International Day of Women – Moldovan style

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

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

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Forest light

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Cartofi și markovi

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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New violets and a quirky fungi
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Me – posed Moldovan style

Strașeni mă salută cu brațele deschis

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Priimarie (mayor’s office) Strașeni

Strașeni welcomes me with open arms!

The first day of spring (Moldovan style,) my new partner’s birthday, a commemoration of war heroes (Transnistria and Afghanistan,) and my first day of work all coincided to welcome me to my new home today.  What a day!

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Lots of trees in Strașeni

Marțișor is traditionally celebrated on the first day of March in Moldova – never mind when the actual equinox occurs.  Today was a perfect showcase for the celebration – brilliantly sunny with a bright blue sky ornamented with wispy clouds and framed by the bare, supplicating limbs of surrounding trees.  The chill nip of the morning was offset by the warmth of the sun blanketing my shoulders as I donned a sweater (no down parka needed) and set off down the road for my first day at the office.

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The road into town

When I arrived, Doamna Valentina presented me with a small bouquet for my lapel comprised of a red and white flower.  This is a tradition here; both women and men wear these for the whole month of March and on the last day one is supposed to place it in the boughs of a tree and make a wish.  True to Doamna Valentina’s reputation for thoroughness and efficiency, she presented me with three variations and a duplicate so I have sufficient resources to make it through the month’s end.

Marțișor lapel ornaments
Marțișor lapel ornaments

My Peace Corps Program Manager wisely insisted that the Doamna Valentina assign me a partner in her office with whom to work other than herself.  There are two reasons for this:

1) Peace Corps does not want to be perceived as providing “personal assistants” to political figures, which could be misinterpreted as favoring one particular party over the other, and 2) Mayors are way too busy to devote time to training and explaining tasks to a novice – especially one whose command of Românian is barely breaching middle-intermediate at best.

Poftim, enter Tatiana, my lovely, just-turned 23 partner who is the building and construction specialist for the mayor’s office.   And who speaks wonderful American English as a result of two summers recently spent in North Carolina in a work-and-learn program.   Tatiana – or Tania, for short – has a bachelor’s degree in construction engineering and is currently attending university in Chișinău to earn her Masterat (as they call it) in Real Estate.  Not sure how that translates to an American degree, but there you go.

The lovely Tania at the military memorial
The lovely Tania at the military memorial

She’s an intelligent, ambitious young woman who was not afraid to stand up to those male professors who didn’t believe a female had any business in their classrooms.  Her father is an engineer with his own construction business; apparently he is very successful and has engineered and built buildings throughout Moldova.  She is intent on joining his business and carrying on the family trade.

Afghan and Transnistria war plaques
Afghan and Transnistria war plaques

Almost immediately, Tania and I joined the entire office in a parade through the middle of town that ended in a gathering in a park to commemorate the “heroes” of the Afghan (1979-89) and Transnistrian (1992) wars.  There was much singing and awarding and speechifying and more singing, and then some fireworks exploding (literally) five feet to my right and it was finally over after about an hour of standing in the still chill air.

Returning to the office we began to prepare for Tania’s birthday masa.  In Moldova, birthdays are a bit more formal and serious in the manner in which a gift is presented to the celebrant.  One stands and receives with grace both the gift and a stream of felicitous wishes and declarations to health, happiness, long life, success, money, and love, after which kisses on both cheeks are exchanged.  Tania was receiving phone calls, bouquets of tulips (her favorite flower) and speeches from troops of co-workers entering her office for an hour before the meal began.

Tania’s father brought in a bucket load of food prepared by her mother; though neither attended the 100_1941celebration her brother and his girlfriend stopped by.  We fit about 15 people around the table to eat and drink homemade wine and cognac.  It was a lovely way for me to meet everyone.

Everyone in Moldova is bi- or tri- (and sometimes more, what is that – quatro?) lingual – I feel quite provincial in their midst, but they laugh and tell me “If you know English, you know all you need to know.”  They are quite excited to have a native speaker among them and are already clamoring for English lessons (the bane of PCVs everywhere….)

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There are actually quite a number of young people in the office who speak passable English, either because they have traveled to America or have lived in Europe at one point or another or learned it in school.  While it will be easy to drop back into English when the going gets tough, Doamna Valentina does not speak English and I must remember that it would be bad form to exclude her from conversations when she is present.

By the time the food was finished and the dishes cleaned and the furniture returned to proper placement, it was time for Tatiana to leave.  Her birthday was just beginning and there was much to do at home to prepare.

I returned back to Neoumanist, the NGO that is allowing me to stay in the volunteer quarters until I find my own apartment.  The apartment is actually in the building that serves as the senior day center, and I just taken off my sweater and set down my purse when a lovely melody arose from the front hallway.  I opened my door to find four babushkas, complete with head scarves and wooden canes sitting on the bench outside my room harmonizing an old folk song together.  (I tried to upload the video I made but my internet connection is too slow.)

I feel so fortunate that all the weeks of waiting have paid off – the people here at Neoumanist are all cheerful and upbeat and welcoming (and many of them also speak English!) The mayor’s office is a beehive of activity and everyone seems to get along well and enjoy each other’s company.  I am living alone (!!!) and cooking for myself in a kitchen where I don’t have to worry about infringing on someone else’s domain.  And I am 15 minutes from Chișinău, to boot.

Spring – and new beginnings – in the air……

Office of the Inspector General (and what that has to do with me)

jet plane worldToday 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…

Here I am…

Having returned (and survived) six days of training, intensive language study, and meetings in Chișinău, I thought I would catch up those of you who care here instead of writing emails explaining my protracted online absence (sorry Mom!)

PDM – Project Design Management

(or, how to get your partner to finally believe what you’ve been saying all along)

Though many PCVs will complain about having to sit through trainings, in the end this one proved to be one of the more helpful ones we’ve endured.  Although I am currently without a partner, I did attend and sat in on discussions between a couple of my friends and their partners.  All of the volunteers I spoke with commented on experiencing that hit-yourself-on-the-head moment when they witnessed their Moldovan counterpart nodding in sage agreement to something that the trainer had said, usually a basic bit of standard accounting  practice or how to properly state objectives or putting outcome measurements in place that were just not accepted or valued when articulated by the volunteer at site.  (Of course, most of us have trouble articulating anything more profound than inquiring after someone’s family or refusing a third cup of wine, so perhaps it was all lost in translation.)

