Making hats

Turns out, I sort of love to crochet?!

My mom gave my sisters and me stuff for knitting/crocheting when we were younger and I think tried to teach us how (right, mom?).  For years, I’ve been meaning to try and learn again, but just never got around to it.  That, and when would I wear a beanie in Arizona?  Seriously.  I figured using some of my spare time in Moldova, a more appropriate climate, would be a good opportunity to pick it up, so I asked for yarn and needles with my Christmas package (thanks mom & pops!).  I started teaching myself with the help of online tutorials and finished my first project a couple of weeks ago, pretty excited about the results.  Of course, I had to take a photo, I was pretty proud of my work, please excuse my photo-bragging, the cheesy self portrait, and my orange plaid tablecloth background.

This encouraged me to offer my services to my site mate, Luma, whose hat I finished last night.  This is where I have to tell you how awesome my site mate is.  So I say to him about a week ago, hey Luma, want me to make you a hat too?  Yea, he says, definitely, I’ve been meaning to buy one.  Sweet, Luma, what colors do you want?  Anything, he said, surprise me.  Done and done.  So I finished his hat last night (black, white and red to match his jacket) and surprised him with it this morning, and he was so stoked about it.  I’m not sure if he was just being nice, or if he was genuinely that excited, but he had me take a picture of him in it before we left for work and posted it on Facebook later.  Aw, shucks, nothing like having your work received with such enthusiasm.  So this one’s for Luma, my awesome site mate and basically one of my favorite volunteers in Moldova.

Of course, we won’t be need these much longer seeing as spring is just around the corner!  We came back from a weekend conference Sunday and almost all the snow in town had melted.  Just Friday morning I was running on ice. I think this is the first time in almost 14 years that I’ve actually looked forward to the coming of summer months!  At 115°F, Arizona’s summer heat just…isn’t really something you anticipate with a whole lot of enthusiasm.

The Real Peace Corps

Another volunteer posted this link on Facebook, and it is just so spot on. It’s amazing how, as volunteers, we can live on different continents and still have such similar challenges and reactions. I would encourage you to read!

Waid's World

I feel as though I have done somewhat of a disservice throughout this blog, painting a picture that is not precisely accurate. I am an emotional person, romantic, optimistic to a fault. I like extremes and superlatives, exaggerating in an attempt to draw my audience in, and to make sense of things that I can’t make sense of.

I romanticize this experience as a function of my personality but also as a coping mechanism. Simply put, life in the Peace Corps is hard.

I want to write about the real Ethiopia, and the real Peace Corps experience. It is a defensive approach, protection for when a future volunteer reads about my experiences. Hopefully as a result, he or she will understand what to expect, and will not mock me for only showing pictures of sunsets and kids holding hands.

So what should you expect?

Nothing is the best answer. Expect nothing and you…

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Un weekend plăcut (A good weekend)

This weekend was a great weekend.

I had a great long run on Saturday (you know you’ve left Arizona when you see the temperature is 23°F and you think to yourself, “Sweet!  Today’s run is going to be warm!”).  But it was beautiful and peaceful outside, and I could’ve run for hours out there.

On Saturday night, I went to town in the kitchen making cut-out cookies to frost with my host nieces.  I had been waiting for my Christmas package to arrive with the cookie cutter and sprinkles.  (I had warned my host family that, once the package did arrive, I was going to come over and teach the two girls a little American tradition we like to call “decorating cookies.”)  When I finally found some time, I called my host family and said if they weren’t busy Sunday afternoon, I’d come over with some gifts and cookies.  They heartily agreed.

Sunday morning, I frequented the local Baptist church.  (A couple of weeks ago, one of the pastors there actually invited me to lunch in the capital.  He’s studying theology in Vienna and works as a translator in Russian and English for many faith-based organizations in Moldova.  We discussed theology…in Romanian…something I honestly didn’t even know I could do.  We also discussed traditional Moldovan food.  Yum.)  So that was good.

