Leaving Home to Find It, Once Again

Tatiana, one of cooks at the senior center where I live, stops me as I emerge from the laundry room. Her shy smile gleams in the dim corridor, her hands drift up out of the darkness, cradling a piping hot donut. The smell of them has been driving me crazy all morning as it wafts through the weekend-empty center, wreathing my apartment in the smell of yeasty goodness. My refrigerator is bare, victim of a busy workweek and a lazy proprietor; I haven’t had the motivation to get dressed yet, much less trudge to the market. Manna from heaven seals the deal: I am glad to be back home in Moldova.

For a few days, I’ll admit now, it was touch and go.

***

Back in July, the United States had welcomed me back with abundance, diversity, energy and climactic beauty. From the moment my plane touched down, the infusion began: a smorgasbord of food and ethnic restaurants; the physical presence of family and friends with the cornucopia of attendant emotions that reconnecting brings; late-model vehicles that at times, unbelievably, held me, alone; store aisles and city streets and national parks (national parks!) teeming with a vast display of the world’s heterogeneity; background noise that was comprehensible, be it radio, TV, elevator music, or the couple at the next table; and always, everywhere, people smiling, eyes connecting, greetings freely tossed between passersby, laughter shared in lines. I traveled to California, Colorado, Wyoming, Montana, and Ohio, touching down briefly in Chicago and DC; every single place felt like home.

Leaving was rough. Around the second week of September, when the end was in sight, a little pit of discontent nestled down behind my heart. I immediately began to stuff it full of trivial, idiosyncratic goodbyes – so long sidewalks; later labels written in English; bye-bye blasting shower heads; be seeing you housecats, ice cubes, parking lots, landscaping, yummy Greek yogurt – leaving as little room as possible for the murky, seeping melancholia of separation from the meaningful: husband, daughter, grandmother, parents, brothers, nieces and nephews, former colleagues and schoolmates and best friends forever: all the faces who hold my history, reflect my truths and anchor my memories.

When I had first landed in Orange County, my husband called me, his excitement pulsing through the telephone pinholes, raining down like little candy hearts onto my eardrums: “You’re on the same continent!” he raved. “I could walk to where you are!” Understand that at the time he was still 1,800 miles away in Cincinnati, Ohio. But they were land miles. In the event of a cataclysmic, world-altering event, theoretically, we could find each other. It was, in some deeply comforting, inexplicable way, exciting. But now, here I was about to put an ocean and the breadth of another continent between us.

I was casting off again…

***

Arriving back in Chișinău after 15 hours of flying, 7 time zone changes and no sleep wasn’t conducive to a good mood at the outset. But I am lucky to have friends outside of the PC community by this time, so thankfully I didn’t have to wrestle two suitcases and a backpack onto the airport rutiera or pay the exhorbitant taxi fee that is standard fare for foreigners, regardless if you speak the language. A wonderful couple attached to the US Embassy picked me up and we had a great dinner at one of the nicer restaurants catering to ex-pats, ennabling me to delay full re-entry for a couple more hours. After enduring the 30 minute bumper car traffic out of Chisinău into my village, then the cratered dusty road leading to my center, only to find the entry gate locked, however, all vestiges of America had sailed away. Despite three emails and a text notification sent during the preceding 24 hours, I had to initiate a series of relayed phone calls as we stood outside the gate in order to evoke a keyholder from the residential center to let me in.

Since moving to Moldova, I have made exactly seven trips outside its borders. This was the first time I didn’t feel welcomed home. Due to an agreement I made when I first moved in, periodically I must move out of my apartment in order to accommodate specific volunteers who have been friends of the center since its inception. During the nine weeks I was in the US these volunteers visited, so I had had to pack up all my belongings in bags and boxes prior to my departure. Upon my return this time, I was greeted by a bare mattress, gaping refrigerator and larder, empty hangers, and a thin film of dust on the counters. And, in a huge departure from the usual, Buddy and Little Sheba (the center’s dogs) had not bounded out to greet me when I came through the gate. I learned the next morning that they had been summarily eliminated, along with many of the village dogs, during a mysterious night of gunshots for which no has claimed responsibilty or been held accountable. It was all decidely depressing.

And to top it off, I had to hit the ground running. It takes a lot longer than 36 hours to recover from jet lag and seven time zone changes; unfortunately that was all that I had prior to having to embark on a whirlwind schedule of trainings, appoinments, meetings, and my new partnership with Novateca (more about that in another post.) I continued to want to fall asleep at 2:30 or 6:30 (PM) and awaken at 12:30 or 2:30 (AM.) It took eight days to fully unpack and at least ten days for a semblance of diurnal normalcy to find me again. I felt disoriented and uncharacteristically disconsolate, set adrift in a manner I’ve only experienced two or three times in this lifetime. There had been too much warmth and acceptance, conections and laughter, comfort and familiarity, control and convenience, to have it so quickly snatched away. This time there was not the excitement of the unknown to bouy me; the adventure had already been had. My fellow M27s have, for the most part, moved on – to graduate school, extended travel, career track jobs, marriage and babies. My footsteps echo in a hollow space.

***

But let’s not end on such a somber note. Today was the first day since I’ve returned that has been totally mine. I had nowhere to be and nothing I had to accomplish. I got some laundry done and cooked up a pot of beans. I am writing on the awesome new laptop which my generous husband paid DHL a dear amount to deliver safely to me; I’ve spent the greater part of the day poking around her menus, caressing her touch screen, and courting her thinly veiled charms. The cool of autumn is gilding the leaves red and gold outside my window. It is 46 degrees and I’m beginning to don the layers (93 degrees in Huntington Beach today – are you kidding me???) And a sweet angel gifted me a homemade donut when I was hungry.  Already, again, this foreign life is settling in around me, becoming home once more.

Year three and counting….

 

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Loving the one you’re with

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Zoe, my erstwhile canine companion, died today.  My husband called at 2:30am (my time) to tell me.  I know he woke me up because it’s hard to be alone with the blank space of loss.  The world has changed in some immeasurable, ineffable way. A little cameo has been erased and yet the tableau of life remains largely the same, unaffected.  Needless to say, it’s now 7:30am and I have not gone back to sleep.

