Ialoveni students performed poems, dances and songs to welcome Claudia Partole, a popular Moldovan author of children’s stories and other books. She spoke at the local library. Don’t miss Champa receiving her certificate. (The video is also on YouTube at https://youtu.be/_eRms9fmshU.)
What’s our favorite food here in Moldova? That’s easy: Placinte (plah-chin-teh), the soft, savory, mouth-watering pastries stuffed with cabbage, potatoes, apples, cherries or other delights.
We especially enjoy placinte made with brinza, the traditional cheese usually produced from sheep’s milk, similar to crumbled Greek feta cheese.
I’m writing “placinte” in the plural form because it’s nearly impossible to eat only one placinta.
Some Moldovans make round placinte, like thick pancakes. Others swirl them into into spirals or pat them into triangles. On Sunday, Champa learned how to roll them into a shape like breadsticks.
She had two great teachers: Natalia, an adult niece of our host family, and Bunica, our 86-year-old host grandmother who is such a beloved part of our lives here.
The recipe was simple: Combine the brinza cheese with some eggs, dill and salt. Roll out pastry dough on a towel in the shape of a rectangle, Place the cheese mixture along one end of the rectangle. Gently lift the towel under the cheese side of the rectangle and roll the dough in the opposite direction, forming a long tube. Place the tubes on a greased pan, seam sides down, and bake at medium heat for about 40 minutes.
At the bottom of this post is a video of Bunica showing the rolling process. When she says “Gata” at the end, it means “Ready!” My own job came after the placinte emerged from the oven, tasting them to see whether they were even more delicious than the placinte we buy in local stores.
They were. We ate most of them fresh out of the oven. Mmm. Placinte!
If you’re feeling inspired and/or hungry after reading this, you can easily find several YouTube videos showing how to make placinte yourself. When they come out of your oven, don’t forget to say, “Gata!”
I bet you can’t eat just one.
My paternal grandmother Sarah grew up in Odessa, Ukraine, not far from where I now serve as a Peace Corps volunteer in Moldova. Her family — my ancestors — fled to America to survive the violent anti-semitism depicted in “Fiddler on the Roof.”
At that time, more than 50,000 Jews lived in Moldova’s capital, Chișinău, comprising 46 percent of the city’s population according to an 1897 census. In 1903, 49 of them were killed in anti-semitic riots. A survivor said: “Dead bodies were everywhere, many of them horribly mutilated, and in most cases with the clothes torn off. There were ears, fingers, noses lying on the pavements. Babies were tossed in the air to be caught on the points of spears and swords. Young girls were horribly mistreated before death came to end their torture. I saw these things with my own eyes.”
It’s hard to imagine anything more chilling than that, but things got worse for Moldova’s Jews. A few decades later they were nearly wiped out by Nazi death squads who rounded them up and executed them in every corner of the country, sometimes with local help. Shortly before Champa and I joined the Peace Corps, “60 Minutes” broadcast a chilling story about a French Catholic priest investigating The Hidden Holocaust in the former Soviet States. (A clip is at the end of this story and on YouTube .)
“We traveled with Father Desbois to the former Soviet Republic of Moldova, where in one day he took us to four unmarked mass graves,” reporter Lara Logan said in the story. “In this field, he told us, 60 Jews beneath this farm, 100 above this city, under this hill, a thousand.”
In a small village near Telenești, an 85-year-old man tells them what he witnessed as a boy: “The Jews were facing the ditch, so they were shooting them in the back of their heads or their backs to fall into the ditch. They were shooting them as if they were dogs.”
Moldova’s Jews were murdered in their homes, in ravines, on death marches, in camps — everywhere. By the time the Soviet Army returned in August 1944, the Nazis had killed as many as 300,000 Jews across Moldova and neighboring areas of Bucovina, Bessarabia and Transnistria. Few survived.
After we were accepted as Peace Corps volunteers, one of our sons saw the “60 Minutes” story and told us he was worried about our own safety in Moldova, even though I am not an observant Jew and Champa grew up with local religions in Nepal.
