ET (Going Home)

Picnic in Cricova with Roberto, Patty, Elsa, Carl, and Jenn

No, I will not be announcing here that extraterrestrials have set up camp in my dulap de heine in Stauceni. Nor have I been transported to another world by way of Moldova’s unconventional transportation system. In Peace Corps lingo “ET” stands for ‘early termination,’ which means that a PCV’s service ends – for whatever reason – prior to the standard 27 month commitment we all make. In the last week, three COD PCVs from the M26 group voluntarily ET’d for personal reasons. It happens so quickly that it takes your breath away and has left the collective mouth of our little group of temporarily reunited COD M27s slightly agape.

It is not my intention to name names or describe the specifics of these three PCVs’ circumstances. I was fortunate to have spent extended time with two of them and all three were significantly involved with the M27s as trainers and mentors. Through accidental circumstance, I had the opportunity to talk with all three as they were contemplating their respective decisions; I witnessed the intense, drawn out deliberation in which they each, in their own way, engaged. It was definitely not an impulsive or reactive move for any of them. However, most of the other volunteers in my group did not get that window into their motives and were left shocked and awed when their departure was announced by our program director at the start of a training the other day.

In some ways, I don’t know if it has made it harder for me to have talked with them about what they were thinking and feeling prior to deciding to throw in the towel. They all had very legitimate, substantial issues that fed their ultimate conclusions. Two of them had significant others that were waiting patiently for them at home. One of them had chronic health issues that had plagued her throughout her entire service; one had recently developed a puzzling problem with her heart. One had gone without water in her village for almost three months during the height of the summer heat. (She had to buy water to wash her dishes – needless to say she was NOT getting regular bucket baths or hair washings.) There were issues with partners not participating in partnership, organizations that had drifted without purpose, communities that were disengaged or insular and unwelcoming.

Romy and Lindsey – Warren in back

But despite this, these women (they were all female) kept trying. For 15 months they gave it their all. They greeted the M27s with enthusiasm and verve. They put their best foot forward every time they saw us, not wanting to mar our experience or influence our perception of what Peace Corps service can be. They were so successful at accomplishing this that many of the M27s were left a bit bruised by their sudden disappearance from our lives: how could they have fooled us so completely? How did we not see it coming? If it could happen to them, the tenure of anyone of us becomes a legitimate question mark for the future.

The Peace Corps is surprisingly, almost cathartically efficient, with early terminations. Once you announce your intention to quit, you are sent packing within three days. There is little time to say goodbye, to have “closure” with people, to tie up all the loose ends you will be leaving behind. Perhaps they are smart to do it this way. Once you realize that “ETing” is possible, it is suddenly a presence in your day to day life, looming off your shoulder like some doppelganger Grim Reaper, threatening to undermine your determination and snatch you out of the small circle of routines that you have managed to draw around yourself which sustain the illusion of purposeful, progressive action.

Coming together again for PST III has dealt an unplanned, somewhat unwelcome, blow to the burgeoning stoicism of many of us. We were just beginning to tread a groove, incorporating the small tricks of successful integration – greeting the vendors at the piața, learning the names of the children in our apartment block, familiarizing ourselves with the drivers of our local matrushkas, preparing American meals for our host families, recognizing the intonations of our coworkers’ speech patterns. Then – bang – we’re suddenly back at the beginning again, returned to the families and locals where we first landed as naifs in Moldova, faced with the discomfort of knowing we’re not the same people anymore, that time moves on without us, seasons change, relationships stretch and sometimes sour, and even those that remain are tinged with bittersweet. This is transitory. And now three seemingly permanent fixtures of our experience here have evaporated overnight. Nothing can be counted on, really.

Tamara (Moldovan neighbor) and Patty with puppy

One thing I am coming to understand is that – despite over 200,000 people having served in the Peace Corps to date – there is no standard “Peace Corps experience.”  Even within the environs of a tiny village, two volunteers will have two very different experiences, comprised of a unique amalgam of program, host family make-up, counterpart investment, health issues, relationship and family circumstances back in the States, purpose in being here, age, emotional proclivities…I could go on and on.  There is no way to pick out the qualities of a “successful” volunteer or predict who will make it through 27 months of service and who will decide to leave prematurely.

It used to drive us crazy when we would ask our mentors for specific advice during PST for integrating successfully or making it through the winters or motivating our partners or learning the language or adapting to the different foods, or coping with the lack of adequate sanitation and the inevitable response was ALWAYS prefaced by “It depends….”  Everything depends here.

