Sidekick

I think I’ve got myself a sidekick.

This afternoon as I slipped into my running pants, I heard a tap-tapping on my bedroom doorframe. The introduction now elicits instant recognition: it was, of course, my upstairs neighbor and curious confidant, Livia. (Ever-observant, the girl had complimented a tattoo peeking above my fellow volunteer’s shirt-line the other day. I decided to let her in on my own secret – my admission was met with a blasé glance. Relief! The first member of my family to know about my tattoo couldn’t care less. After warnings from the Peace Corps that tattoos in Moldova may be met with responses ranging from interest to indignation, I couldn’t have been more pleased with Livia’s nonchalance.)

Livia is a precocious kid. Her language skills trump those of many I’ve met, and at 12, her Russian is impressive and her English more so. She’s got that youngest-child sass, and she’ll jump into conversation with quick quips at the best moments. When Livia greets me, it’s always with raised brows, a sharp nod and mischievous grin; on bad days, a bit of peevish charm comes free-of-charge. But she’s sweet, too. The child nurtures animals like they’re her own. Her mother told me she loves baby birds, and I’ve started thinking of her as the “bird-herder.” The other morning, Livia was sitting in the kitchen, nursing a chick with a lopsided wing back to health. She had wrapped it in one of her small pink zippered jackets, and as we ate our breakfast, Livia offered wet bread and tea from a spoon to the peeping creature.

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I was already prepared for my latest afternoon request when I heard those drumming fingers. Livia will ask to play ukulele with me, show me her English endeavors (she’s on summer break but perseveres with self-crafted studies) and sometimes, she’s satisfied to sit in my room and stare while I read or write. And I was right – she wanted, today, to join me on my run.

We frisked along the muddy, pockmarked main-way to greet the slick post-rain grass in the schoolyard. As I began my rounds circling the rectangular sandpit to the side of the high school, Livia hopped from one circus-hued tire to another, the markers that describe my running path. Do you think she had any qualms about slinking through dripping bushes to surprise me as I walked through the school courtyard to cool down?

The high school where I run and join the other PC Volunteers for language classes and technical training

Toward the end of our session, an older man stepped from what looked to be a local rutiera (a.k.a. micro-bus) to traverse the grounds as we exercised. He peered at us quizzically while we did our stretches on the asphalt in front of the school. As Livia complained about her wet butt as we rose from the asphalt, I thought about one of our Moldovan superstitions: ladies, if you sit on the ground in this country, you’ll freeze your eggs! We volunteers joke that America needs to capitalize on this unrestricted contraception. Gents beware, you’re not impervious – the same action could lead to a ghost vasectomy…

On Sunday, Livia escorted me to the town’s cherry festival. Ruseshtii Noi is known for its cherries: white, sour, yellow with a red blush, dark sweet red, cherries steeped in vodka… As we arrived, we caught the resonance of Moldovan folk music and dance. Shortly, the town’s Orthodox priest performed what seemed to be a blessing, at the very least a prayer, as his dark-haired son hovered close by. Conversation with the current Peace Corps volunteer placed permanently in Ruseshtii Noi revealed that the son is in training to become a priest himself. According to the volunteer, your father’s priestly profession will become your own legacy: you are born into the Orthodox priesthood, and there’s little choice but to follow in the paternal footsteps.

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After the “blessing,” Livia and I joined another volunteer and bounced around the festival to sample the free food (ah blinchiki!) and drink – a very impressive, tart and somewhat spicy white wine from a small cask. The same man who served us the wine gave us bags of tea leaves to take home.

On the way home from today’s run, Livia pointed to the tree that produces the very same tea leaves the man at the cherry festival had urged on me. It seems like they’re all over this town.

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