25 May 2010

Cenac

This past weekend, I had the privilege of being invited to a village about an hour south of Chisinau. According to Eastern Orthodox tradition, all of the villages in Moldova have their own patron saints, and each saint has its own special day. On that day, as well as the days immediately preceding and following it, there is a celebration. This Saturday was St. Nicolai's Day in the village of Cenac.

Celebration, village style, involves church, food, dancing and of course, wine. Nearly everyone I met in Cenac had his own beci, pronounced "bitch" (and yes, the jokes to us English speakers are nearly endless). A beci is where they keep canned fruits, pickled vegetables and barrels of homemade wine, where men often go to escape from their wives and consume large quantities of alcohol.

Moldovan villagers, I have learned, do not drink wine the way that most people do. Despite the fact that it actually does taste quite good, the tradition is to throw back a whole glass in one drink, as if it were a massive shot. They also pass around one glass between them, and everyone calls "noroc" ("cheers" in Romanian) to family, health, good wine, or whatever. I should also add that Moldovan village wine is a bit stronger than what most of us are probably used to. I don't know what the exact alcohol content is - and frankly, I doubt anyone does - but let's just say that if you happen to be sitting while you're passing around the glass, you may be in for a bit of a surprise when you try to stand up.

The day of celebration started at the church in the center of town, where the priest led the congregation around the outside of the structure, pausing periodically to offer blessings and throw holy water on the people and on the walls of the church. From there, they went inside, where the ceremony continued. One at a time, people would step forward and light a candle while the priest led the sermon. All of the women were dressed in head scarves, all over to one side and to the back of the church, while the men were on the other side and closer to the front.

The service went on for over an hour, and then everyone followed the priest over to what appeared to be a converted stable next door, where there were three long tables laid out, completely covered in plates of food. There must have been dozens of people working for days to make all of this, and as many people as could fit were all given places at the table. Before we ate, the priest said a prayer for everyone, accompanied by a toast, and by eleven a.m., along with this tremendous meal, the drinking began.

In fairness, I think that this was largely because it was an important day of celebration, but a good many people were very drunk by mid-afternoon. Luckily, my host, a Peace Corps volunteer, had let me in on a secret: if you keep a little bit of wine in your glass, they are less likely to insist that it be refilled. But when they insist, they are persistent. It almost seemed like they were offended if you don't want to keep up with them drink for drink.

Later in the afternoon, there was a talent show in the local "cultural center." It doubled as a discotheque on Friday nights, but today, it was where the locals gathered to watch plays and hear poetry and music that celebrated life in the village of Cenac. There were performances that ranged from a family of flute playing children, led by their father on accordion, to some good old-fashioned breakdancing. Seriously.

In many Moldovan villages, including this one, the population primarily consists of young, school-age children and old, retirement-age people. All of the people that are able to work usually have to go elsewhere to do so. Many of them seek employment in Chisinau, and an even larger percentage leave Moldova in search of work. Because of the difficulties inherent in their absentee voting system, this means that people who are not in the country generally have no voice in Moldovan elections, which is how the Communist party has maintained control here significantly more than they have in many other former Soviet states. The outcomes of the elections are basically determined by the older generation who still live here.

On more than one occasion during my time in Cenac, I was approached by old men, who spoke to me through the translation provided by my host, who is much more fluent than I am. They told me how hard life is in the villages, and within a few minutes, they had broken into tears. As a fan of Dostoyevsky and other classical Russian authors, I thought that the open weeping of otherwise callused men could be attributed to the author's artistic flourish, but here I learned otherwise. Granted, it may also have something to do with the excessive consumption of homemade wine, but the point that these men were trying to make was clear: theirs was a difficult existence.

Despite the smiles on the faces of those who participated in jubilant song and dance, or the kind words offered by everyone who called a toast that day, I walked away from this experience with the understanding that a simple life is not always easy.

21 May 2010

Got Milk?

When I was a kid, I always knew that my birthday or some other important date was coming up soon when I would see it on the expiration date on the gallons of milk in the fridge. On the same token, if we ever ran out, it meant that a trip to the store would soon be necessary.

In Moldova, milk is a little different than what we were used to in the U.S. Realistically, it's probably the lack of hormones and antibiotics that make it taste and smell more like, well... milk. To me, even a fresh box of milk (yes, it comes in boxes or even more common, bags) smells like it's well past the expiration date. Of course, oddly, the expiration dates here are usually a few months out, and for some reason, it doesn't have to be refrigerated unless it is open.



Yes, in Moldova, I have lost any tangible sense of the immediate future, because the milk I bought today doesn't expire until October.

12 May 2010

Another article that I wrote:

(for the charity organization that is raising awareness for the need for clean water in Moldova)

http://worldpulse.com/node/20482

11 May 2010

Mergând la spital...

A couple of nights ago, I woke up at about two a.m. with a terrible pain in my abdomen. As a rule, I try to avoid medical treatment unless absolutely necessary, no doubt a result of having gone several years without health insurance, but this was an incredibly intense and unfamiliar pain. Concerned that it may be something very serious, Jamie called a taxi to take us to the hospital.

The driver asked us what hospital we wanted to go to, and I told him that I did not know, so for better or worse, our fate was left to his judgment. Ten minutes later, we were at the door to the emergency room, which I quickly learned was where the doctors on the night shift like to smoke.

Inside, compared to Western standards, the conditions were squalid at best. After being completely ignored by the receptionist for about ten minutes, I approached a nurse and explained to the best of my ability that I had an intense pain in my abdomen. She took me to a small room where I was advised to lay down on a gurney. The sheet was stained and torn, and the room was nearly filled to capacity.

The man on the bed across from me seemed noticeably intoxicated, but his swagger and slurred speech may have also been a result of the bloody wound on the back of his head. From what I discerned through awkward pantomime as the man pointed to the hallway, then made raspberries with his mouth while rubbing his thumb and forefingers together in the universal sign for money, only patients who could afford it received adequate service.

After peeing in a cup that was still wet from having recently been rinsed, I was surprised to be greeted by a urologist who spoke fluent English. His first question was whether or not I had insurance. I told him that I wasn't exactly sure how or if my insurance worked, and he explained that it would probably be easier if I could just pay cash. He said that there would be less paperwork that way. I wasn't really in a position to argue, nor did I want to deal with what I perceive to be a characteristically crooked American insurance company, so I agreed to pay cash for services rendered.

When I told the doctor that I was an American, he apologized for the conditions of the hospital and he promptly had my wife and children wait in his office. As he explained, "This is not a good place for children. This is a place for drunks and criminals and stupid people." From there, he escorted me to a room where I was given two shots: one was a pain killer and the other was an anti-inflammatory drug. Then he took me to the various labs, where first a blood sample was taken, and then I received an ultrasound and two x-rays.

When it was all said and done, he told me that it looked as though I had a kidney stone, and that there wasn't any reason to think that this was anything but an isolated occurrence. Nonetheless, he reminded me that I should drink a lot of water and try to avoid pork, both of which I tend to do anyway.

The total bill for services rendered, not counting the two dollar cab rides to and from the hospital was seventy-one lei, which equals a little less than six bucks. All facts considered, the service that I received here, aesthetics of the hospital itself notwithstanding, were actually equal to or better than that of any clinic or hospital that I've been to in the U.S. The urologist was every bit as professional as any American doctor that I have encountered and the lab technicians were equally good at their jobs.

