Moldovan Cuisine Monday: Zeama

One of the things I was most worried about before arriving in Moldova was the food.  I’m a pretty picky eater and I knew that being a picky eater in the Peace Corps was going to be an adjustment- I was going to have to learn to eat things I didn’t like and expand the foods I eat.  However, I’ve been pleasantly surprised that, for the most part, it hasn’t been that much of an adjustment.  It helps that Moldovans are okay with food being left on the plate or not eaten, as they have plenty of animals that need to eat as well, but I really do eat almost everything I’ve been served here.  Of course, as anywhere in the world, there are foods that are typical day-to-day, and foods that are sometimes reserved for more special occassions.  Each Monday, I’ll share one food that seems to be common in Moldova or one ingredient Moldovans especially like.  Today’s food is zeama.


Zeama: zeama is a soup that is probably the thing I’ve eaten the most since getting here.  It is composed of chicken-based broth, noodles, potatoes, very finely chopped carrots, onions, and usually a full chicken leg (or other part of the chicken), with skin and bones.  It’s similar in taste to chicken noodle soup in the United States, with the addition of potatoes, and with a full chicken leg (or occasionally organs) instead of smaller bits of chicken.  It’s usually served piping hot and it is popular on the hottest of days (go figure!).  Although it’s pretty tasty, I have a feeling I will be a bit tired of it after 2 years here.

Thatched Roofs and Small Village Living


I’m slowly integrating into my little village.  Although I’m an outgoing person once I warm up to people and am comfortable where I am, it generally takes me a while to get to that point.  I’m much more of an introvert than some people realize.  So, although I’ve gone to school each day and occasionally talk to some of the other teachers, and although I interact with my host family, I haven’t really done a whole lot else in my community.  Nor have I gotten out to see much of it, although honestly, there isn’t a whole lot here (which is what I wanted).  In time, I will, but I know that for me it is important to take baby steps to get there.  I did attend a masa (technically, masa means table, but it is also used for party or meal) with many members of the community last week and I met some of the parents at the conference at the school.

Some days the task of integrating into my little community seems a bit daunting, but I do love my little town.  I had requested a small town because that’s where I’m more comfortable.  It’s peaceful here, with few cars, and people are friendly- most say “buna ziua” or “buna dimineata” when I pass them on the street while walking to and from the school each morning.  I’ve spent a couple of hours helping my host mom or host niece pick tomatoes in the valley or cut green onions.  My family’s fields are a short walk down a hill from our house.

Of course, things are more “rustic” here than they are in many of the bigger towns: horses pull carts carrying people and vegetables, the houses are a bit smaller, and many have simple metal roofs.  Others even have thatched roofs, like the house above, which is behind our house.  The gates and fences are lower and a little less elaborate, and there are ducks and occasionally other animals wandering the roads.  If I’m up early enough, I sometimes catch a glimpse of the cows heading through the roads on the way to the fields.

I think I’ll really like it here.


School “Open House”

The first poster I've made!
The first poster I’ve made!

Note: I have had very limited internet the past couple weeks but I do have some posts that I will get up when I have access to internet.

I’ve been working a couple of hours a day at the school since I arrived at site.  My partner teachers are still on vacation, so I go and hang out in the library with Elena, the librarian.  I’ve gone through the first unit of all of the English textbooks to take notes and get some ideas, but I really don’t have a whole lot to do yet.  I spent two days this week working on a painted poster for the library- a big, bright book.  Because posters are very expensive and teachers have to pay for all supplies (except perhaps a couple of pieces of chalk), the walls are pretty bare in many classrooms.  The classrooms are also, in the words of fellow EE volunteer Alex, “pale colors galore”.  In my school, almost all of the classrooms have the lower part of the walls covered in various wallpaper- each room is different.  My school director has already told me to make our English classroom more pretty (especially as they’ve already figured out that I can draw and paint fairly well).  I have a few ideas for that, but I need to talk to my partner teachers first before I can implement them.

Last week, however, there was a scheduled work day with many, but not all, of the teachers, as it was an open house day.  Parents and students came, as well as teachers, and we worked in separate groups (parents, students, and teachers) to discuss what the school does well, what needs work, and focus on the theme of “access and quality”.  I was in the teacher’s group, and it was really interesting to see what a “conference” looked like in a Moldovan school.  It reminded me a lot of teacher conference days in the United States- there were interactive activities, a brainstorming session, teachers worked in groups on different things, and at the end, everyone filled out a survey rating 30 different aspects of a good school.  According to the answers the other teachers provided, the school has students that are very involved in extracurricular activities and faith activities, but maybe isn’t quite so strong at using current teaching methods and practices (I think, it was all in Romanian, but I’m pretty sure that’s what they said).

