I am recently returned from a much-needed and appreciated break from my Peace Corps life. For my birthday, my mother splurged on tickets for a boutique river cruise down the Danube River. We sailed from Passau, Germany, into Budapest, stopping for port visits at Linz, Durnstein, and Vienna. It was luxurious in every detail – from the gracious attentiveness of the ship’s crew to the sumptuous haute cuisine and 400-thread count bed linen, from the knowledgeable and humorous tour guides to the breathtaking scenery skimming by outside the window. It was a little taste of heaven.
And yet. (There’s always a caveat with me, isn’t there?) One of my personal objectives in joining the Peace Corps was not just to journey to some foreign land, but to actually live there, to make a home there – to integrate into a daily routine so thoroughly that it would feel like sliding into a pair of worn-out slippers whenever I returned to it. And I have achieved that; turning the key in the lock of my apartment at the end of my trip I caught myself thinking, “It’s good to be home again.”
And while this is gratifying to have experienced, it poses a whole new quandary for my nascent desire to keep wandering the world after my term in Moldova concludes. For I was suddenly, oddly conscious while I trod the cobblestoned streets of Passau, craned my neck to take in the spire of St. Stephens, stopped in awe in front of a Rubens, or ordered schnitzel in Vienna, that I was a touring these sites, and as such was unable to access the true experience of being in these places, being of these places . Traveling as a tourist is like skimming over the surface of a large body of water; oftentimes it feels as if the aim is to cover as much area as possible, rather than taking the time to stay still, immerse and dive deep. I saw what Vienna looked like, what Salzburg had to offer, what comprised Budapest, respectively, for a scant 4-6 hours at best. This is no way to catch the flavor of a place, a people, a culture, through such a miserly sip.
Robert Louis Stevenson once observed that there are no foreign lands: it is the traveler only who is foreign. In Moldova, I have had the time to understand that. Here, I have immersed, acclimated, no longer feel myself as ‘foreign’. And I realize how much more that has added to my experience and comfort in the world. I no longer look at a map and see the outlines of countries as delineations of strange, undecipherable exotica that could have no relation to me. Instead, they represent convocations of communities, reverberating lives, little houses and neighborhoods, corner stores, and office buildings. Cars drive down streets in those places. People do laundry and cook meals. Dogs trot across dirt roads, stopping to scratch fleas. Bicycles lean against buildings. Aromas waft across a breeze. Children laugh and hang from tree boughs. Women gather and talk on corners. Life is happening in every corner of the world. It is now conceivable to me that I could join in and participate fully, no matter where I found myself.
Quite by accident, I took a most interesting picture in Bratislava. We stopped in the town square to admire a memorial built to commemorate the synagogue that had stood for hundreds of years in the town square, right next to the Protestant church, until the Nazis saw fit to blow it up. Part of the memorial was the silhouette of the old synagogue etched into a sheet of smooth black marble. I didn’t realize until I was uploading my pictures at home that the marble reflected back the shadowy outlines of people milling about the town square, with the etching of the synagogue super-imposed over all, only briefly and barely occluding the activities of people going about their days . It was a lovely visual metaphor, conveying not only that any church, synagogue, or temple is comprised of more than just a building, but also that when we travel all the icons, museums, memorials, parks, palaces, bridges, castles, and fortresses that may fascinate us and be the images we return with for our photo albums, they remain only a backdrop to lives still being lived in these historic places. And the traveler is forever the foreign passerby, holding up a camera, skimming across the surface, dropping in to sample just a sliver of the pie.
It is true that I went back and forth with myself about taking it with me: I packed it once, thought better of it, removed it from the suitcase, yet, as I was draping it back over the hangar, became bewitched again with the image of its soft black folds whirling about me in the winds whipping off the waves on the Isle of Skye. It was a fanciful accessory, a black cotton drape styled midway between cape and shawl, seemingly made by a costumer for a lass of the Scottish highlands. And, despite having left lass in the rearview mirror a couple of decades hence, I just couldn’t resist the notion of donning it on this quintessential stage. Perhaps it did carry a Iittle of the magic I had imbued it with over the years. A good luck charm for travel. Pulling it from the hangar, I bundled it up carefully and placed it in the front zippered pocket, readily accessible for the Kodak moment when it arrived.
I had first seen it on my sister almost 30 years ago and immediately coveted it. It was the height of my Fleetwood Mac phase, the mid-80’s, a time when it was surprisingly difficult to find the vintage, theatrical items that are a dime-a-dozen through Urban Outfitters, Buffalo Exchange, and hundreds of other outlets these days. It actually shocked me that she didn’t offer it to me – her of the easy acquiescence, the pliable Beth to my fiery Jo, the good one that always shared and never complained; nursing the arm I’d accidently broken, when she was eight and I twelve, into the predawn hours before her stifled whimpering finally alerted our mom. My little sister adored me, completely and utterly, in that unique, submissive fashion that a less studied character holds for one more flamboyant and artful.
Still life from a family photo album: me, front and center, encircled by a halo of pink tutu, hair coiffed in stiffly sprayed curls, eyes rimmed with turquoise, toe pointed in front of me, back arched, arms bowed at my sides; her, standing in the background, a little to my right, pudgy hands folded at her belly button, tights sagging, leotard bunched at her waist, mouth slightly agape, eyes gazing up at me, rapturous, as if Glinda had just materialized in front of her. An accidental, naked portrait of how it always was between us.
I had recently returned, reluctantly, to the dull harbor of my old bedroom at our parent’s house. Lorraine had just fledged, leaving the boyfriend she had lived with since high school to share a freshly outfitted apartment with a co-worker. There was a newly minted assurance coating her, a sheen of silvery confidence that signaled a subtle shift in our relationship. While my post-adolescence wanderings may have increased the hip-cred I brandished to cover my wounds, she seemed to have glided over my years of awkward angst to alight, perhaps tentatively, in a place of adulthood. She made me a little nervous.
But when she pulled out the black shawl one afternoon as we headed out to lunch, I immediately recovered my big sister voice.
“Oh wow, sissy – that is beautiful! Where did you get it? You have to give it to me!”
Closing my eyes I can still picture the careful compression of her puffy lips, the firm little shake of her head.