After he called me a cab, the urologist explained that if I had any additional symptoms or if the pain persisted, that I should probably go to the Republican Hospital. He said it was cleaner there and that more of the staff speaks English. Yes, I actually heard the word "Republican" and positive statements about health care mentioned in the same sentence.

In any case, would I want to go to this hospital again if I had or a more serious ailment? It is hard to say. Would I want to take my kids there if they needed any kind of medical treatment? Probably not. But at two in the morning, with the equivalent of about twenty bucks in my pocket, it could have been a lot worse. I could have been a thousand dollars in debt for what amounted to a couple of shots and the simple assurance that I was going to be alright.

After doing some research into the matter, I now have reason to believe that it's actually because I drink a lot of water that I got the kidney stone in the first place. You see, the water here contains a lot of calcium and other hard elements, and it seems that our water filter probably should have been replaced a few months ago, as it was doing little good anymore. Now that I have replaced it, our filtered drinking water is considerably less cloudy, and with any luck, none of us will experience anything like this again.

An article that I wrote:

Last weekend, I went out to a couple of villages with the mayor of the region and some other volunteers to take a look at a terrible situation involving water pollution. As part of a fundraising effort, I've offered to write some articles on the subject. Below is a link to the first of them:


http://worldpulse.com/node/20469

26 April 2010

Muzică

One of the first things that I noticed in Moldova was the music. Not the traditional, old-fashioned music that comes with a particular style of dress, but rather, the techno music. It's everywhere. Go to the grocery store, techno music. Go to a cafe, techno music. Ride in a cab, techno music. It's like this one steady beat has been playing since we've been here, just this one song on repeat, everywhere we go.

Please note that this is just my personal opinion and that I mean no offense by this, but as a musician myself, I can't say that I have all that high of a regard for what I perceive to be terrible Russian techno music. I say this because a.) I don't really enjoy club dancing, and b.) I have a pretty good idea as to how much work and/or talent goes into the production of this stuff. That is to say that if I sat my four-year-old daughter in front of a computer with Fruity Loops or Rebirth or any number of programs like this open, with a little bit of help, she could produce something that is roughly the same caliber as most of the stuff we hear around here. It is atonal, beat-driven crap. If there are vocals, oddly, they are usually in English, which makes me embarrassed for my language if this is all some people know of it. The vocals are also incredibly over-produced, polished to death by auto-tune. There are, of course, exceptions, and I do try to listen to all music with an open mind, but I cannot get around the fact that this music, to me, barely qualifies as such.

And I quote:

Hello, hello, hello Mr. Monkey, 
You're so fast and funky.
Hello, hello, hello Mr. Monkey,
I think I love you.

(rinse and repeat)

In Moldovans' defense, I have a theory. Whistling, for various reasons, is considered bad luck. As Jamie mentioned in her blog, the lady who lives downstairs from us has actually called the landlord to complain about my whistling in the stairwell. I have been whistling since I was five years old, and modesty aside, I'm actually pretty good at it. In fact, I would even argue that my abilities as a musician started with being able to whistle a simple tune. From there, I taught myself how to play piano by ear, and years later, I taught myself how to play guitar and bass, also by ear. Without first developing the ability to hear something and then reproduce it with an instrument that required no technical ability (i.e. whistling), I may never have continued on to more challenging means of creating music. 

In other words, had I grown up in Moldova, where whistling is generally frowned upon, I may have never learned how to play an instrument by ear. As someone who has played music with many, many people in my life, I will say that in my experience, there is a marked difference between people who play by ear and those who are more classically trained. Again, this is just based on my own experiences, but people I have known who play by ear tend to play with a bit more originality, as though there is more of themselves in the music. 

Most of the time when I'm whistling, I'm not whistling a song that I heard. I'm just making it up as I go along, simply because I like the sound of it. The lady who lives downstairs, however, apparently doesn't like it. But if I have to listen to techno music everywhere I go, then the least she can do is put up with the thirty seconds or so it takes me to take the trash out when I may be whistling something quietly to myself.  

14 April 2010

Cowboy Chicken


We found a place here last week called "Cowboy Chicken." On its sign, it prominently features a picture of big, juicy hamburger, so the homesick carnivore in me thought we should make it a point to check this place out. Inside, people who speak extremely limited English are dressed in cowboy getup, complete with giant cowboy hats, while Johnny Cash blares through little computer speakers in the corners of the room. The walls are adorned with an odd collection of black and white photos of cowboys and indians, each assuming their various stereotypes as exemplified in staged poses.

Jamie, Chloe and I each order a hamburger. After about half an hour, our waitress brings us what appears to be a bun. It's cut in the middle, oozing mayonnaise. I open it up to reveal a translucent patty of questionable meat; it tastes like it was cut with the ground up pages of a Russian phone book with some dill thrown into the mix for no other reason that to give it some kind of flavor to transcend everything that works against it. Meanwhile, my two ounces of "meat" is swimming in about eight ounces of mayonnaise on a bun that's literally about twenty times the thickness of the patty. My first thoughts are quickly replaced by a conscious choice not to think about it anymore. It's best that way.

As much as I'd like to recommend "Cowboy Chicken" to anyone who travels to the eastern edge of the Western world, who am I kidding? It may have been a mirage, and maybe I really was eating a phone book that had been smothered in mayonnaise.

Moldova has such excellent local cuisine that it seems a shame to try to "Americanize" it. 

23 March 2010

Comic Relief

Before we moved here, Jamie and I had no intention of buying a television or subscribing to any kind of cable service while we are in Moldova. In fact, I was kind of looking forward to a year without TV. Of course, then we moved into an apartment that already had a television, and since we were already being billed for satellite TV - at a mere $12 a month, including HBO and Cinemax - we took it as it came.

We still hardly ever watch it, but every once in a while, it is kind of interesting to watch television channels from this region of the world. Admittedly, it's also nice to watch some familiar shows in English every now and then as well.

The satellite TV provider is based out of Romania, so many of the channels are, too, including HBO and Cinemax. Consequently, any stand-up comedy specials that are broadcast on either of those channels tend to be in Romanian.

My grasp of the language is getting better. I'm to the point now where I can typically get through an entire day without having to converse to anyone other than my family in English. Still, when I watch stand-up comedy in Romanian, I just don't get it.

Paradoxically, even though laughter is in many ways the universal language, that which prompts such a response is often very dependent upon linguistic subtleties. In my English conversational group, on more than one occasion, I've made jokes that have completely bombed, and I like to think that this has something to do with my students' command of the nuances of the English language. Of course, then the lesson momentarily shifts focus to explain why something I said could have interpreted as funny, which actually makes it even less humorous.

On the same token, when I watch stand up comedy specials on HBO Romania, I can usually understand the gist of what they're talking about, but I have no idea why it's funny, just because my command of the language is not yet strong enough.

To make an obvious point, this is why physical comedy translates fairly well: because it's not so dependent on language. In terms of films made in the past twenty years, we have seen a fairly significant shift to this type of comedy dominating mainstream culture in the U.S., and I suspect that this largely has to do with the fact that foreign markets have become such an important consideration in regard to motion picture distribution.

