I am a Peace Corps volunteer in Moldova, in Eastern Europe, serving in the small city of Ialoveni with my wife, Champa. We are from Durham, N.C., where I was the head of news and communications for Duke University. You can follow our adventures on my blog, notexactlyretired.com.
We used to attend classes “in person” with our local Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI). Since we returned from our Peace Corps service in Moldova two years ago, I’ve studied topics ranging from foreign policy to science fiction films.
That ended when the coronavirus pandemic cut short this spring’s schedule. The OLLI program at Duke University and others nationwide have been scrambling since then to provide classes online.
I wrote this article after Champa and I returned home from Europe in March, just before the coronavirus made such travel impossible. It felt inappropriate to publish it then. A new article in The Washington Post prompts me to share it now, with hope for better times.
Champa and I were accompanied on our recent European trip by Laura, Camille, Adrien and Tim. They were our guides on free walking tours, a travel idea we hope to use again after the current crisis passes. Perhaps you can use it then, too.
Traditionally, you had to buy an advance ticket for a walking tour of a city, but several years ago some companies began switching to a “pay what you like” model. The concept spread, even to Moldova, where we served in the Peace Corps.
The two of us prefer this model because the guides are motivated to provide a great experience every time. Their tips depend on it and their companies monitor their online reviews.
All of our guides on free walking tours have been enthusiastic local experts who provided a 2-3 hour blend of history, architecture, culture and humor.
In Bruges, Belgium, for example, Laura explained how the picturesque Flemish city became a center of European commerce, declined and then reemerged as a cultural hub. She described its majestic belfry and churches and shared stories about how it came to possess both a Michaelangelo statue and swan-filled ponds. Laura spent several years in Australia, so her narration had an unexpected accent.
In Ghent, our guide was Camille, whose description of that city’s historic competition with Bruges provided an interesting counterpoint. Camille took us to several buildings that served powerful guilds and to others that beckoned sailors seeking prostitutes. We also learned the history of Belgium’s famous beer, potato fries and other foods.
Our guide in Brussels, Adrien, expanded the food conversation to include waffles and chocolates. He pointed out architecural oddities in its magnificent Grand Place and suggested local beers for us to sample when we stopped at a bar halfway through our tour. Like other guides, he also addressed some difficult topics. Standing in front of a statue of King Leopold II, he described how millions of Africans died under brutal Belgian rule.
In Amsterdam, our guide, Tim, told another story of colonial oppression, this one about Dutch rule in Indonesia. He also brought us to a former Jewish neighborhood and to the Anne Frank House to consider what happened to Amsterdam’s Jews under German occupation. Mostly, though, Tim kept us smiling as he riffed on everything from Dutch cheeses to the maintenance of canals. When he told us he also works as a stand-up comedian, we weren’t surprised.
During our Peace Corps service, we took free walking tours in several East European cities, such as with the guide you see below from Sofia, Bulgaria. Her excellent tour ranged from the architecture of a local mosque to the city’s many symbols of recent Communist rule.
All of our guides combined light material with more serious sights. As Adrien said in Brussels, “I don’t want you to get churched out.” We found all the tours just right in length. We haven’t had a bad experience yet. Needless to say, we tipped all of the guides and posted favorable reviews. Hennessey, who showed us around Dublin during an earlier trip, told us his mother checked his reviews regularly.
Free walking tours can also help you find a good hotel or Airbnb, as I learned from one of my favorite blogs, The Senior Nomads. If you’re looking online for a place to stay, check where the walking tour originates, then search near there. You’ll end up close to top attractions instead of in a distant neighborhood.
Champa and I know how fortunate we are to have returned safely at a time when the coronavirus is claiming an enormous physical and economic toll. People around the world are struggling, and those on the front lines are risking their lives to help us. We are grateful to all of them.
As we isolate at home, we’re dreaming of the day when we can again explore a new city with a good walk.
It’s been a strange time to release a book about travel and the Peace Corps. The coronavirus outbreak has been devastating and Peace Corps Volunteers were recently evacuated worldwide. Like many of you, I have been staying home and feeling grateful to the medical responders and others who are working so tirelessly on our behalf. If you’re ready for a distraction while we await better times, here are links to some of the stories that have appeared in places that focus on retirement and career changes, which are more numerous than I knew previously. You’ll find more links on the book’s Facebook page.
