Life IS Full of Heroism

I must confess it was disheartening for me to visit NPR’s web page today and learn that George Zimmerman had been acquitted of the murder of Trayvon Martin (by a six-woman jury, no less) not because I was hungry after some kind of revenge in a situation where the legality and justifications for Zimmerman’s actions are so hotly contested, but because of what seems to be an increasingly prevalent fear percolating below the surface of so many Americans’ interactions with each other during the course of daily life.

The verdict prompted a lively debate on NPR’s website, generating more than 400 comments at the time of this writing.  The top-rated comment on the story was this one by B Free:

“One thing I don’t understand is what was the young man supposed to do when approached by an armed guy on the side of the road? Black, white, whatever, if a guy with no obvious authority stops anybody on the side of the road in an accusatory manner, exactly what could they say to put them at ease?”

Responses included observations like this one, from commenter Brian Watkins:

“Since the guy was twice his age… maybe a “Hello, how are you tonight sir?”, “just on my way home, is everything ok for you? is your car ok? you need some help with a tire?” … that’s the SAFEST things to SAY. Then when confronted, respectfully chat. I don’t know… those are the best things I can come up with.”

 To which I say, poftim. Barring the obvious elephant in the room – that Zimmerman was armed with a GUN and his demeanor was confrontational – I do believe that simple pleasantries go a long way toward easing awkward social situations.  In most uncomfortable circumstances, I find that a smile does much better than a growl.  However, here is what Watkins goes on to observe:

“America is scared all the time, so everyone is a threat to each other. This is the difficulty we have to live with being a diverse country, but regressing to simple pleasantries is the safest thing to do. To prevent this from happening to more youth, I advise all to stay closer to home and not be out when it gets too dark. It’s dangerous anyhow… it’s harder to identify people at night.”

To which all I can say is, wow.  Americans are basically scary people whom one should be afraid to encounter after dark, so hole up in your homes in order to be safe?  And this is a consequence – a ‘difficulty” – of living in a diverse country? And we need to “regress” to pleasantries in order not to be shot walking home from the neighborhood convenience store?

Is this what it’s come to?

Coincidentally, I was talking with another PCV just this morning about a recent vacation she took with her mom to several European countries.  Her mom suffered a mishap on a bike in Croatia and a local eating at an outdoor café saw it happen and came to their assistance.  He offered to drive my friend to a nearby pharmacy to help her purchase some first aid supplies; she gratefully accepted.  Her mom chastised her later, warning her that the guy might have had ill intentions of rape, robbery, and other mayhem and that my friend was foolhardy for trusting a veritable stranger.  On another occasion, they found themselves hopelessly lost in a Parisian suburb. Despite her mother’s fierce objections, my friend stopped to ask directions of a group of young men gathered on the street, who proceeded to get in their own car and gallantly lead them through the confusing maze of streets and back out onto the main highway.

She and I reflected on an integral lesson which usually occurs to most travelers who have spent some time out in the world; most people are not harboring an inherent desire to hurt you. In fact, many, many people will help you, begrudgingly or not, when asked. Travel in foreign countries often involves getting lost, or needing assistance with language or purchases, or just finding the best spot to eat in town.  To get the most out of the experience sometimes requires putting your trust in a stranger.

How have so many Americans lost this ability to see others as potential allies rather than threats?  And especially in our own neighborhoods?

I have commented on this blog before how increasingly important I am finding the second and third goals of Peace Corps service to be: 2) helping promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the peoples served, and 3) helping promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of Americans.   I feel like my daily interactions with Moldovans and other visitors to this country are ending up to be much more meaningful and impactful than the professional skills or work experience I bring.

It was with no small measure of pride that we posted this observation made by a young Moldovan who walked the entire southern route of Turul Moldovei:

“I think that volunteerism is important, and I talked to some people about volunteering and they said that this thing in Moldova has been lost and now American Volunteers help us to understand that we can give the community help that brings us pleasure to help them. I liked very much to be a volunteer, I really get a lot of pleasure, pleasure to have fun, pleasure to work, pleasure to give happiness.

I want to be a volunteer and know when Turul Moldovei ended I am trying to do more.”

Living where I do, at an internationally sponsored NGO that hosts many volunteers from European countries, I have the pleasure of meeting diverse people who use their own vacation time and funds to come to Moldova to help strangers.  For the past two weeks there have been three young women from the Netherlands here, aged 18 to 28, who have gone into the homes of house-bound elderly to empty buckets of feces and bottles of urine, scrub down cockroach infested kitchens, haul water from wells, air out mattresses and blankets, sweep mud-encrusted floors, massage arthritic feet, and then shed tears of joy to have had the honor to do so.