I use the possessive adjective “my” with Zoe very loosely.  First, because I have always been a tad uncomfortable subscribing to the notion of owning any living being.  Sure, I had responsibility for feeding, sheltering, and caring for Zoe – but the same was true of my daughter and I couldn’t pretend to own her (not even when she was two!) But mostly it doesn’t feel right using ‘my’ with Zoe because she was not a dog that ceded to a relationship of that sort.  My husband and I used to joke that Zoe might have thought she was a cat since she was raised with them in the absence of other dogs for the first two years of her life.  Her temperament was certainly more feline than canine.  She never saw the point of chasing balls or sticks.  She liked to sit, paws tucked beneath her, on the back of the couch in front of our big picture window in Irvine, watching the world go buy.  She did not tolerate being picked up or held with much grace, but she would stretch beside you on her own terms to nap.  She was definitely not a lap dog and thank god she didn’t yap.

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One hears, with a trickle of tears usually, tales of dogs that have lost their owners traveling hundreds – sometimes thousands – of miles searching for them, prostrating themselves on a grave, showing up at 5 each day to meet a train, curling up with a coat or scarf, refusing to eat, or move, or play again. Wow! What loyalty and unconditional love, we think.   What a wonderful companion.  How lucky that person was to have that animal’s unwavering affection!  Well, that wasn’t Zoe.  Loyalty was not an integral aspect of her character.

Throughout the entire eighteen months prior to my leaving for the Peace Corps, Zoe and I were together twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week.  I wasn’t working.  My only form of recreation was walking, which I did, day in and day out, sometimes six or seven miles a day, Zoe by my side.  We took a four month road trip during that time, visiting twenty-three states, camping the entire way.  She went places most suburban dogs will never have the opportunity to visit.  She was a finicky eater and I spent many hours (and way too much money) searching for the perfect dog food to entice her.  She accompanied me in the car whenever I ran errands (much to the chagrin of Irvine Animal Control – but we won’t go there.) When I said goodbye to her in June of 2012, she didn’t acknowledge in any way my impending disappearance from her world.  As I cried, she cocked her head and looked at me quizzically (while I’m thinking “NOTE THE SUITCASES, DUMB DOG!!!!  This is it – you’re supposed to KNOW AND BE SAD!)  My husband reported that she actually began eating better in my absence.

When I returned for a visit home in May 2013, my daughter had her iPhone cocked, finger on the trigger, ready to record the Yvette & Treeemotional reunion. (We had watched too many YouTube videos of Iraqi veterans on kitchen floors under a dog pile.) I crept up to the front door, then opened it quickly, arms outspread, ready for Zoe to leap up in joy.  She gazed up at me myopically, sniffed my feet and trotted right past, to greet my husband with middling enthusiasm, instead.  I guess that sealed the deal: Zoe did not ‘belong’ to me. Though neither did she belong to him, it turned out.

When Mike moved back to Kentucky a couple of months ago, he was not able to keep Zoe at his brother’s house where he was staying.  So his sister Kim offered to take her until Mike could find a place of his own.  She had a beagle-mix who was hungering for a companion and Jackson and Zoe soon became inseparable.  And whenever Mike would come by for a visit, sure enough, it was Kim who held her attention. Mike had become just another humanoid temporarily inhabiting a peripheral space.  Zoe always knew who buttered her bread.  You could say she was an eminently practical beast. Or, perhaps, just a little bit more enlightened than most of us creatures.

I’ve been immersing myself in studies of Buddhist philosophy again, this time approaching it from a novel angle through a MOOC on Buddhism & Evolutionary Psychology. Turns out these two disciplines have a host of similarities in explaining the mechanisms which form our sense of self, including the notions of attraction and preferences that usually predicate feelings of love and the way that our neurobiology is set up to negate the reality of impermanence.

Zoe and friend

Although it is enormously gratifying to our ego (our sense of self) to have a dog slavishly adore us, is it really the best strategy for the dog? Or us? Of course, we pride ourselves in the self-aggrandizing notion that their doggy brains (and hearts?) have overcome thousands of years of evolution to devote themselves single-mindedly to one human being out of billions, but when the consequences of that sort of devotion are an unremitting anguish and perhaps starving itself to death, one becomes a little mortified at the exacting toll our own sense of self-importance sometimes expects.  (We tend to do the same thing with our romantic partners and BFF’s too, but at least they have the capacity to find food and shelter on their own.)

One of the ever-present catch-22s of Peace Corps service in this day and age is the ubiquitous of home and everyone else’s events and activities plastered all over social media.  It can be very debilitating for some of us to witness life going on blithely in our absence, like a GOT character being killed off in the middle of the third season. No one much cares. Life goes on. You really weren’t that crucial to the plot after all.

J Strom Thurmond Rec AreaZoe’s graceful detachment always brought to my mind that Stephen Stills song Love the one you’re with.  Don’t sit crying over good times you’ve had.  Face forward and be here now.  Make more good.   It was actually a very freeing experience for me to learn that Zoe was not moping around missing me.  On some basic level, I felt released to move on.  I appreciated her companionship while we were together and I felt it was reciprocated.  But, as I have learned only too well in my two years away from home, it is not healthy to predicate one’s happiness on the presence or proximity of something external.  You take nothing with you.  So look around you and find the good times where you’re at.

 

 

I know you’re loving the one you’re with Zoe.  Good for you girl.  Run in peace….

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To Save or Not to Save – or Animals aRen’t us

Gus Kenworthy might have received more media coverage for taking home a family of stray dogs than an Olympic silver medal last month.  We Americans do dote on our pets, and the images of stray dogs roaming the streets of Sochi may have been the first many of us who have not traveled to developing countries have ever encountered.  In yet another instance of ‘behind-the-scenes’ services, local governments in the US allocate taxes and levy fees in order to manage their community’s resident animals, both domestic and wild.  One would be hard pressed to find any populated burgs in the United States harboring packs of stray dogs like those that captured the hearts of the Olympic athletes in Sochi.  Or those that snag onto Peace Corps Volunteers’ the world over.

