Friday, March 8, was International Women’s Day. In the United States, I can’t remember this holiday making much of a bang. (Perhaps it was noted on my desk calendar, but with the advent of Outlook, smart phones, and virtual reminders, who looks at those anymore?)
As Americans, we tend toward holidays that commemorate war, politicians (or other male figureheads,) or successful conquest. We cede women Mother’s Day (isn’t every woman a mother?) and Valentine’s – neither of which are days of rest from work, I should point out (Mother’s Day being officially confined to a Sunday in the US.) Both these holidays have a very specific focus and audience – thanks mom for bearing/raising/putting up with me and come on honey, give me give me some love…
In Moldova, conversely, International Women’s Day is a BIG deal with a wide open vista of possibilities. Everyone gets the day off – women, men, children, politicians and bankers. Women are feted, toasted, and gifted, by their husbands, their co-workers, their neighbors, and each other. Coming just a week after Marțișor – the beginning of spring – there is a general feeling of sunshine and fecundity impregnating the air. It not just women in particular but the female principle in general – the yin, if you will – Hera, Athena, Hestia, and Artemis all rolled into one. So what better way to celebrate than spending the day in the forest dancing midst the trees with wine, women, and song?
All week long the mayor’s office had been abuzz with preparations for the pending party. My partner kept assuring me that I was in for a genuine cultural experience, Moldovan style. And the weather itself toed the line, dawning clear and brilliant, topaz sun ablaze in sapphire skies.
Arriving at work at a leisurely 10am, I found out I had missed the morning champagne toast (?!!) and the presentation of flowers to all the women. But never fear! Within minutes, I was ushered into the mayor’s office and presented with a flowering plant, decorative salad dishes, and a genuine crystal vase made in the Czech Republic. These were accompanied by ornate speeches from two of my male co-workers, who then repeatedly kissed me on alternating cheeks so Doamna Valentina could properly capture the moment on camera for the historic record. (Apparently, as both an American and a mature female, I am accorded an inordinate degree of respect. American males – take note!)
By 1:00 all the women from the office were piling into a hired rutiera for the ride up into the forest just outside the city limits. Up, up, up (past the city dump, deserving of its own blog post at some point in the future) to a 10-12 acre plot of trees on a secluded hill. And there were all the men, fires burning under huge metal discs sprouting spindly legs, skewers of meat and buckets of potatoes, onions and carrots readied for the flames. Jugs of wine squat and mellow lined up on wooden tables. Vagabond dogs, still sporting the bristling, dense coats of winter, lingering at the periphery, anticipating the feast to come. Air clear and mild, the sun a thin blanket of warmth over the crisp chill of glittering frost. It was almost medieval in its raw, unadorned simplicity.
The first order of business began with the photographs –meticulously posed group and individual shots that are de rigueur for Moldovans whenever they gather for celebrations. No matter how old, wrinkled, tired, messy, fat, windblown, or unattractive one might be feeling, there is no reason a Moldovan could fathom for not wanting your portrait captured in any given circumstance where someone is wielding a camera. I am generally considered a slightly daft anomaly in these situations – not only for my unwillingness to continually stand and smile for up to 35 pictures in a row, but even more so for my propensity to wander about snapping unlikely shots of buildings, trees, food and fire with no apparent concern for lining up people in my cross hairs. What in the world could that be about? I have quit trying to offer any explanation beyond an inexplicable infatuation with the captivating Moldovan countryside. That seems to mollify them a bit.
After that, the games. All those not actively involved in the preparation of the food enthusiastically joined rousing games of badminton or volleyball. And I mean everybody. A few women, arms linked, drifted off to pick violets and craft cunning little bouquets of tender new greenery, but there was none of that cracking open a beer and parking your butt in a lawn chair that Americans have perfected to an art form. Apparently, enough sitting on one’s behind is accomplished at the office; picnics are about shaking things loose and getting one’s blood pumping again.
And when it came time to dine, there was no thought of sequestering off into little cliques of age-, gender- or interest-mates: the women were set at one long table, jugs of wine, buckets of meat and platters of fire-roasted root veggies set before us, while the men stood in a ring behind eating on their feet, ready to replenish the fixings should any particular dish get low.
Of course, after one eats until the stomach is ready to burst, it is them time to dance the hora to combat the stultifying effects of all that food. And dance the hora we did – old, young, male, female, mayor, driver, attorney, secretary, janitor, and volunteer. There was no acceptable reason beyond keeling over and dying right there in the fallen leaves to not dance the hora.
It is quite refreshing to see that there is no inhibition on anyone’s part to get up and dance. Some of the males in this video are barely 20 years old….an age cohort that would most likely not know the first step of a waltz in the USA, much less being caught on the dance floor partaking. And they all dance well – it must be the natural result of being included in every dance on every occasion since you could walk.
And this is one particular cultural quirk of Moldovans to which it has been most challenging for me to acquiesce – the impermissibility of playing wallflower. One cannot float on the periphery and merely observe; there is no motive they can comprehend for not participating – fully, joyfully, and energetically – with all forms of active celebration. If you are there, you participate; “no” is not heard, accepted, or tolerated. They will wear you down. You will dance. And dance. And dance. And dance. (And actually end up enjoying it in spite of yourself.)
