For as long as I can remember, I have answered the question, “what do you want to do when you grow up” with a fluid response: I don’t care what I do as long as I can say day in and day out that I love my job. Aw damnit, I think that may finally be true. In this line of work (Peace Corps or other abroad public health industries), we have 10 unbelievably shitty days that are finally equitted by one great day. The incredible high’s and incredible low’s stereotpye couldn’t be more true if Morgan Freeman was narrating it. My first month of school is coming to a close and I think I am finally getting a grasp on how things work around here. I have seen some incredibly amazing things, and witnessed others that are quite frankly apalling. That, folks, brings us to our first installment of The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly!
This past weekend I took full advantage of the ability to recharge. A group of us new volunteers swarmed to the capital for a weekend away and just a chance to speak in english for a few days. I ventured off with a friend and actually stumbled upon an imitation of a casino. As I was sitting at a poker table drinking a whiskey and coke, doing my best Al Pacino imitation, I had completely forgotten that I was in a third world country as a Peace Corps volunteer. Great for mental health, horrible for the pinch of money that we mistake for a salary. I was also in town to attend a TED conference (a world wide entreprenuerial non-profit that organizes all of the best speakers at conferences around the world – truly inspring and interesting stuff). The best part of this: how I arrived on the scene. Accepting the daring excursion to find transportation out of my village, I only had to wait a few minutes on the side of the road this time to wave down a stranger. As soon as I pulled into this mans car, he extended his hand with a genuine gesture. As I shook his hand, he yelled Domnul Brett! Should I be absolutely terrified or let my ego grow to that of Glenn Beck? As it turns out, this particular man lives in Greece for a chance at a better salary, but his first conversation back in Moldova to visit his family included a lecture from his kid’s about the new, fun American that has been teaching them proper dental hygeine and the benefits of physical exercise. After a delightful conversation that couldn’t have been more comprehendable, he refused my money and thanked me for coming to his homeland to give his kids a better education. Fighting back the tears, every tough day and moments of doubt had just been wiped away.
My short-lived vacation from the boondocks ended with reality crashing down like an anvil from the sky in a badly-drawn saturday morning cartoon. I discovered that the casino I was in was – let’s say heavily influenced – by the mafia. They had no problem taking my money, and no intention of letting me leave with a profit. Later on, while at a birthday party the bag a friend was carrying was placed alone for a matter of minutes only to be snatched up by the first stranger to walk past it. Unfortunately, this bag was carrying my camera. So, I traded a weekend of great memories for my lovely camera and a decent sum of money.
This one is going to be chalked up to one of those situations that probably has to occur in each and every Peace Corps service. Neither here or there, my focus will remain on my village and the school in which I work. Having taught a good amount of lessons, I am starting to identify the over-achivers and the obraznici (the brat’s). During one of my lessons in which I was teaching about personal hygeine and hand-washing, I decided to pick on a boy who never likes to participate or even offer any type of eye-contact. I called him to the front, and unfortunately made the abrupt discovery that he cannot read. Feeling horrible for embarrassing him and illuminating this problem in front of his peers, one of the bright spots uncovered itself. Three of his classmates stood next to him and helped him stumble through a sentence. It was truly incredible to watch, but it also was the key to uncovering that more than 50 students in my school are still illterate.
In my village, the path to integration is a doozie. Locals are finally understanding that I am going to be here for a while and will, in fact, have an affect on their children. Therefore, while the amount of conversations and introductions have increased, more and more questions have come flying in. I’m American, so I must see wild things. No, not Elephants in circus’ or blood pressures being taken via iPad’s… but strangely enough, do I know any black people? The words stung like a squirt of lemon juice to the eye. After 30 minutes of rumbling through explanations, I think it’s finally understood that it’s normal that my best friend is African American and people of different races do actually live in the same neighborhoods. Wowza. On to the next round of rapid fire, religion plays a heavy role in this country, being home to a 97% Eastern Orthodox Christian population. You better believe they want to know about my religion. Hiding the fact that I recently have gotten a Star of David tattooed on my ribs, I painfully attempt to explain that I am Jewish. No, no Doamna Liuba, it is not a type of fish. Yes, I understand we are talking about religion; this topic is not lost in translation. Judiasm is a religion. Friends, you wouldn’t believe the lengths I have gone to in order to explain what my religious stance is and that there is something other than Catholic and Orthodox, but for now this looks like a battle I can only wait to fight until another day. Just as I thought I couldn’t be more stunned, the conversation concluded and we began to pack up to leave the school for the day. I glanced my surroundings and came across something that should be expected, yet caught me off guard. The item that the janitor was using as a mop was in fact an old, wet sweater on the end of a stick which probably is stored in the outdoor mud-hut bathrooms when not being utilized. Oh yeah, I live in Moldova.
„Maybe the next Albert Einstein or the next Steve Jobs is living somewhere in a remote village. And if we can offer that person an education, they would be able to come up with the next big idea and make the world a better place for all of us.” – Daphne Koller. Two blog posts in a row with quotes, how philosophical. I will continue to uncover the good things, the bad things, and the truly dispicable cultural differences over the course of my volunteer service, but one thing is for sure: I truly believe talent and passion can be found anywhere. Sometimes, it just takes a little extra digging. To this point, I have given about 25 lectures and let me tell you these kids are not dumb. In fact, many of my middle schoolers can speak fluent Romanian, Russian, and parts of either English or French.
When I was in South Africa, a statement came across my way that has always stuck with me: Food is food. While that can be interpreted in a multitude of ways, I see it as no matter what kind of language and culture barriers might exist, human beings are very similiar down to the core. People are people, and each one of us has strengths and weaknesses, passions and abilities, insecurities and comfort zones. If we allow ourselves to think outside of the box and sometimes allow a new way of thinking into our stubborn skulls, we all have a chance to achieve something we never thought before possible. This is what makes the lonely, remote lifestyle worth it.