When I came here, I naively expected to find something poetic in the simplicity of poor village life. Of course, there are some poetic things about Moldova’s plight: the old lady who ambles around town wearing her husband’s seventy year-old war medals, for example, or the eternal flame at the Soviet-era war monument that’s long since gone out. But life in a Moldovan village, for all its quaintness, is more dull than poetic. Sure, there’s no strip malls or reality TV, but there’s no live music or restaurants, either.
What I’ve found instead of poetry are some of the same problems we have in America. Materialism and conspicuous consumption are present just as they are in the States, and to an unsettling degree: more than a few of my students have iPhones, for example, and all of them without exception have more expensive phones than mine (an iPhone is a month’s salary for an average Moldovan). I see more BMWs and Land Rovers in Chisinau in ten minutes than I might in an hour in a rich area of Nashville. Another example: one of my students invited me to his house; his family is renovating it with money his father has sent home from Moscow. He couldn’t wait to show me what will eventually be the jacuzzi his family will install in the bathroom and the boxes of $100 ceramic tiles with solid gold inlays that will cover the walls and floor.
The Moldovans who choose to spend their money this way (especially if they have gotten the money from a family member who is working abroad) do so in part because they have no confidence in the banking system or their currency: they fear waking up in the morning and finding that their bank has disappeared or their money is worthless (one of my students, whose parents work in Israel, receives their remittances in dollars; this is not unusual). Moldovans also have nothing else, really, to invest their money in or save up for: the government discourages entrepreneurship and it’s difficult and expensive to start a business; people don’t generally see buying real estate that they can then develop or rent out as a worthwhile investment. Thus, your options for investment or savings in Moldova are capital improvements on your home or keeping dollar bills in a drawer somewhere.
As this article argues, conspicuous consumption is normal for a developing society with newfound access to international markets: people in poorer societies want to put their luxury goods on display to distance themselves from the label of ‘poor’ or ‘developing,’ but this is merely a stage in development that will eventually give way to more responsible spending and investment. I can’t make up my mind whether I agree with this argument. Americans are not models of responsible spending, and it’s not my place to do any lecturing on the subject when the economic crisis is the result of Americans spending beyond their means.
When I first came to Moldova, I heard some longer-tenured volunteers say things like, “I read eighty books last year,” or, “I taught myself how to play the guitar over the winter — you’ll have a lot of free time when it gets dark at three in the afternoon,” or, “I run twice a day — there’s plenty of time for it,” or better yet, “Some weeks I had so little to do that I literally memorized entire pages of my Romanian-English dictionary.” I had planned on working hard every day here, but I was also thrilled to hear that people who seemed like good volunteers had time to spend on themselves in addition to helping their communities. I had hoped that my Peace Corps service would allow me the opportunity to do something practical and helpful for once in my life while still being able to exercise my body and my mind in my free time. And, after all, I only would have twenty hours of teaching time a week — that’s half of a full time job! — so I was convinced that I would be guaranteed to get in some quality ‘me’ time while still doing something to help others, or, at least more free time than I would have working at a law firm.
Oh, how wrong that all was. I’m not sure whether I’m just not as productive of a worker as the volunteers who apparently have all this free time, whether I have more opportunities for work in my community than they do, or whether I’m less willing to shirk my responsibilities for some personal time, but I’ve had exactly two days to spend on myself since the first week of January, and that includes weekends. Apart from those two days, I’ve filled the days doing something related to my job, and yet, I feel like I’m still leaving the majority of my work undone or doing it poorly.
I’m not the only person who feels this way, and Peace Corps is aware of this problem. Our Country Director makes sympathetic overtures — usually a weekly pep talk in an e-mail — but in practice I find I’m more discouraged after talking to my Program Manager (my direct supervisor) than encouraged. For example, once a semester our Program Manager (or her assistant) comes to observe a class at each English volunteer’s school. Last fall, I lucked out, and my supervisor came late and missed the class; but last month, her assistant came and observed one of my lessons with a twelfth grade class. My partner teacher and I work hard to make our lessons interesting for our students — they are in general all very good kids when they are intellectually stimulated — while also doing what’s mandated by the Ministry of Education: following the curriculum and using a textbook that explains grammar about as well as Sarah Palin explains intricate issues of foreign policy. The lesson that the Assistant Program Manager observed went so well that I wish every lesson could go as smoothly (and I am certain that a very small minority of English lessons in this country are as productive), yet what I took away from her comments afterward was that we were doing more things wrong than right. I spent more time preparing for that forty-five minute lesson than I did most exams in college and had barely slept in three days, and what she felt like dwelling upon was how we didn’t devote enough time to grammar during the lesson.