“Nope. It’s mine.” Lilt at the end. Smiling, but implacable.
She wore it everywhere we went during those long ago months: a concert; the fair; furniture shopping for her new place. And I continued to crave ownership, scooping it up and swirling it about my shoulders whenever I found it tossed on her couch, stomping about her living room like Stevie in her boots, belting out “Rhiannon” while flourishing an invisible tambourine. She would laugh and agree that it fit me. But she never ceded.
So perhaps it was a matter of course that I had my way elsewhere, appropriating the swarthy Armenian jeweler she brought me to meet one sunny afternoon in March. Perched on a Laguna bluff, his little shop part workspace, part bohemian haven, redolent of incense, curtained by vines and palm fronds. Andreas Vollenwieder rolled in buoyant waves over us as we sipped chardonnay from wrought iron chairs on his doorstep and watched the sun glint off the Pacific. Her flirting was so self-effacing and contained that it aggravated my chronic promiscuity. I was sleeping with him within a week.
Next, I impulsively acquired the same model car she had spent hours and hours making up her mind to buy, comparing color and interior options, gas mileage, performance ratings, and safety scores. She was days away from purchase when I drove up to her place in a brand new, blue, 5-speed Mitsubishi Cordia.
“You wanted white. I thought we could be twins.”
I think I actually made her mad with that one. But she never said a word. And within two weeks she had a Toyota Corolla fastback: smaller, sleeker, cuter.
It was the car she died in, it’s aroma of new carpet and leather seats not quite dissipated, a bare month later.
What does one do with dead people’s things? How much of the person do they hold within, captured moments and memories, static icons of fluid emotions, precious objects with no other intrinsic value than of once having been curated by someone disappeared?
Within hours of learning of my sister’s accident, I find myself in her bedroom, spinning in slow circles, a lighthouse spotlight trying to pierce the syrupy morning sunlight replete with bobbing dust motes, tiny faeries trying to break free of amber. My glance falls upon the cast off bathrobe crumpled on the bed; the brush full of hair lying on the windowsill; the smudged mirror reflecting tubes and compacts of make-up, bottles unscrewed, on the vanity; the open closet spilling forth clothing askew on its hangars. Bathrobe, brush, mirror, closet, bathrobe, brush, mirror, closet. The fairy dust shimmers as the sun rises higher. The smell of her conditioner lingers in the close air.
What to do with all of this? How sudden is the moment when things change into useless, superfluous litter, floating in space. Do I take that brush tangled with her last hair? The robe, still damp from last night’s shower? Or the lipstick she always wore, surely smeared with the tiny slivers of skin always flaking from her lips? I can’t seem to grasp it, the enormous, echoing void left by a life abruptly vacated, the cavernous, stretching emptiness of it, the detritus scattered on its shore.
It is only as I turn to go that my eyes brush across the tail of black fabric snaking out from amidst the sandals, sneakers, and high heels jumbled atop each other on the floor of the closet. I am in the doorway before it penetrates and I spin around.
Mine now. Sissy, it’s mine.
The years since her passing kaleidoscope: I’m a young, single mother; a university student; a counselor; an executive; a wife; a homeowner. My bank account expands along with my waistline. The Armenian jeweler moves to Hawaii and I never hear from him again. I sell the Cordia to buy the ’64 Porsche of my first husband’s dreams. Lace skirts and crystal beads give way to sensible pumps and blazers. The detritus of my own life recedes in my wake, falling beyond the horizon.
But the shawl stays, a lasting imprint, the cocoon I wrap around me during cold months of grieving, the totem of resilience and serenity which I doggedly tote through all my incarnations. Mine, but still hers, it takes me ten years to wash it, convinced as I am that her DNA is still entwined amongst the threads.
My daughter, too, comes to covet it. I let her wear it whenever; it fits her eclectic Echo Park, retro-Beat chic. But I am firm when I find it amongst the clothing she has piled in the back of her truck, preparing to move to Tahoe.
“Really, mom? It’s not like you can carry it off anymore.”
“It’s Lorraine’s, sweetie. It’s all I have left.”
She flings me the withering look.
“So I guess I’ll just wait for you to die, huh?”
It catches me. When will – if ever – I let it go? When will it would it be okay to let it slip from my grasp, to allow the last tangible piece of her to float away from me in space, to no longer have the least physical connection embody her? Why not let the one have it who will most likely be packing up my abandoned things someday? A thought – not enormous – but elusive, slippery, fraught with tingles of pain like little electric shocks sparking beneath my skin.
No. Not yet.
I found out that just days before her death Lorraine had driven to my grandmother’s house in Montrose to type up her application for American Airlines. (Yes, in 1985 we typed things.) She never mentioned it to me, perhaps because she knew the derision I would express for such a safe, contained version of wanderlust. Always methodical and practical, perhaps she had her own thoughts about my wanton attitude toward life at that time. Perhaps she had drawn her own conclusion, never articulated, about the big sister who jumped without quite attaining flight. About the web of scars filmed over by the gauzy persona of a world-weary, hippie-gypsy returned, hiding the tale between her legs.
I will never how it would have been between us, after the glitter faded. I know that she loved me. And I her. But women are not so little girls; who knows what it would have been like, each with her own stage, a separate spotlight, different audiences to attend to? In my imagination, at times, she eclipses me, meeting a middle-eastern businessman, moving to Turkey, having a passel of honey-bronze children, getting a PhD.
Me, I am more practical now. There are less and less occasions when a decades-old black shawl seems appropriate. In part, joining the Peace Corps was a little homage to her: a safe, contained way to indulge wanderlust. Yet, during the process of selling and giving away the bulk of my possessions before leaving, I hold the black shawl in my hands, weighing its significance, wondering if now is finally the right time to let go. And I recall the way the tangled gold of her hair spilled forth from the folds of the attached scarf when she wound it about her head. The way it enveloped her, hanging longer and looser about her smaller frame. The afternoons in her living room, draping it about myself seductively, twirling to the music with contrived abandon, hoping to win the prize.
I hold it up to my nose. Not a trace of her smell remains. I am not sure I even remember what she smelled like. With a fleeting sense of panic, I toss it in the “keep” pileand bring it with me to Moldova.
