Yet another beginning to an end

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

2. to go to bed

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

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

5. to withdraw or remove oneself:

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

 

***

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

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

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Foodies, Funk, and Fun

Lamb Shank

FOODIES

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

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

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

entranceexterior_1exterior_2Gagauz spread_2the_group_1Uliana_fan_Heidi

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

FUNK

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

View_3 View_2 View_1 Swinging Swing Round_house

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

FUN

Cat_coalition_2

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

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

Round_corner_haunted_house

Tiny_kitchen

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

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

And, still, I’ll be living mad…….

Living in the City

A little over a week ago I moved from the district seat of Strașeni where I had been living about 20 km NW of Chișinău into the very center of Chișinău itself. It’s turning out to be a very pleasant and practical transition experience from Moldovan village life into a more urban environment, one that will be much closer to my pending life in the US. I hope.

It is more than a little ironic to me that I’ve finally found the milieu that suits my fancy, where I feel comfortable and acclimated, located halfway around the world from my original home, a little less than 2 months before my three years of Peace Corps will end. (I joked to a friend of mine that it is a good thing I didn’t relocate here sooner or I might have elected to stay a fourth year…) It is surprising to me to discover a deep appreciation for city living percolating within me; I had always fancied myself a beach or a mountain dweller, somewhere abutting “nature” where the trappings of civilization were not so in-your-face. But this is working for me in so many ways that I will definitely seek to replicate it when I make my leap back to US soil.

This morning I took a walk to the No 1 Market, the favorite food shopping destination for ex-pats and young professional Moldovans. It was a humid 79F at 8:30 am, a preparatory warning for the heat and thunderstorms that are due to arrive this afternoon.   Up until now I’ve rarely had the opportunity to stroll through Chișinău at this time in the morning. Unless I happened to spend the night in the city (and I can count those instances on two hands,) I wouldn’t usually arrive here before late morning or early afternoon when a steady stream of pedestrians clogs the walkways, trolleys and cars jostle for open slots on the un-laned boulevards, and one is constantly  dodging the vehicles that utilize  sidewalks as impromptu parking lots.  This walk was quiet, bordering on serene, one of those pristine movie clips that fill me with a vague melancholia as this wondrous chapter of my life rolls inexorably toward its credits.

Here are a  few stills:

Entry to apartment
Here is the entry/exit of my apartment building. Everything quiet, no one around at this early hour. And that is a very old grapevine, it’s trunk at the bottom right, covering the facade. I can pick grapes right outside my window!
More backyard
       Backyard area of my apartment block. The bench down at the right in the bunica hangout.
Backyard of apartment block
More backyard. In the evening this fills with kids, mothers with babes in strollers, men gathered to smoke, and bunicas presiding over it all.

Hidden gem on my street

Walking the four blocks along Mitropolit Dosotfei, my street, to the market I must be attentive to my footing.  “Sidewalk” is a generous appellation to bestow upon the checkerboard interstices of crumbling asphalt, sturdy tree roots, hodgepodge ceramic tiles and stone-studded, sun-baked dirt that abut the streets.  But once every couple blocks you find yourself transported onto a plane of concrete that aprons the 5  square meters in front of an entryway like the one on the left here, and you come to a full stop in appreciation of the beauty of a level walking surface.

Flower Market on Bodoni
My street dead ends into the Flower Market that runs along the outer edge of Cathedral Park, one of                                                    Chișinău’s well known landmarks
path through Cathedral Park
                                           My pathway through the park to the market
Cathedral in the Park 1
The Cathedral from which the park takes its name
No 1 produce section
The produce aisle of the No 1 Market, the most popular grocery chain with ex-pats and young professionals in Moldova. You can find imported cheese, coconut milk and oil, Asian food, lean cuts of beef, fresh baked bread, and an entire aisle of chocolate here. I’m not wanting for much these days….
path in park
                                   An alternate path through the park on the way home
Flower Market
A closer view of the flower market on the way home. Moldovans love fresh cut flowers. These stalls go for 100 meters along Bodoni and are heavily patronized. And this is just one of dozens of flower markets in Chișinău. Every occasion is celebrated with flowers and there are specific rules (which I once learned but have long forgotten) regarding the color, number, and type of flower that attends specific holidays and events.
Mitropolit Dosoftei
     I cross from the flower market to the start of my street. It’s four blocks down to my apartment.
$32 groceries
Mission accomplished! This is what $32 buys you in Moldova: peanuts, chocolate, extra virgin olive oil, lavash, chefir, sour cream, coffee, half & half & heavy cream for soup, a beer, 2 lbs of beef loin, gorgonzola, swiss, and feta cheese, 2 jalapeno and 10 eggs. This translates to 653 MDL which is roughly 1/4 of my monthly food stipend. I purchase mostly dairy and meat from the grocery store as I currently receive my produce from a Community Supported Agriculture project.
CSA Veggie Bag
This is one week’s worth of produce from the CSA. I paid about $140 USD for 12 weeks. It’s way more than I can eat so I find myself spontaneously distributing peppers and cucumbers to co-workers and neighbors. I am now accustomed to eating vegetables for every meal, including breakfast, and I feel amazing!

So that is a splice of my life at the moment.  I hope to be more consistently present here as my time in Moldova winds down; I do realize these are some of the golden memories in the making…

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.

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hiho!

 

 

 

 

Leaving Home to Find It, Once Again

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

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

***

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

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

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

I was casting off again…

***

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

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

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

***

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

Year three and counting….

 

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.