Pieces falling into place

Have you ever thought about how a jigsaw puzzle got its name? Small, irregular shapes that eventually become interlocking pieces are linked to make one hefty depiction. A puzzle – a problem or enigma that tests the ingenuity of the solver – is intended to produce a desired solution by means of recognizing patterns and by following a created particular logic. I’ll stop short of the tacky my life is a jigsaw avowal, but these two years are every bit a puzzle. My key to success and sanity is intertwined with the process of inquiry and takes a seriously high inductive reasoning aptitude to reach the ever changing fantasy „picture” on the PC box cover. Since I have entered into a life where no two sets of 12 hours bare similarities, exposing a pattern is damn near impossible. Since my title, objectives, and location are altered by the day, deduction skills lend no aid to this formula. The oddly-edged linking pieces are now: an elastic agenda, integration responsbilities, and a grizzly veteran on staffs’ speed dial list. They must discover a way to suitably connect with a village park project, facilitating training for the new volunteers, and a bit of ethnic adventure.

The start of summer threw a few more pieces into my ongoing riddle. The academic year concluded with our last bell ceremony, the matching bookend to my terrifying first day as Domnul Brett. I looked on as we celebrated the 12th form students that persevered as role models in the village, dressed in their graduation attire. Their caps, built from black construction paper and their recycled paper report cards are a paradigm reflecting just how much we take for granted in life. The resourcefulness and simplicity is exquisite. While the day itself was lovely, it became unforgettable when one of my dearest friends in Moldova presented me with an invitation to her wedding. Despite being notified just 6 days in advance, this was an event I could not wait for – the rumored chief affair in cultural integration. The pallid gown and exultant guests were about the only parallels to its’ American correspondence. The event, which started at 8PM, included a rendition of pin the tail on the single person (if unmarried, you wear an unmistakable flower pin), a baffling speech activity in we took turns giving a toast and announcing the exact amount of our monetary gift (my 50 Euros was not impressive), and too much drinking and hora dancing to keep track of. We left the premises at an estimated 7AM.

After a few days of recuperating, I was back on the side of the highway voyaging to the capital for the arrival of the fresh Moldova M28 volunteers in country. Following months of preparation, the process was impeccable, from the greeting at the airport to the baggage shuffling with training host family destinations. Their eyes were wide, their spirits with chipper and as I provided answers to their questions, an aura of perfectly orchestrated nostalgia filled the gaps, wherever the humidity left space. I stood in front of the health volunteers facilitating training sessions in the exact same rooms of the schools I was in just one year ago. While the whole translating thing, living out of a bag, and bouncing around cities has a cool vibe about it, the devious musing was too great to ignore. This summer, I am not on lockdown, being a slave of the language. Quite the opposite actually; I am attending parties where I watch American expats propose to their life partner after broadcasting the results of Prop 8; I am hopping town to town to see more of the country I have called home for a year; I am arranging the logistics of several international and epic excursions I will be taking in the coming months. Ah, sovereignty.

Sandwiched between assisting with training sessions and episodes in my village, another project held my attention: Turul Moldovei  – a project coined and launched by a few of my fellow volunteers. Two groups were erected and set to walk the length of the country, one starting from the deep South and the other beginning at the Northern tip. While en route to meet each other in the center (Chisinau), each group would stop at towns and villages along the way for lodging, some chow, feet rejuvenation, and volunteer-endorsing activities with the locals. My village was ticketed for a Monday evening stop. We welcomed the walkers, escorted our visitors on a tour of Lapusna, and ended the evening with a big BBQ on the grounds of my future park project. Impressed with the disposition of the participants, three of my older boys joined us the following day. We set out towards Bobeica, the next stop just over 11km North. We exchanged stories, endured news crews, and even adopted the US Ambassador on our journey, a treasured end to a crammed month that artfully amplified my love for this country. I think back to last June and how it crawled by and attempt to compare it to this June that vanished in the blink of an eye. My schedule for tomorrow, next week, next month – clear as mud. I have returned to the land of invariable sweating, even while sound asleep. The fact that I am catching myself somehow reminiscing about the Eastern Europe winter I struggled to get through is austere.

My jigsaw puzzle is piecing together, as I am moving around this country with ease. While work re: my primary assignment in Lapusna may have come to a halt due to the Summer months, foreign streets are now familiar routs and macabre views are mainstream proceedings.  I recently took a language exam and collected an “advanced low” grade, just a few steps below fluency. A prospect list is being amassed: 4 grad schools, 4 jobs, 2 fellowships with the idea of applications going out by mid-fall. I am signed up for the GRE in October, and I will follow same process that landed me here – put my name out to several captivating options and go with my gut as to what the future holds. While I may be constantly guessing as to which puzzle piece will reveal itself next, I can’t imagine life being more amiable and full of worth.

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One Year Reflection

Officially one year in the books as a barmy Peace Corps Volunteer and consequent resident of the Republic of Moldova. Last June shortly after arrival, I snubbed training sessions to fixate on my planner and underscore upcoming dates with dark circles. I plotted days that I would force myself to reach; July 4th, August 15th (swear-in ceremony), January 1st (1 semester down). Once I hit those, only then would it be acceptable to resign from the miserable crusade that had me living in relentless doubt. Dripping with sweat and unable to escape the heat or callow conversations, I would drift outside and gawk up at the planes, marvelling in my loneliness and questioning the effect if I just booked the next one and departed back to America. The language wasn’t coming easy, the locals placed an invented espionage brand over my head, and it seemed as if I only gave a shit about my budding impact on the country. Yet, here I am.

I’ve logged more than 5 marathons worth of hitchhiking miles;  I’ve eaten things that would make even Fear Factor contestants sick to their stomachs; I’ve drank more types of alcohol to count, from the most abhorrent of supply. As a result, my ancestors would roll over in their graves if they knew the things I’ve substituted as toilet paper or napkins and I can find more uses for something as simple as a zip lock bag than the quantity of invented episode ideas by Jerry Springer. Whatever „brand snob” personality I once adopted has diminished, portrayed by my lovely 4-day a week outfits. In some ways, I have never been more physically healthy or mentally shrewd, but in other ways (…ahem, hygeine), I make a stray hyeina look like a prized poodle. My senses have habituated the weird. The perpetual shrieks of a rooster, the convival aroma of a pig pen, the thereapeutic sensation of pooping out in the open (sorry, not sorry), the display of a horse & buggy on the highway, and the taste of things I can’t begin to pronounce have become more routine in my life than a Starbucks in NYC. However, I am astounded by just how content and simply alive I feel some days. Unable to walk the village without a strident and youthful „Domnul Brett!” or go a week without receiving love letters inscribed in some Romanian-Russian mixture; the random strangers making U-turns just to offer a ride when I’m standing on the side of the highway. Benevolence exists despite the harshness of actuality.

