Video: Park Cleanup and Culture Festival

A few days before we swore in as volunteers for Peace Corps Moldova, our “community and organizational development” group helped clean up a local park and hosted a cultural festival. It was our way of thanking our host families and communities in the two villages, Rusestii Noi and Bardar, where we lived during our training. Here’s a video I produced about the events.

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Maria’s Kitchen: Sour Cherry Pastries

img_8567It’s time for another edition of Maria’s Kitchen!

Today we join my host mother as she shows Champa how to prepare sour cherry pastries for a birthday party. The cherries come from the family garden, which has also been abundant with sweet cherries, peaches, apricots, strawberries, raspberries, apples and pears, as well as a rich variety of vegetables.

img_8582This recipe is simple and delicious, with a taste more sweetly tart than sour. Here are the steps:

Roll out a pastry dough on a surface covered with flour. Your own favorite crust recipe will work fine for this.

Cut the dough into long triangles and place a dab of sour cherry filling on each triangle. The filling is just sour cherries and sugar, to taste, heated in water.

img_8584Roll up each triangle from the long side towards the opposite point. Place them on a metal tray and bake for 30-40 minutes at medium heat.

img_8590Remove the pastries from the oven and let them cool. Then roll them in powdered sugar.

Eat and enjoy, like Maria’s granddaughter shown here. (She is also named Maria, as are many of the women in Moldova.)

img_8604You can search on this blog to find some of Maria’s other specialties. If you’re interested in learning more about Moldovan cuisine, check out this excellent blog produced by two previous Peace Corps volunteers, as I’ve noted previously.

Trust me, these pastries are yummy. If you’re picking cherries or berries this summer, give Maria’s recipe a try and then post a comment about how your pastries turned out!

Peace Corps After 50

[An edited version of this post also appears on the PBS website NextAvenue.]

Before Champa and I joined the Peace Corps at the age of 63, people asked us how we’d feel to be surrounded by volunteers younger than our two sons.

Well, many of our fellow volunteers are indeed in their 20s, and most of them are smart, enthusiastic and fun to be around. Yet Champa and I are hardly outliers. Fourteen of the 58 people in our training group — nearly one in four — are 50 or older.

IMG_8252Worldwide, Americans over age 50 comprise about 7 percent of the nearly 7,000 Peace Corps volunteers now serving in 63 countries around the world. With its better medical facilities and programs in fields such as business development that attract people with lots of real-world experience, Moldova attracts higher numbers.

Whatever their reasons for choosing Moldova, the older volunteers here are impressive. They’ve worked as professors, attorneys, IT managers, nonprofit leaders, teachers, city administrators and management consultants. They come from across the country, including two other older volunteers from North Carolina. They are single, widowed, divorced or, as with us and one other older couple, married and serving together. Like the volunteers here generally, they are also diverse, reflecting the country we represent.

IMG_8174We differ from our younger counterparts in some ways. Learning a new language may be tougher for us, although many of us are doing fine in our Romanian classes. We may run slower in a group soccer game, if we participate at all. When several younger friends went to get tattoos recently, they knew better than to invite me along. They also may party harder and make surprising cultural references. When I was in the Peace Corps office the other day, a Carole King song started playing and the young woman next to me said, “Hey, it’s that song from the Gilmore Girls!”

On the other hand, they’re usually polite when we make our own references to people and events from before they were born, so it tends to even out.

In Moldova and other Peace Corps countries, there are advantages to being an older volunteer. Many of these countries show great respect towards older people. Similarly, having children and grandchildren has provided Champa and me with an instant bond with older members of our new communities. Our experience enhances our credibility in our workplaces as well; my future colleagues have already checked me out online. Older volunteers can share their hobbies, too, as Champa hopes to do with art and gardening.

Peace Corps has a special website for older Americans interested in becoming volunteers. The site reviews the application process, which is competitive and includes an extensive medical clearance process.

One of my reasons for writing this blog, and this post in particular, is to encourage older readers to consider the Peace Corps or some other new challenge for themselves. It’s not as strange or exotic as they might think and shouldn’t just be dismissed with “Oh, I could never do that at my age.”

Obviously, many people have family obligations, medical problems and other constraints that make Peace Corps unrealistic. Nonetheless, it’s a proven program through which more than 220,000 Americans of all ages have served their country and the world — and had a great adventure in the process.

