Today, in the course of a conversation between a German consultant visiting my center and my partner, the notion of a “Potemkin village” was used to illustrate those aspects of Moldova that can be so misleading for foreigners who try to understand how life works here. My partner had never heard this term, so we related the story (which experts now claim to be myth) of Potemkin erecting only the facades of settlements along the banks of the Dnieper River in order to fool Catherine II during her visit to Crimea in 1787; Potemkin wanted her to experience the area as more densely populated, flourishing and productive than it actually was. Oddly enough, my partner seemed to have trouble understanding the point of the story, almost as if it was perfectly natural for a government official to perform this sort of manipulative trick to impress a powerful benefactor. Such is life in Moldova.
Earlier this week, I received a request to relate the more mundane details of my weekly routine: what do I actually do here from day to day, what is my environment like, who do I encounter and where do I go? And as I thought about responding to this query, it occurred to me that my days are full of these Potemkin villages – the contrast between what is available to me as a Peace Corps volunteer versus what ordinary Moldovans can access; the wide range of locales that I visit and the varied people that I meet in my work and through the Peace Corps. Nothing is really as it seems, and all it takes is a scratch to the gleaming, brightly hued plastic surface to see the iron and rust lurking beneath.
Five Days in the Life of a Potemkin villager
I awake. Lindsey, a fellow volunteer now living in another village, has spent the night for convenience sake. She and I do a language lesson together on Wednesday mornings from 9-11 with our tutor, using the opportunity to converse with each other and receive immediate feedback on grammar and pronunciation. Peace Corps will pay for any volunteer to receive up to 12 hours per month of professional tutoring in Romanian or Russian, depending on the language needed for his or her assignment. I take full advantage of this and it is definitely one important way that Peace Corps invests in local economies throughout the country.
After my language lesson, I literally cross the street from my tutor’s third story apartment to my center. My partner, the center driver and I depart immediately for the Chișinău airport to pick up a consultant flying in from Frankfort, Germany. We negotiate the snow and ice and arrive at the airport prior to his plane landing, so we wander through the shops and restaurants in the small but modern airport that I barely remember seeing when I arrived in a stupor at the end of a 36 hour journey last June. There are many officials going in and out of various doors in full fur coats and leather boots, looking important and fully occupied. There is large Christmas tree decked in splendid regalia on the second
floor and the aroma of brewing coffee and yeasty breads fills the air. Puffy children in pastel hats, mittens, snow boots, and parkas waddle about like mini-marshmallows. (No one wants to peel off layers of buttoned, zipped, velcroed and snapped clothing for such a short amount of time. They are so adorable I want to eat them.)
I use the notepad on my iPad to write the German consultant’s name in big letters. My partner and the driver are entranced by the invisible mechanics of such a thing, fascinated that my finger can bring forth words on a screen. They peer at the letters closely and giggle.
Once having obtained our German, we depart the airport and are soon winding through a maze of twisted, pot-holed streets in the outskirts of the city. I realize that this is not the direction home: “Unde mergem?” Where we are going, I ask. “Scuzați, Yvette! Mergem să cautem brad am vazut pe internet ieri.” We’re going to find a Christmas tree my partner saw on the internet yesterday. Not at a store, mind you. Somewhere in this nest of crumbling apartment buildings someone has offered a tree for sale. So the German and I are left in the van to become buddies while my partner and the driver begin a lengthy search on foot for the tree. I try to explain to him that this is normal in Moldova – one maximizes trips into the city by performing a multitude of tasks when there. He nods sagely and relates that much the same is true in India, Afghanistan, and Kazakhstan, places he has visited for work on a multitude of occasions. I am oddly excited to have Moldova lumped in with such exotic locales.
My partner and the driver eventually emerge with a green stick that, upon closer inspection, proves to be an artificial Christmas tree. It possesses four or five bent, sparsely-leafed branches and has definitely weathered its share of holidays. Sigh. Even developing countries have fallen prey to Christmas plastic.
