My “date” with Mihai?

Vegetable display…what a nifty centerpiece

I may have relayed that Nina invited Andrei and Mihai to my birthday masa last Wednesday night (Andrei and Mihai are the two gentleman that figured largely in my blog post about attending a celebration in Boghocieni though I didn’t know their names at the time.  MIhai is the man who guided me through the hitching process, Andrei the man who emerged in his bathrobe…)  So a couple of hours into the party, and several bottles of wine later, either Andrei or Mihai brings up the Agricultural Expo taking place this weekend at the Moldexpo in Chișinău.  They want me and the other three volunteers present – Matt, Lindsey and Patty Harlan – to come with them.  At least this is what I understood at the time. Both Lindsey and Matt refuse the invitation, citing other plans, and it is my initial impulse to do likewise.  After all, I truly am a city mouse and have no penetrating interest in farm implements, combines, and animal husbandry techniques. However, I pause and consider the fact that this would present a real opportunity for integration and show me a side of Moldova that I don’t have easy access to, living in a raoin center like I do.  And, admittedly, the wine has painted the world friendly and fun and I think “what the heck, I’ll go!” I then talk Patty into joining us, though this involves her rearranging a language lesson and pulling herself out of the heavily tread routine she’s dug for herself in Hîncești. (I think she may be the only M27 who remained at site for a record two months after PST.  She ventured into Chisinau a mere week ago on an excursion with fellow Moldovan teachers on a hired bus to the opera – which doesn’t really count as far as I’m concerned.)

Come Friday, however, Patty has a chance to view an apartment for rent that morning and has decided that this is more important to her overall happiness than accompanying me to Agrofest.  So now it’s me and the two Moldovan men.  While this causes a stir of apprehension within me, I console myself with the knowledge that these are two good friends of Nina and it would be impossible for them to perpetrate some indiscretion upon my person without her finding out and making mincemeat of them (Nina is traveling to her village for the weekend – like usual – and cannot  join us.)  So I  hold off on canceling out – I don’t have their contact info and probably couldn’t make myself understood over the phone anyway – and wait for the knock upon the door.  Which, in typical Moldovan fashion, comes precisely 51 minutes after the agreed upon time of 9:00am.


 Surprisingly, when I answer the door, there is Mihai, alone, in suit and tie, smelling faintly of cologne, no Andrei in sight. Well, perhaps he is waiting out in the car? Again, will I ever learn?  No car, no Andrei, and off Mihai and I trek to the bus headed into Chișinău.  At least it’s a bus this time and we’re not standing on the side of the road trying to negotiate a ride with a truck driver, I think.  Which should have been my first inkling that perhaps this little excursion held a bit more significance than I – with my casual American attitude regarding cross-gender friendships – might be initially aware.  As Mihai held my arm crossing the street – a feat I accomplish with no assistance several times a day – and guided me onto to the bus midst the teeming throng – again, a negotiation I have successfully managed without fear or trouble many, many times in Moldova – something began tickling the underside of my brain, like the feeling you get when you might have left the iron on at home or forgot to turn off a burner on the stove.   Then, I realize that he has paid the driver for my ticket as we have boarded after the moment when the driver walks down the aisle collecting the money.  I try to repay him the money for my fare, but he refuses to take it.  Then, after we are seated, he turns and (tenderly) brushes away hair that had caught in my eyelash, and suddenly an alarm bell begins to ring, loud, clear and insistent, in my head.  OH MY GOD – this is what PC warned us about!!! Any excursion comprised of a man and a woman – especially if you are beyond the naivety of youth – constitutes a date in Moldova, no matter how innocently you might have accepted said invitation.  Oh shit, shit, shit!!!  I’m on a f***ing date!  

