I must confess it was disheartening for me to visit NPR’s web page today and learn that George Zimmerman had been acquitted of the murder of Trayvon Martin (by a six-woman jury, no less) not because I was hungry after some kind of revenge in a situation where the legality and justifications for Zimmerman’s actions are so hotly contested, but because of what seems to be an increasingly prevalent fear percolating below the surface of so many Americans’ interactions with each other during the course of daily life.
The verdict prompted a lively debate on NPR’s website, generating more than 400 comments at the time of this writing. The top-rated comment on the story was this one by B Free:
“One thing I don’t understand is what was the young man supposed to do when approached by an armed guy on the side of the road? Black, white, whatever, if a guy with no obvious authority stops anybody on the side of the road in an accusatory manner, exactly what could they say to put them at ease?”
Responses included observations like this one, from commenter Brian Watkins:
“Since the guy was twice his age… maybe a “Hello, how are you tonight sir?”, “just on my way home, is everything ok for you? is your car ok? you need some help with a tire?” … that’s the SAFEST things to SAY. Then when confronted, respectfully chat. I don’t know… those are the best things I can come up with.”
To which I say, poftim. Barring the obvious elephant in the room – that Zimmerman was armed with a GUN and his demeanor was confrontational – I do believe that simple pleasantries go a long way toward easing awkward social situations. In most uncomfortable circumstances, I find that a smile does much better than a growl. However, here is what Watkins goes on to observe:
“America is scared all the time, so everyone is a threat to each other. This is the difficulty we have to live with being a diverse country, but regressing to simple pleasantries is the safest thing to do. To prevent this from happening to more youth, I advise all to stay closer to home and not be out when it gets too dark. It’s dangerous anyhow… it’s harder to identify people at night.”
To which all I can say is, wow. Americans are basically scary people whom one should be afraid to encounter after dark, so hole up in your homes in order to be safe? And this is a consequence – a ‘difficulty” – of living in a diverse country? And we need to “regress” to pleasantries in order not to be shot walking home from the neighborhood convenience store?
Is this what it’s come to?
Coincidentally, I was talking with another PCV just this morning about a recent vacation she took with her mom to several European countries. Her mom suffered a mishap on a bike in Croatia and a local eating at an outdoor café saw it happen and came to their assistance. He offered to drive my friend to a nearby pharmacy to help her purchase some first aid supplies; she gratefully accepted. Her mom chastised her later, warning her that the guy might have had ill intentions of rape, robbery, and other mayhem and that my friend was foolhardy for trusting a veritable stranger. On another occasion, they found themselves hopelessly lost in a Parisian suburb. Despite her mother’s fierce objections, my friend stopped to ask directions of a group of young men gathered on the street, who proceeded to get in their own car and gallantly lead them through the confusing maze of streets and back out onto the main highway.
She and I reflected on an integral lesson which usually occurs to most travelers who have spent some time out in the world; most people are not harboring an inherent desire to hurt you. In fact, many, many people will help you, begrudgingly or not, when asked. Travel in foreign countries often involves getting lost, or needing assistance with language or purchases, or just finding the best spot to eat in town. To get the most out of the experience sometimes requires putting your trust in a stranger.
How have so many Americans lost this ability to see others as potential allies rather than threats? And especially in our own neighborhoods?
I have commented on this blog before how increasingly important I am finding the second and third goals of Peace Corps service to be: 2) helping promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the peoples served, and 3) helping promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of Americans. I feel like my daily interactions with Moldovans and other visitors to this country are ending up to be much more meaningful and impactful than the professional skills or work experience I bring.
It was with no small measure of pride that we posted this observation made by a young Moldovan who walked the entire southern route of Turul Moldovei:
“I think that volunteerism is important, and I talked to some people about volunteering and they said that this thing in Moldova has been lost and now American Volunteers help us to understand that we can give the community help that brings us pleasure to help them. I liked very much to be a volunteer, I really get a lot of pleasure, pleasure to have fun, pleasure to work, pleasure to give happiness.
I want to be a volunteer and know when Turul Moldovei ended I am trying to do more.”
