Friday, December 24, 2010

And I'm out!

The semester is done.  Six months + in Moldova done.  Goals completed, more work added.  Probably a good time for reflection.  But a better time for vacation!

So with that, I scurried around my site for the past two days, saying goodbyes and reviewing where we'll start up again after the holidays are over and I return.  I've gotten very good at saying Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year in Romanian over the past 48 hours.

Now, dear friends, I am off for my first vacation in 6.5 months.  I'm not taking my computer, so don't be surprised if you don't hear from me.  If there's time, I'll sneak in a blog or too of my travels.

The Plan

  • 12/24 - to Chisinau
  • 12/25 - to Balti
  • 12/26 - to Budapest via Iasi and Cluj, Romania
    • Chilling with Bill and haunting my old haunts
  • 12/29 - to Brasov, Romania
    • New Years, friends, Couch Surfing, and skiing!  (What more could I want?)
  • 1/5 - Depart for Chisinau, arrive in the wee hours
  • 1/6 - First bus back to site, in time for Orthodox Christmas on 1/7
That, plus the schedule for 1 of my trains is about as much as I have planned.  Wish me luck!

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Double Feature! Guest blogger pens rejoinder on "What I Do"

My friend and colleague Melissa visited my site last week, braving the first Moldovan blizzard we've had down here in the South in order to facilitate a youth experience exchange between my youth club and a neighboring village.  Melissa is a COD (Community Organization and Development) volunteer, so she has a bit of an outside perspective on my job.  Not being me, she also has the amazing ability to take photos of yours truly while he works.

So, for those wanting some pictures ranging from work to a surprise masa, head on over to Melissa's blog and check out her post on her visit to Carahasani!

p.s. - the youth exchange comes with a (not so) surprising ending.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

My job, pt. III: A view of my desk is a day in my [work] life

This is the final part of a three post series introducing the work component of my life as a Health Education Specialist in Peace Corps Moldova.  The series has moved from the broad to the specific, so Part III will conclude by a look at what my work actually involves on a daily basis.  Part I is a general introduction to the public health situation in Moldova, and Part II examines my different projects at the general level.

When I started writing this series at the end of October – yeah, it’s been a long time in the making – I had just passed the point where I had been at site longer than in training, and it was really starting to show in my work life.

The soaring towers of paper accumulating on my desk are only the most visual sign that this work life is finding traction.  Those who have lived around me know me to be a crowded desk person.  Some say “crowded” is just a euphemism for “messy”, but in my opinion the difference is that there is a logic to my system.  That’s probably in the eyes of the beholder…my dad claims the same thing.  My desk hasn’t yet reached the state of his fire hazard, but then I also don’t have many bills to pay.

In what may have been an indication of concern, my host family recently put a second desk in my room.  This was one of the happiest days of my life, though they didn’t seem to understand the natural logic of the law of desk space: desk piles will expand to occupy the space available.  (On the other hand, my host family probably considered it a victory simply that these piles moved out of my bed and off the floor…)  What might concern them more is the fact that what’s going on in my head at any given moment tends to resemble my desks…  It also, however, provides a glimpse at my daily work life.

Starting our tour a desk #1, we find the computer in the dominant position. 

Saturday, December 11, 2010

My job, pt. II: So what do you actually DO?

This is Part II of a three post series introducing the work component of my life as a PCV, in which we’ll look at my program’s objectives and major projects at the general level.   The series is moving from the broad to the specific; Part I is a general introduction to the public health situation in Moldova and Part III will conclude by a look at what my work involves on a daily basis.

Every Peace Corps Volunteer worldwide works in a program; here in Moldova, I work in the Health Education in Schools and Communities (HESC) program.  My formal title is Health Education Specialist – yes, even as a volunteer one gets a snappy title.  In PC Moldova parlance, I’m referred to as a “Healthy.”

As a HESC PCV my primary work focuses on building local capacity for the educative aspects of a public health program.  As I explained in my previous post, Moldova has one of the highest health care provider ratios in the world, but the concept of public and preventative health is still taking root here.  It also has a decent public education system, considering the local resources available.  But again, health education is still struggling to be integrated in an intentional and coherent manner.  The local providers, in short, aren’t yet accustomed to being educators, and the local educators aren’t yet accustomed to the specifics of health education.  I’m here to facilitate that step.