What if, instead, the lesson they learned was to stay close to home, to distrust diversity, or to ‘regress to pleasantries’ to keep safe?

My primary desire in sharing my experiences here is to provide a small window on a faraway place, a country most Americans (and Europeans, it turns out) have never heard of.  I hope my voice can find a place among the incessant fear-mongering that hammers away at our trust, at our empathy, our vulnerability, our ideas about the strangers we meet along the way.

Exercise caution in your business affairs, for the world is full of trickery. But let this not blind you to what virtue there is: many persons strive for high ideals and everywhere life is full of heroism.”

Desiderata

Amen.

The Episode with the Kitten

The other day, an hour or so after another momentous thunderstorm, I was walking up the muddy river that serves as a road in more temperate conditions when I happened upon a weeks-old kitten perched precariously on a rock jutting just above the rushing water. Yapping dogs lined the road’s perimeter, but apparently none of them were ready to brave the water in order to munch the wee morsel.

Steeling myself against sentiment, I shooed away the dogs and continued on to the store.  I have had little patience with PCVs who adopt animals here: unless one plans on making a permanent home in Moldova, how fair is it to subvert an animal’s natural instincts by accustoming it to hand-feeding, doting attention and a warm, dry sanctuary?

Ten minutes later, on the way back, a thinly bleated chorus of mews wafted up to greet me.  The kitten was no longer in the road but I could hear it crying close by.  Again, I steeled myself.  You must not interfere, I told myself sternly.  There are hundreds – most likely thousands – of stray kittens and puppies born each year in Moldova that will not survive a month, much less their first winter.  If I had not happened down this path at just this moment I would never know about this one.  But the mewling seemed to get louder and more desperate as I left it behind.

I recited all the logical reasons why rescuing a kitten was not a rational move on a my part: I live within a community where pets are not cultivated (the one dog that hangs around the center is not allowed indoors, nor provided any food other than kitchen scraps. I am the only one who pets it;) my income is barely sufficient to feed myself;  I am away from site for days at a time; I cannot afford to spay or obtain vaccines; it probably has a ton of worms and fleas; yada, yada, yada. All these valiant attempts at hardening my heart steadily weakened as the calls grew more piercing and urgent in my wake.

So I did what any other smart PCV would do: upon my arrival back at the center I posed the question to another volunteer who happened to be staying the night with me.  “Tell me, should I rescue this kitten?” Of course, Georgiana immediately leapt to the call of an animal in need.  Arming ourselves with a bag and a pair of sturdy gloves, we set off back down the road to retrieve said kitten.

Only what we found was TWO kittens, cowering under a low carpet of bushes, soaked to the skin and shivering, almost skeletal with hunger.  Great.  One of them – a tabby with the big mouth that I had already seen in the road – was readily amenable to being picked up and placed in the bag.  The other, a Russian Blue, was decidedly not.  It scampered even further into the bushes, spitting and hissing for all its 2 ounces worth.  Oh well, I thought, I really didn’t bargain for more than one anyway. But Georgiana was now on a mission; she determinedly flattened the bushes right after it and caught it within seconds.

Damn.

***

Soon after finding them a box and warm blanket, we introduced them to the three young Dutch volunteers that are currently staying at my center.  One of them, Leonie, immediately fell in love. She had one or both of them curled up into her neck for the remainder of the day, and took them both to sleep with her that night.  Poftim.

I began formulating a convincing argument for why it would be good for HER to adopt two Moldovan kittens and take them home to Holland.  She was easy to convince.  Soon, she was researching transport options and firing off emails to an aunt back home who had successfully adopted several cats and dogs during her life travels.

The next day, the tabby disappeared. Leonie accidently stepped on it while taking off her muddy shoes after a run. It appeared to be unharmed and scampered off into the bushes.  But later on when she went to bring the kittens in for the night, it was gone.  This caused her a great deal of anguish and not a few tears; how can I admit to be slightly relieved that we were back to the original one I had first envisioned rescuing?  It was doubly sad that it was the tabby – the one that fostered my sympathy in the first place with his persistent cries.