Living where I do, at an internationally sponsored NGO that hosts many volunteers from European countries, I have the pleasure of meeting diverse people who use their own vacation time and funds to come to Moldova to help strangers. For the past two weeks there have been three young women from the Netherlands here, aged 18 to 28, who have gone into the homes of house-bound elderly to empty buckets of feces and bottles of urine, scrub down cockroach infested kitchens, haul water from wells, air out mattresses and blankets, sweep mud-encrusted floors, massage arthritic feet, and then shed tears of joy to have had the honor to do so.
What if, instead, the lesson they learned was to stay close to home, to distrust diversity, or to ‘regress to pleasantries’ to keep safe?
My primary desire in sharing my experiences here is to provide a small window on a faraway place, a country most Americans (and Europeans, it turns out) have never heard of. I hope my voice can find a place among the incessant fear-mongering that hammers away at our trust, at our empathy, our vulnerability, our ideas about the strangers we meet along the way.
“Exercise caution in your business affairs, for the world is full of trickery. But let this not blind you to what virtue there is: many persons strive for high ideals and everywhere life is full of heroism.”
Just as a piece of matter detaches itself from the sun to live as a wholly new creation so I have come to feel about my detachment from America. Once the separation is made a new order is established, and there is no turning back. For me, the sun had ceased to exist; I had myself become a blazing sun. And like all other suns of the universe I had to nourish myself from within.
Henry Miller from The Cosmological Eye
I would be lying if I didn’t admit that at various points during the past year I have wondered whether I would make it to 2014 here in Moldova. Especially during those stark winter months after returning from Morocco, when I had no partner or assignment and the only bump in my weekly calendar was three hours of language lessons, I would fondle thoughts of hoisting the white flag and emerging from the trenches of my despair to board a jet plane back to America. With barely nine hours of daylight to fill, I was dog paddling each day through despondency, trying to hold my head up despite having nothing to plan for beyond my next meal. Once, my mood got so bleak that I Skyped my sister-in-law and had her walk outside with her laptop and hold it aloft to the blazing California sun just to remind myself that it still existed.
It was exactly during one of those low points, having called home for the fifteenth time in a matter of weeks, that my father offered me a ticket to surprise my mother for her 70th birthday. I was hesitant, but really only for about two minutes. My solemn vow not to ‘waste’ any of my precious 48 vacation days to return to the US sidled out the back door – I desperately wanted, needed, to feel at home again. Because my mom’s birthday conflicted with Turul Moldovei 2013 – the only project I had going at the time – we decided on Mother’s Day, instead. I hung up the phone and purchased a ticket. It was February 8th. Only 3 month and 3 days to go.
Thus began the countdown of anxiety. What would it actually feel like to be home again? So good I couldn’t stand the thought of returning? How much had things changed during the year I’d been gone? Would I feel strange, different, separate, alienated? Should I have accepted this expensive gift from my father when I had so fervently committed to being gone for 27 months? Was I cheating somehow? If I did indeed return would it make the second year even harder – having to say goodbye to everybody yet again, this time knowing what was in store for me?
As fate would have it, soon after I bought the ticket I was offered the opportunity to relocate to my current site. Daylight increased, the snow melted, and spring made a show-stopping appearance almost overnight. My new apartment was lovely – located in a senior center full of laughing, warm, and gregarious souls who immediately enveloped me in a circle of hospitality and friendship. I had a workplace, a partner, and an assignment. For the first time since pre-service training, I was busy.
My anxiety about going home increased.
Why was I tempting fate? I had made it through my first winter, probably the roughest patch I would experience during my service. Life was brighter, my mood was elevated, and things were finally falling into place. Why interrupt the flow with a step backwards? Would Moldova end up paling when placed under the bright lights of America? But the non-refundable ticket was purchased; good idea or not, I was going home.
And, indeed, the tears burst forth the moment I clutched my daughter in the airport. In the 27 years since her birth, I had never gone longer than four or five months without seeing her. This time, the passage of time was readily apparent. My little girl was finally, irrevocably gone; this was a full-fledged woman I was greeting. How could I have left her for so long? Can one year alter a face, a posture, a presence so greatly?
More tears when I locked onto my husband’s eyes through the windshield as he pulled the Jeep up to the curb at LAX. I was transported back to the last half of 2011 and the idyllic interlude of our journey across America: just the two of us and our dog exploring the national parks and forests, camping, hiking, cooking our meals under the stars until summer bled into autumn. His presence in the driver’s seat brought it all back. If there was one thing that could make me abandon all, it would be the chance to recapture those months and sit beside him through those miles again.