Another example: as English Education volunteers we are supposed to write lesson plans with our partners for every lesson that we teach; this requirement is evidently not Peace Corps’ but the Moldovan Ministry of Education’s. When our Assistant Program Manager, on a visit to observe another EE volunteer, asked to see some of that volunteer’s lesson plans and was told that she didn’t have them, the Assistant Program Manager told her that if she’s not writing her lesson plans then she’s not doing her job. The volunteer cried, and afterward she told me, “All I do is my job, and I’m supposed to be a volunteer.” One sympathizes: I rarely walk away from any sort of interaction with my supervisor, as supportive as she tries to be, feeling like I’m doing my job correctly. And Peace Corps wonders why it has a morale problem.
Peace Corps Moldova has volunteers in four programs: English Education (EEs), Health Education (Healthies), Agrobusiness (Ags), and Community Development (CODs). The CODs and Ags work at town halls and NGOs across the country, and in general volunteers in both programs do the sort of work that you think of when you think of the Peace Corps: writing grant proposals for installing indoor plumbing in schools, raising money in a community to create a working school nurse’s office, and so on. As far as the EE program is concerned, in addition to our responsibilities as teachers, we are also supposed to be CODs in whatever additional time we have (mostly during the summer).
In theory, this sounds like a great idea — combining a regular assignment with the sort of scattershot, grassroots development work that can help a community get what it needs to grow — but in practice doing both things well is impossible. Designing interactive, stimulating lessons for the number of hours we are expected to teach is difficult enough back in the United States, but when you’re teaching for the first time, teaching in a foreign culture, and living with time-consuming physical hardships (hand-washing clothes definitely takes away from my lesson plan writing time), you have a full plate. On the other hand, it’s difficult to tackle a community’s other development problems in a summer; most EE volunteers have one or two relatively small community development projects during the course of their service. I find I’m doing a mediocre job on both fronts thus far, and based on the opportunities and resources in my community, I think my time would be better spent working on development projects rather than teaching.
Philosophically I find my job to be even more frustrating. In my opinion, what my community in Moldova needs are creative young people who are motivated to invest themselves in their community, not English speakers; presently, a straw poll of my students shows that roughly ninety percent of them want to leave Moldova if they can to find work or study abroad. In theory, Peace Corps has an English Education program because
people realized that English was a valuable tool to help strengthen links with the democratic countries of the West, to enable Moldovans to participate more fully in international information exchange, and to better integrate into the international community from which it had been isolated during the Soviet era. (from the Peace Corps Moldova EE Project Plan)
In other words, having an English-speaking workforce would encourage Western businesses to invest in Moldova, which in turn would create jobs and increase the quality of life here. In practice, however, this isn’t happening because Moldova’s laws discourage foreign investment and make it difficult to start a business. Because there aren’t jobs here, young people have to leave to find work. Perversely, the better I do my job, the more I enable my students to flee their country, since those who speak English and can help their communities the most stand a better chance of obtaining a visa and living abroad legally.
Moldova presently has around one quarter of its population living abroad, and although remittances have helped Moldovans improve their living conditions, this mass emigration has created a phenomenon whereby many villages seem bereft of anyone between the ages of sixteen and sixty. No society will prosper if its workforce has fled, and a generation of Moldovans is growing up with one or both parents abroad. This student made film accurately captures the malaise:
And here is another, more light-hearted take on this phenomenon:
In short, not having enough time to do a good job on everything that needs to be done is frustrating; being told that you aren’t doing your job when that’s all you do is disheartening; and realizing that your hard work may just be pouring gasoline on a fire is heartbreaking.
I suppose my point is that the hardest part of being a volunteer has not been learning a new language, trudging through the snow to use the bathroom in the morning, bearing the scowls of the babas on the street who don’t know who you are, losing sleep because the mice in the floor make terrifying noises at night, or making do in the kitchen without a fridge; the hardest part for me have been those days when it feels like I have devoted every waking hour to my job but end the day feeling like I’ve failed at it. That’s tough.
“It is very … table. Yes. It is verrrry table. Very beautiful.”—A tenth grader who refuses to do anything in my class but try to insult the girl next to him in English; because of his accompanying hand gestures I was able to deduce that his intent was to call her ‘flat-chested.’
There are few things as ubiquitous or conspicuous in Moldova as the baba. Also known as a bunica or babushka, a baba is, at her simplest, an old lady and a grandma. Below you can see a baba in her natural habitat.
The word baba itself has a usage in everyday vernacular that is paradoxical in much the same way as the n-word is in America: it’s not acceptable for a non-baba to use the word (especially in the presence of a baba), but babas may use it to describe themselves, usually in an attempt at a joke or a forced attempt at humility.
The baba is to be respected, feared, and, if possible, befriended. Her powers of persuasion are legendary. The baba’s tools include guilt, shame, physical abuse, verbal abuse, and the evil eye, as well as sloppy kisses on the forehead and home cooking. She has her own rules, and she will prosecute any violations of her rules to the full extent of her abilities. She is Mary Poppins, Joseph Stalin, Ronald Reagan, Richard Nixon, Medusa, Paula Deen, the Fiddler on the Roof, George Costanza’s mother, and George Costanza’s father all rolled into one. If you should find yourself subject to a baba’s tyranny, you will wish you had never been born; yet when it comes to getting things done in Moldova it’s better to have a baba in your corner than anyone.