However, now there’s Jane.  That’s what Leonie has named the Russian Blue, the one now so attached to people that she sets up a fuss whenever you walk away. And it looks as if she will be staying with me, after all.  Though a process does exist for adopting animals and exporting them to other countries, it is complicated, tedious, expensive and time-consuming; certainly beyond anything Leonie can manage in her remaining week in Moldova.

***

For a time, I watched a television show called How I Met Your Mother.  There is a character on the show, Robin Scherbatsky, who fantastically kept five dogs of various sizes in her tiny New York apartment.  Despite Robin only being home perhaps one episode out of 20, these dogs appeared placid and happy, not requiring food, or walks, or attention, apparently going to sleep for long stretches of weeks whilst Robin cavorted about New York with her friends.  Her furniture stayed pristine, big clumps of hair did not collect on the carpet and numerous throw pillows on her living room couch remained miraculously intact. Those of us who live with dogs – especially without the benefit of large suburban backyards or rural fields to set them loose in – know that five dogs in an 800 square foot apartment is a recipe for certain disaster, if not complete and irrevocable destruction of all one’s favored belongings.

This is one aspect of modern media that contributes to our continued naiveté in approaching the mechanics of our lives.  I remember my daughter pining for Carrie Bradshaw’s life in Sex and the City, a part-time newspaper columnist who inexplicably could afford Manolo Blahnik shoes, long lunches at high-end eateries, and a darling apartment in Manhattan.  When I would insert my (unsought) opinion that the likelihood of an actual columnist’ salary supporting such an extravagant lifestyle was pretty unlikely, she would froth and foam at my nitpicking lack of imagination.  Couldn’t I just appreciate the story?

I should no more adopt a cat in Moldova than Robin Scherbatsky should cram five canines into a New York walk-up.  But we continue to fool ourselves by referencing the glut of misleading, manipulative entertainment and advertising that does its concerted best to get us to watch, buy, and consume by convincing us that we are all better people for doing so.   We tell ourselves the stories that we fervently wish to believe about life.  And here I go with mine.  I still don’t think I’ve done Jane any favors in the end by bringing her into my life.  But, at least for this episode, she seems happy and I feel just a tad bit better for having ‘rescued’ her from an uncertain fate.  Catch me next season to see how the story progresses….

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Leonie and Jane – inseparable!

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Vara #3: New Projects (or how serendipity infuses my PC service)

According to Wikipedia, the word „serendipity” is one of the hardest to translate in the English language.  Perhaps this is due to the amorphous nature of the experiences it attempts to pinpoint.  There are fortuitous things that happento  us so unexpectedly, from such unanticipated sources or directions, that at times it is difficult to not percieve the pointing finger of a god or the shadowy trail of a red thread leading one on.  And perhaps this how other cultures/languages describe it: through religion, or mythic archetypes, or the unspooling of one’s fate.  We Anglo-Saxons term it “a talent for making fortunate discoveries while searching for other things.”

Straw bale construction. These are used to build houses, walls, and benches.
Straw bale construction. These are used to build houses, walls, and benches.

Some months into the period of unemployment which preceded my Peace Corps service, I stumbled upon the concept of “intentional communities” or “co-housing,” as it is known in some circles.  Back in the day, we would have termed these alternate living styles “communes” but the whole concept has evolved and adapted through the decades to better fit the myriad identities, lifestyle choices, and personal philosophies of most Western Europeans and Americans.  These are communities sometimes, but not always, based on particular political views, philosophical principles, or religious beliefs.  Most often, they represent a desire to live in closer proximity and connection to one’s neighbors; to own in common those resources, like lawn mowers and ladders and paint brushes and socket wrenches, that we may only utilize once or twice a month; to have the opportunity to partake in a collective meal two or three times a week and forego shopping, preparing, serving, and cleaning up after a long day at work; to build small neighborhoods devoid of cars and asphalt; in short, to move out of that weird idea that living entirely in an enclosed, private space (suburban home) from which we emerge only to enter another enclosed private space (automobile) to travel alone to yet another enclosed, private space (the office or cubicle) somehow meets the needs of social animals.

Feeling cut off from the world and as thoroughly rejected as only a soon-to-be-fifty, suddenly-unemployed, worked-at-one-job-for-practically-my-whole-life person can feel, this idea of living collectively more than intrigued me – it lit a burning candle of longing that fed countless hours of research and many inopportune proposals to friends, family, and acquaintances to throw in our lots together, buy piece of land, and start some sort of eco-social living arrangement.  (I think they thought I’d gone off the deep end.)