That step is broken down into two overarching goals and seven objectives:
  • Goal 1: Improved Health for Youth
    • Objective 1.1: Develop School Health Educators (i.e., teachers)
    • Objective 1.2: Improve Students’ Learning
    • Objective 1.3: Promote Peer Education in Extra-curricular Activities
    • Objective 1.4: Increase Parental Involvement in Schools
  • Goal 2: Improved Community Health
    • Objective 2.1: Develop Community Health Educators (i.e., medical staff)
    • Objective 2.2: Enhance Community Involvement in Community Activities
    • Objective 2.3: Improve Use of ICT to Support Community Health and Education

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Giving Thanks in Moldova

So we all know how much Zachariah loves Thanksgiving.  It’s basically an entire day spent with loved ones doing one of my favorite activities: cooking.  A LOT of cooking.  Not the whipping up dinner kind, but cooking imbued with the meaning of three other themes dear to my heart.

Orange Basil turkey comes out of the oven.
Note it does not entirely fit in the pan.
  1. Loved ones.
  2. Coordinating entire meals, the one thing better than cooking, and the kind of complex logistical task generally left to militaries, which I nevertheless prefer to meet with at least a little improvisation.
  3. Food as cultural process worthy of great respect and eating as a political act, because eating locally in today’s world inherently is an act of dissention from a powerful political economic system. In such a world, Thanksgiving is a radically ecological holiday.  It’s food is seasonal, and it is one of the few days left when many American families cook, and are thankful, for having plenty to eat.
It says something that even during my years of vegetarianism, Thanksgiving was always an exception.

This year's lesson: removing that extra something, or,
"Whoa, that's a lot of neck."
Okay, so I love Thanksgiving, digression done.  I also, however, happen to have chosen an international lifestyle, meaning I often find myself outside the States, and certainly away from home, at the holidays.  Ask any expat and this is often one of the hardest parts of the job.  Once one embraces it, however, it can also be an incredible opportunity for holidays that, if not orthodox, are certainly memorable.  I’ll never forget my first Thanksgiving abroad, crowded onto the floor of a small flat in Budapest, or learning how to finish de-feathering a turkey by hand on the spot that Christmas in Spain with Hunter and Yeshe (and then brining it in an unused wastebasket…)

The turkey team
This Thanksgiving was no less memorable.  In Moldova, volunteers come together in Chisinau to execute a giant cross-cultural Thanksgiving.  We invite the Moldovan staff, and turnout averages between 70-90 people.  This year, that required four turkeys, four kitchens, and somewhere around 15 cooks divided into four teams.  In a moment of either extreme folly or hubris, yours truly volunteered to lead the turkey team.  Yes, that turkey.  As in, that one thing you can’t screw up on Thanksgiving.  Or in this case, those four things.  Luckily, I was cooking with two incredibly talented and experienced co-chefs.

Normally, one doesn’t get to experiment much with the turkey, but since we had four, I wanted to try something a little wacky.  So we did two normal turkeys, and on the other two we used an Orange Basil rub from The Splendid Table (recipes at end of post).

Sunday, November 28, 2010

My job, pt. I: Moldova’s Health Profile

I’ve been getting more questions recently about what the work side of my life actually entails.  It’s a huge topic, so I’m tackling it in three parts.  The series will move from the broad to the specific.  This is Part I, a general introduction to the public health situation in Moldova.  This article is by far the lengthiest, and if the background is boring, I won’t begrudge you for skipping it.  But it also contains the roots of the problems I struggle with daily, so it’s an important part of my work here.  Part II will look at my specific projects, and Part III will focus on what I do on a daily basis.

Moldova has what’s known as a “dual health profile,” meaning that it has elements of a health care system of a fully developed nation, but simultaneously struggles with problems typically associated with less developed countries. As an example, while Moldova has high vaccination rates and one of the highest doctor and nurse to patient ratios in the world, it also faces a high prevalence of TB, and access to safe drinking water and sanitation standards remain a pressing problem in rural areas.

Moldova is often summed up as “Europe’s poorest country.”  Obviously, this depends on a lot of definitions, but based on GDP per capita and given the broadest possible conception of Europe, only Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan are poorer, so the general point is well taken.  Despite this fact, however, at Moldova has a higher life expectancy (by 2 to 5 years) than other significantly richer post-Soviet states.
  • Life Expectancy: 68.5 years (WHO, 2007), 70.8 years (CIA World Fact Book, 2010)
On other key indicators of health such as infant and maternal mortality, Moldova is also outperforming the rest of the Eastern European WHO region (WHO 2005).
  • Infant Mortality: 13.13 deaths/1000 live births (CIA World Fact Book, 2010)
Arguably, then, Moldova is doing pretty well given the context – it’s significantly below the global economic average, but nevertheless can boast health outcomes somewhat above the global average.  This fact is impressive, because wealth is a key predictor of health outcomes – though not by any stretch the only important indicator, remember the U.S. has a lower life expectancy than Bosnia and Herzegovina.  The point is, clearly systems and public policy matter too.  And “doing well given the context” isn’t much consolation to those people dying at young ages from preventable causes.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Response to Alms Dealer

