Tag Archives: Peace Corps

My Favorite Books

‘Tis the season for year-end lists of favorite books. Here’s mine from Moldova. I downloaded almost all of these books onto my Kindle for free through the online OverDrive system which, as I’ve written previously, is the best thing that ever happened to a Peace Corps Volunteer who likes to read.

I could fill my Top Ten list just with recent novels I read this year. My three favorites were Exit West, Mohsin Hamid’s brilliant depiction of two refugees from a war-torn Arab country; The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson, which captures the brutal insanity of North Korea; and The Underground Railroad, Colson Whitehead’s chilling exploration of slavery in antebellum America. All three novels haunted me for weeks.

I also loved Manhattan Beach, which Jennifer Egan sets on the waterfront of New York, showing us a different side of the city while telling a harrowing yet moving family saga. Richard Ford’s Let Me Be Frank With You and Richard Russo’s Everybody’s Fool are gentler but wonderfully written, with compelling protagonists struggling to make sense of their aging years. Viet Thanh Nguyen in The Sympathizer and Karan Mahajan in Association of Small Bombs both took me to communities I barely knew before. Tom Perrotta’s Mrs. Fletcher was funny and wise. Carl Hiaasen’s Razor Girl was even funnier. All ten of these novels were a pleasure.

I also loved three older novels: Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee, whose depiction of a man’s life upturned by accusations of sexual misconduct seemed especially timely now; Redeployment by Phil Klay, rightly hailed as one of the best novels about the Iraq war; and Smiley’s People by the great John LeCarre, who published an acclaimed autobiography this year.

I’ll give a partial thumbs-up to three other novels: Moonglow by Michael Chabon; The Sandcastle Girls by Chris Bohjalian; and Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng. Bohjalian’s book is about the Armenian genocide, and I read it shortly before we visited Armenia. Like the others, I thought it was good, not great. I was even less enthusiastic about Jenny Lawson’s Let’s Pretend This Never Happened, which was snarkily funny in places but somehow didn’t click for me.

I also read some great nonfiction this year. My favorite book was Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance. I know it’s come in for criticism for its depiction of dysfunctional white families in Appalachia, but I found it insightful following our election last year. Arlie Russell Hochschild covered some of the same issues in Louisiana in Strangers in Their Own Land, which I enjoyed but found less compelling. Bruce Springsteen’s autobiography, Born to Run, was a treat from cover to cover. So was reporter Katy Tur’s recent Unbelievable, about covering the Trump campaign, although its uneven text reflected the haste with which it presumably was written. (Sorry, always an editor.)

I’m in a science book club back home, so I’ll give a shout-out to my favorite science book of the year: Steve Olson’s Eruption: The Untold Story of Mount St. Helens. It wove geology, politics, history and personal stories into a narrative I would have found engaging even if Steve weren’t a good friend.

I’m also a history fan. In Revolutionary Summer, Joseph Ellis offered a fresh look at how early military defeats under George Washington nearly ended the American Revolution in its early days. In The Wright Brothers, David McCullough showed how the two aviation pioneers were nothing less than admirable, illustrating what’s best in the American character at a time when I needed to be reminded.

I’ll also give a hat tip to two novels I read just for fun. In Crazy Rich Asians, Kevin Kwan poked fun at the super-rich families of SIngapore and Hong Kong. I’m looking forward to seeing the movie version when it comes out next year. Another comedy of manners featuring people with too much money was Eligible, Curtis Sittenfield’s modern adaptation of Pride and Prejudice. Once again: well-done fluff that kept me turning the pages.

Detective and mystery novels are great page-turners, too, and I read several good ones this year, including books by John Grisham (The Litigators), David Baldacci (The Guilty), Paula Hawkins (Girl on a Train) and Jonathan Kellerman (The Murderer’s Daughter). My favorite was Jo Nesbo’s The Redbreast, which dealt with neo-Nazis emerging from the shadows, in this case in Norway, yet another case of novels unexpectedly touching on today’s news.