And if you get tired of dancing, if your feet are about to trip over themselves in a stupor and your knees are weak and cracking with the effort of propelling your leaden legs into the air, then you are permitted a wee break to embrace a tree and re-energize. What? Yeah, that’s what I said.
As the evening sun began to slip into the naked branches proffered arms, bathing them in a golden glow, I caught glimpses of shadowy forms engaged in locked embrace with some of the more substantial members of our little forest. Arms and legs wrapped around trunks, leaning in with head lying flat against bark, it seemed as if they were listening carefully for the thrum of a heartbeat, or perhaps the pulsing of sap coursing up through the roots to bring sunlight and energy to the higher branches, and the human partner so lovingly appended.
There was nothing “weird” about this – neither drugs nor excessive alcohol was to blame. Tree hugging, apparently, is not so much an environmental catch phrase here as it is a reverent commentary on the relationship that Moldovans still actively hold with nature and the land, especially after hours of dancing leaves one spent and limp and in need of jolt of energy. I was charmed, and humbled. And I refrained from taking pictures, as it was a too solemn, personal and seemingly sacred activity to demean by turning it into a voyeuristic photo opportunity. (If Moldovans aren’t taken pictures, you know it must be anathema…)
My first celebration with my new partners was definitely a mind-expanding journey, though. I was welcomed and integrated into the proceedings with no hesitancy or awkwardness. After so many weeks of solitary confinement in a small bedroom, it felt good to be dancing.
Today, in the course of a conversation between a German consultant visiting my center and my partner, the notion of a “Potemkin village” was used to illustrate those aspects of Moldova that can be so misleading for foreigners who try to understand how life works here. My partner had never heard this term, so we related the story (which experts now claim to be myth) of Potemkin erecting only the facades of settlements along the banks of the Dnieper River in order to fool Catherine II during her visit to Crimea in 1787; Potemkin wanted her to experience the area as more densely populated, flourishing and productive than it actually was. Oddly enough, my partner seemed to have trouble understanding the point of the story, almost as if it was perfectly natural for a government official to perform this sort of manipulative trick to impress a powerful benefactor. Such is life in Moldova.
Earlier this week, I received a request to relate the more mundane details of my weekly routine: what do I actually do here from day to day, what is my environment like, who do I encounter and where do I go? And as I thought about responding to this query, it occurred to me that my days are full of these Potemkin villages – the contrast between what is available to me as a Peace Corps volunteer versus what ordinary Moldovans can access; the wide range of locales that I visit and the varied people that I meet in my work and through the Peace Corps. Nothing is really as it seems, and all it takes is a scratch to the gleaming, brightly hued plastic surface to see the iron and rust lurking beneath.
Five Days in the Life of a Potemkin villager
I awake. Lindsey, a fellow volunteer now living in another village, has spent the night for convenience sake. She and I do a language lesson together on Wednesday mornings from 9-11 with our tutor, using the opportunity to converse with each other and receive immediate feedback on grammar and pronunciation. Peace Corps will pay for any volunteer to receive up to 12 hours per month of professional tutoring in Romanian or Russian, depending on the language needed for his or her assignment. I take full advantage of this and it is definitely one important way that Peace Corps invests in local economies throughout the country.
After my language lesson, I literally cross the street from my tutor’s third story apartment to my center. My partner, the center driver and I depart immediately for the Chișinău airport to pick up a consultant flying in from Frankfort, Germany. We negotiate the snow and ice and arrive at the airport prior to his plane landing, so we wander through the shops and restaurants in the small but modern airport that I barely remember seeing when I arrived in a stupor at the end of a 36 hour journey last June. There are many officials going in and out of various doors in full fur coats and leather boots, looking important and fully occupied. There is large Christmas tree decked in splendid regalia on the second
floor and the aroma of brewing coffee and yeasty breads fills the air. Puffy children in pastel hats, mittens, snow boots, and parkas waddle about like mini-marshmallows. (No one wants to peel off layers of buttoned, zipped, velcroed and snapped clothing for such a short amount of time. They are so adorable I want to eat them.)
I use the notepad on my iPad to write the German consultant’s name in big letters. My partner and the driver are entranced by the invisible mechanics of such a thing, fascinated that my finger can bring forth words on a screen. They peer at the letters closely and giggle.
Once having obtained our German, we depart the airport and are soon winding through a maze of twisted, pot-holed streets in the outskirts of the city. I realize that this is not the direction home: “Unde mergem?” Where we are going, I ask. “Scuzați, Yvette! Mergem să cautem brad am vazut pe internet ieri.” We’re going to find a Christmas tree my partner saw on the internet yesterday. Not at a store, mind you. Somewhere in this nest of crumbling apartment buildings someone has offered a tree for sale. So the German and I are left in the van to become buddies while my partner and the driver begin a lengthy search on foot for the tree. I try to explain to him that this is normal in Moldova – one maximizes trips into the city by performing a multitude of tasks when there. He nods sagely and relates that much the same is true in India, Afghanistan, and Kazakhstan, places he has visited for work on a multitude of occasions. I am oddly excited to have Moldova lumped in with such exotic locales.
