Trading down for uptime

Now that my Peace Corps service is over and the residual effects of my father’s viral meningitis are fading and I have landed – finally – back in residence with my husband, I am faced with the prospect of What to Do Now? Over the past few months, this question has unfurled like a fiddle-head fern, sprouting its own leafy series of subheadings, such as: What defines success? Security? How much is enough? Which goals are generated by fear? Anxiety? Acquisitiveness? Envy? How often does regret, or guilt, or the regard of my peer group impel my choice of activities? Living inside of a different culture for three years has gifted me a different perspective on my own; stepping stones I took for granted for most of my adult life – undergoing education; managing my career; acquiring real estate; seeking promotions and increased responsibility (read: higher paychecks;) scheduling leisure, as well as physical, activity time; upgrading my phone, vehicle, exercise equipment, entertainment systems, appliances and wardrobe to remain abreast of current trends – all have been yanked from their purposeful pedestals and called in for interrogation.

I have just come from a weekend reunion of ten of my M27 cohorts (the 27th group of PCVs to serve in Moldova) and these suddenly suspect notions provided an unspoken backdrop to most of my conversations. All but two of us left Moldova in July of 2014, the scheduled close-of-service for our two-year stint (I stayed an extra year, one woman left a year early, in 2013.) This reunion afforded me the opportunity to see how those who had been home for 2-3 years picked up the threads of their past lives. What were their values? Dreams? Aspirations? Goals? How does one reboot after a life-altering experience? The ways I found are as varied as the people who tread them.

Our host, widowed shortly before her service, has taken a part-time job working as a counselor with the homeless in her mid-sized town. This might be viewed as a step down from the positions of managerial responsibility she held in the past; what she likes most about the work is the engagement it provides with her community and the increased free time she gains from working only 20 hours per week. Of the remaining nine attendees, the only person besides our host older than me is retired and engaged to be married to another M27; while she fund raises for the local university, he keeps busy volunteering for various civic organizations and both are actors  in their community’s theater group. One couple is employed with the federal government; looking to continue overseas assignments, they elected the standard path through DC after PC service. Both are strongly concerned with work-life balance and avoiding consumer-culture. Another is recently married with a 4-month-old son; she enjoys taking him to museums, parks, baby massage and yoga classes. One is finishing up grad school and is still undecided about next steps; another is employed in her family’s business and travels extensively throughout the USA, enjoying a weekly change of scenery that has kept her surprisingly satisfied. One of the youngest attendees flew in from India where she spent the past four months working in youth development; she spoke to me wistfully of the broadening chasm between herself and her childhood friends, who all grew up in NYC, have fast-track jobs, substantial disposable income and a preoccupation with fashion and celebrity. The last two attendees (one of whom married a Moldovan who has joined her here in the States) are working in food services and finance, respectively, with avid avocations (salsa dancing, wine-making, animal husbandry) which they’ve prioritized over careers.

Such a mixed lot,varied ethnic and socioeconomic origins, ranging in age from 27 to 65, hailing from eight states and two continents. The probability of us all meeting – much less becoming close friends – outside of Peace Corps is pretty much nil. And that, in the end, is the legacy of Peace Corps service: possibilities increase exponentially. What I found so compelling being in their company once again was finding automatic re-entry into that space of open horizons, optimistic buoyancy and a dearth of fear that defines Peace Corps Volunteers, their enthusiasm for being alive now and eagerly anticipating what comes next infectious, intoxicating, and soul-satisfying. Not one of them hates where they’re at or what they’re doing; I spent 48 hours without encountering an ounce of bitterness, weariness, frustration, resignation or regret.

Just prior to my departure for Moldova happened upon a poem by Rumi, the 13th-century Persian jurist, Islamic scholar, theologian, and Sufi mystic. It resonated so strongly with me it became the eponymous genesis of this blog:

We must become ignorant of all that we have been taught

And be instead bewildered.

Run from what is profitable and comfortable.

If you drink those liqueurs

You will spill the spring waters of your real life.

Forget safety.  Live where you fear to live.

Destroy your reputation, be notorious.

I have tried prudent planning for long enough.

From now on I live mad.

