First Encounter

Last night, I was granted a quintessential Peace Corps experience. One every volunteer rather expects when imagining her service in strange lands, foreign abodes,  and different climes, but which faded from consciousness rather quickly after I fortuitously dropped anchor in the pseudo-suburban dwellings of my training and assignment villages, with their multi-floored units, double-paned windows, and tightly meshed screens.  I had let my defenses lapse; I wasn’t prepared for the WHIRRING BLACK HORNED BEETLE ENCOUNTER….Horned beetle

It is past 10:00pm when I finally shut down the computer, turn the fan around to cool the bedroom, and flip on the overhead lamp.  Two steps into the room I register the whirring of a helicopter buzzing toward the light.  (I swear I feel its rotors graze the topmost hairs of my head.) Startled, I jump back to the perimeter, sheltering in the doorway, performing a quick scan of the airway. My eyes lift and lock on a freakish black mass the size of my big toe furiously slamming into the Japanese paper lantern hanging innocently above my bed.  It takes a couple of seconds to register…that’s not a helicopter, it’s a freaking BUG!!!   As loud as a helicopter, almost as big as one of those toys my 40+ brothers still obsessively play with on holidays – but this is no flimsy, plastic, remote controlled whirlybird, this thing is seriously ALIVE!

With my heart slamming in my chest, I blindly grabbed for the door handle behind me, poised on the tips of my toes to bolt from the doorway if it changes direction.  What to do, what to do, what to do??? No husband, no roommate, no mama gazda will respond to my bleating SOS.  I don’t want to take my eyes off it, give it the opportunity to find cover, chance losing this down-sized Star Wars Rancor somewhere in my sleeping chamber. 

Lieutenant Rancor
Lieutenant Rancor

Meanwhile, he continues to mercilessly slam the paper lantern, whirling in dervish circles, up and around, tumbling and pivoting, bam! Thud! Wham!  In the crystalline second it dawns on me that he is helplessly caught in the current of air blowing forth from the fan, Rancor inexplicably plummets from view. I run pell mell for the broom.

Returning with trepidation, heart now bubbling up in my throat, broom wielded aloft, melded sword and shield, my eyes dart frantically about the room: dresser, nightstand, clothing rack, walls, bed….OMG, nasty guy is sprawled supine in the MIDDLE OF MY BED.  Faking coma, I am convinced, stealthily waiting for me to approach.  Oh unholy spawn of Satan – is this your beastly strategy?  Slyly still, menacing behind pregnant silence, plotting my solitary demise alone in this Moldovan cell? (Why do lapsed Catholics always revert to Biblical invectives when grappling with terror?) I watch him for 10 seconds, 20 seconds, 30 seconds; his thorax never moves.  (Can one even see insects breathing? I stupidly wonder.)

Well, this standoff has to be brought to a head somehow: make a move Brave New Woman!  You’re the one gloating about living alone.  Deal with the consequence, baby.  Summing every vestige of courage I can mop up within me, I sally forth and swat – take THAT ye demon – each fine hair on my body stiffly alert, prepared for combative reprisal.

I succeed in knocking Rancor to the floor.  Hovering, keeping a good three feet between us, I peer at his armored hide, noting his serrated claws, the horn he must have lifted from a rhino, the multitude of hairy appendages protruding from his steel-plated body.  No wonder he whirred. This is not an insect, it’s a drone, a veritable military assault helicopter, designed to evince shock and awe, to inflict terror and damage on its stricken, limp-limbed victim.  Horned beetle 2Stretching the broom out in front of me, I scoot him toward the kitchen but am thwarted by the door sill (why, why, why do Moldovan doors all come implanted within inch high molded frames?)  Now, the beast lies between me and freedom, to all appearances comatose.  But I know better.  This is evil incarnate, waiting for a lapse in wariness.

Performing the highest leap I’ve managed since fifth grade field day, I clear his bristling weaponry and make another dash for the kitchen, securing the long-handled dust pan (thank god for at least one Moldovan implement with a long handle!)  I hurriedly unlock my apartment door, fly across the center entryway, flip on the light, scramble to unlock to outside door and fling it wide, then race back to the bedroom doorway, where my foe remains fiendishly feigning rigor mortis on the tile before me. Giving myself no time to ponder best tactics, I boldly reach forward, wincing, and scoop the tank-like thing up – his passage is audible, metallic, like a size 10 wing nut skittering across the floor – and then utilize the broom bristles to pin him savagely to the bottom of the dustpan.

I flee with captive held out arm’s length in front of me, almost tripping over the front door sill (damn those things!) and fling the beast out into the murky darkness of the rain-spattered courtyard.  I hear him thud down the steps in front of me.  Hightailing back inside (if I had a tail, it would be firmly between my legs) I slam the door, locking my thwarted nemesis out in the night.

It takes a full five minutes to stuff my heart back where it belongs.

Only now does a vestige of rational thought come creeping back, the tickling awareness that I may have only dispatched a front running scout.  Perhaps there is a lurking company of soldiers – lord almighty, maybe even an entire battalion – waiting in the wings, plotting my downfall, clacking their pointy jaws and waving their snipping pincers in glee! Where in the bloody hell did that monstrosity come from?  How did it gain access to my bedroom?

There is no outside door to my apartment, you see; I am separated from the outdoors by ten feet of gleaming linoleum that is scoured to a lustrous sheen everyday by the sturdy, swishing mop of the industrious Katya. No bugs are making forays down this well-traveled corridor on her watch.  Most of my windows are tightly screened – the two that are not I lock fast, fortifying their sills with armies of personal hygiene items to protect them from being opened by an unwitting guests (who are mostly more afraid of six- and eight legged critters than me.)

There are three vents (which I imagine to be useless, leading to nothing, since this building’s heating system is operated through wall-mounted radiators and air-conditioning is a pipe dream) but all are covered by ceramic screens with openings barely larger than the tip of my pinky – Lieutenant Rancor did not worm his way through one of those pinholes.

There comes the line of thinking that truly makes me shudder: did this intruder attach himself somehow to my clothing? Hitch a ride like some latter day Trojan inside the swirling panels of my floor length skirt?  Or did he clamber like a pirate into a crevice pocket of my backpack, tricking me into slinging him over my shoulder and giving him safe harbor within my personal belongings?  Or worse yet – did he claw his way out of the shower drain, poking his tentacles up from the sewer periscope-like, assessing both occupancy and opportunity in one stealthy search?

I realize I may be a bit overweening here.  Having just read a nightmare account of fist sized spiders in a pitch black outhouse that far exceeds my piteous-in-comparison skirmish with a venom-less beetle, I really have little justification for parading my tiny bravado.

By I did allow myself two OTC sleeping pills to calm myself into slumber.   And in the morning, when I tiptoed out to the courtyard to snap a picture of my conquered foe?

A great stretch of damp brickwork  lay before me, littered with the detritus of storm, not a corpse to be found.

He’s out there, somewhere.   Waiting.

Military helicopter

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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!