The first day of spring (Moldovan style,) my new partner’s birthday, a commemoration of war heroes (Transnistria and Afghanistan,) and my first day of work all coincided to welcome me to my new home today. What a day!
Marțișor is traditionally celebrated on the first day of March in Moldova – never mind when the actual equinox occurs. Today was a perfect showcase for the celebration – brilliantly sunny with a bright blue sky ornamented with wispy clouds and framed by the bare, supplicating limbs of surrounding trees. The chill nip of the morning was offset by the warmth of the sun blanketing my shoulders as I donned a sweater (no down parka needed) and set off down the road for my first day at the office.
When I arrived, Doamna Valentina presented me with a small bouquet for my lapel comprised of a red and white flower. This is a tradition here; both women and men wear these for the whole month of March and on the last day one is supposed to place it in the boughs of a tree and make a wish. True to Doamna Valentina’s reputation for thoroughness and efficiency, she presented me with three variations and a duplicate so I have sufficient resources to make it through the month’s end.
My Peace Corps Program Manager wisely insisted that the Doamna Valentina assign me a partner in her office with whom to work other than herself. There are two reasons for this:
1) Peace Corps does not want to be perceived as providing “personal assistants” to political figures, which could be misinterpreted as favoring one particular party over the other, and 2) Mayors are way too busy to devote time to training and explaining tasks to a novice – especially one whose command of Românian is barely breaching middle-intermediate at best.
Poftim, enter Tatiana, my lovely, just-turned 23 partner who is the building and construction specialist for the mayor’s office. And who speaks wonderful American English as a result of two summers recently spent in North Carolina in a work-and-learn program. Tatiana – or Tania, for short – has a bachelor’s degree in construction engineering and is currently attending university in Chișinău to earn her Masterat (as they call it) in Real Estate. Not sure how that translates to an American degree, but there you go.
She’s an intelligent, ambitious young woman who was not afraid to stand up to those male professors who didn’t believe a female had any business in their classrooms. Her father is an engineer with his own construction business; apparently he is very successful and has engineered and built buildings throughout Moldova. She is intent on joining his business and carrying on the family trade.
Almost immediately, Tania and I joined the entire office in a parade through the middle of town that ended in a gathering in a park to commemorate the “heroes” of the Afghan (1979-89) and Transnistrian (1992) wars. There was much singing and awarding and speechifying and more singing, and then some fireworks exploding (literally) five feet to my right and it was finally over after about an hour of standing in the still chill air.
Returning to the office we began to prepare for Tania’s birthday masa. In Moldova, birthdays are a bit more formal and serious in the manner in which a gift is presented to the celebrant. One stands and receives with grace both the gift and a stream of felicitous wishes and declarations to health, happiness, long life, success, money, and love, after which kisses on both cheeks are exchanged. Tania was receiving phone calls, bouquets of tulips (her favorite flower) and speeches from troops of co-workers entering her office for an hour before the meal began.
Tania’s father brought in a bucket load of food prepared by her mother; though neither attended the celebration her brother and his girlfriend stopped by. We fit about 15 people around the table to eat and drink homemade wine and cognac. It was a lovely way for me to meet everyone.
Everyone in Moldova is bi- or tri- (and sometimes more, what is that – quatro?) lingual – I feel quite provincial in their midst, but they laugh and tell me “If you know English, you know all you need to know.” They are quite excited to have a native speaker among them and are already clamoring for English lessons (the bane of PCVs everywhere….)
There are actually quite a number of young people in the office who speak passable English, either because they have traveled to America or have lived in Europe at one point or another or learned it in school. While it will be easy to drop back into English when the going gets tough, Doamna Valentina does not speak English and I must remember that it would be bad form to exclude her from conversations when she is present.
By the time the food was finished and the dishes cleaned and the furniture returned to proper placement, it was time for Tatiana to leave. Her birthday was just beginning and there was much to do at home to prepare.
