This is not Moldova

I’m home.

Reverse culture shock

I feel like I’m carrying a screaming, squirming infant in my arms and no one is noticing. Most people just ignore it. Some let their eyes pause briefly on it, ask a quick question and turn back to their smartphones. Very few take the time to find out what I’m holding, and then I find I have no words to explain what has happened to me.

I only feel this way in big groups. I haven’t broken down crying in grocery stores or malls, the way I thought I might. I didn’t pull my blankets to the floor, prefering to sleep on the hard familiar floor rather than my pillow-top mattress. Nor did I bathe my face in the water fountain at the airport, glorying at the first clean water source I’d seen.

The outside world hasn’t changed for me. I changed. But my changes are invisible, and most people don’t have the capacity to relate.

Sick

Yesterday, I was so sick that my mom and I laid out an emergency plan: If I began vomiting or my temperature climbed higher than it already was, we’d go to the urgent care clinic.

Luckily, it didn’t come to that. I taught my mom how to make oral rehydration solution, and I drifted in and out of the Today Show. (Did you know you can make portable pies on sticks? And it’s fun for the kids!)

So now I’m desperately waiting for my medical files to come in from Peace Corps so I can see a doctor. Mom says a doctor won’t tell us anything we don’t already know, so she’s put me on a diet — nothing but chicken, rice, pasta and french bread — until we slowly introduce new foods to find out what my “triggers” are.

But I guess I’m secretly hoping for a new diagnosis. Or at least a treatable companion-diagnosis: worms, parasites, ulcer…something to explain the unbearable pain I’ve felt since coming home. Something I can DO something about without completely changing my life.

I am happy to be home in Texas. Even if I can’t eat them, being around all this salsa, queso and quacemole just makes me happy. And I love 100+ degree heat — especially when air conditioning is never far away.

The sweetest goodbye

A woman just ran to my house — in the dark, without a flashlight, clad only in a zip-up bathrobe, not even bothering to brush away her tears — to tell me goodbye.

I was in the outdoor shower when I heard someone shouting my name. (In Moldova, we don’t use doorbells. We stand outside a house and shout till someone answers.) As I heard her yell “Leenzee,” I realized it was my partner Natalia, the librarian with whom I taught 9-11th grades last year.

I hurriedly washed the Peace Corps-issued anti-dandruff shampoo out of my hair, wrapped myself in the towel my aunt Kim sent me and ran out to meet her. She’d just heard from my other partner, Dorina, that I was leaving early tomorrow morning, so she’d come to tell me goodbye.

We hugged and hugged, not caring that I was soaking wet. She let loose a long sting of Romanian: Why didn’t you tell me earlier I would have been here sooner I just heard or I would have been here no don’t worry I don’t care you are wet I wish you health and happiness I hope you and Mike get married and you come back with two kids please come back please call us I would have brought you a present we will miss you your mother will be so happy I would have come sooner.

I smiled and held my hand to my heart, trying to show (since I couldn’t get a word in edgewise) how much she meant to me. Then she asked me to remember this country so small I could fit it in the palm of my hand.

“I will remember,” I told her, “because now it fits in my heart.”

I blew her a kiss. She blew one back. She left, and soon, so will I.

Goodbye, Moldova. (And La Revedere, до свидания, & Pa ka)

My time in Moldova has come to an end. I am sad to say that, due to my worsening health, I’ll be taking a plane early Friday morning bound for DFW.

Since arriving in Moldova, I’ve struggled with my health. For months, I regularly experienced pain so powerful I would collapse. In January, Peace Corps had to medically evacuate my site, bringing me down to the capital for testing. Since then, I’ve had sonograms, blood tests, stool cultures (ew), exams and more to find the ever-elusive source of my constant pain.

Then, a few weeks ago, I visited a specialist in the capital. My doctor and I sat with him for an hour, explaining my year’s worth of symptoms, going over charts, circling test result after test result. I pointed to my stomach, my back, my shoulder blades – all the places I’ve been experiencing crippling pain for so long. Then, he took one finger, silently calculated where my large intestine begins and pushed. My body erupted in pain. “Whatever you just touched,” I told him, “that is where the problem is.”

