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/

The Airplane Episode

Every journey has its ending and – after visiting four major metropolises in three countries during seven days through two long train rides – I am ready to reclaim the hearth and be still for at least a couple of days by Saturday morning.  The penultimate leg of my return trip is a mere 75 minute jaunt from Kiev, the capital of Ukraine, to Chișinău, departing at 7:35pm, which should have had me opening the door to my apartment around 10:00 at the latest, blessed be.  In fact, I congratulate myself on the luck of living so close to so many desirable vacation destinations. Unlike my travel companion, I am not facing an 11-hour, ocean-spanning, six time zones change to make it home.  Why I failed to foresee the nebulous, eastern European factor inherent in my own equation, I cannot say.  Having lived here for over two years now, I should definitely be wiser.

It starts with the gate assignment: D5 flashing in bold orange neon on the overhead departure board. The Kiev airport is several times larger than I anticipated. With only an hour and some minutes between my arrival from Amsterdam and my scheduled departure, I do not want to take even the whiff of a chance of missing my flight. Peace Corps had been clear in allowing me to fly through Ukraine in the first place: Do not leave the airport under any condition.  I dutifully make my way through echoing corridors and double-backed turns to an overcrowded lounge space and wedge my way into a seat, displacing the bags of the woman next to me (gee, I see it’s a Louis Vitton, but it can sit on the floor more comfortably than I can, ma’am.)  The next time I glance at the clock it is 7:20 and a vague uneasiness slips into my bloodstream: shouldn’t we all be lining up? The small electronic sign above the departure kiosk has yet to display the flight info and there is no one manning the computer to ask. My feet begin to jiggle. I contemplate getting up to check the main departure board again, knowing that I’ll be gone a good five minutes during which time Ms. Vitton will be sure to erect another baggage fortress in my seat. I decide to wait. Around 7:30pm a rotation of Ukrainian, Russian, and Brit-accented English announcements inform the terminal that the flight scheduled for “Shisenow” (pronounced incorrectly, with a soft “chi” rather than the hard K) Moldova has been delayed.  We are now due to depart at 8:35. (I am only slightly concerned that the designated announcer for an international airline does not know how to pronounce the capital of a neighboring country.  After all, some Americans have been known to identify Australia as South Korea in man-on-the street interviews.)

As the minutes tick by I keep the kiosk in my right peripheral, waiting for the appearance of airline personnel to assure me that the flight is indeed occurring and preparations are being made for boarding.    By 8:17, when the kiosk sign is still displaying an ambiguous logo of detached wings on an empty blue background and with no signs of a human attendant below, I relinquish my seat to go recheck the main departure board.  Wow.  Good thing.  Because my flight is scheduled to depart in 13 minutes from Gate D10, 100 meters down the crowded corridor.

Trotting as best I am able swaddled in winter coat and heavy boots, I arrive at gate 10 to find my corrected flight info posted in crisp LCD above two uniformed attendants hunched over a computer screen and a 50 person queue waiting patiently to board.  Okay, this is more like it.  I exhale a sigh of relief, putting aside my irritation at the inexplicable omission of changed gate information in the flight delay announcement.  For the final stage of this trip, I have scheduled a driver, Igor, to pick me up at the airport in Chișinău and deliver me to my apartment in Strașeni some 40 kilometers away, an unfortunate (and expensive) necessity resultant of the lack of public transportation after 9:00pm.  At this point, I will be only slightly late by Moldovan standards.  I’ll slip him an extra 50, mentally calculating the amount of Moldovan lei I stashed in my wallet ten days ago.

Alas, 8:30pm comes and goes and the line remains immobile.  The attendants are still huddled over their computer screen and no one else seems concerned.  Patience, I tell myself.  During my Peace Corps service I have learned that, as a general rule, we Americans tend to be a lot more wired and anxious than other breeds.  Moldovans, especially, continually amaze me with the degree of placid acceptance they evince in any situation which calls for indefinite waiting.  Everyone in the immediate vicinity is either looking bored or absorbed with an electronic device; no one is twitching uncontrollably, much less storming the gate. I quell the inexorable wavelets of worry lapping at the edges of my studied calm.  I can do this, I think. Even two hours late is not that bad.  He’ll wait for me.  And in this small lifeboat of untested hope I am forced to place my trust, having no phone service since I neglected to set my mobile to roaming before leaving Moldova.  (I have all but forgotten that the seemingly ubiquitous ability to instantly communicate across borders depends on specific technological details and not my every whim.)

Finally, around 8:50, without any prefatory announcement (pity those who might be off in the lavatory,) the door to the boarding ramp swings open and the line begins to move.  Okay, it is happening; I’ll be home by midnight. Yay, yay, yay!  I conjure up my waiting bed, fluffy snow adrift outside the windows, the welcome prospect of a lazy Sunday ahead.  Perhaps there’ll be a cup of peppermint tea before the oblivion of restorative sleep. I’ve been awake since 4:45 this morning, in transit since 9:30; I’m more than ready for this to be over.  Willing the muscles in my neck to unclench, I let the human tide sweep my forward into the fuselage.  I take my seat while trying to parse the staticky transmission of the attendant’s English, a mellifluous rhythm of carefully modulated cadences that are, unfortunately, infected by the sort of vaguely Frenchified accent my girlfriends and I used to affect in discotheques during the early 80’s. All announcements must be made in triplicate, with mumbled English accorded the least time and annunciation, it seems. I think I hear our unfortunate delay attributed to ‘technical difficulties,’ however, I can’t be sure.  It may have been that the plane we have just boarded was late getting to the terminal.  But, after all the jostling of passengers juggling overlarge suitcases into overhead bins and skirmishes over usurped seats has finally abated, the cabin lights dim and the engines thrum to life.  We are actually moving, backing away from the terminal gate, when a horrid screeching noise ensues. My god, are those the brakes?  Because they sound multitudinously worse than any teenager’s mechanically-neglected beater car I’ve ever had the misfortune to ride in.  WTF?  Our all to brief momentum abruptly ceases. Lights remain dimmed. The minutes tick by.  Five, six, eight, twelve, fifteen.  I try to stifle obsessive time checking by shutting off my phone. Flight attendant?  Where are you with your informative, albeit largely unintelligible, update?

The growing minutes of silent stasis are abruptly punctuated by the bespectacled face of the young woman in front of me popping above her seat back.  “It’s snowing,” she informs me, nodding her head sagely.  I’m not quite sure what to make of this declaration.  Surely, a dusting of snow doesn’t preclude a 747 from taking off?  I may be from California but I know I’d remember hearing if JFK or O’Hare shut down for the winter, for god’s sake.  She interprets my blank face as an invitation to initiate; we commence small talk: Elena’s a Moldovan attending school and working in New York “for a long time now.”  Specific inquiries about her job and where she is attending school are deftly shunted aside.  Instead, she marvels that I am living by choice in Moldova. “Don’t you miss America?” she asks.  “I could never come back to Moldova.”  Diaspora personified.   Her English is quick and effortless, American-accented, littered with slang, her attire modish western European, lacking the obsessive attention to color-matched cosmetics and accessories that defines the typical Moldovan female.  And she has a globally-enabled T-Mobile phone that she is now using to contact her dad at the Chișinău airport.  She is my new best friend.  I consult my useless phone’s contacts and locate Igor’s mobile number.  Elena gets a hold of him after she hangs up with her dad; he’s still at the Chișinău airport and wants to know if he should wait.  Umm, YES.  How the hell else am I going to get home???

