This blog is closed down. That said, I’ve never stopped writing and am starting to be published or at least considered for publication elsewhere. You can stay up to date on my work at my new site, caseyalanmock.com.
What is here on One Bloc East? For the most part, commentary on events in Moldova/eastern Europe/the post-Soviet sphere, some mediocre photography, and the life adjustments a Southerner/Returned Peace Corps Volunteer must make upon moving to DC; before that, postcards and dispatches from my life and travels as a Peace Corps Volunteer in the Republic of Moldova, where I taught English from June 2009 until September 2010.
For a brief intro to everything I’ve written about Moldova (since the archives of the site are basically unnavigable), I’ve made a list of some of the more popular pieces I’ve written:
I was organizing my computer files the other day when I came across the site history report that I had to prepare before leaving Moldova. Basically, these site history reports are used by Peace Corps staff in deciding whether to continue placing volunteers in a given community and with a given partner or host family.
Clearly, a site history report will reflect the opinions of whomever wrote it, and a Peace Corps Volunteer (PCV) who has a bad experience in a given town or village will write a different story than a PCV who had a better experience in the same place. More importantly, however, the site history ideally should reflect a given PCV’s truthful opinions about his or her site, opinions unfettered by concerns about who might read it. The report is only useful if it’s honest and tells the whole truth.
I was never dishonest about what I wrote about my service on this site, but I was certainly selective about what I chose to write. Being a PCV with a blog can be a bit tricky, because anyone can read what you write, and for obvious reasons we are supposed to shy away from saying negative things about where we live or whom we work with.
After enough time passes after a breakup, we all tend to remember the better things about our exes; and so it is with me and Moldova (though it wasn’t a nasty break-up, and the good always outweighed the bad by far). Looking back, I found it interesting to read my site history and to be reminded of the difficult parts eight months later. And so do I present my site history report for your reading (n.b.: names have been redacted):
Site History Report - Anenii Noi Site Summary Anenii Noi is a raion center with a population of less than 10000 and about an hour by bus from Chisinau. The town and its nearby villages have been host to a number PCVs in the past, and it is in general a community that is welcoming to PCVs.
My primary partner organization was Liceul Teoretic Hyperion, a secondary school located in the town center. Hyperion has a student body of about 400 children in grades 10, 11, and 12. Students come to Hyperion from all over the district, and some live in an adjacent dormitory while classes are in session. The current director, Mr. E— M—, was installed as director at the end of the 2009-2010 academic year, following a sort of coup against the previous director, Ms. G— B—. Ms. B— herself was only director for the fall term in 2009, having just been elevated to the position following the retirement of the long-serving previous director. Ms. B—, a French teacher who I believe is no longer a faculty member at all, was anonymously accused of impropriety and denounced in a letter that was sent to national corruption investigators. She was hospitalized for stress when she was informed of the investigation, and did not return to the school for some weeks; she was replaced on an interim basis by the then-adjunct director, S— M— (who has since left for Italy).
From what I was able to find out, it was not clear that Ms. B— had done anything improper, and instead was the victim of the ambition of Mr. M—, who apparently had long coveted the directorship of the school. Mr. M— has outwardly never been anything but friendly and supportive of my presence, but I got the sense from my former host mother (who works at the district education office and knows these issues well) and my partner teachers that such machinations on his part (as in, the type that he may have committed in the lead-up to Ms. B—‘s departure) are not out of character. In short, Mr. M— is an excellent resource and takes his job seriously but is not to be trusted unequivocally. As for Mr. P—, the present adjunct director: he was always suspicious of me and I am not convinced that he is very good in his present position; I often overheard students gossiping about his awkward, forced attempts at flirtation with his female students. Other teachers at the school are generally open to the presence of a volunteer, though some more so than others. The gym teacher, N— V—, was especially supportive and helpful.
