In her series “Huh?” Lindsay answers reader-submitted questions about life as a volunteer, her decision to join Peace Corps, etc. Submit your questions in the comment section, via email at LindsayMToler@gmail.com or on the Facebook page.
Why I joined the Peace Corps
The most frequently asked question, by Americans and Moldovans alike: Why did you join the Peace Corps?
I decided to join the Peace Corps my freshman year of college. I was in rural Missouri meeting the parents of a guy I was dating, and he told us over dinner he wanted to join the Peace Corps once he graduated.
Well, the guy turned out to be a real loser who absolutely did not become a volutneer, but he got me thinking. For the next three years, I read the Peace Corps Web site, went to the recruitment meetings and met up with other friends thinking of applying. What attracted me most was the combination of my two favorite things: traveling and service. I mean, the U.S. government was offering to pay for me to live in a new country, learn the language and start my own aid projects? What else do I need?
Soon after I started researching Peace Corps, I also switched my academic emphasis from broadcast to print/online journalism. The more I worked for the local newspaper, the more I wanted to embed myself in a new culture and emerge with its untold stories. I spent my college career practicing — finding untapped subcultures to write about Stateside and working abroad in London and Beijing during my summers.
While covering the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics, I sent in my official application to the Peace Corps. Over the next two years, I gave more interviews, filled out more forms and submitted more urine samples than I care to admit. I even had to fill out an official form with my current boyfriend (who broke my loser-dating streak) about how we would maintain our relationship. (Apparently, a major reason why volunteers quit early is to go home to a significant other.)
So, that’s why I’m here – to dive into a new culture while I’m free of the responsibilities of adulthood (marriage, kids, mortgages, etc.), to give back to a part of the world that can’t comprehend the privileges I’ve received, to experience life without the luxuries I take for granted, and to write furiously about the things I find.
Hope you’ll follow along.
Do I speak the language?
It wasn’t until Thanksgiving that my brother Will learned what I was doing here. Don’t get me wrong – he was supportive and happy for me. He just had a very different idea of what Peace Corps was like.
“I assumed you just walked up to people and told them not to poop in the same water they drank from and you did it in English and they didn’t speak English and they were like whaaaaaat?” he said.
“No, Will, I speak Romanian,” I said.
“Oh.” He paused, puzzled. “Since when?” Good question.
For the first 10 weeks of my time here, I went through intensive language training. Six days a week, four hours a day in small groups of four, we learned the Romanian vocabulary, grammar and expressions we’d need for two years of teaching.
After about seven weeks, Peace Corps “graded” our language according to an official State Department scale. A score of 1 means you can barely say hello, and a score of 9 means you are fluent. I got a 5.
And this process is the same for any other Peace Corps country, so if you are interested in applying, get ready.
My favorite memory of being able to speak Romanian happened when I walked into a karaoke club in the captial looking for some friends. The coat-check guy saw me, looked haggard beyond belief and began flapping his arms frantically. It took me a minute before I realized he was pantomiming that we could take our coats off there.
“E bine, noi putem să vorbim Limba Romana!” I said, trying to calm him down. “It’s OK, we can speak Romanian!”
He sighed with relief, his arms falling limp in front of him and his face worn out from the strain. He said in quiet, brusque Romanian that I could go look for my friends before he turned back to the door, waiting for the next foreigner.
What’s the water situation there? Do you have running water? I read that it’s typical for people in rural villages to bathe only once a week. Please please please tell me you bathe more often than that! – Jessica, a future Moldova volunteer
Everytime I get ready for a bath, I think about how enourmously lucky I am to have running water.
For my first three months in Moldova, I did not have running water. We carried pails of water in from the well, and they just sat, uncovered, developing this greasy film over the top. Before drinking, I boiled my water for 3 minutes and ran it through a Brita filter.
A few weeks in, I realized my host mother had stopped boiling and filtering the water for my morning tea. When I asked her about it, she said tea killed the same germs as boiling did. I stopped drinking her tea and stopped feeling sick….for a while, anyway.
Showering without running water was more of a challenge. When it was warm out, I used the outdoor shower, a 6x3x3 wooden frame covered in thick black curtains. We filled the rusty metal box on top with rain/well water and released it with a garden hose-style spigot. When it was too cool or rainy out, I took two buckets into the bathroom, one with scorching hot water and one freezing cold. I mixed them together in a cup and poured it over my head.
Here in my new site, things are different. We have running water, and we are close enough to a resevoir that we never have to worry about going dry. We have a sink in the kitchen and a bathtub in the back of the house.
I am ridiculously lucky when it comes to bathing – I have running water heated by the wooden fire that ALSO heats the room I’m in! Many volunteers still bathe with a bucket, pouring cold water over their bodies in unheated rooms. Like I said, I am completely aware of the privilege I have.
So yes, I do bathe more than once a week in running water, but not as much as I did in the States. When I was on vacation in Romania, I showered every day, even if I didn’t need to, just to remember what it feels like to have access to such a luxury.
I found (your story about Moldovan Easter) even more powerful when I realized that Moldova was part of the USSR and I’m wondering how religion was affected during that time period. – Kristin Millis, on Intersect.com
Moldova is a deeply religious country, and by religious, I mean Eastern Orthodox. According a Gallup poll, 96 percent of Moldovans claim to be Orthodox, either with the Moldovan (Russian) church or the Bessarabian (Romanian) church. The only other easily-accessible, non-Orthodox religions I’ve seen are evangelical Christian denominations, especially Jehovah’s Witnesses, Baptists and Mormons.
When I ask Moldovans how they maintained their religion during their stint under the USSR, they give the Moldovan shrug that means, “What do you mean? We just did it.” Valentina, my host mother, says our village banded together to prevent the Soviets from destroying our church, an Orthodox chapel built in the early 1900s by Alexey Shchusev, who designed Lenin’s mausoleum and the Moscow terminus of the Trans-Siberian Railway. “We were strong and united enough to keep them away,” she said.
However, one villager-turned-Stalinist-lackey managed to destroy the wooden church across the river from our house by running over it with a tractor. Afterwards, he became very sick, and his daughter was born unable to use her legs, which our village attributes to God’s anger.
Today, Moldova’s Communist party has a long-standing relationship with the Russian Orthodox Church. When they were in power, they reputedly gave the highest-ranking cleric a diplomatic passport, according to the State Department.
Religious education is a huge part of school here, and my students take a weekly psychology class that is more about Jesus than Freud. I sat in on one of the lessons, which was about the soul. Some of my favorite quote from the teacher included:
- “The soul is the beginning of life. We pray through our soul, which is where God lives.”
- “In a life without God, there is more death than life.”
- “When we die, our soul goes to the next step.”
Last fall, the school librarian Natalia asked if we could go to church instead of having our usual weekly meeting. Turns out, a traveling group of missionaries brought the bones of a saint to our church, and teachers had canceled class so students could come and see. Our priest taught the kids how to climb under a table to receive the saint’s blessings and then anointed them in holy water. Teachers brought towels to catch the holy water for sick family members. I remember thinking how outraged American parents would be if teachers cancelled class for a religious ceremony.
Moldova does not have a mosque, but the first Islamic group was recently registered with the Moldovan government, allowing them to buy property, open bank accounts and hire employees. Islam’s registration with the government caused some controversy.
Religion is a huge part of life here, and non-religious or non-Christian volunteers often have a hard time explaining their beliefs to their host families. But the churches and monasteries — and especially the sung litanies — are absolutely beautiful.