I spend the day attempting to negotiate the niceties for our German guest. He needs to change money, so we drive him to the nearest ATM (which is literally a block away, but no one walks in Moldova if the luxury of a “mașina” is accessible.) It takes three attempts for him to understand how to operate the machine. Meanwhile, it has begun to snow. He wants to stop every few steps as we head back to the car to finish telling me a story – his wife has admonished him not to walk and talk simultaneously when it’s icy. I am freezing and I can see my partner sitting in the front seat of the van wondering what in the heck we’re doing.
After retrieving money from this thoroughly modern convenience (accessible in Russian, English, Romanian, and French,) we drive to the local indoor piața to buy food for the dinner we are hosting at the center to celebrate its year anniversary and search for the cinnamon that the German wants for his breakfast toast. There we encounter entire sides of beef, legs of lamb, livers, tongues, chickens with feet attached, and fish complete with heads, scales and fins. Mounds of homemade cheese (called “brinza”) balance atop rickety wooden tables next to recycled plastic bags replete with unshelled walnuts, dried fruit, wrapped candy (manufactured in Moldova), and two liter water bottles refilled with milk. Bare, bloody hands transfer meat from table to scale to bag. Nothing is sanitized, inspected, or refrigerated, but – since it’s probably only 30 degrees – I tell myself I will not be concerned. Vagabond dogs wend through the table legs nose to concrete sniffing for scraps. Men are smoking in clusters around the meat and fish; their ashes pepper the swirling currents of air. At least its winter so there are no flies. Needless to say, there is no cinnamon.
During a feedback meeting with the German in the afternoon, my partner begins to cry. The beautiful façade of our center with its brightly colored murals, ergonomically-correct high chairs, handicap friendly bathroom, frothy curtains, and cartoon stencils is suddenly peeled back to reveal the seething cauldron of problems that sources her daily tears. After listening for an hour or two as I attempt to translate and summarize the various administrative and funding dysfunctions besetting the center, the German proposes the very same list of solutions that I so eagerly proffered mere months ago. He is met with the very same stubborn rebuttals and intractable arguments that were shoved back to me.
I explain to him that this Moldova; we are both liberally-educated, professionally-networked, culturally
privileged, westernized people using our analytical skills and inherent activism to tackle issues that have arisen in a foreign environment, that were born of a much different experience and informed by perspectives we don’t share and will most likely never understand. I see his shoulder sag subtly as he begins twisting his hands in his lap. God, I know the frustration he is feeling, mind scurrying from scenario to scenario, trying to find the invisible thread leading out of this tangled web back to sanity. I want so badly for him to find it where I’ve failed. Sadly, at this point I don’t hold out much hope.
In the evening I am invited to a masa at the lovely home of the second Angela – friend of the first Angela whose house I went to two weeks ago. I am amazed at the architecture: one enters into an intimate, cozy kitchen/dining/living room combination – a miniaturized version of the “great rooms” now so popular in American homes. The center is stabilized by the highly polished trunk of a tree that was culled from their property. The cabinets are all fashioned of a reddish, blond wood with glazed glass inlays and ornate handles that could have come from Restoration Hardware. Other smaller, sturdy trunks support the plastered ceilings of her and her husband’s bedroom, which they share with their 7 year old daughter until the time when their son, 18, is ready to move out and free the second bedroom for her. The bathroom sink is a shallow, smoky glass bowl, the shower fashioned from rough stones also plucked from their property. Angela is pleased that I shower praise on their creation that they designed and built themselves; “Most Moldovans just don’t get it,” she tells me, wryly.
The meal is hearty, the wine plentiful, and the conversation lively. I don’t get home and tucked into bed until well after midnight.
I arise at 5:30am, having lain awake for an hour already dreading the task ahead. I have to dress and ready my baggage for an overnight stay in Chișinău. I am attending the International Women’s Club of Moldova’s annual Winter Bazaar in order to sell Christmas cards, candles, and velvet bags fashioned by my center’s staff to supplement the meager cash they have set aside for the children’s holiday party. While I enjoy being in the capital once I’m there, the journey is fairly long and tedious. It is still dark and very cold when I leave the warmth of the apartment at 6:50am. Negotiating the steep, ice slicked asphalt of the driveway leading to the street, my feet slip out from beneath me and I land forcefully on my butt, driving the wind from my lungs.
