Yet another beginning to an end

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

2. to go to bed

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

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

5. to withdraw or remove oneself:

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

 

***

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

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

What to Do

Someone asked me if I’d written a blog post lately and the guilt returned. The guilt that simmers perpetually on the back burner now, reminding me that my life has settled back into mundane, that I have, yet again, returned to treading the wheel of routine. And, while it’s not a bad routine – much better, in fact, than any I have had in years – it still leaves me relatively void of inspiration or those self-revelatory moments of clarity prompted by transporting oneself into an alien environment. Moldova has become my home turf, for the time being.

Reading back over journal entries and posts penned during my first year, I remember how raw and wide open I felt, like every circumstance was apprehended through senses stretched to their limits by the constant, unrelenting barrage of the unfamiliar. It was a feeling, though often uncomfortable and sometimes downright painful, that made me feel completely awake and every bit alive. But, little by little, I managed to carve out a niche for myself that, over 2 1/2 years, became worn with everyday use. I know my way around this tiny country. I speak the language, shop the piața, ride public transport (such as it is,) fly in and out of its airport, follow the antics of its politicians and take the elevator to the office. Now, realizing that I have a bare six months left of this experience, I’ve had to forcibly shake myself back into awareness and begin planning for next steps and where to go from here. Just the thought of leaving what’s become comfortable, safe, and habitual is causing small frissons of anxiety, the subtle knowledge that I will again be at loose ends in the world.

The last time this happened, I drifted for what seemed like an interminable time (it was actually only about four months) before I locked onto the prospect of Peace Corps and felt the relief of having a direction and purpose. It is difficult for me, as accustomed as I have become through almost 40 years of full time employment, to adjust to the idea of not having a commitment, a place to be, responsibilities that anchor and define me. We are what we do, in some sense, and to have ‘nothing’ to do feels like losing the outlines of one’s identity, becoming blurry and indistinct, as if an eraser has passed over you once or twice. I write ‘nothing,’ though, because it is only in terms of the established culture that we consider those who are not bound to a job to be, essentially, unoccupied. Think of meeting someone for the first time, on an airplane or at a party. Soon enough the question comes: What do you do? This question is intended to elicit your profession or job, so most people know better than to say “Well, I read a lot,” or “Most mornings I do some yoga, then I usually do my food shopping, afterwards I might surf the internet for a couple of hours.” People without jobs – unless they are notably wealthy – are somehow flimsy, ephemeral, suspect. And I am about to become one, yet again.

This time, however, I think I will be less worried. Because my husband and I have virtually no debt these days, we are not burdened by the looming specter of a plummeting credit score or losing our house or bankruptcy. Sure, something catastrophic could happen: I could develop a brain tumor or he could skid on some ice and plow into the back of semi. But the pressing need that I felt back in 2010 when I first lost my job of 20 years has no power over me now. This experience has afforded me the opportunity to view life through a different lens. I can say with absolute surety that my desire to accumulate stuff has evaporated. While I do enjoy having a comfortable bed, indoor plumbing, and a kitchen sufficient for cooking, I have no desire to place an imprint on my living space. Other than wanting clothing that protects me from sun and snow and shoes that don’t raise blisters, I couldn’t care less about my wardrobe. I hate shopping. When I travel, I buy no souvenirs.

The only thing that tempts me now is experience. I am looking forward to that rawness again, to that feeling of being exposed and uncertain and wide open. I’m afraid I might be developing an addiction to becoming unglued. To not knowing. To not having a name tag, or a desk, or business card to tell me who I am. Or what I do.

The (Worldwide) Webs We Weave

This morning I viewed a video on Facebook that gave me pause, causing me to appreciate the interconnectedness of my world and the multi-layered, radiating webs of relations we all weave while plodding through our daily lives.  Posted by one of my sister’s best friends, it was an acoustic rendition of “Happy Birthday” plucked out on a guitar by a former band mate of one of my dearest high school pals, dedicated to a 50+ man with whom I attended Catholic school some 45 years ago.  What makes these connections so mind-bending is that my sister has been dead for almost 29 years; her friend was, for a brief spate of time after my sister’s passing, my sister-in-law; I haven’t seen my high school friend (in person – I’m not counting Skype) in over 15 years nor the man from Catholic school in 25 and they met and became friends independently, years after I attended school with the latter.  The band mate and my former sister-in-law lived together back in the 80’s after being introduced by my high school friend.  Oh, the miracle of Facebook, that I can continue to witness the progression of all these relationships wherein I once played a role from minor plot development to headlining.