Georgie and Romy

One of the ET’ing PCVs sent all of the M27s an email just before she departed from the Peace Corps offices to board her plane back home.  It was very long and heartfelt; one sentiment stood out for me:

“You each will likely face challenges and moments when you want to scream, laugh, cry, dance, give up, sing, and push like you’ve never pushed before. When you feel those emotions, follow them. The most important part about my Peace Corps experience was getting to know myself better and learning my limits, despite how well I thought I already knew them. I encourage you all to be open to all the adventures you will face and not to be discouraged by anyone else’s Peace Corps experience, including my own. At the same time, knowing yourself is also knowing when it’s time to walk away so if and when you ever feel like you’re time as a volunteer is done, I encourage you to see past the guilt and appreciate your experience for what it was.

I had never contemplated, before now, the idea that my service could be successful if I did not make it the entire two years.  That is part of the challenge that I posed for myself in joining.  And I still fully intend to see it through.  But it is unnerving to realize that very strong, dedicated, and capable people have chosen otherwise.  Many of them, in fact – the statistics are about 30% of any given group does not make it to the end of service.  I had read this before I came to Moldova, but I didn’t understand the full impact of what it meant when you actually know the people leaving and understand their reasons, when you can feel their reasons beginning to take hold within your very bones some days.

Peace Corps service is hard, but it’s hard for each person for a different reason.  So while we serve together, we are also alone on our own separate journeys, testing our own limits, stretching to surmount our own barriers, defining our successes in a very personal way.  Somewhat like running a marathon with a team, each person’s ability to go the distance is his or hers alone.  I cannot lend strength, or fortitude, or persistence, or happiness, or the ability to ignore a crushing pain to someone else, no matter how hard I wish for them to succeed.

So being together again in Stauceni and knowing that these one or more of these eight people that have shared this absolutely unforgettable and unrepeatable experience with me may not be here next year is a sobering reality check.  And they may be looking at me and wondering the same thing.

Me and Elsa

Dance, World.

So today is the 11th anniversary of 9/11.  Not necessarily a time period that will garner huge headlines back home, but – because I coincidentally referenced 9/11 in yesterday’s blog – it was in my mind as one of those shared experiences that, unfortunately, create a separate cultural context for me and my fellow PCVs from that of our Moldovan counterparts.  And that’s a shame.  Because it is through fostering that sort of subtle, but seemingly insurmountable divide, that those who wish to “terrorize” us win.

Yet it also put me in mind of a wonderful cross-cultural experiment that one crazy American is carrying on throughout the world: Matt Harding dances and is encouraging people to join him in rollicking troupe performances at locations across the planet.  You can read his whole story here, and I really encourage you to take a moment and do so, because it is one of those heart warming tales that affirm our best aspirations and that will breathe fire into whatever little fantasy might lurk in the wee morning hours about taking your life and propelling into a whole new trajectory.

Matt, for me, is the quintessential expression of everything that is uniquely, wonderfully amazing about Americans.  His ability to spread joy and create a shared space for exuberant fun and laughter is the BEST weapon I know for fighting the effects of terrorism.  I think the United States government should sponsor Matt, and others like him, to travel the world and spread the infectious exhilaration that being silly and energetic and jubilant together can germinate.  I defy anyone to watch this video and keep a smile from leaking across your face.  To paraphrase John Lennon: let’s give dance a chance.

So, as my friend Patty likes to say, “Put on your dance pants” before clicking: Where in the hell is Matt?

Here are the lyrics to Trip the Light, the song that everyone in the world should get to dance to, together, someday:

If all the days that come to pass

Are behind these walls

I’ll be left at the end of things

In a world kept small

Travel far from what i know

I’ll be swept away

I need to know I can be lost and not afraid

We’re gonna trip the light

We’re gonna break the night

And we’ll see with new eyes

When we trip the light

Remember we’re lost together

Remember we’re the same

We hold the burning rhythm in our hearts

We hold the flame

We’re gonna trip the light

We’re gonna break the night

And we’ll see with new eyes

When we trip the light (x2)

I’ll find my way home

On the western wind

To a place that was once my world

Back from where I’ve been

And in the morning light I’ll remember

As the sun will rise

We are all the glowing embers

Of a distant fire

We’re gonna trip the light

We’re gonna break the night

And we’ll see with new eyes

When we trip the light (x3)

Right back at you, al Qaeda!

