You may never come across this, but my vocalized gratitude didn’t quite cover the incalculable impact you had on me. You may never fully comprehend the mission of Peace Corps nor understand the motives that drive an American towards the life of an International volunteer, but you are the core of my most prized “possession”.
Two years ago, I would’ve said: Hey, my name is Brett! I’m from America and I enjoy traveling simply and obsessing over sports. I love cooking and eating delicious food and having long conversations with people of all kinds.
Soon my service will conclude, and this time spent in our village within Moldova’s walls will develop into a dear memory. What you do know, is that for twenty-something months I was that American boy teaching your children about Health via my imperfect Romanian; often the focal point of gossip – an outcome of that. You witnessed me fluctuating between illnesses and hiccupping following my vodka face-off losses to the myriad of 80-something-year old “Babas”.
Let me tell you what you didn’t know. A secret. The thing you didn’t see that could have burned a hole through me.
Bear with me, as this isn’t easy to say; but it’s the sole reason behind our shared, unmitigated success. The meager idea of coming to a developed country to assist an at-risk population fermented and installed this feeling of shamefaced pomposity. Superiority. I had to dislodge myself from this intimate and internal brute. Despite having forced this terrible feeling deep down, I arrived having already subscribed to this mentality of “I am right and let me teach you what is right”. In order to give us a fighting chance at growing together, an internal attack had to be launched to annihilate this masked sentiment.
So I explored and learned. First, let me be forthright. This wasn’t the same Peace Corps Kennedy started and the “hippy” friend of our parents took part in. My Internet connection (amongst other luxuries) was great; albeit a powerful sneeze could knock out power for a few days. I digress. In the summer, I sweat standing still. In the winter, peril of frostbite is very real. Daily. Perennial, is the fact that it will take 3 hours longer than it should to get anywhere. I often concealed my whereabouts when I was floating through the channels of Venice, hiking the outskirts of Turkey, or bathing in Spanish Sangria – but only because I don’t want to rub anything in your face (or let you in on my tendency to frequent the bars).
I was wrong. I had no right to be ashamed of my families’ hard work and my resulting fortune. The elongated processes you utilize – exclusive of convenience – weren’t incorrect just because cutting steps via technology is possible.The way I think, dress, and do isn’t the perfect way and certainly isn’t the only way. I also picked up the conventional wisdom that showering does not have to be a priority and the strong affinity for homemade booze is vindicated. That pungent fuel can swap in as a homemade remedy for… anything. Oh, and I can now curse in Russian – which is pretty cool.
I yielded to the copious amounts of apologies for the mud-trails that double as streets, the reduced conditions we work and live in, and the lack of indoor plumbing or decent transportation modes. Granted, some of those just plain suck. However, people of Lăpușna, you rewarded me with some things no high-end training, corporate milestone, or amount of luxuries could supply. A few morals, only reachable once I shedthat terrible feeling of superiority that was forced down deep.
You can’t fathom the fact that I work alongside you without a salary. Stipend, shmishmend. We’re just the only ones who get paid enough to be able to talk the talk and walk the walk when it comes to the saying “another day, another dolla’”. It’s the work ethic and honor you display that creates your status, not your income.
You’ve implanted the ability for me to feel unfeigned satisfaction. I’ve never experienced emotion as genuine as yours like the conviviality that stemmed from a Yoga demonstration or the spine-chilling silence that I encountered when I attempted to discuss cultural taboos such as condom use and eating disorders. We all need to feel these things to experience gratitude.
I know countless Moldovans living on less than $3 per day and unable to escape the most prevalent attendance of corruption and the worlds’ highest rates of Tuberculosis. The same people who’s neighbors and loved ones get their forty winks under mud-constructed houses and draw their water by hand can claim more contentment than some inhabitants of the wealthiest American boroughs. The one thing that Moldovans have in spades is the very thing that Americans fight to keep beyond gated neighborhoods and air-conditioned SUV windows: community.
Most importantly, you were led astray if you think money was my chief difficulty. In actuality, it’s starting fresh with nothing in a place with an equal amount of nothing. Working your way in, developing an authentic relationship complete with undivided trust, and doing something incredible together. Then having to say goodbye. That’s going to be the pits. Fortunately, it also illuminated the fact that I have had amazing people back home who have similarly been rallying around me for the last 20+ years. That is just incredible and they will never know my gratefulness. You can attach the impoverished label to a lot of things – but I am richer than I have ever been.
THE LINK BETWEEN HUMILITY AND PRESENTATION
To say this experience has been humbling is an understatement so great, it deserves an Oscar nomination if believed. You taught me to succumb to my emotions, and have tested my character, decisions, and perspective. I didn’t fight back the tears. I didn’t swallow my anger. I put it all on the table and you responded by allowing me to see a new perspective on the world we inhabit. A perspective that informs the kinds of values that we as Americans like to champion above reproach in public and tend to shelve in private: selflessness, involvement, volunteerism, compassion for one’s fellow.