After all, domestic ticket sales are only one aspect of box office revenue, and what's funny in the U.S. may not be in other cultures. This is especially true with language-based humor. Consequently, "Jackass: The Movie" does significantly better in overseas markets than something like "Hamlet 2" (the latter of which I happened to think was particularly funny). Of course, "Jackass" did much better in domestic markets as well, but I wonder if American audiences have been conditioned to a certain degree in terms of defining a collective sense of humor.

We all find different things to be funny than someone else. It's one of the things that makes us each unique. But when comedic films are marketed to reach a mass audience, are they essentially telling us what we should think is funny? When comedy actors and actresses are making $10-20 million per film, they need to sell a lot of tickets to recoup those kinds of costs, and filmmakers do this essentially two ways: they create a film that appeals to as broad of an audience as possible, and by trying to convince us that this movie is in fact hilarious.

In terms of my first point, this is why we see so many cross-genre movies in the past 10-20 years. Not a fan of comedies? Can I interest you in a science-fiction? Or a western? Or an action film? What about a remake of something with a proven track record? We'll take "Land of the Lost" and make it funny. Ok, bad example, but you get the idea. Lowest common denominator equals biggest potential audience. To "dumb it down" in this sense, means to make it less dependent on language. Then it can reach a foreign audience more easily, if only a domestic audience can also be convinced that this stuff is funny.

This brings me to my second point, that what is mass-marketed as comedy tends to wear the label in vain. For example, "Funny People" wasn't funny any more than "Smart People" was smart. Comedy, as an art form, must surprise us, as all art forms must do. It must present an unfamiliar perspective of something that is familiar. If it doesn't, then it is a cliche. Comedy is no exception.

23 February 2010

Banca de Economii

When we lived in the U.S., paying bills was something we often did quickly and put as little thought into as possible. We would simply write a check and drop it in the mail, or better yet, pay online. It was easy and could usually be completed in no more than a couple of minutes.

In Moldova, bills are paid at the bank from which the utility companies have established an account. They are not delivered through the mail, but rather, by the guy who lives in the small room near the entrance of our building. Instead of having my name on the bills, they are all addressed to the building owner, who I have never actually met.

For the first couple of months that we were here, I would pay the bills as we got them, which was usually sporadically - sometimes a couple of days before they were due and sometimes a few weeks - and all total, I would make five or six trips to various banks over the course of a month to pay water, gas, electricity, cable TV, internet and phone. In the winter months, these would total approximately the equivalent of $150 U.S., and in the months when our gas bill was not as high, it would add up to about $70 or $80.

Eventually, I figured out that the common denominator among the banks listed on the bills is the Banca de Economii, which has a branch less than a half mile from our apartment. Now I wait until I have received all of our bills, then make one trip to this bank to pay all of them.

There is a reason that I prefer to only do this once a month. When I walk into the Banca de Economii, no matter what time of day it happens to be, there is always a line. Despite that there are between four and five counters open for paying bills (depending on if any of the tellers are on break), there is one line, usually 2-3 people wide, that extends back as far as the entrance, then it generally splits to both the left and right, which only adds to the confusion as to who is next.

To make matters worse, there is also bench seating along the left wall, upon which most of the older people usually sit, waiting in line by proxy. Almost without fail, just when I think that I'm finally to the front of the line, people move from the bench to resume their positions in line - right in front of me. Also, there are almost always people who are clearly cutting in line. They walk in the door, then straight to the front of the line.

Luckily, every time that I have been to the Banca de Economii, there has been some random old lady who has taken it upon herself to watch over the line, presumably to make sure that everyone takes his or her turn in the correct order. These old ladies will usually call out the line-cutters, and they will point to the front when it is time for someone from the bench to get into the game. It is an interesting phenomenon.

When all is said and done, I've usually spent about forty-five minutes in line. Yes, it's all the fun of going to the DMV, once a month, with only the loosest semblance of order. Much like the DMV, though, it does provide an interesting cross-section of society, in that everyone has to go there. For this reason, it's a good place to do some people-watching.

One time, there was an Eastern Orthodox priest blessing all of us poor saps who were waiting in line. An old woman walked beside him, holding a small bucket of what I assume was holy water, into which he was dipping some kind of ceremonial tassel and then letting the water loose while monotonously chanting something in a language that I did not understand. On more than once occasion, I got pretty wet: my jacket, my pantleg, the side of my face, etc. Then he holds out his hand, asking for a donation for services rendered. Unfortunately, even once we were blessed, it didn't help the line move any faster.

28 January 2010

Orphan Nation

After the fall of the Soviet Union, some of the first significant attention that Moldova received from Western media focused on the squalid living conditions that many people here faced in the early nineties. In particular, relatively speaking, we heard a lot about Moldova's many orphanages, which were suddenly grossly overcrowded as parents left the country in search of work. In most if not all of these instances, one can only speculate that these must have been incredibly difficult decisions, choices that had to be made in order to ensure their family's survival.

In many ways, this provides an apt metaphor for post-Soviet Moldova in general. At that point, for nearly fifty years, Moldova had been dependent upon the Soviet Union for maintaining the standard of living that its citizens had come to know. Moldova was able to import what it needed without having to compete on the free market, and it had demand throughout the Soviet Union for the export of its agricultural commodities, such as sunflower oil and wine. However, when Mikhail Gorbachev called for the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Moldova became an orphaned nation.

For the twenty years that immediately followed, Moldovans have been learning how to be self-sufficient and have only just recently begun integrating their nation with the rest of the world. Understand that this is a country that grew up fast out of a basic necessity for survival, and in doing so, forged its own distinctive identity in the process. Moldova's oldest residents may vaguely remember when it was a part of Romania, from which it was essentially stolen during World War II, only to be all but abandoned by Russia after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Today, Moldova is its own separate nation for the first time in nearly seven hundred years. Only its youngest generation of citizens were born Moldovan. This country's fragmented history offers very little in terms of outlining a path forward, but now that it's all grown up, having only just recently survived its tumultuous adolescence, Moldova is now poised to take its place in the world at large.

28 December 2009

Poorest Nation in Europe?

Before we came here, one of the things that I had repeatedly read about Moldova was that it holds the unfortunate title of being "the poorest country in Europe." Depending on the source, the average wage here equals anywhere from eighty to three hundred dollars per month U.S., which is nowhere near enough to cover the cost of living.

Not that I dispute these figures, per se, but I think that there may be other factors to consider as well. Granted, these numbers are purportedly offset by money that is sent here by family members working abroad, as Moldova also holds the distinction of having the highest percentage of their GDP earned in other countries and sent back, but I think that this does more to throw off inflation than anything else. In theory, this is why the cost of living is relatively high here, even considering the low wages.

Still, I'd like to bring up a point that I have not seen mentioned elsewhere, and that is that a large percentage of business here is done without any official records of the transactions. Moldova's economy is very much cash-based, and due to the residual distrust that many Moldovans have for their government, it would not surprise me in the least if most money that changes hands here is not officially accounted for and therefore does not appear in government reports.

In that sense, on paper, Moldova may appear to be an incredibly poor nation - and in fairness, they do have their share of economic troubles - but I don't think it's really quite as bad as it may seem to the outside world. Moreover, I think that they're a people that have historically tried to keep the government out of any personal capitalistic enterprises, particularly when they were officially a communist nation, and that this mentality has carried over into the infancy of their developing democracy.