In fact, we have both been welcomed warmly with few exceptions. We’ve now been here more than nine months and enjoy living here. I have yet to knowingly encounter anti-semitism, even though it still exists in Moldova and extremist groups can be found in much of Europe. What I have seen are some promising, if modest, signs of a Jewish revival.
Roughly 25,000 Jews live in Moldova these days, mainly in Chișinău but also in places such as Bălţi, Bender, Soroky, Rybnitsa, Orhei and Tiraspol. Their numbers grew under Soviet rule until the 1970s and 1980s, when anti-semitism led many of them to emigrate, mainly to Israel and North America.
Many of Moldova’s Jews now are elderly and living on small fixed incomes. In October, Champa and I spent an afternoon with Alex Weisler and others from the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, which is doing wonderful work here to support the Jewish community with basic services and religious, educational, legal and cultural programs.
Earlier, shortly after arriving in Chișinău, my friend Tom and I visited the local Chabad, where they were happy to welcome us after I joined them in the prayer they were reciting, although I declined their attempt to wrap me in tefillin. Tom and I also passed the nearby synagogue shown at the beginning of this post, with the sky showing through its smashed windows. A few blocks away, on Jerusalem St., was the red granite monument you see here, honoring victims of the Chișinău ghetto.
On Sunday, Champa and I saw this display of a Torah, menorah and other Jewish symbols in the religion exhibit at Chișinău’s history museum. Just outside of town is Europe’s largest Jewish cemetery, now overgrown beside an abandoned synagogue. A new website, JewishMemory: History of the Jews in Moldova, provides an excellent introduction for anyone who wants to learn more, as does this site.
In other words, Moldova’s Jewish legacy is here if you look for it. The Israeli Embassy maintains a good list of current organizations and activities. If any of my Moldovan friends or Peace Corps colleagues are curious, this article tells where to find graveyards, memorials and other Holocaust sites in Bălți, Cahul, Comrat, Briceni, Florești, Hincești, Calarași, Leova, Soroca, Ungheni and other locations.
I hope to visit Odessa before we leave, to honor my grandmother and the rest of my family who endured so much before finding a better life in America. I think their spirit is still here, like those of so many others, whispering to us from the sky-filled synagogues, bullet-pocked walls and broken cemetery stones.
Moldova’s wells are omnipresent, picturesque and often unsafe, with water that may contain parasites or chemicals. I photographed these two when I lived in the village of Bardar during my Peace Corps training.
Soon their water quality won’t matter so much. On Friday, I attended the kickoff conference for a project that will connect Bardar to a modern water system, providing safe running water for many of its 6,000 residents.
The Slovak Republic, primarily through SlovakAid, is donating financial and technical support for the project, which is scheduled to run through May 2018.
“Fresh drinking water is a fundamental right of people,” Robert Kirnág, the Slovak ambassador to Moldova, said at the meeting in Ialoveni’s business center. “Water will remain a problem in Moldova for many years to come. We’ve identified water, sanitation and waste management as a priority.”
“Water is life; it is critical for people everywhere,” agreed Michal Mlynár, director general for international organizations and development cooperation in Slovakia’s foreign ministry. The Bardar project will “make a difference in the lives of ordinary people in the region.”
The Consiliul Raional of Ialoveni district, of which Bardar is a part, is carrying out the project collaboratively with Moldova’s Regional Development Agency Center (ADR Centru) and the Regional Development Agency Senec-Pezinok in Bratislava, Slovakia’s capital.
ADR Centru shares the fourth floor of the Consiliul Raional building in downtown Ialoveni. I work there myself and know people at both organizations. It’s great to see them collaborating to benefit the village where I had my training. At Friday’s meeting, I sat with my friend Mihail Tonu, Bardar’s vice mayor.
The project seeks not only to provide clean water for Bardar but also to raise awareness among public authorities and the public about the importance of water system management and quality drinking water.