When I first came to Moldova, the stray dogs were one of the very first things to capture my attention; endlessly fascinating and enduringly entertaining, they continue to hold it to this day.   It is so jarring, watching a dog trot determinedly along, unleashed, eyes focused ahead, undeterred by other dogs or cats perched atop a fence or a family of ducks ambling across the road, seeming for all the world as if late for work, an invisible brief case strapped to its back.  (I keep waiting for one to pull out a cell phone and start yammering to his buddy across town.) These are dogs with lives, business somewhere, a purpose, a goal.  They are beholden to no human being and, for the most part, seemed to be just fine with that state of affairs.

Sure, some are skinny with coats that are burred and matted. Some of them have endured – and survived – obvious encounters with other dogs or machines or barbed wire fences, it’s true.  They limp along on three legs or cock but a single ear; perhaps their tail curves at a decidedly odd angle.  Yet, they do not appear to be inordinately unhappy.  In fact, when they aren’t briskly on their way to some undisclosed but very important destination, they are often scrabbling with each other in that rough and tumble way of puppies or lolling about on their backs in the scrappy sunshine or sitting, sphinx-like, in bemused contemplation of the passersby on the road.  Although 99% of Americans would claim these are dogs that need to be ‘rescued,’ I am not quite sure these days what we would be rescuing them from or for.

In Moldova, you see, an animal enjoys quite a bit of free choice. Other than the percentage of the canine population that is chained within fenced gardens, dogs are free to roam about the villages. Even dogs that have a home, so to speak, generally leave it every morning to begin their rounds and only return to it sporadically during the daylight hours. (I have heard tell that this practice – of allowing dogs to move about their world – is more prevalent in the rural towns and mountain hollows of America; having grown up in Southern California, I’ve never witnessed it.  In my city, a lone dog trotting down the street would occasion a call to animal control quicker than you could open a can of Alpo.)  And if a dog decides his interests would be better served by some other human on the block, he merely begins hanging around that gate to see if some food will be thrown his way or he might be allowed a space under the woodpile out of the rain.

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The irrepressible Buddy

In Romanian there is no word for “pet.”  The concept of keeping an animal as a cosseted member of the family is fairly recent here.  Dogs and cats are part of the landscape.  The notion of spaying/neutering animals is not even on the radar.  So it’s been quite different for me to experience the fertility cycle going on in my neighborhood during the last 6-7 weeks.  The dog whom I call Buddy (and everyone else refers to as “Dik”) lately has entertained a series of lady friends here at the center. One will come, hang out for a few days, then disappear again, only to be replaced a week later with a new fluffy blonde wiggling her tail. (Buddy seems to prefer blondes.)  Interestingly enough, the sharing of the bed does not extend to the sharing of a plate – or at least the one that I provide to Buddy each and every day.  He jealously guards my favors and my person as if I, too, am a conquest that has been tamed and trained to provide him sustenance.  The Marilyn-of-the-week can look on longingly, but is not allowed to come within a couple of feet of me or his food.

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Blonde-de jour Little Sheba

This is a bit of a contrast to Kittyho’s tactics.  Kittyho showed up on the outside ledge of my kitchen window one day a couple of months ago and screamed loudly to be let in, for all the world as if I had usurped her apartment and I damn well better make room for both her and her baggage.  Her baggage being, of course, (her name is Kittyho, come on!) an entourage of male suitors that tend to gather at odd hours on said kitchen ledge and stare moodily from her to me as if one of us could rock their world. I am importuned to provide food now not just for Kittyho and her impending litter, but for all the Lotharios who may or may not have a paternity suit going.  They accept the handfuls of kibble I scatter across the kitchen ledge (these cats are too demonic to be allowed inside) though they don’t appear to need it. Sleek, well-muscled and inordinately large, apparently they either have a team of humans trained to provide or their hunting and foraging abilities are more perfectly honed than the cats I’ve had in the States.  (I don’t notice them making much effort to provide for their prospective family, however.)

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Kittyho

One of her particularly tenacious suitors (he actually looks as if he could be her father, incestuous bastard!) showed up a couple of weeks ago with a very nasty gash on his head, slicing through one ear and gaping through to the tissue below.  Back home, this type of injury would necessitate an emergency trip to the vet, with all the stitching, prescriptions, plastic head cones, instructions for bandaging and containing movement and attendant expense one can readily imagine.  Of course, none of this happened in Moldova.  I’m pretty sure there isn’t a vet in Strașeni. And I, for one, do not have the means to either transport, contain or sponsor this feline monster, nor, I imagine, would he thank me for doing so. And any Moldovan would’ve laughed in my face if I had attempted to enlist help with this endeavor.  There was a week or so during which I wondered whether he would make it. The temperature was below 0 every night and the wound continued to seep for days.  But over the course of a month, it gradually healed – as far as I can tell without any well-intentioned intervention from my species.  He continues to shadow the windowill, glowering in at Kittyho and me as we go about our daily routines.  Survival of the fittest in action, I surmise.

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The incestuous demon cat, ear fully healed

Kittyho has other mechanisms for survival in her tool belt. She is a petite, well-groomed hussy, sharp-tongued and temperamental; unlike another feline that attempted to adopt me, she does not take to being picked up or otherwise fondled unless one happens to approach her at just the right moment with just the right stroke for the exact space of time she welcomes it.  Otherwise you’re bothering me. Oh, and could you fill up the food bowl again while you’re up?  And where’s that milk you’ve been promising me?  I had assumed that she had sought me out as much for warmth and respite from her relentless pursuers as the possibility of food, but in that I was terribly, terribly wrong.  Every night – frigid temperatures, icy snow, biting wind be damned – she stretches luxuriously before the silhouetted suitors ranged across the fence outside and sashays her way through the open window to begin her rounds.  Every morning she returns between 6:00 and 7:00 bleary-eyed and weak-hipped, huddles before the bowl to consume her weight in kibble then drags herself over to her easy chair to curl atop the softest blanket in the house.  She proceeds to sleep for the entire day, with brief forays outside to relieve herself or consume another bowl of food.  Occasionally, she will leap onto the counter to try to steal the butter.  Every evening, rejuvenated, the little temptress is up to tricks again.