Then there were travel and adventure books. I’d missed The Old Patagonian Express by one of my favorite travel writers (and former Peace Corps Volunteer), Paul Theroux. It described his trip across Latin America. Eric Weiner’s entertaining The Geography of Bliss explored why some countries are happier than others, with Moldova featured at the opposite end of the happiness scale. In The Taliban Shuffle, Kim Barker described her adventures as a foreign war correspondent, a tale recently adapted by Tina Fey in the film Whiskey Tango Foxtrot. David and Veronica James in Going Gypsy and Kristin Newman in What I Was Doing While You Were Breeding described extended trips they made after leaving the workplace. All gave me new perspective on my own recent adventures.

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Among the books I expected to like better but never finished were The Shadow Land by Elizabeth Kostova; The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood; Still Here by Laura Vapnyar; Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwan and Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi. The biggest clunker for me was Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, which extolled the virtues of simplicity and decluttering while bloating a 10-page idea into an entire book.

Finally, and I’m embarrassed to admit this, 2017 was the year when I finally got around to reading some of the Harry Potter books. I blasted through both Sorcerer’s Stone and Chamber of Secrets and am looking forward to reading the others in the year ahead. That is, if I can find time after we get home and start binge-watching all of the movies we’ve missed.

Thanks to the Durham County Library and the Duke University Libraries, together with the OverDrive system, for providing these great books for free. Which others did I miss? I welcome your suggestions and will look forward to reading some of them in the year ahead. If you’re a reader, too, I hope you’ll try some of the books I’ve recommended here. Happy reading in 2018!

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Getting Into Costume

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Cowboys, Indians, pirates and other characters have begun arriving at Champa’s school. Her grant project to create a costume and prop wardrobe for its drama program is progressing nicely, with many of the costumes now completed.

 

The school, LT “Andrei Vartic” in Ialoveni, Moldova, recently received its first batch of stage props, including some great hats. As you can see in these photos, Champa and I had fun trying them on with her project partner Ana Doschinescu, in the white and blue dress, and another teacher, Tamara Vîrlan.

Ana, Tamara and Champa can’t wait until the project is completed and students start using the props and costumes on stage. We’ll keep you posted.

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Story Time at the Library

Readers, I seek your assistance — the first and only time Champa or I will make such a request while we are serving in Moldova as Peace Corps Volunteers.

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The library where I work in Ialoveni has launched a project to create a “Story Time at the Library” program for toddlers along with educational programs for adults. They’ve already raised nearly $1,000 locally — a lot of money here — but need $2,303.94 more to create a kid-friendly room with small chairs, educational toys, art materials and the like.

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I’ve worked with the library and Peace Corps to launch a fundraiser through the Let Girls Learn program championed by Michelle Obama.

As you can see in the infographic, the librarians did a survey showing overwhelming community support for the idea, which is similar to the story times held at many public libraries in the States. Their target audience is kids a bit younger than those you see in the photo above of a school group recently visiting the library.

The project is just the latest example of how Ialoveni’s library is trying to redefine itself for the modern world and become a vital community resource. During the past year alone it has expanded beyond books to create programs for video animation, advocacy, computer coding and robotics, together with new services for special-needs users.

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You can learn more about the project and donate here. Your contribution is tax-deductible in the United States. You can donate in honor or memory of someone and, if you choose, share your contact information with me. You can also send words of encouragement to the project team. I will be administering the funds.

If you’ve enjoyed reading this blog, support what the Peace Corps is doing or just want to support a great cause for the holidays, I hope you will make a donation. On behalf of the mothers, children, families and librarians of Ialoveni: Mulțumesc (Thank you)!

 

 

What Tourists Expect

If you go to a restaurant in Moldova, don’t be surprised if the waiter doesn’t give you a big smile, offer menus to everyone at your table or serve all of the entrees together.

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The waiter may also not be concerned about negative reviews on TripAdvisor or Yelp. Why? Because he may not know about these websites. Expedia? Lonely Planet? Maybe not those, either. Similarly, the woman working at a nearby hotel may not understand that you prefer to book a room online instead of calling her on the phone.