At the time, my life of twenty-odd years had been upended: my husband and I had lost our jobs and we’d sold our home to avoid losing it, disposing of 95% of our material belongings in the process. We had been forced into circumstances that neither one of us would have voluntarily chosen, yet I was unaccountably thrilled by the experience. We had both been so unhappy for such a long, long time, but were too conditioned by routine and material comforts to risk making the changes that might ameliorate our misery. Peace Corps became my escape hatch, a stepping stone, a means of prudently planning a way to live mad. And, indeed, it served to destroy my professional reputation, at the very least, (one can’t take a lengthy break from HR administration and law without repercussions) and, in some ways, made me notorious, at least among my oldest friends and more conservative acquaintances who didn’t quite recognize this inexplicable compulsion to throw a perfectly respectful upper-middle class life out the window to go live in a developing country on a stipend. Why would I walk away from all I had worked so hard to accumulate, rather than buckle down and find a way to preserve it? Wasn’t I worried about the future, finding another professional position, affording a new house, purchasing another round of furniture and appliances, buying another car, increasing my retirement accounts? My husband and I were well into middle-age: this was not the time for a gap year. But those concerns were threadbare and meaningless to me – I was truly running from what was profitable and comfortable, for suddenly I recognized how such prosaic rewards had sapped my vitality and all that was fresh and astonishing from my day-to-day existence.

Now my running has returned me full circle and, this time, I have the opportunity to choose from exponential possibilities without having to extricate myself from a comfortable routine. While I was overseas, my husband made some risky changes of his own, relocating to a more affordable area of the country where he was able – after many scary months of unemployment – to secure a better paying position with a profitable company doing work that he loves. We are now living in a low-rent apartment, in a less-than-prestigious community, with the minimum of furniture, driving older-model cars. One choice? Hit the replay button: I could find another career-track job, which would enable us to purchase a new house (here, they’re about ¼ of the price of the median home in California,) upgrade to late-model cars, acquire again the latest appliances and electronic paraphernalia, eat out five times a week, expand our vacation and entertainment allowances, and put away even more money for that ambiguous someday when we’ll both retire. Indeed, we debated the pros and cons of reconstructing our old life but just can’t get around the blue elephant slumped in the room: for almost a decade, we were desperately unhappy playing that game. Once the novelty of having grown-up salaries and adult-sized furniture wore off, we discovered ourselves chest-deep in those mind-numbing, soul-sucking, energy-drains that financed our lifestyle, unable to pull ourselves out. Back then, we were waiting for retirement to legitimize our suffering. But now, having bottomed out involuntarily, why would we knowingly dive in again? At some level we understand that the choice to recreate what we’ve already done is trying to play catch-up, no longer with the Jones’s, who’ve since trounced us in the material sense, but with an ideal that was sold to us (and Americans in general, dare I say) about what it means to be successful and self-actualized.

I am hesitant to claim we have found a better alternative, but we are, at this point, willing to have less in order to experience more. Once we looked beyond the “need” to for us both to be remuneratively employed, we saw the possibility of improving our lives by investing my time, instead, in homemaking. Yep, you read that right: cooking, cleaning, washing, shopping – all that unacknowledged ‘women’s work’ that a whole generation of females has been beating back since the 60’s and 70’s and (some) are still fleeing today. Wait a minute – WHAT??? What would possess a college-educated professional capable of commanding a healthy income, especially one without small children at home, to relinquish her economic freedom and restrict herself to manual labor in a low-rent apartment in an anonymous suburb of Cincinnati? It seems antithetical to every single feminist standard I’d inhaled during my formative years. In fact, on the surface, it sort of resembles the lives of many Moldovan women I vaguely pitied while living in the village. Yet, at this moment, it seems the perfect employment of my time and energy. Living in Moldova, I found myself enjoying the morning walk to the piața or the local veggie market. I looked forward to cooking a nutritious, delicious meal for the evening. Doing wash, hanging it to dry in the sun and breeze outside, carefully folding it to press the creases in my pants and blouses – all gave me a subtle, but sweet pleasure. Sweeping the floor became a meditation, similar to raking sand in a Buddhist garden. My house was small and my needs were few – I spent a great deal of time staring out the window witnessing the seasons change. I felt peaceful and fulfilled in a way I had never managed to achieve in my American middle-class life. The prospect of returning to the pace and stressors of my stateside existence discomfited me (which contributed largely to my opting to stay a third year.) My work was minimal, yet satisfying. No one expected me to move mountains, run faster, jump further, fly higher, or prove my worth. I was heralded for showing up, participating, smiling, listening, sharing, caring. Moldova was the first time in my life beyond childhood that I felt comfortable having no driving ambition. I existed. And existence was satisfying.

