‘Last Bell’ Celebration

Schools across Moldova celebrate their final day with a “Last Bell” ceremony, like this one today at Champa’s school, LT “Andrei Vartic” in Ialoveni. Video is also viewable on YouTube.

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Moldova’s entrepreneurship scene keeps getting bigger.

I’ve written previously about the Dreamups Innovation Campus and the Diamond Challenge competition for high school students, in which the team I mentored claimed one of the top prizes this year.

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On Sunday, Champa and I visited Tekwill, a center that opened in March in northern Chișinău. It’s an educational and entrepreneurial hub with coworking spaces, a pre-acceleration program, startup competitions, events and resources ranging from 3D printers to international guest speakers.

Tekwill is among a growing list of local entrepreneurial and startup resources here that now includes iHUB, Generator Hub, Dreamups, 404 Moldova and GEN Moldova.

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“Moldova’s capital, Chișinău, is among many cities around the world that aspire to develop a startup scene of their own,” Sergiu Matei, one of the founders of Dreamups, wrote recently on Startup Grind. “To be sure, no one will mistake it yet for Silicon Valley, much less Boston, Paris or Shanghai. Yet its entrepreneurial scene has quietly begun to emerge over the past couple of years, and it’s been exciting to watch.”

Sergiu concluded: “It’s not a fantasy to believe some of the world’s great new startups can and will emerge from Moldova, especially with such a strong entrepreneurial support system now starting up and growing every day.”

Tekwill is an important new component in that system. Located on the campus of the  Technical University of Moldova, it launched with the support of the U.S. Agency for International Development and the Government of Sweden (through the Swedish International Development Agency), within the Moldova ICT Excellence Center Project.

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Sara Hoy, a fellow Peace Corps Volunteer, has been assisting Tekwill and other technology-based programs, with a special interest in attracting girls to the field. You can see Sara here, between two Moldovan friends, at Moldova’s first-ever Mini Maker Faire organized by Atelier 99 and held at Tekwill on Sunday.

Maker Faire organizes gatherings around the world, often in the Bay Area and other high-tech hot spots. It’s a modern mashup of science fairs, craft festivals and tech enthusiasts. The photos in this post are all from the fair, where Champa and I watched a virtual reality demonstration, listened to talks on starting a business, spoke with inventors and checked out gifts ranging from educational games to jewelry made from computer chips.

IMG_5183Tekwill focuses on information technology, working with students, professors and others who need help transforming a good idea into a successful business. With its educational programs, modern facilities, mentoring and international connections, it seeks to create high-quality jobs to deter so many Moldovans from leaving the country to pursue their dreams.

The entrepreneurs I met at Tekwill, like Moldova’s other entrepreneurs and innovators in civil society and diverse other sectors, represent the best in a country where one too often encounters despair about the economy, politics, corruption and other problems. For me, at least, their spirit is a booster shot of optimism, a reminder that change really is possible. As their entrepreneurial scene continues to grow, so does hope for Moldova’s future.

 

 

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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Graduation Season

This Sunday is Mother’s Day, which I used to spend every year at Duke University’s graduation ceremony. As the head of the news office, I wrote the story Duke posted on its website shortly after the ceremony ended.

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Now I am halfway around the world as a Peace Corps volunteer, yet lately I’ve been thinking about graduations again, particularly about my own Peace Corps “class,” pictured above.

Most volunteers serve for two years, with a few extending for a third year and some leaving early for medical or personal reasons. The volunteers who came to Moldova one year before us are now getting ready to transition to the next phase of their lives. A new group will arrive shortly before they leave.

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The departing volunteers recently had their “close of service” conference. That’s them in the group photo above, along with some staff. They are wonderful colleagues who remain committed to their communities, but they are beginning to disengage. Some have been accepted at graduate schools. Others are looking for jobs. Many are planning trips before they return home. Some just want to return to their families.

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Meanwhile, my own group is no longer the bright-eyed incoming class that gathered nearly a year ago in Philadelphia, above, and then flew on to Chișinău. We have now lived through a cycle of seasons here. We can speak the language at least somewhat, ride a crowded microbus and teach a class.

When the new group arrives in a few weeks, they may regard us as wise and experienced, just as I viewed our predecessors. Peace Corps plans to whisk them off to an orientation session for several days. Some of my colleagues will mentor them.

So much of this reminds me of what I saw at the university.

I enjoyed Duke’s graduations. I was always happy to snap photos for families as I left the stadium, even though I needed to race back to my office and write a long story in an hour or so. My biggest challenge was at my last graduation, when the main speaker gave a rambling talk with few usable quotes. I had to sidestep it and focus on other things.IMG_7689

I missed only one of Duke’s graduations during my 14 years there. In 2008, I went instead to the ceremonies down the road at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where my son was graduating. I experienced his event as a proud parent, reminding me that although graduations had become routine to me, they felt different when they touched me personally.

Similarly, the transition now under way at Peace Corps Moldova may feel routine to the staff here; I don’t really know. But for me, it is new, albeit familiar. For almost all of those who came with me, there is only this year and next. We are the ones now at the center of the transition. When Mother’s Day rolls around next time, we’ll be the ones preparing to graduate.