Many things have changed, but some things will hang about. The constant feeling of discomfort being one of them. Something is always in a little pain, I’m always too hot or too cold, and some things just don’t adhere to logic. I may never acclimatize to barefoot children begging for money or chained up dogs acting as doorbells. The idea of privacy is more foreign than the land itself and … dear God – you can never trust a fart. Regardless of my abridged cautiousness, some days the lone American in the village still sticks out as if I have hired a 20 foot crane to hold a spotlight over my head wherever I go. My whereabouts are still as documented amongst the village as an O.J. Simpson conspiracy theory in those shitty tabloids. The difference? Just a few seasons ago, I sat around tables with Moldovans shooting words and questions at me that could have been Korean death threats or flirtatious offerings in the Gujarati tongue. I would conceal myself from the public and tremble when I stood in front of a class and understood nothing. Not no mo’. My definition of beauty has changed: instead of beachfront resorts, its the backyard natrual fruit isle I cherish. My definition of fun has changed – bouncing from locals’ couches country to country and having the world as my playground is my choice over a keg party. Okay so maybe they are tied.

I wrestled through a year of my life battling to learn a language and ingrain myself in this culture in order to teach these kids and their families what I know about a healthy lifestyle. I came to install parts of my culture and open up my heart to augment their world. Yet, its THEM who have taught me that barriers are just opportunities and we can never stop learning or improving. It is THEM who patiently endured my dull conversations and showed me how to live happy without the flair. My learning curve went from vanilla and forlorn to satiated and supported. My heart aches daily for the future of these incredible people, yet I have moments of simplicity and elation because of them. The rotted and jagged teeth, dilapidated recycled wardrobes, and pathetic excuses to cover up abuse and alcoholism has taken a backseat to the daily examples of emerging leaders, random acts of kidness, allegiance to tradition and family, and yet to be fully-fulfilled aptitude. My fellow folk deem themselves as just „poor Moldovan’s” – not even exotic Africa, but just Moldova -and I have no idea how to substantiate my esteemed outlook. I may never live again without a garden. I refuse to skip the daily tendering of tea or dosage of walking.  Hell, I won’t surrender my backyard butcher shop. No matter what I do, it doesn’t seem to show my love and I never feel as if I am doing enough. However, now they have incorporated me into their world and revealed their potential. Our conversations are now lively- filled to the brim with clever invective and fun, playful rhetoric. Our work has authentic value and we relish in the moments we have together. What was simple and cumbersome is now multifaceted and rosy.

So, for this inward bound and quizzical second year, I am now the veteran who will restart the cycle and train the incoming volunteers. I will welcome them to this mindfuck of a job and elevate my service in a post-transition period. My primary goal is to better the lives of the people in my community in any way I can. The secondary goals are to be an international Ambassador for the United States of America, yet I log onto CNN and see things like movie theater shot up in Colorado, a school rampage in Connecticut, and a bombing during a major Boston sporting event. Its okay, because ….?  We have lost communication at the dinner table thanks to smart phones and apps that can hold conversations for you… we have lost personal touch and cherised traditions due to perceived convienence. Yes, but what I have come to comprehend is that we have inimitable perspective of the world, have the drive to fight for our passions, and think outside the box to make the people in our lives and our futures wealthy with happiness. We are the people who make up phenomenoms like the Peace Corps; we are the people who make up the first responders and beautiful support systems for such global tragedies; we are the people who constantly look to improve the world by manning non-profits, human resource companies, and communication outlets that keep the rest of the world informed; we are the people who understand the value of the dollar, the value of service, and the value of love.

So blend those together and where do I find myself? Sorry all, still the same, strange Brett with maybe a bit more of an edge. Despite my genuine effort to let go of contrasts and set this year apart from the rest, it will forever manipulate my shifting view of humanity. I may have given up SportsCenter, my car, and the rest of my luxuries but I have gained things that money or luck will never be able to afford. What have these unrestrained thoughts and encounters with personal clarity and growth truly done to me? That’s the trickster. My mother recently entered my world. She stood on the ground where we will build a park via won grant money, she intersected gazes with the 400+ students that have taught me just as much wisdom as I’ve installed in them, she dined with the people who have opened my heart to new types of relationships, and she walked the “streets” of the place that I’ve called home for an entire year of my life, lack of toilets and all. Priorities remain, perspective fluid.

I certainly got the adventure I went after. What other job allows you to „wear the hat” of a respected profession bypassing the formal background and training? What other job will have your sense of time and normalcy more warped than Howard Stern’s sense of humor without consequence? What other job could allow me to have stepped foot in 20 new countries by the end of this journey despite living off just over $2 a day? I have reached a level of enlightment that I thought only monks could achieve as I work to make this world a better place for all. While I can only hope that I am bettering the lives of the people of Lapusna whom I have come to adore, I am riding into year 2 with my head high, my sense of humor invigorated, a plump heart, and my sweaty/frozen buttcheeks always clenched. While it remains to be seen which of these internal changes will be lasting, a few things are certain: I’m exactly where I need to be, I have never been so wildly in control of my own life and destiny, and I have never been so insanely liberated and just simply happy.

My part of the village has been without running water and reliable electricity for the last week, and I have escaped to the mayors office to engrave this lexis in a futile attempt to paint a vivid picture of my life. I now have „Never settle” and „Leave a trail” tatooed on my body as daily reminders of my skewed vision, and while missing birthdays, traditions, and special moments showed me i wont be a border jumper for the rest of my days with a pulse, I was meant to learn via seeing the world. I was meant to learn from other people. I could have never predicted what the last 365 days have brought me, so why attempt to calculate the future? I have giggling kids to my left, a smelly old man to my right, a recycled bottle of flammable house wine in front of me, and an awe-inspring natural world around me. Now when I gaze up into the sky and my eyes traverse with an airplane overhead, bursting with pride I no longer pray to be aboard heading West. Bring it on year 2. 

