Saturday, March 11, 2006

Reflections on the final day in Mereseni and Moldova

It's our last morning in Moldova. The night was warmer than the past have been (don't know the exact temperature, but it did not get below freezing... my guess would be the mid to upper 30's F).

I started this trip with two reading assignments:

  1. The World is Flat
  2. The End of Poverty

The topics of these two books seemed fitting to the trip. My work at Adobe has gone global. I can remember 12 years ago when we considered a Japanese version of FrameMaker as an external process that would be done 12-24 months after the primary languages, and was done by a partner. We internalized Japanese development into the product cycle, and started directly engaging with the sales force in Japan. Fast forward 10 years, and 50% of the engineering groups that I deal with are in Noida, India, project managers are in Ottawa, Canada, and we strive to assure that conference calls will be at a time of day for equally shared pain. If you need a definition of shared schedule pain, here is an example: a meeting scheduled from 10:00-11:30PM on a Tuesday night, and then a regular weekly status meeting at 6:00 AM Wednesday morning (that's six hours sleep).

I see the flat world in the experience with the Peace Corps. All the PCV (Peace Corps Volunteers) have mobile phones, and SMS-messages are sent multiple times a day to other volunteers. Most of them have digital cameras, and post weblogs. When you talk to original PCV from the 60's, they relate how happy they were to get their one letter a week from home in postal mail. In fact, Peter related that the Peace Corps would be a much more difficult experience without his ability to stay in communication through the computer (he figures that 90% of the Moldova PCV have laptops).

One of Peter's hotshot 7th graders, Maria, took pictures of us on her mobile phone at school Friday. It's good to see that phones are becoming the kind of problem in schools that they are in the US.

Internet access (except through phone system) does not exist in village. I asked Peter, who told me that DSL was barely deployed in the regional capitals, let alone the small villages. And the thought of learning internet access in the schools was greeted with chuckles.

Another part of my experience was a quick trip to the principals office to help with a printer problem. The immediate issue was that their multifunction printer/fax machine from Xerox was making black-streaked output. The problem was actually worse than I had expected... There was basically a one inch-wide streak of output, and everything else was black splotches. I opened the printer, toner went flying, and the belt of the cartridge was fully carbonized except for a one inch wide strip. I asked how many times the cartridge had been refilled and the only answer that came back was "we just put a new cartridge in last week." My estimate was that it had been refilled at least a half dozen times. The solution for the moment was to go back to their old toner cartridge, which only had a 7.5 inches of good area and one inch of black.

The computer, which was reputed to be "good" was far from it. The office administrative computer was a 32MB Pentium Pro (probably 150Mhz) system running windows 95. The modem was an external US Robotics X2 modem. I felt like I had entered a time warp. Then I thought back to the old computers that we send to recycling at Adobe. 800mhz Pentium 3 machines with 512MB memory are routinely sent for recycling. These would be hot machines in a school in Moldova. One can get a better idea of the issues of computers in poor countries in an IEEE article on Peace Corps Computers in Belize and this study about peace corps computer programs. The next time that someone from the European Commision describes the old computers in Eastern Europe, this computer will always come to mind.

My hope is that, somehow, Moldova can develop some industry or information economy. It's made difficult by the fact the languages that are chosen in Moldova are Romanian (or the Moldova dialect of Romanian) and Russian. As opposed to Sweden or the Netherlands, where one can have useful discussions virtually anywhere in English, that is beyond the realm of possibility in Moldova today.

I also read "The End of Poverty." Simply stated, this (and the chapter describing how officials during the first Bush administration made sure that the states of the former USSR accrued their share of Russian debt. I thought that this was a set of simple issues (debt should be forgiven, inflation needs to be under control, farms should be more efficient and consolidated under private hands). Then I started reading some of the links that follow. My conclusion was that I shouldn't dabble in economics. But, if you'd like to read more about this struggling young country, take a look for youself at some overall IMF papers and an overview from The World Bank.

I had considered going for a photo-walk around Mereseni earlier, but the sight of a stream of water coming down the muddy road convinced me of my folly. I stayed in Peter's room and talked to him in dry mudless warmth until our departure. We had many good discussions about Adam Sandler, Skype (which we will soon all be using... Peter, Claire, Ann, and me.. either direct or with SkypeOut) and the state of computers in Moldova.

