Stale Videos - Moldova Pre-Service Training

Monday, June 27, 2011


My host families’ house is located near the center of Cenac, right off only the only paved street in town. Our neighbors include the discoteca/culture house (a stout one room building with very pink walls), the basirica and the post office. Up the street a ways are two of Cenac’s main stores and the Mayor’s office. Across the street from the Mayors office is Cenac’s only school.

Also next to the Mayor’s office, in what might be described as the “town square,” is a small stretch of road where people wait to hitchhike out of the village. As I mentioned in my last entry, hitchhiking is widespread: in my village, for instance, probably as many people hitchhike and carpool as own cars - probably more. When I walk through central Cenac, no matter the time of day, I’m likely to see villagers of all ages waiting for a car to Cimislia, the county center. Many are students on their way to school or older people buying produce. Like anywhere else in the world, people have to run errands. In Cenac, 10 lei (a little less than a dollar) is the understood toll for getting there.

Cenac’s only bus leaves for Cimislia once every day, in the morning. If a Moldovan misses that bus, she waits for a passing car. It’s partly due to these kind of transportation issues that the phrase “time is of the essence” isn’t in the Moldovan lexicon. Far from it. Punctuality seems like a foreign concept. (Luckily, punctuality isn’t expected either. Stopping for a 45 minute lunch at 1:50 PM on the way to a 2:00 PM meeting is entirely acceptable. People have to eat after all!).

For Americans in Moldova, this takes some adjusting to. Errands that might take a single morning in the United States often take a full day here. What would be daylong tasks take several, three-day tasks a week, weeklong tasks….well, you get the picture.

When I first got to site I would often ride with my host father into town, instead of taking the bus. “Domnul (Mr.) Ion,” I’d say, “I’m leaving for Cimislia tomorrow morning.”

“Yes? With who do you go?”

“With the autobus.”

-Waving dismissively- “Go with me tomorrow. I go to Cimislia.”

“Thank you Domnul Ion. But what time will we leave? I must be in Chisinau (the capitol) early. If you have other things to do I will take the bus. It is no problem”

-Hearty laughter- “We will leave at 9AM. There is no doubt.”

The next day.


Outside, Domnul Ion approaches.

“What are you doing here Mat? Soon, we have left.”

“OK Domnul Ion. Tell me when you are ready.”


Domnul Ion walks toward the car. Excellent, I think. I call out. “We are leaving now, yes?”

He turns to me, “No. Măt! You stay here! I must go to the tractors. I will come soon. And soon we have left.”


“Măt! Let’s go! We have left!”


The car stops outside the Mayor’s office.

“Măt! You stay in the car. I have to do one thing here. Soon we have left.”


We drive into the middle of some field and stop.

“Măt! You stay in the car. I must check the grapevines here.”


Finally, we pull into Cimislia’s bus station, “See! We have arrived early! Call me when you return and I will come for you!”

“Thanks Domnul Ion.”

Despite knowing that I’d arrive at my destination 2-3 hours later than intended, I repeated some version of this episode several times early in my service. It was difficult to get used to, if only because he so emphatically insisted that I go with him instead of taking the autobus. But I would learn in time, and something I should have realized earlier, is that his insistence was borne of his hospitality. It’s his nature. He did not want me to have to take the public bus if he could help me himself. Indeed, he was providing me with a service most volunteers go without, and one which I, and few Moldovans, rarely are able to take advantage of. He assumed I could wait because a service like that was so rare. In a situation like this, time is not of the essence.

Still, it wasn’t long before I began taking the morning bus.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Little House

On the surface, village life isn’t quite Little House on the Prairie. Life can be difficult. Luxuries are scant, paying jobs are scarce and money is hard to come by. The winter is cold, and wood fires, used to heat the houses, do little to warm winter nights. Strange odors permeate. Roads are unpaved and muddy. Infrastructure is dilapidated.

And yet, one doesn't have to search much to find the quaint aspects of life that inspired myths like Little House. People are neighborly – it’s rude not to say “good day” to someone on the street, even to someone you haven’t met before. If you have met the person, it’s expected that you stop and talk (Imagine if you had to stop and talk to every one of your neighbors you saw every day. My bet is you probably don’t, I know I didn’t). These discussions add to Cenac’s personable nature. Romanian is an old language, and can sound almost gallant, reflecting a more gracious time, long past (“Good day, sir. I am called Matt, what do they call you? It is my pleasure.”)

