Looking Beyond Our Assumptions

Moldova's Beauty

I’ve been trying to convince my brother to come visit me here in Moldova.  Now, I’m sure there are various reasons he is asking if I would pretty please meet him in another European country rather than him come here (like finances), but I think part of the problem is that he is buying into a “single story” of Moldova (check out this awesome TedTalk about the “Danger of a Single Story” to see what I’m talking about here).  Basically:

Adichie shares ‘the danger of a single story’, warning that if we only hear a single story about a person, country or issue, we risk great misunderstanding. She says:
“The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.”
From what I’ve been able to find online and what friends and family from home have told me, here’s what people think Moldova’s single story is:
  • It’s poor.
  • There isn’t much to do.
  • There isn’t much to see.
  • It isn’t a very interesting country.
  • It is difficult to travel to and around.
  • It’s not a very pretty country.

I recently read a blog post from a seasoned blogger that said Chisinau, Moldova’s capital, is the most boring capital in Europe.

But here’s the thing: these ideas of what Moldova is like are not exactly true or are at least not the whole truth.  Although it is, indeed, a poor country (the poorest in Europe, for that matter), Moldova is also a pretty cool country.  So to counter those single stories, here is what you might find in Moldova:

  • There is an abundance of natural beauty.  There are sunflower fields in the summer that stretch as far as the eye can see, gorgeous river banks, gently rolling hills, and nice forests.
  • There are a number of interesting sites to visit.  In Chisinau, there are numerous interesting monuments and nice parks, as well as the former circus building, which is known as an excellent example of Soviet architecture.  Outside Chisinau, there are cool sites in the northern part of the country such as the Soroca Fortress and Orhei Monastery.  To the west of Chisinau is Milesti Mici, the world’s largest underground wine cellar.  There are other famous wineries, including Cricova, Pucari, and Castel Mimi.
  • There is a unique mix of old and new, traditional and modern.  In the capital, you can find modern amenities, such as a cinema, excellent restaurants, and dance clubs.  In towns and villages, old customs and traditions are still very much alive.  You can experience impressive traditional dances and watch wine being made in house courtyards.
  • There is an extensive public transportation system.  Although not always particularly comfortable, there is reliable, affordable, and extensive public transportation in virtually every part of the country.  In the capital, you can take a trolley bus anywhere in the city for just 2 lei (0.10 USD).  I can get to the capital from my village in 2 hours riding in a mini-bus for the cost of 48 lei (2.38 USD).
  • The people are wonderful and welcoming.  Moldovans are friendly and will generally welcome you with a glass (or two or three) of good, homemade wine (or compot, which is homemade juice, if alcohol’s not your thing) and a masa (table) of food.

You see, if you believed the single story, you might miss out on a lot of really wonderful things (Hint: Chris (my brother)! You need to come visit here!)!

This post is part of Blogging Abroad’s 2017 New Years Blog Challenge, week two: The Danger of a Single Story.

Christmas Vacation Re-cap and Back to School!

A group of students perform a skit at the "carnival"
A group of students perform a skit at the “carnival”
A choral group performed a beautiful song at the "carnival"
A choral group performed a beautiful song at the “carnival”

We headed back to school today after a two-week vacation.  It’s always hard to go back after some time off, but I’m thankful that I had a very relaxing, quiet vacation.  Other than two short trips (one overnight and one day trip) to Chisinau, I just hung out at home and with my host family.  We celebrated my birthday, New Year’s, and Orthodox Christmas (this past weekend).  I enjoyed holiday celebrations at school and in the community, including the town’s “carnival” which was a lot like a variety show in the United States: skits, singing, dancing, and even some activities and competitions.  I went with my host niece Valerica and she performed “Jingle Bells”.  After the scheduled performances there was a singing and modern dance competition.  As they announced the judges they said, “Domnisoara Elena, Doamna Galina, si Domnisoara Elisabeth!”  I didn’t know I was going to get to be a judge, but one of the things you learn in the Peace Corps is to just go with the flow!  Thankfully, I had thought ahead enough to dress nicely, so when I went up on stage to help announce the winners I didn’t feel under-dressed.