Rethinking the Peace Corps Experience

 

Picture of me unrelated to this post but provided for the benefit of my grandma and father. You’re welcome.

My postings are shifting from frantic, nearly daily hand wringings when I first arrived in Moldova to a more leisurely drop-in visit once a week or so, I have realized.  I attribute this both to becoming more acclimated to my surroundings – successful integration – and to having beat a retreat into a state of meditative contemplation, which is a really a westernized, acceptable way of admitting I have a remarkably empty mind these days.

For so long I had been preparing to leave overseas, having to think about applications and essays and medical visits and disbursing twenty years’ worth of accumulated possessions and packing clothing and selling the condo and tying up financial matters; and then I was here, in Pre-Service Training, meeting herds of people, hearing and speaking a new language, familiarizing myself with a new culture and geography and transportation system, eating different foods, establishing routines of boiling and filtering water and hand washing clothes, setting up a new bank account and telephone…it was so much novelty coming at me my head was like to burst at times and I had to get it all down  and out of me.

Now, I live in Moldova.  And life is becoming routine.  Funny how three months changes things.

Last Tuesday, I began going to the “office” everyday.  I started Tuesday because Monday was the 21st anniversary of Moldova declaring its independence from Russia and I only worked through Thursday, because Friday is their national language day.

Political/cultural segue – skip if you’re not into history.

Going to the office as a Peace Corps Volunteer is very different from going to the office as an executive administrator, I am finding.  People only darken my doorway to ask, “Ați dori sa mancați?” (Would you like to eat?)  I am not responsible for anything related to day to day operations and – obviously, with my language being as juvenile as it is at this point – am not an abundant source of pertinent information (or gossip, for that matter.)  Other than Ana, my partner, stopping by to struggle through our (pathetic) attempts to plot her management strategies, I am mostly left alone to translate documents, peruse online funding resources, study Romanian, or surf the web as the whim takes me.

The Peace Corps drills into us, over and over and over again, that it will take months and most likely all of our first year to become sufficiently proficient in the language to be of any real use to our partners.  This is the primary reason Peace Corps service lasts for two years and why volunteers who extend to a third year are so valued and effective. Though we accept this conceptually, in practice it is simultaneously anxiety-provoking and stultifying.  Who wants to spend a year confined within a little tower of Babel, unable to begin a satisfying – much less challenging – task because one cannot communicate with one’s compatriots?  There is a buzz of activity and purpose in the air but you cannot participate in or contribute to it because your ears and tongue are not set to the same station.

I think it is doubly hard for Americans, as our culture is built on the precept that activity equals  Purpose and Purpose defines Meaning, from which all notions of success derive.  Sitting at a desk madly trying to imprint the squawking hieroglyphics of a foreign language into one’s reluctant brain does not feed one’s longing for Purpose, let me tell you.  So the most mentally satisfying practice I’ve found at this point is to cultivate an empty mind.  Think about nothing. Or rather, quit thinking about the things that formally filled up one’s brain and open it up to new content.

With the result that I (and most other PCVs here) flee to the comfortable filler of the Internet when the afore-mentioned empty mind’s echoes begin to reverberate too loudly.

Silly but informative segue: OMG!  The wealth of free entertainment available on the internet!!! PCVs and their cohorts are scrappy treasure hunters that regularly unearth and proclaim the bounteous pleasure of sites like Project Free TV, which is currently providing me with every episode of How I Met Your Mother (the Friends of the 21st century.)  Or Grooveshark, where for the first time ever I found an uploaded copy of Buckingham Nicks (orgasm!)  And Brain Pickings, where the inimitable Maria Popova, an Atlantic Montly writer and MIT Futures of Entertainment Fellow, curates a delectable sampling of cross-pollinated tidbits from the writings of Anais Nin to the science of Michio Kaku. Or the delightful and stimulating Big Think, where some fascinating thinkers propose tantalizing ideas in a series of video monologues.

Honestly, I think the Peace Corps would be a substantially different experience without access to the Internet.  My fellow PCVs and I talk all the time about our dependency on its encyclopedic information and divertissements.   When one is ready to pull one’s hair out from hearing Romanian ad naseum, there is always English to be heard on the internet.  When one has a need to build a white board from scratch, check the internet.  Question about substitutions for ricotta (impossible to find in Moldova) in lasagna?  It’s on the internet.  Need to translate that indecipherable Russian label on a hygiene product?  Internet. Hopelessly confused by the unfathomable melancholy many Moldovans display for aristocratic and/or authoritarian forms of government? Wait for it…..Internet!

