Video: Dedication Ceremony

Ialoveni celebrated its 580th birthday with its annual “Zia de Hram” event. A highlight was the dedication of a new bust in front of the Consiliul Raional, where I work. The bust honors Ferdinand I, king of Romania 1914-1927, a period when Moldova was part of Romania. I produced this 5-minute video about the dedication ceremony.

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The Older Guy ‘Teaches’ Coding

Can a guy in his sixties who has never studied modern computer programming introduce a group of computer-savvy young people to software coding — and do it in a foreign language?

That’s what I did on Friday at our library in Ialoveni, Moldova. (A few hours later, they posted this story about it on Facebook; the live version offers an English translation):

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I got the students started with Hour of Code, an international initiative through which millions of young people have begun learning about programming. My group watched a couple of inspirational videos and then began writing mock code for the popular computer game Minecraft. Within a few minutes, they were clicking away, instructing their characters to move in different directions, shear sheep and search for treasure.

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Several of them finished the 14 tasks in less than an hour. All were engrossed, smiling when they completed a puzzle and giving me high fives as I walked around the room to help them out. Before we even finished, the librarian told me we should start a weekly Hour of Code club, which we’ve scheduled for 2:30 p.m. on Wednesdays.

Next week we’ll write code for a Star Wars game. Then we’ll do the “Frozen” module. After that, perhaps we’ll learn some JavaScript together.

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Launched in 2013, Code.org is a nonprofit organization focused on making computer programming more accessible. Its videos feature Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg and other famous programmers, as well as President Obama, actors, sports stars and others, all emphasizing that coding isn’t as hard as you may think.

screen-shot-2016-10-22-at-9-48-31-amThat’s a message more young people, especially girls, need to hear in our own country, Moldova and around the world. Coding is an increasingly essential skill. Especially in poorer countries, it can open the door to participating in the global economy. Here in Moldova, older girls can also take part in GirlsGoIT, a two-week program through which they learn about web applications, entrepreneurship and potential career paths. Around the world, Peace Corps is deeply involved in the Let Girls Learn program championed by First Lady Michelle Obama.

Back when I was running Duke’s news office, one of my colleagues wrote an article called Computer Science Looks Beyond Nerds, describing how the university redesigned its introductory course to attract more women, students of color, liberal arts majors and others who don’t fit the stereotype of programmers. Hour of Code is pursuing the same mission internationally. Its resources make it easy for people to serve as mentors regardless of their own level of coding experience.

Even if you’re “not exactly retired” or majored in American history like me, do yourself a favor and try some of the modules yourself. They’re fun. And if you know any students in Ialoveni — especially girls — looking for something interesting to do on Wednesday afternoons, send them my way. We still have a few spots open.

Comparing Prices

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We often ride the #9 bus in Chisinau, which stops near the Peace Corps office. It costs 2 lei, or 10 cents.

A bus ride in New York City costs $2.75. In Philadelphia, it’s 2.25. Nationally, the average fare tops $2.

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The minibuses, or rutieras, are usually full. Sometimes they are really full.

Here in Moldova, the bus fare in the capital city, Chisinau, is 10 cents. A minibus ride to Chisinau from our home town of Ialoveni is 20 cents. Champa and I can stuff our two backpacks with groceries for less than $20. It costs us two dollars for a bottle of local wine or, if we’re feeling thrifty, 75 cents to refill a bottle at the wine store.

It’s much cheaper to live here than in the United States, so long as we avoid products imported from outside the region. A pair of Nike running shoes costs about the same as back home. A pair of Levi’s costs more. So does an iPhone.

According to one popular website, consumer prices in Moldova are 62 percent lower than in the United States. Restaurant prices are 70 percent lower. The two of us are lucky to have some restaurants in our town — many volunteers don’t — and we have yet to spend ten dollars for the two of us, drinks and dessert included. Restaurants are somewhat pricier in Chisinau but still a bargain. Rents are also much lower; here in Ialoveni, as Champa and I discovered recently, apartments start at just over $100 per month.

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The produce aisle at Victoria Market in Ialoveni

Best of all are the local fruits and vegetables, which are fresh, delicious and cheap. A few days ago I bought a bag of apples from a street vendor for 75 cents — enough to make a big pie. Pears are in season, too. A few weeks ago, we had peaches, cherries, raspberries and strawberries. The local vegetables now include cauliflowers, eggplants, onions, potatoes and our current favorite, beets. Champa has begun making beet salads with buckwheat, carrots, tomatoes and cucumbers, sprinkled with olive oil and balsamic vinegar.

Yes, you can buy those, too, although they’re imported and expensive by local standards. An imported jar of Barilla pasta sauce costs about $2, nearly twice the price of a larger jar of local tomato sauce. Some familiar brands — Snickers, Coca Cola, Colgate, Tide, Gilette — are produced regionally and sold everywhere. Peanut butter, on the other hand, is a delicacy. I bought my first and only jar a few weeks ago at an auction to raise money for an anti-trafficking campaign: $7 for a jar of Jif. Hey, it was for a good cause.

