A Volunteer's Life in Romania

“What Planet Are You From?”
by Andy Trincia (Romania 2002–04)

    IN MY FINAL DAYS of Peace Corps, I lectured a group of graduate students on managing in cross-cultural organizations. Romanian students take copious notes and are trained to listen to professors and not ask questions, which can be viewed as a challenge. As usual, I explained that I’m from a completely different, interactive educational system, so please, interrupt or ask away!
         After my remarks, one student drifted off the topic and asked about America’s political and educational systems. This evolved into a fascinating discussion, her questions prying into our basic liberties, such as being hired for a job on merit and simply having equal opportunities, to the “American Dream” and how you can rise up no matter who you are, who you know, where you were born — or in which political party you are, which can be very important in Romania. Of course, some of this matters in America, too, but to very different degree. After declaring that America is far from perfect, as I’ve often repeated to Romanians, I expressed my pride, awe really, for the American Democracy that was so artfully crafted by the Founding Fathers more than 200 years ago, yet still works today.
         “What planet are you from?” she uttered, in admiring disbelief, shaking her head.
         After class, several students asked me to join them on their short coffee break, one of the few times this happened to me in two years. They peppered me with questions, saying what I’ve heard again and again, that the mentality and “system” have myriad problems and will take many years, perhaps two generations, to improve significantly. Just to get a good job, it’s often mandatory to have a connection on the inside (“pile” in Romanian) and/or a bribe. Job applications or interviewers ask political affiliation and other personal questions that are illegal in the United States.
         Serving in Peace Corps is many things, but perhaps most of all it is humbling. Over and over, I have felt this. I’ve seen people picking through trash every day, but it still hits me every time. The simple stuff we take for granted at home, such as paying for this or that without the constant worry of a rip-off, or just the way we think — western-style individualism vs. leftover communist ways, which seem to still emphasize collectivism and that it’s somebody else’s problem, fault or responsibility, whether it’s the overwhelming amount of litter and filth, small mistakes in the workplace or the country’s poverty.
         Even the way we are taught, a combination of theory and hard facts, with practical approaches and hands-on training. It’s rare here, and it shows. During my lectures and business-trainings, I’ve been shocked so see how little economics majors and would-be entrepreneurs really know about business. As one student told me: “Almost everybody in our generation goes to university in Romania. We are educated, but we really aren’t educated, not prepared the way we should be. We aren’t taught to be creative, to think for ourselves. We are taught to memorize and regurgitate.”
         I’ve also been humbled in other ways. Romania is a poor but developing country, yet there are many rich people, and many who at least look like it. I held good jobs in the States, drove nice cars, had nice clothes. Occasionally I feel as though my clothes are a bit frayed, my mobile phone a clunker next to some, my Peace Corps living allowance less than some Romanian friends’ salaries. I am not allowed to own a car, or even drive one, yet I see luxury automobiles whizzing around next to the indigenous Dacia cars. It’s as if I’ve had two completely different lives. But sadly, millions of Romanians live a whole lot worse, and I can relate only to an extent — but Peace Corps does enable you to understand another side of a country, far different than one seen by expat executives and diplomats.
         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 it’s also a country with much angst and shaky morality. Sometimes it’s 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 there, 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 didn’t 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, I’m 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 I’d 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 I’ve 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 don’t look too scrubbed. The way my Romanian host family always welcomed me and wanted me to return for a visit, “Te asteptam!” We’re 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, who’s been at my side much of my time in Romania. She’s been my best friend and partner and from her I’ve 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.’”
         I’ll never forget that comment. And many other things about Romania. I know some foreigners, even fellow Volunteers, who have no intention of returning, but I’ll come back. There are people and things I’ll miss, and not just 65-cent beers and $2 haircuts! For now, though, it’s 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.”

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