Yet another beginning to an end

This morning I woke up to find that feeling which has been tip-toeing round the underskirts of my consciousness for some weeks now finally deciding to assert itself – IT IS TIME. Time to acknowledge the finish line resolving itself ahead, to pick up the pace and admit that there is nothing left to do but focus forward and Get Shit Done.

Wrapping up Peace Corps service entails a two-page check list of time-consuming administrative tasks. An excerpt:

  • Turn in material items issued at Pre-Service Training such as fire extinguisher, smoke alarm, water filter, safety manual and first aid kit. (Unmentioned is how to actually transport all these items to the Peace Corps office without a vehicle at my disposal.)
  • Close out housing contract, bank, phone, and internet accounts and submit certification that all debts are paid
  • Provide a detailed Site Report describing the local geography, transportation options, government and administrative bodies, safety issues and contacts made during my time living in Straseni
  • Enter requisite data into my last Volunteer Report Form
  • Undergo final medical, dental, and eye exams
  • Participate in close-of-service interviews with the Director of Management and Operations and the Country Director

These, and a host of other expectations, on top of having to figure out what to do with the accumulated dross of three years that I do not want or need or am not able to physically cram into the two suitcases I must pack and ship back to Mike. How much thought do you usually give to the bottled spices, packets of yeast, the half-filled bags of lentils and barley, cornmeal and flour, boxes of tea and stray sugar packets proliferating in your cupboard? What to do with the perfectly good pens and markers, scissors, notebooks, paper tablets, spools of ribbon and thread and packing tape scattered in drawers? It seems a sad waste to just toss the partially-used bottles of lotion, body wash, foot cream, face mask, hair treatment, and skin exfoliating scrub littering my bathroom. Which of the more than one dozen pairs of shoes I transported here during my three trips from the states do I actually wear (really, a dozen? Wtf was I thinking?) What about that beloved hoodie, sweat-stained hat, or paper thin, but-oh-so-comfy tee shirts I’ve held onto for more than a decade – is this the time to let go? These are the decisions that I have been pushing aside for some future day, that other day, the one which dawned today.

***

Most likely it is a blessing to be distracted by this mundane busy work. It keeps me from feeling compelled to digest this experience into pithy bullet points extemporizing “What I Learned in Peace Corps.” Perhaps it is just my age showing but I’ve lived through too many ‘endings’ that turn out to be just another in a series of thresholds. Life lessons continue to shift their narrative, expand in meaning, embrace their antithesis, disprove ‘truths’ and supply an inexhaustible source of wonder and surprise; the story never ends until it does and who knows even then? No one yet (that I know of) has gotten to pen that elusive denouement.

Transitioning back to life in “SUA” (pronounced sue-wah here in Moldova and that’s now how it resonates in my head) legend has it is one of the most challenging aspects of service. So much so that there is actually a section in staging, before one ever leaves American soil, devoted to the insecurities, anxieties, and feelings of displacement typically experienced by Returned Peace Corps Volunteers (RPCV – my new biographical tag.) Why – in the infinitely ambiguous wisdom distilled by the churnings of bureaucracy – Peace Corps Washington believes any prospective volunteer will or can devote an iota of attention to the emotions she might experience 27 months hence while grappling with the blazing neuron rush of launching into a new life is beyond my comprehension. We were given a booklet and solemnly counseled to keep it safe; needless to say it was tossed out into the wake many moons and moves ago. One internalizes the weight of every possession when dependent on public transportation.

Hints of what home may have in store for me are coalescing. I am meeting one of my oldest and dearest friends and her wife in Athens whereupon we depart for sixteen extravagant days in the Greek isles (seven of them at last count!) During my entire three years of travel in Peace Corps (excluding the luxury cruise that was a birthday gift from my mother) the price of my nightly accommodations has exceeded $35 on exactly one occasion (New Year’s Eve in Milan with my husband and daughter.) This trip I will be leaping over that limit nightly. Thanks to the Peace Corps transition allowance – purportedly a provision for insuring an RPCV’s ability to feed and house herself while securing subsequent income but traditionally used to finance a COS trip that often extends into months – I have the means to do this. However, upon returning home again all pretenses that my economic status will fund the lifestyle I enjoyed for most of my adult life will quickly evaporate. While my friends, family members, and professional peers have continued to progress on the path toward retirement, I find myself in uncharted territory, possessed of a strong internal compass but no compelling authority dictating my next steps.