The tears let loose again when I felt myself revert back 40 years, suddenly a little girl again in her mother’s arms. To heighten the surprise, I had hidden in my brother’s backyard (he and my sister-in-law were hosting the Mother’s Day celebration.) When my mom came in the house, I called her from my iPad on the Google voice number I use in Moldova. I asked her if she could hear me, as I always do when commencing a call. I was surprised when she said she couldn’t (geez, I was barely 50 feet away!) I began the Verizon riff: “Can you hear me now? Can you hear me now?” as I made my way into the house. When I finally came around the corner of the hallway, I added “Because I’m right here.” Her legs promptly gave way and she fell in a heap on the floor in front of me. (My dad said it was worth every penny of the ticket.)
Yet, there were also little things that caught me off guard. My dogs barely acknowledged me. Unlike those YouTube videos of returned soldiers whose dogs about explode when they walk in the door, mine acted as if I’d just rounded the corner from the bedroom.
Everything seemed inordinately expensive. I spent the equivalent of my entire PC monthly stipend on one trip to Target to ‘pick up a few things.’ A dinner out with friends could have bought me ten nights out at Pizzamania in Moldova (with wine.) Parking for an hour at the beach would buy two round trip bus tickets from my village into Chișinău.
And the cars. The endless stream of cars. The streets built for a multitude of vehicles and the sound and smell of them filling the atmosphere. The parking lots – acres and acres of parking lots. I’d never noticed how much space is devoted to parking cars in America. And how people drive everywhere, mostly alone in a bubble of their own creation. No sweaty armpits shoved in their faces. No jostling for space among strangers, wondering if you should buy a seat for your bags. But also a huge, artificial border. As if we each existed on our own space ship, controlled our own climate, sped through the day alone.
Mostly, everything was the same as it was when I first decided I needed to go. Sitting with my friends, listening to them talk about their jobs and homes and weekend excursions and new purchases, I felt strangely apart. These concerns, realities, worries, and excitements were no longer mine. They hadn’t been for more than two and a half years. Sifting through the mercurial sands of memory, I remembered that I had consciously desired, then chosen to separate myself from this world. I had wanted to nourish myself from within.
And when – after 27 hours of international flights, transfers, security checks, baggage claim, visa stamps, bus rides and a twenty minute hike down a dirt road with my luggage – I finally turned the key in the lock and entered back into my sunlit, solitary, sparsely furnished domain, I felt the warm welcome of home.
Moldova appears just a bit different to me now. A little more lush. A little less alien. Perhaps it’s the just the abundance of spring – the thunderstorms, the nesting birds, the bursting palette of flowers. Or the unbridled enthusiasm and genuine smiles of all those who exclaimed at my return. Or maybe the ticking clock that steadily punctuates the blanketing silence in my very own apartment – the first I’ve had in fifty-one years of life on this planet.
I know now, for the very first time, that I did the right thing. I have become my own sun.
There’s a certain slant of light,
On winter afternoons,
That oppresses, like the weight
Of cathedral tunes.
Despite being an English major, I was never adept at memorizing or effortlessly espousing appropriate verse at opportune moments to charm or impress a casual audience. Yet that one line remains embedded in my brain, surfacing at unexpected moments to perfectly contain the feeling that a certain slant of light so exquisitely conveys.
Unlike the inimitable Emily Dickenson, however, the poetic rapture that assails me is not confined to a particular season; today it surprised me during a mundane commute between Chișinău and my village as I sat wedged into a too-small seat (why am I so much larger than the average Moldovan?) listening to a genius mix of Toni Childs while balancing two bags on my origami-ed knees.
Had I not seen this same 20 km stretch of Moldovan countryside at least 30 times in the last two months? Why – suddenly – did the view seem choreographed for pleasure, softly speckled with shoots of infant grass below waving wands of wheat? Lake Ghidici – iridescent blue! Glimpses of moldering concrete blocks and weather-worn factories, transformed into marbled reliefs. Liquid gold melding fragile, newly sprung leaves into pulsing halos around the stark white trunks of birch trees. Rays of sun, frosting, plating, caressing, everything in their path. Sky, sky, sky – freckled with cottony adornments – spreading luxuriously over rolling hills of plowed, darkly fecund earth.