Meanwhile. the man sitting next to me has leafed obsessively through all the reading material in the seat back pocket, including the laminated safety precautions card he peruses ever more intently while loud hydraulic noises issue from somewhere outside.  I look past him out the window to see flashing lights and men in reflective coveralls swarming the tarmac around the plane like busy worker ants attending their supine queen.  My neighbor turns to me with desperate eyes.  ” Ei repara avionul?” (They repair the plane?)  “Eu sper așa,” I reply. (I hope so.) Elena hears me and emerges again from behind her seat back. “I think it  better that we don’t fly on this the plane.” Luckily, this is in English; I’m beginning to suspect that my seatmate is not a seasoned flyer.  He commences picking fretfully at the sticker admonishing passengers in four languages to keep their seat belts fastened in flight.   I marvel briefly at the anomaly: I’ve never seen a Moldovan display anxiety.   Passengers are now sharing foodstuffs and retrieving items from overhead bins.  The aisles begin to fill.  (Sit down people, I want to scream, or we may never leave!) Still no sign of any flight attendant.  Perhaps all the Ukrainian Airways employees have left the plane?  If this was America, angry business travelers armed with brief cases would be banging on the pilot’s door and demanding explanations and refunds. Instead, we seem to be devolving into the first stages of an impromptu masa.  I check the time.  9:45.  I’m now almost two hours late and at least a couple more from arrival. Igor, stay with me, please, I pray silently.

I am beginning to fantasize myself as Liz Lemon confronting Matt Damon on the 30 Rock airplane episode when the overhead speakers crackle to life. The first announcement is made is made in Ukrainian/Russian (I can’t tell the difference) and immediately people are standing, retrieving luggage and donning coats, and yelling out to family across the aisles .  I follow suit, unable to hear the tacked-on, much abbreviated English version that is inaudible beneath all the noise. Elena, noting my apparent confusion, graciously informs me that we are debarking the plane.  She appears to have a talent for translating the obvious, but I am grateful she thinks to include me.   Apparently the plane is so broken they can’t even pull it back round to the building; we are forced to cram a planeload of passengers, complete with carry-ons, into a shuttle bus for the short ride back to what appears to be a fire escape funneling us up three rickety flights of swaying metal stairs back into the now largely vacant terminal.  10:08.  If there has been any explanation for what happened to the plane or what our future might hold, it was not translated into English.  I look around for Elena, whom I lost in the mad dash between plane and shuttle bus.  If circumstances become desperate I may need to importune her dad to drop me at a hotel in Chișinău, ratcheting up my projected return trip expenses threefold.  I spot her across the lounge, phone glued to ear. I hope it isn’t Igor, notifying me of his resignation. I realize I haven’t eaten since I left Amsterdam more than 12 hours ago; I set off in search of sustenance.

Apparently I am now several steps into the nether side of wrong as evidenced by the dearth of foodstuffs available for purchase in a space just slightly smaller than your average American mall.  The lonely open counter offers cappuccino and two orphaned containers of rice pudding huddled together on an otherwise empty refrigerator shelf.  I buy one, and the cappuccino I know I will regret if my head is lucky enough to hit a pillow tonight.  It is my small gauntlet flung to fate: Ha! Prove that I’ll even have an opportunity to sleep before Monday!  I eat the pudding while keeping a nervous eye on Elena across the way.  I can’t afford to lose her at this juncture; if I end up stuck in Kiev I will need a translator for sure.  The airwaves remain ominously silent.  No news is good news?  So far, this has not proved to be the case.  I am scraping the last vestiges of pudding from the container when a sudden swirl of thronged movement arises.  We are boarding!  (How did everyone know? What sort of weird, telepathic ability do these people have that I am missing?)  I abandon my empty pudding container and half-finished cappuccino on a nearby table, all vestiges of consumer responsibility abandoned in my desperation to join the thrust of people clustering about the departure kiosk.  Notions of queuing seem antiquated at this point. Been there, done that already and what has it got me?

Some twenty minutes hence we are stuffed like brooding hens nursing bruised expectations in our respective seats.  Dare we remove our coats? Buckle ourselves in? Reinvest in time schedules? In what may be  a misguided attempt to thwart the fates, the attendant doesn’t even bother with the English version of the standard departure announcement while miming the required safety  instructions in triple time at the front of the plane.  The engines rumble and the lights dim before she finishes with the oxygen mask.  She needn’t have bothered rushing.  We sit for another 22 minutes (I time it) on the tarmac without moving. My seatmate starts in on the new safety sticker on the seat back in front of him, pleading “eu sunt enervat”  (‘I am nervous’ – what is it with these people and the patently obvious?) when our eyes meet.  I begin to sense the creepy outlines of my future life, a truncated, post-Soviet version of Groundhog Day, endlessly traversing the Kafka-esque corridors linking cramped, ambiguous waiting rooms with hopeless flights of fancy up disintegrating stairs.  I feel myself sinking into a bottomless region of dank despair.  The only shred I of thankfulness I can salvage is the dubious decision I made to check my 22 pound backpack. At least I won’t have to haul it back and forth with me forever.  As I contemplate the prospect of borrowing Elena’s phone to notify my family that I will, in fact, never return from Peace Corps service, the wheels begin to grind in a (just) slightly less horrible fashion than they did two hours ago and our flight to Moldova commences.  I don’t care if the brakes don’t work.  We don’t need them for lift off anyway.

***

I find that I’ve gained but a brief momentum towards closure once we hit the tarmac again, however, where I soon find myself skirting the outside flanks of approximately 300 hundred other passengers from two previous flights waiting for luggage to manifest on the 50-foot long, humping strip of dental floss that comprises the baggage claim function at Chișinău airport.  (This, of course, is SO typically Moldovan. In summer of 2014 a much-vaunted project to upgrade the airport was launched with the premier of a “VIP Lounge” that usurped much of the already ill-furnished common waiting area and inserted an expanded duty-free shop for all those (NOT) well-heeled tourists departing the country.  Could we pay some attention to basic infrastructure, folks, and less to surface pretensions of prosperity?)  The clock on the wall reads 12:14.  I fish my phone out of my purse and send off an optimistic text to Igor: Be out soon – just waiting for my bag!  His texted reply is unintelligible, a mishmash of clustered consonants that appear more Germanic than Romanian.  Perhaps his fingers are frozen to the steering wheel?  Or maybe I’ve just roused him from deep sleep at home in his bed.  I put my phone away and decide not to think about it, though I do lock in on Elena’s blond head bobbing amidst the crowd, just in case.   Utilizing that uncanny ability for picking up on the the obvious, she somehow senses my apprehension and pushes through the throng to stand next to me.  I can’t help it, I love her.  This is exactly what they mean by Moldovan hospitality.  Our brief exchange over airport seats has bonded us; I am family.  Glimmers of hope are sparking. Perhaps this night will not end badly and I will get to see my American family, too, again someday.  By the time my bright red bag lumbers into view, I have managed, ugly American that I am, to scrape together sufficient confidence to grab it and push my way forcefully towards the exit, completely neglecting to say goodbye to my would-be translator.  I silently vow to pay it forward someday to another bewildered tourist lost and confounded by LAX.  Right now I am longing, with a deep and physical ache in my gut, for my bed.