Peace Corps gifts one a diverse new network; the friends I’ve made here range in age from 24 to 62. The ones already back in the States are planning weddings, having babies, attending graduate school, embarking on second careers, working internationally or in DC, traveling with grandchildren, moving to retirement villas, or still meditating on next steps. And, if you think like most people you automatically, albeit incorrectly, distributed the age cohorts along a predictable linear spectrum of life’s major milestones. Because the couple planning their wedding are in their 7th and 8th decades, respectively. The ones having babies are in their late 30’s and early 40’s. Those in graduate school are in their 30’s, 40’s, and 50’s. While second careers are already happening for those not yet 30. There is no guidebook to life after Peace Corps because the people that serve present such a wide array of biographies. So, in a way, I have entered into a new way of being in the world, one less defined by milestone markers achieved than by continuously curving avenues of opportunity twisting and doubling back again just around the bend.

***

As I look around the place I’ve called home for barely month, a compact 25×30′ space that contains the sum of my worldly possessions, and realize that I’ve downsized and moved it all seven times in the last four years, I begin to comprehend the gigantic sideways leap out of the known and predictable that I have made. I guess the one thing that has crystallized for me out of this experience is a truth I’ve always somewhat suspected: It’s all so temporary, isn’t it? For the last decade or so, my inability to accurately remember huge swaths of my life has proved unsettling to me. Faces of the men I’d loved – and lived with! – during my late teens and early 20’s? Forgotten. Those crucial developmental stages between my daughter’s birth and her launch into 1st grade? Gone. The sound of my sister’s voice, the color of her eyes, the slant of her teeth? All lost. How about the 22 months I was in the California Conservation Corps? Mere slivers are all that I retain. Or the feel of the tile or the shape of the faucet or the pattern of the curtain in the shower I used daily for 18 years? So much vapor. Or – moving closer in time – who was my roommate at the hotel in Philly in during staging? I have no idea. What about the trip to Morocco in 2012 – where was that mountain hike? Who was the guy who drove us? How long were we in Marrakesh? I couldn’t tell you. This morning as I was journaling it dawned on me that maybe it’s not my mind that’s faulty. Rather, perhaps, I have subconsciously redirected my energies, disinterested in expending them on warehousing old or even formulating new memories. (That’s why I keep the journal – it’s all there if ever I want to recall!)

Instead, I have become habituated to an horizon void of familiar landmarks. I am attentive to the world around me, not necessarily for record-keeping purposes but to parse the message inherent to each moment and to plot the next one’s possible trajectories. If you told me ten years ago that at 53 I would be unemployed, sans car or home, all set to blow a significant chunk of my liquidity on a luxury vacation, I’m sure I would have been horrified. The most common descriptors (some might even call them accusations) historically leveled at me by my husband (of almost 20 years) or my (nearing 30-year-old) daughter resided well within the lexicons of control, safety, insurability, strategic planning, forethought, and reliability. Far, far away from any place where I could comfortably admit having no idea where I will be living or what I might be doing next year, let alone in five. But the difference between a rut and a grave is only a matter of inches, as the saying goes. I have not a clue what “retirement” means for me anymore. Retire from what?

Here, a sampling of the dictionary definitions of “retire:”

1. to withdraw, or go away or apart, to a place of privacy, shelter, or seclusion

2. to go to bed

3. to withdraw from office, business, or active life, usually because of age

4. to fall back or retreat in an orderly fashion and according to plan, as from battle, an untenable position,  danger, etc.

5. to withdraw or remove oneself:

In truth, I feel like I spent the years between 34 and 49 in some weird, anachronistic version of retirement, “withdrawn from active life,” half abed, retreating in orderly fashion from any threat. Having amassed a bulwarked identity, I had inadvertently cordoned myself off from change.  The air in my house was stale; its brightly colored walls a pale simulacrum of life’s ever-changing proscenium.  But I was comfortable, middle-class, well-fed, educated, funding multiple retirement accounts. Who cared?