After each of the groups worked on their own for a couple of hours, we all crammed into a classroom (only 2 students attended, but quite a few mothers were there) for a presentation by Doamna Feodora, the school director.  It was essentially a breakdown of all of the possible data from the previous school year- how many students in each class, how many students scored at different levels on their exams, how many teacher there are, those teachers’ credentials and educational attainment, how many classrooms, cafeteria, etc. and the square footage and capacity of each, how many students participated in each extracurricular activity, the outside organizations the school collaborated with throughout the year, basic budget figures, and so on and so forth.  It was interesting to learn more about the school, but given how much information there was, the speed at which it was given, and the amount of numbers involved, I did struggle a bit to understand everything.  After, there was a discussion with the parents (all mothers), which turned into a debate over school uniforms (I’m under the impression that students will be required to wear a school uniform this year and that this is a new rule).  The parents were not in favor of the uniforms from I could understand.

It was a really useful day for me as I try to get a grip on how things work in the school, and it also gave me an opportunity to meet several of the other teachers.  At the same time, it was pretty overwhelming- there were a lot of people speaking Romanian very fast, often at the same time, and it was definitely harder to understand than when I’m just speaking one-on-one with other people.  I had a headache at the end from concentrating so hard.  But I did understand almost everything that was said and went on, so I do feel that my Romanian is getting there!

First Few Days at Site

My new host niece, Valerica, and I.
My new host niece, Valerica, and me.

I’ve spent most of the last few days at my permanent site hanging out with my 6-year-old host niece, Valerica. She won’t usually be here, but she’s visiting her grandparents (my host parents) for several days. She is full of energy and wants to spend every waking second with me, including walking me to the outhouse every time I need to go to the bathroom. We’ve spent a lot of time coloring, drawing, and playing cards. Markers, especially good markers, don’t really exist in Moldova, so she has loved getting to use the Crayola markers I brought with me. She also loves to look at the stack of pictures of my friends and family that I brought with me from the US. Her favorites are my prom pictures from high school with friends. She’ll go to the stack and shuffle through until she finds her favorite picture. She originally said that my dress was her favorite, which isn’t surprising because her favorite color is pink and my dress was pink, but she’s since changed her mind, and now she likes my friend Beth’s dress the best.

She wanted to play pretend school, so I gave her an actual lesson and we learned the days of the week in both Romanian and English- and then she wanted to write them!
She wanted to play pretend school, so I gave her an actual lesson and we learned the days of the week in both Romanian and English- and then she wanted to write them!

She’s currently in gradinita (which literally translates to kindergarden, but is more like a pre-school which children can attend from ages 2 or 3 to 7, when they start school). She can count, knows most of her letters, and can spell and write mama and tata (mom and dad). She likes to use my Banagrams to spell those two words over and over.

When we walked to the valley, she insisted I bring my camera so we could take pictures!
When we walked to the valley, she insisted I bring my camera so we could take pictures!

On Saturday, we were at the house while my host parents worked in the fields in the “valley”. She decided we should go visit them, so we took a short walk to the valley. It seems that they mostly have potatoes, corn, grapes, and tomatoes, but I think they’ve already harvested some other things. They also have lots of pumpkins. We’ve also made a couple of trips to the store, which is very close by, maybe a 3 or 4 minute walk, to get ice cream.

Among the corn rows.
Among the corn rows.

One of the benefits of spending time with her is that we talk a lot, and she doesn’t know English, so that means I’m using a lot more Romanian than I was with my previous host family. Sometimes she gets frustrated when I don’t know what she’s saying, but we’ve been able to communicate pretty well! It’s a little harder to understand her than adults because she mumbles a bit and also speaks less clearly. In fact, I’ve only spoken Romanian for 3 entire days now- not a single word of English! That’s a really good thing, because once school starts, I’ll be speaking a lot more English, so it’s good to speak just Romanian for now.

On Friday morning and again this morning, I went to the school to do some work. I hung out in the library with the librarian, Elena, who is also 22 years old. She’s very nice and I think we’ll be able to collaborate with some things in the future. She also uses Google Translate when we can’t seem to understand each other, so that’s cool! She let me check out all of the English textbooks, and I’ve been going through the first units to make notes of possible things to do for lessons, and also through the entire books to get a better idea of what’s in them. Each of the textbooks is quite different. Although the curriculum flows well from one to the next, they are not at all consistent in terms of set-up, organization, and kid-friendliness.

