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.

Monastery Hîncu and Day of the City

Several weeks ago, my village celebrated “hram,” which means “day of the city.”  Each city, town or village has one, and on that day they celebrate.  Many offices in the city close (like mine) and people get the day off.  (This can get complicated in towns like mine where people live in the capital and commute to work in my town.  When the capital has its “day of the city,” their kids will get the day off from school, but they’ll still have to work, and vice versa.)  Regardless, I was happy to have the day off, and my host family actually suggested we take an excursion to a beautiful Orthodox monastery in Moldova named Monastery Hîncu.  So, on our day of the city, my host mom and sister packed the car full of food that they had been preparing the day before, told me I needed to wear a skirt and bring a scarf, and we set off.

When my family said it was far, figured we might be in the car for an hour or two, but it only took us about 45 minutes.  (This is, without a doubt, a Phoenix thing.  For me, 45 minutes used to be my commute to work.)  The drive was beautiful; the normally lush green countryside had changed colors at the arrival of fall, and I watched the reds, oranges and yellows fly by as we rounded curves through the country roads.

We arrived to many cars parked alongside the road leading up to the monastery.  I got out my scarf and wrapped it over and around my head (an expected norm for women in the Orthodox church here in Moldova).  And it was beautiful.  (If you’d like to read up on the history, this website provided some good information and pictures).

In front of the Monastery

There was some sort of ceremony or procession starting, and so I watched as men and women in tradition Moldovan dress carried out a picture of Jesus, a traditional Moldovan braided bread, and some sort of alter adorned with flowers.  People walked up to touch and kiss the alter as men carried it to the center of the monastery’s complex.  Then a bunch of priests walked by, dipped a brush in holy water and, with a flick of the wrist, sprinkling it on the surrounding group.  (I was trying just to observe out of the way, but they found me, and I too was splashed with the holy water.)

Next, my host family went into the church.  Inside, there was a group of lit candles in the middle, some alters, and pictures of Mary and Jesus.  People walked around to each alter, lit candles, and kissed the pictures (you know you’re American when…all you can think about is how unsanitary it must be for people to repeatedly kiss the same pictures in the same location).  I stayed toward the back, quietly observing, and all of the sudden a woman shrieked.  The sharp noise pierced the air, and the people standing in line in front of an alter immediately spread like some sort of magnetic repulsion.  In the middle of the circle of people was a woman lying flat on the ground.  I’m not sure if it was she who shrieked, but a priest in the church immediately went to get holy water, dipped a brush into the holy water, first cleansed the fallen woman’s face, and then splashed it over the surrounding group.  Knowing very little about Orthodox faith, it was fascinating for me to observe.

We finished at the monastery, and, our on way out, stopped in front of the forest to take pictures at my host mom’s insistence (Jennifer, it’s so beautiful!  Takes photos!).  Then we ate a late lunch at a relative’s house nearby, and headed back to our town for hram (day of the city).

Me with my host mom, brother-in-law, and my two host nieces.

Most of the action was outside the Casa de Cultura (house of culture) where a lot of community events happen.  A culture house is sort of like a convention center; ours looks a lot like a high school auditorium.  But we were all outdoors, cold enough to see our breath, but that didn’t stop a crowd from gathering in front of the Casa de Cutural steps where entertainers were singing tradition Moldovan melodies and dressed in tradition Moldovan dress.  Various stands lined the streets, most with toys or food.  There were cotton candy machines, popcorn machines, a beer stand, and this big portable stand making some sort of chocolate covered bread.  It smelled so delicious that I had to try it.  I convinced my site mate to split one with me, and it was heavenly, especially in the cold.  It was like the breaded part of a pig in a blanket, except it was much bigger, the middle was empty, and the outside was brushed with chocolate and dipped in nuts.  I hope they come back next year!

It was a good day.

On Halloween

Let’s rewind back to October for this post.

A couple of weeks ago I went out to another village to help a couple of other Peace Corps volunteers with a Halloween party they organized for local youth.  Overall, it was a great turnout, they had lots of activities – pin the face on the pumpkin, face-painting, a mummy race, and an “Ewww, what’s that?” station where kids stuck their hands into gross stuff like “brains” (spaghetti) and “eyeballs” (grapes).

They also had lots of candy and extra costumes on hand so kids could show up and pick out something from the pile.  There were 11 Peace Corps volunteers to help out, and a Moldovan teenager manned the music.  It was a good time.

All of that said, I wanted to share a bit about the Moldovan perspective of Halloween.

Moldova is a very religion-oriented country.  Something like 90 percent of the population is Orthodox, and the remaining number is generally some denomination of Christianity/Protestantism (Baptist, Catholic, etc.).  It’s very common for someone to ask what religion you are, people automatically assume you believe in God, and Peace Corps volunteers who identify themselves agnostic or atheist have a very difficult time getting host country nationals to understand what that means.  On many street corners in villages throughout the country, you find what I might call an alter – usually a portrayal of Christ on the cross meant to protect people passing by.

Considering the influence of religion, it is understandable why many Moldovans might not view Halloween very favorably.  And though my we were able to successfully organize a Halloween party in one village, other localities were not as ready to embrace the American holiday.  Through the volunteer grapevine, I heard a few stories of village priests objecting to similar events on the grounds that Halloween is a holiday of the devil, and they would not allow that kind of celebration in the village.  I also had an interesting conversation with someone who works in my building.  Though he knows that Americans and some countries in Western Europe celebrate Halloween (he lived in Ireland for a period of time), he explained that many Moldovans do, in fact, consider it an evil holiday–a satanic celebration.

I offered my input, that, for my parents and my family, it was more like a community holiday.  We carved pumpkins, all the kids in the neighborhood dress up as fun and different characters, and we all walked door-to-door with our parents saying “trick-or-treat” hoping to collect a mountain of candy in return.

But it was interesting to hear perspectives from a different culture.  Part of our responsibility as Peace Corps volunteers is to share and create a better understanding of American culture abroad.  And I’m glad I had the opportunity to share my experience of Halloween as a kid in the States.  But there are also some cultural norms or nuances that just don’t work in another country.  They just don’t translate.  And that’s okay.  Moldova doesn’t have to celebrate Halloween.  However, I do hope we can continue to share that, for Americans, Halloween may mean different things to different people.

That said, I will accept any leftover or on-sale Halloween candy from the states at the following address!

Peace Corps Moldova
PCV Jennifer Kitson
#12 Grigore Ureche Str.
2001 Chișinau, MOLDOVA