It was one of the few simmering fires left when I boarded the plane to Moldova; I consoled myself with the notion that perhaps someday in the future, upon my return from Peace Corps, I could resurrect and tend it to fruition.

***

Interestingly, some months later during a sidebar conversation with my then-COD Program Manager Liliana, I was intrigued by her mention of a project conceived by her (former PCV) husband David to build an ‘eco-village’ from natural, native-harvested materials in Moldova.  They had both been researching different building types and designs, real estate offerings, and incorporation options with the intent of forming an NGO devoted to sustainable living that would also serve as a platform for launching their own co-housing community.  I must have related my own interest in this particular brand of habitation.

Last February Liliana surprised us all by resigning from the Peace Corps to pursue this project on a full time basis.  She and David spent many weeks traveling in the USA and Ukraine, visiting similarly positioned communities, networking, gathering data and comparing outcomes.  They are passionate and intentioned and fully loaded with information.  Now, they are ready to commence.  And the biggest, most serendipitous aspect for me in all this is that they have invited me to help.  Apparently, during this sidebar conversation that I barely remember having I impressed on Liliana my like-minded interest in living communally, a notion largely at odds with the impression that most Moldovans form of Americans and their typical bent for self-inflicted privacy.  She remembered me.

The gazebo we will be building on the grounds of the shelter
The gazebo we will be building on the grounds of the shelter

In the way that these circumstances play out, there is a connection between the amazing long-term care center for adults where I live and David and Liliana’s project: Liliana and her mother were part of the core group which conceived and built this shelter 10 years ago.  Liliana’s mom still works here and has gained permission for model structures composed of these natural materials to be built here this summer as concrete examples of what an eco-village might look like someday.  I am now charged with creating and implementing a fundraiser to complement this endeavor.

An oven with surrounding benches - also in the plans for the shelter
An oven with surrounding benches – also in the plans for the shelter
Tiles that can be purchased, personalized and added to the structures as a fundraising option
Tiles that can be purchased, personalized and added to the structures as a fundraising option

Which then led to the shelter’s director asking me to assist with a eco-social tourism project connecting our center with one in Chisinau and another in Brasov, Romania, that will entail hosting (paying) vacationers to come volunteer for a 10-14 days at all three sites.  It’s cutting-edge social entrepreneurism, an arena that I have been mad about entering but felt completely unqualified to entertain.  And now I’ve been invited to participate in building it from the ground up!

A camouflaging wall that will be built as a model of construction capabilities
A camouflaging wall that will be built as a model of construction capabilities

I’ve also, quite inadvertently, become a consultant to a youth-run NGO, Cultura Noua, which is comprised of a group of talented, idealistic young people who are intent on learning English, leadership skills, and project management.  When it rains, it flows…

***

I just re-read a posting of mine from mid-winter, when I was sunk in a vortex of confusion and lost-identity.  I am so relieved that I made it to the other side.  I am so busy right now that I am having to bow out of opportunities that I blindly clutched at when my days were empty but which no longer match the excitement and opportunity that are coming at me from all sides.

Serendipity does translate into Romanian, after all.

Maybe not in so many words, but definitely into the narrative of everyday experience.

Primavara

Outside my window
Outside my window

The perfect musical accompaniment to this post? Vivaldi’s “Spring,” of course! I always loved it, but never appreciated how perfectly he embodied its ebullience and glee in sound…

The Romanian word for spring is “Primavara” – literally, ‘first summer.”  So spring is the welcome mat for the heat and humidity that is to come and I am sad to realize how short this beautiful pause will turn out to be.  In the last few days I can feel the weight of the pending season bearing down on me; I have already broken into a sweat crammed into a rutiera with no possibility of a vent – much less a window! – being opened while stoic Moldovans continue to wear the leather jackets and stylish blazers that signal the recent passing of winter.  You have to hand it to them – Moldovans will sacrifice many degrees of comfort in order to keep the ensemble they have carefully constructed intact.  While I, on the other hand, am beginning to draw the sidelong glances and whispered comments that my short-sleeved t-shirts, workout pants, and Five Finger shoes inevitably garner.

(At this point in my life, I just can’t bring myself to bow to the dictates of fashion any more.  I have realized that being relaxed and comfortable goes a long way towards making my mood brighter and my resilience stronger.  I can accept the role of the weird American clown with grace and alacrity….)

