Ten Surprising Sights

We saw lots of beautiful sights in Vienna, Budapest and Bratislava when we visited this past week. We also saw things that surprised or amused us, like the ten shown here:

Vienna

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2. A Rabbit Outside the Opera House

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3. Lots of Windmills

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4. More Openness About the Holocaust

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Budapest

5. Reagan Beside a Soviet Memorial

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6. Delicious Matzo Ball Soup

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Bratislava

7. An Unexpected Book Enthusiast

8. A (Tarheel) Blue Church 

9. A Street Memorial for a Slain Journalist

10. A ‘UFO Tower’ and Bridge

 

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Goodbye Winter (Photos)

Winters in this part of the world are a lot colder than in our home town of Durham, N.C. Now that it’s April, here are some memories of what we saw the past few months. We’re hoping we don’t have an unexpected spring snowfall like we did last year.

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Laminated Memories

I got my latest certificate on Friday, an especially nice one from our city’s mayor, Sergiu Armașu. He gave it to me during an event honoring library projects, librarians and volunteers from across the district. Our library in Ialoveni, the district capital, hosted the program.

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IMG_8995Certificates and diplomas are a big deal here in Moldova. They are awarded at sporting competitions, school ceremonies and other events. A certificate typically includes the official stamp of the organization and may be laminated.

Moldovans start collecting certificates as students. By the time they graduate from high school, they often have a thick folder of them, which they may proudly show to you.

This seemed strange to me at first. During our Peace Corps training, the local librarian arranged for us to meet some kids in our village. She asked one of the girls, a talented artist, to show us her certificates from painting competitions. The girl explained the certificates one by one.

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As I thought about her later that evening, I recalled the many trophies and medals my two sons accumulated from their sports teams, science fairs and other activities. Their trophies filled two large boxes when we cleaned out our house before joining the Peace Corps. I also had my own stash of certificates, diplomas and congratulatory letters.

IMG_1276In other words, as the walls of many American doctors’ offices make clear, our traditions are similar in many ways. Here in Moldova, though, certificates are way more popular, not to mention cheaper, than sports trophies. Kids here sometimes also receive medals, like the boys on our robotics team shown below.IMG_0968

Last month, before Champa’s school held its big celebration of its new drama costumes, we needed to produce nearly 30 certificates to give to the teachers, students and parents who assisted the project. We also needed certificates for my partners in our library’s Bebeteca project. I was able to laminate all of these certificates with a machine at the Peace Corps office, which has undoubtedly been put to good use over the years.

img_1392.jpgCertificate ceremonies in Moldova are usually filled with pride and appreciation. The speeches are heartfelt, the smiles are genuine and the certificates themselves are lovely. The moment is always captured with a poza — a pose for the camera.IMG_7617

After they receive a certificate, Moldovans may use it to prove their eligibility to receive a job promotion or a raise in salary, or to apply for a new position. More often, they hold onto it as a souvenir of a memorable activity.

When I told a Moldovan friend what I planned to write in this article, she laughed and said, “I don’t want a certificate. Give me some cash.” She had a point, just as one might reasonably ask whether Moldova’s teachers would be better off receiving fewer flowers and bigger paychecks. As a foreign visitor, these questions are not for me to answer. I can only say I have come to enjoy these certificate ceremonies as a distinctive part of Moldova’s culture.

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Champa and I now have our own folder of certificates, which we look forward to bringing home to America with us. They’ll be laminated memories of our time here.

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New Library Website

Ialoveni’s library has a new website, one with lots of new features and a much cleaner design, all of which the library can manage itself for free instead of paying someone else.

The site is at bibliotecaialoveni.wordpress.com.

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My library colleagues scrapped their outdated previous site for this new version, which is easier to manage and will serve their customers better. Having worked on several web redesign projects back home, I was able to help guide them through the process of organizing their data into logical categogies and presenting it in ways that put user needs ahead of internal organizational lines.

Screen Shot 2018-03-20 at 11.48.38 AMThe new site features the library’s many new services, such as its clubs for robotics and film animation, and its “Bebeteca” room for kids and families. It highlights a library blog that previously existed on a separate site and was often overlooked. There’s an automated calendar that lists upcoming events. Screen Shot 2018-03-20 at 11.45.51 AMA map provides directions. An online exhibit offers a video, photo exhibits and historical information about the library’s namesake, folklorist Petre Ștefănucă. A multimedia section shows YouTube videos about the library. Another section provides the annual work plans for the main library and its two branches.

We built the site on WordPress, which offers templates and operating systems in multiple languages, including Romanian. I’m a fan of WordPress, which is easy to learn and has a lot of useful features even in its free versions. Since I use WordPress for my own blog and have become comfortable with it, I took the lead in designing and assembling the new library site, using a free template called Rowling. I worked closely with library director Valentina Plamdeala and my partner Lidia Russu, who I am now training to update and manage the site.

