Market High

Market High

One of the distinct pleasures of living in Moldova – and I believe most of my M27 cohorts will agree on this one – was shopping at the Chișinău outdoor market, called the piața in Romanian (pronounced pee-aht-za.) The piața was located in the center of downtown, spreading across a couple of city blocks, pedestrian-only, no cars allowed. Here, one could find virtually anything from vegetables, fruits, meats, dairy products and fresh-baked bread to screwdrivers, sweatshirts, bicycle tires, alcohol, pet leashes, and laundry soap. There existed no map of vendors, though like items – such as clothing, hardware, and cleaning products – tended to be located in roughly the same areas. Initially, one had to rely on second-year volunteers to give directions (“turn left where the old Russian guy is selling radios, then go until you see the egg ladies, make a hard right and you’ll be in front of the fish place.”) Invariably, it was wall-to-wall shoppers: bunicăs hobbling in sturdy shoes, stabbing their canes ahead of them; wiry teenagers pushing carts laden with boxed produce pell-mell through the crowds, no regard for elbows or toes; fathers bearing small children aloft on shoulders; young fashionistas tilting along on impossibly high heels. It took me almost a year to familiarize myself with the varied wares hidden within its twisting, turning corridors and yet another one to have sufficient command of the language to negotiate a fair price and not automatically accept the (usually inflated) “American” price proffered to English-only speakers. During my third year food shopping became an almost daily task, not only due to the limited space in my pint-sized fridge, but largely because I welcomed the bustling, cacophonous counterpoint it provided to my otherwise calm and ordered existence. The morning dive into the piața’s seething sea of flesh and the contact it provided with those who brought the garden to my table was a definite high point of the day.

One of my intentions in making a transition to life back in the states was to continue this practice of walking to a local market to purchase the ingredients for my dinner. This quickly proved overly time-consuming, however; Irvine has a wealth of diverse shopping venues but it was built to support car-culture, not pedestrians seeking to tick off the day’s purchases in fewer than ten miles. Often, my list would contain items found only in specialty stores – Whole Foods or Mother’s or the Indian grocery, say – or bulk items that were most reasonably priced at Trader Joe’s or Costco. I would generally walk to one of these locations daily, but then spend another hour driving around in my car to all the other places. It was so easy to slip back into the habit of buying a week’s worth of food, sacrificing crispness in my vegetables or firmness in my fruit for the added time gained by not having to run around to four or five stores each day.

And then I got to Fairfield and met Jungle Jim.

Jungle Jim's

My husband had waxed rhapsodic about Jungle Jim’s International Market from the moment he discovered it a month or so after moving to Ohio. (I believe he actually chose his apartment based on its proximity to the store.) He was so enamored with its eclectic set-up and cornucopia of products that we soon jokingly began referring to it as ‘Church’ in our daily telephone calls, as in “I need to hang up now; I just drove into the parking lot of Church.” He went almost every day after work and would then call back to inform me about what spectacular cut of meat he’d scored or the marvelous discovery he had happened upon in the candy aisle (Presidential Pez-head dispensers, chocolate-covered crickets) or the offerings at the tasting bar (chocolate stout, sparkling pear wine) that evening. As the date of my move east approached, I began mapping out the locations of my favored markets and was horrified to learn that, not only were there no Trader’s Joe’s or Whole Food markets within walking distance, their closest outposts were some 20 miles south in Cincinnati. “Don’t worry,” he told me. “You’ll find everything you need at Jungle Jim’s.” Really? I found myself thinking. Do they even know what bulgur is in Ohio?

It stretches my descriptive powers to properly convey the circus-cum-carnival-meets-back-country-five-&-dime atmosphere of this place. Yes, indeed, there are life-sized, paper-mache giraffes, monkeys, flamingos, and elephants gathered to greet you where the waterfall dumps into penny-toss pool out front. Carousel? Check. Monorail? Check. Entertainment center regularly hosting comedy nights, wellness festivals and weddings? Uh-huh. In-store Starbucks, cigar-shop, toy store, cooking school? Yep, yep, yep and yep. Need to do some banking? No problem, in the store. Pharmacy? We got you covered. Post office? Need you ask? The average American supermarket stocks, on average, 47,000 products, most of which are produced by only a handful of food companies. Compare this to JJ’s website claim that they offer over 150,000 brands, 60,000 of which are produced by global manufacturers from Edinburgh to Istanbul. Seriously, you can buy a floor-sized hookah in the Middle Eastern aisle for $109. There is a 75 foot row of soy sauces – that’s it, just soy sauces. 180 different types of hot sauce. A three aisle section devoted entirely to cheese, It stocks one of the largest wine collections in the United States. (It has a hell of a lot of beer, too.) The store is 200,000 square feet and I think, just like the piața, it will take me a good year to learn all that it contains. (Who knows, there might be bicycle tires.) And it’s a ten minute walk from my front door.

