This last Sunday I had my first invitation to a Moldovei home for a masa since coming to live in Hîncești. It was a big first for me – I was going on my own, without another PCV or my host sister accompanying me. Angela and her husband Uri are the parents of Auriel, an 18-year-old young man confined to a wheel chair who comes to my center every day. In fact, Angela, who is a social worker with the raoin council (similar to a county worker in the States,) is the president of the association which started Pasărea Albastră a number of years ago. She also attends the English class I co-teach on Tuesday and Thursday nights. We have taken a liking to each other, as she is a very determined, classy, well-spoken and intelligent
Uri picked me up in his car and drove me (thank you!) way up into the hills that surround Hîncești, where they have a house abutting the forest. They have quite a spectacular view and seem to be fairly well-off by Moldovan standards (note the flat screen TV in the background of one picture.) I was relieved to see that Angela met me at the door in sweats, absent her usual make-up. This was obviously Sunday and a day for relaxation; it made me feel immediately at home. I greeted Auriel, who was quiet vocal in expressing his surprise and happiness (though he is not able to verbalize) and their 12-year-old adopted daughter Nicoletta, who speaks perfect English (though she is shy about doing so.)
Angela’s mother and husband Uri
This comfortable feeling deepened over the course of the 5 hour repast. Their friends Angela (same name) and Sergio joined us with their youngest daughter. The second Angela speaks almost perfect English; she has her own business working as a document translator. Sergio is an optometrist. They lived for three years in Portugal and have adopted many European viewpoints. It made for a very different experience than I am accustomed to having when interacting with Moldovans.
Auriel, his grandparents and me
They are impatient and disappointed with their country about many of the problems that Americans immediately identify: the lingering Soviet-era entitlement mentality coupled with the endemic rigidity, nepotism and cronyism, corruption, and multi-tiered bureaucracy that makes changing the toilet paper require a veritable act of legislation. They are personally affected by the economic conditions that require their children, brothers, sisters, and extended family members to work outside of the country, possibly with no hope of returning.
(Second) Angela and (first) Angela’s mother
Angela talked about her older daughter who is working as a maid in a five star hotel in Chicago. Because she has an excellent command of English, she has a good chance of moving up to the front desk. If this happens, she will most likely not come home. Ever. It is too expensive and her life would be grounded in the United States with the husband and children she hopes to have one day. I ask Angela how she feels about this and a steely curtain descends over her eyes. “This is the best thing that could happen for her. I have to let her go,” she tells me, not even a hint of a quiver in her voice. Wow. My mothers’ heart broke open wide and mourned for her.
Angela with her mother and daughter
The evening was mostly filled with laughter and enjoyment, however, despite some of the grim realities of life in Moldova. The two Angelas and their husbands are obviously very good friends. It put me in mind of my Canyon Acres and IUCC buddies; there was palpable warmth and happiness that suffused the room and it was pleasurable just to bask in their friendship. I haven’t felt so relaxed and completely at ease in any setting since leaving the States. I even joined Nicoletta for a rousing karaoke and dance to Queen’s “We Will Rock You!”
Of course, the next morning I paid the price of imbibing a little too much cherry raku (a homemade liquor) but it was definitely worth it. I have made new friends. The second Angela actually talked me into joining her aerobics class at the casa de cultura on Monday and Friday evenings. Will report on that later…..
It really is time to write about what I’m actually doing here for Peace Corps Moldova. I know anyone reading my blogs might come away with the notion that I only traveled here on a cultural exchange mission – I don’t seem to have any substantive work filling my day. And the truth is that I really don’t. Sure I get up each morning and load my computer into my sturdy backpack (thanks mom!) and trudge up the hill to the “office.” I then unload my computer and sit at my desk and mostly study Romanian all day. That is, when I’m not seated in the dining room with the staff and kids eating a meal. Which I do 2-3 times daily. For 30-45 minutes each time. I get to hear a lot of Romanian being spoken and sometimes (not as often as I should) I try to jump in and join the conversation.