Here’s the thing: my husband and I ARE middle-aged and no amount of money in the world is going to guarantee us a certain amount of breathing time to enjoy life. With his income sufficient to support the two of us and our material requirements few, I am free to attend to both homemaking and those time-consuming tasks – think standing in line at the DMV, comparing insurance policies, cashing in recycling, picking up prescriptions, waiting for repairmen, scheduling vehicle maintenance – that used to eat away at our free time or never get done. Either way, they were nagging necessities that provided little joy in accomplishment and left us both feeling constantly harried and dissatisfied. Couple that with jobs that were aggravating, deleterious, and seemingly designed to fail and it is no surprise that we turned to food and alcohol and technology as primary panaceas. Conversely, in opting for simplicity and parsimony, what we gain is more leisure time, healthier lifestyles, less stress, fewer arguments, and an increased ability to enjoy each other’s company. We are both happier and (naturally) more pleasant to be around.

I am hoping that all this new-found free time will lead to more productive creativity, that I will be present here and pushing pen across paper more than I have been in the last 6-7 months. If nothing else made apparent the difference between circumstances, the move from Moldova to the US surely stole away the hours that formulated the musings that I used to pour out here.

Luckily, an excerpt from yet another poem, this one by Mary Oliver, arrived to give me guidance for this next phase:

Instructions for living a life:
Pay attention.
Be astonished.
Tell about it
.

I spent too way many years blindfolded, bored and complaining. I look forward to having time to pay attention, finding things astonishing, and writing all about it……

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

Serendipity does translate into Romanian, after all.

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

International Day of Women – Moldovan style

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Friday, March 8, was International Women’s Day.  In the United States, I can’t remember this holiday making much of a bang. (Perhaps it was noted on my desk calendar, but with the advent of Outlook, smart phones, and virtual reminders, who looks at those anymore?)

As Americans, we tend toward holidays that commemorate war, politicians (or other male figureheads,) or successful conquest.  We cede women Mother’s Day (isn’t every woman a mother?) and Valentine’s – neither of which are days of rest from work, I should point out (Mother’s Day being officially confined to a Sunday in the US.)  Both these holidays have a very specific focus and audience – thanks mom for bearing/raising/putting up with me and come on honey, give me give me some love…

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Forest light

In Moldova, conversely, International Women’s Day is a BIG deal with a wide open vista of possibilities.  Everyone gets the day off – women, men, children, politicians and bankers.  Women are feted, toasted, and gifted, by their husbands, their co-workers, their neighbors, and each other.  Coming just a week after Marțișor – the beginning of spring – there is a general feeling of sunshine and fecundity impregnating the air.  It not just women in particular but the female principle in general – the yin, if you will – Hera, Athena, Hestia, and Artemis all rolled into one.  So what better way to  celebrate than spending the day in the forest dancing midst the trees with wine, women, and song?

All week long the mayor’s office had been abuzz with preparations for the pending  party.  My partner kept assuring me that I was in for a genuine cultural experience, Moldovan style.  And the weather itself toed the line, dawning clear and brilliant, topaz sun ablaze in sapphire skies.

Arriving at work at a leisurely 10am, I found out I had missed the morning champagne toast (?!!) and the 100_2066presentation of flowers to all the women. But never fear! Within minutes, I was ushered into the mayor’s office and presented with a flowering plant, decorative salad dishes, and a genuine crystal vase made in the Czech Republic. These were accompanied by ornate speeches from two of my male co-workers, who then repeatedly kissed me on alternating cheeks so Doamna Valentina could properly capture the moment on camera for the historic record.  (Apparently, as both an American and a mature female, I am accorded an inordinate degree of respect.  American males – take note!)

By 1:00 all the women from the office were piling into a hired rutiera for the ride up into the forest just outside the city limits.  Up, up, up (past the city dump, deserving of its own blog post at some point in the future) to a 10-12 acre plot of trees on a secluded hill.  And there were all the men, fires burning under huge metal discs sprouting spindly legs, skewers of meat and buckets of potatoes, onions and carrots readied for the flames. 100_2041 Jugs of wine squat and mellow lined up on wooden tables. Vagabond dogs, still sporting the bristling, dense coats of winter, lingering at the periphery, anticipating the feast to come.  Air clear and mild, the sun a thin blanket of warmth over the crisp chill of glittering frost.  It was almost medieval in its raw, unadorned simplicity.