One frantic phone call and I locate Igor outside the front doors of the airport building (has he been standing outside in the freezing cold for three and a half hours? Please say no.) He relieves me of my backpack and motions for me to follow.  We exchange the obligatory pleasantries while wending our way briskly through a conglomeration of taxis and late-model luxury SUVs vying for precious curb space (the gaping economic chasm on parade.)  At this point in its ‘restructuring’ the airport is sans parking lot, forcing Igor to park out on the frontage road some 200 yards away.  I scramble to keep pace; this man does not want to be doing this, I can tell.  (Maybe I am catching a little of that sixth sense….)  Attempting to bypass the crowd, Igor scurries over from the asphalt roadway to the ice-slicked path alongside it.  Stupidly fooled by his seemingly effortless agility I plunge after him and immediately land – hard – on right hand and knee, then hip and and elbow.  I try to get up quickly, before he notices, but mummifying layers of winter clothing and quads that have atrophied from 10 hours of sitting thwart me. I call out weakly, unsure whether I merit any more tolerance from this man.  Thankfully, he stops, trudges back  and reaches out his free arm to help me.  Two steps and I’m on my ass again. This time his sigh is audible, probably because I am quickly losing the ability to marshal my own muscles; he has to all but haul me to my feet. We return to the ranks of the madding crowd.  I surreptitiously check my throbbing right hand – the only injured body part currently visible – for shredded skin but it is too damn dark to tell if the wet is from blood or snow.  I soldier on, focusing on Igor’s squared shoulders and determined stride.  I will get home, I will get home, I will get home, I chant under my breath to the rhythm of my plodding feet, breaking into a trot every third or fourth step to keep up.

***

Once ensconced in the front seat of the car, I allow myself to entertain the notion that this saga might be finally drawing to a close.  There remains just one more hurdle to face: the gate in the fence that encircles the perimeter of the senior center where I live. More than once I have returned late at night (though never this late) to encounter a padlocked gate and an unattended phone that rings in the residential unit, heedless of my plight.   On one unfortunate occasion I attempted to climb over the spiked wrought iron fence in question only to be caught by the crotch of my favorite pair of jeans. Luckily my husband was with me and maneuvered me (with great effort) loose, otherwise I would’ve hung there helpless until morning.  I debated mentioning this possibility to Igor but after listening to protracted word-for-word reprisals of the many telephoned inquiries he fielded from his family during the past three hours regarding his estimated return home, I decided that silence might be the better part of discretion at this point.  Around 11pm they had finally given up on him and eaten dinner, he reports. At midnight they shut off the lights and went to bed. He might just dump me out on Stefan Cel Mare if he surmises that what was supposed to have been an hour-long pick-up job might end up extending into Sunday breakfast.

I try my damnedest to keep up a light banter in Romanian while simultaneously filtering through a list of fall back options if said gate is, indeed, locked.  I had stupidly forgotten to send an email on Friday to the staff at the day care center, reminding them to be sure to alert the residential nurse to not lock the gate. Despite having several conversations with various employees prior to my departure, I harbor little faith in their memories.  Moldovans don’t do future tense.  The kilometers crawled by while my anxiety waxes and wanes along with my steadily eroding coherence.  I am dead on my feet – or my butt, as the case may be.  Can I just refuse to vacate his car?  Why have I not cultivated a friend who could offer me a bed in Strașeni? My failures as a Peace Corps Volunteer threaten to engulf me in this moment of utter and abject need. So this is what one truly achieves through successful integration: a place to lay one’s head when the final hurdle cannot be surmounted.    I decide to think about this tomorrow, as I am beginning to respond unthinkingly to Igor with the scraps of guttural Dutch I picked up over the past three days.  The dashboard clock reads 1:21am.  There is just no more energy left for worry.

***

As anticlimactic a denouement though it ultimately might be, I will happily report that, some fifteen minutes later, the gate swings easily inward at Igor’s touch; I was too scared to try it and so fumbled with the car door latch until he had already had it opened.  I dig in my purse and retrieve the entire amount of bani I had stashed – 500 lei – and press it into his hands.  He does not even pretend to protest for form’s sake (our previously agreed upon fee had been 350.)  We both know, even if we do not say it aloud, that I have leaned quite heavily upon his graciousness this evening.  For the second time this night I give fervent thanks for the goodness of Moldovans as I stumble off down the driveway towards a much-anticipated bed.  Lights out 2:05am, cappuccino be damned.

Vorbiți limba engleza?

“Ask him why he is standing up for Holland,”

Adrie nudges me, curious about this large bear of a man, clad in a bright orange shirt and jersey shorts, who has been alternately sinking in his seat then leaping to his feet at the table in front of us, cheering in broken Romanian and what I think might be Gagauzian while emoting dramatically with meatloaf-sized hands and exaggerated facial expressions, for the last 3 hours.  Adrie, compact, a sprightly orange knitted cap sprouting atop his tousled silvery locks, barely grazes the chest hair that one knows must carpet this guy’s sternum. The other man is unusually tall, dark and swarthy for a Moldovan, lending credence to my vague supposition of Turkish heritage.

In spite of the disparity in height and stature, though, at this moment they are twinkling twins, their effusively replicating grins practically flying off their faces as they shake hands, high five, and hug impetuously after the deciding goal slammed into the Costa Rican net and mercifully put an end to the stomach churning suspense of the past half hour. It’s 2:15am, but we linger on the pockmarked street, loathe to loose the camaraderie that has culminated with this euphoric victory.

I dutifully pull together my Romanian translation of Adrie’s awkward English and test the waters:

”Vrea să știe de ce te iubesc atât de mult Olanda.”

The man is laughing maniacally before I even reach the end of my sentence. Screwing up his forehead with effort, he gazes intently into Henri’s upturned face and affirms their ebullient solidarity in sputtering bursts of loosely grammatic English:

“Me,” the man slaps his chest with fanned fingers. “I, me, is me for Germana.  Friend…”he stabs a sausage finger towards the second man who was at the same table all night, “He, he are, he is for Olanda.  Now we is, he, me, you are, we fight together!” He pounds his fist into each other with enough force to break knuckles, then laughs uproariously and claps Adrie, who only staggers slightly, on the back with unbridled glee.  Those in the know, I am coached later, understand that tonight’s win for the Netherlands will now pit them against Germany in the semi-finals the next day.

No need to translate.  The language of sports has again transcended national boundaries.

***

I can’t say that I have ever “got” professional sports and the thrall of fandom that accompanies it. Once, in the late 90’s during the height of the O’Neal-Kobe regency, I rallied myself to join my husband in cheering for the Lakers during their bid for the national championship just to feel what it was like to get so carried away by the movements of a ball through space.  One season was enough, though, and the next year I couldn’t summon the fortitude necessary to sit through interminable time outs, commercials, sportscaster commentary, and incessant camera panning of the courtside seats.  I kept getting up to wash the dishes, or fold the laundry, or recheck the smoke alarm batteries.  Clearly, I was no longer engaged.

