Posted by: moldovamike | December 9, 2008

What’d get on your nerves in America may not apply

So I ask my kids to write down five things they take from their parents, physical characteristics or interests. Most of them get to work, but one 5th grader sits looking blankly. This is the blank state that really challenges my patience here; a lack of creativity that could only come out of the Soviet Union. I lean down near this kids desk and say,” you can’t think of anything you have in common with your parents, not anything?” He says no.

“Well how about your eye color, what color are your eyes?” ” Brown.”

“Alright, and what color are your parents eyes?” ” I don’t know.”

I’m just about give this kid a very harsh whisper when I remember where I am, and the likelyhood that a full half of my class hasn’t seen their parents in over a year.  “Do your grandparents raise you?” “Yes”, he says kind of sheepishly now.

“OK, well just try to write what you can about your grandparents.”

He actually did participate in all the activities from there out, but I still felt bad for getting upset. 


P.S. Sorry I haven’t blogged for five months, but I think the only way I’m going to get back into the habit is by just pretending there was no big gap and going forward.

Posted by: moldovamike | July 29, 2008

It’s called having your cake and eating it too

Huge (possible) news!

Right now there are discussions that our post could cope with major budget cuts by Close Of Servicing my group, the M20’s in early June, rather than throughout late July and August as is normal.

The logic is that our primary job is as teachers, and paying all of our living expenses for two more months after the last day of school is an unnecesary expense. The reality basically confirms this; I’ve watched the older group of teachers basically wind down their service with a two month long Chisinau bar crawl all summer, because really, what are they supposed to be doing?

This plan (again, only a proposal so cross your fingers for me) would involve starting to go home within a week of the last day of school. My initial reaction to this was unsure. Yeah, extra summer would be nice; but it would be so fast. Using that time after the school year to say goodbye would be much less rushed.

Actually, the time to emotionally wind out is worth a lot to some volunteers, and not everyone is overjoyed at the idea. I went from bittersweet to full on sack of sugar though, when I realized that this would leave me an entire summer to take a post peace corps trip, and still apply for Law school in fall of 2009.

The past several months I’ve been having a really serious debate about the choice between starting law school and putting it off for a year to facillitate a back packing trip. To understand the debate I’m having, even people I’ve asked advice from have reacted with contradictory statements about having my plans stable when I return, and the inability to do something truly adventurous with your life later once it gets rolling.

Sacraficing either the stability of your life or a once in a lifetime oppurtunity is understandably not easy. So please, please cross your fingers for this to work out.

It seems like the rare chance, as I’ve written above, to have my cake and eat it to.

Posted by: moldovamike | July 19, 2008

The people I met…

(This post was majorly edited after some discussion with my Grandfather. Being a self described conservative republican and generally just a really smart guy, he makes a good editor when I go off the rails on politics. Thanks!)

This post is about another one about part of my trip to the Exit Festival. I don’t normally comment directly on current politics on this blog, but something I read this morning seemed to relate to a differance between myself and the friends I made on this trip.

I made lots of friends, because music festivals do that. Probably about 80% of the festival goers were english, with the usual mix of Aussies and some other Balkan countries thrown in. Ryan and I both commented later (on a long train ride) that almost everyone we met seemed to be doing nothing really to speak of with their lives. This is remarkable because the Exit fest wasn’t cheap.

If you go to hostels around the world, when you bump into an American it’s almost always a college graduate, and this is only sometimes the case any other nationality. When I talk to these travelers, I see a kind of stasis that doesn’t exist in the States. As I see it, in America you’re either moving up or you’re falling down.; the middle class is just a kind of razors edge upon which you will either move toward being rich or poor. My only guess is that this is because every other western nation but America is a kind of welfare state; which garuntees enough for it’s citizens in support that they can spend their money on things like concerts.

Higher taxes make this possible, and so they’re not looking to become millionaires. But maybe that’s the real differance that prevents America from adopting such a system, we’re the only westerners that want so badly to be millionaires we sacrafice all of those safety nets.

