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)