SPRING! This is spring, I think. Never before have I encountered her subtle, enchanting beauty, full force. Southern California, where I’ve lived most of my life, is a study in variations on a theme: sun, sun, wind, a sprinkle of drops, sun, sun, a few paltry clouds, sun, sun, fog, a pathetic mist. Sun, sun, sun. Always, boldly up above, overhead, in charge. Never surreptitious. Hardly ever slanting.
But this was a flirtatious light beckoning me. A hint of warmth to come. A feathering brush of shimmering paint, coating the landscape. Coy. Suggestive. Enticing.
And in that moment, revelation. I had made it, survived the cycle: Summer – stumbling trainee, dazzled with vertigo, wilting in the humidity and overwhelmed by the sheer unexpectedness of where I’d landed; Autumn – falling into routine, struggling with language and a new home, job, roommate, friends; Winter – the loss of all I had tentatively constructed, parsimonious sun begrudgingly meting out fewer and fewer hours of daylight, hibernation, confusion, doubt.
And now Spring. A new beginning, at last, sure and clear. Moldova, clothed in a gown of green and gold, had finally extended a warm welcome, basking in a certain slight of light.
Heavenly hurt it gives us;
We can find no scar,
But internal difference
Where the meanings are.
I give this to you as a great example of that certain slant of light in the countryside and a perfect four-minute container of what life is like in Moldova. I have been to many of these places, met these same kinds of people, danced these dances, sang these songs. Moldova is beginning to grow on me…
Today, in the course of a conversation between a German consultant visiting my center and my partner, the notion of a “Potemkin village” was used to illustrate those aspects of Moldova that can be so misleading for foreigners who try to understand how life works here. My partner had never heard this term, so we related the story (which experts now claim to be myth) of Potemkin erecting only the facades of settlements along the banks of the Dnieper River in order to fool Catherine II during her visit to Crimea in 1787; Potemkin wanted her to experience the area as more densely populated, flourishing and productive than it actually was. Oddly enough, my partner seemed to have trouble understanding the point of the story, almost as if it was perfectly natural for a government official to perform this sort of manipulative trick to impress a powerful benefactor. Such is life in Moldova.
Earlier this week, I received a request to relate the more mundane details of my weekly routine: what do I actually do here from day to day, what is my environment like, who do I encounter and where do I go? And as I thought about responding to this query, it occurred to me that my days are full of these Potemkin villages – the contrast between what is available to me as a Peace Corps volunteer versus what ordinary Moldovans can access; the wide range of locales that I visit and the varied people that I meet in my work and through the Peace Corps. Nothing is really as it seems, and all it takes is a scratch to the gleaming, brightly hued plastic surface to see the iron and rust lurking beneath.
Five Days in the Life of a Potemkin villager
I awake. Lindsey, a fellow volunteer now living in another village, has spent the night for convenience sake. She and I do a language lesson together on Wednesday mornings from 9-11 with our tutor, using the opportunity to converse with each other and receive immediate feedback on grammar and pronunciation. Peace Corps will pay for any volunteer to receive up to 12 hours per month of professional tutoring in Romanian or Russian, depending on the language needed for his or her assignment. I take full advantage of this and it is definitely one important way that Peace Corps invests in local economies throughout the country.
After my language lesson, I literally cross the street from my tutor’s third story apartment to my center. My partner, the center driver and I depart immediately for the Chișinău airport to pick up a consultant flying in from Frankfort, Germany. We negotiate the snow and ice and arrive at the airport prior to his plane landing, so we wander through the shops and restaurants in the small but modern airport that I barely remember seeing when I arrived in a stupor at the end of a 36 hour journey last June. There are many officials going in and out of various doors in full fur coats and leather boots, looking important and fully occupied. There is large Christmas tree decked in splendid regalia on the second
floor and the aroma of brewing coffee and yeasty breads fills the air. Puffy children in pastel hats, mittens, snow boots, and parkas waddle about like mini-marshmallows. (No one wants to peel off layers of buttoned, zipped, velcroed and snapped clothing for such a short amount of time. They are so adorable I want to eat them.)
I use the notepad on my iPad to write the German consultant’s name in big letters. My partner and the driver are entranced by the invisible mechanics of such a thing, fascinated that my finger can bring forth words on a screen. They peer at the letters closely and giggle.
