July 19, 2010

thedobryden said: The Romanian Embassy is not giving visas to Moldovans as easily as you think. Just last week, I spent several hours at the embassy with my host sister waiting for her to get her visa. She was applying for one in hopes of traveling to Romania this past weekend to apply for Romanian citizenship (which she is guaranteed, as her grandparents are Romanian). However, after several hours, she was rejected for no apparent reason. Earlier, she had tried applying by mail for citizenship, but each time, she would get no response. She has also had friends who had lots of problems getting into Romania in order to obtain citizenship. Right now, she feels very trapped here, and is losing confidence that Romania truly wants to get closer with Moldova. Why were you at the embassy?

That’s unfortunate about your sister’s story; I’ve heard plenty of similar stories and by no means do I think that such visas come easy for Moldovans. I hope she has better luck in the future.

As for your question, I wasn’t at the embassy, but I do walk by it every time I go to the Peace Corps office in Chisinau.

FILED UNDER: ask! romania moldova 
June 23, 2010

riotousroots said: Hi! I just found your blog and really like it so far. I'd love to go into the Peace Corps after college (this would be four years down the road) so I was just wondering what the process of entering such an organization was like. Do you enjoy your work?

All I can say about the PC application process is that it seems more designed to weed people out who aren’t committed rather than to put people in the best place for their talents. The whole process is unnecessarily difficult and frustrating. I had great grades in college, had put in time in difficult conditions abroad when I worked on archaeological excavations, had experience learning a difficult language, and came with a law degree on top of all that; my placement officer told me I was underqualified to be in the Peace Corps and made me jump through a bunch of unnecessary hoops just to get here, presumably to test my resolve.

As for whether I enjoy it: teaching is difficult, and doing community-development stuff is even tougher. It’s frustrating to work so hard for something so intangible — you may never see the fruits of your labors. And living in a strange culture requires innumerable surrenders on your part every day that add up to a larger, existential headache.

The easiest part, being the semi-official American ambassador to my community, is what sustains me. Making friends and trying to get everyone to like me (and by extension, the United States), preconceptions and stereotypes notwithstanding, deliver satisfying moments more frequently than the other parts of the job. For example, every time someone gives me a backhanded compliment like, ‘I thought all Americans were morbidly obese until I met you,’ or, ‘I thought all Americans were boorish, but you’re not at all,’ or, ‘I thought all Americans cared about was money, but what you’re doing is really great,’ my Grinch-like heart grows three sizes. Maybe it’s not enough to make up for the negative perception the United States has abroad, but getting them to put a benevolent face to the superpower that in their estimation has only given the world Britney Spears, McDonald’s, and Guantanamo Bay is a fulfilling little victory in a job where big victories are few and far between.

June 4, 2010

Anonymous said: Hey I'm thinking about applying for the corp for your or another eastern european location. Your blog is great I really like reading it, just found it earlier this week. I have two questions, the first is that are you placed with other PCV's and how do you meet other PCV in the region? Though training? Are you placed near each other? Do you hang out after work or is it mostly you see each other on vacation times? I need some understanding of what the social life is like so I can better picture how a typical day would be. Also, I'm a girl, I'm worried about the safety of that area of the world, do you know any PCV that are girls and how they feel about safety?

Thanks so much for your time! I'll keep reading :D

Are you placed with other Peace Corps Volunteers (PCVs) and how do you meet up?
  • A big group of us went through training together last summer — about sixty — and during that time we lived in smaller groups in 4 or 5 separate villages. I had 2 volunteers as neighbors during training, and there were 16 of us overall in one village. As for site placement, it all depends. I actually started out as one of two volunteers in my town, but the other volunteer quit. There is one volunteer about 15 minutes from me, and another about 20 minutes away. Other PCVs have to travel much further to find the nearest American. I go into the capital at least twice a month — usually on weekends — and I always see other PCVs then. In general, you see other PCVs as much as you care to, though unless you are in the same town as another volunteer, social time will usually have to be on the weekends.
How is it being a female PCV in Moldova?
  • Being a female PCV in Moldova is a unique challenge. As Americans in small villages and towns that normally don’t see many outsiders, all of us generally get a lot of unwanted attention, and that can cause problems for the women. There have been a handful of incidents of sexual assault on PCVs here in the past. Such incidents are, of course, never the victim’s fault, but I can tell you that with responsible decision-making w/r/t alcohol and a bit of common-sense (like knowing it’s a bad idea to walk down a desolate country road alone, for example), tragedies of that nature are usually avoidable. In the end, how safe you feel is really up to you: the better you are at integrating into your host community, the more your host community members will have a stake in seeing to it that nothing ill befalls you. Most female PCVs make it through their service without anything terrible happening apart from unwelcome stares or lewd comments.