 

Moldova has so much to offer to foreign visitors: delicious food and wine, magnificent monasteries, beautiful countryside and travel options ranging from eco-tourism to adventure travel. Its hotels, restaurants and travel destinations are a bargain, and some offer warm and attentive service. Its people can be wonderfully gracious and generous, too. But it remains among the least-visited countries in Europe.

At a meeting several months ago, several of us serving as Peace Corps Volunteers here discussed whether we could do anything to help improve the situation.

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We knew we had no money to address big problems like Moldova’s poor roads. However, as Americans who have made lots of travel decisions ourselves and are familiar with Moldova’s charms and challenges, we decided we could contribute in another way: We could help the owners of hotels, restaurants and tourist destinations understand what we and others expect in terms of customer service and how we use the Internet when deciding where to spend our travel dollars, whether in Moldova or someplace else.

Screen Shot 2017-11-28 at 7.53.16 PMSince that meeting, our group has been working with the Moldova Competitiveness Project of USAID and the leadership of ANTRIM, Moldova’s national inbound tourism association. After months of work and numerous drafts in both English and Romanian, we recently completed our project: an illustrated Romanian-language brochure for Moldovan businesses seeking to attract tourists from abroad. ANTRIM has posted the brochure online and will be sharing it with its members. USAID said it looks forward to supporting the project, too.

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If you don’t speak Romanian, here’s the brochure’s message in a nutshell: Customer service is critically important, so smile at your customers and take good care of them. Build a strong online presence and try to attract favorable reviews.

IMG_9213I recently put the final touches on the brochure with Natalia Țurcanu, the head of ANTRIM, who you see above with me in their lovely new tourism center in the heart of Chișinău. Located on the city’s main street, the center offers brochures, maps, advice and even virtual-reality tours, as you can see in the photo. USAID and others provided support for the center, which was launched with the big press conference where you see Natalia speaking in the photo below.

She hopes our brochure may lead to workshops or other training programs to help Moldova’s tourist operators get better at using the Internet and providing consistently great customer service. IMG_9218Our group is ready to assist if she wants her people to hear this directly from American travelers.

Our Peace Corps team included current volunteers Shannon Skelly and William Winter, and recently departed volunteers Chris Flowers, Lisa Gill, Stephen Gill, Jessica Randall and Denise Riegel. Natalia has been our invaluable partner at ANTRIM. Sergiu Botezatu, Natalia Curnic, Ana Efros and Diana Lazar provided assistance through USAID’s Moldova Competitiveness Project and Chemonics International Inc. At Peace Corps Moldova, Felicia Cenușă guided the final translation, Violeta Frimu-Patel was our program manager and Tracey Hébert-Seck provided support and encouragement as the country director.

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If you know anyone in Moldova who might benefit from the brochure, I hope you will share it with them. Be sure to smile when you ask.

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Talking Turkey

 

I ate Thanksgiving turkey twice on Thursday — first when I usually eat breakfast, then for dinner.

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The early meal was for a television story on TVR Moldova explaining our holiday to viewers across Moldova and Romania. Cătălina Russu, a television reporter who lives in Ialoveni, invited me to join her as she broadcast a live story from Jeraffe, one of Chișinău’s top restaurants.

As her story began, as shown in the first clip above (also on YouTube), we discussed Thanksgiving foods and traditions while the chef, Nestor Perez, prepared a turkey roll stuffed with herbs and butter. I had not previously met Nestor, who lived in America for many years after leaving Venezuela and now lives here with his Moldovan wife. Thanksgiving Menu 2017After our first segment, we all took a break and then moved from the kitchen to a table to eat the cooked turkey with pistachio-infused rice.

I shared my own Thanksgiving menu (seen here) with Cătălina and showed her how American kids use their fingers to make turkey pictures for placemats. The highlight, though, was Nestor’s food, shown in the second clip above (also on YouTube). It was fabulous despite the early hour. You can see for yourself in Cătălina’s story, which is easy to follow even if you don’t speak Romanian.

