When I began this blog, I made it a goal to post at least once a month. “One blog post every four weeks,” I said to myself, “How hard could that be?” Let me tell you something, once life starts to pick up in Peace Corps, it really picks up!
Over the course of the past month and a half, I have wanted to write about so many things. The first was the beauty of snow and the joy it can bring. In mid-January, my village was blanketed with a few feet of snow. Ever since I was a child, snow has brought me a sense of euphoria. Even in Boston, when other students would moan about the upcoming storm, I cherished it. Every droplet, every flake, was a reminder of how beautiful life and nature can be. I and my fellow Moldovans were saddened that we didn’t have a white Christmas, but a few days later we were greeted with a blizzard!
The snow began early on Thursday morning. As I walked to school, the wind beat my face and the ice felt like shards of glass; but I couldn’t help but smile. Arriving at school, I had icicles hanging from my hood and my face was red and raw. I could feel an energy in the air – the students could barely contain their excitement as they ran through the halls to look out the window. Classes ended early and we were promised a snow day on Friday. You can imagine how that went over with the children of my village.
Early Friday morning, I decided to leave my home to walk around my community. The storm had subdued and the snow had settled. The sun glistened off the snow crystals and the cold air awakened my lungs. There was a hush about the village – the kids had yet to disturb the perfect wind-swept dunes and the crowing roosters and howling dogs seemed to agree to let peace take over, at least for just a while. After lunch, my host nieces and nephews arrived with sleds in hand and I took them to a hill close to my home. Gathered there were several of my students from all grades. I could hear them gasp and whisper to each other, “Domnul Amir is coming!” Somehow, I became the target of a vicious snowball fight. It was all against one until a third grader came to my rescue, alerting me anytime someone was coming up behind me to fill my face with snow. My site mate, Beth, also joined in and was the second target of the snowball war. I laughed harder than I have in a long while. It brought me back to my own childhood, waking up early to watch the news and waiting to see if our classes were canceled for the day. The whole experience just reminded me that no matter where we are born, we are more similar at the core than we may realize.
I would be lying to you if I said it was all positive, though. Another promise I made to myself as I was creating this blog was to be as brutally honest as possible, including both the good and the bad. Winter is hard. Many people in states suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder, or SAD, and it is a well-known and accepted reality. Unfortunately, in Moldova I have felt the effects of SAD more so than in the past. The sun didn’t rise until 8AM and it got dark around 4PM which inadvertently forced me to be homebound after work. My home is heated by a wood fire, and we only lit the heater at night, leaving the mornings extremely cold. Most of you know me as a social person, so not seeing people after the sun went down was very difficult. However, I have finally found some coping mechanisms that work for me. I decided to pick up the guitar, a task much harder than I had initially anticipated. I am working out (don’t laugh, it’s really happening!) and I am trying to read more books. Creating a daily schedule that I try and stick to has been my saving grace. Now that the sun is starting to rise a little earlier and go down a little later, I can already feel my tension begin to lessen.
To leave you on a brighter note, I am really loving my job. We as volunteers were told to sit back and really try to observe the first few months of service. I attended Romanian and Russian lessons taught by my partners or other teachers, I talked to students, and I taught my classes. Now, however, I’m ready to be more active. The teachers have started to notice I am good with technology, so I am helping with every PowerPoint and every movie presentation. I have applied to more PC committees and I am participating in international campaigns to raise awareness about human trafficking and modern-day slavery. I started a youth-based leadership club that meets once a week, and the ideas that these children have about problems in their community and country makes me feel positive about the future of Moldova. Filling up my hours with activities at school and in my community has brought me back to why I’m here in the first place. I’m busier and I’m happier. Don’t worry, I still find plenty of time for a good Netflix binge.
Below is a video of some of the students from the leadership club attempted to undo their human knot.
If there is one thing I’ve learned here in Moldova, it’s that the holidays just keep coming! Today is January 14, 2018 and per the old-style calendar, that means it is the New Year! Throughout the day, children of all ages come to your door and throw a mixture of corn, seeds, and wheat as they sing well wishes of a healthy new year and a bountiful harvest. In return, we hand out candy.
Yesterday, the music and dance ensemble from my village was asked to travel to the capital and perform for a national radio station. Below is a video of a few of my 8th and 9th grade students demonstrating the traditional songs and dances of the holidays. (The man in the beginning is simply introducing the group. The traditions begin at the 2:25 mark.) This group is truly astounding and I am so proud of them. Just a few weeks ago, they competed in a national competition in the capital and won the Grand Prize! We may come from a small village, but the spirit and love is strong here and I could not be more happy to have been placed in Feștelița!