I know all about these women’s children and husbands and parents and siblings and favorite foods and sleep habits and even whether or not they wear pajamas to bed at night (that was a funny conversation.) I know the deals they get on cartofi and pâine at the piața and where the best place is in Hîncești to buy a torta. I hear about their frustrations with wages and government and the transportation system and the dismal prospects for finding affordable apartments in town. What is still hazy and ambiguous to me, however, is the details relating to the work I am supposed to be doing at the center and how I can really be of service to these people and their organization.
When we were in PST, we received a lot of training on how to be a good Community Organizational Development Advisor. And all of it looked good on paper and made in sense at the time, in theory. But once you get to site and actually are faced with the bureaucratic complexities and inherent dysfunction of the NGO landscape in Moldova, it all becomes a bit overwhelming. Funding, operating, and sustaining a non-profit in Moldova relies on a set of circumstances much different than those I was accustomed to in the states. There, one generally seeks grants for “startup costs” either to begin a new NGO or to implement a new program within an existing one. And for that grant to be funded, one usually needs to have a pretty solid plan for making the NGO or program self-sustaining by the time the start-up money is spent, from government contracts or insurance revenue or corporate support from businesses attempting to burnish their image with consumers. It makes a lot of sense and generally works (at least when times are good and the economy is doing well.)
In Moldova, it doesn’t work this way. There are no government contracts or insurance companies or big businesses seeking positive public relations. I am still too new and unschooled in the realities of the post-Soviet economy and governance here to analyze the specifics of the problems, but it is pretty easy to discern from just looking around that there is little investment being made in any sort of commonwealth. Whether this is because of a lack of available revenue or because people don’t see the value in putting money aside for the public good, I don’t know. But I am getting firsthand experience of life in the sort of environment that results from not funding a social safety net or wanting to invest in public infrastructure. And let me tell you, it’s not pretty folks.
So far, I am helping primarily through smiling a lot and being cheerful. This seems to bolster everyone’s spirits and keep them hopeful for the future. Because come January 1, we have no funds for salaries. My partner is currently applying for a grant being offered by a Swiss organization; this is round two of keeping the organization afloat. There are no prospects, at least for now, of the city providing funds or of being able to charge a reasonable amount for our services. However, if we can increase the client base and reach out to more communities, there is a possibility of being able to generate enough income to make the center sustainable.
This will depend on whether there are enough parents with disabled children able to find jobs and work, and make enough money to pay a fee for their children to receive services. It is a big IF in this country. Most families with disabled children have had to put them in orphanages in order to be able to work in the first place; keeping them at home is a relatively new concept for Moldovans. Traditionally, disabled persons are viewed as a liability and are discriminated against in civil society. There have not been many incentives or strategies formulated for families to care for them at home.
Meanwhile, take a walk across town and try to avoid getting hit by one of the many late model BMWs or Mercedes Benz flying down the streets. Stroll by the McMansions behind wrought iron fences at the top of monument hill. Notice the kids chatting on iPhones in the seat in front of you on the bus into Chișinau. And see the D&G sunglasses that the young women display conspicuously atop their heads on even the cloudiest day.
My, my, my, my, my. I’m not really as far from America as I might think. Perhaps our values – at least some of them – are not that difficult to adopt, after all. And providing a different perspective on those values is something that I plan to make a BIG part of my Peace Corps service in Moldova.
One of the more difficult aspects of my service in Hîncești is having to live with a roommate – or sora gazda, as she is called here. Nina is always gracious and warm to me, but it is still strange to move in with someone you just met and whose language and culture you are still learning. The most difficult part about it is being in another woman’s kitchen and bathroom – very intimate and personal places for most women, at least in the United States. I am still not comfortable leaving my shampoo and razor in the shower, or storing my towels in her bathroom cabinet, or intruding into the kitchen cupboards with baking supplies, or preparing a full-fledged meal when she is at home. It feels as if I am encroaching on her habitat; after all, I’ve been here about six weeks now and she still has her clothes in the wardrobe and pictures of her daughter hanging on the wall in my room. I feel more like a transitory guest here than a renter with a two-year contract; perhaps I will move beyond this feeling in time, but for now, I keep my activities very circumscribed when she is at home and mostly live in my room.
