Glenside, Pennsylvania hosts one of America’s great hometown Fourth of July parades. This 3-minute video highlights the 2019 celebration. Also on YouTube.
Glenside, Pennsylvania hosts one of America’s great hometown Fourth of July parades. This 3-minute video highlights the 2019 celebration. Also on YouTube.
Family, weddings, classes, projects, trips, a book and 73 episodes of Game of Thrones.
That’s what Champa and I have been doing since we returned to Durham from our Peace Corps service in Moldova one year ago this month.
We were especially busy initially — buying a car, restocking our kitchen and so forth — but our biggest challenge proved to be readjusting to the country we were so proud to represent when we left in mid-2016. We served for more than two years with the mission of helping others and promoting cross-cultural understanding. Then we came home to a new president who insults foreign allies and demonizes immigrants. It’s been a tough transition.
Of course, we’re thankful to be reunited with our family and friends. We’ve reveled in things as simple as driving or drinking water from a tap. Yet we still miss Moldova, every day. We made such good friends there and we now interact with them only on Facebook or with an occasional phone call.
Champa and I didn’t expect our transition to be so hard. We’d traveled a lot. We’d remained closely connected to America while we were gone. I’d served in the Peace Corps previously and she was born in Nepal. So how hard could it be? We didn’t fully appreciate that America wasn’t the only thing that changed. We’d changed, too.
I’m not the same person I was when I walked away from a conventional job four years ago to pursue a new life of service and adventure. I’m now 66 and no longer want a full-time job. Nor do I want to be “retired.” Instead, I continue to explore a third path, this time back in our home town. During the past year, I’ve been refocusing my energies on three new activities:
I also traveled to Romania to help teach a workshop on vaccines (above) and took two excellent adult-education courses with OLLI. Champa’s been working in her garden, pursuing art projects and spending time with family and friends.
We also attended four beautiful weddings and took short trips both domestically and abroad. We renewed our subscription to UNC’s Playmakers theater series and, after living without a television for so long, we binge-watched movies and television shows we’d missed, including the entire Game of Thrones series. (Bran won the throne, really?)
Most important, we welcomed a seventh grandchild to our family a few weeks ago.
So life has been good this past year and we know how fortunate we are to be able to say that, just as we were in Moldova. As I’ve begun pursuing this new phase of “not exactly retired,” I’ve been surprised to discover how disorganized our community is in taking advantage of older Americans like me who are eager to share their skills and enthusiasm to address social needs. I think it’s possible to make it much easier for them to do this, both in North Carolina and more widely. In future posts, I’ll be writing more about how I’ve begun working with others to address this opportunity.
When Champa and I traveled to Scotland and Ireland three weeks ago, they felt a lot more like home than did Armenia, Ukraine and other places we visited while serving as Peace Corps Volunteers in Moldova.
At dinner on our first night in Dublin, the pub menu featured burgers and the accents sounded like Boston. Our waitress asked where we were from and, after hearing we live in North Carolina, she said, “oh, my college roommate came from Raleigh.”
In Edinburgh, the dining options near our Airbnb included a Pizza Hut and a Five Guys burger joint along with haggis or fish and chips.
We couldn’t even escape President Trump during our trip. He came to Ireland shortly after us and we saw security patrols near his golf course.
For the two of us, Scotland and Ireland were the flip side of what we experienced on the opposite side of Europe. When we took a free walking tour through the historic streets of Romania’s capital, Bucharest, we were the only Americans. In the Bulgarian capital, Sofia, only one other American joined us and 23 tourists from Bulgaria, Canada, Italy, Japan, Latvia, Netherlands and Spain. Even in Tbilisi, the Georgian capital that’s been gaining buzz as a tourist hot spot, we felt alone. As I wrote then, a big world awaits beyond the American comfort zone.
Scotland and Ireland didn’t feel exotic to us, in other words, but we loved both of them.
We went first to Scotland, to hang out with some of our Nepalese relatives (top photo) who took the train up from their home in England. Together we toured Edinburgh Castle, the National Museum of Scotland, the Royal Mile and more. We discovered a Nepalese garden at the botanic gardens and a nice coffee shop at the Port of Leith. After our relatives left, Champa and I hiked atop a local peak, Arthur’s Seat, and had dinner with an old friend and his wife. Then we took a two-day tour of the highlands, visiting Loch Ness and other sites. We were entranced by the striking bogs, heather and thistles despite pouring rain.