100_1999The first order of business began with the photographs –meticulously posed group and individual shots that are de rigueur for Moldovans whenever they gather for celebrations.  No matter how old, wrinkled, tired, messy, fat, windblown, or unattractive one might be feeling, there is no reason a Moldovan could fathom for not wanting your portrait captured in any given circumstance where someone is wielding a camera.   I am generally considered a slightly daft anomaly in these situations – not only for my unwillingness to continually stand and smile for up to 35 pictures in a row, but even more so for my propensity to wander about snapping unlikely shots of buildings, trees, food and fire with no apparent concern for lining up people in my cross hairs.  What in the world could that be about?  I have quit trying to offer any explanation beyond an inexplicable infatuation with the captivating Moldovan countryside.  That seems to mollify them a bit.

After that, the games.  All those not actively involved in the preparation of the food enthusiastically joined100_2062 rousing games of badminton or volleyball.  And I mean everybody.  A few women, arms linked, drifted off to pick violets and craft cunning little bouquets of tender new greenery, but there was none of that cracking open a beer and parking your butt in a lawn chair that Americans have perfected to an art form.  Apparently, enough sitting on one’s behind is accomplished at the office; picnics are about shaking things loose and getting one’s blood pumping again.

And when it came time to dine, there was no thought of sequestering off into little cliques of age-, gender- or interest-mates:  the women were set at one long table, jugs of wine, buckets of meat and platters of fire-roasted root veggies set before us, while the men stood in a ring behind eating on their feet, ready to replenish the fixings should any particular dish get low.

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Chicken stomachs – they taste fine but have the consistency of rubber

Of course, after one eats until the stomach is ready to burst, it is them time to dance the hora to combat the stultifying effects of all that food.  And dance the hora we did – old, young, male, female, mayor, driver, attorney, secretary, janitor, and volunteer.  There was no acceptable reason beyond keeling over and dying right there in the fallen leaves to not dance the hora.

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Cartofi și markovi

 

 

 

It is quite refreshing to see that there is no inhibition on anyone’s part to get up and dance.  Some of the males in this video are barely 20 years old….an age cohort that would most likely not know the first step of a waltz in the USA, much less being caught on the dance floor partaking.  And they all dance well – it must be the natural result of being included in every dance on every occasion since you could walk.

And this is one particular cultural quirk of Moldovans to which it has been most challenging for me to acquiesce – the impermissibility of playing wallflower.  One cannot float on the periphery and merely observe; there is no motive they can comprehend for not participating – fully, joyfully, and energetically – with all forms of active celebration.  If you are there, you participate; “no” is not heard, accepted, or tolerated.  They will wear you down.  You will dance.  And dance. And dance. And dance. (And actually end up enjoying it in spite of yourself.)

And if you get tired of dancing, if your feet are about to trip over themselves in a stupor and your knees are weak and cracking with the effort of propelling your leaden legs into the air, then you are permitted a wee break to embrace a tree and re-energize.  What?  Yeah, that’s what I said.100_2009

As the evening sun began to slip into the naked branches proffered arms, bathing them in a golden glow, I caught glimpses of shadowy forms engaged in locked embrace with some of the more substantial members of our little forest.  Arms and legs wrapped around trunks, leaning in with head lying flat against bark, it seemed as if they were listening carefully for the thrum of a heartbeat, or perhaps the pulsing of sap coursing up through the roots to bring sunlight and energy to the higher branches, and the human partner so lovingly appended.

There was nothing “weird” about this – neither drugs nor excessive alcohol was to blame.  Tree hugging, apparently, is not so much an environmental catch phrase here as it is a reverent commentary on the relationship that Moldovans still actively hold with nature and the land, especially after hours of dancing leaves one spent and limp and in need of jolt of energy.  I was charmed, and humbled.  And  I refrained from taking pictures, as it was a too solemn, personal and seemingly sacred activity to demean by turning it into a voyeuristic photo opportunity.  (If Moldovans aren’t taken pictures, you know it must be anathema…)

My first celebration with my new partners was definitely a mind-expanding journey, though.  I was welcomed and integrated into the proceedings with no hesitancy or awkwardness.  After so many weeks of solitary confinement in a small bedroom, it felt good to be dancing.

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New violets and a quirky fungi
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Me – posed Moldovan style

Strașeni mă salută cu brațele deschis

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Priimarie (mayor’s office) Strașeni

Strașeni welcomes me with open arms!

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!

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Lots of trees in Strașeni

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.

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The road into town

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.

