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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A Wonderful Weekend

In Ialoveni, I work Monday through Friday, 9 to 5.  So I enjoy having the free time on the weekends to explore the community more.  And this is how I spent this weekend:

Friday

Friday, it actually rained in Ialoveni, which I loved.  I don’t know if it’s the novelty of it after having lived in Arizona for so long, but I do love the rain.  After work, I went for a quick run, which always helps put my mind at ease, and then I chatted with my host mom over tea for a bit about the Soviet area.  That’s a post for another time.

Saturday

Per my new norm, I started off Saturday with a long run.  I remember in Arizona, while training for the PF Chang’s marathon, running along these long stretches of road and easily getting in 13, 15, or 17 miles.  Now, it’s a bit more challenging to get the distance.  I run along the main road through the town, which is about 1 1/2 miles.  At the end of that road, there are four streets.  One leads back to my house, two lead through other neighborhoods, and the fourth leads to another village.  If I run to the other village and back, I can get about 7 miles in.  Down the other streets, I can’t quite get that amount of distance.  But Saturday I ran up and down a couple of roads and managed to get in about 6 miles.  Some of the volunteers are training to run the Athens marathon, so I started to pick their brain about how they get the distance in.  Most run to other villages or in circles around their village.

After my run, I bathed (beginning to appreciate that more now that I only do it once or twice a week!), and then I made my first attempt at cutting my own hair.  I actually bought hair cutting scissors and brought them with me from the States, figuring that cutting my own hair is more economical on a Volunteer budget.  So, I gave it a go, and it turned out pretty well.  I stuck to just trimming the front…the back I think I’m going to need some help with.  But it was a small accomplishment.

Next, I made the trip into the capital to meet up with another volunteer.  (I take a minibus to the outskirts of the city, where I switch to another minibus. I learned this route the hard way when my site mate and I tried to go in to the city center and got dropped off on the outskirts of the city.  Luckily, someone was kind enough to direct us to the microbus we should get on to go to the city center.)  Back to this past weekend…after meeting up with my fellow volunteer Andrea in the city, we ordered burritos from a stand along one of the main streets, and they were delicious.  They weren’t your typical American burritos…they chicken, tomatoes with what I think was mayo, cabbage, carrots, cheese, and french fries (yes, IN the burrito).  We were also offered ketchup, but we declined.  Regardless, it tasted pretty good after three months without any kind of Mexican food (boy, do I miss guacamole!).  Afterwards, we walked through some of the city parks, got some delicious ice cream at a ritzy stand in the park, and then continued on to the piața centrala (or central market).  There, I picked up some bananas – in the States, I used to have one every morning for breakfast, but those aren’t grown in gardens here, so I’ve been missing my morning fruit!

The weather outside was perfect.  Coming from 115-degree summers, this day was cool and breezy, and we had a wonderful, leisurely stroll.

We also chatted a bit about plans for Christmas.  This is probably one of the harder topics for me, as I LOVE spending Christmas with my family, and, for the first time ever, I won’t be doing that this year (I think it would be hard to come home having only finished 6 months of service and still having 18 months ahead).  I remember we spent a day in language class talking about holidays, practicing our “holiday” vocabulary, talking about what we usually do at home, and I actually teared up in class.  Granted, those two months of training were tough, and we were all tired and worn out, but thinking about not being with my family at Christmas made me sad.  But, onward…

After our day, I boarded the bus back to my site, bananas in hand, and then strolled around my town in the nice weather after arriving.  I even sat down by a WWII memorial outside the mayor’s office to sit and read Shantaram (my favorite book ever) for about an hour.  It was great.

Sunday

Sunday I finally got the chance to try our local Baptist church.  Here, the primary denominations are Orthodox, Catholic and Baptist.  Seeing as I fall under the “Protestant” umbrella, I thought I’d try out the Baptist church.  I heard about it from a volunteer who was previously stationed in Ialoveni, and I’ve really been missing my church community at home, so I found out where it was, what time the service started, and headed over.  It felt great to sit through a Sunday church service after not having been for a good 3 to 4 months now.  And I met several young couples in the community, along with the pastor and his wife, who I hope to continue to get to know over the next few years.  They have a Bible study during the week and an event for youth every Friday, so I hope to be able to explore some of those as well.  Later in the evening, I actually ran into a couple from the church, and let me tell you…it feels SO good to recognize someone in a town where you’re new, and still sort of a stranger.  I stopped and said hello, and explained that I was going to meet the other American volunteer.  It was great.