24 December 2009

Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and TIME

As an American, one of the most immediate differences that I experienced between everyday life in Moldova and that which we had become accustomed to in the U.S. is perhaps best exemplified in grocery shopping. As a general rule, things just take longer here. All of the little timesavers that we take for granted in the states really do add up in the course of an ordinary day.


For example, in the U.S., I would usually drive to the local supermarket about once a week and come home with a trunk full of groceries an hour later. Once a month, give or take, we'd take a twenty-minute drive out to the mega-warehouse wholesale store, where everything comes in bomb shelter size and the labels usually feature exclamation points (Our Biggest Size!), and we would stock up on staple foods and other items of convenience. Seldom were we unable to find what we were looking for, and if we did it right, we could usually get most things on sale.

In Moldova, groceries cost roughly the same as they do in the United States, with the notably inexpensive exceptions of bread, seasonal produce and fresh meats from the Piaţă Centrala, which is the central open-air market in Chisinau. In theory, you can find just about anything you need there, so long as you know where to look. As far as I can tell, though, there's hardly any discernible semblance of organization among the vendors at Piaţă Centrala. At one table, a person is selling batteries and light bulbs, and right next door, someone's selling bananas and pomegranates. Couple that with the fact that there's foot traffic moving in every direction and it's difficult to stop and turn around without body checking some little old lady, it can be a bit chaotic, to put it mildly. Nonetheless, if you want to find a good deal and aren't afraid to haggle, this is the place to do it.


Of course, we can never find everything we need at the market, even though we know it's all probably there somewhere, so shopping day literally does take all day, often several. I pretty much only buy meats from the vendors at Piaţă Centrala, because I know it's fresh (the chicken usually still has some of its feathers), though we do usually get some if not most of our vegetables there as well. We get the rest of our produce at a store called Uno, which is set up somewhat like the central market, except it's inside, the selection is significantly more limited, the prices are a little more expensive, and there are a lot less people to contend with. However, it's worth noting that Uno is only a couple of blocks away from our apartment, so it's an easy walk, even with an armful of groceries and two young kids, whereas Piaţă Centrala is probably about a half mile away. 


With this in mind, even closer still is Green Hills Market, which resembles more of a grocery store like those which we have back home. They even have peanut butter there, which is apparently an odd rarity outside of the U.S. This is where we get a lot of our day-to-day items such as milk, frozen vegetables, water, etc. Our landlord also gave us a discount card to Green Hills with the keys that unlock our front door. This helps make prices there a bit more reasonable, though they are still somewhat inflated relative to their U.S. counterparts. The general rule is that things made in Moldova are cheaper here, such as sunflower oil and wine, but a disproportionate number of items are only available by import and are therefore more expensive than they would be in the U.S., though often just marginally. Exceptions include sweet potatoes, walnuts and corn oil, among others, all of which are ridiculously expensive. Furthermore, there are, of course, things that just don't seem to be available here, like cake mixes, soft pretzels and baking powder, to name a few. 


The other store that we go to is Fidesco, which is also a very westernized grocery store, but it requires taking a maxi-taxi if we're not up for an even longer walk with several bags of groceries. The main thing we get there is bread, for which Jamie has a preference from this particular store, but in general, prices there are about the same for most items as they are at Green Hills.


With that, I'd like to indulge in a brief tangent. Have you ever noticed how most cities in the United States have at least two grocery stores (or chains of grocery stores), often owned and/or supplied by the same companies, yet one store has higher prices and better looking produce than the other? I'm convinced that this works to reinforce social segregation by offering separate stores for the rich and poor, so that their carts don't ever meet in the aisles, thereby effectively preventing them from sharing in this most personal of American experiences.


Back to the topic at hand, when all is said and done, it usually takes four separate trips to get enough groceries to last all week for a family of four, but we're also limited by that which we can comfortably hold, considering that we have no personal vehicle here. For this reason, grocery shopping usually requires that we all go, so that Jamie and I can both carry the bags, even though that means that Alexander and Chloe have to go with us as well, which often brings with it its own set of headaches. Frankly, to visit all four locations with the kids in one day would be borderline insane, so more often than not, at least four times a week, a good portion of the day is dedicated to grocery shopping. Ironically, shopping in the U.S. was little more than an afterthought.


Once we get it all home, of course, cooking brings its own set of challenges, which I've alluded to elsewhere. The lack of simplified ingredients (i.e. taco seasoning, pre-sliced bread, etc.) as well as the requisite metric conversions and our near unwillingness to invest in cooking utensils that we'll more than likely have to leave behind at the end of our time here take a lot of the casual fun out of cooking, at least for me. Many of the signature dishes that I've improved over the course of many years of repetition and refinement are next to impossible to reproduce here, so it often feels as though I've forgotten how to cook.


Then there's laundry, which is a bit more of an ordeal on account of the strange absence of clothes dryers here. People use clotheslines on balconies or in public playgrounds, or in our case, we have a small drying rack in our bedroom. This means that it usually takes at least a day for clothes to dry and can only be done one load at a time, so pretty much every day, at least a half hour is dedicated to hanging and folding clothes.


Add it all up, and it makes for significantly less time in the day to put toward being productive. Oddly, it seems like I got more writing done in what limited spare time I had back in Illinois versus what I've been able to accomplish here. Granted, we also presently live in a smaller space, and with a teething baby and what I would otherwise appreciate as good acoustics, it can feel very small indeed. We have now been in Moldova for nearly three months, and although the weeks here seem longer, the days seem much shorter.

19 December 2009

Conversational English

For the past three weeks (minus the second week, due to a family trip to Italy and Germany), on a voluntary basis, I've been teaching conversational English to a group of Moldovan college students. For most of them, it's a chance to use the English that they've already learned so that they don't forget it, and for me, it's an opportunity to continue teaching simply because it's something that I love to do. Besides, the primary mission of the Fulbright program is to promote mutual cultural understanding, and this seems like an excellent chance to do just that. So far, it's been a lot of fun.

Each week, I pick a topic, and then we discuss that for the better part of an hour. This past week, due to the proximity of Christmas, I suggested that we talk about holidays in the U.S. and Moldova. Statistically, Moldovans overwhelmingly align with the Eastern Orthodox sect of Christianity, but on a political level, they are also making moves to fit in culturally with the European Union, so as a result, they celebrate two Christmases here. The first is on December 25, but then the traditional day of celebration is reserved for January 7. If I'm not mistaken, this is due to the fact that the Eastern Orthodox church still works off from the Julian (as opposed to the Gregorian) calendar, which differs by a matter of thirteen days. In any case, from what I gathered, many of the traditions aren't all that different to what we're used to in the United States. They sing songs, families come together, and gifts are exchanged, all in a general spirit of goodwill toward one another.

As our class discussion progressed beyond the congruencies and disparities between holidays here versus those in the U.S., one of my students asked me if I am Catholic, Protestant or Eastern Orthodox, as if those were my only three options. I should note that topics that may be taboo elsewhere tend to be addressed matter-of-factly here. She was nonetheless taken aback to learn that I am in fact none of the above, but that we still celebrate Christmas with presents, songs and dinner. "How can you celebrate Christmas if you're not a Christian?" she asked.

"We do it for the kids," I told her, fully aware of just how foreign and how uniquely American that must have sounded. "For us, it's really just about family." It could have been worse, I suppose. I could have offered a diatribe about how this is really just a time of year reserved for buying each other things we want but don't really need and that maybe the world would be a better place if people maintained that same altruistic spirit twelve months a year... but then again, it was a valid question that I've asked myself before.