Marțișor lapel ornaments
Marțișor lapel ornaments

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.

The lovely Tania at the military memorial
The lovely Tania at the military memorial

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.

Afghan and Transnistria war plaques
Afghan and Transnistria war plaques

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 100_1941celebration 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….)

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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.

Spring – and new beginnings – in the air……

A Moroccan Perspective (ad-libbing The Newsroom)

Peace Corps is not the Greatest International Development Organization in the World

I spent my winter vacation in Morocco – a lovely and exotic destination made more compelling by the fact that it is a Peace Corps country.  As we enjoyed the sun on the beach, the flavorful food, the architectural splendor, the artfully placed tiles, my traveling companions and I had to continually resist comparing our PC experience with what we imagined a PCV’s in Morocco would be.

This particular blog posting from a Moroccan PCV is one of those that seems to have taken on a viral life of its own, I think because the truth she voices resonates so deeply with so many of us, both current PCVs and RCPVs, as well Peace Corps agency staff.  (Be sure to read the comments below – they are a lesson in themselves and have continued on long past the original blog post date.)

As I reflected in my own comment on the blog, the grass may seem greener elsewhere when gazed upon from afar, but then again we may not realize why the grass is so green (when desert surrounds it) and whose playing ball on that particular field….

Office of the Inspector General (and what that has to do with me)

jet plane worldToday I was interviewed by an evaluator from the Peace Corps’ unit of the Office of Inspector General.  She was a lovely, vivacious young lady (apparently a little older than she looked as she had appreciable previous experience in the private sector prior to Peace Corps.)

For those of you dying to learn more about what the OIG does in relation to Peace Corps, click here. Brief summary: she and another evaluator are visiting Moldova for three weeks to interview staff members and a select group of PCVs distributed across location, gender, age, program, marital status and a few other categories.  The OIG evaluators (not Peace Corps Moldova) select the group members and through their interviews gather information related to PCV experiences in training, host family interactions, health and safety issues, project development and community integration.  I feel fortunate to have been selected, not only because I genuinely appreciated the interest in my feedback and perspective, but because it opened up a potential career path that I never knew existed previous to today.

In the course of our conversation, she mentioned visiting Turkmenistan, Indonesia, Liberia, Ghana and Peru during her four-and-a-half years of service.  I didn’t ask for a listing of all the countries she has evaluated, but she did say that a typical year included 3-4 discreet site visits.  She is based in Washington DC and also conducts human resources investigations from there.  As I listened to her, I was struck by the relevant job skills I already have that would translate well to this type of position.

I have been wrestling with my desire to continue working with Peace Corps after my 27 months of service ends, but have been hesitant about taking up residence for five years in a country I would not have much input in selecting (if I was even selected, mind you!)   My wanderlust has been piqued, rather than quelled, by this taste of overseas living; but I still miss the comfort and familiarity of American culture and the close relationships I enjoy with family and friends at home.

To have a job which entailed extended visits to Peace Corps sites for in-depth conversations with Peace Corps Volunteers and host country staff for the purpose of evaluating and influencing the efficacy of Peace Corps programs, interspersed with significant time residing in one of the more vibrant and fascinating cities of our nation, sounds like a perfect melding of my mixed desires.

Just a heads up to those of you who might have interest in pursuing this, or other, types of work with Peace Corps: there are many jobs that don’t require prior experience as a PCV.  You can learn more about them here.

For me, synchronicity and circumstantial happenstance have been pretty reliable signposts for considering the next direction to take on the path of life.   They do say things happen for a reason…

Mirroring Moldova

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The crumbling, hazardous steps leading to a public square

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

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

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

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

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

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

A typical apartment building
A typical apartment building

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

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

“Where is the air-conditioning?”

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

“Well, can I upgrade to a Luxe room?”

“No sir, that is not possible.”

“Can I get a fan?”

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

Graffiti transcends borders
Graffiti transcends borders

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

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A public bench

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

“Ce facem, Yvette?”  What do we do?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks Britt!!!

And the question is: why there, not here?