At Hyperion I worked with three partner teachers: J— P—, H— S—, and P— L—. Mr. L— is very bright, speaks the best English of the three, and is very Westernized (he has been to Iowa and Great Britain for extended trips), but has some health problems due to his age and does not prefer to dedicate much of his energy to his efforts in the classroom; he is more interested in raion politics that go on across the street from the school than teaching. He has also been known to miss school for weeks at a time, ostensibly for health issues but possibly for drinking binges. He is, however, a valuable partner in after-school undertakings such as Odyssey of the Mind, has useful connections throughout the town, and is a veteran grant proposal writer. He has some connections with other NGOs in town, and should be a point man for any community development projects.
H— S— is also very bright – she likes to read Shakespeare in English and also speaks very good French – and enjoys her job more than most teachers. She is the youngest of Hyperion’s English teachers, but is also very, very conservative, and can make inappropriate (by American standards) comments in class about religion or sexual orientation. She has two very young children, and will unexpectedly miss days at a time to care for them. She has a tendency to ignore weaker students and in general to give the students work that is much too difficult along with a lot of superfluous vocabulary. She is ambitious, and is a bit of an outcast among other faculty for her ambition; she has a tendency to rub people the wrong way. Her teaching skills require the most work, and as she can be stubborn it will take a very strong-willed volunteer to break her of her bad classroom habits.
J— P— is, in short, the best partner a volunteer could ask for. Her English is the weakest of the three, but she is very, very good with students – she effortlessly makes lessons entertaining for students while still ensuring they learn – and she is always open minded about new methods and activities. She understands what is truly important in the classroom. She also is a straight-talker, and is a valuable resource for a volunteer trying to understand goings-on in the school and in the community.
Anenii Noi has a hospital near the middle of town and quite a few people who speak English well who could be potential tutors. Internet, banking services, and mobile phone service are all ubiquitous. There are at least a dozen buses to Chisinau every day that leave from the new, modern bus station; the trip takes an hour and buses generally leave every twenty-five minutes. The train stops outside of town near the road to Bulboaca and Cobusca.
Anenii Noi is generally safe. I did hear one unsubstantiated story of a teenage girl being raped and possibly murdered behind the outhouses at the local discotheque this summer. Having been to that disco myself, I can say that the fact that this might have happened at this spot is not surprising. I’ve also heard a story about a string of unresolved murders a decade or more ago, and another story about local mafia meeting in the woods on the edge of town.
In general, people in Anenii Noi are receptive to the Peace Corps. The Russian school, unfortunately, has had a string of bad luck with volunteers who terminated their service early under less-than-ideal circumstances, and one female volunteer there in particular established quite a negative reputation for herself in the town. The two Romanian schools, on the other hand, remember their volunteers fondly. A recent agribusiness volunteer was quickly forgotten; I did not meet anyone who knew him during my time in town. In my experience, it is not made clear to town members that volunteers are not paid a teacher’s salary and are in fact volunteers; advertising this fact better would go along way for increasing public opinion in the town. Romanian speakers will have some difficulty, as most people speak Russian on the street, and I would estimate that 80% of conversations I hear are in Russian. People working at local restaurants and shops often will only speak Russian and do not understand Romanian at all.
A— and V— D— were my hosts for the first six months at site. They are supportive, wonderful hosts, and I had no complaints. After that, I moved into a house in the nearby village of Bulboaca. The house is owned by a man named V— who owns the AutoService next to the gas station in Bulboaca. The house is old, has a sink with running water, but no refrigerator, bath, or indoor toilet. During the winter there was a serious rodent problem. V— wants to sell the house, and will overcharge you if he thinks he can get away with it. I cannot recommend that a volunteer stay in this house again. For more housing possibilities, I would recommend calling J— P— and would avoid asking teachers at the Russian school for recommendations. Another possibility is A— D—; she is a American high school exchange program alumna and may have housing suggestions.
