Here I am…

Having returned (and survived) six days of training, intensive language study, and meetings in Chișinău, I thought I would catch up those of you who care here instead of writing emails explaining my protracted online absence (sorry Mom!)

PDM – Project Design Management

(or, how to get your partner to finally believe what you’ve been saying all along)

Though many PCVs will complain about having to sit through trainings, in the end this one proved to be one of the more helpful ones we’ve endured.  Although I am currently without a partner, I did attend and sat in on discussions between a couple of my friends and their partners.  All of the volunteers I spoke with commented on experiencing that hit-yourself-on-the-head moment when they witnessed their Moldovan counterpart nodding in sage agreement to something that the trainer had said, usually a basic bit of standard accounting  practice or how to properly state objectives or putting outcome measurements in place that were just not accepted or valued when articulated by the volunteer at site.  (Of course, most of us have trouble articulating anything more profound than inquiring after someone’s family or refusing a third cup of wine, so perhaps it was all lost in translation.)

PC Moldova staff seems to understand and appreciate the basic cultural chasms that threaten to engulf all one’s good intentions and resolute cheer and hence schedule training at strategic points throughout one’s service in anticipation. This one definitely hit the mark.  While it was somewhat disappointing to be there stag, it was good to be part of the general positivity and energy in the room for the two and half days of the training.

The nights are another matter altogether….

Because our times together as a group are dwindling, volunteers took full advantage of the opportunity to “be American” and hang out together in the big city. My preference for smaller groups and more intimate gatherings kept me generally out of the loop; the one night I did join in – Friday – I suffered the casualty of discovering my iPhone swimming in a puddle of red wine on a table where I had left it unattended for a span of minutes.  The screen is now obstinately silver gray and I can only see the icons by holding it to a bright light and tilting it at an angle. Sigh.

Language Training

(or, stepping up to the broader conversation topics just beyond a third grader’s reach)

Although I am fortunate to have the services of a superior language teacher at site, many volunteers live so far out that they have no access to regular, quality language instruction.  So Peace Corps provides this last little bit of help to launch us beyond subject-verb clauses into more meaty discussions containing direct/indirect objects, subjunctive phrases and maybe an adverb or two.  Poftim.

What I enjoyed most about this two day session was the opportunity to speak at length with the instructor without having to remain on a third grade level.  She helped us formulate our thoughts and clarify our responses to queries ranging from family dynamics (“Who should be responsible for finances in a family, husband or wife?”) to personal goals and objectives (“Is it important to strive for a good professional position?”) to  the political arena (“Do you think Moldova would benefit from joining the European Union?”)  It is wicked good to be able to converse with a host country national in their native language on topics beyond daily schedules and sustenance. Because I often times have trouble following the rapid speaking styles of most people here, I just can’t maintain my end of the conversation in these areas in most instances.

Sunday, through several hours of unhurried conversation, I discovered our instructor to be thoughtful, sensitive, hopeful, and a huge fan of Americans.  She commented at length on how becoming a Language Teaching Instructor (LTI) for Peace Corps Moldova has changed her way of being in the world.  When she was first hired, she went through a series of trainings that taught her about how Americans typically behave and perceive others, and it made her consider the manner in which she usually reciprocated – not only to Americans but even relative to other Moldovans.  Now she understands and appreciates the value of exchanging smiles with people walking on the street, or cultivating relationships with the checker at the market, or being more empathetic with the fifth-level students at her school who chafe at rules and recitations.  The Second Goal of the Peace Corps – helping to promote a better understanding of Americans in the people served – has an impact even within the context of Moldovan’s relationships with each other and not just for those who might conceivably travel or live in the United States at some point. This intelligent and inquisitive woman has gained a broader perspective of what it means to be human and I was very proud realizing that America had a piece in her learning.