I returned back to Neoumanist, the NGO that is allowing me to stay in the volunteer quarters until I find my own apartment. The apartment is actually in the building that serves as the senior day center, and I just taken off my sweater and set down my purse when a lovely melody arose from the front hallway. I opened my door to find four babushkas, complete with head scarves and wooden canes sitting on the bench outside my room harmonizing an old folk song together. (I tried to upload the video I made but my internet connection is too slow.)
I feel so fortunate that all the weeks of waiting have paid off – the people here at Neoumanist are all cheerful and upbeat and welcoming (and many of them also speak English!) The mayor’s office is a beehive of activity and everyone seems to get along well and enjoy each other’s company. I am living alone (!!!) and cooking for myself in a kitchen where I don’t have to worry about infringing on someone else’s domain. And I am 15 minutes from Chișinău, to boot.
Fair warning: Not entirely unlike my others, but certainly to a greater degree, this blog is entirely self-involved and navel-focused. If you generally read my postings while half asleep, this one will put you there in no time. If you’re in a really good mood, you should probably put off reading it for another day. If your bored already, it just might do you in. There are no beautiful pictures or entertaining anecdotes to amuse you. How’s that for putting off any potential readers? But of course, I’d appreciate the audience anyways….
You know how it is when someone (usually a parent or spouse or sibling) tells you something that you feel like you already know and you kind of nod your head and simper, trying to look attentive and appreciative, but inside you’re saying:
Got it covered. I’m capable!
Okay, come on now, we both know I’ve been alive for more than two decades, for pete’s sake!
I know this already. I know this already. I know this already.
Really? Do you imagine I’m that stupid?
I grew the ef’’n turnips this bloody truck is sending to market, give me a break!
or some other such permutation of narcissistic arrogance? Such is the case with most of us potential PCVs who scan the provided literature, nod our heads sagely, and then proceed to jump up and down with enthusiasm and glee before eagerly putting pen to the dotted line. Of course there will be frustrations and the need to adapt and periods of ambiguity and challenge, but it is all part and parcel of the grand adventure and the mind-altering journey and the uplifting opportunity to be of service and the blessing of subsuming humbly to a greater good….of course I can handle it! I am Ghandi and Mother Theresa and Martin Luther King and Albert Schweitzer and Sargent Shriver all bundled up in one tidy little package, ready to be shipped overseas!
Yeah. Let’s talk about that.
See, this the thing that I’ve come to believe about us Peace Corps Volunteers. If you look real close, I bet you might find many of us (not all mind you, one can never generalize to that extent) to be hyper-inflated, self-engrossed, experience-greedy, over-achievers masquerading as retro-liberal, greater-good-minded, altruistic missionaries spreading peace and friendship. The Peace Corps is a relatively difficult organization to join, given the lack of motivational pay and impoverished living conditions that must be endured. The big prize you get is the untarnished badge of courage. You immediately and effortlessly earn the gaping admiration of all of those back home who sing a chorus of wonder at your bravery and selflessness. How can you do it, they ask? Leave friends and family and the comforts of home to strike out for the great (unwashed) unknown? What a saintly soul you harbor in your humble breast!
And soon, you imagine, you will be in the position to gratify their approbation by sharing swashbuckling tales of humanitarian magnitude: how you single-handedly assisted the overworked midwife delivering a baby in the fly-specked hut; constructed stout sewers to port away disease-mongering filth; funded innovative treatment plants to make the village water safe; plaited purses from gum wrappers to help domestic violence victims achieve economic independence; built schools out of mud and straw to educate the next generation and hospitals to treat the discarded and greenhouses to feed the hungry and windmills to power it all, and oh, by the way, taught English to would-be social entrepreneurs in your spare time, all the while knowing you were icing your resume and weaving a global network of potential partners and acquiring powerful contacts in embassies and international NGOs to assist your ultimate goal to travel the world and live in exotic locations on someone else’s dime.
