Goodbye Winter (Photos)

Winters in this part of the world are a lot colder than in our home town of Durham, N.C. Now that it’s April, here are some memories of what we saw the past few months. We’re hoping we don’t have an unexpected spring snowfall like we did last year.

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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.

Laminated Memories

I got my latest certificate on Friday, an especially nice one from our city’s mayor, Sergiu Armașu. He gave it to me during an event honoring library projects, librarians and volunteers from across the district. Our library in Ialoveni, the district capital, hosted the program.

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IMG_8995Certificates and diplomas are a big deal here in Moldova. They are awarded at sporting competitions, school ceremonies and other events. A certificate typically includes the official stamp of the organization and may be laminated.

Moldovans start collecting certificates as students. By the time they graduate from high school, they often have a thick folder of them, which they may proudly show to you.

This seemed strange to me at first. During our Peace Corps training, the local librarian arranged for us to meet some kids in our village. She asked one of the girls, a talented artist, to show us her certificates from painting competitions. The girl explained the certificates one by one.

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As I thought about her later that evening, I recalled the many trophies and medals my two sons accumulated from their sports teams, science fairs and other activities. Their trophies filled two large boxes when we cleaned out our house before joining the Peace Corps. I also had my own stash of certificates, diplomas and congratulatory letters.

IMG_1276In other words, as the walls of many American doctors’ offices make clear, our traditions are similar in many ways. Here in Moldova, though, certificates are way more popular, not to mention cheaper, than sports trophies. Kids here sometimes also receive medals, like the boys on our robotics team shown below.IMG_0968

Last month, before Champa’s school held its big celebration of its new drama costumes, we needed to produce nearly 30 certificates to give to the teachers, students and parents who assisted the project. We also needed certificates for my partners in our library’s Bebeteca project. I was able to laminate all of these certificates with a machine at the Peace Corps office, which has undoubtedly been put to good use over the years.

img_1392.jpgCertificate ceremonies in Moldova are usually filled with pride and appreciation. The speeches are heartfelt, the smiles are genuine and the certificates themselves are lovely. The moment is always captured with a poza — a pose for the camera.IMG_7617

After they receive a certificate, Moldovans may use it to prove their eligibility to receive a job promotion or a raise in salary, or to apply for a new position. More often, they hold onto it as a souvenir of a memorable activity.

When I told a Moldovan friend what I planned to write in this article, she laughed and said, “I don’t want a certificate. Give me some cash.” She had a point, just as one might reasonably ask whether Moldova’s teachers would be better off receiving fewer flowers and bigger paychecks. As a foreign visitor, these questions are not for me to answer. I can only say I have come to enjoy these certificate ceremonies as a distinctive part of Moldova’s culture.

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Champa and I now have our own folder of certificates, which we look forward to bringing home to America with us. They’ll be laminated memories of our time here.

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New Library Website

Ialoveni’s library has a new website, one with lots of new features and a much cleaner design, all of which the library can manage itself for free instead of paying someone else.

The site is at bibliotecaialoveni.wordpress.com.

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My library colleagues scrapped their outdated previous site for this new version, which is easier to manage and will serve their customers better. Having worked on several web redesign projects back home, I was able to help guide them through the process of organizing their data into logical categogies and presenting it in ways that put user needs ahead of internal organizational lines.

Screen Shot 2018-03-20 at 11.48.38 AMThe new site features the library’s many new services, such as its clubs for robotics and film animation, and its “Bebeteca” room for kids and families. It highlights a library blog that previously existed on a separate site and was often overlooked. There’s an automated calendar that lists upcoming events. Screen Shot 2018-03-20 at 11.45.51 AMA map provides directions. An online exhibit offers a video, photo exhibits and historical information about the library’s namesake, folklorist Petre Ștefănucă. A multimedia section shows YouTube videos about the library. Another section provides the annual work plans for the main library and its two branches.

We built the site on WordPress, which offers templates and operating systems in multiple languages, including Romanian. I’m a fan of WordPress, which is easy to learn and has a lot of useful features even in its free versions. Since I use WordPress for my own blog and have become comfortable with it, I took the lead in designing and assembling the new library site, using a free template called Rowling. I worked closely with library director Valentina Plamdeala and my partner Lidia Russu, who I am now training to update and manage the site.

 

Like many Moldovan companies and institutions, Ialoveni’s library relies heavily on Facebook for its communications. We made sure the new website includes prominent links to its Facebook site and features its latest Facebook posts automatically. WordPress “widgets” made this easy to do this, as well as to highlight the library’s schedule, link to the blog archives and do other tasks that used to require custom programming.

