All posts by djarmul

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.

Riding the Rails

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Champa and I have become fans of Europe’s rail system. We used trains recently to travel from Vienna to Budapest to Bratislava and we found them to be reliable and fun to ride. They were also easy to navigate even though we didn’t speak the local languages.

All of the ticket vendors spoke English. The automated ticket machines were available in English. So were the signs. The schedules were online. Our Visa cards were accepted everywhere. The seats were comfortable. The toilets were clean. There was even free wifi on some of the trains.

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Vienna’s central train terminal, Wien Hauptbahnhof, and the Austrian trains we rode were the most modern. Like some of our own train stations back in the United States, the ones we used in Budapest, Keleti and Nyugati, felt much older, as did the main Hlavná station in Bratislava. However, we felt safe and comfortable in all of them and were impressed by the architecture and design, as with the mural in the Bratislava station shown above and the exterior of Budapest’s Keleti station shown below.

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We’d heard good things about Europe’s trains but were uncertain since we’d never ridden them before. Now we plan to use them often if we visit Europe again after we finish our Peace Corps service in Moldova. We expect many of them to be even nicer than what we saw, especially in western Europe. All aboard.

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My Unpredicted Birthday

I never could have predicted when I was a boy that I would end up celebrating my 65th birthday in a country called Moldova with my wife from Nepal making a celebratory dinner of foods from our home state of North Carolina.

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I’d never heard of Moldova. I’d never heard of Nepal. Even North Carolina seemed exotic to a boy growing up on Long Island in the 1950s and 1960s. For me, a big trip then was to New York City. There were no ATM machines, Internet or smart phones, much less QR codes to hop on a jet plane and fly halfway around the world.

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Now I find myself in the former Soviet Union, nearing the end of my Peace Corps service alongside a woman from the Himalayas who became my beloved wife, giving me more happiness in my life than I’ve ever deserved. Even after nearly two years together in Moldova, I still sometimes shake my head in wonder: How did I get here? How did a boy from Freeport come to celebrate a special birthday in Eastern Europe, receiving congratulatory Facebook messages in English, Romanian and Nepali from family and friends stretching from Singapore to Seattle?

My life has gone in such unexpected directions. I have been so lucky — and I haven’t even mentioned my greatest blessing of all, our family back home.

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Here in Moldova, people celebrating a birthday are expected to arrange and pay for the party. So on Tuesday, one day before my birth date, I organized an American-style pizza-and-cake lunch for my colleagues at the library. They surprised me with several wonderful gifts and sang “Mulți Ani Trăiască!” in my honor.

The next evening, our host family joined us for a traditional North Carolina barbecue dinner, which Champa spent several days preparing. As you can see in the video clip, they sang both “Happy Birthday to You” and “Mulți Ani Trăiască!” when they brought out a cake and candles. I received more wonderful gifts.

Thank you to everyone who helped me mark this special occasion, either here, by phone or online. If I’ve learned nothing else over the past 65 years, it is that all of us around the world have so much more in common than the differences that separate us or make us fear one another. We can all touch each other’s lives. We can touch each other’s hearts. We can become friends, even families, together.

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In one of my very first posts on this blog, I wrote: “When people asked me over the past several months why I would walk away from a job and colleagues I love to travel around the United States and Nepal, I spoke often of how Champa and I love to travel — which we do — and of our desire to take a break from the conventional routine. But it was more than that. After being tied to calendars and project schedules for so many years, I wanted to embrace the unknown.” In a later post I added: “One of my goals in being ‘not exacty retired’ is to recognize the richness of life’s surprises and make the most of them.”

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I am so thankful Champa and I decided three years ago to pursue this dream, to veer off the usual path and open our lives to new experiences and ways of serving others. We’ve had good luck, to be sure. Things could have gone badly. But we’ve ended up discovering a new country and new friends while learning new things about ourselves.