After church, I gathered my gifts, baked sugar cookie cut-outs, frosting and sprinkles, and trekked over to my host family’s house.

I first had everyone open their gifts.  I brought them some printed photos I had taken of the girls and the family, I gave my host sister Rainforest softener that I used to use with my own laundry (she would always comment on how good it smelled), I gave them the Arizona shot glasses my parents sent (they LOVED these and send many thanks to my parents), and I gave the two girls a toy doctor kit I found in Moldova (they ripped it open, went through every piece “what is this?  what does this do?” and then proceeded to give all of us injections with the plastic syringe).  Then the cookie madness began.

Sprinkles are not common in Moldova.  I’m not sure they have them at all.  To explain what they are to Moldovans, I call them “colored sugar.”  My host family marveled at the shapes of the cookies (a boot, a Christmas tree, a star and a candy cane).  I actually did see a set of cookie cutters here, but those are not common either as I understand.  They were so impressed that I had made them all on my own, along with the frosting.  (Remember, when we speak in Romanian, we generally sound like we’re 5 years old, so demonstrating adult actions just becomes that much more impressive.)  I walked the girls through the steps…”Just like my mom does with my sisters and me, I will put frosting on the cookies and then I will put them in your pans, and you will put the colored sugar on the cookies.  Be careful, because the sugar comes out very quickly.  Here, I will show you how to pour the sugar…” and so on.  And we began.  They loved it.  “Give me a tree!  Is this pretty?  Which colored sugar should I use?”  My host mom was the first to taste a cookie.  “So tasty!” she said.  And she doesn’t even like sweets all that much.  I was flattered.

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My family just thought that was such a great activity for the girls.  They get to contribute in the kitchen, to create a form of culinary art.  And they all continued to marvel at how pretty the cookies were, and how there’s nothing like them in Moldova.  (I ended up taking some to work this week for a birthday celebration.  My colleagues also loved the colorful sprinkles and agreed that they were delicious and that I was good to marry.)

After cookie decorating, my family insisted I stay for dinner and help them prepare colțunăși, a delicious Moldovan cuisine that is similar to ravioli.  How could I resist?  Colțunăși is actually one of my favorite dishes, and I love learning how to cook new things.

They threw some flour into a bowl, sprinkled some salt around it, cracked several eggs into the mix, and starting mushing it altogether by hand.  No measuring cups used here (in fact, I have yet to see any measuring cups in Moldova.)  “In Moldova, we mix with our hands,” my host mom explained me.  Clearly.  I nodded in agreement.  I told them I did the same thing with the cookie dough the night before.  (No electric mixers in our kitchens.)  They sauteed some onions on the stove, put 2 kilograms of shredded pork, beef and chicken into a bowl, threw in some salt and pepper, the onions, mixed that by hand, and we had our contents for the dough.  My host sister rolled out the dough and cut out circles with a teacup.  I helped my host mom fill the dough with our meat mixture.  And then we laid them out to be boiled.

And as we worked, we chatted.  I told them about my apartment, about my roommate, about work, that I had a new colleague, a guy.  “OoooOOOoo.”  Their immediate response: “Is he married?”  I don’t think so, I responded.  More “ooo” and “aahhh.”  Then they said, with smiles, “Jennifer, you must not waste time!”  And then we all laughed that, according to previous predictions in Moldova that said I will get married when I am 25, I only have 6 months left to reel in a man.  I told them my parents might be coming to Moldova for a day.  They were very excited to hear this.  “You must announce and we will receive them.  We will prepare a big feast with lots of food.”  And we talked about Easter – they invited me to come stay with them and experience how Moldovans celebrate Easter.

After dinner, my host sister and her husband bundled up the two girls, and pulled each of them on a sled as they walked me home.  That’s pretty common here, parents pulling their kids around on a sled.  I like to think of them as sled walks.  Maybe that happens in the States too, but its sure doesn’t happen in Arizona.  It reminds me of a picture my great grandma painted that hangs in our dining room.

