I may have relayed that Nina invited Andrei and Mihai to my birthday masa last Wednesday night (Andrei and Mihai are the two gentleman that figured largely in my blog post about attending a celebration in Boghocieni though I didn’t know their names at the time. MIhai is the man who guided me through the hitching process, Andrei the man who emerged in his bathrobe…) So a couple of hours into the party, and several bottles of wine later, either Andrei or Mihai brings up the Agricultural Expo taking place this weekend at the Moldexpo in Chișinău. They want me and the other three volunteers present – Matt, Lindsey and Patty Harlan – to come with them. At least this is what I understood at the time. Both Lindsey and Matt refuse the invitation, citing other plans, and it is my initial impulse to do likewise. After all, I truly am a city mouse and have no penetrating interest in farm implements, combines, and animal husbandry techniques. However, I pause and consider the fact that this would present a real opportunity for integration and show me a side of Moldova that I don’t have easy access to, living in a raoin center like I do. And, admittedly, the wine has painted the world friendly and fun and I think “what the heck, I’ll go!” I then talk Patty into joining us, though this involves her rearranging a language lesson and pulling herself out of the heavily tread routine she’s dug for herself in Hîncești. (I think she may be the only M27 who remained at site for a record two months after PST. She ventured into Chisinau a mere week ago on an excursion with fellow Moldovan teachers on a hired bus to the opera – which doesn’t really count as far as I’m concerned.)
Come Friday, however, Patty has a chance to view an apartment for rent that morning and has decided that this is more important to her overall happiness than accompanying me to Agrofest. So now it’s me and the two Moldovan men. While this causes a stir of apprehension within me, I console myself with the knowledge that these are two good friends of Nina and it would be impossible for them to perpetrate some indiscretion upon my person without her finding out and making mincemeat of them (Nina is traveling to her village for the weekend – like usual – and cannot join us.) So I hold off on canceling out – I don’t have their contact info and probably couldn’t make myself understood over the phone anyway – and wait for the knock upon the door. Which, in typical Moldovan fashion, comes precisely 51 minutes after the agreed upon time of 9:00am.
Surprisingly, when I answer the door, there is Mihai, alone, in suit and tie, smelling faintly of cologne, no Andrei in sight. Well, perhaps he is waiting out in the car? Again, will I ever learn? No car, no Andrei, and off Mihai and I trek to the bus headed into Chișinău. At least it’s a bus this time and we’re not standing on the side of the road trying to negotiate a ride with a truck driver, I think. Which should have been my first inkling that perhaps this little excursion held a bit more significance than I – with my casual American attitude regarding cross-gender friendships – might be initially aware. As Mihai held my arm crossing the street – a feat I accomplish with no assistance several times a day – and guided me onto to the bus midst the teeming throng – again, a negotiation I have successfully managed without fear or trouble many, many times in Moldova – something began tickling the underside of my brain, like the feeling you get when you might have left the iron on at home or forgot to turn off a burner on the stove. Then, I realize that he has paid the driver for my ticket as we have boarded after the moment when the driver walks down the aisle collecting the money. I try to repay him the money for my fare, but he refuses to take it. Then, after we are seated, he turns and (tenderly) brushes away hair that had caught in my eyelash, and suddenly an alarm bell begins to ring, loud, clear and insistent, in my head. OH MY GOD – this is what PC warned us about!!! Any excursion comprised of a man and a woman – especially if you are beyond the naivety of youth – constitutes a date in Moldova, no matter how innocently you might have accepted said invitation. Oh shit, shit, shit!!! I’m on a f***ing date!