Once having obtained our German, we depart the airport and are soon winding through a maze of twisted, pot-holed streets in the outskirts of the city. I realize that this is not the direction home: “Unde mergem?” Where we are going, I ask. “Scuzați, Yvette! Mergem să cautem brad am vazut pe internet ieri.” We’re going to find a Christmas tree my partner saw on the internet yesterday. Not at a store, mind you. Somewhere in this nest of crumbling apartment buildings someone has offered a tree for sale. So the German and I are left in the van to become buddies while my partner and the driver begin a lengthy search on foot for the tree. I try to explain to him that this is normal in Moldova – one maximizes trips into the city by performing a multitude of tasks when there. He nods sagely and relates that much the same is true in India, Afghanistan, and Kazakhstan, places he has visited for work on a multitude of occasions. I am oddly excited to have Moldova lumped in with such exotic locales.
My partner and the driver eventually emerge with a green stick that, upon closer inspection, proves to be an artificial Christmas tree. It possesses four or five bent, sparsely-leafed branches and has definitely weathered its share of holidays. Sigh. Even developing countries have fallen prey to Christmas plastic.
I spend the day attempting to negotiate the niceties for our German guest. He needs to change money, so we drive him to the nearest ATM (which is literally a block away, but no one walks in Moldova if the luxury of a “mașina” is accessible.) It takes three attempts for him to understand how to operate the machine. Meanwhile, it has begun to snow. He wants to stop every few steps as we head back to the car to finish telling me a story – his wife has admonished him not to walk and talk simultaneously when it’s icy. I am freezing and I can see my partner sitting in the front seat of the van wondering what in the heck we’re doing.
After retrieving money from this thoroughly modern convenience (accessible in Russian, English, Romanian, and French,) we drive to the local indoor piața to buy food for the dinner we are hosting at the center to celebrate its year anniversary and search for the cinnamon that the German wants for his breakfast toast. There we encounter entire sides of beef, legs of lamb, livers, tongues, chickens with feet attached, and fish complete with heads, scales and fins. Mounds of homemade cheese (called “brinza”) balance atop rickety wooden tables next to recycled plastic bags replete with unshelled walnuts, dried fruit, wrapped candy (manufactured in Moldova), and two liter water bottles refilled with milk. Bare, bloody hands transfer meat from table to scale to bag. Nothing is sanitized, inspected, or refrigerated, but – since it’s probably only 30 degrees – I tell myself I will not be concerned. Vagabond dogs wend through the table legs nose to concrete sniffing for scraps. Men are smoking in clusters around the meat and fish; their ashes pepper the swirling currents of air. At least its winter so there are no flies. Needless to say, there is no cinnamon.
During a feedback meeting with the German in the afternoon, my partner begins to cry. The beautiful façade of our center with its brightly colored murals, ergonomically-correct high chairs, handicap friendly bathroom, frothy curtains, and cartoon stencils is suddenly peeled back to reveal the seething cauldron of problems that sources her daily tears. After listening for an hour or two as I attempt to translate and summarize the various administrative and funding dysfunctions besetting the center, the German proposes the very same list of solutions that I so eagerly proffered mere months ago. He is met with the very same stubborn rebuttals and intractable arguments that were shoved back to me.
I explain to him that this Moldova; we are both liberally-educated, professionally-networked, culturally
privileged, westernized people using our analytical skills and inherent activism to tackle issues that have arisen in a foreign environment, that were born of a much different experience and informed by perspectives we don’t share and will most likely never understand. I see his shoulder sag subtly as he begins twisting his hands in his lap. God, I know the frustration he is feeling, mind scurrying from scenario to scenario, trying to find the invisible thread leading out of this tangled web back to sanity. I want so badly for him to find it where I’ve failed. Sadly, at this point I don’t hold out much hope.
In the evening I am invited to a masa at the lovely home of the second Angela – friend of the first Angela whose house I went to two weeks ago. I am amazed at the architecture: one enters into an intimate, cozy kitchen/dining/living room combination – a miniaturized version of the “great rooms” now so popular in American homes. The center is stabilized by the highly polished trunk of a tree that was culled from their property. The cabinets are all fashioned of a reddish, blond wood with glazed glass inlays and ornate handles that could have come from Restoration Hardware. Other smaller, sturdy trunks support the plastered ceilings of her and her husband’s bedroom, which they share with their 7 year old daughter until the time when their son, 18, is ready to move out and free the second bedroom for her. The bathroom sink is a shallow, smoky glass bowl, the shower fashioned from rough stones also plucked from their property. Angela is pleased that I shower praise on their creation that they designed and built themselves; “Most Moldovans just don’t get it,” she tells me, wryly.
