We first met Beth last year while she was in college in Elmira, New York. She’s now a Peace Corps volunteer in Moldova. It’s not an easy lifestyle – there’s an outhouse involved! – but I couldn’t wait for her to take us along with her.
Welcome back, Beth.
In Moldova, teachers only have to come to school when they have scheduled lessons. Today, I have to observe another teacher’s first period class, so I drag myself out of bed a bit after 6:30. I have trouble getting up, so I’ve already snoozed my alarm three times.
Before getting out of bed, I usually turn my data on and check my email, Facebook, and messenger. I usually sleep in a nightgown, so as soon as I get out of bed, I throw on some warm leggings, thick socks, and a sweater, as well as my down winter coat and a hat. It’s pretty chilly in my room in the morning, as my house is heated solely with a soba, or wood stove.
I then start my daily morning trek to the outhouse. Living situations in Moldova, the poorest country in Europe, vary greatly. Some volunteers have gorgeous bathrooms with toilets and showers, while others have no indoor plumbing. I live with a host family, and for the three months I’ve lived with them, I’ve gotten used to my no indoor plumbing situation. Our outhouse is a pretty long walk from the house, and this morning it was particularly muddy and slippery. I pass by the chickens and ducks and am thankful that the rooster has chosen not to show his face on this very cold morning. He likes to try to attack me, so I’m glad for some peace this morning. The outhouse is a very simple squat toilet. I’ve more or less gotten used to it, but I’m always very excited when I get to use a real toilet when I go to the capital city. On my walk back to the house, I stop at our hand-washing station to wash my hands. Lately it’s been mostly ice, but my host mom added hot water today, so I get to wash my hands without them going numb.
When I return to the warmth of the house, I get dressed. Contrary to many other Peace Corps countries, Moldovans take how you look very seriously. I dress in a simple black skirt, a warm sweater, a cardigan on top, and two layers of lined stockings, as well as an additional pair of socks. The school has heat, but it’s still pretty cold, so dressing warmly is a must. If I have time, I usually put some mascara on, but that’s the only makeup I wear.
My host mom makes my breakfast every morning. This morning it’s mashed potatoes and a fried egg, along with a large cup of tea. My host mom has discovered I really like honey in my tea, so my host dad bartered with his boss at work to get several huge jars (like bucket-sized) of fresh honey. I’m happy with this morning’s breakfast, as mashed potatoes and eggs are some familiar foods. I eat alone most mornings, and today I am thinking about elections, both the USA’s recent election, as well as Moldova’s recent election. Both happened within the past couple of weeks, and they are very much on my mind right now.
In the United States, my breakfast often consisted of cereal and milk or eggs and toast, but here there aren’t really specifically breakfast foods. I often have eggs or terci (porridge), but only because I have asked for that in the morning. I’ve eaten hot dogs, rice, and pasta for breakfast. I’m a very picky eater, and I was very worried about adjusting to another culture’s food. Moldovan cuisine doesn’t differ drastically from American food, but there are a number of things I’ve found I really dislike and some foods I particularly miss. I usually try food before I refuse to eat, and thankfully, that’s culturally acceptable to do so here. I’ve been served everything from raciturii, a cold meat gelatin dish with chicken claws, to raw pig skin off the pig my host family had butchered that day. I especially miss blueberries, toast, bagels, cheddar cheese, pure maple syrup, and semi-sweet chocolate chips.
After breakfast, I grab my dressy boots in my hands and throw on some rubber boots. They belong to my host mom and are several sizes too big, but they work. I’m really fortunate to have a paved road or sidewalk to walk most of the way to school, but the first part of my walk is on a very muddy dirt road. My host mom accompanies me to the post office, a one-minute walk from our home and where the paved road begins, and I switch my shoes and head on my way.
My walk to school is very short, maybe six minutes. I pass several of my students on the way and they greet me with “Hello!” and “Good morning” or “Buna dimineaţa!” which means good morning in Romanian. In Moldovan culture, children are supposed to greet adults first, so I wait for them to greet me. At the entrance to the school yard, there are large troughs with water and rags. Students and teachers must wash the dirt or mud off their shoes before they can enter the building. Thanks to my host mom and our shoe swap in front of the post office, I get to avoid this, and I am very grateful for that, because the water is freezing cold!
