Living in the City

A little over a week ago I moved from the district seat of Strașeni where I had been living about 20 km NW of Chișinău into the very center of Chișinău itself. It’s turning out to be a very pleasant and practical transition experience from Moldovan village life into a more urban environment, one that will be much closer to my pending life in the US. I hope.

It is more than a little ironic to me that I’ve finally found the milieu that suits my fancy, where I feel comfortable and acclimated, located halfway around the world from my original home, a little less than 2 months before my three years of Peace Corps will end. (I joked to a friend of mine that it is a good thing I didn’t relocate here sooner or I might have elected to stay a fourth year…) It is surprising to me to discover a deep appreciation for city living percolating within me; I had always fancied myself a beach or a mountain dweller, somewhere abutting “nature” where the trappings of civilization were not so in-your-face. But this is working for me in so many ways that I will definitely seek to replicate it when I make my leap back to US soil.

This morning I took a walk to the No 1 Market, the favorite food shopping destination for ex-pats and young professional Moldovans. It was a humid 79F at 8:30 am, a preparatory warning for the heat and thunderstorms that are due to arrive this afternoon.   Up until now I’ve rarely had the opportunity to stroll through Chișinău at this time in the morning. Unless I happened to spend the night in the city (and I can count those instances on two hands,) I wouldn’t usually arrive here before late morning or early afternoon when a steady stream of pedestrians clogs the walkways, trolleys and cars jostle for open slots on the un-laned boulevards, and one is constantly  dodging the vehicles that utilize  sidewalks as impromptu parking lots.  This walk was quiet, bordering on serene, one of those pristine movie clips that fill me with a vague melancholia as this wondrous chapter of my life rolls inexorably toward its credits.

Here are a  few stills:

Entry to apartment
Here is the entry/exit of my apartment building. Everything quiet, no one around at this early hour. And that is a very old grapevine, it’s trunk at the bottom right, covering the facade. I can pick grapes right outside my window!
More backyard
       Backyard area of my apartment block. The bench down at the right in the bunica hangout.
Backyard of apartment block
More backyard. In the evening this fills with kids, mothers with babes in strollers, men gathered to smoke, and bunicas presiding over it all.

Hidden gem on my street

Walking the four blocks along Mitropolit Dosotfei, my street, to the market I must be attentive to my footing.  “Sidewalk” is a generous appellation to bestow upon the checkerboard interstices of crumbling asphalt, sturdy tree roots, hodgepodge ceramic tiles and stone-studded, sun-baked dirt that abut the streets.  But once every couple blocks you find yourself transported onto a plane of concrete that aprons the 5  square meters in front of an entryway like the one on the left here, and you come to a full stop in appreciation of the beauty of a level walking surface.

Flower Market on Bodoni
My street dead ends into the Flower Market that runs along the outer edge of Cathedral Park, one of                                                    Chișinău’s well known landmarks
path through Cathedral Park
                                           My pathway through the park to the market
Cathedral in the Park 1
The Cathedral from which the park takes its name
No 1 produce section
The produce aisle of the No 1 Market, the most popular grocery chain with ex-pats and young professionals in Moldova. You can find imported cheese, coconut milk and oil, Asian food, lean cuts of beef, fresh baked bread, and an entire aisle of chocolate here. I’m not wanting for much these days….
path in park
                                   An alternate path through the park on the way home
Flower Market
A closer view of the flower market on the way home. Moldovans love fresh cut flowers. These stalls go for 100 meters along Bodoni and are heavily patronized. And this is just one of dozens of flower markets in Chișinău. Every occasion is celebrated with flowers and there are specific rules (which I once learned but have long forgotten) regarding the color, number, and type of flower that attends specific holidays and events.
Mitropolit Dosoftei
     I cross from the flower market to the start of my street. It’s four blocks down to my apartment.
$32 groceries
Mission accomplished! This is what $32 buys you in Moldova: peanuts, chocolate, extra virgin olive oil, lavash, chefir, sour cream, coffee, half & half & heavy cream for soup, a beer, 2 lbs of beef loin, gorgonzola, swiss, and feta cheese, 2 jalapeno and 10 eggs. This translates to 653 MDL which is roughly 1/4 of my monthly food stipend. I purchase mostly dairy and meat from the grocery store as I currently receive my produce from a Community Supported Agriculture project.
CSA Veggie Bag
This is one week’s worth of produce from the CSA. I paid about $140 USD for 12 weeks. It’s way more than I can eat so I find myself spontaneously distributing peppers and cucumbers to co-workers and neighbors. I am now accustomed to eating vegetables for every meal, including breakfast, and I feel amazing!

