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.
More than two years of memories in 100 seconds. Moldova, we will never forget you. Click below for the video; also available on YouTube.
So little time left, so many goodbyes.
The past two weeks have been a blur of ceremonies, dinners and get-togethers as we say farewell to our Moldovan and American friends before we depart on Wednesday.
On Tuesday morning, Ialoveni’s mayor, Sergiu Armașu, joined my colleagues at the library to present Champa and me with certificates and gifts and to thank us on behalf of the city we’ve called home as Peace Corps Volunteers. He and library director Valentina Plamadeala were generous in their remarks, and I was especially moved when two boys from our robotics team (shown above) rose to speak as well. Even though it was shortly after 10 a.m. we toasted the moment with champagne and cake (yet another reason we’ll miss Moldova).
I’ve already posted on Facebook the amazing portrait our host family gave us at a farewell dinner we held a few days earlier. In addition, our bunica, or grandmother, gave us a gorgeous handmade Moldovan carpet. During the past several days we’ve received other beautiful gifts as well, all of which we are bringing home to remind us of our time here.
We met with the members of my English conversation class and their families for a farewell party at Casa della Pizza, Ialoveni’s popular pizza restaurant. Champa also met there with her language tutor and then with some of the English teachers from her school. It’s also where we had lunch yesterday with a Peace Corps friend and are meeting tomorrow with several others. After all, Casa della Pizza does serve the best pizza in Moldova.
We sipped beers and ate mamaliga and friptura on the outdoor verandah of another local restaurant when we said goodbye to “Mr. Tim,” a former Peace Corps Volunteer who stayed in Ialoveni to teach English (shown above). He introduced us to it shortly after we arrived and we became friends. With members of Champa’s Peace Corps group, our farewell party was at The Uptown Cafe, a restaurant in the capital.
We’ve also been saying goodbye over home-cooked meals, such as one we shared with the family of dna Liuba, the Peace Corps Moldova staff member whom I’ve assisted with communications projects, and the Nepali meal we served the family of dna Ana, the teacher who worked closely with Champa on their memorable project to create costumes for the school’s drama program.
We’re still not done and, amid all of these celebrations, I’ve also been exchanging goodbye messages with my former Diamond Challenge students, promoting North Carolina’s partnership with Moldova and delivering two presentations to the newest members of Peace Corps Moldova’s “community and organizational development” group, who began their training a few weeks ago. Champa and I have been packing, too.
Each goodbye has been emotional and, collectively, they’ve been draining, not to mention fattening, but they have helped us absorb the reality that we’re leaving this place in which we’ve invested so much of ourselves over the past two years. We’ve taken to heart the advice we heard at our COS conference several weeks ago, to embrace this process of saying goodbye rather than letting our final moments drift away. We’re glad we listened.
Nonetheless, as soon as we get home, we’re going to the gym.
Champa is part of an exclusive group: She was taught and inspired by Peace Corps Volunteers long before growing up to become one herself. Among the more than 230,000 Americans who have served since 1961, she has a special perspective on how volunteers can touch lives.
Her identity as a Nepalese-American has made her service — and mine — much richer. On Friday, for instance, we hosted a dinner party for some Moldovan friends, serving them Nepali curries and rice with an American chocolate chip cake and ice cream for dessert. We’ve also made Nepali food several times for our host family, shown below saying “namaste.”
Champa especially remembers two volunteers, Susan Gibson and Janet Moss, who taught at her school in Ilam, the town in eastern Nepal where much of her family still lives. Another mentor was Dorothee Goldman, a PCV who befriended Champa at a training workshop after Champa became a teacher herself. Susan, Janet and Dorothee all taught Champa new skills and encouraged her to keep moving forward, helping her become the excellent teacher I encountered when I was posted as a volunteer to Ilam a few years later.
After Champa and I got married and moved to the Washington, D.C., area to start our lives together, Dorothee reappeared in Champa’s life. The two of us were invited to a reception at the Nepalese embassy. We were dressed up and chatting politely with people when I noticed Champa staring at a young woman across the room. She went up to her and said, “Dorothee, what are you doing here?” Dorothee gasped and replied, “What am I doing here? Champa, what are you doing here?” The two of them embraced tightly, introductions followed and Dorothee and her husband, Mel, who also served in Nepal, became our dear friends. That’s them in the photo below, at their vineyard in upstate New York.
With almost everyone in Moldova, Champa is the first person from Nepal they’ve ever met. Only a handful of other people from Nepal live here, one of whom married a Moldovan woman and now runs a restaurant, Himalayan Kitchen, that has become popular among PCVs looking for a change from the food served by their host families. The photos below show why they keep coming back.
Moldovans know almost nothing about Nepal but, then again, neither do most Americans. As people here have gotten to know Champa, they’ve asked about how she grew up, how Nepal compares to Moldova or whether she can see Mount Everest from her house. (Answer: No.)
If we serve them Nepali food, we make it mild and they generally like it — although not always. We bought most of our spices, and the chocolate chips and brown sugar, when we visited home last summer. One of our guests on Friday was surprised we didn’t serve bread, a staple of every meal here. We hadn’t included chapatis, naan or puris on our menu, just rice.
Champa and I gave the Ganesh statue you see here to our host family and a few other local friends. He’s a symbol of good fortune with new ventures. We also brought some other Nepalese handicrafts, which have made great gifts.
