But through the humbleness and pity also comes frustration. Not just the usual annoyances that are tolerable every day is an adventure in Romania, a place full of quirky charm but its also a country with much angst and shaky morality. Sometimes its hard to maintain enthusiasm when even the people you are helping are cheating and cutting corners. I have dozens of examples, but a few stand out. A couple weeks after one of my how-to business plan seminars, the university career center pointed out a resume to me. On it the young woman stated: Diploma from Mr. Andy Trincia Peace Corps USA Business Plan Seminar . . . Romanians absolutely love certificates and diplomas after trainings sometimes, I think, more than the new knowledge itself but what made this unbelievable is that she was one of only two who didnt show up on the final day. Ironically, she skipped the hands-on session in which they crafted a mock business plan.
In other situations, organizations submited my resume under false pretenses to grantor organizations in order to get more money for another employee or trainer when, of course, Im working on a volunteer basis. I consulted with students and even friends on their personal resumes, only to watch them lie about foreign language ability or job descriptions I remember one who merely cut-and-pasted something right from the internet, then brushed it off as we do this here when I questioned it. I know Volunteers who were fired or at least admonished by Romanian schools for giving accurate grades after complaints from parents, of course, who sometimes offer money for better grades. Numerous unsavory situations have necessitated transfers by Peace Corps. Other Volunteers went home early or nearly quit, completely disgusted by the rampant cheating and corruption. Despite it all, there are great successes, too.
There is a weird sense of entitlement here, what Id call a gimme culture. Back home we say, Give them an inch, they take a mile. The Romanian version translates to Give them a finger, they take the whole hand. I had generous friends back home send school supplies and books to schools in Romania. But thank-you notes or simple acknowledgement to me that the goods were received were not done unless I inquired or encouraged. I helped individual students with preparing for English exams, for job interviews, helped one organization on marketing, another on translations, you name it and in many, many cases, I never heard from them again, even about the results. I often wonder, if I grew up in a poor country with limited opportunities, would I think this way?
Yet through it all, I leave with some amazing images and memories. The sight of a traditionally dressed, kerchief-wearing grandmother (bunica in Romanian). The animated, often profane story telling and witty, self-deprecating humor. Retirees, often looking dazed in this newfangled, fast-changing economy, telling me they wish communism would return to Romania. Young women and their mothers, walking hand-in-hand or interlocking arms, a sweet sight that reminds me of their huge emphasis on family. The pungent smells, the garlicky-booze-sheep cheese breath that Ive smelled again and again, or the unpleasant aromas circulating on buses and trains that often have their windows shut even in hot weather. The joy around weddings and birthdays and the leathered faces of hard-working peasants. Doctors smoking outside decrepit-looking clinics and hospitals, wearing scrubs that dont look too scrubbed. The way my Romanian host family always welcomed me and wanted me to return for a visit, Te asteptam! Were waiting for you!
As a former reporter, quotes and snapshots in time seem to stick in my head. There are so many memorable comments, but one of the best comes from my girlfriend, Oana, whos been at my side much of my time in Romania. Shes been my best friend and partner and from her Ive learned a lot. One day, in describing conditions in pre-1989 Romania, before the end of communism, she mentioned a family trip to a botanical garden.
They and others touring the carefully manicured complex were amazed at the abundance of exotic plants and fruits in a time when they were waiting in line for staples such as meat, butter and milk.
Everybody looked up and saw these banana trees, Oana said. Everybody started saying, Please God, make the bananas fall down into our hands.
Ill never forget that comment. And many other things about Romania. I know some foreigners, even fellow Volunteers, who have no intention of returning, but Ill come back. There are people and things Ill miss, and not just 65-cent beers and $2 haircuts! For now, though, its time to go home.
When I said goodbye to the group of students with whom I worked most closely, at the university career center, they gave me a card reading: thank YOU and underneath, For helping us develop. For your time and experience. For your friendship.