Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Happy 50th Birthday, Peace Corps!

On March 1, 1961, President John F. Kennedy signed Executive Order 10924, which established the Peace Corps. For fifty years, Peace Corps Volunteers have been promoting world peace and friendship by living and working with people from other cultures. I feel so honored to be part of this amazing organization.

La Mulţi Ani, Corpul Păcii!

Saturday, December 11, 2010

A Semester's Worth of Stories

It’s been a while.

My last blog post is dated August 27 , and now it’s December. I only have two weeks left until the end of my first semester as an English teacher – which means that I am almost a quarter of the way through my service as a Peace Corps Volunteer. I arrived in Moldova on June 10, and now it’s December 11. The fact that I’ve been living overseas for over six months blows my mind.

One reason that I haven’t written a blog post in so long is because I haven’t had a lot of free time. I teach the sixth, seventh, eight, tenth, and eleventh grades (or “forms,” as we call them here – I think that’s British English). Gymnasium (middle school) students have English twice a week, and lyceum (high school) students have three English lessons a week. Between teaching classes, writing lesson plans, and making teaching materials, I’ve been very busy, and I have a much greater respect for teachers now and all that they do for their students. Thank you to all my teachers for sacrificing your time to help me learn.

Another reason that I haven’t posted in a while is because, according to Peace Corps rules, I’m not supposed to say anything negative on my blog, and, to be honest, my first semester hasn’t been all roses. Teaching is difficult enough, but imagine trying to teach in a different country with a different culture and a very different educational system. The past four months have been challenging, but they have allowed me to grow in ways that I never expected. And the good moments make up for the hard ones ten-fold.

So, to recap my first semester, let’s start at the very beginning (it is, as Frӓulein Maria says, a very good place to start). The first day of school in Moldova (September 1st) begins with a First Bell ceremony. At my school, the first graders sang songs and recited poems. Then the twelfth graders presented the first graders with their first textbooks. After that, one of the twelfth grade boys picked up one of the first graders and carried her around the blacktop while she rang a bell. Throughout this ceremony, I kept thinking about all the first days of school I spent reading aloud from the Prince William County Schools’ Code of Behavior and concluded that the first day of school is much more interesting in Moldova than it is in PWC.

On the first day of school, students also give their teachers flowers. I got some from students I’d never met! The flowers usually come with a short speech asking the teacher to be understanding and patient with students throughout the year.

At my school, there is a dress code which requires students to wear black and white, but the first day of school is usually the only day of the year that the students respect it. On the first day of school, everyone was wearing black and white, and I was wearing green. I think that’s an accurate representation of how I go through life.

October 5th is Teachers’ Day in Moldova. When I walked into school on this day, I was greeted with flowers and a ribbon pin. Throughout the day, there was music blasting in the hallways during all the class changes, and students once again presented their teachers flowers and
speeches – I got some! In the morning, a teachers’ meeting was called, at which students served us coffee, tea, and sweets. After school, there was a masӑ (feast), where I learned that drinking alcohol on school grounds is allowed in Moldova (again, I thought of the Code of Behavior).

As if these things weren’t enough, on Teachers’ Day, the students teach all of the lessons. There were also some twelfth graders who were assigned to be the director (principal) and director adjunct (vice principal) for the day. I’ve decided that I’m a big fan of Teachers’ Day.

I’m also a big fan of Hram, or Village Day. Every village in Moldova has a Village Day, which is like the village’s birthday. My village celebrates Hram on October 14. For Hram, families have many guests and eat A LOT of food, so Hram reminded me of Thanksgiving – except that Hram celebrations last three days. For three nights in a row, my host family had a masӑ, each time with different guests. One morning , I woke up and found three people asleep in my living room who had not been there when I’d gone to bed. There is no school on Hram, and no a lot of learning happens on the days before and after it (another reason why it reminded me of Thanksgiving).

This year, Hram was on a Thursday, which meant that my host mom started cooking on Monday. I helped!...by doing a lot of menial tasks – but I didn’t mind. On Wednesday, I spent three hours de-shelling nuts. I did this outside, and my host mom put a scarf on my head to keep me warm. When my host dad saw me, he laughed and said (in English), “Goodbye, America” and said that I had become Moldovan.

I terms of cooking, I have been doing more than just de-shelling nuts; I’ve been learning how to make traditional Moldovan food. I now know how to make placinta and mamaligǎ. My host mom says that, after two years, I will know how to make every Moldovan dish!