Festivus, anyone?

Production Notes

Now that the weather has changed, I've shifted gears somewhat in that I am now focusing more on the writing aspect of the documentary. Most people may not think of a documentary as something that is necessarily scripted, but it's important to recognize that documentary filmmaking is, of course, a form of storytelling, and it is not at all unusual for a story, regardless of form, to be written. In this case, however, rather than creating ideas from thin air, I'm working with that which already exists. Beyond that, though, the basic concepts between documentary and fictional filmmaking, as far as I am concerned, are essentially the same. The point is simply to tell a compelling story.

Here in Moldova, with the leaves gone and snow covering most everything in sight, the scenery all kind of looks the same, and frankly, it wouldn't cut together all that well with other footage that I've gotten and plan to get in the spring. Granted, I'll still be able to get some indoor/interview footage during the winter months, but for the most part, I hope to make the most of this otherwise idle time by figuring out what exactly the story is that I'm trying to convey and piecing together a script from which to work. I've decided that much of the narrative will probably be told through voiceover, whether my own or (more likely) someone else's, but I figure that if I can have a working script completed by March, then my job from there will be to collect footage that visually supports the dialogue that I've written.

With that noted, my blog posts during the winter months may be considerably less frequent, as much of my time spent writing is dedicated to other projects. Nonetheless, I will maintain regular updates of that which I am learning throughout my time here.

18 November 2009

National Education Week

Yesterday afternoon, Brian (another Fulbrighter) and I were interviewed for Moldovan radio about a presentation that we were about to give to group of college students. The topic was undergraduate education in the United States. I have no idea when or where the interview is supposed to air, nor do I know if any of it will be in English or if they'll just use the translations of what was said. Frankly, it was a bit of an ambush, but we were happy to oblige, and I hope that we were able to give them more or less what they wanted. It is apparently National Education Week here in Moldova.

As for the presentation itself, it went well. We were scheduled to talk for about an hour and it ended up lasting a little over two. All in all, I think that we were able to offer a fairly comprehensive overview of the structure of higher education in the U.S., as well as answer some of the more specific questions that they had for us. One of the main points that we tried to convey in the discussion part of the presentation is that the college experience really is different for everybody, and what you get out of it is contingent on how much you put in. The challenges are certainly there for the taking, but there is a certain degree of self-motivation that is often required in order to succeed. This is, of course, just as true for Americans as it is for international students.

I should note, however, that in the two years that I taught Freshman Composition at NIU, some of the most dedicated students I had were from other countries, for whom English wasn't even their first language. This isn't to say that there is any inherent superiority to international students, but rather, I think it's safe to say that it generally requires a lot of hard work to just make it that far, so why would they stop putting in the effort once they get to the U.S.? It can take well over a year to just get everything in place to study abroad, from securing student visas to taking the TOEFL to researching and applying to a university that fits that student's interest. I know how much work went into applying for the Fulbright grant, a process that continued for about a year, and I know that most of these students have to go through similar steps in order to move one step closer to achieving their own educational goals.

On the same token, I fully intend to make the most of my experiences here, as it is an invaluable opportunity to learn as well as it is to teach. Education is, after all, a two-way street. The best teachers, it seems, are the ones who recognize that there is always more to learn. In a similar respect, some of the most ignorant people I've ever met are those who think that they already know all there is to know.

14 November 2009

South of the Border (then take a right...)

Last night, for Jamie's birthday, we went to a Mexican restaurant called El Paso. As soon as we walked inside, we were greeted with decor that looked like it may have actually come directly from Mexico, or at the very least, from a Mexican restaurant in the United States. I ordered a beef chimichanga and a margarita; Jamie ordered some tostadas. My food was good, though admittedly, my sense of taste may have been dulled somewhat by the incredibly strong margarita that accompanied my meal. It was mostly tequila, with a shot of triple sec and splash of sweet and sour mix. Jamie's tostadas, on the other hand, were creative, if nothing else. They were each buried beneath about three inches of sweet whipped cream. When she scraped it off, then carefully removed the pieces of cold chicken, she was essentially left with two corn tortillas and some black olives. It wasn't quite what she had in mind for her birthday meal, but still, I'm amazed that we were able to find a Mexican restaurant at all. The trick might just be to get something different next time, ideally without whipped cream on top.

08 November 2009

Child's Play

We went to the puppet theatre again this afternoon. Today's show was a bit harder to follow than the last one that we saw. Even though I was able to pick out a fair amount of words that I knew in Romanian, for the majority of the performance, I had no idea what was going on. There was a bear, what I believe to have been a wolf, and some kind of singing pomegranate. Beyond that, the story was completely lost on me.

In all honesty, it was a bit strange. Of course, imagine someone from Moldova whose English isn't all that great going to the U.S. and watching an episode of SpongeBob Squarepants. Try explaining that and see if it doesn't sound a little odd. "It's about a kitchen sponge who lives in a pineapple at the bottom of the ocean with a pet snail that thinks its a cat." That makes sense... right?

03 November 2009

The Eastern European Weight Loss Program

On a personal note, since we've been here, I've set my belt back two notches. This isn't to say that I was fat by any means before we came to Moldova, but now, I feel like I'm back to my fighting weight. How has this happened?

1. We walk everywhere. It is not uncommon for me to walk several miles per day, as this is our main mode of transportation. This is also a really good way for me to get to know the area, which is one of the main reasons that we're here in the first place: to get to know what it means to live in Moldova. What better way to do that than by foot?

2. I eat healthier here than I did in the U.S. Not that I necessarily ate all that unhealthily back home - for example, I haven't been to a McDonald's in about fifteen years - but here, we definitely eat a lot less junk food. For what it's worth, though, even the junk food here seems healthier. Instead of having high fructose corn syrup in everything, here they use good old-fashioned sugar. They also don't put ridiculous amounts of salt in their snack foods. In fairness, though, paprika-flavored chips aren't nearly as tasty as Cool Ranch Doritos. We also eat a lot less meat here, I think primarily because we're not used to the smell of meat that hasn't been treated with antibiotics and chlorine, which tends to make it seem kind of ripe when it's cooking and not terribly appetizing. We also get more than our recommended daily allowance of fresh fruits and vegetables, and this is seriously some of the best produce I've ever had.

3. We have tiny plates. The apartment we live in came furnished with pretty much everything we need, and since we're only living here for nine months or so, we don't want to buy a lot of stuff that we can't take back with us. So we've just been using the tiny plates that came with the apartment as our dinner plates. I think I'm like most guys, in that if you put a plate full of food in front of me, I'm going to eat it. Hence, a smaller plate means I eat less, which is fine. Still, I often get seconds or sometimes even thirds, but on a psychological level, I don't feel obligated to eat until I'm completely stuffed just because it's right there in front of me.

4. I drink a lot of water. Every other day, we buy a five liter bottle of water from the grocery store across the street. I'm no nutritionist, have to believe that this is good for the metabolism.

