My first few months in Moldova were exhilarating. Every day there was the possibility that something unbelievable would happen to me: I would be dragged at the last minute to an eight-hour barbecue on the shore of a toxic lake; the relatives of my host family would try to set me up with someone underage; I would be asked if I wanted to help kill a barnyard animal. I learned not to have any expectations beyond breakfast on what I would be fed that day. Despite my dissatisfaction with our language training classes, my Romanian vocabulary grew by the hour. I noticed something new about my host village every time I left the house. Every night I was so exhausted that I could not waste the effort of thought on what might happen tomorrow, and I would pass out minutes after I hit the bed, sometimes at embarrassingly early hours.
Six months in, I still go to bed at an early hour most days, and I still am exhausted at the end of the day. But the rest has changed; I’ve arrived at a plateau. Teaching takes a lot of out me, so I rarely have energy to study Romanian or Russian at the end of the day and I’m learning less as a result. Because of the cold weather, the food has become more mundane: we have a rotation of chicken soup, rice, and potatoes for dinner. Since I live with an older couple rather than a family with teenage sons, there are fewer chances for spontaneous adventures. I know town well enough that I can avoid the rough parts of the road in the dark without a flashlight. I’ve also come to know my students more, so some of the more outrageous things that happen in the classroom have ceased to amaze me.
I had grown more aware of this plateau slowly, but last weekend I went back to Costesti for the first time since August and it (the plateau) was immediately obvious. (For example, I noticed right away that while my Romanian had improved a little I couldn’t say much more than I could in August.) I arrived mid-afternoon, and I was instantly ushered into the kitchen — the indoor kitchen, where we did not eat a single meal the whole summer — for my favorite Moldovan dish: mamaliga (grits) with brinza (soft cheese) and scrambled eggs with grilled pork mixed in. We drank this fall’s wine (which I had wanted to help with but I was unable to leave site that weekend), and then Nico and Condrat took me to their new refrigerated warehouse and showed me all of the grapes there. The warehouse is a long building divided into four refrigerated rooms, side by side. Each room is about half the size of an American high school gymnasium, stacked floor-to ceiling with crates of grapes. There’s a small office/apartment at the entrance where I ate sunflower seeds and drank wine with Nico and the men who were taking a break from loading grapes onto a semi bound for Russia. Later that night we drank more wine at the house across the street, where some other volunteers were visiting their former host family. Then we all went to the disco, where I played chess with the gangster who owns the place. Playing chess in a discotheque, with teenagers dancing and trance music pounding all around me, against an opponent who most likely came upon the money he used to open the place by extra-legal means, was a new experience that only highlighted how normal Moldova seems to me now. I was sad to just spend one night there.
Back at site, I’ve begun doing more after-school activities with my students. Last week, I refereed a girls’ basketball tournament at my school. A handful of girls had come to basketball practice before, but never more than three. At the tournament, there were at least four teams of five girls each, and they played a round-robin schedule. The girls played fully-dressed in what they wore to school that day, which generally means skinny black jeans and massive, pointy, and glittery belt-buckles. Most of the girls also have the standard Moldoveanca nail-job: long and filed to a point (like talons), and each nail is individually painted with a different design. When the ball came near the basket the game would deteriorate into a vicious tornado of leopard print, sequins, hair, and fingernails. I had to stop leaving my whistle stuck in my mouth (in anticipation of blowing it for the ubiquitous traveling infraction) because a few times I started laughing so hard I inadvertently blew the whistle. The gym coach, Doamna Nina, would laugh, shake her head, and mutter something under her breath that I didn’t understand. She was so disappointed in the girls’ play that after the tournament she spent close to an hour showing me her scrapbook of athletic awards that the school had won in her thirty years there. Most of them were yellowed, Soviet-era certificates for basketball and ping-pong. When she went to her office to return the scrapbook she cried audibly.
I’ve also started offering an English Club for my students after school. Last week I had six kids turn up for a group lesson on how blues, bluegrass, and gospel music from the American South were combined to form Rock & Roll. I played Bo Diddley, Aretha Franklin, Chuck Berry, and “I Am A Man of Constant Sorrow” for them, and we translated all of the songs together. The students overwhelmingly preferred Aretha’s cover of “The Weight” to the other songs we heard, with Bo Diddley’s “You Can’t Judge A Book by Looking at the Cover” coming in second. I also had American magazines out for them to flip through and read at their leisure; one of the students kept taking pictures of sweaters worn by models in ads in Esquire with his camera phone because he “knows a woman who can make sweaters from just a picture.”
Six kids is actually a number I’m happy with for English Club, because it’s difficult to get many of them to want to stay after school for anything. First, there isn’t a culture of on-campus, after-school activities for students, so they aren’t used to staying; second, the kids don’t get a lunch break (they go from 8:00 until 1:30 or 2:20 without eating anything), and they want to go home and eat. One of the kids who came to English Club is actually from the other Romanian-language liceu in town; she went to high school in Oregon last year as part of an exchange program and wants the opportunity to keep up her English, and it makes me feel like I’m doing something worthwhile if she’s going to make the special effort to come. I’m also starting an Odyssey of the Mind team at my school, and it’s no coincidence that all of the kids who came to English Club are also going to be on the team — they are all the best speakers in their respective classes. We had our first meeting last week to decide on the particulars, and our first real practice is next week.
These after-school events have given me the chance to learn a bit more about some of my students than I otherwise would. I had more-or-less individual meetings with each of the OM team members last week, and I learned what a couple of my twelfth graders hope to do after graduation, and what life as a student in Moldova is like from their perspective. These kids are part of a potentially earth-moving generation in Moldova: born after the fall of the Soviet Union to parents who were their age when the Berlin Wall fell, they have the benefit of being raised in a world as ignorant of Soviet communism as anyone born in this part of the world in one hundred years. They also were too small to remember the hardest years for newly-independent Moldova in the mid-1990’s, so most of them are neither disillusioned with capitalism nor are they predisposed to compare Moldova’s post-Soviet capitalist era unfavorably to the wistfully-remembered glory days of the USSR.
Some of the signs of the hard life their parents and grandparents have known are still there, though. One of my students, for example, is one of the smartest and prettiest girls in her class, but her otherwise delicate hands (one notices a lot about hands watching students write) show that eighteen years have not been so easy for her: some of her fingers have clearly been broken several times, and the skin on her palms looks as rough as a landscaper’s. Now that my experience here has arrived at a plateau, I’m beginning to notice that if this generation’s experience is the same as the previous one’s, Moldova may end up stuck on its own plateau.