PC Moldova staff seems to understand and appreciate the basic cultural chasms that threaten to engulf all one’s good intentions and resolute cheer and hence schedule training at strategic points throughout one’s service in anticipation. This one definitely hit the mark.  While it was somewhat disappointing to be there stag, it was good to be part of the general positivity and energy in the room for the two and half days of the training.

The nights are another matter altogether….

Because our times together as a group are dwindling, volunteers took full advantage of the opportunity to “be American” and hang out together in the big city. My preference for smaller groups and more intimate gatherings kept me generally out of the loop; the one night I did join in – Friday – I suffered the casualty of discovering my iPhone swimming in a puddle of red wine on a table where I had left it unattended for a span of minutes.  The screen is now obstinately silver gray and I can only see the icons by holding it to a bright light and tilting it at an angle. Sigh.

Language Training

(or, stepping up to the broader conversation topics just beyond a third grader’s reach)

Although I am fortunate to have the services of a superior language teacher at site, many volunteers live so far out that they have no access to regular, quality language instruction.  So Peace Corps provides this last little bit of help to launch us beyond subject-verb clauses into more meaty discussions containing direct/indirect objects, subjunctive phrases and maybe an adverb or two.  Poftim.

What I enjoyed most about this two day session was the opportunity to speak at length with the instructor without having to remain on a third grade level.  She helped us formulate our thoughts and clarify our responses to queries ranging from family dynamics (“Who should be responsible for finances in a family, husband or wife?”) to personal goals and objectives (“Is it important to strive for a good professional position?”) to  the political arena (“Do you think Moldova would benefit from joining the European Union?”)  It is wicked good to be able to converse with a host country national in their native language on topics beyond daily schedules and sustenance. Because I often times have trouble following the rapid speaking styles of most people here, I just can’t maintain my end of the conversation in these areas in most instances.

Sunday, through several hours of unhurried conversation, I discovered our instructor to be thoughtful, sensitive, hopeful, and a huge fan of Americans.  She commented at length on how becoming a Language Teaching Instructor (LTI) for Peace Corps Moldova has changed her way of being in the world.  When she was first hired, she went through a series of trainings that taught her about how Americans typically behave and perceive others, and it made her consider the manner in which she usually reciprocated – not only to Americans but even relative to other Moldovans.  Now she understands and appreciates the value of exchanging smiles with people walking on the street, or cultivating relationships with the checker at the market, or being more empathetic with the fifth-level students at her school who chafe at rules and recitations.  The Second Goal of the Peace Corps – helping to promote a better understanding of Americans in the people served – has an impact even within the context of Moldovan’s relationships with each other and not just for those who might conceivably travel or live in the United States at some point. This intelligent and inquisitive woman has gained a broader perspective of what it means to be human and I was very proud realizing that America had a piece in her learning.

Turul Moldovei 2013

(Or, the announcement you’ve all been waiting for…)

I am aware that every time I’ve happened to mention Turul Moldovei in this blog I’ve followed it with “more about that later.”  Well, ‘later’ has arrived as I think it’s just now hit home to me and my fellow organizers that June is going to be on us in the blink of an eye.  (Which is very strange to acknowledge as June will mean I’ve hit the half way mark of my service.)

One of my very good friends here, Sue, was sitting at the bar with all of us during PST – way back in July or August, so very long ago – and tossed out the observation that since this country was so very small compared to others where we could’ve been placed, we should just get together and walk through the damn thing, border to border – just for the heck of it!  Because we’re Americans and that’s what we American’s do!

Well, we all thought this was a jolly good idea (beers having been consumed, after all) but instead of just letting it die in the puddles on the table, we’ve nudged it along through the ensuing months and actually gave it some legs during our last training in September, when we held an interest group session to communicate the idea to the other volunteers, until now it has suddenly become bold enough to star as one of two main events recognizing the 20th Anniversary of Peace Corps Moldova.  Whew!

In a nutshell, two groups of volunteers – and, hopefully, lots of Moldovans – will be walking either a northern or southern route from June 15 – 30, meeting in Chisinau on the final day.  We will be holding events at each stop along the way to highlight the accomplishments of Peace Corps Moldova, to create visibility and excitement for volunteering in general, and to celebrate an active and healthy lifestyle. We will be sleeping under trees, on school room floors, in community centers (or with the pigs, cows, and chickens, for all we know,) as we are relying on the villages to put us up at night and provide us food after the day’s event.  It is in an excellent opportunity to broaden America’s visibility to those Moldovans who might not ever leave the intimate world of their small town and for us to get to know those who have been so hospitable and kind to Americans throughout our service here.  I am really excited about this (though I am not sure my diva knee will let me walk the entire 200-260 kilometers!)

I am collaborating with Sue and a Health Education PCV to steer the work on this project and have just volunteered to write the proposal for a PCPP grant.  Peace Corps Partnership Proposals allow volunteers to seek funding from organizations and individuals in America, on a tax-deductible basis, for projects that build capacity or transfer skills to host country nationals. Though I am not yet entirely sure if our project will meet the strict guidelines, I do hope that if it comes through many of you will consider making even a token contribution.  It is a way to create and sustain a bridge between my two lives and for all of you to collaborate with me in making a lasting impact here that will resonate long after I am gone…

More on this later!

Life in Wintertime

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The hill leading up. Before they slide back down…

So it’s winter here.  Not the fake winter we pretend to have in Southern California, decorating our mall windows with plastic snowflakes and our Escalades with reindeer antlers  while maybe throwing on a windbreaker to travel from car into supermarket – but real winter, where treacherous roads winding through countryside have never seen a snowplow and cars that skid off the road have no tow trucks to help them dig out.  Men laboriously shovel dirt from the beds of slowly moving trucks in a stalwart attempt to provide some measure of traction on hills and curves.  Car wheels skid uselessly at the top of the hill on my street before slowly sliding down to the bottom again.  Other cars sit idle and useless under mounds of snow in the hillier neighborhoods of Hîncești; their owners will not be able to use them until spring when the killer black ice fades away.

Yesterday some of the employees of the center where I work made a picnic lunch and we piled into the all-wheel drive van with the consultant visiting from Germany to show him the only “tourist” attractions Moldova has: two of some fifty Orthodox monasteries that sit in relative isolation throughout the country.  My partner had checked the weather forecast which indicated cloudy skies but no snow, so I donned four layers of clothing and the steely determination that being California born and raised was not going to prevent me from avoiding excursions for a third of the time I am living in Moldova.