Except when you can’t. Because you haven’t done anything to merit even the smallest bragging rights that you assumed as your entitlement once you debarked the plane.
Ok, I probably sound cynical. But you’d be surprised. Or maybe you wouldn’t Maybe it’s an unaccountable naivete that has heretofore blinded me to the self-aggrandizing ends that serve to motivate some of the best work done in this world. Poftim.
Something inside me has always impelled me to achieve, at times without a larger purpose or vision, but always to prove that whatever I undertook I could accomplish well. I don’t know if it was the oldest child syndrome, or a sublimated competitive drive that didn’t get expressed through sports, or just a preference for directed action as an occluding buffer against the persistent whispering of samsara, but I’ve prided myself on my ability to perform above average in most professional and educational circumstances, thereby cementing my sense of self-worth and bolstering other’s opinion of me. (Of course, I didn’t go to Harvard or work for Apple, so my means of testing myself were pretty confined.) I didn’t expect to be seven months into this endeavor with not a damn thing to show for the time but a remedial ability to speak a provincial language and a healthy case of psoriasis. Here I am, an unremarkable thumbnail (in the immortal words of Sue!) on the Peace Corps’ global screen of achievements. There are many, many other (most, much younger, I might add) PCVs who are succeeding in ways that I’m not even close to touching at this point. My resume looks pretty bland and the address book painfully thin.
At the end of December, my partner left her position with the organization where I was placed in August after my Pre-Service Training. Because Peace Corps assigns volunteers to a partnership rather than an organization and because, for a variety of reasons, there was no alternate partner for me there, I had to leave, tail between my legs, along with her. The time preceding this ignominious, inconclusive end had been fraught with frustration and inaction. Our hands were tied on so many levels that we faced the impending train wreck like helpless maidens forsaken on the rails by a faceless agent of doom. Fortunately, I had a two week vacation scheduled just about that time which provided a needed (and very pleasurable) measure of distraction, but since the second week of January I have been sitting in my room, trying not to dwell on my ineffectiveness by watching movies, reading books, snacking more than I should, and avoiding YouTube videos that could be teaching me how to knit. (This last activity just seemed to be too sad, launching me into full-fledged spinsterhood WAY before my time.)
The experienced PCV will tell you that winter is a period of hibernation in Moldova: from the beginning of December through mid-January, there are a steady series of holidays that mandate a great deal of eating, drinking, and dancing, but after that most Moldovans hunker down to wait out the cold and the snow. In contrast to your typical Americans, who greet the New Year with to-do lists, grandiose resolutions, new cookbooks and expensive gym memberships, Moldovans seem to accept Mother Nature’s cyclical guidelines and slow down their activity levels during these frigid months. Hence, it is not the best time of year to go foraging for a new partner.
I have received much good advice from those who have been here a year or two longer than me. “Slow down, take it easy, appreciate this time of reflection. Let go of the compulsion to be so American, the need to do, do, do. Learn to follow gracefully the seasons’ lead and relinquish frenetic energy to these meditative months of withdrawal and inactivity. And this is very good advice. (Remember that head nodding and simpering?) Advice that I imagine will be much easier to apply once I have another year under my belt and can reflect back on a spring, summer, and fall replete with a small successes, challenges overcome, and the fruits of my labors gleaming, plump and robust, in the storehouse of memory.
I find that I am not productively managing the acres of empty hours stretching before me. While part of the incentive for joining the Peace Corps, believe it or not, was the thought of those empty acres that could be cultivated with writing and journaling and blogging and researching publishing avenues for the next generation Eat, Pray Love that I intended to compose during my time here, the tillage period has proved to be never ending and the seeds of experience are slipping through my fingers like sand. I can’t grasp onto anything tangible to prove my mettle or worth, have produced nothing remarkable or noteworthy, haven’t had an iota of lasting impact, and the friends that I made have scattered in the aftermath of the events that blasted me from my site.