We packed up and left for the airport around 1:00. Peter's host brother, Sergiu, came to Mereseni to pick us up. Packing to leave was much easier than our arrival. We had 5 less bottles of wine, less art supplies for Costesti host family children, less a suitcase of clothes and various items for Peter, and one less computer and leather case. The two books I had read were also left with Peter, along with magazines. So, we packed up and left Mereseni, slipping and sliding up one very muddy road (Peter had taken pictures before).

Peter's host father, Dumitru, worked Saturday (he works a 24 hour shift every three days for the gas company). We saw him on our way out of town, as his truck was stopped at the side of the road in Hincesti. It seems that he went out on a call in the morning, and the truck ran out of gas (an interesting social item is that people seem to run cars and cabs on the verge of empty as opposed to the verge of full... undoubtedly this is a function of the high price of gasoline). We stopped and said our second goodbyes to him.

We then continued our trip to Chisinau (40km) and the airport. The trip was as bone-jarring as ever, but Sergiu was skilled at avoiding the potholes. We needed to go through Chisinau to drop Peter off near the PC office (so he could get a shower and talk to people) and then Sergiu would take us to the airport.

Our goodbye to Peter was a scene that would fit in a depressing Soviet-era movie. [I almost took a picture of this, but decided to be a father more than a photographer, so you'll have to use your imagination.] Sergio pulled off to the side of the 4-lane road. It was a grey and rainy day in the low 40s. The rain melted the snow, leaving a blanket of brown grit (from the sand that is used to treat the snow-covered roads). This would be a depressing day in Chicago or New York. But add to this the main passenger rail yard, a tall red/white striped power plant smokestack in the background, grey soviet apartment buildings, approximately 15 stories tall on the right (complete with wash hanging outside), and you have the correct depressing scene. Ann and Peter had a long hug (we'll see you in July 2007), and I had a good hug. Peter went off to the Peace Corps office and we went, teary-eyed on our way to the airport.

We arrived at the airport with lots of time to spare. The day became even more grey as rain set in, and we couldn't even see across the valley. One high spot was that the airline departure (all international) area was quite nice. It had a few duty-free shops and Moldovan wine shops, and was a new upbeat facility. Quite impressive. Visibility is limited enough (and Europe obscured by clouds) that there is little to visually report for this part of the trip.

The final part of the story is that we did arrive in Vienna, and checked into a hotel at the airport. A shower has never felt so good. Heck, even just the concept of a real bathroom and a kingsize bed (which was a decimal order of magnitude larger than Mereseni) was exciting. My other bit of amazement was with water and was threefold:

  1. Water (both hot and cold) came out of a faucet
  2. I could drink it and enjoy it
  3. I would not get sick later

So, we are back in civilization, and appreciating it much more than even before. And tommorrow we fly to Frankfurt and on to San Francisco.

Friday, March 10, 2006

Dinner discussion in Mereseni

Three meals a day in Mereseni were all served in the warm and toasty little house the parents cook and sleep in during the winter. Ann's favorite dish was chopped eggs, chopped crab meat and corn mixed with a mayonnaise dressing. We will try to duplicate it at home. Ann was craving some scrambled egg and toast but alas it was not to be. Maria spends lots of time cooking and cleaning up with no running water or conveniences we take for granted. She was most gracious and we enjoyed our discussions with the family.

One of the things that I enjoyed with both families (Costesti and Mereseni) was a brief discussion about life in Moldova and politics after dinner. The stories and views on each of our respective countries were interesting. The Moldova stories included:

  • Loss of savings - one of the things that I understood is that Dmitru and Maria had saved a reasonable amount of money, built their house and sent two children to college as lawyers. However, they were in a much worse financial than in the USSR. The conversation was about how they lost so much money in the banking crisis in 1998 and since. I did some research afterwards, and discovered that 1998 was a major financial panic in Russia and all of the CIS (read this Washington Times supplement from 1999... a bit dated and overly "Moldova is great and there are no problems... I do suggest reading it as a general overview, and to find out that Sacramento is sister-city to Chisinau). The value of the leu went from 5 leu to the dollar to the 13 leu today (and this is against the weakening dollar, not the Euro). There have been reports of 30-40% annual inflation. The basic issue is that their financial well-being was significantly at risk as a family. This devaluation took away the savings and resources of many in Moldova. The story is a common one... they didn't have much in communist days, but they knew what they were going to get.
  • Dmitru told a story (more than 15 years ago) about waiting five years to get a car. He finally got a notice in the mail that he was entitled to a car; he picked it up appropriately. Then, two weeks later, he received another identical letter that he was entitled to a car; he was honest and assumed that this was a duplicate. In retrospect, he wishes that he had just worked the inefficient system and taken the second car.
  • Was asked if they had more goods in stores than they did in the Soviet days. Maria said that there was moch more now, and better quality, although they have less money for purchases. Then Maria went on to describe how it worked 15 years ago. She worked a a local store in Mereseni - the Russian shoes, which is what they normally had in stock, were bad. However, when shoes arrived at the store from Germany or Poland, Maria would bring the shoes home for her family, working around the system.
  • Dmitru worked in construction in Portugal for a year (large amounts of the working adults leave the country for "black work;" in a sense, Moldova is to construction in Europe what Mexico is to landscaping in America. He did say that this was the most lucrative year of his life.
  • Discussion of having a Peace Corps Volunteer (they have had 9), how they need to do this to make up for Dimitru's more-local job that an pan-European truck driver, and how they'd like to have the money. It is hard to think of having a peace corps volunteer as a economic boost, but there are numerous stories of families with volunteers boarding having the money to buy a washing machine.

Then conversation then turned to me and our views of the US and Iraq. Peter has covered many of these topics in his blog, but I'll give a quick summary. My main That US was fighting a destructive conflict in Iraq, but that did not reflect the views of the people of the US. If I had one wish, it would be that the people of the United States would acknowledge the issues of Moldova, and spend our money to help their economy get rolling again instead of military campaigns. At the same time, I was encouraged by the government funding of the Peace Corps, and support of the many volunteers in Moldova and around the world; George Bush did double the funding for the Peace Corps.

Water was an interesting topic. One took captured water everywhere. As an example, the melting snow from the roof was collected in buckets, and then emptied in a 55 gallon drum in their cellar. This water was then used for cleaning. There was no running water in the village. When I went for my walk a few days earlier, we passed a tower (30 feet tall, somewhat rusted and with a set of pipes coming out the bottom. This was their former well for the village. It had broken a number of years ago and was not repaired. Peter also explained that the well for this had been too shallow; even when operational it was not good water. The village is applying for a grant to get a new well drilled deeper and get running water functioning again.

School Day in Mereseni

We slept in the big house in the room next to Peter's. It was quite warm and we were relatively comfortable although their idea of a double bed is not quite the same as ours. It was a sort of divan that when Ann got up to go to the loo in the middle of the night, Charlie was then off balance and fell to the floor. Good for some comic relief.

We started the day at the school with a visit with the director and adjunct director We then went to the faculty lounge; everyone came and we were introduced to them all. They too love Peter, they think he has adapted to Moldovan life very well. We presented the school with some soccer and basketballs we had brought and of course pictures were taken.

As we walked through the hallway, we were greeted with many smiles and "good mornings." The best of the day was Ryan (in the back right corner in this picture) and this interchange: "Hello Mr. Myers... What's up?"

After a brief visit to the home economics room, we arrived at Peter's class. The kids in Peter's classes were like kids anywhere. There were the top kids who were interested in the novelty of having us there, the medium kids who thought it was fine and then there were the few who didn’t really care. They worked hard on the questions for us and I think my favorite was when Charlie was asked if he loved his wife! Discussing age is done openly there and we were asked by each class how old we are, were we proud of Peter and they were looking for some childhood stories of Peter but we couldn't come up with any that would be easy to explain. Ann read some Dr. Seuss to the sixth graders and they enjoyed the silliness they could understand.