I am wearing it in the picture of me on the boat from the mainland crossing over to the Isle of Skye, the land of the faeries. I am smiling, happy to be going to a place on my bucket list. I am 51 years old; more lies behind me than in front of me these days. I can discern the dim outline of a horizon out there ahead.
So the emotions are mixed, confused, when I discover it missing as I am packing the next day to depart. Long, slow breaths as the realization floods in. It is gone, disappeared, leaving a black hole within my suitcase. Had I tossed it on the bed in the hostel, where some transient backpacker espied it, liberating it for it new adventure? Or placed it on the back of the chair at the bar, ready for the next itinerant guest to don before she boarded the cross-country train to distant realms? Or perhaps it went home with the server, to reside on the Isle of Skye for a handful of decades until her daughter packs it in a box or hangs it in up in her own closet someday? Who knows? It happened. It is gone from my life, the last trace of her, without me having to decide, choose, finally let go.
I tell myself she would be proud of me, that our love would have blossomed and flourished through the years, that we would have grown to stand next to each other, holding hands, shoulders touching, heads tilted slightly towards each other. In my mind’s eye, we share center stage and the spotlight cloaks us both in warm brilliance. Neither one of us is wearing the cape. A Kodak moment, a studied, slightly fuzzy portrait of the people we became.
And a clenched hand releases, letting her drift, the last anchor now lifted, finally free to roam the space of this world.
I must confess it was disheartening for me to visit NPR’s web page today and learn that George Zimmerman had been acquitted of the murder of Trayvon Martin (by a six-woman jury, no less) not because I was hungry after some kind of revenge in a situation where the legality and justifications for Zimmerman’s actions are so hotly contested, but because of what seems to be an increasingly prevalent fear percolating below the surface of so many Americans’ interactions with each other during the course of daily life.
The verdict prompted a lively debate on NPR’s website, generating more than 400 comments at the time of this writing. The top-rated comment on the story was this one by B Free:
“One thing I don’t understand is what was the young man supposed to do when approached by an armed guy on the side of the road? Black, white, whatever, if a guy with no obvious authority stops anybody on the side of the road in an accusatory manner, exactly what could they say to put them at ease?”
Responses included observations like this one, from commenter Brian Watkins:
“Since the guy was twice his age… maybe a “Hello, how are you tonight sir?”, “just on my way home, is everything ok for you? is your car ok? you need some help with a tire?” … that’s the SAFEST things to SAY. Then when confronted, respectfully chat. I don’t know… those are the best things I can come up with.”
To which I say, poftim. Barring the obvious elephant in the room – that Zimmerman was armed with a GUN and his demeanor was confrontational – I do believe that simple pleasantries go a long way toward easing awkward social situations. In most uncomfortable circumstances, I find that a smile does much better than a growl. However, here is what Watkins goes on to observe:
“America is scared all the time, so everyone is a threat to each other. This is the difficulty we have to live with being a diverse country, but regressing to simple pleasantries is the safest thing to do. To prevent this from happening to more youth, I advise all to stay closer to home and not be out when it gets too dark. It’s dangerous anyhow… it’s harder to identify people at night.”
To which all I can say is, wow. Americans are basically scary people whom one should be afraid to encounter after dark, so hole up in your homes in order to be safe? And this is a consequence – a ‘difficulty” – of living in a diverse country? And we need to “regress” to pleasantries in order not to be shot walking home from the neighborhood convenience store?
Is this what it’s come to?
Coincidentally, I was talking with another PCV just this morning about a recent vacation she took with her mom to several European countries. Her mom suffered a mishap on a bike in Croatia and a local eating at an outdoor café saw it happen and came to their assistance. He offered to drive my friend to a nearby pharmacy to help her purchase some first aid supplies; she gratefully accepted. Her mom chastised her later, warning her that the guy might have had ill intentions of rape, robbery, and other mayhem and that my friend was foolhardy for trusting a veritable stranger. On another occasion, they found themselves hopelessly lost in a Parisian suburb. Despite her mother’s fierce objections, my friend stopped to ask directions of a group of young men gathered on the street, who proceeded to get in their own car and gallantly lead them through the confusing maze of streets and back out onto the main highway.
She and I reflected on an integral lesson which usually occurs to most travelers who have spent some time out in the world; most people are not harboring an inherent desire to hurt you. In fact, many, many people will help you, begrudgingly or not, when asked. Travel in foreign countries often involves getting lost, or needing assistance with language or purchases, or just finding the best spot to eat in town. To get the most out of the experience sometimes requires putting your trust in a stranger.
How have so many Americans lost this ability to see others as potential allies rather than threats? And especially in our own neighborhoods?
I have commented on this blog before how increasingly important I am finding the second and third goals of Peace Corps service to be: 2) helping promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the peoples served, and 3) helping promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of Americans. I feel like my daily interactions with Moldovans and other visitors to this country are ending up to be much more meaningful and impactful than the professional skills or work experience I bring.
It was with no small measure of pride that we posted this observation made by a young Moldovan who walked the entire southern route of Turul Moldovei:
“I think that volunteerism is important, and I talked to some people about volunteering and they said that this thing in Moldova has been lost and now American Volunteers help us to understand that we can give the community help that brings us pleasure to help them. I liked very much to be a volunteer, I really get a lot of pleasure, pleasure to have fun, pleasure to work, pleasure to give happiness.
I want to be a volunteer and know when Turul Moldovei ended I am trying to do more.”
Living where I do, at an internationally sponsored NGO that hosts many volunteers from European countries, I have the pleasure of meeting diverse people who use their own vacation time and funds to come to Moldova to help strangers. For the past two weeks there have been three young women from the Netherlands here, aged 18 to 28, who have gone into the homes of house-bound elderly to empty buckets of feces and bottles of urine, scrub down cockroach infested kitchens, haul water from wells, air out mattresses and blankets, sweep mud-encrusted floors, massage arthritic feet, and then shed tears of joy to have had the honor to do so.
What if, instead, the lesson they learned was to stay close to home, to distrust diversity, or to ‘regress to pleasantries’ to keep safe?
My primary desire in sharing my experiences here is to provide a small window on a faraway place, a country most Americans (and Europeans, it turns out) have never heard of. I hope my voice can find a place among the incessant fear-mongering that hammers away at our trust, at our empathy, our vulnerability, our ideas about the strangers we meet along the way.