I hope I have been abundantly clear to all of you who have taken the time to leave a comment on one of my posts how much they are appreciated. Writing a blog is a little like standing up on stage (sitting at my desk) alone staring out into the blinding white lights that effectively erase the audience (the blinding white page on the monitor) and floating a monologue (pressing “publish”) that may or may not hit a resonant chord with my readers (comment/no comment.) Actually, I myself read many blogs that I think are wonderful but all too often I don’t take the time to comment as I’m not really sure I have anything pertinent to say. That’s bad etiquette on my part, given my first hand knowledge of what a boost it gives the writer to see that someone was moved enough to join the conversation.
Anyway, I received a comment on my last post – 9-5 – that posed a very incisive question, one that I’m pretty sure must have bounced through the minds of more than a few people who know me, but was never actually put to me in person: So why are you there providing volunteer services in a foreign land rather than here helping your own community/country/people? As the commenter truthfully pointed out, there are many poverty stricken, marginalized, under-served communities in the United States. And if all of us just focused on taking care of our own, perhaps there wouldn’t be the perceived need to fly halfway across the world to provide meaningful service to humanity?
This comment definitely made me sit back and go “hmmm.” Initially, I was impelled to react and, fingers poised above the keyboard, I sifted through the myriad arguments tumbling through my brain in an effort to decide which one to put first. But then I stopped. I realized that this was an important question that deserved thoughtful consideration, as (I confess) there have been more than a few times that I have asked myself the very same thing. So I’ve been mulling it over all day. And here’s where I’ve landed:
The Peace Corps’ mission has three simple goals:
1. Helping the people of interested countries in meeting their need for trained men and women.
2. Helping promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the peoples served.
3. Helping promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of Americans.

Perhaps because of their simplicity and clarity, these goals have not changed in the 51 years since the Peace Corps inception. They wholly contain the very essence of a volunteer’s service and manage to embody – for me, at least – the reason why our government (and we taxpayers) see fit to continue funding this seemingly idealistic enterprise through administrations of both persuasions and times of dearth as well as plenty. There is a method to this madness. Let me explain.

1. Helping the people of interested countries in meeting their need for trained men and women.

Yes, I highlighted that word for a reason. If a country or a people are ever going to progress beyond the perilous escarpment of hand-to-mouth survival, they must be able to realize the benefits of critical thinking.

“Critical thinking is the intellectually disciplined process of actively and skillfully conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and/or evaluating information gathered from, or generated by, observation, experience, reflection, reasoning, or communication, as a guide to belief and action. In its exemplary form, it is based on universal intellectual values that transcend subject matter divisions: clarity, accuracy, precision, consistency, relevance, sound evidence, good reasons, depth, breadth, and fairness.”*

Surprise, surprise: critical thinking is not a universal entitlement conferred on all people at the moment of their birth. Rather, it is a hard won skill, usually gained through many years of exposure to a broad range of circumstances and/or – for a lucky and infinitesimally small percentage of the world’s population – through enlightened public education. Despite what for many appears to be a dismal state of the public school system in the USA, we still do promote the value of critical thinking. One learns that by experiencing the stark contrast with educational institutions elsewhere (a nod to you Patty.) As expensive as it is increasingly becoming, an American university education is still a world-class vehicle for learning to think critically if one applies oneself firmly to that goal. And it is precisely that kind of training that poverty stricken, marginalized, under-served populations throughout the world desperately need.

I subscribe to ten or twelve Peace Corps Volunteer blogs; I drop in on at least that many from time to time. One universal theme that runs in common through them all is a general surprise/disbelief/incomprehension/frustration/sadness about the “superstitions” that dictate so much of their host communities’ decisions, choices, and development. Couple those with a pervasive lack of comprehensive schooling, the afflictions of diasporas, warfare, governmental instability, and disease and you have a set of circumstances that Americans have not had to deal with since the aftermath of the Civil War.

I am not denying that desperate people exist in the USA. But I will proffer the argument that they have easier, more immediate access to meaningful, long-term assistance: there are a multitude of investigators, journalists, educators, attorneys, laboratories, foundations, government agencies, research institutions, think tanks and charities that have the resources to at least posit resolutions for problems within our borders. That is not the case in many other countries where Peace Corps Volunteers serve because those aforementioned resolutions are most often the expression of critical thought, a skill which many of them sorely lack and determinedly seek.

The first goal speaks to our commitment to partner with interested countries (they have to ask for our assistance – we don’t invade or force ourselves upon them) in creating those resources which can help them help themselves. This is the quality that my commenter assumes that all peoples possess but which, in fact, they don’t. However impoverished various American communities, neighborhoods, or individuals might be, they have the distinctive, enviable quality of being American – a benefit whose worth we don’t usually recognize until it’s put into stark contrast with alternative nationalities. I left America in a state of perturbed disgust; I am beginning now to acknowledge and appreciate many aspects of its intrinsic value which I patently assumed to be a universal entitlement.