My partner and the driver eventually emerge with a green stick that, upon closer inspection, proves to be an artificial Christmas tree. It possesses four or five bent, sparsely-leafed branches and has definitely weathered its share of holidays. Sigh. Even developing countries have fallen prey to Christmas plastic.
I spend the day attempting to negotiate the niceties for our German guest. He needs to change money, so we drive him to the nearest ATM (which is literally a block away, but no one walks in Moldova if the luxury of a “mașina” is accessible.) It takes three attempts for him to understand how to operate the machine. Meanwhile, it has begun to snow. He wants to stop every few steps as we head back to the car to finish telling me a story – his wife has admonished him not to walk and talk simultaneously when it’s icy. I am freezing and I can see my partner sitting in the front seat of the van wondering what in the heck we’re doing.
After retrieving money from this thoroughly modern convenience (accessible in Russian, English, Romanian, and French,) we drive to the local indoor piața to buy food for the dinner we are hosting at the center to celebrate its year anniversary and search for the cinnamon that the German wants for his breakfast toast. There we encounter entire sides of beef, legs of lamb, livers, tongues, chickens with feet attached, and fish complete with heads, scales and fins. Mounds of homemade cheese (called “brinza”) balance atop rickety wooden tables next to recycled plastic bags replete with unshelled walnuts, dried fruit, wrapped candy (manufactured in Moldova), and two liter water bottles refilled with milk. Bare, bloody hands transfer meat from table to scale to bag. Nothing is sanitized, inspected, or refrigerated, but – since it’s probably only 30 degrees – I tell myself I will not be concerned. Vagabond dogs wend through the table legs nose to concrete sniffing for scraps. Men are smoking in clusters around the meat and fish; their ashes pepper the swirling currents of air. At least its winter so there are no flies. Needless to say, there is no cinnamon.
During a feedback meeting with the German in the afternoon, my partner begins to cry. The beautiful façade of our center with its brightly colored murals, ergonomically-correct high chairs, handicap friendly bathroom, frothy curtains, and cartoon stencils is suddenly peeled back to reveal the seething cauldron of problems that sources her daily tears. After listening for an hour or two as I attempt to translate and summarize the various administrative and funding dysfunctions besetting the center, the German proposes the very same list of solutions that I so eagerly proffered mere months ago. He is met with the very same stubborn rebuttals and intractable arguments that were shoved back to me.
I explain to him that this Moldova; we are both liberally-educated, professionally-networked, culturally
privileged, westernized people using our analytical skills and inherent activism to tackle issues that have arisen in a foreign environment, that were born of a much different experience and informed by perspectives we don’t share and will most likely never understand. I see his shoulder sag subtly as he begins twisting his hands in his lap. God, I know the frustration he is feeling, mind scurrying from scenario to scenario, trying to find the invisible thread leading out of this tangled web back to sanity. I want so badly for him to find it where I’ve failed. Sadly, at this point I don’t hold out much hope.
In the evening I am invited to a masa at the lovely home of the second Angela – friend of the first Angela whose house I went to two weeks ago. I am amazed at the architecture: one enters into an intimate, cozy kitchen/dining/living room combination – a miniaturized version of the “great rooms” now so popular in American homes. The center is stabilized by the highly polished trunk of a tree that was culled from their property. The cabinets are all fashioned of a reddish, blond wood with glazed glass inlays and ornate handles that could have come from Restoration Hardware. Other smaller, sturdy trunks support the plastered ceilings of her and her husband’s bedroom, which they share with their 7 year old daughter until the time when their son, 18, is ready to move out and free the second bedroom for her. The bathroom sink is a shallow, smoky glass bowl, the shower fashioned from rough stones also plucked from their property. Angela is pleased that I shower praise on their creation that they designed and built themselves; “Most Moldovans just don’t get it,” she tells me, wryly.
The meal is hearty, the wine plentiful, and the conversation lively. I don’t get home and tucked into bed until well after midnight.
I arise at 5:30am, having lain awake for an hour already dreading the task ahead. I have to dress and ready my baggage for an overnight stay in Chișinău. I am attending the International Women’s Club of Moldova’s annual Winter Bazaar in order to sell Christmas cards, candles, and velvet bags fashioned by my center’s staff to supplement the meager cash they have set aside for the children’s holiday party. While I enjoy being in the capital once I’m there, the journey is fairly long and tedious. It is still dark and very cold when I leave the warmth of the apartment at 6:50am. Negotiating the steep, ice slicked asphalt of the driveway leading to the street, my feet slip out from beneath me and I land forcefully on my butt, driving the wind from my lungs.
At 6:55 I board the waiting rutiera that is scheduled to depart at 7:00 as I have planned to meet another PCV at 8:00am. I am the sole passenger. The driver and I converse about the difficulties of learning languages; he commiserates with me about the mishmash tongue that is loosely termed ‘moldovanești’ – an amalgam of Romanian, Russian, and Ukraine words that is variously spoken in the majority of the small villages. Peace Corps teaches us the proper version of Romanian, but this does not often match up with what we encounter at our sites. The further you travel from Chișinău, the greater the deviation from textbook style.