We reluctantly admit that we cannot claim to be having the “authentic Peace Corps experience” that by now has attained mythic status amongst us.  What would it be like to be serving in Thailand, for example, in a mud hut with no electricity?  Or Timbuktu, in a yurt at 40 below?  Or in Birkina Faso, helping to deliver babies with traditional midwives with no plumbing, sanitation, or medical safety nets?  There are PCVs right now living in conditions that far exceed Moldova’s (the ‘Posh Corps’) in hardship, isolation, depravation, and cultural displacement.  Moldova is too much like a younger, poorer, distant cousin of the United States to make it feel as if we’ve been kicked out of our universe.  And we have the internet.

A couple of us were speculating yesterday on why the Peace Corps is still in Moldova.  They feel so close sometimes to having attained a foothold into western-style economic capitalism – see the McMansions and BMWs and Victoria Secret fashions and cell phone towers cluttering the landscape – that we are often puzzled by what the substance of their need might truly be.  One of the answers we posited relies most heavily on the last two of the three main goals of the Peace Corps:

  1. Helping the people of interested countries in meeting their need for trained men and women.
  2. Helping promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the peoples served.
  3. Helping promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of Americans.

Just by being here, we help foster an important political and cultural dialogue for the Moldovans as they continue to struggle with the lingering, sugar-coated memories of the Soviet system of minimum entitlement while concurrently suffering from democratic capitalism’s imperfect success in bridging economic, social and educational barriers within their country.

And by having access to the internet, and sharing our experiences, perceptions, and thoughts, perhaps we PCVs are contributing to the emerging discussion in American about our hardwired cultural precepts, blindfolded nationalism, and rampant materialism.  And we run across fresh takes on why the juxtaposition of post-soviet mentality with 21st century EU aspirations of consumerism are so confusing, yet potentially stimulating and fruitful.

Slavoj Žižek is a Slovenian philosopher and cultural critic who is a professor at the European Graduate School, International Director of the Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities, Birkbeck College, University of London, and a senior researcher at the Institute of Sociology, University of Ljubljana, Slovenia.  He proposes an extremely interesting take on what our global mission should be at this particular point in civilized history.  After reminding us of the horrible failure that communism in practice turned out to be, he turns to the would-be capitalism reformists:

This is why, as I always repeat, with all my sympathy for Occupy Wall Street movement, its result was . . . I call it a Bartleby lesson. Bartleby, of course, Herman Melville’s Bartleby, you know, who always answered with his favorite “I would prefer not to” . . . The message of Occupy Wall Street is, I would prefer not to play the existing game. There is something fundamentally wrong with the system and the existing forms of institutionalized democracy are not strong enough to deal with problems. Beyond this, they don’t have an answer and neither do I. For me, Occupy Wall Street is just a signal. It’s like clearing the table. Time to start thinking…

My advice would be–because I don’t have simple answers… precisely to start thinking. Don’t get caught into this pseudo-activist pressure:”Do something. Let’s do it, and so on”. .. [T]he time is to think. I even provoked some of the leftist friends when I told them that if the famous Marxist formula was, “Philosophers have only interpreted the world; the time is to change it” . . . thesis 11 . . . , that maybe today we should say, “In the twentieth century, we maybe tried to change the world too quickly. The time is to interpret it again, to start thinking.” (emphasis mine)

And actually, the internet provides a very effective means for sustaining and building this strategy.   Especially for Peace Corps Volunteers.  We have cleared our metaphorical tables, so to speak.  Our minds have become empty.  Now we can begin filling them again with impressions, perceptions, and interpretations formulated through exposure to a people striving to follow our journey, but with a much more complex web of cultural, linguistic, political and economic circumstances to untangle.  (If you actually clicked the link on Moldovan history above, this would make more sense.)

Our dialogue is potentially fruitful and enlightening for both parties.  We can learn from each other’s histories.  Knock ourselves out of repeat mode. Think rather than mindlessly do.

Perhaps by me living and working with Moldovans, and them puzzling over the discordant picture I represent of Western-style success (You left your family why?  They pay you what?), and both sides spreading stories through emails and blogs and Skype sessions and Facebook and Tumblr and tweets, we are – each of us – reframing, reinterpreting, rethinking our world.