At 6:55 I board the waiting rutiera that is scheduled to depart at 7:00 as I have planned to meet another PCV at 8:00am. I am the sole passenger. The driver and I converse about the difficulties of learning languages; he commiserates with me about the mishmash tongue that is loosely termed ‘moldovanești’ – an amalgam of Romanian, Russian, and Ukraine words that is variously spoken in the majority of the small villages. Peace Corps teaches us the proper version of Romanian, but this does not often match up with what we encounter at our sites. The further you travel from Chișinău, the greater the deviation from textbook style.
Many weeks ago, I discovered a well-organized (by Moldovan standards) website, autogara.md, which provides a comprehensive list of the departure and arrival times for buses traveling throughout the country and into Romania and Ukraine. I was so pleased – a schedule! I didn’t have to wander aimlessly up and down the street waiting for the right bus to appear. Instead, I can tear myself from the comfort of the apartment mere minutes prior to departure. The rutiera I have boarded, however, does not end up pulling out until 7:25, five minutes later than the scheduled time for the next departure of the day; only two more passengers have boarded in the interim. I know that I won’t make it by 8:00, but we Americans are smart by now: we pad in extra time to all appointments to account for the vagaries of Moldovan public transportation.
The Winter Bazaar is held at Moldexpo, a thoroughly modern exposition complex on the outskirts of the city. There are over a hundred booths, mostly embassies – Chinese, Turkish, Polish, Italian, German, English, American – along with the United Nations, various Moldovan NGOs, and the Peace Corps. Experienced participants know to mob the American Embassy booth early, buying up all the cans of Campbell’s mushroom soup, gallon bottles of Log Cabin syrup, one pound jars of Skippy Omega+ Creamy Peanut Butter and containers of Kraft Country BBQ Sauce before the front doors have even opened for business. Ahhh, American manufactured food – don’t we all just crave it, in spite of ourselves.
This day proves to be one of those disorienting experiences wherein I feel as if Scotty has beamed me up to the Starship America: ten or fifteen PCVs of various ethnicities, genders, and sexual identities are milling about inside the small PCV booth and spilling out into the pathway, transitioning smoothly from Romanian to
Russian to English while sharing plastic plates of Ethiopan and Italian cuisine, laughing at each other’s jokes, discussing the merits of Northface versus Marmot parkas, and comparing itineraries for upcoming vacations.
In the evening, my fellow PCV, Elsa, and I prepare a luscious dinner of oven-baked chicken basted with Kraft BBQ sauce, accompanied by the left-over Spanish rice she served for Moldovan guests a couple of nights before, and a side of fresh (!!!!) Swiss Chard grown by another PCV as part of his greenhouse project. While we are cooking, her Moldovan landlady stops by to pick up the payment for the electricity. She spends a good 20 minutes parsing out the details of the bill, seemingly striving for a rare transparency in a largely opaque cash economy. The Peace Corps allots hugely generous, mandatory, non-negotiable amounts for utilities and rent within our monthly stipends. Moldovans who are selected as host families or who are fortunate enough to land a PCV tenant most times do their very best to provide a pleasing experience, anxious to retain this steady boon to their monthly incomes.
I arise at 6:40am from the bed Elsa generously shared with me, trying not to wake her. She has slept restlessly for most of the night, waiting for two other PCVs whom she has told can sleep on her floor to arrive. Like most PCVs from small villages let loose in Chișinău on a weekend night, they want to maximize their time and don’t show up until the wee hours. That is the bane of being assigned to a project in the big city. The coveted ability to access a variety of perceived luxuries like bars, restaurants, bookstores, malls, operas, ballets, concerts, and well-stocked grocery stores is balanced with the need to build and maintain boundaries of privacy and quiet time. Having an apartment in Chișinău means constantly fielding requests from fellow PCVs to crash for the night when they trek into the city from far-flung locales. When you have a generous, nurturing soul like Elsa’s, the ability to say “no” is one that must be practiced over and over, despite the discomfort it brings.
