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……

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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!!!