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Colliding Worlds

Time is this bewildering and multifaceted feature that we justly use as a measure of approval in our lives. If we find success or marriage by a certain age we think happiness will escort it. But how can I appraise time when my normal routine is evacuated and suddenly exchanged for the other extreme? No longer able to bank on it, time here has come to a halt; lifestyles, priorities, and schedules are left to adopt or get lost in the mix. The traditions are switched; the calendar is inverted. The climate is our measure here; the sun is our clock. As the weather perks up, Moldovans tend to their gardens and homes and prepare for the forthcoming holidays and ensuing summer. However, before Easter – the juiced up version of the superbowl in terms of Eastern European holidays – came my Birthday. While I haven’t always been the biggest „birthday” person, I was subjected to oddly sundry emotions. Eager to witness this altered celebration, yet unable to sidestep the prevailing homesickness, I began to wish it came and passed hurriedly. All of my bottled up reservations came rushing back as though I had just moved into the village and it seemed to be a constant reminder of just how far I am away from home. Remaining attentive to my cohorts’ modified lives, I just wanted to avoid being an inconvenience.

Heed to my mammoth, grateful sigh crashing its’ way through these words as my village not only made me feel valued, but confirmed that I am even now amongst family. Since in Moldova you are expected to make the treats and throw the party on your birthday for your friends and family, my partner and I made brownies the day before – a cool spin in reverse order – and circulated them all around the school; but it wasn’t me putting forth the effort of the day. I walked into school and was immediately directly into a classroom which revealed one of my 7th form classes, my wonderful friend and partner Svetlana, and a projector set up next to a luscious cake beneath lit candles. After an English & Romanian serenade, they sat me down and aimed my attention towards the taped-computer-paper-makeshift-projector-screen. We looked on as I saw how some of the most caring people I know created a video collage screening so many loved ones in my life displaying birthday signs, recorded messages, and funny tidbits from all over the globe. Who would have thought that my first tears shed in Peace Corps wasn’t the espy of bruises on my students’ faces or the hurdles attributable to poverty, but the downpour of love and support experienced when my two families and worlds collaborated to give me the best gift I have ever received. Unable to be topped, I continued on with my day being blindfolded into classrooms of singing children, the guest of honor at a surprise „birthday conference”, and showered with more good wishes than one can commit to memory. Other unforgettable moments of the day include a 4th grader presenting me with a poem accompanied by a gift that was eerily comparable to the clock that once hung on the schools’ entrance wall (my partners thought this was hilarious and told me to keep the giant, „borrowed” clock), as well as a small after-school gathering of the teachers in which I was rewarded a diploma for The Most Moldovan Volunteer in all of Peace Corps. This birthday was surely one for the record books.

Next, came Orthodox Easter, a week bookended by Sunday celebrations that seized weeks of preparation time. Houses must be radiantly shipshape, the best clothes in the wardrobe are to be primed, and kitchens are likely to emerge as chaotic warzones with the aroma of  ecstasy. I was lucky enough to have a buddy visit me to behold these customs with me; the „outside” perspective made it all the more interesting. Once preparations have wrapped up, the entire community congregates at the church shortly before midnight leading into Easter Sunday. Womens heads are wrapped in respect, men docile but paying forward their respects in a less methodical system. Gheorghe, one of my 6th graders, willingly took on the role of Guide and explained to me and Chris (my visitor) the significance of kissing the vibrant canvas representations of saints before entrance and the rest of the traditions we observed. Voices were detained at a near muted level as the hymns and harmonic prayers occupied any and all vacant soundwaves in the air. The only light came from the flames of candles wrapped in each individuals’ hand as a combination of earnestness and unanimity fuzed with worship to fill the entire region in warmth. When the clock struck 12midnight, all exited the church to produce a circle around the sacrosanct building. After a few more blessings, we communally walked three circles around the site to exemplify our dedication. Step two of the lovely holiday included returning to the church at 4am with your Easter basket. Instead of store-bought chocolates and small Best-Buy produced trinkets, these contain homemade sweet bread, dyed eggs, flowers from the homes, and a few sweets. Unfortunately, we failed to wake up for this component but as I was told, people line up and stand behind their baskets to allow for the village Priest to move by and bless each one with a few splashes of holy water. For the final step, we were requested at 9am for a large meal which began with a shot of holy water as the first ingredient, followed by a few shots of cognac, and a large succulent meal. As we have now celebrated, we are to greet people we come across with „Hirstos a inviat!” (Jesus has risen!) with an appropriate response of „Adeverat a inviat!” (Its true, he has risen!) instead of the normal salutations. Next year, I vow to partake in each step with less perplexity as it is pretty obvious we’re not messin around here.

The successive days to follow were chock-full of eating, telling stories, and furnishing shots of house wine or cognac with religious and jolly toasts. In order to circumvent too many hangovers, we opted for a very last minute and very imprecise getaway to Odessa, Ukraine. You may be taken aghast to just how easy (and cheap) it was to jump the border and to rummage the streets of a new city in search for a place to sleep. While I won’t go in too much detail, we rewarded ourselves with some much needed beach time, squeezed out every bit of enjoyment and laughter out of the random adventure, and failed in our goal to avoid too many hangovers. The $11 bus ride back to Moldova wasn’t as amusing as the droll flee.

It was truly an exceptional experience to have a college buddy take an outing deep into my life here. I had to be reminded to translate, got to see his eyes grow wide at things that seem haibutal to me, and we got to chuckle at things we know we’ll never face again. Despite the capriciously stable agenda I’ve had the last year or so, my life – along with my village – will continue to prioritize around the sun and things will become much more abstract. That concept of time we sometimes utilize for our lives’ trajectory will vanish with the free flowing wind, and I will fight to enlighten that it’s the memories we’re supposed to treasure over disposable gifts or invented deadlines. It is the joint rituals, the breaking down of barriers, and the authentic causes of laughter, pain, and respect that steer passion in life and what we see as success. I am a few days from sharing this epic ride with the woman who has watched me grow, with the person who instilled trust and knowledge within me; I am about to welcome my best friend and Mother into the world that has my head holding high and has my recent alliterations absolutely littered with passion. My worlds are colliding  – and it has nothing to do with time or distance. 