My husband has actually met James O. Bonaminio, the eponymous originator of Jungle Jim’s. He encountered him in doctor’s scrubs at last year’s Beer Fest (“Is there a doctor in the house?” the overhead speakers would periodically announce,) but has run into him since working alongside stockers and checkers in jeans and tennies. In 2012 he opened a second location just outside of Cincinnati. I am tempted to ask if he’d franchise. I could see this making a hit in LA.

Jim
The wizard himself, Jungle Jim

***

Ten years ago I never thought much about shopping for food; it was a chore that fit in somewhere between gassing up the car and dropping off the dry cleaning. But in the last couple of years it’s become a significant aspect of my day, something I view as one ingredient in a larger composition having to do with my health and well-being. Even before Moldova, I’d been conscious of the amount and type of food that I consume, the way it’s been grown and processed, how much packaging surrounds it. Then, shopping in the piața taught me how the very act of purchasing can differ from place to place, and that finding and selecting my ingredients can be a pleasurable task, rather than just another chore in my busy day. And now Ohio has gifted me an amusing, one-of-a-kind, wonderland of international, organic, farm-to-table, fresh caught, small-craft fare that provides me both a daily dose of happiness and a nice walk to boot. Who would’ve thought one could find such think outside a multi-chain corporate conglomerate?

And if any of you are interested in chocolate-covered insects, let me know. I can mail them to you right from the store.

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Foodies, Funk, and Fun

Lamb Shank

FOODIES

I love a good meal and tend to find myself in the company of those that do, too. Back in the States I was one of four women comprising “Table 41,” a monthly dining club that allowed me to sample high-end restaurants and top-tier chefs through the economy of paying only a quarter of the tab (unlike when my husband and I went out, say, and we had to foot the bill for both of us.) I have had the incredible luck of falling into another such group here in Chișinău and we have committed to visiting one of nicer, ethnic/cultural restaurants in the capital every weekend until my departure on September 2. Chișinău has changed just in the three years that I have been in Moldova, new restaurants seeming to pop up each month (including, just two weeks ago, Smokehouse, the first serving authentic American BBQ, opened by two of my good friends and fellow M27s, Matt Stahlman and David Smith.)

Nadia_tongue
Classic Nadejda pose – there’s a bit of the devil in there, too!

Nadejda, my counterpart at Novateca has been an angel to me in so many ways, not in the least for re-introducing me to Al and Uliana. I met them both briefly at an InterNations event, the monthly gathering of ex-pats in Chișinău, about a year and a half ago but only cemented our mutual admiration society upon running into them one night at Smokehouse when I was having dinner with Nadejda. Turns out Uliana and her have been friends for a decade (small world, truly, Moldova) and Al tutors Nadejda’s daughter in conversational English. Through the course of our exclamations over the exquisite experience of spice (something hard to come by in Moldovan dishes) we discovered ourselves all to be foodies and immediately decided to form a dinner club. table coverThat’s how we found ourselves last weekend at Gok-Oguz, a Gaugazian place that has the ambiance of a country villa and the food to match. For those of you unfamiliar with the territory of Gaugaz, know that it is a “national-territorial autonomous unit” within Moldova populated by the descendants of Turks who migrated into the Balkans during the 13th century. So their food is a surprisingly delightful mix of Eastern Europe and Middle Eastern cuisine, with many dishes some permutation of lamb, rice, cabbage, onions, and other pickled vegetables.

entranceexterior_1exterior_2Gagauz spread_2the_group_1Uliana_fan_Heidi

That’s Uliana on the left, Heidi, an M29 PCV in the middle, and Al on the right.  Heidi and I met, auspiciously, through my blog. She was living in NYC working at a boutique M&A firm, riding in the backs of town cars and traveling to Milan for work, when she messaged me, wanting some real time advice on Peace Corps service. And now here we are, two years hence, with her and I at the same table, and she scheduled to move into my old apartment and commence work on a marketing campaign for Neoumanist service tourism project this September. (Truly, it’s a small world after all!)