Many weeks ago, I discovered a well-organized (by Moldovan standards) website, autogara.md, which provides a comprehensive list of the departure and arrival times for buses traveling throughout the country and into Romania and Ukraine. I was so pleased – a schedule! I didn’t have to wander aimlessly up and down the street waiting for the right bus to appear. Instead, I can tear myself from the comfort of the apartment mere minutes prior to departure. The rutiera I have boarded, however, does not end up pulling out until 7:25, five minutes later than the scheduled time for the next departure of the day; only two more passengers have boarded in the interim. I know that I won’t make it by 8:00, but we Americans are smart by now: we pad in extra time to all appointments to account for the vagaries of Moldovan public transportation.
The Winter Bazaar is held at Moldexpo, a thoroughly modern exposition complex on the outskirts of the city. There are over a hundred booths, mostly embassies – Chinese, Turkish, Polish, Italian, German, English, American – along with the United Nations, various Moldovan NGOs, and the Peace Corps. Experienced participants know to mob the American Embassy booth early, buying up all the cans of Campbell’s mushroom soup, gallon bottles of Log Cabin syrup, one pound jars of Skippy Omega+ Creamy Peanut Butter and containers of Kraft Country BBQ Sauce before the front doors have even opened for business. Ahhh, American manufactured food – don’t we all just crave it, in spite of ourselves.
This day proves to be one of those disorienting experiences wherein I feel as if Scotty has beamed me up to the Starship America: ten or fifteen PCVs of various ethnicities, genders, and sexual identities are milling about inside the small PCV booth and spilling out into the pathway, transitioning smoothly from Romanian to
Russian to English while sharing plastic plates of Ethiopan and Italian cuisine, laughing at each other’s jokes, discussing the merits of Northface versus Marmot parkas, and comparing itineraries for upcoming vacations.
In the evening, my fellow PCV, Elsa, and I prepare a luscious dinner of oven-baked chicken basted with Kraft BBQ sauce, accompanied by the left-over Spanish rice she served for Moldovan guests a couple of nights before, and a side of fresh (!!!!) Swiss Chard grown by another PCV as part of his greenhouse project. While we are cooking, her Moldovan landlady stops by to pick up the payment for the electricity. She spends a good 20 minutes parsing out the details of the bill, seemingly striving for a rare transparency in a largely opaque cash economy. The Peace Corps allots hugely generous, mandatory, non-negotiable amounts for utilities and rent within our monthly stipends. Moldovans who are selected as host families or who are fortunate enough to land a PCV tenant most times do their very best to provide a pleasing experience, anxious to retain this steady boon to their monthly incomes.
I arise at 6:40am from the bed Elsa generously shared with me, trying not to wake her. She has slept restlessly for most of the night, waiting for two other PCVs whom she has told can sleep on her floor to arrive. Like most PCVs from small villages let loose in Chișinău on a weekend night, they want to maximize their time and don’t show up until the wee hours. That is the bane of being assigned to a project in the big city. The coveted ability to access a variety of perceived luxuries like bars, restaurants, bookstores, malls, operas, ballets, concerts, and well-stocked grocery stores is balanced with the need to build and maintain boundaries of privacy and quiet time. Having an apartment in Chișinău means constantly fielding requests from fellow PCVs to crash for the night when they trek into the city from far-flung locales. When you have a generous, nurturing soul like Elsa’s, the ability to say “no” is one that must be practiced over and over, despite the discomfort it brings.
Dawn is breaking as I spend a good twenty minutes enveloping myself in tights, body shirt, long underwear, sturdy canvas hiking pants, woolen sweater, scarf, hat, mittens under gloves, and water proof UGGs to brave the outdoors. I heave my pack onto my back and decide to take the stairs, as I doubt that me in all my layers plus back pack will fit inside the minute steel box that masquerades as an elevator. Plus, I just don’t trust the damn things.
I trudge through the peripheries of the city’s bustling center, dodging through smoking pedestrians; packs of skeletal, shivering dogs; broken manhole covers that plunge into murky abysses; empty plastic bags of various hues skittering in the wind; careening automobiles with horns that blare at the briefest obstacle; and bundled bunicas selling potatos, beets and cabbage at the crumbling pavement’s edge. Neon signs for gambling dens fight for air space with satellite dishes, trolleybus cables, and billboards advertising European label clothing and airline tickets to Turkey. The women, as always, are minutely coordinated, stylish bags match boots which match scarves which match parka trim which matches lipstick, blush, and eye shadow. I look like a misplaced hobo; I can see their eyes twitching disapprovingly from my shoes to my bulky jacket to the lumpish backpack that causes me to walk in a slightly hunched manner. I couldn’t care less.