Meanwhile, Buddy also has the run of the neighborhood, accompanying me as he wishes down the road when I leave for my biweekly trip to the market.  He enjoys scraps from the kitchen three times daily and bags of bones brought in especially for him by the elderly that patronize the center where I live. Occasionally he disappears for days, but just about the time I begin to fret he reappears, wriggling in anticipation of attention, tail furiously wagging and sporting a badge or two of crusty fur attesting to his courage in a skirmish.  After enjoying a particularly pleasurable butt scratch (courtesy of moi) he will gather up his little hind quarters in unadulterated glee and shoot across the driveway, circling the buildings like a torpedo, whizzing by bushes and leaping over stones with the agility and grace of a gazelle. Without a doubt, he is one of the happiest dogs I’ve known. Yet no one claims him.  He is not the ‘center’s dog.’  He is merely an animal that has staked out a territory amongst a community of humans, coexisting successfully within our boundaried lives.

I contrast his life and behavior sometimes to that of my beloved Zoe back home: she spent her days passing from window to backyard gate, staring intently at any activity that happened within her line of sight, gradually getting more lethargic and less inclined to run whenever she found herself unleashed within the proscribed limits of Irvine’s Central Bark.  She never displayed much preference for anything – never cultivated a love for a specific toy, nor was she at all fond of chasing a ball or a stick.  She ate her food in a begrudging manner, if at all.  I must have tried every gourmet brand made trying to excite her taste buds, to no apparent avail. (My husband ended up buying her a crispy chicken breast daily from the supermarket deli counter after I left to get her to eat.) We walked her faithfully everyday – sometimes twice – but I cannot help but wonder how her personality and hidden passions might have developed in different environs.  I can’t say I ever thought of her as gleeful.  She mostly appeared resigned.  And she never did have the opportunity to spend the night (or week) with a male friend of her choosing…

I know I am probably stirring the hackles of many animal-lovers reading this: how can I possibly believe that a dog living on the street of Chișinău or Sochi or Kiev is better off or happier than one who enjoys the comfort of a home in the United States? I’m not claiming I do.  But a part of me wonders how far we should extend the anthropomorphizing of our animals: are they better off when the choices are made by humans?  Do we truly know what’s best for them? (After all, we’ve done such a stellar job taking care of so many other species…..)  Or do we imagine that the things that make us less afraid, more secure and comfortable – order, predictability, birth control, a steady supply of processed foods, a wall around our properties – elicit the same emotions within them?  I admit that I don’t know. But I do recognize a happy animal when I encounter one.

I’m sure Gus Kenworthy’s rescued litter will find wonderful loving families back in Colorado or wherever they might end up.  They will visit the vet and get their shots and be spayed or neutered according to protocol.  They will be fed well and probably not experience disfiguring encounters with barbed wire.    Perhaps, if they are lucky, they will belong to humans with a great deal of land and tolerance for unkempt, burr-matted coats.  If so, they will retain a little bit of that choice they’ll never know they lost in those mean streets of Sochi.

The Long and Winding Road

“There is a myth, sometimes widespread, that a person need only do inner work…that a man is entirely responsible for his own problems; and that to cure himself, he need only change himself…. The fact is, a person is so formed by his surroundings that his state of harmony depends entirely on his harmony with his surroundings.”                                                Christopher Alexander, The Timeless Way of Building

The dirt road that winds from my living quarters into the town center is roughly a quarter of a mile long and probably the most unpleasant aspect of my daily life.  It is dusty in the heat, muddy in the rain, and treacherous with black ice during the winter.  During particularly heavy storms it becomes a river of loose rock and debris that can be a foot deep in some places. It is not a stretch, by any means, to say that scheduling the activities of my day is predicated largely by the specific condition of the road outside my door: the more unpleasant the journey looks to be, the less likely I am to make it.

However, the icing on the cake is not the road itself, but the trash dump that it skirts just around the corner from my house.  To call it an eyesore fails to accord it the true multi-sensory, aesthetically-offensive, soul-sucking status it attains.  Continually ravaged by rodents and dogs, perennially abuzz with flies and wasps, arrayed in a neon rainbow of tattered plastic and mouldering paper whose color palettes seem to have been mined from a bad acid trip, it sits sulkily putrefying amid the elements less than three feet from the road’s edge.  You smell it before you see it; the odor seeps into the folds of your clothes, clings to your nose hairs, coats your skin and stubbornly trails you long after you have left the heap behind.

***

I have to concentrate on not looking at it as I pass by because it angers me on such a visceral level, setting off a chain reaction of recrimination and blame that can blacken my mood long after the trash has been physically left behind.

It goes like this:

Why in the world can’t this neighborhood get together and buy a dumpster to hold their collective refuse so it won’t be accessible to the elements, the rodents and the dogs that roam the vicinity? (Of course, then how would the dogs eat – but that’s another chain reaction entirely…) There are countless two story villas on this road being slowly but inexorably constructed by remittances from family members working in other countries who seek to match the lifestyles they encounter there.  Every day, almost as many BMWs, Mercedes, Audis and Escalades whizz by me as litter the roads of southern California. Every other teen on the rutiera fiddles with her iPhone, or clutches her D&B bag, or reads on a Kindle while we bump over asphalt so pockmarked one wonders if it may have been bombed by an errant drone.   There appears to be no shortage of cash to satisfy individual appetites in many circumstances, but seemingly no funds, nor any will or desire, for any type of community-betterment project.

Then I remember that these appetites are quite deliberately cultivated, manipulated, and whetted by those very same corporate concerns whose un-booked externalities in the form of plastic bags, aluminum cans, cartons, crates, cardboard, and paper constitute the bulk of the materials feeding the midden on my road. but no – it doesn’t stop there, it gets even worse as I go deeper, folks.

***

I hearken back to my trip to Guatemala in 2012, walking beside a brilliant friend who spent two years living alongside the indigenous population helping them form a school for their children out of sticks and mud and determination.  I was bothered, immensely, by the amount of trash that filled the river ravines in the village.  I asked her about it – why it was there, what could be done, how she tolerated it.

