Tag Archives: Moldova

Video: Independence Day

On Saturday, the Republic of Moldova celebrated its 25th birthday as an independent country. Champa and I joined the celebrations in our new home, Ialoveni, and at the nearby winery of Mileștii Mici, home of the world’s largest wine cellar. This video captures some of the highlights:

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Peace Corps: Now vs. Then

Can you guess what question I’m asked most often in Moldova, especially by other Americans?

It’s this: How have I found it different being a Peace Corps volunteer now compared to when I served in Nepal four decades ago?

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My short answer is that the experience feels very familiar. As before, I’ve left my family and America to serve people in another country, learning their language and sharing their daily lives.

But serving in Moldova has also been very different from my stint in Nepal in the late 1970s. Here are six of the biggest changes I’ve seen:

  1. I am much more connected to the outside world. I have a smart phone, a laptop and a Kindle, all linked to wifi. I talk regularly with my family. I am following the U.S. election campaign and other news. I interact online with my Moldovan partners and Peace Corps colleagues. In contrast, when I served in Nepal I did not call home even once. The Internet did not exist. I was very alone.
  2. Safety and security have become a much bigger deal. Neither terrorism nor street crime are serious problems in Moldova, yet our training was filled with security briefings. We were given detailed emergency action plans. I can’t leave my post overnight without notifying the staff. I can’t even enter the Peace Corps office without passing through a locked gate, a guard and a metal detector. In Nepal, I used to ride my bicycle past a front gate nominally staffed by a guard, then strolled inside.
  3. The infrastructure is more elaborate. My desk is piled with Romanian language workbooks, brochures on Moldovan culture, a “volunteerism action guide” and more. I have dozens more resources on a thumb drive Peace Corps gave me, not to mention the documents we received before we arrived here. There are detailed protocols for everything from paying a language tutor to taking a trip. In Nepal, our training was also excellent, but we had fewer resources and a lot less red tape.
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  4. I’m in a different country. Moldova is in eastern Europe, with an agricultural economy best known for wine. Its population is almost entirely white and Orthodox Christian. Nepal is in the Himalayas and mainly Hindu, along with Buddhists, Christians and Muslims. Both countries have delicious food, interesting people and fascinating customs, but they are as different as can be, except for the fact they are both landlocked — Moldova between Romania and Ukraine, Nepal between India and China. Inevitably, the Peace Corps experience is different, too.
  5. The world has changed over the past four decades. When I served in Nepal, the country was ruled by a king, who had not yet been murdered by his son. Now it’s a struggling democracy. The United States was still in a Cold War with the Soviet Union, which included Moldova. China was poor. Personal computers were new. Gay people could not get married. The idea of an African American or woman president back home was almost unimaginable. After four decades, the world is a different place. Peace Corps has evolved with it, such as by launching programs to combat HIV/AIDS or to “let girls learn.”
  6. I have changed. I saved this one for last because it’s the variable that affects everything else. When I joined the Peace Corps in Nepal, I was two years out of college, single and eager to save the world. Now I am a father and grandfather, serving with my wife of 37 years, who I met in Nepal. I am older and hopefully a bit wiser. In any case, I’m in a different place in my life, and not only geographically.

So, yes, I can now watch YouTube videos instead of fiddling with a shortwave radio to find a signal from the BBC or the Voice of America. But at least for me, Peace Corps still feels like “the toughest job you’ll ever love,” with the same beating heart. Once again, I’m working alongside a wonderful group of Americans who have taken a break from their lives to serve others and represent our country. Once again, I feel privileged to be among them.

Who knows? Perhaps there’s even a new form I’m supposed to fill out to confirm this.

Video: Student Performances

Champa and her fellow members of the English Education group in Peace Corps Moldova 31, along with their partner teachers, wrapped up their practice teaching on Friday with performances by their students in Costesti. I made this short video so you can enjoy the fun, too:

The Romanian Word Is ‘Dificil’

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Did you struggle in high school or college to learn Spanish, French or some other foreign language? Great! This question is for you:

I learned Nepali when I was a Peace Corps volunteer four decades ago and am now learning Romanian as a volunteer in Moldova. Which language do you think is harder?

Keep in mind: Romanian is related to many other European languages and to our own. It shares many words with English. Its syntax is similar. Nepali, on the other hand, is a Sanskrit language. Its alphabet, Devanagari, is completely different, as is its syntax. In Nepali, the sentence “What is your name?” literally translates as, “Your name what is?”

Maybe you’re thinking this is a trick. Maybe I’m encouraging you to say Nepali is harder but I actually think Romanian is harder.

Well, I do think Romanian is harder. But the problem is that I’m not sure it really is harder. Perhaps I’m just not as good at learning languages as I used to be.

img_9221To be sure, Nepali was harder for me at the outset. Its sentence structures seemed so bizarre that I walked out of my first language class, ready to quit in despair. Within a few days, though, I got the hang of it. By the end of our training, I was able to have a simple conversation. Today I still speak it easily, if imperfectly.