My tastes have also changed since I’ve been here. I used to not like brînzǎ (homemade cheese), and now I eat spoonfuls of it plain. Before I came to Moldova, I wasn’t a big fan of cabbage, and now I crave it. Maybe this has something to do with the fact that vegetables are scarcer here now that winter has set in.

I had another interesting culinary experience on Thanksgiving. My partner teacher told me that she was going to make pumpkin placinta after school (I’ve been eating pumpkin pie – Moldovan style – since October). When I told her that that was a traditional Thanksgiving food, she invited me over to help her make Moldovan pumpkin pie and to show her how to make American pumpkin pie (yes, I made a pie; I can read a recipe). She and her ten-year-old son were fascinated with the American pie, especially the crust because it was so thin and required only a few spoonfuls of water, but her son ate half a pie by himself, so I’d say the American version was a hit. I made two American pies and ate one of them with my partner teacher’s family. We served the other pie to one of our tenth grade classes to thank them for their enthusiastic participation in the seminar that we hosted the day before Thanksgiving.

Yes, I gave a seminar! The raion (region) assigned our school to give a seminar on the topic, “using the internet in the foreign language classroom.” Our seminar consisted of two open lessons, one with sixth form and one with tenth form. Over twenty teachers from the raion attended (there were more teachers in the room than students), and they agreed that both of our lessons were excellent! The official ratings on the participant evaluation forms only went up to “very good,” but our observers decided that that rating wasn’t good enough! I am required to give three seminars throughout my service, and now one of them is already out of the way.

But back to Thanksgiving. I celebrated with other Volunteers who live in a city about an hour away from my village. They are vegetarians, so the meal was going to be meat-free, but then their Romanian tutor donated a goose. However, as we sat down to eat, we realized that the goose wasn’t fully cooked, so it ended up being a meatless Thanksgiving, anyway. The meal was amazing, though, even without Turkey (or goose). We had stuffing, mashed potatoes, corn, rolls, noodles, and green bean casserole topped with FRENCH’S FRENCH FRIED ONIONS that had been sent over in a care package. We put one can on the casserole and just ate the other can plain. Including myself, there were eleven people at our meal: five Volunteers; my friends’ Romanian tutor, her husband, and their six-year-old son; my friends’ partner teacher; and my friends’ host parents. Their host dad had returned from Texas that day, where he had been visiting his kids and grandkids. After dinner, we played Texas Hold ‘Em.

Visiting other Volunteers has helped me get the hang of getting around Moldova. There isn’t a lot of transportation to and from my village, so I usually just wait at the bus stop on the side of the highway and flag down rutieras and buses as they come by. Sounds adventurous, doesn’t it?

Until about a month ago, I was going on a walk in my village every day. My village is beautiful, and people usually greet me when I pass them (students greet me in English) – or invite me into their homes. One day, I ran into my student’s mom. Within five minutes of meeting me, she told me that I was a very good girl and asked if I wanted to be her daughter-in-law (this student has an older brother). This was not my first marriage proposal.

These days, it’s too cold and dark to go for walks after school. I’ve had to procure some winter weather items like a knee-length coat – the Poland coat saga will not be repeated! – some more dress pants (one pair is fleece-lined!), warm socks, and winter (fur-lined) boots. My host mom is very happy about my boot purchase. When my partner teacher saw my fuzzy brightly-colored socks, she said, “I know you bought those stockings in Moldova because all Moldovans have them.”

Peace Corps also issued all the PC Moldova Volunteers Yak Trax (imagine tire chains for your shoes). I thought that people in my village would laugh at them, but, so far, everyone who’s seen them thinks that they’re a great idea and wants to know where to get some. This is after people figure out what the Yak Trax are for, of course. One day, I left my Yak Trax on the windowsill of the English classroom. Later, when my partner teacher saw me put them on my shoes, she said, “I thought they were something to put on the mouth of a dog, and I couldn’t figure out why there were two.”

So, that’s how my first semester’s gone down. I’m headed to TURKEY for New Year’s, and I can’t wait to see how Moldovans celebrate Christmas (which is on January 7th).