Work Summary In addition to teaching at Hyperion, I also was involved with the local basketball team and coached an Odyssey of the Mind team at my school. I can strongly recommend that subsequent volunteers get involved with Odyssey of the Mind; there are a number of local kids with experience in the program, and its goals align well with the goals of the EE program. Before I left, I was set to begin a new civic education project with P— L—, and this is something he is still interested in; I still feel that such a project has great potential and would recommend following up on it. V— S— is a good contact for local athletics and youth programming. He has been to the United States and enjoys working with volunteers, and is interested in working with future PCVs on sports camps and the like.
Final Recommendations I can strongly recommend that another PCV be assigned to Anenii Noi, and in particular to Hyperion. My students and partners all expressed to me that they would like another volunteer. I would recommend that any future volunteer at Hyperion be particularly good with older students and be much more than just an English teacher, as the high quality of both the English teachers and the students demands a volunteer who can share other skills and experience with them.
Anenii Noi would also be a good site for a community development volunteer. There are opportunities for work in both civic education and in general youth development. I would strongly recommend, however, that any community development volunteer be trained in Russian rather than Romanian.
Germany, Austria and Italy are standing together in the middle of a pub when Serbia bumps into Austria and spills Austria’s pint. Austria demands Serbia buy it a complete new suit because there are splashes on its trouser leg. Germany expresses its support for Austria’s point of view. Britain recommends that everyone calm down a bit.
Serbia points out that it can’t afford a whole suit, but offers to pay for the cleaning of Austria’s trousers. Russia and Serbia look at Austria. Austria asks Serbia who it’s looking at. Russia suggests that Austria should leave its little brother alone. Austria inquires as to whose army will assist Russia in compelling it to do so. Germany appeals to Britain that France has been looking at it, and that this is sufficiently out of order that Britain should not intervene. Britain replies that France can look at who it wants to, that Britain is looking at Germany too, and what is Germany going to do about it?
Germany tells Russia to stop looking at Austria, or Germany will render Russia incapable of such action. Britain and France ask Germany whether it’s looking at Belgium. Turkey and Germany go off into a corner and whisper.
When they come back, Turkey makes a show of not looking at anyone. Germany rolls up its sleeves, looks at France, and punches Belgium. France and Britain punch Germany. Austria punches Russia. Germany punches Britain and France with one hand and Russia with the other. Russia throws a punch at Germany, but misses and nearly falls over. Japan calls over from the other side of the room that it’s on Britain’s side, but stays there. Italy surprises everyone by punching Austria.
Australia punches Turkey, and gets punched back. There are no hard feelings because Britain made Australia do it. France gets thrown through a plate glass window, but gets back up and carries on fighting. Russia gets thrown through another one, gets knocked out, suffers brain damage, and wakes up with a complete personality change. Italy throws a punch at Austria and misses, but Austria falls over anyway.
Italy raises both fists in the air and runs round the room chanting. America waits till Germany is about to fall over from sustained punching from Britain and France, then walks over and smashes it with a barstool, then pretends it won the fight all by itself. By now all the chairs are broken and the big mirror over the bar is shattered. Britain, France and America agree that Germany threw the first punch, so the whole thing is Germany’s fault. While Germany is still unconscious, they go through its pockets, steal its wallet, and buy drinks for all their friends.
If I never came out and said it, it should have been obvious from my Brief Interviews with Moldovans series of posts that I got a lot of attention from Moldovan girls during my sixteen months there. (Moldoveanca means ‘female Moldovan,’ if that wasn’t already clear from the content of the dialogues.) It started on the first day of school last year, after I gave a short speech in front of the student body in Romanian, when I was given more bouquets of flowers and bars of chocolate than I could carry. Every morning thereafter was like the opening number from Beauty and the Beast, with girls who often weren’t even my students competing to see who could say ‘Buna Dimineata’ (Good Morning) to me first.
(Although I am clearly a dude and Belle is clearly not, there are disturbingly many similarities between this sequence and my daily walk to school, most significantly the fact that all of the villagers were likely talking about how peculiar and possibly crazy I was.)
