Vara (Summertime and the living is busy…)

If you have noticed my absence lately (and I am flattered if you have), know that it is because it is now summer in Moldova and probably the busiest time of year for both Peace Corps Volunteers and their Moldovan counterparts.  School is out and vacations are being taken, true, but new Peace Corps trainees have arrived and Pre-service Training is in full swing, the M26s are COS’ing, cherries and peaches are being harvested, Turul Moldovei has launched (finally!), new projects are in the planning stages, and – of course – it is wedding season in Moldova.  Every day seems to be packed with meetings, appointments, places to go, things to buy, phone calls to make, and events to attend.  What a difference from the wintertime, when I was convinced I would never leave my room again!

Because there are three separate though interrelated topics I feel the need to expound upon, let me take it one by one (mostly because I don’t want to stretch your attention span by throwing them all into one meters-long posting.)   The three posts following this intro will flesh out the current events that are filling my days and keeping me sated to the brim with joy and excitement.  Feel free to read in small doses….

A Blazing Sun

Just as a piece of matter detaches itself from the sun to live as a wholly new creation so I have come to feel about my detachment from America. Once the separation is made a new order is established, and there is no turning back. For me, the sun had ceased to exist; I had myself become a blazing sun. And like all other suns of the universe I had to nourish myself from within.

Henry Miller from The Cosmological Eye

I would be lying if I didn’t admit that at various points during the past year I have wondered whether I would make it to 2014 here in Moldova.  Especially during those stark winter months after returning from Morocco, when I had no partner or assignment and the only bump in my weekly calendar was three hours of language lessons, I would fondle thoughts of hoisting the white flag and emerging from the trenches of my despair to board a jet plane back to America.  With barely nine hours of daylight to fill, I was dog paddling each day through despondency, trying to hold my head up despite having nothing to plan for beyond my next meal.  Once, my mood got so bleak that I Skyped my sister-in-law and had her walk outside with her laptop and hold it aloft to the blazing California sun just to remind myself that it still existed.

It was exactly during one of those low points, having called home for the fifteenth time in a matter of weeks, that my father offered me a ticket to surprise my mother for her 70th birthday. I was hesitant, but really only for about two minutes. My solemn vow not to ‘waste’ any of my precious 48 vacation days to return to the US sidled out the back door – I desperately wanted, needed, to feel at home again.  Because my mom’s birthday conflicted with Turul Moldovei 2013 – the only project I had going at the time – we decided on Mother’s Day, instead.   I hung up the phone and purchased a ticket.  It was February 8th.  Only 3 month and 3 days to go.

Thus began the countdown of anxiety.  What would it actually feel like to be home again?  So good I couldn’t stand the thought of returning? How much had things changed during the year I’d been gone? Would I feel strange, different, separate, alienated? Should I have accepted this expensive gift from my father when I had so fervently committed to being gone for 27 months? Was I cheating somehow?  If I did indeed return would it make the second year even harder – having to say goodbye to everybody yet again, this time knowing what was in store for me?

As fate would have it, soon after I bought the ticket I was offered the opportunity to relocate to my current site.  Daylight increased, the snow melted, and spring made a show-stopping appearance almost overnight.  My new apartment was lovely – located in a senior center full of laughing, warm, and gregarious souls who immediately enveloped me in a circle of hospitality and friendship.  I had a workplace, a partner, and an assignment.  For the first time since pre-service training, I was busy.

My anxiety about going home increased.

Why was I tempting fate?  I had made it through my first winter, probably the roughest patch I would experience during my service.  Life was brighter, my mood was elevated, and things were finally falling into place.  Why interrupt the flow with a step backwards?  Would Moldova end up paling when placed under the bright lights of America? But the non-refundable ticket was purchased; good idea or not, I was going home.

Femeia frumoasa
Femeia frumoasa

And, indeed, the tears burst forth the moment I clutched my daughter in the airport.  In the 27 years since her birth, I had never gone longer than four or five months without seeing her.  This time, the passage of time was readily apparent. My little girl was finally, irrevocably gone; this was a full-fledged woman I was greeting.  How could I have left her for so long? Can one year alter a face, a posture, a presence so greatly?