 When Mihai reaches across the back of my shoulder to open up the curtain so I can see the view, I descend into a brief panic.  Thankfully, his arm retreats back to his side and we resume a halting conversation about the beauty of the countryside (autumn – so far – presents Moldova in her very best light), the whereabouts of his apartment, the times I have previously traveled to Chișinău, the number and gender of his children and grandchildren, etc.  I am still holding out hope that perhaps we are meeting Andrei at the expo and I begin to relax a bit.  Silence ensues and I zone out watch the passing rust and mauve-tinged vineyards and brilliant blue sky outside my window.   However, once we arrive at the Gara de Sud and he again grabs my arm (even though I have purposefully paced myself to walk two feet behind him,) and again pays the driver for my ticket (despite me having my fare in my hand) and proceeds to kick a young woman out of her seat so I can sit down (causing me great consternation and embarrassment) and then smiles at me every time I look up and see him watching me, I realize that I need to make the status of this little divertissement as clear as I possibly can.

Nina’s farm is in Bassarabeasca, where this honey was made.

Once we arrive at Moldexpo and it is clear that Andrei is not, indeed, joining us and the conversation lands on the distance marriage that Nina and her husband have contrived (him living full time on the farm in their village and her residing in the city because of her work with Avon) I realize this is the perfect opportunity for a brief segue into my personal circumstances.  I remind Mihai about my own marital status, the fact that my husband does not like to travel like me, that he has an important, well-paying job in America, and that I am here because of a desire to live and work in a different county for a time, but that I will be returning after two years.  (All information that I have shared before, but I figured that revisiting it couldn’t hurt.)  This was the best I could manage, given my limited range of Romanian and the intricate complexities required to convey conflicting emotions and delayed dreams and the deep insights into mortality that mid-life birthdays seem to convey for us first-worlders.  Suffice it to say that he was quiet for awhile after this, but I may be flattering myself unduly.  I have no idea if I embarrassed him by implying that his intentions were anything other than friendship, if he was confused by why I needed to insert previously established biographical data during an excursion to Agrofest, or if he was busily re-organizing our activities for the day to accommodate my (hopefully) clear lack of intention to pursue a more intimate angle.  I could have been wrong about the whole thing, given my absence from the universe of courtship for almost a quarter century now.  Oh well. Better safe than sorry.

John Deere makes it to Moldova

 By the time we enter the gates to the expo, small talk has resumed, the sun is peeking out from glorious, white-feathered clouds and a brisk breeze periodically floats women’s brightly colored scarves about their necks and hair.  The day is beautiful and it is interesting to see the range of equipment on display, from micro-tractors built in Japan designed for the private farmer to gigantic, towering combines from Russia looming far above our heads that, Mihai tells me, are only affordable – maybe – for ‘associations’ – to group purchase in Moldova. (These machines-on-steroids continually elicit disgust from him as flagrant reminders of Russia’s ‘abandonment’ of the Moldovan economy – he is one of a certain segment of Moldovans that thinks returning to the fold of the Soviet Union to be its only hope for a brighter future.)

Mihai exhibits a preternatural ability to pick foreigners out from the crowd and everytime he sees one he drags me over and excitedly announces that I am an American that speaks English.  This provokes some puzzled looks (he, after all, is not speaking English) until I open my mouth and say, “Hello, where are you from?” and we establish that, indeed, Mihai correctly assessed that they were from Germany or Holland or England or Bulgaria and – as never fails to astound me – speak almost perfect English.  (Americans remain stubbornly parochial in our language limitations largely because we can.) He even announces this to Moldovans, finding a handful that also speak perfect English which results in me exchanging phone numbers with the daughter of the Moldovan Minister of Foreign Affairs (a great PC connection, if I can figure out how to use it) and a woman who conducts tours throughout Moldova in her own private vehicle (an exciting expansion of my travel capabilities.)  I meet several who have gone to school in the US in such varied states as North Carolina, Virginia, and New Mexico.  I share with them that last year at this time I was traveling through those very states. We exclaim mutual surprise at the relative smallest of the world.