2. Helping promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the peoples served.

This is a loaded one. Really. Because many of us PCVs here in Moldova appreciate, having recently taken up residence in a former Soviet state, the implications of providing an alternative viewpoint to the one which was sanctioned and forced down Moldovans throats for many a decade. It is – literally – a battle between east and west to win the hearts and minds of a psychologically distressed population which has been traded back and forth like a pawn in a global chess game for centuries.

Have you ever really pondered the image of America that is most constantly, loudly, persistently, pervasively portrayed overseas? For starters, most everyone in Moldova thinks Americans are fat, gluttonous, greedy, obnoxious, loud, rich, lazy, surgically-enhanced pigs. Because that is what our media messages convey through all their various platforms: movies, television, magazines, advertisements, YouTube, games, Facebook, news and entertainment sites. We are not blanketing the world with love. Rather than creating bonds of similitude and friendship, we typically seed notions of competition and self-consciousness, which usually serve to distance people both from each other and themselves. We are not the caped-crusaders we like to picture ourselves to be. Actually, unfortunately, we have a distinctly evil grimace from most angles.

On top of that, we currently represent approximately 4.6% of the world’s population while consuming almost 25% of its energy. AND we export the inculcation of insatiability – we have it all and so the rest of the world should have it too. Never mind that there is not enough stuff (energy) to satisfy 6 billion individual desires for more meat and plastic and timber and gas and electricity and coal and steel and gold and caviar and diamonds and platinum and ……we could – and do, mind you – go on and on. We have fostered the concept that the world’s resources are infinite, rather than finite. We have role modeled wastefulness and ingratitude and greed. We have not paused even once to consider the larger implications of the “American dream.”

We may be heroic at home but increasingly, and unfortunately, we have squandered that reputation abroad. Considered as a portion of the nation’s economy, or of its federal expenditures, the U.S. is actually among the smallest donors of international aid among the world’s developed countries. Yet we boast the largest military expenditures by far, we have a president who has ordered the assassination of American citizens living abroad and we have yet to officially acknowledge the ravages of global warming, which are having far more detrimental effects on third world countries than on us.

Do you see why we might need friendly, altruistic ambassadors doing good deeds in foreign lands?

3. Helping promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of Americans.

Interestingly, one does not relinquish the title, or responsibilities, of being a Peace Corps Volunteer once service overseas concludes. I will be known as an “RPCV” or a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer for the remainder of my life. And I will be expected to continue my service – to a greater or lesser degree, the choice is mine – by mindfully promoting a better understanding of the country of Moldova and its people through talking about my experiences to other Americans (watch out world – you might find me somewhat tedious at social gatherings after this!)
Joking aside, it is truly unfortunate that most Americans have little experience of cultures outside of our own. It is why terrorists are so successful in inducing fear and our own government is able to slowly chip away at our privacy and civil rights in response. It is why the preponderance of people (myself included) who learned I was going to Moldova had to Google it to find out where it was. The numbers tell the story: Of the 308 million-plus citizens in the United States, only 30% have passports. And most of those passports are not being used to gain access to third world communities for extended periods, I’m pretty darn sure.

Every single blog I’ve read from current and past volunteers who have served in such “scary” countries as Afghanistan, Albania, Azerbaijan, Columbia, Iran, Libya, Nicaragua, Turkmenistan, and Uganda have all sung hallelujahs to the hospitality, generosity, warmth, and caring of the communities that hosted them. Our current interim Country Director, along with all serving PCVs, was just pulled out of Tunisia for safety and security reasons. Despite this, he said that his partners and agency staff were “regular people just like us” who abhorred the violence being perpetrated in their towns and neighborhoods. Just like every single American isn’t a gangster, not every single person born to the Muslim faith or a tyrannical government is a terrorist. We have to get beyond our incestuous self-righteousness and really see and feel in our bones that most people have the same wants, needs, desires, and emotions as us if we are all going to make it into the next century.

So there is one long-winded, but definitely pondered response to the question of why I have chosen to serve in the Peace Corps overseas at this point in my life.

And, as a sidebar, I do wish to point out that for 20 years – until I was forced out – I worked in the non-profit sector making substantially less (as my husband and father would tirelessly remind me) than I could have working in the corporate arena. I have done my part for some of the underserved people in my own community. Have you?

