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.”

First impressions

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The ubiquitous Stephan Cel Mare, beloved hero of Moldova

This past weekend I cleared the final, obscuring hurdle in this protracted journey from my past and familiar life into a great unknown.  Starting in February of 2011, I have spent months wondering about the location, people, and organizations that would fill my life and delineate my experience for the twenty-seven months of my Peace Corps service.  The journey to Hîncește on Saturday lifted the final veil.

Let me say first that actually making the journey all on my own was a HUGE success for me (you have to celebrate the little stuff, folks!)   I took the familiar route into Chisinau, but then had to navigate my way through the piața – the vast outdoor vendor mart where one can obtain anything from chicken feet to pirated DVDs to Chanel knockoffs – and find a rutiera serving a route which I had never taken to get me another six or seven kilometers to the Gara de Sud where I would board a trolley bus to Hîncește.  I was able to communicate in Romanian enough to ask someone for directions and to be notified when we reached the station.  The trolley bus was parked right in front of the station when I arrived – lucky me.

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Hîncește mayoral office

I arrived in Hîncește and hour and half early, so I decided to try to find the organization that is sponsoring me – Pasarea Albastra – on my own.  Mysteriously, I headed in exactly the right direction, even though it was uphill and around a long and sweeping corner, to find myself standing in front of the closed up building – come on, it is Sunday, Yvette – within ten minutes.  I then had to call the woman, Ana Vioara, who speaks no English and will be my work partner to explain who and where I was.  Within five minutes she joined me on the sidewalk.

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Ana Vioara, my work partner at Pasarea Albastra

 She then took me inside and showed me around.  It’s a bright and cheerful place, newly built or refurbished (couldn’t quite make out which) and opened for use last December.  It certainly rivals any day care center in the US that I’ve visited.  She made me tea and brought out a plate of cookies, however, we soon realized that my limited language capabilities were putting a serious damper on the party.  While Moldovans are generally much more comfortable with prolonged silences that most Americans, I think Ana was a bit nervous and wanting to make a good impression so it pained me greatly not to be able to converse with her.  Periodically she would roll forth a rushing river of sentences from which I could only wishfully pluck a scarce smattering of familiar nouns and strangely conjugated verbs (damn those reflexive pronouns!)   All I could truthfully respond was “Îmi pare rau, nu ințeleg.”  (Sorry, I don’t understand.)    We hadn’t even finished our tea before she suggested we move on to Nina’s house so she could introduce me to my new mama gazda. Really, I think she was looking for reinforcements in her effort to hold up one end of a dialogue.

A surprising characteristic of Moldovan architecture is that one cannot judge the building by its cover.  So many of them here are crumbling artifacts of the Soviet era, hulking cement block monsters moldering in weedy lots, framed in scraggly trees and festooned with ribbons of clothesline.  It was exactly one of these that Ana led me to, wending her way up the eroded asphalt that served as parking lot, driveway, sidewalk and playground around the back of the building.  There, the harsh outlines were softened by a pleasant little hillock of trees and bushes nestled up against the building.   Nina has added an “office” to her apartment (in Moldova most people own, rather than rent or lease, their living quarters)  so there is an actual separate entrance used by visiting clients giving entry into an extra space attached to her bedroom.  And the interior was a refreshing and pleasant contrast to the dismal exterior, markedly upgraded and very modern.

Moldovans seem to take greater pride than most Americans of similar – or even better – economic circumstances in furnishing and decorating their living spaces.  All the furniture I’ve run across here is sturdy and finely-upholstered in good fabric; bathrooms and kitchens are tiled in ceramic or stone with substantial bathtubs that one could actually stretch out in; cabinets are crafted with heavy wood, solid hinges and decorative blown glass; the floors are of inlaid wood, individually fitted and highly polished; carpet pile is heavy, soft and brilliantly hued.  It is far more tasteful and better made than the plaster board, spray-painted, hastily assembled Target/Ikea breed of furnishings that is slowly encroaching homes across America.  And it definitely counters the depressing vistas of their cityscapes.