And, while we’re at it, that enduring myth of the “Peace Corps experience.”

Dancing the waltz

Anais Nin and Henry Miller

I will admit that I spend more time on the Internet these days (and I didn’t know that was even possible) since the work site I have been assigned to won’t open until September 1 and it’s back to being a bloody inferno outside.  Because I have so much time to surf, I fortuitously encounter different articles from divergent sources that somehow overlap or coincide, amplifying each other’s message and causing the information to echo through my brain for several days.

Here’s one example.  On Monday morning I received my weekly newsletter from Brain Pickings, a website I highly recommend if you want to be served a veritable smorgasbord of interesting information dipping into such varied topics as art, design, science, technology, philosophy, history, politics, psychology, sociology, ecology, and anthropology.  There was a piece culled from the third volume of Anais Nin’s diary, wherein she transcribed a letter written to her by Henry Miller. He is describing the synergy of altruism:

“For me it is no problem to depend on others. I am always curious to see how far people will go, how big a test one can put them to.

Certainly there are humiliations involved, but aren’t these humiliations due rather to our limitations? Isn’t it merely our pride which suffers? It’s only when we demand that we are hurt. I, who have been helped so much by others, I ought to know something of the duties of the receiver. It’s so much easier to be on the giving side. To receive is much harder — one actually has to be more delicate, if I may say so. One has to help people to be more generous. By receiving from others, by letting them help you, you really aid them to become bigger, more generous, more magnanimous. You do them a service.

And then finally, no one likes to do either one or the other alone. We all try to give and take, to the best of our powers. It’s only because giving is so much associated with material things that receiving looks bad. It would be a terrible calamity for the world if we eliminated the beggar. The beggar is just as important in the scheme of things as the giver. If begging were ever eliminated God help us if there should no longer be a need to appeal to some other human being, to make him give of his riches. Of what good abundance then? Must we not become strong in order to help, rich in order to give and so on? How will these fundamental aspects of life ever change?”

Miller manages to make so many points here pertinent to my situation in Moldova that I wonder if perhaps he’s been peeking over my shoulder some days from wherever his juicy spirit happens to be oozing right now.

Peace Corps Volunteers – in all countries where we serve, I would venture to say – are involved in a delicate dance with their host country nationals.  We are giving to them, of our time, our expertise, our education, our energy.  But they are reciprocating: they are opening their homes and work places, teaching us their language and customs, sharing their food and wine, welcoming us in to important life events and celebrations, such as weddings, baptisms, and funerals.  Think about how difficult it might be to have a stranger show up at your door one day for a two year visit – one who does not know your language or cultural norms, much less recognize or respect your little idiosyncratic daily routines.  You need to familiarize them with your town, where the market is, the bank, the pharmacy, who the neighbors are and which places maybe dangerous or unsafe after dark. You need to show them where they can buy a hair dryer and how to hand wash their clothes.  Perhaps they don’t know how cook.  Or make a bed.  Maybe they are messy – even dirty, tracking mud throughout your home when they keep forgetting to remove their shoes at the door.

Then think about including this person into all your most emotional and memorable family events, taking them to your sister’s birthday party, your daughter’s graduation, your niece’s wedding, your father’s funeral, and having to watch out after them the whole time so they don’t do something culturally inappropriate like slap your aunt on the back or hug your brother when they are introduced or collapse on the ground in a heap if they’ve danced too hard or had one too many vodkas.  One must possess a true wealth of spirit and a large portion of patience to continue giving of oneself through those (perhaps seemingly endless) two years.

I won’t go into detail, but I did hear one story from a volunteer who was disrobed, bathed and cleaned like a baby, put to bed in crisp sheets, and had the bathroom swabbed of her mess after a bout of giardia that had her spewing from both ends.  (Did I mention there was no toilet – only a flimsy trash can – in said bathroom?)  And this all took place within minutes of her meeting her host parents. And the father was just as solicitous and nurturing as the mother. So there is definitely give and take going on here.

And this odd waltz can take place precisely because of the manner in which Peace Corps operates: it is coordinated and supported aid that doesn’t involve giving money to the “needy” – it is all about extending a hand of service within an intimate context that allows both the giver and receiver to participate fully in the exchange and to take the lead at different times.  And that hand can be extended by anyone – rich or poor, educated or ignorant, male or female, old or young, privileged or needy.  We can all be generous in spirit, in caring, in listening, in sharing, in inclusion, in opening ourselves to each other.