Perhaps it is more that I feel guilty. As if, like the proverbial grasshopper versus the industrious ant, I have somehow neglected to provide for my own nourishment during these lean times. I am restless and unsettled and have a perennial churning in my gut. The future is uncertain and the recent past a wobbly structure not capable of supporting my current anxieties. Like those fraught filled moments when you teeter at the apex of the roller coaster before heading down, I realize that I put myself on this ride but at this very moment I can’t quite recall why I imagined it would be fun.
This experience is altering me in ways I didn’t consider but probably need. While I am not one to steer my ship by someone else’s stars, I realize now that, after I have plotted my course of action, I typically seek the comfort of external validation before proceeding . This time, for the first time – at 51 years old, no less – I find myself on my own and surprisingly lost at sea. I joined the Peace Corps, received my standing ovation, and now the lights have dimmed and the audience departed and am left in an echoing auditorium to contemplate how minor role my role in this drama could turn out to be.
No one else, not even another PCV, can comprehend my extant situation clearly or advise me on the best course of action or whether action is even possible or necessary. All further lines and plot developments are shrouded in mystery, author unknown as of now. We come into service by ourselves (excluding the married couples) and will need to make decisions and move forward – or sideways or backwards or downwards or not at all – on our own. So this characteristic of mine to think about a problem from every angle, but then perform back up analysis through another’s viewpoint in order to most thoroughly anticipate and manage possible repercussions and outcomes, is completely thwarted here. Plus, I am not able to assuage my need for confirmation of my decisions by others who can be counted on for support and hoorahs.
Seemingly out of the blue, though (but perhaps not,) in response to an incoherent whine about my befuddled mindscape, my brilliant pen pal offered me a bit of sage commentary (completely circumventing my argument above that no one can offer me relevant advice):
Maybe you can’t know ahead of time about any of it. Maybe the best thing can’t be figured out by you with what you know. Sometimes something brilliant comes along that we couldn’t have figured out ourselves, and in fact we might have shunned as a lesser choice. And it turns out that the universe, or whoever, knows more than we do. Are you able to let go, relax, and just see what happens?
I find myself mired in circumstances that I don’t have much control over, but maybe that’s the point: these are circumstances I don’t have much control over. I am not able to consume myself with planning and strategizing and plotting and thinking and being brilliantly proactive in anticipating every nuanced outcome, then parading my analysis before my peers for applause and approbation. At this point all I can pretty much do is throw my hands up in the air and yield to the organ-unfurling plunge. Hopefully, the ride will turn out to be as amazingly mind-blowing as I once was so certain it would be. Meanwhile, my mental furniture is being forcibly rearranged and refurbished by concepts that I would never imagined entertaining previously. Like age and experience doesn’t always equate to an advantage in any given circumstance. Or that logic and reason can effectively inoculate one against unexpected fall outs. That the virtue that develops from patience is not one of one of spiritual calmness enveloping frustrations in a soothing blankness and calming worries to sleep, but the protective, hide-like callous born of constant friction, irritation, and sometimes pain that allows you to endure without seeking surcease from the torture.
So the one blessed thing for me right now, I’ve suddenly realized, is that I have created this megaphone to scream through when I need to, this outlet for stultified activity, this navel-gazing blog – my somewhat ironic tribute to the third goal of Peace Corps: Helping promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of Americans by complaining. And through that process I have received so much unexpected support, encouragement, empathy, and love from people back home that I feel like I have a virtual bridge I can walk across online anytime to seek out a hug when needed. I am so blessed. Not by what I’ve done, but by what I’ve received.
And maybe the Peace Corps experience, in the end, will prove to be an exercise in developing and formulating better Americans, both those that go and those who witness and encourage them – despite all the setbacks and disappointments and early terminations and unrealized expectations and unattained goals – from home. Maybe it’s good to know and to experience the fact that we – dare I call us a land of hyper-inflated, self-engrossed, materially-driven, over achievers masquerading as the world’s superhero? – cannot and therefore should not attempt to make over other countries and peoples in our own rather distorted image. Maybe this journey is about humility after all, about NOT succeeding, about being at the mercy of forces outside of our control and still doing one’s humble best to influence them for the better and smile during the process. Perhaps I need to take a back seat and just shut up and enjoy the ride.