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(Picture: my birthday gifts displayed with a photobomb by my Moldovan pet, Lima)

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Given the Green Light

Oh, from the title you’re predicting some sort of supposition… stemming from some sort of consent I must have received? Fuck that, you optimistic and adorable forensic dectives, you. No, I just stopped tolerating ambiguity to count as satisfactory reactions to my ideas. I gifted myself the „green light” and while I still ‘aint be speaking 100% gramatically correct, I certainly am confident enough in my varnacular and my toil up until this point to at least endorse myself and not back down from my inventive bids. And let me tell ya, it opened up a whole new world.

Now when I see ridiculous village-issued medical remedies I ask the reason behind its’ magical effects even while the subliminal chuckling stains my words. But, of course chewing on a partial leaf from an aloe plant will alleviate the pain in ancient knees – why would I ever dispute that? Seemingly partnered with my mockery, comes the influx of my pleasant-to-all dry humor. When hearing we might receive a bit of extra donated monies for our project, I – no holds barred – proposed we should build a gold statue of Domnul Brett in the middle of our anticipated park project. Earnestly deeming it among the top priorities of a developing country, I gleefully fielded the following response: Gonna have to stay much longer than 2 years for that, Brett.. The fun doesn’t end there; I get away with things here that would never fly in America. Instead of getting interogated after setting off a security check in an American public high school, my bringing of a switch-blade to school is just an appreciated and helpful method of getting through the daily grind. My use of a hankerchief to blindfold a student as a „efficient and active communication” demonstration was celebrated and complimented, instead of finding myself on the front page of Yahoo! News with a full comment board consisting of why I’m a pedophile or how I was allowed to work in the school system. Don’t get me wrong here, I’m not giving elucidation for criminals and sick wrong-doers nor am I putting down our country, I’m simply taking time to appreciate the lax lifestyle where trust still exists and the worst isn’t expected of people.

During conversations I work to mentally slow the pace of the sentences and draw them on a imaginary whiteboard so that I’m able to see through to the actual ideas. Not only am I able to capture the concepts but now I’m picking up on native expressions, extracting premade themes, and even noticing personalities and tones. Talk about a new dimension to my conversations! I can now see who is sassy and sarcastic, and who is doubtful and insecure. Both are fine, I am now just able to deliver tailor-made responses for a more efficent (and enjoyable) banter from both sides. This is an example of an overlooked factor that I forgot to place on my integration timeline or as a measure of success. That, and due to the inverse sentence structure, I poke fun that the direct translations make me nothing more than a taller and slightly less green Yoda. Together, we will find.

To exploit these new personal revolutions, I am at last putting some conceptual plans to action. Even though customs tried to ruin this one for us, I finally ended up with every donation box in hand here and mightily got them to my village to shape Lapusna’s first ever Dental Hygeine Day! However, step 1 didn’t need to even begin before I realized this needs to become more than just a savvy hygenic prize give away. Sorting through the bags to determine quantity, the color drained from my face when I saw the school nurse (my uhh.. equal sidekick on this project) holding, twisting, and inspecting a box of floss as if it was an aqua diamond just pulled from the remains of the Titanic. Nope, no typos there – the head medical professional of the learning instution I work in had no freakin’ clue what floss was. In the end, the event went well and I  managed to give a solo seminar before handing out the goods to about 200 jovial kiddos. I’m learning to discharge my plea for credit while discovering incredible delight in seeing these once complacent natives experience achievement. Who knows, maybe they’ll even utilize something similar in the future despite my departure.

I find that my focus is drifting towards critical thinking, especially within the boundaries of discrimination and cultural acceptance. I’m not so intent on fixing the unfixable debauchery that is village-wide hygeine and I have nothing … err, constructive… to offer to the sexual abstince until marraige conviction, so I find myself in the constant crusade of teaching to think outside the box, especially in relationships. Some responses and remarks I gather are hard to take in, but I must relentlessly remind myslef people who have never left the confines of Eastern Europe don’t also have best friends who are black, gay, etc. So, I recently held a lesson in which I played music from around the globe to showcase every culture’s highlights (thanks to Dahnika’s – an awesome colleague -idea)Figuring that a few youtube clips would be the only way to get a complex topic through to a bunch of 12-year-olds, they surprisingly grasped the idea with full force. Also, I just made 50 kids’ ears aware of The Beatles for the very first time – mind blowing. While a smaller number of Moldovans whom have actually been outside the borders of Moldova than the number emergency breaks in the derisory entities they call cars here, my goal is for just a few to assemble original paths, to break through the stale routine which embodies every aspect of their lives. Bah humbug, have I just discovered my passion in life? I am so obsessively intrigued with the hidden powers of communication and the differences in body language, conversation topics, and ability to inflict CHANGE on things influenced from all around the world that I’m beginning to lose faith in my futures’ ability to sit in a normal office with the same people day by day. Yikes, could this lead to a lonely death by overly-frustrated infatuation? Hopefully not, but a future as an intense and insane nomadic dude? ..maybe.

Violenty passed by me were a few more missed birthdays, special events shared by family, and even tragedy that makes abroad living seem like an estranged run at neglect; but with sacrifice comes embraced advances. I don’t find myself running to the capital for American playtime as much, as I am at last comfortable in my own skin in my village. The kids of Lapusna are insistent I learn their games (which are as bizarre as running until you get spanked with a belt), while the adults are soliciting my advice concerning their spouses hightailing to Russia for the only work they can find: illegal construction tasks. I search for this happy medium in which I can reward them with new essential skills, yet understand the reality of their corrupt government or the rebuff at abondoning their way of life. Sometimes I think if I pitifully attempt to not committ a cultural faux pas and work in the fields after swallowing down home made gasoline, I mean moonshine, it may help but this may also remain a goal never fully satisfied. While my brain may burst from all the daily idealistic insights that slap my in the face daily, I may never forget the whole reason behind it: the world holds some magnificent hidden beauty but some seriously harsh reality.  

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Times are a Changin’

I am within weeks from pompously pronouncing „I made it out alive from my first Eastern European winter!” which should actually be classified as an era. My morning and afternoon walking commute now incorporates glimpses of people working in the gardens, moving things outside that have since been shielded from daylight, and a faint precursor of what I believe will develop into real smiles (some lacking teeth, but beggers can’t be choosers). I have even joined in our garden as a trainee and planted our first round of summer vegetables.