While I can admit that I’d be lying if I told you that I didn’t like being treated like a member of a boy band, the fact of the matter was that my biggest female fans in Moldova were either students or underage or both, and the constant bombardment made me uncomfortable at first and threatened to make my already difficult job more difficult. Thankfully, I became adept at employing the more aggressive girls as sargeants-at-arms in class: when boys would act up (it was always the boys) I could count on the girls to tell them to shut up, which was always much more effective than if I had done something about it myself.
I didn’t know what to do with the attention at first mostly because I was unused to it. I know that I’m no uggo, but I’ve also never had the effect on American girls whereby a smile and a good morning could elicit a nervous giggle and a doe-ish batting of the eyes. In fact, it’s always taken a lot of prodding and advance intel that I won’t crash and burn immediately to get me to speak to an American girl — I never hit on random girls at bars, for example. And as I mentioned recently, as an unemployed, somewhat homeless twentysomething, I’m not exactly what the DC girls would call a catch; in other words, while I felt like a superhero in Moldova, now I’m back to just being just plain Peter Parker, pre-radioactive spider bite.
So imagine my surprise when I was walking down the street two days ago in my suit (I was coming from an interview) at around 1:30 in the afternoon near the Chinatown metro stop, right outside the chintzy “Crime and Punishment Museum,” when a girl — in her twenties, neither exceptionally well-dressed nor poorly so — separated herself from a line of tourists waiting to get into the museum and made eye contact with me (it was unclear whether she had been waiting with them).
"Hey, how are you?" she asked me.
"Um, I’m fine, how are you?"
"Oh, good," was her half-bored reply. Then she perked up: "You’re gorgeous. Are you going to come back to chat with me later?"
All of this happened in enough time that I didn’t have to break stride, and I told her maybe and continued on my way.
She didn’t look like a hooker, and 1:30 pm outside of a museum in Chinatown would seem an unlikely time/place for a dragon lady to find a john, but I really can think of no other explanation for what she said to me and/or why. The joke was on her if she thought I had money because I was wearing a suit, I guess.
The story doesn’t end there, however (well, hers does — don’t get excited). Last night, a friend and I were heading home from watching the election returns over 25 cent wings at a bar near the Hill. While we were waiting on the metro platform, a pretty girl came up to us; she had a pale complexion and dark hair, but it worked for her, and her coat and black suede boots with fringe looked expensive. She wanted to know in which direction was the Navy Yard stop.
"You’ve got to go to L’Enfant and get on the green line," I told her (I’m already a metro expert).
"No way." She walked away to check out the map — it turned out I was right — then came back our way.
"I’m going to meet a friend," she volunteered. "Where are you going?"
We said we were headed home after watching the election returns at a bar.
"Oh, it’s going to be a big night!" She had a manic smile on her face. I noticed she was wearing a lanyard that said ‘Fire Pelosi.’
"I used to be a Democrat but I’ve seen the light now that I have a job," she continued. "Are you Republicans?" Her tone was less conversational than it was aggressive, in that I felt like she wasn’t genuinely interested in politics but in talking to men who were.
I said I was independent; my friend said he was a Republican.
"Do you want to see something really inappropriate?" she asked us. She was fiddling with a beat-up Blackberry. "My friend sent me this picture."
We said okay — at the time, before she showed us anything, I couldn’t help but think about the scene from Borat when he shows Polaroids of his family to a lady who recoils to find a nude, incestuous shot or two mixed in — and she then showed us a picture of a naked obese woman in a bathtub, ankles pushed behind her head, in the throes of having a bout of explosive diarrhea that arcs through the air into her own open mouth. Yes, after twenty seconds of conversation, this is the picture she shows two strangers at a metro stop.
She claimed to be a law student at the University of Maryland, and most of what she said checks out (although she did claim to ‘love’ Contracts, which no one in his right mind likes). Yet she was so aggressive in a kind of distant, unfocused way — sort of like a child beggar — that she made me feel like she wanted something from me. I left the Metro wondering if she were some sort of odd hooker herself.