 

***

So I have changed. Not such a big deal. All of us are courageous in one way or another. Getting out of bed each day necessitates an inordinate amount of bravery for some people. As Dewey Bunnell noted in the eponymous song: Oz never did give nothing to the Tin Man that he didn’t already have. The courage I will need in the next few weeks and months is the one that will keep me from looking sideways, comparing the roads that others have chosen to tread with my own. One thing I have not missed about life in SUA is the constant simmer of competition, the stealthy and insidious status markers – the model of one’s car, the size of one’s house, the brand of one’s bag now extending to vacation locations, bands followed, restaurants frequented, the ‘authenticity’ of one’s Instagram feed, for pete’s sake – reminding everyone that there is race to be won. It is tough to fall away from the pack, more so at my age. I’ve been blissfully protected from that harsh reality for the last 38 months; being a Peace Corps Volunteer is a status marker all on its own. But being a Returned Peace Corps (aka retired) Volunteer? Not so much. Unless I manage to insert this particular biographical tidbit into every conversation had in the next decade (BORING,) I will be evaluated and dismissed as one of the less successful competitors in the Game of Life by most people I meet. Because I do not foresee myself returning to the life already lived. Been there, done that, and so on.

Stay tuned  as I strive to continue living mad de acum încolo….

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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…

In Honor of Peace Corps Service

September 2, 2015, I become an RPCV
September 2, 2015, I become an RPCV

By the time you read this, I will have about 90 days remaining in my Peace Corps Service, a period of my life that will amount to 1186 days when I finally board my last plane out of Moldova this coming September. Because, no – unlike those volunteers who wax rhapsodic about the attachment they have to their country of service and make passionate promises about returning again someday – I can honestly say I do not intend to ever come back here. I have too few years left and too many other destinations piling up on the bucket list. And 39 months has given me sufficient time to feel as if I’ve truly plumbed what life is like here.

Now that social media, blogs, and other online forums like Medium and Quora have provided the platform, it has become increasingly de rigueur for volunteers, as they near the golden threshold represented by that most hallowed of Peace Corps acronyms, “COS,” to reflect back on the ups and downs of their service to distill the essential wisdom hard won from the experience. Akin to making every graduate a valedictorian, the internet allows us to pontificate our particular distillations without concern for their interest or relevance to our readers’ lives.

I had not intended to fall victim to this particular pomposity; in many ways, I have been concerned over the past year that my blog attempts had devolved into navel-focused meanderings through my own emotional landscapes. I quit writing so much and tried to pay better attention to living in the moment, to accepting that there would be ups and downs, sometimes many within one day, and that taking the time necessary to record any particular episode only anchored me in the perpetual-passed.

I am breaking with this intent, however, because I want to ask you – you – to do something for me. Or not for me, exactly, but perhaps in recognition of the price I paid – that all international volunteers pay, whatever program may sponsor them – by spending a significant chunk of time serving in a foreign land, away from family, life-long friends, and other emotional support systems. I ceded a great deal of control by becoming a Peace Corps Volunteer – control over my living conditions, my work environment, and my social context, while simultaneously relinquishing basic freedoms and amenities that I had taken for granted since leaving my parents’ home and becoming an adult so many years ago. In ways too numerous to count, living as a dependent alien in a host country has been a bit like returning to the roller coaster of one’s teenage years. Angst-filled, existential concerns are suddenly teeming like slippery silver-fish again within your brain:

Am I good enough, smart enough? Do I have the requisite persistence, drive, ambition, self-esteem? Will I fit in? Does that person like me? What did I do to make her mad? Why won’t they talk to me? Why is everything so hard to understand? Why can’t I seem to do anything right? Where is my meaningful impact? My noteworthy project? My sustainable program? My definitive success?

And while no single explanation can encapsulate why some volunteers make it through their service while so many don’t, I suspect that it is the psychological, not the physical, challenges that take the highest toll. Peace Corps is not so forthcoming in their recruitment efforts about the astounding rates of early termination (ET) from some countries. One of the biggest accomplishments that many of us celebrate is actually making it to our Close-Of-Service date. (For example, Moldova has roughly a 42% ET rate: two of every five volunteers leave here before completing their service.) I probably spend more time talking with other volunteers about emotional health issues than any other single topic, and all of us must contend with the sadness and regret, tinged more often than we’ll admit with a bit of envy, which accompanies the disclosure that yet another volunteer is throwing in the towel.

As I begin to pack up my life again, I happened upon the journal that that I kept from 2012-13 and thumbed through the entries comprising my first few months in country. It was unsettling to recall how displaced I felt, how much stress and anxiety I channeled onto the page, how many references I made to missing home, how deeply I questioned my ability to make it for another month, much less to the distant horizon of a second year. My first winter in Moldova was one of the most challenging experiences in my life: I felt exiled, depressed, in physical pain almost all the time (my back! my knee!) and was failing to find any source of comfort in my surroundings.

