May 8, 2011

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.

FILED UNDER: moldova peace corps 
October 4, 2010

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.

FILED UNDER: moldova peace corps 
September 9, 2010
Twelfth graders on the first day of school. Some are happier than others.

Twelfth graders on the first day of school. Some are happier than others.

August 15, 2010

  • go shirtless for 4 days straight
  • go to two proms at the age of 26
  • hitchhike because I’m too cheap to pay for a thirty cent bus fare
  • carry toilet paper with me when I leave the house
  • consider sbarro at the mall ‘gourmet’ pizza because it doesn’t have mayo or corn on it
  • wear a shirt with cutoff sleeves in public
  • drink wine, vodka, and beer all in one night
  • go on a (very awkward) date with an 18-year-old who doesn’t speak English
  • eat cabbage daily
  • consider a trip to McDonald’s a special occasion

I do it all for you, America.

FILED UNDER: lists moldova america 
August 13, 2010
This winter, I had a mouse infestation; in the spring, slugs invaded and blazed slimy trails across my rug. Now that it’s summer, these tiny toads keep finding their way into my kitchen.

This winter, I had a mouse infestation; in the spring, slugs invaded and blazed slimy trails across my rug. Now that it’s summer, these tiny toads keep finding their way into my kitchen.

FILED UNDER: toads moldova postcards 
August 11, 2010

This link is a little confusing, but click on ‘full screen’ for a slide show. You can click anywhere on the image thereafter to zoom in and read the text. The photos are the finalists from a youth photography contest sponsored by The World Bank.

August 10, 2010
Learning about supply and demand at the Moldovan girls’ entrepreneurship summer camp.

Learning about supply and demand at the Moldovan girls’ entrepreneurship summer camp.

At the Moldovan girls’ entrepreneurship summer camp.

At the Moldovan girls’ entrepreneurship summer camp.

FILED UNDER: moldova postcards summer camp 
At the Moldovan girls’ entrepreneurship summer camp.

At the Moldovan girls’ entrepreneurship summer camp.

At the Moldovan girls’ entrepreneurship summer camp.

At the Moldovan girls’ entrepreneurship summer camp.

At the Moldovan girls’ entrepreneurship summer camp.

At the Moldovan girls’ entrepreneurship summer camp.

FILED UNDER: moldova postcards summer camp 
August 9, 2010

From last Monday until yesterday, I was working at a summer camp for girls from the age of sixteen to twenty-one who have an interest in opening their own businesses in Moldova. Applications were mostly distributed in smaller communities throughout the country to girls who come from especially disadvantaged backgrounds. Apart from creating jobs and creating a better-trained contingent of women for Moldova’s workforce, the idea for this camp is that if girls feel like they have economic opportunities at home, they will be less inclined to emigrate to find work, to remain in abusive relationships, or to take chances that will lead to them being trafficked abroad for exploitation.

Somewhere around seventy girls applied for forty-five slots; out of the forty-five chosen, thirty-nine showed up last Monday to head to camp with us. I was one of a dozen counselors who would be teaching the campers courses on basic economics (e.g., supply and demand), how to write a business plan, how to make a budget, how to prepare a CV and a letter of interest, how to interview for a job, and dealing with corruption, in addition to life skills sessions about family planning, breast cancer screening, and domestic violence. By the end of the week, the girls, in small groups of three or four, would make business plans (including a comprehensive budget, strengths-weaknesses analysis, and a timeline) for ventures they might pursue in their communities.

On the first day of the camp, T-shirts were distributed, on which the girls were supposed to draw what they dreamt of becoming. At this point, they were very, very timid. Most of them seemed as if they had never been told that they could accomplish whatever they wanted in life, as long as they put in the effort, and as a result many of the T-shirts were practical: one girl drew a police officer, for example, while another drew the logo of Microsoft Windows — she dreams of being a computer specialist in her town.

Many of the week’s highlights came when the girls were asked to come up with and act out different scenarios, mostly in situations involving communicating with men. I helped teach the sessions on domestic violence, for example, and we asked the girls to act out different situations involving the different phases of abusive and healthy relationships. After seeing three sets of girls act out these scenarios, I was saddened to see how similar all of their impressions of how Moldovan men treat women — namely how little respect they expected from the men in their lives — but encouraged by the new confidence I could see in their eyes when they left these sessions.

The business plans the girls presented at week’s end were simply amazing. In past years, the camp participants had usually presented fairly unoriginal ideas for Moldova — another corner store, for example, or another hair salon — but this year we encouraged them to be especially creative. Some of the businesses included:

  • A home cleaning service
  • A pet kennel
  • A business that produced bales of hay from the grass growing on unused land
  • A children’s birthday party entertainment service (e.g., clowns)
  • A pet grooming service
  • An organic tomato and cabbage farm

These may not seem especially original or fanciful ideas to the American reader, but without exception these ideas all offer products or services (or an original way to reduce overhead, in the case of the hay-bales) that are unheard of in Moldova’s cities, towns, and villages. (For example, people are only now beginning to bring cats and dogs into their homes in the larger cities in Moldova; thus the pet-related businesses.) All of these plans came with complete budgets and marketing schemes, and were presented to a panel of judges in PowerPoint — probably the first time many of these girls had used the program.

As the week unfolded, I was amazed at how the girls opened up to us. I got the opportunity to get to know some bright and talented young women with poignant stories. One eighteen-year-old girl, for example, an orphan, lives with her younger sister in an extra room at the technical school in her village. Quiet and timid the first days of the camp, she didn’t leave to get her bus home until she had hugged each of the counselors for at least thirty seconds.

Another girl, a sixteen-year-old, applied to seventy high schools in Romania to have a chance to get away from her parents. Blessed with an amazing signing voice evocative of Fiona Apple and Nina Simone, she had found a way to study music — in secret, at a friend’s house — even though her parents continue to refuse to support her (for half of her life she had lived with her grandmother; I got the impression that her parents hadn’t planned to have a child when they did). She had taught herself English to such a point that she could speak better than my best twelfth-graders, though her father refused to pay for lessons for her because she once brought home a B on a test.  Thankfully, she will be in Romania for at least the next three years, with a chance to blossom like I know she can.

One of my fellow counselors is a prime example of how life-changing this camp can be. A few years back, she was a camper, and ended up using what she learned at the camp to open a small cafe in her village. What’s so wonderful and sad about her story is what inspired her to open this business: she wanted to make money so she could afford to bring her mother home from Italy to be with her and her younger sister. Now, the cafe is a success, and though her mother is still abroad, she’s been able to enter a university to continue her education — an opportunity that she probably would not have had were it not for what she learned at this camp.

I can safely say that this last week was one of my best in Moldova, and it reminded me of why I came here. These girls give me the hope that my time spent here is not in vain and that Moldova does in fact have a bright future.

Photos from the camp to come tomorrow.