Glenside, Pennsylvania hosts one of America’s great hometown Fourth of July parades. This 3-minute video highlights the 2019 celebration. Also on YouTube.
Glenside, Pennsylvania hosts one of America’s great hometown Fourth of July parades. This 3-minute video highlights the 2019 celebration. Also on YouTube.
Family, weddings, classes, projects, trips, a book and 73 episodes of Game of Thrones.
That’s what Champa and I have been doing since we returned to Durham from our Peace Corps service in Moldova one year ago this month.
We were especially busy initially — buying a car, restocking our kitchen and so forth — but our biggest challenge proved to be readjusting to the country we were so proud to represent when we left in mid-2016. We served for more than two years with the mission of helping others and promoting cross-cultural understanding. Then we came home to a new president who insults foreign allies and demonizes immigrants. It’s been a tough transition.
Of course, we’re thankful to be reunited with our family and friends. We’ve reveled in things as simple as driving or drinking water from a tap. Yet we still miss Moldova, every day. We made such good friends there and we now interact with them only on Facebook or with an occasional phone call.
Champa and I didn’t expect our transition to be so hard. We’d traveled a lot. We’d remained closely connected to America while we were gone. I’d served in the Peace Corps previously and she was born in Nepal. So how hard could it be? We didn’t fully appreciate that America wasn’t the only thing that changed. We’d changed, too.
I’m not the same person I was when I walked away from a conventional job four years ago to pursue a new life of service and adventure. I’m now 66 and no longer want a full-time job. Nor do I want to be “retired.” Instead, I continue to explore a third path, this time back in our home town. During the past year, I’ve been refocusing my energies on three new activities:
I also traveled to Romania to help teach a workshop on vaccines (above) and took two excellent adult-education courses with OLLI. Champa’s been working in her garden, pursuing art projects and spending time with family and friends.
We also attended four beautiful weddings and took short trips both domestically and abroad. We renewed our subscription to UNC’s Playmakers theater series and, after living without a television for so long, we binge-watched movies and television shows we’d missed, including the entire Game of Thrones series. (Bran won the throne, really?)
Most important, we welcomed a seventh grandchild to our family a few weeks ago.
So life has been good this past year and we know how fortunate we are to be able to say that, just as we were in Moldova. As I’ve begun pursuing this new phase of “not exactly retired,” I’ve been surprised to discover how disorganized our community is in taking advantage of older Americans like me who are eager to share their skills and enthusiasm to address social needs. I think it’s possible to make it much easier for them to do this, both in North Carolina and more widely. In future posts, I’ll be writing more about how I’ve begun working with others to address this opportunity.
When Champa and I traveled to Scotland and Ireland three weeks ago, they felt a lot more like home than did Armenia, Ukraine and other places we visited while serving as Peace Corps Volunteers in Moldova.
At dinner on our first night in Dublin, the pub menu featured burgers and the accents sounded like Boston. Our waitress asked where we were from and, after hearing we live in North Carolina, she said, “oh, my college roommate came from Raleigh.”
In Edinburgh, the dining options near our Airbnb included a Pizza Hut and a Five Guys burger joint along with haggis or fish and chips.
We couldn’t even escape President Trump during our trip. He came to Ireland shortly after us and we saw security patrols near his golf course.
For the two of us, Scotland and Ireland were the flip side of what we experienced on the opposite side of Europe. When we took a free walking tour through the historic streets of Romania’s capital, Bucharest, we were the only Americans. In the Bulgarian capital, Sofia, only one other American joined us and 23 tourists from Bulgaria, Canada, Italy, Japan, Latvia, Netherlands and Spain. Even in Tbilisi, the Georgian capital that’s been gaining buzz as a tourist hot spot, we felt alone. As I wrote then, a big world awaits beyond the American comfort zone.
Scotland and Ireland didn’t feel exotic to us, in other words, but we loved both of them.
We went first to Scotland, to hang out with some of our Nepalese relatives (top photo) who took the train up from their home in England. Together we toured Edinburgh Castle, the National Museum of Scotland, the Royal Mile and more. We discovered a Nepalese garden at the botanic gardens and a nice coffee shop at the Port of Leith. After our relatives left, Champa and I hiked atop a local peak, Arthur’s Seat, and had dinner with an old friend and his wife. Then we took a two-day tour of the highlands, visiting Loch Ness and other sites. We were entranced by the striking bogs, heather and thistles despite pouring rain.
