In Romania, it is now:

Monday, May 31, 2010

Observations: Week One in PC "Boot Camp"

The location of my gazda's (host family's) apartment is very convenient for finding my way around the city and for walking to school. My morning walk is a pleasant mile or so down a tree-lined boulevard (oaks, maples, cottonwoods, horse chestnuts) until it deadends into a busy street where I cross and walk for a short distance until I turn right into a busy short cut (haven't decided if it's a street or ally) past storage units and behind bloc apartment buildings and emerge on the street our school is on. From there it's only a block to the entrance of the campus where a security guard bids me "Buna dimineata" (good morning), recognizing at once that I'm one of "that group." Everyone in the city knows about our program and our 3-month presence here. The newspaper published an article about our arrival and apparently to be one of the gazdas is considered an honor. Shop keepers and people on the street are very helpful. I haven't felt unsafe one moment and even when I was "slightly" lost after meeting with some of the PCVs for a beer after school one day, I had no trouble communicating with a shop keeper to get directions. We get our share of bemused looks, of course. This is only the second year PC has located the training here and Americans, I take it, aren't usually part of the landscape. Challenges: The language instructors are very good, which is fortunate since they have 10 weeks to get us ready to function in our rural villages where very little English will be spoken. The lessons are fast-paced from 8:30 to 12:30 and interactive, so there’s no chance of zoning out. At about 11:30 I start feeling my synapses closing down one-by-one like lights going out in a suburban neighborhood. But I’m persevering and am finding the language very euphonic and reasonably logical. I will be proud to be able to speak it one day. Other challenges have to do with just staying healthy and “up,” keeping my bum ankle in good walking condition, working out bathroom time (which is also the laundry room) with 3 adults and two children, and getting internet access. My gazda’s computer is down right now. I’m writing this on my netbook and hope to paste it into my blog site on Monday when I can use the wi-fi in the PCV lounge on campus. I want to set up Skype, but will have little time or privacy to use it UNLESS I get a “stick” through my cell phone carrier which will enable me to have access on my netbook wherever I go for a monthly rate. My friend Martha and I just learned about it and went to the “Orange” store yesterday, but they’re out right now and will get more in next week—maybe. Time is an inexact dimension here. Last Thursday Dr. Dan and the safety and security staff gave us a 2-hour session on all the *bad stuff* that could happen to us. Essentially we’re all destined to have digestive track ailments at some point and 90% will have pin worms once we’re in our villages. This was presented in a power point presentation by our humorous (Romanian) Dr. Dan, who thought it would be more impressive to show pictures of huge worms (instead of the tiny white ones) because—he said later—we’d pay better attention. You can imagine the gasps. He’s a character who peppers his commentary with “S**t happens” and “the dirty little bast**ds” in his thick Romanian accent. In the same session we had to brainstorm ways to avoid pickpockets and packs of wild dogs—apparently the two greatest security threats in Romania, which is by all counts one of PC’s safest destinations. So far only one of us has been bitten. I see the wild dogs all the time, but they just seem more pitiful than dangerous. Don’t worry, I don’t attempt to pet them. They are the descendents of the pets that families were forced to leave during the communist era when everyone was herded into the bloc apartment buildings. Sad, really. Sometimes amidst the day-to-day (hour-to-hour!) challenges, something beautiful happens: an old man in a supermarket parking lot feeds stray dogs bread and meat scraps, several days last week bits of delicate white fluff from the cottonwood trees swirled all around the campus, drifting into classrooms, sticking in our hair, making lunchtime outside seem like a picnic in a snow globe. And lovely gestures—Felicia’s father kissing my hand, and yesterday Martha’s gazda gentleman sitting us down at his garden table, spreading out a big map of Romania and giving us a “geography lesson” while his wife served us raspberry ice cream. It’s so important to savor what my old roommate used to call “crystal moments.” You were right, Sue Ann. May you rest in peace.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010