Turul Moldovei 2013

(Or, the announcement you’ve all been waiting for…)

I am aware that every time I’ve happened to mention Turul Moldovei in this blog I’ve followed it with “more about that later.”  Well, ‘later’ has arrived as I think it’s just now hit home to me and my fellow organizers that June is going to be on us in the blink of an eye.  (Which is very strange to acknowledge as June will mean I’ve hit the half way mark of my service.)

One of my very good friends here, Sue, was sitting at the bar with all of us during PST – way back in July or August, so very long ago – and tossed out the observation that since this country was so very small compared to others where we could’ve been placed, we should just get together and walk through the damn thing, border to border – just for the heck of it!  Because we’re Americans and that’s what we American’s do!

Well, we all thought this was a jolly good idea (beers having been consumed, after all) but instead of just letting it die in the puddles on the table, we’ve nudged it along through the ensuing months and actually gave it some legs during our last training in September, when we held an interest group session to communicate the idea to the other volunteers, until now it has suddenly become bold enough to star as one of two main events recognizing the 20th Anniversary of Peace Corps Moldova.  Whew!

In a nutshell, two groups of volunteers – and, hopefully, lots of Moldovans – will be walking either a northern or southern route from June 15 – 30, meeting in Chisinau on the final day.  We will be holding events at each stop along the way to highlight the accomplishments of Peace Corps Moldova, to create visibility and excitement for volunteering in general, and to celebrate an active and healthy lifestyle. We will be sleeping under trees, on school room floors, in community centers (or with the pigs, cows, and chickens, for all we know,) as we are relying on the villages to put us up at night and provide us food after the day’s event.  It is in an excellent opportunity to broaden America’s visibility to those Moldovans who might not ever leave the intimate world of their small town and for us to get to know those who have been so hospitable and kind to Americans throughout our service here.  I am really excited about this (though I am not sure my diva knee will let me walk the entire 200-260 kilometers!)

I am collaborating with Sue and a Health Education PCV to steer the work on this project and have just volunteered to write the proposal for a PCPP grant.  Peace Corps Partnership Proposals allow volunteers to seek funding from organizations and individuals in America, on a tax-deductible basis, for projects that build capacity or transfer skills to host country nationals. Though I am not yet entirely sure if our project will meet the strict guidelines, I do hope that if it comes through many of you will consider making even a token contribution.  It is a way to create and sustain a bridge between my two lives and for all of you to collaborate with me in making a lasting impact here that will resonate long after I am gone…

More on this later!

Life in Retrospect

Sunrise Great Bend Kansas

Last year at this time, Mike and I were in the middle of a cross country trip across America, an impetuous odyssey we embarked upon like a pair of draft horses suddenly finding themselves loosed from reins, harness, and dray.  We were giddy, light, unencumbered, reminiscent of nineteen, only this time we had a late model vehicle and plenty of cash to fuel the experience.  As I remember it, it was four months of almost uninterrupted bliss.  I loved sleeping in tent, having no kitchen to keep, no floors to scrub, no schedule to mind.  We were free to travel the little chicken scratch roadways off the main arteries whenever the mood would strike us or stay for an extra day in a particularly picturesque local on a whim.  We walked miles and miles of trails, listening to water run over rock and birds cry in bottomless sky.  We cooked under trees and brushed our teeth beside lakes and stood silently before Technicolor sunsets.  We met interesting characters, treated ourselves to expensive restaurant dinners once or twice, and spent countless quiet nights huddled in camp chairs watching movies on a computer perched atop an ice chest set between us.  We lived for a month in a creaky cottage perched behind the dunes of a tiny beach town on Chesapeake Bay.  I have a multitude of pictures from that trip and I keep returning to them again and again and again these days, longing for the gratuitous expanses of America that taunted us just beyond the windshield for a magic season in our lives.

Our tent in Shenandoah on this same day last year
Mike makes fire!


