Six Months

I vividly remember the first moment I stepped foot in Moldova, the first breath I took of Moldovan air. It all seemed like a blur, gathering our luggage and driving through rolling hills to our lodging for the night. It’s been six months since my first night in Vadă Liu Vodă. Half a year. I’ve celebrated the Fourth of July, my birthday, Halloween, and Thanksgiving all in a country I hadn’t heard of just over a year ago. I’ve lived in two villages with two host families. What once seemed impossible, I learned Romanian over the course of 3 months and have since gained more fluency and the ability to actually teach in this foreign language. It’s hard to believe, but I feel more at home here than ever thought possible.

One common thread throughout my service has been laughter, mostly due to Romanian skills, or lack thereof. There is something so purely comical about two people trying to communicate through a language barrier, both trying their hardest, using every hand motion or sound possible. My first night in my training village involved me trying to explain the gift I had brought. This started a 45-minute experience that included calling the neighbor to translate and ended in a marriage proposal.

Since that day, there has been no shortage of laughter. One of my fondest memories has been with my host mom. As many of you know, I am not a morning person and without my morning coffee I am practically useless. This particular morning, I was sitting at the masa eating my hrisca (buckwheat) when my host mom (everyone just calls her Bunica which is Romanian for grandmother) sat next to me. She’s a feisty woman with a high-pitched voice and I was not in the mood to translate at 8 in the morning. She would speak, I would say the occasional da, and we moved on. After I finished, I began to leave and she said to me, “Amir where do you think you’re going? You just agreed to help me.” This is why you don’t just say da to everything.

She guided me to the yard where we keep all of the animals. There are geese, chickens, ducks, even some rabbits, all gathered in a fenced off area in the valley by my house. Bunica had disappeared so I bent down to play with Iulia, our dog. From the corner of my eye I saw something move. I turned to see a gaggle of geese flapping their wings, necks stretched forward, all charging directly at me, with my Bunica at the helm herding them my direction. The whole thing seemed happened in slow motion. As any city boy would do, I jumped about five feet into the air and ran screaming. Oh, did she think this was the funniest thing she had ever seen. Bunica was on the floor, clutching her chest she was laughing so hard. My heart pounding, I yelled, “What did you do that for!” Unbeknownst to me, I had agreed to catch one of those creatures so we could eat it for dinner.

Having properly prepared myself, I nodded to her so she could herd them my direction again. She began waving her broom and the birds came running and I grabbed one by the neck. Success! Bunica laughed, kissed me on both cheeks, and then took the bird to the chopping block. She wouldn’t let me watch the beheading, saying I would never eat it if I saw the brutality of the act. What can I say? She knows me.

I hold on to moments like this one for dear life because they are what get me through the rough times. It’s hard to explain to someone who hasn’t experienced it, how in one day you can go from pure ecstasy to existential crisis or vis versa all within the span of a few hours. I underestimated the difficulty of service. Before I left, I talked to many current PCVs and a few returned PCVs, each told me their story of how they struggled with different mental hurdles. I, naïvely, believed I was above that. But no one is immune to moments of doubt. We doubt that we are making difference. We doubt that the work we spend hours on each day is being appreciated. We doubt that anyone is noticing. I have experienced my fair share of doubt, but I have found my way of handling it and its by remember those highs of service, no matter how small.

A moment that has lifted me up for weeks was a simple encounter with a man in my village. I was walking to the magazin (convenient store) when a man stopped me from entering. He was sitting on a truck bed and I realized he was a double amputee. He started speaking in Russian and when he noticed I couldn’t understand, he had another man translate. He asked me why I was here. He wasn’t accusatory, simply curious. I told him about the Peace Corps and he stared at me in awe. After I was finished explaining my role in the community, he reached for my hand and said, “Thank you for coming to our country. Thank you for leaving your home to help us. I lost both of my legs to diabetes. These children need to learn about health and you will teach them. Thank you.” For weeks, I have soared with the help of his words.

These first six months have brought so many highs and lows, but that is to be expected of any service. In fact, I embrace them. I can feel myself getting stronger and growing as I learn how to climb out of those moments of doubt. Every day I learn something new about who I am and what I want in life. It feels as if I stepped off of that plane, blinked, and now I am 6 months in. Before I know it, I will be posting a year in review. I just hope I can enjoy and absorb every step along the way.

My First Week

Buna ziua elevi. Mă numesc Domnul Amir și o să predau educație pentru sănătate timp de doi ani. Good day students. My name is Mr. Amir and I will be teaching health education for two years.

The words slipped out of my mouth as I stood in front of my 5th grade class, sweating partially from nerves and partially due to the non-air-conditioned classroom. I use the word “slipped” because instead of a calm, steady sentence, the words seemed to fall out of my mouth, each with a different accent and emphasis; clearly not the way I had rehearsed. It was my first lesson and although I had taught during practice school successfully, in that very moment, I forgot every word of Romanian I had learned in the past three months. And so began my career as a health education teacher.