 

Like many Moldovan companies and institutions, Ialoveni’s library relies heavily on Facebook for its communications. We made sure the new website includes prominent links to its Facebook site and features its latest Facebook posts automatically. WordPress “widgets” made this easy to do this, as well as to highlight the library’s schedule, link to the blog archives and do other tasks that used to require custom programming.

We hope the new site will enable Ialoveni’s library to serve its community more effectively and attract new users. If anyone reading this works at another library in Moldova and wants to learn more about our experience, we’d be happy to share it with them.

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How to Call Home

Screen Shot 2018-03-24 at 10.52.20 AMMy head spins sometimes when I try to remember the best way to call someone while I’m serving as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Eastern Europe. My older son back home uses Skype. His wife and my older sister prefer Facebook Messenger. My other son and his wife use FaceTime, as does my younger sister. Our nieces in England like Viber. We also speak with our nephew who recently finished his medical studies in China, where he used WeChat.

Screen Shot 2018-03-24 at 10.51.55 AMHere in Moldova, I can call a friend’s number with my cell phone but they may respond faster to a text, unless of course they prefer to receive a message via Facebook or WhatsApp.

Most of my fellow Peace Corps Volunteers use Facebook, but some don’t, even before the recent controversy about Facebook’s handling of confidential data. For them, I generally need to call with my cell phone or send a text or e-mail message.

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Most of my Moldovan friends still prefer telephone calls to electronic messages, although that’s changing, too, especially with younger people. This was a problem for me when I first got here, since I couldn’t understand or speak Romanian well enough to have a conversation. Now I’ve begun using the telephone, too.

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Peace Corps gave me a local SIM card for my iPhone when I arrived here, and it pays for a monthly plan that includes a generous amount of free calling minutes and Internet access. I supplement the latter with a portabler router and wireless plan I purchased from Orange, the big local telecommunications company. Screen Shot 2018-03-24 at 11.38.00 AMPCVs who didn’t bring a phone received one from Peace Corps, together with a SIM card. When I travel outside Moldova, I add extra money to my phone account and activate its international roaming feature, for prices far below what companies charge back home.

Screen Shot 2018-03-24 at 10.55.09 AMIt’s great to have all of these communications options, particularly since so many of them are free or cheap, but remembering everyone’s preferences reminds me of planning a dinner party where one guest is a vegetarian, another is lactose intolerant and another doesn’t eat gluten. Who can keep track of it all?

Communications were much simpler when I served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Nepal four decades ago. Back then, I didn’t call home at all during my two years abroad. Not once. If I’d wanted to call the United States, I would have had to ride my bicycle to an office near the Kathmandu stadium and pay an exhorbitant fee to sit in a booth and hope they could make a connection. Screen Shot 2018-03-24 at 10.51.16 AMI never bothered with it. Neither did most of my PCV friends. We mailed letters instead.

I just learned from an online thread with some Peace Corps Moldova friends that I can now call the United States on Skype for two cents a minute, or with Yolla for less than a penny per minute or connect to a U.S. number for free with Google Hangouts Dialer. Of course, Messenger and FaceTime are still free, assuming I have a wireless connection. I also have plenty of minutes left on my telephone account this month.

I may need to call my son and ask for his advice.

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Grant Fishing

Did Confucius ever submit a grant proposal?

IMG_1548Some accounts say he wrote the famous aphorism: Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime.

If he were living in today’s world, though, Confucius might have said: Give money to people and you help them for a short time. Teach them to write grants and they can keep going for years. (Or something like that.)

Grant writing has become an essential skill for public institutions and nonprofit organizations here in Moldova. IMG_1550With salaries and budgets that are tiny by American standards, they look to external sources for additional support, especially for projects. Potential funders range from USAID and other agencies affiliated with foreign governments to international NGOs, local embassies and others. Civic.md compiles many of their initiatives.

On Monday evening, our Ialoveni library learned its robotics team was among the winners in the latest round of a small grant competition for local youth that also provides valuable experience for the young reviewers. The Ialoveni team will  receive 5,500 lei, or a bit more than $330, to buy the supplies it needs to continue participating in national robotics competitions and perhaps to also organize a small local competition.

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My library partner, Lidia Rusu, in the white sweater below, has gained a lot of experience writing grants over the past several years. She’s also received training from Novateca on other forms of fund-raising and advocacy, doing so well that Novateca recruited her to train librarians elsewhere. I was impressed as she worked with several boys on our robotics team to prepare this latest proposal. We discussed it but they did almost all of the work themselves, including the budget and narrative sections. They also presented it effectively to the review committee you see here at Ialoveni’s Consiliul Raional, or county government.

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The new grant isn’t a lot of money, but it’s enough to keep the library’s robotics program moving forward. Equally important, both Lidia and the boys honed their grant preparation skills and received positive feedback that will encourage them to pursue more grants in the future. Next time they may reel in some bigger fish.