Just finished Philip Gourevitch’s “Alms Dealer,” in October’s The New Yorker.  One part review of Linda Polman’s “The Crisis Caravan: What’s Wrong with Humanitarian Aid?”, it’s a very powerful and thought provoking article its own right.  The article was posted to my Facebook wall by Lindsay Toler, one of the brightest fellow volunteers I have the pleasure to serve with here in Moldova (and a healthy, which clearly speaks to her good character).  I’ve been thinking a lot lately about international aid – its ethics, its effectiveness, and its unintended consequences.  Until now, my thoughts have been mostly focused on development aid, so this article struck a chord and made me think about development’s humanitarian cousin.  What follows are some unorganized thoughts that originally began as a FB comment but grew too long for that medium.  Not the update friends and family back home were probably hoping for, but it’s the one that got written.  Preemptive forgiveness given if you decide to skip it.

The article starts on the familiar terrain of the greed v. grievance debate within conflict studies.  The whole argument is premised heavily on the greed side of this debate, within the academic camp of liberal rationality.  In short, people are rational, including warlords.

The initial problem then that this article forces is that constructivist bane of all rationalist attempts to remake the world into a better place (realism and liberalism alike): rules are not stable, and as soon as the rules of the game are known, rational actors adjust to manipulate the rules in their favor.  The result is a constantly shifting arms race of changing rules.  Unfortunately, as the tomes of failed humanitarian interventions show, the “bad guys” seem to figure out how to work the old rules in their favor much quicker than the “good guys” can come with new rules to prevent them from doing so.

Very quickly, however, the article leaves behind technical questions of why intervention might fuel conflict, and goes for the moral jugular of humanitarianism, whether there can truly be any neutral or unambiguously good intervention.  The single most prescient sentence: "The scenes of suffering that we tend to call humanitarian crises are almost always symptoms of political circumstances, and there’s no apolitical way of responding to them—no way to act without having a political effect."

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Ziua mea de Naştere, or: my Moldovan Birthday

I love having a September birthday.  Being a nerd, it has always struck me as appropriate that my birthday comes just as classes are starting, and happens to fall in my favorite season (punny, right?).  My birthday also is perfectly spaced during the run-up to my favorite set of holidays: Halloween and Thanksgiving.  Throw in Christmas and New Years and September 19th basically becomes the kickoff to a whole holiday season.

September has also, however, tended to be my month of settling into new homes, which has made birthday celebrations a constant unknown.  Take, for example, my first year in college, when nobody even knew it was my birthday.  (This was pre-Facebook, kids…)  But I learned my lesson that year, and since then, have never shied away from making sure people know ahead of time my exact moment of birth.

This year was no exception: having only arrived at my permanent site at the end of August, and with my birthday falling on a Sunday, I knew any celebration would depend on my Moldovan hosts.  Well, never again will I doubt their party-planning capacities.  They delivered with a full-scale Moldovan style birthday bash.  From the top!

The weekend started Friday night, when my host parents’ daughter and boyfriend Rodica and Adrien arrived from Chişinău. 

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Weekend in the Big City

After three weeks at site, many of the volunteers headed into Chisinau for a few days of birthday parties and meetings last weekend.  Being amongst the September babies, I wasn’t about to be left out.  I’d negotiated a compact teaching schedule – all my classes Tuesday and Wednesday – just to facilitate occasions like this, and the rough bus schedule I’m confined to in my village.

So, Friday morning, well before the sun was even hinting at being up, I set out with my host father to negotiate our muddy road in the dark.  He packed two large bags of fresh homegrown fruit onto the bus for his daughter and niece in the city, and then said his goodbye to return home as the bus rumbled out of town into the first rays of the morning’s light.  A full-sized bus leaving crawling at snail’s pace along a dirt road out of a village of just 3,000 is one of those things that would have seemed odd a few months ago; now, just another day in the life.

Except this time, I was folded up against the window, watching from the inside of the bus. 

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Prima Sună: a Prima Moldovan Day

Today was September 1st, and in Moldova, that means Prima Sună – First Bell, the first day of school.  Every once in a while there is a moment here that seems larger then Moldova, touching on some emotion deeper than whatever singular experience triggers it; an emotion connected with grander ideals or distant memories.

If swearing in was the first of these moments, First Bell was most certainly the second.  The first day of school is an experience that transcends cultures – the excitement that hangs in the air, accentuated by the crisp smell of an early fall morning, as students dawn their best clothes along with their emotions.