So, on the weekends when Nina travels to her village farm, I get pretty excited. Almost like I’m a teenager again and my parents have left me at home alone. Only instead of breaking out the bong and beer keg, I buy pasta, tomatoes, and garlic and do some cooking. On Sunday, Lindsey came over and prepared a bunch of wonderful salads – egg, potato, and cabbage with carrots – that furnished a relaxing picnic by the lake. (Lindsey is an accomplished cook and loves to experiment in the kitchen; I have been the lucky recipient of a couple of her concoctions!)
Matt and Patty H joined us. I spend a lot of time with these three so it’s a good thing we all get along. In fact, it is beginning to concern me the amount of time that we spend together. It is too easy to find comfort in the company of the familiar – no matter their age, gender, or provenance, they are AMERICANS. People who immediately understand a reference to Walmart shoppers or reality TV shows or soccer moms or Starbucks. (Ok, Matt and Lindsey probably don’t know who Eldridge Cleaver is, but how often does his name come up, really?) You don’t realize how much these shared cultural allusions pepper conversation, standing in for extraneous explication, allowing one to abbreviate and link ideas more efficiently. It’s truly gratifying just being with people that come from the same place you do – and now that place stretches the length and width of the nation. I am amazed how much I have in common with people with whom I would never have imagined being friends.
The most trenchant experience, I’ve found, that Peace Corps provides is to continuously drop you in social contexts which you would never elect at home. Some are more comfortable than others. But in every case, you learn more about yourself: you attain new altitudes of tolerance, irritation ,adaptibility, diplomacy, patience, curiousity, and compassion. It is a common experience for us to have different personas or „masks” that we wear in different situations. But here, it’s as if the change goes deeper. Being thrown together with a group of people that would ordinarily never coalesce within my purview, and then sharing such startling and foreign circumstances with them, changes the channels of my emotions, my reasoning, and my needs. I think differently, feel differently. My inner space is expanding, accommodating more and simultaneously losing landscape quickly. Things are mobile, transitory. And I hold on to these Americans in a desperate effort to grasp those orienting touchstones slipping from my world.
Moldova is very different from other foreign countries, like Guatemala, or Peru, or Ecuador, that I’ve visited. In those places, being from “America” (read the USA) made you special, as if there were an invisible halo surrounding you, or your fingers emitted sparkles, or your laugh tickled people’s funny bone. In those places, the children would gather round me in puddles, lapping up my attention, fingering my clothing like it was made of stardust. People smiled spontaneously at me on the street. I felt a little like a Kardashian, celebrity as categorical referent. Moldova? Not so much. In conversation, I have asked Mldovans about 9/11. Disneyland. Hollywood. The Golden Gate bridge. Nope. Nah, no ințelege. Not a clue. How do you find common ground with someone whose never hear of Batman? Mickey Mouse? Star Wars?
Sunday, I found myself lying on my back on the grass, watching the clouds roil above me and listening to conversation (eu ințeleg) drift over me. The sun was diamond glinting the lake and birds were skittering through the reeds. Almost, I could have been lying by a lake in Orange County. Just for a moment, a small enclave carved itself out from the turbulence of the past three months and gleamed warm and radiant. And I realized that I was retreating into another safe haven, that I have made my site mates into my little private Idaho (another cultural reference.) And the final step in my integration will be to attain this level of comfort in the house where I live with the person that is my roommate.
When (if) I do, I will have achieved one important goal of this journey.
If all the days that come to pass
Are behind these walls
I’ll be left at the end of things
In a world kept small
Travel far from what i know
I’ll be swept away
I need to know I can be lost and not afraid
Remember we’re lost together
Remember we’re the same
We hold the burning rhythm in our hearts
We hold the flame
So I thought I would share some random notes on my first days living in Hîncești. This is a great place to be stationed, actually. I am close enough to Chișinău to make it accessible (it’s roughly a 60-75 minute bus ride to get to the PC Office, 26 lei roundtrip.) But I also have the advantages of being in a more rural atmosphere – hence the cow grazing in the field right up the street from my apartment building. And crossing the street with this on our right on our way back from language lessons:
Yet, we have at least three good pizza places, one of them overlooking the lake. There is a public pool that costs 90 lei to enter for the entire day; I hear tell it is as good as being at a resort (by Moldovan standards) as they play contemporary music, have lounge chairs and umbrellas, and serve beer and pizza for a small price. I think I’m going to go hunt it down today as the temperature is climbing back into the 90’s this week.