The rest of my week was nowhere near as melodramatic as the first 20 seconds of my first lesson. I will say, 20 seconds is a just the right amount of time to contemplate all of your life choices and ask yourself why you decided to teach when you have never taught before in a language you didn’t know in a foreign country about a subject you have no real training in, but I digress. Thanks to my amazing partner teacher, the lesson picked up and the kids really seemed interested in me. I completely underestimated the power of being the “new American.” I walk down the halls and students ask me for pictures, which I obviously oblige, or they just stare at me and offer a quick “good day” right as I pass. I feel like a celebrity. All of the students know me from when I gave a little speech at the First Bell ceremony, something that seemed almost impossible to me about two months ago when I was struggling with the differences between the Romanian past and future tenses. The teachers all laugh because they say the 8th and 9th grade girls all have crushes on me. I guess this is what it feels like to be popular in middle school.

For any future Moldova volunteers reading this blog, be prepared to be flexible. The biggest struggle from this past week was the uncertainty. Unlike in America where the class schedule is planned months before school begins, the schedule is not finalized until a few weeks into the semester. I have come to school to find out the lesson I had planned for 5th period that was on the schedule when I left the building yesterday had since been removed and moved to last period of Monday’s schedule, which I did not teach on Monday because it’s now Wednesday and it was not on the schedule Monday. As frustrating and confusing as it seems, everything gets done. From what I’ve heard, the schedule becomes more fix by the end of September, so until then I’m just making sure I’m at the school as much as possible.

After just five days I feel my blood pressure returning back to a healthy level. There isn’t much else to say about the first week other than how excited I am to continue. Every time I doubt myself, something happens that reignites my fire. It is going to be a hard two years, much harder than I even expected. There is a lot of alone time which is something I was not prepared for, but that just means there are free minutes that I can fill with positive, forward momentum. I have so many ideas for my community and I can’t wait to see them through.

Student Teaching: Day 1

Today was the day!

For the past few weeks we have had a pretty regular schedule: language class in the morning and then tech class in the afternoon. Today, however, we started practice school. This week, one of our partner teachers joined us in our village and we got to practice creating a lesson plan, teaching in front of real Moldovan students, and giving each other feedback. Today was hard, full of Romanian, but it was so amazing. Next week our second partner teacher will come and we will teach a totally different lesson.

I just wanted to give you all a taste of what we experienced today. A more thought out essay will come after both weeks.

July 8-9, 2017: A Visit to Remember

img_2073         I looked out the window at the rolling hills of yellow and green as my rutiera (minibus) made its way from Chișinău to Ștefan-Vodă, the raion (district) I would soon be calling home. The sunflowers were just starting to bloom, creating an ombré effect that looked like brilliant yellow fireworks exploding in a dark green sky. The inside of the rutiera could not have juxtaposed our surroundings any more starkly. In a vehicle that is meant for about 18, about 30 people were crammed together, waving our hand fans as vigorously as possible. It is a common belief in Moldova that “the current” can make you sick. This means they do not open any windows and there is certainly no air conditioning. Let’s just say these rides won’t be the highlights of my PC experience. That being said, I was so transfixed by my journey I hardly noticed the sweat dripping from my brow.

It was Saturday afternoon and earlier that day, I had signed a contract with my school director, committing myself to working in my community for two years as a health teacher. Me, a teacher. We were heading to my new village for my site visit. My school director is an extremely kind and patient woman. She was thrilled with my Romanian skills and spoke to me with such vigor and energy. As much as I want to say I understood everything she said, the majority of our conversation consisted of me pretending I knew what was going on and nodding my head with interspersed da’s and desigur’s. Because of this, I agreed to come to a graduation ball that night at my school without even realizing it. I have a feeling this may end up being a trend during my service here in Moldova.

When we pulled up to my village, I was in awe. The main road is paved, which is certainly a rarity among the villages here. The roads were lined with houses and colorful fences that were barely holding in the overflowing gardens filled with fruits and vegetables and flowers of all varieties. My director helped me out of the bus and guided me to my hosts’ house. I had been warned that it would be rather far from the school, but was not aware of the steep hill that was between them. Luckily, my host sister met us with a car and drove us the rest of the way. The house’s entrance was covered in grape vines, providing a cool escape from the pounding sun.

We were met by my host mother who had prepared enough food for an army of Amirs. Another thing that I’m going to have to get used to, much to my waistline’s dismay, is the sheer amount of food Moldovans prepare for special occasions. There were stuffed peppers, salad, a pile of meatballs, bowls of potatoes, and of course several loaves of bread. Moldovans love their bread. The meal felt like a marathon and like any good marathoner, I took a nice long nap directly after.

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The ninth-grade class dressed to the nines!