Having always been a bit nerdy, I always loved the first day of school.  Even in college I was one of the rare ones who never missed Opening Convocation.  But today, for the first time in a long time, I was nervous again, as if transported back to Washington Elementary.  After all, this year, for the first time, I was going to school not as a student, but as a teacher, cultural ambassador, and in a new language to boot, rendering me some kind of odd teacher-foreign exchange student hybrid.

First Bell starts with a ceremony. 

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Rainy Morning at the Piaţa

As I coaxed my eyes open this morning, they were greeted by the perfect conditions for a lazy morning in bed.  Wandering over to the clock, they pleasantly noted that it wasn’t even seven yet.  The light that found its way into the room seemed to face an extra struggle today…it was a bit too dark for even this early hour.  It lacked that reddish fall tint of individual rays; instead the light was muted and unspecific, seeming slightly to obscure rather than illuminate the lines and colors of everything it touched.  Yes, in fact, it was cloudy, and in the States I would have curled up with a book and cup of tea with that comfortable weekend feeling – that feeling where one can revel in being awake, only because there is no mandate to actually be awake.

But here in my corner of Moldova, Sunday morning means the big piaţa (market), over in Olaneşti.  We have our own piaţa in my village on Saturday mornings, but the Sunday piaţa in Olaneşti is the real deal, with vendors coming from all over to hawk their wares in this ancient commercial center on the banks of the Nistru River.  Olaneşti is just a few kilometers away and only 2,000 or so people larger, but the river and the piaţa make all the difference.  On a Sunday morning when barely a person can be seen in my village, Olaneşti is buzzing with excitement, and one is more likely to meet a neighbor from my village there than on our own deserted streets.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Look Ma, I’m a Real Volunteer!

Speaking to US Ambassador Chaudry
after the ceremony
Wednesday, August 18th, was a special day for all the M25 HESC and EE PCTs – we swore in as volunteers and officially launched our service.  Let me decipher that sentence:
  • Wednesday, August 18th – hopefully clear
  • M25 – my training class, Moldova 25 (we’re the 25th group of volunteers in Moldova; these days there’s one training class a year)
  • HESC – Health Education in Schools and Communities, my program; commonly known as “Healthies”
  • EE – English Education program, commonly known as EEs; collectively we’re referred to as Education Volunteers as compared to the Development Volunteers
  • PCT – Peace Corps Trainee, what one is for the first 8-12 weeks in country; not volunteer in privileges, allowances, status, or job
  • PCV – Peace Corps Volunteer, what one becomes after successfully completing training and taking the oath; the formal beginning of the 2 years of service
In short, I stopped being a trainee, and started being a volunteer.  If the distinction sounds small to those who began thinking of Zach in terms of Peace Corps Moldova back in June, the distinction is quite large within the Peace Corps itself.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

How I Learned to Promote World Peace in a Tinderbox for WWIII, or, Two Weeks of Practice School

One might observe the slight gap in postings.  While rumors of my demise were generally overstated, I was, in fact, enduring what is normally described as the most trying part of Pre-Service Training (PST) for Health Volunteers in Moldova: Practice School. (Imagine that’s written in a scary Halloween font and is accompanied by a far-off scream of terror…)

In short, practice school brings our future partner teachers to our training site, where we spend the final two weeks teaching real children real health lessons in a real classroom setting using real Romanian for two really long weeks.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

VOTE! (If I can, you sure can too!)

Rocking the vote from Moldova!

The Colorado Primaries were Tuesday, and after weeks of wrangling, I just barely managed to get my ballot sent in the nick of time.  Voting from overseas is no small feat – I had to be extra attentive to make sure the proper paperwork was filed before leaving the States, and there was a lot of back and forth to ensure that my ballot arrived in time.  Amongst my Peace Corps colleagues, I’m about as on the ball as it comes with voting from abroad, and still, it was in just under the wire.

For other overseas voters who may be reading this, I urge you to visit the Overseas Vote Foundation’s website for comprehensive state-specific information, including election dates (general and primaries) and filing requirements.

At this point, my generation’s poor voting record is borderline cliché, but what is less well known are that the barriers to voting abroad make this another demographic with consistently low turnout.  The irony of this story is that many of us overseas are engaged directly in some form of service to our country: Foreign Service Officers, military service members, and of course, Peace Corps Volunteers (to name just a few).