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Me, outfitted, sweating

Now of course, those of you who know that I have “been going through the change” for the past two years or so must appreciate what wearing four layers of clothing means for me.  It means that I can only apply the top three layers minutes before leaving the apartment or I will die from heat prostration and suffocation.  It means time indoors is spent weighing the benefits of disrobing with the hassle of having to put everything back on again later.  It means long car rides invariably result in me sweating profusely within my tights/long underwear/ body shirt/tee shirt/sweatshirt/wool scarf/down parka outfit while my feet and fingers slowly go numb and the portion of my face that is exposed feels as if needles are dancing across it.  There is no happy medium here.  The only place I am reasonably comfortable is at home.  Consequently, I am getting more and more loathe to leave. This is not a good sign.

So I made myself go on this jaunt to Căpriana and Hincu.  And once in the van and on the Imageroad, I actually enjoyed watching the scenery go by.  All the trees are bearing heavy loads of snow; their gnarled and twisted branches seemed to reach out in supplication as I passed by behind my frosted pane of glass.  The sky was a muted mix of shadowy pastels overlayed with a sheen of silver.  Most of the dwellings we past were trailing ribbons of smoke from their chimneys, attesting to the warmth of families and friends huddled inside.  My companions were in high spirits, telling jokes and commiserating over children and husbands and housework and life in the way that any group of women the world over is wont to do.Image

In between the two monasteries, we pulled over to the side of the road and ate our picnic in the van, a healthy masa of baked chicken, sarmales, meat patties on bread, and the unbiquitous sliced tomatoes.  Someone had brought a small thermos of chai that was still piping hot; I don’t know if it was better to hold or sip, but both proved satisfying.  And of course bags of sweet treats were passed around at the end.

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This is the “summer” chapel. They have a winter one also.

As in so many developing countries, the monasteries proved to be much grander and better constructed than the surrounding villages.  It was actually uncomfortably warm inside some of the buildings (me packed inside all my layers with a menopausal thermostat notwithstanding.) There were icons, blessed bottles of water, candles, incense, and small bottles of perfume labeled „Jerusalem” for sale, on which my companions did not stint.  One of the ladies even made me a gift of a small portrait of three saints. All purchases were laboriously recorded by pen in triplicate; this took approximately five to ten minutes per person for each sale while the German and I stood around examining the intricacies of the painted walls.  Of course, days are mere blips in the annals of these monasteries.  And we didn’t see any other visitors in either place.  What do they have but time?

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No expense spared
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The horses get jackets
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The dogs don’t. This one followed me until I climbed back in the van because I shared a bone left over from lunch.

As I write today, snow is falling relentlessly outside.  A fellow volunteer who had spent the weekend with me – traveling for four and half hours in order to sit in her pajamas watching movies and trolling the internet with someone else rather than spending yet another day in her bedroom alone in her isolated village – departed the warmth of my apartment at 11am, only to get to Chișinău an hour and half later and discover that the buses aren’t running up to her village: too much snow and ice.   She called me, dejected, facing a 20 minute walk down the side of a highway back to Peace Corps office to try to find a place to stay tonight.  And maybe tomorrow.  The forecast says snow all the way to Wednesday.

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No handicap ramps or easy access in Moldova

Across and just down the street to the right, there is always a group of people waiting to catch a ride out of town.  They huddle in small groups like articulated penguins, snow piling like heaps of scattered salt on their heads, shoulder, shoes.  Sometimes they wait for an hour or more.  I stand at my window and watch them, asking myself why the city doesn’t think to construct a simple shelter?  Even a roof on four posts that would keep the snow and sleet from steadily burying people where they stand?  How do Molodovans keep such stoic patience, never expecting more for themselves?  I toy with the idea of going out and asking them: don’t you think you deserve better than this?  rallying the troops, inciting a movement, marching on the raoin council with frost laden posters, clutching candle stubs to warm our hands.

But then the thought of donning all those layers is just too overwhelming and I return to my desk to compose my useless thoughts about their plight.  Honestly, Peace Corps is tough in ways you just never imagine.

New Friends

This last Sunday I had my first invitation to a Moldovei home for a masa since coming to live in Hîncești. It was a big first for me – I was going on my own, without another PCV or my host sister accompanying me.  Angela  and her husband Uri are the parents of Auriel, an 18-year-old young man confined to a wheel chair who comes to my center every day. In fact, Angela, who is a social worker with the raoin council (similar to a county worker in the States,) is the president of the association which started Pasărea Albastră a number of years ago.  She also attends the English class I co-teach on Tuesday and Thursday nights.  We have taken a liking to each other, as she is a very determined, classy, well-spoken and intelligent

Uri picked me up in his car and drove me (thank you!) way up into the hills that surround Hîncești, where they have a house abutting the forest.  They have quite a spectacular view and seem to be fairly well-off by Moldovan standards (note the flat screen TV in the background of one picture.) I was relieved to see that Angela met me at the door in sweats, absent her usual make-up.  This was obviously Sunday and a day for relaxation; it made me feel immediately at home. I greeted Auriel, who was quiet vocal in expressing his surprise and happiness (though he is not able to verbalize) and their 12-year-old adopted daughter Nicoletta, who speaks perfect English (though she is shy about doing so.)

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Angela’s mother and husband Uri

This comfortable feeling deepened over the course of the 5 hour repast.  Their friends Angela (same name) and Sergio joined us with their youngest daughter.   The second Angela speaks almost perfect English; she has her own business working as a document translator. Sergio is an optometrist. They lived for three years in Portugal and have adopted many European viewpoints.  It made for a very different experience than I am accustomed to having when interacting with Moldovans.

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Auriel, his grandparents and me

They are impatient and disappointed with their country about many of the problems that Americans immediately identify: the lingering Soviet-era entitlement mentality coupled with the endemic rigidity, nepotism and cronyism, corruption, and multi-tiered bureaucracy that makes changing the toilet paper require a veritable act of legislation.  They are personally affected by the economic conditions that require their children, brothers, sisters, and extended family members to work outside of the country, possibly with no hope of returning.

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 (Second) Angela and (first) Angela’s mother

Angela talked about her older daughter who is working as a maid in a five star hotel in Chicago.  Because she has an excellent command of English, she has a good chance of moving up to the front desk. If this happens, she will most likely not come home. Ever.  It is too expensive and her life would be grounded in the United States with the husband and children she hopes to have one day.  I ask Angela how she feels about this and a steely curtain descends over her eyes.  “This is the best thing that could happen for her.  I have to let her go,” she tells me, not even a hint of a quiver in her voice.  Wow.  My mothers’ heart broke open wide and mourned for her.