 Mihai, meanwhile, has been gathering every piece of literature offered by the vendors. He has a bag filled with twin, sometimes even quadruple, copies of every brochure, catalog, pamphlet, magazine, flyer, newsletter, and booklet that was offered.  And every time he picks one up, he looks slyly around and carefully slips it into the bag as if he is in a covert operation collecting evidence for some sort of political intrigue.  I think that he is naively unaware that these articles are provided without charge and assumes he is getting away with something in obtaining this wealth of information for free. I convey to him, as politely as possible, several times, that I really have no use for this literature but he continues to collect it, stating that we will give my portion to Nina’s husband for wintertime reading on the farm.  By the time we reach the end of the exhibition I swear the bag must weigh twenty pounds. (I hope Nina’s husband will appreciate this effort, but it seems like a yawn-inducing compilation to me…)

Gear for whiskey-making, always an important addition to an agricultural fair…

 After the exhibitors begin to dismantle their wares, Mihai has me call his sister for him (he doesn’t own a mobile phone, remember, an antediluvian idiosyncrasy even in Moldova.)   I hand the phone to him and then wonder why I can’t understand anything he says until I realize he’s speaking Russian – ah, yes, the Russian connection – and he tells me afterwards that we are now going to his sister’s in Buiucani, a fancier section of Chișinău that is home, amongst other institutions, to the University of Moldova and the American Embassy.  Great – now I’m being taken to meet the family? crosses my mind briefly but I let go the thought; the day has been fun and his manners impeccable and there has been nothing to concern me since I made my awkward little speech.

Yes, that’s the bottle of wine.

 Julia’s apartment is spacious and modern, though a little disordered from renovations she appears to be committing on the wrought iron that laces the outside of her windows. Our visit is made instantly convivial by a large bottle of homemade wine and it is from his sister that I learn of Mihai’s wife, Nina, who has been living in Israel for the past five years working as a nanny.  (This information surfaces in the midst of a comic ridicule of Israeli dependence on American aid and a somewhat skewed notion of Putsin’s character strength in refusing to provide money to spoiled nations.)  I am more than a little surprised that the existence of said wife has not been proffered in previous conversation, either by Mihai or my host sister, Nina.  Such biographical data seems integral to me to basic, introductory phases of communication.  This leaves me worried – just a bit – of perhaps not having misinterpreted Mihai’s intentions, after all. And my Nina is fully capable of aiding and abetting such deceptions.  She is one of a certain demographic of independent Moldovan women who appear to have a more casual, European view of marriage and conjugal relations, stating on more than a few occasions that I should remain open to entertaining the attentions of a “barbat” while I’m in Moldova.

Adorable chinchillas destined, sadly, for women’s coats

So when Julia forcing the unopened bottle of beer Mihai has brought with him back on us is coupled with his stated attention to accompany me home purportedly to divide the literature loot between us, and then I find the apartment still empty of Nina, I quickly pull out my phone and call Patty.  Like an angel, she appears after a mere half glass of beer has been consumed between us and all social discomfort – imaginary or actual – is resoundingly diverted by her presence. We sustain 30 minutes or so of trivial conversation, but it is only after I yawn repeatedly and repeat “obisita” (tired) several times that Mihai begins to gather his booklets and turn his attention to departure.  Observing traditional Moldovan etiquette, I accompany him to the door, where he pulls a final, fast one that confirms for me that my long-dormant instinct is still operating correctly.  In Moldova, it is common for women to kiss each other on either cheek when greeting or saying goodbye. For men, however, it is more customary to either take a woman’s hand and feign kissing it or, if one is particularly gallant, to actually place his lips lightly upon it.  Relatives and particularly close friends – i.e., Nina and Mihai, say – will allow a kiss on the cheek from the man to the woman.  When Mihai started toward my face, I flinched, and then was horrified when he kissed me smack on the lips and then giggled mischievously. I was so shocked I just stood there with my mouth agape before gathering my befuddled brain to shout “rau!” (bad!) at his departing back as his disappeared down the stairs.

Me, with pumpkin

Another lesson stumbled through about the nuances of Moldovan culture and the difficulties of communicating clearly without a better command of language. Perhaps it was just a teasing gesture on the part of a lonely man who welcomes female company of any sort in the prolonged absence of a wife (dear me, does that mean my husband is kissing neighbors?) but I will need to establish much firmer boundaries if I ever decide to accept such an invitation again.  These are the aspects of Peace Corps service that one just doesn’t anticipate. Really.

The Big City

Famous portal entering into Chisinau

Time has sped by the last 10 days…with PST over and all my M27 friends departed to site, I thought I was going to have an easy, quiet time in the TDY apartment in Chișinău while I received daily treatment for my knee.  Not so.  It was probably the most busy (and entertained) that I have been since arriving in Moldova.