As a volunteer, voting is more than just a civic responsibility: I take an oath to promote the three goals of the Peace Corps.  The second of these goals is to “Promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the peoples served.”  For me, it’s hard to feel like I’m living up fully to the spirit of that goal without participating in what is arguably the most revered American political institution.  At my nation’s inception, voting (even if narrowly conceived at the time) went to the core of what set us apart.  Since then, it has occupied a central thread of our national narrative.  The right to cast a ballot has been bound up in America’s greatest national struggles and discourses: class struggle, the Civil War, feminism and women’s suffrage, the Civil Rights movement, and the Vietnam War.  (And today, perhaps the role of concentrated economic interests’ influence…)

My curriculum for Health Education/Life Skills this coming year includes civic education.  How am I to dig into this topic with my students if voting is treated like something one checks at the airport check-in counter, valued less than the luggage one would never fail to pick up on the other end of a flight?  Moreover, the issue takes immediate relevance in Moldova, where there's been an intense discussion in recent years between the leading parties, focused at least topically on the electoral method of choosing the country's president.

Fellow volunteers looked on with a bemused curiosity that failed to hide a decent amount of skeptical cynicism.  That’s okay though – I have another month or to get them to register for the general election this fall.  In the meantime, should my ballot fail to be counted, at least it is on account of a system ill-suited to handle the international voter, and not a personal disenfranchisement.

But rather than look at all the barriers, I prefer to look at all the help I received.  Big shout outs go to:
  • The Peace Corps, which was extremely helpful in getting the required paperwork printed and scanned.
  • The Denver Elections Office, which has an incredible staffer handling overseas voting, and
  • The Overseas Vote Foundation, which is the excellent organization which first got me involved in overseas get out the vote operations back in 2008 when I was living in Budapest.

With so much conspiring to help the American abroad to vote, any excuse is really just that: an excuse.

Post Script for the Expatriate:
If you presently reside abroad, and are interested in voting issues, the Overseas Vote Foundation is in constant need of volunteers for its non-partisan get out the vote operation.  Visit their website, follow the org on Facebook, and help spread the word wherever you are based.  OVF also operates special branches:

The Democratic and Republican parties both offer special sites geared toward members living overseas as well (Democrats Abroad and Republicans Abroad).

Sunday, August 8, 2010

A Day in the Life (of PST)

Yesterday marked two months to the day since I left Denver, and also brought to a close the eighth week of Pre-Service Training (PST).  Incredibly, in less than two weeks I’ll be sworn in as a full Peace Corps Volunteer, and depart the comfortable routine of my summer in Bardar for a new set of challenges.  Which leads me to notice, most readers have very little idea of just what that summer routine has entailed, instead being lost in an eclectic assortment of anecdotes!

So, what has Zach been doing in Moldova this whole summer exactly?  Mostly learning.  For the past two months, my week has more or less been fixed to the following schedule:

  • Get up, go to 4.5 hours of language class.
  • Eat lunch for an hour (bread, tomatoes, cucumbers, and cheese or salami).
  • Go to 3 hours of “tech” training on the Health Education Program.
  • Go home.  Be exhausted.  Butcher Romanian for my host family.
  • Do homework.
  • Eat dinner.  More butchering Romanian over glasses of house wine.  Occasionally watch the news (way over my head) or Bollywood films (dubbed into Russian) with Georghe (host-dad).
  • Read/write for an hour or so.
  • Collapse into bed, tired but satisfied.

Tuesday: repeat.
Wednesday: repeat again.
Thursday: Go to Ialoveni for “hub site” days with all PCTs (Peace Corps Trainees).  Basically, a day of admin sessions.
Friday: Repeast Monday’s schedule.
Saturday: Repeat again, except no tech, so we’re free for the afternoon.
Sunday: Exhaustion, homework, or mischief.  Often all 3.

This schedule has been interspersed with special trips, sometimes cultural, sometimes personal, sometimes PC related (like the visit to my future site a few weeks ago).  Sundays in particular have been a constant source of amusement and cultural integration, including some of my favorite days like birthday parties or helping in the fields.

The structure doesn’t leave much free time, and many volunteers find PST to be one of the most trying times in their service.  In combination with the presence of other Americans in my training class, however, it has provided a comforting cocoon of structure for the initial adjustment period.  After 7.5 weeks, I was able to achieve the required “Intermediate-mid” level in Romanian (a big relief as this is the level trainees are required to reach before swearing in).  Perhaps more importantly, I’ve formed a number of close friendships with my fellow trainees – the friendships I’ll need to make it through the next two years.

Please note, the past week (week 8), has not been fixed to the normal schedule, but rather to a pressure cooker the culmination of our training program: practice school.  But that’s a topic for a future post.

See the post below for the picture tour of “A Day in the Life (of PST).”

A Day in the Life (in pictures)

Pictures from my life in Bardar during PST.  See post above for the narrative.

The road to my door.