Speaking of the lake, these are the stairs I have to climb to get there – 172 of them to be exact. Note the large monument on top:
Once you make it to the top, here is the view:
And here is the backside of the monument. I haven’t quite figured out what the statues represent, though a fellow volunteer told me they were “Haiducii,” which is a Moldovan term for a sort of Robin Hood figure. These were groups of bandits that at one particularly savage point in their history were pillaging the landowners’ estates in order to pass on food and goods to the poor.
Hîncești, being a bigger town, is falling victim to that mindless, artless form of corporate sposored entertainment known (pretty much all over the world now, I guess) as the “autorile.” Ana made a big deal of this event, encouraging me to attend on Sunday, saying that it was “foarte frumos” and “interesant.” Well, you tell me. This is what the cars did for about an hour. No discernible rules, time strictures or game strategy. Just round and round and round and round. At a very high decible. In whichever direction you want. After about 15 minutes, I retreated home:
And then of course, there’s my life at home with my new Nina. (Remember I lived with another Nina in Stauceni. I’m beginning to think Nina’s are my destiny.) Things are beginning to evolve into a very comfortable situation. Nina (Stauceni) was much more mindful of my comings and goings and seemed to take more ownership of my health and well-being. This was really great when I first came to Moldovan, as it was rather like having a very solicitious and gracious inn-keeper making sure your meals were hot and satisfying and that she knew where you were at all times in case you got hit by a rutiera and didn’t make it home.
Nina (Hîncești) is much more like living with a room mate. I come and go as I please and am free to cook or not as the mood strikes me. If she makes food, she offers to share it with me and vice versa, but neither one of us is obligated. She was gone all last weekend – as she is normally, I gather, during planting and harvest seasons – working at her farm in Basarabeasca where she keeps her husband stashed (you can’t imagine how amusing I find this – she is the working woman with an apartment in the city while he is the country gent who stays tucked out of sight.) She has invited me to come, but I don’t know how down I am quite yet with the idea of working hard in the sun for two days with (most likely) no running water or toilets. I might be a city girl, after all.
Anyway, when she came back on Monday morning she was laden with tubs of meat from the pig and cow they had slaughtered, as well as boxes of tomatoes, onions, and potatos that are now stashed under the benches in the kitchen. Here are Nina and her friend making gevir from the pork meat. The white substance that they are wrapping the meat in is (I think) ropes of fat or stomach lining. I couldn’t quite translate the words. You will note me doing what I perenially do when trying to converse in Romanian – laughing a lot and saying “dah, dah, dah.”
I will not be working steadily until September 1, when the center where I am assigned – Pasarea Albasta – reopens after the summer break. But I did go in today to meet with the English Ambassador’s wife, who is a member of an organization called The International Women’s Foundation of Moldova. Kate is a simply lovely woman possessed of a British accent, of course, which is perhaps why it took me about 5 minutes to recognize that she was speaking English, not Romanian. Anyway, the IWF provided some funds for Pasarea Albastra to replace a broken washing machine so we went to the local electronics store to make the purchase. While the transaction was processed I got to spend some time speaking English with someone NOT connected to the Peace Corps, which was in itself delightful. If I had it to do all over (rhiannon are you reading this???) I would really consider a life in the diplomatic service. She and her husband were previously posted in Lithuania and they have been here in Moldova for three years now. Who knows where after that. What a great life. She has the benefits of a first world standard of living in a second world economy. Plus, she is making a difference and not just sitting on her butt and enjoying ex-the pat (priviledged) life. I really like her.
And I did start language lessons up again. I am working with the director of one of the high schools, along with Matt and Lindsey. It is rather interesting as the woman speaks only a bare minimum of English so it becomes quite the challenge to place our queries in context for her. One of the hardest things in learning a new language is understanding the idiomatic language – for example, when Americans say “go ahead,” Moldovans say “more farther” or when we say “stop!” or “enough” when someone pours us a drink, they say “arrived!” It is things like that which cause the most stumbling errors for me and it’s the main reason why one cannot rely solely on Google translate to get by.
After we complete our language lessons, I have a bar literally steps from my apartment where we are cultivating a nice relationship with the Romanian chelneriță. This represents one of our more earnest efforts at integration…Plus, there is a very nice view.