Nina’s apartment is much smaller than the house in which I am currently residing in Stauceni.  And there is no garden – boo hoo.  I get the feeling that she is quite consumed with making money, building her client base, and scouting out potential new pyramiding opportunities.  Although she was somewhat shy around me, she did manage to haul out the Avon catalogue to peruse with me page by page and posed not-so-subtle questions regarding my Peace Corps income and potential revenue from the husband back in the States.  I think she sees me not only as a potential consumer of products, but as a conduit to a whole new gathering of female resources.  I could tell she was more than a little disappointed at the obvious absence of cosmetics applied upon my person.  This will be a much different relationship, I think, than the one I enjoy with my current mama gazda.   We shall see.

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New Nina

Drum roll, please…

Waiting is the hardest part

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

The lecture hall

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

PCT Nicole in the lecture hall

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

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

Where in the world is Yvette – ah, Hîncești!

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

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

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

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

Twinkle, Little Star

This morning I opened my email and discovered a 41-page document from the Moldovan Community Organizational Development (COD) Program Director outlining the goals, strategies, and outcome measurements of the Peace Corps relative to its in-country community collaborative partnerships.  It is a comprehensive, coherent and detailed document that goes a long way toward clarifying what I will be doing for the next 27 months.  With all the excitement and bustle of shopping, packing, and making the rounds of goodbyes, I almost forgot that I will actually be working for the first time in almost two years.  Predictably, the insidious doubting of my own abilities and skills started snuffling round the perimeter of my thoughts: “Can I really be of service to a community of people with a completely different culture? Political and social environment? Economic obstacles? Language?”   I slap down this unwarranted disbelief in my own experience and history as the debilitating and ennervating soul-sucker it is – I must believe that I can or I have no business getting on that plane next Monday.

My good friend Stacy, who worked alongside me at Canyon Acres as the CFO for almost 15 years, recently began working at a new agency.  I remember how nervous she was, thinking that her experience at Canyon Acres had been so insular and particular that she might not have anything substantive to offer her new employer.  After her first two weeks, however, I received an email from her detailing the many meaningful tools and insights she was bringing to the table and how appreciative her new employer was.  Most of all, however, she surprised herself at the true value she was able to impart to this new organization.  I always believed in her – I knew how much I relied on her wisdom and experience in my own professional endeavors.  But, like her, I have a hard time acknowledging the gems in my own treasure chest. I keep the lid shut tight and refrain from assessing my own worth.

Why is it that we women, especially, tend to minimize our effectiveness and value outside the realm of our immediate comfort zone?  Most of us refrain from blowing hard on our own horn, downplaying our particular gifts and skill sets in favor of deferring to the overall effectiveness of the team or group or department that garners our allegiance.  While this quality girds our ability to integrate easily into collective endeavors, it can also detract from our individual sense of self-esteem and cause us to shrink from challenges that may highlight our own specific talents and abilities.

Of course I don’t want to generalize this observation too broadly: in my professional capacities I have worked with a handful of women who were very self-assured and competent and not at all reticent to shine a light on their own accomplishments.  Interestingly enough, however, these women tended to rise quickly to the top of their organization and color the very real successes of their collective efforts solely as testaments to their managerial, mentoring and leadership abilities.  There seems to be too few of us able to comfortably reside in that fuzzy territory between acknowledging our own contributions and celebrating the accomplishments of a group.

I look to my Peace Corps service as a vehicle in helping me reach that place.  While the Peace Corps itself is a bureaucratic  governmental entity drawing on multiple resources and capacities to accomplish its goals, its particular structure lends itself to identifying, clarifying and focusing the individual skills and experience of its volunteer work force.  There are no standard jobs that PCVs are slotted to fill; each posting reflects the assessed, time-limited needs of a particular community being matched with the skills and experience of a particular volunteer.  Usually, we do not replace or repeat a former PCV’s role in any given project (English teachers are one exception;) each one of us is expected to discover and define a unique service, defined by our own histories, talents, and accomplishments, that we can offer a public administrative body or non-governmental organization collaboratively seeking to build its capacity or strengthen its infrastructure.

Admittedly, our individual stars will be mere pinpricks in the spangled firmament of US foreign aid and intervention, but I hope, after my two years is over, I can feel confident in the genuine light I’ve brought to one little corner of this world.  While I will have a great deal of support and guidance in accomplishing my goals and objectives, in the end the measure of my effectiveness will be largely attributable to my own creativity, motivation, and efforts.  I will be on my own a great deal of the time, working within a strange environment to facilitate the goals of a foreign community to capitalize its internal resources.  In doing so, I hope to accomplish much the same for myself.