Our Road to Ialoveni

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Exactly one year ago, I walked away from a great job to explore a new life of adventure and service. On Thursday, Champa and I marked this anniversary with a big ceremony, although it wasn’t just for us. Rather, we and the other Peace Corps trainees were all taken to a parking lot, blindfolded and guided one by one to spots on a giant chalk map of Moldova.

We were then handed envelopes and told to remove our blindfolds and look at the name of the village or city on our envelope, which corresponded to where we stood on the map.

img_8357The name on the envelopes for Champa and me was Ialoveni (pronounced Yah-lo-ven). It’s a big town close to Chisinau, not far from our training sites. After Champa and I finish our training and swear in on July 29, it’s where we’ll be living.

We and the other trainees had been wondering for weeks where we’d be posted. Now we know. Champa and I couldn’t be happier at both our location and job assignments. We’ll be traveling to Ialoveni this weekend to meet our host family and respective work partners before returning to our current villages for a month to finish our training.

Thursday’s announcement was the culmination of an extraordinary year for us. This past July, just a week after I left Duke University, Champa and I took an 11,000-mile road trip around the United States. We saw up close what an amazing country we have, from the badlands of South Dakota to the bayous of Louisiana. After that, we spent nearly two months in Nepal, visiting our family there and welcoming ten members of our American family for an unforgettable group trip in the Himalayas. (See my earlier posts for the details.)

Now, for the past month, we’ve been immersed in our most challenging and rewarding trip of all, our pending service as Peace Corps volunteers in Moldova.

img_8335At my group’s tech class on Tuesday, we discussed how Moldovans and Americans differ. One of the charts we filled out, shown in the photo, compared each culture’s tolerance for risk. The green tags represent Moldovans; the red tags represent Americans. As you can see, our group saw Americans as being more willing to take chances in life.

That’s been true for Champa and me this past year. I wouldn’t exactly use the photo’s words, “risk tolerance,” to describe our adventure. Rather, we’ve learned to let go of our old life with growing faith that the world will reward us if we open our eyes and hearts to new experiences. It’s been a life-changing journey, one that’s exceeded our greatest hopes.

The two years we expect to live in Ialoveni will be twice as long as our initial year of being “not exactly retired.” Based on what’s happened so far, and on how much we already love Moldova, we can’t wait to see what lies ahead.

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Big Challenges, Little Money

img_8305Why has the Peace Corps sent me and others to Moldova, a small country in eastern Europe that many Americans have never heard of?

Well, do you see the girl in blue, wearing glasses? She recently won a national award for her writing. The girl near her with the white blouse and black skirt was honored for her exquisite paintings.

Between the two is Ekaterina Borodatii, who runs a small village library my group visited on Wednesday.

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A bookshelf in the library at Dereneu

Ekaterina has worked for years with these girls and other young people in Bardar, where I’ve been living during my training. Together, they illustrate the tremendous promise of this former Soviet state, now the poorest country in Europe.

Ekaterina’s annual budget, not including her salary and costs such as heating, is … wait for it … $500.

As a result, her library can purchase just a few books a year. Its collection is mainly aging Russian books from the Soviet era. There are no funds for magazines or programs, much less to buy a nice armchair or two. Its only modern possessions are some computers connected to the Internet, donated by a group supported by the Gates Foundation.

Ekaterina works hard with what she has. So do the girls. But they could be doing so much more.

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Mayor Oaserele welcomes us to Dereneu

The same is true next door, at Bardar’s town hall, or primaria. A day earlier, we met with the mayor, Petru Plugaru, who described his wish list of expanding the village’s sewer system, installing street lights, building a new day care center and improving the severely rutted roads. His resources are microscopic by American or West European standards.

Bardar is not unique in this beautiful country. Last week our group of “community and organizational development” trainees visited the library and town center at Dereneu, a village an hour away. The situation there was essentially the same: impressive people, huge challenges, no money.

Elena Oaserele, Dereneu’s mayor, welcomed us with a traditional Moldovan greeting of bread and salt. Then she and a colleague described their struggle to help the village grow and respond to community needs with nearly no resources. They were grateful to Kaya Koban, a Peace Corps volunteer posted to Dereneu who has been helping them identify and pursue possible grants and other external support.

