Feeding the puppies

I’m rooting for these little guys!  Every day at lunch, we give them some food.  Sometimes it’s leftovers, and sometimes I buy food specifically so we can feed them, but I’m rooting for them.  Fortunately, we’ve had a mild winter, but not all dogs make it through the winters here.  I can’t tell you how tempted I am to swoop them all up and take them inside!  But we have to worry about diseases, the little critters they bring with them, and who will take care of them while we’re away.

But this is how most Moldovan dogs live.  They hang around a house that will feed them.  And the rest of the time they run free.  There isn’t a humane society or an animal shelter.  But one of my host sisters once said to me that it’s good for the dogs to live like that – they want to be free.  And I think of all the times our family pet has dashed out the door like a wild man and ran down the street like he was the Braveheart of the kanine world (FREEDOM!).  And I suppose it’s true, the dogs want to be free.

I’m just going to keep on rooting.  You can make it, pups!  Want to know exactly how squeezable the little guys are?  Pictures, as promised.

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All the small things

Sometimes when things are hard, work is tough, ideas fail, or you’re missing home it’s all the small things in the day that keep you going.  Here are a few things that brighten my day in Moldova:

  • Drinking tea from my Van Gogh mug.  I bought this mug at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam of Van Gogh’s Wheatfield with crows, and I love it.
  • Feeding the puppies.  There’s a litter of about six or seven puppies that hangs out just around the corner from the door to our apartment, and they are so cute.  We’ve started feeding them at lunch, and it just brings me joy.  They yelp and crowd in around whatever leftovers we put out.  Eventually I hope to post a picture of that.
  • Getting packages.  I’ve only gotten a few, but package days are always good days and make me want to whistle and sing while I walk down the street.
  • Video chatting with friends/family back home.  That’s always the best.
  • Chatting with the cashier at the local supermarket.  It’s this young woman who helped me check out when we first arrived and knew immediately I was a foreigner.  She’s always very kind and returns my smile.  She’s usually there when I go in, and I always get in her line just to say hello.
  • Recognizing people around town.  It makes you feel more at home, like you’re part of the community.
  • Snow!

    Fresh snow outside our apartment building.

  • Paying my bills without any problems, liguistic or otherwise.  (I know, I know, when else would “paying bills” be something that someone actually enjoys?!  This experience involves all kinds of new perspectives.)  Feels good to be able to pay bills in another country and another language.
  • Getting new cooking/cleaning utensils.  Our apartment had quite a few pans and dishware when we arrived, but there were still a few extra things I wanted.  Little by little, to make our small stipends last, I’ve been purchasing items for the kitchen.  And it’s always nice to have a new serving spoon.  (Most recently, I had to replace our teapot, which I left on the burner too long and the ceramic/paint inside started chipping.  We now have a swanky new little teapot…short a stout…with a fancy handle and a modern spout.)
  • Coca light.  I’m a diet coke girl.  It’s a treat I allow myself to purchase about once a week.  Mostly when I have lots of work to do at home, and I can enjoy sipping my unhealthy sugary beverage while pining away at the computer.
  • Reading.  But that’s not news, I love reading wherever I am.
  • Running.  Another thing I love almost everywhere.  Although, icy roads will make this interesting…so far I’ve managed to run at least once a week without any major problems.  What keeps me from getting out more is limited daylight hours – it’s dark by the time I get home from work.
  • Shooting the breeze with colleagues.  A few weeks back, my site mate and I sat down with a couple of our colleagues at the agency and we took turns sharing songs on YouTube from the bands we like.  It was great.
  • Making a joke in Romanian that someone actually understands.  This is harder than you think, but when you are successful, it is a most satisfactory experience.
  • When my dad writes “LOL” in his e-mails.  (Hi dad!)  Keep sending, pops, because your use of hip internet lingo makes me smile.
  • Visiting my host families.
  • Chatting with my host sisters online.
  • Saying hello to the woman who cleans our building.  She always responds with a kind smile and says something in response.  (It’s cold!  You walk fast!  Where were you?  Back from lunch?)
  • Seeing bundled up kiddies running around in their snow suits and hats.  It’s adorable.
  • When my parents hold my dog up to the camera during our skype sessions.  My dog doesn’t get it, but they do it anyway.  And everytime I still say “hi Toby” in my high-pitched dog-speak voice.  What can I say?  I’m a dog person.