The meal is hearty, the wine plentiful, and the conversation lively. I don’t get home and tucked into bed until well after midnight.
I arise at 5:30am, having lain awake for an hour already dreading the task ahead. I have to dress and ready my baggage for an overnight stay in Chișinău. I am attending the International Women’s Club of Moldova’s annual Winter Bazaar in order to sell Christmas cards, candles, and velvet bags fashioned by my center’s staff to supplement the meager cash they have set aside for the children’s holiday party. While I enjoy being in the capital once I’m there, the journey is fairly long and tedious. It is still dark and very cold when I leave the warmth of the apartment at 6:50am. Negotiating the steep, ice slicked asphalt of the driveway leading to the street, my feet slip out from beneath me and I land forcefully on my butt, driving the wind from my lungs.
At 6:55 I board the waiting rutiera that is scheduled to depart at 7:00 as I have planned to meet another PCV at 8:00am. I am the sole passenger. The driver and I converse about the difficulties of learning languages; he commiserates with me about the mishmash tongue that is loosely termed ‘moldovanești’ – an amalgam of Romanian, Russian, and Ukraine words that is variously spoken in the majority of the small villages. Peace Corps teaches us the proper version of Romanian, but this does not often match up with what we encounter at our sites. The further you travel from Chișinău, the greater the deviation from textbook style.
Many weeks ago, I discovered a well-organized (by Moldovan standards) website, autogara.md, which provides a comprehensive list of the departure and arrival times for buses traveling throughout the country and into Romania and Ukraine. I was so pleased – a schedule! I didn’t have to wander aimlessly up and down the street waiting for the right bus to appear. Instead, I can tear myself from the comfort of the apartment mere minutes prior to departure. The rutiera I have boarded, however, does not end up pulling out until 7:25, five minutes later than the scheduled time for the next departure of the day; only two more passengers have boarded in the interim. I know that I won’t make it by 8:00, but we Americans are smart by now: we pad in extra time to all appointments to account for the vagaries of Moldovan public transportation.
The Winter Bazaar is held at Moldexpo, a thoroughly modern exposition complex on the outskirts of the city. There are over a hundred booths, mostly embassies – Chinese, Turkish, Polish, Italian, German, English, American – along with the United Nations, various Moldovan NGOs, and the Peace Corps. Experienced participants know to mob the American Embassy booth early, buying up all the cans of Campbell’s mushroom soup, gallon bottles of Log Cabin syrup, one pound jars of Skippy Omega+ Creamy Peanut Butter and containers of Kraft Country BBQ Sauce before the front doors have even opened for business. Ahhh, American manufactured food – don’t we all just crave it, in spite of ourselves.
This day proves to be one of those disorienting experiences wherein I feel as if Scotty has beamed me up to the Starship America: ten or fifteen PCVs of various ethnicities, genders, and sexual identities are milling about inside the small PCV booth and spilling out into the pathway, transitioning smoothly from Romanian to
Russian to English while sharing plastic plates of Ethiopan and Italian cuisine, laughing at each other’s jokes, discussing the merits of Northface versus Marmot parkas, and comparing itineraries for upcoming vacations.
In the evening, my fellow PCV, Elsa, and I prepare a luscious dinner of oven-baked chicken basted with Kraft BBQ sauce, accompanied by the left-over Spanish rice she served for Moldovan guests a couple of nights before, and a side of fresh (!!!!) Swiss Chard grown by another PCV as part of his greenhouse project. While we are cooking, her Moldovan landlady stops by to pick up the payment for the electricity. She spends a good 20 minutes parsing out the details of the bill, seemingly striving for a rare transparency in a largely opaque cash economy. The Peace Corps allots hugely generous, mandatory, non-negotiable amounts for utilities and rent within our monthly stipends. Moldovans who are selected as host families or who are fortunate enough to land a PCV tenant most times do their very best to provide a pleasing experience, anxious to retain this steady boon to their monthly incomes.