At 8PM my host sister and her cousin escorted me to the ninth-grade graduation ball. I am lucky enough to have another volunteer, Beth Ogden, at my site. She is an M31 (I’m an M32), so she has been around the village and knows the ins and outs pretty well. Beth had warned me to wear the nicest clothes I had brought with me (which were khakis and a button down like the good Southern boy that I am.) What I saw was closer to an American prom; girls wearing long dresses with heels and hair that was teased to the heavens while the boys opted for the classic blue dress pants with white shirt combo. The teachers were in their Sunday best and I was thoroughly under dressed. Beth assured me it was alright, but my inappropriate attire only added to the stares. All of the students were wondering, who is this strange brown man? I don’t blame them either, I looked suspicious. They speculated that I was Beth’s boyfriend since I attached myself to her the whole night. The professors were all thrilled with my Romanian (again, lots of da’s and desigur’s) and they informed me the children were surprised because they very rarely have male teachers, especially ones that are so frumos which means beautiful in Romanian. Their words, not mine, I SWEAR.

The ceremony was short. The students were called to accept their diploma in order of their class ranking. Beth, who had English to these students, was emotional. She told me that the village didn’t have a high school, so these kids would be either leaving the country to find work elsewhere or leaving the village to continue school. This is a trend I’m learning more and more about, but that’s for another blog post. Now when I said the ceremony was short, I meant the actual awarding of the diplomas. What came next was speech after speech from each student and several teachers or parents. Then came dancing and singing and poetry reading. The village has a youth dance group that has one national competitions in both Moldova and Romania, so the students put on quite a show. I watched with amazement as they danced and intricate routine of partner work and weaving choreography. I was filled with joy as I watched and could not help but become more and more excited for my future with the school and its students.

 

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Me with my two partner teachers, my school director, Beth, and a few of my future students. Look how thrilled they all look to see me.

The next day I met Beth, my director, and my two partner teachers at the school for a brief meeting. Whereas Beth teaches English and thus her partner teachers do as well, neither of my partners speak English. They were extremely nervous to meet me, knowing full well I had only started learning Romanian four weeks prior. Up until this point, I had only thought about how nervous I was, but it was eye opening to realize that these women were just as nervous because they are going out on a limb to work with me. Neither of them have a background in science and I have no history with teaching. However, when we sat down and discussed our future, our worries started to drift away. I will say, thanks to my Spanish language skills, I really can understand much more than the average PCT at this point in our training. We were able to communicate, and laugh, and joke around, and it all started to feel natural. They took me to the courtyard where I met some of my future fifth-grade students. Although they were shy and timid when speaking to me, I was assured by Beth they would not be so quite once they got used to me.

After our meeting, Beth walked me around the village and showed me all of the important monuments: the casa de cultură, the primăria (mayor’s office), and the church. It’s a small village so the tour only last about 45 minutes, but my sister invited Beth to our house for lunch. To be honest, I was relatively worried about have a site mate. Beth has such an amazing handle on the Romanian language and she is loved by the school and the community members. The bar is set high and it is an extremely daunting work environment to enter. That being said, after spending the afternoon with her, I can honestly say I am thrilled to have her in my village. Our next year will be thrilling and to be able to share that with her is going to a treat.

 

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I loved this because it looked like the moons of Tatooine in Star Wars. 

The rest of my night was spent relaxing in my home and wandering around the town with my host sister and cousin. I watched the sun set and the full moon rise over the sunflower fields. Every second I spent in the village, I fell more and more in love. Every person on the street greeted me with a “bună seara” and a friendly hand shake from the male community members. (Side note: the male/female dynamics in Moldova are very interesting. Don’t worry, there will be a future blog post about just that.) I found myself ending my night trying to catch chickens by candle light as they ran around the backyard avoiding my very unsteady hands. I have got to learn to stop saying da or desigur to everything. I went to bed early because the only rutiera to Chișinău leaves at 5:50 AM which meant an early wake up call.

Where my trek to the village was less than desirable, my ride back home was rather luxurious. The rutiera had extremely comfortable seats and plenty of room. There was even high speed wifi! What a world. I spent the drive with my head racing: What lessons will I be teaching my students? How am I going to help these teachers with years of experience when I have none? What makes me qualified to do any of this? What will my secondary projects be? How in the world do I write a grant? Will I get giardia from the well water that I drank even though I definitely should not have? (Update: did not get giardia.) It was strange because I didn’t feel nervous, per se. Get ready for a horrible metaphor. It felt like that moment right after you strap yourself in to a rollercoaster and you start to hear the clicks as you ascend higher and higher. It’s an exciting nervous. It’s a “I love this so much but holy $*@& why did I get myself on this ride.” It’s crazy to see how close the peak of that ascent actually is right before I am sent soaring.

As a quick addendum to my post, the reason I have been rather vague about my host family is because due to some housing issues, I have since been assigned to another family. There was no drama, but the house was rather far away and my room was under construction and Peace Corps felt that it would be better for me to be with another family. The Tuesday after site visit, I returned to my village with one of our Program Managers and visited another family. We were greeted with lots of food (honestly some of the best I’ve had while in Moldova) and some very warm hearts. I instantly felt at home with the family and after just 30 minutes, we agreed this would be a better fit. My new home is about 5 minutes to school whereas my other home would have been a 45-minute walk and literally uphill both ways. I don’t know much about my new family, but I can’t wait to find out more.