I certainly hope that I am providing some measure of insight into this journey to others whose bravery and courage is not set on a global stage, but is attained through less visible but no less remarkable endeavors closer to home. My own process of self-discovery is revealing how thoroughly and completely American I am, through and through. And that is neither a wholly positive nor irretrievably negative attribute. But it does color what I choose to attend to, the depth and volume of that attention, and what effect it may have on its object. With half my life already lived I realize that there are aspects of myself that I have never met – unexamined expectations, assumptions, limitations, and aspirations that might be better served with a dose of patience. Teach me, Moldova. I think I’m finally ready to let you drive.
PS: And to all of you prospective volunteers out there reading this blog in hopes of getting an edge on what the future holds, let me just reiterate what you’ve already been told and probably passed over blithely a hundred times already (and will not absorb any better this time either, because you just can’t.) You won’t know what it’s like until you do it and you can’t prepare for it ahead of time because no one can describe the exact circumstances that are even now conspiring to thwart your thralldom to Peace Corps and undermine your determination to be THE best volunteer ever who never complains or sees anything but the positive and describes her 27 months of service as the nexus of all that she aspired to be and learn in this world during the press interview for her surprise, runaway bestseller. But do it anyway. And bookmark this posting, because after you have confronted and endured your own thousand foot drop I’d love to hear how scary/mind-altering/exhilarating/humbling/educational the ride proved to be. Let’s compare notes and celebrate surviving the Peace Corps roller coaster!
One of the interesting things I’ve noted about many PCV blogs is how much time falls between a vacation and the recounting of its particulars in a post. I used to attribute that to all the work that must have backed up in the person’s absence: she just needed time to play catch up. Now, having taken my first out-of-country vacation since coming to Moldova last June, I think I understand the real reason for the elapsed time is the need to get a more objective perspective on the experience. But you all know me better than that by now. To hell with perspective. I write it the way I feel it, fresh from the press. Though I did wait a week for at least a little cushion….
The first thing I noticed was the air’s amiability, its willingness to billow lightly like a cotton sheath about my body and refrain from teething its way into the crevices of my garments. I hadn’t quite prepared for it, having kept on the tights and the leggings under my sturdy canvas hiking pants, donned my jacket and wrapped my scarf about my head as if I were still gearing up for a bracing march through the hinterlands when we disembarked from our taxi to walk the 200 yards to our riad. To say that I over-prepared is an understatement. All through the trip I was amused by the jackets and hats sported by other tourists: apparently they must have traveled from warmer climes or possess a much lower personal thermostat than mine. The weather, usually in the low 60’s, felt balmy to me.
The next thing to snag my attention was the juxtaposition of colors, textures and patterns: tiles, pottery, doorways, spices, lanterns, robes, scarves, vegetables, the damn paint on the buildings – everything was riotously colored and intricately detailed, formulated with an appreciative attention to beauty, artful in its mere placement. After bland, non-descript Soviet architecture, mono-ethnicity, and the narrow range of winter food stuffs I left in Moldova, the richness of the Berber/Moroccan culture was a symphony of the senses. (To give you an idea, I took over 500 pictures – only 10 or 12 of them have a human subject. I was taking pictures of our dinner. I know Mom, I’m sorry.)
