In the Spotlight

When one of my fellow volunteers was highlighted on the Peace Corps Moldova Facebook page a few days ago, her grandfather responded: “So proud of our granddaughter making it a better world!”

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When the page highlighted another volunteer, a friend of her mother posted: “You have a very special daughter!”

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For another volunteer, the comments included:

  • It’s young people like you who do make a difference in this crazy world.
  • That’s our grandson and we are so proud.
  • That’s my son. I am so proud of the work you’ve accomplished and know that you have more to offer in the future. Great job!
  • Awesome. Keep up the good work!

 

During the past several weeks, the “Spotlight” series on the Peace Corps Moldova Facebook page has told the stories of these and other volunteers. Each entry briefly describes what the volunteer did previously in the United States and how he or she is now serving in Moldova. Two photos illustrate “then” and “now.” The stories appear in both English and Romanian, and sometimes in Russian, so local audiences can enjoy them, too.

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Liuba Chitaev, who manages communications for Peace Corps Moldova, came up with the idea and has been updating the series regularly with my assistance. She conceived it as a way to “put a human face” on Peace Corps programs, reflecting our shared belief that people often learn best through personal stories. We didn’t fully anticipate the heart-warming responses the posts would elicit from family and friends back home:

“This is absolutely wonderful,” wrote the cousin of one volunteer. “Congratulations on a job so well done!”

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“Congratulations to my lovely niece,” wrote the aunt of another. “I’m so very proud of you and your accomplishments. Well done to your Mom and you.”

The articles have also attracted attention from Moldovan readers, helping them understand the diverse backgrounds of Peace Corps Volunteers and their motivations for leaving home for more than two years to serve abroad. The articles are read by others as well, such as potential Peace Corps applicants back home.

For both Liuba and me, putting these volunters in the spotlight has been a labor of love. All of the posts and comments are public on the Peace Corps Moldova Facebook page, which will be sharing more of these features in the future. We’ll leave the light on for you.

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Preparing to Return

If you spent more than two years living outside the United States, what would make you anxious about returning home?

  • Finding housing, a car, where to live
  • Seeing/hearing Trump everywhere
  • Big grocery stores
  • American work culture
  • A different me reintegrating into a hometown that hasn’t changed

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These were among the responses posted on flipcharts by members of our Peace Corps Moldova volunteer group this past week when we gathered at our “close of service” conference. We discussed everything from writing site reports to preparing ourselves to leave our Moldovan friends and each other.

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Volunteers also wrote what they anticipate most about going home:

  • Driving on the backroads
  • My dog
  • Being with my family
  • Access to Taco Bell at 2 a.m. 
  • Freedom

And what they’ll miss most about Moldova:

  • My host family
  • Sunflowers
  • House wine
  • Fresh fruit & veggies
  • Waking up to fresh snow

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Our three days at a rural conference center outside the capital were emotional. Together we have shared a life-changing experience. Now we will head our separate ways — to graduate school, new jobs, our families. The conference helped us make sense of what we have experienced and what lies ahead.

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“As soon as I’m no longer a PCV,” one question asked, “I can’t wait to”:

  • Date 
  • Take a bath
  • Hold new nieces and nephews
  • Not check in/out
  • Go backpacking with my brothers

And the members of Moldova 31 also said what makes them most proud of their service as Peace Corps Volunteers:

  • Our students’ improvement
  • Community impact
  • Surviving rutiera (minibus) rides on hot summer days
  • Language learning
  • Seeing the youth gain a more positive impact on their futures
  • Finishing

Two months remain until the departures begin. Champa and I are in the first group, which leaves on July 3. We still have so much to do until then. We are dreaming of reuniting with our family and friends back home — and dreading saying goodbye to Moldova.

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Visit to Iași

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Visit to where? If you’re an American pondering this post’s title, let me help you with the pronunciation. It’s not Eye-a-see or Ee-ah-sigh, but Yash (with a slight ee in front).