Spider web 2

I bother to record this here because of what it brings to bear on my experience of life in Moldova as I creep towards the conclusion (19 weeks and 2 days until it could end – but more on that in a sec) of my Peace Corps service term.  It is only now that the threads of disparate relationships are beginning to intertwine, forming stronger links to exciting projects and leading me in the direction of new prospects for actually employing the skills and experience I gathered in twenty years of people management and human resources back in the States.  It feels like it has taken so long to become grounded and integrated here, but now that I am I can barely keep pace with the flow of opportunities coming my way.

I remember so clearly, back in training, instructors and second-year PCVs constantly reinforcing how important it would be to successful service to just get out and meet people, make connections, follow-up on introductions, be persistent and pesky and endlessly curious.   What Peace Corps does, really, is put you at the starting gate in a particular place in the developing world after giving you a pep talk that lasts ten weeks, then they open the gate, wave you on and turn back to prepare for the next person stepping up to the plate.

In many ways, you truly do have the opportunity, challenge, and risk of creating your own service experience.  Some people (actually only a relative few) hit the ground running, blessed with dynamic, English-speaking counterparts and skill sets that match the needs of their communities. Others find their way more hesitantly, having to negotiate language and cultural barriers, misdirected goals, inflated expectations or complete lack of interest.  Some of them begin agitating for change, seeking a different partner, or a site move; a limited few ET. Others retreat into themselves, running daily marathons, baking pies and cookies, blowing through Candy Crush and Pet Farm Sagas, and/or consuming all available episodes of House of Cards, Game of Thrones, Downton Abbey and Breaking Bad after reading every award-winning book of the past decade. (I may have trod that particular path myself for more months than I will care to admit….except, of course, for the marathon part.)

But, finally, you meet some people. Or someone you’ve known since arrival introduces you to someone they just met. Or a new group of volunteers arrives a year after you and stirs the pot, forging new relationships that ultimately connect you. I have recently begun working with an amazing young woman who, through two degrees of separation, ended up being introduced to me after connecting with my husband on a volunteer software development project.   After 19 months of feeling like all I do in Moldova is teach English, I am beginning to formulate connections that lead to ideas that infuse energy into projects that are infinitely more challenging and interesting than any I would have the opportunity to implement in the States.

Which is the main reason why I will not be leaving, after all, in 19 weeks and 2 days on July 8, the date I drew in the Close of Service lottery held three weekends ago.  Ironically, it’s the only lottery I’ve yet ‘won’ in my life; July 8th is the very first day that anyone from the M27 group can leave Moldova. It will be tough, waving goodbye to so many people who have met so much to me for 27 months. But I already have a plan for my final year.  It involves significantly more writing, so – hopefully – I will be present here again with more frequency, and a more substantial amount of work devoted to exciting projects that are only just now developing.

It is also involves opening myself up to new people and more varied, far-flung connections. During the protracted process of staging and Pre-Service training Peace Corps Volunteers tend to bond closely with the members of their incoming group, perhaps even more closely with the 10-20 PCVs in their same program.  I have formed friendships here that I know will last for the rest of my life.  These friendships have sustained and nurtured me through some difficult periods; I have laughed and cried, celebrated and whined, shared meals, beds, and crowded rutieras with these folks.  I am lucky to have served with them and they represent a significant portion of what has been good and meaningful in my service thus far.  They have been my safety net and, unfortunately in some respects, my cocoon.

Again, my Peace Corps experience is presenting me with another meta-lesson (change leads to insight far more often than insight leads to change.)  Even the biggest changes – like ditching one’s routine existence to travel halfway across the world to volunteer in a country one never even knew existed – can be quickly subsumed by the fortifications one immediately, seemingly unconsciously, begins erecting again to shield oneself from further change.  I have (re)created a nice life for myself here, complete with English-speaking friends, lots of books, meetings in restaurants, and weekend spa dates.