“Exercise caution in your business affairs, for the world is full of trickery. But let this not blind you to what virtue there is: many persons strive for high ideals and everywhere life is full of heroism.”
Last Saturday, June 15th, Turul Moldovei participants showed up in Soroca (north) and Taraclia (south) to begin 150 mile treks across Moldova that will land them in the capital of Chișinău (just about dead center of the country) on Sunday, June 30th. For me, this is the culmination of 9 months of planning fraught with all the usual suspects: headaches, fretting, fighting, second-guessing, over-preparation, under-preparation, wasted hours, jam-packed meetings, and long hours spent staring at a computer screen.
And every single moment was absolutely worth it.
What began as an off-hand remark made over a beer on a sweltering afternoon in the middle of PST morphed into a three-headed beast with a gaping maw that required seemingly endless permutations of tact, diplomacy, patience, willpower, and plain-old pig-headedness to tame. Sue may (or may not) have tossed off the flippant observation that “Moldova is so small we could probably walk across it” and Yvette may (or may not) have seized on this bon mot as a brilliant kernel with dynamic potential and we may (or may not) have co-opted Tori into subsuming the Heath Education PCVs’ fuzzily conceived bike trip into our vision; all I know is this particular narrative has now become the stuff of PC Moldova lore.
(20 years from now they will be telling some version of this story as they pack up the banners and toss the old posters when closing this site down….I do know that Sue and Tori will have completely different memories – as they should – of what this project brought to their Peace Corps service, so I do not attempt to relate their viewpoints here. )
Attempting to plan an event or activity with Moldovans is a little like trying get a kindergartner to anticipate her high school graduation: sure it’s something that (theoretically) may occur at some point in the distant future but at this moment in time is so far beyond the horizon that it bears no serious consideration. Really? You want me to think about June when it’s only April? You can’t be serious.
Former admin executive-cum-complusive organizer-cum control freak (some would say) that I am, this inability to engage in proper project-and time-management activities caused my brain to fritz and fry. I was on permanent melt-down status from January through April until I finally came to terms with the reality that things would either work out or not regardless of how many hours I spent worrying about my inability to anticipate and direct outcomes.
It has been a great exercise in letting go, mostly because I had no choice. The tighter I held on the greater the tension I created between me and my co-planners and the more I fantasized about plunging fiery paper clips into their eyes as we glared across the table at each other through every meeting that failed to elicit crossed-off agenda items to clear the slate for the next meeting.
Nothing was ever done to satisfaction. Nothing was ever completed at all. Walkers started the journey one day after we eliminated a village on the southern route, not sure where the walkers would go on day 12 of the trek. The donated water was not delivered until five days after the Tour began. We had to ship 175 one-and-a-half liter bottles by rutiera and trust that the driver would deliver it to a person standing by the side of the highway. Events in some of the villages have still not been formulated. We’re not sure that there is a vehicle at every site to transport luggage, water, and equipment to the next site. And you know what? It will all be fine.
Because I have fielded tens of calls and received a ton of emails and read ecstatic FB postings about the amazing experience that the walkers have had in just a short amount of time on the road. Peopl e who had registered for one or two days are now signing up for as many more days as they can find open. Others who had not registered at all are spontaneously showing up to the village sites by bus to join in the celebrations.
The walkers have been feted and applauded and put to back breaking labor. They have slept in comfy beds and on the wet grass adjacent to the Nistru River. They have had to buy and prepare their own meals and been wined and dined in a fancy restaurant, gratis. In the space of 120 hours they have walked almost 50 miles and met at least a hundred new people. They have not only shown a whole host of Moldovans what spreading peace and friendship means, they themselves have been the recipients of an abundance of curiosity, hospitality, and good will.
Four teenaged Moldovan students of a English English Education PCV are accompanying her on the entire southern route. Apparently, they have been among our best ambassadors. There are myriad pictures of them in their bright yellow Turul Moldovei t-shirts, playing with kids, dancing with other girls, shoveling dirt, picking up trash. A particularly poignant photo was taken of one of them seated next to an older Moldovan gentleman, both of them resting on a curb, deep in animated conversation. We liked it so much we posted it to the Turul webpage. When she saw it, I heard that she started to cry. She said that never in her life had she imagined she could undertake such a journey, have such an amazing experience; never in her life did she imagine her picture would be featured on a web page. She said that she will remember this walk for the rest of her life and maybe nothing could ever make her this happy again. (Of course, I freaking cried.)
The picture of a lifetime
This project is succeeding far beyond our wildest dreams. After all the pain and frustration and headaches, the result has been a fantastic, life-altering (for some) experience, and the most perfect way to embody the ups and downs of the Peace Corps journey.
Poftim Moldova. Drum Bun!
*****************************************************************************************************************************To all of my blog followers, friends and family who donated to this project – a huge hug and a shower of love and appreciation. I wish I could share with you what a unique story you have helped write, what a difference you have made to so many people. You have helped to create a treasured experience that will live on in peoples’ spirits, uniting particular Moldovans and American through many years and distances and which – hopefully – will contribute to a new knowledge of what an amazing experience volunteering can be for both of our nations’ citizens.
Just as a piece of matter detaches itself from the sun to live as a wholly new creation so I have come to feel about my detachment from America. Once the separation is made a new order is established, and there is no turning back. For me, the sun had ceased to exist; I had myself become a blazing sun. And like all other suns of the universe I had to nourish myself from within.
Henry Miller from The Cosmological Eye
I would be lying if I didn’t admit that at various points during the past year I have wondered whether I would make it to 2014 here in Moldova. Especially during those stark winter months after returning from Morocco, when I had no partner or assignment and the only bump in my weekly calendar was three hours of language lessons, I would fondle thoughts of hoisting the white flag and emerging from the trenches of my despair to board a jet plane back to America. With barely nine hours of daylight to fill, I was dog paddling each day through despondency, trying to hold my head up despite having nothing to plan for beyond my next meal. Once, my mood got so bleak that I Skyped my sister-in-law and had her walk outside with her laptop and hold it aloft to the blazing California sun just to remind myself that it still existed.