I arise at 6:40am from the bed Elsa generously shared with me, trying not to wake her. She has slept restlessly for most of the night, waiting for two other PCVs whom she has told can sleep on her floor to arrive. Like most PCVs from small villages let loose in Chișinău on a weekend night, they want to maximize their time and don’t show up until the wee hours. That is the bane of being assigned to a project in the big city. The coveted ability to access a variety of perceived luxuries like bars, restaurants, bookstores, malls, operas, ballets, concerts, and well-stocked grocery stores is balanced with the need to build and maintain boundaries of privacy and quiet time. Having an apartment in Chișinău means constantly fielding requests from fellow PCVs to crash for the night when they trek into the city from far-flung locales. When you have a generous, nurturing soul like Elsa’s, the ability to say “no” is one that must be practiced over and over, despite the discomfort it brings.
Dawn is breaking as I spend a good twenty minutes enveloping myself in tights, body shirt, long underwear, sturdy canvas hiking pants, woolen sweater, scarf, hat, mittens under gloves, and water proof UGGs to brave the outdoors. I heave my pack onto my back and decide to take the stairs, as I doubt that me in all my layers plus back pack will fit inside the minute steel box that masquerades as an elevator. Plus, I just don’t trust the damn things.
I trudge through the peripheries of the city’s bustling center, dodging through smoking pedestrians; packs of skeletal, shivering dogs; broken manhole covers that plunge into murky abysses; empty plastic bags of various hues skittering in the wind; careening automobiles with horns that blare at the briefest obstacle; and bundled bunicas selling potatos, beets and cabbage at the crumbling pavement’s edge. Neon signs for gambling dens fight for air space with satellite dishes, trolleybus cables, and billboards advertising European label clothing and airline tickets to Turkey. The women, as always, are minutely coordinated, stylish bags match boots which match scarves which match parka trim which matches lipstick, blush, and eye shadow. I look like a misplaced hobo; I can see their eyes twitching disapprovingly from my shoes to my bulky jacket to the lumpish backpack that causes me to walk in a slightly hunched manner. I couldn’t care less.
I arrive at Peace Corps office, sign in, check the log for a stray package I might have overlooked, then trudge up three flights of stairs to the PCV lounge. By the time I get there I am sweating like it’s mid-July and must frantically discard my top two layers of clothing as quickly as possible. Various volunteers wander in and out, draping themselves about the second-hand furniture, dropping their belongings on the floor, mixing cups of instant coffee with plastic spoons retrieved from the trash, complaining of hangovers and the monumental journeys back to site. It reminds me of nothing so much as a college dorm room; disheveled youths far from home, parked behind iMacs blaring iTune playlists, exclaiming in delight when ripped open boxes from home spill out Cheetos, Kraft Mac N Cheese, deodorant, and warm winter clothing. People emerge from the shower with wet hair, wrapped in towels and proceed to dress with their backs oh-so modestly turned. Talk of projects, families back home, countdown until COS (Close of Service,) and the previous night’s escapades drift through the musty air. Me and two other PCVs, Sue and Tori, retreat to a back office to concentrate on plans for today’s effort to plug Turul Moldovei 2013 (more on this later.)
We emerge hours later into biting wind and mud spattered snow, facing a 35 minute walk to the Palațul de Republica where a formal event honoring volunteerism is set to occur. It takes us only moments to decide to hail a cab. Tori sticks her head in the window and begins negotiating a price. Sue and I stand alert at the back doors, hands on door handles, ready to dive in. Cars line up, honking impatiently, behind us. Though the price is 5 lei more than we originally decided to pay, we pile in hurriedly, willing to cede bargaining efforts for comfort. We inch our way between belching buses and shiny Mercedes only to catapult to 50 miles an hour through the open stretches of icy roadway, suffering whiplash on the sudden turns. Pedestrians scatter before us. Balalaikas blare tinnily from the radio.
We disembark before an imposing, pillared facade that has – no kidding – unfurled an actual red carpet atop the slushy, dirt-laced snow. Depositing purses, keys, and mobile phones on a table, we pass through a security detector which beeps loudly and blinks red for every person, leaving me to ponder the efficacy of its abilities. We enter a magnificent three-story hall, encrusted with chandeliers, burbling fountains, and galactic gold balls hanging from the ceiling like a retro-modernistic installation conceived in 1954. We check our coats with an actual coat check girl who hands us each a carved wooden tag embossed with a glittering number. We are ushered up to the second tier and encouraged to take our seats in the cavernous auditorium in preparation for the festivities to come; ah, but we are smarter than that now. We know that the performance will stretch into the evening hours, with no intermission or refreshments available. We surreptiously slink back down the grand staircase and proceed to effeciently accomplish our mission, nabbing the people we wish to meet as they walk through the detectors (beeping, flashing) in order to introduce ourselves and our future event. (Again, future blog post.) Within 30 minutes, we are hailing another cab back to Peace Corps.