5. I have seen very few overweight people in Moldova. Of course, I've spent most of my life in the Midwest United States, where obesity is somewhat the norm, and if I put on a couple of pounds when I lived there, I still felt skinny in comparison to some of the people I see waddling into the local Wal-Mart. In any case, being in a place where thin is the norm I think changes the way that we look at ourselves. On a related topic, not surprisingly, smoking seems to be a common past time in Moldova. I quit about five years ago and have no intention of taking it up again, but I tell you, if you're going to smoke, this is the place to do it. After all, a pack of cigarettes costs roughly the equivalent of between fifty cents and a dollar, and it doesn't carry the social taboo that it does in the U.S. This may also explain why everyone seems to be so skinny.

6. When we buy groceries, we have to keep in mind that whatever we get has to be carried uphill about four blocks, so we tend to limit our purchases to the essentials without as many frivolous items as we might have gotten in the U.S. Also, there just aren't as many random things like that to buy here. Hence, no cakes just because we were at the grocery store and felt like buying a mix and some frosting. Actually, I don't think they even have cake mixes here.

7. Jamie does most of the cooking. For some reason, I've almost completely forgotten how to cook since we've been here, as if they have a red sun that has taken away my super powers. In any case, whereas I tend to cook whatever sounds good, Jamie tends to be a bit more conscious of the kinds of things we're putting into our bodies. So where I might have made pan-fried breaded chicken with pasta, Jamie makes things like hearty bean stew and vegetarian rice curry. Because she's a much more skilled cook than I am, she can make these things taste good, whereas I pretty much have to rely on the ingredients doing most of the work for me.

8. Tapeworm is pretty common here. Enough said.

In any case, I couldn't actually tell you how much weight I've lost since we've been here. For one thing, they use the metric system in Moldova and I have no idea what I used to weigh in kilograms. For that matter, I'm not entirely sure how much I weighed in pounds, either, since we've never actually owned a scale. All I know is that I feel much healthier, just in the month that we've lived here, and that I hope I can maintain these habits when we get back to the U.S.

31 October 2009

Eastern Hospitality

Over the past two weeks, we have gotten a glimpse into Moldovan life outside of Chisinau, but we have also seen a more intimate portrait of life within the city itself. Last weekend, we were invited as guests to the house of some very kind people that we met at the winery, and last night, we had someone over for dinner who has lived in Moldova for his entire life. In both of these scenarios, we were offered insight into Moldovan culture that aptly corresponded with many of our first impressions. That is to say that we have met some genuinely good people in the relatively short amount of time that we have been here.

Granted, the language barrier continues to be an issue. In this regard, even small talk has proven challenging. For example, it took Victor - our dinner guest who works in the building where we live and speaks very limited English - about five minutes to explain that he is the youngest of four boys and that the rest of his family live in a village about an hour from here. On the same token, rather than explain that Jamie was born in Detroit and has lived in Cincinnati, Greece and Grand Rapids, Michigan as a kid, which is where we met before living out on the west coast and then moving to a small town about an hour outside of Chicago, it was easier to just say that we're from Chicago. All in all, it was both enlightening and to be honest, a little exhausting, but it was nonetheless a great opportunity learn something about life in Moldova, not to mention practice our Romanian with a native speaker.

Last week, I was also able to get some great footage of the changing season in the park at the heart of downtown Chisinau. There were a lot of people walking around as golden leaves cascaded from the trees and blanketed the paths. It was not uncommon to see couples making out on park benches or young professionals working on laptops, taking advantage of the free wi-fi. There were vendors selling popcorn, juice and coffee, and amidst the relaxed atmosphere, it was easy to forget that we in the middle of a thriving metropolis. Chisinau truly has some beautiful parks, and nearly every street in the city is lined with old trees that are full of character. Sure, much of the architecture is standard fare Communist bloc design, where it was all more or less designed with the same aesthetic - as opposed to buildings in American cities that express the individualism of its tenants and the architects who initially designed the structures - but Chisinau makes up for it with its many trees and its many beautiful people.

24 October 2009

A Drive in the Country

On Thursday, we went to the world's largest underground wine cellar. Milestii Mici, about fifteen miles south of Chisinau, has over 200 kilometers (124 miles) of tunnels. These are former mine shafts that have been converted into storage facilities, which now house nearly two million bottles of wine. This is to say nothing of the giant barrels where the wine is aged before it is bottled, either. At one point in its history, this was the headquarters of much of the wine production for the former Soviet Union. When the U.S.S.R. collapsed, they lost a lot of their business, but even today, they continue to manufacture world-class wines that most of the rest of the world, it seems, has never heard about.

We had to rent a car in order to get there, and then we also had to drive the car through the tunnels in order to get to the various points on the tour. Of course, driving in Moldova was an experience unto itself. Imagine Los Angeles or Chicago without lines on the road and the added obstacles of giant potholes everywhere. This is what it was like driving in Chisinau. I should also note that they don't have street signs here. If you want to know where you are, buildings at corners often (but not always) have the names of each of the cross streets either painted or attached to the respective outer walls. They're not usually all that easy to see, and next to impossible at night.

Once we got out of the city, the traffic eased up considerably and lines appeared on the road that at least separated us from the oncoming cars, which were relatively infrequent, but certainly present nonetheless. To minimize the risk of getting completely lost, after we left Milestii Mici, we stayed on what I would consider to be a main road (in that it was paved) and made note of landmarks whenever we veered off from our path.

It was interesting to pass through these villages that speckled the otherwise unadulterated countryside. It would have been easy to forget what year it was as we were given glimpses into these lives which had likely changed very little over the past century or so. In most of the villages that we passed through, every hundred yards or so, there was a community well where people got their water for drinking, cleaning and cooking, and outhouses were a common sight beside their homes. There were power lines which ran along the main road, though, and I saw a surprising number of satellite television dishes. It may not be quite as rustic as I had imagined it would be in some of these villages; rather, it just seemed like a relatively simple life. This isn't to say that life in the Moldovan countryside isn't without its challenges, to be sure, but seeing what little we had the opportunity to see provided an interesting insight into the reality of our modern needs.

As Jamie wrote about in greater detail in her blog, our excursion ended at a Pizzeria/wedding hall in some relatively remote village about an hour outside of Chisinau. Oddly, it almost became as if we were the tourist attraction. The waiter brought the cook out of the kitchen to see the American family in the otherwise empty dining room. He even called his friend who speaks English, then handed the phone to me. Not knowing what else to say, I asked him how you say black olives in Romanian, then I said thanks and handed the phone back to the waiter. I don't even like black olives.

After we had eaten our pizza, the owners of the establishment had essentially taken us in as surrogate children and grandchildren. The woman insisted that Alexander's name is actually Sasha and didn't seem to want to let him go when it came time to leave. She gave Chloe a candy bar and an apple and gave Jamie some flowers that she had pulled right out of the ground. They were truly lovely people, and again, I wish that my Romanian was better so that I might have aptly been able to thank them for their kindness and generosity. Even with the language barrier, though, where communicating simple ideas requires a quick game of charades, I think they understood at least as well as we did.

American Studies

The lecture that I gave in a grad-level American Studies course went well. I talked about Cold War media and Postmodernism for a bit, and then I gave a bit of a history lesson in terms of the popular culture of the forties and fifties in the U.S. After that, I opened up a dialogue with the class about the kind of rhetoric they grew up with in their mass media.