Despite having forcibly witnessed the pervasive permeation of championship tournaments into every season back home, I was still a bit surprised to see an equal – well, perhaps even bigger – fervor take over Moldova with the advent of the 2014 FIFA World Cup games, beginning in June.  Wikipedia tells me that the World Cup is the most widely viewed and followed sporting event in the world, exceeding even the Olympic Games; that the cumulative audience of all matches of the 2006 tournament was estimated to be 26.29 billion, with an estimated 715 million people – almost a tenth of the entire population of the planet watching the final match.  This is definitely a bigger deal than the NBA pennant. In Chisinau, the downtown area adjacent to Stefan Cel Mare Park is roped off to corral an area the size of a football field, bookended by two 80-foot projection screens, and crammed with beer stalls, music stages, and picnic tables.  Since Brazil is halfway around the world many of the games are taking place in the small hours of the night; this has not deterred audience attendance in the slightest. Nevertheless, while it has been a hugely popular attraction for PC Volunteers, I have not been one of them.  In fact, I have had only a passing awareness of the competitors wins and losses as they are sporadically sandwiched into the bedlam of my fellow M27’s FB posts recording their emotional last days in Moldova.

So, I’m not really sure why I accepted an invitation from the three Dutch volunteers currently staying at my center to watch the game at a local restaurant last night at 11pm.   11pm?  Anyone who knows me can tell you that all my lights have been dimmed for at least two hours by that time.  Soccer game?  I may be the only suburban California mother who has never watched a game in its entirety.  (I generally did the grocery shopping while the rug rat carried out her requisite team sport sentence.)  But it’s Moldova. And I’m a Peace Corps Volunteer.  And I have come to feel a sense of obligatory hospitality when it comes to the visitors who pay a goodly sum to stay for days and sometimes weeks at a time on the property to volunteer with the beneficiaries, cleaning their bedrooms, cutting their hair, massaging their legs, clipping their toenails. These are damn good people.  I can watch a soccer match with them.

And what a surprise!  After a brief homage to the two teams’ national anthems, the game began, 11:06pm…wtf?  That never happened in a basketball game, from my admittedly limited experience.  And then – what???  They keep playing? For 45 minutes straight? No time outs? No commercial breaks?  No cheerleaders prancing pompoms or costumed mascots cavorting dumbly for the crowd?  I found myself inexplicably riveted by the little ball whipping at mach speed back and forth across the green.  By the second half I was tensed in my seat, yelling at Sneijder to kick the damn ball towards the goal rather than 50 meters backward.  (I can’t say I gleaned anything about game strategy during the first half, but it did feel good to yell.)  By the penalty phase, I was bobbing in and out of my seat along with the vociferously vocal men and one little boy in front of us and the two Scouts from Belgium to our left. And it was about then when our groups’ budding affection blossomed into a fervent, full blown love affair.  We were all strangers, caught together for a brief span of hours in a tiny neighborhood dive 20km from the capital of an eastern European country that most people have never heard of,  who happened to be standing up for Holland even though just three out of the nine of us called it home.  It was one of those surreal and lovely moments that underscore the very best of Peace Corps service.  I couldn’t imagine this happening in Irvine.

***

English.  A game played in Brazil between players from Costa Rica and Holland, viewed on a sheet tacked to the wall of a terrace outside a pizza parlor owned by a Moldovan, by three Belgians, one American, three Dutch, a Moldovan man and boy and a giant of dubious Turkish origins.  And it was the English that threaded it all together.

“Ask him why he is standing up for Holland,” Adrie says, not recognizing how truly ubiquitous spoken English is.  Even here in Moldova, a tiny land-locked, mostly ignored country clinging to Europe’s coattails while trying desperately to escape from Russia’s shadow, it is not unusual to find your server or the person selling you a movie ticket speaking to you in English.  In fact, probably a third of the Peace Corps Volunteers living here never achieve complete fluency in Romanian (I include myself among them,) largely because their partners prefer to converse with them in English.  Strangely, this has been one of the most humbling aspects of my service: I was born into a language that has made it possible for me to be understood almost any place in the world I go.  Having travelled to Morocco, Turkey, Austria, Italy, Germany, Hungary, and Slovakia in the past two years, I still haven’t  encountered a circumstance where English was not spoken by someone in my immediate vicinity.  Just out of curiosity this morning, I looked it up: according to a Slate article dated June 14, , FIFA recently ruled that all of the referees selected for this year’s tournament had to pass a test of written and spoken English in order to ensure that all five officials at a given match can communicate with each other.  Why English, you might think to ask?  (I did.) Why am I, yet again, the lottery winner at the chancy tables of life?  I know that colonialism and geographic hegemony and capitalism and access to printing presses and education have all played their parts; but it is also the immense popularity of English-language media which has fabricated a communication bridge to many more people than I would’ve ever thought possible. Ask any Moldovan how they learned their English, and the majority of them will reference films, music, and sports.  It is both scary and wonderful, simultaneously.

The language of sports is a shared culture of competitive rivalry underscored by the camaraderie of engaging within a common arena.  One can usually always find an entrance into a country or a neighborhood through the gates of the local sports field or around the big screen at the local pub.  People will be cheering and cursing and celebrating and jumping up and down while punching air. And I will never fail to be astounded, and grateful, when it is my beloved English that succeeds in concatenating it all.

The Ticking of Here and Now

There is a clock that lives in my apartment, one of the generic, analog, moon-faced varieties that probably hung above the doorway of your second-grade classroom. This one ticks audibly, loudly. When my friend Nic spends the night I invariably find it on the counter in the morning, battery removed; the metronomic thudding makes it impossible for her to sleep.

In a sense, it does me, too. Though it’s rhythmic pulsing fades from my consciousness at night and any insomnia I occasionally experience is not related to its noise, I am very conscious of it during the daytime hours. At least ten times a day I find myself tuning in to its beat, all thought leaving as my mind traces an on/off pattern, now it’s here, now it’s gone – tick, tick, tick, tick, moments passing by – the space between the ticks as full and round as the sound of the tick itself. It is a constant, unflagging reminder of what Peace Corps has given me: a veritable abundance of sweet and spacious, uncluttered and uncomplicated time.

The sense of having time is subtle. What does it mean to “have time?” It’s not as if it’s a possession, something I am keeping on a shelf or in a pocket. And there are no more minutes or hours in a day here than comprised the days of my former life. So why do I feel such an unbridled sense of its openness and potential, here and now? Like the clopping of an unhurried horse’s hooves down a tree-shaded country lane, the rhythm of my days is slow and steady, unrestricted, melodic, yet there is still a sense of movement, as if being carried away by a piece of music. One isn’t goal-directed, waiting impatiently for the notes to progress in order to reach an end but, instead, relaxes into a skein of connected points that expands and sways, movement becoming space, time becoming a place to inhabit rather than pass.

