Body Language

Do you know that person who comes to your staff meetings, pretends to participate but keeps checking his or her smartphone?

Or the two people who whisper to each other during meetings? Or the curmudgeon who rolls his eyes when someone makes a comment?

We have those people in Moldova, too, although they are generally more discreet than back home, at least in the meetings I’ve attended.

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As someone who attended several meetings a day for many years, with a reputation for keeping my own meetings short and sweet, I’m a connoisseur of meeting behavior. I’ve continued taking mental notes since I came to Moldova, at meetings I’ve attended in Ialoveni, Chișinău and elsewhere.

Even though I can’t understand everything people say in Romanian, some of their body language is familiar, although generally more formal and polite. In both countries, a meeting may include someone bemused (or irritated)  by everything. One person may speak with a rhetorical flourish, while another mumbles or reads in a monotone from a notebook and never looks up. Some people address the entire room while others speak only to the person leading the meeting.

Similarly, if a meeting drags on too long, people may start staring ahead, flipping through papers or glancing at their watches, regardless of whether the conversation is in English or Romanian.

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If someone’s cell phone begins ringing, especially if it has a distinctive ring tone, others in the room will quietly chuckle.  The phone’s owner will probably look chagrined and race to turn it off, although sometimes only after whispering “I’m in a meeting” to whoever is calling.

img_0106One big difference in Moldova, though, is that everyone is addressed as “Domnul” or “Doamna” — Sir or Madam. And when it comes time to schedule the next meeting, they’re more likely to check their paper daybooks instead of the electronic calendar on their smartphone.

Here’s one of the best things about meetings in Moldova: There are far fewer Powerpoint presentations. That alone is a good reason to leave America and come here.

Oh, and if you’re reading this on Facebook, rest assured they sneak peeks at that, too. Every meeting I’ve attended has also included an American guy from North Carolina who glances frequently at the Google Translate app on his iPhone. Discreetly, of course.

Children’s Day

Love. Happiness. Fun. Health.

Those are some of the things people wrote on Thursday when Champa asked them to describe in one word the meaning of International Children’s Day, which people celebrated in Ialoveni and across Moldova. The mayor, Sergiu Armașu, in the shirt and tie, helped her gather responses in front of the Casa de Cultură.

Click on the photo of the chart to see all of the responses. American readers may especially enjoy two in the top-right of the photo: “Best Friend Forever” and “iPhone 7.”

More for Entrepreneurs

Moldova’s entrepreneurship scene keeps getting bigger.

I’ve written previously about the Dreamups Innovation Campus and the Diamond Challenge competition for high school students, in which the team I mentored claimed one of the top prizes this year.

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On Sunday, Champa and I visited Tekwill, a center that opened in March in northern Chișinău. It’s an educational and entrepreneurial hub with coworking spaces, a pre-acceleration program, startup competitions, events and resources ranging from 3D printers to international guest speakers.

Tekwill is among a growing list of local entrepreneurial and startup resources here that now includes iHUB, Generator Hub, Dreamups, 404 Moldova and GEN Moldova.

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“Moldova’s capital, Chișinău, is among many cities around the world that aspire to develop a startup scene of their own,” Sergiu Matei, one of the founders of Dreamups, wrote recently on Startup Grind. “To be sure, no one will mistake it yet for Silicon Valley, much less Boston, Paris or Shanghai. Yet its entrepreneurial scene has quietly begun to emerge over the past couple of years, and it’s been exciting to watch.”

Sergiu concluded: “It’s not a fantasy to believe some of the world’s great new startups can and will emerge from Moldova, especially with such a strong entrepreneurial support system now starting up and growing every day.”

Tekwill is an important new component in that system. Located on the campus of the  Technical University of Moldova, it launched with the support of the U.S. Agency for International Development and the Government of Sweden (through the Swedish International Development Agency), within the Moldova ICT Excellence Center Project.

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Sara Hoy, a fellow Peace Corps Volunteer, has been assisting Tekwill and other technology-based programs, with a special interest in attracting girls to the field. You can see Sara here, between two Moldovan friends, at Moldova’s first-ever Mini Maker Faire organized by Atelier 99 and held at Tekwill on Sunday.

Maker Faire organizes gatherings around the world, often in the Bay Area and other high-tech hot spots. It’s a modern mashup of science fairs, craft festivals and tech enthusiasts. The photos in this post are all from the fair, where Champa and I watched a virtual reality demonstration, listened to talks on starting a business, spoke with inventors and checked out gifts ranging from educational games to jewelry made from computer chips.

IMG_5183Tekwill focuses on information technology, working with students, professors and others who need help transforming a good idea into a successful business. With its educational programs, modern facilities, mentoring and international connections, it seeks to create high-quality jobs to deter so many Moldovans from leaving the country to pursue their dreams.