Furthermore, mutual difficulty inspires a communal approach to addressing problems. For example, Cenac has communal clean-up days (it’s different from volunteer park clean-ups in the States. Moldovan villagers feel obligated to participate, as opposed cleaning up out of a sense of civic duty. There is a subtle difference). Birthday parties, or masa’s, are hosted by whoever’s birthday it is, and he/she prepares the food and drink for people attending. Villagers also share resources we normally would consider private, valuables that we might hesitate to lend out in the United States.

Another good example of Moldova’s communal approach to solving problems is hitchhiking, one of the main modes of transportation not only in the rural villages, but all over Moldova. In the United States, hitchhikers are the exception, and most people I know would hesitate to pick one up. Not in Moldova. If a Moldovan has an open seat in his car, and he sees a hitchhiker (he invariably will, and at multiple points during his journey), he stops without a thought to pick them up.

In the spring and summer, when flowers bloom and cherries blossom, Moldova can be picturesque. Right now, for instance, I can literally walk out of my room and eat fresh cherries, raspberries, strawberries and prunes. If I go into the garage, I can sample some of the freshly harvested, high quality honeycomb. If I wait another month, the watermelons will be ripe, and we will eat between 2 and 3 a day. Sounds amazing right? It is. But it’s also only 3 months of the year. During the winter, fresh fruits and vegetables are nearly impossible to come by. Instead we eat pickled versions that we spent the summer and fall preparing: Pickled tomatoes, pickled cucumbers, pickled cabbage, pickled peppers, and, yes, pickled watermelons. By mid-February you’ll have trouble telling them apart.

So yes, like anything else on TV, mass media romanticizes what rural village life is actually like. That doesn’t mean that villages aren’t quaint and can’t be great places to live. It just means that, much like the Peace Corps, village life isn’t a vacation. The secret to unlocking the real Little House is hard, back-breaking work. It’s a lifestyle that’s difficult to grasp through the Hollywood prism. But Moldovans know where to find it, at the end of a hot summer day, amidst the sunflowers and cherry trees.

Sunday, May 15, 2011


Some pretty awesome volunteers in a highly praised performance of "Aşa e Viaţa," a traditional Moldovan song.

Enthusiastic? Yes. Heartfelt? Of course. Talented? Well, the guy with the guitar is good...

Friday, April 8, 2011

Slow Ride

I mentioned my bus, the hulking soviet era beast, in my last entry, and I want to describe what it’s like to ride. It’s unlike any vehicle I’ve ever been in before. First impression is that it’s homemade, as the handholds look like melded water piping and the seats are inconsistently bolted to the floor. In fact the seats in the back seem placed randomly, far removed from their intended use. The batteries, half-exposed under a carpet cover, are under one of these seats. Bewilderingly, the exhaust pipe sits next to the batteries inside the vehicle; the exhaust has to exit a window in the back.

The 14 kilometer trip feels like a sailing on a sinking ship. Run by a crew of two, the driver and his assistant, the bus begins its journey with the assistant attaching the batteries to the engine (whoever’s sitting in that seat has to move their legs to give him room). As engine rumbles to life, the windows’ rattle and the exhaust pours into the back of the bus.

Once the bus hits the dirt road, every passing kilometer feels like a monumental achievement. It groans and protests up hills and the driver shuts off the engine as we rumble down them, ostensibly to save fuel. The bus tosses left and right on the uneven ground as if being hit by waves in the ocean. And throughout the trip the driver’s assistant runs back and forth, pouring water into the radiator access behind the back seat.

Luckily the bus has never broken down during the journey when I’ve been a passenger, *knock on wood*, although I’m pretty sure it’s come close. I have no idea for how long that bus has been making this trip. It’s a feat of mechanical engineering that it still does.

Here’s some footage of the bus I took a while back. I wish I had more but my camera was stolen.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Stairway to Heaven

As far as you know, the unpaved road is nameless. Pockmarked and wide, it slogs its’ way through farmland fourteen kilometers to the village of Cenac. It’s broken by a multitude of ditches, covered in uneven gravel and characterized by a vulnerability to the elements. You soon feel personally acquainted with every inch of your journey. Time drags as the kilometers begin to feel like miles - a five minute ride on paved streets anywhere else is a twenty minute sojourn here. Your driver tells you that in the rain or snow it could take up to forty minutes. You appreciate just how isolated the villagers are.