So the fact that I made it – not only through the requisite 27 months, but for an additional 12 after that – attests to a special element of my experience here, one that made a significant difference in my mental health and the way I have experienced my Peace Corps service since that bleak time. And that element is a vibrant oasis called Rasarit – Sunrise – for which I will make my plea.

Please stay with me here while I present my case…

Sunrise Center, my home since March 2013
Sunrise Center, my home since March 2013

Through a series of fortuitous failures and serendipitous connections, I was transferred from my original site in spring of 2013 to Straseni, a district seat 25 km northwest of Chisinau. I was granted temporary residence in a spacious apartment at the Rasarit Center of the Neoumanist Association, a non-profit that provides residential and home-care services to impoverished and socially vulnerable seniors in the town of Straseni and its surrounding villages. While the tacit agreement was for me to find an alternate residence within a matter of months, rentals within my stipend amount were either non-existent or (in the case of the only one I did locate) so incredibly dilapidated and unsafe Peace Corps would not approve my living there. And I must confess: having spent the entire winter dwelling amongst all my earthly possessions piled within the musty confines of a 10’x12′ spare bedroom that had mold growing up the walls, I was basking in the luxury of having my own kitchen, bathroom, and capacious bedroom, complete with cathedral ceilings and six foot windows. I was loathe to give them up.

But more than the physical issues of space and comfort, I began to thrive in the unprecedented atmosphere of joy and infectious positivity that permeates the environment at Rasarit and its companion program Spectru (Rainbow.) Here, I was being hugged multiple times a day, emerging into a sea of smiling faces whenever I opened my front door, wading through respectful caresses and cheek kisses each time I navigated the corridor. The employees went out of their way to assist me, finding me blankets and cooking implements, relocating furniture and supplying extension cords, inquiring after my mood and health, and (oh Tania!) occasionally presenting me with a piping hot, homemade donut on a Sunday morning. The beneficiaries of the day-care programs, seniors who primarily live alone on a grossly inadequate pension (around $50/mo) have created a strong and abiding community within Rasarit. They sing and dance together, play cards, knit and crotchet, do handicrafts, garden, and watch television. The most obvious quality every visitor notices, however, is the happiness, the laughter, all the brilliant smiles made shinier by golden teeth!

My Rasarit family
Some of my Neoumanist family

I emphatically believe that the beneficiaries and employees of Neoumanist are the reason why I am still in Moldova, two-plus years after that horrifically depressing winter. They brought me into their community, gifting me with a “host” family of more than a hundred members, each one of whom greets me merrily each day and demonstrates genuine concern over my well-being. I can’t possibly convey through words, to them or you, how grateful I am for having had the opportunity to live among them. What I have vowed to do, instead, is make an impassioned request to my friends and family, and to those readers who have followed my journey through all its tumultuous twists and turns to make a contribution to the center in my name, in recognition of both my service and the challenges that accompany international volunteerism in general.

Many of you have expressed to me your support, respect, and admiration for my courage in coming to Moldova and for my stamina in fulfilling my commitment despite numerous setbacks and disappointments. I am fully aware, also, that the particular circumstances that afforded me the opportunity to do this – having no debt or familial obligations or health issues – are definitely blessings that not many people have fortuitously coincide. But to those of you who could imagine yourself doing this sort of thing, given different life circumstances; or to those of you who volunteer less dramatically, but certainly no less effectively, within your own communities; or even to those of you who may have served in Peace Corps or are thinking seriously about doing so in the future, I ask this:

Please consider making a donation to the seniors and employees of the Rasarit Center so that they can repair the roof of the building that is so essential to their thriving, nurturing, life-affirming community. This is the place where many of them receive the only hot, nutritious meal of their day, where they can wash their clothes, take a shower, or receive therapeutic massage, where they feel warm in the winter, stay dry when it rains, and – most important of all – come together in laughter and love, supporting one another in the absence of family members who mostly work in other countries. The current roof is not only leaking, it was built with asbestos-laden materials and now that it is breaking down those materials pose a serious hazard to people who already suffer fragile and uncertain health. It also puts at risk more than 30 employees who provide daily care and treatment for them. (Not to mention any future volunteers who may serve this community.)