My official diagnosis is Irritible Bowel Syndrome, a chronic disorder of the gastrointestinal tract. People with IBS “have colons that react to stimuli that do not affect normal colons, and their ractions are far more severe,” author and IBS expert Healther Van Vorous writes in her book Eating for IBS. In other words, certain foods or hightened stress levels cause my intestines freak the fuck out, knocking me down and leaving me to writhe in pain.

At first, this diagnosis was a blessing. I don’t have chronic pancreatitis or any of the other terrifying diseases I’d been tested for. I won’t need surgery. I just need to manage my diet and stress to prevent further painful attacks.

Then I realized: I’m in Moldova. In my isolated village of 2,000, we eat what we grow. If there is cheese in my pasta, it is because Valentina milked the cow that morning. If there are cucumbers in my salad, Ion harvested them this afternoon. In the winter, we eat what we preserved — pickled tomato, carrots, peppers and even watermelon. Restricting my diet to eat IBS-friendly foods? Yeah, right.

Trying to treat my IBS feels like trying to re-learn how to eat. Suddenly, I’m on a fat-free, dairy-free, soluble-fiber rich, insoluble-fiber-free diet, and honestly, I’m not totally sure what all that means. Fitting this diet into the restrictions of food choices in a Moldovan village makes me hyperventilate. And the irony? Being stressed over my IBS-friendly diet brings a new round of pain attacks.

I need a year — one year — to figure out what I can eat, how to cook it, how to order it in a restaurant and how to control the stress I feel about it. And as much as I want to, I can’t do that here.

Boots for Petru

His name is Petru, and when I met him, he was terrified.

All his friends had new rain boots — bright reds, blues and yellows against a dusty brown road — and he coveted a pair. He waited, watching his friends draw butterflies and muscle men and hoping someone would notice he was the only boy still wearing tattered, worn-out plastic sandals. I saw him as he built the courage to pull one of the boys aside and ask what he had to do to deserve a pair of his own.

“Where are your boots?” I asked. Petru shrugged and turned away. I’m probably the first American who has spoken to him directly in his native tongue, Romanian, so I asked again in case he didn’t understand.

“He doesn’t have any,” another boy chimed in. “Can you get him some?”

“I’m not in charge,” I said, “Go inside the school and ask.”

Petru jumped backwards, shaking his head and looking at the ground, down at his dust-covered slip-ons.

“He’s afraid!” his friends shrieked.

As the boys’ laughter rang out, I knelt down to look Petru in the eye. He reminded me of my brother Ben, the math genius who’d rather not eat than ask a restaurant hostess for a table.

“I’ll help you,” I told him. He nodded.

Inside the tiny room this village used as a primary school, I asked the social worker helping us give out boots if Petru could still have a pair. She began waving at my hips, and I turned to see Petru had followed me, hovering near the door. The last time I saw him, he was a blur of brown and pale green, hurling happily toward the pile of rain boots in the back of the room.

This story really starts last winter, when my mother bought me my own pair of rain boots for Christmas. I’m a Peace Corps volunteer in Moldova, one of Europe’s poorest countries nestled between Romania and Ukraine, and I teach health in a rural village of about 2,000 people. When it rains or the snows melt, the roads are unmanageable without a strong pair of waterproof boots. In six months, I’d already ripped the pair I’d brought.

My mom bought my new boots from a Dallas-based company, Roma Provisions, which gives a needy Roma, or “gypsy,” child one pair of boots for each pair they sell. Mom’s a writer too, so she put up a blog post, encouraging others to by their own Roma Boots for Christmas.

When Roma Provisions’ founder Samuel Bistrian read my mom’s post, he emailed her to say thanks. “My mother is from the Moldovian region of Romania, which borders modern-day Moldova,” he wrote. “I would like to see about distributing some boots there as well.”

Seven months and a customs battle later, Samuel and I joined a dozen of my fellow Peace Corps volunteers to distribute brand-new rain boots in bright jewel colors to the children of Schinoasa, Moldova, a predominantly-Roma village of about 300 people.