I guess the larger question is what does it say about my self-esteem that I assume that every woman who approaches me now that I’m home is a prostitute?
Recently, I wrote that in my experience so far, Peace Corps’ warnings about ‘reverse culture shock’ have been overstated. I still think that’s true, but wanted to relate the following:
It comes as no surprise that, as an unemployed former Peace Corps volunteer who, after five weeks, is still sleeping on his friend’s sectional, I am one of the most poorly dressed twentysomethings in DC. Not that I was ever on the cutting edge of fashion, but before I went into the Peace Corps I gave a lot of my clothes to Goodwill, and so now I have only what I had with me in Moldova plus two ill-fitting suits, a few dingy white dress shirts, and a suitcase full of grey, Tennessee-sports themed t-shirts my mom sent to me when I got back. In a town full of well-dressed yuppies and judgmental hipsters (not to be too pejorative), I feel like I fell off the turnip truck whenever I go out in public.
Although hipster-ism has been around awhile, I have never been around it, or at least, didn’t know I was. I lived in Austin for a year before I went to law school and didn’t think it was as awesome as everyone says it is: whenever I wanted to go out and do something fun, I ended up feeling like I wasn’t supposed to be where I was because I wasn’t cool enough. At the time I didn’t know the word for these people who thronged the dive music venues around Sixth Street, who wore oversized headphones on the bus, and who seemed to look down upon my apparently Springsteen-album-cover-inspired “look” and mainstream taste in music. They had just started to arrive in Nashville — a city I love and have long described to people as an Austin that doesn’t care how cool it is — when I left for Moldova, but still didn’t know who these people were. And it’s no big surprise that they weren’t around in the village in Moldova, where mesh shirts are high fashion. It’s only now that I’ve come back, to a relatively buttoned-down, slacker-free city no less, that I’ve come to know the hipster.
My second week back, still before I knew what hipster truly meant, I had an interview. The weather report said that there would be rain on the morning I’d be walking around in my suit, so I decided that after taking in a movie (my first in a theater in 17 months!), I would stop somewhere convenient to get an umbrella. Next door to the theater was what seemed to be, from the outside, a chain clothing store: pretty standard mall stuff, if a little trendier than the Gap or J Crew. (I went in only because it happened to be next door and seemed to be the only place in the immediate vicinity that might sell umbrellas. I don’t have a car, and the place I’d normally go — Target — is not easily accessible.) I expected that I might be forced to buy something like an umbrella with a PBR logo on it, but I rationalized the idea by saying it would be worth it to not have to walk all over the place. Thus began my first experience with a place called Urban Outfitters.
And I nearly had a panic attack.
The experience was more frightening than anything I ever confronted in Moldova — even hitchhiking with a car full of thick-necked, possibly drunk Russians. I’ve never been in a place where I so viscerally felt I didn’t belong, and while I was cautiously browsing through all of the ironic chatchkas in the accessory section looking for my umbrella, I overheard a girl who was wearing a fedora and a scarf on a 90 degree day call the band Grizzly Bear “too mainstream” for her. She saw me looking at her, stopped, looked me up and down, and (I’m pretty sure) rolled her eyes before continuing. I had to get out of there.
And so here I am, returned from the Peace Corps, wearing my ratty dad jeans out to bars where every dude is either in a suit or bearded and wearing a t-shirt with airbrushed unicorns on it. One of these is not like the others.
(If you want a good read today, check out this piece in New York Magazine on hipsters; I learned a lot, including that I apparently am a little hipster myself given my affinity for Dave Eggers, McSweeney’s, the movie Rushmore, and a v-neck shirt I have that I don’t always wear as an undershirt.)