There is no other way to put it. I wandered down the road just above my apartment building and found this:
I don’t know what else to say. (Of course, I always have more to say.) I wrote in my journal:
What did I do to deserve this? I finally, finally found the place where I can be completely at home here. The language, the culture, the buildings, the corruption, the sadness, the confusion, the disparity, the discomfort – none of that intrudes here. Though I did have a half hour conversation with two seemingly homeless, mentally ill folks who sat down on the bench next to me and shot me questions in Ruski-romanian . They really wanted to know when we could hook up again…
I appreciated the opportunity to converse really slowly and repetitively with people who were happy to play along. I am blessed.
As I was soaking up the last of the afternoon rays I got a text from my site mates, Matt and Lindsey. I made my way to the bar next door to my apartment and spent a relaxing couple of hours with them, comparing notes on how lucky we are to live in Hîncești. Patty was walking by and heard my laugh (mom, are you listening?) and then we were four. Patty just moved to site today, having completed her 10 week English Education Training. Took her oath this morning. Now the whole M27 group are officially Peace Corps Volunteers!
I don’t know what these adorable little girls were doing in the bar, but they certainly provided a whimsical touch:
I felt a bit like her, finally having put on my tutu and ready to dance for the world. I have some good friends, a great host sister, an energetic work partner, and a bustling village in which to live for the next two years. The Peace Corps is proving to be everything I wished it would be…I am so blessed!
This last Sunday I arose with some little trepidation (I’ll admit it) and put the last stray items into my luggage in readiness to move to my final destination. It has been a long journey that brought me to this point, all the way from my sallying cry in the dark so many years ago. It was not registering completely that this trip in Terry’s van would probably be my last ride in a personal vehicle with all my luggage in tow while I’m in Moldova. (When you leave the country at the end of your service, for some reason you have to find your own way back to the Peace Corps offices and the airport. Hence, most people leave most of their things here, only taking back the REALLY important stuff….)
When they arrived – Ana, my work partner, and Eduard, her husband, and Terry, the driver – we had to haul my luggage out from the apartment all the way around the building to the front to the car, because of course I couldn’t manage to open the gate into the parking lot. (This was the beginning of the end of my ‘healed’ knee.) On the way to Hîncești we stopped at a store called Metro, which I heard about but didn’t quite believe existed. I was wrong. Costco has married WalMart and moved to Moldova. Here is a huge warehouse store with everything from dish soap, to washing machines, to socks, to watermelon and cheese. All under one tin roof. For a nation of bus riders. That’s right. You know how much you buy when you visit a warehouse store….well imagine transporting all of that home on a jam-packed rutiera. I don’t get how this works. But Moldovans are diligent and proficient at getting done what needs to get done, with very little technology most times. It makes me yet again realize how much consumption we take for granted in the USA. Ana and I have hesitant conversations, comparing the price of laundry detergent. We find a bag for 20 lei cheaper and send her husband to put back the more expensive versions we had just picked up. Terry careens madly through the store, flirting with every woman he sees. (More on Terry at later time – he really deserves his own post.) I am feeling vaguely comfortable with Moldovans, not an American in site. We stuff all our purchases in the van with all my bags and climg aboard for the wild toad ride to Hîncesti. Terry pilots the van somewhat like a flying carpet. We seem to be zipping a couple of inches over the actual road. Is this better than a rutiera? I think.
I had barely set my bags down and hadn’t even unzipped a suitcase before Nina, my new host sister (I have to call her that as she is my own age – it feels too weird to call her my “host mom”) tells me that we are going to a masa in the small village of Boghaceni in celebration of a four month old baby boy born to a couple for whom she is the “Nona.”
Culture break: A Nona is sort of like a godparent for married couples. It is a non-relative whom a couple asks to serve as a guide and mentor for them during their married life. It can be a couple or a single man or woman. Generally, the person or couple is quite a bit older with some life experience under their belt. They will help the new couple make big decisions, teach them about parenting, offer advice and comfort during difficult times, etc. I find this especially perceptive in NOT having it be a relative, as many times married couples can encounter difficulties with parents and in-laws that require some sound guidance to help them through so they don’t make a mess of things.
