First impressions

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.

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.

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.

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.