After I finish my training, I’ll be working in the same program as Kaya, probably doing similar work and also pursuing secondary projects that may draw on my communications background. I’ll be living again with Champa, who will be teaching in a local school. In addition to its community development and elementary education programs, Peace Corps Moldova also has programs for health education and small business development.

img_8123I’m looking forward to the challenge. I was impressed by Ekaterina, Petru and Elena, and by the young people I met at the library. I’m hoping to find similar people wherever we’re sent, and am eager to work with them to tackle local problems.

Although I’ve been here for less than a month, it’s already obvious the challenges will be waiting.

Maria’s Kitchen: Slicing Mamaliga

If you’re a Southerner who just has to eat a piece of cornbread, you’d probably slice it with a knife.

img_8240Not here in Moldova. My host mother, Maria, shown here with her husband Vladimir, is an amazing cook, so I’m going to feature her in occasional posts about Moldovan cuisine. On Sunday, while Champa was visiting, she served us mamaliga, which is a denser version of American cornbread.

img_8232In this brief video, she demonstrates the traditional method of slicing mamaliga with a string. You can hear Champa in the background admiring her technique. (You’ll find a recipe for mamaliga and other Moldovan foods at this excellent blog from a previous Peace Corps couple.)

Pofta buna! Enjoy!

Far From Orlando and Home

I’d be glued to social media and the latest news about the Orlando shootings and aftermath if I were back home right now. But I’m not. I’m halfway around the world, in Moldova, training to become a Peace Corps volunteer.

It’s strange to be so distant when something momentous happens back home. I’m still an American. I still feel outrage. So do my fellow trainees, who opened Thursday’s group meeting with a moment of silence in memory of the Orlando victims. “What happened was hateful; it was evil,” our Peace Corps director Tracey told us.

Nonetheless, even though I’m following the news and receiving my Facebook feeds, the events feel far away. They are far away, at least geographically.

img_7998My current day-to-day reality is this: I go to language class all morning. I have tech training in the afternoon. I talk with Champa on the phone. I eat and try to communicate with my host family. I cram vocabulary lists and verb conjugations whenever I can. Then I go to sleep. The photos show what we did on Wednesday.

I’ve found myself thinking back to when I was a Peace Corps volunteer in Nepal years ago. My news sources then were a shortwave radio and a weekly international edition of Newsweek. My village postmaster looked forward to the magazine as much as I did, since we’d flip through it together before I went home. One week the Newsweek cover showed bloated bodies strewn in the jungles of Guyana. It was the Jonestown massacre, where hundreds of American cult members drank poison and died. The postmaster looked at the photos and asked me to explain how this could happen. I didn’t know what to say.

Years later, I was in Bangladesh writing a magazine story about a local scientist working to combat diarrheal diseases. He and I spent our final day together — a beautiful September day — visiting with families in the slums of Dhaka, then I took him and a colleague out for a farewell dinner. When I returned to my hotel and turned on the television, the World Trade Center was in ruins. The next morning, I was one of the few Westerners in the Dhaka airport. Everyone was staring at television monitors, watching the footage from New York and Washington again and again. Once again, I felt very American and very far from home.

img_8013So I should have known what to expect emotionally when I heard the terrible news about Orlando, followed by the controversy over Donald Trump’s response and everything else that has happened in the past few days. But familiarity is not a vaccination. It’s still been strange to watch all of this from a distance, discussing it with the other trainees when we get a moment between language classes. Soon enough, we’re back to memorizing the Romanian words for fruits and vegetables, or how to conjugate the feminine plural form of an adjective.

That’s what I’ve been obsessing about during this momentous week, for better or worse. Tracey reminded all of us that “you are here to do good,” to promote “peace, friendship and understanding” — the very values challenged by what happened in Orlando. Even though we are far away, she said: “Know you are in the right place at the right time.”

So, yes, even here in Moldova, I’m still an American. But I’m also an American here in Moldova. Sometimes it’s hard to figure out the conjugation.

Champa’s Younger ‘Mom’

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Try to solve this biological riddle: When is a mother half the age of her daughter?

The top photo offers a clue.

Answer: When an older Peace Corps trainee lives with a young “host mother”and her two sons.

That’s what Champa’s been doing in the Moldovan town of Costeşti. Here she is with her host mom, Maria, in the white shirt, along with Maria’s two sons and mother.

Maria’s husband is in Tel Aviv, working construction to make money to send home, like so many Moldovans. Maria’s friend, who teaches English in the local school, stopped by last night and told us her husband is working outside the country as well, in Germany, as are all four of his brothers.