*A statement by Michael Scriven & Richard Paul for the National Council for Excellence in Critical Thinking Instruction

9-5

Entrance to Pasărea Albastră

It really is time to write about what I’m actually doing here for Peace Corps Moldova. I know anyone reading my blogs might come away with the notion that I only traveled here on a cultural exchange mission – I don’t seem to have any substantive work filling my day. And the truth is that I really don’t. Sure I get up each morning and load my computer into my sturdy backpack (thanks mom!) and trudge up the hill to the “office.” I then unload my computer and sit at my desk and mostly study Romanian all day. That is, when I’m not seated in the dining room with the staff and kids eating a meal. Which I do 2-3 times daily. For 30-45 minutes each time. I get to hear a lot of Romanian being spoken and sometimes (not as often as I should) I try to jump in and join the conversation.

Table set for Harvest Day celebration

I know all about these women’s children and husbands and parents and siblings and favorite foods and sleep habits and even whether or not they wear pajamas to bed at night (that was a funny conversation.) I know the deals they get on cartofi and pâine at the piața and where the best place is in Hîncești to buy a torta. I hear about their frustrations with wages and government and the transportation system and the dismal prospects for finding affordable apartments in town. What is still hazy and ambiguous to me, however, is the details relating to the work I am supposed to be doing at the center and how I can really be of service to these people and their organization.

Daria has the wisest smile

When we were in PST, we received a lot of training on how to be a good Community Organizational Development Advisor. And all of it looked good on paper and made in sense at the time, in theory. But once you get to site and actually are faced with the bureaucratic complexities and inherent dysfunction of the NGO landscape in Moldova, it all becomes a bit overwhelming. Funding, operating, and sustaining a non-profit in Moldova relies on a set of circumstances much different than those I was accustomed to in the states. There, one generally seeks grants for “startup costs” either to begin a new NGO or to implement a new program within an existing one. And for that grant to be funded, one usually needs to have a pretty solid plan for making the NGO or program self-sustaining by the time the start-up money is spent, from government contracts or insurance revenue or corporate support from businesses attempting to burnish their image with consumers. It makes a lot of sense and generally works (at least when times are good and the economy is doing well.)
In Moldova, it doesn’t work this way. There are no government contracts or insurance companies or big businesses seeking positive public relations. I am still too new and unschooled in the realities of the post-Soviet economy and governance here to analyze the specifics of the problems, but it is pretty easy to discern from just looking around that there is little investment being made in any sort of commonwealth. Whether this is because of a lack of available revenue or because people don’t see the value in putting money aside for the public good, I don’t know. But I am getting firsthand experience of life in the sort of environment that results from not funding a social safety net or wanting to invest in public infrastructure. And let me tell you, it’s not pretty folks.

Staff, kids, parents, and volunteers!

So far, I am helping primarily through smiling a lot and being cheerful. This seems to bolster everyone’s spirits and keep them hopeful for the future. Because come January 1, we have no funds for salaries. My partner is currently applying for a grant being offered by a Swiss organization; this is round two of keeping the organization afloat. There are no prospects, at least for now, of the city providing funds or of being able to charge a reasonable amount for our services. However, if we can increase the client base and reach out to more communities, there is a possibility of being able to generate enough income to make the center sustainable.

Dining room mural, which speaks of the joy and hope children bring to our lives

This will depend on whether there are enough parents with disabled children able to find jobs and work, and make enough money to pay a fee for their children to receive services. It is a big IF in this country. Most families with disabled children have had to put them in orphanages in order to be able to work in the first place; keeping them at home is a relatively new concept for Moldovans. Traditionally, disabled persons are viewed as a liability and are discriminated against in civil society. There have not been many incentives or strategies formulated for families to care for them at home.

My partner Ana with Ion

Meanwhile, take a walk across town and try to avoid getting hit by one of the many late model BMWs or Mercedes Benz flying down the streets. Stroll by the McMansions behind wrought iron fences at the top of monument hill. Notice the kids chatting on iPhones in the seat in front of you on the bus into Chișinau. And see the D&G sunglasses that the young women display conspicuously atop their heads on even the cloudiest day.
My, my, my, my, my. I’m not really as far from America as I might think. Perhaps our values – at least some of them – are not that difficult to adopt, after all. And providing a different perspective on those values is something that I plan to make a BIG part of my Peace Corps service in Moldova.

And finally – one for you mom! Me in my office.

Rethinking the Peace Corps Experience

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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