Young Friends

Most of the Peace Corps Volunteers in our Moldova 31 group are younger than our two sons. We weren’t sure before we came here how we would feel about this. As we now approach the end of our service, we’ve learned the answer: We’ve treasured it.

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To be sure, we’ve formed especially close friendships with some of our fellow older volunteers, a group of whom we traveled with last year (above). Jim Fletcher & David JarmulWe met one of them, Jim, left, before we even left home since he lived near us in North Carolina. Champa became close friends with a fellow teaching volunteer who ended up returning early to help take care of her first grandchild. We expect to remain in touch with them and several other older volunteer friends after we move home in July.

But we’ve also made friends with younger volunteers. One was Haley, right, a member of my community organizing group. img_0653-e1527484184800.jpgShe is an aspiring journalist who will start graduate studies next fall. She and I spent many happy hours discussing writing and other topics. I can’t wait to see what she does with her life.

IMG_2988One of Champa’s best friends here is Beth, left, a young teacher from upstate New York with whom she chats regularly on the phone. She’s such an admirable young woman and we’re looking forward to following her life, too.

I’ve helped several younger colleagues here with their resumes, grad school applications and job search strategies, sharing my experience as someone who has hired lots of people. I also helped some of them share their experiences through Peace Corps Stories, Super Moldovans and other communications projects.

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But they’ve helped me, too, and I’ve been inspired by their enthusiasm and dedication. Ingrid showed me through her daily example how to slow down and appreciate what she playfully calls our “fellow humans.” Katie exudes a gentle professionalism. Danny is so knowledgeable about the Soviet legacy here. Samantha and Alexandra have worked hard to help Moldovan young women become entrepreneurs. (I could name many other examples and apologize for not including more.)

As Champa and I get ready to return home, we are thinking how we will incorporate the lessons of our Peace Corps experience into our American lives. One thing I’ve learned is that as much as I love my older friends back home and can’t wait to get back together with them, I will be looking to spend time with younger friends, too. My life is richer and much more interesting for having them around me.

 

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The Missing Genre

Where are our “coming of older age” novels?

Our society celebrates “coming of age” novels, from Huckleberry Finn to The Catcher in the Rye. Newer books fit into this genre, too, from The Fault in Our Stars to blockbuster series like Harry Potter or The Hunger Games.

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But how many novels can you name whose central characters are retired or aging?

You might be able to think of some after awhile if you’re a dedicated reader ike me. But they are not so obvious and, as best I can tell, not recognized as a genre even though more than 46 million Americans are now over the age of 65, a total projected to more than double by 2060. I looked online and found lists here, here, here and here, all filled with examples of great books with older characters, but they still don’t feel like a “thing” to me.

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The recent death of Philip Roth got me thinking about this. (Another great writer, Tom Wolfe, also died. It was a bad week.) Roth famously explored the challenges of older age. When I learned of his passing, I had just finished The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas, a powerful story about an African American teenager who sees her friend killed by police. I loved her book but it’s worth noting its central character was a young person, just as in The Goldfinch and some of the other books I’ve read while serving in the Peace Corps.

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My list just topped 100 and, out of curiousity, I went back to see how many of the novels had older protagonists. There were a few, such as Everybody’s Fool by Richard Russo and A Spool of Blue Thread by Anne Tyler. But most of the books dealing with older age were nonfiction, such as two good ones I read recently: Michael Kinsley’s Old Age: A Beginnner’s Guide, about his experience with Parkinson’s Disease, and Marc Freedman’s Prime Time, about people creating new careers and identities after leaving the conventional work force. Many nonfiction books for older readers focus on financial planning and other practical questions. Those books are often suggested even when you search online for fiction about older people, as shown below.

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The percentage of American adults who read books has remained relatively unchanged in the past few years, according to a 2016 report from the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project. The median American reads four books a year. Print books continue to be more popular than audiobooks or e-books, which are more popular among younger readers, who read slightly more books than older Americans.

Younger adults are more likely to read for work or school while adults of all ages are equally likely to read for pleasure or to keep up with current events. In other words, the readers are still there, even as independent bookstores struggle to survive. So why aren’t more novelists focusing on “the coming of older age” — and why aren’t these books treasured as a genre in the same way we celebrate stories about people at the other end of the age span?

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Sure, there are classics such as Shakespeare’s King Lear or Hemingway’s Old Man and the Sea, and more recent characters such as Roth’s Nathan Zuckerman or John Updike’s Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom. But their ubiquity or cultural impact are small compared to, say, Harry Potter. (I don’t think Disney World is considering a thrill ride yet about Medicare, with parts A, B, C and D.)