A couple of hours later I am sitting in a swank coffee shop in a mall that could have been built in any California city, waiting to meet with an Irish woman who runs a large orphanage in Hîncești. Suzanne is an amazing force of nature, who emits energy and cheer throughout any space she enters. I find myself craving her company in these dour days of winter. She has generously offered to let us hitch a ride back in the van that transports the medical personnel working at the orphanage back to their homes in Chișinău every evening. Thank the sweet lord for this, as a blizzard is bearing down and the thought of negotiating the street corner wait and the various bus changes back to site is just overwhelming me at the moment. I have never appreciated personal vehicles – as environmentally depleting as I know them to be – as I have since winter has descended in full force upon Moldova.
I spend a few minutes in delightful conversation with Suzanne’s father, who is urbane and thoughtful, remarking to me about the bitter irony of this „Malldova” – an architectural showcase of shops which 95% of Moldovans cannot afford to patronize. (Just like South Coast Plaza, I think.) The coffee here is the same price it is in the States. Men finger their iPhones at the table adjacent to me, while brusquely barking at each other in a language I cannot identify. Heavily made up young women lounge next to them in real furs, feet encased in six inch stilettos. (How do they walk through the ice in those things? I think.)
The ride home is spent in silent, repetitive prayer to a Father God I don’t believe in – please don’t let me die on a highway in Moldova, please don’t let me die on a highway in Moldova. The driver is good, but the road is icy and sleet is blanketing the windshield with frost. There are no street lights or municipal trucks to salt the roads. We slide perceptibly on the curves, hydroplaning three or four times. When we finally turn onto the road leading into Hîncești, I feel the muscles in my neck and back I didn’t realize were clenched subtly relax.
It has been dark for 3 hours by 7:00pm when I shed all my layers, wash my weary face, and sink gratefully into
the easy chair bathed in the warm light of a table lamp in my room. Tomorrow, language lessons, 9:00am. I have not studied a word of Romanian (though granted I have been speaking it at various times throughout the past five days.) I am too tired to care. I am too tired to check email, Facebook, or the days news. I am too tired to eat. The book I am readying on my iPad sits heavily in my lap. Outside, snow is swirling and the wind is whistling through the twisted limbs of the tree just outside my window. An occasional truck thunders by.
Using my Google voice number, I call my husband. He is just waking up, contemplating a choice of cafes for breakfast and a leisurely perusal of the New York Times. Life is moving on at the same pace, in the same grooves, 6000 miles away. It is not snowing there. I hear Zoe bark once, sharply, in the background and picture the person she is warning walking past outside the window. His voice is so clear I could swear he was in the next room. I laugh at one of his jokes and my eyes suddenly fill with tears.
Happiness masking melancholy; plastic coating rust; glitter over darkness; facades hiding emptiness – it all rolls through me in a wave that crests, breaks, and then recedes again. I’m learning to negotiate the currents and swim with the tide. And actually, its really not that bad.
I took my love and I took it down
I climbed a mountain and I turned around And I saw my reflection in the snow covered hills
‘Till the landslide brought me down
Oh, mirror in the sky
What is love?
Can the child within my heart rise above?
Can I sail thru the changing ocean tides?
Can I handle the seasons of my life?
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
A pair of lovely sisters- good friends of my daughter – posted/reposted this on Facebook. It gave me pause:
the area of pause
you have to have it or the walls will close
you have to give everything up, throw it
away, everything away.
you have to look at what you look at
or think what you think
or do what you do
without considering personal
without accepting guidance.
people are worn away with
they hide in common
their concerns are herd
few have the ability to stare
at an old shoe for
or to think of odd things
like who invented the
they become unalive
because they are unable to
listen to their untrue
I had never read this before, but it’s startling how clearly Bukowski pinpoints the underlying emotion of “what fifty feels like” for me. I needed a “pause” from my life, a way to look at it from a distance, examine its contours and facets and weigh its true value on the scale of my soul. My Peace Corps experience is a means for me to do this. I have definitely taken a step back and out.