I’m not trying to be preachy or push the European model, it just struck me how differantly someone my age lives their life in all these other countries with similiar cultures. This globe trotting is costing me a lot, and most people I meet along the way are just doing it for fun. I talked to an Irishman for a long time about percieved differances between American and European cultures. After his last visit to the states he said he was most amazed by (what he saw as) our dependance on churches for social assistance. His view was that in the face of complete lack of government adress to social problems, we’re only surviving because so many churches do what they can for the poor.

Australians apperantly only get student loans through the government, and if you make less than 40,000 a year, you don’t have to pay them back. My traveling mate Ryan often describes his student debt as feeling like he’s being punished for getting a higher education.

This brings me to current events. I was positively furious to read in the news this morning that the Federal Government wants to bail out Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the biggest mortage lenders in the country. It goes without saying of course, that bail outs are with my tax dollars.

Let’s review, the Australian government uses tax money to bail it’s citizens out of debt. Our own government, scorning the idea of a welfare state, promotes a more pure form of capitalism, which while breaking many, allows just as many to “make it” american dream style.

But that’s not really our system either. Our government does seem willing to bail out wall street, just not it’s own citizens. Is their even a name for that economic system? Both Capitalist and Socialist at the same time, combined in such a way for maximum screwing of 99% of the population?

What I see when I meet people from every other industrialized nation is that they’re living their twenties easier than anyone I know in America, plain and simple. Yeah yeah I know the welfare state has problems, and universal health care (despite Michael Moore’s attempts to say otherwise) has a lot of problems in practice.

This is why I’m pissed, I’m doing it both ways but neither. I’m still paying taxes, and geting nothing back because they’re being handed over to companies like Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. I look at all my european friends getting things back from their taxes and living comfortably as a result. I look at americans, supposedly trying to do something differant, without a welfare state, but we’re still paying taxes, for a corporate welfare state.

Furious isn’t even the right word; I feel stupid. The government really just makes me feel stupid.

Posted by: moldovamike | July 16, 2008

Just getting to Exit deserves a post of it’s own

If you check a map, there’s a nice Romanian town called Iasi, just across the border from Moldova. With only an hour of traveling under my belt and a new stamp in my passport, I my trip to the Exit Fest in Serbia was on it’s way. It stayed on it’s way for another 16 hours crossing all of Romania overnight by train. Once again I was with my neighbor Ryan Woodruff, and we spent a lot of the train ride talking about how we feel like we’re becoming harder travelers.

What I mean by harder is that when you face a difficult situation, and then you’ve dealt with it; even if it doesn’t go well, it just doesn’t look as scary anymore. Last summer I was forced into just about every language barrier situation you can imagine encountering and I either found my way out of them or I got a lot more patient and creative when things just didn’t connect. From language problems, buying the wrong tickets in Moscow and finding out the day of, or just numbing yourself to long, very long, train rides: I’m a differant person than I was when I went to France and Spain as an 18 year old just out of high school.

The point is, we get to the end of our train in the far western corner of of Romania: Timisoara and hail a cab to the bus station for international buses. Our cab driver says, “i’ll take you there, but I don’t think there is anything left today to Belgrade, let me wait in the cab for you.”

I get back in and tell the cabbie he was correct and am thinking what to do, so I ask how far we are from the border. My cabbie then says that with no problem he could take me to the Serbian border. On the way he changed romanian money to euros out of his own wallet and even took us through a McDonalds.  After thanking this ubelievably nice guy, we  found ourselves standing at the border with nothing but bags and passports.

Walking up I said to Ryan, “I guess this will really take us to a new level of hardness as travelers, I mean, I’ve definitely never crossed a border on foot before.” To which he replied, “yeah, especially not a border to a country called Serbia.”

But here’s the thing: the story seems intense, and we had quite an adrenaline rush as it was happening, but when all is said and done, nothing happened. Not just nothing, but the guy who got us to the border was friendly and helpful.