She replied that it was the symbol of everything that stymied her about trying to help build a different sort of life for the disadvantaged in this world.  Thirty, forty years ago these people lived closer to the land, had their own farms and garden plots , grew most everything they needed and traded for what they couldn’t cultivate. But then, almost simultaneously (coinki-dink? Hmmm, I think not) large agricultural conglomerates bought up their land and began monoculture farming, exporting produce and inexorably cornering people into supplementing their diets with the relatively cheap and available Doritos and Pepsis and Snickers and fried pork rinds from the corner markets run by the families who no longer had income or staples from their land.

The people, of course, being so recently exiled from the natural occurring, unmaintained beauty that had heretofore surrounded them were disconcerted by the refuse that  was suddenly piling up in heaps everywhere, but attempts to collect and dispose of it only stranded them before the seemingly insurmountable obstacles of how?  who? where? There was no agency to build roads, no trucks to travel those roads, no money to pay people to drive the trucks, collect or haul the trash and no place to put it if they did.  So the trash piles up in the ravines until the seasonal floods come and wash it all out to the ocean where it flows into the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a floating accumulation of trash the size of Texas that swirls and gyres with the currents outside of anyone’s purview.

Well, didn’t that make me feel all better.

***

There is no one to blame but everyone, more or less.  I consume and generate trash, everyday, only here it is not conveniently swept from my awareness by a union-scale worker in an automated machine who absolves me of guilt for all the detritus that feeding, cleaning, furnishing, adorning, and entertaining my ‘self’ creates.

I remember once in my life being taken to the dump by my father, who probably needed to dispose of a mattress or some construction material or an old appliance.  I was horrified. First, by the miasma that enveloped us a half mile out, then by the sight of those veritable mountains of trash which loomed into view, cranes and other indecipherable machinery hovering about their perimeters clutching great loads of plastic and food and tree limbs and clothing and car parts all mixed in together amid grinding gears and circling birds and clouds of flies and dust curtains.  I gagged and gagged and ended up swallowing my own vomit, not wanting to add one piece to the ferment bubbling around me.  Of course, I have conveniently filed away the fervent vow I made then to find a way to meaningfully reduce my waste while seeking a way to convince others to do the same.  It is so much easier to just keep buying, unwrapping, and tossing mindlessly.

So perhaps that’s what really angers me about having to pass this garbage heap day after day after day. It will not let me forget that every single solitary piece of plastic; every garbage bag; every carton; every length of foil; every battery, can of paint, container of hairspray or detergent or peanut butter; every granola bar wrapper, empty pen casing, and broken cassette vomiting tape;  all the broken (and too easily replaced) curling irons, blow dryers, toasters, waffle makers, crock pots, frying pans, blenders; every discarded pair of holey sneakers,  bleach stained blue jeans, worn out socks; each and every used toothbrush, toothpaste tube, strip of dental floss, empty mascara, dried out lip gloss – ad nauseum, etc., etc., etc. – all of it still exists, somewhere, and will for many, many years after I do not.

***

Somewhere along the line, responsibility has become disconnected from activity, as if we’re able to enjoy a pleasurable ‘cause’ without an attendant, oft times deleterious, effect.  We encourage production and consumption and first world lifestyles with our foreign aid dollars, our glamorized advertisements, our iconic status symbols and our willingness to saturate markets with goods that local infrastructures have no mechanisms for processing once they are discarded.

We are so adept at generating externalities – residual detritus that collects in our human wake, evidencing lifestyles that are powered by consumption, (why must the economy continually grow to be healthy?) which we personally do not need to worry about recycling or repurposing or permanently dismantling.  And we tend to take for granted the sub-system of sewers and power grids and water mains and transit networks that support that consumption, leaving little evidence behind.

Who can really blame the Moldovans for desiring the same goods that people in the EU or the United States or Canada enjoy with such fervor?  Who can fault the Guatemalans for satisfying hungry children’s bellies with the cheap and tasty snack foods that line the shelves of the local bodegas?  They have all the toys without having the ability to build the walls and raise the roof and carpet the floor of the playroom.

So this is my question, so elegantly posed by the quote that headed this piece: which comes first, the unhappiness or the garbage?  Do we consume and discard because we’re unhappy or do our mounting externalities actually end up fomenting the gnawing, existential unhappiness that, down the line, results in the sense of despair and distaste which we attempt to assuage by consuming even more?

I can’t help feeling if that garbage heap was gone, my environment would be so much more enjoyable, which would positively affect my mood and make my daily life here much more agreeable.   I can’t help thinking that Moldovans, as a whole, would have more hope and dreams for their future, and perhaps remain in their own country, if their neighborhoods were cleared of garbage, paved with smooth asphalt, furnished with sidewalks and pleasant open-air spaces for people to gather in community.

Meanwhile, I open the cellophane wrapper of my coffee and retrieve the carton of creamer from the refrigerator for my morning cup of joe….

 

The Episode with the Kitten

The other day, an hour or so after another momentous thunderstorm, I was walking up the muddy river that serves as a road in more temperate conditions when I happened upon a weeks-old kitten perched precariously on a rock jutting just above the rushing water. Yapping dogs lined the road’s perimeter, but apparently none of them were ready to brave the water in order to munch the wee morsel.

Steeling myself against sentiment, I shooed away the dogs and continued on to the store.  I have had little patience with PCVs who adopt animals here: unless one plans on making a permanent home in Moldova, how fair is it to subvert an animal’s natural instincts by accustoming it to hand-feeding, doting attention and a warm, dry sanctuary?

Ten minutes later, on the way back, a thinly bleated chorus of mews wafted up to greet me.  The kitten was no longer in the road but I could hear it crying close by.  Again, I steeled myself.  You must not interfere, I told myself sternly.  There are hundreds – most likely thousands – of stray kittens and puppies born each year in Moldova that will not survive a month, much less their first winter.  If I had not happened down this path at just this moment I would never know about this one.  But the mewling seemed to get louder and more desperate as I left it behind.

