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.

Vaccinating for ‘Fake News’

Parents considering whether to vaccinate their children shouldn’t trust the medical establishment, which wants to take away their kids, their rights and maybe even their organs.

Health officials in Moldova and Romania are familiar with such nonsense. As they’ve struggled recently to contain outbreaks of measles, they’ve encountered assertions like these spread by a small but determined anti-vaccination movement. 

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Local journalists who report on the situation face a similar dilemma of countering this “fake news” with the reality that vaccines have saved more lives than any other medical advance in recent history and are extraordinarily safe. Vaccines save nearly three million lives annually worldwide and reduce healthcare costs by $16 for every dollar spent.

This past week, four months after I completed my Peace Corps service in Moldova, I returned to the region to participate in two workshops dealing with vaccines — one to help health professionals communicate more effectively about them, the second for journalists who cover vaccination efforts. The Sabin Vaccine Institute organized the two gatherings in Sinaia, Romania, home of the famous Peleș Castle, which I visited before the meetings.

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Drawing on my background as a science writer, I encouraged the health professionals at the first workshop to interact more with the news media and public, and to share their personal stories along with their expertise. Two other speakers and I then led them through mock interviews where they could practice answering questions and speaking without jargon to the public.

The second workshop provided reporters from the two countries with a quick course on how vaccines work, together with discussions about regional challenges to immunization, why some parents are skeptical and how the anti-vaccination movement fosters distrust. Moldova’s health minister, Aliona Servulenco, told the group “vaccines are the most controlled and inspected product compared to all of the other pharmaceuticals on the market.”

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“The public needs to evaluate risks based on facts rather than opinions,” agreed Oleg Benes, who helps coordinate immunization programs for the World Health Organization regional office in Copenhagen.

IMG_0252Ovidiu Covaciu, who manages a large Facebook group and produces materials that promote vaccination, was among several speakers who called on reporters to resist what he termed a “false balance” between actual facts and the false claims promoted by vaccination opponents. Mihai Craiu, a pediatrician who uses social media to communicate with the public, said he discusses vaccination regularly but not exclusively, preferring to mix it with other topics.

Freelance journalist Octavian Coman, who wrote an extensive article about the measles outbreaks, and Ioana Avadani, director of the Center for Independent Journalism in Bucharest, spoke at both gatherings. IMG_0219Other speakers discussed topics ranging from the factors affecting “vaccine hesitancy” among parents to Moldova’s efforts to increase HPV vaccination. Reporters at the second meeting covered a wall with ideas during one session and broke into groups during another to develop media strategies for responding to a possible new outbreak of measles.

The Sabin Vaccine Institute, a Washington, D.C. nonprofit organization, previously organized similar workshops for journalists in Latin America. One of the Romania event’s highlights for me was joining Amy Finan, the institute’s chief executive officer (left), and Tara Hayward, an institute vice president, for a dinner at a local restaurant that featured many of the foods I’ve been missing the past four months: sarmale, friptura, mamaliga, brinza and more.

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Kiplinger Article

Shortly before we left Moldova, the Peace Corps communications office in Washington, D.C. contacted us to ask whether we might assist a Kiplinger reporter writing an article about older Peace Corps Volunteers. Kim Lankford’s article recently appeared on the Kiplinger website. The version shown in the illustration above was published in the subscribers-only Kiplinger’s Retirement Report.

Goodbye for Now

We rang the COS bell on Tuesday, completing our service in Peace Corps Moldova.

We joined a large group of volunteers in our group who are among the first to officially complete their service. Champa and I depart on Wednesday for a short trip and will then head home to North Carolina. 

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This special moment also feels like the right time for me to take a pause from this blog.

IMG_3918Readers, I want to thank you so much for following along with Champa and me, regardless of how recently you discovered “Not Exactly Retired” or how regularly you’ve tuned in. IMG_3931I’ve posted 265 stories since we started our adventure three years ago, attracting readers from around the world. My blog posts and videos have been viewed more than 100,000 times. I’ve treasured the messages and comments I’ve received in response, especially from readers who said they were inspired to follow their own dreams.

This blog and my videos never interfered with my primary Peace Corps assignment at the Ialoveni library or the projects I’ve undertaken in Moldova. (As a former news office director, I work fast.) Indeed, they have helped me make sense of our time here while simultaneously promoting the Peace Corps goal of enhancing understanding between Americans and people in other countries.