The road surrounded by sunflower fields seemed welcomingly familiar as I made my way to my permanent village in Ștefan-Vodă. Instead of an overly packed rutiera, I sat in the back seat of a small two door coupe with my baggage spilling over onto me. My school director had come to pick me up from swearing in, but there was no way for her to imagine how much baggage a 23-year-old American could bring with him. To my defense, I had accumulated quite a bit from the Peace Corps including but not limited to bags of textbooks, a fire extinguisher, water filters, and yak-tracks. With the car windows open (thankfully), I watched as the country side flew by. Those brilliantly bright sunflower fields now appeared faded, or gone all together, already harvested for the year. Instead, not quite ripe grape vines lined my way into my new home.
I’ve tried to sit down several times to write this entry. So much has happened since my last long form blog post and my mind is swirling with thoughts and I just couldn’t put them into words. I have decided to steal an idea from my fellow PCV, Claire, and tell my story through a series of pictures.
This first picture is dedicated to my PST group: The Văsienies. Just look at all those beautiful faces, wide eyed, ready for the world ahead of us. The three lovely ladies sitting in the center of the picture are our LTIs (language instructors): Doina, Galina, and Aliona. I cannot thank them enough for all they did for us. I remember our first day of language when we went over the alphabet and I was having the hardest time pronouncing the differences between a, ă, and â. Don’t even get me started on the pronunciation difference between the masculine singular “voluntar” and the masculine plural “voluntari” (the final i makes the r softer and I can promise you our ears are just not trained to hear the difference). Now, when I sit at the dinner table and talk to my new host parents in Romanian about the intricacies of Moldovan history, I can’t help but laugh thinking about that first day.
Leaving Văsieni proved harder than I had thought it would be. I had grown accustomed to the routine that I created there, the cows and horses that roamed the main street grazing, fresh harbuzul (watermelon) and roșii (tomatoes) from the garden, the smiling faces of my host mom and dad as I told them about my day, and the family of other volunteers that I created. I already miss our late nights at the school working out our micropredare lesson plans or watching the latest episode of Game of Thrones (yes, I have been keeping up and this season is AMAZING). I miss our hikes to the top of the hill overlooking all of the life below. I took for granted having them next to me every day, but I know that they are just a phone call away. We are already planning our epic reunion which I look forward to daily.
That fine-looking gentleman to the left is yours truly, just after being sworn in as an official Peace Corps Volunteer. That day I woke up as a trainee in in my training village and I went to bed a volunteer in my new home. When I was in high school, I imagined running of and joining the Peace Corps as a form of escape. As I grew older, my reasons for joining matured with me, but the desire remained. My life path has so many twists and turns, I keep track of time based on the period of time I spent working towards one career path or another (oh, that was when I wanted to work in communications, which was after wanting to be a neuroscientist but before I wanted to work as an ambassador), but the Peace Corps has been with me the whole time. With my right hand held high, I repeated the words of the Moldovan Ambassador and for the first time I said aloud, “I am a Peace Corps Volunteer.” I had chills. I could hardly believe that it was real. I already posted a vlog about the day so if you watched you will know that the day was rather emotional. There were tears, there were hugs, there was a ton of free food. After the ceremony, we said our goodbyes and went our separate ways.
Since then, I have been living with my new host family. I now live with an older couple. They have four kids and 19 grandchildren, however three of those children and 13 of the grandchildren live in Russia. The rest of the group live in the Raion center very close to my village. The first night I had arrived, I was like a shiny new toy that had just been opened Christmas morning that all of the kids wanted to play with first. I felt their energy and tried to absorb every ounce of it. They asked me things that ranged from questions with simple, one-word answers to what was my life philosophy. Now, they call me uncle because I’m technically their grandparent’s new son, and I love it. We have gone swimming, we’ve picked vegetables and fruits, we’ve sat around the table talking for hours, we’ve played Uno. The 4-year-old, Sebastian, and the 8-year-old, Andrea, have become my best friends. I like the think it’s because of my child-like energy, but I’m pretty sure it’s because we speak Romanian on a very similar level.
What Peace Corps has shown be so far is how flexibility can be one’s most useful resource. Growth and change are eminent, and to be scared of either of those things is detrimental. In a span of three months I have learned another language, started a job I did not study for (teaching), lived with two host families, resided in two different small villages, eaten meat I helped kill and skin hours prior. If you had asked me a year ago what I would be doing in this moment, I certainly wouldn’t have said any of those things. I had expected to be sent to Africa or Latin America due to my language skills and my studies in school, but instead I am in Eastern Europe and I couldn’t be happier. I think about those fields that line the drive to my village and how as the seasons change, so too do the crops that grow there. Time brings change, but with it comes growth. How will I grow over the next two years? Who is to say? I guess we will have to wait to see.
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.
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.
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.
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.
I officially know where I’m going to be for the next two years!! My village is in the Ștefan-Vodă district which is right next to Ukraine. Everything is so overwhelming right now so I haven’t been able to write anything down, but a fellow volunteer (Scott Ondap) made an amazing video of site announcement that I just had to share. I’m new to the WordPress thing so until I can learn how to embed videos, here is a link to the video on YouTube. Enjoy!