I have thought about this question persistently over the past year (I just marked my year-long anniversary of living in Strașeni.) I have been, and continue to be, so happy here without any of the usual suspects to thank. My husband, daughter, parents, siblings and life-long friends are thousands of miles away. I am not making money, nor am I squirreling any away. I don’t have an important position with a serious title and a well-appointed office. I don’t have a car or even a bicycle. No dishwasher or dryer or big screen TV or juicer (oh, how I loved my juicer!) or access to world-class cuisine or Target or multiplex theaters or hiking trails or beach, all of the afore-mentioned representing, of course, basic accoutrements of the past three decades of my life. My world consists, primarily, of three rooms and a community of Moldovan elderly outside my door. Sometimes I don’t leave the center for days at a time. There are weekends when the only person I see is the cook in the shelter kitchen when I go to get my water. I have gone 48 hours without speaking a word. More than once.

So why? Why am I happy? This is an important question to contemplate, obviously, as the notion of `the pursuit of happiness’ is something wired into every American’s DNA, it seems. (No other culture I’ve experienced appears to feel quite so entitled to its attainment and persistant presence as us, but that’s another story altogether.) So, after ruminating on it for the past year through all this spacious time I’ve been afforded, here are some key elements that I have identifed at its source:

Predictable Change

How’s that for oxymoronic? And yet it’s the best way to describe the flow of my experience in Moldova. While there are aspects of my life that have become routine and stable – my presence here at the center amidst its bustling activities, the relationships that bind me to the group of PCVs whom I arrived here with in June 2012, the rutiera drivers who whisk me down the familiar highway to Chișinău once or twice a week, the burgeoning grocery store in town (that now carries peanut butter and lentils!) – I know that the commitments, people, projects, and events that populate my calendar will shift, grow, wane, blossom, fade and most definitely change from month to month. One week I might find myself writing a grant request for a civic engagement project and the next I am looking for funding for a traditional embroidery class. In the morning I may meet with a woman building a professional development organization for youth and two hours later I am in the adjunct director’s office at USAID seeking support for a United Way chapter in Moldova. I am invited to an International Women’s Club mentoring meeting at the English ambassor’s residence, a board meeting at Neoumanist, and a poetry reading at the Pushkin museum, all in the same day.

For twenty years I worked for one organization, day in and day out. The only significant difference in my weekly schedule happened when I was promoted into a new position every 4-5 years. But even then, the mission was unvaried, my colleagues remained largely the same, and the route I drove to work changed only once, when our offices moved to the next town over. Almost every moment of every week was routinized; I could practically sleepwalk through the days and for many years I’m afraid that’s exactly what I did.

In Peace Corps, conversely, I’ve had the opportunity to work with folks trying to start an eco-community, complete with training center, workshops, and housing; along with two other volunteers, I planned and executed a 20th anniversary commemorative event for Peace Corps Moldova: a two week long walk across the country in which PCVs, Moldovan youth, Peace Corps staff, media, and the American Ambassador and his wife participated; I have helped a hundred or more Moldovans attain or improve English speaking ability; I have entertained service volunteers from Holland and Austria who have come to help at my center; I have helped to facilitate a giant Winter Bazaar where thousands of people from across Moldova get a cross-cultural experience of food and displays from a variety of countries. I have attended wine and music festivals, parades, christenings, agricultural expositions, craft fairs, birthday parties, forest picnics, climbed waterfalls, hiked alongside flower-filled fields, toured ancient monasteries, and relaxed in a multitude of saunas – all as part of my `work’ here in Moldova. I have learned to speak Romanian, build a Joomla website, fashion adobe structures, and make fantastic borsch. And I have still had the time and opportunity to travel to Turkey, Morocco, Ukraine, Romania, England, Scotland, Austria, Germany, Hungary, Slovakia, and Italy, to boot. If you would have told me five years ago that these types of experiences would be filling my monthly calendar one day, I wouldn’t have had a clue how to make them happen nor where I would have found the time. This life is anything but monotonous. And it affords me plenty of leisure hours to fill with what I will.

The 48-hour window

I once called a Moldovan woman on a Friday morning to set up a meeting for the following Monday. She expressed dismay, but as I began to apologize, explaining that I just located her number, she cut me off. “How could I possible schedule a meeting that far in advance? I have no idea what I’ll be doing Monday!” One of my friends living in a small village got an urgent call at 8pm the other night. It was her former host mom, imploring her to come over immediately – “Get your shoes on, don’t even stop to comb your hair!” Mumbling and grumbling she arrived at the house to find her host father’s birthday celebration in full swing. When I lived with Nina in Hîncești it was not unusual to be rousted from my bedroom on a Wednesday evening to join five Avon representatives in her kitchen for a formal recognition ceremony, replete with cognac and sarmale. Seriously, this is how the majority of Moldovans run their lives. It seems to violate some unspoken cultural principle to plan anything more than an hour in advance. Invitations to major events are issued a mere 48 hours prior to their occurrence. Apparently the general predilection for avoiding any type of scheduled commitments guarantees that people’s calendars will be free.

While the downsides of this erratic approach to the future are obvious and challenging, I have come to appreciate, finally, the degree of spontaneity and clarity it brings to my day-to-day life. I remember looking at my calendar sometimes back home and feeling weighed down by the merry-go-round of meetings and repetitive appointments that cluttered its pages. Before I had even lived through the hours they had become burdensome to me, heavy in their sameness and predictability, regimented blocks of blacked out time that precluded any possibility of impulsivity or escape. It seemed sometimes like heavy blinds had been drawn across my week, occluding my view of anything but work. By the time I got home in the evening all that seemed remotely possible was a movie or a book and a glass (or two) of wine.

Now, my life is lived mostly within a 48 hour window. Rarely do I know for sure what I might be doing tomorrow, much less next week. (If I do, the event tends to loom like a forbidding monster, daring me to ignore it.) Being a person without appointments can make one giddy, especially if you notice and appreciate their absence. I feel lighter, freer, more apt to stay up late on a Thursday night watching a documentary, or ride into Chișinău on a Monday afternoon to buy walnuts at the piața, or travel to a friend’s house for cinema night on a Friday evening. I have lots and lots of wiggle room, despite the myriad projects I’m engaged in. And I know that any day, anything can happen. Suddenly. Spontaneously. Like it or not.

The Absence of Advertising

Surprisingly, this is perhaps the most important ingredient, deep down, of my happiness. Back in the States, I would not have counted myself as a person susceptible to or overly affected by advertising. After all, I did not watch TV (my media viewing consisted of Netflix movies or consuming an entire boxed TV series in one two-week marathon.) My print intake was comprised primarily of ad-free (The Sun) or ad-responsible (The Nation) magazines after the New York Times became exorbitantly expensive. I lived in a city that prohibited billboard advertising. Having been largely removed from its pernicious, pervasive presence for the past 20 months, however, I have gained a new appreciation for how insidiously it inveigles its way into our lives, infecting us with a viral dissatisfaction, an itchy restlessness one can never quite reach or isolate, a subtle simmering of our brain cells urging us to hurry up and buy something, go somewhere, eat something, do something, consume, consume, consume – experiences, foods, events, locations, people. There is always something better, faster, smarter, cooler, tastier, more absorbing or fun or rewarding or relaxing or enlightening or brilliant happening somewhere else, over the rainbow.