A lot has happened in the last few weeks – as March skidded by without much dawdle. The inflexible concentration I had set on finishing my grant, carrying out my tasks within Peace Corps, and teaching my classes took a backseat to culture amalgamation. I chose this style of volunteering for the distinctive experience it offers and snub the possibility of wasting that. You see, the big holiday – the sun of the Eastern Orthodox religious solar system – Easter, is approaching. The Moldovan two-month long salutation to it makes the White House Easter Egg Hunt look like a McDonald’s attempt at a diet menu. Admirable, but c’mon man. From the starting line of late March until the actual holiday itself in early May, our lifestyles are altered to confirm our allegiance. A strict, bodering on vegan, diet is embraced while the items we are permited to use as well as the times we are permitted to use them has shriveled to a stern but odd timetable. Yep, you read that correctly, I have been vegan – save a makeshift and succulent PCV Passover seder – as well as fortified my minimalist living for a serious fraction of a month. Which makes me think… detecting my gradual changes, while wearing my new eco-friendly watch and digesting my protein-less diet; if you’re starting to picture a beadered man sporting a faded Kellogs t-shirt leisurely attending to the garden with his „pet” pigs, you are sadly not too far off.

Regardless of my futile attempt at Moldovan-life assimilation, my work has never been so booming. I am proud to exclaim that after nearly 2 months of wearisome labor, scores of setbacks, numerous forced modifications, and what I thought was a botched presentation – we won our grant and will be receiving a lofty sum of money to build our courtyard!! While we must make some changes, ramp up the community involvement, and remain serene with the governments’ embryonic process, the fact is that we have our funding and my original vision that consisted of a recycled piece of printer paper and a washed out marker will come to substantial fruition in my village. Interlaced with this project, I was also able to make progress on my HIV/AIDS summer camp plans and bring an M16 (a former Moldova volunteer) to my village to demonstrate a trendy style of karate – Brazilian Ju Jitsu. We even got two girls to show up. Two!

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Living the Dream

 

While gawking out the window on one of the many bus trips I have taken in the recent weeks, while spotting things such as wild horses, hitchhiking priests, or outdoor concert fundraisers, the notion that life can’t get much better spread through my mind and body like a drop of food coloring in a glass of water. I’m living the dream, and the impression became contagious as it spread to my tingling limbs and caused an ear-to-ear grin. I am spending my time fighting for a better world, spreading peace and friendship, and taking multiple jaunts to travel the globe.

I was all set to dip out and begin my second Euro trip, this time to the tiny county of Cyprus and to the Southern coast of Turkey. Unfortunately due to a cancelled and rescheduled flight I was to miss yet another holiday in Moldova, Martișor – the fancy pants name for March 1st. This blissful day welcomes in spring and bids adieu to the brutal winter that had been domesticating us since October. On this day, people give each other lapel-sized red and white synthetic flowers that denote anticipatory healthy, happy proceeding seasons.  These flowers are to be sported on your left chest for the entire month of March and then will be placed on trees on the final day of March; A quaint and charming tradition. My loving students, partners, and friends presented me with nine of these lovely designs which has made me oblivious to the sensation of a pin sticking into the pectoral region of the skin.

After my acceptance of the flowers and many thanks I took a bus down to the most southern point of Moldova to break up my 12 hour bus ride (flying out of Bucharest, Romania makes vacation travel much easier and affordable). After a nice meal with fellow volunteers placed in that region, I lingered at the bus station for the overnight bus. After a 75-minute delay, I should have realized the bus just wasn’t coming. Ah, the reminders of the most frustrating part of this lifestyle… unreliability.  The idea of missing my 8am flight out of Romania to Larnaca, Cyprus was starting to poison my brain as the clock was now ticking a few minutes after midnight. To make a very long and frustrating story short, we walked 2 miles to the center of town, took a taxi to the border in hopes of catching something and then bribed a friend of a friend of a friend to drive the 5 hours into Romania at a high speed so we can make our flight. Somehow, it all worked out. A sigh of fresh air, and I could finally start my vacation.

We utilized CouchSurfing, an internet site that allows travelers to locate and stay with citizens of whatever country free of charge for a „off the beaten path” insight and to make a new macro-acquaintance. Despite my profile lacking glamour, as Moldova isn’t the popular tourist destination and the couch I have to offer is really more like a floor with some pillows, we lucked out and found some takers. In Cyprus, a European Union member that few seem to know about, we stayed with a lovely Polish woman, Marta, in the south and our new Greek friend Vasilis in the North. Much like Moldova (Transnistria), a small part of Cyprus is occupied by Turkish control and in order to walk through this section, one must pass through a UN buffer zone and present their passport. Very strange. Very cool. We traveled East to beautiful beaches, West to historic side, and North to the economic baby boomer. We passed into Turkish control and ate and drank everything along the way. Not once were we equipped with an itinerary, sure of transportation schedules, or aware of our location but without a worry it always seemed to work out just fine.

We moved on to Turkey and stayed in Antalya, a city that has captured my heart just as much as fellow utopia Cape Town, South Africa. The rocky cliffs overlook beautiful views of waterfalls dispersing into the emerald green Mediterranean just past the ancient but breathtaking town of Kalechi. You look to the right and see magnificent beaches, but twist your head to the left and find some snow-capped mountains. The sights itself were incredible, but the people, food, and activities somehow one-upped them. Once again, we stayed with a local – Murat – who shortly after became a pal. He took us out to a restaurant for some traditional grub that most locals would have never known about. We, in return, hit the market and came back to cook up some good old American cuisine.  While I will never forget the splendor of this city, there a few elements of this trip I will never disregard.

At every corner travel agencies beckon and offer packages to nearby attractions. Hell yeah we wanted to go. Hells no, as Peace Corps Volunteers, were we going to pay the going rate. We hopped on public transportation and figured out the rest as we went.  During one excursion to which we were going to Olimpos to hike around the ruins, we were dropped off on a highway with a remaining 11km windy trek to our destination. After a bit of dumbfounded standing and self-advertising, a driver of an ice cream truck driver offered to drive us as close as possible to where we wanted to go. As we crawled at the pace of a tortoise, we discovered Ali was a good and assiduous man just interested in getting to know people from other countries. He taught us a few Turkish words and refused our money when we arrived, saying only he wished us a wonderful vacation. We hiked through knee high rivers, through wheat fields, and up to the tops of mountains that left you feeling invincible. We returned to our hosts’ home and went out for a final night of fun. As we stumbled through the doors, Murat searched the home and presented us with gifts that bear a resemblance to junk he found in storage. He wanted to give us something to remember him by and to thank us for including him in our plans, sharing some memories, and give me an emotion that grows daily within me – gratitude.