I teach English with a partner teacher, and today we have five lessons. At our school, the students stay in their classrooms and the teachers move classroom to classroom. Though I am sure there are some benefits of this system, I really wish we had a classroom. Today, several teachers are having open lessons, in which other teachers have to observe them as well as school administration. We start our day observing a Romanian lesson with one of the ninth grade classes. The class, because of the open lesson, is held in the special education resource room because that’s the only classroom in the school equipped with a projector and computer. I’m very impressed by both the lesson and how well-behaved the students are, because this is the most challenging group I work with. It’s a very interactive, student-centered lesson, which is not particularly common here.
My teaching day starts with my third grade class. Today’s topic is about houses and apartments. The textbooks are based on British English, and today’s lesson includes the word “flat.” It’s not a particularly difficult topic, and the lesson goes well. After, we have a fourth grade lesson. The students are taking an exam, so it’s a pretty quiet, uneventful hour besides some minor cheating.
Cheating is very common here, partly because Moldova is a former Soviet country. During Soviet times, you were supposed to share everything you knew with others, so the concept of cheating is a bit difficult to enforce. We are supposed to have another fourth grade lesson, but it turns out they have an assembly instead, so we use our surprise free hour to plan. We end our day with our fifth grade class. My partner has to attend a meeting, so I get to start the lesson on my own. It’s my first time teaching this group on my own, and it’s a long ten minutes. They are eager students and have a lot of great energy, but with 30 students they are my largest class and they can’t seem to settle down. When my partner teacher joins me, we are a bit more successful. Today’s topic is on schools in England, and we talk about the differences between school in Moldova and in England.
Between each of our lessons we have a short break, which we spend in the teacher’s lounge. Today, the teachers are talking about a new student as well as the Moldovan elections. It was the country’s first direct presidential election and it was rather contentious. Protests occurred last weekend and are planned again for this coming weekend. A salesperson also comes with a variety of kitchen products for sale. I’m particularly impressed with an electric oven unit that can sit on your countertop.
After our classes end, I meet with my partner teacher to plan tomorrow’s lessons. She has taken over the upper grades from my other partner teacher, who is on maternity leave, and isn’t familiar with the textbooks or curriculum, so this takes some time. I often get frustrated with the textbooks and the lack of materials, but I then I remind myself that I’m fortunate to have a curriculum to base my lessons off of. We try to come up with ways to be creative with what we do have: a chalkboard and chalk. Today, we finished most of our planning during our free hour, so we have little to do.
Living and working in a foreign country can be difficult, and Moldova is facing some very serious problems. Corruption is rampant at all levels of the government, 12% of the country’s GDP was stolen out of banks two years ago and never traced, human trafficking is a big issue (though improving), and approximately 25% of the country’s population lives and works outside of the country. The last issue is probably one of the biggest issues.
Moldova currently has one of the highest emigration rates in the world. Over 100 people leave the country for work each day, and many never come back or only come back for short periods of time. Over a quarter of the children in the country have one or both parents living and working abroad, and many are being raised by grandparents. In my town, there are very few people between the ages of 17 and 40. This lack of working-aged citizens in the country is evident around Moldova and impacts the work we do as volunteers.
Sometimes I wonder how I can possibly make a significant difference, but then I remind myself that in the Peace Corps, the smallest victories are significant.
Yesterday, I lent my textbook to two students during class that never have their books or notebooks. Neither student writes or reads anything during class, so I was shocked when the girl raised her hand and volunteered to read aloud. It might not seem like a very big deal, but it was an “aha” moment for me. She hadn’t participated in class because no one had ever helped her get a book or encouraged her to do anything. Later in the class, she asked me what she should write in her notebook. She hadn’t written anything before now because no one had ever told her what she needed to write. These are the small victories. This is where I can make a difference, no matter how small.