The power of human connection

In honor of Peace Corps’ 50th Anniversary this year, a few volunteers created a website to tell stories of how Peace Corps volunteers are accomplishing the Peace Corps mission and goals in Moldova.  The site is called 365 days of Peace and Friendship, and I wrote the post below for that project.  If you’re interested, there are some great stories on the site, and I would encourage you to browse through.  You can see my post on the site here.

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It’s amazing how quickly we open our hearts to people.

One of the rewarding things about this experience is watching the development of cross-cultural relationships between volunteers and Moldovans.  It’s the magic of human connection, and it transcends any work we do here.  We become family.  We grow to love each other.

Last weekend I went back to visit the host family I stayed with during training, and it was wonderful.  I’ve been back several times, for birthdays and holidays and just to say hello, and it’s always wonderful.  Sitting around the table sharing stories and laughing with them, I started to remember the first day we arrived…

In the blazing summer heat, we waited for our families to pick us up.  More tired than I’ve ever been after hours of traveling, welcome orientation, our families arrived and I couldn’t speak a word of Romanian.  Everything was strange and new, and I had no idea what to expect.  I remember what we ate.  Chicken with boiled potatoes and salad.  Shots of Baileys.  It was a delicious meal.  The teenagers of the family, who have all studied English, did all of the translating.  Then I went to unpack my bags and settle into my room.  And, trying to fall asleep that first night, I wondered what I had gotten myself into.  The pull of home was strong.  I’d been removed from everything and everyone familiar to me.  And in the morning, waking up to the crow of roosters outside, I laid in bed questioning my decision again.  I just volunteered to go live with strangers in a strange country for two years.  Was I out of my mind?

Honestly, maybe you do have to be a little bit crazy to undertake an experience like this.  And, in many ways, that first week was hard.  But it was also filled with excitement and new experiences.  And I quickly began to start to feel at home.

By the end of two months, I cried saying goodbye to my family, even though I knew I’d be back to visit.  The night before I left for my permanent site, a neighbor had stopped by and asked, “Are you glad you did it?  Are you glad you hosted an American volunteer?”  My host mom answered, “Of course, Jennifer is like our family now.”  Later, staying with them during a second round of training, I visited my host sister’s high school English class, and she told her teacher that I was “like a sister.”  I was part of the family.  And every time I go back to visit, I get a big hug from my 6-year-old host brother, “Jenn-EEE-furr!” and big smiles from everyone when I walk in the door.  I actually understand what’s being said, I get the jokes, and we chat comfortably in Romanian.  And when I leave, then first try to convince me to stay longer, and then they tell me to come back again soon; they’ll be waiting.

And we all have stories like this.  Ways that we’ve been impacted by the people here.  And we, too, leave our footprints on the hearts of many here.  Host families, work partners, youth in the community; my fellow volunteers are doing incredible things.  Building incredible relationships.  Language divides us, culture divides us, but still the human connection overcomes.  And that, I believe, is the true measure of the impact we are making here.

Snow days, slow days

This morning I was greeted by a nice white layer of snow outside.  It was gone by lunch, but I still enjoyed it enough to snap some photos.  Below is a picture just outside our apartment building.

Today was a slow day.  I’ve been sick, trying to kick a cold for a few days now, so I ended up coming home early from work to rest.  While home, I decided to put my hands to good use and make some chocolate chip cookie dough.  Maybe tomorrow I’ll try experimenting with our oven…

Learning to celebrate

I’ve never been a big New Year’s person.  I’ve done different things on New Year’s Eve…spent it at the Marriott, at home with family, had a quiet night at a friend’s house, on Mill Ave for the block party…none of it really gets me excited.  Maybe I’m subconsciously protesting the whole “New Year’s kiss” cliche, which just makes New Year’s seem like the holiday sibling of Valentine’s Day (maybe they look different and have different interests, but they still share the same mannerisms, DNA and the same last name).  Or maybe I just don’t know how to celebrate.

Well, in Moldova, New Year’s Eve is kind of a big deal.  For many, I think it kicks off the holiday season.  Moldova doesn’t have a Thanksgiving, and only part of the country celebrates Christmas on December 25 (the rest of the country celebrates Orthodox Christmas on January 7).  But there’s a whole bunch of hustle and bustle.  People wishing happy holiday and many years all over the place.

