Weekly (No-)Book Club

Screen Shot 2018-01-27 at 9.14.18 AMYou May Want to Marry My Husband by Amy Krouse Rosenthal was one of the most widely read — and heartbreaking — essays ever to appear in the New York Times “Modern Love” column, which published it ten days before Rosenthal died of cancer this past March. The actress Debra Winger later recorded a podcast of the author describing her husband’s devotion and her desire for him to find new happiness after her impending death.

Screen Shot 2018-01-27 at 9.15.25 AMOn Tuesday afternoon, her words broke hearts again, this time among members of my weekly English conversation class. We read sections of the article aloud, listened to part of the podcast and then listened to another “Modern Love” podcast about how a woman dealt with her husband’s mid-life crisis.

This was a change of pace from some of the other articles I’ve assigned recently in my weekly class at the Ialoveni library for advanced English speakers who want to improve their reading and conversaton skills. Our previous selection was The School, a chilling 2007 article in which C.J. Chivers described a Chechan terrorist attack on a school in the Russian town of Beslan, which resulted in the deaths of at least 385 people.

Before that we read three essays by humorist David Sedaris, a Walter Isaacson article describing the science behind Mona Lisa’s smile and Atul Gawande’s article about how he and other physicians need to do more to help dying patients and their families. We’ve also discussed travel destinations, teenage anxiety and the linguistic implications of emojis.

Screen Shot 2018-01-27 at 9.15.49 AMI originally planned the class as a more conventional book club, where we might read Harry Potter novels or other full-length works likely to appeal to Moldovan readers. When I spoke with a Moldovan friend who runs an English-language center, however, he warned me students wouldn’t have enough time to read the books, which would also be expensive for them to buy. Screen Shot 2018-01-27 at 9.17.08 AM
He suggested I choose long articles instead, which the students could download or read online.

It was great advice. My students, who range from a Moldovan online journalist to an art student, are generally able to handle even the longer articles, and they come ready to share reactions and opinions that often fascinate me. Screen Shot 2018-01-27 at 9.16.25 AMOur discussion about the Gawande article, for instance, led to a great conversation about how our two cultures handle death, not only in medical settings but more generally.

For our class next Tuesday I’ve assigned an extraordinary Cincinnati Enquirer series on Seven Days of Heroin. If you’re in Ialoveni and would like to join the discussion, please come to the class. If you’re back in the States and want to participate, (16:30 locally; 9:30 a.m. Eastern time on Feb. 6), please let me know and I’ll try to include you online.


Moms, Kids & Rusalina

Ialoveni families came on Sunday afternoon to Bebeteca, the library’s new program that combines a colorful play area for kids with educational programming for adults. Television personality Rusalina Rusu led a lively conversation with local parents while their kids played, as shown below in the slide show. The library, BPO “Petre Ştefănucă, launched Bebeteca earlier this month with support from our Peace Corps grant. It will be announcing future Bebeteca events on its Facebook page. If you live in Ialoveni, especially if you’re a parent with a youngster, come join us!

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‘Bebeteca’ for Families

Ialoveni’s library has something new for local families: “Bebeteca,” a colorful children’s room where kids can play while adults enjoy educational discussions with guest speakers.


On Sunday, Jan. 28, Rusalina Russu will speak at 1 p.m. at Bebeteca about how she grew up in Ialoveni and became one of Moldova’s best-known television personalities, hosting a show about families. The program is free and the public is invited to attend. [ADDED: Here’s a short post about her talk along with several fun photos of the moms and kids.]

Last week, local doctor Diana Slivinschi, above, discussed children’s infectious diseases. Future speakers are scheduled to discuss topics ranging from dental care for children to planning trips with kids or how Ialoveni provides support to vulnerable families. At some programs, librarians will read stories aloud with the children. The library’s Facebook page will provide details.


Parents and grandparents can enjoy the discussions while their kids play with toys and books the library has bought along with children’s furniture and a wall-mounted TV. IMG_0869Students from Ialoveni’s School of Art, upstairs from the library, are painting the room with an original mural featuring characters from national children’s stories.

“We are excited to offer this new programs for families in Ialoveni,” Valentina Plamadeala, director of BPO “Petre Ştefănucă” said. IMG_0832“We want to offer mothers and families the chance to meet, have fun and learn something new. We also hope they will explore the library while they’re here and borrow some books or sign up for our free programs, from learning English to making simple animated movies.”

Plamadeala said story-telling programs at libraries are popular in many countries, including Romania, but a new idea in Moldova. She hopes the Ialoveni program may inspire other libraries in Moldova to launch similar efforts.


