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.
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- gubbiofarabia said: Great post. And I totally know what you mean about feeling effortlessly cool in a foreign land just because you’re part of a limited demographic, and then coming home and being like… “Wait - am I not a big deal anymore?!” It’s weird.
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