The beautiful house where I am a guest.

Door sill : detail.

Making rachiu (kinda like moonshine).

The hills around Bardar.

Another view from the top of Bardar.

Goodbye comrades! (Ubiquitous Soviet era statue to the victims of fascism)

Saturday, July 31, 2010

Why I adore my host mom…

A few weeks ago I helped my host mom pick cherries.  We had done this the week before too, so there wasn't much low hanging fruit.  Now, I assumed the natural course of action would be to use a ladder.  Right?  Wrong.  I'm in Moldova.

Instead, we pulled the branches down, far past a point I would consider safe for the tree, and then picked the newly accessible fruit.  Twice during this process we heard significant branches breaking, and had to quickly let go.  Each time, my host mom looked surprised.  Both times, I asked myself how, if this is the normal way of picking cherries, this could surprise her.  Then I asked myself why after 58 years of this nonsense they hadn't bought a ladder.  Then I thought maybe they had a ladder and it's broken or on loan to a neighbor.  Then I looked at the poor tree, remembered I was in Moldova, and decided "no, they probably just break branches every year."

Then we went to go get a hoe.  A garden hoe.  An implement of destruction.  NOT harvesting. 

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Debrief: Site Team Conference and Visit to Future Site

I returned from my first visit to my future home (“site”) about a week ago.  As I mentioned last time, my village is way off in the southeast, closer to the beaches of Ukraine than Moldova’s capital Chisinau.  It’s a little warmer there, which was a relief, because otherwise sitting in the sun during a bumpy 3 hour bus ride on a 95 degree day would have been just too pleasant a material experience for Peace Corps life.  (And no, they don’t open windows in Moldova, as any resulting “current” is well known to be the leading factor causing illnesses ranging from the common cold to death).

With the exception of a failed attempt at phone communication with the director of the school, I pretty much linguistically handled myself with my 5 weeks of Romanian during the visit (no sarcasm there).  The phone call went something like this:

While enjoying light conversation with host family on first evening, cell phone rings.
I answer: “Hello?”
Romanian Romanian Romanian
Me (in Romanian): “I’m sorry, what?”
Romanian Romanian Romanian
Me (still not understanding a word): “Ah, something about me you say?”
Romanian Romanian Romanian
Me: “Yes, I DO think you have the wrong number.” (Unclear whether this had been suggested.)
Romanian Romanian Romanian
Me: “Yes. My number is…hold on a minute, yes, it’s etc. etc.”
Romanian Romanian Romanian
Me: “You don’t have the wrong number? Well that just can’t be…”
Awkward silence
Me: “Okay then, well, have a good evening!”

After I hung up, the house phone rang.  My host mom told me it was the director of the school, and relayed instructions for the following day to me.  I thought, “Ah, good.  I was wondering about that, and was afraid what a phone call might be a bit tricky.”  I did not draw the connection till the next day, when my director explained that “Romanian Romanian Romanian” was actually being spoken by her, in an attempt to communicate important scheduling info to me.

Phones are hard.  I’m going to give it another month before I attempt anything beyond in-person communication.

Otherwise, it didn’t take long to fall in love with just about everything in my town.

Church Bells at my Future Site (VIDEO)

This goes along with the post above about my site visit last week.  Yup, they were that happy to see me!

Look close, and you can actually see people moving around, ringing the bells in the tower.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Site Announcements!

Tuesday was a very exciting day for PC Trainees in Moldova; after being here almost a month, we were given our permanent site assignments!

After swearing in as an official volunteer on August 18, I’ll be headed to Stefan Voda Raion.  (A raion, pronounced rayon, is the administrative level above a municipality; it is like a county or state in the U.S.)

Stefan Voda is in the very east part of the country, in the southern part of that “leg,” and is bordered by Ukraine on three sides.  (If you look at the shape of Moldova, it kind of has two legs; Stefan Voda is in the eastern leg).  The region is warm and sunny, renowned for its wine.  And this is a country renowned for its wine, so this is kind of the Bordeaux of Moldova. The region is only separated from the Black Sea by a sliver of Ukraine (that used to belong to Moldova before Stalin rearranged things).