Why is life so much kinder to us in retrospect? How artfully it soothes us by softly tinting and blurring our memories, embellishing and erasing as needed to make the captured occasion coyly play to our looping hunger for dramatic fulfillment. Life seems fuller, grander, more satisfying in retrospect, whereas our daily life in the present often seems fraught with cotton balls and mush. The soporific of ennui is so pervasive, pernicious, and stultifying, it dulls our senses and makes now less preferable to then.  We don’t know how to engage our boredom, where to find its chokepoint, how to lay our fists about its bland face.  We only feel ourselves increasingly short of breath, narrowed down, pinned in, suddenly beige and unsatisfied.  And that’s when we clutch about spastically, searching for a lifeline somewhere amidst the photographs forever bobbing in our wake, little pincushion reminders that every once in awhile we are granted a reprieve, jolted alive and awake for a period of time when it all made sense and environment, emotion, and intellect were all knit together in a warm and recognizable pattern that comforts us to look upon later.

Pensacola west

I shored up some more of these life savers again during the last two weeks – capturing scenes and freezing impulsive actions that will serve as nourishment over the long, lonely months ahead.  I could not explain to you why people I met four months ago have become so large and significant in my life.  Perhaps because those photos of America are receding now on the horizon, despite my desperate attempts to anchor them vividly in my mindscape.  The human mind searches for purpose, endlessly trying to trace patterns, establish significance, imprint meaning into experience.  This is the mechanism of memory – the why of remembering one thing over another.  Perhaps it is also why the memory of something tends to be so much richer sometimes than the actual experience was when it occurred: it has the opportunity to soak in and establish connections with other memories and become embellished by subsequent experiences and tie together all the loose, unarticulated longings that reminiscing can evoke.

America may be out of reach for awhile, but it is good to know that other memories are being formed right where I am now.

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

Back in the kitchen again…

Borscht verde, otherwise known as fresh from the garden veggie soup

So here I sit in sick bay while all the rest of my compatriots travel on to their new sites and volunteer service, taking their first steps into their new lives.  I have been watching FB all day, tracing their footsteps through their new villages, comparing the size of their bedrooms with my own, lusting after the masa (feasts) wherein their new host families celebrate their coming by spreading a multitude of wonderful dishes across the table.  Hey wait a minute, I think.  I have a kitchen…and some veggies from Nina’s garden…and some odds and ends in the cupboards left by former inhabitants of this den.  I can cook something…

One of the less positive effects of Pre-Service Training and living with a host family is that it slammed the trainee back into the experience of childhood again.  We relied on the Peace Corps staff or our host mother or our Language Training Instructors or even the M26’s and M25’s to script our lives for us.  Almost every waking moment was defined by language lessons, tech training, homework, studying, self-directed activities or field trips or traveling back and forth to hub site or cluster site.

When I knew I would be here, on my own, at TDY for a week or so, I actually felt a bit of trepidation.  No Nina to prepare my healthy meals?  How will I eat?  On Friday, I ventured into Everest, a pseudo-supermarket (everything is almost, in Moldova,) like a 10 year old given the responsibility of cooking some dinner for her siblings while mom worked late. All the labels are in Russian, so one must have a pretty good sense of what the picture on the packet might be in order to feel confident in making a purchase decision.  The produce section was sad and empty (most everyone grows their own or buys in the piața.) There was an entire shelf of white rice (no brown) and pasta (all semolina,) supplemented by hrisca and lentils.  They do like their carbs here.  I ended up with a carton of mushrooms (haven’t had those since I left the States,) some Activa yogurt (same label as the States,) a miniature loaf of black bread and some carbonated water.  Yea for me.

Today, after seeing all those masa spreads, I remembered the bag of veggies that Nina pressed on me as I was leaving Friday morning. Well damn, I don’t want another yogurt and I polished off the jar of peanut butter someone left in the cupboard (sweet!) for breakfast.  It was strange at first, peeling the onions, mincing the garlic, chopping the dovlece (like a squash, only seedless…even sweeter!)  Like maybe I wasn’t old enough to be handling sharp knives. I felt Nina hovering over my left shoulder, clucking disapprovingly. While she made some good, healthy soups, they tended to taste very much the same.  She had a limited repertoire of herbs – parsley and dill – and used only salt and pepper to flavor.  And, in characteristic Moldovan style, one did things the same each and every time.  She cooks the way her mother taught her, the way her mother taught her before that.  Nothing changes. Tradition holds.