When I first encountered Romanian, it reminded me of French, which I studied in high school. I was relieved so many words looked familiar. For instance, here are some Romanian verbs whose meaning you can probably guess: discuta, studia, dansa, telefona and permite. I am a voluntar who is activ, sociabil, inteligent and optimist. Right now it’s August. Next month is Septembrie.

See what I mean? How hard could it be to learn Romanian, right?

Well, it’s been plenty hard. Accent marks change the pronunciation and meaning of s, t, a and i. Adjectives and verbs must be conjugated as masculine or feminine. Verbs fall into multiple categories, each with their own conjugation. There are endless exceptions.

During our language training, which wrapped up last week, we blasted through lessons on how to describe our families, order food, ask for directions or describe our work as Peace Corps volunteers. We learned how to use present tense, past tense, future tense, reflexive verbs and things like “genitive case” whose meaning I’d long forgotten in English, much less Romanian. We memorized lists of foods, clothing, furniture and more.

I’ve found it much harder to cram all of this into my brain than when I learned French or Nepali. I mutter “Damn you, neural plasticity!” to myself while I study before and after our four-hour classes, make word lists, then make new lists of words I still can’t remember.

img_8923Fortunately, I had an incredible teacher, Diana, who was skillful and tireless in helping my classmates and me learn everything. That’s her in the flower dress with us. With Diana’s help, I ended up with a good score on the exam they administered before we swore in as volunteers last week. She kept telling me I was doing fine, and I guess she was right.

In any case, this is just the first lap. I recently moved in with Champa while her group finishes its training, and I’ve been using the time to keep studying. Whenever I need more motivation, I remind myself I’m moving soon to a post where my partner doesn’t speak much English.

There’s a Romanian word for what this has been like for someone 63 years old. You can probably guess its meaning: dificil. However, I am doing my best to stay focused on another Romanian word: succes. Regardless of how your own language class turned out, please wish me luck.

Video: Park Cleanup and Culture Festival

A few days before we swore in as volunteers for Peace Corps Moldova, our “community and organizational development” group helped clean up a local park and hosted a cultural festival. It was our way of thanking our host families and communities in the two villages, Rusestii Noi and Bardar, where we lived during our training. Here’s a video I produced about the events.

Peace Corps After 50

[An edited version of this post also appears on the PBS website NextAvenue.]

Before Champa and I joined the Peace Corps at the age of 63, people asked us how we’d feel to be surrounded by volunteers younger than our two sons.

Well, many of our fellow volunteers are indeed in their 20s, and most of them are smart, enthusiastic and fun to be around. Yet Champa and I are hardly outliers. Fourteen of the 58 people in our training group — nearly one in four — are 50 or older.

IMG_8252Worldwide, Americans over age 50 comprise about 7 percent of the nearly 7,000 Peace Corps volunteers now serving in 63 countries around the world. With its better medical facilities and programs in fields such as business development that attract people with lots of real-world experience, Moldova attracts higher numbers.

Whatever their reasons for choosing Moldova, the older volunteers here are impressive. They’ve worked as professors, attorneys, IT managers, nonprofit leaders, teachers, city administrators and management consultants. They come from across the country, including two other older volunteers from North Carolina. They are single, widowed, divorced or, as with us and one other older couple, married and serving together. Like the volunteers here generally, they are also diverse, reflecting the country we represent.

IMG_8174We differ from our younger counterparts in some ways. Learning a new language may be tougher for us, although many of us are doing fine in our Romanian classes. We may run slower in a group soccer game, if we participate at all. When several younger friends went to get tattoos recently, they knew better than to invite me along. They also may party harder and make surprising cultural references. When I was in the Peace Corps office the other day, a Carole King song started playing and the young woman next to me said, “Hey, it’s that song from the Gilmore Girls!”

On the other hand, they’re usually polite when we make our own references to people and events from before they were born, so it tends to even out.

In Moldova and other Peace Corps countries, there are advantages to being an older volunteer. Many of these countries show great respect towards older people. Similarly, having children and grandchildren has provided Champa and me with an instant bond with older members of our new communities. Our experience enhances our credibility in our workplaces as well; my future colleagues have already checked me out online. Older volunteers can share their hobbies, too, as Champa hopes to do with art and gardening.

Peace Corps has a special website for older Americans interested in becoming volunteers. The site reviews the application process, which is competitive and includes an extensive medical clearance process.

One of my reasons for writing this blog, and this post in particular, is to encourage older readers to consider the Peace Corps or some other new challenge for themselves. It’s not as strange or exotic as they might think and shouldn’t just be dismissed with “Oh, I could never do that at my age.”

Obviously, many people have family obligations, medical problems and other constraints that make Peace Corps unrealistic. Nonetheless, it’s a proven program through which more than 220,000 Americans of all ages have served their country and the world — and had a great adventure in the process.

Personally, I’m already wondering what it will be like in two years to be back in America and surrounded by friends who are mostly older than the ones I’ve made here.