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.