My site mate, Luma, has actually started going to a gym in town where all the guys go to lift weights and work out.  It’s been fantastic for integration, because now, every time we take a walk around the town (several evenings a week), so many of the guys stop him to shake his hand and say hello.  He was out having a drink with a few of the guys he’s met around town, and so, walking around Sunday evening, I got to meet a lot of his gym buddies and some of the high school students in the town.  I do feel pretty old here – there are few single people my age in the area.  Most are studying at universities abroad, working abroad, or married.  So most of the guys and girls we talked to are 17, 18, 19 and 20.  It’s funny, I never thought I’d feel so old at age 25!  But age hardly matters – it was nice to be able to chat with some of the young people around town.  I hope we get to do it more often.

And that was my weekend!

25

Today (August 24th) is my birthday. Today, I am 25.

And as I sit here looking back on where I was a year ago, how far I’ve come (literally and figuratively), how different life is, and how quickly we, as humans, adapt to change, I am simply amazed.

Thus, in honor of 25 years of life, I thought I might be fun to share 25 tidbits about Moldova. I hope they’re interesting enough to keep you reading through them all!

25 tidbits I wanted to share about Moldova

1. Moldova is beautiful. I don’t know that I expected to be struck by the beauty of this country, but I am. It’s green with rolling hills and colorful houses. I can’t wait to see how it changes through the seasons.
2. Placinta is a traditional Moldovan dish, and it is amazing. It’s like a pastry, and can be filled with cheese, fruits, cabbage, almost anything. And it’s delicious. Don’t worry, that is one recipe I’m bringing home to share.
3. I am convinced the fruit here has more flavor. I think this is primarily because they eat according to what is fruit is in season, meaning it’s grown more naturally.
4. Birthdays are a big deal. You thought getting a cake for someone was a sufficient birthday celebration? Think again. I have now celebrated three of my colleagues’ birthdays at work. The birthday person brings a feast of food for the rest of the office, lays it out like a Thanksgiving meal, and then we toast with wine, champagne and cognac to the health and long life of that individual. After, we wrap up with tort (cake) and bomboane (chocolate candies). Sometimes the feast is served during lunch, sometimes after work, and sometimes we feast at lunch AND after work. It’s wonderful. And, to top it all off, during the meal, people take turns wishing the birthday person good health, many years, for them to achieve their dreams, have wonderful families and rewarding careers. Really, it’s wonderful.
5. On the subject of birthdays, gifts should be given. In the States, this is a tradition that ebbs as we become teenagers and adults. But here, I think it is something that extends a bit longer. When it’s a fellow volunteer’s birthday, I’m always asked what gift I will buy to give to them.
6. There is a verb here that the use with almost everything: a face (a fah-chay). It means “to do” or “to make”. You can do cleaning, do a shower, do organizing, do a bath, make food, and the list goes on. The problem is, in the first person, the conjugation is “eu fac” (yo fak). I’ll give you one guess to figure out what other f-word that sounds like and why that might be awkward or funny for English-speakers.
7. Walking is a daily social activity. In the evenings, people dress in their best, take to the streets and stroll to their heart’s content.
8. Flowers are given on almost every big occasion. Usually roses.
9. Eating from your own garden is one of the most satisfying experiences in life. To cultivate something and eat from the earth is wonderful. It reminds me of when my grandpa used to take us berry picking in Minnesota. We, as Americans, really need to do more of our own gardening.
10. Moldovans eat tomatoes like Americans eat apples. The just bite right in. It’s sort of great!
11. In the peak of summer, days are long. The sun rises around 5 a.m. and sets after 9 p.m. In contrast, in the winter, days are much shorter. The sun rises between 7 and 8 a.m., and sets between 4 and 5 p.m. My host mom says in the winter we will make cake and sit in the kitchen and drink tea. And frankly, that sounds like a great idea to me.
12. Moldova has two autonomous regions: Transnistria and Gaugauzia. There’s too much history there to even begin to explain, so I would invite you to research them both.