So that is a splice of my life at the moment.  I hope to be more consistently present here as my time in Moldova winds down; I do realize these are some of the golden memories in the making…

A Sliver of the Pie

I am recently returned from a much-needed and appreciated break from my Peace Corps life.  For my birthday, my mother splurged on tickets for a boutique river cruise down the Danube River. We sailed from Passau, Germany, into Budapest, stopping for port visits at Linz, Durnstein, and Vienna.  It was luxurious in every detail – from the gracious attentiveness of the ship’s crew to the sumptuous haute cuisine and 400-thread count bed linen, from the knowledgeable and humorous tour guides to the breathtaking scenery skimming by outside the window.  It was a little taste of heaven.

And yet.  (There’s always a caveat with me, isn’t there?)  One of my personal objectives in joining the Peace Corps was not just to journey to some foreign land, but to actually live there, to make a home there – to integrate into a daily routine so thoroughly that it would feel like sliding into a pair of worn-out slippers whenever I returned to it.  And I have achieved that; turning the key in the lock of my apartment at the end of my trip I caught myself thinking, “It’s good to be home again.”

And while this is gratifying to have experienced, it poses a whole new quandary for my nascent desire to keep wandering the world after my term in Moldova concludes.  For I was suddenly, oddly conscious while I trod the cobblestoned streets of Passau, craned my neck to take in the spire of St. Stephens, stopped in awe in front of a Rubens, or ordered schnitzel in Vienna, that I was a touring these sites, and as such was unable to access the true experience of being in these places, being of these places .  Traveling as a tourist is like skimming over the surface of a large body of water; oftentimes it feels as if the aim is to cover as much area as possible, rather than taking the time to stay still, immerse and dive deep.  I saw what Vienna looked like, what Salzburg had to offer, what comprised Budapest, respectively, for a scant 4-6 hours at best.  This is no way to catch the flavor of a place, a people, a culture, through such a miserly sip.

Robert Louis Stevenson once observed that there are no foreign lands: it is the traveler only who is foreign.   In Moldova, I have had the time to understand that.  Here, I have immersed, acclimated, no longer feel myself as ‘foreign’.  And I realize how much more that has added to my experience and comfort in the world.  I no longer look at a map and see the outlines of countries as delineations of strange, undecipherable exotica that could have no relation to me.   Instead, they represent convocations of communities, reverberating lives, little houses and neighborhoods, corner stores, and office buildings.  Cars drive down streets in those places. People do laundry and cook meals.  Dogs trot across dirt roads, stopping to scratch fleas.  Bicycles lean against buildings. Aromas waft across a breeze. Children laugh and hang from tree boughs.  Women gather and talk on corners. Life is happening in every corner of the world.  It is now conceivable to me that I could join in and participate fully, no matter where I found myself.

Quite by accident, I took a most interesting picture in Bratislava.  We stopped in the town square to admire a memorial built to commemorate the synagogue that had stood for hundreds of years in the town square, right next to the Protestant church, until the Nazis saw fit to blow it up.  Part of the memorial was the silhouette of the old synagogue etched into a sheet of smooth black marble. I didn’t realize until I was uploading my pictures at homeImage that the marble reflected back the shadowy outlines of people milling about the town square, with the etching of the synagogue super-imposed over all, only briefly and barely occluding the activities of people going about their days . It was a lovely visual metaphor, conveying not only that any church, synagogue, or temple is comprised of more than just a building, but also that when we travel all the icons, museums, memorials, parks, palaces, bridges, castles, and fortresses that may fascinate us and be the images we return with for our photo albums, they remain only a backdrop to lives still being lived in these historic places.  And the traveler is forever the foreign passerby, holding up a camera, skimming across the surface, dropping in to sample just a sliver of the pie.