Everybody we encounter day by day deserves recognition. It isn’t about the skinniest or the one donning the most expensive brands. Its the one who takes care of the aged dress shoes or the proudly worn hand-me-down sweater. Flashy is the ironed trousers, not the diamond bracelet. Alluring is the clean white shirt, not measured by the identifying mark on the label epitomizing wealth and social standing. The variety or product modeled by people don’t begin to tell the story of their wealth. Through these things, you’ve taught me a vital lesson I will work to not just emulate in the flesh. Nothing I have – abiding to the rigid classifications of stereotypical affluence – is nice, but everything I own can be made beautiful. I will never vacillate from that.
TIME IS A FLAWED DETERMINANT
You taught me that time is a disingenuous measure of success and a sinister cause of stress. Life is short. Days are long. Sitting around a table, jacketed with plates of food, for hours isn’t a sign of having nothing else to do but a symbol of delight within each other’s company.
You made me question everything. Love will come, why does it need to happen at a certain age? We have personal goals. Why are they packaged with an age-bound deadline? You have somewhere to be, but will it be more exciting than listening to the wisdom of the retired local who chatted you up at the corner cafe? No chance. Unless it’s life or death, time is flexible because it is continuous – that’s why it is actually measured sunrise after sunset. We should live in the moment, because if we don’t take advantage of it, why should 5 years from now be important? Of course this is up to debate.
This anamoly of a rule permitted me to see exactly what kind of man I am, and the kind of man I need to continue to be. I’m cool with trading the possibility of my 90’s for more guarunteed fun now. Like these tattoos that make me happy for at least the next 10-20 years, I will continue to make decisions that make me happy now instead of avoid situations that could be less awesome in the future. I’ll take a slightly abbreviated life full of merrmient over a lengthy life of survival beset with regrets.
Oh, and the best lesson of all: a nap isnt counterproductive.
PEOPLE ARE AWESOME
Gone, was my tendency to lounge naked or enjoy a clandestine… anything. I finally became comfortable being uncomfortable when I bid adieu to my privacy. You knew my every move, but you also became cognitive of the days I needed to be convinced to stay. This exposed me in a way I never would have and taught me to wear my heart on my sleeve. My future wife thanks you.
Living the dichotomy that is Peace Corps Volunteer and World Traveler trained my eyes to see that each person has a unique role in making this world go round. In the same light, everybody has their own problems and everybody has something to offer. I have learned how to manufacture wine, feel content inside a minimalistic lifestyle, and battle a falsified and regurgitated response. Despite it’s ambiguous value, I’ve come to appreciate when someone utters the powerful phrase: “I don’t know”. It’s easy to shape figures to come off as smart; it takes courage to admit you don’t have the answer. No matter where we are, or where we were born – we all dream of our potential and should righteously dream big! No matter where we come from or what we have accomplished, it’s okay to be unsure!
I now find myself merely weeks away from boarding a plane bound for the USA and I am absolutely terrified. There is no way to encapsulate this experience within a line on a resume or a snapshot in a photo album. And I will never try. I’m mentally preparing myself for the fact that most will never fully comprehend how significant this shared experience was to me. The smells, sounds, or truths associated with it are mine and mine alone.
If someone asks me who I am, I’ll reply: Hey, my name is Brett! I’m from America and I enjoy traveling simply and obsessing over sports. I love cooking and eating delicious food and having long conversations with people of all kinds. You haven’t completely changed me (and you failed in your conquest to marry me off, suckas). My perspective on the world has been revised, yes, but my identity didn’t undergo major refurbishment.
Instead, just promise you’ll take these things away from our time together. You speak of your dreams to live in America one day or do things the American way. These are listened to devoid of shame, because the United States is an incredible and diverse nation with ample opportunities and brilliant citizens. Just know, as is true with any other culture, don’t submit to the perfunctory conviction. I may have been your teacher and volunteer for two years, but you were the authority. You had the power of the outcome, and I couldn’t be more proud of you.
I won’t agree with every norm or rule, like the gender roles that dominate the Moldovan household or the insolence that meets homosexuality. But, you have a lot to teach the world! I love that you clap every time a plane lands safely and congratulate me when I shower (or put on 5 pounds..). I love that you observe each and every holiday and tradition, regardless of if it disrupts the workweek and predetermined routine. Things like living with parents, salvaging used items, and taking photos of oneself have brewed inseparable stigmas. Pigeonholding them with words such as „loser”, „Creepy”, or „pitiful” is common practice, which truly sucks. You make it known that photo worthy moments aren’t realized to dispel “loser” notions, they are to tangibly capture superb moments. You make it known that a stigma doesn’t always have to play true. So, keep doing what you are doing.
As for me, I’m proud to be an American and I’m proud of my espoused Moldova. Every relationship, recipe, and road that I take a stab at will be brushed with a Moldovan sprinkle. So let me be clear, despite the shortcomings you kept apologizing for, I had the time of my life.
With love and adulatory admiration,
Your “rich” American,
* Disclaimer: this letter does not reflect the opinion of every Peace Corps volunteer. Every PCV has a completely different experience, regardless of location.