were in the middle of an ethnic Hungarian area where many of the people speak little or no Romanian. I decided to go up to the man laboring by hand in his small plot. His wrinkly face flashed a smile, exposing only a few teeth, when I greeted him. I shook his rough and dirty hand. We managed through basic Romanian, to get the directions clear enough. He said we were crazy to try to bike in this terrain, advising us instead to flag down a truck (tempting, but we didn’t). When I thanked him and waved good-bye, this humble peasant took off his hat and bowed, wishing our team a good journey. Money doesn’t buy class, as they say.
         And how about Adrian, or Adi, to his friends, one of the high school students I taught last year. This big young man, elected president of the student company I was advising, is a leader among his peers. Thousands of young-generation Romanians have become quite adept at computer skills (national news proudly described one Bucharest firm that sold its anti-virus program to Microsoft) — including Adi. While many Romanians aren’t so good at follow-throughs and meeting deadlines, this kid is on top of his game. He develops and designs web sites and other work for clients in his spare time, sometimes staying up all-night to finish jobs — all in the confines of internet cafes! Some months he earns three times more than the national average of $100. His economics teacher once told me how tired Adi is from sleepless nights. Indeed, his intense face looks a bit older than he is — many Romanians do, due to the overall environment here, the constant worries — but the way he struts and smiles after learning something new, or doing a good job, is refreshing and terrific. He also told me that he wants to do business in Romania. If he does, he will not contribute to the serious problem of “brain drain,” the steady exodus of bright, young people to the United States, European Union and other places. I have no doubt that Adi will succeed. You can see it in his face.
         It would be nice to have photos of the special faces I’ve encountered over the years. In a few cases, I do. But it’s OK. They’re all in my head.

    Before joining the Peace Corps, Andy Trincia was a corporate communications executive in the financial services industry. Sworn in on August 16, 2002, he is working at the West University of Timisoara, as a business consultant for the Center for Career Development, and is also teaching courses. We have asked Andy to file reports for his two years of service of what his life is like working and living in Romania. He will finish his Peace Corps tour in July 2004.