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, but I have to believe that this is good for the metabolism. Carrying that thing is no doubt good exercise, too.

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 pasttime 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. As I alluded to earlier, 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 conscientious 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.