Life in Wintertime

The hill leading up. Before they slide back down…

So it’s winter here.  Not the fake winter we pretend to have in Southern California, decorating our mall windows with plastic snowflakes and our Escalades with reindeer antlers  while maybe throwing on a windbreaker to travel from car into supermarket – but real winter, where treacherous roads winding through countryside have never seen a snowplow and cars that skid off the road have no tow trucks to help them dig out.  Men laboriously shovel dirt from the beds of slowly moving trucks in a stalwart attempt to provide some measure of traction on hills and curves.  Car wheels skid uselessly at the top of the hill on my street before slowly sliding down to the bottom again.  Other cars sit idle and useless under mounds of snow in the hillier neighborhoods of Hîncești; their owners will not be able to use them until spring when the killer black ice fades away.

Yesterday some of the employees of the center where I work made a picnic lunch and we piled into the all-wheel drive van with the consultant visiting from Germany to show him the only “tourist” attractions Moldova has: two of some fifty Orthodox monasteries that sit in relative isolation throughout the country.  My partner had checked the weather forecast which indicated cloudy skies but no snow, so I donned four layers of clothing and the steely determination that being California born and raised was not going to prevent me from avoiding excursions for a third of the time I am living in Moldova.

Me, outfitted, sweating

Now of course, those of you who know that I have “been going through the change” for the past two years or so must appreciate what wearing four layers of clothing means for me.  It means that I can only apply the top three layers minutes before leaving the apartment or I will die from heat prostration and suffocation.  It means time indoors is spent weighing the benefits of disrobing with the hassle of having to put everything back on again later.  It means long car rides invariably result in me sweating profusely within my tights/long underwear/ body shirt/tee shirt/sweatshirt/wool scarf/down parka outfit while my feet and fingers slowly go numb and the portion of my face that is exposed feels as if needles are dancing across it.  There is no happy medium here.  The only place I am reasonably comfortable is at home.  Consequently, I am getting more and more loathe to leave. This is not a good sign.

So I made myself go on this jaunt to Căpriana and Hincu.  And once in the van and on the Imageroad, I actually enjoyed watching the scenery go by.  All the trees are bearing heavy loads of snow; their gnarled and twisted branches seemed to reach out in supplication as I passed by behind my frosted pane of glass.  The sky was a muted mix of shadowy pastels overlayed with a sheen of silver.  Most of the dwellings we past were trailing ribbons of smoke from their chimneys, attesting to the warmth of families and friends huddled inside.  My companions were in high spirits, telling jokes and commiserating over children and husbands and housework and life in the way that any group of women the world over is wont to do.Image

In between the two monasteries, we pulled over to the side of the road and ate our picnic in the van, a healthy masa of baked chicken, sarmales, meat patties on bread, and the unbiquitous sliced tomatoes.  Someone had brought a small thermos of chai that was still piping hot; I don’t know if it was better to hold or sip, but both proved satisfying.  And of course bags of sweet treats were passed around at the end.

This is the “summer” chapel. They have a winter one also.

As in so many developing countries, the monasteries proved to be much grander and better constructed than the surrounding villages.  It was actually uncomfortably warm inside some of the buildings (me packed inside all my layers with a menopausal thermostat notwithstanding.) There were icons, blessed bottles of water, candles, incense, and small bottles of perfume labeled „Jerusalem” for sale, on which my companions did not stint.  One of the ladies even made me a gift of a small portrait of three saints. All purchases were laboriously recorded by pen in triplicate; this took approximately five to ten minutes per person for each sale while the German and I stood around examining the intricacies of the painted walls.  Of course, days are mere blips in the annals of these monasteries.  And we didn’t see any other visitors in either place.  What do they have but time?

