June 30th, 2016.
It was a bright and sunny day…
But, seriously. It was hot. Unbearably so. It also happened to be the day of our site announcements. On the 4th week of PST (pre-service training), Peace Corps Moldova announces to the current trainees where their permanent sites will be. Permanent sites are our hometown for the next 2 years and we are spread all over the country to serve communities in English Education, Health Education, Community and Organizational Development, or Small Enterprise Development. At the end of a grueling HUB site day, all the trainees gathered outside where our mentors had drawn a huge map of Moldova in the parking lot. We put blindfolds on, were handed envelopes, and were then led by our mentors to the location on the map where we would be serving. Now, if anyone reading this knows me well, they know that I don’t really do surprises. They’re not my thing. However, I squashed all the instincts I had to peak through the blindfold so I could be a good sport. They told us to remove our blindfolds and I saw that I was standing, along with two Health Educators (HealthE’s), in a place called Soldanesti (Shol-duh-nesht). The HealthE’s are in small villages near my site, but I am placed in the raion center of Soldanesti (raion center is the equivalent of a county seat/state capital).
Soldanesti is a small town of about 7,000 people located in the northern region of Moldova. It is about a 2 hour rutiera (public transit minibus) ride from Chisinau, 1.5 hours from Balti (pronounced like Belts–second largest city in Moldova), and 1.15 hours from Soroca. Since I am placed in a raion center, my town has a supermarket, a couple of pizza places, a patisserie, a bakery (that smells fabulous and is located 5 minutes from my school…whoops), several shops, and a sizable open air market where you can buy a wide variety of things. I am placed in a school that teaches grades 2-12 and it looks like I will have three partner teachers that I will work with. My school is centrally located in the town and seems to have decent resources for the English teachers to use.
Site Visit Weekend
On Friday, all of the English Education (EE) volunteers had a Site Team Conference where the director or assistant director of our school came to Chisinau to go through a few trainings with us and where, after the training, we left with them to visit our future sites. My assistant director, Elena, came to meet with me because my school is currently transitioning between directors. She is a very nice older lady who has been teaching for 35 years and was so enthusiastic to meet me. She only speaks Romanian so my language skills were definitely put to the test…she told our program director that my language was “foarte bine” (very good), but I know that she was just being gracious. We left the training and caught a rutiera from Gara de Nord, which is where all the buses/rutieras serving the northern part of Moldova leave from. It was an okay 2 hour trip…the first 15 minutes were amazing because the windows were down and the breeze was blowing, but then, the older lady in the front seat demanded that the windows be shut because she didn’t want the current to cause her grandson to get sick. **Cultural note: Older Moldovans are convinced that a crosswind of any kind (referred to as the current) causes a person to get sick so, if they are in the house or in public transit and the windows are open, they will close them and you will begin to melt and/or cry.** Anyway, I made it to Soldanesti without completely melting into a puddle. I know I must’ve been a sight to behold that first day when meeting my partner teachers even though my director told my partners that Peace Corps had given them the most beautiful volunteer of the group (yet again, being overly generous). All 3 of the English teachers at the school met me at the bus stop, finalized plans for the next day, and then 2 of my partners drove me to my host family’s house.
My host family are actually the in-laws of one of my partner teachers so I lucked out in terms of language and being able to have things translated (I swear I’ll figure out how to converse in Romanian eventually…). Anyway, upon meeting my host father, he said (through translation of course) “I heard that, in America, men shake women’s hands when they meet them.” I said, “Yes, yes.” He responded “Well, in that case…” and extended his hand for me to shake. This is not a cultural expectation within Moldova and I was touched that he would go out of his way to make me feel so welcome and comfortable in their home. Both of my host parents are retired and are very nice people, though they still don’t quite understand why I don’t eat eggs or fish. My partner teacher, Alina, and her family are currently living with my host family while they wait for the house they are building to be completed, which will then make us across-the-street neighbors. Her 3.5 year old son and I communicated mainly through facial expressions and laughter (he thinks the tattoo on my foot is hilarious); it was definitely nice to be around a little one again.
The weekend was filled with family activities, English speaking, and lots and lots of food. Yet again, I was truly awestruck by the hospitality shown to me by Moldovans. They don’t have to open up their homes to a clumsy American with horrendous Romanian communication skills, but they do. And they are so generous and excited about it. My host family continuously asked me questions about America and my life there: What does it look like where I’m from? How far am I from Florida (a standard question)? What kind of food do we eat? Do we have cows? What color are they?
And the big one: Why are you here in Moldova?
Almost every Moldovan I’ve come in contact with has asked me this question or some variation of it. Why are you living here for 2 years? Why did you come to Moldova instead of staying in America? And, even when I explain my reasoning, they still can’t quite wrap their heads around it. America is seen as the rich land of opportunity so why would someone want to leave that to live in a country where poverty is common and opportunities are so so limited? I love my country, I do, but I have reached a point where my life extends beyond the borders of the United States. My heart is there, but my soul wants to see the world. All of it. The good, bad, and ugly. Moldova may not be rich monetarily, but it is wealthy beyond belief in hospitality, warmth, and generosity. Family means everything and there really is no such thing as strangers. I am literally living in the European version of Eastern Kentucky and every day it starts to feel more and more like home.