I recited all the logical reasons why rescuing a kitten was not a rational move on a my part: I live within a community where pets are not cultivated (the one dog that hangs around the center is not allowed indoors, nor provided any food other than kitchen scraps. I am the only one who pets it;) my income is barely sufficient to feed myself;  I am away from site for days at a time; I cannot afford to spay or obtain vaccines; it probably has a ton of worms and fleas; yada, yada, yada. All these valiant attempts at hardening my heart steadily weakened as the calls grew more piercing and urgent in my wake.

So I did what any other smart PCV would do: upon my arrival back at the center I posed the question to another volunteer who happened to be staying the night with me.  “Tell me, should I rescue this kitten?” Of course, Georgiana immediately leapt to the call of an animal in need.  Arming ourselves with a bag and a pair of sturdy gloves, we set off back down the road to retrieve said kitten.

Only what we found was TWO kittens, cowering under a low carpet of bushes, soaked to the skin and shivering, almost skeletal with hunger.  Great.  One of them – a tabby with the big mouth that I had already seen in the road – was readily amenable to being picked up and placed in the bag.  The other, a Russian Blue, was decidedly not.  It scampered even further into the bushes, spitting and hissing for all its 2 ounces worth.  Oh well, I thought, I really didn’t bargain for more than one anyway. But Georgiana was now on a mission; she determinedly flattened the bushes right after it and caught it within seconds.

Damn.

***

Soon after finding them a box and warm blanket, we introduced them to the three young Dutch volunteers that are currently staying at my center.  One of them, Leonie, immediately fell in love. She had one or both of them curled up into her neck for the remainder of the day, and took them both to sleep with her that night.  Poftim.

I began formulating a convincing argument for why it would be good for HER to adopt two Moldovan kittens and take them home to Holland.  She was easy to convince.  Soon, she was researching transport options and firing off emails to an aunt back home who had successfully adopted several cats and dogs during her life travels.

The next day, the tabby disappeared. Leonie accidently stepped on it while taking off her muddy shoes after a run. It appeared to be unharmed and scampered off into the bushes.  But later on when she went to bring the kittens in for the night, it was gone.  This caused her a great deal of anguish and not a few tears; how can I admit to be slightly relieved that we were back to the original one I had first envisioned rescuing?  It was doubly sad that it was the tabby – the one that fostered my sympathy in the first place with his persistent cries.

However, now there’s Jane.  That’s what Leonie has named the Russian Blue, the one now so attached to people that she sets up a fuss whenever you walk away. And it looks as if she will be staying with me, after all.  Though a process does exist for adopting animals and exporting them to other countries, it is complicated, tedious, expensive and time-consuming; certainly beyond anything Leonie can manage in her remaining week in Moldova.

***

For a time, I watched a television show called How I Met Your Mother.  There is a character on the show, Robin Scherbatsky, who fantastically kept five dogs of various sizes in her tiny New York apartment.  Despite Robin only being home perhaps one episode out of 20, these dogs appeared placid and happy, not requiring food, or walks, or attention, apparently going to sleep for long stretches of weeks whilst Robin cavorted about New York with her friends.  Her furniture stayed pristine, big clumps of hair did not collect on the carpet and numerous throw pillows on her living room couch remained miraculously intact. Those of us who live with dogs – especially without the benefit of large suburban backyards or rural fields to set them loose in – know that five dogs in an 800 square foot apartment is a recipe for certain disaster, if not complete and irrevocable destruction of all one’s favored belongings.

This is one aspect of modern media that contributes to our continued naiveté in approaching the mechanics of our lives.  I remember my daughter pining for Carrie Bradshaw’s life in Sex and the City, a part-time newspaper columnist who inexplicably could afford Manolo Blahnik shoes, long lunches at high-end eateries, and a darling apartment in Manhattan.  When I would insert my (unsought) opinion that the likelihood of an actual columnist’ salary supporting such an extravagant lifestyle was pretty unlikely, she would froth and foam at my nitpicking lack of imagination.  Couldn’t I just appreciate the story?

I should no more adopt a cat in Moldova than Robin Scherbatsky should cram five canines into a New York walk-up.  But we continue to fool ourselves by referencing the glut of misleading, manipulative entertainment and advertising that does its concerted best to get us to watch, buy, and consume by convincing us that we are all better people for doing so.   We tell ourselves the stories that we fervently wish to believe about life.  And here I go with mine.  I still don’t think I’ve done Jane any favors in the end by bringing her into my life.  But, at least for this episode, she seems happy and I feel just a tad bit better for having ‘rescued’ her from an uncertain fate.  Catch me next season to see how the story progresses….

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Leonie and Jane – inseparable!

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First Encounter

Last night, I was granted a quintessential Peace Corps experience. One every volunteer rather expects when imagining her service in strange lands, foreign abodes,  and different climes, but which faded from consciousness rather quickly after I fortuitously dropped anchor in the pseudo-suburban dwellings of my training and assignment villages, with their multi-floored units, double-paned windows, and tightly meshed screens.  I had let my defenses lapse; I wasn’t prepared for the WHIRRING BLACK HORNED BEETLE ENCOUNTER….Horned beetle

It is past 10:00pm when I finally shut down the computer, turn the fan around to cool the bedroom, and flip on the overhead lamp.  Two steps into the room I register the whirring of a helicopter buzzing toward the light.  (I swear I feel its rotors graze the topmost hairs of my head.) Startled, I jump back to the perimeter, sheltering in the doorway, performing a quick scan of the airway. My eyes lift and lock on a freakish black mass the size of my big toe furiously slamming into the Japanese paper lantern hanging innocently above my bed.  It takes a couple of seconds to register…that’s not a helicopter, it’s a freaking BUG!!!   As loud as a helicopter, almost as big as one of those toys my 40+ brothers still obsessively play with on holidays – but this is no flimsy, plastic, remote controlled whirlybird, this thing is seriously ALIVE!

With my heart slamming in my chest, I blindly grabbed for the door handle behind me, poised on the tips of my toes to bolt from the doorway if it changes direction.  What to do, what to do, what to do??? No husband, no roommate, no mama gazda will respond to my bleating SOS.  I don’t want to take my eyes off it, give it the opportunity to find cover, chance losing this down-sized Star Wars Rancor somewhere in my sleeping chamber. 