FUNK

The next day, Sunday, Heidi and I explored The Yard Sale, a  flea-market-cum-food-truck experience that materializes monthly in a bohemian enclave hidden in the depths of a few twisting back alleyways in the middle of Chișinău. She and I had to keep shaking ourselves as it felt as if we had somehow been teleported to SoHo or WeHo – 90% of those in attendance could have been plucked from an American Apparel catalogue or blended into the crowd at Venice Beach. I don’t know where central casting found them, but they definitely weren’t the usual demographic shopping at Sun City or Malldova. Wildly colored hair, body piercings, elaborate tats and funky headgear all seemed de rigueur and for once my Vibram toe shoes didn’t feel out of place. I had an actual falafel, made from actual ground chickpeas (not a mix) that was de-lish and we sat and sipped sangria and people-watched, happily, for a couple of hours.

View_3 View_2 View_1 Swinging Swing Round_house

Hard to make out, but that’s a person inside the red hammock swinging out from the empty window frame in the middle right photo.  No safety net or helmet, folks, just family entertainment, Moldovan style!

FUN

Cat_coalition_2

And, heading out for a morning walk, just outside my front door, we find the cat coalition that lives beneath my building, swarming the walls and fences each time a person disturbs their rank.  There must be 30 or 40 of them, all ages, I swear.

During the morning walk, I pass by what I have dubbed the local haunted house. Since it doesn’t have a door, or windows, or much of a roof, I guess it’s really not much of a house, but sure looks creepy, right?

Round_corner_haunted_house

Tiny_kitchen

And, finally, my stab at living “tiny,” evidenced by the doll-sized kitchen in my AirBnb apartment.  I am enamored of the tiny house movement and find the smaller space quite navigable for preparing meals though perhaps not so sweet on storage….and I do miss having an oven.

Look for me here at least once a week through September 2 as I’m wrapping it up my time Moldova.  Life begins, again, anew.

And, still, I’ll be living mad…….

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…

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….

 

Vara #1: Another spin in the cycle

Me and Romy, hustling for peace...
Me and Romy, hustling for peace at Chisinau International Airport

On Wednesday, June 5, at 12:45pm, a group of 51 new Peace Corp Trainees landed at Chișinău airport to a great deal of noise and fanfare on the part of the M27s who were perched on the roof to greet them.  I was surprised to see and feel the giddy anticipation, which quickly morphed into unbridled emotion (tears and all), this particular event evoked within us now 1-year-old volunteers.  It was an electric tingling of excitement mingled with sentimental hope for the newcomers, sprinkled with a sense of awe, self-confidence and pride at how distant that moment seems last June when we landed on the exact same tarmac, google-eyed and weary. Life feels so different now.  So normal. Routine.  We have made it.  And most of them will, too.

All those excited faces waiting to debark the bus transporting them across the tarmac
All those excited faces waiting to debark the bus transporting them across the tarmac

I stood outside the the terminal exit along with the other mentors and watched as each one of them emerged, wheeling a cart with all their baggage for their next 27 months, and witnessed the play of emotions dance across their tired faces.  I experienced it all again – the fear, the exhaustion, the confusion, the gut-churning anxiety that accompanied my first glimpse of my new home.  Accompanying them on the bus back to Chișinău, I noted how some of them couldn’t stop asking questions while others seemed steeped in silence, deep in a world of their own.  Watching them interact with Peace Corps staff and other mentors at hub site during a quick pizza lunch, I witnessed some of them flit about the room like newly hatched butterflies, while others looked as if they’d like to crawl back into a cocoon. And I knew all of these observations were no indication of how they would develop as volunteers.  You just never can tell….

***

The following Friday, June 7th, was our actual anniversary date and our entire Stauceni class – minus Jan and Leslie, who ET’d (Early Termination) back in October, and Quinn, who was conducting a summer camp – gathered at Robyn’s house in a village near the Romanian border to celebrate.  I took a train with Georgie directly from my village to Robyn’s raion center – a 10 minute bus ride from her village – for 9 lei.  (That’s less than 75 cents American, folks.)  It was fantastic.  We got to sit on benches at a graceful distance from our fellow riders, no armpits in our noses and with an actual open window blowing fresh air on our faces (which helped dispel some of the noxious fumes from the 6 boxes of live chickens in the back of the compartment.)