As the other volunteers set up in the only building we could find — a tiny schoolroom that used to house 1st-4th graders — I walked through the crowd of curious Moldovans gathering outside, introducing myself as Eliza, my faux-Romanian translation of “Lindsay.”

In typical Moldovan fashion, everyone had three questions for me: How can you speak my language? Aren’t you hot? and Are you married? But I was ready with the answers. I learned their language so I could teach health to 5th-11th graders in my village, I told them. Besides, when you have to learn a language in order to eat, it’s not hard to find motivation. I was hot, but that’s because I was wearing my Roma Boots on a warm summer day. My mom bought these boots, I told them, so that one of the children here will get a pair for free. And no, I am not married, but I have a boyfriend. They seemed most interested in this last bit of news. Later, I learned the children in this village are very dedicated to school — even walking for miles in mud and snow without proper shoes — until junior high, when they start to get married and have families of their own.

We spent the entire day in Schinoasa. We used extra plastic bags to make a soccer ball for the kids. Older men in the village explained to Samuel how Moldova’s Soviet history makes it different from his native Moldova. We sat in the shade with them, listening to their stories and playing with their children.

Petru wouldn’t let me take his picture, but he and his friends drew a poster for me as a thank you present. Hearts with “Eliza Love” and “Sunteți Bun! (You are good!)” surround two intricate sketches of shirtless men with bulging muscles. I wanted to take it home with me, maybe hang it on my wall when II move back to the States, but another Peace Corps volunteer convinced me to leave the paper with them so they could keep drawing. Before I left, I ripped a little corner of the drawing, the corner that says “Eliza Love,” and stuck it in my purse.

I’ll keep it with me always.

Get your own pair of Roma Boots and fund a new pair for a child in need at Shop.RomaProvisions.com.

1, 2, 3..5, 6!

I met the cutest 3-year-old girl today. Her grandmother works at the store where I stop for my daily soda break, and I befreinded her by letting her hit me with a stick. She thought that was hilarious.

No matter how many times she said her name, I could never understand. She had me repeat it over and over. Only when I slurred “Dohnitsa?” did she beam, satisfied. So I guess that’s her name. She didn’t seem to believe my name is Lindsay, so I switched to Eliza, the closest Romanian equivalent.

When I wouldn’t let her hold my Kindle in her strawberry-sticky fingers, she started bringing me spare scraps of metal, holding out her hand and saying, “5 lei!” (Five lei is equivalent to under 50 cents.) I paid her in invisible money until she seemed satisfied.

She let me take a picture of her. I counted, “1, 2, 3!” in Romanian, and she finished with, “5, 6!” Then she took the camera and tried to take a picture of me. She didn’t understand the camera had to face me or that counting alone is not sufficient for a picture to be taken, but she seemed pretty proud of herself anyway.

Rain of Stars

Look, I speak this language and everything, but I still have no idea why the kids called tonight’s big summer camp talent pagent Ploaia de Stele, or Rain of Stars. Maybe it’s supposed to be translated as Stars’ Rain. I don’t know. The point is, it was hilarious.

The competition begins with each contestant performing a poem written moments before introducing themselves to the judges. Most poems go something like this (but it rhymes in Romanian): “Daniella is my name/Floresti is my town/I’m in cabin number 4/I am optomistic and happy/I love to sing and dance/My friends are beautiful/I love you all.” Hilarious, although slightly tedious after the umpteenth reiteration.

Of the twenty-ish competitors, only two were boys, one of whom had a girl perform his intro-poem for him. It should have counted against him, but, weirdly, it didn’t because she was so adorable. The only line I remember is, “I love his name and you will too, Nicolae!” I laughed, only because probably 20 percent of the kids here are named Nicolae.

The pressure was too much for some of the competitors. Two girls dissolved into tears when they couldn’t remember their poems. I clapped loudly for them, but only the cute male counselor could get them to calm down. If I’d been in their shoes, I may have decided to cry too…

Then came the talent portion. Most of the kids sang a song, either moving their lips inaudibly over blasting techno or following along with the accordionist. One group decided to dance. The two older girls had performed a “hip hop” number last night, so I saved my dying camera battery for their performance. But then, this happened…

After the second rendition of the latest techno song about summer, I decided to pack up and head home before the sun set. Unfortunately, that leaves me in the dark about my most pressing question….