Few things fill a person’s heart the way human connection does.  Watching children wonder at something, hearing a 4-year-old say “Jennifer, I love you,” working in the kitchen to prepare a meal together and telling stories while the men fix the gas water heater.  These kinds of things bring true joy to our experience here.  I love being able to share parts of my upbringing and my life with their family, and to be blessed by them in return.

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Ode to my yak trax

I love my yak trax.  (Dear Peace Corps, please do NOT eliminate these from the budget.  It would equal disaster for clumsy volunteers like me.)

What are yak trax, you ask?  Great question.  People all around Moldova want to know what the heck I’m taking off and putting on my feet, too.  These, my friends, are yak trax:

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These puppies have saved me from many a slip and fall.  I walk in them.  I go running in them.  And they manage to keep my upright on most winter terrains, despite  my inherent propensity to fall anywhere I am, and in any season.

The cleaning lady at our work was fascinated by them, saying she’d never seen anything like them.  The father of a family at the church here asked me how much they cost when he saw me removing them from my boots to go inside for services one morning.  Yes, my friends, it turns out yak trax are somewhat of an enigma here in Moldova.  Which just makes me love ’em even more.

So this post is dedicated to my yak trax.  And since I did not actually want to write an ode, I will include a song about shoes instead (just insert “yak trax” wherever he sings “new shoes”).

Quality [host] sister time

When I’m in Ialoveni, I sure do miss my host sisters from training.  They’re around the same ages as my sisters back in the States.  There’s nothing quite like a bond between sisters, and I feel so fortunate that I get to have two sisters here, and two back in the States.

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That said, while I’m in Ialoveni, I do get to chat with them on Skype and Facebook.  We send messages back and forth, and the week before last, I was doing just that with my host sister Marina.  We were just talking about how things were going, work, school, boys, the usual, and then we stumbled into the topic of her dad’s birthday, which is coming up.  I told her that I didn’t know what to get him for his birthday.  She agreed, dads are the hardest to buy for.  Then I had idea – what about shoes for a ballerina?  (This is a long story, but basically, it involves the video-taping of one dancing host father after a few drinks, which my host family showed me during my last visit.  Needless to say, there was a LOT of laughter.  And some pretty impressive leg work.)  But Marina loved the idea of getting ballet shoes, and so we made plans to meet up at the central market (piața) that Saturday. 

My host mom was concerned that ballet shoes might be a little too expensive, so Marina took me to a gift store.  This store was, quite literally, a “gift” store.  It has a big plastic present over the doorway and sells a collection of items you might give to people as gifts.  so we went in and sifted through the merchandise.  I found an extensive toy doctor kit for my little host nieces in Ialoveni, and some sweet tools for the grill for my host dad.  (Over the summer, we had some great grilled meat and grilled vegetables, courtesy of my host dad, so I thought it was a good gift.)  As a bonus, I also got to my other host sister, Nadejda, who was in the city getting a Valentine’s Day gift for her boyfriend. 

All set with gifts in hand, I asked my host sister Marina where I could go to get pictures printed.  We walked around the piața area, and stopped into a place where I gave them my flash drive, they dropped the pictures onto their desktop, returned my flash drive and told me to come back in an hour. 

 With an hour to kill, Marina and I needed something to do.  I needed some  baking pans for cake and brownies and such (see picture below), so we headed into the piața, where I found two great pans and picked up some bananas.  We still had a bit of time left, so we decided to look for somewhere we could sit down (inside, out of the cold) and have coffee.  We chatted for awhile over our hot drinks, and then we left to pick up the pictures and parted ways.  It was delightful.  A great Saturday afternoon. 

A winter wonderland

I woke up this morning to a new, thick layer of snow outside.  It’s been snowing like crazy all day.  And honestly, bring on the cold, I’ll wear my winter hat inside anyday, I’m loving this snow.  (Other volunteers may vote me out of Peace Corps for saying that…or renounce their commitment to peace and shoot me, so we’ll just keep that one under wraps.)