But by the time we were lost in the souk – the meandering maze of ancient shops that comprise the heart of the medina – the small irritation that would soon bleed into almost every aspect of the trip had blossomed. I had temporarily forgotten, sitting in my Moldovan bedroom dreaming of sunshine and spices, that yet again I was placing myself in the role of “tourist” in a foreign economy heavily dependent on consumer cash. This experience had irretrievably affected me during my trip to South America and was compounded last spring when I traveled with a group to study poverty in Guatemala. I did not exist in Marrakech as a unique individual arriving to engage with a new culture and people, ecstatically anticipating all the personal encounters and experiences that would litter my path, but rather as a walking wallet, bulging with money that enticed the vendors to the greatest heights (and lows) of fatuous flattery, witty double entendres, crafty cajolery, pitiful pleas, and – unfortunately outright resentment. Everywhere we went we were trailed by a cacophony of calls, some of it with physical accompaniment – an arresting hand on the arm, a body blocking your egress, or a hovering shadow trailing you to the next stall. Echoes of former trips returned to me and I think I was more immediately and negatively affected by it then my traveling companions. Admittedly, I was a tourist. But I think I had wished to pay for an experience more than I wanted to accumulate talismans. I did not do a good job of planning ahead to avert this. Next trip, I hope to remember this lesson and avoid the marketplaces whenever feasible.
But there were highlights: a trip out into the desert to visit a Berber village with a pit stop at an argan tree co-op where various health and beauty concoctions were formulated on site. (Thought the end result was a sales pitch, it was interesting to see how the seed was ground into oil and to learn about the miraculous benefits of this ancient oil.) We hiked up to waterfall and had lunch at a quaint café while being serenaded by a local troupe of musicians. We road camels on a beautiful stretch of largely empty beach. We watched the sunset from the ramparts of the medina wall in Essaouira. We met lovely people working in the various hostels and riads where we stayed. We ate at Rick’s Café in Casablanca.
I returned last week and am currently in a (very frustrating) holding pattern. My site closed at the end of the year and Peace Corps is assisting me in finding a new partner. But it a long, slow process, fraught with many pitfalls and u-turns, so far. It is hard to start off the New Year with no clear direction, no work in hand and none in my sights so far. But this is Peace Corps….poftim!
So it’s winter here. Not the fake winter we pretend to have in Southern California, decorating our mall windows with plastic snowflakes and our Escalades with reindeer antlers while maybe throwing on a windbreaker to travel from car into supermarket – but real winter, where treacherous roads winding through countryside have never seen a snowplow and cars that skid off the road have no tow trucks to help them dig out. Men laboriously shovel dirt from the beds of slowly moving trucks in a stalwart attempt to provide some measure of traction on hills and curves. Car wheels skid uselessly at the top of the hill on my street before slowly sliding down to the bottom again. Other cars sit idle and useless under mounds of snow in the hillier neighborhoods of Hîncești; their owners will not be able to use them until spring when the killer black ice fades away.
Yesterday some of the employees of the center where I work made a picnic lunch and we piled into the all-wheel drive van with the consultant visiting from Germany to show him the only “tourist” attractions Moldova has: two of some fifty Orthodox monasteries that sit in relative isolation throughout the country. My partner had checked the weather forecast which indicated cloudy skies but no snow, so I donned four layers of clothing and the steely determination that being California born and raised was not going to prevent me from avoiding excursions for a third of the time I am living in Moldova.
Now of course, those of you who know that I have “been going through the change” for the past two years or so must appreciate what wearing four layers of clothing means for me. It means that I can only apply the top three layers minutes before leaving the apartment or I will die from heat prostration and suffocation. It means time indoors is spent weighing the benefits of disrobing with the hassle of having to put everything back on again later. It means long car rides invariably result in me sweating profusely within my tights/long underwear/ body shirt/tee shirt/sweatshirt/wool scarf/down parka outfit while my feet and fingers slowly go numb and the portion of my face that is exposed feels as if needles are dancing across it. There is no happy medium here. The only place I am reasonably comfortable is at home. Consequently, I am getting more and more loathe to leave. This is not a good sign.