Friday, August 27, 2010

Baptism by Fire

I made it! I am an official Peace Corps Volunteer! The English Education and Health Education Trainees were sworn in in Chişinău on August 18. Getting to the swearing in ceremony was no easy task. Here’s a run-down of my daily schedule for the last three weeks of PST:
8:30-11:00 A.M.: Romanian lessons
11:15-1:00: practice school: real lessons with real Moldovan kids
1:00-2:00: lunch
2:00-5:00: planning for practice school
5:00-6:00: dance practice. That’s right, I said dance practice. At the farewell ceremony for our PST host families, we performed several traditional Moldovan dances and sang a few Moldovan songs. I didn’t know that being a Volunteer would require this much dancing.
6:00-?: finish planning
9:00 P.M.-1:00 A.M. (or 2:00…or 3:30…): make teaching materials, write lesson plans in required Peace Corps format.

For the first part of practice school, resource teachers (experienced Moldovan English teachers) helped us plan our lessons, observed our classes, and gave us feedback. One day, my resource teacher and I were at school so late that the custodians accidentally locked us in, and we had to climb out a window that was five feet off the ground. It made my day.

So, having learned the Moldovan polka and broken out of a locked building, I am now at my permanent site. I am still settling in, but I can now get to and from school, two stores, and my partner teachers’ houses on my own, which is impressive considering that none of the roads have names. Yesterday morning, I came upon a well and suddenly knew exactly where I was. In a foreign country. That was an amazing feeling.

My host family is fantastic. I’ve been hanging out with my nine-year-old host niece and giving impromptu English lessons at the dinner table (only when requested). I’ve also been going to BBQs and dinner parties. It’s pretty cool to think that going to BBQs and playing UNO with a nine-year-old are actually part of my official job description: cultural integration in order to promote world peace and friendship. What a sweet gig.

School starts on September 1st. I will be teaching eight grade on my own and team-teaching the sixth, eighth (eight grade will be split in half), ninth, tenth, eleventh, and twelfth grades with my partner teachers. My partner teachers and I have been working hard, but we still have so much to do before school starts!

For some reason, I have a lot of stories about food. Here they are:
-One day, during practice school, a meal of stewed cabbage, fresh plăcintă (bread stuffed with cheese, cabbage, potatoes, or fruit), and hot compote (boiled fruit juice) warmed my soul. I took that as a sign of cultural adjustment.
-Moldovan BBQ is amazing. So far, I’ve had BBQed chicken, goat, and sheep. One evening, at a BBQ, I spilled ketchup on my pants and thought, “It’s like I never left.”
-I have a new appreciation for seedless grapes.
-Last night, my host parents yelled at my host niece for blowing bubbles in her milk. I guess some things are universal.
-One day I bit into a piece of plăcintă and had the following thoughts: There’s fruit in here. It’s apple. This is apple pie!
-I have been secretly using “cross-cultural education” as justification for trying every type of candy in the candy dish at parties.
-Today, I did a double take because I thought I saw a Wendy’s cup on the side of the road.
-It’s watermelon season. I have never eaten so much watermelon in such a short amount of time. For some reason, Moldovans use the Russian word for watermelon. It’s one of the three Russian words I know.

Moving and starting a new job is a difficult process, especially in a foreign country, so I have been pretty stressed out and homesick, but last night, my host mom and I had the following conversation:

Host mom: Let’s go.
Me: Where?
Host mom: To the BBQ.

Ten minutes later, I was riding in the back of my host family’s orange van, listening to – and understanding! – blaring Moldovan pop music. The floor of the van was covered in watermelons.

I suddenly remembered why I became Peace Corps Volunteer.

I know that some of you are dying to see pictures. They’re coming. I promise.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Permanent Site!

Last week, I found out where I will be living and working for the next two years. On site announcement day, the PST staff drew a map of Moldova on the floor of the school gym and directed us to our permanent sites, which allowed us to see where we will be in relation to each other and to Chisinau.

I will be living in a village of 3,000 people about an hour and a half north of Chisinau. Last weekend, I went on a site visit, which consisted of one terrifying event after another. First, I had to meet my school director and have a conversation with her in Romanian. But one of the first things she said to me was that the village is waiting for me with love, and I was surprised at how much Romanian I was able to understand and speak. The next day, my school director, some school administrators, and my partner teachers held a masӑ (table feast) for me at school. Again, I had to have a conversation in Romanian – this time for three hours. The mayor was also there (though I did not know he was the mayor at the time…drawback of being introduced to someone in a foreign language). I am the first Peace Corps Volunteer to work in my village, so everyone is super excited to have me there. Again, I was surprised at how well I was able to communicate in Romanian. Then there was the issue of having to get all the way back to my PST site alone on Sunday. Fortunately, I was able to hop on the same rutiera one of my friends was on, and we were able to travel back to our training site together, which made the trip so much less scary. So, not only did I survive all the terrifying parts of the weekend, but they turned out to be not so frightening after all.