Now that I was on my own, I went through the cupboards and pulled out mysterious packets of Russian-labeled spices and had at it with impulsive America style.  Then I threw in some habanero sauce I brought from home – this was verboten in Nina’s house as it was way too hot for any Moldovan who tried it (mild by our standards, mild!)  With a small handful of egg noodles to thicken it up, I had myself an aromatic concoction burbling on the burner in no time.

Let me tell you, the succulence of vine-ripened tomatoes and the sharpness of fresh plucked garlic make for amazing soups – I surprised myself!  I had two bowls.  But it wasn’t just my body being nourished: I felt like I had slipped right back into my age-old soul, wielding that knife on the chopping board.  I’m back in the kitchen again, self-sufficient, creative, and all grown up again!  Thank you, dear Hestia! And let me keep enjoying while the vegetables are ripening…

Fast Friends really fast

Community Development PSTs in Stauceni

From left to right: Warren, Leslie, Jan, Yvette, Roberto, Georgia, Patty, Quinn (Robyn taking photo.)

It’s amazing how close you get in just eight weeks. We will all be departing to different locations spread across Moldova on Friday.  I am going to miss having them around.  The worries, anxieties, complaining, support, laughter, tears and beers we’ve shared will stay with me for a long, long time.

Thanks you guys!

Roberto, Robyn, Warren, Leslie, Yvette, Jan, Olga, Diana, Quinn, Rodica, Georgia, Patty

Celebrating Georgia’s mama gazda ei zi de nastere (Olga’s birthday) last week.


So THIS is the Peace Corps

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

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

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

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

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

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

Drum roll, please…

Waiting is the hardest part

So the Peace Corps really knows how to make you wait.  First, the application process, which should’ve clued me in to their general modus operandi in getting news out to the eagerly awaiting recipient.  Then, the placement process, wherein you sit in agonizing pain waiting to find out where in the world you are going to live for the next two years (Africa? Mongolia? Khazikstan? Peru?)  Then, you get to your host country and have to wait a whole month for the final – biggest – question to be answered: what in the heck will I be doing anyways?

The lecture hall

Yesterday, they made us wait all day before announcing our assignments.  We had to sit through hours of language in the morning and then various lectures on how the decision process was made and how to accept the information that you will hear in a professional manner.  (Basically, buck up and be a grown-up, this is the life you chose when you signed up for the Peace Corps and we never promised you a rose garden, ladies and gentlemen.  In fact, we never promised you anything but “the hardest job you’ll ever love.”) They finally herded us all out to the front of the school to wait for another seemingly endless time while they “prepared” the announcements.

PCT Nicole in the lecture hall

Here is a video of the staging.  Someone is chalking in a very approximate map of Moldova on the school playground and pasting the raion centers and site placements inside.  The rest of us are milling about trying not to look as if we care where we are being sent (after all, we were all there for the CD’s lecture.) Despite that, most of us do care.  A LOT.  It’s somewhat akin to hanging out in the quad waiting to be asked to the prom.  Only it doesn’t matter how pretty or popular or rich you are – it’s all been decided by the big people at headquarters strategic ally matching host agency needs with volunteer skills and age and education and host family availability.

They called people’s names one at a time and you received your welcome letter and job description from your host agency work partner and then went to stand on your spot in the map.  Some poor souls were stranded way out in the perimeter with no one nearby (Patty.) Some of us were placed in the capital city of Chisinau (my friends Elsa and Romy – they were SO excited.)  I will be working and living in Hîncești, a raoin center (sort of a county seat) of 20,000 people about 40 minutes from Chisinau by bus.