As soon as her second segment was finished, the cameraman and another reporter pulled up chairs so they could try the turkey, too. By 9:30 a.m., I was done and heading back to Ialoveni by bus to prepare the next round. (Around the same time, my Peace Corps Volunteer colleague Anne was discussing Thanksgiving on another television program here.)

I bought the turkey for our meal from a local farmer, who delivered it on Wednesday to our host mother. I found sweet potatoes at a downtown store. IMG_9393Champa discovered dried cranberries in the market, which I cooked with juice and brandy to make a sauce. One of our local stores now sells Parmesan cheese, so I bought some and combined it with mashed potatoes in a casserole. For my peach pie, I used slices of local peaches we’d bought last summer and froze. We made cookies with chocolate chips and brown sugar we bought when we were home last summer. We bought the Armenian and Georgian wine during our recent trip there.

We were prepared, in other words, and had even finished the desserts and some other items earlier in the week. Our host family and a Peace Corps Volunteer from Minnesota, Cindy, arrived in the evening. We then ate too much, laughed too much and went around the table to each say why we give thanks.

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It was such a lovely day. The only thing that could have been better would have been sharing Thanksgiving with our family back home, who we missed even more than usual throughout the day. We’re thankful we will be back together with them next year — and thankful to have found another wonderful family while we’re here.

Libraries Turn the Page

In both America and Moldova, libraries are racing to redefine themselves and remain relevant in an online world.

IMG_9072Back home, where people now routinely download books and find information on the internet, libraries are emphasizing their roles in providing expertise and bringing people together, whether with story times for kids, study spaces for students or programming for retirees.

IMG_9175Here in Moldova, the transition has been even more challenging. Library budgets and salaries are tiny. Many library buildings are old, with collections dating to Soviet times. There are no resources to buy books, much less comfy sofas or cappucino machines.

Last week, the library where I work in Ialoveni showed how some Moldovan libraries are moving forward despite these challenges. Together with the local Consiliul Raional, or county government, it organized a “library day” to showcase its recent innovations.

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Under the leadership of director Valentina Plamadeala, speaking above, the library now has a film animation class, a club that produces crafts from recycled materials, a robotics program and a workshop to teach modern advocacy techniques. It’s organizing a new weekly story time for toddlers that will also provide educational programming for parents and grandparents. It hopes to provide new programs for people with special needs, building on a Braille collection it recently added. The library is reaching out to its community in interesting ways, too, using videos, infographics and social media.

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Located near the city’s main traffic circle, Ialoveni’s library is named for Petre Ştefănucă, a folklorist and local hero who died in a Soviet gulag. At last Tuesday’s event, I was moved as librarian Larisa Petcu, above, showed off the small museum that honors his memory, telling local high school students about him. I was also impressed by the presentations from some other nearby libraries that participated in the event. Cătălina Russu, a reporter for TVR Moldova, also attended and produced the video shown at the beginning of this post (also available on YouTube; at 1:35, I speak briefly in English.)

Novateca, a program managed by the nonprofit organization IREX with support from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in partnership with USAID, has been a driving force behind the modernization of Moldova’s public libraries, building on similar programs in neighboring Romania and Ukraine. Since it began operations here five years ago, Novateca has provided thousands of computers and other resources, trained librarians across the country, increased public support for libraries and promoted a more expansive vision of their role in a civil society.

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I’ve become a big fan of Novateca’s work and was pleased to see its director, Evan Tracz — himself a former Peace Corps Volunteer, in Turkmenistan — at last Tuesday’s event. (He’s in the center of the photo below, awarding certificates to me and others with Tudor Grigoriță of the Consiliul Raional.) Evan and his team have had a transformative impact. Novateca is now winding down its activities as its funding comes to an end. Many of us hope Moldova’s libraries will continue making progress without them.

I have great respect for the people I work with at Ialoveni’s library. They are doing so much with so little, earning less in a year than some American librarians make in a couple of weeks. They keep looking for better ways to serve the community here without a coffee maker in sight, much less a cappucino machine.

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