So I made myself go on this jaunt to Căpriana and Hincu. And once in the van and on the road, I actually enjoyed watching the scenery go by. All the trees are bearing heavy loads of snow; their gnarled and twisted branches seemed to reach out in supplication as I passed by behind my frosted pane of glass. The sky was a muted mix of shadowy pastels overlayed with a sheen of silver. Most of the dwellings we past were trailing ribbons of smoke from their chimneys, attesting to the warmth of families and friends huddled inside. My companions were in high spirits, telling jokes and commiserating over children and husbands and housework and life in the way that any group of women the world over is wont to do.
In between the two monasteries, we pulled over to the side of the road and ate our picnic in the van, a healthy masa of baked chicken, sarmales, meat patties on bread, and the unbiquitous sliced tomatoes. Someone had brought a small thermos of chai that was still piping hot; I don’t know if it was better to hold or sip, but both proved satisfying. And of course bags of sweet treats were passed around at the end.
As in so many developing countries, the monasteries proved to be much grander and better constructed than the surrounding villages. It was actually uncomfortably warm inside some of the buildings (me packed inside all my layers with a menopausal thermostat notwithstanding.) There were icons, blessed bottles of water, candles, incense, and small bottles of perfume labeled „Jerusalem” for sale, on which my companions did not stint. One of the ladies even made me a gift of a small portrait of three saints. All purchases were laboriously recorded by pen in triplicate; this took approximately five to ten minutes per person for each sale while the German and I stood around examining the intricacies of the painted walls. Of course, days are mere blips in the annals of these monasteries. And we didn’t see any other visitors in either place. What do they have but time?
As I write today, snow is falling relentlessly outside. A fellow volunteer who had spent the weekend with me – traveling for four and half hours in order to sit in her pajamas watching movies and trolling the internet with someone else rather than spending yet another day in her bedroom alone in her isolated village – departed the warmth of my apartment at 11am, only to get to Chișinău an hour and half later and discover that the buses aren’t running up to her village: too much snow and ice. She called me, dejected, facing a 20 minute walk down the side of a highway back to Peace Corps office to try to find a place to stay tonight. And maybe tomorrow. The forecast says snow all the way to Wednesday.
Across and just down the street to the right, there is always a group of people waiting to catch a ride out of town. They huddle in small groups like articulated penguins, snow piling like heaps of scattered salt on their heads, shoulder, shoes. Sometimes they wait for an hour or more. I stand at my window and watch them, asking myself why the city doesn’t think to construct a simple shelter? Even a roof on four posts that would keep the snow and sleet from steadily burying people where they stand? How do Molodovans keep such stoic patience, never expecting more for themselves? I toy with the idea of going out and asking them: don’t you think you deserve better than this? rallying the troops, inciting a movement, marching on the raoin council with frost laden posters, clutching candle stubs to warm our hands.
But then the thought of donning all those layers is just too overwhelming and I return to my desk to compose my useless thoughts about their plight. Honestly, Peace Corps is tough in ways you just never imagine.
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?
Winter is coming to Moldova. I can feel the change in the air – even though the sun breaks through the clouds most days to shine bright and strong, it never manages to warm the air sufficiently to forget what month we’re in. While it is within October’s purview to don a breezy cloak of warmth on occasion, November is too busy kissing up to December’s gray foreboding locks; it brooks no tolerance for wistful memories of summer.
I would embrace wholeheartedly this opportunity to experience – for the first time in my five decade plus life – this inevitable cycling of the seasons, the turning of life from bounty to harvest to dormancy to regeneration – all of the blessed profundity of it- if it wasn’t for the damn dogs: Canis lupus familiaris. Those ubiquitous roadies trolling behind the human bandwagon, an animal most thoroughly doomed to trace an endless feedback loop that grants it no reprieve from the vagarious impulses of a far more intelligent, yet somehow (usually) less sympathetic species.
Vagabonds, they’re called here. Strains of German Sheppard, mixed with a bow-legged, furrier, terrier type: they’re everywhere in Moldova. (Though one occasionally glimpses an odd-man-out; the other day I ran across a perfect Chinese pug, shivering in the cold, reminiscent of the little prince my grandmother cherished for some 15 years.) A few appear to be well-fed; I have come to realize that many Moldovans “own” dogs which they permit to roam freely about the village, opening the gate for them in the morning then granting them safe harbor when they return in the evening with the setting sun. But most are not so lucky.