As we are wrapping up our planning, another teacher comes and invites us to a masa, or meal, with a few other teachers. There is champagne (yes, at school – it’s a pretty regular occurrence here!), bread, some meat spread, raw fish, cookies, and candy. I stick to the bread, cookies, and candy and have a small glass of champagne. Moldovan’s drink both wine and champagne more like a very large shot, so we follow it up with some tea and coffee.
We don’t have a lunch break during the school day, so this is part one of my lunch. I get home around 3:00 and have my real lunch, which is prepared by my host mom. When I enter our gate after school, I get excited because I can smell bread baking in the house. My lunch is fresh, still-warm bread, zeama (a soup that is similar to chicken noodle soup, with added cabbage), and compot (preserved homemade juice…today’s is sour cherry, and it is delicious!). My host niece is visiting this week, so she makes my lunch a lot of fun. She’s six and loves to sing. She knows several songs in English, so we sing them together as I eat my lunch.
Although my official work day ended around 3:00, Peace Corps volunteers are on the clock 24/7. Our jobs extend far beyond our primary jobs. How I interact with community members, what I do in my spare time, and how I act are all part of my larger job as a Peace Corps volunteer.
One of Peace Corps’ goals is to “To help promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the peoples served,” and I think that this is more important now than it ever was before. The world is watching what is happening in the United States currently very closely.
When the election results were announced, I was in a room with 14 other English Education volunteers at a conference. The hurt and fear and devastation was collectively felt by all of us. Many of us questioned how we could stay and share American values if we weren’t sure what those values are. The truth is that Moldovans see American media. Our country director reminded us that this is exactly why we’re here. We are here to share the best of what the United States has to offer: peace, love, acceptance, and equality. As I go about my day, have discussions with Moldovans, and live my life here, I try to live this out.
Moldova, despite crumbling infrastructure and a myriad of other problems, has good and cheap internet and cell service. It’s cheap enough to easily afford on our stipend and it’s relatively fast and reliable, perhaps even more so than the internet I had in the United States. I spend some time each afternoon or night online. I try to talk to friends or family at least a couple of times a week. I haven’t gotten too homesick yet, but I’ve found that it gets hardest when I can’t talk to anyone from home for a few weeks.
When you are in the Peace Corps, you’re also given a government-issued family, also known as the fellow volunteers you enter service with. My English Education group has 15 volunteers and we stay in touch regularly through a Facebook group page and Snapchat. When things are tough, when you’re experiencing something unique to Moldova that you find odd or funny, it’s wonderful to be able to share it with the only other people in the world that have probably experienced something like it. Each of us has a different experience because we are in different communities and different schools, but we can all commiserate or laugh with one another about our (sometimes rather interesting) experiences.
I have quite a bit of free time, and it can be easy to get bored. During my first two weeks at site, I read over 20 books. I didn’t have any internet access yet and hadn’t started school yet. Sometimes I sketch, write, or paint, and I’m also trying to do yoga more often.
When I really need a break, I try to go to the capital, which is a two hour rutiera, or mini-bus, ride away. I can catch a 5:30 rutiera on a Saturday morning, eat some Americanized food, meet up with other volunteers, and wander the streets of Chisinau, then head back later in the afternoon. Moldova is a pretty safe country, and Chisinau, the capital, is fairly modern. Moldova is the third least-visited country in the entire world, but I would recommend it to others as somewhere to visit that’s off the beaten path. There are some really wonderful restaurants, a great opera, easy to navigate (though not always very comfortable) transportation, and it’s a cheap place to visit.
During my last visit, I was reminded of how small a country Moldova is. I was waiting with another volunteer at an ATM machine. We were speaking in English and a young man came up to us and asked, “Are you American?” When we responded that we were, he asked, “Are you Peace Corps volunteers? Do you know Dave (another volunteer)?” Of course, we did, and then we had a nice conversation with this complete stranger.