Then it was on to Ireland. Our tour there traveled west from Dublin to Galway and then down the Atlantic coast. Using Killarney as a base, we explored the Cliffs of Moher, the Dingle Peninsula, the Ring of Kerry and other landmarks. Then we turned east, stopping at Blarney Castle to, yes, kiss the Blarney Stone, before continuing on to Kilkenny and Dublin. On our first night back in the capital, we spent hours watching the Irish Celts play traditional music at Darkey Kelly’s pub. Finally, on our last day, we walked throughout the city before returning exhausted to our hotel near Christ Church Cathedral, ready to fly home the next morning.
As always, we were surprised by some of what we saw, such as a sheep-herding demonstration in Kerry that you can glimpse below in a brief video I produced on my phone the same evening (also available on YouTube). We learned a lot about the histories of Scotland and Ireland, especially their struggles with England. We gained new perspective on our many American friends whose families emigrated from there. Their ancestors escaped oppression and found a better life, much like my own or, for that matter, the Lyft driver from Aleppo, Syria, who drove us to the airport.
In both Scotland and Ireland, we traveled in small groups with Rabbie’s Tours, which provided excellent guides and organization.
We were reminded throughout our time there that you can have a wonderful trip outside the United States even if you don’t stretch your comfort zone much. Just like other destinations familiar to Americans, Scotland and Ireland let you experience something different while still feeling at home. They’re comfortably foreign.
For decades they piled up: thousands of family photos and souvenirs that we placed in albums. Three years ago, when Champa and I packed up our house to join the Peace Corps, we were stunned by how many albums we’d accumulated and by how much storage space we needed for them. “We have to sort through these after we return home,” we told ourselves.
This past week, I finished making that vow a reality. For three months I worked several hours daily to whittle dozens of photo albums and boxes of family memorabilia into a single storage bin. I scanned the best images and saved them online and on a hard drive. I also compiled bags of photos to give away to our sons and other relatives.
The job was as tedious as I expected, even though we stopped compiling albums of printed photos several years ago as we shifted to digital photography and occasional printed books.
First I had to remove the photos from the albums, carefully peeling them off the sticky pages and placing them in plastic bags. Then I triaged them into piles to keep, discard or revisit. I created separate bags for big events such as family weddings or overseas trips. I sorted photos into different piles and made lots of difficult decisions about which photos to keep, which to scan and (most often) which to discard.
Those congratulatory cards my parents received when I was born? I tossed out almost all of them. My elementary school report cards? Likewise. Copies of my high school newspaper when I was the editor? I kept most of those but trashed all but a few of the humor columns I wrote for The Brown Daily Herald. It was a no-brainer to keep Champa’s old black-and-white photos of her family in Nepal, since these are few and precious. So, too, for the old photos and documents from my side of the family, like the one you see here of my parents.
I’ve been sharing some of these images with my two sisters. Both of them tell me they hope to tackle their boxes, too, but haven’t yet found the time or courage. That’s surely true for a lot of other people as well, as it was for me when I was working full-time. After we returned home this summer from Moldova, I was too busy with our transition, family gatherings and a writing project to deal with the photos. By the end of last year, though, I ran out of reasons to keep procrastinating. I bought a scanner and got to work.
I’ve learned a few things along the way.
My main advice is to purge ruthlessly. Unless you are famous or planning to commit a crime that will get reporters and historians interested in your back story, no one cares who attended your eighth birthday party. I was a history major in college who went on to write some of our country’s history for the Voice of America, so I respect the importance of historical archives, but who are we kidding? Only your kids and their descendants are likely to care about your photos, and they will probably worry more about receiving too much instead of too little. You’ll do them a big favor by reducing the pile drastically, keeping only the most significant and poignant images. As Marie Kondo might say, find the things that bring you joy.
I’ve also tried to find the “sweet spot” in annotating everything. I noted the time and location for each bag of photos but didn’t label images individually. Yes, this means you’ll never know the names of the couple we met in Greece, who are in one of the photos. But guess what? At this point I don’t care about their names, either.