Anatolie Dimitriu, president of the Consiliul Raional, called Friday “a very special day,” noting how the project will benefit Bardar and accelerate the process of providing clean drinking water throughout the district. The project is the first phase of a broader plan to distribute clean water more widely.
Eduard Ungureanu, from Moldova’s national ministry of regional development and construction, called the collaboration “historic,” one that ADR Centru Director Viorel Jardan predicted “won’t be the last” for Ialoveni district or Moldova.
Two development specialists from Slovakia, Katarína Manczalová and Eva Balažovičová, also spoke at the meeting, emphasizing the importance not only of the tangible benefits but also of the trust and relationships being established. Following the kickoff ceremony and a traditional Moldovan lunch, they and others remained for technical discussions with their Moldovan counterparts.
Many buildings in Bardar already have running water through individual or neighborhood systems, supplemented by the wells, but the water from the new system will be safer and more reliable. In a very tangible way, it will improve people’s lives.
Bardar will still have its wells, of course, many of them adorned with crosses and religious iconography. Their beauty will remain a rich part of this region’s landscape and cultural heritage even as their threat to the public health subsides.
What do I miss the most from my U.S. life?
That was one of the questions I received recently after inviting readers to ask me anything. It came from Lisa, a science-writer friend from Bethesda, Md. It was a great question, to which my answer has only two words: My family.
My answer to Lisa’s follow-up question — was I surprised to miss them the most? — is even briefer: No. We expected to miss them every day, and we have.
Sorry, Lisa, I’m usually chattier than that.
I loved the questions you all sent. My friend Barry, who served with me in Peace Corps Nepal, asked whether we’ve met other Nepalis in Moldova. We haven’t, but we did meet a translator who helped a Nepalese family that came here for their daughter’s wedding with a Moldovan guy. She said the couple lives abroad and left Moldova after the wedding. Too bad.
Another returned Peace Corps volunteer asked what impact Peace Corps is having on “the anti-American view of many (especially older) Moldovans?” I’m not sure how to answer that because I don’t think “many” Moldovans are anti-American. Most of the Moldovans I’ve met seem to like Americans, although Champa and I do live in an especially pro-Western part of the country.
In any case, Peace Corps volunteers definitely enhance the relationship between our two countries as they provide service, live modestly, learn the language and embrace the local culture.You also see signs of American assistance everywhere, from the USAID decals on recycling bins to this sign noting how the United States helped repair a road in the northern part of the country.
Another RPCV, Ron, who served in Venezuala, asked how younger volunteers are feeling about their job and career prospects, and also about Peace Corps’ future with the new presidential administration. I’ve become friends with many of the volunteers here who are in their 20s and 30s. Those finishing this summer have diverse plans, with many applying to graduate schools or looking for jobs. Their levels of anxiety or anticipation vary, as you’d expect, which is also true among older volunteers. As for the future of Peace Corps with the Trump administration, well, nobody knows yet. We’re all watching and wondering ourselves.
An incoming volunteer, Julie, asked whether I’d read the book Moldovan Autumn by local author Ion Druță. I haven’t, but it’s now on my list. In turn, let me recommend Bessarabian Nights, by Stela Brinzeanu, for anyone interested in Moldova. It’s a recent novel that focuses on trafficking and other social problems. You’ll learn a lot from it.
Julie also asked whether I’ve sent any postcards to people back home. I shared lots of postcards from Durham with two Moldovan groups, as I described recently, and I mailed home local holiday cards to our two sons, but we haven’t yet mailed home any Moldovan postcards. Now that you mention it, Julie, I haven’t seen many for sale here.
Finally, my friend Bob, who stepped down from his job in the White House science office shortly before President Obama completed his term, sent our favorite question of all. He and his wife Karen, shown here, asked when would be a good time to visit us in Moldova. That’s a question we like to hear, and we’re already discussing the answer.
I’m closing the blog mailbag for now but, trust me, if you write back with a question half as good as Bob’s, I will respond immediately.