Robyn, with mushroom
Robyn, with mushroom

 

100_2665
The view from Robyn's porch The view from Robyn’s porch

Robyn is one of the most thoroughly integrated volunteers I know.  She lives in a small village where she never hears English, which has brought her Romanian to beautifully articulated fluency.  She is surrounded by Moldovan neighbors, friends and work partners – there is not an American to be found within at least 50-60 kilometers.  And this is just fine with her.  She has a large garden, fruit and nut trees, a cat, and a four room house complete with modern bathroom all to herself.  The view from her front porch is one of the most glorious I’ve come across in Moldova. This is a dream come true for her – the exact kind of experience she wanted from her Peace Corps service.  She is pretty sure that she will be extending for a third year.

And, as I have said over and over again in this blog, everyone’s Peace Corps experience in unique.  Last summer there were four very smart, accomplished, and vibrant M26s who ET’d, much to our newbie perplexity.  We were just entering and they were bowing out – early – even though they all seemed happy and satisfied with the work they had accomplished during the previous year.

And now I believe I better understand why.

Patty, my “PC daughter” (she calls me “mama”) decided some time ago that she had reached the natural termination of her Peace Corps service.  Though it did not happen to coincide with her scheduled COS (Close of Service) date, she felt that she had done everything she had set forth to do in joining the Peace Corps and the time had come for her to move on.  So our one year anniversary celebration doubled as poignant farewell to a much beloved member of our little family. 100_2738

Patty stayed with me for her last four days in country and we spent a number of hours together reflecting on Peace Corps, its ups and downs, rewards and challenge, and, especially, the clarity it (sometimes unwelcomingly) forces upon you in relation to your own character and vulnerabilities.  As badly as a part of me wanted to equate my experience to hers, to remind her of the depression and hopelessness I had felt just a few short months before, of how many times I had contemplated ET’ing and how glad I was now that I hadn’t, I stopped myself.  I am not Patty’s mother.  We are Peace Corps Volunteers, together but different, each walking a very personal path.

For me, her recent departure has become an interesting exercise in self-awareness, revealing more layers of my former personae – the one that had accreted over 27 years of motherhood, flavored by elements of paternal influence that generate my propensity to take control –which I am still shedding here in Moldova.  Patty is just 5 weeks younger than Rhiannon, my only child.  They share many similarities – sparkling intelligence, a snarky wittiness,  big dreams, and a passion for travel coupled with a firm desire not to spend their youth caged in a cubicled-world – that drive them both to keep seeking that proverbial place of contentment, somewhere over the rainbow, of which they have yet to catch a glimpse.

One of the most liberating aspects of my Peace Corps journey has been the opportunity to form peer-relationships with people of my daughter’s generation, to be treated as just another friend, a fellow traveler on this journey, equal in most every way that counts here after all the roles and titles and social contexts of America have been left behind.  Patty is good at halting me in my tracks when I stray off into mother role – giving too much advice or reminding her not to forget her purse or nagging her to go to the doctor, for example.  Smart-ass comebacks that might sting coming from Rhiannon I receive like a refreshing splash of water to the face from her.  Perhaps not even realizing it, she has held a mirror up to me, allowing me to see with clarity many of the reflexive aspects of my personality that I know annoy my daughter to no end.  (Rhiannon, if you ever get to meet Patty, know that you owe her a soul debt.  I think I can be a better mother to an adult daughter because of her.)

***

And so the cycle spins, cleansing me of much of the gray water that I toted along from America and that threatened to engulf me through those long, empty winter months.  I have come full circle, weathering the spectrum of seasons, to arrive – finally – in a mental space where I could both greet the new trainees with confidence and joy and then, days later, accompany one of my very best friends on a 4am final journey to the airport and hold back tears as I said goodbye, knowing that the last American face she saw in Moldovan should be one of confidence and joy, also.

 I’ll miss you Patty. But I believe in the choice you’ve made for yourself.

We wave hello and then goodbye and hold tightly to each others’ hands along the way. 

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

Strașeni mă salută cu brațele deschis

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Priimarie (mayor’s office) Strașeni

Strașeni welcomes me with open arms!

The first day of spring (Moldovan style,) my new partner’s birthday, a commemoration of war heroes (Transnistria and Afghanistan,) and my first day of work all coincided to welcome me to my new home today.  What a day!

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Lots of trees in Strașeni

Marțișor is traditionally celebrated on the first day of March in Moldova – never mind when the actual equinox occurs.  Today was a perfect showcase for the celebration – brilliantly sunny with a bright blue sky ornamented with wispy clouds and framed by the bare, supplicating limbs of surrounding trees.  The chill nip of the morning was offset by the warmth of the sun blanketing my shoulders as I donned a sweater (no down parka needed) and set off down the road for my first day at the office.