This Global Giving campaign was put online at my insistence: the Neoumanist staff responsible for finding funds for projects such as these were not convinced that people in the United States, who have never visited here nor heard about the center and its work, could possibly care about their roof. However, I have faith that there are people out there who care about me and who would be willing to celebrate my successful service by making a donation – in whatever amount they deem appropriate – to the community that was largely responsible for that success. This would mean so much to me. Even a small amount – five or ten dollars – will make an impact, as Neoumanist has been granted a limited trial period on the Global Giving site in which to recruit a minimum 40 one-time donors to its campaign. Having a permanent presence on Global Giving would expand their access to potential donors exponentially and make it significantly easier for the handful of regular donors that currently support their work to make payment (currently these are received by bank transfer.)

For those of you who want to know more, this is an 8-minute video made by a former PCV which shows how the center looked when it was founded and what it looks like today. You will see many of the elderly who attend my English class every Thursday. You will hear from them how much Rasarit means to their happiness, health and well-being. This is the place where I have lived since March 2013 and these are the folks who have been my family. The last line in the video reminds us that “The best medicine for aging people is attention, and love.” I would add that it is also the best medicine for despondent and lonely Peace Corps Volunteers who are desperately missing home….

I know it is common to ask for donations to be made to designated charities in memory of a person who has died. Fortunately, I am not dead! I am happy, healthy, and tremendously thankful to have been given the chance to serve as a United States Peace Corps Volunteer, representing all that is best about my country while living for three years in another nation that has never enjoyed anything close to the same freedom, opportunity, and privilege with which we have been so blessed. So I am asking you, from the bottom of my heart, please show these incredibly generous and warm-hearted people that you are, too, by going to the Global Giving “A New Roof for the Elderly” campaign, pressing the “gift or in-honor of” button on the right, and gift whatever amount you can in appreciation of your country, your grandparents, volunteers who have made a difference in your life, or my Peace Corps service specifically.

You would honor me in the best way possible; I – and they – appreciate so much, whatever you can afford.

***

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/neohumanist?fref=ts

Website: http://www.neohumanist.org/projects.php

Blog: https://neoumanisteng.wordpress.com/

Global Giving campaign: https://www.globalgiving.org/projects/a-new-roof-for-elderly-center/

What to Do

Someone asked me if I’d written a blog post lately and the guilt returned. The guilt that simmers perpetually on the back burner now, reminding me that my life has settled back into mundane, that I have, yet again, returned to treading the wheel of routine. And, while it’s not a bad routine – much better, in fact, than any I have had in years – it still leaves me relatively void of inspiration or those self-revelatory moments of clarity prompted by transporting oneself into an alien environment. Moldova has become my home turf, for the time being.

Reading back over journal entries and posts penned during my first year, I remember how raw and wide open I felt, like every circumstance was apprehended through senses stretched to their limits by the constant, unrelenting barrage of the unfamiliar. It was a feeling, though often uncomfortable and sometimes downright painful, that made me feel completely awake and every bit alive. But, little by little, I managed to carve out a niche for myself that, over 2 1/2 years, became worn with everyday use. I know my way around this tiny country. I speak the language, shop the piața, ride public transport (such as it is,) fly in and out of its airport, follow the antics of its politicians and take the elevator to the office. Now, realizing that I have a bare six months left of this experience, I’ve had to forcibly shake myself back into awareness and begin planning for next steps and where to go from here. Just the thought of leaving what’s become comfortable, safe, and habitual is causing small frissons of anxiety, the subtle knowledge that I will again be at loose ends in the world.

The last time this happened, I drifted for what seemed like an interminable time (it was actually only about four months) before I locked onto the prospect of Peace Corps and felt the relief of having a direction and purpose. It is difficult for me, as accustomed as I have become through almost 40 years of full time employment, to adjust to the idea of not having a commitment, a place to be, responsibilities that anchor and define me. We are what we do, in some sense, and to have ‘nothing’ to do feels like losing the outlines of one’s identity, becoming blurry and indistinct, as if an eraser has passed over you once or twice. I write ‘nothing,’ though, because it is only in terms of the established culture that we consider those who are not bound to a job to be, essentially, unoccupied. Think of meeting someone for the first time, on an airplane or at a party. Soon enough the question comes: What do you do? This question is intended to elicit your profession or job, so most people know better than to say “Well, I read a lot,” or “Most mornings I do some yoga, then I usually do my food shopping, afterwards I might surf the internet for a couple of hours.” People without jobs – unless they are notably wealthy – are somehow flimsy, ephemeral, suspect. And I am about to become one, yet again.