In a future post, I’ll share coverage from outlets less focused on retirement, like this interview on Peace Corps Worldwide.
Visit the book website to see reviews, trip photos and more, along with links to indie bookshops, Amazon and other places where you can order Not Exactly Retired in paperback or electronically. If you’ve read and enjoyed it, please post a review online!
More than 7,000 Peace Corps Volunteers from around the world arrived recently in North Carolina and other states after being evacuated because of the coronavirus.
They need our help — and they have something to teach us.
The volunteers have returned to Greensboro from Ukraine, to Raleigh from Malawi, to Cary from Panama and to Asheville from Ethiopia. They’ve come from South Africa, Guatemala and elsewhere — 61 countries in all. It’s the first time the Peace Corps has evacuated its volunteers worldwide.
The North Carolina Peace Corps Association, like its counterparts across the country, has been organizing to assist the evacuees, few of whom have jobs lined up. They don’t receive unemployment benefits and their health insurance is temporary.
Of course, millions of other Americans are out of work, too, wondering how they’re going to buy food and pay their rent. The Peace Corps evacuees share this economic stress along with having suddenly left distant villages where they were assisting teachers, organizing health projects and working in other ways with some of the world’s poorest communities. Now, after a difficult trip, they’re back home, maybe still under quarantine.
They may not be ready yet to focus on a job hunt or to hear how lucky they are to eat barbecue again. Many of them didn’t want to be here, at least not yet.
I can only imagine how they feel. When Champa and I returned to North Carolina from our Peace Corps service in Eastern Europe two years ago, after months of preparation, we needed time to readjust to things as simple as drinking water from the tap. We were happy to be reunited with our family and friends but missed our Moldovan friends.
Peace Corps Volunteers are renown for their resilience but those who were just evacuated could use some help. Even with everything else going on, other Americans should look for ways to assist them. The Peace Corps itself needs political support and resources to respond appropriately. (An online petition calls on the federal government to provide the evacuees with appropriate benefits.)
In return, these newly returned volunteers have a valuable perspective to share at this moment of worldwide anxiety.
They’ve just been living alongside people in other countries, so can help us see how the world is more connected than “us” and “them,” especially during a global crisis. Our country is not alone in facing extraordinary medical challenges and economic disruption, and it has greater resources than the countries where volunteers were serving.
The Peace Corps also exemplifies the human power of service, as millions of North Carolinians have been demonstrating recently, most notably with our heroic medical teams and first responders. More broadly, people across our region have been stocking grocery shelves, working at pharmacies or just staying home to reduce transmission rates. They are ordering meals to support local restaurants, checking on elderly neighbors and helping in other ways. The crisis has brought out the best in them.
In other words, Peace Corps Volunteers aren’t different from other Americans. They are just one example of how we all can enrich our own lives while serving others.
Champa and I began our Peace Corps service when we were 63 years old. We were among the hundreds of older Americans who join every year. The two of us ended up having a life-changing experience and feeling like we accomplished a lot. Thus, a final lesson, especially for people nearing retirement, which is to be unafraid about redefining your life and following your heart to pursue the Peace Corps or some other dream. As I discuss in my new book,you never know what might happen tomorrow.
Like a quarter-million Americans since President Kennedy started the Peace Corps in 1961, the volunteers and trainees who just came home answered our country’s call for service. I hope people in North Carolina and across the country will reach out, thank them, lend a hand and then listen to their stories.
The Second Act Stories podcast has just published a new episode, “At 63, He Joined The Peace Corps and Moved to Moldova.”
If you ever wondered why I would walk away from a wonderful job and friends at Duke, you’ll find the answer here. Host Andy Levine asked great questions and even spoke with Alisa from our Moldovan host family.
I don’t plan to share all of the coverage of my new book, but Andy tells our story especially well in just under 20 minutes.
If you are an experienced podcast listener, you can connect to the Second Act Stories podcast on Apple Podcasts (for iPhones), Stitcher (for Androids), Spotify, GooglePlay, iHeartRadio and others. If you are new to podcasts, you can listen to this episode directly from the Second Act Stories website. While you’re there, check out some of the other “second acts” Andy has profiled, as well as his Best Books About Second Acts and other resources.