Back in school! My first official language lessons today and homework tonight. This is a jam-packed 10-week course--both exhausting and exhilerating. After the 8:30 to 5:00 day, I managed to find my way back home, walking through city central, and then meet a friend to shop for a few items at a supermarket and then go for a Turkish coffee. Martha spied the sign and we went up some rather mysterious stairs to a cafe pulsing with lounge music and well-adorned with big hookas (sp?) and vague young men. We didn't care; we were tired and wanted coffee, so we settled into the plush, red leather, kidney-shaped sofa and savored the rich coffee we were served. It was enough to get us back to our respective apartments. At least, I think Martha made it back; she's a resourceful 61-yr. old who has been in Romania many times since her son married a Romanian. We compared stories about our sons and their respective Eastern European wives. She's as delighted with Lavinia as I am with Magdalena. I'm gaining more appreciation for this fascinating country as we learn the language, meet the people, and hear the history. But I've got a long way to go. Attrition rate is about 30% world-wide for Peace Corps "drop outs" during training. We've already had one. But I'm betting my group will come through with a better percentage. We've been praised at every juncture for our energy and spirit. Well, homework calls. Pa pa ("bye, bye") from this corner of the world.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Bumpy Rides and Smooth Landings

Silver linings, half-full glasses, roller coaster rides, life's balancing act--all of these could be the title for this entry. The past week has been filled with some of the worst and some of the best experiences ever. Briefly, the bad news items: whopping fine for a suitcase 3 lbs over, trains weren't running at Hartfield, AT&T cancelled my iPhone a day early so I had no service in Chicago, new netbook crashed the night before we left Chicago (staging) for Romania, seated on a totally-full plane next to a family with a screaming 2-yr.old for 9 hours to Europe (screamed when he was sad, screamed when he was happy, didn't sleep, and the parents were as loud as he was), and spent 3 days in a hotel whose restaurant seemed to be connected to a butcher shop--I've never seen so much meat and at every meal. But now for the good news: the heavy suitcase became lighter for the trans-Atlantic flight when a fellow PCV offered space in her bag for some of my stuff, my concourse at Hartsfield was only B, two different kind PCVs let me use their phones while in Chicago, I was able to dash out with less than an hour before our bus left the hotel in Chicago and, thanks to St. Jose, the world's kindest taxi driver, found a place open and bought another netbook and got back to the hotel with ten minutes to spare, after the rather miserable flight (I clamped headset to ears, watched three movies, and drank the complimentary wine whenever it came by), we were greeted in Bucharest early Friday morning by a cheery group of PC staff and volunteers holding a big banner and ushering us to the waiting buses, and I'm now with the wonderful family who will host me for 11 weeks--Mihai, a Baptist minister, Felicia (Fa LEET cha), a vocational school English teacher, and their two adorable little sons, Andre and Stefon, who all love FRUIT! The mantra we volunteers hear constantly is "Patience, flexibility, and humor." So far it's a good coping strategy--with a little help from my friends. ;-)

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Letting Go

My mind scrambles for metaphors. Can't help it. It seems to be the way I make sense of the world. So I've searched for the right fit for my current state. For a while I thought of myself as the kid who climbs the long ladder to the platform high above the pool and is told to wait now (forever!) before taking the short walk and the long dive. Then I thought of the skydiver about to jump, trusting that the chute will open. After hearing our new minister talk about the leap of faith a la Indiana Jones stepping off the cliff with the faith that the invisible bridge would be there, I thought "That's it!" And it is, and all these are part of what I feel. But lately, I've thought more about the leaving part, what I'm giving up for the twenty-seven months. This spring in Athens has never been more beautiful. The dogwoods and azaleas were dazzling, fresh layers of bright green begin to frame everything, and now Queen Anne's lace tilts its galaxies at roadside and our backyard meadow is flocked with a thousand daisies. Mornings are filled with birdsong and the hummingbirds are back. And life is good in other ways, too. My family and friends have never been more thoughtful and appreciative; I'm reminded of what wonderful human beings they are and why I love them. In June my son and daughter-in-law are moving back to the states after his being in Macedonia for four years. My poetry is getting some recognition and I have a new chapbook going to press in the coming months. This is all hard to leave. So my metaphor has changed a bit. I feel now like the trapeze artist perched comfortably and securely on her swing, enjoying the ride, in control. She likes this swing. But she knows momentarily she will make changes, slip down to a hanging position, gain the right momentum, and at the proper juncture, let go, turn, grab the new swing waiting for her. I know it will be a good swing. I know it's part of the act I want my life to be. I know others performing the same leap will be there for me. But still, letting go is hard. And it's almost time.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Shoes and Tattoos