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The piața, or traditional shopping plaza, in Ialoveni

Occasional splurges like this are within our budget as Peace Corps volunteers. Before we came to Moldova, Champa and I had never gone to the opera. A few weeks ago, we bought orchestra seats for a wonderful performance of La Traviata in Chisinau’s national theater. They cost us $10 each. Dinner at the outdoor restaurant next door was $13. Transportation home was a dollar. img_0323I’ve never been to the Met in New York but I’m guessing it costs slightly more.

Sounds great, right? Well, yes, by American standards. But not for Moldovans, whose average monthly after-tax disposable salary is $214.52, nearly 93 percent lower than ours, according to the same website. I can’t vouch for the accuracy of its data, which appear to be based on only 107 Moldovan respondents, but they’re in the same ballpark as statistics from the World Bank and other sources. When your monthly paycheck is so small, these “low” prices appear much larger.

As Peace Corps volunteers, our monthly income is much closer to the Moldovan side of the scale. We receive enough to pay for our rent, food, transportation and miscellaneous expenses, and Peace Corps sets aside some money for a one-time “readjustment allowance” that we’ll receive after our service.

Our paychecks are far less than we spent every month back home on basic living expenses, not to mention on college tuitions and other major outlays. Yet they’ve been enough for us to live comfortably, albeit not luxuriously. So far, they’ve been just enough.

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You can buy laptops, smart phones and other electronics in Moldova, but don’t expect to find many bargains.

If we were still living in Durham, we’d have utility and cell phone bills, medical insurance premiums, car insurance, grocery bills and everything else. Here in Moldova, my only recurring monthly bills are for a New York Times online subscription and iCloud storage to back up our laptops. We hope to leave our retirement savings untouched and, if we’re lucky, for them to grow a bit while we’re gone, although they could move in the other direction, too. Whatever. This isn’t why we joined the Peace Corps and we don’t spend a lot of time thinking about it.

For now, I’m focused on the trip we’re planning to take from Ialoveni to Chisinau this weekend. As usual, we’ll ride the overcrowded local buses, for which we’ll need 60 cents each, roundtrip. I think we’ve got it covered.

Searching for an Apartment

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If you’re “not exactly retired” like us, you may remember searching for apartments years ago by scouring bulletin boards and tearing off phone numbers from promising listings.

That was long before Craigslist and other sites moved the process online — at least in the United States.

img_0639Here in Moldova, though, people are still using bulletin boards, often located near bus stops. Those looking to sell or rent their property post advertisements in Romanian or Russian, Moldova’s two main languages. Most of the signs are printed simply in black and white, with no photos or graphics. Some are scrawled by hand. Within a few days or after a storm, they start drooping.

Moldova does have sites resembling Craigslist, most notably 999.com, which also sells a wide range of products. It is especially popular with younger people, offering online streaming and mobile apps for both IOS and Android phones. The site’s listings for houses and apartments can be sorted by location, price and other factors, in Romanian and Russian. Just as in the United States, ads pop up in the margins to extol candidates in the upcoming presidential election.

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Still, many Moldovans continue to rely on bulletin boards and old-fashioned word-of-mouth, asking friends to tell them if they’ve hear of something new coming on the market. I haven’t seen any companies that handle rentals, at least where we live, much less the local listings you sometimes see printed back home.

img_0637Champa and I have learned about all of this over the past few days as we’ve begun searching for an apartment ourselves. We’ve loved staying with our host family in Ialoveni, where we’ve been renting the second floor of their house. This past Saturday, we hosted our first dinner party, with several other Peace Corps volunteers who came from neighboring towns. Unfortunately, the family needs to reclaim the second floor, so we’re now actively looking for a new home.

The Peace Corps staff and our current host family have stepped up to assist us and, thanks to their help, it’s looking like we may resolve the situation soon. That’s good news — well, except for the bulletin boards. I was just starting to get the hang of using them again.

The Other Presidential Election

Quiz time!

With the U.S. election just a month away, you may now consider yourself an expert on political slogans. Well, other countries have elections and slogans, too, so let’s see how smart you really are.

Moldova has a presidential election on October 30. I avoid local politics since I am a Peace Corps volunteer here, but I’ve been interested to watch the campaign. I’ve created a fun quiz so you can participate, too.  Try to match the following English translations of some Moldovan campaign slogans with the billboards on which they appeared. The answers are at the bottom.

Ready? Here are the slogans from six billboards I’ve seen along my bus route:

1. Moldova has a future. The solution is coming soon.

2. I can get more for Moldova

3. Together we are stronger

4. I hear. I listen. I solve.

5. Change for Moldova

6. Moldova has a future in Romania

Here are the billboards:

A)

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B)

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C)

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D)

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E)

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F)

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Answers: 1-E, 2-C , 3-F , 4-D, 5-A, 6-B 

Did you get them all right (without using Google Translate)? Nice job — you’ve made America great for slogans again … or perhaps we’re all just stronger with slogans together.