Our first "real" snowfall
Our first “real” snowfall
My host nieces, Valerica and Eva
My host nieces, Valerica and Eva
A group of students came to carol
A group of students came to carol

This past weekend, my host brother and his family and host sister and her husband joined us to celebrate Orthodox Christmas.  The temperatures and weather were pretty brutal (cold, very strong winds, and heavy snow), so it was a pretty relaxed celebration.  They left Saturday afternoon, leaving the house very quiet.  I was very, very thankful that the inside bathroom was completed earlier this week and I didn’t have to brave the -10 and below (plus windchill) temperatures outside!  I actually didn’t even step outside the house for four days because it was so cold out!

Our road near our house
Our road near our house
This pretty dog was on our road
This pretty dog was on our road
All bundled up for our walk
All bundled up for our walk
My first visit to Ermoclia, the next town over.
My first visit to Ermoclia, the next town over.
My host mom's friends have four huge cats, but they didn't want their picture taken!
My host mom’s friends have four huge cats, but they didn’t want their picture taken!

Yesterday, on my last day off, my host mom asked if I’d like to go to the next town over with her to visit a friend.  I figured it would be good to get out of the house and I was very bored, so I agreed.  We actually walked there (about a 1-hour walk, I think).  It was a bit warmer (though definitely still cold) and the snow was deep- my favorite weather to be outside in (and I am NOT being sarcastic! I love winter!).  It was quiet and calm and beautiful, although a little hard.  The road was more-or-less cleared, but there were parts that hadn’t been cleared where the snow was at least a foot deep (my legs are sore today!).  We visited with my host mom’s friends and had a light meal with them, then headed out as it started to get darker out.  Thankfully, we only had to walk half the way back and were able to catch a ride into the rest of the way (I wouldn’t have minded walking, but it was pretty dark at that point).  It was probably one of the best parts of my vacation!

Today, classes were back in session, but our raion (kind of like a county, but within a country) determined it was too cold out, so only grades 5 and up had to come to school.  Most of our Monday classes are with the younger grades, so we just had two simple classes and then got to go home.  In my second class (one of my 7th grade classes), four of the girls sang a carol for us and we also had a discussion about learning languages (English for them vs. Romanian for me).  One of them mentioned that it is easier for the them to understand when my partner teacher (a Moldovan teacher) reads aloud than it is when I read aloud (both because I read slightly faster an because I have an accent they aren’t used to).  They asked me if when I read Romanian if it’s like when they read English.  After the bell rang, I agreed to read a paragraph in Romanian for them.  My language learning was focused on being able to speak and understand rather than read and write, while theirs is focused more on reading and writing and grammar.  They thought it was very interesting to hear me (attempt) to read Romanian!  I was happy today was a bit more relaxed at school and we could have discussions like this.  I think it’s good to talk about both the difficulties and importance of learning another language, and we rarely have time to have discussions like this.

7 Ways Globalization Shows Up in Moldova

A group of my 8th grade students performing a dance to an American hip-hop song.
A group of my 8th grade students performing a dance to an American hip-hop song.

It’s easy to think of the world as this huge, vast place.  It’s easy to think that we are so separated from one another, that we’re so different from one another.  It’s easy to think that our actions and choices can’t possibly affect people halfway around the world from us.  But that’s not true.  As I’ve traveled and as I live halfway around the world from the place I was born and raised, I’ve come to realize that this world is actually a pretty small place.  We’re not all that different from each other.  And our actions and choices do have the possibility to affect people we’ve never met or even know exist.  In reality, the world is rather interconnected.  Here are 7 examples of how globalization shows up here in Moldova.