This time around, I decided to ring in the new year with a fellow Peace Corps volunteer and her host family.  (Thanks for the invite, Andrea!)  So, on New Year’s Eve Day, I woke up early, picked up some champagne and ingredients for cookies at the grocery store, prepared some baked goods to bring as a gift, and headed to another village through the capital.

My friend and her host mom were slaving away in the kitchen preparing a feast.  Three salads, chicken, sausage, goat (yes, I did try it…it was delicious, actually), fish (cooked AND raw), fruit, cake, crepes, bread…it was a FULL table (see photos below).  I assisted in the preparations, and we all sat down to eat around 9 p.m.  With full stomachs, the fiesta continued, and we piled into the family’s car for my friend’s host brothers to drive us into the city for fireworks and a concert in the city center.  We arrived at the festivities just in time, just as the countdown was beginning, “Zece, nouă, opt, șapte…” and we popped open our bottle of champagne to celebrate 2012.  And then the fireworks began.

What is it about life that makes us lose our childlike wonder?  That makes us forget how to be in awe of something?  Maybe it’s something American, because, standing outside in the chilly night as fireworks lit up the sky, the Moldovans around me were audibly impressed.  There was such joy in watching the colors light up the sky.  They were wowed.

I honestly can’t remember the last time I was “wowed” by fireworks, but I’m pretty sure it’s when I was a kid.  Every 4th of July I usually go to see some, but more because it’s a tradition.  Eh, they’re fireworks.  See ’em every year.  No big deal.  And standing there, listening to people “ooo” and “aaaah,” I realized something.  In some ways, I’ve forgotten how to celebrate.  There’s no reason why I can’t geniunely love a firework show; why I can’t find the wonder in that and appreciate the magic of fireworks bringing in the new year.  And so I stopped, and I started to look at the sky with a new perspective.

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Moldova may have development issues and economic woes, but these people know how to celebrate.  Even in the face of hardship.  They gather together around the same table, enjoying the company of friends and family and feasting on the food they’ve been blessed with.  For almost every holiday, birthdays included.  And that, my friends, is something I admire.

Back in Phoenix, I used to meet with a mentor (an amazing woman, you know who you are), and awhile back she told me that each year, she and her friends would pick a word for the coming year.  Well, I want to pick a word.  This year, the Moldovans are teaching me how to celebrate.  And so I think my word for this year is going to be “celebrate.”

This is, in part, a concept present in my faith that I’m beginning to see in a new light.  But it also present in my work here.  So much of this experience as a Peace Corps Volunteer is about the way you perceive the things around you.  Look for opportunities, not problems.  Look for the humor in situations, don’t get angry.  Look at failure as guidance; a learning experience.  The ruminations on my blog may be upbeat, but a lot of times this job is hard, and a positive perspective is so important.

So when things get hard, I’m going to find something to celebrate.  And when things seem dull, I’m going to remember that life is full of wonder, if only we will open our eyes and look around.

Fireworks are just as bright and colorful as when we were little.  We only need to see them that way.

(Note the band dressed in Santa suits.)

Back in Moldova

So I’m back from vacation now, and getting back into the swing of things.  My first day back at work was an eventful one, so this post is dedicated to last Thursday.

First sign you know you’re in Moldova: two Orthodox priests come to bless the office.  Let me rewind a bit.

My first day back from vacation, there was a project-writing seminar being held at my office.  (One of the major efforts in Moldova right now is teaching NGO’s and governmental offices how to successfully write grants, especially according to European Union requirements…more on the EU later.)  But I sat in on this seminar to see what they were teaching.  Midway through the morning, I hear an accordian outside and lots of shuffling feet.  Hmmm.  A little while later, someone opens the door and two Orthodox priests come in (see how Orthodox priests dress at this blog post).  Everyone stands (I follow), and one of the priests dips a brush (see photo below) in a perfumed liquid and then, with a flick of the wrist, sprinkles everyone with holy water as he recites a religious prayer and wishes us all success, or wishes the office success (one of those). 