After stamping in, it was miles to the first Serbian town: luckily there was a bar at which Ryan said, “English, Romanian, or Russian?” One guy spoke some Russian and said he could get us a cab for 6 euro to the first town, where there would be a bus to Belgrade. He asked us if we wanted some beers but I said, “we only have this 20 euro note, if we get beers, we might not be able to pay the cab.” “Let me go ahead and change that to Serbian Dinar for you.”

The guy comes back with two beers and the full value for the Euro in local currency. About the time we finished, the cab showed up. “Spasiba Balshoi”, and we were off.  As soon as we got to the next town, something that sounds so intense, already seemed like nothing. I’m a harder traveler I suppose for having crossed a border on foot, but the real lesson I think is that people are way, way nicer than everyone gives them credit for. Hardness was neccesary perhaps, but what really got me over that border was trust. Trust I guess that people aren’t assholes, they’re in fact pretty helpful, and are receptive to tourists.

The ticket salesman in the first Serbian town spoke english to us. Given everything I write here about being friendly so I can take risks, what do you think I asked him, as I prepared to camp in Serbia for four days.

“How do you say Hello, Please, and Thank you in Serbian.”

Zdrava, Molim, and Hoala; and they got me nothing but smiles and great service for the rest of my trip.

(rest of Exit in another post)


Posted by: moldovamike | July 6, 2008

This is just a summary of the past week, which like my last post, was a lot packed into a little bit of time.

The week started great, because we began construction on the gym. As I posted, the money for equipment wont be in until January, but with the community contributions we started renovating the available room. Between Monday and Wednesday, I personally spent 7 hours of so ripping out old plaster, and scraping it off the ceiling. We also had a team of volunteers coming together during this time to work on the walls and ceiling.

By Thursday, actual workers were coming in to redo the ceiling, and (I’ve been in Chisinau this weekend) I’m told by Lidia that there is even wallpaper up after the work done this weekend.

Unfortunately, my work ended Wednesday because that’s when I contracted some hellish food poisoning caused by of all things, I tuna melt cooked for me by other americans! I wasn’t even holding water in my stomach until late Thursday, and even Friday I ate pretty lightly. However, I couldnt’ be deterred from coming into the capital for the American Chamber of Commerces annual 4th of July party, which I attended last year in training and let me tell you, kicks ass.

There were no fireworks, and a heartfelt but not that impressive attempt to recreate american culture in general at the party. Like Thanksgiving, the removal of commercialism and kitzch left me only with the actual meaning of the holiday to think about. Particularly a national one like this, is much more poignant to celebrate with an expat community. It sheds a little more light on what bonds of culture exist.

Two of my friends are celebrating the 4th in Thailand (there’s your official shout out Trev and Lucas), and I wonder if they feel the same thing (or anything through the cheap thai whiskey I keep reading about in their emails). No TBS marathons and no walmarts, and all that’s left of the holiday is whatever it’s supposed to symbolize; and if you’re out of the country a rush of memories (like fireworks or baked beans on every 4th) that never seemed significant except now in contrast to their stark absence.

My closing thought on the subject is this: Moldova does have an Independance Day (from the USSR), but most European countries don’t. Only countries that were colonies have one, and I wonder what similiarities this lends to the national mentalities of nations with independance stories.

My closing note for the post is that I am leaving Wednesday for Serbia to go to the Exit Festival. I don’t anticipate any safety problems, but spending four days in a crowd while sleeping in a tent has me more worried about the safety of my passport than I’ve ever been on a trip before. Please wish me good luck and great rock.


Posted by: moldovamike | June 30, 2008

the last 48 hours

Every summer, the middle school I work at throws a graduation ball, which is basically prom. This year, the new school director decided to change the rules and say that only those who actually graduated would  be invited. I don’t have a problem with the idea, but it’s never been done before and had a bit of a shocking effect, especially since only about half the graduating class passed their exams. So for the first time, only half the ninth graders were able to come.