Then it was on to Ireland. Our tour there traveled west from Dublin to Galway and then down the Atlantic coast. Using Killarney as a base, we explored the Cliffs of Moher, the Dingle Peninsula, the Ring of Kerry and other landmarks. Then we turned east, stopping at Blarney Castle to, yes, kiss the Blarney Stone, before continuing on to Kilkenny and Dublin. On our first night back in the capital, we spent hours watching the Irish Celts play traditional music at Darkey Kelly’s pub. Finally, on our last day, we walked throughout the city before returning exhausted to our hotel near Christ Church Cathedral, ready to fly home the next morning.
As always, we were surprised by some of what we saw, such as a sheep-herding demonstration in Kerry that you can glimpse below in a brief video I produced on my phone the same evening (also available on YouTube). We learned a lot about the histories of Scotland and Ireland, especially their struggles with England. We gained new perspective on our many American friends whose families emigrated from there. Their ancestors escaped oppression and found a better life, much like my own or, for that matter, the Lyft driver from Aleppo, Syria, who drove us to the airport.
In both Scotland and Ireland, we traveled in small groups with Rabbie’s Tours, which provided excellent guides and organization.
We were reminded throughout our time there that you can have a wonderful trip outside the United States even if you don’t stretch your comfort zone much. Just like other destinations familiar to Americans, Scotland and Ireland let you experience something different while still feeling at home. They’re comfortably foreign.
I published an article Thursday, May 16, in the Raleigh News & Observer about North Carolina’s extraordinary partnership with Moldova. I‘m sharing the article here along with photos of an April 27 conference in Raleigh where teachers, nurses, politicians and others discussed the partnership. My Peace Corps volunteer colleague Jim Fletcher (pointing below) and I were among the speakers.
Later this week, North Carolina will renew its partnership with a little-known country that’s been bringing out the best in our state’s people for more than two decades.
North Carolina’s National Guard has been helping the country’s defense forces throughout this time. Librarians from Wilmington and across the state have sent it more than 350,000 books. Nurses, dentists, pharmacists and others have provided medical assistance. A Hendersonville group has renovated some of its orphanages and schools.
North Carolina recently celebrated the 20th anniversary of its extraordinary partnership with the country and the amazing thing is that many North Carolinians have never heard of the country, much less about the partnership.
It’s the Republic of Moldova, a former Soviet state one-fourth the size of North Carolina that’s wedged near the Black Sea between Romania and Ukraine. It’s the poorest country in Europe, with a struggling economy, political instability and other problems. It’s also beautiful, with lush vineyards and farmland, a rich culture and wonderful people.
My wife, Champa, and I had barely heard of it, either, when we left our home in Durham three years ago to serve there as Peace Corps volunteers in a group that included volunteers from Asheville, Charlotte, Boone, Winston-Salem and Raleigh. We were posted to a small city where we lived with a host family and I worked at the library while Champa taught at the school. (I described our adventures on my blog, Not Exactly Retired.)
While we were there, we kept hearing about Moldova’s partnership with, of all places, North Carolina, which turned out to be a big deal.
The partnership began with North Carolina’s National Guard assisting Moldova’s defense forces when the Soviet Union ended and Moldova became independent. The partnership has grown to include civic, educational and other organizations, including religious groups that range from Christian groups based in Claremont and Dublin to the Greensboro Jewish Federation.
In 1999, North Carolina and Moldova signed a collaborative agreement through the NATO Partnership for Peace. Governors of both parties have renewed it regularly and another renewal is planned when a delegation led by N.C. Secretary of State Elaine Marshall travels to Moldova’s capital later this week.
“North Carolinians should be proud of this partnership,” former U.S. Ambassador to Moldova Michael Kirby said at a recent conference in Raleigh that brought together participants from across the state. “I’ve never seen another relationship like this.”
The partnership has been “an important force for peace, an important force for democracies going forward,” agreed Rep. David Price, who recently visited Moldova as part of a bipartisan Congressional group.