Personally, I’m already wondering what it will be like in two years to be back in America and surrounded by friends who are mostly older than the ones I’ve made here.

The Memorial Outside My Gate

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This memorial honoring local heroes who died fighting for the Soviet Union in World War II is the first thing I see when I open my host family’s gate every morning.

The memorial’s base shows the names of the fallen. There are several men named Sava and several others named Tonu. I now live with a family named Sava and previously lived with the Tonus. For their extended families, as for people across Moldova and the rest of the former Soviet Union, the war brought unimaginable suffering.

img_8140When most Americans think of World War II, they think of Normandy, Iwo Jima and other battles where our soldiers died. My own father fought at D-Day, navigating a plane that was shot and almost didn’t return to England. He was part of the “greatest generation” whose enormous sacrifices kept our country free.

The war’s impact on our own history was huge. Yet many Americans don’t know that the Soviet Union suffered more than 50 times as many deaths as we did, according to some estimates. It’s hardly a surprise, therefore, that the war’s legacy here is profound, even after Moldova broke away from the Soviet Union in 1991 to become an independent country.

My current village, Bardar, is hardly alone in having a prominent meimg_8403morial. They are everywhere in Moldova. The second photo shows one in Dereneu, a small village we visited a few weeks ago. In Chisnau, Moldova’s capital, one of the main tourist sites is the Victory Memorial and eternal flame, five giant marble pillars representing the five years of Moldovan involvement in the conflict.

In Ialoveni, where Champa and I will soon be living, there is a memorial outside her school honoring a local soldier who died in Afghanistan. Across the street is the town’s World War II memorial, imposing with its dark stone, shown in the photo below.

Adjacent to that memorial, though, are two smaller memorials in white stone. They are topped with crosses, which tells you they were built after the Soviet era. These newer memorials honor the Moldovan victims of Soviet repression under Joseph Stalin. Large numbers of intellectuals, political opponents and ordinary people were exiled to Siberia and elsewhere.

I knew almost nothing about this history before coming here, but Moldovans have been eager to share their stories with me. I avoid local politics since I am a Peace Corps volunteer. Still, the history of this country, so unknown to Americans, is proving fascinating.

When I open my gate every morning I know I am just beginning to learn what it all means. So far, the impression is monumental.

Our International Agreement

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International agreements are often excruciating — look at how long they’ve been trying in the Middle East — so I’m pleased how smoothly my Moldovan partner and I came to terms on Wednesday.

We started discussions on Tuesday and reached an understanding before noon the next day, just in time to join our fellow Peace Corps trainees and partners for a pizza party.

img_8481Peace Corps brought all of us all together in Chisinau, Moldova’s capital, to align our plans and expectations over the next two years. After reviewing the history of the Peace Corps and its activities in Moldova, the conference leaders reminded our partners that we are volunteers with a special role: We’ve come to share our skills and perspective, empowering our colleagues and others to blaze their own paths after we leave.

It also reminded the trainees that we need to listen to and learn from our communities. We are here to serve, and our success depends on mutual trust and respect.

img_8447These ideals were fundamental to the Peace Corps when I served four decades ago, and they remain so today. My service in Moldova differs in so many ways from what I experienced in Nepal, from the local food to the speed of communications, but the mission is unchanged, still reflecting the original vision of President Kennedy.

My partner at the meeting was Igor Condrea, shown in the top photo with the Romanian version of our agreement. He will be my primary liaison at the Rayon Council, or county government, in Ialoveni, the town near Chisinau where Champa and I will be living. Even though my Romanian language skills are not yet good enough to communicate easily with him, we’ve already begin to form a close relationship. He’s a talented and thoughtful person.

img_8465The other trainees in my “community and organizational development” group came to the conference with their partners from across Moldova — mayors, village librarians, NGO leaders and others. Each pair worked together to clarify how the volunteer will learn about his or her post, develop a work schedule and deal with inevitable disappointments.

Together, we discussed how we might use tools such as community mapping, surveys and SWOT analyses to focus on which problems most concern our neighbors. We taped some of our findings on the wall, much as in a U.S. management seminar.

It was a good meeting. I felt like Igor and I came to know each other, laying the groundwork for a successful collaboration. I will now return to my final month of training with even greater motivation, which was already substantial.

In other words, I’ll be busier than ever. If anyone wants to recruit us to help out with the Middle East, though, just post a comment here and I’ll be happy to get back to you.