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The road into town

When I arrived, Doamna Valentina presented me with a small bouquet for my lapel comprised of a red and white flower.  This is a tradition here; both women and men wear these for the whole month of March and on the last day one is supposed to place it in the boughs of a tree and make a wish.  True to Doamna Valentina’s reputation for thoroughness and efficiency, she presented me with three variations and a duplicate so I have sufficient resources to make it through the month’s end.

Marțișor lapel ornaments
Marțișor lapel ornaments

My Peace Corps Program Manager wisely insisted that the Doamna Valentina assign me a partner in her office with whom to work other than herself.  There are two reasons for this:

1) Peace Corps does not want to be perceived as providing “personal assistants” to political figures, which could be misinterpreted as favoring one particular party over the other, and 2) Mayors are way too busy to devote time to training and explaining tasks to a novice – especially one whose command of Românian is barely breaching middle-intermediate at best.

Poftim, enter Tatiana, my lovely, just-turned 23 partner who is the building and construction specialist for the mayor’s office.   And who speaks wonderful American English as a result of two summers recently spent in North Carolina in a work-and-learn program.   Tatiana – or Tania, for short – has a bachelor’s degree in construction engineering and is currently attending university in Chișinău to earn her Masterat (as they call it) in Real Estate.  Not sure how that translates to an American degree, but there you go.

The lovely Tania at the military memorial
The lovely Tania at the military memorial

She’s an intelligent, ambitious young woman who was not afraid to stand up to those male professors who didn’t believe a female had any business in their classrooms.  Her father is an engineer with his own construction business; apparently he is very successful and has engineered and built buildings throughout Moldova.  She is intent on joining his business and carrying on the family trade.

Afghan and Transnistria war plaques
Afghan and Transnistria war plaques

Almost immediately, Tania and I joined the entire office in a parade through the middle of town that ended in a gathering in a park to commemorate the “heroes” of the Afghan (1979-89) and Transnistrian (1992) wars.  There was much singing and awarding and speechifying and more singing, and then some fireworks exploding (literally) five feet to my right and it was finally over after about an hour of standing in the still chill air.

Returning to the office we began to prepare for Tania’s birthday masa.  In Moldova, birthdays are a bit more formal and serious in the manner in which a gift is presented to the celebrant.  One stands and receives with grace both the gift and a stream of felicitous wishes and declarations to health, happiness, long life, success, money, and love, after which kisses on both cheeks are exchanged.  Tania was receiving phone calls, bouquets of tulips (her favorite flower) and speeches from troops of co-workers entering her office for an hour before the meal began.

Tania’s father brought in a bucket load of food prepared by her mother; though neither attended the 100_1941celebration her brother and his girlfriend stopped by.  We fit about 15 people around the table to eat and drink homemade wine and cognac.  It was a lovely way for me to meet everyone.

Everyone in Moldova is bi- or tri- (and sometimes more, what is that – quatro?) lingual – I feel quite provincial in their midst, but they laugh and tell me “If you know English, you know all you need to know.”  They are quite excited to have a native speaker among them and are already clamoring for English lessons (the bane of PCVs everywhere….)

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There are actually quite a number of young people in the office who speak passable English, either because they have traveled to America or have lived in Europe at one point or another or learned it in school.  While it will be easy to drop back into English when the going gets tough, Doamna Valentina does not speak English and I must remember that it would be bad form to exclude her from conversations when she is present.

By the time the food was finished and the dishes cleaned and the furniture returned to proper placement, it was time for Tatiana to leave.  Her birthday was just beginning and there was much to do at home to prepare.

I returned back to Neoumanist, the NGO that is allowing me to stay in the volunteer quarters until I find my own apartment.  The apartment is actually in the building that serves as the senior day center, and I just taken off my sweater and set down my purse when a lovely melody arose from the front hallway.  I opened my door to find four babushkas, complete with head scarves and wooden canes sitting on the bench outside my room harmonizing an old folk song together.  (I tried to upload the video I made but my internet connection is too slow.)

I feel so fortunate that all the weeks of waiting have paid off – the people here at Neoumanist are all cheerful and upbeat and welcoming (and many of them also speak English!) The mayor’s office is a beehive of activity and everyone seems to get along well and enjoy each other’s company.  I am living alone (!!!) and cooking for myself in a kitchen where I don’t have to worry about infringing on someone else’s domain.  And I am 15 minutes from Chișinău, to boot.

Spring – and new beginnings – in the air……