I arrive at Peace Corps office, sign in, check the log for a stray package I might have overlooked, then trudge up three flights of stairs to the PCV lounge. By the time I get there I am sweating like it’s mid-July and must frantically discard my top two layers of clothing as quickly as possible. Various volunteers wander in and out, draping themselves about the second-hand furniture, dropping their belongings on the floor, mixing cups of instant coffee with plastic spoons retrieved from the trash, complaining of hangovers and the monumental journeys back to site. It reminds me of nothing so much as a college dorm room; disheveled youths far from home, parked behind iMacs blaring iTune playlists, exclaiming in delight when ripped open boxes from home spill out Cheetos, Kraft Mac N Cheese, deodorant, and warm winter clothing. People emerge from the shower with wet hair, wrapped in towels and proceed to dress with their backs oh-so modestly turned. Talk of projects, families back home, countdown until COS (Close of Service,) and the previous night’s escapades drift through the musty air. Me and two other PCVs, Sue and Tori, retreat to a back office to concentrate on plans for today’s effort to plug Turul Moldovei 2013 (more on this later.)
We emerge hours later into biting wind and mud spattered snow, facing a 35 minute walk to the Palațul de Republica where a formal event honoring volunteerism is set to occur. It takes us only moments to decide to hail a cab. Tori sticks her head in the window and begins negotiating a price. Sue and I stand alert at the back doors, hands on door handles, ready to dive in. Cars line up, honking impatiently, behind us. Though the price is 5 lei more than we originally decided to pay, we pile in hurriedly, willing to cede bargaining efforts for comfort. We inch our way between belching buses and shiny Mercedes only to catapult to 50 miles an hour through the open stretches of icy roadway, suffering whiplash on the sudden turns. Pedestrians scatter before us. Balalaikas blare tinnily from the radio.
We disembark before an imposing, pillared facade that has – no kidding – unfurled an actual red carpet atop the slushy, dirt-laced snow. Depositing purses, keys, and mobile phones on a table, we pass through a security detector which beeps loudly and blinks red for every person, leaving me to ponder the efficacy of its abilities. We enter a magnificent three-story hall, encrusted with chandeliers, burbling fountains, and galactic gold balls hanging from the ceiling like a retro-modernistic installation conceived in 1954. We check our coats with an actual coat check girl who hands us each a carved wooden tag embossed with a glittering number. We are ushered up to the second tier and encouraged to take our seats in the cavernous auditorium in preparation for the festivities to come; ah, but we are smarter than that now. We know that the performance will stretch into the evening hours, with no intermission or refreshments available. We surreptiously slink back down the grand staircase and proceed to effeciently accomplish our mission, nabbing the people we wish to meet as they walk through the detectors (beeping, flashing) in order to introduce ourselves and our future event. (Again, future blog post.) Within 30 minutes, we are hailing another cab back to Peace Corps.
A couple of hours later I am sitting in a swank coffee shop in a mall that could have been built in any California city, waiting to meet with an Irish woman who runs a large orphanage in Hîncești. Suzanne is an amazing force of nature, who emits energy and cheer throughout any space she enters. I find myself craving her company in these dour days of winter. She has generously offered to let us hitch a ride back in the van that transports the medical personnel working at the orphanage back to their homes in Chișinău every evening. Thank the sweet lord for this, as a blizzard is bearing down and the thought of negotiating the street corner wait and the various bus changes back to site is just overwhelming me at the moment. I have never appreciated personal vehicles – as environmentally depleting as I know them to be – as I have since winter has descended in full force upon Moldova.
I spend a few minutes in delightful conversation with Suzanne’s father, who is urbane and thoughtful, remarking to me about the bitter irony of this „Malldova” – an architectural showcase of shops which 95% of Moldovans cannot afford to patronize. (Just like South Coast Plaza, I think.) The coffee here is the same price it is in the States. Men finger their iPhones at the table adjacent to me, while brusquely barking at each other in a language I cannot identify. Heavily made up young women lounge next to them in real furs, feet encased in six inch stilettos. (How do they walk through the ice in those things? I think.)
The ride home is spent in silent, repetitive prayer to a Father God I don’t believe in – please don’t let me die on a highway in Moldova, please don’t let me die on a highway in Moldova. The driver is good, but the road is icy and sleet is blanketing the windshield with frost. There are no street lights or municipal trucks to salt the roads. We slide perceptibly on the curves, hydroplaning three or four times. When we finally turn onto the road leading into Hîncești, I feel the muscles in my neck and back I didn’t realize were clenched subtly relax.
It has been dark for 3 hours by 7:00pm when I shed all my layers, wash my weary face, and sink gratefully into
the easy chair bathed in the warm light of a table lamp in my room. Tomorrow, language lessons, 9:00am. I have not studied a word of Romanian (though granted I have been speaking it at various times throughout the past five days.) I am too tired to care. I am too tired to check email, Facebook, or the days news. I am too tired to eat. The book I am readying on my iPad sits heavily in my lap. Outside, snow is swirling and the wind is whistling through the twisted limbs of the tree just outside my window. An occasional truck thunders by.
Using my Google voice number, I call my husband. He is just waking up, contemplating a choice of cafes for breakfast and a leisurely perusal of the New York Times. Life is moving on at the same pace, in the same grooves, 6000 miles away. It is not snowing there. I hear Zoe bark once, sharply, in the background and picture the person she is warning walking past outside the window. His voice is so clear I could swear he was in the next room. I laugh at one of his jokes and my eyes suddenly fill with tears.