Responding to information gathered in a community survey, BPO “Petre Ştefănucă” created the new space with the support of a U.S. Peace Corps grant and a small project Plamadeala implemented through the “Together for the Community” program of the Association of Librarians in the Republic of Moldova and the National Library of Moldova in partnership with the Novateca National Program.

Librarian Lidia Rusu and Peace Corps Volunteer David Jarmul developed the project, purchased the materials and worked with the rest of the library staff to create the room and organize the programs.

(A Romanian version of this article was posted by the library, which used the infographic below to describe its survey results showing wide community support for the project idea .)

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Dates of Departure

Champa and I now know when we will finish our Peace Corps service: on July 3.


We and the other members of our Moldova 31 group gathered at a Close of Service (COS) Lottery on Saturday afternoon to take turns choosing dates this summer when we’ll each wrap up. Peace Corps staggers our departures to better manage all of the logistics.

IMG_0807Everyone’s name was placed in a hat, with the three married couples each listed together. As people’s names were called, they selected one of the available departure slots on a large calendar.

IMG_0780Ours were among the first names called. We chose an early date because we plan to take a two-week trip with some friends and then head home to reoccupy our house in North Carolina, which will be vacated shortly before then by our tenants. IMG_0816Many of our fellow M31 volunteers are also planning COS trips, a tradition among departing volunteers worldwide. Some members of our group need to return home quickly to begin jobs or graduate school. One just accepted a new Peace Corps assignment in Tonga.

When all of us first met at a hotel in Philadelphia in May 2016, one of our Peace Corps “stagers” said we were meeting our new “government-issued family.” During our time together in Moldova, we’ve become that and more.


We all had fun on Saturday posing for funny photos next to our departure dates, as we’re doing here with our friend Ingrid, and for a group photo together. Most of us then continued the party at the Smokehouse Restaurant launched by two former volunteers.


I found it all bittersweet. Now that Champa and I have an actual date, the approaching end of our Peace Corps service is no longer an abstraction. We know when we will reunite with our family and friends in America, and we cannot wait to see them, but we also know we’ll have to say goodbye to our host family and Moldovan friends, and to the other volunteers with whom we’ve shared this unforgettable journey.

The countdown has started. 163 days to go.


Visiting Gagauzia

If foreign tourists only visited New York City, they wouldn’t understand upstate New York, much less the rest of the country. Likewise if they visited my home town of Durham but skipped the rest of North Carolina.

Screen Shot 2018-01-16 at 2.49.50 PMThe same is true here in Moldova, even though the whole country is only slightly larger than Maryland. This past weekend, Champa and I were reminded of this when we visited Comrat, a small city that is the capital of Moldova’s autonomous region of Gagauzia.IMG_0640

Comrat has notable red wines and a lovely church, but it’s best known in Moldova as the home of the Gagauz people, an Orthodox Christian ethnic minority that left Bulgaria years ago to escape persecution from the Ottoman Empire. Almost all Gagauz people speak Russian instead of Romanian and they have no interest in Moldova reuniting with Romania, which is a popular idea in our part of the country. IMG_0653To the contrary, many have unhappy memories of Romanian rule.

When I served previously as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Nepal, it took me nearly a year until my American eyes adjusted enough to notice the different facial features of people in various ethnic groups. Here in Moldova, where we are well into our second year, I was struck by how Gagauz faces showed similarities with the Balkans, in ways I don’t usually see in Ialoveni.


We traveled to Comrat by bus so I could help teach a journalism class led by Haley, a member of my Peace Corps group who is working with Miras Moldova, an NGO that advances Gagauz culture. At her request, I discussed my career as a journalist and communicator, and we then worked together with the students to review projects they have been developing on topics such as Gagauz cuisine and traditional medical practices.


Haley and her partner Anna Celac also organized fun activities such as the one you see above, which challenged one student to draw a copy of a picture, guided only by verbal cues from her partner instead of seeing the original. The students also asked Champa to teach them some Nepali, as you can see in the video clip below (also on YouTube.)


Two other Peace Corps Volunteers in Comrat joined us, Haley and Anna for dinner at Haley’s house, where we spent the night. Haley cooked a fabulous meal and we loved meeting her host mother, a Gagauz journalist herself who remains active well into her 70s.

All in all, it was a short but fascinating reminder that even a small country can have big internal differences, in this case not “red states” vs. “blue states” but “bună ziua” vs. “Здравствуйте.”

Martin and Mihai

While Americans were commemorating Martin Luther King, Jr. on Monday, many Moldovans were celebrating the birthday of Mihai Eminescu.