Dawn is breaking as I spend a good twenty minutes enveloping myself in tights, body shirt, long underwear, sturdy canvas hiking pants, woolen sweater, scarf, hat, mittens under gloves, and water proof UGGs to brave the outdoors. I heave my pack onto my back and decide to take the stairs, as I doubt that me in all my layers plus back pack will fit inside the minute steel box that masquerades as an elevator. Plus, I just don’t trust the damn things.
I trudge through the peripheries of the city’s bustling center, dodging through smoking pedestrians; packs of skeletal, shivering dogs; broken manhole covers that plunge into murky abysses; empty plastic bags of various hues skittering in the wind; careening automobiles with horns that blare at the briefest obstacle; and bundled bunicas selling potatos, beets and cabbage at the crumbling pavement’s edge. Neon signs for gambling dens fight for air space with satellite dishes, trolleybus cables, and billboards advertising European label clothing and airline tickets to Turkey. The women, as always, are minutely coordinated, stylish bags match boots which match scarves which match parka trim which matches lipstick, blush, and eye shadow. I look like a misplaced hobo; I can see their eyes twitching disapprovingly from my shoes to my bulky jacket to the lumpish backpack that causes me to walk in a slightly hunched manner. I couldn’t care less.
I arrive at Peace Corps office, sign in, check the log for a stray package I might have overlooked, then trudge up three flights of stairs to the PCV lounge. By the time I get there I am sweating like it’s mid-July and must frantically discard my top two layers of clothing as quickly as possible. Various volunteers wander in and out, draping themselves about the second-hand furniture, dropping their belongings on the floor, mixing cups of instant coffee with plastic spoons retrieved from the trash, complaining of hangovers and the monumental journeys back to site. It reminds me of nothing so much as a college dorm room; disheveled youths far from home, parked behind iMacs blaring iTune playlists, exclaiming in delight when ripped open boxes from home spill out Cheetos, Kraft Mac N Cheese, deodorant, and warm winter clothing. People emerge from the shower with wet hair, wrapped in towels and proceed to dress with their backs oh-so modestly turned. Talk of projects, families back home, countdown until COS (Close of Service,) and the previous night’s escapades drift through the musty air. Me and two other PCVs, Sue and Tori, retreat to a back office to concentrate on plans for today’s effort to plug Turul Moldovei 2013 (more on this later.)
We emerge hours later into biting wind and mud spattered snow, facing a 35 minute walk to the Palațul de Republica where a formal event honoring volunteerism is set to occur. It takes us only moments to decide to hail a cab. Tori sticks her head in the window and begins negotiating a price. Sue and I stand alert at the back doors, hands on door handles, ready to dive in. Cars line up, honking impatiently, behind us. Though the price is 5 lei more than we originally decided to pay, we pile in hurriedly, willing to cede bargaining efforts for comfort. We inch our way between belching buses and shiny Mercedes only to catapult to 50 miles an hour through the open stretches of icy roadway, suffering whiplash on the sudden turns. Pedestrians scatter before us. Balalaikas blare tinnily from the radio.
We disembark before an imposing, pillared facade that has – no kidding – unfurled an actual red carpet atop the slushy, dirt-laced snow. Depositing purses, keys, and mobile phones on a table, we pass through a security detector which beeps loudly and blinks red for every person, leaving me to ponder the efficacy of its abilities. We enter a magnificent three-story hall, encrusted with chandeliers, burbling fountains, and galactic gold balls hanging from the ceiling like a retro-modernistic installation conceived in 1954. We check our coats with an actual coat check girl who hands us each a carved wooden tag embossed with a glittering number. We are ushered up to the second tier and encouraged to take our seats in the cavernous auditorium in preparation for the festivities to come; ah, but we are smarter than that now. We know that the performance will stretch into the evening hours, with no intermission or refreshments available. We surreptiously slink back down the grand staircase and proceed to effeciently accomplish our mission, nabbing the people we wish to meet as they walk through the detectors (beeping, flashing) in order to introduce ourselves and our future event. (Again, future blog post.) Within 30 minutes, we are hailing another cab back to Peace Corps.