Where in the world is Yvette – ah, Hîncești!

Hîncești is just below the fold in the map above, to the southwest of Chișinau.  My work partner is a younger woman who apparently worked for an bigger organization in the capital that now wants to start a smaller subsidiary in her own town of Hîncești.  It is an organization that is working to integrate disabled children into regular classrooms and civil society.  She is looking, basically, for a mentor during this process, someone with a knowledge of how to set up a non-profit or NGO and get it running effectively. How to get funding, grants, raise public awareness and create positive marketing for the cause.  I certainly want to be of help and know that I have pertinent skills to offer.  If only I get break through the language barrier.  (It has been difficult enough learning how to speak socially – learning business language and culture will be another challenging hurdle.)

I will be living with another Nina who is a single woman with her own apartment (yea! indoor plumbing!!!)  She apparently sells Avon for a living, though how one makes enough to live on selling Avon astounds me – she must be good.  I have a feeling I might be wearing a lot more make up in the future…

So after all the drama and mental exhaustion of the day, a group of us went to the Beir Platz to celebrate.  We all marked each other’s maps of Moldova with our new site locations.  The M26s helped translate our welcome letters. I had a shot of tequila.  It was divine.

Ross, Elsa, Beni, and Romy
Jesse (M26) Warren and the picture Patty will kill me for sharing

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.

Not Much Time…


My language classroom


I’ve discovered over the past few days that my internet access at Nina’s home is intermittent and largely unpredictable.  Mostly, it seems to work best at 6:00am, a time when I am not feeling so inspired to blog.  So when I saw the bars appear in the lower left hand corner of the screen while I was conjugating my “to be’ verbs, I grabbed my computer and moved over to the corner of the room where the signal is the strongest.  I am madly trying to get photos uploaded before the signal disappears again…


My view


So here is the classroom where I spend the majority of my mornings.  It’s actually quite pleasant (when it’s not a 100 degrees inside; Moldovans do not use air conditioning.)  There is a year round kindergarten in session downstairs so our studies are set to the lilting sounds of children laughing and playing.  Speaking of conjugating verbs.  Oh MY GOD.  Language lessons took a sudden jet-propelled thrust into DIFFICULT today: who in the world decided that substantive definite and substantive indefinite nouns should be modified differently?  According to whether they are male, female, singular, or plural? Can’t we just toss a “the” or “these” in front of them and be done with it???   And then conjugate the verbs and adjectives, too, accordingly?  I have lists two sheets long for conjugating just the male form of the verb “to be.”  This is crazy hard to keep straight in my head.


Public well in neighborhood. Fill your cup. Noroc!

Today, for a bit more fun, I partnered up with Warren and Patty and we walked through our assigned quadrant of Stauceni to conduct our first experiment in “community mapping.” This is a tool we each will use at our assigned site for getting to know our community, its layout, socioeconomic and industrial composition, demographics, gender divisions and roles, etc.  We literally walked the streets using my iPad (ok – we’re so American) GPS mapping tool to find our way down to the winery, bus stations, altamenteri, lyceum, premir (mayoral) residence, where we then stood around taking pictures and writing down notes and generally looking like completely here from space tourists.  It was fun.

Then we went to the bar for a beer.  We all spend quite a bit of time at the bar, trying to cop an internet fix (free Wi-Fi) and sip our cheap ass beer as slowly as we can in order to hang out for hours without appearing to be loitering.  I tried buying a Perrier today because I thought it would look bad to get a beer for lunch, but it cost me 40 lei and a beer is only 15. Robyn bought a pot of tea and it was 25 lei.  It’s like they’re forcing us poor volunteers to consume alcohol…

Warren and Patty in the bar

Tomorrow, we’re off to Chisinau again in the spa bus to “team build” with the other volunteers in a park.  The weather shows thunderstorms, so this might be interesting as Moldovans don’t stop their activities just because of a little rain. ( I’ve seen blog pictures of picnics being conducted under hand held umbrellas.)