Then the second priest comes in and attaches an adhesive above the door, annointing it with a smaller brush as he says, “in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.”  They left, and we all sat down again to learn more about how to write good objectives.  (Small note here:  as I’ve started to observe, the holidays in Moldova really start with New Year’s, since the country still officially celebrates Orthodox Christmas on January 7, though some families are adopting the December 25 holiday.  Gearing up for the New Year’s weekend, we had people in and out of our office all week giving blessings, school children singing holiday carols, and the like.  On Friday, a couple of boys came in a sung a quick tune about the new year, and our staff gave them some money afterward.)

But back to Thursday…

I went home for lunch after the seminar, as I usually do since I live only about 10 minutes from work, and on my way back, something upsetting happened.  A woman walking across a crosswalk on our main street was hit by a car.  I was on the sidewalk next to where it happened, and heard the accident.  I thought it had been two cars, but when I turned around, I saw the woman lying on the pavement.  It was awful.  At the time, I was pretty shaken up.  But I wanted to share this story as a cultural observation.  I stayed close, just in case anything was needed, but a crowd had already gathered.  The women where aghast.  Several men ran out to the woman.  A passing BMW stopped, and the men picked the woman up and put here in the back of the car, and the car whisked away to the hospital.  The American in me wanted to say, no! stop! don’t move her, she could have spinal damage!, but this is a different culture and a different system, so I just watched and prayed for this poor woman.  And that’s when the yelling began.  The crowd was furious with the driver of the vehicle; the woman was in the crosswalk (or “zebra” as they say here).  A minibus (or rutiera) had stopped at the side of the road, just in front of the crosswalk.  The driver didn’t want to wait behind the rutiera, and swerved around the vehicle, and he must not have been able to see the woman coming.  The crowd slowly dispersed, and the driver waited for the polic to come. 

I started to think about the traffic here and how it’s different from the States…driving here is less…controlled.  There’s a lot of speeding, passing, and the lanes aren’t necessarily followed.  There are fewer traffic lights, and mostly in the capital.  In fact, I don’t think we have any traffic lights in our town.  The bus stops generally don’t have an outlet where they can pull over on a busy road (and the bus will stop almost anywhere when it first starts to leave the town, all you have to do is flag it down).  Our main road is wide enough in some places to be four lanes, but there aren’t really distinct lane markers.  There are several crosswalks along our main road, but no speed bumps, and some cars literally fly by at 60 mph, which is especially dangerous considering many children cross that road to get to school.  In the States, that main road would probably have a speed limit of about 35 mph.  The event certainly got me thinking.  And I plan to be even more careful when crossing that road.

But, on to a lighter story…

After work, I headed over to my host family’s house for a visit.  Their gate, which is usually open, was locked, so I rang their phone and they were very excited to hear from me, “Come in, Jennifer, come in!”  I sat in the kitchen (Take your coat off!  Have a seat!) as my host mom and sister prepared food for New Year’s (they started on Thursday for Saturday’s celebration…days of preparation usually go into holiday feasts).  We exchanged stories, I told them about my trip, I gave them chocolates from Belgium, and they asked how things are going at my new apartment (Is it warm?  What do you eat?).  They made me try every single vegetable in the salad they were making…cauliflower, carrots, sweet pepper, cucumber, onion.  Is it tasty?, they’d ask.  My host mom also told me that the two little girls keep asking why I left, and every time she tells them that it was because they made too much noise (this is not really the case, but I chuckled and smiled anyway).  She also said they tell her that she needs to keep the room where I slept the way it was, because it won’t be ready for me when I come back.

After chatting in the kitchen, I went around the side of the house and inside to the living room/bedroom area.  I opened the door where the girls sleep and said, “Fete!” which is the Romanian word for “girls.”  They both come running out, “JENN-eeee-furrr!”  And then the questions started….Jennifer, did you come from America?  Where you with Katie?  (Katie is the last volunteer that lived there.)  Jennifer, are you going to sleep here tonight?  Jennifer, can we talk to your parents and Toby?  (Toby is our dog…when I would Skype with my parents, my parents would hold the dog up to the camera, and the girls just LOVED this.  From then on, when I would Skype with someone, they’d come in and ask, “Unde Toby?” which means, “Where’s Toby?”)  And once they found out they couldn’t Skype with my dog, they ran back into the room to watch more television.

I stayed for dinner, and my host family reminded me that this is still my home, and I can come back anytime I want, even if they’re not there.  You know where the keys are!, my host mom said. 

It was quite a day.  And quite a welcome back to Moldova.