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Angela with her mother and daughter

The evening was mostly filled with laughter and enjoyment, however, despite some of the grim realities of life in Moldova.  The two Angelas and their husbands are obviously very good friends. It put me in mind of my Canyon Acres and IUCC buddies; there was palpable warmth and happiness that suffused the room and it was pleasurable just to bask in their friendship.  I haven’t felt so relaxed and completely at ease in any setting since leaving the States. I even joined Nicoletta for a rousing karaoke and dance to Queen’s “We Will Rock You!”

Of course, the next morning I paid the price of imbibing a little too much cherry raku (a homemade liquor) but it was definitely worth it.  I have made new friends. The second Angela actually talked me into joining her aerobics class at the casa de cultura on Monday and Friday evenings.  Will report on that later…..

Happy Thanksgiving!

My “date” with Mihai?

Vegetable display…what a nifty centerpiece

I may have relayed that Nina invited Andrei and Mihai to my birthday masa last Wednesday night (Andrei and Mihai are the two gentleman that figured largely in my blog post about attending a celebration in Boghocieni though I didn’t know their names at the time.  MIhai is the man who guided me through the hitching process, Andrei the man who emerged in his bathrobe…)  So a couple of hours into the party, and several bottles of wine later, either Andrei or Mihai brings up the Agricultural Expo taking place this weekend at the Moldexpo in Chișinău.  They want me and the other three volunteers present – Matt, Lindsey and Patty Harlan – to come with them.  At least this is what I understood at the time. Both Lindsey and Matt refuse the invitation, citing other plans, and it is my initial impulse to do likewise.  After all, I truly am a city mouse and have no penetrating interest in farm implements, combines, and animal husbandry techniques. However, I pause and consider the fact that this would present a real opportunity for integration and show me a side of Moldova that I don’t have easy access to, living in a raoin center like I do.  And, admittedly, the wine has painted the world friendly and fun and I think “what the heck, I’ll go!” I then talk Patty into joining us, though this involves her rearranging a language lesson and pulling herself out of the heavily tread routine she’s dug for herself in Hîncești. (I think she may be the only M27 who remained at site for a record two months after PST.  She ventured into Chisinau a mere week ago on an excursion with fellow Moldovan teachers on a hired bus to the opera – which doesn’t really count as far as I’m concerned.)

Come Friday, however, Patty has a chance to view an apartment for rent that morning and has decided that this is more important to her overall happiness than accompanying me to Agrofest.  So now it’s me and the two Moldovan men.  While this causes a stir of apprehension within me, I console myself with the knowledge that these are two good friends of Nina and it would be impossible for them to perpetrate some indiscretion upon my person without her finding out and making mincemeat of them (Nina is traveling to her village for the weekend – like usual – and cannot  join us.)  So I  hold off on canceling out – I don’t have their contact info and probably couldn’t make myself understood over the phone anyway – and wait for the knock upon the door.  Which, in typical Moldovan fashion, comes precisely 51 minutes after the agreed upon time of 9:00am.

Mihai

 Surprisingly, when I answer the door, there is Mihai, alone, in suit and tie, smelling faintly of cologne, no Andrei in sight. Well, perhaps he is waiting out in the car? Again, will I ever learn?  No car, no Andrei, and off Mihai and I trek to the bus headed into Chișinău.  At least it’s a bus this time and we’re not standing on the side of the road trying to negotiate a ride with a truck driver, I think.  Which should have been my first inkling that perhaps this little excursion held a bit more significance than I – with my casual American attitude regarding cross-gender friendships – might be initially aware.  As Mihai held my arm crossing the street – a feat I accomplish with no assistance several times a day – and guided me onto to the bus midst the teeming throng – again, a negotiation I have successfully managed without fear or trouble many, many times in Moldova – something began tickling the underside of my brain, like the feeling you get when you might have left the iron on at home or forgot to turn off a burner on the stove.   Then, I realize that he has paid the driver for my ticket as we have boarded after the moment when the driver walks down the aisle collecting the money.  I try to repay him the money for my fare, but he refuses to take it.  Then, after we are seated, he turns and (tenderly) brushes away hair that had caught in my eyelash, and suddenly an alarm bell begins to ring, loud, clear and insistent, in my head.  OH MY GOD – this is what PC warned us about!!! Any excursion comprised of a man and a woman – especially if you are beyond the naivety of youth – constitutes a date in Moldova, no matter how innocently you might have accepted said invitation.  Oh shit, shit, shit!!!  I’m on a f***ing date!  

 When Mihai reaches across the back of my shoulder to open up the curtain so I can see the view, I descend into a brief panic.  Thankfully, his arm retreats back to his side and we resume a halting conversation about the beauty of the countryside (autumn – so far – presents Moldova in her very best light), the whereabouts of his apartment, the times I have previously traveled to Chișinău, the number and gender of his children and grandchildren, etc.  I am still holding out hope that perhaps we are meeting Andrei at the expo and I begin to relax a bit.  Silence ensues and I zone out watch the passing rust and mauve-tinged vineyards and brilliant blue sky outside my window.   However, once we arrive at the Gara de Sud and he again grabs my arm (even though I have purposefully paced myself to walk two feet behind him,) and again pays the driver for my ticket (despite me having my fare in my hand) and proceeds to kick a young woman out of her seat so I can sit down (causing me great consternation and embarrassment) and then smiles at me every time I look up and see him watching me, I realize that I need to make the status of this little divertissement as clear as I possibly can.

Nina’s farm is in Bassarabeasca, where this honey was made.

Once we arrive at Moldexpo and it is clear that Andrei is not, indeed, joining us and the conversation lands on the distance marriage that Nina and her husband have contrived (him living full time on the farm in their village and her residing in the city because of her work with Avon) I realize this is the perfect opportunity for a brief segue into my personal circumstances.  I remind Mihai about my own marital status, the fact that my husband does not like to travel like me, that he has an important, well-paying job in America, and that I am here because of a desire to live and work in a different county for a time, but that I will be returning after two years.  (All information that I have shared before, but I figured that revisiting it couldn’t hurt.)  This was the best I could manage, given my limited range of Romanian and the intricate complexities required to convey conflicting emotions and delayed dreams and the deep insights into mortality that mid-life birthdays seem to convey for us first-worlders.  Suffice it to say that he was quiet for awhile after this, but I may be flattering myself unduly.  I have no idea if I embarrassed him by implying that his intentions were anything other than friendship, if he was confused by why I needed to insert previously established biographical data during an excursion to Agrofest, or if he was busily re-organizing our activities for the day to accommodate my (hopefully) clear lack of intention to pursue a more intimate angle.  I could have been wrong about the whole thing, given my absence from the universe of courtship for almost a quarter century now.  Oh well. Better safe than sorry.