It was exactly during one of those low points, having called home for the fifteenth time in a matter of weeks, that my father offered me a ticket to surprise my mother for her 70th birthday. I was hesitant, but really only for about two minutes. My solemn vow not to ‘waste’ any of my precious 48 vacation days to return to the US sidled out the back door – I desperately wanted, needed, to feel at home again. Because my mom’s birthday conflicted with Turul Moldovei 2013 – the only project I had going at the time – we decided on Mother’s Day, instead. I hung up the phone and purchased a ticket. It was February 8th. Only 3 month and 3 days to go.
Thus began the countdown of anxiety. What would it actually feel like to be home again? So good I couldn’t stand the thought of returning? How much had things changed during the year I’d been gone? Would I feel strange, different, separate, alienated? Should I have accepted this expensive gift from my father when I had so fervently committed to being gone for 27 months? Was I cheating somehow? If I did indeed return would it make the second year even harder – having to say goodbye to everybody yet again, this time knowing what was in store for me?
As fate would have it, soon after I bought the ticket I was offered the opportunity to relocate to my current site. Daylight increased, the snow melted, and spring made a show-stopping appearance almost overnight. My new apartment was lovely – located in a senior center full of laughing, warm, and gregarious souls who immediately enveloped me in a circle of hospitality and friendship. I had a workplace, a partner, and an assignment. For the first time since pre-service training, I was busy.
My anxiety about going home increased.
Why was I tempting fate? I had made it through my first winter, probably the roughest patch I would experience during my service. Life was brighter, my mood was elevated, and things were finally falling into place. Why interrupt the flow with a step backwards? Would Moldova end up paling when placed under the bright lights of America? But the non-refundable ticket was purchased; good idea or not, I was going home.
And, indeed, the tears burst forth the moment I clutched my daughter in the airport. In the 27 years since her birth, I had never gone longer than four or five months without seeing her. This time, the passage of time was readily apparent. My little girl was finally, irrevocably gone; this was a full-fledged woman I was greeting. How could I have left her for so long? Can one year alter a face, a posture, a presence so greatly?
More tears when I locked onto my husband’s eyes through the windshield as he pulled the Jeep up to the curb at LAX. I was transported back to the last half of 2011 and the idyllic interlude of our journey across America: just the two of us and our dog exploring the national parks and forests, camping, hiking, cooking our meals under the stars until summer bled into autumn. His presence in the driver’s seat brought it all back. If there was one thing that could make me abandon all, it would be the chance to recapture those months and sit beside him through those miles again.
The tears let loose again when I felt myself revert back 40 years, suddenly a little girl again in her mother’s arms. To heighten the surprise, I had hidden in my brother’s backyard (he and my sister-in-law were hosting the Mother’s Day celebration.) When my mom came in the house, I called her from my iPad on the Google voice number I use in Moldova. I asked her if she could hear me, as I always do when commencing a call. I was surprised when she said she couldn’t (geez, I was barely 50 feet away!) I began the Verizon riff: “Can you hear me now? Can you hear me now?” as I made my way into the house. When I finally came around the corner of the hallway, I added “Because I’m right here.” Her legs promptly gave way and she fell in a heap on the floor in front of me. (My dad said it was worth every penny of the ticket.)
Yet, there were also little things that caught me off guard. My dogs barely acknowledged me. Unlike those YouTube videos of returned soldiers whose dogs about explode when they walk in the door, mine acted as if I’d just rounded the corner from the bedroom.
Everything seemed inordinately expensive. I spent the equivalent of my entire PC monthly stipend on one trip to Target to ‘pick up a few things.’ A dinner out with friends could have bought me ten nights out at Pizzamania in Moldova (with wine.) Parking for an hour at the beach would buy two round trip bus tickets from my village into Chișinău.
And the cars. The endless stream of cars. The streets built for a multitude of vehicles and the sound and smell of them filling the atmosphere. The parking lots – acres and acres of parking lots. I’d never noticed how much space is devoted to parking cars in America. And how people drive everywhere, mostly alone in a bubble of their own creation. No sweaty armpits shoved in their faces. No jostling for space among strangers, wondering if you should buy a seat for your bags. But also a huge, artificial border. As if we each existed on our own space ship, controlled our own climate, sped through the day alone.
Mostly, everything was the same as it was when I first decided I needed to go. Sitting with my friends, listening to them talk about their jobs and homes and weekend excursions and new purchases, I felt strangely apart. These concerns, realities, worries, and excitements were no longer mine. They hadn’t been for more than two and a half years. Sifting through the mercurial sands of memory, I remembered that I had consciously desired, then chosen to separate myself from this world. I had wanted to nourish myself from within.
And when – after 27 hours of international flights, transfers, security checks, baggage claim, visa stamps, bus rides and a twenty minute hike down a dirt road with my luggage – I finally turned the key in the lock and entered back into my sunlit, solitary, sparsely furnished domain, I felt the warm welcome of home.
Moldova appears just a bit different to me now. A little more lush. A little less alien. Perhaps it’s the just the abundance of spring – the thunderstorms, the nesting birds, the bursting palette of flowers. Or the unbridled enthusiasm and genuine smiles of all those who exclaimed at my return. Or maybe the ticking clock that steadily punctuates the blanketing silence in my very own apartment – the first I’ve had in fifty-one years of life on this planet.
I know now, for the very first time, that I did the right thing. I have become my own sun.
In response to a reader’s request for more explicit information regarding my allusive reference to the toilet in Odessa, I offer the following bit of education on one of the grittier aspects of Peace Corps service. Those of you with toileting issues might want to refrain from reading….
One of the first social mores to be dumped during Peace Corps service is the general prohibition – assuming one is not working as a plumber, parenting a toddler, or sliding down the backside of 70 – against discussing bowel movements in excruciating, aurally augmented detail in public. What is quickly discovered during the initial weeks of training is that when input changes, output follows suit. When diet changes, colons have been known to protest. Ergo, the physical condition of one’s toilet grows in importance as one spends increasingly more time hanging out in there.