Now I am preparing myself for a different experience, one filled to a much greater extent with Moldovans. Even as I write this, I am breaking every hour or so to watch another segment of a YouTube video on Moldova.  And as I was watching, I suddenly realized that large portions of it were in Romanian, which I was following without a hitch.  I feel like I have finally crossed that barrier that separated me from so much that went on around me, everyday.  I understand the language, I get the nuances of culture, and I interact with folks on a daily basis who are happy and forward-thinking and excited to have me in their lives.  I barter for ingredients in the local piața to prepare traditional dishes like zeamă and borsch that I have come to crave.  (And I know where to find cilantro and curry in Chișinau when I must have Mexican or Indian some days.) And I continue to appreciate the convenience of public transportation and not having to pay attention to the road.  Despite living on a stipend that is a meager percentage of the salary I made at home, I feel increasingly richer and more secure every day.  The web I am weaving is becoming denser, more intricate, and speckled with sparkling multi-cultured circumstances all the time.

Bine ați venit Moldova!

Spider web 1

The Road to Nowhere

I received an email from Peace Corps today. It kindly reminded me that, since there is but a scant six months separating me and my scheduled Close of Service (COS) date, the US Government will no longer be reimbursing me for any tutoring expenses I should choose to incur from this point on.   (The subtext being, of course: if you haven’t learned the language sufficiently by now we’re no longer subsidizing your lame efforts, loser.)  Now, I haven’t engaged a language tutor for some 9 or 10 months, not because I couldn’t have benefited from the tutelage but mostly because I was too lazy to search for a new one after I moved from my first site.  And now, seemingly, it’s too late.  I’m stuck with the primary grammar and intermediate vocabulary that I have cobbled together from 3 months of intense initial instruction followed up by 16 months of just living – using public transportation, making purchases, attending social gatherings, stepping on people’s feet and elbowing around them, trying to make friends and chase off hooligans, inquire as to the origin of the food I’m about to eat, and/or find my way back to familiar ground when I have inadvertently failed to follow rapidly communicated directions correctly.

And this is okay, I guess.   But it sparks the slow embers of a flaring realization: I am sliding inexorably towards an exit sign, leading to a vast, uncharted territory that I have not adequately planned, nor properly dressed for.  I am woefully unprepared for an appointment with my future.  Egads.

***

So, this is that time in most PCV’s service when our focus is suddenly jerked up – from our prospects, our projects, our parties, our partners, our preoccupation with all things toilet. We begin blinking our microscope eyes, searching for the plumb line of the horizon, flexing shoulders and toes, stretching, slowly, back into still life silhouettes, anticipating movement ahead.  Change is coming, certainly not tomorrow, but sooner than next year.  The train is still small, on its belly in the distance, smoke billowing faintly against a vague tree line; but the track is beginning to quiver, warning of its approach.

First, the days drag. They smother and weigh.  They mimic molasses and the last sticky drops of honey at the bottom of the jar. Then, they stretch and yawn, only to slump into stagnant heaps of furry formlessness for another gray sock of time.  It takes at least a year for them to muster strength, gain courage and gather some momentum, find an outline and draw a trajectory, to finally pop into a periodic semblance of productivity and purpose.  And so you have this idyllic six or seven, or even just four or five, months of actual, clear, and (hopefully) meaningful service before the powers that be jet you a reminder you that it will all be over sooner than you can fully plumb the depressing acknowledgement that you will never know Romanian better than you do now.  Party’s over folks.  Time to begin looking for your wallet and keys

***

So our group’s COS date selection is scheduled for February 2. I remember reading about this event when it happened for the M26’s last year.  Their blogs and Facebook pages were filled with it – how surprised they were, how fast it went, how unprepared they felt for leaving.  (Remember, this was when the molasses was still making its achingly slow passage across my calendar…..)   And now here I am, standing in the same corridor, facing the same blank doorway.  Oh my, how little we take away. (What is the use of all this incessant sharing anyway?  It has not an iota of impact on our individual decision making or planning processes.)

