One of the more difficult aspects of my service in Hîncești is having to live with a roommate – or sora gazda, as she is called here. Nina is always gracious and warm to me, but it is still strange to move in with someone you just met and whose language and culture you are still learning. The most difficult part about it is being in another woman’s kitchen and bathroom – very intimate and personal places for most women, at least in the United States. I am still not comfortable leaving my shampoo and razor in the shower, or storing my towels in her bathroom cabinet, or intruding into the kitchen cupboards with baking supplies, or preparing a full-fledged meal when she is at home. It feels as if I am encroaching on her habitat; after all, I’ve been here about six weeks now and she still has her clothes in the wardrobe and pictures of her daughter hanging on the wall in my room. I feel more like a transitory guest here than a renter with a two-year contract; perhaps I will move beyond this feeling in time, but for now, I keep my activities very circumscribed when she is at home and mostly live in my room.
So, on the weekends when Nina travels to her village farm, I get pretty excited. Almost like I’m a teenager again and my parents have left me at home alone. Only instead of breaking out the bong and beer keg, I buy pasta, tomatoes, and garlic and do some cooking. On Sunday, Lindsey came over and prepared a bunch of wonderful salads – egg, potato, and cabbage with carrots – that furnished a relaxing picnic by the lake. (Lindsey is an accomplished cook and loves to experiment in the kitchen; I have been the lucky recipient of a couple of her concoctions!)
Matt and Patty H joined us. I spend a lot of time with these three so it’s a good thing we all get along. In fact, it is beginning to concern me the amount of time that we spend together. It is too easy to find comfort in the company of the familiar – no matter their age, gender, or provenance, they are AMERICANS. People who immediately understand a reference to Walmart shoppers or reality TV shows or soccer moms or Starbucks. (Ok, Matt and Lindsey probably don’t know who Eldridge Cleaver is, but how often does his name come up, really?) You don’t realize how much these shared cultural allusions pepper conversation, standing in for extraneous explication, allowing one to abbreviate and link ideas more efficiently. It’s truly gratifying just being with people that come from the same place you do – and now that place stretches the length and width of the nation. I am amazed how much I have in common with people with whom I would never have imagined being friends.
The most trenchant experience, I’ve found, that Peace Corps provides is to continuously drop you in social contexts which you would never elect at home. Some are more comfortable than others. But in every case, you learn more about yourself: you attain new altitudes of tolerance, irritation ,adaptibility, diplomacy, patience, curiousity, and compassion. It is a common experience for us to have different personas or „masks” that we wear in different situations. But here, it’s as if the change goes deeper. Being thrown together with a group of people that would ordinarily never coalesce within my purview, and then sharing such startling and foreign circumstances with them, changes the channels of my emotions, my reasoning, and my needs. I think differently, feel differently. My inner space is expanding, accommodating more and simultaneously losing landscape quickly. Things are mobile, transitory. And I hold on to these Americans in a desperate effort to grasp those orienting touchstones slipping from my world.
Moldova is very different from other foreign countries, like Guatemala, or Peru, or Ecuador, that I’ve visited. In those places, being from “America” (read the USA) made you special, as if there were an invisible halo surrounding you, or your fingers emitted sparkles, or your laugh tickled people’s funny bone. In those places, the children would gather round me in puddles, lapping up my attention, fingering my clothing like it was made of stardust. People smiled spontaneously at me on the street. I felt a little like a Kardashian, celebrity as categorical referent. Moldova? Not so much. In conversation, I have asked Mldovans about 9/11. Disneyland. Hollywood. The Golden Gate bridge. Nope. Nah, no ințelege. Not a clue. How do you find common ground with someone whose never hear of Batman? Mickey Mouse? Star Wars?
Sunday, I found myself lying on my back on the grass, watching the clouds roil above me and listening to conversation (eu ințeleg) drift over me. The sun was diamond glinting the lake and birds were skittering through the reeds. Almost, I could have been lying by a lake in Orange County. Just for a moment, a small enclave carved itself out from the turbulence of the past three months and gleamed warm and radiant. And I realized that I was retreating into another safe haven, that I have made my site mates into my little private Idaho (another cultural reference.) And the final step in my integration will be to attain this level of comfort in the house where I live with the person that is my roommate.
When (if) I do, I will have achieved one important goal of this journey.