My partner teachers are great. They are excited to work with me and are open to new ideas. During my visit to the school, I got to talk to some students, and my partners must know what they’re doing because their kids speak English well. My future colleges are also enthusiastic about starting after school clubs and community projects, which is exciting for me. Excitement was the basic theme of my site visit, and I couldn’t be happier about that.

My new host family is wonderful. I will be living with a middle-aged couple with three children. Two of their kids are married and have kids of their own. Their youngest son is eighteen. He was at home last weekend, but I think he’s going to college in the fall. My parents’ eight-year-old granddaughter was also there this weekend; she was staying with her grandparents while her parents were on vacation. At first she just stared at me, but then she warmed up to me and started showing me all of her toys and jewelry. She also held my hand on the way to the veceu (outhouse) at night. I will be sad to leave my current host family, but I am excited to get to know my new host family better, and I’ve promised my PST family that I will visit them.

On Saturday, I ate all day long. First, I had breakfast at home. Then I went to the masӑ at school. Then my partner took me on a walk around the village, during which we stopped and got some bread at her mom’s house and then at a meal at her sister’s house. Then I went to my host mom’s sister’s house and had cake and ice cream. Then, I went to my partner teacher’s house and ate mӑmӑligӑ (Moldova’s national food; it’s like polenta) with meat and cheese – and there was dessert, of course. By the end of the day, I was determined to never eat again.

So, except for feeling like my stomach would explode, my site visit was a success (and the food was so good, that I can’t truthfully count overeating as a downside). I’m a so excited about living and working with the people I met last weekend, and they seem to like me. There was a lot of gushing over me this weekend, and on Sunday night, one of my partner teachers called me just to tell me that everyone is already talking about me and saying good things. I fear that soon my head will be larger than my foot was after that bug bite.

I’m halfway through with PST. I’ll move to my permanent site in mid-August. Until then, I have plenty of training sessions and three weeks of practice school to keep me busy. But, as I said, theme of last weekend: EXCITEMENT!

Some odds and ends:
-Two weeks ago, my cell phone fell in the veceu. All I could do was laugh. I have a new phone now, and I was even able to get all of my minutes back – and I have another great Peace Corps story.
-Yesterday, I took a shower for the first time in weeks (I've been bathing but not showering), and I felt like I was wasting so much water.
-I have calluses on my fingers from eating sunflower seeds.
-The other day, I found a pair of pants that I’d completely forgotten I’d packed. It was like Christmas.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

By now, I’ve had a chance to make some purchases at some of the shops in my village, and I’ve observed a couple of things. First, if you’re change isn’t very much, the shopkeepers will often give it to you in candy. I also had a clerk give me a travel pack of tissues once, which was great because tissues come in quite handy here. I’ve also seen several shopkeepers use an abacus to calculate a customer’s total.

In the month that I’ve been in Moldova, I’ve discovered that there are two kinds of culture shock. There’s the dull, constant kind that I feel at every meal, every time I use the veceu (outhouse), and every time I navigate my way through piles of manure on a dirt – or muddy – road. Then there are the sudden flashes that feel like a car coming around a corner towards me at night with its brights on. The most recent of these flashes happened last week after a vent cover flew off the ceiling of a rutiera (minibus) that the EEs were on. The next day, the rutiera driver came to the school were we have our training sessions and asked us if we remembered where we’d lost the vent cover. (I guess he was going to try to find it.) We told him that we weren’t sure, but that we knew it was before the sunflower fields. The high beams of this story are not the fact that a bus I was on lost part of its ceiling while traveling at sixty miles an hour (and, yes, Dad, the first thing I thought of when this happened was that Aloha Air 737 whose ceiling ripped off mid-flight), but the fact that a sunflower field was a meaningful landmark. I think that the dull, constant kind of culture shock might decrease with time, but I have a feeling that the sudden, unexpected reminders that I’m in a foreign country will never stop. But don’t worry; the high beams are startling, but they are some of the best moments because they remind me why I’m here.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Since my last post, I have been working on greeting people in my village. Moldovans traditionally greet everyone they pass on the street – including strangers – with either “bunӑ ziua” (hello/good day), “bunӑ dimineața” (good morning) or “bunӑ seara” (good evening). However, there are certain rules to this practice. For one thing, as far as I’ve observed, the greeting is rarely said loudly or with a smile; it’s usually mumbled. Also, women aren’t supposed to make eye contact with men because eye contact is seen as an invitation. After two weeks, I think I’m starting to get the hang of this greeting people thing.