Duke Chapel, the Durham Bulls Athletic Park and the American Tobacco Campus are among the destinations I’ll be featuring today.
Wait, you’re thinking, isn’t this blog about our experiences as “not exactly retired” Peace Corps volunteers in Eastern Europe?
Yes, exactly. On Thursday, we handed out souvenir postcards of Durham, N.C., as prizes for students competing in geography quizzes we held during two presentations we gave in the town of Criuleni. Watching them react to the Durham bull and other landmarks from back home was an experience we won’t forget.
My friends at the Durham Convention & Visitors Bureau gave me the cards before Champa and I left to join the Peace Corps last spring. Thanks anew to Shelly Green (@DCVBPrez) and her colleagues for helping us show off our home town with people we’ve met in Moldova. (Durham! Fresh Daily with great restaurants, arts and entertainment!)
As I’ve written before, North Carolina has a special relationship with Moldova. Just in my group, we have volunteers from Asheville, Boone, Charlotte, Winston-Salem, Raleigh and, of course, Durham.
Champa and I went to Criuleni to help commemorate Peace Corps Week, the annual celebration of President Kennedy’s founding of the Peace Corps on March 1, 1961. We joined other volunteers and country director Tracey Hébert-Seck in speaking at a week-long series of events organized by volunteers Chris Flowers and Rebecca Lehman. Further to the south, in Causeni, volunteer Anne Reed and her colleagues are planning a big event on Saturday to celebrate Peace Corps Week and International Women’s Month.
In our two presentations, Champa and I highlighted Peace Corps activities around the world. Our quizzes challenged the students to match photographs of Peace Corps volunteers with the countries where they served. In the middle photo of the three-photo strip above, for example, the boy is guessing which Peace Corps photos came from Albania, China or Swaziland. We also showed a video of our 2015 trip to Nepal and this video featuring people from 156 countries joining together to sing “All You Need Is Love.”
I don’t know whether Moldovan tourists will now start arriving in droves in the Bull City. But if they do, I’m sure they’ll enjoy themselves, whether they watch a show at DPAC, an exhibition at the Nasher Museum of Art, the Hayti Heritage Center, the weekly farmers’ market or a local beer at Fullsteam. After all, I have the postcards to prove it.
For a hard rock trio, you need a guitar, a bass and drums. For a string quartet: two violins, a viola and a cello. But for traditional music here in Moldova, get an accordion, a cobza, a nai and a tobă, as well as some people with great voices. You know what an accordion is. A cobza is a Moldovan lute, with eight strings. A nai is a pan flute, similar to those played in Bolivia. A tobă is a traditional drum.
The musicians you see here play these instruments. They come from Constești, the village where Champa lived during her pre-service training. The lead singer, shown in the larger photo, is Tudor Grigoriţă, a colleague and friend of mine at the Consiliul Raional in Ialoveni. He organizes cultural activities for the entire county, or raion, of which Costești is a part. I usually see him wearing a suit, so it’s fun to watch him perform. That’s him in the video interacting with the nai, or flute, player, who is the music teacher in Costești.
Costești is near Ialoveni, where Champa and I live now. On Saturday, we traveled there to visit Champa’s host family and to meet Mary Pendleton, the first American ambassador to Moldova, from 1992-1995, after Moldova gained its independence from the former Soviet Union.
We expected an informal gathering where Amb. Pendleton, now retired, would share some memories. Since she was a Peace Corps volunteer herself in Tunisia earlier in her career, she also wanted to meet some current volunteers. The mayor of Costești, Natalia Petrea, surprised us with a much grander event — a delicious meal at a beautiful local resort, with entertainment provided by this reknown local musical group. That’s the mayor, or primara, in the purple dress, next to the former ambassador, in pink.
Moldova, which shares many of its musical traditions with Romania, has other instruments, too, such as the bucium (a long alphorn), the kaval (an end-blown flute) and the cimbalom (a kind of dulcimer). But as you can see and hear for yourself, the ones shown here are quite enough to produce beautiful music together.