Now I realize that a seemingly innocuous errand to buy some dog food or replace a tube of mascara, a trip to the dry cleaners or the dentist, a drive down the freeway or lunch in a chain restaurant would subject me to subtle – and not so subtle – inflammations of desire, a low-level yammering of advertisements and enticements that are so integrated into our existence we think we don’t notice them anymore. But now, I remember my eyes wandering up to the HD television screen in our neighborhood Islands or Chili’s, fixating on all the beautiful people riding waves or skiing slopes or sailing seas or jumping impossibly high with balls. I recall being mesmerized by the shiny boxes, sleek bottles, cunning compacts and cellophane wrappers in drugstores, each item promising to lift or erase or smooth or somehow improve me. Or standing in the checkout line, eyeing the alluring rack of lamb garnished with a sprig of mint and a tempting glaze or the newest celebrity d’jour touting the benefits of homeopathic remedies or Bikram yoga, beckoning to me from the adjacent magazine covers. There were those brilliant white teeth of the playful youths tumbling over each other, laughing, mouths framed by perfect skin and abundant manes, that graced a poster on the wall of my dental hygienist’s office. (Smile Bright makes everything Right.) The lush beach, fringed in palms and blanketed in blue sky, flashing by on the side of a passing bus, promising a different, warmer, brighter sun would shine upon me in Cancun. Even my box of granola would tell a story, of an idealistic farmer, a family plot, and a lofty vision, fields of grain undulating out to the horizon. I really was surrounded, day in and day out, with messages that shaped, altered, and shifted the accepted motivators in my world.

Advertising has yet to catch hold, become sophisticated or hypnotic here. While packaged food is increasingly more prevalent, it comes in pretty generic containers sans fancy claims or mythic properties. The faded ad for a beach holiday in the Crimea stuffed into the plastic holders on the backs of the headrests in my local rutiera hasn’t changed since I moved to Strașeni (come on guys, no one’s going to be vacationing there these days…) The young lady adorned in a taffeta evening gown plastered to the side of the small dress boutique downtown looks like someone who went to my high school (and I know I saw that same dress at my senior prom.) The local news anchors lean against each other awkwardly on a peeling billboard: his haircut is ragged and his teeth are gray, her jacket strains to covers the muffin top around her waist. And any commercials played in my vicinity are either in Russian or a rapid-fire Romanian that exceeds any capacity I have or want to comprehend.

I never appreciated how incomplete I was being made to feel by the barrage of images and messages constantly pressing at the edges of my awareness. Not until I had lived here for some time did I notice the absence of a certain nervous energy, the abatement of a small but nagging sense of inadequacy reminding me constantly that there was always something more that my lifestyle was inexplicably missing. Was it a dress? A car? A vacation? A concert, or a sporting event, or play? Maybe a new cookbook or a sharper set of knives…a balance ball…or a tapestry for the wall?

Other than food, here is the list of items I’ve purchased while living in Moldova: two pair of cotton socks, a set of sheets, a carrot grater and some headphones.  Yet I feel richer, calmer, happier and more confident than any time since  I was six years old.

So what does this absence of advertising have to do with time, you ask? Well, it helps me tremendously to be present exactly where I’m at, possessed of an adequate supply of material goods to fulfill my basic needs and not much more to mind. Cleaning my whole apartment takes about an hour and a half. I do one load of laundry a week. When I shop, I buy only that which I can carry the half mile down the dirt road back to my house. There is a dearth of entertainment to be had in my neck of the woods. Strașeni has one restaurant; it serves unremarkable pizza. I know some of you reading this are shuddering, wondering if I’ve capsized and sank below the surface of 21st century life. But, really, I haven’t. I have a computer and 20 G of data a month, which gives me access to an endless supply of books and movies and music and news and yoga videos and online classes and recipes, all without commercials.

But that vague restlessness is gone. I have found myself pleased to gaze out the window at the birds in the trees for up to ten minutes at a time. Or listen to a guided meditation whenever the whim arises. Or spend an entire afternoon composing a blog post about all the time I find to myself these days.

***

It is almost a cliché to say that one receives much more than one gives through Peace Corps service. I am no different. The gratitude I experience everyday for this experience sometimes overwhelms me. I feel like I’ve won a lottery that few people in the world even know about or bother to enter.  Increasingly, I see unstructured, goalless time as a humane and necessary antidote to the jet-propelled, anxiety laced lives most Americans have become accustomed to.  (I have been mentally composing a piece on Basic Guaranteed Income for months now. While I firmly believe that it’s an idea whose time has come, I still haven’t found the correct tone or manner of presentation that wouldn’t make my entire family and friend network believe that I’ve succumbed to socialist propaganda.)  Every morning upon surfacing back to consciousness, I say a fervent thank you to the universe for blessing me with this time. And the ever-present ticking of that clock, like the sound of one hand clapping, amplifies the echoing of spaciousness between the seconds and reminds me that I am always here, and it is forever now.

 

To Save or Not to Save – or Animals aRen’t us

Gus Kenworthy might have received more media coverage for taking home a family of stray dogs than an Olympic silver medal last month.  We Americans do dote on our pets, and the images of stray dogs roaming the streets of Sochi may have been the first many of us who have not traveled to developing countries have ever encountered.  In yet another instance of ‘behind-the-scenes’ services, local governments in the US allocate taxes and levy fees in order to manage their community’s resident animals, both domestic and wild.  One would be hard pressed to find any populated burgs in the United States harboring packs of stray dogs like those that captured the hearts of the Olympic athletes in Sochi.  Or those that snag onto Peace Corps Volunteers’ the world over.

When I first came to Moldova, the stray dogs were one of the very first things to capture my attention; endlessly fascinating and enduringly entertaining, they continue to hold it to this day.   It is so jarring, watching a dog trot determinedly along, unleashed, eyes focused ahead, undeterred by other dogs or cats perched atop a fence or a family of ducks ambling across the road, seeming for all the world as if late for work, an invisible brief case strapped to its back.  (I keep waiting for one to pull out a cell phone and start yammering to his buddy across town.) These are dogs with lives, business somewhere, a purpose, a goal.  They are beholden to no human being and, for the most part, seemed to be just fine with that state of affairs.

Sure, some are skinny with coats that are burred and matted. Some of them have endured – and survived – obvious encounters with other dogs or machines or barbed wire fences, it’s true.  They limp along on three legs or cock but a single ear; perhaps their tail curves at a decidedly odd angle.  Yet, they do not appear to be inordinately unhappy.  In fact, when they aren’t briskly on their way to some undisclosed but very important destination, they are often scrabbling with each other in that rough and tumble way of puppies or lolling about on their backs in the scrappy sunshine or sitting, sphinx-like, in bemused contemplation of the passersby on the road.  Although 99% of Americans would claim these are dogs that need to be ‘rescued,’ I am not quite sure these days what we would be rescuing them from or for.

In Moldova, you see, an animal enjoys quite a bit of free choice. Other than the percentage of the canine population that is chained within fenced gardens, dogs are free to roam about the villages. Even dogs that have a home, so to speak, generally leave it every morning to begin their rounds and only return to it sporadically during the daylight hours. (I have heard tell that this practice – of allowing dogs to move about their world – is more prevalent in the rural towns and mountain hollows of America; having grown up in Southern California, I’ve never witnessed it.  In my city, a lone dog trotting down the street would occasion a call to animal control quicker than you could open a can of Alpo.)  And if a dog decides his interests would be better served by some other human on the block, he merely begins hanging around that gate to see if some food will be thrown his way or he might be allowed a space under the woodpile out of the rain.