No expense spared
The horses get jackets
The dogs don’t. This one followed me until I climbed back in the van because I shared a bone left over from lunch.

As I write today, snow is falling relentlessly outside.  A fellow volunteer who had spent the weekend with me – traveling for four and half hours in order to sit in her pajamas watching movies and trolling the internet with someone else rather than spending yet another day in her bedroom alone in her isolated village – departed the warmth of my apartment at 11am, only to get to Chișinău an hour and half later and discover that the buses aren’t running up to her village: too much snow and ice.   She called me, dejected, facing a 20 minute walk down the side of a highway back to Peace Corps office to try to find a place to stay tonight.  And maybe tomorrow.  The forecast says snow all the way to Wednesday.

No handicap ramps or easy access in Moldova

Across and just down the street to the right, there is always a group of people waiting to catch a ride out of town.  They huddle in small groups like articulated penguins, snow piling like heaps of scattered salt on their heads, shoulder, shoes.  Sometimes they wait for an hour or more.  I stand at my window and watch them, asking myself why the city doesn’t think to construct a simple shelter?  Even a roof on four posts that would keep the snow and sleet from steadily burying people where they stand?  How do Molodovans keep such stoic patience, never expecting more for themselves?  I toy with the idea of going out and asking them: don’t you think you deserve better than this?  rallying the troops, inciting a movement, marching on the raoin council with frost laden posters, clutching candle stubs to warm our hands.

But then the thought of donning all those layers is just too overwhelming and I return to my desk to compose my useless thoughts about their plight.  Honestly, Peace Corps is tough in ways you just never imagine.

Sofer mi franceza

So another adventure in Moldovan logistics leaves me wilted and limp from the effects of too much sun and an adrenaline rush.  Some times I wonder if I will survive my Peace Corps service intact.

This is my driver, Therry.  Now he’s not my personal driver, but he has been the person – other than anonymous rutiera drivers – primarily responsible for transporting me from point A to point B in Moldova.  He picked me up in Chișinău and brought me to Hîncești, he drove Ana and I to a work-related meeting in Chișinău last week, and yesterday she arranged for him to drive me and two other PCVs to Orhei Veche for the Gustar music Festival (more on that in a minute.)  He is somehow connected to Ana and/or the organization where I work, but the details remain ambiguous and elusive.

Therry is French.  He speaks only French, yet he’s lived in Moldova for more than two years.  He doesn’t appear to have a job, yet he certainly isn’t without money or other resources.  I asked him once (through Google translate) how he made money to live here and he actually made the sign for zipping his lips and walked away. That was the end of that conversation.

Therry is almost stereotypically, cartoonishly French, his gestures are so animated and exaggerated. He is forever kissing women’s hands, arms and cheeks – a mode of greeting viewed as informally, inappropriately intimate and not usually welcomed or tolerated by Moldovan woman from perfect strangers.  But somehow he gets away with it.  Probably because he’s French.

Therry drives in a manner commensurate with his personality – large, haphazard, and flamboyant.  Lanes are not even suggestions, they’re meaningless markings left behind from some another rule-bound activity that couldn’t possible apply to him.  One side of the road is as legitimate as the other in the race to reach his destination.  Other drivers are obstacles placed in his trajectory that he must surmount and occlude. Potholes are launching pads for gaining air speed. At one point I checked the speedometer and he appeared to be doing 95.  This, in a Renault four-speed van that was not manufactured in this century, equipped with just the shoulder-harness part of the seatbelts and door handles that only work from the outside. Now I understand why vehicle accidents represent the largest percentage of all Peace Corps’ in-service fatalities.  And I’m not even in Africa.