I wish more great novels featured characters my age. I don’t understand why they don’t. Obviously, the books assigned in our high schools are more likely to feature characters and stories of interest to younger readers. But how about for the majority of readers who are older than that — people like me? Why don’t our bookstores have shelves devoted to these audiences on topics other than how to apply for Social Security or deal with dementia?

Maybe it has to do with the economics of the book industry, but books don’t sell advertising like television shows, which want younger viewers to buy their beer and cars. Maybe older characters are harder to fit into genre fiction, like mysteries or romance novels. Maybe they’re not taken seriously by younger Americans, a thought that occurred to me this past week while reading Dan Lyon’s Disrupted, his hilarious but unsettling account of working at a startup company in his mid-50s.

Maybe it’s something else. I guess I’m too old to figure it out myself.

Our Moldovan Mother

The most memorable person we have met in Moldova, and the person we will miss the most after we return home this summer, is the 87-year-old grandmother, or bunica, of our host family.

Nadejda Ciornea inspires us.

a9dce809-8824-46d5-98c1-00ccd229775eShe travels almost every day from our house in Ialoveni to downtown Chișinău, where she sells handicrafts in the outdoor market in the Arts Square. She walks up a steep hill to the bus stop, then boards an overcrowded vehicle before finally arriving near the market. There she sits outdoors on a folding chair, in the heat of the summer and the cold of the winter. Only rain or a snow storm keep her home.

IMG_7145Watching this small woman shuffle on the road with her cane, or greet customers in the market, never ceases to amaze us. When we ask why she continues to work at her age, she smiles and wags her finger, saying la lucru! (the work). In fact, she says this to us almost every day, teasing us that we need to work as hard as she does.

IMG_2301Every evening I ask her how business went that day. Often she says she earned nimic, or nothing, usually followed by some choice words about Moldova’s faltering economy. Sometimes she smiles and points to the small ledger she carries, where she records her sales. Occasionally she’ll share photos or letters from customers she’s met over the years who befriended her and sent her greetings.

In the evening, we sometimes share a glass of wine and a piece of cake, preceded by her toasting our good health and success. She asks about our family back home and what we did that day, always with a twinkle in her eye and a quick laugh.

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Bunica’s daughter, Nina, is officially our “host mother,” and we’ve become very close to her, her husband Mihai and the rest of the Bordei family. Since we are a few years older than Nina, however, it’s Bunica who has felt like a mother while we’ve been in Moldova. Champa and I both lost our own mothers years ago. We never expected to find another here on this side of the world.

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In the years ahead, whenever we feel like complaining about getting old, we will remember Bunica wagging her finger and saying la lucru!  She has shown us how to age gracefully, embracing every day with what Moldovans call a suflet mare — a big soul.

Bunica said to me the other day that she will miss the two of us a lot after we depart in July. We will miss her even more.

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Places You Should Visit

Champa and I have taken several interesting trips to neighboring countries while serving as Peace Corps Volunteers in Moldova. Now that we’re nearly finished, which places would we recommend the most?

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I’ve written previously about our impressions of Transylvania; Armenia and Georgia; Bulgaria and Bucharest; Odessa; Vienna, Budapest and Bratislava; and the Romanian city of Iași. In Moldova, our visits included Soroca, Comrat and several famous monasteries. 

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We enjoyed all of these places. But if you have limited time and resources, here’s our Top Three for your consideration:

  • The Transylvania region of Romania
  • Tbilisi, Georgia
  • Bratislava, Slovakia

We also recommend a visit to Moldova!

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Transylvania was our favorite spot. Many Americans associate it mainly with Dracula, the  fictional vampire inspired by the real-life Vlad Țepeș. But Transylvania is one of Europe’s most beautiful and undiscovered tourist spots. It offers majestic castles (including one named for Dracula), beautiful churches and picturesque cities such as Brașov, Sibiu and Sighișoara. It has nice hotels and restaurants, with architecture reminiscent of Germany and Hungary, whose people settled here. You’re also near Romania’s capital, Bucharest, which is worth a visit, too. Prices are lower than in most other parts of Europe, people are friendly, the weather is mild and the wine is delicious. What’s not to like?