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The irrepressible Buddy

In Romanian there is no word for “pet.”  The concept of keeping an animal as a cosseted member of the family is fairly recent here.  Dogs and cats are part of the landscape.  The notion of spaying/neutering animals is not even on the radar.  So it’s been quite different for me to experience the fertility cycle going on in my neighborhood during the last 6-7 weeks.  The dog whom I call Buddy (and everyone else refers to as “Dik”) lately has entertained a series of lady friends here at the center. One will come, hang out for a few days, then disappear again, only to be replaced a week later with a new fluffy blonde wiggling her tail. (Buddy seems to prefer blondes.)  Interestingly enough, the sharing of the bed does not extend to the sharing of a plate – or at least the one that I provide to Buddy each and every day.  He jealously guards my favors and my person as if I, too, am a conquest that has been tamed and trained to provide him sustenance.  The Marilyn-of-the-week can look on longingly, but is not allowed to come within a couple of feet of me or his food.

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Blonde-de jour Little Sheba

This is a bit of a contrast to Kittyho’s tactics.  Kittyho showed up on the outside ledge of my kitchen window one day a couple of months ago and screamed loudly to be let in, for all the world as if I had usurped her apartment and I damn well better make room for both her and her baggage.  Her baggage being, of course, (her name is Kittyho, come on!) an entourage of male suitors that tend to gather at odd hours on said kitchen ledge and stare moodily from her to me as if one of us could rock their world. I am importuned to provide food now not just for Kittyho and her impending litter, but for all the Lotharios who may or may not have a paternity suit going.  They accept the handfuls of kibble I scatter across the kitchen ledge (these cats are too demonic to be allowed inside) though they don’t appear to need it. Sleek, well-muscled and inordinately large, apparently they either have a team of humans trained to provide or their hunting and foraging abilities are more perfectly honed than the cats I’ve had in the States.  (I don’t notice them making much effort to provide for their prospective family, however.)

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Kittyho

One of her particularly tenacious suitors (he actually looks as if he could be her father, incestuous bastard!) showed up a couple of weeks ago with a very nasty gash on his head, slicing through one ear and gaping through to the tissue below.  Back home, this type of injury would necessitate an emergency trip to the vet, with all the stitching, prescriptions, plastic head cones, instructions for bandaging and containing movement and attendant expense one can readily imagine.  Of course, none of this happened in Moldova.  I’m pretty sure there isn’t a vet in Strașeni. And I, for one, do not have the means to either transport, contain or sponsor this feline monster, nor, I imagine, would he thank me for doing so. And any Moldovan would’ve laughed in my face if I had attempted to enlist help with this endeavor.  There was a week or so during which I wondered whether he would make it. The temperature was below 0 every night and the wound continued to seep for days.  But over the course of a month, it gradually healed – as far as I can tell without any well-intentioned intervention from my species.  He continues to shadow the windowill, glowering in at Kittyho and me as we go about our daily routines.  Survival of the fittest in action, I surmise.

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The incestuous demon cat, ear fully healed

Kittyho has other mechanisms for survival in her tool belt. She is a petite, well-groomed hussy, sharp-tongued and temperamental; unlike another feline that attempted to adopt me, she does not take to being picked up or otherwise fondled unless one happens to approach her at just the right moment with just the right stroke for the exact space of time she welcomes it.  Otherwise you’re bothering me. Oh, and could you fill up the food bowl again while you’re up?  And where’s that milk you’ve been promising me?  I had assumed that she had sought me out as much for warmth and respite from her relentless pursuers as the possibility of food, but in that I was terribly, terribly wrong.  Every night – frigid temperatures, icy snow, biting wind be damned – she stretches luxuriously before the silhouetted suitors ranged across the fence outside and sashays her way through the open window to begin her rounds.  Every morning she returns between 6:00 and 7:00 bleary-eyed and weak-hipped, huddles before the bowl to consume her weight in kibble then drags herself over to her easy chair to curl atop the softest blanket in the house.  She proceeds to sleep for the entire day, with brief forays outside to relieve herself or consume another bowl of food.  Occasionally, she will leap onto the counter to try to steal the butter.  Every evening, rejuvenated, the little temptress is up to tricks again.

Meanwhile, Buddy also has the run of the neighborhood, accompanying me as he wishes down the road when I leave for my biweekly trip to the market.  He enjoys scraps from the kitchen three times daily and bags of bones brought in especially for him by the elderly that patronize the center where I live. Occasionally he disappears for days, but just about the time I begin to fret he reappears, wriggling in anticipation of attention, tail furiously wagging and sporting a badge or two of crusty fur attesting to his courage in a skirmish.  After enjoying a particularly pleasurable butt scratch (courtesy of moi) he will gather up his little hind quarters in unadulterated glee and shoot across the driveway, circling the buildings like a torpedo, whizzing by bushes and leaping over stones with the agility and grace of a gazelle. Without a doubt, he is one of the happiest dogs I’ve known. Yet no one claims him.  He is not the ‘center’s dog.’  He is merely an animal that has staked out a territory amongst a community of humans, coexisting successfully within our boundaried lives.

I contrast his life and behavior sometimes to that of my beloved Zoe back home: she spent her days passing from window to backyard gate, staring intently at any activity that happened within her line of sight, gradually getting more lethargic and less inclined to run whenever she found herself unleashed within the proscribed limits of Irvine’s Central Bark.  She never displayed much preference for anything – never cultivated a love for a specific toy, nor was she at all fond of chasing a ball or a stick.  She ate her food in a begrudging manner, if at all.  I must have tried every gourmet brand made trying to excite her taste buds, to no apparent avail. (My husband ended up buying her a crispy chicken breast daily from the supermarket deli counter after I left to get her to eat.) We walked her faithfully everyday – sometimes twice – but I cannot help but wonder how her personality and hidden passions might have developed in different environs.  I can’t say I ever thought of her as gleeful.  She mostly appeared resigned.  And she never did have the opportunity to spend the night (or week) with a male friend of her choosing…

I know I am probably stirring the hackles of many animal-lovers reading this: how can I possibly believe that a dog living on the street of Chișinău or Sochi or Kiev is better off or happier than one who enjoys the comfort of a home in the United States? I’m not claiming I do.  But a part of me wonders how far we should extend the anthropomorphizing of our animals: are they better off when the choices are made by humans?  Do we truly know what’s best for them? (After all, we’ve done such a stellar job taking care of so many other species…..)  Or do we imagine that the things that make us less afraid, more secure and comfortable – order, predictability, birth control, a steady supply of processed foods, a wall around our properties – elicit the same emotions within them?  I admit that I don’t know. But I do recognize a happy animal when I encounter one.

I’m sure Gus Kenworthy’s rescued litter will find wonderful loving families back in Colorado or wherever they might end up.  They will visit the vet and get their shots and be spayed or neutered according to protocol.  They will be fed well and probably not experience disfiguring encounters with barbed wire.    Perhaps, if they are lucky, they will belong to humans with a great deal of land and tolerance for unkempt, burr-matted coats.  If so, they will retain a little bit of that choice they’ll never know they lost in those mean streets of Sochi.

