No matter what version of life in Moldova I may have concocted prior to arriving here, it cannot match up to its unfolding around me in brilliant, multi-dimensional actuality. It is difficult – from what I have experienced thus far – to incorporate the notion that these people are poor, or reside in a developing country, with the richness of the reality surrounding me. So far, minus the language difference and the refreshing absence of corporate retail and fast food establishments, Chisinau and Stauceni (the suburb/village where I am living) look like a slightly fuzzy version of LA and its environs, circa 1940 or so. Only the main roads are paved – and are liberally peppered with potholes – but the sidewalks are swept, the buildings seem maintained, the people appear nourished and well-groomed, and life is bustling – if not at a frenetic, American pace – definitely at one that evidences a reach for prosperity and productivity. It is definitely not Guatemala or Peru.
I. Where I am: I have been assigned to live with a host mother – “mama gazda” – during my eight weeks of training in the village of Stauceni (I am not spelling this accurately, as I have yet to download the extra five letters of the Romanian alphabet to my computer. I do not have internet at this point in my home, so I have to wait until I travel into Chisinau next Wednesday to send this post, answer any emails, and generally get my virtual life fix.) Nina is sixty-one but looks my age or younger. She is a widow and a retired administrator with two daughters and three grandchildren who live elsewhere; where, I am not able to ascertain at this point due to the absence of a shared language. (More on this in a minute – it’s hard, folks.) She has a very nice house, two story – kitchen and dining room on the first story – and two bedrooms, a sitting room, and bathroom (!!!!) upstairs. One must take (very steep) external stairs to go from floor to floor.
The most wonderful aspect of her home, I think, is the bounteous garden adjacent to it. Nina grows almost everything she’s fed me so far. I’ve had cherries, strawberries, dill, parsley, green onions, cabbage, several types of salad greens, luscious tomatoes, and crisp cucumbers. She makes her own juice, jam, and wine. Today, I sat and watched her make placinta (again, not the right letters) or pie as we know it, from scratch. She actually throws the crust up into the air to twirl and stretch it. She made three different kinds: cherry, green onion/cheese/dill, and cabbage, my favorite! Other than a carton of yoghurt I had at the hotel the first morning I was here, I haven’t consumed one bit of processed food since arrival. It’s amazing.
Stauceni is quite upscale. Some of the houses (not Nina’s) are as big and nice as those in Turtle Rock or Northwood. The neighborhood is plush with towering trees, flowers, abundant gardens, wrought iron filigreed gates and fences, stained glass windows, and tiled porches. All of us in the Peace Corps van were agape as they dropped us off one by one at these veritable villas. One of the volunteers is staying in a four story house, where she shares an entire floor with the two daughters and the shower is as big as her entire bathroom back home.
Truth in advertising: I did freak out a bit the first night. To be left at someone’s doorstep whom you’ve never met, who doesn’t speak your language, and watch the only familiar faces that connect you to your country drive away does cause a bit of anxiety. I’ll admit that the creeping poison of “WTF am I doing here????” did flood my brain a bit. But Nina is extraordinarily warm and did everything possible to put me at ease. She showed me around the house, fed me, and then took me for a short walk through the neighborhood to another house she owns. Apparently, the woman who rents it from her, Lizbet, is in Germany. We picked a monster bowl of cherries and strawberries there and then returned home and went to bed.
The time zone difference is causing me the greatest difficulty so far. From Wednesday when I departed the USA up until last night (Saturday) I had not more than seven hours sleep total. My body wants to be awake when it’s daytime in California and sleep when it’s night there. Since this is almost the exact opposite of the time here, I find myself literally snoring in language class and inexplicably wide-eyed and energetic at 3:00am. I have never experienced this degree of sleepiness before, where I am absolutely unable to keep my eyes open and continually catch myself asleep in class. The Language Training Instructors (LTIs), Diana and Rodica, are both Moldovan and very understanding. But they are told to keep pushing us without let up, as we only have eight weeks to master conversational Romanian before being sent out to our respective projects. ) We are starting with the alphabet and “to be” verbs and my head is already filled up and pounding. This is exacerbated, I realize, by lack of sleep. Last night I slept fifteen hours, the longest I believe I may have ever slept continuously in my life. And I think I could sleep another fifteen tonight, only I have to resume classes tomorrow. Hopefully, this diurnal craziness will fade with the passing days.
So, let me say, actually listening to Nina spew forth Romanian at a rate equal to Rhiannon’s freeway driving pace is world’s away from listening to Pimsleur language lessons on an iPod. I had allowed myself to think that I was going to be able to pick this up effortlessly. Not so much. I have to sit with a dictionary in my hands as Nina and I try to converse and this obviously limits our range of topics. After ten or twenty minutes of this snail’s pace she gets impatient and resumes the eighty mile an hour rate again and I fall back to nodding my head, smiling and repeating “Dah, dah. Bine.” (Yes, yes. Good.)
II. What I’m doing: I am fully immersed in Pre-Service Training (or PST. The Peace Corps, like all government agencies, it seems, LOVES its acronyms. We actually have a class on acronyms.) Here is a partial listing of classes from my Calendar of Training Events (COTE):
– Food and Water Preparation
– Local Public Administration in Moldova
– Introduction to Community Organizational Development (COD)
– Expectations Session
– Small Development Area (SDA) Community Mapping
– NGO Sector in Moldova
This is just the first of eight weeks and does not include the morning language classes. We’re in class from 8:30 – 5:00pm Monday through Friday and 8:30 – 12:30 on Saturdays.