Peach or apricot - still can't tell the difference...
Peach or apricot – still can’t tell the difference…

Meanwhile, the trees and flowers are gloriously, abundantly abloom and the birds gift me a cheerful chorus from the boughs outside my window.  Everything is fresh and clean and radiantly new.  More butterflies than I can remember seeing since my childhood flit through the balmy air.  People stroll down the street, arm in arm, smiling, greeting each other, thawing out. Children whizz down the lane on bicycles, kicking up dust and laughter.  Puppies, calves, baby goats abound.100_2293

Everything feels possible again.  I have sudden reserves of energy that keep me just on the edge of skipping (I can only take the clown act so far) and wrapping my arms around passing strangers.  There are moments when tears actually flood up from a mysterious sense of grace – that is how wholly mere warmth and genesis can affect my outlook on life.

One of the things I had anticipated from my Peace Corps service was finally living somewhere I could experience the seasonal cycle; Moldova has exceeded my expectations.   To feel in your bones the world coming live while the splendor plays out around you – it is an amazing gift of which I am deeply, profoundly appreciative.  California is exceptionally beautiful, but its garb has nothing to approach these seasonal extremes.

I am a lucky soul.

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The garb of spring

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…

Mirroring Moldova

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The crumbling, hazardous steps leading to a public square

Does Moldova make you sadder?  Does just being here cause one’s happiness index to plummet beyond rescue?  Bruce Hood would answer in the affirmative.  I am listening to his book The Self Illusion as I walk to and from work each day and it is giving me a somewhat undesirable perspective on how I may be chipping away at what I had previously thought to be my natural state of joy.

In line with Hume’s “bundle theory,” Hood states that decades of neurological research lends proof to the theory that the “me” inside my head is an ongoing,  illusory narrative concocted by the brain to establish a necessary focal point for the reception and organization of stimuli into coherent patterns for reciprocal behavior.  He describes an elegant metaphor of the “self” as the external mirroring of one’s cumulative inner experience of the world and the other “selves” we encounter, giving an oddly somatic testimony to the notion that ‘we are all one.’  To the degree that we have an impact on the people who are in direct relationship with us, or who benefit from our work, or buy our products, or listen to our songs, or live in our buildings, or abide by our laws, or respond to our ads, or slip on our tossed banana peel – etc., etc., etc., – then we are affecting and thereby shaping the formulation of other “selves” in our world, contributing to the reflection that we receive from them that thereby shapes us in turn.  Whew.  (Of course, reading the book will give you a much deeper appreciation of his argument.)

“The line between out there and in here is not as sharply defined as we think.”                                                Eric Weiner in The Geography of Bliss

 So what does this have to do with me and Moldova?  Well, here’s the thing.  A Dutch professor named Ruut Veenhoven , along with his colleagues at the World Database of Happiness (WDH,) has been collecting data for years on what makes us happy, what does not, and – interestingly – which nations are the happiest.  Not surprisingly, Moldova consistently scores near the very bottom of the index.  Lower, even, then some African countries that definitely have a lot more reasons to bitch.

The effects of decades of harsh winters
The effects of decades of harsh winters

In the Geography of Bliss, a book about his travels through some of the happiest countries in the WDH and one – Moldova – that decidedly is not, Weiner proffers a theory that Moldovans are more unhappy because they are in Europe’s backyard and inevitably compare themselves with countries like France, Italy, and Germany, where so many of their working adults flee to make money.  However, there is also the on-going legacy of the Soviet system, which has warped the very fabric of the nation.  And there is also the physicality of Moldova – the crumbling building, the frost eroded concrete, the rusting pipes, the ubiquitous trash.  There are very few public places that please the eye or gratify one’s craving to find order and harmony in one’s surroundings.

A typical apartment building
A typical apartment building

The chapter on Moldova was quite revelatory in its illustrative vignettes which capture those elusive experiences I have found so difficult to articulate.  Here, for example, is a brief exchange between Weiner and a hotel clerk which highlights the impenetrable, obstinate ennui that seems to have a stranglehold on the population:

I return to the hotel. My Semi-Luxe room is hot, very hot.   I call down to the front desk.

“Where is the air-conditioning?”

“Oh, no sir, there is no air-conditioning in the Semi-Luxe room. Only in the Luxe room.”

“Well, can I upgrade to a Luxe room?”

“No sir, that is not possible.”

“Can I get a fan?”

“No sir, that is not possible. But you are free to bring your own.”