No, not who won. How will this talent show, which is destined to continue for several more hours, function in total darkness?

In the Moldovan sun

Oh man, what a great day.

Around noon, I took a picnic and my Kindle out to the woods surrounding my small village. About halfway to the railroad tracks, the trees open up and allow the sun to warm one of the few grass-blanketed areas. I always get lost trying to find this magic little clearing, but its bright amber light is easy to spot amidst the dark, cool brown of the trees. Today, I somehow got stuck on the other side of a steep ravine and had to hike down and then up its muddy sides before I reached my spot.

For the next few hours, I bathed in the sun, read, nibbled and occasionally swatted at the crawlers attracted to my bright yellow bath towel. I reveled in my alone-ness. (I know I’ve complained about feeling isolated here, but there’s a big difference between draining, depressing, oppressive isolation and the thrilling peace of taking a little time for yourself. In a high-context community, you have to make a serious effort to ever feel alone.)

When I started to feel sleepy, I grabbed a coke (they only had one 2L bottle…) at the local bar, read and listened to the soundtrack of my village’s main (read, only) road: donkeys braying, men burping, horse-drawn carts rumbling and clip-clopping by, birds flittering near and pecking at a coveted bit of bread, kids squealing over ice creams and the Russian soap opera playing inside.

Catalina seemed frantic when I came home around 6 p.m., asking what I wanted to eat. I told her I would wait for dinner, and she shook her head furiously. “But you weren’t here for lunch!” she said. She didn’t believe that I made my own meal without her. I couldn’t tell if she was apologizing for not feeding me before she left to run errands or berating me for being stupid enough not to wait for her. She gave me a terse nod when I told her I’d wait for dinner.

But maybe that was a mistake. It’s late, but the sun is still out, so my family is still working in the garden – backs bent painfully over their scythes – which means while our food for this winter is being cultivated, dinner for tonight won’t be ready for a while.

Moldovans to the rescue

Peace Corps’ main approach to safety has always been, in a word, integration. Only by becoming one with your community — learning their language, adapting their customs — can a volunteer be truly safe thousands of miles from home and hours away from the local headquarters.

I always found this approach to be utopic at best, ignorant at worst. As foreigners in a place foreigners rarely visit, we stand out despite our best efforts. (Moldovans often say they can’t understand me, not because I speak Romanian poorly but because they’ve never heard their language through an accent.) Besides, if someone decides they really want to hurt me, no level of cultural camouflage can help.

But today I had a small victory in the integration-as-the-best-defense strategy, so I thought I’d share it:

For the last few days, I’ve spent my afternoons on the patio of the local bar. I bring a book and sip on a coke from 2 p.m., as Moldovans head home for lunch, until around 5 p.m., when drinkers come back in big numbers.

Despite my strategic timing, the patio of our (one-and-only) bar is and will always be occupied by groups of men emptying plastic 2 liters of beer and playing a card game which, to me, consists entirely of slapping cards on the table with as much force as possible. I set myself up at the table farthest away, using my backpack as a buffer.

Today, a drunk, 40-something man lunged at my table and managed a slurred, “Buna ziua,” as he sat down. Immediately, both tables of men launched to my rescue. “No, leave her alone,” I heard them say. “She doesn’t speak Romanian. She is from England. She just wants to read. She doesn’t want to talk to you.”

My main advocates were the affluent, silver-mustachioed man who’d given me a ride home earlier that day and the gym teacher whose toughness in grading has a direct relationship to his sobriety — men from two very different social circles in my village — but even strangers came to my rescue. For every second the drunk stayed at my table, their voices grew louder and harsher. Their bodies seemed to swell with the ever-paternal threat of, “Don’t make me come over there.” Thwarted, my suitor meekly scurried off.

I tried to nod to the men in thanks, but they never made eye contact with me. I’ve come to believe Moldovans can communicate through some kind of telepathy (How else could they know so much without newspapers, the Internet or even phones?), but now I secretly believe they can watch me with some sixth sense as well. They never turned to me unless I was in trouble, and for the rest of the day, I was left alone.