Now we are looking forward to reuniting with our family and friends back home. I expect to remain “not exactly retired” after 65 but don’t really know what will happen next. I am eager to be surprised anew. Celebrating this birthday has reminded me how rich your life can become when you let it take you places you never predicted.

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Ten Surprising Sights

We saw lots of beautiful sights in Vienna, Budapest and Bratislava when we visited this past week. We also saw things that surprised or amused us, like the ten shown here:

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2. A Rabbit Outside the Opera House

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3. Lots of Windmills

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4. More Openness About the Holocaust

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Budapest

5. Reagan Beside a Soviet Memorial

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6. Delicious Matzo Ball Soup

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Bratislava

7. An Unexpected Book Enthusiast

8. A (Tarheel) Blue Church 

9. A Street Memorial for a Slain Journalist

10. A ‘UFO Tower’ and Bridge

 

Three Favorite Spots

If you could visit just one place in a great city, where would you go? The Eiffel Tower or the Louvre in Paris? The Statue of Liberty or Central Park in New York? Tiananmen Square or the Forbidden City in Beijing?

I have answers for three cities we just visited along the Danube River: Vienna, Budapest and Bratislava. My picks aren’t necessarily the most famous spots in these cities but they’re the ones Champa and I will remember the most. 

In Vienna, it was the opera house. Not inside the opera, where two tickets can cost more than our monthly Peace Corps budget, but the sidewalk outside. You can sit in chairs there and watch a performance live on a giant screen for free. We discovered this after we arrived in Vienna and saw the ballet Raymonda starting as we strolled by. We sat and enjoyed it for nearly an hour, returning the next day to catch part of Richard Wagner’s opera Die Walküre.

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It was magical to sit outside on a beautiful evening and watch world-class performances in the Austrian city reknown for its music and culture.

In Budapest, we’ll most remember the Chain Bridge and adjacent funicular, which provide stunning views of a picturesque city. We’d already taken a boat ride down the Danube, sailing under the bridge and past the Parliament building and other sites. As in Vienna, we’d also toured the city with Big Bus.

However, nothing topped the view from the historic bridge that spans the river between Buda and Pest, the western and eastern sides of Hungary’s capital. Well, nothing except the historic cable car that climbs to an even better view from Buda Castle. 

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Our biggest Bratislava memory will be St. Martin’s Cathedral, and not only because it’s a landmark of the Slovakian capital. For us, it was also the view in the window of the Airbnb we rented across the square. We could admire the three-nave Gothic church while sipping our morning coffee and then walk a few steps to tour the interior.

A sidewalk, a bridge and a cathedral weren’t the only places we enjoyed during our eight-day trip, the last vacation of our Peace Corps service. We saw lots of other things, too. Some were surprising, as I’ll explain in my next post. For now, you can see for yourself that many of them were amazing.

Vienna, Austria:

Budapest, Hungary:

Bratislava, Slovakia:

 

Jimmy Kimmel, PCV

Should Jimmy Kimmel join the Peace Corps?

That’s what Rep. Joe Kennedy III jokingly encouraged on Wednesday when he appeared as a guest on the comedian’s late-night show. (The exchange begins at 2:00.)

The exchange was light-hearted but highlighted how little many Americans know about the Peace Corps, and how even fewer regard it as something they might do themselves.

Kimmel opened by asking Kennedy about his famous relatives, then switched to his volunteer service in the Dominican Republic. “What goes on in the Peace Corps?” Kimmel asked with a smile. “Do they come to your house and they take you to another country?”

Screen Shot 2018-04-06 at 4.45.00 PM“No, you actually have to get on a plane,” replied Kennedy. “That’s the ‘volunteer’ part.”

The Massachusetts Democrat went on to describe the Peace Corps as “an organization close to my heart [that] does an awful lot of good around the world” and his service as “the most impactful experience” of his life. 

Back in 2011, Champa and I heard Joe Kennedy speak eloquently about his Peace Corps service at an event at Arlington National Cemetery honoring the organization’s 50th anniversary. He announced his candidacy for Congress a few weeks later.