A couple of hours later I am sitting in a swank coffee shop in a mall that could have been built in any California city, waiting to meet with an Irish woman who runs a large orphanage in Hîncești. Suzanne is an amazing force of nature, who emits energy and cheer throughout any space she enters. I find myself craving her company in these dour days of winter. She has generously offered to let us hitch a ride back in the van that transports the medical personnel working at the orphanage back to their homes in Chișinău every evening. Thank the sweet lord for this, as a blizzard is bearing down and the thought of negotiating the street corner wait and the various bus changes back to site is just overwhelming me at the moment. I have never appreciated personal vehicles – as environmentally depleting as I know them to be – as I have since winter has descended in full force upon Moldova.
I spend a few minutes in delightful conversation with Suzanne’s father, who is urbane and thoughtful, remarking to me about the bitter irony of this „Malldova” – an architectural showcase of shops which 95% of Moldovans cannot afford to patronize. (Just like South Coast Plaza, I think.) The coffee here is the same price it is in the States. Men finger their iPhones at the table adjacent to me, while brusquely barking at each other in a language I cannot identify. Heavily made up young women lounge next to them in real furs, feet encased in six inch stilettos. (How do they walk through the ice in those things? I think.)
The ride home is spent in silent, repetitive prayer to a Father God I don’t believe in – please don’t let me die on a highway in Moldova, please don’t let me die on a highway in Moldova. The driver is good, but the road is icy and sleet is blanketing the windshield with frost. There are no street lights or municipal trucks to salt the roads. We slide perceptibly on the curves, hydroplaning three or four times. When we finally turn onto the road leading into Hîncești, I feel the muscles in my neck and back I didn’t realize were clenched subtly relax.
It has been dark for 3 hours by 7:00pm when I shed all my layers, wash my weary face, and sink gratefully into
the easy chair bathed in the warm light of a table lamp in my room. Tomorrow, language lessons, 9:00am. I have not studied a word of Romanian (though granted I have been speaking it at various times throughout the past five days.) I am too tired to care. I am too tired to check email, Facebook, or the days news. I am too tired to eat. The book I am readying on my iPad sits heavily in my lap. Outside, snow is swirling and the wind is whistling through the twisted limbs of the tree just outside my window. An occasional truck thunders by.
Using my Google voice number, I call my husband. He is just waking up, contemplating a choice of cafes for breakfast and a leisurely perusal of the New York Times. Life is moving on at the same pace, in the same grooves, 6000 miles away. It is not snowing there. I hear Zoe bark once, sharply, in the background and picture the person she is warning walking past outside the window. His voice is so clear I could swear he was in the next room. I laugh at one of his jokes and my eyes suddenly fill with tears.
Happiness masking melancholy; plastic coating rust; glitter over darkness; facades hiding emptiness – it all rolls through me in a wave that crests, breaks, and then recedes again. I’m learning to negotiate the currents and swim with the tide. And actually, its really not that bad.
I took my love and I took it down
I climbed a mountain and I turned around
And I saw my reflection in the snow covered hills
‘Till the landslide brought me down
Oh, mirror in the sky
What is love?
Can the child within my heart rise above?
Can I sail thru the changing ocean tides?
Can I handle the seasons of my life?
2 thoughts on “Swimming with Potemkin”
Wow! All I do is go to work and navigate the rain of the Northwest winter! I’ve got it really easy! This is a brilliant piece!
Yes,you can,Yvette! Merry Christmas! YOur writing is so authentic, I hear your voice as I read. Thank you for showing me another part of the world! Sending warm California hugs!