Unlike my last trip to Greece & Paris, I found myself excited to return to my village and counterparts. I had picked up some items from the Turkish Bazaar to give away for International Women’s day (a European version of Mother’s Day on steroids), and felt reenergized to push through the daily grind of community and health development. Little did I know, another flight would be scheduled that resulted in lost baggage; Little did I know Moldova’s Prime Minister was issued a vote of no confidence and my country’s government had collapsed; It doesn’t matter, I’m on a constant high. I lowered my shoulder, and got right back to where I left off. I finally submitted my grant proposal to build a park in my community and organized a seminar for the Professors about discrimination and stereotypes. Although I am competing against 16 other wonderful colleagues for grant money and although only 9 teachers showed up to my seminar, my inspiring volunteer peers helped me to switch out my frustration for pride in the small victories that come along the way. My community knows I am here to stay, they know I am determined. Wonderfully (and now that I can actually say them in the native tongue), they are letting my voice my opinions and aren’t reluctant to accept them. It’s not them that are surprised; it’s me. While I don’t want to date an 11th grader as we must have different definitions of statutory rape or just super awkward dates, it is becoming crystal clear that I will learn just as much from them as they will from me. Home sweet, Moldova. Image

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Feelin’ something fierce

I went from Tuesday morning to late Wednesday before realizing we had no electricity at my school or community center. I situated myself outside the church in below freezing conditions for over two hours to congregate with the community and observe the ultra-orthodox funeral of a very important man I was never aware of. I witnessed a student bringing in a butcher’s knife onto school grounds for a potential fight, another student toting explosives in his back pocket, and heard of stories that centered around 8th graders getting married. This is my bona fide life. No, seriously. Yet I would be at remiss if I didn’t mention I have authentic moments where I feel I could perpetually remain here. Granted, these moments are more rare than an STD testing center in a red light district, but still they exist nevertheless.

I have now lived to tell the tale of two week-long training sessions as well as two site visits from none other than my program managers. From here on, I am past the PC hand-holding stage and am riding solo. What was once known as the dreaded, frigid February has morphed into a hell of a lucrative and pleasant string of weeks, despite still being pretty fucking cold. My grant to build a calm courtyard/destressing park in my community is making headway – thanks to Sveta, an incredible partner and friend – and my summer HIV/AIDS soccer camp is moving along approximately as fast as an asmethic sloth. I have English books in transit, a basketball uniform project in the works, and a newfound sense of delusional motivation. Even the familia gazda (host family) has taken a turn for the better, as the communication has upped itself a notch and the emotions are begginning to loosely resemble endearment. The credit can be given to my boss’ stern chat regarding host situations, but their benevolance towards me is now so apparent and more in your face than a night time birds eye view of the Vegas strip. Sometimes its at level overload to include me in family activities and persuade me that I should stay, but hey, I will gallantly accept their compensation for six months of distant conduct.

Now that I am closing in on the 9 month mark, it is my belief that my Moldovan counterparts are at last beginning to open up to me. Maybe they guarded themselves in case I came and went, not unlike the last volunteer placed in the village of Lăpușna, but even the citizens who have never given me the time of day are openly presenting assistance with my projects. This Jew now understands that 6-year-old reaction on Christmas morning; To receive a heart-felt accolade from a normally aloof local causes „Brett, you’re very ambitious” to sound like „Master Brett, you might as well be the President”. Fine, fine, maybe not, but a gain is a gain. With the opening of arms, comes a much more ajar comfort level. For example, as they are no longer looking to win over my impression of Moldova, I have seen and been offered raw pigfat to act as a bread topping. This, a sight only classifiable as a 2nd degree assault on the eyeballs and stomach, is my graceful and not abnormal acquiescence. I’m even beginning to collect the native treatment proposals. As some of you know, I have a torn meniscus in my knee, and I have refused the solo option of returning to America for surgery, as it would just be a surplus sum of time away. Not to worry, the conventional wisdom is to heat up some rachiu (moonshine) and directly rub it on the joint. Case closed.

I am finding that while my lessons are a hit – and trust me 30 clapping, smiling kiddos poorly executing secret handshakes that were never a mutual creation when you walk in a room is the ego boost of a lifetime – I feel that I am not going in depth enough on each subject. Next year, I plan to have several lessons focused around, let’s say, eating disorders and depression rather than just one 45 minute surface breach. I also plan on being able to speak without the use of remedial grammar. Now, just making a difference and being remembered is not enough. Shit… I’m starting to develop a passion for youth development. Thanks a lot, Mother.

As part of my attention turns to my new job of transitioning the 58 new volunteers who will be arriving in Moldova come June, juggling my other position as Health program representative, preparing for / teaching my 8 hours of class, and proceeding with my side projects, has my planner looking like a graffiti wall and my bloodpressure a shifting puzzle of numbers. Life is anything but boring, but I’m doing things I always thought to be impossible such as learning Russain via Romanian. A third language through a second language? Unreal. Some days, such as my Dad’s recent birthday and the anouncement of a close friend’s engagement make the distance and time implausibly difficult, but I realize now that I have invested a lot of pride in every stop along my career path, and I can only hope that prolongs well into the future. One thing that for sure will carry to yet to come is my college-adapted life motto: work hard, play harder. I won’t be able to write for a little while as I will soon be venturing out on my second cross-country trip: I will be backpacking through the tiny country of Cyprus and the Southern point of Turkey while crashing on local’s couches and only eating the peoples’ recommendations. Living without luxury has turned out to be absurdly rewarding and eye opening, so why not conquer my number one objective, to see the world, the exact same way?

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A copied (open) letter

Let me be clear, this is NOT my work. This is copied directly from another blog. However, it is a beautifully painted picture of our lives and the journey we decided to go on. I am adding this to my blog so I can revisit it in the future for perspective and so that I can share it with you all. Enjoy and Happy Valentines Day from Moldova! 

 

Dear Person Contemplating Joining Peace Corps,

I imagine that you’re at a transition point in your life. Perhaps you’ve just graduated, perhaps you’re going through a career change, perhaps you have an itch for something more that can’t be scratched. Whatever the reason, here you are: contemplating joining Peace Corps.

But should you? Is it right for you?