The entrepreneurs I met at Tekwill, like Moldova’s other entrepreneurs and innovators in civil society and diverse other sectors, represent the best in a country where one too often encounters despair about the economy, politics, corruption and other problems. For me, at least, their spirit is a booster shot of optimism, a reminder that change really is possible. As their entrepreneurial scene continues to grow, so does hope for Moldova’s future.

 

 

What Could Go Wrong

So many things could go wrong!

Along with “That’s cool!” and “I’ve dreamed of that!”, Champa and I heard this before we joined the Peace Corps in Moldova a year ago.

What if you can’t learn the language, some people asked us. What if something happens to one of your children or grandchildren back home? What if you have a medical emergency yourself? What if you’re robbed? What if there’s a terrorist attack? What if things just don’t work out?

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I generally responded by pointing out that bad things can happen in our traditional lives, too. But since we were lucky enough to have our health, finances and family circumstances in order, we were going to listen to our hearts and pursue the adventure we’d dreamed about.

Recently we were reminded how fortunate we’ve been so far. One of our best friends here had to end his service because of a medical problem. He was an older volunteer, like us, so his departure hit close to home, just like those of two other older friends who left during training. Several other older colleagues returned to the States for medical treatment but were able to resume their service.

Some younger volunteers have had medical problems, too. Colleagues have returned home because they were homesick, couldn’t adjust to life in Moldova or ran into problems. Even worse scenarios are also possible, such as volunteers around the world who have been sexually assaulted. More than 300 people have died while pursuing the Peace Corps mission since 1961, including some who were murdered (although many more died from motor vehicle injuries).

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That may sound like a lot but it’s not. Even though Peace Corps Volunteers face some unique risks, their fatality rate is the same or lower than for Americans generally when controlled for age, marital status and educational attainment, according to one research study.

Peace Corps used to call itself “the toughest job you’ll ever love.” Even in a place like Moldova where living conditions can be easier than in some other countries, Peace Corps is tough. It’s not a vacation. It challenges you every day, forcing you to examine your life and beliefs. It changes how you think. It helps you serve others.

We have never regretted our decision. We view every day, even the bad ones, as a gift. Our lives are full. Our friend’s departure reminded us how lucky we’ve been. Something could go wrong for us, too, perhaps even tomorrow. But for now, we’re staying focused on what could go right.

Sign of Confusion

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“Why is there a red line through the village’s name?” Champa asked our guide as we drove past a road sign while we were touring Romania recently.

Our guide, Florin, who was usually calm and mellow, almost jumped out of his driver’s seat. “I can’t believe you asked me that!” he said, trying not to laugh. “Every foreign tourist asks me this question!”

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The diagonal red line, he explained, indicates you are leaving a village. When you enter the same village, its name appears on a sign without a red line, as in the second photo here.

I confessed to Florin I’d been wondering about this, too, apparently like many other foreign visitors. I felt foolish when the answer turned out to be so blindingly obvious. I wish I’d known how to say “D’Oh!” in Romanian.

That’s the fun of living and traveling abroad. There’s not much “same old, same old.” Even after nearly a year of working in Eastern Europe with the Peace Corps, I am surprised regularly by things I see or hear. Something as humble as a village road sign can unexpectedly spark laughter and cultural exchange.

After we crossed the border from Romania into Moldova, I checked whether they use diagonal red lines on road signs here, too. As Champa had already noticed, the answer is yes. I’m happy to now know this, too. It’s one more fact on my mental checklist about Moldova. Call it a sign of progress.

Weekend in Bălți

Geography quiz! What do these cities have in common: Los Angeles, Melbourne, Geneva and Montreal? Also: Barcelona and (perhaps) Bălți.

If you don’t know the answer, then guess what these cities have in common: Chicago, Munich, Manchester and Johannesburg. This second list also includes Bangalore and (perhaps) Bălți.

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The cities in the first paragraph are all the second-largest in their country, exceeded only by New York, Sydney, Zurich, Toronto and Madrid, respectively. The cities in the next paragraph are the third-largest in their country (using population statistics I found on Wikipedia).Screen Shot 2017-05-15 at 4.59.54 PM

Bălți, a city of just over 100,000 people in northern Moldova, is either second behind the capital, Chișinău, or third, if you include Tiraspol in the disputed region of Transnistria. To complicate things further, population totals may include Moldovans who actually live abroad, and the city’s name is not pronounced “Balt-ee,” as Americans might expect, but “Belts.”

Got all that?

With theaters, restaurants, markets, parks and more, Bălți is an interesting place to explore, as Champa and I discovered this past weekend when we visited a couple of Peace Corps friends there. Steve and Lisa came to Moldova a year ahead of us and are now wrapping up their service.

Here are some photos from the trip. You can decide which you like the most. Or second. Or third.

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We're still working — but now as Peace Corps volunteers. Join us on the journey.

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