John Deere makes it to Moldova

 By the time we enter the gates to the expo, small talk has resumed, the sun is peeking out from glorious, white-feathered clouds and a brisk breeze periodically floats women’s brightly colored scarves about their necks and hair.  The day is beautiful and it is interesting to see the range of equipment on display, from micro-tractors built in Japan designed for the private farmer to gigantic, towering combines from Russia looming far above our heads that, Mihai tells me, are only affordable – maybe – for ‘associations’ – to group purchase in Moldova. (These machines-on-steroids continually elicit disgust from him as flagrant reminders of Russia’s ‘abandonment’ of the Moldovan economy – he is one of a certain segment of Moldovans that thinks returning to the fold of the Soviet Union to be its only hope for a brighter future.)

Mihai exhibits a preternatural ability to pick foreigners out from the crowd and everytime he sees one he drags me over and excitedly announces that I am an American that speaks English.  This provokes some puzzled looks (he, after all, is not speaking English) until I open my mouth and say, “Hello, where are you from?” and we establish that, indeed, Mihai correctly assessed that they were from Germany or Holland or England or Bulgaria and – as never fails to astound me – speak almost perfect English.  (Americans remain stubbornly parochial in our language limitations largely because we can.) He even announces this to Moldovans, finding a handful that also speak perfect English which results in me exchanging phone numbers with the daughter of the Moldovan Minister of Foreign Affairs (a great PC connection, if I can figure out how to use it) and a woman who conducts tours throughout Moldova in her own private vehicle (an exciting expansion of my travel capabilities.)  I meet several who have gone to school in the US in such varied states as North Carolina, Virginia, and New Mexico.  I share with them that last year at this time I was traveling through those very states. We exclaim mutual surprise at the relative smallest of the world.

 Mihai, meanwhile, has been gathering every piece of literature offered by the vendors. He has a bag filled with twin, sometimes even quadruple, copies of every brochure, catalog, pamphlet, magazine, flyer, newsletter, and booklet that was offered.  And every time he picks one up, he looks slyly around and carefully slips it into the bag as if he is in a covert operation collecting evidence for some sort of political intrigue.  I think that he is naively unaware that these articles are provided without charge and assumes he is getting away with something in obtaining this wealth of information for free. I convey to him, as politely as possible, several times, that I really have no use for this literature but he continues to collect it, stating that we will give my portion to Nina’s husband for wintertime reading on the farm.  By the time we reach the end of the exhibition I swear the bag must weigh twenty pounds. (I hope Nina’s husband will appreciate this effort, but it seems like a yawn-inducing compilation to me…)

Gear for whiskey-making, always an important addition to an agricultural fair…

 After the exhibitors begin to dismantle their wares, Mihai has me call his sister for him (he doesn’t own a mobile phone, remember, an antediluvian idiosyncrasy even in Moldova.)   I hand the phone to him and then wonder why I can’t understand anything he says until I realize he’s speaking Russian – ah, yes, the Russian connection – and he tells me afterwards that we are now going to his sister’s in Buiucani, a fancier section of Chișinău that is home, amongst other institutions, to the University of Moldova and the American Embassy.  Great – now I’m being taken to meet the family? crosses my mind briefly but I let go the thought; the day has been fun and his manners impeccable and there has been nothing to concern me since I made my awkward little speech.

Yes, that’s the bottle of wine.

 Julia’s apartment is spacious and modern, though a little disordered from renovations she appears to be committing on the wrought iron that laces the outside of her windows. Our visit is made instantly convivial by a large bottle of homemade wine and it is from his sister that I learn of Mihai’s wife, Nina, who has been living in Israel for the past five years working as a nanny.  (This information surfaces in the midst of a comic ridicule of Israeli dependence on American aid and a somewhat skewed notion of Putsin’s character strength in refusing to provide money to spoiled nations.)  I am more than a little surprised that the existence of said wife has not been proffered in previous conversation, either by Mihai or my host sister, Nina.  Such biographical data seems integral to me to basic, introductory phases of communication.  This leaves me worried – just a bit – of perhaps not having misinterpreted Mihai’s intentions, after all. And my Nina is fully capable of aiding and abetting such deceptions.  She is one of a certain demographic of independent Moldovan women who appear to have a more casual, European view of marriage and conjugal relations, stating on more than a few occasions that I should remain open to entertaining the attentions of a “barbat” while I’m in Moldova.

Adorable chinchillas destined, sadly, for women’s coats

So when Julia forcing the unopened bottle of beer Mihai has brought with him back on us is coupled with his stated attention to accompany me home purportedly to divide the literature loot between us, and then I find the apartment still empty of Nina, I quickly pull out my phone and call Patty.  Like an angel, she appears after a mere half glass of beer has been consumed between us and all social discomfort – imaginary or actual – is resoundingly diverted by her presence. We sustain 30 minutes or so of trivial conversation, but it is only after I yawn repeatedly and repeat “obisita” (tired) several times that Mihai begins to gather his booklets and turn his attention to departure.  Observing traditional Moldovan etiquette, I accompany him to the door, where he pulls a final, fast one that confirms for me that my long-dormant instinct is still operating correctly.  In Moldova, it is common for women to kiss each other on either cheek when greeting or saying goodbye. For men, however, it is more customary to either take a woman’s hand and feign kissing it or, if one is particularly gallant, to actually place his lips lightly upon it.  Relatives and particularly close friends – i.e., Nina and Mihai, say – will allow a kiss on the cheek from the man to the woman.  When Mihai started toward my face, I flinched, and then was horrified when he kissed me smack on the lips and then giggled mischievously. I was so shocked I just stood there with my mouth agape before gathering my befuddled brain to shout “rau!” (bad!) at his departing back as his disappeared down the stairs.

Me, with pumpkin

Another lesson stumbled through about the nuances of Moldovan culture and the difficulties of communicating clearly without a better command of language. Perhaps it was just a teasing gesture on the part of a lonely man who welcomes female company of any sort in the prolonged absence of a wife (dear me, does that mean my husband is kissing neighbors?) but I will need to establish much firmer boundaries if I ever decide to accept such an invitation again.  These are the aspects of Peace Corps service that one just doesn’t anticipate. Really.