Happiness masking melancholy; plastic coating rust; glitter over darkness; facades hiding emptiness – it all rolls through me in a wave that crests, breaks, and then recedes again. I’m learning to negotiate the currents and swim with the tide. And actually, its really not that bad.
I took my love and I took it down
I climbed a mountain and I turned around And I saw my reflection in the snow covered hills
‘Till the landslide brought me down
Oh, mirror in the sky
What is love?
Can the child within my heart rise above?
Can I sail thru the changing ocean tides?
Can I handle the seasons of my life?
So this past Saturday I am cornered into attending baby Alexandru’s 5 month birth day party. As mentioned in a previous blog, my host sister Nina is the nona for a delightful young couple who have three boys, the youngest one for whom Nina is the „matsura.” This is akin to a godmother, though it doesn’t appear to have as much to do with religion as it does with providing presents each month on the anniversary day of his birth. (I am beginning to wonder if I will have to be in attendance for the next 7 months, until he turns one.)
The celebration is again in Boghaceni but – since it is not raining this time – I feel a bit less trepidation regarding the logistics of the journey. That was before I figured out that Nina would be traveling at a different time than me, so had arranged for me to accompany a male friend of hers that had been by the apartment a week or so ago for lunch. (Nina has quite a little harem of male friends whose relationship to/with her I am not able to absorb with any real degree of understanding.) This particular friend is a „profesor de mașina școala” (a driving school instructor) and purportedly has his own vehicle in which he conducts his lessons.
So I’m thinking: Cool, my own chauffer again – ala Therry . Only this time it’s an actual driving instructor so he probably drives a whole lot better. And, as I wait on the street in front of the apartment building for him to appear, I actually begin to have little fantasies about the car he drives: Perhaps it has door handles that work from the inside…maybe even seatbelts… air vents…maybe it will be one of those Landcruisers I see all over town with leather seats and leg room… crap! It might even have air conditioning OMG!!!
Then suddenly, he’s in front of me, smiling and lifting my bag and motioning for me to cross the street. Huh? Where’s the car? Maybe he parked across the street… Hey wait a minute! I realize this is not the driving instructor, but his side kick, the one that kept asking me if I had a daughter in SUA and whether she was married (dude, gross, you’re my age!) As I am busily trying form topics for conversation that don’t involve my daughter we stop at the corner amidst the crowds waiting for a ride out of town. Hmmm. Is he trying to solicit a passenger before we even get in the car? I’ve never seen this done before, but okay.
It takes me a full minute to realize that, in fact, there is no car, we have no ride, and we are among a haphazard hoard coalesced on this corn attempting to flag down some sort of vehicle to transport us into the hinterlands. Ok. I can do this. I can get into a car with a veritable stranger driven by another stranger to go to a strange village to celebrate a strange event with strangers. I am in the Peace Corps. And I have equipped myself suitably, this time, with a bottle of wine and a bag of candy. I am integrated. Can’t wait to get there.
It takes maybe 10 to 15 minutes, during which time my friend – let’s call him Andrei, I never did get his name, because, after spending as much time in close quarters with someone as I did him, you just can’t figure out the tactful way to ask his name – approached a variety of vehicles, from luxury SUVs to something sporting four wheels that was just barely above a horse cart, before he finally found us a ride on a plumbers? Electricians? Construction suppliers? van headed for the Romanian border. It had room enough for a multitude of us and that’s indeed what boarded….maybe 8 to 10 people. My friend Andrei seemed to immediately adopt the cruise director role – he is inviting others aboard and negotiating prices and storing baggage and helping old ladies board. Everybody instantly adores him.
We sit in the front with the driver and I am instantly in the middle of a lively repartee. Jokes are flying back and forth and words I’ve never heard, punctuated by loud guffaws, are exchanged (everyone in back is strangely silent – I think it best not to ask.) I clutch my bag, managing not to land on the dashboard or Andrei’s lap through interminable miles of bumpy, pothole punctuated road. Two times the van/truck pulls over and Andrei negotiates prices with the people congregated on the side of the road (why he is suddenly anointed part of the bargaining team, I could not for the life of me figure out.) He also gets out to help another bunică (grandmother) onto the truck. She apparently gets to ride for free.
After about 45 minutes we are dropped off at the side of the highway at a place I vaguely recognize to be near the road I turned down the last time I visited the baby Alexander. Only we’re some 100 yards afield ( kilometers?) from the turnoff and Andrei doesn’t appear to be the least bit interested in heading that way. Instead, he motions me to pull out my phone (it seems he doesn’t have one – what?) and we make a call to Nina, who shouts something rapidly, and all but unintelligibly, to me and then hangs up. We try several other phone numbers with no answer. We call back Nina and I hand the phone quickly to Andrei. He speaks for awhile and I gather that the car that is supposed to retrieve us is not working and we will have to walk. Oh really. Here we go again. (Me and my diva knee.)