Also, my host brother, who is the smartest kid in his class decided he didn’t want to go. Lidia has given me various explanation, but when you ask Dinu, he just says he didnt want to go and he didn’t want everyone to grill him about it. I’ve been his only ally in this decision because 1)I like that he’s being a punk about it, and 2) I can tell him that contrary to what everyone says, it’s unlikely he’ll regret or even think about this later on in his life. Though if he’s a parent, he may hypocritcally want his own kids to go since these things are more for the parents anyways.

Then, Lidia decided that she wanted, through her NGO, to put on a camping trip for the uninvited graduates saturday night, and asked if I knew of any contests for kids in the woods from America. Hmm, first aid? fire building races? I’ve participated in a Camporee or two in my day.

The Bubulici’s had two huge tarp advertisements which they used to make the biggest tarp tents I’ve ever seen in my life. I was left in charge of making this work, and as I’m grumbling, my host sister Mihaela says, “What we need is a scout.”

“Excuse me??”

“A scout, they know how to tie anything together.”

“Yeah, I know. I’m a scout, but how the hell do you know about them?”

“Movies.” Of course. This confession upped the ante on what I was expected to provide in terms of services, but I think I lived up to my rank. We designed a lot of team building games, like lifting people through a rope web, orienteering, and such.

I must say, I groaned a bit when the kids actually showed up. What I hadn’t considered was that if all the non graduates were invited, this was basically a campout for all the most difficult kids I knew, plus my host brother. Everything went great though, and the kids responded great to the games. The only downside was that the next night, after listening to kids run around until dawn, I had to spend another night at the actual ball.

I feel terrible i a way about this, because I had a great time in the woods with a group of kids that apreciated my class very little. Then I went to the ball, which is such a big night for a group of kids who were all a pleasure to teach, and I just didn’t want to be there. I didn’t want to be in a suit, or eat masa food, or dance the hora; I really just wanted to sleep. Also, I really didn’t want to get asked all night why Dinu wasn’t there.

I’ll admit, seeing all his classmates there did for the first time make me think he looked like an asshole for not coming. The adults cured me of any serious changes of heart by being completely ridiculous about it. The romanian word for “sin” was used at one point. That’s actually the whole night: mostly ridiculous like I thought it would be, but redeemed by watching a bunch of kids I love getting their “prom” kind of night.

After four hours of dancing, we got to sit down and eat. I unfortunately was stuck in front of the mayor and the school director, whose unrelenting sense of position prevents any natural conversation. The mayor is just like that, which I guess I respect, but my school director is somehow completely oblivious to the fact that no one acts like themselves around her. But then, a saving grace: for the mayors table a bottle of imported canadian whiskey amongst the cheap (like, really cheap) moldovan vodka. And what’s this, no one else likes it but me! God bless the fear of new things, more for me.

Anyways, after some unexpectedly good drink, I danced more hora, but by midnight had snuck out to come pass out. I still feel bad about leaving, like I said, pretty much all my favorite kids assembled together.

Posted by: moldovamike | June 27, 2008

Should have been done long ago

So, I’m putting a CV together and talking to some people about jobs after Peace Corps. What this means, is adulthood has finally arrived and I must (with I will say, basically no regret) delete my facebook within 48 hours.

What you can do to help me in the meantime is untag photos for me (I will be painfully doing this myself if no one helps out)

Also, please send me emails that are actual emails, no more facebook messages.

I’m not trying to lose touch, but I am trying to not get googled by a future employer. Thanks to everyone for their help.

Posted by: moldovamike | June 26, 2008


That feels better. Let me catch everyone up on the grant. We won the money, sort of. Actually, I’m very honored that the SPA grant commity, which awards dollars from USAID, heard something like nine proposals when they only had 2,000 grand left (less than the budget of my proposal alone) and chose not to reject me. They rejected many, many proposals and terminated all money from this fiscal year; but liked my project enough that they earmarked it or the new budget.