So after having had this Miller piece slosh around in my head for a couple of hours, I happened upon the following story on the NPR website about a new study published in the Chronicle of Philanthropy:

Study Reveals The Geography of Charitable Giving

For those of you who can’t bear to leave my scintillating expository, I extract a few pertinent quotes here:

Ever wonder how charitable the people are who live in your state or community? It turns out that lower-income people tend to donate a much bigger share of their discretionary incomes than wealthier people do. And rich people are more generous when they live among those who aren’t so rich.

…. High-income people who live in economically diverse neighborhoods give more on average than high-income people who live in wealthier neighborhoods.

Paul Piff, a social psychologist at the University of California, Berkeley, says that’s consistent with what he’s found in years of research on income and giving.

“The more wealth you have, the more focused on your own self and your own needs you become, and the less attuned to the needs of other people you also become,” he says. “Simply reminding wealthy people of the diversity of needs that are out there is going to go a long way toward restoring the empathy or compassion deficit that we otherwise see,” he says.

The NPR article concluded that it is important people see need first hand by integrating into heterogeneous neighborhoods that are economically diverse.  And I would amplify that thought by saying this is true not merely because those who see need will tend to be more generous, but because it is imperative that we allow the osmosis, the synergy, the waltz of generosity to be fully and deeply expressed by both the giver and the receiver.  And that can only happen when we are not isolated from each other, when we become part of the fabric of each other’s lives, when our homes and neighborhoods and customs and idiosyncratic behaviors are no longer “foreign” to each other.  I love Peace Corps for illustrating the truth of this, each and every day, all over the world, amongst thousands of dancing partners.

There are merits to playing both roles, to attaining the flexibility and humility to both lead and be led. We Americans must realize that the money and material goods some of hold in relative abundance are not the only sources of wealth that exist in this the world.  And that, perhaps, a much greater gift is presented sometimes by standing in the role of receiver.

I know most of you out there are not going to run out and join the Peace Corps.  But realize that you can give by receiving, too.  By stopping to talk to that person asking you for money on the corner, allowing him to tell you his story.  By accepting the dinner invitation from the couple that bores you to tears and just keeping your heart and mind open for a few hours.  Perhaps through attending the dance rehearsal of your next door neighbor’s granddaughter and clapping vigorously and enthusiastically.  Or going to the ethnic festival in your community center and participating in the dances, eating the food, and intermingling with people from diverse backgrounds.

Try putting yourself in places you normally avoid, meeting people that unnerve you just a bit, stepping outside of your comfort zone and risking humiliation by joining in the waltz maybe once or twice a week, all in the spirit of dancing.  Go ahead: I challenge you.  I’m doing it.

(And I’d love to hear any comments on what it felt like …)

Floored

Floored

There is no other way to put it.  I wandered down the road just above my apartment building and found this:

Hîncești Lake

I don’t know what else to say.  (Of course, I always have more to say.)  I wrote in my journal:

What did I do to deserve this?  I finally, finally found the place where I can be completely at home here.  The language, the culture, the buildings, the corruption, the sadness, the confusion, the disparity, the discomfort – none of that intrudes here.  Though I did have a half hour conversation with two seemingly homeless, mentally ill folks who sat down on the bench next to me and shot me questions in Ruski-romanian .  They really wanted to know when we could hook up again…

Friends at the Lake

I appreciated the opportunity to converse really slowly and repetitively with people who were happy to play along.  I am blessed.

As I was soaking up the last of the afternoon rays I got a text from my site mates, Matt and Lindsey.  I made my way to the bar next door to my apartment and spent a relaxing couple of hours with them, comparing notes on how lucky we are to live in Hîncești.  Patty was walking by and heard my laugh (mom, are you listening?)  and then we were four.  Patty just moved to site today, having completed her 10 week English Education Training.  Took her oath this morning.  Now the whole M27 group are officially Peace Corps Volunteers!

Matt
Patty and Lindsey

I don’t know what these adorable little girls were doing in the bar, but they certainly provided a whimsical touch:

I felt a bit like her, finally having put on my tutu and ready to dance for the world.  I have some good friends, a great host sister, an energetic work partner, and a bustling village in which to live for the next two years.  The Peace Corps is proving to be everything I wished it would be…I am so blessed!