 

Balancing the Goals

Peace Corps has three goals but devotes most of its attention to one of them, even though volunteers generally end up saying their biggest impact came from the other two, which focus on communications and enhancing international friendship.

Screen Shot 2018-03-05 at 1.27.05 PMAs someone who thinks a lot about communications and cares about the Peace Corps deeply, first serving as a volunteer four decades ago and now again, I’ve tried to understand the logic of this. I still don’t get it. Americans and people in other countries need more than ever to understand each other. I think the Peace Corps, which just celebrated its 57th birthday, could be more impactful by fully embracing its communications role and bringing its portfolio into alignment with its mandate.

I have spent my career as a writer, editor and communications strategist. I know many people view our field as “getting the word out” or, less charitably, as cheap publicity.Screen Shot 2018-03-05 at 1.26.24 PM At its best, though, communications has the deeper purpose of advancing organizational goals. I worked in the philanthropy world for many years and saw that even as some foundations focused on their slick annual reports and websites, others embraced communication as a strategic tool. The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, for example, spent a lot of money on advertising and other communications activities to fight Big Tobacco and raise public awareness about the dangers of smoking. Screen Shot 2018-03-05 at 1.24.31 PMIt played an important role in turning the tide on that issue. Other foundations helped change attitudes towards the LGBTQ community and on other issues.

When we turn to the attitudes American have about people in developing countries, Peace Corps is uniquely situated to provide facts, stories and perspective. Indeed, that is its mission.

President John F. Kennedy established three goals for Peace Corps, which still guide the organization. Goal One is to build the local capacity of people in interested countries and help meet their need for trained men and women. Goal Two is to promote a better understanding of Americans among people in other countries. Goal Three is to increase America’s awareness and knowledge of other cultures and global issues.

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A national survey of more than 11,000 Returned Peace Corps Volunteers (RPCVs) several years ago found that most felt their biggest long-term impact was with the second two goals — changing how Americans and others view each other.

Yet even though two-thirds of our goals deal with communications, and more than a half-century of experience suggests this is where we can be most successful, Peace Corps focuses on Goal One. Obviously, this is our primary job and deserves most of our time and resources, but the other two goals need attention, too.

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During my own training, our “community and organizational development” (COD) group spent countless hours learning about community needs assessment, community mapping, community surveys, etc. Champa’s English education group studied teaching techniques and the like. Our overall group met together many times but never had a serious discussion about how we could pursue Goal Two and Goal Three more effectively. Just this past Friday, my volunteer group was invited to participate in a detailed review of COD. Goals Two and Three were never addressed until I asked about them at the end.

This past summer, Peace Corps Moldova added a training session for incoming volunteers on using blogs and social media tools, training that paid off with increased volunteer activity in these areas. But it was one session and was not followed up with more training or programmatic activity.

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A management rule is that the amount of time people and organizations spend on a topic reflects its importance to them. The small amount of time Peace Corps devotes to communications as a strategic activity speaks for itself.

IMG_6025I am not picking on Peace Corps Moldova, which has expanded its communications activities and supported innovations by its chief communications staffer, who I’ve been assisting. Some volunteers here have organized wonderful classes and cross-cultural events, such as during the recent “Peace Corps Week” or to celebrate American holidays.

Rather, I think this is a challenge for Peace Corps generally. The agency has taken some positive steps in recent years to promote PCV communications, such as a video contest that just completed its annual competition (see the winner here) and previous blogging campaigns. It has beefed up its online and social media activities and provided communications training for local staff around the world.  It created a “Third Goal” office, which maintains a media library and assists outreach activities such as the talks Champa and I gave when we visited home last summer. Many returned volunteers also share their experiences and perspective through RPCV groups and in other ways.

Yet all of this remains at the margins of what I’ve seen Peace Corps emphasizing while I’ve been a volunteer. To be sure, most volunteers advance Goal Two through their daily activities, showing by example the best of American values. But so much more could be accomplished if Peace Corps simultaneously made communications a real priority in its recruiting, training, program development and assessment. What other great things would volunteers be doing now if Peace Corps had challenged them to promote cross-cultural understanding with the same passion it promotes education for girls or community health care?

I don’t expect every volunteer to participate or be as active as I am with this blog, but I do think many more of them around the world would get involved if Peace Corps made clear this is a central part of our mission, not a “would be nice” if they have extra time.

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I’ve spent the large majority of my own time in Moldova on Goal One and am proud of what my partners and I have accomplished together. Many of my fellow PCVs here do amazing things at their job sites and in their communities, as do PCVs in more than 60 other countries. We are all trying to make a difference. But we’re also charged with teaching our host communities about America and our families and friends back home about distant places they may regard as mysterious or dangerous.

The Peace Corps changed my life for the better. I think it’s an amazing organization — one that can become even greater by finding a better balance among its three goals while remaining nonpolitical and committed to its development agenda.

President Kennedy was right when he defined our multiple missions. He’s still right today.

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