So we cross the street in front of our apartment building and begin waiting for a ride to this village. Now ruteiras come by every ten-fifteen minutes or so, but most folks are impatient and try to flag down passing cars that are going the same way. Of course, Peace Corps advises volunteers against this practice, but everyone does it anyway. It is a good way to meet Moldovans and practice your language, I guess, but I haven’t tried it on my own. Now that I’m with Nina, I guess I’m ready to hitch hike (I actually don’t have a choice. She’s madly flagging down every car that whizzes by.) A couple of cars stop but they’re either going a different way or they can only fit one person. We end up in a rutiera just as it starts to rain.
And then it’s pouring. (Luckily at this point I had not learned of the horrible accident that just claimed the lives of ten people in a 17-seat rutiera that was carrying fifty persons. It’s brakes failed on a curve and the mayor of a town and his wife were among the fatalities.) I am not looking forward to the walk from the rutiera to this masa, as I left in such a hurry I didn’t grab an umbrella and hadn’t changed out of my sandals. After about an hour, I hear Nina yell for the driver to stop. We’re out in the middle of nowhere. I am confused. After we disembark, a young man comes up to greet us. His car is parked right there where the bus stopped. Oh thank the lord, I don’t have to walk. We get in his car and proceed down a dirt road that is quickly melting into mud. He is driving fast, trying to beat the disintegration of traction. A couple of times I find myself wondering if walking would’ve been better, but the road turns out to be miles long. The house that we’re going to comes into view ahead – it’s way up on a hill to the right of us and as we slowly drive by it is apparent that the car is not going to make it up the slippery slope of mud flowing down that is probably a road in dryer times. We exit the vehicle and ponder the slope. Nina is in high heels, I am in sandals. The young man grins, grabs my arm, and says: Sos! (UP!) Here we go.
Well, this is the second stage of total knee failure. I am slipping and sliding and clutching at the branches of bushes to my left with my free arm. Up ahead of me, Nina is slogging on galliantly alone with her umbrella held high and her wedgies sinking inches deep into the mud. Up and up and up. We finally attain the summit and walk for another few minutes through flat muddy soup and stop in front of a locked gate. The young man – his name is Sergio, I’ve learned during our little ambling duet – pulls out his cell phone and calls his parents, the people we’re visiting. Are they not here? Are they still miles away in a rutiera? If they’re home and they know we’re coming, why is the gate locked? We wait. And we wait. And we wait. Recall that it’s raining. Pretty hard. Me without umbrella. In sandals. In mud. After about 10 minutes, we hear the hearty hey ho of a man approaching the gate. He is laughing and chattering away in Romanian as he unlocks the gate. I learn soon enough why it took him so long. We have another half mile climb up yet another muddly slope to the house above.
We pass through orchards full of pear trees and grapes hanging off the vine. There are more tomatoes (roșii) and watermelon (harbuz) than we saw at Metro. Another orchard with plum trees, the fruit being the actual size of the prunes that they will become later upon drying in the sun (pruna.) Some corn that looks sere, droopy and tattered from the (former) lack of rain. Finally we pass what smells like the outhouse. Good, we must be getting close, I think.
Why am I here again, when I could be back at Nina’s place, dry and unpacking? Oh yes – the all important „integration” (I didn’t mess up on the quotation marks, btw, that’s how they do it in Romanian.) Not soon enough, we arrive at the front door where three older woman, all wearing kerchiefs and aprons, one with missing teeth and a wandering eye, one small, anxious boy, and one lithe young woman holding a forty pound baby (no kidding) stand waiting to welcome us. We remove our shoes and enter into safe harbor. Thank the lord, we’ve made it, I think. Now I just have to get down again. I guess I’ll worry about that later.
There is a mass of food – a masa – spread out on the table before us. We are given some bread and wine and salt, the traditional Moldovan welcoming gesture and invited to sit. Nina gives the married couple (Sergio turns out to be the husband) some money and a gift for the baby. We begin to eat. For the next two hours it continues to rain outside while we repast indoors. Wine, food, talk. More wine, more food, more talk. Many toasts to America and my health. The people comment on how well I speak Romanian. The old man says Barak Obama’s name several times, as it is the only English words he knows. Nina pulls out her Avon catalogues and goes into a protracted sales pitch which, suprisingly, holds both the men and the women rapt. Even the little boy is held captive. Perfume samples are passed out to all. She’s good. After about an hour, I note that Sergio is trying to refuse more wine as he reminds them he has to drive us back to the bus stop. Thank the lord, I think. He’s only successful about half the time in not having his glass filled. Oh well, I think.