I am a Peace Corps Volunteer

Holding my Oath of Office – I am a Peace Corps Volunteer!
Today, in a suitably serious and solemn ceremony, I and 37 members of my colleagues in the M27 Moldova group were sworn in as Peace Corps Volunteers.  (The rest of our group, Health and English Education Trainees, have 7 more days of “practice teaching” sessions remaining in their training.)

I confess that, as we repeated the same oath that – in various permutations –  thousands of other Americans serving in the military, diplomatic service, political office and other agencies of government have taken, I did tear up.  Being an American is a insoluble paradox for me.  I left the country partly because I am so tired of its politics, its materialism, its narcissistic patriotism, its inability to transcend its own mythos.  Yet it is America that brought me here, that sustains my work and the Peace Corps mission throughout the world, that continues to believe in “promoting peace and friendship” abroad through the voluntary service of over 200,000 of its citizens to date.  As the Ambassador to Moldova William H. Moser said in addressing our group, we are the most effective ambassadors of the American people in 137 countries around the world.

In searching for a YouTube video of my new site, Hîncești, I came across the following video.  Made, of course, by a Peace Corps volunteer.  Because I challenge you to search YouTube for a video made of ANY country in the last five years and not come up with one made by a PCV.  This is what we do.  We bring laughter, creativity, camraderie, esprit de corps, hope, friendship, diplomacy, and good will wherever we have been.  And we share it with the world.

Today, I am proud to be American.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Xyk2qJjPQwE&feature=related

 

Light my fire

A park in central Chisinau

It’s funny, today I felt like I had this breakthrough to another level, just when I was starting to feel a little depressed about my seeming lack of progress in language acquisition and enculturation.  It started with Diana, my LTI, praising me effusively in our check in session.  She said I reminded her of her own mother, who lives in the northern part of Moldova and she doesn’t get to see that often.  I am enthusiastic and determined, just like her mother, she said.  It’s good to have me in class, she said, because it makes her feel like she is an effective teacher and that she has a connection with her mother so far away.  She actually grabbed my hand and squeezed it (and she’s not a demonstrative person.)  She said that I am learning at a fast pace and I should be speaking Romanian comfortably before I realize it.

Which may have been just the spark I needed to light my confidence.  I came home and started stringing random sentences together for Nina, even though I was hesitant about my grammar and pronunciation.  I just kept running through the tenses and conjugation and gender/plural combinations until I found the right one.  Soon enough, Nina and I were having little conversations.  Sure they were episodic and halted mid-topic when she exceeded my vocabulary, but at least there was a back and forth going on that I could sustain for four or five sentences.  IT FELT FANTASTIC.  Really.  Like I was a toddler uttering my first grammatically correct statement and my mom was making noises I could understand.  And then a breeze started blowing and the sweaty film that has stuck to my skin like saran wrap for the last week was whisked away and the birds were singing and the leaves were rustling on the trees and I finally felt myself relax into my body and just be present.  It was the very first moment that I stopped feeling like a complete stranger in a strange land and had the first breath of settling in.

Scratching the surface

Entering the mathematics building State University Moldova

Our big project this week for Pre-service Training was paying a visit to an NGO in Chisinau called MilliniuM – the significance of the two “M”s representing “2000,” the year in which the organization was established, or registered, in Moldova.  We interviewed its founding director and a Peace Corps volunteer who has been placed with the agency since last summer.  Both the director and – of course – the PCV spoke English, so again we were relieved from having to draw on our mish mash of Roman-Engleza to communicate. (I’m still keenly aware of the future looming ahead, when I will be dropped off in a distant village on my own with no fellow Americans buffering the crushing linguistic tidal wave, keeping me afloat within their lifeboat of common conceptual experience.)

We spent an entire afternoon carefully crafting a series of multi-part, syntactically dense questions that I just had an inkling were not going to fit the situation we would find ourselves in.  The interview we imagined ourselves conducting could’ve been written off on the expense account of any family foundation CEO or the Board Chair of a third generation non-profit sitting pretty on a diversified endowment.  Instead, we found ourselves perched in a ring of hastily assembled mismatched chairs surrounding a pasteboard desk in the Soviet-era  office of Vitalie Cirhana, a mathematics professor at Moldova State University. Conrad, (the PCV) was in shorts and flip flops; Vitalie was valiantly attempting to keep some air of authority amidst a battle with a motley crew of oblivious teen volunteers who invaded the office and commandeered all the computers in the midst of our session.