Very easy to spot in the wild, the baba has the build of what one would expect from the offspring of Humpty-Dumpty and John Madden, and she usually has a distinctive waddle and stoop. Marks of seniority in a baba troop include bunions, warts, gold teeth, and a thin and silvery but distinctly visible beard, mustache, or goatee. The baba is often spotted carrying a punga (a kind of cheap, plastic, hideously plaid bag about the size of a suitcase and used to carry groceries) or buckets of water from the well that a woman her age has no business carrying. For all the attention young Moldoveancas give to their appearance, the baba will wear whatever the hell she wants — she’s lived this long and has earned that right, by God — and her clothing is usually chosen for its warmth. A quilted vest, three or four shirts, three or four skirts, a head scarf with flowers on it, and what look like house shoes are the most common accoutrements of the baba; if there should be ice on the roads, you can expect to see babas wearing socks on top of their shoes as a way of providing traction.
The baba may often be seen performing essential household duties like cooking and cleaning, but she has a surprising range of abilities: she can be seen selling cheese or butter from a bucket, crocheting doilies, or working in the field. Outside the home, the baba is most commonly seen in, going to, or coming from the marketplace. When boarding crowded public transportation, a baba may clear room for herself by violently thrusting her belly into someone in her way (the baba is not of the disposition to offer supplicatory gestures like an ‘excuse me’ in public). When disembarking from public transportation, the baba may ignore the custom of walking to the front of the bus to ask the driver to stop, instead choosing to scream from the back of the bus like she’s on fire. The baba may also request an otherwise inconvenient disembarkation point — in the middle of a field, for instance — that will require her to waddle a great distance home, all in order to save ten cents on her bus fare.
Although she has no natural predators, the baba does have an irrational fear of cold. Nothing is more likely to strike fear into the heart of a baba or to provoke a baba’s ire than exposing her or a young child in her presence to a draft. Despite the fact that mild cold in itself has at best a tenuous causal connection to illness, anything that could possibly expose a person to cold air terrifies the baba. Any lack of respect for this danger — not wearing a hat when it’s below fifty degrees Fahrenheit outside, for example, or opening a window in a moving vehicle (especially if a child under ten is present in the vehicle) — is the surest way of incurring a baba’s wrath. The baba even fears surfaces reputed to be cold, like inert concrete, because, as we all know, sitting down on concrete makes women’s ovaries barren.
Despite her irascible temperament, the baba is a gregarious creature. When she is not laying down the law or working like a dog, the baba is communicating with other babas from her troop. Before the advent of the internet or television news, this network of babas — called Baba Radio — was how news was passed throughout a community, and even today it remains the most reliable source of local news. Baba Radio is also a baba’s most powerful tool: hell hath no fury like a village of babas knowing you do laundry on Sunday (a big no-no in babadom; other no-nos include whistling indoors and brushing your teeth ‘too much’). Babas are also quick to socialize with babas from other troops, and two babas meeting one another for the first time engage in a complex and majestic ritual involving conversation about the difficulties of babahood and whether, how much, and how well their children and grandchildren are eating.
Baba society has not changed significantly in the last thousand years, but the encroachments of modernity threaten its traditions. Interestingly, the baba will resist modernity in some spheres while happily adopting it in others. A baba may be seen to wield, understand, and properly use a cellular telephone but opt for an abacus instead of a calculator. A baba may dutifully take all of the medicine prescribed to her by the doctor, and this same baba may refuse to wash dishes or her hands with soap or warm water. A baba may spray the plants in her garden with poisonous chemicals and denounce any food grown outside that garden as dangerous and full of chemicals. The baba’s response to modernity will not, by any means, be recognized by the baba as hypocritical, irrational, or nonsensical, and the baba does not need to be told anything by gringos or their scientists, thank you very much.
While the baba may be quick to anger, she is easily placated by polite children and by talk of marriage. Should you get the opportunity to befriend a baba, you are advised take it. But beware: once a baba extends an offer of care to you, she will show an obsessive interest in your marriage prospects and making sure you eat more than you want to. If you refuse to eat, you will be admonished for neglecting your duty to ‘grow up big,’ no matter your age (this author has yet to find an effective way of handling a baba’s suggestion that he marry a fifteen-year old). But don’t underestimate the value of a baba’s friendship. While the baba and the gringo may seem to be natural enemies, the baba can be a gringo’s most valuable ally in the wild due to her ability to ward off other, more terrifying predators like the bellicose Russian-speaking drunkard or the baksheesh-seeking policeman.
The baba has a reputation for being a curmudgeon; anecdotal evidence suggests that this reputation is well-deserved. Yet the baba is also a docile creature who only asks that her rules be respected in her domain. Keep this in mind when approaching a baba, and you will prosper in babadom.
This is an old article that some of you may have read about countertrafficking in Moldova, but I met the woman the article is about, Stella Rotaru, last week at a meeting and decided to post it again. This article and Stella’s work is a big reason I decided to come to Moldova.