A group of nine of us COD trainees spend five days at what’s called our cluster site – an elementary school in Stauceni – then take public transportation (rutieras, more on this in a minute) into our hub site in Chisinau on Thursdays for training with the entire PCT group. The composition of my group: a married couple in their seventies who have lived and worked all over the world; three single women in their mid-twenties to early thirties who have variously graduated from law school, lived and worked at an orphanage in Mozambique,and obtained a MA in International Development; a man in his sixties who retired from public service work; two men in their late twenties, one of them born in Paraguay, the other also having worked/schooled in Africa already. It’s quite a cosmopolitan group; I’m probably the most vanilla member.
Riding public transportation was an abrupt introduction to the other side of Moldovan life. The saying is” “You can always fit two more people into any rutiera.” So far, I’ve ridden up and back to Chisinau; both legs of the journey I was standing in the aisle pressed up against my immediate neighbor and hanging on to the overhead pole for dear life. There are seats for ten people; the other twenty or thirty, along with their various bags, bicycles, or babies, must somehow fit into approximately twelve square feet of aisle space. I’m not kidding. (Actually, when someone has a baby they pass it over to a seated stranger to hold on his or her lap.) When the rutiera stops, one has about eight seconds to push one’s way from the back of the bus, between the limbs and breasts of a packed hoard of sandwiched bodies, before the driver is off again at fifty miles an hour, a relatively mild rate in the states which may not convey the danger this represents when the road is filled with potholes and you can’t really feel the feet that are holding you up anymore. Did I mention that the windows don’t open and that it’s the temperature of a Bikram yoga session inside? Sweat literally pours off your face and onto the shoulder of the person crammed next to you. And vice versa. We’re all very close here.
The weird thing is the degree of honesty and trust that is demanded by this form of transport. Or maybe it’s just Moldovans – I don’t know. Anyway, if you don’t have time to pay as you enter the bus due to pressure of people boarding behind you, then you wait to find a good handhold and pass your money up to the driver. It goes from hand to hand along with a notation of how many are being paid for (one, two, etc.) then the accurate change is passed back through a line of six or seven people to find its way back to you. Could you see this happening in LA? But yet, we’re told to be wary of pickpockets on public transportation here. I guess they only steal the money from your pockets or bag, but won’t take it if it’s out in the open. Go figure.
III. What I’m feeling: As I said previously, the first night in Stauceni was the hardest so far. I felt very, very far from home and everything I’ve known in life. Although Guatemala and Peru and Ecuador were undoubtedly more foreign, the reality that I have signed up to live here for at least two years caused me to have a minor mental melt down as I lay awake from 3:00am on. This anxiety has since faded, luckily, though I am assured by the Peace Corps staff and the more seasoned volunteers that it will return, time and again, to haunt me for at least the next few months.
And that’s the most reassuring part of this Peace Corps experience. There is a big Peace Corps building in Chisinau, behind locked gates, set among verdant trees and green grass, where one can find a bevy of volunteers congregated at any hour of the day or night. (Some sleep here when they travel in from distant sites.) It was a little intimidating to find a whole group of them staring down at us from the third floor balcony the first time we entered, but at the ensuing picnic they all proved to be gratifyingly approachable, talkative, and encouraging. Mostly, they reassured all of us newbies that the stage fright we’re experiencing is normal, that a year from now we will return to our host families and laugh about the initial days of our stay, chattering with them in Romanian about how nervous and awkward we both felt at our first meeting. All the volunteers I’ve met so far seem enormously satisfied with their experience and appear to be fully at home here in Moldova. They can navigate the teeming markets and warren of unmarked streets and tangled skein of public transportation routes like natives. (Funny aside: when one of the PC mentors boarded the bus conveying us from the hotel to Chisinau the first day, she began talking with the driver in rapid Romanian. I thought for sure she was Moldovan, until she turned to us and began speaking with a pronounced mid-Western twang.) It makes me very hopeful that I will adapt to this land and people and language, too. It is incredible to me now, feeling so very naïve and obviously American, to think that perhaps only a year from now I could be mistaken for a Moldovan. It is my greatest aspiration at the moment.
The other thing that has all of us jonesing is the absence of Internet access. It is THE question at every open session: it is obvious that we are a new generation of PCTs who expect to have instant connection with family and friends back home. While Nina has WiFi in her home, she doesn’t seem to know what the “security key” is that I need to log on to the network. She handed me her laptop to see if I could figure it out; unfortunately her operating system is Russian to me. Literally, it’s written in Russian. It makes it twice as frustrating to know that the capability is right at my fingertips, but might as well be a thousand kilometers away for all the good it does me. So, given the state of things at the moment, I will be able to write daily but only post once a week, either on Wednesday or Thursday, depending which day we go to hub site. Though I realize that none of you is waiting on the edge of your seat for my next post (okay – maybe my grandma and mom are,) I did hope to receive an email or comment a couple of times a week. It’s okay to keep sending them, I just won’t reply right away. (UPDATE: I now have internet at my home!!! Will be posting as much as possible, given my homework and mandatory socializing activities.)
Know that I am counting on you to keep me connected to my former life…