Hallway leading to Vitalie’s office

This is one of the beautiful realities – at least in my opinion – of the Peace Corps.  Your placement will inevitably be ad hoc and entirely of your own making and nothing like anything you might have done before in the States. Conrad is an attorney who used to be the in-house counsel for a condominium association in Florida (though if you saw him, I swear you’d think he was a musician/hipster straight out of Echo Park. He doesn’t look a day over 25 and I’m sure he rides a fixed gear bike with no brakes into work.)  Conrad openly admitted he knew nothing about running an NGO and that it had taken him the better part of a year to figure out what MilleniuM’s mission and goals actually were and how Vitalie envisioned it continuing to be viable and effective into the future.  This gives me great hope for the comparative value I can bring to my future placement site, but also causes me to wonder if my executive level experience will really be of any practical use in this environment.   I foresee myself coaching some well-intentioned mayor who holds down a full-time job in the city and farms his outlying plot on the weekends how to create a balance sheet for the village’s expenses.

European Union Embassy

One of the stark realities of this place that I was faced with today is the general dilapidation of the infrastructure here.  Because I was overwhelmed and fascinated by the newness of my environment, I wasn’t making any evaluative judgments about it.  Now that I’ve been here for a couple of weeks, the crumbling buildings, worn sidewalks, eroding pavements, and boarded up windows are becoming more prevalent in my consciousness.  You can see that everything must once have looked quite grand – there are elaborately carved stone edifices and elegantly designed buildings that have not seen any maintenance in a couple of decades.  Beautifully landscaped central parks are overgrown with weeds and tangled bushes; it is obvious that no one has mown the grass or trimmed the trees in recent memory.  Though litter and refuse are not prevalent, there is no sense of overall care and husbandry of the environment.  It almost feels like some sort of spontaneous recovery after a nuclear accident – a makeshift metropolis patched together from the relics of a once proud civilization.  You can see the potential hovering like a kaleidoscopic watercolor painting just below the gritty surface sketch.  If only.  I mean, this is the first place I’ve been in the world – including Guatemala for effin sake – that does not have a Starbucks. Nowhere.  In the whole country. (Is my shock quotient coming through?) Did you know there was a country in the world without a Starbucks???  What the bleep?

That’s Rodica – one of our LTI’s – in the corner of the picture, waiting to flag down a rutiera

There is vast potential here – that is what is so exciting.  A representative from the US Embassy came yesterday to speak to us about the socio-political environment in Moldova.  Though most of the younger PCT’s couldn’t really stay focused, I was fascinated by the information.  They have been through so much and come so far in just two decades.  I mean, here we find a former Soviet state grinding the gears of representative democracy into motion.  Even though the going is episodic and halting, it is moving.   And I get to participate – at least at the sidelines – for a couple of incredible years.  I do feel lucky and really excited to be here at just this moment in time.

On a more somber note: we had our first casualty this week.  A member of the 50+ group decided that the experience is not a good fit and he returned to the States today.  We all liked him a great deal – he was a fun-loving, gregarious chap.  Not the person I would’ve picked to throw in the towel.  But another great aspect of Peace Corps is their absolute commitment to our well-being; if we decide that we want to go home, they book our plane ticket ASAP, no questions or criticisms.  And I do admire the courage needed to admit that this isn’t the place one wants to be, after all the excitement and hoopla and bravado that most of us have displayed in coming here.  Sometimes the reality just doesn’t match up to the ideal and that’s life.  The statistic is actually close to 30% of every incoming group who don’t make it for the whole two years, for whatever reason.  So we have about 22-23 more people who will head home sooner rather than later.

I am pretty determined at this point not to be one of them.

A Blessing for the Journey

This morning a gathering of good and generous souls set me in their midst and laid their gentle hands upon me.  A sacred blessing and many heartfelt salutations;  a sense of serenity and holiness pervades and sustains as I make the first step on this long-awaited journey:

Here I am,
I’m waiting for a better day
A second chance
A little luck to come my way
A hope to dream, a hope that I can sleep again
And wake in the world with a clear conscience and clean hands
‘Cause all that you have is your soul
So don’t be tempted by the shiny apple
 Don’t you eat of a bitter fruit
Hunger only for a taste of justice
Hunger only for a world of truth
‘Cause all that you have is your soul

                            – Tracy Chapman 

Thank you IUCC – you are my forever family