So we walk. Down a road in the opposite direction of the road I took before. (Andrei? I don’t think this is the road…no cred acest este drumul…) And we walk. But – oh my lord above, and now I hear the angels singing, – a rutiera goes by and dear Andrei flags it down. Some words are exchanged. Things aren’t perfect I can tell – this is a rural road going nowhere and this rutiera cannot be the final solution, but we board. And drive about a hundred feet (meters?) And then stop. In front of a gate to a house. And someone comes out. And I dare to think: oh, we are here! Even though this wasn’t the road I took before and this isn’t the house I went to before, perhaps we are here! And Andrei is back slapping the dude and they are talking and laughing and he invites us in and then we’re in a courtyard where some 20 people are seated around a table with a pile of food and wine. And a glass of wine is poured, for both me and Andrei. And the standard “Noroc” is hailed and we clink glasses and drink. But I don’t see Nina…unde este Nina? I ask. Andrei looks at me funny. Mergem…(we go.)
To continue walking. A mile of country road. Goats. Geese. Silence. Unde vom merge? (Where are we going?) Another quizzical look from Andrei. (Like, why is this so hard to understand, you dimwitted American?) Then there is a man standing on a corner. Andrei engages him in animated conversation. The man takes my bag. He begins to walk with us down another road. (Is he a guide, sent to find us? An angel affirming our path? A beggar looking for a handout? I have not a clue. I never will find out.) Some twenty or so minutes later we enter another gate. No one appears to be around. Andrei calls out. A man emerges from one of the houses in a bathrobe. It is the original driving school instructor. He is naked beneath a bathrobe that barely hits his knees. The man carrying my bag returns it to me, gives us a salute and departs. I guess we don’t know him, after all. (Just like we didn’t know the people at the first house, where the rutiera dropped us, and they offered us wine.)
The driving school instructor returns to the house. I accompany Andrei into the extensive garden out back, where I spend a half hour admiring the plushly plump grapes and dead yellowed corn. We return to the house when we hear Nina’s voice. She is really here. I am not a victim of an eastern European human trafficking ring, after all.
Thence commences a three hour interlude in which I am fed wonderfully roasted meats, fresh vegetables, homemade bread, and watermelon, washed down by a not insignificant number of glasses of homemade wine. I must confess that I spend most of the time with the six year old, who is completely and all too easily enamored by the games I’ve previously downloaded onto my iPad ( I do think ahead, folks.) Romanian chatter surrounds me. I understand a smattering. A mere smattering. I am blissfully happy not having to respond, caught up in play with the six-year-old ( never mind that it isn’t me he wants, it’s the iPad doing all the engagement.)
And then it’s time to leave (after the dancing part, but I don’t think I could really do that justice, so I’ll just leave it out for now.) We’ve made the obligatory trip to the beci (the underground cave where Moldovan’s store their wine and jars of peppers and probably conduct all their dirty deeds) and I have been offered, and drank, the requisite cupful of 200 proof alcohol. My head is reeling. Now we need to find our way home, the three of us (thank God,) Nina, Andrei, and me.
Alexandru’s father gives us a ride to the highway. We disgorge from the car a laughing, rollicking mess – all three of us are drunk beyond our extended years. We’re much too old for this. Now we find ourselves standing by the side of deserted highway. Not a car in sight.
But- what’s this? There are hummingbirds. Yes. Hummingbirds, feeding on flowers by the side of the highway. And I am, of course, enamored. Hummingbirds!! I say. (This in English.) Andrei and Nina don’t speak English. I MUST find the words to communicate. BBBBRRRRRR, I say, and flap my arms. I point to the hummingbirds. “Pasarea mica” (Little birds) BBBBBRRRRZZZZ. Nina grimaces. “Insecte!” she says, very clearly. Huh? Insect? NO, IT’S A HUMMINGBIRD! BBBBRRRRZZZZZ.
And then they start laughing, Andrei and Nina. And laughing. And laughing. And laughing. “Nu vorbești Engleza, nu vorbești Română.” (you can’t speak English, you can’tspeak Romanian.” They think I am making buzzing noises because I am drunk. They are falling down by the side of the road; laughing at me. I laugh along. I WILL integrate, I will!!!
And then a huge truck is pulling up, right alongside of us, as we are rolling about on the road. Andrei springs to action, garnering us a ride. And then I am heaving myself after Nina, 10 feet (meters?) up in the air. The seat is dented, crooked ( like so much of Moldova) and I spend the entire 45 minute ride trying not to roll onto Andrei’s lap as he braces himself against the dashboard. Jokes are flying, along with our bags, as we careen down the road at a high rate of speed, accompanied by a mishmash of Russian/Ukranian rap inexplicably punctuated with American love ballads. By this time of night I should be asleep, only I am too conscious of how close I am brushing up against anonymous death. I should be remembering this moment, I think.
And it seems that I did.
(Were they really hummingbirds, I try to recall the next day? Or giant scary insects? Who is right, I think? Who really cares…)
So another adventure in Moldovan logistics leaves me wilted and limp from the effects of too much sun and an adrenaline rush. Some times I wonder if I will survive my Peace Corps service intact.