This seemingly insignificant stretch of dirt and gravel was the first thing I noticed about Cenac. But in many ways it would come to define my service in the Peace Corps.

Paved roads are sources of opportunity and prosperity, much as rivers were for ancient civilization. They provide the lifeblood of society. But when they’re deficient, like when a river runs low in a drought, society tends to stagnate. A lack of modern infrastructure has significant ramifications anywhere, and this fact is clear to me now after living in a place that’s future may depend on whether or not it’s’ infrastructure improves.

Our road connects Cimişlia, the regional center (comparable to a county in the United States), to Cenac, the first and largest member of a trio of villages 14 kilometers from the raion. Past Cenac several kilometers on is Topali, it’s closest neighbor. Six kilometers down a branch street (more of a path than a street, really) is Javgur. Javgur is the most isolated of the three villages, and consequently the least populated and least developed. The only other Peace Corps volunteer in the area before me, Johann, lived in Javgur.

Johann finished his service three months after I arrived in Cenac, but his impact on my service, especially in helping me adjust to village life, was significant. I knew him as a super-volunteer, and Johann came as close to achieving local celebrity status as I’ve seen. His impeccable grasp of the local Romanian dialect (known as “Moldovan,” it varies from village to village but incorporates Russian) made me realize how much more I had to learn after the end of my language training. Even today, to my chagrin, I’m pretty sure I haven’t reached his level of fluency.

But it wasn’t only his cultural integration which lent to his super-volunteer status. He also won a large grant to build a computer center in order to provide Javgur with better access to information. In a village of 900 people without a single paved street, this was a big deal.

Much like I did, Johann believed the unpaved road to be the area’s biggest impediment to development. But after initial research he realized the project was simply too large to tackle. He tried to tell me this, but for my first few weeks I obsessively researched the costs and options available for road improvement myself. In the end I found he was right; as Peace Corps volunteers we are simply not equipped with the resources to take on a project of that scale. Nor is it our duty – as Community and Organizational Development volunteers, our job was to improve the capacity of the village to improve itself. This was a disappointment. A paved road to the Raion center could provide innumerable benefits to all three villages.

One of the hardest parts of living in the area is irregular transportation. For the most part, Moldova has a very dependable public transportation system, a network of buses, minibuses, and private taxi’s which run at regular intervals. Unfortunately, the road to Cenac takes a toll on vehicles that use it. Cenac and Topali therefore share a single bus, a hulking beast from the Soviet era. The bus shuttles passengers to Cimişlia at 7 A.M. and returns at 1 P.M.. Those who wish to find work outside of the village but don’t have a car must either find a place to stay overnight, work half days, or hitchhike. This wouldn’t be a problem if the villages could meet the demand for jobs themselves. However, Cenac mainly provides seasonal agricultural work. It can’t meet that demand for employment without further investment, and unpaved roads are an significant barrier to investment.

There are other problems too. First, Cenac depends on bread from Cimişlia, and any other produce that cannot be acquired locally. In the winter, weather can make the road impassable for weeks at a time. Last year, for instance, snowfall shut us in for three weeks. The village ran out of bread! Grain is a staple in the Moldovan diet, so it was a very lucky thing when snowplows from the capital finally broke through. Moreover, when and if the bus breaks down, villagers have limited means to travel Cimişlia for market goods.

Second, the relative difficulty of travel compounds Cenac’s sense of isolation and interferes with people’s lives. Not large enough to for a High School, Cenac must send those students who wish to continue their education beyond the 9th grade to Cimişlia. Parents then must pay for dorm-style housing. The difficulty discourages students from finishing their education. Sports teams can’t travel, clubs can’t network, and access to information was limited to what could be found in Cenac’s modest library before the first high speed internet cable was put down in 2010. Due to the lack of opportunity, few of Cenac’s youth wish to stay and make their lives there. (Cenac has an official population of 2,000. Due to people living abroad, the actual number is closer to 1,200. The population has shrank noticably since my arrival in 2009.)

The road has impacted my service, but I've learned to adapt much like everyone else here. Many of my projects have been affected, and travel may not be as easy, but it's brought me closer to my host family and neighbors. It's also taught me a lot about development and the importance of sound infrastructure.