A scanner is essential, not only to produce a permanent digital record but also to make it easier to give away the printed copies. If my sons or others want any of the digital copies, we can share those, too. My scanner, an Epson V550, has enhanced the images, some of which had faded, so the digital versions are often better. If you prefer, several reputable companies can do the scanning for you, for a fee.
Tackling this big job made me feel productive while Champa and I take a break from our “not exactly retired” adventures. Now that I’ve finished, I guess I need to find a new project to keep me busy, so I won’t start driving her crazy. In fact, our garage looks like it needs some spring cleaning.
Maybe next week.
I was a science writer for much of my career before serving as a volunteer with Peace Corps Moldova. Several months ago, the magazine editor for the National Association of Science Writers asked me to contribute an article for a series on “Science Writers Giving Back.” She just published it and I’m sharing it here, hoping it may inspire some readers — both science writers and others — to apply to the Peace Corps themselves. As the article notes, for me this decision “changed my life [and] broadened my perspective about the world, about America and about myself.”
Here’s a PDF file of the magazine; the article is on page 8.
Thanks to NASW’s Lynne Friedmann for inviting me to write this!
“Mr David, what happened to the American Government?”
That’s what Victoria, one of the students in the English conversation class I taught while serving as a Peace Corps volunteer in Moldova, asked me on Facebook last week. “I see news everywhere,” she told me. (That’s Victoria making the V sign at our group’s farewell dinner.)
I know what she means and the news has worried me even more. After spending more than two years in a little-known part of the former Soviet Union where people are deeply cynical about politics and the rule of law, I’m unnerved by what I’ve encountered in my own country since returning home this past summer.
Champa and I were proud to represent the United States when we arrived in Moldova with our group in mid-2016. That was before we had a president who disdains international alliances, demonizes refugees and calls developing countries “shitholes.” It’s possible his description didn’t include Moldova, whose population is white, but it seems even worse to me if it didn’t. As an American, was I supposed to be proud that I was serving in a country where people are poor but at least are white?
Michelle Obama championed the “Let Girls Learn” initiative that brought new opportunity to women and girls around the globe, encouraging more girls to go to school, start businesses and pursue careers. The initiative funded the Peace Corps grant through which our Ialoveni library was able to create a new family room, above, and programs for mothers and children. Just before we received the grant, though, we were told to no longer refer to the initiative as “let girls learn,” which was linked so closely to Michelle Obama.
I came to love Moldova during my service there and have recently gotten involved with a partnership program between Moldova and my home state of North Carolina. (Rodney Maddox and Lora Sinigur, who help run the program with Secretary of State Elaine Marshall, are shown left.) I continue to admire the perseverance and grace of Moldovans in the face of hardship. Despite its rich agriculture, Moldova’s economy offers few economic opportunities. Many people have left the country to seek work elsewhere. Corruption is widespread. Reform efforts have been thwarted.
The Moldovans I met are wonderful people who nonetheless have a dark view of life. In his book The Geography of Bliss, Eric Weiner called Moldova the unhappiest country on Earth.
The United States remains far wealthier but I fear we are heading in the same direction in terms of how we view our collective future. Since coming home, I’ve seen a level of cynicism that scares me. I don’t recall people ever feeling so anxious and frustrated about the possibility of change, even during the darkest days of the Vietnam War or the Watergate crisis.
This is not the America I knew when I left. Seeing it with new eyes has made the contrast sharper for me.
The midterm election gave me hope that Americans will not surrender to despair, that they will fight to once again make our country the kind of place we can all extol when living and traveling abroad. This past Sunday, Champa and I served lunch at a local soup kitchen with our friend Celeste, right, who also served in the Peace Corps, in West Africa during the Vietnam War. She reminded me how challenging it was to be asked questions then about America. Eventually things got better. I’m hopeful they can again.
I’m not speaking here for the Peace Corps, which is non-political and bipartisan. I also continue to hold the Moldovan people closely in my heart. It’s just that more than six months have passed since I completed my service and friends keep asking me what it’s felt like to come home.
My answer is that I don’t want us to become as hopeless and cynical as the people I met back in Moldova or, for that matter, in many other countries around the world where strongmen pursue their own interests, lies abound and darkness obscures light. I want us to trust each other again and embrace the optimism that is our birthright as Americans.
I want Victoria to keep watching because somehow my country is going to make things right.
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.