It’s now been about two and a half weeks since I returned to the States. Peace Corps, from the beginning, makes a big show of warning returning volunteers about the dangers of ‘reverse culture shock,’ but I’m not really surprised to find that those warnings seemed overblown. Either reverse culture shock has passed me by, or I’m in for a delayed freak-out in the coming weeks.
That doesn’t mean I haven’t had some social anxiety now that I’m home. I still find myself mapping out sentences in my head — sometimes in Romanian — before I’m forced to interact with Washington’s countless waitresses, cashiers, and bartenders, only to have it all come out stilted: “I pay money to you now?” Even before I went to Moldova, I made mental conversation scripts in English as a prelude to any kind of unfamiliar social interaction — especially before making a phone call when I thought there was a possibility I would be forced to leave a message — but in Moldova I couldn’t function without it. (In fact, I knew I had ‘made it’ linguistically when I could make an off-the-cuff phone call in Romanian; talking on the phone in a foreign language is harder than it might seem.) I’m really hoping it (the scripting) wears off soon — it’s not a tic that comes off as endearing.
Coming home has also taken me down a peg or two socially. In Moldova I could count on the fact that most locals I met under the age of fifty were going to like me simply because I was a funny foreigner who smiled at them and who made an effort in their own language; now, I actually have to be likable. My time in Moldova was also the only time in my life when I could effortlessly strike up a conversation with the prettiest girl in the room; as a decent-looking American who has all his teeth and doesn’t smoke, pass out drunk in the street, or hit women, I was well-aware of the fact that I was one of the most eligible bachelors within a ten mile radius. Now, I’m just an unemployed twenty-something who sleeps on his friend’s sectional and has three suitcases of possessions, no car, and ratty clothes. My desirability, street cred, and general local importance have plummeted to ranking just above that of a member of the glee club. I never felt comfortable in the spotlight, but didn’t expect to miss it.
The Peace Corps cliche says that the physical hardships are the easy part of serving, and modern American conveniences have been easy to get used to having again, but my appreciation for them has not worn off. Hot water (and potable water, more importantly) makes me feel spoiled, as does access to a washer and dryer. The toilet paper is soft, the fridge cold; milk lasts days, not mere hours. But the things I missed the most were more subtle: long morning runs without stares or mud, college football with friends and a glass of bourbon. The hardest part of being a volunteer was always having no choice in how to allocate my finite supply of willpower and patience — this is the best way I can think of to articulate that struggle, but it doesn’t come close to capturing the soul-crushing frustration a volunteer feels on some days. Turning the other cheek at a rude comment, remaining mindful of the volunteer’s role as local American ambassador, and capitulating to the attitudes and superstitions of villagers, to list a few of the job’s requirements, wear down the spirit and leave very little mental energy for anything else. The absence of that albatross is what I now revel in the most, and perhaps that’s why I’ve yet to use a microwave, eat fast food, or drink a Dr. Pepper — those conveniences seem even more trivial than they did while I was in Moldova.
Leaving the village was hard. I had written a couple of paragraphs about my last few days there, but my computer locked up and I don’t want to rewrite them now — maybe later this week. I want to acknowledge all the nice comments I’ve received in the last few weeks — I think it would be obnoxious to respond to them all — so now that my service has ended I would like to thank you all for reading.
So I apologize that I’ve been MIA for the last two weeks, but for reasons I won’t explain here, I’ve had to end my Peace Corps service early and move to Washington, DC. I left on Wednesday, and it was really hard to leave all the Moldovans I care so much about; though I am confident that I’ve done what will be best for me and the people I care about in the end.
I will hopefully have time to write some final entries about Moldova next week. In the meantime, I’d like to ask all of you to help me decide what to do with this space. Should I write and post pictures of/about DC? Should I write commentary on international politics? Other suggestions?
The spot where Gavrilo Princip, a Bosnian Serb who was really unhappy with Austria-Hungary’s annexation of Bosnia and Hercegovina, fought his way through a crowd by pistol-whipping a pedestrian and shot Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife, Sophie, on June 18, 1914, igniting World War I.