This time, however, I think I will be less worried. Because my husband and I have virtually no debt these days, we are not burdened by the looming specter of a plummeting credit score or losing our house or bankruptcy. Sure, something catastrophic could happen: I could develop a brain tumor or he could skid on some ice and plow into the back of semi. But the pressing need that I felt back in 2010 when I first lost my job of 20 years has no power over me now. This experience has afforded me the opportunity to view life through a different lens. I can say with absolute surety that my desire to accumulate stuff has evaporated. While I do enjoy having a comfortable bed, indoor plumbing, and a kitchen sufficient for cooking, I have no desire to place an imprint on my living space. Other than wanting clothing that protects me from sun and snow and shoes that don’t raise blisters, I couldn’t care less about my wardrobe. I hate shopping. When I travel, I buy no souvenirs.

The only thing that tempts me now is experience. I am looking forward to that rawness again, to that feeling of being exposed and uncertain and wide open. I’m afraid I might be developing an addiction to becoming unglued. To not knowing. To not having a name tag, or a desk, or business card to tell me who I am. Or what I do.

Hiho, hiho, it’s off to spread the glow…

Because this is my 3rd and final year (I think!) as a volunteer, I want to post more regularly about the experience of Peace Corps service in general and being stationed in Moldova in particular. Here is my first effort towards that end…..

***

I get up in the morning and drink my coffee while spot-checking the Internet for breaking news (making sure, for example, that California has not fallen into the ocean nor a fleet of inter-galactic aliens shown up in Ohio. Mostly I seek secondary reassurance of the continued existence of family and friends.) I then trek down a dirt road and over pocked pavement – nobly striving to keep my dress shoes clean and my ankles intact – to the bus station where I join a herd of mostly silent, grim- faced Moldovans in a rutiera that we must wait to fill before beginning the 20 kilometer commute into Chisinau. (In the morning this doesn’t take too long.) For the first 1-2 kilometers, we stop every 100 meters or so to pick up more passengers, who jam shoulder to shoulder in the aisle as the seats are all filled. Throughout the drive, we stop every 4-5 kilometers to take on or let off passengers at the intervening factories, village crossroads, or bus stations. (This becomes a Jenga-like exercise in compression and agility, as some of those exiting are all the way at the back.) At the perimeter of the capital, people begin debarking at various corners and traffic lights. All told, it takes about 25 minutes to traverse the 20 kilometers (about 12.5 miles.) This is public transportation in Moldova. While it is ubiquitous throughout the country, it is geared to accommodate the village, not the nation.

This explains why the parking lot of the 9-floor modern glass building where I work needs only accommodate twenty-odd cars. (I’ve never seen more than five parked at any given time.) What I still haven’t parsed is why there are two official looking male attendants stationed behind an eye-level counter just inside the marble-tied lobby who vet the visitors attempting to access the bank of elevators behind them. The first few times I entered the building they stopped me as I passed to ask where I was going. “Novateca. Etajul opt,” I say in Romanian, attempting to blend in as just another worker bee and not some lost American seeking a public bathroom. After a week or so they allowed me to pass by with a brief nod of the head. If this is some form of security, I am not sure of its effectiveness as it seems to rely entirely on an internal assessment of the visitor’s demeanor, clothing, and sense of purpose; there is no request for ID or even to sign some sort of log.

Having gained access to said bank of elevators, a posted sign inveighs the visitor to please not press all four buttons along the wall in an attempt to summon a free elevator. I wonder if the need for this admonishment bespeaks the higher percentage of foreigners visiting and working in this building: Moldovans, for the most part, are not an impatient people. They know how to wait. Once inside the elevator, the (American) visitor is reminded that, though it is clean and relatively modern in appearance, it was built to accommodate a different architecture and body type than those to which we are accustomed. Their floor space is about 3 feet by 3 feet, allowing comfortable passage for one or two people, with any number above that becoming more physically familiar with each other than one might necessarily want. I tend to wait for the chance to board alone then press the “close door” button rapidly and repeatedly to avoid uncomfortable intimacy.