International Day of Women – Moldovan style

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Friday, March 8, was International Women’s Day.  In the United States, I can’t remember this holiday making much of a bang. (Perhaps it was noted on my desk calendar, but with the advent of Outlook, smart phones, and virtual reminders, who looks at those anymore?)

As Americans, we tend toward holidays that commemorate war, politicians (or other male figureheads,) or successful conquest.  We cede women Mother’s Day (isn’t every woman a mother?) and Valentine’s – neither of which are days of rest from work, I should point out (Mother’s Day being officially confined to a Sunday in the US.)  Both these holidays have a very specific focus and audience – thanks mom for bearing/raising/putting up with me and come on honey, give me give me some love…

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Forest light

In Moldova, conversely, International Women’s Day is a BIG deal with a wide open vista of possibilities.  Everyone gets the day off – women, men, children, politicians and bankers.  Women are feted, toasted, and gifted, by their husbands, their co-workers, their neighbors, and each other.  Coming just a week after Marțișor – the beginning of spring – there is a general feeling of sunshine and fecundity impregnating the air.  It not just women in particular but the female principle in general – the yin, if you will – Hera, Athena, Hestia, and Artemis all rolled into one.  So what better way to  celebrate than spending the day in the forest dancing midst the trees with wine, women, and song?

All week long the mayor’s office had been abuzz with preparations for the pending  party.  My partner kept assuring me that I was in for a genuine cultural experience, Moldovan style.  And the weather itself toed the line, dawning clear and brilliant, topaz sun ablaze in sapphire skies.

Arriving at work at a leisurely 10am, I found out I had missed the morning champagne toast (?!!) and the 100_2066presentation of flowers to all the women. But never fear! Within minutes, I was ushered into the mayor’s office and presented with a flowering plant, decorative salad dishes, and a genuine crystal vase made in the Czech Republic. These were accompanied by ornate speeches from two of my male co-workers, who then repeatedly kissed me on alternating cheeks so Doamna Valentina could properly capture the moment on camera for the historic record.  (Apparently, as both an American and a mature female, I am accorded an inordinate degree of respect.  American males – take note!)

By 1:00 all the women from the office were piling into a hired rutiera for the ride up into the forest just outside the city limits.  Up, up, up (past the city dump, deserving of its own blog post at some point in the future) to a 10-12 acre plot of trees on a secluded hill.  And there were all the men, fires burning under huge metal discs sprouting spindly legs, skewers of meat and buckets of potatoes, onions and carrots readied for the flames. 100_2041 Jugs of wine squat and mellow lined up on wooden tables. Vagabond dogs, still sporting the bristling, dense coats of winter, lingering at the periphery, anticipating the feast to come.  Air clear and mild, the sun a thin blanket of warmth over the crisp chill of glittering frost.  It was almost medieval in its raw, unadorned simplicity.

100_1999The first order of business began with the photographs –meticulously posed group and individual shots that are de rigueur for Moldovans whenever they gather for celebrations.  No matter how old, wrinkled, tired, messy, fat, windblown, or unattractive one might be feeling, there is no reason a Moldovan could fathom for not wanting your portrait captured in any given circumstance where someone is wielding a camera.   I am generally considered a slightly daft anomaly in these situations – not only for my unwillingness to continually stand and smile for up to 35 pictures in a row, but even more so for my propensity to wander about snapping unlikely shots of buildings, trees, food and fire with no apparent concern for lining up people in my cross hairs.  What in the world could that be about?  I have quit trying to offer any explanation beyond an inexplicable infatuation with the captivating Moldovan countryside.  That seems to mollify them a bit.

After that, the games.  All those not actively involved in the preparation of the food enthusiastically joined100_2062 rousing games of badminton or volleyball.  And I mean everybody.  A few women, arms linked, drifted off to pick violets and craft cunning little bouquets of tender new greenery, but there was none of that cracking open a beer and parking your butt in a lawn chair that Americans have perfected to an art form.  Apparently, enough sitting on one’s behind is accomplished at the office; picnics are about shaking things loose and getting one’s blood pumping again.

And when it came time to dine, there was no thought of sequestering off into little cliques of age-, gender- or interest-mates:  the women were set at one long table, jugs of wine, buckets of meat and platters of fire-roasted root veggies set before us, while the men stood in a ring behind eating on their feet, ready to replenish the fixings should any particular dish get low.

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Chicken stomachs – they taste fine but have the consistency of rubber

Of course, after one eats until the stomach is ready to burst, it is them time to dance the hora to combat the stultifying effects of all that food.  And dance the hora we did – old, young, male, female, mayor, driver, attorney, secretary, janitor, and volunteer.  There was no acceptable reason beyond keeling over and dying right there in the fallen leaves to not dance the hora.

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Cartofi și markovi

 

 

 

It is quite refreshing to see that there is no inhibition on anyone’s part to get up and dance.  Some of the males in this video are barely 20 years old….an age cohort that would most likely not know the first step of a waltz in the USA, much less being caught on the dance floor partaking.  And they all dance well – it must be the natural result of being included in every dance on every occasion since you could walk.

And this is one particular cultural quirk of Moldovans to which it has been most challenging for me to acquiesce – the impermissibility of playing wallflower.  One cannot float on the periphery and merely observe; there is no motive they can comprehend for not participating – fully, joyfully, and energetically – with all forms of active celebration.  If you are there, you participate; “no” is not heard, accepted, or tolerated.  They will wear you down.  You will dance.  And dance. And dance. And dance. (And actually end up enjoying it in spite of yourself.)

And if you get tired of dancing, if your feet are about to trip over themselves in a stupor and your knees are weak and cracking with the effort of propelling your leaden legs into the air, then you are permitted a wee break to embrace a tree and re-energize.  What?  Yeah, that’s what I said.100_2009

As the evening sun began to slip into the naked branches proffered arms, bathing them in a golden glow, I caught glimpses of shadowy forms engaged in locked embrace with some of the more substantial members of our little forest.  Arms and legs wrapped around trunks, leaning in with head lying flat against bark, it seemed as if they were listening carefully for the thrum of a heartbeat, or perhaps the pulsing of sap coursing up through the roots to bring sunlight and energy to the higher branches, and the human partner so lovingly appended.

There was nothing “weird” about this – neither drugs nor excessive alcohol was to blame.  Tree hugging, apparently, is not so much an environmental catch phrase here as it is a reverent commentary on the relationship that Moldovans still actively hold with nature and the land, especially after hours of dancing leaves one spent and limp and in need of jolt of energy.  I was charmed, and humbled.  And  I refrained from taking pictures, as it was a too solemn, personal and seemingly sacred activity to demean by turning it into a voyeuristic photo opportunity.  (If Moldovans aren’t taken pictures, you know it must be anathema…)

My first celebration with my new partners was definitely a mind-expanding journey, though.  I was welcomed and integrated into the proceedings with no hesitancy or awkwardness.  After so many weeks of solitary confinement in a small bedroom, it felt good to be dancing.

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New violets and a quirky fungi
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Me – posed Moldovan style

Juxtapositions & Dichotomy (will drive you crazy)

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The following pictures were taken on the 10 minute walk down a dirt road linking the center of town with the Neoumanist center. These scenes are all within 100 yards of each other. The best pictorial case I’ve seen made for homeowner associations,,, much as I loathed them back home…

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