For more information about my new book, a book website has ordering details, blurbs, photos and other information.
Thanks Andy, and thanks to my sister Nancy Collamer, the author of a terrific book on Andy’s list and an inspiration for mine, for bringing us together.
I’m excited to share some news here prior to its official release: On April 2, the Peace Corps Writers imprint will publish my book, Not Exactly Retired: A Life-Changing Journey on the Road and in the Peace Corps.
Ironically, the book is coming out just as the Peace Corps is evacuating its volunteers worldwide due to the coronavirus. My thoughts are with them and with everyone affected by the current situation. I hope the book will offer readers something to enjoy and ponder while we all look forward to better days.
Not Exactly Retired chronicles the three-year adventure Champa and I pursued across the United States, Nepal and Moldova, using this as a backdrop to explore broader questions about how to embrace the next phase of your life and redefine your personal sense of identity and purpose.
The book is already on sale on Amazon, at indie bookshops and elsewhere, both electronically and in paperback. (If your local shop doesn’t have it, please ask them to stock it!) You can find ordering information, photos and more on a new book website (separate from my blog): notexactlyretiredbook.com.
The feedback from initial readers has been encouraging. One called the book “a fascinating story about the rewards of doing good while seeing the world. It shows how adventure can give new meaning to our lives and make them richer.” Another said the “storytelling is engaging and will inspire you to find your own North Star.” Still another called it “a delightful and instructive guide to self-renewal from which we all can learn.” (You’ll find more comments on the new website.)
During the past several weeks, I’ve been talking with reporters, podcasters and others who plan to cover the book after its official release, so stay tuned. Unfortunately, due to the pandemic, we won’t have a public launch event.
I extend a heartfelt dhanyabad, mulțumesc and big thanks to all of you who supported us during our journey and helped me with the book. Champa and I are indebted to you in so many ways.
I hope you enjoy the book and will tell others about it by posting a review, discussing it online or ordering a copy for someone you know who is thinking about how to make the most of the next stage of their life.
At the very moment President Trump was announcing his European travel ban on Wednesday, Champa and I were returning home from a two-week trip to Europe.
We didn’t expect to be there during a pandemic. When we flew to England for our nephew’s wedding, coronavirus was just beginning to appear in Europe. As we then traveled by train to London, Paris, Belgium and Amsterdam, it kept spreading.
We enjoyed visiting the Eiffel Tower and other attractions without waiting on lines, but we were concerned about what was happening to others and relieved to return safely. We’re now staying at home as a precaution.
At this moment when the health and financial news is so grim, and our thoughts are with everyone affected, let me offer some relief with a post about a time and place that already seem far away: Amsterdam’s Dam Square this past Sunday.
As Champa and I walked towards our hotel near there, we heard boisterous chanting and cheering from what turned out to be a demonstration for International Women’s Day. The crowd was huge and full of energy. We saw countless homemade signs in Dutch, English and other languages. Here are some that caught my eye:
As soon as the Women’s Day protesters marched away from the square, a new demonstration and concert began. This one was for the human rights of Indonesians, who were once colonized by the Dutch.
That was on the main stage. Elsewhere on the square, a man set up a display in support of the Palestinian people. A few steps away from him, another protestor defiantly held up an Israeli flag.
In another direction, several Falun Gong protestors stood beside a booth with large signs condemning Chinese oppression of their religion.
Meanwhile, tourists snapped photos of the historic architecture, tour guides led groups and police officers observed patiently. Marijuana smoke wafted from “coffee shops” beside the square and prostitutes posed in windows of the nearby Red Light District.
It all illustrated why Amsterdam is renown for its tolerance.
When we returned to Dam Square two days later, we encountered yet another group of protestors. This time it was Tibetans condemining the oppression of the Chinese govenrnment and calling for the return of the Dalai Lama.
Champa and I enjoyed Amsterdam’s Van Gogh Museum, Anne Frank House and other famous spots, but Dam Square was the most memorable for us. We loved being in the middle of this festival of free speech and democracy.
I hope such trips become possible again soon for Americans. For now, we all need to focus on the more serious business of saving lives at home and around the world.
Keep Dam Square in mind for when that day comes — and if you’re lucky enough to travel there, be sure to bring a sign.