I have been incredibly lucky in my site placements: all three have been furnished with indoor toilets complete with 24 hour running water. Not so for many of my compatriots, who have to time their flushes to coincide with the daily water schedule – if they are fortunate enough to have an indoor bathroom – or become adept at the “poop and scoop” method, shall we say, if they are using one of the village’s anachronistic outdoor veceu’s which typically (inexplicably) lack any sort of seat. But even when they do have seats, problems abound. Take, for example, a recent (anonymous) posting in the “Moldovan Moments” section of our Peace Corps weekly newsletter:
“Even though my host family has a really nice porcelain toilet in their outhouse, I don’t like to sit on it. No particular reason why, I’ve just always been a hover-er. With that in mind, one really cold morning in January I went outside to take care of business but my aim was a little off. I didn’t completely miss the hole but the poop pile got stuck on the side of the toilet….and then it froze. There was no water in the outhouse so I took the toilet brush outside, used it like a shovel to scoop up some snow and then put the snow on the turd until it softened enough for me to push it off into the hole.”
Probably not the fare you’re used to finding in your casual perusal of commercial media, but life is a bit off kilter in the Peace Corps. Different voyeuristic interests assert themselves and begin to take precedence over politics, sports, and entertainment. This piece elicited actual fan mail.
Not only have I struck gold with my site placements, I have actually been able to completely avoid pooping in a hole since I set foot in Moldova. (This is a stroke of luck so far out of statistical range that I should be calling up the Guinness Book of World Records to establish my claim.) Through a series of fortuitous circumstances indoor flushing toilets have been available at all the places I’ve worked, visited, or stayed.
To further clarify how atypical my experience has been vis-à-vis bathroom conditions here in Moldova, I must divulge that I have an on-going bet with another volunteer who – when she learned about my track record – vociferously argued that I COULD NOT go for 27 months of service without popping a squat in a veceu. In fact, she was willing to spring for dinner at the most expensive restaurant in Monterrey (we both are from California) if I returned in 2014 having never entered into intimate relations with an outhouse. I stood her bet.
This commitment to completing my service without having to subject myself to some of the more distasteful aspects of living in a developing country has become increasingly steadfast over time. It has precluded me visiting some of my very dearest friends here – sorry, you don’t have an indoor toilet and I’m going to win this bet! It has narrowed my options for outdoor activities: afraid I’ll have to pass on camping in Orhei Veche next weekend – no bathrooms! And entertainment: sure the festival looks fun, but there won’t be indoor plumbing…
Well, Odessa did me in, folks. Never did I think that the third biggest city in Ukraine – granted, a Peace Corps country, but still a travel destination –would be the first place that I suffered the indignity of lowering my drawers in fetid squalor.
[Fair warning: turn back now if you are possessed of a weak stomach or delicate sensibilities!]
Throughout the whole nighttime bus ride I gamely declined from debarking to wander off into the pitch dark night to relieve myself in one of the fields abutting the border stations where we waited for hours to have our passports examined and processed. I am one of those regular souls whose elimination occurs precisely within a two hour window every morning as the dawn breaks. I figured I could make it to Odessa with no problem. Besides, while I didn’t think peeing on the grass really counted the same as pooping in a hole, I wasn’t going to take any chances with my winning streak.
What I didn’t count on was our bus driver detouring into a stadium-sized parking lot and killing the engine just as the sun was surfacing over the horizon. What???? My bowels had been rumbling into life, excited by the first peeking rays. But this was not our destination (was it?) Where were the buildings, the restaurants, the shops, the markets- the BATHROOMS????
Oh my. This was not good. My fellow (Moldovan) passengers were blithely gathering tissues in apparent preparation for relieving themselves in whatever accommodations they could find in this vast desert landscaped in asphalt. Apparently we were going to be here awhile. Past my two hour window. My bowels immediately froze, attentive. We Peace Corps volunteers exchange meaningful looks: dare we dream of an actual building? Or do you think it’s a veceu? Perhaps with no seat?
Not only was there no seat, there was no roof or doors, either. A cement slab with oval cutouts above an open sewer with waist high walls. People had been missing the holes for years. Urine and feces literally lapped in waves. Cardboard boxes containing weeks’ – if not months’ – worth of used tissue paper overflowed, creating paper mache floats that bobbed at your feet. Used tampons? Check? Dirty diapers? Check. Condoms? I don’t know, I didn’t get close enough to verify.
I should’ve peed on the grass.
My bowels were so unsettled by this experience that they refused to void until I arrived back at site more than 24 hours later. Unfortunately, I could not hold my bladder, however. One of my friends was so traumatized that she boarded the bus, pale as death, trembling, cheeks moistened with tears, to lie with eyes closed for a full 10 minutes before she could speak again. (She is possessed of delicate sensibilities.)
What we attempt most to avoid is going to hunt us down and assail us when we least expect it.
Last Sunday night found me and five of my friends waiting curbside for a ride on the magic bus that would transport us across Moldova’s northeastern border into Odesa, Ukraine. We were going to join the celebrations for the Festival of Humor, or “Umorina” and it is known here.
Humorina (Russian: Юморина) is an annual festival held since 1973 on and around the April Fools’ Day. (It was invented in 1972 by the Odessa KVN team after the KVN contests and the corresponding TV show were discontinued. For more background on KVN, click here.)
Pictures from past festivals online portrayed an atmosphere and antics similar to Mardi Gras in New Orleans – people wearing masks and feathers, with painted faces and outlandish costumes. Carnival rides and games. Artisan crafts. Music. Food. Laughter. With Moldova fiercely clinging to the last vestiges of winter, this seemed just the antidote I needed.
My partner, Tania, who had arranged the trip with a tour agency and was accompanying us with some of her friends, had told us to be there promptly at 8:30pm. Thought somewhat surprised at the notion of anything Moldovan adhering to a timetable, we are, after all, compliant Americans trained to adhere to schedules and so showed up 10 minutes early, just to be safe. We could’ve trusted our instinct, though.
Around 9:15, earnest young girls conferring over clipboards directed clumps of passengers on, then, mysteriously, off, three Greyhound-sized tour buses that had been waiting, empty, since 8:45 or so. As there was no immediately detectable order or reason to the activity, we decided to wait for direction from Tania. Around 9:30, we told to board one of the buses and take the first four pairs of seats.