Got a question? Ask me! Seriously — and it doesn’t have to be related to anything I’ve written here; the randomer the better.

FILED UNDER: ask! peace corps 
May 30, 2010

theydothingsdifferentlythere said: A truly inspirational submission from Moldova in this year's Eurovision! Alistair and Sam feel that you Peace Corps kids have to be congratulated on the role you must have played in bringing the group together!

We also suspect that the piece was improved by the fact that our tv was on mute...

All the same, hope all is well on your side of the continent!

Personally I thought Moldova’s submission this year was so terrible that I can’t even bring myself to be sarcastic about it, but I also think that most of this year’s entries were terrible. The German song that won was okay, though I prefer the Azerbaijani song if I absolutely have to choose a favorite.

Eurovision is one of those peculiarly European things which, as an American, I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to understand. We have American Idol, which I loathe, but it’s a horse of a very different color as far as I can tell.

I find it annoying that everyone sings in English and not their native language. That is, of course, excepting the French, whose refusal to sing in English is also annoying.

Things are good over here, and the East anxiously awaits your arrival.

Got a question? Ask me! Seriously — and it doesn’t have to be related to anything I’ve written here; the randomer the better.

FILED UNDER: ask! eurovision 
May 12, 2010

Anonymous said: Could you tell us what learning Romanian was like? What language experience did you have pre-Peace Corps? How much did you learn before you left? etc. etc.

Just as my service here in Moldova has had its peaks and valleys, so has my language learning. During our twelve weeks of training, learning Romanian was almost effortless; I was bound to learn a whole lot since no one in my host family spoke English and I had to find some way of communicating. It’s been more of a challenge to continue to improve my Romanian since training ended simply because at the end of the day I have limited mental energy to devote to studying, but I’ve been consistently getting better at it since I moved out on my own because I am now forced to tackle any number of strange situations on a given day just to take care of everyday business.

Being an English teacher, I sort of got the short end of the stick since I’m not forced to use my language skills as much as volunteers who work with NGOs, mayor’s offices, or those who teach health; they all do their jobs in Romanian. In fact, I’m expected to speak as much English as possible at work, so I sometimes go whole days without speaking a word of Romanian, while volunteers in other programs go days without speaking English. Because of this disadvantage, the volunteers who are English teachers are generally the weakest Romanian and Russian speakers among the four programs, though there are exceptions.

I have three major gripes with the way we were taught Romanian: (1) our language instructors — native Romanian speakers themselves who speak good English — are told by Peace Corps not to use any English during the lessons; (2) the textbook we used was terrible; and (3) we were taught proper Romanian Romanian, not the Romanian that most Moldovans speak.

As for the first gripe, I understand the philosophy behind not using English in the classroom, but it’s my opinion that some points of grammar are so foreign to us as language learners that they will remain obfuscated until clarified in terms that we understand, while the immersive value of the Romanian-only-in-the-classroom rule is minimal when every waking moment of our day is an immersion experience. My complaint about the textbook is also about grammar instruction: the book presents the grammar piecemeal as mere examples to be memorized, not in a way that will allow you to see a reductive pattern that you can learn to apply to new constructions on the fly as a way of experimenting with what you’ve learned — in my opinion, how you can really learn a language.

As for my third complaint: while I enjoy the compliment I sometimes get from Moldovans that I speak Romanian like a Romanian, it makes life much more difficult when I don’t know the local word for something basic, especially when our Romanian-made dictionaries are no help. We were strongly discouraged from learning Russian words during training, even though sometimes the Russian word for something may be the only word a Moldovan knows for that thing. And apart from the Russian words that have crept into the Moldovan vernacular, the differences between Romanian Romanian and Moldovan Romanian are many. I won’t go into the minutiae here, but if someone asks for it I’d be happy to tell everyone all about it. Simply put, the difference between Romanian as spoken by Moldovans and Romanian as spoken by Romanians is like the difference between Appalachian English and the Queen’s English: there are many words that are just plain different or don’t exist in the other dialect — like holler (used as a noun describing a feature of geography) in Appalachian English or lorry in British English — as well as marked, regular changes in pronunciation. We weren’t even told to expect these differences by our teachers.

