Strașeni welcomes me with open arms!
The first day of spring (Moldovan style,) my new partner’s birthday, a commemoration of war heroes (Transnistria and Afghanistan,) and my first day of work all coincided to welcome me to my new home today. What a day!
Marțișor is traditionally celebrated on the first day of March in Moldova – never mind when the actual equinox occurs. Today was a perfect showcase for the celebration – brilliantly sunny with a bright blue sky ornamented with wispy clouds and framed by the bare, supplicating limbs of surrounding trees. The chill nip of the morning was offset by the warmth of the sun blanketing my shoulders as I donned a sweater (no down parka needed) and set off down the road for my first day at the office.
When I arrived, Doamna Valentina presented me with a small bouquet for my lapel comprised of a red and white flower. This is a tradition here; both women and men wear these for the whole month of March and on the last day one is supposed to place it in the boughs of a tree and make a wish. True to Doamna Valentina’s reputation for thoroughness and efficiency, she presented me with three variations and a duplicate so I have sufficient resources to make it through the month’s end.
My Peace Corps Program Manager wisely insisted that the Doamna Valentina assign me a partner in her office with whom to work other than herself. There are two reasons for this:
1) Peace Corps does not want to be perceived as providing “personal assistants” to political figures, which could be misinterpreted as favoring one particular party over the other, and 2) Mayors are way too busy to devote time to training and explaining tasks to a novice – especially one whose command of Românian is barely breaching middle-intermediate at best.
Poftim, enter Tatiana, my lovely, just-turned 23 partner who is the building and construction specialist for the mayor’s office. And who speaks wonderful American English as a result of two summers recently spent in North Carolina in a work-and-learn program. Tatiana – or Tania, for short – has a bachelor’s degree in construction engineering and is currently attending university in Chișinău to earn her Masterat (as they call it) in Real Estate. Not sure how that translates to an American degree, but there you go.
She’s an intelligent, ambitious young woman who was not afraid to stand up to those male professors who didn’t believe a female had any business in their classrooms. Her father is an engineer with his own construction business; apparently he is very successful and has engineered and built buildings throughout Moldova. She is intent on joining his business and carrying on the family trade.
Almost immediately, Tania and I joined the entire office in a parade through the middle of town that ended in a gathering in a park to commemorate the “heroes” of the Afghan (1979-89) and Transnistrian (1992) wars. There was much singing and awarding and speechifying and more singing, and then some fireworks exploding (literally) five feet to my right and it was finally over after about an hour of standing in the still chill air.
Returning to the office we began to prepare for Tania’s birthday masa. In Moldova, birthdays are a bit more formal and serious in the manner in which a gift is presented to the celebrant. One stands and receives with grace both the gift and a stream of felicitous wishes and declarations to health, happiness, long life, success, money, and love, after which kisses on both cheeks are exchanged. Tania was receiving phone calls, bouquets of tulips (her favorite flower) and speeches from troops of co-workers entering her office for an hour before the meal began.
Tania’s father brought in a bucket load of food prepared by her mother; though neither attended the celebration her brother and his girlfriend stopped by. We fit about 15 people around the table to eat and drink homemade wine and cognac. It was a lovely way for me to meet everyone.
Everyone in Moldova is bi- or tri- (and sometimes more, what is that – quatro?) lingual – I feel quite provincial in their midst, but they laugh and tell me “If you know English, you know all you need to know.” They are quite excited to have a native speaker among them and are already clamoring for English lessons (the bane of PCVs everywhere….)
There are actually quite a number of young people in the office who speak passable English, either because they have traveled to America or have lived in Europe at one point or another or learned it in school. While it will be easy to drop back into English when the going gets tough, Doamna Valentina does not speak English and I must remember that it would be bad form to exclude her from conversations when she is present.
By the time the food was finished and the dishes cleaned and the furniture returned to proper placement, it was time for Tatiana to leave. Her birthday was just beginning and there was much to do at home to prepare.
I returned back to Neoumanist, the NGO that is allowing me to stay in the volunteer quarters until I find my own apartment. The apartment is actually in the building that serves as the senior day center, and I just taken off my sweater and set down my purse when a lovely melody arose from the front hallway. I opened my door to find four babushkas, complete with head scarves and wooden canes sitting on the bench outside my room harmonizing an old folk song together. (I tried to upload the video I made but my internet connection is too slow.)
I feel so fortunate that all the weeks of waiting have paid off – the people here at Neoumanist are all cheerful and upbeat and welcoming (and many of them also speak English!) The mayor’s office is a beehive of activity and everyone seems to get along well and enjoy each other’s company. I am living alone (!!!) and cooking for myself in a kitchen where I don’t have to worry about infringing on someone else’s domain. And I am 15 minutes from Chișinău, to boot.
Spring – and new beginnings – in the air……