Would I like to have the money now and be building my gym as planned, of course; but I recieved the only deferment I’ve ever heard of around here. The problem is, repairing the building isn’t possible in January, so we have to find all the money for construction work this summer and have everything done before it gets cold (which is October).

A quick sidenote: Monday night I went to pick up the donated glass for the chalkboard I wanted to build. Arriving in the the town center, I was told that the person who could give it to me, would be busy for three hours. I sat on my ass, literally, from 6:30 to 9:30 doing nothing; but then when the guy showed up, he cut the glass on the spot, which I then painted black and one side, scored on the other, and now can write beautifully on. Before I left, a former volunteers advice to me was never go anywhere without your book. It’s sage advice, because I thought the other night that one of the volunteers greatest weapons is his ability to wait people out. What you put off to another day here, will never ever get done. However, my somewhat self employed nature allows me to wait people out. I wasted most of the day, and in a very literal way those three hours, just trying to get that glass to make a chalkboard. It occured to me that while the Peace Corps volunteer doesn’t get that much done during his service, what he is able to do, usually is something that would never have happened without him.


That’s the little koan I’m trying to hold onto today. When we finally get the money for the equipment in Janurary it wll mark a solid year of working on this project; moving so slowly. I spent almost the entire morning arguing with my host parents who are (sometimes unfortunately) also the NGO I’m working on the grant with. I want to make a budget of all the work for repairs, and use that as a motivating factor to create donations (as in, “Look, we only need four hundred more lei for the wallpaper, could you give us that?) But there is some serious butting of heads. I’m told to simply ask everyone for as much as we can get and to figure out the money at the moment. This non organization is defended (with it’s own sick logic) by the chaos of hiring people here. Lidia keeps trying to convince me how worthless my budget is because, “what if the workers just stop coming and we have to hire someone else.” “what if people change the price halfway through.” There are a million other reasons that add up to the fact that if no one else uses any sort of organization, my own efforts will be trampled, and possibly even annoying to would be workers.

This got ugly this morning. I’m yelling, “Tell me what’s wrong with the way I’m thinking.” I’m being yelled back at, more than once, “This isn’t America Mike, you’re not in America.”

I can’t figure out in moments like this whether I’m supposed to puch to have an influence, or bend to keep the project moving. I could try and do capacity building, or I could slow the project down even more by not letting Moldova be Moldova. It’s really frustrating.

I will conclude by saying that some recent conversations have made me wonder if I’m a bit too glib about what I do (or don’t do) here. Despite any jokes to the contrary, I assure everyone that I think of these two years as my job, and I would be pretty offended if anyone thinks I’m taking a vacation out here. This blog describes half at best of my life, and if it ever doesn’t sound like a lot of work, well just remember that I’m writing what I think makes for good reading. I work here, hard. Most of that simply lacks entertainment value.

Posted by: moldovamike | June 22, 2008

So far, my summer has been very occupied with languages. Sort of like last summer, except less stressful since I’m the one controlling the pace.  I started an english club at my school for anyone who wants to come, and I’ve had some really smart kids show up. In the three weeks that kids in the village have talked about me teaching english, a hand full of adults have shown interest; so I want to start a few more hours of english outside the school. There is a room free in the center of town, which has turned into this weeks project of building a chalkboard.

I’ve called differant projects in the past year my favorite thing I’ve done in the peace corps, but this is I think, the closest to the kind of image of service people have in america. I want to teach something, well, let me build a chalkboard with donated materials and install it in a broken down room in the village center. After that, I’ll teach interested adults.

At the same time, I’ve started taking Russian lessons here in Moldova. I anticipate it to be much more challenging than learning Romanian because 1)it’s a harder language and 2)I wont be in the bootcamp like setting of PST training. Despite these challenges, I have a more oppurtune situation to learn russian now than I ever wil again in my life. I could speak Russian to anyone the moment I leave my house for the next year. With that availability of practice, I think this is the only time in my life that “teach yourself a foreign language” programs and online course could ever be effective, because I actually have a chance to practice.