Exiting the elevator on the 8th floor, however, I find that I have been teleported instantaneously to the USA. Granted, the floor to ceiling windows in the vestibule look out over the cement facades, tangled wires, and faded billboards of downtown Chișinău, but one need only turn to one’s left – offices of IREX – or right – Novateca – to enter into a brightly-lit, plush-carpeted version of corporate America. Here, the receptionist is male, young, and exceedingly friendly. He greets you warmly, inquires after your well-being, and offers you refreshments. You immediately note the 72″ video monitor mounted on the wall which presents a continuous loop of Novateca project activities, beneficiaries, and locations in Moldova. Walking down the hallways, one catches sight of a spacious common work area with networked printers and softy humming copiers; a welcoming kitchen and a small break area, both complete with bottled water (hot and cold,) coffee maker, microwave, dishes, and refrigerator; a tastefully appointed conference room furnished with ceiling-mounted projector and screen; individual offices sporting ergonomic desk chairs and 27″ monitors; and the kind of scrupulously clean, tiled bathrooms equipped with fully-enclosed stalls, large mirrors, soap dispensers, air fresheners, and hot-air hand dryers that one typically encounters in only the nicest hotels and restaurants in Chișinău.

As a new volunteer assigned to Novateca, I am provided the same training and information and materials as an employee. Within my first hour I have office supplies and a laptop, am offered a desk telephone (no thank you!) and access to the shared Google Drive (please!) The office manager reviews administrative procedures and the job responsibilities of each employees. Every person I meet is wreathed in smiles, gives unabashed eye contact, and reaches out to shake my hand. With the exception of the director, who wears a standard collared shirt and colorful tie, the common threads are business casual – no stiletto heels, bejeweled corsets, silky cravats or peg-legged trousers in sight. Staff meetings begin promptly at 1:30pm every Monday. A printed agenda is distributed and facilitated by a rotating chair, the minutes are meticulously recorded by a rotating secretary. The conversation is spiked with good-natured teasing and an abundance of laughter. Office hours appear to be long – everyone is at work when I arrive between 8:30 and 9:00 and still there when I depart sometime between 4:00 and 5:00, but no one appears overly anxious to leave. Often, I receive emails at home late into the evening.

So what, you might be thinking at this juncture? What you describe here could be one of a thousand – nay, million – workplaces in the United States. Why is this particular office worthy of note merely because of its happenstance location in the Republic of Moldova? Glad you asked. Let’s segue for a moment’s reflection on the question of the chicken or the egg.

***

For a brief time in my twenties I pursued a Master’s degree in American Studies. While circumstance did not allow for completion, the two semesters I spent in that interdisciplinary program represented – by far – the most thought-provoking period of my academic career. Granted, the focus of the texts and discussions may have been American, but the broader context of myth, symbolism, art, literature, law, history, environment, etc., and their relationship to culture, behavior, mood, and social interaction formed the basis of our explorations and theses. From the design and production elements that led to the globalization of McDonald’s to the influence of architecture on community and education, to the audio-visual cues that evoke particular emotions, we became attuned to those aspects of our daily experience and environment that were constantly, insidiuously, relentlessly manipulating and shaping our sense of being in the world. We are simultaneously stimulating and reacting to the information that feeds our brains; we are “american” because the particular data environment our senses are subjected to is largely a feedback loop of our common cultural values, beliefs, and aspirations. Here the chicken and the egg become hopelessy entwined: the discipline of cultural studies examines, but never fully answers, the question of how and why cultures form and what influences them to change.

It is precisely this which piques my curiosity about how international development efforts, experienced from the microcosm of Novateca’s office in particular, might contribute to a shift in their host-country employees’ experience of being in the world and thus, slowly but irrevocably, alter the national culture. I venture to address this topic now, only after 29 months of living here, because I feel it has taken that amount of time to have had a fairly representative exposure to various workplaces and attitudes related to work, from personal experience and that of Moldovan, American, and other foreign-born colleagues. Here is my theory.

***

The people that flock to non-profit work, and perhaps the international development arena in particular, tend to be overtly optimistic and infectiously idealistic. One of the best chapters of Peace Corps, for me, was being shoved into a group of strangers in Philadelphia a little more than two years ago that – within a matter of months – morphed into a close-knit tribe of like-minded crusaders trading intimate details of hygeine, humiliation, and hubris. It was the tribulations and triumphs of our shared experience that bouyed me through many a dark night of self-doubt.