When Mihai reaches across the back of my shoulder to open up the curtain so I can see the view, I descend into a brief panic. Thankfully, his arm retreats back to his side and we resume a halting conversation about the beauty of the countryside (autumn – so far – presents Moldova in her very best light), the whereabouts of his apartment, the times I have previously traveled to Chișinău, the number and gender of his children and grandchildren, etc. I am still holding out hope that perhaps we are meeting Andrei at the expo and I begin to relax a bit. Silence ensues and I zone out watch the passing rust and mauve-tinged vineyards and brilliant blue sky outside my window. However, once we arrive at the Gara de Sud and he again grabs my arm (even though I have purposefully paced myself to walk two feet behind him,) and again pays the driver for my ticket (despite me having my fare in my hand) and proceeds to kick a young woman out of her seat so I can sit down (causing me great consternation and embarrassment) and then smiles at me every time I look up and see him watching me, I realize that I need to make the status of this little divertissement as clear as I possibly can.
Once we arrive at Moldexpo and it is clear that Andrei is not, indeed, joining us and the conversation lands on the distance marriage that Nina and her husband have contrived (him living full time on the farm in their village and her residing in the city because of her work with Avon) I realize this is the perfect opportunity for a brief segue into my personal circumstances. I remind Mihai about my own marital status, the fact that my husband does not like to travel like me, that he has an important, well-paying job in America, and that I am here because of a desire to live and work in a different county for a time, but that I will be returning after two years. (All information that I have shared before, but I figured that revisiting it couldn’t hurt.) This was the best I could manage, given my limited range of Romanian and the intricate complexities required to convey conflicting emotions and delayed dreams and the deep insights into mortality that mid-life birthdays seem to convey for us first-worlders. Suffice it to say that he was quiet for awhile after this, but I may be flattering myself unduly. I have no idea if I embarrassed him by implying that his intentions were anything other than friendship, if he was confused by why I needed to insert previously established biographical data during an excursion to Agrofest, or if he was busily re-organizing our activities for the day to accommodate my (hopefully) clear lack of intention to pursue a more intimate angle. I could have been wrong about the whole thing, given my absence from the universe of courtship for almost a quarter century now. Oh well. Better safe than sorry.
By the time we enter the gates to the expo, small talk has resumed, the sun is peeking out from glorious, white-feathered clouds and a brisk breeze periodically floats women’s brightly colored scarves about their necks and hair. The day is beautiful and it is interesting to see the range of equipment on display, from micro-tractors built in Japan designed for the private farmer to gigantic, towering combines from Russia looming far above our heads that, Mihai tells me, are only affordable – maybe – for ‘associations’ – to group purchase in Moldova. (These machines-on-steroids continually elicit disgust from him as flagrant reminders of Russia’s ‘abandonment’ of the Moldovan economy – he is one of a certain segment of Moldovans that thinks returning to the fold of the Soviet Union to be its only hope for a brighter future.)
Mihai exhibits a preternatural ability to pick foreigners out from the crowd and everytime he sees one he drags me over and excitedly announces that I am an American that speaks English. This provokes some puzzled looks (he, after all, is not speaking English) until I open my mouth and say, “Hello, where are you from?” and we establish that, indeed, Mihai correctly assessed that they were from Germany or Holland or England or Bulgaria and – as never fails to astound me – speak almost perfect English. (Americans remain stubbornly parochial in our language limitations largely because we can.) He even announces this to Moldovans, finding a handful that also speak perfect English which results in me exchanging phone numbers with the daughter of the Moldovan Minister of Foreign Affairs (a great PC connection, if I can figure out how to use it) and a woman who conducts tours throughout Moldova in her own private vehicle (an exciting expansion of my travel capabilities.) I meet several who have gone to school in the US in such varied states as North Carolina, Virginia, and New Mexico. I share with them that last year at this time I was traveling through those very states. We exclaim mutual surprise at the relative smallest of the world.