Lieutenant Rancor
Lieutenant Rancor

Meanwhile, he continues to mercilessly slam the paper lantern, whirling in dervish circles, up and around, tumbling and pivoting, bam! Thud! Wham!  In the crystalline second it dawns on me that he is helplessly caught in the current of air blowing forth from the fan, Rancor inexplicably plummets from view. I run pell mell for the broom.

Returning with trepidation, heart now bubbling up in my throat, broom wielded aloft, melded sword and shield, my eyes dart frantically about the room: dresser, nightstand, clothing rack, walls, bed….OMG, nasty guy is sprawled supine in the MIDDLE OF MY BED.  Faking coma, I am convinced, stealthily waiting for me to approach.  Oh unholy spawn of Satan – is this your beastly strategy?  Slyly still, menacing behind pregnant silence, plotting my solitary demise alone in this Moldovan cell? (Why do lapsed Catholics always revert to Biblical invectives when grappling with terror?) I watch him for 10 seconds, 20 seconds, 30 seconds; his thorax never moves.  (Can one even see insects breathing? I stupidly wonder.)

Well, this standoff has to be brought to a head somehow: make a move Brave New Woman!  You’re the one gloating about living alone.  Deal with the consequence, baby.  Summing every vestige of courage I can mop up within me, I sally forth and swat – take THAT ye demon – each fine hair on my body stiffly alert, prepared for combative reprisal.

I succeed in knocking Rancor to the floor.  Hovering, keeping a good three feet between us, I peer at his armored hide, noting his serrated claws, the horn he must have lifted from a rhino, the multitude of hairy appendages protruding from his steel-plated body.  No wonder he whirred. This is not an insect, it’s a drone, a veritable military assault helicopter, designed to evince shock and awe, to inflict terror and damage on its stricken, limp-limbed victim.  Horned beetle 2Stretching the broom out in front of me, I scoot him toward the kitchen but am thwarted by the door sill (why, why, why do Moldovan doors all come implanted within inch high molded frames?)  Now, the beast lies between me and freedom, to all appearances comatose.  But I know better.  This is evil incarnate, waiting for a lapse in wariness.

Performing the highest leap I’ve managed since fifth grade field day, I clear his bristling weaponry and make another dash for the kitchen, securing the long-handled dust pan (thank god for at least one Moldovan implement with a long handle!)  I hurriedly unlock my apartment door, fly across the center entryway, flip on the light, scramble to unlock to outside door and fling it wide, then race back to the bedroom doorway, where my foe remains fiendishly feigning rigor mortis on the tile before me. Giving myself no time to ponder best tactics, I boldly reach forward, wincing, and scoop the tank-like thing up – his passage is audible, metallic, like a size 10 wing nut skittering across the floor – and then utilize the broom bristles to pin him savagely to the bottom of the dustpan.

I flee with captive held out arm’s length in front of me, almost tripping over the front door sill (damn those things!) and fling the beast out into the murky darkness of the rain-spattered courtyard.  I hear him thud down the steps in front of me.  Hightailing back inside (if I had a tail, it would be firmly between my legs) I slam the door, locking my thwarted nemesis out in the night.

It takes a full five minutes to stuff my heart back where it belongs.

Only now does a vestige of rational thought come creeping back, the tickling awareness that I may have only dispatched a front running scout.  Perhaps there is a lurking company of soldiers – lord almighty, maybe even an entire battalion – waiting in the wings, plotting my downfall, clacking their pointy jaws and waving their snipping pincers in glee! Where in the bloody hell did that monstrosity come from?  How did it gain access to my bedroom?

There is no outside door to my apartment, you see; I am separated from the outdoors by ten feet of gleaming linoleum that is scoured to a lustrous sheen everyday by the sturdy, swishing mop of the industrious Katya. No bugs are making forays down this well-traveled corridor on her watch.  Most of my windows are tightly screened – the two that are not I lock fast, fortifying their sills with armies of personal hygiene items to protect them from being opened by an unwitting guests (who are mostly more afraid of six- and eight legged critters than me.)

There are three vents (which I imagine to be useless, leading to nothing, since this building’s heating system is operated through wall-mounted radiators and air-conditioning is a pipe dream) but all are covered by ceramic screens with openings barely larger than the tip of my pinky – Lieutenant Rancor did not worm his way through one of those pinholes.

There comes the line of thinking that truly makes me shudder: did this intruder attach himself somehow to my clothing? Hitch a ride like some latter day Trojan inside the swirling panels of my floor length skirt?  Or did he clamber like a pirate into a crevice pocket of my backpack, tricking me into slinging him over my shoulder and giving him safe harbor within my personal belongings?  Or worse yet – did he claw his way out of the shower drain, poking his tentacles up from the sewer periscope-like, assessing both occupancy and opportunity in one stealthy search?

I realize I may be a bit overweening here.  Having just read a nightmare account of fist sized spiders in a pitch black outhouse that far exceeds my piteous-in-comparison skirmish with a venom-less beetle, I really have little justification for parading my tiny bravado.

By I did allow myself two OTC sleeping pills to calm myself into slumber.   And in the morning, when I tiptoed out to the courtyard to snap a picture of my conquered foe?

A great stretch of damp brickwork  lay before me, littered with the detritus of storm, not a corpse to be found.

He’s out there, somewhere.   Waiting.

Military helicopter

International Day of Women – Moldovan style

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Friday, March 8, was International Women’s Day.  In the United States, I can’t remember this holiday making much of a bang. (Perhaps it was noted on my desk calendar, but with the advent of Outlook, smart phones, and virtual reminders, who looks at those anymore?)

As Americans, we tend toward holidays that commemorate war, politicians (or other male figureheads,) or successful conquest.  We cede women Mother’s Day (isn’t every woman a mother?) and Valentine’s – neither of which are days of rest from work, I should point out (Mother’s Day being officially confined to a Sunday in the US.)  Both these holidays have a very specific focus and audience – thanks mom for bearing/raising/putting up with me and come on honey, give me give me some love…

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Forest light

In Moldova, conversely, International Women’s Day is a BIG deal with a wide open vista of possibilities.  Everyone gets the day off – women, men, children, politicians and bankers.  Women are feted, toasted, and gifted, by their husbands, their co-workers, their neighbors, and each other.  Coming just a week after Marțișor – the beginning of spring – there is a general feeling of sunshine and fecundity impregnating the air.  It not just women in particular but the female principle in general – the yin, if you will – Hera, Athena, Hestia, and Artemis all rolled into one.  So what better way to  celebrate than spending the day in the forest dancing midst the trees with wine, women, and song?