The plan is to meet, throw our desired dates into a hat, and hold our collective breath while the Country Director draws our fate, setting into stone the chronology of our individual departures – two or three days difference meaning the world to some.

Me?  I don’t really care.   I may, in fact, not be leaving this summer after all…

***

In my previous post I mentioned a quote.  “If you don’t know where you are going, then any road will take you there.”

I’ve been turning this over for days in my head.  At first, I read it as an admonishment against those who didn’t plan, a chastisement for blowing in the wind, having no direction or goal, no “personal vision” that guided their journey. But as this line of thinking simmered, I seasoned it with other spice blends of timeless wisdom stored in the keepsake box of memory: be here now; life is what happens when you’re busy making plans; change leads to insight far more often than insight leads to change; live the life you’re proud of or find the strength to start over again; make spontaneity a habit; life never stops but continues until it ends; become a connoisseur of your own mistakes; own yourself; it feels good to be lost in the right direction;…my mental stewing gained complexity, condensed and thickened… the aromas deepened.

During my time here, I have begun following a certain type of blogger – people who have made travel and ex-pat living a lifestyle.  They range in age from late 20’s to early 60’s; there are couples and single women.  There are people who have flexible jobs that allow them to work online and those that return stateside every 2-3 years to earn enough money to hit the road again.  Some of them could be deemed professionals, others are vagabond gypsies.  (One is a professional vagabond!)  They have various strategies for maintaining health and well-being, but the universal attribute they all seem to share is being ecstatically, blissfully, enchantingly happy.  They can’t get enough of their life.  I love to immerse myself in their experiences, to catch a whiff of the winds blowing them, to feel the world expand and embrace them, carry them along, going nowhere and everywhere.

***

I have spent the past couple of decades with a vague idea of a destination in my head. At some nebulous point I would reach a time when I would no longer be straight-jacketed by a job and then wonderful things would begin to happen: I would indulge my desire to write and travel and learn a new language and volunteer for a worthy cause.  I would eat better and meditate regularly. I would pare down my wardrobe and toss all my high-heeled shoes.  I would read a whole lot more.

But I had no idea how to get myself there other than stashing money in a retirement account and paying the mortgage every month.  Surely those activities would land me in the desired place, right?  It was during my late 40’s that I began to suspect that I was hoodwinking myself, that I had set my feet down a path in my 20’s that petered out on some dim horizon across a vast and arid desert.  Life was happening to me while I was scrabbling towards its end.

Joining the Peace Corps was, in part, an acknowledgement that I did not know, nor did I really care, where I was headed anymore.  I was tired of pretending that my daily activities were all coins placed in a piggy bank that I could break into someday to buy my reward.  When I lost the job, the safety net, the leash that kept me to the path, I fell.  Not just down to the ground, but through the ground; I was floating in undefined space.  There was not a road anymore, no signs pointing in any direction.  I was a ship unmoored, drifting from the harbor.  With nowhere to go, I could go anywhere.  Let the tide take me.

***

I appreciate being exactly this age, in my early 50’s, as a Peace Corps Volunteer.  Unlike those who joined after college, I am not using this experience to pad my resume, to gain legitimacy, to globally network or bolster my LinkedIn profile.  I am no longer hearing the thrum of a body clock ticking that those in their 30’s can’t shut out.  And yet, unlike (perhaps) those in their 70’s and 80’s, I still feel like I have a substantial chunk of time left to skip along to nowhere or anywhere or wherever this road I’m on might lead.  It feels good to not be planning on the future, to be fully present in what’s happening right here and now.

My past lifestyle rarely gave me the opportunity to make big changes.  I stayed in the same job, lived in the same neighborhood, patronized the same stores and restaurants, drove the same streets and freeways, and walked the same pathways with my dogs, for years and years and years.  And while this conferred an opportunity to nurture lifelong friendships, raise my daughter well, put a little money away, and grow my professional skills, it also deprived me of challenges and the courage to face them.  I began to harbor little yapping dogs of fear in my skull: “You’ll never have enough money to quit working,” “You’ll probably get cancer and die from all those year of smoking,” “By the time you retire, you’ll be too old and feeble to enjoy it,” yadda, yadda, yadda.   And while I certainly don’t knock those people who find fulfillment and reward and purpose on that particular path, it just wasn’t doing it for me anymore.  It hadn’t for a long, long time.