If you don’t know recognize his name, well, at least one of my work partners didn’t know who Dr. King is. She and others at the library, some of whom had heard of him, were more interested in the birthday of our colleague Raisa, who you see receiving flowers.


We celebrated Raisa with a big lunch and the singing of both “Happy Birthday to You” and La mulți ani trăiască.

IMG_0658It was my latest reminder that even though Dr. King is a hero of mine and many other Americans, our country is not the center of the universe, as much as we might like to think otherwise. To be sure, Dr. King is known and honored in many parts of the world, which is richly deserved, but people everywhere generally care most about their own lives and communities.

IMG_0536A few days ago, a friend back home wrote to ask whether Moldovan newspapers were coming up with their own phrases for “shithole.” I was sorry to disappoint him: Not a single Moldovan friend has mentioned the recent controversy to me. Keep in mind that I work with librarians and other friends who are well-educated. Undoubtedly some Moldovans have been following the controversy, but the ones I know don’t care about American politics unless it affects them personally, which it rarely does. At least they know where America is, which is more than most Americans know about Moldova.

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As you’ve probably guessed from the photos by now, Mihai Eminescu was a famous poet, perhaps the greatest ever to write in the Romanian language. He is beloved by many Moldovans not only for his beautiful work but also as a symbol of the cultural ties between Romania and Moldova, which was part of Romania until it was taken over by the Soviet Union. Ialoveni organized a big show in his honor on Monday evening, featured in the poster you see above.

So that’s the story of Martin and Mihai … unless, of course, you live elsewhere in the world. In that case, feel free to replace Mihai with someone from your country.


Beyond the Comfort Zone

One of the things for which I’m most grateful about serving in the Peace Corps is how it’s made me less fearful about traveling to places that seem exotic or dangerous to some Americans even though they’re actually safe, beautiful, fascinating and cheap.

I’ve been reminded of this during our recent trips to countries near Moldova, where Champa and I are serving as volunteers.

This past week we visited Sofia and Bucharest. If we’d traveled instead to London, Rome or Barcelona, we probably would have seen Americans on every corner. But in these two cities we saw very few.


The photo above shows what I mean. The tourists are listening to the guide in the purple coat, who led us on a free walking tour through Bucharest’s old town, which is filled with lovely churches and Parisian-style architecture. They came from Australia, Canada, Germany, India, Italy, Netherlands, Russia and Serbia. The only Americans were Champa and me.


Here’s a photo of another walking tour we took, this one through the heart of Sofia, where we received a fascinating history lesson from the woman with the blue bag. We viewed beautiful churches, a mosque, a synagogue, the presidential residence, the former Communist Party headquarters and more. Joining Champa and me were 23 other tourists, who came from the Basque region, Bulgaria, Canada, Italy, Japan, Latvia, Netherlands and Spain, plus one other American.

The same was true on our tours of Bulgaria’s Boylan Church and Rila Monastery,  and of the ancient city of Plovdiv, the country’s second largest. You can see these above. The only American in the photos is Champa.

Likewise when we visited Armenia and Georgia a few months ago, shown below, touring monasteries and ancient sites in Armenia and Georgia’s capital city, Tbilisi. The only other American in our groups was a software engineer from Boston who came to learn about his Armenian roots. The others hailed from China, Dubai, Germany, Italy, New Zealand, Philippines, Russia and other countries. All of our tours were in English, with the Armenian and Georgian guides also speaking in Russian.

It’s possible we just happened to be in groups without Americans. Certainly I didn’t expect to see swarms of American tourists in these Eastern European countries, as I might have in Cancun, San Juan or Toronto. Americans who search for flights to Europe look first to London, Paris and Rome, and to familiar places such as Dublin, Madrid and Frankfurt. Destinations in Central Europe such as Prague and Budapest have become popular, too.

Moreover, people travel abroad for many reasons. The two of us enjoy exploring new cultures but others prefer shopping, fine dining or resorts, or hiking, or visiting friends, pursuing a special interest or something else. A 2015 New York Times article said “nearly half of overseas travelers are from the East Coast, and they make trips within the Western Hemisphere or to Western Europe, to places that are more affordable and easier to reach (with shorter and direct flights) than those farther afield.” Tourists from other countries have their favored destinations, too.

IMG_8532Fair enough, and I certainly understand why so many Americans love visiting London or Paris, since I enjoyed these cities, too. Even these tourists are more adventurous than Americans who won’t venture further than a summer beach house. Moreover, millions of Americans lack the resources to do even that and can only dream of foreign adventures. I know how lucky Champa and I have been to pursue our lifelong passion for travel.

