Occasionally, life in Moldova makes just about as much sense as the stories my English Club kids have come up with:
“Once upon a time… lived in small village grandmother and grandfather and grandfather say with grandmother “I love you.” Then grandfather picked potatoes, his dog began to bark, and grandfather said, “silence.” It wants to invade Poland. And then Tom Cruise came, bit the dog and sucked his blood. And Robert Downey Jr., in his Ironman costume, start to eat Tom Cruise. Grandmother said she saw this on the glass ceiling cause she was a witch. Grandfather has a dog, and this dog want to invade Poland, and grandfather put the magnet in the stomach, weapons, and Grandfather invaded Poland. And God destroyed the world”*
*Shout-out to the creators of Cards Against Humanity, who provide a free set of cards to anyone who joins the Peace Corps (Look it up! Email the makers!). Your PG-rated cards really spiced up our English Club.
And with the randomness, unexpectedness, miscommunication and upset come a series of adaptations.
Navigating Age Expectations:
You get told you need to be married (26 is OLD), and soon. I was in the kitchen in my host mother’s house late last summer when an elderly neighbor came over to check out the gas line that supplies our oven with those precious vapors (my host mother always prefers neighbors to work in, on and around the house). We had a small conversation about his daughter, who is my age, lives in America and already has a few kids. When age came up (“Oh! So she’s my age!) the man smiled – “You should be married already! You should get married at 18 so you can have many children! If you wait too long, something might be wrong with them…” I grinned. Too late.
Navigating Gender Norms:
Often, a guy won’t shake a lady’s hands (although this is changing in more progressive parts of the country). This was one of the topics we discussed in our cultural training sessions upon arrival to Moldova. Sometimes, a man will not even acknowledge you (lady) if you are in the presence of a male. Two of my friends were traipsing around Chisinau when a man heard them speaking in French. He approached my male friend and asked in English, “Hello my friend! Where are you from?” The stranger then asked my male friend’s name, shook his hand and the conversation ensued – on the masculine end of the spectrum. The stranger never introduced himself to my female friend, or even looked at her.
In this country, because there is both Russian and Romanian, some people may ignore you and respond in their favored language. Though it can be frustrating (I once had someone refuse to translate a menu for me into Russian and call a girl over to explain the Romanian in English… the name of the bar was Perestroika, so I really didn’t anticipate this…) I also know there are numerous people in my region (Gagauzia) who may only understand Romanian, or do not speak it at all. I had an enlightening encounter with a taxi driver in Chisinau – he told me about how he only ever spoke Russian growing up in the capital (though he did study Romanian in school), and the time he lived in Moscow as a migrant worker was far easier (and more enjoyable) because of the shared language. However, many young people in non-Russian speaking parts of Moldova do not know Russian at all.
In my first host family, I sometimes communicated with my younger host sister (who knew very little Russian, and was studying in school) with pictures.
Speaking on knowing the host country language before arrival… it can also prove challenging. If you have a decent accent and can string together a few sentences, people in the street may start to speed-slap you with pretty complex constructions (and we nod, and we cry, and we laugh, and we have a really really really good time) and are then loathe to slow down when they catch that dead-duck look you’re lobbing at them.
I must also state it can be a welcome advantage to speak the more “generalized” language, if you have one in your Peace Corps host country. I’ve traveled to both the north and the south of Moldova, and my Russian never fails me in a pinch. Some of my highest in-country moments have been communicating with museum tour guides (it helps comprehension when there’s a huge taxidermy animal your guide is gesturing to when illustrating a point).
I always heard Time was a social construct. Moldova exists in this dimension. If you say you will be on time, you will be 15 minutes late. If you say you will be late, you might not show up. You may schedule a meeting for one day and it will be re-scheduled for a week later. Why hurry? Time doesn’t exist! Coming from an office setting, it was a rough adjustment – my expectations plummeted me into that dark void pretty quickly.
And then I breathed. I’ll admit, I’ve learned to enjoy sitting back for an unexpected social hour (says sometimes un-social lover-of-solitude… seriously, the main form of entertainment here is… gasp… talking). And I’m certainly more flexible – sure, I have a great book to read! In the park! It’s a gorgeous day! We can meet up later.
Lunch here isn’t a break – it’s a social hour (or three). And back to Time – everything will get done, eventually… But let’s chat first! It’s a great way to get to know your partners, coworkers and neighbors, the perfect opportunity to learn you host country’s culture and history… and, lest I forget, the very best time to tease out some of the most salacious town gossip… it’s a big family, after all.
Return of the Teenage-Hood
I am a kitchen monster. Or am I a monster in the kitchen? I like to cook, my way – and tell people how to help me. Or they’re fired. But now that I’m living with a host mother who is also a kitchen monster, especially when she’s a little irritable (we relate), I have learned to shut up and cook up. At first, it was asking me why I did something a certain way, followed by a patient response and/or stubborn refusal to try something new. It transformed into commands – she is the “хояйка,” after all – followed by more patient responses and/or stubborn refusals to do something that may or may not have made sense to me. Then it was learning to pick my own battles – outside of the kitchen. So far, I haven’t ruined anything – though the texture may have been compromised.
I have adopted the above New Year’s masks (courtesy of the museum in Edineti, Moldova) as my awkwardness indicators: Mask Number One for Dazed and Confused, Man in the Middle for Weak in the Knees and Mask Number Two for Irritable but Trying to Look Like I’m Dazed and Confused.