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…