More tears when I locked onto my husband’s eyes through the windshield as he pulled the Jeep up to the curb at LAX.  I was transported back to the last half of 2011 and the idyllic interlude of our journey across America: just the two of us and our dog exploring the national parks and forests, camping, hiking, cooking our meals under the stars until summer bled into autumn. His presence in the driver’s seat brought it all back.  If there was one thing that could make me abandon all, it would be the chance to recapture those months and sit beside him through those miles again.

The tears let loose again when I felt myself revert back 40 years, suddenly a little girl again in her mother’s arms.  To heighten the surprise, I had hidden in my brother’s backyard (he and my sister-in-law were hosting the Mother’s Day celebration.) When my mom came in the house, I called her from my iPad on the Google voice number I use in Moldova.  I asked her if she could hear me, as I always do when commencing a call. I was surprised when she said she couldn’t (geez, I was barely 50 feet away!)  I began the Verizon riff: “Can you hear me now? Can you hear me now?” as I made my way into the house.  When I finally came around the corner of the hallway, I added “Because I’m right here.” Her legs promptly gave way and she fell in a heap on the floor in front of me.  (My dad said it was worth every penny of the ticket.)

Yet, there were also little things that caught me off guard.  My dogs barely acknowledged me. Unlike those YouTube videos of returned soldiers whose dogs about explode when they walk in the door, mine acted as if I’d just rounded the corner from the bedroom. 

Everything seemed inordinately expensive.  I spent the equivalent of my entire PC monthly stipend on one trip to Target to ‘pick up a few things.’  A dinner out with friends could have bought me ten nights out at Pizzamania in Moldova (with wine.)  Parking for an hour at the beach would buy two round trip bus tickets from my village into Chișinău.

And the cars.  The endless stream of cars.  The streets built for a multitude of vehicles and the sound and smell of them filling the atmosphere.  The parking lots – acres and acres of parking lots. I’d never noticed how much space is devoted to parking cars in America.  And how people drive everywhere, mostly alone in a bubble of their own creation.  No sweaty armpits shoved in their faces. No jostling for space among strangers, wondering if you should buy a seat for your bags.  But also a huge, artificial border. As if we each existed on our own space ship, controlled our own climate, sped through the day alone.

Mostly, everything was the same as it was when I first decided I needed to go.  Sitting with my friends, listening to them talk about their jobs and homes and weekend excursions and new purchases, I felt strangely apart.  These concerns, realities, worries, and excitements were no longer mine.  They hadn’t been for more than two and a half years.  Sifting through the mercurial sands of memory, I remembered that I had consciously desired, then chosen to separate myself from this world.  I had wanted to nourish myself from within.

My BFFs
My BFFs

And when – after 27 hours of international flights, transfers, security checks, baggage claim, visa stamps, bus rides and a twenty minute hike down a dirt road with my luggage – I finally turned the key in the lock and entered back into my sunlit, solitary, sparsely furnished domain, I felt the warm welcome of home.

Moldova appears just a bit different to me now.  A little more lush.  A little less alien. Perhaps it’s the just the abundance of spring – the thunderstorms, the nesting birds, the bursting palette of flowers. Or the unbridled enthusiasm and genuine smiles of all those who exclaimed at my return.  Or maybe the ticking clock that steadily punctuates the blanketing silence in my very own apartment – the first I’ve had in fifty-one years of life on this planet.

I know now, for the very first time, that I did the right thing.  I have become my own sun. 100_2216

An Appeal for Volunteerism

I am a Peace Corps Volunteer.  Most of you know that and are familiar with the ups and downs and twists and turns in my life journey that deposited me here, halfway across the world, 6,000 miles distant from family and friends and my dog and my ‘stuff’ – all the ingredients that I thought completed me and defined me for fifty years.  It has been a challenging, ego-deflating, doubt-laced, confusing, but ultimately totally worthwhile adventure.

Because, you see, I feel like I am finally acting in a manner that aligns with my oft-spouted beliefs.  I am attempting to do good in the world in a way that does not accrue benefits specifically for myself or my immediate circle (i.e. “volunteering”) because I believe that the impact I can have will ultimately afford me a bigger reward – personally and in my relationship to the world.  I believe in community.  I believe that human beings are intrinsically and indissolubly connected.  And, by the end of my tour here in Moldova, I will know it in my soul because I will have lived out this experience.

