Memorial Day

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Memorial Day is on Monday back home. Champa and I got a head start earlier this month when we visited the big victory memorial here in Moldova.

Located in the heart of Chișinău, the memorial complex is built around a circle of five dramatic red pillars surrounding an eternal flame. IMG_4712Nearby are sculpted murals depicting the bloody struggle to defeat Nazi Germany. Smaller monuments honor fallen heroes and show the names of Soviet soldiers who gave their lives to liberate Moldova in August 1944. Rows of white grave markers in the adjacent cemetery are reminiscent of Arlington Cemetery, albeit with Russian inscriptions.

We visited the park with two Peace Corps friends, Beth and Andrea, shortly before Moldova’s Victory Day on May 9. Soldiers were mowing the grass, pulling weeds and sprucing up.

IMG_4715Moldova was part of the Soviet Union, which was America’s most important ally on the eastern European front of World War II. Yet we inevitably view our joint victory through the lens of the subsequent Cold War. For Moldovans, the legacy is even more complicated since the German occupation was followed by decades of Russian rule.

I found it fascinating how the Soviet gravestones lack any religious markings while those erected since Moldovan independence, just a few yards away, are adorned with crosses. One gravestone has an inscription saying (in Romanian), “Born speaking Romanian; died speaking Romanian,” a clear rejection of the Russian language. The cemetery also honors Moldovans who died shortly after independence in the war in Transnistria, the pro-Russian region that broke away and remains largely autonomous.

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Yet many Moldovans have close personal ties to Russia, want closer relations with it and cherish its glorious triumph. Just outside the park we saw this billboard promoting Victory Day. It displays a Soviet hammer and sickle and the signature of Moldova’s current president, who sat beside Vladimir Putin at Moscow’s victory parade on May 9. IMG_4683Many thousands of Moldovans marched or gathered in Chișinău the same day, as they did around the country, especially in Russian-speaking areas. In places where Romanian is commonly spoken, the emphasis tended to be more on European unity, especially with the West.

Even the date of Moldova’s Memorial Day is complicated. Germany’s unconditional surrender to the Allies occurred on May 7, 1945, which Americans remember as V-E Day (Victory in Europe Day). People in this part of Europe, however, commemorate a ceremony that took place late the following day in which Germany formally surrendered to the Soviet forces. Since it was already May 9 by then in Moscow, that became the official date for Russia and other Soviet states, including Moldova.

IMG_4718More than 70 years after the war ended, its impact on the history and psyche of this region remains profound. As I have written previously, almost every Moldovan village has a memorial, usually accompanied by the names of local men who died. In the village where I lived during training, the list exceeded 100 names, an astonishing toll. Many Moldovans also have painful memories of family members and friends who were deported by the Soviets after the war.

As a Peace Corps volunteer, I avoid politics. Yet our visit to the memorial park was a reminder that history is never far away in this small but complex country. Like the flame inside Chișinău’s monument, memories here smolder, flicker and burn. Every day is Memorial Day.

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What Could Go Wrong

So many things could go wrong!

Along with “That’s cool!” and “I’ve dreamed of that!”, Champa and I heard this before we joined the Peace Corps in Moldova a year ago.

What if you can’t learn the language, some people asked us. What if something happens to one of your children or grandchildren back home? What if you have a medical emergency yourself? What if you’re robbed? What if there’s a terrorist attack? What if things just don’t work out?

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I generally responded by pointing out that bad things can happen in our traditional lives, too. But since we were lucky enough to have our health, finances and family circumstances in order, we were going to listen to our hearts and pursue the adventure we’d dreamed about.

Recently we were reminded how fortunate we’ve been so far. One of our best friends here had to end his service because of a medical problem. He was an older volunteer, like us, so his departure hit close to home, just like those of two other older friends who left during training. Several other older colleagues returned to the States for medical treatment but were able to resume their service.

Some younger volunteers have had medical problems, too. Colleagues have returned home because they were homesick, couldn’t adjust to life in Moldova or ran into problems. Even worse scenarios are also possible, such as volunteers around the world who have been sexually assaulted. More than 300 people have died while pursuing the Peace Corps mission since 1961, including some who were murdered (although many more died from motor vehicle injuries).

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That may sound like a lot but it’s not. Even though Peace Corps Volunteers face some unique risks, their fatality rate is the same or lower than for Americans generally when controlled for age, marital status and educational attainment, according to one research study.

Peace Corps used to call itself “the toughest job you’ll ever love.” Even in a place like Moldova where living conditions can be easier than in some other countries, Peace Corps is tough. It’s not a vacation. It challenges you every day, forcing you to examine your life and beliefs. It changes how you think. It helps you serve others.