The two of us are obviously foreigners but our unusual marriage has made us stand out even more in Moldova. “Diversity” here means someone is from, say, Ukraine instead of Moldova, or primarily speaks Russian instead of Romanian. There is a small Roma population but almost no people of African, Asian or Hispanic heritage. Moldovans are familiar with American diversity, such as from our music videos, but Champa and I are the first interracial couple many have ever seen, much less gotten to know. We’ve been aware from the beginning that our very presence would be as impactful in some ways as our teaching or projects.
Peace Corps has come full circle for Champa, who remains grateful to Susan, Janet and Dorothee for helping to change the path of her life. As she now prepares to return to her adopted homeland, she’s hoping she may have done the same with someone here.
Now that I’m three weeks away from completing my Peace Corps service, would I recommend it to other older Americans? Some friends back home have begun asking me this. My answer is a strong “yes” — but also “it depends.”
Champa and I have had a wonderful experience in Moldova. We’ve felt fulfilled by the work we’ve done — her teaching English, me at the library. We’ve become close friends with our host family and others. We’ve learned about this part of the world and shared some great times with our local partners and fellow volunteers.
Every volunteer’s experience is different, though, even within the same country, and several aspects of our service made things easier for us. Most obviously, we served together. We were never lonely and always had our best friend nearby to share the day’s events. Most Peace Corps Volunteers are single.
Also, we were posted to Eastern Europe, more specifically to a small city near Moldova’s capital where we lived in a nice house with electricity and running water, a modern kitchen and a washing machine. We weren’t allowed to drive (which I’ve missed), depending instead on overcrowded minibuses or walking. But we did have a good Internet connection and a supermarket where we could find items like peanut butter or barbecue sauce. For us, the “Peace Corps experience” definitely didn’t include living in a hut.
Moreover, Champa and I came here with a lot of experience outside the United States, so we had little trouble adjusting to a new culture. Nor were we distracted by family emergencies back home, at least until a few weeks ago when one of our granddaughters got quite sick. Thank goodness, she is now fine, but her illness was a reminder that our time here could have ended suddenly. We were also fortunate to remain healthy ourselves, unlike some of our volunteer friends. When I served in Nepal years ago, I was sick frequently and was eventually “med-sep’d” before my scheduled departure date. Not this time.
All of these caveats are significant. What ultimately mattered most, though, is that Champa and I really wanted to serve as Peace Corps Volunteers and were willing to put up with sickness, separation from our family and almost anything else. We had a clear idea of what we were signing up for and were determined to succeed. Peace Corps is hard, no matter how old you are. If you’re not fully committed, you’re probably not going to make it.
We joined for many reasons, but mainly because we felt we had received many blessings in our lives and wanted to give back. We challenged ourselves for two years, worked hard and felt like we made a difference. Like so many volunteers before us, we also ended up feeling we received more than we gave, mainly because of the generosity of the Moldovan people,
We didn’t like everything. There were a lot more regulations than when I served as a volunteer in Nepal in the late 1970s. After living independently for so many years, I found it jarring to have to ask permission to do routine things, even to see Champa when we were separated during training. I wasn’t crazy about walking on Moldova’s icy roads in January or riding its minibuses in July. Overall, though, it was great.
I hope this blog has been useful to anyone, especially older Americans, who is considering the Peace Corps as an option for their next stage of life. As a reminder, they can find lots of useful information on my blog and on a special Peace Corps website. I’m always happy to answer questions personally, as I’ve done many times with readers of “Not Exactly Retired” and others. Simultaneously, many Americans will have different constraints than us, will choose other ways to serve or just want to do something else with their lives. That’s fine; Peace Corps isn’t for everybody.
As we get ready to ring the “COS Bell,” Champa and I are deeply grateful to have had this opportunity. If you are as committed to the Peace Corps philosophy — and as lucky — as we have been, you, too, may have an experience you will never forget or regret. You won’t change the world with your service but you will change the path of your own life, for the better.
The most memorable person we have met in Moldova, and the person we will miss the most after we return home this summer, is the 87-year-old grandmother, or bunica, of our host family.
Nadejda Ciornea inspires us.
She travels almost every day from our house in Ialoveni to downtown Chișinău, where she sells handicrafts in the outdoor market in the Arts Square. She walks up a steep hill to the bus stop, then boards an overcrowded vehicle before finally arriving near the market. There she sits outdoors on a folding chair, in the heat of the summer and the cold of the winter. Only rain or a snow storm keep her home.
Watching this small woman shuffle on the road with her cane, or greet customers in the market, never ceases to amaze us. When we ask why she continues to work at her age, she smiles and wags her finger, saying la lucru! (the work). In fact, she says this to us almost every day, teasing us that we need to work as hard as she does.
Every evening I ask her how business went that day. Often she says she earned nimic, or nothing, usually followed by some choice words about Moldova’s faltering economy. Sometimes she smiles and points to the small ledger she carries, where she records her sales. Occasionally she’ll share photos or letters from customers she’s met over the years who befriended her and sent her greetings.
In the evening, we sometimes share a glass of wine and a piece of cake, preceded by her toasting our good health and success. She asks about our family back home and what we did that day, always with a twinkle in her eye and a quick laugh.
Bunica’s daughter, Nina, is officially our “host mother,” and we’ve become very close to her, her husband Mihai and the rest of the Bordei family. Since we are a few years older than Nina, however, it’s Bunica who has felt like a mother while we’ve been in Moldova. Champa and I both lost our own mothers years ago. We never expected to find another here on this side of the world.
In the years ahead, whenever we feel like complaining about getting old, we will remember Bunica wagging her finger and saying la lucru! She has shown us how to age gracefully, embracing every day with what Moldovans call a suflet mare — a big soul.
Bunica said to me the other day that she will miss the two of us a lot after we depart in July. We will miss her even more.