The second goal of the Peace Corps (we have three) is to help promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the peoples served. And one thing that I truly appreciate about my fellow citizens is their unbridled willingness to jump in and help.  According to the National Center for Charitable Statistics (NCCS), more than 1.5 million nonprofit organizations are registered in the U.S. This number includes public charities, private foundations, and other types of nonprofit organizations, including chambers of commerce, fraternal organizations and civic leagues.  I worked for one of them for 20 years.  And it never failed to inspire me how many Americans give of their time, money, labor, and heart to support causes and people which ask for their help.

Unfortunately, the idea of “volunteering” has a negative connotation in Moldova that is just now beginning to shift.  You see, many men were conscripted as “volunteer” soldiers for the border skirmishes  that have beset this tiny nation for a goodly portion of their existence.  The good news is that there are many people here – from the European Union, America, and Moldova itself – who are making great efforts to change this perception.  Non-profits are proliferating and youth, especially, are becoming increasingly invested in their own nation and its well-being.  But they still need help.  And they profit immensely by meeting volunteers and becoming more familiar with the personal goals, commitments, and philosophies that drive their efforts

To celebrate the 20 year anniversary of Peace Corps Moldova, a group of us are setting out, on foot, to visit 31 towns and villages along two 150 km routes winding through the countryside.  At the end of two weeks, we will meet in the capital for a big, public celebration.  We want to share our stories and encourage the people we meet to engage with their communities, to assist their neighbors and others in need, through the selfless – but hugely gratifying – act of volunteering.  We hope to lead by example and make a small difference here by fostering the spirit of giving that brought all of us to this country.  We want to illustrate the benefits that accrue to both the giver and the receiver in the volunteering experience.

SO.  And here is what I am truly after – can you help?  We have applied for a Peace Corps Partnership Program grant that matches money donated by Americans with funds raised in Moldovan communities in order to make this walk a reality.  The beautiful thing is that American dollars go a lot further in Moldova – even $5 would make a big difference.

If you believe in community and in the efforts of volunteers to build and sustain them – in your own neighborhood and throughout the world – please consider supporting this project.  I will be posting pictures and stories from the walk, so you will be able to join with us virtually and cheer us on.

Click here to go to the Peace Corps page where you can donate securely and read more about the project.  Your contribution is, of course, tax deductible.

Thank you, so much, not just for the money you might give but for reading and encouraging me during this amazing journey.  You sustain me.

A Certain Slant of Light

There’s a certain slant of light,
On winter afternoons,
That oppresses, like the weight
Of cathedral tunes.

Despite being an English major, I was never adept at memorizing or effortlessly espousing appropriate verse at opportune moments to charm or impress a casual audience. Yet that one line remains embedded in my brain, surfacing at unexpected moments to perfectly contain the feeling that a certain slant of light so exquisitely conveys.

Unlike the inimitable Emily Dickenson, however, the poetic rapture that assails me is not confined to a particular season; today it surprised me during a mundane commute between Chișinău and my village as I sat wedged into a too-small seat (why am I so much larger than the average Moldovan?) listening to a genius mix of Toni Childs while balancing two bags on my origami-ed knees.

Had I not seen this same 20 km stretch of Moldovan countryside at least 30 times in the last two months?  Why – suddenly – did the view seem choreographed for pleasure, softly speckled with shoots of infant grass below waving wands of wheat?  Lake Ghidici – iridescent blue!  Glimpses of moldering concrete blocks and weather-worn factories, transformed into marbled reliefs.  Liquid gold melding fragile, newly sprung leaves into pulsing halos around the stark white trunks of birch trees. Rays of sun, frosting, plating,  caressing, everything in their path.  Sky, sky, sky – freckled with cottony adornments – spreading luxuriously over rolling hills of plowed, darkly fecund earth.

SPRING!  This is spring, I think.  Never before have I encountered her subtle, enchanting beauty, full force. Southern California, where I’ve lived most of my life, is a study in variations on a theme: sun, sun, wind, a sprinkle of drops, sun, sun, a few paltry clouds, sun, sun, fog, a pathetic mist.  Sun, sun, sun.  Always, boldly up above, overhead, in charge.  Never surreptitious.  Hardly ever slanting.

But this was a flirtatious light beckoning me.  A hint of warmth to come.  A feathering brush of shimmering paint, coating the landscape. Coy. Suggestive. Enticing.

