Put yourself at a table with Nicolas Sarkozy, Hu Jintao, and the Dalai Lama. The language they are speaking might as well be made up gibberish from a Lord of the Rings sequel, and you are doing the best you can do to conceal how painfully lost you are while struggling to crack the code. As if every word they say is the most influential quote known to man, you’re head is vicariously nodding in agreement and you’re carefully paying attention to your body language – no need to recover from the most recent shot of cognac and subtly making the beads of sweat disappear from your forehead – as looking uncomfortable would only yield more questions you didn’t understand. Okay, so maybe I embellished a bit, but I am referring to every one of meetings and meals spent with local officials and citizens. If only they knew I was actually just reminiscing about my long lost friend, SportsCenter Top 10, they just might comprehend my over enthusiastic responses.
Well these few weeks have been nothing short of a cruel test. Having taken more vodka shots than a college freshman, even during breakfast, is becoming tolerable. However, wearing shorts is seen as a taboo, which makes walking 3-4 miles a day in 90+ degree sun an absolute bitch. The name of the game here, people, is patience. To catch a bus into town, I..uh.. enjoyed a 40-minute walk across and up a mountain to reach the “highway”. I stood on the side of the road until a bus passed me and I could throw my hand into the air, much like I was flailing for an escaped helium balloon. Two hours past my anticipated arrival time, I reached the nearby Raion center (city district), completed my school-supply-related errands, and rewarded myself with a much needed draft beer only to find out that I missed the last bus back to my village. After shaving my head and acquiring an incredibly sexy farmers tan, I figured I look enough like a Moldovan to at least escape the “foreigner” spotlight that had been circling me the last few months. That being said, I lingered on a corner and waved down every car that passed. Eventually a machine that resembled a farfetched 1960’s Plymouth pulled up and I was able to recall “Lăpușna” being said. Good enough for me, I thought, so I hopped in. Immediately, I regretted the decision. A broken seat forced me into a full reclining position next to my chauffer, a man who obviously neglected personal hygiene and probably assumed Auschwitz was an imported beer. It turned out to be an exciting experience that included authentic conversation about his family, a recommendation for a restaurant in Moscow, and a genuine wish for my success in his home country. Hitchhiking may seem dangerous, but it looks like this common Moldovan practice is going to become an exhilarating mainstay in my service here.
The following day was a holiday – the young country dedicated 31 August to celebrating the possession of their independent language. Unfortunately for the Mayor, I forced him to have a meeting with me that day after being ignored for about a week. The pleasant and incredibly calm man, much unlike his assistant (“Mr. Soprano” if you recall from a previous blog post), was more than receptive to my ideas. In fact, not only did he accept to implement the health-mentoring program I ran at Elon University into an after school program ran by yours truly in our village, but he handed me every blueprint, secret file, and abstract idea he had for Lăpușna’s short term future. A few ideas, especially building a semi-professional futbol stadium, caused my eyes to widen to an owl-like size.
After my unexpectedly triumphant meeting, I dragged my giant sack of papers home to assist my host mom’ preparation of dinner. The lesson I learned here was our version of direct communication has nothing on the Moldovan’s disregard of discretion. I followed her out back where she grabbed a Gaina (massive Hen) by the neck and held it down against a tree stump. Without missing a beat, Mama Gazda started cutting away at the poor bird while inquiring about my “salary”. Taking a minute to marvel to myself about which action took me the most by surprise, I tried to explain that I sacrificed an American salary for a Moldovan standard of pay in order to learn more about the culture and share some of my health experience. While she waited for the now decapitated animal to stop thrashing so she could move on to dismantling the former living creature, the personal questions kept coming like rapid fire. I was asked about my female relationships while the feathers were plucked; I was asked about my intentions to Marry during the removal of the intestines; while cutting off the feet and inserting them into a pickling liquid she asked about my religious and political preferences. The inedible intestines were fed to the stray cats and the meal ended up being mouth-waterin’ delicious and undoubtedly fresh. However the real victory here was watching the tragic process while my excitement and disgust remained veiled and my answers to her questions were satisfying yet deviously theoretical.
In a measurable amount of hours I start my career as Domnul Brett, who can only be defined as head of the optional yet original Health Education program and strange American professor. All eyes will be on me in school – every one of the 600 students and the 55 person faculty wants to know what the American looks like, acts like, and what the heck I’m gonna say in my introductory speech in their native language. The struggle to be so completely distant from my comfort zone continues, but it leaves an individual with some lasting impressions: I forgot what it was like to truly cherish a real conversation (not via text message), to be able to appreciate a silent night complete with a dark sky full of stars, to work hard just to put a meal on the table, and to hear what complete strangers deem realistic about the world.