I’m a bit of a language nerd. I had four years of French in high school, tested out of two years of college French, took a year of Italian and a year and a half of German while in college, as well as three years of ancient Greek and two years of Latin. I also studied Greek and Latin for an additional year when I was in a PhD program (which I quit in order to go to law school), and I did some graduate-level coursework in linguistic typology and universal grammar. There was maybe a point in my life at which I spoke Italian and French as well as I spoke Romanian at the end of training, but that’s a big maybe; I can still read a bit of French, while all of my Italian and German has left me for want of an opportunity to put them to use. I have a good understanding of the way languages function in general, so understanding the nuts and bolts of a language’s grammar has never been a problem for me. Getting beyond that, though, has always been difficult, in part because I’m not very good at learning vocabulary.

I didn’t learn much Romanian before I left because I couldn’t find a good descriptive grammar book in English and because a lot of the pronunciation rules are difficult to understand until you actually get here and hear the language being spoken on the street. Romanian has a couple of vowel sounds that are difficult for English speakers to make, and there are some pronunciation rules that are almost impossible to get a grasp on from across the Atlantic. Frankly, I knew almost nothing when I arrived. Everyone else was pretty much in the same boat.

I am still learning new words and constructions every week just from talking to people, but most of my energy I devote to studying Russian on my own because it’s so widely spoken in my town. I taught myself the Cyrillic alphabet during the fall, and now I can count to sixty in Russian, describe colors, and name some items around the house. I can make very, very simple sentences, and I know some colorful cuss words as a result of playing basketball with Russian speakers. Hopefully, once school is out, I’ll have the opportunity to devote more time to it.

Finally, for those incoming volunteers who want to know which language you will be learning: no matter what you hear, there is no real rhyme or reason behind who gets assigned to what language. I had heard that people who had studied a non-Romance language or a language that was written in a different alphabet get put into Russian, but I know at least three people for whom that is not true, including myself. I actually asked to be put into Russian, but my request was ignored, despite my relatively broad (albeit shallow) experience with languages. Not that I’m bitter or anything.

Got a question? Ask me! Seriously — and it doesn’t have to be related to anything I’ve written here; the randomer the better.

May 7, 2010

Anonymous said: I just recently discovered your blog and I really love it. I haven't gotten to read through everything because I've only just finished exams and completed my [first year of law school], so I've been a little hectic up until now. Anyway, I have several friends who are RPCVs, including my ex boyfriend who I obviously got to talk about the Peace Corps with quite a bit. I gave some consideration to applying when I graduated from college in 2008, but ultimately didn't and started law school last fall. I know I want to do something in the public sector, very likely environmental law, but am now regretting that I didn't take more time to get a little bit more life experience kind of stuff, and am really feeling compelled to do something. I traveled for a while during my year between college and law school (and in the past have traveled quite a bit), but wish I had traveled more and I've been starting to think about whether I'd like to serve in the Peace Corps after graduating. I think alternatively I would spend a year or a little more traveling. I know that there is a lot of opportunity for traveling and other great experiences while working as a volunteer, but there is a lot I want to see and I might like the opportunity to have broader experiences, but I'm wondering if the Peace Corps would give me a little more legitimacy as far as having something on my resume rather than a block of time where I wasn't doing anything after finishing law school. Anyway, the thought of joining the Peace Corps after law school hadn't really crossed my mind at all until I found your blog and I'm curious to hear what your thoughts are. My other concerns are about feeling like I'm not doing a whole lot; I know a lot of people feel frustrated in trying to do their projects either because of local hesitation or problems with Peace Corps itself. (It seems like the latter has been kind of an issue for you?) But overall do you still feel like it's been a good experience?

Thanks for the kind words; I’m always happy to hear that people are finding something of value in what I write. And congrats on finishing your first year of law school — the hard part is over.

I have had some frustrations with Peace Corps itself but they’ve been resolved for the most part. I’d say the biggest problem I have with PC is that I don’t find my particular job intellectually satisfying, but in a month my job here will change, a change I’ve asked PC to make to take care of that problem. My days are always full, but every volunteer’s experience is different, and whether you are satisfied with what you might be doing is more dependent on your personality than on Peace Corps itself. As for me, I think that joining the Peace Corps after law school may be the best decision I’ve ever made.