To my surprise, many of them said that they were inundated with American movies as kids, so much of the "Us versus Them" mentality that they were exposed to was coming primarily from our side of the planet. In particular, they saw a lot of the overtly pro-Western media from the 1980s, such as Rambo movies and the like, even before 1989, and I couldn't help but wonder if this massive influx of American pop culture had any discernible influence over the eventual fall of the Soviet empire.

I know David Hasselhoff claims that his music is at least partially responsible for the fall of the Berlin Wall, and I'm not saying that the influence of Western media was necessarily this direct by any delusional stretches of the imagination (I'm talking to you, Hoff), but I do wonder if the dominant discourses of American mass media were enough to help plant the basic idea that in the Cold War, which was continuing to isolate the U.S.S.R. from the rest of the world, maybe the Soviets were in fact the bad guys. At the very least, our propaganda was more convincing, anyway. Then in the late eighties, when there wasn't any food and their economy was falling apart, people knew who to blame because their nationalistic rhetoric had already been undermined by that which they saw in these American movies that had found receptive audiences within their culture. This was a truly fascinating insight into what it was like to grow up in an outlying state of the former Soviet Union, at what was in many ways, the cultural faultline between East and West.

As the class continued, I asked them if they thought of Moldova as associated more with the East or the West, and they told me that the division here is primarily ethnic. People with familial ties to Russia tend to associate themselves more with that culture and are therefore more likely to be adverse to American influences, whereas Moldovans with ties to Romania tend to more readily embrace Western culture. This fits what I've seen with the language divide here that seems to also correspond with some kind of social hierarchy.

All in all, it was indeed educational for me, and I hope that the students were able to get something out of it as well. They seemed genuinely interested in the topics that we discussed, and time permitting, the class probably could have gone on for much longer. I always consider that a good sign of an engaging lecture: when you go past the allotted time and no one in the class seems to mind or even notice.

I only wish my Romanian was as good as their English.

18 October 2009

The Licurici Puppet Theatre

This afternoon, Jamie and I took Chloe and Alexander to a puppet theatre in downtown Chisinau. I couldn't tell you the name of the performance or what it was about exactly (as the entire thing was, of course, in Romanian), but it had something to do with good versus evil and winning the love of a princess through acts of profound valor. Standard fare in any culture, it seems.

Chloe thought it was a little scary and Alexander slept through the whole thing. He is a baby, after all. I thought it was pretty cool, though. Jamie had to step out toward the end, when Alexander woke up. She asked me how it ended and I told her. "The good guy won."

She figured as much.

16 October 2009

A Well-Rounded Education

It seems like we've been here for much longer than two weeks. I only say that because it seems like months have passed since we were visiting our families in Michigan or a lifetime ago since we were living quietly in our little house in Illinois. Plus it feels like we've done quite a bit since we've been in Moldova.

Last weekend, we went to Moldova's annual wine festival, which was pretty amazing, and considerably bigger than I had imagined it would be. I had meat-on-a-stick and red wine in a plastic cup, and I got a fair amount of footage for the documentary. In all honesty, I'm not much of a wine drinker, but I can tell you that this was some damn good wine. Moldovans have a right to be proud. This festival was also a great opportunity to see their culture at its finest, in full celebration mode. These are a people that like to enjoy themselves.

Since then, though, it's been kind of grey and rainy, so aside from the photos that I got during intermittent periods of sunshine, in terms of the project, I haven't been all that productive this week. However, I should note that the project is only half the reason that I'm here. Perhaps more importantly, I am also here to experience life in Moldova and to share with the people I meet what it means to be American. Through this blog and through the documentary that I'm working on, I hope to relay my experiences here so that others can gain something from it as well, and this is a responsibility that is to continue indefinitely upon our return to the United States. As I was told at the orientation in D.C. shortly before we left, we are not just scholars, we are cultural ambassadors.

Last week, I met a guy who works at the electronics store down the street who speaks very good English and wants to study hospitality management in the United States. Ever since then, I've been doing some research, trying to figure out how to make his ambitions a reality. I'd love to see this guy be able to study in the U.S., then come back here and be able to apply what he's learned to benefit the rest of Moldova. I firmly believe that education is an investment, not only in the individual, but also in the community at large. Of course, what I don't want to tell this guy is that it was hard for even me to afford my undergraduate studies in the U.S., but then again, I like to think that things are improving in that regard as well, and I don't just say that as someone who wants to teach college for a living.

Next week, I'm supposed to go into the Universitatea de Stat din Moldova and give a guest lecture in an American Studies class about post-war media in the United States. Of course, it also just so happens that I have a significant scholarly interest in the rhetoric of Cold War media and have done a considerable amount of research on the subject. For me, it will be interesting to hear the perspectives of people who grew up on the other side of the fence. Was the "us versus them" mentality that was so pervasive in our culture from the end of World War II to the fall of the Berlin Wall similar to that which was experienced by people growing up under the rule of communism? In what ways did their mass media paint us as the evil empire? I was able to find the entire film of "Atomic Cafe" on YouTube, and I might like to show a few clips of this to help illustrate some of my points. Frankly, though, I think this lecture will be at least as interesting for me as it is for them. I think that's kind of the point.

15 October 2009

Photos

I just uploaded some photos of Moldova to a new set on our Flickr page. Click on the "photos" link to the right to see them. This page will also be updated regularly.

13 October 2009

Readers, digest.

I went for about a seven mile walk today. I was looking for a music store that I didn't exactly know how to get to, and this seemed like the best way to familiarize myself with the area anyway. Besides, it's supposed to start getting colder, so I figured that if I was going to do something like this, now is the time to do it. Luckily, my Spidey-senses (and maybe a little dumb luck) took me right where I was trying to get to, even though my orientation to the map that I looked at before I left was completely wrong. In any case, I was able to purchase a relatively cheap acoustic guitar and then retrace my steps back to our apartment without getting completely lost.

Bear in mind, going for a walk here is a lot like passing through a Flintstones backdrop: Alimentara, Farmacie, Biroul de Turism, repeat ad infinitum. I should also note that I have played guitar virtually every day for the past fifteen years, and frankly, it has been strange to not have one here. To make up for lost time, I played for a solid two hours this afternoon. It was awesome.

The other part of my mission today was to find some stomach medicine. Back in the states, I took prescription stomach medicine everyday which prevented me from getting heartburn. Too many years of eating unhealthy food and drink has forced me to change my diet considerably and take medicine everyday for acid reflux. (Thank you very much, Buffalo Wing Challenge.) In any case, I went to a "farmacie" (farm-a-chee-a) today and was able to ask the pharmacist for what I was looking for and get it for the equivalent of about $5 U.S. Without insurance, in the U.S., a thirty-day supply of the same medicine would have cost about $200. Insert your own conclusion about the state of capitalist health care and the unrestrained power of the pharmaceutical industry in the United States HERE.

Places like this get a bad rap. When I go to the grocery store in Chisinau, maybe I can't find an entire aisle dedicated to different brands of soft drinks, or when I go to the pharmacy, I can't find ten different brands of toothpaste or scents of deodorant ranging from "Extreme Burst" to "Power Sport," but come on... how many options do we really need? And what the hell is "Extreme Burst" supposed to smell like anyway? Here, I bought some deodorant in which the only word in English is "Men." Good enough.