I also know serving as an older Peace Corps Volunteer in Moldova now affects my perception of what’s interesting and reasonable. But for goodness sake, I’m not suggesting Americans forego the Eiffel Tower to visit North Korea. I just wish more of them were joining all of the other foreign tourists we saw in experiencing these amazing countries instead of defaulting to the same predictable list, like ordering only vanilla or chocolate ice cream cones in a shop offering many flavors.

Serving as Peace Corps Volunteers, living and working in an unfamiliar culture, has made us even more comfortable with travel alternatives. But you hardly need to have served abroad to expand your horizons a bit, especially with so many companies now offering trips to “exotic” destinations and the internet making it easy to find reputable local travel companies and guides for almost any budget.


Champa and I hope to keep exploring both familiar and less-familiar destinations in the years ahead, assuming our health and circumstances make this possible. Our current wish list includes Sri Lanka, the Baltics and other places we can visit easily with a limited budget, just as we have recently.

I hope we’ll see some of you out there or perhaps somewhere else off the beaten track. There’s a big world waiting beyond the American comfort zone.

Chicken Soup for Christmas

There’s no better way to celebrate Christmas than with a big, steaming bowl of chicken noodle soup.


Our host mother, Nina, prepared the soup on Sunday as a traditional dish for Orthodox Christmas, which comes two weeks after December 25. That’s Nina below behind the tureen filled with the delicious soup, which tasted like what my grandmother used to make for us when I was a kid.

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My Grandma Sarah was born near Odessa, Ukraine, not far from Moldova, as I described in a previous post. Many of the foods I’ve seen in Moldova resemble what she used to serve at our family gatherings in New York. Her stuffed cabbage, for instance, was similar to Moldovan sarmale, although with beef instead of pork. Champa helped make the sarmale you see in the photo above.

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Sunday’s baked chicken, pickled vegetables and salad all looked familiar, too. I made an apricot bundt cake with jam I bought in Sofia last week. IMG_0494We also had a plate of Romanian cookies and American Oreos, which we found in a store in Bucharest.

Many Moldovans also celebrate Christmas on December 25, as well as New Year’s, so the past two weeks have been filled with celebrations. (While I’m writing this on Sunday night, a neighbor’s fireworks are exploding outside my window.) IMG_0478Our host family generously invited us to join two Christmas feasts this weekend, together with their niece and the couple you see here. That’s Liviu in the green jacket showing us a pickled tomato and watermelon with our host dad, Mihai. Viorica sang several songs after dinner, with the voice of an angel, as you can hear in the brief video below, with Nina continuing to bring out more food for us.

So to summarize: chicken soup for the Christmas soul, an angel and childhood memories brought to life. There was no better way to celebrate.


Homes on the Road

We stayed at an Airbnb apartment instead of a hotel when we visited Sofia, Bulgaria last week. We also stayed at Airbnbs when we visited Tbilisi, Georgia and Sibiu, Romania in 2017.

The living room of our Airbnb in Sofia, Bulgaria. (Sorry for the mess.)

All three apartments were central located, with kitchens, living rooms, washing machines and comfortable beds. All cost much less than hotels, although more than local hostels. IMG_0302All three hosts were helpful and responsive. The woman who welcomed us to our apartment in Sofia told us about a wonderful local Nepalese restaurant, Gurkha, where we ended up having a delicious meal and conversation with the owner, as you can see in the photo.

Champa and I still use hotels, such as when we stayed in Bucharest for a couple of nights last week and weren’t sure when we would arrive. But we now prefer staying in Airbnbs because they provide us with extra room and a local contact to help us learn about a city.

Our Airbnb in Tbilisi, Georgia

Many of our fellow Peace Corps Volunteers in Moldova use Airbnbs, too, when traveling or coming to stay in the capital, Chișinău.

I describe all of this because some Americans are still uneasy about staying in a private home instead of a hotel, whether through Airbnb or another service. Others include HomeAway, Couchsurfing, FlipKey, VRBO and Roomorama.

The concept may seem especially novel to some older travelers. As one wrote on the Senior Planet website, “At first glance, Airbnb looked to me like a site for freewheeling hipsters.” That writer tried Airbnb and became a fan, saying, “I’ve learned something new about myself: I really enjoy staying in a ‘real’ neighborhood and being a traveler, not a tourist.”

Champa and our guide, Florin, at the Airbnb we used in Sibiu, Romania, also shown in the photo at the bottom of this post.