During the afternoon, I fill up the kettle and boil some water on the stove. It’s pretty chilly out once the sun goes down around 4:30, so I put the kettle outside to cool so I can filter it later on. I use this water for drinking and brushing my teeth, as water here often causes giardia and is also filled with various pollutants and metals.
I spend each evening with my host mom talking over the dinner table. During training, I lived with a wonderful family with two sons aged 10 and 15. One of the benefits of this was that my older host brother spoke very fluent English. The downside of that was that I rarely used the Romanian I was learning. With my current host family, no one in my house speaks a word of English, which means my language skills have improved rapidly. We often spend two or three hours talking each night about a variety of topics, and it is usually one of the best parts of my day. The food isn’t always my favorite, but it’s an incredible bonding experience. My host mom is my only friend so far at site, and we’ve become quite close thanks to these daily dinner discussions.
Tonight’s dinner is pasta in hot, sugared milk. We talk about my day and about the upcoming community celebration, or “hram.” Each town and city in Moldova has a day when the town celebrates its existence, and ours is this coming Monday. After dinner is put away, my host mom pulls out two bags of sunflower seeds (with the shelling for her, without the shelling for me). We talk until we’ve made our way through these bags. There is something very special about this ordinary ritual. I think that these nights sitting at the table eating sunflower seeds will be one of my favorite memories of my time here.
We eat dinner fairly late, so the next thing is usually getting ready for bed. Depending on the day, I might go right to sleep or I might bathe or wash my hair first. I bucket bathe, which really is quite an art. I heat up a kettle of water on the stove, then take my nightly trip to the outhouse, using a flashlight to light my way. I add the boiling hot water to cooler water and fill up my bucket. It’s not enough water to wash both my hair and body, so I alternate. I only wash my hair every four to five days (which I would have considered disgusting in America) and bathe every two or three days.
I kneel on the floor over a shallow bucket to wash my hair, and have a small galvanized tub to bathe in. It’s not big enough or deep enough to sit in, so I sponge bathe standing up. At first, it hurt my knees to kneel for so long, but now I’ve gotten pretty used to it. I usually bathe with the light from a solar powered lantern, and it’s actually pretty cozy. Tonight is a bath night, which after three months of practice, only takes about ten minutes. After, I brush my teeth over a cup. I’ve had giardia for about a month now, so I take some anti-diarrhea medicine before getting into my warm bed. A trip to a squat toilet outhouse in the middle of the night is not very fun!
Before I joined the Peace Corps, my head would swirl with a million thoughts before I could fall asleep. I very rarely have that problem now. By the time my head hits the pillow, I’m exhausted, even if I did essentially nothing all day. Speaking in a language I didn’t know a word of six months ago is exhausting! I also have so much extra time to think during the day.
There are days when I spend an hour or two sitting on my bed in silence and just think. I’ve found that I can remember a lot more from my childhood, memories I didn’t know I had until I had the time to just slow down and, do nothing, and allow my mind to wander for hours. Tonight, my thoughts are pretty quiet as I try to fall asleep. I have a few small thoughts about my day, about tomorrow, perhaps about some worries, and then I’m asleep!
Nicest thing I’ve read all day: “My host mom has discovered I really like honey in my tea, so my host dad bartered with his boss at work to get several huge jars (like bucket-sized) of fresh honey.” That is kindness, pure and simple.
Also, this: “Yesterday, I lent my textbook to two students during class that never have their books or notebooks. Neither student writes or reads anything during class, so I was shocked when the girl raised her hand and volunteered to read aloud. It might not seem like a very big deal, but it was an “aha” moment for me. She hadn’t participated in class because no one had ever helped her get a book or encouraged her to do anything. Later in the class, she asked me what she should write in her notebook. She hadn’t written anything before now because no one had ever told her what she needed to write. These are the small victories. This is where I can make a difference, no matter how small.” I’m reminded of the many small victories I know I overlook every day. Are you like that, too? We should focus on those more, shouldn’t we?
Thank you, Beth, for coming back and visiting! Be sure to reach out on your next adventure…Maybe we’ll start a new series: Where’s Beth Now? : )