Review: Peace Corps Memoir of Romania

bread-salt-plum-brandy1Bread, Salt, & Plum Brandy: A True Story of Love and Adventure in a Foreign Land
by Lisa Fisher Cazacu (Romania 2002–04)
San Diego, CA: Aventine Books
April 2009
224 pages

Reviewed by Don Messerschmidt (Nepal 1963-65).

There’s something unsettling about one RPCV reading another Peace Corps Volunteer’s memoirs. It inevitably conjures up comparisons and, as often, both sharply similar and contrasting emotions. Never mind that our stories are two continents, four decades, and a gender apart (Romania vs. Nepal, the 2000s vs. the 1960s, and she vs. me), Lisa Fisher Cazacu’s memoir of her PC experience is both remarkably alike and uniquely different from my own.

Our mutual experiences range from initial doubts about joining the Peace Corps, to serious culture shock upon arrival in country (and ‘reverse’ culture shock on return home to the states), to difficulties learning the language and various social do’s-&-don’ts, to a host of little things that seem frivolous in modern America but have deep meaning to the American stranger in a strange land. I chuckled when Lisa wrote of being “the only PCV with a year’s supply of Charmin toilet tissue, which made me supremely happy and the envy of all . . .,” of possessing a stove-top popcorn popper “and sparkly pens and pencils, lots of magazines, and wonderfully fragrant girl stuff.” “Tuna (in water)”, she says, “was the most essential item I had and probably the only protein I ate for months, besides cheese.” Wow, if only I’d had just a few of these luxuries. I could do without the “fragrant girl stuff,” but would have died for some of the other.

I remember one event from Nepal that gave off a nostalgic reminder of far away America. It came from home as one of those (now) old fashioned red cans of vacuum sealed Folgers coffee. When we got ready to open it, three PC friends and I hunkered around in anticipation of the familiar hiss when the seal was broken by the turn of one of those pre-modern screw top openers; then, aahh! — that wonderful first whiff of fresh coffee aroma. There were no Starbucks-type coffee shops in those days, and what coffee we could find locally tasted a lot like burnt shoe leather. Lisa, on the other hand, was lucky enough to have a coffee shop nearby that served her favorite chai latte. Now I’m not knocking her experience by touting my own as more rigorous or authentic. Both were authentic. In a recent debate over differences of opinion and experiences among people, a friend pulled a crushed toilet-paper roll core out of his pocket, knocked it back into shape, then peered through it to a suddenly hushed room. “It’s all a matter of perspective!” he said; and of the times. Good point.

Today’s Peace Corps experience, like moving from Texas to Romania as an environmental education Volunteer, as Lisa did, is equally as “authentic” and sometimes more so when confronting strange new political and social realities, then coming up with appropriate coping strategies.

Lisa Cazacu’s book is not high literature, but is an entertaining read with two themes, a story within a story. For most of the book, she artfully describes the ups and downs of working in a society where volunteerism — doing anything to help others, for free! — is almost totally unknown and highly suspect; where paying under the table for a public service is the norm; and where the way to get around the inevitable bureaucratic hurdles thrown up at you is to invoke a well cultivated “source force” (the local mayor in her case). So many of the people she met wondered why anyone would want to volunteer anything; all they seemed to want was a job in the bureaucracy where personal greed and corruption was apparently well rewarded. Lisa persevered as an true volunteer, however, and tells a grand story of how she overcame various stereotypes while spreading her form of creative, warm-hearted altruism among students and new found friends.

The second theme of the book is Lisa’s love for and marriage to Andrei, a Romanian lawyer, then introducing him to a Texas-American way of life. Speak of social misunderstandings and your basic culture shock! Andrei’s honest reminiscences about the anxieties he faced upon moving to North America are as provocative as Lisa’s were on arrival in Eastern Europe. PCV writers rarely say much about coming home, even less so “with foreign spouse.” But, here it is. Andrei’s perspectives are included late in the book and make insightful and often humorous reading.

Bread, Salt, and Plum Brandy is a quick and delightful read. You don’t have to know anything about Romania (or Texas) to enjoy it, for Lisa tells her story with punch and style, including some good laughs at herself. (A sense of humor is often necessary to succeed as a PCV anywhere.) Now compare Lisa’s with your own PC experience, and enjoy.

Don Messerschmidt left Alaska in 1963 to join the Peace Corps in Nepal where he worked in village development. He has lived and worked there most of his life. He is now an anthropologist and writer, and currently edits ECS Nepal magazine (Kathmandu), which features Nepalese culture, history, arts, adventure sports and other subjects. He is also the author of several books, including two biographies: Moran of Kathmandu: Priest, Educator and Ham Radio ‘Voice of the Himalayas’ (Orchid Books, 1997) and Against the Current: The Life of Lain Singh Bangdel – Writer, Painter and Art Historian of Nepal (Orchid Books 2004). His next book, Discovering the Big Dogs of Tibet and the Himalayas: A Personal Journey, is in press and due out later this year. Don writes from his home near Portland, Oregon when he’s not in Nepal writing, editing, leading treks, or consulting on development projects.


Leave a comment
  • Romania 2001-2005 was a post Peace Corps experience ( Colombia 1961-63) as a USAID consultant and I look forward to this read..

    Lisa has hit on a concept..volunteerism is uniquely an American thing, and like the legacy of our government and financial institutions it is a hallmark and is part of our American survival kit.

    She says” So many of the people she met wondered why anyone would want to volunteer anything; all they seemed to want was a job in the bureaucracy where personal greed and corruption was apparently well rewarded, ” and based on my many country experiences that is why they will fail or never quite make it as nations !!!

    Dennis Grubb
    Clombia 1961-63

  • I think you will find that the reason volunteering is a developed country habit, rather than a developing country habit is down to time.

    In Romania, everyone is trying to find enough to eat, and make sure their houses don’t fall in. And when they do have time, then they help out with the extended families here.

    When I did try to volunteer in Bucharest, the charities were so badly organised that it took them over 6 months to reply – by which time I had to return to fixing my own country farm here.

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