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However you pronounce (or mispronounce) it, this Romanian city near the Moldovan border is a fun place to explore, as Champa and I discovered when we drove there with Nina and Andrei from our host family.

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Together we visited a lovely botanical garden, a “palace of culture” with four museums, a giant shopping mall, churches, gardens, a historic theater and a synagogue. The latter was closed but we enjoyed chatting with two Israelis we met outside, whose family has local roots.

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Iași is among Romania’s largest cities and a traditional center of cultural, academic and artistic life, with several universities. It has an international airport and an impressive industrial base, which we passed on our drive to the city center. If you’re coming from Moldova, it’s where you can find a Starbucks latte, a Subway sandwich, an H&M sweater or an adventure park, as well as an assortment of churches, museums and wineries.

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If you’re a tourist or shopper, you might visit Iași as a day trip or weekend excursion from Moldova, or as part of a larger Romania trip that includes Transylvania, Bucharest, the Black Sea or other popular destinations. Whatever. No matter how you end up there, you’ll probably enjoy it — and you might even learn to pronounce it correctly.

 

 

Riding the Rails

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Champa and I have become fans of Europe’s rail system. We used trains recently to travel from Vienna to Budapest to Bratislava and we found them to be reliable and fun to ride. They were also easy to navigate even though we didn’t speak the local languages.

All of the ticket vendors spoke English. The automated ticket machines were available in English. So were the signs. The schedules were online. Our Visa cards were accepted everywhere. The seats were comfortable. The toilets were clean. There was even free wifi on some of the trains.

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Vienna’s central train terminal, Wien Hauptbahnhof, and the Austrian trains we rode were the most modern. Like some of our own train stations back in the United States, the ones we used in Budapest, Keleti and Nyugati, felt much older, as did the main Hlavná station in Bratislava. However, we felt safe and comfortable in all of them and were impressed by the architecture and design, as with the mural in the Bratislava station shown above and the exterior of Budapest’s Keleti station shown below.

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We’d heard good things about Europe’s trains but were uncertain since we’d never ridden them before. Now we plan to use them often if we visit Europe again after we finish our Peace Corps service in Moldova. We expect many of them to be even nicer than what we saw, especially in western Europe. All aboard.

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My Unpredicted Birthday

I never could have predicted when I was a boy that I would end up celebrating my 65th birthday in a country called Moldova with my wife from Nepal making a celebratory dinner of foods from our home state of North Carolina.

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I’d never heard of Moldova. I’d never heard of Nepal. Even North Carolina seemed exotic to a boy growing up on Long Island in the 1950s and 1960s. For me, a big trip then was to New York City. There were no ATM machines, Internet or smart phones, much less QR codes to hop on a jet plane and fly halfway around the world.

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Now I find myself in the former Soviet Union, nearing the end of my Peace Corps service alongside a woman from the Himalayas who became my beloved wife, giving me more happiness in my life than I’ve ever deserved. Even after nearly two years together in Moldova, I still sometimes shake my head in wonder: How did I get here? How did a boy from Freeport come to celebrate a special birthday in Eastern Europe, receiving congratulatory Facebook messages in English, Romanian and Nepali from family and friends stretching from Singapore to Seattle?

My life has gone in such unexpected directions. I have been so lucky — and I haven’t even mentioned my greatest blessing of all, our family back home.

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Here in Moldova, people celebrating a birthday are expected to arrange and pay for the party. So on Tuesday, one day before my birth date, I organized an American-style pizza-and-cake lunch for my colleagues at the library. They surprised me with several wonderful gifts and sang “Mulți Ani Trăiască!” in my honor.

The next evening, our host family joined us for a traditional North Carolina barbecue dinner, which Champa spent several days preparing. As you can see in the video clip, they sang both “Happy Birthday to You” and “Mulți Ani Trăiască!” when they brought out a cake and candles. I received more wonderful gifts.