First Steps in Hîncești

Cow in field next to piața

So I thought I would share some random notes on my first days living in Hîncești.  This is a great place to be stationed, actually.  I am close enough to Chișinău to make it accessible (it’s roughly a 60-75 minute bus ride to get to the PC Office, 26 lei roundtrip.)  But I also have the advantages of being in a more rural atmosphere – hence the cow grazing in the field right up the street from my apartment building.  And crossing the street with this on our right on our way back from language lessons:

Yet, we have at least three good pizza places, one of them overlooking the lake.  There is a public pool that costs 90 lei to enter for the entire day; I hear tell it is as good as being at a resort (by Moldovan standards) as they play contemporary music, have lounge chairs and umbrellas, and serve beer and pizza for a small price.  I think I’m going to go hunt it down today as the temperature is climbing back into the 90’s this week.

Speaking of the lake, these are the stairs I have to climb to get there – 172 of them to be exact.  Note the large monument on top:

Stairway to Heaven

Once you make it to the top, here is the view:

View from Heaven (location, Hîncești)

And here is the backside of the monument.  I haven’t quite figured out what the statues represent, though a fellow volunteer told me they were “Haiducii,” which is a Moldovan term for a sort of Robin Hood figure.  These were groups of bandits that at one particularly savage point in their history were pillaging the landowners’ estates in order to pass on food and goods to the poor.

Haiducci?

And then of course there is the lake itself.  If you happened to miss my (rapturous) posting about the lake right behind my apartment building, here are a couple of pictures:

View from my bench
View behind my bench

Hîncești, being a bigger town, is falling victim to that mindless, artless form of corporate sposored entertainment known (pretty much all over the world now, I guess) as the  “autorile.”  Ana made a big deal of this event, encouraging me to attend on Sunday, saying that it was “foarte frumos” and “interesant.”  Well, you tell me.  This is what the cars did for about an hour. No discernible rules, time strictures or game strategy.  Just round and round and round and round.  At a very high decible.  In whichever direction you want. After about 15 minutes, I retreated home:

And then of course, there’s my life at home with my new Nina.  (Remember I lived with another Nina in Stauceni.  I’m beginning to think Nina’s are my destiny.)  Things are beginning to evolve into a very comfortable situation.  Nina (Stauceni) was much more mindful of my comings and goings and seemed to take more ownership of my health and well-being.  This was really great when I first came to Moldovan, as it was rather like having a very solicitious and gracious inn-keeper making sure your meals were hot and satisfying and that she knew where you were at all times in case you got hit by a rutiera and didn’t make it home.

Nina (Hîncești) is much more like living with a room mate.  I come and go as I please and am free to cook or not as the mood strikes me.  If she makes food, she offers to share it with me and vice versa, but neither one of us is obligated.  She was gone all last weekend – as she is normally, I gather, during planting and harvest seasons – working at her farm in Basarabeasca where she keeps her husband stashed (you can’t imagine how amusing I find this – she is the working woman with an apartment in the city while he is the country gent who stays tucked out of sight.)  She has invited me to come, but I don’t know how down I am quite yet with the idea of working hard in the sun for two days with (most likely) no running water or toilets.  I might be a city girl, after all.

Anyway, when she came back on Monday morning she was laden with tubs of meat from the pig and cow they had slaughtered, as well as boxes of tomatoes, onions, and potatos that are now stashed under the benches in the kitchen.  Here are Nina and her friend making gevir from the pork meat.  The white substance that they are wrapping the meat in is (I think) ropes of fat or stomach lining.  I couldn’t quite translate the words.  You will note me doing what I perenially do when trying to converse in Romanian – laughing a lot and saying “dah, dah, dah.”

I will not be working steadily until September 1, when the center where I am assigned – Pasarea Albasta – reopens after the summer break.  But I did go in today to meet with the English Ambassador’s wife, who is a member of an organization called The International Women’s Foundation of Moldova.  Kate is a simply lovely woman possessed of a British accent, of course, which is perhaps why it took me about 5 minutes to recognize that she was speaking English, not Romanian. Anyway, the IWF provided some funds for Pasarea Albastra to replace a broken washing machine so we went to the local electronics store to make the purchase.  While the transaction was processed I got to spend some time speaking English with someone NOT connected to the Peace Corps, which was in itself delightful.  If I had it to do all over (rhiannon are you reading this???) I would really consider a life in the diplomatic service.  She and her husband were previously posted in Lithuania and they have been here in Moldova for three years now.  Who knows where after that.  What a great life.  She has the benefits of a first world standard of living in a second world economy. Plus, she is making a difference and not just sitting on her butt and enjoying ex-the pat (priviledged) life.  I really like her.

And I did start language lessons up again. I am working with the director of one of the high schools, along with Matt and Lindsey.  It is rather interesting as the woman speaks only a bare minimum of English so it becomes quite the challenge to place our queries in context for her.  One of the hardest things in learning a new language is understanding the idiomatic language – for example, when Americans say “go ahead,” Moldovans say “more farther” or when we say “stop!” or “enough” when someone pours us a drink, they say “arrived!”  It is things like that which cause the most stumbling errors for me and it’s the main reason why one cannot rely solely on Google translate to get by.

After we complete our language lessons, I have a bar literally steps from my apartment where we are cultivating a nice relationship with the Romanian chelneriță.  This represents one of our more earnest efforts at integration…Plus, there is a very nice view.

View from our table

Prima Zi

Proud parents

This last Sunday I arose with some little trepidation (I’ll admit it) and put the last stray items into my luggage in readiness to move to my final destination.  It has been a long journey that brought me to this point, all the way from my sallying cry in the dark so many years ago.  It was not registering completely that this trip in Terry’s van would probably be my last ride in a personal vehicle with all my luggage in tow while I’m in Moldova. (When you leave the country at the end of your service, for some reason you have to find your own way back to the Peace Corps offices and the airport.  Hence, most people leave most of their things here, only taking back the REALLY important stuff….)