All week long the mayor’s office had been abuzz with preparations for the pending  party.  My partner kept assuring me that I was in for a genuine cultural experience, Moldovan style.  And the weather itself toed the line, dawning clear and brilliant, topaz sun ablaze in sapphire skies.

Arriving at work at a leisurely 10am, I found out I had missed the morning champagne toast (?!!) and the 100_2066presentation of flowers to all the women. But never fear! Within minutes, I was ushered into the mayor’s office and presented with a flowering plant, decorative salad dishes, and a genuine crystal vase made in the Czech Republic. These were accompanied by ornate speeches from two of my male co-workers, who then repeatedly kissed me on alternating cheeks so Doamna Valentina could properly capture the moment on camera for the historic record.  (Apparently, as both an American and a mature female, I am accorded an inordinate degree of respect.  American males – take note!)

By 1:00 all the women from the office were piling into a hired rutiera for the ride up into the forest just outside the city limits.  Up, up, up (past the city dump, deserving of its own blog post at some point in the future) to a 10-12 acre plot of trees on a secluded hill.  And there were all the men, fires burning under huge metal discs sprouting spindly legs, skewers of meat and buckets of potatoes, onions and carrots readied for the flames. 100_2041 Jugs of wine squat and mellow lined up on wooden tables. Vagabond dogs, still sporting the bristling, dense coats of winter, lingering at the periphery, anticipating the feast to come.  Air clear and mild, the sun a thin blanket of warmth over the crisp chill of glittering frost.  It was almost medieval in its raw, unadorned simplicity.

100_1999The first order of business began with the photographs –meticulously posed group and individual shots that are de rigueur for Moldovans whenever they gather for celebrations.  No matter how old, wrinkled, tired, messy, fat, windblown, or unattractive one might be feeling, there is no reason a Moldovan could fathom for not wanting your portrait captured in any given circumstance where someone is wielding a camera.   I am generally considered a slightly daft anomaly in these situations – not only for my unwillingness to continually stand and smile for up to 35 pictures in a row, but even more so for my propensity to wander about snapping unlikely shots of buildings, trees, food and fire with no apparent concern for lining up people in my cross hairs.  What in the world could that be about?  I have quit trying to offer any explanation beyond an inexplicable infatuation with the captivating Moldovan countryside.  That seems to mollify them a bit.

After that, the games.  All those not actively involved in the preparation of the food enthusiastically joined100_2062 rousing games of badminton or volleyball.  And I mean everybody.  A few women, arms linked, drifted off to pick violets and craft cunning little bouquets of tender new greenery, but there was none of that cracking open a beer and parking your butt in a lawn chair that Americans have perfected to an art form.  Apparently, enough sitting on one’s behind is accomplished at the office; picnics are about shaking things loose and getting one’s blood pumping again.

And when it came time to dine, there was no thought of sequestering off into little cliques of age-, gender- or interest-mates:  the women were set at one long table, jugs of wine, buckets of meat and platters of fire-roasted root veggies set before us, while the men stood in a ring behind eating on their feet, ready to replenish the fixings should any particular dish get low.

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Chicken stomachs – they taste fine but have the consistency of rubber

Of course, after one eats until the stomach is ready to burst, it is them time to dance the hora to combat the stultifying effects of all that food.  And dance the hora we did – old, young, male, female, mayor, driver, attorney, secretary, janitor, and volunteer.  There was no acceptable reason beyond keeling over and dying right there in the fallen leaves to not dance the hora.

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Cartofi și markovi

 

 

 

It is quite refreshing to see that there is no inhibition on anyone’s part to get up and dance.  Some of the males in this video are barely 20 years old….an age cohort that would most likely not know the first step of a waltz in the USA, much less being caught on the dance floor partaking.  And they all dance well – it must be the natural result of being included in every dance on every occasion since you could walk.

And this is one particular cultural quirk of Moldovans to which it has been most challenging for me to acquiesce – the impermissibility of playing wallflower.  One cannot float on the periphery and merely observe; there is no motive they can comprehend for not participating – fully, joyfully, and energetically – with all forms of active celebration.  If you are there, you participate; “no” is not heard, accepted, or tolerated.  They will wear you down.  You will dance.  And dance. And dance. And dance. (And actually end up enjoying it in spite of yourself.)

And if you get tired of dancing, if your feet are about to trip over themselves in a stupor and your knees are weak and cracking with the effort of propelling your leaden legs into the air, then you are permitted a wee break to embrace a tree and re-energize.  What?  Yeah, that’s what I said.100_2009

As the evening sun began to slip into the naked branches proffered arms, bathing them in a golden glow, I caught glimpses of shadowy forms engaged in locked embrace with some of the more substantial members of our little forest.  Arms and legs wrapped around trunks, leaning in with head lying flat against bark, it seemed as if they were listening carefully for the thrum of a heartbeat, or perhaps the pulsing of sap coursing up through the roots to bring sunlight and energy to the higher branches, and the human partner so lovingly appended.

There was nothing “weird” about this – neither drugs nor excessive alcohol was to blame.  Tree hugging, apparently, is not so much an environmental catch phrase here as it is a reverent commentary on the relationship that Moldovans still actively hold with nature and the land, especially after hours of dancing leaves one spent and limp and in need of jolt of energy.  I was charmed, and humbled.  And  I refrained from taking pictures, as it was a too solemn, personal and seemingly sacred activity to demean by turning it into a voyeuristic photo opportunity.  (If Moldovans aren’t taken pictures, you know it must be anathema…)

My first celebration with my new partners was definitely a mind-expanding journey, though.  I was welcomed and integrated into the proceedings with no hesitancy or awkwardness.  After so many weeks of solitary confinement in a small bedroom, it felt good to be dancing.

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New violets and a quirky fungi
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Me – posed Moldovan style