The rust was eating away at the sides of the beaten down mini-bus and each bump we hit produced a sound similar to that of a decade old rocking chair. Fifty minutes into the ride, Viorica – the sassy school director who had come to the capital to escort me to my new home – stood up and turned around from the front row.
“Acesta satul Lapusna!” – The words, meaning this is Lapusna village, were spoken so slowly that it seemed a whole song could have played on repeat on the faint radio. If it weren’t obvious enough already, the sweat-drenched kid, sporting a shirt and green tie and spooning an orange North Face backpack scrunched in the back corner of the maxi-taxi, was, in fact, the new American in town. The whole bus went silent as they turned to stare at the foreigner that everybody has been talking about.
We arrived at approximately 2:15pm after the confusing three-bus trip. Hoping to present myself as an intelligent and professional individual despite not understanding much Romanian, the scorching 100degree sun quickly proved that my formal dress choice was quite dim-witted. Following a twenty-minute hike down a never-ending dirt road, we arrived at my new house. The two-story mocha abode is absolutely beautiful, surrounded by a big garden on one side and a casa mici (popular small side house for storage and guests) on the other. It was here that I encountered yet-another culture difference. As we walked into the gate, my new host parents greeted me with an “Asa, veniti inauntru pentru masa”, which translates to Okay you are here, come inside to eat. No hugs, no handshake, no greeting of any kind. Uh-oh.
No need to be alarmed, I warned myself, this is quite common. Never having actually met an American before me, the Moldovan family was probably just as weirded out as I was to welcome me into their home. After about two hours of gauche communication, I had finally pieced together that my host mom also works at the school as a teacher and my host dad was a self-employed private driver. In addition, they also own an Alimentara (small market shop and attached bar) where they spend their nights making additional profit. They have a 20 year-old son, but he was nowhere to be found. A near silent tour of the house later, in which I found a backyard full of pigs, geese, and chickens, it was time to go out on the town. I made my trek to the school and was promptly given the luxury expedition around my new office place. Imagine (or Google, you silly Americans) a chemistry lab in a 1960 middle school setting and you have discovered what I saw. Next up, I was passed on to two former students that agreed to introduce me around town. Since every last one of the 6,000 citizens had heard of my arrival, nobody was shocked to see me but knew who I was at first glance. I met with and talked to the nurses in the medical center, the adjunct professors enjoying their day off at the market, the librarians at the bibliotec, and finally the Vice Primar a.k.a. the Assistant Mayor. I strutted into the office that evening to find the Moldovan Tony Soprano, with jet black hair gelled against his colossal skull, a perfectly maintained mustache overshadowed by a fat cigar, and the shadow of what I can only guess was a rather large hand gun tucked into his waist belt; Solid first impression.
I concluded my interview, headed for home and called it a day. The second and final full day of my visit was spent playing basketball with my future students, getting acquainted with my new host family, and independently roaming around my new site. I was isolated and on my own, set free to figure out the needs and wants of the community in just a short weekend. While I may have struggled and felt out of place, I asked vital questions and got substantial answers. I learned that most funding that comes into the village via whatever source almost always goes directly to the school and none to the medical centers or NGO’s; I learned that the water is badly contaminated with Sulfur and gets a lot of people sick as a result; I learned that many parents leave Moldova to work abroad to support their families and as a consequence many of their children take up alcohol or cigarette habits. I know I am going to do something about all of these problems, I have no idea exactly what that will entail. What I didn’t realize until I somehow hopped on the correct bus back to the capital, is that I had learned all of this and gotten my way around all weekend, solely in Romanian and completely on my lonesome. After just 5 weeks in the Peace Corps, that is pretty damn cool.