And in that moment, revelation. I had made it, survived the cycle: Summer – stumbling trainee, dazzled with vertigo, wilting in the humidity and overwhelmed by the sheer unexpectedness of where I’d landed; Autumn – falling into routine, struggling with language and a new home, job, roommate, friends; Winter – the loss of all I had tentatively constructed, parsimonious sun begrudgingly meting out fewer and fewer hours of daylight, hibernation, confusion, doubt.

And now Spring.  A new beginning, at last, sure and clear.  Moldova, clothed in a gown of green and gold, had finally extended a warm welcome, basking in a certain slight of light.

Heavenly hurt it gives us;
We can find no scar,
But internal difference
Where the meanings are.

 

I give this to you as a great example of that certain slant of light in the countryside and a perfect four-minute container of what life is like in Moldova.  I have been to many of these places, met these same kinds of people, danced these dances, sang these songs.  Moldova is beginning to grow on me…

April Fool

Potemkin Staircase
Costea on the Potemkin Staircase, Chris, Julia, Patty, and Georgie up ahead

Last Sunday night found me and five of my friends waiting curbside for a ride on the magic bus that would transport us across Moldova’s northeastern border into Odesa, Ukraine.  We were going to join the celebrations for the Festival of Humor, or “Umorina” and it is known here.

Humorina (Russian: Юморина) is an annual festival held since 1973 on and around the April Fools’ Day. (It was invented in 1972 by the Odessa KVN team after the KVN contests and the corresponding TV show were discontinued. For more background on KVN, click here.) 

Pictures from past festivals online portrayed an atmosphere and antics similar to Mardi Gras in New Orleans – people wearing masks and feathers, with painted faces and outlandish costumes. Carnival rides and games.  Artisan crafts. Music.  Food.  Laughter.  With Moldova fiercely clinging to the last vestiges of winter, this seemed just the antidote I needed.

My partner, Tania, who had arranged the trip with a tour agency and was accompanying us with some of her friends, had told us to be there promptly at 8:30pm.  Thought somewhat surprised at the notion of anything Moldovan adhering to a timetable, we are, after all, compliant Americans trained to adhere to schedules and so showed up 10 minutes early, just to be safe.  We could’ve trusted our instinct, though.

Peacock
Peacock

Around 9:15, earnest young girls conferring over clipboards directed clumps of passengers on, then, mysteriously, off, three Greyhound-sized tour buses that had been waiting, empty, since 8:45 or so. As there was no immediately detectable order or reason to the activity, we decided to wait for direction from Tania.  Around 9:30, we told to board one of the buses and take the first four pairs of seats.

This was a happy boon, as one of the pairs of seats sported a sort of table that one could conceivably lay one’s head on to catch a little nap during the hours-long journey. Two of my friends chortled merrily at their luck, failing to remember the machinations of the clipboard wielding young women.  All too soon, they were being asked to relocate themselves to the nether regions of the bus, in order to accommodate the driver’s friends, with whom he wished to be able to talk during the trip.

100_2156 Well, neither one of these particular friends of mine are easily disabused of their booty if lady luck should happen to dump in their direction: a lively debate ensued which approached the outside boundaries of “peace & friendship,” the go-to mantra of all PCVs who find themselves in tense circumstances in foreign lands.  Thankfully, after a strident seven minute articulation of  their perception of the general unfairness of the situation, said friends gathered their belongings and stomped off to the back of the bus.

Of course, the clipboards weren’t finished with us just yet.

100_2160In the end, all of us, together with Tania and her friends (and a couple no one knew who remained lip-locked and limb-entwined through the bus ride) landed in a 20-seat microbus with a kick ass stereo, fluorescent lights and reclining seats, all of which would come to be the bane of our collective existence by the time the bus arrived in Odesa at 4:30am the next morning.  But initially, we were happy to be out of the swirling minuet of seat changes that continued up until the moment of our departure in a swirl of liberating exhaust – we were off!

One of the best qualities I am gaining – I believe – from my Peace Corps service is the ability to just let go and allow circumstance to deposit me where they will.  I have been accused, in the past, of having some ‘control’ issues.  And to all my accusers (you know who you are,) let me assure you that Moldova has met those issues of mine in all their various permutations head on and absolutely trumped them.  There is nothing like taking a seat on a bus, driven madly by stranger down  a pot-holed, bone-shaking highway into the black chasm of night toward a destination you’ve never been where people will speak a language you won’t understand, to rid yourself of all pompous notions of having the least bit of control over anything.