On Wednesday, when he said Peace Corps is “not for everybody,” Jimmy Kimmel quickly agreed. “It is probably a great experience,” he said, “one that I and no one in my family will ever have.” Both he and Kennedy laughed.

Screen Shot 2018-04-06 at 4.46.26 PMFair enough. If I were Jimmy Kimmel, I wouldn’t walk away from a network talk show and millions of dollars, especially with a young family. More to the point, if the thought of leaving America for two years to serve in a distant community sounds unappealing, then it’s not a good fit for Jimmy Kimmel or anyone else. Especially during the past year, he has emerged as an important voice on health care, immigration and other issues. He and others can pursue meaningful lives in so many ways.

Indeed, Kimmel said, “You know if I did that, everyone would think it was a joke. Nobody would believe I went to volunteer for the Peace Corps.”

I’m a big Jimmy Kimmel fan, so I’m glad he didn’t take the idea seriously. But maybe some of his viewers did. The Peace Corps is mentioned so rarely on television that it’s all but invisible to many Americans, some of whom might make great volunteers. I hope this exchange caused at least a few of them to give it some thought.

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That’s one of the things I’ve been trying to do with this blog, albeit on a smaller scale. Some readers of Not Exactly Retired, especially those nearing retirement, have written me to say it helped them picture Peace Corps service and consider it for themselves. I’ve treasured those messages. (If you’re reading this and have a similar story, please let me know!)

As Joe told Jimmy: “There’s no age limit on volunteers. You could sign up today.”

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I Love Moldova. Really.

Moldovans sometimes ask me whether Champa and I like Moldova. IMG_7936When I tell them we’ve come to love Moldova and will miss it when we return home, they are often surprised.

Their eyebrows go up. Their eyes widen. “Really?” they ask in disbelief that an American might admire their country.

Yes, really.

IMG_5608Inevitably, they respond with “but what about”: But what about the bad roads? What about the overcrowded buses? What about the low salaries? What about so many people leaving the country to work elsewere? What about the corruption?

In a recent poll, 73 percent of Moldovans said the country is going in the wrong direction; 76 percent said young people do not have a good future.

These and other problems are very real. No question about it. But so is the beauty of Moldova’s countryside, its glorious churches, its delicious fruits, vegetables and wine. I love the laughter of its children. IMG_5584I love the grandmothers talking in the market, the mothers carrying babies, the dads holding their children’s hands. I love everyone’s hospitality and generosity.

I love so much about Moldova. It’s been a privilege to serve here. Champa and I are both grateful to have had this opportunity.

We will return in July to a country with profound problems of its own. Yet even though recent events have sometimes led me to despair, I have never wavered in my pride about my homeland. Yes, we have a messy democracy and corruption in our own politics. But we also have backyard barbecues, Saturday Night Live, Fourth of July parades and Little League. We have LeBron James and Beyonce, overstuffed aisles at Costco and food trucks lined up beside our farmer’s market in Durham.

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Living abroad has reminded me how lucky I am to be an American.

I wish more Moldovans would recognize and celebrate the wonderful things about their country. After living here for two years, I’ve come to believe their biggest problem is not politics or the economy. It’s the “glass half empty” view of life I encounter so often. I’ve lived and traveled in other countries much poorer than Moldova, with deep challenges of their own, but the people I’ve met have generally been proud of their homelands. Here in Moldova, there is a “cloud of pessimism,” as Eric Weiner described in The Geography of Bliss. Not always, not with everyone, but often.

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To my foreign eyes, Moldova’s negative self-image is out of alignment with its reality. Even recognizing its many challenges, I’ve come to know it as a beautiful place with dedicated, hard-working people who have the skills and hearts to make it prosper.

First, though, they have to believe in themselves. When they ask someone from another country whether they like Moldova, they have to expect the answer to be yes.

In any case, that’s my answer, and I know other Peace Corps Volunteers who feel the same way: I don’t just like Moldova; I love Moldova. Maybe that’s something Moldovans need to hear. Really.