Let’s begin with the diva knee.  So, I am sent to this NICE apartment right next door to the Peace Corps office with all my bags (suddenly I have even more stuff than I came to Moldova with) after the swearing in ceremony.  There are three bedrooms there, all empty, and a great big kitchen with a microwave, even.  So I’m excited.  I trot off to the market and buy some groceries and cook my very first meal since leaving home.  Then I spend some time reading and I take a bath and I make up a bed and settle in and soon am fast asleep.  RRIIIIINNGGGGG….ring…it’s the telephone.  9:30pm the PC doctor is calling, not to check up on me but to announce the impending arrival of another volunteer.  (I guess she didn’t want me to freak out when the front door opened.)

Well, this volunteer’s arrival marked the start of the week of the revolving door.  In seven days there were eight other people in and out of the apartment for various reasons.  They all stayed for at least a day or two and somewhere in there I heard every single one of their stories, all of which fleshed out for me a more complete picture of Peace Corps Moldova.  It’s complicated.  Just like most other things in life, I guess.  It made me appreciate how unique each person’s service ends up being: even though we‘re all in the same country, we are not having the experience.  Which means that it is impossible to judge anyone else’s outcome or decisions – whether they ET (early terminate) or extend for an extra year or do their proscribed two years and flee back home.  There are a million different reasons for walking many different roads here.  I suppose that’s true of all the PCVs around the world.  But here is a video of my new friends Maria and Katie playing on the teeter totter outside our apartment:

This is the one of the main reasons PCVs say that they love their experience.   We know how to make fun happen with whatever comes along…

My other new friend Maria – in traditional Moldveneasca costume!

Back to the knee: every day I would walk over to PC offices and my own driver would whisk me off to a state-of-the-art medical center (called MedPark – looks exactly like Kaiser in the US) where a lovely aide would spend half an hour giving me various treatments involving magnets, electricity , and sonar.  Another volunteer was getting the same treatments, so we had a chance to chat everyday for an hour or two as we rode there and back and underwent our treatments.  She related a lot of useful info about her year’s worth of time here and she was very funny and entertaining.  My knee felt better and better every day. Life was lovely. (Then I screwed up my knee again my first day at site – more on that experience later…)

I was also invited by a group of the M26s for an evening at an American couple’s house in the outer limits of Chisinau.  He works as an IT specialist for the American Embassy and his wife loves to cook but has no one to eat it all.  So every Thursday they host a buffet meal in a varying theme for any American ex-pat who wants to attend.  The best part of all was their pets – a BIG Sharr Mountain Shepard (never heard of it before that night) and a cat that both craved attention.  And all of us animal-starved people were ready to slather it on.  I felt like I had received a mental health intervention just petting and cooing at them.  Man, I miss my dog.

On my last day in Chișinău my lovely friends Elsa and Carl, who are stationed in the city, took Darnell and I out for a day long excursion through the parks and museums and fashionable districts.  We had a lot of fun and I got to see a side of Chișinău that I hadn’t seen before.  There are stores – like Abercrombie and Salamander – that one would see in the US.  There are multi-storied, densely packed buildings that house a warren of vendors selling an eclectic variety of products: one floor will be shoes, one floor fabric, another bed linens and bath accessories, one all toys, etc.  It’s like having a whole mall, but packed into one building.  Very efficient.  There are lovely parks with giant chessboards where people stand around watching a game like it’s a tennis match or something.  There seem to be hundreds of couples getting married.  They speed by in cars decorated with masking tape and colored plastic bags and honk horns and scream madly to passersby.  More pictures of Chișinău:

Darnell and Elsa
One of hundreds of wedding limos driving through Chisinau on Saturday
Parliament Building
Romulus and Remus in front of the Museum of Archeology
Game of Chess anyone?
Biserica in the Park
See the tiny police car
City street
More city street – lovely trees

Cîinea Cîntea (The Dogs Sing)


I don’t know what songs they might sing for Christmas around here, but there is no such thing as a silent night in Stauceni.  First of all, let me say that there isn’t much night to speak of anyway: it doesn’t get dark-dark until after 10pm and the sky is light enough to read by at 4:15am (I know, because I’ve done it.)  Because I don’t sleep very well unless it’s really dark (I can’t even stand a light on in the next room,) I’d really like to sleep through the relatively short period of night that occurs here in Moldova during the summertime.