Therry was supposed to pick me up at my house at 10:00am for the two-hour trip to Orhei Veche.  By 10:30 when he hadn’t arrived, I texted Ana.  (This, and all my subsequent communication with Therry throughout our tumultuous day, had to be conducted through a web of communication devices involving my partner Ana, who speaks French and Romanian; her friend Doina, who speaks Romanian and English; Irina, who was in the car with us, but only speaks Romanian; and me. It felt a bit like the United Nations.)  Ana texted back to say that Therry was at the vets with his dogs and would be here at 11:00.

When 11:30 arrived with no sign of Therry I texted Laura, who was waiting for us at the PC Office, to call her work partner Doina to find out what was going on.  Doina called Ana who said that Therry had come to my door, knocked and rang the bell repeatedly, but got no answer.  (Apparently, he went to the wrong apartment.) Ana sent Therry back again to retrieve Lindsey and me.  When he pulled up, there were already five people in the van, including him.  He was motioning for us to get in, even though there was no room.  I climbed in the luggage space in back of the seats and Lindsey got onto someone’s lap in the back.  I immediately called Doina to tell her I didn’t know where we were going to put Laura.  As we were talking, however, Therry pulled up to an apartment building and the three others in the back with Lindsey got out. (It turned out they were Irina’s kids who they decided to take with them when they couldn’t find us.)

By 12:30, 2 ½ hours after our scheduled departure time, we had picked up Laura and were on the road to the Gustar music festival at Orhei Vechi.  Why anyone would allow music promoters to hold a festival at the site of a thousand-year-old archeological site astounds me, but this is what happens when governments are occupied with struggles that prioritize concerns more basic than the preservation of history and culture.  (Paul, you were interested in hearing samples of the local music: click on the “Gustar” link above for a video showcasing many of the performers.)

We roared into the parking lot about 2:30pm.  And I do mean roared. Therry barely slows down to park, so we hit the small boulder that you see in the left foreground in this picture at about 25 miles an hour.  Hence, the flat tire.  Puzzled at the hissing of air, Therry exits the vehicle sees the tire and shrugs: “Nu problemu.”  (I think this is an amalgamation of Spanish, French, and Romanian.)  We left him to deal with the ‘problemu’ and climbed a few steep grades in 95 degree heat to find the festival.  We ran into a host of other foreigners, from various points in the globe, all of whom spoke English (it is the common tongue of the world, still.)

In case you didn’t click on the links above, here are some of the pictures I took of the monks’ cells carved out of the slope and the most amusing site at the festival: a train made from oil cans and drawn by a tractor:

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The festival was the just the juxtaposition of centuries I’ve come to expect from Moldova: horse drawn carts and hay wagons coupled with a state of the art sound system and cold beer on tap.  A host of PCVs were there with tents and sleeping bags; they planned on making a weekend of it.  Me?  I guess 50 is NOT the new 18 when it comes to sleeping on the ground, peeing in the bushes, and negotiating crowds of party animals.  I braved the ride back with Therry, whom we only found again after an hour of cross-texting and phoning between our multi-lingual navigation team.  When we finally reunited (after another mile and half trudge in mind-bending heat – no wonder I’m losing weight by the hour) I climbed in the back, buckled my scrap of a seat belt, and closed my eyes.  I didn’t open them again until Therry slammed us into the curb in front of my apartment.  Man was I glad to be home.

Sunday in Orhei

Biserica Catolica – Orhei

I’ve been so busy (and anxious) this week waiting for site announcements and preparing for our language check-in today, that I have not posted any  pictures from my recent excursion to Orhei with Warren and Georgia.  They both attend the Catholic Church (Biserica Catolica) in Stauceni on Sundays and have made good friends with the young Fijian priest who is serving there.  In fact, our COD group will be conducting a youth activity with some kids from the church at the end of July (more on that later.)

Sunflower field

The priest is having to fill in for the father in Orhei who is off on vacation.  So we all three, along with Georgia’s host mom Olga, drove into Orhei last Sunday for services.  It was quite beautiful listening to the mass in Romanian.  I could just sit back and enjoy the musicality of it without analyzing the message.  We passed the sunflower field on the way and pulled over to take pictures.

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