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Tbilisi was called “one of the hottest tourist destinations” last year by The Independent, and for good reason. The Georgian capital, located on the eastern side of the Black Sea, offers distinctive cuisine, interesting sites and rich opportunities for nearby hiking and other outdoor activities. Vogue included it among its “10 Hottest Travel Destinations” and Anthony Bourdain devoted a program to its emerging food scene, including “hangover soup” to recover from a night in the city’s clubs. Don’t miss a visit to the Holy Trinity Cathedral, the gorgeous church overlooking the city, or the nearby monastery in Mtskheta.

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Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia, surprised us with its beauty and charm. Like many tourists, we visited it mainly because it was near Vienna and Budapest, which are better known. We loved those cities, too, but Bratislava was where we’d live if we had to choose among them. It has a friendly vibe, lovely places to visit, fun places to eat, a castle atop the city, even a bridge with a restaurant shaped like a UFO. Bratislava is cozier than its better-known neighbor, Prague, but you can happily spend hours or days enjoying its restaurants and shops, or strolling along the Danube. If you prefer a day trip, it’s just one hour by train from Vienna.

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We’ve come to love Moldova the most of all. Its travel infrastructure is far behind these other places, but you can spend several enjoyable days or more exploring its wineries, monasteries, countryside and attractions. Moldova offers a variety of adventure sports and outdoor activities, great meals, music and cultural festivals and nightlife that ranges from dance clubs to opera, all for a fraction of what you’d pay in most other European cities. This website provides a nice overview of Moldova’s travel possibilities.

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If you prefer to explore the fascinating culture of Armenia, the glorious Rila Monastery of Bulgaria or the famous steps of Odessa instead of our Top Three, well, those are great choices, too, and you can’t go wrong visiting Vienna or Budapest. My main suggestion is simply to give this part of the world a try. As I’ve written previously, too many Americans are missing out on great places here because they never even consider them. We found all of them to be interesting, safe, inexpensive and fun. Maybe you will, too.

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Racing to the Finish

I’m running at full speed as we approach the finish line for our Peace Corps service in Moldova.

Instead of slowing down and starting to pack, I’ve been tackling projects related to my expertise back home that I’ve wanted to pursue since before we arrived here two years ago. 

Bow at News-Writing Class

On Saturday, I’ll teach the second of two classes at the American Language Center in Buiucani, Chișinău. I opened the first one, on news writing, this past Saturday with a dramatic staged “fight” and “heart attack,” followed by asking the students to write a short news story about what they just witnessed. (See the video below.) It was a fun way to introduce them to journalistic concepts such as “the 5 W’s” and the “inverted pyramid” approach of opening a news story with the most essential information.

My second class at the center will be about how to write an opinion article that can touch people’s hearts and change their minds.

IMG_3148In a couple of weeks, I’ll teach a workshop at Moldova State University, discussing with some of their top faculty researchers how they might better explain their work to the public and attract the interest of journalists.

I’ve taught versions of all three sessions many times before and online, training academics and others in the United States how to reach out to citizens and journalists. In recent years, I modified the training to emphasize the importance of using social media to reach audiences directly.

I’m looking forward to discussing all of this here in Moldova, where “research communications” barely exists and “opinion writing” occurs in a very different context.

Simultaneously, I’ve been spending lots of time helping Peace Corps Moldova prepare a big celebration for its 25th anniversary. I’m working with Liuba Chitaev and others on the staff to write scripts, edit videos and pull together a memorable program.

IMG_3186I’ve also worked recently on Orașul Meu, the music video about our host city, Ialoveni, that local singer Laura Bodorin and I produced and released earlier this month. The video has now been viewed more than 7,500 times and shared by more than 200 people on Facebook. Laura and I were recently interviewed by television reporter Cătălina Russu, whose story about the video should air soon. (That’s Laura in the middle of the photo, Cătălina on the right.)

Meanwhile, Champa and I are wading through a long “to do” list for our departure, everything from arranging to reactivate our cell phones and homeowners insurance back home to receiving our final medical and dental checkups here, which we’ll do on Monday. We both need to fill out multiple reports and forms before Peace Corps Moldova will let us ring the bell that symbolizes successful completion of service.

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All of this is in addition to my usual activities at the Ialoveni library, such as working with our “Book Worms” robotics group, shown here in their new team shirts. Two of them, Mihai and Victor, recently spoke about the group at a regional conference for Moldovan youth leaders, shown below.

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I’m not complaining. I view every remaining day of my Peace Corps service as precious, so I want to do as much as possible before we leave. I’ve probably taken on too much, but there will be time to rest later. No matter how fast or slow I run, the finish line keeps getting closer.