13. Moldova will celebrate its 20th year of independence this week, on August 27. Twenty years ago, Moldova officially declared its independence from the Soviet Union.
14. On a more serious note, I want to discuss one of the sadder periods in Moldovan history, and one that we, in the Western world, don’t hear enough about: deportations. Under Stalin’s rule, during WWII and in the following years, tens of thousands of people were deported from an area known as Bessarabia, which includes parts of Moldova, Romania and Ukraine. Exact numbers are unknown, but the policy targeted those who were educated, those who had any sort of wealth, or those considered political dissidents. They were deported in the same way Jews were taken from their homes under Nazi rule, and transported in unspeakable conditions to Siberia, Kazakhstan and other areas.
15. Until Moldova declared independence from the Soviet Union, it is my understanding that most students, including my former host parents, learned Romanian language in Cyrillic script (Russian lettering). I tried to spell something in Romanian to my host parents once, and they had no idea what I was spelling. “Jennifer, we learned in with Russian letters,” they explained.
16. The official language of the State is Moldovan, and it is a dialect of Romanian. Moldovans call it “Moldovanește” and it actually includes a mix of Romanian and Russian words.
17. Most Moldovans speak at least three languages, sometimes even four. Romanian (Moldovan), Russian, French and/or English. It’s pretty impressive.
18. My site mate is from West Africa, so I have to devote one of these 25 tidbits to him. As you might imagine, there’s not as much cultural diversity in Moldova as there is in the U.S., so some Moldovans have never seen someone of a different race before. In the more remote villages, some have never even met an American. The result? When my site mate and I walk around town, people often hand me a camera and ask me to take a picture of them with him, a black foreigner. He’s really a great sport about it, and it sort of makes me feel like I’m walking around LA with someone famous.
19. If you are to be a guest in someone’s home, it’s proper to bring a gift. This is similar to one of our own customs – if you are going to have dinner at someone’s home, it’s considered a polite gesture to offer to bring something for the meal.
20. I’m learning that running for exercise here is not very common. So far on my runs, I get a lot of strange looks, I get offered rides to wherever I’m heading, and sometimes I get wished a genuine “good luck!”
21. Coffee here is done a bit differently. Coffee makers and coffee beans are available, but instant coffee is much more common. I bought a mug and a jar of instant coffee for work, and every morning I sprinkle some instant coffee bits into my mug and head to the water cooler for some hot water.
22. Every day, my host mom wakes up and shuffles their ducks out of the yard and onto the gravel road where they hang out and eat grass. I think this happens between two and three times a day. Sometimes I come home, and there are the five ducks, just in the road munching. I’ve never raised ducks before, and I’ve never seen them raised, so this is sort of novel concept for me. (You mean you just sort of wave them out into the road and leave them there for a bit? They don’t run away? And then you wave them back into the yard?) The best part about this is when my 4- and 6-year old host nieces help. The grab the end of a broom, about the same height as they are, and they shuffle the ducks back into the gate. It’s precious.
23. There are no screens over the windows where I live now. Instead, my host family hangs a lacey fabric inside over the door with two pieces of fabric overlapping it to keep the bugs out when they leave the door open in the evening. It’s a pretty great method, actually.
24. Shoes are left outside or in the front room. Moldovans keep their house impeccably clean, and shoes are not meant to be worn inside at all.
25. Moldova is a beautiful country with wonderful, hospitable people, but, like many countries, faces some significant challenges in development. Villages need clean drinking water, paved roads, programs for people with disabilities, health education, jobs, programs against human trafficking, and the issue of emigration (remittances make up about 1/3 of the country’s GDP). And this is why we’re here. We want to try and help and work towards solutions for these problems.

So here’s to 25 years behind me, and two more ahead in the wonderful Republic of Moldova!