One of the Health Educator Peace Corps Volunteers posted this to our group Facebook page the other day:

I sat in on a homeroom lesson with the fifth graders. The topic was “Limiting Your Wishes!” I’ve been mulling it over a lot ever since because I can’t imagine, socially, a US teacher standing in front of class and saying, “Tamp it down kids, because there are just some things that you’ll never be able to have, do, or be. Ever. Now let’s talk about lowering those expectations for forty-five minutes.” It would be a nigh-sacrilegious affront to the American Dream.

I wonder if his observation evokes a similar gut reaction from you: the stupendous disservice an authority figure does when she attempts to define or curtail the wiilingness to imagine change. My desire to refute that brand of discouragement distills the kernel of difference that I seek to make through my Peace Corps service and the best of what I believe development efforts actually accomplish in any given country. When a group of driven, compassionate, and energized people come together to work towards a goal, their belief in their ability to effect change is infectious. They validate and reinforce the significance of having a dream, a vision – a compelling notion that the way things are doesn’t have to be the way things are. Sure, Americans might be more adept at owning this characteristic – look at the mythic particulars of our history and how they resonate with the dynamic of change. Many of our forebears were courageous/adventurous/desperate fortune seekers who left all that was familiar and routine to inhabit a better life beyond the known horizon. Horatio Alger-type stories amplify that notion of not ceding to circumstance or misfortune: those who try long and hard enough can create the life of their dreams. The most enduring symbol of our nation stands 151 feet tall, outwardly facing, holding aloft a beckoning torch for those ready to make the leap. We are the “Land of Opportunity,” the place where dreams can be made true.

But that doesn’t mean we hold exclusive rights to hope, faith, and hard work. There are many other nationally-identified organizations and missions (Médecins Sans Frontières comes to mind) that inspire others to adopt a ‘can do’ attitude, but once infected they become their own agents of change. (We may not always agree about the dreams they wish to pursue, but hey – it isn’t just about us, now, is it?) I am not naive; I do realize that far too many big development and aid projects have ulterior motives and (sometimes not so) hidden agendas. In a world of free trade agreements and international investment banking and sweatshop labor and resource depletion, there is bound to be subtext to most flashy headlines. But that doesn’t mean that passionate people with persistent intentions of realizing different tomorrows aren’t hard at work every day within the organizations implementing those projects and thousands of others.

I see the pleasant and welcoming physical atmosphere of the Novateca office as an externality of the attitude that propels its mission. People are valued here. Mood is relevant. Environment expresses thoughts and beliefs about relationship and comfort and care.

I listened to a podcast recently that discussed the merits of what is termed “warm-glow giving,” a form of ‘impure’ altruism described by James Andreoni back in 1989 that postulates one reason why people act and/or give charitably. ‘Pure’ altruism is the notion that one will do for or give to others without any consideration for self, while impure altruism, conversely, is ‘tainted’ by the positive feeling, or ‘warm-glow,’ that the giver receives as a direct result of the charitable act. Well, really, who cares? If someone experiences an intrinsic reward from helping another person, then I would venture to say that he is probably more likely to help again – and again and again and again, right? My current role with Novateca allows me to both facilitate and witness the contagious fever of idealism. I am still learning about the various systemic obstacles, economic disincentives, and cultural mores that make altering the prevalent perceptions of libraries and librarians in Moldovan so challenging. I will admit that almost everyone outside of Novateca that I engage in discussion on this topic has more bad news to share. But that has become my focused mission in this endeavor – to help spread the warm-glow influenza, if you will. Working towards a common goal that is geared toward helping ameliorate a problem or lift up a people from poverty or give a community greater access to health, education, and well-being or bring peace to a region or turn archaic book depositories into vibrant centers of knowledge access and sharing tends to make people happier, more invested in their job, more likely to enjoy the hours spent among their co-workers, participants and beneficiaries. The more people that are brought on board the warm-glow ship, the faster the whole world sails toward that distant horizon where they way things are doesn’t have to be the way things are and kids won’t be admonished to curb their enthusiasm.

I am very lucky to have this particular opportunity during my 3rd year of service here. I regret that the enthusiasm and energy that radiates from my Novateca co-workers – both American and Moldovan – is not the predominant attitude within all non-profit organizations and public instutitions within this country. But it is gaining ground, bit by bit, partnership, PCV, FLEX exchange student, Work & Travel youth, emigrant worker at a time. Globalization spreads the good as well the bad.

Hiho!

 

 

 

 

Leaving Home to Find It, Once Again

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

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

***

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

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

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

I was casting off again…

***

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

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

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

***

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

Year three and counting….