There were many other questions that they asked. Below is a small sample:

  • What is your impression of Moldova (cold, good food, friendly people (especially in villages instead of Chisinau, but we didn't say that)
  • Did you hit Peter as a child? No, not often. We did, however, klunk his and his sisters head together once
  • Do you like Moldovan wine (yes, but most places (incl. US) people do not make their own wine)
  • Mrs. Myers... do you like to cook? do you like shopping?
  • Do you like to travel? (yes, we travel around the world). I made a point to reinforce Peter's "and they speak English in most of these places."
  • How many children in your family, and where is your family from? (we explained where all we have lived in the United States, and that we are now about 11000 kilometers away from home in California. Also, our roots are all in Europe - England, France, Germany, Poland, and Dalmatia (now Croatia).
  • Who is your favorite actor?
  • What is your favorite book? (my answer was Brothers Karamazov, which I think surprised a few kids)
  • What is your favorite kind of music? Ann: Classical and pop, Charles: Rock and Roll (which is where Peter got it)
  • We asked one class where they would want to go in the US. The common answers were California, Los Angeles, New York, but one was firm on Miami Beach, because a previous volunteer had mentioned it many times
  • What is the weather like at home? We explained that it was warm (high around 20C), and that the fruit trees had started to bloom two weeks ago (that seemed to be the easiest to relate to). We also said that the weather was about the same in Moldova as in Illinois, Michigan, or New York.
  • How many tools do you have?
  • How many cars and what types do you have?

The school is clean and the kids seem happy to be there. Peter has great rapport with the students and they really want to please him, for the most part. Ann would have loved to see the kindergarten and first grade rooms to compare but since we only went one day that didn't happen.

Thursday, March 09, 2006

Communicable Diseases, or "Even teachers have sick days"

This was to be our big day at school. Peter's students have been preparing questions for us, so we were to be the focal point of the class.

Instead, we got another lesson in infectious diseases. If you refer back to the first entry, I described how a "stomach flu" had been making the rounds at the W3C meeting in Cannes. We had our worst day of symptoms on March 5, with a trailing edge in my case on March 6. Peter greeted us this morning with "thanks for bringing illness to Moldova with you." Yes, we verified that the incubation period was approximately 4 days. Backtracking, that means that we acquired this illness at the W3C reception on Wednesday evening (along with 300 other people), who have now gone back to their host countries and companies. As one example, people from the meeting in France also got sick on Saturday on their train trip to Spain. We each blamed it on bad food, until you put the details together. At least this is not a life-threatening disease (although it does give one about a day of extreme unpleasantness). But it does give you pause to think of serious communicable diseases at events like this. And I feel terrible for having visted this illness upon my son on this trip, which is made only worse by knowing that he will be spreading it around Mereseni.

So, we're not going to the school today. The day (at least for now) is inside, reading books and magazines, and staying warm. The ducks and geese are awake (they're busy honking away), and the sun is shining in a beautiful blue sky. The frost that had nearly covered the window has thawed.

I went on a walk up to the main road and to the town (two small stores and the local culture hall) with Diana and Dmitru. I saw the two stores, two bars (no fear of Peter hanging out there) and the culture hall that has the disco.

Over dinner, we had a discussion about the relationships of people in the village. Maria described how she had many godchildren in Mereseni. We were a bit confused in the godchildren discussion until we understood that children at baptism have many godparents, typically 10-20. One of her hotshot godchildren was Maria (seen here in the far left of the picture from the next day at school) and Maria thinks that Peter is pretty neat.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Women's Day in Mereseni

Today was our first quiet morning with an interpreter. Since Peter spent the night with us, he was able to join us for breakfast at the hotel and give us explanations. We learned that the main item for breakfast (and that filled the role of oatmeal) is boiled buckwheat. It's more salty (and good) than you'd think.

Our goals for the day were to stay warm, buy a bicycle for Peter, pick up a few packages of books that had been sent to the Peace Corps headquarters, and then head to Peter's host family in Mereseni.

Peter had decided that he wanted to buy a bicycle, and that he wanted to do it with me. The thought of going with my son to buy a bike so that he could learn to tear up and down farm roads the same way his father goes up and down St. Joseph's Hill in Los Gatos was too good to pass up. But it had snowed a foot a few days before, the sidewalks were compacted snow, with a nice glaze of ice on top. We knew of one bike shop near the central market. With hats, gloves and at least one set of appropriate footwear we set out on our quest.

Our first stop was the central market. It was mostly outdoors, with stalls selling everything from food to clothing and shoes to CDs of Romanian music. The produce part of the market was meagre winter goods: walnuts, prunes, dried apples, lentils, pasta, and not a bit of green vegetables to be found. After that we went into an enclosed building... the refrigerated and meat market. One picture I did get was of the butcher area (I'll let you guess which meat was being sold in this area). I took this picture very quickly (my Minolta camera has a sub-second startup time) and put it away. Peter noted that people were very concerned about having their picture taken and gave us strange looks.