Now, if you are anything like my parents, you may be thinking, “Well, maybe you shouldn’t be in a bar in the first place, little Lindsay.” And I agree, there are risks. In a country where I see men shooting vodka at 6 a.m., I can hardly be surprised to find drunken misbehavior at a bar in the afternoon. But please understand – it’s the only place to go. I can’t stand spending beautiful, 80-degree days cooped up in my room; and while the forest is beautiful, it’s full of teenagers sneaking booze and canoodling. Sitting on a patio, bathing in the afternoon sun and gossiping occasionally with the 30-something waitress is as close to perfection as I can get in this Moldovan hamlet.

So for now, I’ll hope my official Peace Corps safety strategy holds out. After the waitress kicked out a few drunks who’d fallen asleep at the table, she promised I wouldn’t have any trouble while she was around.

“Don’t worry, Ms. Lindsay,” she told me. “They’ll be good. Come back to us, and you’ll be safe. I’m sure some men are even like this in the U.S.?” It wasn’t until I was halfway home that I wondered, How did she know my name? Or that I’m American? We’ve never met. Either I’m very integrated, or this Moldovan telepathy is stronger than I thought…

High-context chopsticks

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the differences between Catalina and me – our cultures, our upbringings, our experiences. So I wrote this piece for Intersect.com about Catalina’s first pair of chopsticks:

Catalina had never used chopsticks before. The closest she’d come was the time I used two forks like chopsticks to prove it was possible to eat that way. That didn’t turn out well for either of us.

But Catalina’s chopstick-less existance makes sense when you realize she has never been outside of Moldova, which is about the size of Maryland. In fact, she’s never been outside of northern Moldova, which is about the size of Conecticut. But while her knowledge for the world is not broad, it is deep. She knows her corner of the world imtimately. Like most Moldovans, she can tell you how much money someone has, how large their family is, what they do – all with one quick glance.

Anthropologists call this “high-context culture,” where one has to read the thick layer of context hidden over every interaction in order to understand it fully. The U.S. is a very low-context culture. I couldn’t look at someone in Seattle or Dallas and guess correctly if they have an accent. Here, Catalina can.

But when I say or do things that challenge the rules governing life for this small sliver, Catalina tends not to believe me. Hence the chopsticks. Surely, no one really eats this way, she seems to think, because I’ve never seen it.

Sometimes, this high-context worldview seriously gets on my nerves, like when I try to tell Catalina that I’ve eaten/done/seen something and she flat-out does not believe me. When I tell her I used to do my own laundry using a washer and dryer, she gives me a thin-lipped smile and patronizing head nod that mean, That’s right, Lindsay, keep telling yourself that.

So maybe it wasn’t with the purest of intentions that I wanted to prove chopsticks are actual, viable utensils. After all, they say a third of the world eats with chopsticks, with another third using forks and knives and the other third using their hands.

Maybe it’s the American in me that wants to teach Catalina all the ways of the world (and prove myself right.) After all, I spend my life capitalizing on the contradictions possible in a low-context culture. I love being the only Southern Debutaunte at a noise show, or the only feminist activist in a college sorority. But I find fewer chances for paradox in a culture where, for example, 96 percent of people claim the same religious background.

But I have to remember, Catalina has taught me things, too, like how to slow down and appreciate the people around me. She once told me proudly, “I have never hurried in my life.” Very un-American.

So far, Catalina can pick up sliced fruits and veggies with her chopsticks, and we are waiting for Valentina to make rice or noodles or something else we can pick up. I tried it with oatmeal, and that was just a mess. I guess we’ll both just have to keep working on it.

Catalina’s first chopsticks

I bought my family chopsticks this weekend, and so far, Catalina has successfully used hers to pick up the fresh tomatoes we eat every day. Pretty impressive for a first-timer.

Valentina is still working on it, and Ion hasn’t yet tried. I told them it’ll get easier when we eat noodles or rice – more Chinese-style food.

Originally, I was trying to teach Catalina using two forks – more to prove chopsticks actually worked than to actually teach her. Luckily, I found 20 chopsticks at a grocery store called the Hypermarket for about 10 lei, or less than $1.