Honestly, you might not know that until you’ve arrived. You can research by reading books and official publications or by talking with current/returned volunteers, but everything you read and hear will probably tell you the same thing: every person’s experience is different. Your Peace Corps life will be uniquely shaped by your country, program, and site. 

I’d like to think, though, that there are a few things that are universal throughout the Peace Corps world, and those things tend all to revolve around how you yourself will change – for the better and for the worse – because of your time in Peace Corps.*

‘Sanitary’ will become an obsolete concept. You will eat on mats that you know are saturated in urine. You will prepare food on counters that also serve as chicken roosts. You will not have consistent/frequent access to soap. You will eat street food that is undoubtedly questionable. You will be dirty, dusty, and sweaty at all times. You will have mind over body battles to force yourself to bucket shower in the winter. Bugs, lizards, chickens, ducks, and mice will crap on everything. These things will be ok. You’ll adjust. The sterile environment of the States will become a distant odd memory or a constant fantasy.

Your body, though, might not adjust as quickly. You will have parasites and infections and illnesses that you had never heard of before training. You will be constantly constipated. Or go the opposite extreme. I hate to say it, but you will probably poop in your pants at least once. You will learn to vomit over a squat toilet and into a plastic bag during a bus ride. You will discuss your bodily functions openly and enthusiastically with other volunteers. No topic will be taboo.

The way you communicate will completely transform. Learning a language from scratch through immersion is a powerful experience. You will learn to have complex communications though expressions, gestures, and basic vocabulary. You will learn to bond with another human being through silence. You will answer the same basic questions over and over and over again. You may never achieve the ability to discuss ideas and concepts. You will develop a new English language which consists of pared down vocabulary and grammatical structures. You will actively think of each word before you speak. Your speech patterns will slow. You will have to define words whose meanings you had always taken for granted. You will learn to listen. 

Your concept of money will entirely alter. Paying more than $1 for anything will cause you to pause and question your purchase. You will understand value in the context of a different economic system. You will learn to barter, even on cheaper items. You will consistently feel as though you have been cheated on the price. You will be enraged by all prices upon returning to the States.

You will embrace the thrilling dichotomies of thrift versus splurge and ration versus binge. No one knows how to budget like a Peace Corps volunteer. And no one can binge like one.

You will be discontented with your work. You will wonder – and scream to the heavens – about the benefit of your presence. You will feel lost in unstructured expectations and crushed by promising ideas fallen to the side. Your expectations will fade into an unexpected reality. You will learn to celebrate small victories. You will look at mountains and see mole hills. You will try to tackle the impossible. Maybe you’ll succeed. Maybe you’ll just pick yourself up and take aim at another impossibility.

You will learn to do all of this through pure self-motivation. You will be the one to drag yourself out of bed and out the door. You won’t have anyone holding your hand or pushing your forward. Just you. You will become a stronger person for yourself, by yourself.

You will be a celebrity in your community. That status comes will hardships and benefits that will ineradicably change you. You will be the exception to the societal rules. You will be the foreigner, the one set apart. You will receive privileges and have special attention/status because of your nationality. You will always have eyes on you. You will have joined as an agent of culture exchange and understanding, but you will still find yourself falling into an ‘us versus them’ mentality. Use it. Consider it. Contemplate the value we place on people because of arbitrary characteristics. You will come away from your experience more attune to your own merits, to those that are deserved and to those that are given.

Your culture of personal space, one that maybe you have always taken for granted, will be challenged. You will wonder why you need an entire room to yourself while no one else even has a bed to himself. You still won’t want to give your room up. Privacy will be a privilege or a rarity, not a right.

You will lose all control of your emotions and be on an unpredictable roller coaster of extreme ups and downs. You will go from happy and confident to sullen and tearful by things as simple as ants in your candy or yet another child saying ‘Hello!’ Your highs will be high, but they will be fragile. Your lows will feel inescapable. Your family and friends in the States probably won’t understand this. Your isolation will force you to become your own support system. You will become aware of yourself in the context of solely being yourself.

Your government-issued friends will be your reprieve. The love and closeness you share with people back in the States won’t change, but it will be your fellow volunteers who understand. They will be friendships forged from necessity, and they will be deep and fervent.

You will witness a whole new way of life, and you will question your notion of necessity. You will consider your personal wealth, and people will constantly remind you of it. You will discover what your ‘needs’ are to live a productive, satisfied life. I hope you will remember that when you return to a culture of plenty.

You will be the biggest product of your Peace Corps work. You will change. And you will bring that change back with you.

 

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Un alt fel de viață (Another Kind of Life)

Holy hell, I am in my 8th month as a Peace Corps Volunteer, as a citizen of the Republic of Moldova, as a crazy American living the strangest, most exigent life imaginable. Conclusion drawn, we are almost the veterans as PCMoldova staff has shifted their attention to the new group (M28’s) arrival in country. Gazing at a calendar is like playing a game of Russian roullette, some weeks are brutal hell and others, such as this past week resembled a form of delight. How do I perceive the timeframe? Should I scrutinize the detail that I have yet to fulfill one-third of my commitment, or do I rejoice over the “soon-to-be” completion of my first year as a teacher?

Let’s proceed on a weekly basis, shall we? I declared an American holiday, the Superbowl (and the proceeding day for that matter). Collectively, volunteers found a basement bar that we bargained for about 30 lei, or $2.45, would televise the big game. As we watched, yelped, and drank from the hours of 1:30 to 6 in the morning, we verbally auditioned the future of this holiday in Moldova. I returned to show my hungover, lethargic face at school Tuesday to start my week and find out that my partner will be absent for the 5 day stretch. This information was proceeded with the schedule change announcement. How wonderful. Thus is life in other parts of the world, no concrete routine to fall back on.

Seemingly with things only operational if to my disadvantage, you would expect a third consecutive debauched week. Nothing is as it seems. Nuh-uh, this was my world today. Henceforth, I will occupy a fresh persona. Let’s call it arrogant-optimist. Whether thanks is due to the Baltimore Ravens, the Jack Daniels factory, or just a bullish attitude, a gyration of my foxhole was impending. I held my ground and conducted 4 full and unaided health lectures. While proud, I realized why I was never bred to be an educator. When I said cheolți (kelotz = underwear) of course the 4th grade burst into laughter, a contagious effort that launched Domnul Brett into a red-faced gasping for air kind of laugh. When I caught students passing notes, and all i did was applaud them for their sneaky technique. I am too fresh off from the life as a student to be a discplinary figure in a classroom.