We have never regretted our decision. We view every day, even the bad ones, as a gift. Our lives are full. Our friend’s departure reminded us how lucky we’ve been. Something could go wrong for us, too, perhaps even tomorrow. But for now, we’re staying focused on what could go right.

Sign of Confusion

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“Why is there a red line through the village’s name?” Champa asked our guide as we drove past a road sign while we were touring Romania recently.

Our guide, Florin, who was usually calm and mellow, almost jumped out of his driver’s seat. “I can’t believe you asked me that!” he said, trying not to laugh. “Every foreign tourist asks me this question!”

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The diagonal red line, he explained, indicates you are leaving a village. When you enter the same village, its name appears on a sign without a red line, as in the second photo here.

I confessed to Florin I’d been wondering about this, too, apparently like many other foreign visitors. I felt foolish when the answer turned out to be so blindingly obvious. I wish I’d known how to say “D’Oh!” in Romanian.

That’s the fun of living and traveling abroad. There’s not much “same old, same old.” Even after nearly a year of working in Eastern Europe with the Peace Corps, I am surprised regularly by things I see or hear. Something as humble as a village road sign can unexpectedly spark laughter and cultural exchange.

After we crossed the border from Romania into Moldova, I checked whether they use diagonal red lines on road signs here, too. As Champa had already noticed, the answer is yes. I’m happy to now know this, too. It’s one more fact on my mental checklist about Moldova. Call it a sign of progress.

Weekend in Bălți

Geography quiz! What do these cities have in common: Los Angeles, Melbourne, Geneva and Montreal? Also: Barcelona and (perhaps) Bălți.

If you don’t know the answer, then guess what these cities have in common: Chicago, Munich, Manchester and Johannesburg. This second list also includes Bangalore and (perhaps) Bălți.

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The cities in the first paragraph are all the second-largest in their country, exceeded only by New York, Sydney, Zurich, Toronto and Madrid, respectively. The cities in the next paragraph are the third-largest in their country (using population statistics I found on Wikipedia).Screen Shot 2017-05-15 at 4.59.54 PM

Bălți, a city of just over 100,000 people in northern Moldova, is either second behind the capital, Chișinău, or third, if you include Tiraspol in the disputed region of Transnistria. To complicate things further, population totals may include Moldovans who actually live abroad, and the city’s name is not pronounced “Balt-ee,” as Americans might expect, but “Belts.”

Got all that?

With theaters, restaurants, markets, parks and more, Bălți is an interesting place to explore, as Champa and I discovered this past weekend when we visited a couple of Peace Corps friends there. Steve and Lisa came to Moldova a year ahead of us and are now wrapping up their service.

Here are some photos from the trip. You can decide which you like the most. Or second. Or third.

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A Month for Older Vols

May is Older Americans Month, which Peace Corps is highlighting with stories about older volunteers. Some readers of Not Exactly Retired have a special interest in this, so I am sharing a few of these stories here, which also lets you hear some voices besides my own.

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The article Older Americans are key players abroad provides a nice overview. “Because of their extensive skills and experience, older Volunteers often make significant contributions in their communities abroad,” it says. Among those featured is Dorothy Woolridge, pictured here, a returned volunteer who arrived in Ghana at age 79 and is also profiled in this article.

Fifth time’s the charm: Volunteer reflects on a decade of experience overseas tells the story of Paul Menard, below, who has served in the Peace Corps five times since 2000, in El Salvador, Senegal, Romania, Namibia and Burkina Faso.

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My colleague Anne Reid, a former dancer and choreographer from Harlem, just published an article about Bringing African Dance to Moldova. That’s Anne in purple, in the background.

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Peace Corps is also featuring an article I wrote about Serving as an older American: Insights and tips from the field. Also online is my 5-part series about older Peace Corps Volunteers in Moldova, in which they discuss how the experience has surprised them, affected their lives and changed their plans for the future.

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Finally, Peace Corps has produced several videos about older volunteers, such as this one about Janet VanBenThuysen, above, who served in Kyrgystan. The video below features an older volunteer in Zambia.

If you want to learn more, check out this special Peace Corps website, which addresses the special concerns of older applicants.

A final thought: I am usually dubious of honorary “months.” I used to mutter to my news office colleagues about some concocted “week” or “month” we were asked to promote. When it comes to Peace Corps, though, I am willing to make an exception, with enthusiasm. Perhaps I’m just getting older.

(Images from the Peace Corps website.)

#oam17 #ageoutloud

We're still working — but now as Peace Corps volunteers. Join us on the journey.

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