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Metal Man

Affording myself liberal swigs of the cognac being passed around, I determined not to look out the front windshield and focus, instead, on the heavy bass threatening to burst my eardrums.

Predawn: we pull into an Angel-stadium sized parking lot that we can see is steadily filling up with caravans of other cars and buses.  For an hour or so we labor under the misapprehension that this is our destination – and confer in hushed tones about how to hail a taxi, with no Ukranian money and no notion of where we are – before Tania explains to us that we are just waiting for the last bus in our entourage to join us.

Did I mention that the border check filled exactly half the time of our six hour trip?  And we paid a 10 lei ‘fee’ apiece to speed up the process?  Well, apparently our fellow tour participants were not afforded this same opportunity for a ‘speed-pass,’  so all of us ended up waiting the extra 3 hours for them in the huge asphalt parking lot that hosts Odesa’s piața, or marketplace.

I am not even going to talk about the bathrooms.

Some things are better left to the imagination.  Or better yet, not imagined at all.

But oh – Odesa!    Once we finally arrived, every exhausted, uncontrolled, bass, thumping moment was swept away in the stunning beauty of the streets, the blue sky, the beating sun, the distant horizon over the steel grey sea.  Even the harbor, punctuated by the steel arms of cranes and over-sized boat lifts, cement piers, and smokestacks, was gorgeous to my vista-starved eyes.

Carnival
Carnival

More and more buses, filled with more and more people, continued pulling up before the Potemkin stairway that leads up to the heart of old town.  Perhaps the most famous site in the city, the 192 steps of the famous staircase were built in the mid 1800’s and were made famous by Sergei Eisenstein’s film ‘Battleship Potemkin’. Vendors lined its edges,  selling their wares, along with a perplexing preponderance of bird handlers – doves, hawks, eagles, falcons, even a peacock.  I made the mistake of taking a picture (aiming at a statue behind him) which included one and had the angry owner following me for 100 feet demanding a fee.  Everything is for sale in Odesa.

Ode to bacon, spinach, and egg croissant
Ode to bacon, spinach, and egg croissant – you don’t get this kind of food in Moldova…

After spending an hour and half in the one bank that was changing money, we headed out to find food.  And oh – the food!   We stopped in an adorable little restaurant Kompot, which I’ve since learned is a  favorite spot for Moldovan PCVs – everyone recommends it for its generous portions, cozy atmosphere and friendly wait staff.

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Goergie – happy to be at Kompot!

 

 

 

 

 

 

Then on to wander about the city, exploring the parks and bridges, the proscenium overlooking the harbor and the numerous side streets.  Odesa’s buildings are a mixture of different architectural influences; some are built in the Art Nouveau Style, which was in vogue at the turn of the 20th century, while Renaissance and Classicist styles are also widely present.  It feels very cosmopolitan and is quite picturesque.

After doing a little bit of shopping, and watching Costea try his arms at a carnival game, we got to eat sushi – one of my happiest gustatory moments in recent memory.  There is nothing like the way sushi glides down the throat, to nestle softly and happily in one’s tummy.  I LOVE sushi and its one of the foods I have missed the most.

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Then we found a table at the edge of a park facing on the street procession and spent the next four hours soaking in the sun and slowly sipping beverages, wanting the day to last.  We meandered from subject to subject in that lazy manner that is only attained on holiday, when words become diamond sparklers lobbed between you, making the very air glitter with untold possibilities.  We could have stretched those hours into days and been perfectly content.

Of course, the scene only became livelier as dark descended. A ska band was playing at the top of the Potemkin staircase and dancers were out in force, swaying and singing, arms flung around shoulders, laughter and merriment wafting through the crowd on the ocean breeze and we vowed next year to come back and stay the entire night.

Deposited back in Chișinău at 2:30am, we were forced to wait in an all night pizza joint for the buses to start running at 6:30am.  Having not slept in almost 72 hours (we had a bad night in the hostel from hell Friday night in Chișinău) it was an exercise in fierce determination to keep our heads off the table and our eyes from crossing.

But the memory of our beautiful day in Odesa was still fresh – it sustained us.    

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……

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!