1. Music.  As I write this, I’m listening to a local radio station.  In the past hour, all but maybe one or two songs have been in English, and almost all of them are songs that I was familiar with in the United States.  Although Moldova also has plenty of its own music, American music is very popular here, particularly with my students.  One day, one of my students asked if I (personally) knew Justin Bieber.

2. Technology.  Many of my students and other Moldovans have “American” technology, such as iPhones and iPods.  They also spend time on Instagram, Facebook, and YouTube.  This allows them to watch videos and see content from the United States and other countries.

3. Work.  A large percentage of Moldovans live and work abroad.  Though estimates aren’t particularly exact, most sources say around 25% of the working age population is abroad.  Many work in Russia, England, Germany, Italy, and Romania, as well other countries in Europe, the Middle East, and America.  I have students born in other countries, many students have one or both parents working abroad, and most older adults I meet have children working abroad.  There are at least two teachers at my school who have children living in the United States.

4. Language Classes.  Every time I go to the capital, I see many signs advertising various language classes and tutoring, from English to German to French.

5. Bi-Lingualism and Tri-Lingualism.  Because of Moldova’s complex past, almost every single Moldovan is at least bi-lingual, and many are tri-lingual.  Everyone speaks Romanian and Russian, and an additional foreign language is mandatory in grades 2-9 at schools (usually French or English).  In Gagauzia, the semi-autonomous state within Moldova, people also speak Gagauzian (an endangered language that derives from Turkish).

6. Food.  Particularly in the capital, there are many restaurants serving foods native to other areas, including Italian, Mexican, Thai, American, Greek, and Uzbek.  In particular, pizza is quite popular.  Another volunteer’s host father explained that prior to Moldova’s independence 25 years ago, Moldovans had never even heard of pizza, but now it seems to be one of the most popular foods at restaurants across the country.

7. Media.  The cinemas show quite a few American movies, and there are some channels on television that show American shows.  The TV shows are particularly interesting, as they are often dubbed in Russia (over somewhat still audible English) with Romanian subtitles.

See?  Even in this little country halfway around the world, it’s easy to see how interconnected our world is.

This post is part of Blogging Abroad’s 2017 New Years Blog Challenge, week one: Global Citizenship.

Happy New Year!

I’m pretty sure I’ve mentioned this a few times, but many Moldovans celebrate both Christmas and the New Year based on the Orthodox calendar.  Some also celebrate “our” Christmas and New Year.  Basically, in Moldova, the party is just getting started, and Christmas will be celebrated on January 7th and New Year on January 14th.

I wasn’t sure we would really do anything for New Year’s Eve or not.  I had thought about going into Chisinau and meeting up with other volunteers, but ultimately decided to just stay home as I was feeling pretty tired.  We ended up having a very simple celebration at home.  We did at least stay up to ring in the new year.  We had a yummy dinner of chicken and potatoes, as well as yummy champagne from the Cricova winery.

Valerica ended up falling asleep before midnight, but my host mom, host dad, and I were awake.  As soon as the clock hit midnight, all over my little village, people were setting off fireworks.  We couldn’t see a ton, but those we did see were very pretty.  We went outside to watch them and it was also a very clear night with gorgeous stars in the sky.  After, we toasted each other with champagne and my host parents called their loved ones.  I skyped for a bit with some friends from home as they prepared for their celebration seven hours later.

It was a pretty perfect evening to start off the new year!  Welcome to 2017!

Year in Review: 2016

2016.  It’s been quite the year.  Without even getting into it on a global scale, this has been a year full of huge changes and amazing experiences in my life.  I’ve called four different places home (Elmira, Walton, Costesti, and Festelita).  I started the year off as a college senior, completed my final semester of college, graduated in April (though I won’t get to see my diploma in person till I go home in about a year and a half), traveled to South Africa, substitute taught for a month, and then departed to Moldova as a Peace Corps volunteer in May.  Whew!  This year has been a combination of hard, challenging, amazing, and occasionally mundane.  Here are my top 16 moments of 2016 (in no particular order).