Not so, I’m afraid, because each night the dogs must sing their opera.

I have not mentioned the dogs here yet, mostly because their living conditions really sadden me.  Though it isn’t as bad as other countries I’ve visited, there is still a profound difference in the way they are treated compared to dogs in the US.  Basically, there are a multitude of strays  everywhere that forage the trash, streets, and fields for food and  then there are those kept chained up in people’s yards and fed disparately according to their owners’ temperaments.  There are a few that seem to be kept as pets, i.e., allowed to roam their owners’ yards freely (NEVER inside the house) but amongst us volunteers only two out of nine of our families have one like that.  Almost every house in the village, though, has a dog chained up near the front door.  Ostensibly, they are supposed to serve as sentries.  But when they bark at every person that passes by, I’m not sure how effective they could be, as one becomes inured quickly to their warnings during the day time.

Note “during the daytime.”  Now let’s talk about night time:

Every night I’ve been in Moldova, I am invariably woken up sometime between 2:00 and 3:00am by the dogs (sometimes it’s the roosters, too, but I’ll leave that for another day.)  Sometimes it’s just one dog, sometimes it’s two or three, at times it seems to be all the dogs in Stauceni.  They bark in tandem, they bark duets, they crescendo, they solo, they bark a call and bark in response.  I lie awake until dawn at times waiting for them to shut the fuck up – or for some irritated owner to yell at their own dog, at the very least.  No.  No one else seems to mind.  Or perhaps they sleep through it, I don’t know.  I know most of us volunteers don’t.  We’ll meet up in class bleary eyed and nod at each other knowingly: “The dogs again…did you hear them…oh I heard them…damn dogs….I hate dogs.”

Except I don’t.  I really love dogs and am missing my own more than I expected.  (I spent a lot of time with her the past six months or so when she was my only company most days.) So last night as I lay there again listening to the chorus and trying not to let evil thoughts of slaughter creep into mind, suddenly an awareness sifted softly into my sleepy brain: they are singing to each other, I thought.  These dogs that spend their whole lives chained up in yards, never allowed to roam, cavort, or run, always circling the same four foot enclosure, never able to sniff or greet or play with their own kind, they are lonely.  In the silence of the night they call out to each other, sing for each other, tell stories amongst themselves about the meager contents of their days.  Perhaps the strays join in and relate the vagaries of their existence – the difficulty of finding food, the discomfort of the hot sun and cold rain and blustering wind when there is no shelter to be found.  Their songs are permeated with frustration and yearning and sadness and grief.  At least that’s what I was hearing at 3:30am in the never-silent night.

This is the first time I’ve seen Nina pet Pirate.  It made me so happy.  Though he has been chained up in a corner of the yard during my stay, she does feed him regularly and well. (I give him meat from my lunch sometimes, when Nina isn’t home.)  But this is not always the case for some dogs.  Other volunteers have related stories of dogs chained up at houses under construction where they sometimes have no water and appear to be starving, like the owners are trying to make them fierce and dangerous. (And who is stupid enough to come near a chained up, starving German Sheppard??? Really, I just don’t see the point.)

On a happier note, Nina and her male suitor (she refuses to even CONSIDER his persistent proposals) sing often for me.  This is one thing that’s very different about Moldovans.  After our meal is finished, very  often we’ll sit in silence (finally – silence!) for minutes at a time, just looking around, listening to the birds sing, the wind blow, the children play out in the street.  Occasionally, with no apparent prompt, Nina or Ilea will begin humming or foot tapping, and then begin a duet melodious and sweet.  Sometimes they sing to each other, sometimes they sing to me.  Sometimes they just sing.  The songs are often melancholy and bittersweet.  Even though they’re in Russian or Romanian, I can always tell by the tone what emotion the song is conveying.

Just like with the dogs…