When they arrived – Ana, my work partner, and Eduard, her husband, and Terry, the driver – we had to haul my luggage out from the apartment all the way around the building to the front to the car, because of course I couldn’t manage to open the gate into the parking lot.  (This was the beginning of the end of my ‘healed’ knee.)  On the way to Hîncești we stopped at a store called Metro, which I heard about but didn’t quite believe existed.  I was wrong.  Costco has married WalMart and moved to Moldova.  Here is a huge warehouse store with everything from dish soap, to washing machines, to socks, to watermelon and cheese.  All under one tin roof.  For a nation of bus riders.  That’s right.  You know how much you buy when you visit a warehouse store….well imagine transporting all of that home on a jam-packed rutiera.  I don’t get how this works.  But Moldovans are diligent and proficient at getting done what needs to get done, with very little technology most times.  It makes me yet again realize how much consumption we take for granted in the USA.  Ana and I have hesitant conversations, comparing the price of laundry detergent.  We find a bag for 20 lei cheaper and send her husband to put back the more expensive versions we had just picked up.  Terry careens madly through the store, flirting with every woman he sees.  (More on Terry at later time – he really deserves his own post.)  I am feeling vaguely comfortable with Moldovans, not an American in site.  We stuff all our purchases in the van with all my bags and climg aboard for the wild toad ride to Hîncesti. Terry pilots the van somewhat like a flying carpet.  We seem to be zipping a couple of inches over the actual road. Is this better than a rutiera? I think.

I had barely set my bags down and hadn’t even unzipped a suitcase before Nina, my new host sister (I have to call her that as she is my own age – it feels too weird to call her my “host mom”) tells me that we are going to a masa in the small village of Boghaceni in celebration of a four month old baby boy born to a couple for whom she is the “Nona.”

Culture break: A Nona is sort of like a godparent for married couples.  It is a non-relative whom a couple asks to serve as a guide and mentor for them during their married life.  It can be a couple or a single man or woman.  Generally, the person or couple is quite a bit older with some life experience under their belt.  They will help the new couple make big decisions, teach them about parenting, offer advice and comfort during difficult times, etc.  I find this especially perceptive in NOT having it be a relative, as many times married couples can encounter difficulties with parents and in-laws that require some sound guidance to help them through so they don’t make a mess of things.

So we cross the street in front of our apartment building and begin waiting for a ride to this village.  Now ruteiras come by every ten-fifteen minutes or so, but most folks are impatient and try to flag down passing cars that are going the same way.  Of course, Peace Corps advises volunteers against this practice, but everyone does it anyway.  It is a good way to meet Moldovans and practice your language, I guess, but I haven’t tried it on my own.  Now that I’m with Nina, I guess I’m ready to hitch hike (I actually don’t have a choice.  She’s madly flagging down every car that whizzes by.)  A couple of cars stop but they’re either going a different way or they can only fit one person.  We end up in a rutiera just as it starts to rain.

And then it’s pouring.  (Luckily at this point I had not learned of the horrible accident that just claimed the lives of ten people in a 17-seat rutiera that was carrying fifty persons. It’s brakes failed on a curve and the mayor of a town and his wife were among the fatalities.)   I am not looking forward to the walk from the rutiera to this masa, as I left in such a hurry I didn’t grab an umbrella and hadn’t changed out of my sandals.  After about an hour, I hear Nina yell for the driver to stop.  We’re out in the middle of nowhere.  I am confused.  After we disembark, a young man comes up to greet us.  His car is parked right there where the bus stopped.  Oh thank the lord, I don’t have to walk.  We get in his car and proceed down a dirt road that is quickly melting into mud.  He is driving fast, trying to beat the disintegration of traction.  A couple of times I find myself wondering if walking would’ve been better, but the road turns out to be miles long.  The house that we’re going to comes into view ahead – it’s way up on a hill to the right of us and as we slowly drive by it is apparent that the car is not going to make it up the slippery slope of mud flowing down that is probably a road in dryer times.  We exit the vehicle and ponder the slope.  Nina is in high heels, I am in sandals.  The young man grins, grabs my arm, and says: Sos!  (UP!)  Here we go.

Well, this is the second stage of total knee failure.  I am slipping and sliding and clutching at the branches of bushes to my left with my free arm.  Up ahead of me, Nina is slogging on galliantly alone with her umbrella held high and her wedgies sinking inches deep into the mud. Up and up and up.  We finally attain the summit and walk for another few minutes through flat muddy soup and stop in front of a locked gate. The young man – his name is Sergio, I’ve learned during our little ambling duet – pulls out his cell phone and calls his parents, the people we’re visiting.  Are they not here?  Are they still miles away in a rutiera?  If they’re home and they know we’re coming, why is the gate locked?  We wait.  And we wait.  And we wait.  Recall that it’s raining.  Pretty hard.  Me without umbrella.  In sandals.  In mud.  After about 10 minutes, we hear the hearty hey ho of a man approaching the gate.  He is laughing and chattering away in Romanian as he unlocks the gate.  I learn soon enough why it took him so long.  We have another half mile climb up yet another muddly slope to the house above.

We pass through orchards full of pear trees and grapes hanging off the vine.  There are more tomatoes (roșii) and watermelon (harbuz) than we saw at Metro.  Another orchard with plum trees, the fruit being the actual size of the prunes that they will become later upon drying in the sun (pruna.) Some corn that looks sere, droopy and tattered from the (former) lack of rain.  Finally we pass what smells like the outhouse.  Good, we must be getting close, I think.

Why am I here again, when I could be back at Nina’s place, dry and unpacking?  Oh yes – the all important „integration” (I didn’t mess up on the quotation marks, btw, that’s how they do it in Romanian.)  Not soon enough, we arrive at the front door where three older woman, all wearing kerchiefs and aprons, one with missing teeth and a wandering eye, one small, anxious boy, and one lithe young woman holding a forty pound baby (no kidding) stand waiting to welcome us.  We remove our shoes and enter into safe harbor.  Thank the lord, we’ve made it, I think.  Now I just have to get down again.  I guess I’ll worry about that later.

There is a mass of food – a masa – spread out on the table before us.  We are given some bread and wine and salt, the traditional Moldovan welcoming gesture and invited to sit.  Nina gives the married couple (Sergio turns out to be the husband) some money and a gift for the baby.  We begin to eat.   For the next two hours it continues to rain outside while we repast indoors.  Wine, food, talk.  More wine, more food, more talk.  Many toasts to America and my health.  The people comment on how well I speak Romanian.  The old man says Barak Obama’s name several times, as it is the only English words he knows.  Nina pulls out her Avon catalogues and goes into a protracted sales pitch which, suprisingly, holds both the men and the women rapt.  Even the little boy is held captive.  Perfume samples are passed out to all.  She’s good.  After about an hour, I note that Sergio is trying to refuse more wine as he reminds them he has to drive us back to the bus stop.  Thank the lord, I think.  He’s only successful about half the time in not having his glass filled.  Oh well, I think.