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Maria lives in this lovely home along the road where you see Champa standing. It’s a short walk from the center of the village, which is not far from Chisinau, Moldova’s capital. If we were back in the Washington, D.C., area, it would be considered an outer suburb like, say, Leesburg or Germantown, although with more goats and fewer McDonald’s.

img_7929Like me, Champa has a nice living situation. Her house has a modern kitchen and bathroom, wifi and a dining room, as well as her own bedroom. Maria is very friendly and even speaks some English. Champa does have a long uphill walk to the school where she has her language classes and technical training, but she says it reminds her of walking in Nepal.

I saw all of this for myself this weekend when I left my own host family and village to spend a day with Champa. There are three married couples in our training group and we are the only ones allowed to leave our host villages unaccompanied during the first several weeks. Even so, we’re required to check in with Peace Corps at each step of our travels so they know we’re OK.

I had to travel all the way into Chisinau and then back out again to reach her, since there are no direct buses between our two sites. To use a North Carolina analogy this time, it was like traveling from Durham to Chapel Hill via Raleigh each time.

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It was worth it — mainly to see Champa, of course, but also to meet Maria and her family. Now I have two adopted families here in Moldova! For dinner, Maria made plăcintăs — traditional pastries stuffed with cheese or other goodies. We enjoyed them with some wine her father produced, which is common here. The meal was delicious and we cleaned our plates.

We always want to keep mom happy, no matter how old she is.

 

 

 

Straight Outta Moldova

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Yes, my shirt says “Straight Outta Moldova.”

No, you can’t have it.

At a Peace Corps picnic today at a beautiful park in Chisinau, I was asked repeatedly where I got the shirt and, a bit less seriously, whether I’d consider giving it away or selling it.

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Here’s Donna, one of the other trainees, trying to tear it off me. (OK, we were joking.)

My cousin Mark and his wife Cindy ordered the shirt for me shortly before Champa and I left to join the Peace Corps in Moldova. I’m sure they had no idea how much fun I’d have wearing it. Neither did I.

There were plenty of other thematic shirts on display at the picnic, which Peace Corps organized to bring together our training group with current volunteers and staff.

img_7890img_7895Here are Chelsea, left, and Rose, right, making their own fashion statements in support of peace and the Peace Corps.

Rose is eating some of the delicious Moldovan snacks Peace Corps provided along with fresh fruit and soft drinks. People played volleyball and soccer, strolled the grounds and enjoyed taking a break on a beautiful June day from our demanding schedule of language classes, technical training, cultural lessons and homework.

img_7898Champa and I have been training in different villages, so we enjoyed being together. We both have made lots of new friends, though, so we also spent time catching up with them. Here’s Champa with Reggie, a member of my language group and a fellow North Carolinian.

That’s a nice Durham Bulls cap she’s wearing, don’t you think? You can’t have that either.

 

 

 

 

 

Buna! to New (and Old) Readers

Welcome to the many new readers of “Not Exactly Retired” and renewed thanks to all of you who have shared this journey with us from the start.

Since the blog’s audience is larger and more eclectic than ever, I want to take a moment to review what it’s all about.

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I’m writing the blog lately at the home of my Peace Corps host family in Moldova.

Most obviously, “Not Exactly Retired” is chronicling the adventure Champa and I have been pursuing since I stepped down a year ago as the head of news and communications at Duke University. We took an extended trip across the United States, then in Nepal, and are now beginning our service with the U.S. Peace Corps in Moldova. You’ll find links to those earlier posts in the right-hand column of the blog’s home page.

The blog is also exploring larger questions about what it means to be “not exactly retired” — trying to live a full life of service and adventure after stepping away from a conventional career, or at any age. In addition, it is promoting the Peace Corps “third goal” of enhancing understanding among Americans of other people around the world.

Some new readers don’t know Champa and me personally but are looking for ideas for their own changing lives. Some just met us in Moldova. Others stumbled across the blog and decided to stick around.

To all of you: Hello, or “Buna!” as they say here in Moldova. I hope you’ll find the blog entertaining and worth your time, even if we’ve never met. Regardless of whether you’re a new or longtime reader, I welcome your comments, requests and suggestions. Please share them! I also invite you to sign up for the blog, even if you’re seeing it on your Facebook feed. Doing so will help me serve you better.

And now, back to the journey …