In addition to receiving support within its own borders, Moldova has sent groups of experts to North Carolina to learn about topics ranging from judicial reform to agriculture. In turn, North Carolinians have benefited, too.
“I’m from Eastern North Carolina, where Raleigh is hours away,” said Elaine Justice, principal of an elementary school in Swansboro whose teachers and students interact with a Moldovan school. “Our kids, by being connected through this, are growing. They don’t just see themselves as living on the edge of North Carolina. They’re becoming global citizens.”
This past summer, when my wife and I returned to Durham, we found America beset with political rancor. It’s been a relief to get involved in this bipartisan partnership where Republicans and Democrats, military veterans and university students and people of diverse ages, faiths and ethnicities are working together to provide assistance and form friendships with people in a struggling democracy, exemplifying what’s best about North Carolina. As Sec. Marshall told the conference, the program’s success is “due to people with a heart who are willing to share it.”
I hope more people get involved in the partnership and perhaps even visit Moldova. It’s a fascinating place that’s waiting to bring out the best in them, too.
David Jarmul, the former head of news and communications at Duke University, served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Moldova with his wife, Champa.
For decades they piled up: thousands of family photos and souvenirs that we placed in albums. Three years ago, when Champa and I packed up our house to join the Peace Corps, we were stunned by how many albums we’d accumulated and by how much storage space we needed for them. “We have to sort through these after we return home,” we told ourselves.
This past week, I finished making that vow a reality. For three months I worked several hours daily to whittle dozens of photo albums and boxes of family memorabilia into a single storage bin. I scanned the best images and saved them online and on a hard drive. I also compiled bags of photos to give away to our sons and other relatives.
The job was as tedious as I expected, even though we stopped compiling albums of printed photos several years ago as we shifted to digital photography and occasional printed books.
First I had to remove the photos from the albums, carefully peeling them off the sticky pages and placing them in plastic bags. Then I triaged them into piles to keep, discard or revisit. I created separate bags for big events such as family weddings or overseas trips. I sorted photos into different piles and made lots of difficult decisions about which photos to keep, which to scan and (most often) which to discard.
Those congratulatory cards my parents received when I was born? I tossed out almost all of them. My elementary school report cards? Likewise. Copies of my high school newspaper when I was the editor? I kept most of those but trashed all but a few of the humor columns I wrote for The Brown Daily Herald. It was a no-brainer to keep Champa’s old black-and-white photos of her family in Nepal, since these are few and precious. So, too, for the old photos and documents from my side of the family, like the one you see here of my parents.
I’ve been sharing some of these images with my two sisters. Both of them tell me they hope to tackle their boxes, too, but haven’t yet found the time or courage. That’s surely true for a lot of other people as well, as it was for me when I was working full-time. After we returned home this summer from Moldova, I was too busy with our transition, family gatherings and a writing project to deal with the photos. By the end of last year, though, I ran out of reasons to keep procrastinating. I bought a scanner and got to work.
I’ve learned a few things along the way.
My main advice is to purge ruthlessly. Unless you are famous or planning to commit a crime that will get reporters and historians interested in your back story, no one cares who attended your eighth birthday party. I was a history major in college who went on to write some of our country’s history for the Voice of America, so I respect the importance of historical archives, but who are we kidding? Only your kids and their descendants are likely to care about your photos, and they will probably worry more about receiving too much instead of too little. You’ll do them a big favor by reducing the pile drastically, keeping only the most significant and poignant images. As Marie Kondo might say, find the things that bring you joy.
I’ve also tried to find the “sweet spot” in annotating everything. I noted the time and location for each bag of photos but didn’t label images individually. Yes, this means you’ll never know the names of the couple we met in Greece, who are in one of the photos. But guess what? At this point I don’t care about their names, either.
A scanner is essential, not only to produce a permanent digital record but also to make it easier to give away the printed copies. If my sons or others want any of the digital copies, we can share those, too. My scanner, an Epson V550, has enhanced the images, some of which had faded, so the digital versions are often better. If you prefer, several reputable companies can do the scanning for you, for a fee.