I can’t really give you a whole lot of advice on what sort of difference doing something like joining the Peace Corps will make in getting a job after you’re finished because (1) I’m not there yet and (2) I have no idea what I will try to do when I do get there. If you are planning on practicing law, I can say that it would probably be difficult to graduate from law school, join the Peace Corps, then get the sort of job that actually involves writing briefs or going into courtrooms, whether it be in private practice or in the public sector. Think of it this way: if you were hiring an attorney, would you want someone who has never practiced law but just finished law school and took the bar, or someone who has never practiced law and has spent the last two years forgetting everything he/she learned getting that JD? In my experience, lawyers who are hiring other lawyers generally care more about easily-packaged achievements on your resume like law review than life-changing experiences; they want to know that you can find stuff on Westlaw and don’t really care or want to hear whether you’ve grown as a person recently. I don’t plan on ever setting foot in a courtroom or opening a Bluebook again, so that’s not an issue for me — but it might be something for you to consider if you are worried about legitimacy. Of course, spending two years in the Peace Corps will probably look a lot more legitimate to a potential employer than wandering around the globe for a year if you don’t have much to show them you’ve learned or done once you’ve come home.

If Peace Corps is something you want to do and will regret not doing down the line, I have a crazy suggestion for you: apply to the Peace Corps now, leaving as soon as possible, take a sabbatical from law school, and finish the last year or two when you’re done with PC. That way you can have your cake and eat it too. Otherwise, you can get that traveling fix by spending your second year or part of your third year of law school abroad on an internship, of which there are plenty if you have the wherewithal to get there, and set yourself up for a job abroad when you graduate.

In retrospect, I probably should have done something like that, but I didn’t want to miss college football season or break up with my girlfriend at the time to do so. (If I’m being completely honest, it may have been just about the football.) I guess that can tell you something about how out of whack my priorities can be, so you might want to take my advice with a big grain of salt.

Got a question? Ask me! Seriously — and it doesn’t have to be related to anything I’ve written here.

FILED UNDER: ask! law school peace corps 

Anonymous said: Being a person who loves bikes and their ability to make transportation a bit more enjoyable than say walking or taking the bus, I was wondering if you had one or knew other volunteers who had them. Are they easy to come by?

I have a bike, but it is still not operational. Peace Corps gives us about ninety dollars if we want a bike and get it cleared with our program manager, so there are a few volunteers with bikes. We are required to wear helmets, though — if you get caught on a bike without a helmet, PC will send you home automatically, no questions asked — and that discourages some people because no one here wears helmets and wearing one is like just asking kids to throw rocks at you. As for the question of whether they are easy to come by, my experience would say no: I bought the only bike I could find in my price range that wasn’t going to be a huge hassle to get home, and it sucks.

Got a question? Ask me!

April 26, 2010

katiehiebert said: Hi,

So I've just received my assignment in Moldova as an English Teacher PCV and while there are a million questions I could probably ask you, I really want to know what teaching materials you need most and wish you would/could have brought with you. When I taught English in Paris for a year I brought all sorts of exercise books for learning English and anything else I needed (ie flashcards, markers, paper, dry erase and chalkboard) I could easily buy there. As I'm sure that's not the case here, I just wanted to hear your opinion.

More menial questions include the following:
- What's up with the dress code? I know you're a guy but I was wondering if you had any insight as to what women teachers are recommended to wear. I've read "dresses and skirts" and "professional" but we live in a world where those could mean anything.
- What the deal with tattoos and facial piercings? Should we cover 'em up/ take them out?

I have really enjoyed reading your blog. Not only have you got some great information to impart on us naive folk but you're writing style is exceptional and greatly entertaining. I've even passed it on to a few friends who were curious as to what my time in Moldova would be like.

Thanks and best of luck,


Aww, shucks. Thanks for the kind words, Katie, and I’m always glad to hear that folks enjoy what I write. Now, on to your questions:

  • You can find just about anything you need here in Moldova, but I’d recommend bringing a two-week supply of classroom things you can’t live without. The reason is that during training you’ll have practice school — two weeks of classes with real, live Moldovan students — and you won’t have the opportunity to go shopping for what you need. The same goes for whatever materials you’ll want for studying Romanian: Post-It notes, index cards, etc.
  • Keep in mind that almost without exception the quality of whatever school supplies you’ll find here will be significantly lower than what you are used to. In general tape and markers are two things that you can find in Moldova that are of such terrible quality it’s worth it to bring something from home. I’d recommend bringing a roll of 3M masking tape, packing tape, and duct tape along with a pack of Mr. Sketch colored markers (the ones that smell like fruit).
  • Chalkboards are generally made of large pieces of wood painted over with a kind of brown paint, so that means chalk has to be really, really soft to work well on the board. Colored chalk is hard to find. I made a whiteboard out of poster board and clear packing tape, and I brought my own dry-erase markers because they are especially hard to find.
  • Other stuff that’s useful: a good pair of scissors; a stapler; a good portable iPod speaker (I use a lot of songs in class).
  • Leave the books at home. Peace Corps gave us two huge sacks of books during training.
  • To teach, I usually wear nice, dark blue jeans, cowboy boots, a collared shirt, sometimes a tie, and sometimes a blazer. I shave maybe once a week. In short, I don’t follow the dress code, but I also don’t come to school looking like a complete ragamuffin. If you wear anything nicer than ratty jeans, a hooded sweatshirt, and tennis shoes you’ll be fine. The way I see it, there’s no real incentive to dress real nice because the Moldovans will think I’m frumpy no matter what I wear.
  • The same goes for the training days when they tell you to dress up: plenty of people flagrantly disregarded the dress code and there were no consequences for them as far as I know. During training it’s hot — especially on days when you have to go on public transport to the next town over — and it’s better to be comfortable. There’s no air conditioning.
  • What Peace Corps will tell you is that the only people with tattoos here are ex-convicts. I think that is an exaggeration, and people with tattoos don’t seem to be ostracized. In general, if you have a conspicuous/unusual piercing or tattoo, one or more Moldovans is likely to comment on it at some point to your face or behind your back, though it may be to tell you he/she thinks it’s pretty. I don’t think either will create problems for you at work unless you are in a very small village. As I’m sure you know, it helps to have thick skin if you’re a teacher, so if you are sensitive about what your students might say about you behind your back (especially if you are a strict teacher that will give them a lot more grief than they are used to about homework and cheating on tests) you might want to cover them up.

Good luck getting ready, and feel free to ask any more questions you have.

Got a question? Ask me!

FILED UNDER: ask! teaching 

Anonymous said: Our daughter is arriving in Moldova in June (Health Educator) . She would hate that I am writing this but, oh well...We were PCVs in Ethiopia in 1972-'74, so we get the concept of hardship, and she grew up in Vermont, where the power is sometimes uncertain and the snow can be deep.. We think it is a wonderful experience and wonder if you are finding Moldova (or any non-US place, really) to be engaging enough that you can avoid (or stand?) homesickness and enjoy the ups and downs of the commitment? Your blog is interesting and informative.... I was just wondering..

From what I understand, being a PCV now is very, very different from being a PCV even fifteen years ago. In the days of yore Peace Corps’ strategy was to leave volunteers in the middle of nowhere — as far away from Peace Corps and from each other as possible — and to let them figure things out on their own; not so anymore. In part this is because of a change in strategy, but it’s also due to obvious technological developments. We volunteers all have cell phones and internet access. This is a blessing because it allows me to do things like write a blog, but it’s also a curse because Peace Corps is much more in my hair that I would like. It’s no coincidence that my lowest ‘low’ since I’ve been here has been because of frustration with Peace Corps rather than because of Moldova.

I’m not a good person to ask about homesickness because it’s never been a problem for me (my mom has said that I was ready to leave home for college by the time I was 12). But the answer to your question is yes — Moldova is engaging enough so that I don’t get homesick. I’m really busy and have never had so little downtime in my life, so it’s difficult to get bored. Because Moldova is relatively small, I also get the opportunity to see other volunteers as often as I like. It’s easy for me to call home using Skype. Some volunteers have had their families come visit them. And I’ve been lucky in that both of my host families have treated me like one of their own.

That being said, I’m an English teacher. Being a volunteer in the Health Education program (we call them ‘Heathies’) here in Moldova is tough, and from what I understand that’s mostly because some of the Peace Corps staff make the volunteers’ jobs more difficult than necessary. I don’t know the exact numbers, but somewhere around half of the Healthies who arrived with my group have ended their service early or are planning on ending their service early. I hate to give you a Peace Corps cliché that I’m sure you already know, but the Healthies who are a little more chill, well-adjusted, and flexible are for the most part the ones who are happy and are still here.

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