Graffiti transcends borders
Graffiti transcends borders

Weiner even visits a group of Peace Corps volunteers, for whom he feels nothing but pity.  After all, as he astutely notes, “We can’t very well call it the US Bliss Corps, but that’s what it is: an attempt to remake the world in our own happy image.”  And indeed, this is one of the hardest things for me to accommodate to here. My own happiness sparkles a bit before fizzling out in the face of such pervasive doom and gloom.  It is difficult to find something – anything – that Moldovans are happy about and you can’t really blame them.  When you live in a country corrupted by nepotism, cronyism, and graft; where medical and legal degrees are purchased outright and passing grades are conferred on children of influential parents even when they don’t attend school; where prescriptions are purchased by those who have enough money to bid for a medical appointment in the first place; where only a portion of the international aid flowing in is doled out by the few who have established themselves as trustworthy merely because they speak English; when you live in a country that is a country in name only, but does not appear to generate a cohesive culture that binds people into a group identity that supersedes narrow-minded, short-term pursuits in favor of broad-based, mutually-beneficial reciprocity, you lose. Period.

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A public bench

For about the last month, it has become increasingly apparent to my partner that our center is in serious danger of losing its operational revenue after December 31. For reasons I won’t get into here, we have not been successful at finding new sources of funding.  My partner has been coming into my office the past few days and sitting in the chair opposite me, her eyes dull and ringed in dark circles, shoulders sagging, hands nervously fidgeting about her face and hair.

“Ce facem, Yvette?”  What do we do?

I don’t know.  I don’t know. “Nu știu.”

I am not the lucky talisman I was at the beginning.  Bit by bit, I feel myself succumbing to the demoralizing ennui.  I don’t know how to battle the forces that so relentlessly pound people down here. Of course, as an American and as a Peace Corps Volunteer, I keep taking this failure personally.  Why can’t I figure it out? Where is the magic formula that will make this tangled web of lunacy unravel into a logical thread of hope? Why can’t my relentless American optimism overcome this amorphous miasma of despair?  I hear myself telling her that she pursue her dream of moving to the United States – escape this country, find a better life for herself and her husband and kids.

And then I stop myself, horrified – what am I saying?  My country’s better than your country? How un-PC am I?

Pedestrians waiting to cross the street
Pedestrians waiting to cross the street

I think I’m ceding to the notion that the line between the outside and the inside is not as sharply defined as we like to think.  Although the metaphor of the stalwart individual shaking her fist at the world and turning the tides of fate may be heroic, it does not make room for the millions of people who want to live ordinary, peaceful, predictable, and – yes – mundane lives.  Not everyone yearns to be Joan of Ark.

Many western nations naively believe that by “liberating” people and then handing them a toolkit for democracy, we guarantee them future success and happiness. But it’s not that simple.  Democracy is predicated on the basis of people trusting in one another, on a shared culture that instills faith in process and creates points of entry into those processes for everyone. Moldovans, 20 years after leaving the Soviet Union, do not have that.  At one point in their conversation, Ruut Veenhoven observes to Eric Weiner, “The quality of society is more important than your place in that society.” The truth of those words rings clearer to me each and every day that I live here in Moldova.

Daily exchange rates advertised everywhere - what a grim reminder...
Daily exchange rates advertised everywhere – what a grim reminder…

I am trying, as best as possible, in all my interactions, to mirror back the innate optimism and belief in democratic process that being a product of American culture has instilled in me.  And I have met so many, many Moldovans who want to believe, who yearn for change.  But it certainly doesn’t help that many of the best of them are sucked out of the country by the promise of an easier life elsewhere. The changes that need to occur are not going to happen in one person’s lifetime.  They must be willing to fight for a legacy that will only be realized by their children, or their children’s children, or their grandchildren’s children.

And how many of us Americans have shown the willingness to do that nowadays?

Meanwhile, happiness comes in small doses, in conversations around the table with Nina, in watching the women work so lovingly with the kids at my center, in sharing a meal with new friends, in solo walks around the lake behind my house.  And, I must confess, in getting together with other PCVs, whose vibrant American souls continue to recharge my battery and create new energetic input to my “self.”

The point of hope...
The point of hope…

I appreciate my fellow citizens, body and soul, like never before.

Bless you, America and all you Peace Corps Volunteers here in Moldova…be the change you wish to see in the world!

*All photographs are courtesy of fellow PCV Britt Hill – no relation, though I would be happy to claim her.  She has a much better eye for detail than I do so I shamelessly stole them from her FB site.

Thanks Britt!!!