Today, I spoke briefly with the adjunct director in charge of academics, and I chose which classes I will team-teach with my two partners. Peace Corps requires us to teach at least 18 hours a week and to teach with all of the English teachers at our schools (unless there are more than 3 English teachers, which doesn’t apply to me). My school is a gimnasiu, which means it’s only grades 1-9. English is taught starting in 2nd grade. Unless things change (which is always possible), I’ll be teaching 3rd form, 4th form (2 classes), 5th form, 6th form, 7th form (2 classes), and 8th form (2 classes). Because my school is so small, I have fewer options, and have to teach more levels than some volunteers, but that’s okay. Also, it sounds like a lot, but it really isn’t- each of the classes only meet 2 hours per week. I won’t know my schedule until possibly the first week of school, but if things are spread out well, I could only be teaching about three and a half hours per day (although I’ll have to be at school for all of the regular school hours). I also have met many of the other teachers at school, including the teacher (possibly French teacher? although I don’t think they offer French anymore) that hosted the only other volunteer that lived in my village, a few years ago.  I attended my first “conference” with my fellow teachers yesterday, but I think I’ll save that for next time!

On to the Next Chapter

All of my bags, packed and ready to go.
All of my bags, packed and ready to go.

On Thursday morning, we gathered up our numerous packed bags (wondering how in the world we had managed to accumulate so much more stuff than what we brought), and said goodbye to our host families.  Of course, a proper goodbye in Moldova must include alcohol- at 7:30 in the morning, as I sat eating breakfast, my host bunica (grandmother) got out a bottle of cognac and poured a shot.  She said a lovely toast wishing me success, health, and happiness, and then took a shot.  She offered me some as well, but I politely declined.  We were picked up at our houses and loaded everything onto rutieras (mini-buses) to head to Chisinau to begin the next chapter of our Peace Corps experience.  In our PST village, we were divided into three rutieras, which meant there were 5-6 of us per rutiera (which are intended to fit 17-18 people, but can hold up to 40-some). Despite the fact that there were only five of us on our rutiera (the top of the hill folks), it was packed. We drove to Chisinau, where we unloaded all of our belongings and placed them in piles at the side of a building. Peace Corps had someone watching over our stuff, so we could leave our stuff there until it was time to load it into the cars that would take us to our new sites.

This is all of the bags loaded into the rutiera- with just enough room left for us to sit!
This is all of the bags loaded into the rutiera- with just enough room left for us to sit!

Before we could head to our new sites, our host families (at least one representative from each family) had to come to a host family conference. There was a short reception at the beginning, which we attended, then we were free until after lunchtime as our host families were taught all about the Peace Corps, requirements for safety and health, dietary restrictions, and much more. Several of us headed to a coffee shop to hang out, then I grabbed lunch with one of the other EE volunteers. We met our host families in the conference room and filled out and signed our housing contracts with the help of translators, then were released to leave with our host families. My host mother came, along with her 6-year-old granddaughter, Valerica, and we packed into a car that would take us to my new home. It was a very hot, long ride as it was in the 90s, humid, and the car didn’t have AC.

My new site!
My new site!

It was a bittersweet day for all of us. Although we’re excited to start our real work in our communities, this also means saying a (temporary) goodbye to all the people that you have spent 8 hours a day with for the past 10 weeks. The Peace Corps staff always stresses that your fellow volunteers become your family. It sounds a bit cheesy, but it’s true. For the past 10 weeks, we have spent countless hours with each other, we have supported each other when things were tough, we have had a blast, we have sang songs loudly during our breaks (I think the locals might think we’re a bit crazy), we have laughed lots, and we have become a family. Even though we’ll see each other again in a couple of months (perhaps sooner depending on where we all are), it was still a hard goodbye, and there were even some tears.

The gate and path to the house at my new home.
The gate and path to the house at my new home.

When I arrived at my new site, I was surprised to find my room was quite different than when I had visited. My host family didn’t have all of the furniture the Peace Corps requires, so my host family had bought new furniture for the room- a big wardrobe, some shelves, a dresser, nightstands, and a nice, big (and real!) bed. The room was recently renovated as well and has nice wood floors, big windows on one wall, and everything is very nice and clean. I also have a table and two chairs in one corner to do my work. The house is very nice, but because they are doing renovations, there is no kitchen or bathroom in the house currently. Like most homes in Moldova, there is a summer kitchen, so that’s not a huge deal. There is a small spigot in the house with running water, but currently no sink. The (lack of a) bathroom has been the biggest adjustment so far, especially as it will be awhile before there is one. There’s an outhouse, which is pretty far from the house (and it’s a squat toilet- I’m going to have very nice legs by the end of this!), but no place to bathe. So I have a medium-sized (I’d like to get one that’s a bit bigger- this one is a bit to small) galvanized “tub” (really more like a bucket), a bucket to tote water in, and a small handled pouring cup to bathe with. There’s an electric kettle in the (unfinished) kitchen to heat water up in until it’s boiling, which I then add to the bucket of cold water to get decently warm water. It’s a bit difficult and takes a long time, but at least I’m clean!

My new host family is a couple that are about 60 years old. They are very nice, and respect my need for privacy. There is currently no internet, but once I get my residency card, I’ll be able to secure it. Overall, I’m very happy with my living situation here!