This was a happy boon, as one of the pairs of seats sported a sort of table that one could conceivably lay one’s head on to catch a little nap during the hours-long journey. Two of my friends chortled merrily at their luck, failing to remember the machinations of the clipboard wielding young women. All too soon, they were being asked to relocate themselves to the nether regions of the bus, in order to accommodate the driver’s friends, with whom he wished to be able to talk during the trip.
Well, neither one of these particular friends of mine are easily disabused of their booty if lady luck should happen to dump in their direction: a lively debate ensued which approached the outside boundaries of “peace & friendship,” the go-to mantra of all PCVs who find themselves in tense circumstances in foreign lands. Thankfully, after a strident seven minute articulation of their perception of the general unfairness of the situation, said friends gathered their belongings and stomped off to the back of the bus.
Of course, the clipboards weren’t finished with us just yet.
In the end, all of us, together with Tania and her friends (and a couple no one knew who remained lip-locked and limb-entwined through the bus ride) landed in a 20-seat microbus with a kick ass stereo, fluorescent lights and reclining seats, all of which would come to be the bane of our collective existence by the time the bus arrived in Odesa at 4:30am the next morning. But initially, we were happy to be out of the swirling minuet of seat changes that continued up until the moment of our departure in a swirl of liberating exhaust – we were off!
One of the best qualities I am gaining – I believe – from my Peace Corps service is the ability to just let go and allow circumstance to deposit me where they will. I have been accused, in the past, of having some ‘control’ issues. And to all my accusers (you know who you are,) let me assure you that Moldova has met those issues of mine in all their various permutations head on and absolutely trumped them. There is nothing like taking a seat on a bus, driven madly by stranger down a pot-holed, bone-shaking highway into the black chasm of night toward a destination you’ve never been where people will speak a language you won’t understand, to rid yourself of all pompous notions of having the least bit of control over anything.
Affording myself liberal swigs of the cognac being passed around, I determined not to look out the front windshield and focus, instead, on the heavy bass threatening to burst my eardrums.
Predawn: we pull into an Angel-stadium sized parking lot that we can see is steadily filling up with caravans of other cars and buses. For an hour or so we labor under the misapprehension that this is our destination – and confer in hushed tones about how to hail a taxi, with no Ukranian money and no notion of where we are – before Tania explains to us that we are just waiting for the last bus in our entourage to join us.
Did I mention that the border check filled exactly half the time of our six hour trip? And we paid a 10 lei ‘fee’ apiece to speed up the process? Well, apparently our fellow tour participants were not afforded this same opportunity for a ‘speed-pass,’ so all of us ended up waiting the extra 3 hours for them in the huge asphalt parking lot that hosts Odesa’s piața, or marketplace.
I am not even going to talk about the bathrooms.
Some things are better left to the imagination. Or better yet, not imagined at all.
But oh – Odesa! Once we finally arrived, every exhausted, uncontrolled, bass, thumping moment was swept away in the stunning beauty of the streets, the blue sky, the beating sun, the distant horizon over the steel grey sea. Even the harbor, punctuated by the steel arms of cranes and over-sized boat lifts, cement piers, and smokestacks, was gorgeous to my vista-starved eyes.
More and more buses, filled with more and more people, continued pulling up before the Potemkin stairway that leads up to the heart of old town. Perhaps the most famous site in the city, the 192 steps of the famous staircase were built in the mid 1800’s and were made famous by Sergei Eisenstein’s film ‘Battleship Potemkin’. Vendors lined its edges, selling their wares, along with a perplexing preponderance of bird handlers – doves, hawks, eagles, falcons, even a peacock. I made the mistake of taking a picture (aiming at a statue behind him) which included one and had the angry owner following me for 100 feet demanding a fee. Everything is for sale in Odesa.
After spending an hour and half in the one bank that was changing money, we headed out to find food. And oh – the food! We stopped in an adorable little restaurant Kompot, which I’ve since learned is a favorite spot for Moldovan PCVs – everyone recommends it for its generous portions, cozy atmosphere and friendly wait staff.
Then on to wander about the city, exploring the parks and bridges, the proscenium overlooking the harbor and the numerous side streets. Odesa’s buildings are a mixture of different architectural influences; some are built in the Art Nouveau Style, which was in vogue at the turn of the 20th century, while Renaissance and Classicist styles are also widely present. It feels very cosmopolitan and is quite picturesque.
After doing a little bit of shopping, and watching Costea try his arms at a carnival game, we got to eat sushi – one of my happiest gustatory moments in recent memory. There is nothing like the way sushi glides down the throat, to nestle softly and happily in one’s tummy. I LOVE sushi and its one of the foods I have missed the most.
Then we found a table at the edge of a park facing on the street procession and spent the next four hours soaking in the sun and slowly sipping beverages, wanting the day to last. We meandered from subject to subject in that lazy manner that is only attained on holiday, when words become diamond sparklers lobbed between you, making the very air glitter with untold possibilities. We could have stretched those hours into days and been perfectly content.
Of course, the scene only became livelier as dark descended. A ska band was playing at the top of the Potemkin staircase and dancers were out in force, swaying and singing, arms flung around shoulders, laughter and merriment wafting through the crowd on the ocean breeze and we vowed next year to come back and stay the entire night.
Deposited back in Chișinău at 2:30am, we were forced to wait in an all night pizza joint for the buses to start running at 6:30am. Having not slept in almost 72 hours (we had a bad night in the hostel from hell Friday night in Chișinău) it was an exercise in fierce determination to keep our heads off the table and our eyes from crossing.
But the memory of our beautiful day in Odesa was still fresh – it sustained us.
I spent my winter vacation in Morocco – a lovely and exotic destination made more compelling by the fact that it is a Peace Corps country. As we enjoyed the sun on the beach, the flavorful food, the architectural splendor, the artfully placed tiles, my traveling companions and I had to continually resist comparing our PC experience with what we imagined a PCV’s in Morocco would be.
This particular blog posting from a Moroccan PCV is one of those that seems to have taken on a viral life of its own, I think because the truth she voices resonates so deeply with so many of us, both current PCVs and RCPVs, as well Peace Corps agency staff. (Be sure to read the comments below – they are a lesson in themselves and have continued on long past the original blog post date.)
As I reflected in my own comment on the blog, the grass may seem greener elsewhere when gazed upon from afar, but then again we may not realize why the grass is so green (when desert surrounds it) and whose playing ball on that particular field….