We feel the same way and are not unique. Airbnb says more than one million of its users are now over 60, as are 10 percent of its hosts. Its 2016 report said some older Airbnb hosts now depend on this extra income to remain in their homes.

This past year, the Freebird Club launched an Airbnb-like service especially for older travelers and hosts. More broadly, older Americans have begun turning to a variety of flexible gigs and part-time jobs. In her latest list of 100 Great Second-Act Career Resources, career expert Nancy Collamer (my sister) identifies many of these.

One of my favorite blogs, The Senior Nomads, describes how a retired Seattle couple, Michael and Debbie Campbell, has spent several years staying at Airbnbs while traveling around the world. They explain: “As we were closing in on retirement, we felt we had ‘one more adventure in us’ so in July of 2013 we rented our house, sold our sailboat and one of our cars, and reduced our stuff until it fit in a small storage unit. We waved goodbye to our family and friends and set off to explore the world!”


This past summer, when we visited home, Champa and I experimented with the “sharing economy” in another way, by using a car-sharing service. We rented a blue Toyota Camry on Turo from a guy in Virginia for about half of what we would have spent with a car rental company. We had a great experience and would use the service again.

Serving as older Peace Corps Volunteers has opened our eyes in so many ways, and not only about Moldova. We’ve also become more comfortable with new online travel resources favored by people our children’s age. It turns out they work nicely for us, too. If you’ve had an interesting experience of your own with these resources, good or bad, I invite you to share them with a comment.


Sofia and Bucharest

If you can’t find two European capital cities, Sofia and Bucharest, on a map, much less say why they’re great places to visit, don’t feel bad. Before I began serving nearby as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Moldova, I didn’t know much about them either.Screen Shot 2018-01-04 at 1.43.58 PM

Sofia is the capital of Bulgaria. Bucharest is Romania’s capital. Champa and I visited both this past week during a holiday break, using Sofia as a base to explore western Bulgaria and then making a quick stop in Bucharest.

Neither city is as beautiful as Paris or Venice. They still have plentiful Soviet-style apartments and government buildings. But they also have magnificent churches, lovely parks, modern hotels, excellent restaurants and interesting places to visit, all with prices much lower than elsewhere. Together with Krakow, Poland, they were the cheapest tourist cities on the latest European Backpacker Index.

We were very glad to visit both.

We toured Sofia and the surrounding area for four days, beginning with a free walking tour of the city. It’s a laid-back capital that Lonely Planet described as “a largely modern, youthful city, with a scattering of onion-domed churches, Ottoman mosques and stubborn Red Army monuments that lend an eclectic, exotic feel.” You can see some of its sights in the photos above, including the stunning Alexander Nevski Cathedral,

On our second day, we joined a group that visited the Boyana Church, a medieval Bulgarian Orthodox structure with striking frescoes on the city’s outskirts. We continued on to Rila Monastery, the largest and most famous Eastern Orthodox monastery in Bulgaria.

Snow began falling during our visit, making the setting even more beautiful, as you can see in the video clip.

Next we visited Plovdiv, an ancient city straddling seven hills, with an amphitheater, stadium and other ruins dating back to Roman times. Today it’s Bulgaria’s second-largest city, blending museums and tourist attractions with shopping and nightlife.

We shifted gears with our final visit in Bulgaria, this time to Koprivshtitsa, a historic mountain town known for its traditional architecture. We visited several of the town’s colorful houses and churches before taking a break in a charming local restaurant to sample some of Bulgaria’s famous soups, salads and breads. We arranged this and the other tours with Traventuria, a local company that provided great service. We stayed in a nice Airbnb apartment two blocks from the cathedral.

On Monday, we took a bus from Sofia to Bucharest, arriving in the evening at an out-of-the-way bus station where it took us several minutes to flag down a taxi. Eventually we arrived at our hotel in Old Town, where we strolled for a late snack and view of the many clubs, which were pulsating with music and, in a couple of cases, scantily clad dancers in the windows.

The next morning we walked across the boulevard to Unirii Square for a two-hour walking tour that provided a great overview of the city’s complicated history, which ranges from the Roman and Ottoman Empires to Vlad the Impaler (also known as Dracula), as well as the more recent Communist reign of Nicolae Ceaușescu, who was executed with his wife in 1989. Nearby was his People’s Palace, the world’s second-largest building after the Pentagon.

On Wednesday, we flew back to Moldova, where our host family welcomed us with a great dinner and lots of questions about our travels.

All in all, it was a fascinating week, and fun, too. I know now why Sofia and Bucharest are great places to visit. Maybe you should find out, too.