1. I suppose this is more than a single moment, but all of the days and nights spent with my Perry Apartment roommates laughing and talking.  I couldn’t have asked for a better group of people to live with for my final year of college.  From nights when we all crammed into one small bedroom instead of the huge living room to eating homemade cookie dough by the spoonful, I certainly miss living with my four roommates.

2. Experiencing St. Patrick’s Day in Rochester with Kristine.  I spent a short weekend in Rochester with one of my best friends, catching up and watching the never-ending parade of green.

3. Graduating College.  I’m not actually sure what date I supposedly graduated on, but I did it!  Our college had uneven trimesters and I finished in April between the 2nd and 3rd terms, but I think I technically graduated in June (I didn’t get to go to graduation and I’ve never seen my diploma, so it all feels a little like it didn’t happen).

4. A trip to South Africa.  My parents called me one day and basically were like “Hey.  So I know we said we were going to go to Canada in three weeks, but would it be okay if we go to South Africa and visit Heather [my sister] instead?”.  Um, obviously!  It was a great trip and the best graduation present ever!

5. Related, going bar-hopping with my sister in South Africa.  This is usually not at all my thing, but I had a really fun time going out with my little sister and her friends.  She basically forced me to go out with them, since I won’t be in the United States for her 21st birthday this coming spring, but it truly was a lot of fun (and no worries, totally legal there!).

6. Substitute teaching for a few weeks before leaving the country.  I really enjoyed getting to work with kids after a semester off from teaching at all, and I even got to substitute in the art room and music room, which I really enjoyed!

7. Getting together with my high school friends (again, before leaving the country).  Although I’d seen them individually, the four of us hadn’t been together since I think freshman year of college, and I was so happy we could get together one more time before I left the country for a long-ish period of time.  Also, one of them drove a 4-hour round trip just to come meet up with us for a few hours (I really appreciated it, Beth!).

8. Moving to this beautiful country called Moldova and starting my Peace Corps service.  Do I really need to say more?

9. Attending my first Moldovan wedding.  It was definitely an event I will forever remember.

10. Spending 8 hours a day with fellow volunteers during PST.  While this was also rather hard at times (that’s a LOT of time to spend with the same people), I have so many wonderful memories, including singing to 90s hits, eating ice cream every day, haircuts during lunch breaks, and lots of laughter.

11. Getting our site placements and visiting our sites for the first time.  I was a little worried when the blindfold came off and it appeared there was no one else even somewhat close on the map to me, but as soon as I visited the following weekend, I loved my little village.

12. Getting to know and love my host family(ies).  I was incredibly fortunate to be placed with wonderful host families both for PST and now here at site.  My current host family often introduces me to others as their “American daughter” and they have been beyond wonderful to me.

13. Teaching middle-school-aged students.  What?! The one age level I always said I would never want to teach has become my favorite.  They’re seriously awesome!  And just in general, finally feeling like I belong at school.

14. All the little “surprise” moments that are some fantastic mix of strange, unexpected, bizarre, and cool.  As probably any Peace Corps volunteer can tell you, regardless of where they serve, this is what makes Peace Corps both amazing and challenging.  One small example: when the bus, during a snowstorm, stops halfway up a hill, backs down it, and hooks up a car to the back and tows it all the way to town.

15. Walking through the sunflower and wheat fields during my first visit to site.  It was so truly peaceful and beautiful.  Think of fields of yellow sunflowers stretching far to one side and fields of tall wheat stretching far to the other side.

16. Exploring Moldova.  So far, I’ve been to Chisinau (too many times to count), Ungheni, Criuleni, Causeni, and around the towns of Festelita (Stefan Voda raion) and Costesti (Ialoveni  raion).  Moldova is a beautiful, diverse country, and I hope to see much more of it while I’m here.

In English, but in a Moldovan style: I wish for you a year with success, health, peace, and happiness.