Today I was interviewed by an evaluator from the Peace Corps’ unit of the Office of Inspector General. She was a lovely, vivacious young lady (apparently a little older than she looked as she had appreciable previous experience in the private sector prior to Peace Corps.)
For those of you dying to learn more about what the OIG does in relation to Peace Corps, click here. Brief summary: she and another evaluator are visiting Moldova for three weeks to interview staff members and a select group of PCVs distributed across location, gender, age, program, marital status and a few other categories. The OIG evaluators (not Peace Corps Moldova) select the group members and through their interviews gather information related to PCV experiences in training, host family interactions, health and safety issues, project development and community integration. I feel fortunate to have been selected, not only because I genuinely appreciated the interest in my feedback and perspective, but because it opened up a potential career path that I never knew existed previous to today.
In the course of our conversation, she mentioned visiting Turkmenistan, Indonesia, Liberia, Ghana and Peru during her four-and-a-half years of service. I didn’t ask for a listing of all the countries she has evaluated, but she did say that a typical year included 3-4 discreet site visits. She is based in Washington DC and also conducts human resources investigations from there. As I listened to her, I was struck by the relevant job skills I already have that would translate well to this type of position.
I have been wrestling with my desire to continue working with Peace Corps after my 27 months of service ends, but have been hesitant about taking up residence for five years in a country I would not have much input in selecting (if I was even selected, mind you!) My wanderlust has been piqued, rather than quelled, by this taste of overseas living; but I still miss the comfort and familiarity of American culture and the close relationships I enjoy with family and friends at home.
To have a job which entailed extended visits to Peace Corps sites for in-depth conversations with Peace Corps Volunteers and host country staff for the purpose of evaluating and influencing the efficacy of Peace Corps programs, interspersed with significant time residing in one of the more vibrant and fascinating cities of our nation, sounds like a perfect melding of my mixed desires.
Just a heads up to those of you who might have interest in pursuing this, or other, types of work with Peace Corps: there are many jobs that don’t require prior experience as a PCV. You can learn more about them here.
For me, synchronicity and circumstantial happenstance have been pretty reliable signposts for considering the next direction to take on the path of life. They do say things happen for a reason…
One of the interesting things I’ve noted about many PCV blogs is how much time falls between a vacation and the recounting of its particulars in a post. I used to attribute that to all the work that must have backed up in the person’s absence: she just needed time to play catch up. Now, having taken my first out-of-country vacation since coming to Moldova last June, I think I understand the real reason for the elapsed time is the need to get a more objective perspective on the experience. But you all know me better than that by now. To hell with perspective. I write it the way I feel it, fresh from the press. Though I did wait a week for at least a little cushion….
The first thing I noticed was the air’s amiability, its willingness to billow lightly like a cotton sheath about my body and refrain from teething its way into the crevices of my garments. I hadn’t quite prepared for it, having kept on the tights and the leggings under my sturdy canvas hiking pants, donned my jacket and wrapped my scarf about my head as if I were still gearing up for a bracing march through the hinterlands when we disembarked from our taxi to walk the 200 yards to our riad. To say that I over-prepared is an understatement. All through the trip I was amused by the jackets and hats sported by other tourists: apparently they must have traveled from warmer climes or possess a much lower personal thermostat than mine. The weather, usually in the low 60’s, felt balmy to me.
The next thing to snag my attention was the juxtaposition of colors, textures and patterns: tiles, pottery, doorways, spices, lanterns, robes, scarves, vegetables, the damn paint on the buildings – everything was riotously colored and intricately detailed, formulated with an appreciative attention to beauty, artful in its mere placement. After bland, non-descript Soviet architecture, mono-ethnicity, and the narrow range of winter food stuffs I left in Moldova, the richness of the Berber/Moroccan culture was a symphony of the senses. (To give you an idea, I took over 500 pictures – only 10 or 12 of them have a human subject. I was taking pictures of our dinner. I know Mom, I’m sorry.)
But by the time we were lost in the souk – the meandering maze of ancient shops that comprise the heart of the medina – the small irritation that would soon bleed into almost every aspect of the trip had blossomed. I had temporarily forgotten, sitting in my Moldovan bedroom dreaming of sunshine and spices, that yet again I was placing myself in the role of “tourist” in a foreign economy heavily dependent on consumer cash. This experience had irretrievably affected me during my trip to South America and was compounded last spring when I traveled with a group to study poverty in Guatemala. I did not exist in Marrakech as a unique individual arriving to engage with a new culture and people, ecstatically anticipating all the personal encounters and experiences that would litter my path, but rather as a walking wallet, bulging with money that enticed the vendors to the greatest heights (and lows) of fatuous flattery, witty double entendres, crafty cajolery, pitiful pleas, and – unfortunately outright resentment. Everywhere we went we were trailed by a cacophony of calls, some of it with physical accompaniment – an arresting hand on the arm, a body blocking your egress, or a hovering shadow trailing you to the next stall. Echoes of former trips returned to me and I think I was more immediately and negatively affected by it then my traveling companions. Admittedly, I was a tourist. But I think I had wished to pay for an experience more than I wanted to accumulate talismans. I did not do a good job of planning ahead to avert this. Next trip, I hope to remember this lesson and avoid the marketplaces whenever feasible.
But there were highlights: a trip out into the desert to visit a Berber village with a pit stop at an argan tree co-op where various health and beauty concoctions were formulated on site. (Thought the end result was a sales pitch, it was interesting to see how the seed was ground into oil and to learn about the miraculous benefits of this ancient oil.) We hiked up to waterfall and had lunch at a quaint café while being serenaded by a local troupe of musicians. We road camels on a beautiful stretch of largely empty beach. We watched the sunset from the ramparts of the medina wall in Essaouira. We met lovely people working in the various hostels and riads where we stayed. We ate at Rick’s Café in Casablanca.
I returned last week and am currently in a (very frustrating) holding pattern. My site closed at the end of the year and Peace Corps is assisting me in finding a new partner. But it a long, slow process, fraught with many pitfalls and u-turns, so far. It is hard to start off the New Year with no clear direction, no work in hand and none in my sights so far. But this is Peace Corps….poftim!