I have this kind of fantasy too, that if I moved somewhere big like NYC, I could get a cheap apartment in an ethnic neighborhood because the landlord only speaks Russian.

I’ve written a couple posts before about not eating meat for a little over two years, and then coming here to not just eat meat again, but participate actively in the slaughtering of animals for my table.

Being summer, myself and some of the other volunteers that live near me have been trying to get together and have barbeques once and a while. I proposed to three other americans that we split the cost of a pig with my host family, and buy all the meat we’d need for the summer. I assumed if I did the work of butchering my half, I could get specific parts I wanted as well. My friend Ryan came over to deliver the blow, but everyone put in hours of work to end up with the final product. He made an interesting comment on this too, that it’s hard to find the line when, “it goes from being something real to just being a product”; the pig that is.

It’s very true. It’s a relief when the pig to stop squealing and finally rolls his eyes back; but we immediately start blowtorching and scrape his first layer of skin off. This is followed by blowtorching the remaining dermis until it’s pitch black, and scraping that off. Ryan made the comment when the pig was as black as coal, and I didn’t know when it happened either, but I did feel like I was looking more at food, than the animal I’d led up with a rope an hour earlier.

Despite that I mention being a vegetarian a lot, I’ve still eaten meat, and lot’s of pork for most of my life. The butchering process was really interesting: certain cut’s you just find and they’re so obviously what they are. Literally, if you’re cutting your way into half an entire hog, suddenly strips of bacon just appear one it’s side. The tenderloin was also extremely recognizable. What we ended up with was ribs, tenderloin, bacon, and then the rest we cut into blocks. Some of those blocks will be used for barbeque’s, but other we put through a grinder and directly into the washed intestinal lining; making homemade sausage.

Here’s the most interesting thing I learned while butchering a pig. I’m American, and my diet is the same as my fairly affluent country: I like product, not byproduct. In Moldova I have to tell people I don’t eat Slanina (which is the thick subcutaneous fat smoked or marinated) and all the various organs. What I found was that those things are a lot of what you’ve purchased (or purchased food for over the years). Four volunteers chipped in 500 lei to split the 4000 lei cost of this pig. My host family couldn’t afford an entire pig because they just don’t have 400 dollars in loose cash. For each of us, 50 dollars is a significant amount of my money for the summer. Given that we like to get together and cook (and that we can collect from other volunteers who come to eat) its definitely cheaper than constantly buying cleaned meat. However, after I spent a lot of my money on this pig, let me tell you that is was really hard to keep giving my host family the things I don’t eat.

I was seeing like a Moldovan, or like any poor person. It’s more economical to buy the whole pig than to buy as you need, but only with our help did they scrape together enough money to buy a pig. Now that they have this expensive pig on the table, they ate the skin. All the fat beneath the skin gets marinated and made into slanina. They saved and will eat the brain, liver, lungs, stomach, and spleen. I still don’t like the way any of that stuff tastes, or the health implications of eating a plate of fat, but I understand a little more now. I gave away a lot of what I payed for out of preferance; because I could afford to.

There is a story that floats around in my family, about my mom’s short tenure with the PTA. When I was in elementary school my mom started working with the PTA, and one of her first jobs was ordering beef for a spaghetti dinner. The PTA President reminded her to get “heart mix”, explaining that this was much cheaper than regular beef because it had all the beef hearts ground up in it. What I remember about the rest of elementary school was that my mom didn’t work for the PTA very often after that and I started bringing a lunchbox.

My standards are still what they are; and I don’t support feeding our school children grade D beef to save money. But as happens so often in the Peace Corps, I’m on the other side of that emotion here. Actually, there isn’t a feeling of sacrafice at all. A cuisine developed in poverty so conviently always calls those byproducts “delicacies”, which is what moldovans always tell me (and themselves). In the face of need, they’ve learned to love their brains, spleens, and lungs.


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