Cătălina Russu of TVR Moldova produced this television story about “Orașul Meu,” the song and music video about Ialoveni that I created with singer Laura Bodorin.
Champa and I have taken several interesting trips to neighboring countries while serving as Peace Corps Volunteers in Moldova. Now that we’re nearly finished, which places would we recommend the most?
I’ve written previously about our impressions of Transylvania; Armenia and Georgia; Bulgaria and Bucharest; Odessa; Vienna, Budapest and Bratislava; and the Romanian city of Iași. In Moldova, our visits included Soroca, Comrat and several famous monasteries.
We enjoyed all of these places. But if you have limited time and resources, here’s our Top Three for your consideration:
- The Transylvania region of Romania
- Tbilisi, Georgia
- Bratislava, Slovakia
We also recommend a visit to Moldova!
Transylvania was our favorite spot. Many Americans associate it mainly with Dracula, the fictional vampire inspired by the real-life Vlad Țepeș. But Transylvania is one of Europe’s most beautiful and undiscovered tourist spots. It offers majestic castles (including one named for Dracula), beautiful churches and picturesque cities such as Brașov, Sibiu and Sighișoara. It has nice hotels and restaurants, with architecture reminiscent of Germany and Hungary, whose people settled here. You’re also near Romania’s capital, Bucharest, which is worth a visit, too. Prices are lower than in most other parts of Europe, people are friendly, the weather is mild and the wine is delicious. What’s not to like?
Tbilisi was called “one of the hottest tourist destinations” last year by The Independent, and for good reason. The Georgian capital, located on the eastern side of the Black Sea, offers distinctive cuisine, interesting sites and rich opportunities for nearby hiking and other outdoor activities. Vogue included it among its “10 Hottest Travel Destinations” and Anthony Bourdain devoted a program to its emerging food scene, including “hangover soup” to recover from a night in the city’s clubs. Don’t miss a visit to the Holy Trinity Cathedral, the gorgeous church overlooking the city, or the nearby monastery in Mtskheta.
Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia, surprised us with its beauty and charm. Like many tourists, we visited it mainly because it was near Vienna and Budapest, which are better known. We loved those cities, too, but Bratislava was where we’d live if we had to choose among them. It has a friendly vibe, lovely places to visit, fun places to eat, a castle atop the city, even a bridge with a restaurant shaped like a UFO. Bratislava is cozier than its better-known neighbor, Prague, but you can happily spend hours or days enjoying its restaurants and shops, or strolling along the Danube. If you prefer a day trip, it’s just one hour by train from Vienna.
We’ve come to love Moldova the most of all. Its travel infrastructure is far behind these other places, but you can spend several enjoyable days or more exploring its wineries, monasteries, countryside and attractions. Moldova offers a variety of adventure sports and outdoor activities, great meals, music and cultural festivals and nightlife that ranges from dance clubs to opera, all for a fraction of what you’d pay in most other European cities. This website provides a nice overview of Moldova’s travel possibilities.
If you prefer to explore the fascinating culture of Armenia, the glorious Rila Monastery of Bulgaria or the famous steps of Odessa instead of our Top Three, well, those are great choices, too, and you can’t go wrong visiting Vienna or Budapest. My main suggestion is simply to give this part of the world a try. As I’ve written previously, too many Americans are missing out on great places here because they never even consider them. We found all of them to be interesting, safe, inexpensive and fun. Maybe you will, too.
I’m running at full speed as we approach the finish line for our Peace Corps service in Moldova.
Instead of slowing down and starting to pack, I’ve been tackling projects related to my expertise back home that I’ve wanted to pursue since before we arrived here two years ago.
On Saturday, I’ll teach the second of two classes at the American Language Center in Buiucani, Chișinău. I opened the first one, on news writing, this past Saturday with a dramatic staged “fight” and “heart attack,” followed by asking the students to write a short news story about what they just witnessed. (See the video below.) It was a fun way to introduce them to journalistic concepts such as “the 5 W’s” and the “inverted pyramid” approach of opening a news story with the most essential information.
My second class at the center will be about how to write an opinion article that can touch people’s hearts and change their minds.
In a couple of weeks, I’ll teach a workshop at Moldova State University, discussing with some of their top faculty researchers how they might better explain their work to the public and attract the interest of journalists.
I’ve taught versions of all three sessions many times before and online, training academics and others in the United States how to reach out to citizens and journalists. In recent years, I modified the training to emphasize the importance of using social media to reach audiences directly.
I’m looking forward to discussing all of this here in Moldova, where “research communications” barely exists and “opinion writing” occurs in a very different context.
Simultaneously, I’ve been spending lots of time helping Peace Corps Moldova prepare a big celebration for its 25th anniversary. I’m working with Liuba Chitaev and others on the staff to write scripts, edit videos and pull together a memorable program.
I’ve also worked recently on Orașul Meu, the music video about our host city, Ialoveni, that local singer Laura Bodorin and I produced and released earlier this month. The video has now been viewed more than 7,500 times and shared by more than 200 people on Facebook. Laura and I were recently interviewed by television reporter Cătălina Russu, whose story about the video should air soon. (That’s Laura in the middle of the photo, Cătălina on the right.)
Meanwhile, Champa and I are wading through a long “to do” list for our departure, everything from arranging to reactivate our cell phones and homeowners insurance back home to receiving our final medical and dental checkups here, which we’ll do on Monday. We both need to fill out multiple reports and forms before Peace Corps Moldova will let us ring the bell that symbolizes successful completion of service.
All of this is in addition to my usual activities at the Ialoveni library, such as working with our “Book Worms” robotics group, shown here in their new team shirts. Two of them, Mihai and Victor, recently spoke about the group at a regional conference for Moldovan youth leaders, shown below.
I’m not complaining. I view every remaining day of my Peace Corps service as precious, so I want to do as much as possible before we leave. I’ve probably taken on too much, but there will be time to rest later. No matter how fast or slow I run, the finish line keeps getting closer.
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!”
When the page highlighted another volunteer, a friend of her mother posted: “You have a very special daughter!”
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.
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!”
“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.
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
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.
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.
And what they’ll miss most about Moldova:
- My host family
- House wine
- Fresh fruit & veggies
- Waking up to fresh snow
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.
“As soon as I’m no longer a PCV,” one question asked, “I can’t wait to”:
- 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
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.