This is my driver, Therry. Now he’s not my personal driver, but he has been the person – other than anonymous rutiera drivers – primarily responsible for transporting me from point A to point B in Moldova. He picked me up in Chișinău and brought me to Hîncești, he drove Ana and I to a work-related meeting in Chișinău last week, and yesterday she arranged for him to drive me and two other PCVs to Orhei Veche for the Gustar music Festival (more on that in a minute.) He is somehow connected to Ana and/or the organization where I work, but the details remain ambiguous and elusive.
Therry is French. He speaks only French, yet he’s lived in Moldova for more than two years. He doesn’t appear to have a job, yet he certainly isn’t without money or other resources. I asked him once (through Google translate) how he made money to live here and he actually made the sign for zipping his lips and walked away. That was the end of that conversation.
Therry is almost stereotypically, cartoonishly French, his gestures are so animated and exaggerated. He is forever kissing women’s hands, arms and cheeks – a mode of greeting viewed as informally, inappropriately intimate and not usually welcomed or tolerated by Moldovan woman from perfect strangers. But somehow he gets away with it. Probably because he’s French.
Therry drives in a manner commensurate with his personality – large, haphazard, and flamboyant. Lanes are not even suggestions, they’re meaningless markings left behind from some another rule-bound activity that couldn’t possible apply to him. One side of the road is as legitimate as the other in the race to reach his destination. Other drivers are obstacles placed in his trajectory that he must surmount and occlude. Potholes are launching pads for gaining air speed. At one point I checked the speedometer and he appeared to be doing 95. This, in a Renault four-speed van that was not manufactured in this century, equipped with just the shoulder-harness part of the seatbelts and door handles that only work from the outside. Now I understand why vehicle accidents represent the largest percentage of all Peace Corps’ in-service fatalities. And I’m not even in Africa.
Therry was supposed to pick me up at my house at 10:00am for the two-hour trip to Orhei Veche. By 10:30 when he hadn’t arrived, I texted Ana. (This, and all my subsequent communication with Therry throughout our tumultuous day, had to be conducted through a web of communication devices involving my partner Ana, who speaks French and Romanian; her friend Doina, who speaks Romanian and English; Irina, who was in the car with us, but only speaks Romanian; and me. It felt a bit like the United Nations.) Ana texted back to say that Therry was at the vets with his dogs and would be here at 11:00.
When 11:30 arrived with no sign of Therry I texted Laura, who was waiting for us at the PC Office, to call her work partner Doina to find out what was going on. Doina called Ana who said that Therry had come to my door, knocked and rang the bell repeatedly, but got no answer. (Apparently, he went to the wrong apartment.) Ana sent Therry back again to retrieve Lindsey and me. When he pulled up, there were already five people in the van, including him. He was motioning for us to get in, even though there was no room. I climbed in the luggage space in back of the seats and Lindsey got onto someone’s lap in the back. I immediately called Doina to tell her I didn’t know where we were going to put Laura. As we were talking, however, Therry pulled up to an apartment building and the three others in the back with Lindsey got out. (It turned out they were Irina’s kids who they decided to take with them when they couldn’t find us.)
By 12:30, 2 ½ hours after our scheduled departure time, we had picked up Laura and were on the road to the Gustar music festival at Orhei Vechi. Why anyone would allow music promoters to hold a festival at the site of a thousand-year-old archeological site astounds me, but this is what happens when governments are occupied with struggles that prioritize concerns more basic than the preservation of history and culture. (Paul, you were interested in hearing samples of the local music: click on the “Gustar” link above for a video showcasing many of the performers.)
We roared into the parking lot about 2:30pm. And I do mean roared. Therry barely slows down to park, so we hit the small boulder that you see in the left foreground in this picture at about 25 miles an hour. Hence, the flat tire. Puzzled at the hissing of air, Therry exits the vehicle sees the tire and shrugs: “Nu problemu.” (I think this is an amalgamation of Spanish, French, and Romanian.) We left him to deal with the ‘problemu’ and climbed a few steep grades in 95 degree heat to find the festival. We ran into a host of other foreigners, from various points in the globe, all of whom spoke English (it is the common tongue of the world, still.)
In case you didn’t click on the links above, here are some of the pictures I took of the monks’ cells carved out of the slope and the most amusing site at the festival: a train made from oil cans and drawn by a tractor:
The festival was the just the juxtaposition of centuries I’ve come to expect from Moldova: horse drawn carts and hay wagons coupled with a state of the art sound system and cold beer on tap. A host of PCVs were there with tents and sleeping bags; they planned on making a weekend of it. Me? I guess 50 is NOT the new 18 when it comes to sleeping on the ground, peeing in the bushes, and negotiating crowds of party animals. I braved the ride back with Therry, whom we only found again after an hour of cross-texting and phoning between our multi-lingual navigation team. When we finally reunited (after another mile and half trudge in mind-bending heat – no wonder I’m losing weight by the hour) I climbed in the back, buckled my scrap of a seat belt, and closed my eyes. I didn’t open them again until Therry slammed us into the curb in front of my apartment. Man was I glad to be home.