In any case, I am spitting distance from Ukraine; in fact, I could easily hike to Ukraine and back in a day.  My village has about 3,000 people, probably a little smaller given that a lot of Moldovans work abroad.  It’s primary industry is agriculture; a farm coop employs about 500 people producing dried fruits, tobacco, and other products, and a winery employs about 300 people.  These are VERY big business ventures in Moldovan terms.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Anecdotes from Settling In

Cultural integration is a lot of fun, occasionally terrifying, and often hilarious.  As promised, sketches of integration:

Move it like it’s 1985
Riding back with my host family from a welcome celebration on my first day at site in Bardar, I had a spontaneous moment of loving Moldova, sparked by nothing other than our vintage Lada.  Yup, straight out of the USSR.  Now, this is no small feet, as the roads here are generally constructed of mud, large potholes, and rocks.  How this antique has held up, I don’t know, but here’s a tip for conserving fuel: turn your car off when going downhill.  Living on the side of a hill has meant that about half my time in the family Lada has just involved coasting.  This fete is aided by my host father Gheorghe’s incredible sense of timing for turning the car back on.  Somewhere in the midst of my spontaneous Lada bliss, the car ran out of gas.  Not losing a beat, Gheorghe got a gas can out of the trunk, started a siphon with his mouth, and added enough fuel to get us back up the hill.  Ladas are pretty normal here; word is still out on how typical the mouth siphon is.

“Err…I’m allergic to raw eggs.  Oh, thank you for opening it for me.”
Being the polite Peace Corps volunteer that I am, I generally say hello to everyone I pass in the village.  On one fateful occasion, this involved a neighbor.  Showering me with Moldovan politeness in return, he naturally asked me in for a glass of wine.  Most families make there own wine, and it is an strong point of pride.  It was the end of the day, and I was done with homework, but out of an American sense of caution, I declined.  So he decided to simply show me around his garden instead.  Which happened to lead us to his cellar.  Which happened to be where his wine is kept.  After drinking his own glass (wine is taken in large shot form here), he filled one up for me.  Now, walking down into the cellar of a stranger is something we would never do in the States in the first place; that’s how 20/20 specials start.  Being an ambassador of sorts, however, made it incredibly hard to say no to such a polite and persistent offer.

Monday, June 14, 2010

It Just Got Real

** I forgot to mention when originally posting that this is a backdated post written after my first day with my host family; dates been changed and there should be a new real time post tomorrow!
Well, I’m here.  In Moldova…the Republic of.  And it just got real….REALLY real. 

Backing up:
In the short amount of time since returning from the meditation retreat – a very distant seeming month ago – life has included:
  • 2 weeks of packing up the Chicago apartment.
  • A one week roadtrip from Chicago to Denver, including such stops as Mt. Rushmore, Devils Tower, and a sidetrip through the Springs.
  • A week and a half of craziness in Denver during which I packed, launched Vitality In Action Foundation’s website, and said all my goodbyes.

On point two, I’ll hopefully get to make a back-dated post of this incredible fun.  On point three, visit VIA’s website! (It definitely kept me working till my last moment in the States…)

Then, my new life started.  Last Monday, a week ago today, I stopped packing, stopped preparing, stopped waving goodbye, and started living Peace Corps.  A brief synopsis of my past week:
  • Monday: flew to Philadelphia.
  • Tuesday: Staging for Peace Corps.
  • Wednesday: Headed to JFK Airport and started a trip that would ultimately bring me to Moldova.
  • Thursday:  Made a side-trek into Frankfurt during an excruciatingly long layover. Finally arrived in Chisinau, Moldova.
  • Friday: Orientation day 1 for Pre Service Training (PST), in Chisinau.
  • Saturday: Orientation day 2 for PST.  Left Chisinau for Bardar to meet my PST host family.
  • Sunday: Welcoming reception for all volunteers in our town.  Dawning appreciation for the realness of my new life.

There is a lot I could write here; just the past two days are enough for a very long post.  I’ll try to confine my comments to a few key details, which I hope to illustrate with an anecdote from today in my next post.

The overwhelming feelings: I’m glad to be here.  Peace Corps has involved a year worth of preparation.  During this time, it’s become a significant part of my life, even thought I wasn’t “doing it” yet.  I talked about it a lot, thought about it a lot, did paperwork for it a lot, etc.  So it was a strange feeling last Tuesday when PC transitioned from a significant but distant part of my life to the alpha and omega of my daily experience.

I wrote a post, but...

But my internet situation has been pretty terrible.  I'm in a basement "World of Warcraft" club with a lot of Russians playing the aforementioned game, and no functioning USB port.  Hopefully will get that post up soon.

In the meantime, I'm in the country.

Life is good.

Monday, May 31, 2010

The Calm and the Chaos: meditating and packing

So I meditated.  Silently.  A lot.  For ten full days to be specific, at the Illinois Vipassana Meditation Center.  There are a lot of impressions and thoughts still swirling about the experience. Most overwhelmingly, I’m glad I did it – this has been a personal goal for a while, so in addition to the benefits of the meditation there is also a sense of accomplishment.  It was hard, definitely.  Just sitting in meditation for 11 hours a day was a huge hurdle, physically and mentally.  (I renamed the 3 daily “Sits of Great Determination”, during which one strives to not move a muscle, to the Sit of Great Delight, the Sit of Great Distraction, and the Sit of Great Despair.  This was only partially tongue in cheek.)