Mihai, meanwhile, has been gathering every piece of literature offered by the vendors. He has a bag filled with twin, sometimes even quadruple, copies of every brochure, catalog, pamphlet, magazine, flyer, newsletter, and booklet that was offered. And every time he picks one up, he looks slyly around and carefully slips it into the bag as if he is in a covert operation collecting evidence for some sort of political intrigue. I think that he is naively unaware that these articles are provided without charge and assumes he is getting away with something in obtaining this wealth of information for free. I convey to him, as politely as possible, several times, that I really have no use for this literature but he continues to collect it, stating that we will give my portion to Nina’s husband for wintertime reading on the farm. By the time we reach the end of the exhibition I swear the bag must weigh twenty pounds. (I hope Nina’s husband will appreciate this effort, but it seems like a yawn-inducing compilation to me…)
After the exhibitors begin to dismantle their wares, Mihai has me call his sister for him (he doesn’t own a mobile phone, remember, an antediluvian idiosyncrasy even in Moldova.) I hand the phone to him and then wonder why I can’t understand anything he says until I realize he’s speaking Russian – ah, yes, the Russian connection – and he tells me afterwards that we are now going to his sister’s in Buiucani, a fancier section of Chișinău that is home, amongst other institutions, to the University of Moldova and the American Embassy. Great – now I’m being taken to meet the family? crosses my mind briefly but I let go the thought; the day has been fun and his manners impeccable and there has been nothing to concern me since I made my awkward little speech.
Julia’s apartment is spacious and modern, though a little disordered from renovations she appears to be committing on the wrought iron that laces the outside of her windows. Our visit is made instantly convivial by a large bottle of homemade wine and it is from his sister that I learn of Mihai’s wife, Nina, who has been living in Israel for the past five years working as a nanny. (This information surfaces in the midst of a comic ridicule of Israeli dependence on American aid and a somewhat skewed notion of Putsin’s character strength in refusing to provide money to spoiled nations.) I am more than a little surprised that the existence of said wife has not been proffered in previous conversation, either by Mihai or my host sister, Nina. Such biographical data seems integral to me to basic, introductory phases of communication. This leaves me worried – just a bit – of perhaps not having misinterpreted Mihai’s intentions, after all. And my Nina is fully capable of aiding and abetting such deceptions. She is one of a certain demographic of independent Moldovan women who appear to have a more casual, European view of marriage and conjugal relations, stating on more than a few occasions that I should remain open to entertaining the attentions of a “barbat” while I’m in Moldova.
So when Julia forcing the unopened bottle of beer Mihai has brought with him back on us is coupled with his stated attention to accompany me home purportedly to divide the literature loot between us, and then I find the apartment still empty of Nina, I quickly pull out my phone and call Patty. Like an angel, she appears after a mere half glass of beer has been consumed between us and all social discomfort – imaginary or actual – is resoundingly diverted by her presence. We sustain 30 minutes or so of trivial conversation, but it is only after I yawn repeatedly and repeat “obisita” (tired) several times that Mihai begins to gather his booklets and turn his attention to departure. Observing traditional Moldovan etiquette, I accompany him to the door, where he pulls a final, fast one that confirms for me that my long-dormant instinct is still operating correctly. In Moldova, it is common for women to kiss each other on either cheek when greeting or saying goodbye. For men, however, it is more customary to either take a woman’s hand and feign kissing it or, if one is particularly gallant, to actually place his lips lightly upon it. Relatives and particularly close friends – i.e., Nina and Mihai, say – will allow a kiss on the cheek from the man to the woman. When Mihai started toward my face, I flinched, and then was horrified when he kissed me smack on the lips and then giggled mischievously. I was so shocked I just stood there with my mouth agape before gathering my befuddled brain to shout “rau!” (bad!) at his departing back as his disappeared down the stairs.
Another lesson stumbled through about the nuances of Moldovan culture and the difficulties of communicating clearly without a better command of language. Perhaps it was just a teasing gesture on the part of a lonely man who welcomes female company of any sort in the prolonged absence of a wife (dear me, does that mean my husband is kissing neighbors?) but I will need to establish much firmer boundaries if I ever decide to accept such an invitation again. These are the aspects of Peace Corps service that one just doesn’t anticipate. Really.