Thank you to everyone who helped me mark this special occasion, either here, by phone or online. If I’ve learned nothing else over the past 65 years, it is that all of us around the world have so much more in common than the differences that separate us or make us fear one another. We can all touch each other’s lives. We can touch each other’s hearts. We can become friends, even families, together.

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In one of my very first posts on this blog, I wrote: “When people asked me over the past several months why I would walk away from a job and colleagues I love to travel around the United States and Nepal, I spoke often of how Champa and I love to travel — which we do — and of our desire to take a break from the conventional routine. But it was more than that. After being tied to calendars and project schedules for so many years, I wanted to embrace the unknown.” In a later post I added: “One of my goals in being ‘not exacty retired’ is to recognize the richness of life’s surprises and make the most of them.”

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I am so thankful Champa and I decided three years ago to pursue this dream, to veer off the usual path and open our lives to new experiences and ways of serving others. We’ve had good luck, to be sure. Things could have gone badly. But we’ve ended up discovering a new country and new friends while learning new things about ourselves.

Now we are looking forward to reuniting with our family and friends back home. I expect to remain “not exactly retired” after 65 but don’t really know what will happen next. I am eager to be surprised anew. Celebrating this birthday has reminded me how rich your life can become when you let it take you places you never predicted.

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Ten Surprising Sights

We saw lots of beautiful sights in Vienna, Budapest and Bratislava when we visited this past week. We also saw things that surprised or amused us, like the ten shown here:

Vienna

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2. A Rabbit Outside the Opera House

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3. Lots of Windmills

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4. More Openness About the Holocaust

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Budapest

5. Reagan Beside a Soviet Memorial

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6. Delicious Matzo Ball Soup

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Bratislava

7. An Unexpected Book Enthusiast

8. A (Tarheel) Blue Church 

9. A Street Memorial for a Slain Journalist

10. A ‘UFO Tower’ and Bridge

 

Three Favorite Spots

If you could visit just one place in a great city, where would you go? The Eiffel Tower or the Louvre in Paris? The Statue of Liberty or Central Park in New York? Tiananmen Square or the Forbidden City in Beijing?

I have answers for three cities we just visited along the Danube River: Vienna, Budapest and Bratislava. My picks aren’t necessarily the most famous spots in these cities but they’re the ones Champa and I will remember the most. 

In Vienna, it was the opera house. Not inside the opera, where two tickets can cost more than our monthly Peace Corps budget, but the sidewalk outside. You can sit in chairs there and watch a performance live on a giant screen for free. We discovered this after we arrived in Vienna and saw the ballet Raymonda starting as we strolled by. We sat and enjoyed it for nearly an hour, returning the next day to catch part of Richard Wagner’s opera Die Walküre.

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It was magical to sit outside on a beautiful evening and watch world-class performances in the Austrian city reknown for its music and culture.

In Budapest, we’ll most remember the Chain Bridge and adjacent funicular, which provide stunning views of a picturesque city. We’d already taken a boat ride down the Danube, sailing under the bridge and past the Parliament building and other sites. As in Vienna, we’d also toured the city with Big Bus.

However, nothing topped the view from the historic bridge that spans the river between Buda and Pest, the western and eastern sides of Hungary’s capital. Well, nothing except the historic cable car that climbs to an even better view from Buda Castle. 

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Our biggest Bratislava memory will be St. Martin’s Cathedral, and not only because it’s a landmark of the Slovakian capital. For us, it was also the view in the window of the Airbnb we rented across the square. We could admire the three-nave Gothic church while sipping our morning coffee and then walk a few steps to tour the interior.

A sidewalk, a bridge and a cathedral weren’t the only places we enjoyed during our eight-day trip, the last vacation of our Peace Corps service. We saw lots of other things, too. Some were surprising, as I’ll explain in my next post. For now, you can see for yourself that many of them were amazing.

Vienna, Austria:

Budapest, Hungary:

Bratislava, Slovakia:

 

Join us on the journey.

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