When it’s finally time to go, Sergio runs out ahead of time and returns with a nice pair of galoshes for both Nina and I. Thank you god, I think. Though there may be no tread on the bottom of these, at least my toes will stay clean and the cuts on my feet will not be infected with typhoid. We wash our own shoes in a bucket of rain water kindly provided by the clouds overhead. And then we ski down the hill. That is the best term for our meandering sliding progress. The old man is holding Nina’s arm and Sergio has mine. I am clutching him in the hopes of avoiding an embarassing face plant. This is the penultimate stage of knee damage. (I still have to walk to work tomorrow carrying 20 pounds of books and computer on my back. That did it in completely…)
The ride back to the highway is a testament to German autobuiders (I think we’re in an old Audi.) The car weaves wildly on torrents of mud from one side of the road to the other. Sergio hunches with great concentration over the wheel, smearing his left hand against the inside of the windshield every minute or so to clear the condensation. One windshield wiper is working valiantly. A car passes us on the left. Seriously? I think. Nina pats my knee and smiles winningly. I wonder if she’s going to pull out the Avon catalogue.
When we get to the road, Sergio stops at the bus shelter and leads us inside. Then he runs back out to the highway. What a gentleman, I think, waiting to signal the passing rutiera for us. Within seconds he has flagged down a late model Taurus (compete with leather seats and Dolby sound) and he gestures us to climb in with the three burly, bald Russian occupants. Great. Everything the Peace Corps warned me about. Gangsters, I think. Note the gold chains and silence. Completely unconcerned, Nina pulls out her phone and checks her voice mails. The entire way no one talks. The driver dials a number but gets no answer. Apparently the human trafficer connection has taken the day off, I think. When we arrive at our apartment, Nina tries to give the driver 20 lei. He refuses gruffly. Well how about that, I think.
Later that night, I put brand new sheets on my bed. I unpack all my bags for the first time since I loaded them up in Fullerton so many eons ago. I find things I forgot I brought. I Skype with Rhiannon and Nicole back in the States. I take a shower and get into my jammies. It’s still raining outside. Nina is already sacked out, fast asleep. The winds whistles and a steady patter of rain drops is like a metronome tick-tocking right outside my window. A smile spreads slowly cross my face.
My first day in Hîncești, I think. This might turn out to be a bit of the adventure I’d hoped it would be…
Today, in a suitably serious and solemn ceremony, I and 37 members of my colleagues in the M27 Moldova group were sworn in as Peace Corps Volunteers. (The rest of our group, Health and English Education Trainees, have 7 more days of “practice teaching” sessions remaining in their training.)
I confess that, as we repeated the same oath that – in various permutations – thousands of other Americans serving in the military, diplomatic service, political office and other agencies of government have taken, I did tear up. Being an American is a insoluble paradox for me. I left the country partly because I am so tired of its politics, its materialism, its narcissistic patriotism, its inability to transcend its own mythos. Yet it is America that brought me here, that sustains my work and the Peace Corps mission throughout the world, that continues to believe in “promoting peace and friendship” abroad through the voluntary service of over 200,000 of its citizens to date. As the Ambassador to Moldova William H. Moser said in addressing our group, we are the most effective ambassadors of the American people in 137 countries around the world.
In searching for a YouTube video of my new site, Hîncești, I came across the following video. Made, of course, by a Peace Corps volunteer. Because I challenge you to search YouTube for a video made of ANY country in the last five years and not come up with one made by a PCV. This is what we do. We bring laughter, creativity, camraderie, esprit de corps, hope, friendship, diplomacy, and good will wherever we have been. And we share it with the world.
This past weekend I cleared the final, obscuring hurdle in this protracted journey from my past and familiar life into a great unknown. Starting in February of 2011, I have spent months wondering about the location, people, and organizations that would fill my life and delineate my experience for the twenty-seven months of my Peace Corps service. The journey to Hîncește on Saturday lifted the final veil.