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And just in case you didn’t get the full effect…

I then decided to try and film without my squeal of “snow!” at the beginning, but, as I was trying to capture the peace of the moment, my site mate comes down the stairs and lets out a belch.  It was just too funny not to include.  (Sorry site mate!)

Moldovan economics

So, I haven’t mentioned yet, about three weeks ago, I started taking Microeconomic Principles online through our community college network in Arizona.  Basically, as I’m looking at graduate programs that I plan to apply to this year, many of them strongly recommend applicants to have taken both micro and macro economics, along with some additional math courses.  Well, I only took macro as an undergraduate student, so when I found a micro course online, I figured it certainly couldn’t hurt to take the course.  In fact, I might actually learn something.  And I’m a classic study-loving nerd, so I sort of live for this stuff.

That said, when the professor found out that I was in the Peace Corps in Moldova, he asked me to post a bit about the Moldovan economy, so this week I finally got around to it.  And then I figured, maybe I should share this information on my blog, too.  Below is what I wrote.  Enjoy!

The Moldovan Economy:

First, to give a brief background of the country, Moldova was actually part of the Soviet Union until the Soviet system collapsed and the country declared independence in 1991. So the country has only been a democratic, market economy for 20 years now.

The country itself is about a third the size of Indiana and has a total population between 3 and 4 million people. It is also the poorest country in Europe. Actual population and population on paper varies greatly because many Moldovans emigrate to other parts of Europe to find work due to the lack of employment opportunities and low salaries within the country.

Chișinău, the capital city, is very modernized, but the majority of Moldova is very rural. In smaller villages, many households lack indoor plumbing and must bring their water in from nearby wells. Electricity is more common, and heat systems vary from electric, to gas, to the use of an indoor fireplace known as a “soba.” Roads around the capital are paved, and major highways across the country are paved, but most villages have only dirt roads. Cars are common in the major cities and the capital, but in villages you will often see horse-drawn carts.

The economy itself is primarily agriculture and wine.  During Soviet times, there were industries here and the USSR provided jobs for all citizens in some capacity. But when the Soviet Union collapsed and Moldova declared independence, the Russians abandoned those industries. You can still see the remains – many abandoned buildings are still standing in very poor condition today. Additionally, it is estimated that remittances make up more than 30 percent of the country’s GDP.

Salaries are very low. Some of the highest paid workers in the country earn only about 600 USD per month. Granted, the cost of living is significantly lower, but it is still a small amount in comparison. To give you an idea, I share a 3-bedroom apartment with another volunteer here and we pay less than $200/month for rent. Our utilities (including gas, electricity and water) amount to about $90/month (which is high since it is winter and we’re using our heat), and internet payment is about $10/month. Public transportation within the capital city costs about $0.30 per ride.

It should also be noted that the country is very politically polarized. Many citizens, mostly older Moldovans, look back on the Soviet system and say communism was better than its current market economy. The reason, they say, is because everything was free and inexpensive, but now everything is very costly and pension is very low. Among younger generations and more educated populations, this opinion seems to change quite drastically. But, in my personal opinion, I believe this is probably because they have benefitted more from the market economy.

Moldova also operates primarily as a cash economy. People do not have credit cards and generally do not trust banks. Many lost money in the banks during a past financial crisis, and people have been slow to let cash out of their hands again. This also makes it very difficult to track income and collect taxes.

In my opinion, Moldova is an example of a country that has failed to specialize. They have fantastic, fertile soil that will grow almost anything, but most land is divided among individual farmers who all grow many different fruits and vegetables. Farmers are hesitant to enter into co-ops, which might enable them to produce on a larger scale. Many farmers are also not versed in business management, marketing, or export regulations (if they wanted to trade with the EU, for example). But this is something the country and many international organizations are working to change.