On the upside there have been several recent proposals to pave the road, working in collaboration with Romania, Ukraine and surrounding villages. Details remain vague and a timeline for construction has yet to be been set, but Cenac has weathered more difficult times in its history.

A paved road could provide many opportunities for the villagers. And if any place deserves that opportunity, it’s Cenac. People here, keenly aware of their situation, live their lives with spirit and a strong commitment to community. Cenac has great pride in its traditions, its history and its people. Its leaders work hard to ease some of the hardships people face, and it's my hope that their perseverance will pay off.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

The Final Countdown

I have seniortis. Of course I'm still dedicated to work - I'm busier now than I ever have been in fact - but I increasingly find my mind drifting to subjects related to home.

Often these thoughts focus on food. Chipotle, sushi, Indian buffet, delivery pizza and all you can eat wings, the list goes on, but it's safe to say that if the American Heart Association would have it blacklisted, I miss it.

Coma-inducing meals aside, what I REALLY miss about American cuisine is variety. No, not 'stale variety' (sorry, couldn't resist). That one can find foods from all around the world (including, I'm sure, Moldova) is one of many great things about America's cultural diversity. In fact, when I get back, I'm hoping to travel up the East Coast in pursuit of some of my favorite meals - my ma's home cooked meals (how's that for a suck up?) Indian buffet and Five Guys in Northern Virginia; deli sandwiches and pizza in Jersey; pretzels, Chinese and Italian gourmet in New York; late night and tailgate food in State College; hell, maybe I'll even make it up to Boston for the sea food. I've lost ten pounds in Moldova and I was already a thin guy before. It's time I start making up for lost time.

Other things beckon, among them family, friends, and hopefully a paying job. I have a fantasy football league to rejoin and college football games to attend. But, sometimes, the thought of readjusting to the hubub of American life and all of the things I'm hoping to do can be overwhelming. I've heard stories of returned volunteers having panic attacks in supermarkets and large crowds, for example. I don't expect that to happen to me, but does anyone really expect it?

The excitement of my first few weeks or months stateside will of course ebb into the daily grind. I'm sure then I'll find myself missing many of the things I've come to appreciate about Moldova. One has a sense of value living in a small tight-knit community, and I don't think there are many places in America where one can feel more anonymous than Washington D.C..

With that in mind I'm going to try to make the most of my last few months here. The United States may be looming ever larger in the back of my mind, but it's important for me to focus the rest of it on finishing strong.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Pictures from PST

Well it's that time of year again, the Moldova 26's have been chosen and the volunteers here are eagerly awaiting their arrival. I realize that a lot of the traffic on this blog is from soon-to-be volunteers, so I'd like to say congratulations! Here's a post dedicated to you.

I'm sure you're hoping to get a sense of what your first few months in Moldova will be like,and I encourage you to go back and read some of my earlier posts. Here are some pictures from my training I never got around to posting.

These pictures were taken during my host sister's birthday celebration. A hot saturday afternoon in August, we went to a lake and danced, ate food, sang, and played sports. This is typical for all kinds of celebrations in Moldova - they never miss a chance to take advantage of the good weather!

Next, some pictures are from the M24 Community Development training village. Not only was the village beautiful and friendly (most of us had exceptional host families), it was a great location to learn about the culture in the rural countryside.

One of the village's two Orthodox churches, known as a basirica. Typically the basirica is the most ornate building in a Moldovan village

Location of the Vasieni basketball match

In most villages you can find shrines, crosses, and other religious symbols placed periodically around the village and next to water sources like wells.

Farmland and rolling hills stretch as far as they eye can see

This was my host families outhouse. No explanation required.

Most households in the village have fenced in properties. The family spends a lot of time in the courtyard, and much effort is put into making sure it's clean, orderly and organized.

We lived in our training village with different host families, and also living there were our language and cultural facilitators, or LCF's (one of many acronyms you'll learn as a "PCV"). We had language lessons four hours a day, for six days a week at the local school, as well as technical training twice a week at a school in the regional center.

Pre-Service Training might have been a summer of strenuous work, but it was extremely rewarding work. I learned a new language, made new, lifelong friends (both Moldovan and American), and became acquainted with a culture I had known little about. So to all of the new volunteers coming in, good luck, şi e bine că veniţi!