Let me say first that actually making the journey all on my own was a HUGE success for me (you have to celebrate the little stuff, folks!) I took the familiar route into Chisinau, but then had to navigate my way through the piața – the vast outdoor vendor mart where one can obtain anything from chicken feet to pirated DVDs to Chanel knockoffs – and find a rutiera serving a route which I had never taken to get me another six or seven kilometers to the Gara de Sud where I would board a trolley bus to Hîncește. I was able to communicate in Romanian enough to ask someone for directions and to be notified when we reached the station. The trolley bus was parked right in front of the station when I arrived – lucky me.
I arrived in Hîncește and hour and half early, so I decided to try to find the organization that is sponsoring me – Pasarea Albastra – on my own. Mysteriously, I headed in exactly the right direction, even though it was uphill and around a long and sweeping corner, to find myself standing in front of the closed up building – come on, it is Sunday, Yvette – within ten minutes. I then had to call the woman, Ana Vioara, who speaks no English and will be my work partner to explain who and where I was. Within five minutes she joined me on the sidewalk.
She then took me inside and showed me around. It’s a bright and cheerful place, newly built or refurbished (couldn’t quite make out which) and opened for use last December. It certainly rivals any day care center in the US that I’ve visited. She made me tea and brought out a plate of cookies, however, we soon realized that my limited language capabilities were putting a serious damper on the party. While Moldovans are generally much more comfortable with prolonged silences that most Americans, I think Ana was a bit nervous and wanting to make a good impression so it pained me greatly not to be able to converse with her. Periodically she would roll forth a rushing river of sentences from which I could only wishfully pluck a scarce smattering of familiar nouns and strangely conjugated verbs (damn those reflexive pronouns!) All I could truthfully respond was “Îmi pare rau, nu ințeleg.” (Sorry, I don’t understand.) We hadn’t even finished our tea before she suggested we move on to Nina’s house so she could introduce me to my new mama gazda. Really, I think she was looking for reinforcements in her effort to hold up one end of a dialogue.
A surprising characteristic of Moldovan architecture is that one cannot judge the building by its cover. So many of them here are crumbling artifacts of the Soviet era, hulking cement block monsters moldering in weedy lots, framed in scraggly trees and festooned with ribbons of clothesline. It was exactly one of these that Ana led me to, wending her way up the eroded asphalt that served as parking lot, driveway, sidewalk and playground around the back of the building. There, the harsh outlines were softened by a pleasant little hillock of trees and bushes nestled up against the building. Nina has added an “office” to her apartment (in Moldova most people own, rather than rent or lease, their living quarters) so there is an actual separate entrance used by visiting clients giving entry into an extra space attached to her bedroom. And the interior was a refreshing and pleasant contrast to the dismal exterior, markedly upgraded and very modern.
Moldovans seem to take greater pride than most Americans of similar – or even better – economic circumstances in furnishing and decorating their living spaces. All the furniture I’ve run across here is sturdy and finely-upholstered in good fabric; bathrooms and kitchens are tiled in ceramic or stone with substantial bathtubs that one could actually stretch out in; cabinets are crafted with heavy wood, solid hinges and decorative blown glass; the floors are of inlaid wood, individually fitted and highly polished; carpet pile is heavy, soft and brilliantly hued. It is far more tasteful and better made than the plaster board, spray-painted, hastily assembled Target/Ikea breed of furnishings that is slowly encroaching homes across America. And it definitely counters the depressing vistas of their cityscapes.
Nina’s apartment is much smaller than the house in which I am currently residing in Stauceni. And there is no garden – boo hoo. I get the feeling that she is quite consumed with making money, building her client base, and scouting out potential new pyramiding opportunities. Although she was somewhat shy around me, she did manage to haul out the Avon catalogue to peruse with me page by page and posed not-so-subtle questions regarding my Peace Corps income and potential revenue from the husband back in the States. I think she sees me not only as a potential consumer of products, but as a conduit to a whole new gathering of female resources. I could tell she was more than a little disappointed at the obvious absence of cosmetics applied upon my person. This will be a much different relationship, I think, than the one I enjoy with my current mama gazda. We shall see.