Fending for themselves at the outskirts of attention, they regularly ravage the few trash bins placed around town, strewing wrappers, bottles, plastic, paper, and other non-edible waste about the streets and making an already degraded environment appear even more disheveled and unkempt. You see them sitting alert in front of a child eating an apple curbside, waiting for the core that might be carelessly tossed their way; or following the kerchiefed bunica hauling a load of produce from the piața, sure that an onion skin or leaf of cabbage will stray from the bag; or trailing the busy man chatting on his cell phone while munching a placinta, lapping up the brinza crumbles falling from his mouth.
They are alert, always, attuned to the environment in a way that Zoe – my dog at home – has never had need to be. I watch them wait at the edge of the highway, tail tucked between their legs, watching, knowing what’s dangerous, shying back at just the split second necessary to avoid being hit. No one (but me) it seems notices; they are invisible, skirting the edges, immensely disposable. No one pets them, feeds them, names them, buckles a collar about their bony necks. Their coats are matted, their eyes wary. As the cold deepens, setting in its claws, they coalesce into packs, finding warmth in numbers. And soon enough the guns will come; many will be shot. One is safer in the middle of the herd, by the far. Dogs are not dumb.
I must keep reminding myself that their genes betray them, though: these are animals doomed to the periphery, dim notions of warmth and camaraderie suffusing their bones, with scarce few – if any – opportunities to realize them. I do not venture to connect with them; though I carry bones always, when dinner has provided them, I throw them several yards and walk quickly away, not wanting to attract the pack.
One can know a country by the way it treats its dogs….
My personal, unofficial transition into fall happened today (the ‘official’ one being tomorrow, the autumnal equinox.) It has rained on and off all day – not the kind of blustery squall that would blow through like a manic cleaning woman in the scorch of mid-afternoon in July, trailing a host of billowing white clouds like freshly cleaned sheets snapping on a summer clothesline. This was a desultory but persistent rain, brought in by a sodden heap of wet gray blanket flung across the sky and left to leak its grey water upon everything below. By afternoon a stiff wind was throwing its weight around and umbrellas were trudging along the streets at an angle. Summer disappeared overnight, sweeping her dusty skirts behind her.
Now it’s 5:30 and the sun has slid behind the huddled row of derelict buildings lurking curbside across the street outside my window. This weather fits Moldova, kind of like a well worn hoodie. It doesn’t bear up well under the harsh glare of sunlight. This country needs some weathery camouflage to bury its dust in mud and drape its crumbling facades under a lacy veil of mist. It almost looks good in steely gray, like it’s finally taken off the summer togs that were just not appropriate and frankly looked rather ridiculous and gotten down to the business of revealing its true character. Gloom and doom.
In fact, the looming portent of winter crops up in many of our conversations lately. There are no snow plows here. No municipal trucks to spread salt on the road. We will be contending with ice-shellacked crooked, concrete stairways with no handrails. Frosted roads with no sidewalks. And branch loads of snow dropping from the trees that surround the buildings and line the streets. And mud. Where there was once dirt there will be mud. Lots and lots and lots of mud.
My parents sent me two large packages containing all my winter gear on August 27. The packages cleared Moldovan customs on September 7. Then they apparently went undercover. No sign of them at Peace Corps office. A forlorn email inquiry to the PC office manager, who handles all the mail, has thus far gone unanswered. (Luckily, I brought a raincoat with a fur lining and some rain boots with me.) The chill here is decidedly different than the cool and breezy, sun dappled relief of Southern California’s ”winters.” (I use that term oh so loosely.) Last week it was in the high 70’s here; today it didn’t get above 54 degrees. I have a feeling I’m about to discover what winter really means.