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I’m not ending the blog, just taking a break while we reintegrate with American life and our family (above), which has been waiting for us to come home. I expect to return in the future with some new adventures and hope you will join me then. 

We’ve loved having you with us on our journey and hope you will pursue yours as well. Life is awaiting you, no matter how you choose to define your own “not exactly.” For now, I bid you a heartfelt la revedere.

The Long Farewell

So little time left, so many goodbyes.

The past two weeks have been a blur of ceremonies, dinners and get-togethers as we say farewell to our Moldovan and American friends before we depart on Wednesday.

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On Tuesday morning, Ialoveni’s mayor, Sergiu Armașu, joined my colleagues at the library to present Champa and me with certificates and gifts and to thank us on behalf of the city we’ve called home as Peace Corps Volunteers. He and library director Valentina Plamadeala were generous in their remarks, and I was especially moved when two boys from our robotics team (shown above) rose to speak as well. Even though it was shortly after 10 a.m. we toasted the moment with champagne and cake (yet another reason we’ll miss Moldova).

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I’ve already posted on Facebook the amazing portrait our host family gave us at a farewell dinner we held a few days earlier. In addition, our bunica, or grandmother, gave us a gorgeous handmade Moldovan carpet. During the past several days we’ve received other beautiful gifts as well, all of which we are bringing home to remind us of our time here.

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We met with the members of my English conversation class and their families for a farewell party at Casa della Pizza, Ialoveni’s popular pizza restaurant. Champa also met there with her language tutor and then with some of the English teachers from her school. It’s also where we had lunch yesterday with a Peace Corps friend and are meeting tomorrow with several others. After all, Casa della Pizza does serve the best pizza in Moldova.

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We sipped beers and ate mamaliga and friptura on the outdoor verandah of another local restaurant when we said goodbye to “Mr. Tim,” a former Peace Corps Volunteer who stayed in Ialoveni to teach English (shown above). He introduced us to it shortly after we arrived and we became friends. With members of Champa’s Peace Corps group, our farewell party was at The Uptown Cafe, a restaurant in the capital.

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We’ve also been saying goodbye over home-cooked meals, such as one we shared with the family of dna Liuba, the Peace Corps Moldova staff member whom I’ve assisted with communications projects, and the Nepali meal we served the family of dna Ana, the teacher who worked closely with Champa on their memorable project to create costumes for the school’s drama program.

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We’re still not done and, amid all of these celebrations, I’ve also been exchanging goodbye messages with my former Diamond Challenge students, promoting North Carolina’s partnership with Moldova and delivering two presentations to the newest members of Peace Corps Moldova’s “community and organizational development” group, who began their training a few weeks ago. Champa and I have been packing, too.

Each goodbye has been emotional and, collectively, they’ve been draining, not to mention fattening, but they have helped us absorb the reality that we’re leaving this place in which we’ve invested so much of ourselves over the past two years. We’ve taken to heart the advice we heard at our COS conference several weeks ago, to embrace this process of saying goodbye rather than letting our final moments drift away. We’re glad we listened.

Nonetheless, as soon as we get home, we’re going to the gym.

North Carolina’s Partner

Kate Hughey usually teaches fourth graders in Charlotte, N.C., but on Monday she taught a crowded room of English teachers in Chișinău, the capital of Moldova. She described her collaborations with fellow teachers on student projects that blend multiple subjects and demonstrated how to make videos easily with homemade “green screens.”

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“We don’t do cross-disciplinary projects in Moldova, so this is really interesting for us. It’s a model we can adapt for our situation,” said Daniela Munca-Aftenev, president of the Academy for Innovation and Change through Education (top photo, left), which hosted the talk at Biblioteca Hasdeu along the city’s main boulevard.

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It was Kate’s first day in a week of activities in Moldova and the latest in a partnership that has linked North Carolina and this East European nation since 1999.

IMG_3709I was invited because I recently assisted the partnership as it prepared to ship hundreds of English-language books to Moldova with two NGOs. I worked with Bob Gingrich, Peace Corps Moldova’s director of management and operations and a fellow North Carolinian (left in photo), who will soon distribute the books among PCVs to share with their host communities.

IMG_3827I ate lunch with Kate before her talk so she could tell me more about the partnership and I could answer some of her questions about Moldova, which she is visiting for the first time, thanks to a grant from World Affairs Council of Charlotte. Kate, who teaches at Charlotte Latin School, is among the pioneers of a school-to-school program that connects teachers and students in Moldova and North Carolina. Her students recently collected 50 boxes of reading books for schools here.