***

The long and short of it is that if my request for an extension is granted I am probably going to be spending another year in Moldova.  Right now I am not ready to leave this road going nowhere.  But the biggest surprise of all? I am indulging my desire to write and travel and learn a new language and volunteer for a worthy cause.  I am eating better and meditating regularly. I have pared down my wardrobe and tossed all my high-heeled shoes.  And I am reading a whole lot more.

And after that?  Perhaps next I will join those ranks of bloggers with ecstatic souls, whose feet are comfortable trodding any path, with or without signposts, or pavement, or destinations or direction.

There is so much left of life to live before it ends.

The Big City

Famous portal entering into Chisinau

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

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

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

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

My other new friend Maria – in traditional Moldveneasca costume!

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

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

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

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

So THIS is the Peace Corps

This is how it goes…Tuesday I find out that, in fact, my luggage and I will NOT be picked up at my current place of residence for transport by Peace Corps staff to my new site, which I have no clue how to get to and where I know not a soul (why in the world would I imagine that to be the case?)  In fact, I will be handed a piece of paper with contact information, a job description, and a welcome letter – all in Romanian – and told “Drum buna!” (Safe travels!) and expected to find my own way.

I am learning what is meant by the admonition: “Moldovans are not the best at strategic planning.”  Or any kind of planning, for that manner.  Things like directions, schedules, meeting times, and destinations are all very loose and ambiguous concepts for them.  Things will work out.  Or they won’t.  Que sera, sera (I wonder if they have a similar phrase?)  I found out quite by accident that the directions that were given to me by my LTI were incorrect and would’ve landed me at the wrong bus station in Chisinau this morning.

My agenda for the next couple of days: Find the correct bus to transport me from Stauceni to the Gara de Sud in Chisinau.  Tell the bus driver that I’m a dumb American who must be notified when I reach that destination.  Once at the south bus station, locate the trolly bus labeled “Hîncești,” find a seat and sit back for 35-45 minutes until the bus stops.  Disembark; look for someone who looks like she’s looking for me (my new Moldovan work partner.)  Hope that she is there.  Try to gather my rudimentary language skills together sufficiently to communicate my purpose for coming and enumerate the skills I will bring to her NGO’s endeavors (ha!)  Go find the apartment I will be sharing with a strange Moldovan woman for the next two years.  Work out cooking, bathing, laundering arrangements (again, all in another language.)

Go to my new office on Monday. Hope that I can find it. Meet a bunch of people who won’t understand me and whom I won’t understand.  Smile a lot.  Say “Dah,” (Yes) and nod like a bobble head for hours.  Try to appear as if I understand what’s being said and expected of me.   Go back to new apartment. Hope that I can find my way.  Eat what’s cooked for me (hopefully something is cooked for me…)  Collapse into exhausted sleep from the strain of trying to translate sense from the babble I’m swimming in.

Tuesday morning board the bus for Chisinau with my new work partner and travel to a conference that is supposed to teach us how to collaborate effectively, when we come from disparate cultures and I speak Romanian like a two-year old.  Smile a lot. Nod like a bobble head for more hours.  Spend the night in Chisinau at a hotel with communal showers (which I will be forced to utilize as it is 97 degrees here and I am running a constant river of sweat.)  Wednesday morning.  More training on how to work with Moldovan partners and ignore the abyss of cultural differences (like timeliness and clarity in directives) that yawns between us.

Go home to Nina.  Yea!  Strange that now it is her house that has become my haven…and that’s what gives me hope.  Not too long from now I am sure that I will be feeling the same way about a place and a group of people who are strange to me now.  Perhaps I will even come to love the abyss.  A very wise PCV advised me to “Just let the culture wash over you…”  Here’s to getting soaked.