We did go to the bicycle shop, but the steel window shades were down, which telegraphed the "closed" sign. It makes sense for a bike shop to be closed on a day when you can barely walk with the ice, let along ride on two wheels; but it was still a disappointment. Once spring came, Peter did buy a bike (the model 2643 full suspension from DHS Bike, but he can describe that on his blog.

Our next stop was the Peace Corps Office. It was a nice building, with a gate and intercom (and a guard inside). The guard didn't answer the first two times we buzzed, and we almost went away in disgust. We gave it one more try, he heard us, and we entered. The volunteer area was on the third floor. There was a computer room (4 computers with a broadband connection), a room with two showers (which I was soon to appreciate the utter luxury of). There was a television room, with a plethora of old VHS tapes; a DVD player had just recently been purchased. There was a "library" in the hallway of books left by previous volunteers. The one area I captured in a photo was the volunteer storage area; this is Peter's area, and that of another volunteer. In toto, it had a very strong college survival aspect to it.

I did have one experience that I have not had since moving to California. I fell on the ice twice that day (one left a good bruise you know where). The thing that I had forgotten is that ice strikes the complacent; as soon as I stopped concentrating (100 meters from the hotel front door at the end of our trek), down I went.

We returned to the hotel, and managed to pack all of our (and Peter's) stuff into the cab. We filled the trunk, and had two suitcases in the backseat between Ann and me. The trip was about 40 kilometers, and full of major bumps and weaving (to evade the even-larger potholes).

We arrived in Mereseni, and took our bags to our room for the next three days. We stayed in a room next to Peter's, and both of our rooms were heated through a common wall. A coal stove provided the heat, and the chimney was ducted through this wall.

Peter's room was a nice size bedoom and a 7x7 foot room that contained the coal stove and a table for his computer and phone. He also had a water distiller and a Brita water purifier, and the obligatory refilled water bottles (more on this later). He had a nice setup. The peace corps also provided an electric/oil radiator heater, which he loaned to us to help keep our room warm (he had the warmer of the two rooms). Maria and Dmitru stayed in the "summer kitchen house", so most of the big house was vacant, but for Peter and our rooms. It was a shock to walk out of your bedroom and be confronted with 40F temperatures.

We had heard that slippers were required in Moldova, but had no appreciation of the issue. Here's how it worked in our situation. We stayed in the main house (and had a pair of slippers for inside). We had a pair of slippers for the summer house, which is also where we ate meals. Then there was a pair of slippers to use when going between the two houses. Between all the slippers and the shoes (one did not wear shoes beyond the entryway of the house), things got quite congested.

Our hosts were Maria and Dmitru. I have a picture of both of them, Ann, Peter, and me, but I still have to do some work from the flash reflection. But Peter took pictures at other times of Maria and Diana (their 21 year-old daughter) and Dmitru for your enjoyment.

Dogs and cats are different in Moldova. Or, to look at it a different way, they lead very strange lives indoors in the United States. Animals do NOT come indoors in Moldova. They stay outside, even in the cold. They had three dogs and one cat as you can see in
this picture and this. The funniest thing is that two of the dogs who look almost identical are father and son, and do not get along with each other. So, one hangs out with another dog to stay warm, and the other keeps warm with the cat.

Wednesday was also International Womens Day. This always had vague feminist/ communist overtones, but I'd never been to where it was natively celebrated. It was basically Mothers day. We brought flowers to Mereseni (always an odd number of flowers). The Hallmark/America "giving cards" was unknown. The cutest part of the evening was that the Moldovan State TV had an hour-long show for Women's day. It was a very spring-like set (with pastel colors and sets of large flowers) and had cute kids from 3-9 years old dancing to the beat while one of the talented children lip-synched a very cute song. It was tacky in a very cute way; the only issue is that it should have lasted just 5 minutes: we went into sensory overload after that amount of time.