I’ve also been learning how to walk in the mud, which is an important skill when you live on a dirt road – and it rains for a week straight. I must not be good at walking in the mud because somehow my host sisters’ shoes never get as dirty as mine, even when I follow their footsteps exactly. But I bought some galoshes the other day, so now I can squish my way to school in as much of an unladylike way as I please. I still have to clean the galoshes when I get to school, though, because the custodians who work at the school where we have our training sessions won’t let us in the building if our shoes are dirty.

Like many families in Moldova, my host family has a large garden, and I have been eating a ton of fresh fruits and vegetables. My family grows potatoes, carrots, onions, garlic, tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, beans, corn, cabbage, pumpkins, beets, radishes, cherries, apricots, peaches, strawberries, raspberries, melons, apples, pears, plums, grapes, and nuts. Their homemade jam is amazing!

My host family is wonderful. They called me Emilia for a while, but now they just call me Emie, and I love it. The other day, I coughed while I was working out, and both my host mom and host sister came up to me and expressed their concern that I was getting a cold.

In other news, the phrase “til the cows come home” actually means something to me now.

Monday, June 21, 2010

And so it really begins...

Staging and the first few days in Chișinau were a whirlwind, and the only thing I have to say on this subject is that, when our staging directors said that we need to get rid of all of our expectations about Moldova, they were right. My mantra before I left was, “I’ll be okay. I’m not going to the jungle.” Well, we arrived in Moldova in the middle of a heat wave – at least, I hope it was a heat wave; the temperature’s gone down a lot, and I hope it won’t spike again – and, on my first day with my host family, I got a bug bite on my ankle that caused my entire foot to swell up like a balloon. Don’t worry, my foot is back to its normal size now, and part of me is glad I got that bug bite because my swollen foot was a nice ice breaker with my fellow Trainees.

My host family consists of a couple, Eudochia and Pavel, and their three daughters, Caterina (who is married and pregnant), Eleonora (22), and Dumitrița (16). They are very warm and generous and take excellent care of me. Eleonora speaks English, but the past week has still been full of miming and looking things up in the dictionary. The other night, my host mom raised her glass to me and said, “rest in peace.” We all laughed super hard when I clarified how to use that phrase. Yesterday, I accidentally said “I’m sorry” instead of “nice to meet you.”

Training is intense. We have language classes every weekday from 8:30 A.M. to 1:00 P.M. and technical training from 2:00-5:00 P.M. We also have class every Saturday morning. Once a week, we go to our hub site, a larger town called Ialoveni, for more general training with the other Trainees. On Friday, all the Trainees met a park for team building exercises. We also have homework almost every day for our language and tech classes, and we have a community integration workbook that we have to turn in every two weeks. Right now, the thought of everything that I have to learn in the next ten weeks is overwhelming, but I keep telling myself that when Training is over, I will be so much more prepared to teach English and live on my own in Moldova.

I’ll end this post with a couple of lists.

Things that I am learning how to do:
-Watch American movies dubbed in Russian with Romanian subtitles
-Eat sunflower seeds. Moldovans love them – I have eaten more sunflower seeds in the past week than I have in my entire life
-Eat cherries straight off the tree. You have to check them for worms. (This one also falls under my next list.)

Things that I am still getting used to:
-Using an outhouse
-Eating different food. Most of it is tasty, though.
-Living with farm animals (mostly the rooster). My family has cows, pigs, ducks, chickens, and rabbits. The evening routine involves bringing the cows home and collecting the ducklings.

Things that make everything worth it:
-Nonverbal communication
-Tea and sweets
-The rare occasion in which I understand a whole sentence in Romanian.

Oh, and I went to the discotecӑ Saturday night.