This shouldn't be so hard, but the packing process with a thousand decisions based on the official 5-page Peace Corps packing list (which reads like the inventory of an Army Ranger's survival kit: Swiss army knife, twine, duct tape, long underwear, etc.) is really getting to me. Plus, we are now in touch with volunteers already on assignment in Romania, and their views on what we need seem amazingly different. Women's dress seems particularly all-over-the-place and must depend greatly on the exact location of our post (which we won't know until the end of the 11-week training). Some advocate sundresses and shorts for summer, some say we shouldn't show much skin (and definitely NOT tattoos--of which I have a small, tasteful one on my shoulder blade) and that shorts are what hookers wear, some say "business casual" for the classroom, some say jeans, some say skirts,... you get the picture. They nearly all say to pack boxes of winter things to be shipped later, but wouldn't it be better to take SOME winter things with me to allay the cost of all that shipping? And though the PC will pay for 2 50-lb. suitcases, do I really want to haul that around to planes and trains? And as to shoes--what to take (to be able to walk distances comfortably and still look professional)and what to have sent and what to pack away for 2 years? And that's the other thing--clearing out space in our closets and drawers at our house for my son and daughter-in-law to stash their stuff when they come (from Macedonia) to live with my husband and his sister in June. And don't get me started on toiletries, supplements, and accessories! OK, I've vented and must get back to the packing. If there's a saint for packing, please say a prayer.

Monday, May 3, 2010

The Back Story

Two weeks from tomorrow I'll begin an experience I feel I've been waiting for all my life--even when for long periods of time I didn't think about it or imagine that it was possible. As a child during the Kennedy era, I was intrigued with the idea of the newly formed Peace Corps and thought there could be no better way to help others while representing my own country and getting to know the culture of another. In fact, my "senior speech" as I left high school was on the importance of the Peace Corps. Then education, children, career, failing parents all made two years away seem impossible. Last winter (around February of '09) I came to the sudden realization that I had reached a point in my life where I was free of those responsibilities that had made my absence impossible. I had retired from teaching, my two sons were grown and on their own, I had no grandchildren, and both my parents who had needed my help through a difficult final chapter had died in '08. And, importantly, my husband agreed that I should pursue this challenging service, planning to visit often and benefit from the travel and opportunities to photograph places in Europe he may never have encountered otherwise. So the decision came quickly and was the easy part. The application process was amazingly thorough, lengthy, and at times frustrating. Essays, letters of recommendation, interviews, fingerprinting, dental and medical screening like-you-wouldn't-believe, and forms, forms, forms. A year ago I became an official "invitee" and later in the fall, I was told my medical and dental screening had been approved. My destination was to be Central Asia. For months I waded through Rosetta Stone Russian lessons, thinking that would be the language I would need. Then in February of this year, I learned that my post had been changed to Eastern Europe and not to a country that speaks Russian. I chalked up the language experience to a good mental work out for my aging brain. I did learn the Cyrillic alphabet and can at least sound out words in my daughter-in-law's native Macedonian. Beyond that, though, I felt a strange sense of loss because I had imagined myself in Central Asia for so long, reading all I could about the four possible countries, preparing myself for the long winters, eager even to see the steppes and become acquainted with yaks. ;-) When I got the word finally that my destination country was Romania, however, I saw immediately how this would be a good change--especially for the greater ease of having my husband and friends visit and for the proximity of grand European cities. And, too, as a Unitarian Universalist, Romania has special significance as the birth place of our denomination. Our congregation, in fact, has a sister church in Transylvania. AS luck would have it, I and the other 46 in our "class" will arrive in Romania on May 20th, my birthday! I see that as auspicious! So I'm ready to embrace this country and its culture and people. I'm making the leap and hoping my parachute opens. Positive thoughts, prayers, and your communication will be much appreciated.