So far, this has been the biggest difference in terms of lifestyle adjustments here. And in order to find what I'm looking for, I may go to three or four different stores instead of one "super-store" in the U.S., but when I buy vegetables here, you can tell that they just came from a farmer's field directly to the store that I bought them from. Case in point: the carrots still have dirt on them. The apples don't have a film of pesticide on them, and the tomatoes weren't ripened with ether after being shipped to a warehouse. (In the United States, most companies ship them while they're still green so that they won't bruise during shipping. True story.)

Between the walking and the healthy food I've been eating, maybe by the time we leave here, I won't need to take stomach medicine anymore. And I'll probably complain about how hard it is to find decent produce in the U.S., despite being one of the largest agricultural producing countries in the world. But I have to tell you, I do miss peanut butter and sliced bread. And I've never loved the English language so much as I do now. Frankly, I think that if I were to hear someone speaking it on the street, that person would become my new best friend. And even though my wife is a gourmet chef and the only times I've eaten a peanut butter and jelly sandwich in recent years were rare flashbacks to my days as a bachelor, strangely enough, it sounds pretty good right about now.

09 October 2009

First Impressions

On the flight from Frankfurt to Chisinau, we were served snacks that seemed more like the sack lunches that we used to bring to school as kids as opposed to any kind of cliches that may come to mind in terms of traditional airplane food. The attendants gave us fresh cheese and vegetables that tasted like they had been picked from a garden only hours before. To my surprise, many of the other passengers seemed to be American.

When the plane touched down, we got on a bus which took us to the airport terminal, where we then stepped in line behind a hundred or so other passengers who were waiting to clear the passport checkpoint. For the first time in over twenty-four hours of travel, Alexander began to fuss, which is the only reason that I can think of as to why we were escorted to the front of the line. Within a few minutes, we were past the checkpoint to the baggage claim, where all four of our checked bags had made it all the way from O'Hare and were there waiting for us. (Jamie and I had made a bet about this, and it looks like I won, which means that when we get back, she's going to have to write me a check for two bucks from our joint account.) In any case, airport personnel helped us load our bags onto a cart, then escorted us through customs without so much as a word to the guards as to whether or not we had anything to declare. Here, we met Tanya, who held a sign with the name of the woman from whom we had arranged to rent a temporary apartment. Boris, the driver, took our cart from the airport personnel and promptly loaded our luggage into his mid-sized car.

Boris took us to an old Soviet-era apartment building with an unpleasant but indistinguishable smell in the lobby and hands-down the scariest elevator that I have ever been in. We could only fit two bags and one person in the elevator at a time, and it dropped three inches when we stepped inside. Tanya informed us that although the apartment that we were staying in was on the eighth floor, we had to press nine in order to get there. "This," she said, "is Soviet engineering." She spoke English remarkably well.

The next morning, we arranged to meet with an old Ukrainian woman named Varvara, whose contact information I had received from the U.S. Embassy. She showed us about five apartments and also introduced us to a woman named Vera, who showed us one apartment and then another on Sunday, the latter of which we moved into on Monday.

It is probably the most secure apartment that I have ever lived in. It is only accessible via a mechanical gate which is situated next to the guard station, and the door of the building and that of the apartment itself are two of the heaviest that I have ever seen on a residential property. The apartment is well-lit, with tall ceilings featuring numerous skylights in every room as well as ornate lighting fixtures throughout. Frankly, it's not quite as big as the place where we lived in Illinois, but it is quite a bit fancier. Alexander and Chloe are in one bedroom and Jamie and I are in the other.

The apartment is also centrally located. We can easily walk to any number of grocery stores and street markets. There's even an electronics store just down the street where I was able to get a monitor for our computer as well as some other miscellaneous stuff that I thought would be harder to find here. So far, nearly everything that we have needed, we have been able to find without much difficulty.

On our second day here, I also managed to contract a staph infection in my nose, which rendered me into a boardwalk caricature of myself, and I was able to find the necessary antibiotics at the local "farmacie" for the equivalent of about twelve bucks, no prescription needed.

In terms of expectations that have been proven false, before we came here, I was under the impression that although Romanian is certainly good to know, most people who went to school in 1989 or later are fluent in English. This is absolutely not the case. In fact, based on our experiences so far, it seems that about half the people speak Romanian and half speak Russian, and most do not seem to be fluent in both. Furthermore, aside from the people at the U.S. Embassy, we have only met three people who are fluent enough in English that my explanations do not require elaborate hand gestures in order to articulate. It also seems that most of the hundreds of flash cards that I made and memorized may not be terribly useful in a practical sense, at least not until I have developed my ear enough to actually understand what people are saying. As for Jamie's Russian, unless a need should arise for "The boy swims," or "The horse walks," she's going to need to work on that as well. She did, however, catch the word for "stupid" when we were trying to explain to a cab driver where our apartment was even though we did not yet know the address. So now we can check "being yelled at in Russian" from the list of experiences.

In terms of first impressions, though, I will say this: I like it here. That's not to say that there aren't plenty of things I miss about the United States, but as a temporary residence, it could be a lot worse. It's very green here, people smile a lot more than you might expect of Eastern Europeans, and the food is amazing, particularly the produce. For me, the hardest adjustment so far has been the fact that this is very much a cash-based economy. In the U.S., I had grown very used to never carrying any money on me and just paying for everything with a debit card, and although there are a surprising number of places here that do accept credit cards, most things are paid for in cash, including rent and utilities. That has already taken some getting used to, as does the fact that the exchange rate is approximately 11.5 to one - so not only am I carrying money everywhere I go, but I am also carrying a large quantity of bills. I also have to do a lot more math in my head in order to figure out if I'm getting a good deal or not. Of course, I'm also getting better at haggling, which is a skill that I've never really had to use before.

Moldova's annual wine festival is this weekend, and I'm hoping to get some good pictures as well as my first video clips to potentially be used in the documentary. Wine is one of Moldova's biggest exports, and the wine festival is one the biggest annual events here.

07 October 2009

Introduction

This is the first time in my life that I have ever been a foreigner. Brief forays into Mexico and Canada notwithstanding, before this experience, I had never immersed myself in another culture to such a degree that I could rightfully think of myself as anything other than a tourist. As of today, we have been in Moldova for one week, which is already the longest period of time that I have ever spent in another country. It should also be noted that I am here with my wife, Jamie, as well as our two children, Chloe and Alexander, who are three and a half years old and seven months respectively.

As a Fulbright scholar, my research project is to create a documentary video that explores the complexities of Moldovan cultural identity. Although I have a few ideas in terms of the directions that I may like to take this project, the overall thesis of my film remains in soft focus, as I believe that to have a specific agenda going into the production of this documentary would work against the integrity of the medium itself.

In preparation for our trip, I taught myself some conversational Romanian and Jamie began to study Russian shortly before we left. I also absorbed what limited information I could find about this little-known country in Eastern Europe, though I can already see that many of my expectations had been based on myths, or at the very least, subjective impressions that fail to accurately represent any kind of universal experience. With that said, the observations that I present here are also limited to my own subjective point of view, though I will make every attempt to minimize any cultural biases which may otherwise distort my perspective.

On a regular basis, I will seek to articulate that which I am learning as I learn it, to relay the experiences that facilitate a deeper understanding of both their culture and our own. Chances are, you might not be in Chisinau anytime soon, so I will attempt to find empathy from the inside looking out. I will make every attempt to share this unique and valuable perspective that has been afforded to me by the Fulbright program, the opportunity for which I am deeply grateful.