We hope the new site will enable Ialoveni’s library to serve its community more effectively and attract new users. If anyone reading this works at another library in Moldova and wants to learn more about our experience, we’d be happy to share it with them.

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How to Call Home

Screen Shot 2018-03-24 at 10.52.20 AMMy head spins sometimes when I try to remember the best way to call someone while I’m serving as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Eastern Europe. My older son back home uses Skype. His wife and my older sister prefer Facebook Messenger. My other son and his wife use FaceTime, as does my younger sister. Our nieces in England like Viber. We also speak with our nephew who recently finished his medical studies in China, where he used WeChat.

Screen Shot 2018-03-24 at 10.51.55 AMHere in Moldova, I can call a friend’s number with my cell phone but they may respond faster to a text, unless of course they prefer to receive a message via Facebook or WhatsApp.

Most of my fellow Peace Corps Volunteers use Facebook, but some don’t, even before the recent controversy about Facebook’s handling of confidential data. For them, I generally need to call with my cell phone or send a text or e-mail message.

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Most of my Moldovan friends still prefer telephone calls to electronic messages, although that’s changing, too, especially with younger people. This was a problem for me when I first got here, since I couldn’t understand or speak Romanian well enough to have a conversation. Now I’ve begun using the telephone, too.

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Peace Corps gave me a local SIM card for my iPhone when I arrived here, and it pays for a monthly plan that includes a generous amount of free calling minutes and Internet access. I supplement the latter with a portabler router and wireless plan I purchased from Orange, the big local telecommunications company. Screen Shot 2018-03-24 at 11.38.00 AMPCVs who didn’t bring a phone received one from Peace Corps, together with a SIM card. When I travel outside Moldova, I add extra money to my phone account and activate its international roaming feature, for prices far below what companies charge back home.

Screen Shot 2018-03-24 at 10.55.09 AMIt’s great to have all of these communications options, particularly since so many of them are free or cheap, but remembering everyone’s preferences reminds me of planning a dinner party where one guest is a vegetarian, another is lactose intolerant and another doesn’t eat gluten. Who can keep track of it all?

Communications were much simpler when I served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Nepal four decades ago. Back then, I didn’t call home at all during my two years abroad. Not once. If I’d wanted to call the United States, I would have had to ride my bicycle to an office near the Kathmandu stadium and pay an exhorbitant fee to sit in a booth and hope they could make a connection. Screen Shot 2018-03-24 at 10.51.16 AMI never bothered with it. Neither did most of my PCV friends. We mailed letters instead.

I just learned from an online thread with some Peace Corps Moldova friends that I can now call the United States on Skype for two cents a minute, or with Yolla for less than a penny per minute or connect to a U.S. number for free with Google Hangouts Dialer. Of course, Messenger and FaceTime are still free, assuming I have a wireless connection. I also have plenty of minutes left on my telephone account this month.

I may need to call my son and ask for his advice.

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Grant Fishing

Did Confucius ever submit a grant proposal?

IMG_1548Some accounts say he wrote the famous aphorism: Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime.

If he were living in today’s world, though, Confucius might have said: Give money to people and you help them for a short time. Teach them to write grants and they can keep going for years. (Or something like that.)

Grant writing has become an essential skill for public institutions and nonprofit organizations here in Moldova. IMG_1550With salaries and budgets that are tiny by American standards, they look to external sources for additional support, especially for projects. Potential funders range from USAID and other agencies affiliated with foreign governments to international NGOs, local embassies and others. Civic.md compiles many of their initiatives.

On Monday evening, our Ialoveni library learned its robotics team was among the winners in the latest round of a small grant competition for local youth that also provides valuable experience for the young reviewers. The Ialoveni team will  receive 5,500 lei, or a bit more than $330, to buy the supplies it needs to continue participating in national robotics competitions and perhaps to also organize a small local competition.

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My library partner, Lidia Rusu, in the white sweater below, has gained a lot of experience writing grants over the past several years. She’s also received training from Novateca on other forms of fund-raising and advocacy, doing so well that Novateca recruited her to train librarians elsewhere. I was impressed as she worked with several boys on our robotics team to prepare this latest proposal. We discussed it but they did almost all of the work themselves, including the budget and narrative sections. They also presented it effectively to the review committee you see here at Ialoveni’s Consiliul Raional, or county government.

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The new grant isn’t a lot of money, but it’s enough to keep the library’s robotics program moving forward. Equally important, both Lidia and the boys honed their grant preparation skills and received positive feedback that will encourage them to pursue more grants in the future. Next time they may reel in some bigger fish.

 

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

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