Still flabbergasted, I fulfilled my hours and even tackled another two feats: I was selected for a position I applied for within PC  and I assembled my team to begin our grant. The position, „mentor coordinator”, will put me in command of the incoming group of volunteers’ communication with existing volunteers, as well as their transition into country. Will I treat them as freshmen boys entering my old fraternity or equal, justifiably nervous colleagues? With a hidden grin on my smug face, I have yet to decide that. The second, was no easy task. Getting a few Moldovan counterparts to sit around a table and not only discuss a project and its’ primary process but to understand the nourish and feasibility of its long-term existance was just a thing of beauty. Very grateful for the progressive and positive people in Lăpuşna.

I met with the mayor of my village, and convened with my newly amassed team. I sat down and thoroughly declared, in my broken and increasingly slang Romanian, I have some ideas. An owner of matching hearing aids could have heard the audible swallows and groans. Pouring on charm like liquid butter on movie theater popcorn, I spill one idea after the other.  Here is this kid, never before a teacher, with his outside-the-box philosophy stammering in front of adults with 20+ years of experience from the branches of the Soviet era. The same kid who uses sponges to symbolize dehydration in his lessons and blindfold’s children during an „effective communication” demonstration. Yet, they listened, and we are progressing towards submitting this grant. As my actions begin to contest my level of aspiration, I note that every day is a learning process. Unlike in America, I cannot balance multiple projects at the same time. Due to the language barrier, the slower pace of life, and the deficiency of resources, we must take one thing at a time. This is how I was supposed to learn: practical application of knowledge with time for tons of self reflection and development.

I can honestly say that I admire 100% of my colleagues, a non-massaged statistic that hovers right above unbelievable in todays day and age. They all face this epic uphill struggle and surmount the blockage while finding humor in its absurdity. The tasks that have me ripping my hair out, they have done while being the coolest, world traveling people I have met to date. Good ‘ol Moldova, you love the mind games. Good ‘ol Moldova, may the mêlée go on. 

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Untitled for a reason

I now deem myself able to appreciate the logic of a puppy the moment he/she spots an edible something opposite an invisible fence. Feet cemented to the ground, eyes onward. While it may not yet be tangible, we sense the upshot. Do we jump through the barrier, knowing full well the torture? This conundrum has our gaze wide, staring ahead as if some plea will diffuse the nuisance. On one hand, there is a scrumptious, rewarding treat just a few feet away. On the other hand, well, uh, inevitable pain; But we’re badass, we get what we want, nothing will stop us. Feet pivot against the ground, propel forward.

Okay, okay maybe this is not a precise photocopy of my actions in Moldova, but it’s pretty damn close. There is no effortless task, no tranquil emotion. The climate is murk which causes an absence buoyancy – my mind has offically gone mad. I recently had someone tell me, the honeymoon stage is over. I turned, glared, and spoke; feeling the sarcastic temper come over me: „When the hell was there ever a nuptial celebration?”. Grudgingly allowing them to justify the words, I relized the time has come to shift to the next chapter. While my only priorities in the past weeks have been pulling all-nighters to stream the Ravens playoffs’ games (in route to the Super Bowl, ahem..) in the eeriest of all locations, I must turn my attention to the big picture.

“The world is a book and those who do not travel read only one page.” Beautifully spoken by St. Augustine, but misses one fundamental element: adaptation. Some days, I ascertain more in 24 hours of living abroad than in an entire semester of a particular class. If I were here temporarily, that would be all mighty, but the long duration of my stay suggests I need to utilize that information and acclimatize with it. Some days dawn with high expectations and close with fresh hopes, others have inexhaustible struggles and conclude with distress.

I have been taking every measure to trigger my post-vacation motivation, from watching inspiring movies, to making to-do lists, to analyzing success stories. No cigar. I have been bellyaching to friends and family, in hopes of a kick-start. Nah. It wasn’t until the minute I walked back into my first class on Monday morning when I realized what I must do. I have to break up with the United States of America. And we’re talking some Tiger Woods or Bobby Brown shit. I gotta let go, and authorize my heart to invest 100% of itself in my remaining stretch in Moldova. Reached the point where I can teach without my face buried in a script; passed the summit of building a voice. I’ve met some incredible people, relationships I hope last a lifetime, and I have taught my students some things, but just as I always have done, I must go balls to the wall and do something great.

 

These emotions need to be regularly featured staple in my daily actions, not just a spark of effort here and there. I must keep my foot pressed to the gas pedal, despite the invisible fences I dash through along the way. I realized that while I finally feel comfortable in my school, established even, I know no one outside of that building within the community; I have just breached the surface. The need to be proactive and pushy is at an all time high.

I have visions of an English language night class for adults in my community, a grant proposal to fix some of the broken pavement around my school, and a complete overhaul and renovation of the sports fields and equipment. Next year, I hope to teach a business communications course as well as transfer sustainable technology skills to my colleagues. Of course, all will be in Romanian, all will consist of countless difficult phases, and all will have several setbacks. Except, where in the world am I supposed to uncover the impetus necessary to erect such craft?

 

I brought in a non-profit, titled Moldova fara discriminare (Moldova without Discrimination) to speak my older students. Being so proud to have many friends that are gay, black, or of varying religions, I decided this would be a fraction of me to leave behind. The information was crucial, the interest was in attendance, and the reception was positive. But a blind survey towards the end struck me some sort of nasty. At least a third revealed they would stop contact with someone they found to be gay, similar numbers wouldn’t attend a lecture led by a professor who is HIV positive. Hurtful, but part of the culture; I must adapt, or these will be my downfall. Combine this with the fact that two days out of this week (its only Thursday) ended in alcohol filled dance parties within school walls, my habits and opinions must convert from open-minded to elastic.

 

Maybe the happiest day of my life is when my parents allowed me to start ordering off the “adult” menu in restaurants (I know, no surprise as to why I got pretty chubby during my high school years). However, I would stuff myself full and they would always greet me with a “you’re eyes are bigger than your stomach”. Maybe that renders a similarity here, I have so much I want to do but I must recognize the practical, then bulldoze through so much anguish and obstacles to even get the slimmed-down idea off the ground. I have these moments of total utopia, so proud of the direction my life is headed, but usually they’re followed by longer moments of defeat. Baby steps, Brett, baby steps. 

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