IMG_3778Also arriving here this past weekend was Willow Stone, a student from Clayton High School who will live with a Moldovan host family and study Russian.

Elaine Marshall, North Carolina’s secretary of state, has guided the partnership as it has expanded beyond its initial collaboration between the N.C. National Guard and the Defense Forces of Moldova to include private firms, civic organizations, non-profit agencies and individuals, with planning committees in both North Carolina and Moldova.

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Its projects have ranged from education to medicine, culture and the economy. The Greensboro Jewish Federation assisted a Moldovan Jewish community. Officers of the U.S. Armed Forces helped build a playground for the children of Moldovan military families. The University of North Carolina School of Dentistry sent teams to assist an orphanage. My former colleagues at Duke University and others have sent medical supplies. When I tried to help someone here find information for the local wine industry, an expert from North Carolina State University responded to help us.

The exchanges have gone in the other direction as well, with Moldovans spending time at schools, universities, companies and other institutions in North Carolina.

Kate will be giving several presentations this week, visiting the Ministry of Education and touring some of Moldova’s touristic sites. IMG_3784The Moldovans who attended on Monday picked up not only new teaching ideas but also armloads of free books to bring back to their schools. Some of them have also interacted over the years with Peace Corps Moldova’s English Education program, in which Champa has served.

The two of us have only a week left in Peace Corps Moldova, where we’ve served alongside volunteers from Asheville, Charlotte, Boone, Winston-Salem, Raleigh, Gastonia, Rocky Mount and other parts of our state. We look forward to working with the partnership ourselves after we return to our home in Durham.

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Infrastructure

And now, a few words in praise of infrastructure.

No, please, keep reading!

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Back when I ran a campus news office, we used “infrastructure” as shorthand to describe a story that was important but boring. Today, though, I want to discuss a different kind of infrastructure, namely the Moldovan staff that’s made my Peace Corps service possible. They include:

  • The program staff that taught us a new language, arranged our work assignments, identified our host families and trained us before and after our swearing-in.
  • The administrative team that transported us to our sites, processed our grants, replenished our bank accounts, monitored our safety and publicized our work.
  • The medical team, whose professionalism and skill I’ve described previously. IMG_1527I’d consider myself lucky to have Dr. Iuliana as my primary physician back home.

I’ve been reminded of all these people as I’ve begun gathering many of their initials for the “COS Checklist” we need to fill out for our “completion of service.” On Tuesday, we made a good start, getting eight Moldovan staff members to check off 15 of the 36 boxes.

  • Did Champa and I each submit a detailed “description of service”? Check.
  • Site reports about our host community? Check.
  • Final “volunteer reporting forms” with “data indicators”? Check.
  • Financial sign-off for our grants? Check.
  • A security questionnaire? Check.
  • Our post-service travel plans? Check.

IMG_8155I returned our smoke alarms and fire extinguishers. I returned one of our medical kits. I picked up the last of our medical prescriptions. Check. Check. Check.

Everyone was helpful as I briefly interrupted them to ask them to sign our forms. Several took the opportunity to say nice things about our service and wish us well. The interactions as a whole reminded me how much they all have done on our behalf. 

Champa and I will miss them — after we get through the list. We still have our final medical check-ins, financial close-outs and departure interviews. We need to return the Moldova SIM cards for our phones and confirm we’ve closed our Moldovan bank accounts. Our computer accounts need to be shut down, our residency documents reviewed and our lockers emptied. IMG_1376

Only after these and other boxes are checked will the head of administration for Peace Corps Moldova sign the bottom of our forms and officially return us to civilian life.

All 36 boxes seem reasonable and necessary to me, an accurate reflection of the complex infrastructure required for thousands of Americans to volunteer as Peace Corps Volunteers every year in less developed parts of the world. The single-spaced, two-sided list is a visual reminder of how many moving parts keep the machine running, and it doesn’t even include everyone working with Peace Corps back in the United States.

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The staff’s work is less glamorous, and certainly less recognized, than ours, but it undergirds everything we do. PCVs like me come and go but the local staff remains, mastering the occasionally arcane rules of both the Moldovan government and Peace Corps itself. They deal with unreliable host families, unsettling security situations, unhappy volunteers and more, usually with grace and effectiveness, and they rejoice in our successes. They are the human glue of Peace Corps, in both Moldova and more than 60 other countries.

If their quiet dedication and professionalism is boring, well, so be it. That’s how infrastructure is supposed to work. 

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