Stories and Culture

Hello Again: Comrat, Gagauzia, Part 2 (Extra-long for you hardcore fans)

Now isn’t it about time we reintroduce ourselves, you and I?

The separation certainly hasn’t been intentional. The whirlpool of novelty has that unavoidable side-effect of blurring boundaries, catching you up in those sensory details and new perceptions (I believe they refer to this as “culture shock”). The introductions, invitations, adjustments, meals, new friendships…. The loneliness, the uncertainty, the exhilarating highs of new discoveries, the struggle for patience, the challenges of new forms of communication… Have you ever yearned for touch? Does it hit you beneath your breastbone, or is it a ghost hand resting gently on your shoulder? Do you know the glow of welcome and surge of warmth when you share that first hug with your new host mother?

Since settling in Comrat, I’ve been welcomed to join my new friends and colleagues on many adventures – I haven’t the space, or the time, to lay it all out for you. Snapshots are best – sweet, shutterstock-style:

There was the time I joined my partners and their friends at the lake near Comrat for a welcoming picnic. Two locals, brothers of Uzbek origin, scraped up a heaping mess of their national dish, Plov, traditional-style: they fried the rice, carrots and meat in a cast-iron pot over an open flame while the rest of us sampled fresh grapes, Comrat wine and the inevitable brinza (even in Comrat, we cannot escape the smelly-salty goat cheese, assuredly a distant cousin to feta. This cheese is touted as the cure-all, the godliest of foods! Didn’t you know, some brinza a day keeps the doctor away?).

We chatted about food, surged into discussion of American politics – could I have expected to touch on the Second Amendment in my first week at site? – and learned of Moldovan traditions. Do you know how flashy people in this country can be? I hear the weddings are extravagant, an opportunity to demonstrate status – ah yes, super-sized doesn’t merely apply to American fast food! The bigger, the better – and not just the ceremony, but also the gifts. One common practice is for the bride and groom to provide envelopes to each guest, names embellishing the exterior. If the guest does not leave enough money in the envelope, his relationship with the couple may be ruined.

Then, too, there is the exploration. I trekked with one Peace Corps volunteer friend around Comrat, bombarded by that swirl of new sounds and sights.

We found a hidden treasure, a grove of old Soviet textile machines (we heard they were once employed as sewers of socks). Those crooked machines, squatting on the far side of the room, scraping the ceiling with dust-covered arms – are they sentinels, protecting the memory of a mechanized era? Or are they ghosts, yearning to rise again? They grace the edges of a large tiled space, a would-be a dance floor, ripe for the imagination – an undercover night club? A banquet hall? Ah yes, we’ll take this space over, I can see it now: Airbnb, Comrat! The perimeter is laced with locked doors, some mystery, though we have access to two: one, a grungy shower eeking of mold, and the other a side-room with two unkempt beds and a corner stacked with half-polished shoes. To the center of the room lay stubbed cigarettes stuck in the bottom of a plastic cup – a refuge for squatters?

Later, as we wove our path through the bazaar, I was astounded by the availability and odd mixture of products. Stalls of clothing paralleled benches littered with questionable electronics, triple-a batteries next to flashlights and cheap speakers. And ah, a three-story store, what luxury! What did I spy – juicers, in this country? An epilator? Noise-canceling headphones, large-screen televisions, high-end hand mixers and ceramic knives.

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The capital of Comrat is certainly not the same as a small village nestled in the tree-topped hills of Moldova, but nevertheless, I was not prepared for this “excess.” Still, let us juxtapose this market-style “development” with the people hawking produce in the streets. There was the man who sold spiced pork-fat (I still don’t quite know the expectation – that look of let-down that flashed across his face as we walked away suggested, perhaps, the expectation of a sale after he teased us into sampling his greasy wares). And the woman shucking nuts on the street-side, and the stalls of honey and eggplant and oddly elongated beetroots, and the woman hand-sewing a ripped teddy bear in a toy store…

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I’ve been questioning my purpose here in my newfound home, teasing out my expectations: What kind of country is this, far more “developed” than those sought-after “Peace Corps” countries – Mongolia, Cameroon, Nepal? Haven’t you heard about those who relish the desired bragging rights that come with roughing the countries we glorify for the rugged life, the extremes, the sickness and darkness and cold? This – Comrat, capital of the autonomous Gagauzian region of Moldova – is not that experience.

Why are we here? we’ve asked.

I can lay it out for you: don’t glorify, don’t romanticize, just listen. In places, towns are slowly collapsing, ghosts of their former selves. The youth are leaving for greener pastures: one mayor of a rural village stated that her number one initiative would be to encourage young couples to stay, have families and repopulate. There are no jobs, the economy is depressed. Yes, there is mafia; yes, there is corruption.

However, there is also potential, a beauty to this country. We have civil society, and over one hundred motivated Peace Corps volunteers working together to bolster that infrastructure. We have youth who are thrilled to involve themselves in enriching activities. As a semi-developed country, we have the capacity to make connections, develop projects and work toward a sustainability that would be impossible in other regions.

And we have our welcoming families, eager to teach us about their traditions; we have community members open to new collaborations, excited to meet us and welcome us into their homes to learn and laugh.

I’ll leave you with this, for now: one young Comrat woman, 17 years old, helped me better understand even the most basic effect of our work here. Many of the people in this region, she says, are “angry”- but the volunteers here bring something interesting, something new, to the community. We’re a different perspective.

And that says nothing about what these communities do for us.

Categories: Stories and Culture

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