The time alone with the mind was also an emotional roller coaster, both enlightening and eerie…it doesn’t take long for the constant swirl of the unconscious to start rising to the surface.  Yet it was also empowering, at least after I finally started letting go around day 3.  And it was incredibly liberating to turn off the cell phone, leave the email, and embrace being unreachable.

Then there were the funny moments: without the aid of verbal communication, ordinary situations easily become hilariously awkward.  Take for example the time I accidentally wacked a guy in the head while putting on a sweater.  It turns out he sat next to me in the meditation hall, so I had a full 7 days to sit with my guilt after the incident before the silence was broken and I could apologize.

Poll Results and the Apology to End all Apologies

So it’s been a month since my last post, and three weeks since the poll closed for votes on the blogs new look.  At first, I was thinking that having been on a silent meditation retreat for almost 2 weeks of that time gave me a decent excuse for not posting.  But then, looking back at how often posts begin with apologies, I decided on a more permanent approach: eternal absolution.  So, I’m henceforth swearing away all apologies for belated posting. For the rest of time.  Period. Bookmark this post if you want, you’ll have my timeless penance enshrined here.

Now, for both our loyal readers here at Embarkations, onto the poll results. The plurality's impression is I’m a narcissist (a whopping 42%).  I’ll own that. All these great new social media tools we love are, fundamentally, narcissistic. I’ve always been bothered by the cognitive dissonance of the perception that viewing friends’ Facebook photos is somehow “stalking.”  Isn’t that why one posts them?  I won’t succumb to the fad of propagating the myth that this stuff isn’t somehow posted to be looked at.  Dear lord, I hope somebody is looking.  Otherwise I’m wasting a lot of time.

Along with narcissism, the general evaluation seems to be that the new look is an improvement (71% total).  No scientific accuracy there, but thank you to those who did take the time to vote.  I’ll also work on getting some more pictures incorporated once I’m in Moldova.  The full results are posted after the jump.

In the meantime, I’ve started a page about the blog itself to track its evolution; comments and suggestions are always welcome there. Whether in terms of design, navigability, or content, I’m always looking for ways to make Embarkations a more interesting place! (Or εὖ τόπος…)

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Peace Corps Aspiration Statement and my first steps in meeting it!

As part of one's preparation for the PC, they ask you to write an "Aspiration Statement" before you deploy.

Mine is rather long, (4 pages), but it's included after the jump for those who are interested.
The main theme of the whole thing is INTENTIONALITY.  I want to approach all aspects of my service intentionally, and not just let it fly by me the way life sometimes does.

So, in the spirit of that commitment, I am taking the first step toward that goal today, and leaving on a 11 day silent meditation retreat at the Vipassana Center in Illinois. When I return, it will be full scale packing mode! Literally, I'm flying out the door, late, right now! (Fitting, right?!)

So, cheers!

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Take the Poll!

Hey Readers,

Check out the page's new look!  Then, VOTE!  This is your God given natural inalienable eternal right as a reader, but if you don't vote, you can't complain!  SO, down with apathy, the poll is to the right.

I'm still tweaking the new layout...  I want to add a photo-stream over in the sidebar, and I want to figure out how to make the background a separate color over to the sides (past the text), and once I get to Moldova, I'd like to maybe make it a bit more, Moldova-ee, but, for now, this is it!

You know, sometimes ya just need a change.  The poll is open for 17 more days.

I'm Zachariah, and I approved this message.


Sunday, April 4, 2010

Channeling Moldova

It’s been about a month now since I accepted my invitation to serve as a Health Education Peace Corps Volunteer in Moldova, and recently, I’ve really felt that I’m starting to channel Moldova. This has been brought about by the past month’s activities, which have involved: 1) reading everything I could about Moldovan history, culture, politics, etc., 2) starting to study the language (Romanian), 3) reading lots of current Moldova PCV blogs, 4) reading up on public health and health education in Moldova, and 5) becoming comfortable answering the question “Where is Moldova?” Out of gracious magnanimity for the asker, I usually begin the reply to point five by pointing out many of my friends in Europe don’t know where Moldova is.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Peace Corps: the NEWS!

Many (most?) readers have probably already heard the news, so I won’t bother with much fanfare: I’ve finally received my Peace Corps Invitation, and accepted a placement to serve as a Health Education Specialist in Moldova, deploying June 8!