The masa

When it’s finally time to go, Sergio runs out ahead of time and returns with a nice pair of galoshes for both Nina and I.  Thank you god, I think.  Though there may be no tread on the bottom of these, at least my toes will stay clean and the cuts on my feet will not be infected  with typhoid.  We wash our own shoes in a bucket of rain water kindly provided by the clouds overhead.   And then we ski down the hill.  That is the best term for our meandering sliding progress.  The old man is holding Nina’s arm and Sergio has mine.   I am clutching him in the hopes of avoiding an embarassing face plant.  This is the penultimate stage of knee damage.  (I still have to walk to work tomorrow carrying 20 pounds of books and computer on my back.  That did it in completely…)

The ride back to the highway is a testament to German autobuiders (I think  we’re in an old Audi.) The car weaves wildly on torrents of mud from one side of the road to the other.  Sergio hunches with great concentration over the wheel, smearing his left hand against the inside of the windshield every minute or so to clear the condensation.  One windshield wiper is working valiantly. A car passes us on the left. Seriously? I think.  Nina pats my knee and smiles winningly.  I wonder if she’s going to pull out the Avon catalogue.

When we get to the road, Sergio stops at the bus shelter and leads us inside.  Then he runs back out to the highway.  What a gentleman, I think, waiting to signal the passing rutiera for us. Within seconds he has flagged down a late model Taurus (compete with leather seats and Dolby sound) and he gestures us to climb in with the three burly, bald Russian occupants. Great. Everything the Peace Corps warned me about.  Gangsters, I think.  Note the gold chains and silence. Completely unconcerned, Nina pulls out her phone and checks her voice mails.  The entire way no one talks.  The driver dials a number but gets no answer.  Apparently the human trafficer connection has taken the day off, I think. When we arrive at our apartment, Nina tries to give the driver 20 lei.  He refuses gruffly.  Well how about that, I think.

The grandparents (bunicii)

Later that night, I put brand new sheets on my bed.  I unpack all my bags for the first time since I loaded them up in Fullerton so many eons ago.  I find things I forgot I brought.  I Skype with Rhiannon and Nicole back in the States.  I take a shower and get into my jammies.  It’s still raining outside.  Nina is already sacked out, fast asleep.  The winds whistles and a steady patter of rain drops is like a metronome tick-tocking right outside my window.  A smile spreads slowly cross my face.

My first day in Hîncești, I think.  This might turn out to be a bit of the adventure I’d hoped it would be…

The Big City

Famous portal entering into Chisinau

Time has sped by the last 10 days…with PST over and all my M27 friends departed to site, I thought I was going to have an easy, quiet time in the TDY apartment in Chișinău while I received daily treatment for my knee.  Not so.  It was probably the most busy (and entertained) that I have been since arriving in Moldova.

Let’s begin with the diva knee.  So, I am sent to this NICE apartment right next door to the Peace Corps office with all my bags (suddenly I have even more stuff than I came to Moldova with) after the swearing in ceremony.  There are three bedrooms there, all empty, and a great big kitchen with a microwave, even.  So I’m excited.  I trot off to the market and buy some groceries and cook my very first meal since leaving home.  Then I spend some time reading and I take a bath and I make up a bed and settle in and soon am fast asleep.  RRIIIIINNGGGGG….ring…it’s the telephone.  9:30pm the PC doctor is calling, not to check up on me but to announce the impending arrival of another volunteer.  (I guess she didn’t want me to freak out when the front door opened.)

Well, this volunteer’s arrival marked the start of the week of the revolving door.  In seven days there were eight other people in and out of the apartment for various reasons.  They all stayed for at least a day or two and somewhere in there I heard every single one of their stories, all of which fleshed out for me a more complete picture of Peace Corps Moldova.  It’s complicated.  Just like most other things in life, I guess.  It made me appreciate how unique each person’s service ends up being: even though we‘re all in the same country, we are not having the experience.  Which means that it is impossible to judge anyone else’s outcome or decisions – whether they ET (early terminate) or extend for an extra year or do their proscribed two years and flee back home.  There are a million different reasons for walking many different roads here.  I suppose that’s true of all the PCVs around the world.  But here is a video of my new friends Maria and Katie playing on the teeter totter outside our apartment:

This is the one of the main reasons PCVs say that they love their experience.   We know how to make fun happen with whatever comes along…

My other new friend Maria – in traditional Moldveneasca costume!

Back to the knee: every day I would walk over to PC offices and my own driver would whisk me off to a state-of-the-art medical center (called MedPark – looks exactly like Kaiser in the US) where a lovely aide would spend half an hour giving me various treatments involving magnets, electricity , and sonar.  Another volunteer was getting the same treatments, so we had a chance to chat everyday for an hour or two as we rode there and back and underwent our treatments.  She related a lot of useful info about her year’s worth of time here and she was very funny and entertaining.  My knee felt better and better every day. Life was lovely. (Then I screwed up my knee again my first day at site – more on that experience later…)

I was also invited by a group of the M26s for an evening at an American couple’s house in the outer limits of Chisinau.  He works as an IT specialist for the American Embassy and his wife loves to cook but has no one to eat it all.  So every Thursday they host a buffet meal in a varying theme for any American ex-pat who wants to attend.  The best part of all was their pets – a BIG Sharr Mountain Shepard (never heard of it before that night) and a cat that both craved attention.  And all of us animal-starved people were ready to slather it on.  I felt like I had received a mental health intervention just petting and cooing at them.  Man, I miss my dog.

On my last day in Chișinău my lovely friends Elsa and Carl, who are stationed in the city, took Darnell and I out for a day long excursion through the parks and museums and fashionable districts.  We had a lot of fun and I got to see a side of Chișinău that I hadn’t seen before.  There are stores – like Abercrombie and Salamander – that one would see in the US.  There are multi-storied, densely packed buildings that house a warren of vendors selling an eclectic variety of products: one floor will be shoes, one floor fabric, another bed linens and bath accessories, one all toys, etc.  It’s like having a whole mall, but packed into one building.  Very efficient.  There are lovely parks with giant chessboards where people stand around watching a game like it’s a tennis match or something.  There seem to be hundreds of couples getting married.  They speed by in cars decorated with masking tape and colored plastic bags and honk horns and scream madly to passersby.  More pictures of Chișinău:

Darnell and Elsa
One of hundreds of wedding limos driving through Chisinau on Saturday
Parliament Building
Romulus and Remus in front of the Museum of Archeology
Game of Chess anyone?
Cinema
Biserica in the Park
See the tiny police car
City street
More city street – lovely trees