Tackling this big job made me feel productive while Champa and I take a break from our “not exactly retired” adventures. Now that I’ve finished, I guess I need to find a new project to keep me busy, so I won’t start driving her crazy. In fact, our garage looks like it needs some spring cleaning.
Maybe next week.
I was a science writer for much of my career before serving as a volunteer with Peace Corps Moldova. Several months ago, the magazine editor for the National Association of Science Writers asked me to contribute an article for a series on “Science Writers Giving Back.” She just published it and I’m sharing it here, hoping it may inspire some readers — both science writers and others — to apply to the Peace Corps themselves. As the article notes, for me this decision “changed my life [and] broadened my perspective about the world, about America and about myself.”
Here’s a PDF file of the magazine; the article is on page 8.
Thanks to NASW’s Lynne Friedmann for inviting me to write this!
“Mr David, what happened to the American Government?”
That’s what Victoria, one of the students in the English conversation class I taught while serving as a Peace Corps volunteer in Moldova, asked me on Facebook last week. “I see news everywhere,” she told me. (That’s Victoria making the V sign at our group’s farewell dinner.)
I know what she means and the news has worried me even more. After spending more than two years in a little-known part of the former Soviet Union where people are deeply cynical about politics and the rule of law, I’m unnerved by what I’ve encountered in my own country since returning home this past summer.
Champa and I were proud to represent the United States when we arrived in Moldova with our group in mid-2016. That was before we had a president who disdains international alliances, demonizes refugees and calls developing countries “shitholes.” It’s possible his description didn’t include Moldova, whose population is white, but it seems even worse to me if it didn’t. As an American, was I supposed to be proud that I was serving in a country where people are poor but at least are white?
Michelle Obama championed the “Let Girls Learn” initiative that brought new opportunity to women and girls around the globe, encouraging more girls to go to school, start businesses and pursue careers. The initiative funded the Peace Corps grant through which our Ialoveni library was able to create a new family room, above, and programs for mothers and children. Just before we received the grant, though, we were told to no longer refer to the initiative as “let girls learn,” which was linked so closely to Michelle Obama.
I came to love Moldova during my service there and have recently gotten involved with a partnership program between Moldova and my home state of North Carolina. (Rodney Maddox and Lora Sinigur, who help run the program with Secretary of State Elaine Marshall, are shown left.) I continue to admire the perseverance and grace of Moldovans in the face of hardship. Despite its rich agriculture, Moldova’s economy offers few economic opportunities. Many people have left the country to seek work elsewhere. Corruption is widespread. Reform efforts have been thwarted.
The Moldovans I met are wonderful people who nonetheless have a dark view of life. In his book The Geography of Bliss, Eric Weiner called Moldova the unhappiest country on Earth.
The United States remains far wealthier but I fear we are heading in the same direction in terms of how we view our collective future. Since coming home, I’ve seen a level of cynicism that scares me. I don’t recall people ever feeling so anxious and frustrated about the possibility of change, even during the darkest days of the Vietnam War or the Watergate crisis.
This is not the America I knew when I left. Seeing it with new eyes has made the contrast sharper for me.
The midterm election gave me hope that Americans will not surrender to despair, that they will fight to once again make our country the kind of place we can all extol when living and traveling abroad. This past Sunday, Champa and I served lunch at a local soup kitchen with our friend Celeste, right, who also served in the Peace Corps, in West Africa during the Vietnam War. She reminded me how challenging it was to be asked questions then about America. Eventually things got better. I’m hopeful they can again.
I’m not speaking here for the Peace Corps, which is non-political and bipartisan. I also continue to hold the Moldovan people closely in my heart. It’s just that more than six months have passed since I completed my service and friends keep asking me what it’s felt like to come home.
My answer is that I don’t want us to become as hopeless and cynical as the people I met back in Moldova or, for that matter, in many other countries around the world where strongmen pursue their own interests, lies abound and darkness obscures light. I want us to trust each other again and embrace the optimism that is our birthright as Americans.
I want Victoria to keep watching because somehow my country is going to make things right.
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.
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.
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.”
“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.
Ovidiu 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. Other 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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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.
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.
This special moment also feels like the right time for me to take a pause from this blog.
Readers, 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. I’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.
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.