The outhouse (especially after the Costesti experience, which I won't describe except as "gross") was truly exciting. The building was brick, had plaster all the way to the roof (so the wind did not blow through), and had an internal light. That, combined with a real seat, was a sight to behold (our views on life have changed in a few short days). I should note that whenever Ann complains to Peter about the quality of a place we stayed, his two questions are "did it have indoor plumbing" and "did it have running water?" It helps put things in perspective quickly.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006


This was our first day to seriously venture out in public other than brief dinner sojourns the previous two days. We had breakfast at the hotel, in a room so quiet that you could hear a pin drop. Some of the items available included fried eggs (fully cooked), buckwheat (very good), and some bread, cheese, and yogurt. We asked for a coffee, thinking that we could have something like a nice Italian cappuccino. We were surprised when they went to a bowl of dark crystals, spooned two teaspoons into a cup, and added hot water: instant coffee. It turns out that instant coffee is the norm here.

Then we waited for Peter to arrive and then took a cab to Costesti for the day to meet his first host family. We originally had a plan to take a Rutiera to Costesti, but our digestive systems suggested that this was not the most wise. It is in the low 30's but the sun is trying really, really hard to poke through the grey clouds. We will all stay here at our hotel tonight and then, tommorrow, take a car to Mereseni for a few days.

Peter's first host family was wonderful and friendly... Tudor and Mila are the father and mother, Veronica is in sixth grade, and Vladamir is in ninth grade. We arrived and we spent a brief while in the front room (a couch and a few chairs. And rugs on the wall). After a brief house tour, we entered the kitchen, where we spent the next six hours.

The house was an interesting layout. One entered into what you’d call a mud room, full of shoes and coats. You then enter the house through an unheated hallway. The formal room and kitchen were on the first floor, and their bedrooms on the second. The other side of the house had a garage and some storage on the first floor, and two unfinished rooms on the second floor. Tudor has built the house himself, so it is a continuing project. In fact, construction is the major marketable skill of Moldovans: most of the black work is construction in Western Europe and Russia.

Eat, eat, fill up! The command was given at each meal as the plates of food covered every square inch. The first Moldovan meal came in Costesti at Peter's first host family. We ate in the warm kitchen with the family of four plus a cousin, her husband and baby. Many of the dishes had a familiar look to them and were quite tasty. Everything is served family style and we each use a salad plate which should be full at all times. In addition to the food of course is the wine, grown and bottled by the host family. Bottled is a loose term since it is in the cellar in a large barrel and then transferred to recycled water bottles. One is supposed to drink and toast, eat and then drink more. You have to remember that we were not at our best physically and this was a difficult five hours around a table! No bit of the chicken is left unserved (for example, one piece was the neck with the head and the comb attached), one learns quickly to identify and choose carefully. [Watch The Slaughtering of Herman if you need a referesher course on how chicken is prepared.] The people were lovely and obviously enjoyed having Peter stay with them for 10 weeks.

We had hoped to take the rutiera back to Chisinau that evening. However, we were late in leaving the house (too many pictures). So, we trudged the 1/4 mile back up the icy road to the house, and called the cab driver who had brought us here earlier in the day.

In the hour of waiting for the can, we talked about life in Moldova and their prospects:

  • Tudor was a tank commander in Germany in the Red Army. I thought the decription of just "Germany" and not east/west was interesting.
  • EC and US can't help Moldova with Transnistria (wikipedia) and ( This takes standing up to the Soviet Army. I admitted that most people in the US did not even know where Moldova was, let alone the territorial issues with Transnistria.
  • His major economic concern was getting money to buy seed crops. He can, but banks want 30% interest, and he can't afford that. In general, there is little concept of credit here (at least at the personal or village level).
  • They asked us how much our plane fare was to visit Peter. We said it was about $2,000, and there was an uncomfortable period of silence.
  • An overall observation is that this family and Peter's Mereseni family were all very friendly to us. Yes, Moldova is a poor country, but much of these issues stem from the departure from the Soviet Union and the attendant inflation and its devastating effect on the economy.

Since we missed the rutiera, we called the cab driver who brought us to Costesti earlier in the day to bring us back; he would at least know the way to their house. Driver had a college degree in economics. He spoke English well, and appears ready to get together with Peter to speak English (and the world in general). Peter did commend him for staying in Moldova instead of going outside for "black work." A few parts of the trip home were interesting, as the streets in one area of Chisinau that we travelled through were covered in ice, and this was on hills; we made it up the hill on our third attempt, but Peter's stories of finding sand were coming to mind.

Our vocabulary is growing with practice, but barely. The phrases we have learned so far are Matsu Mille (I thank you), Pooftim (you're welcome). Many things are similar to Italian. So, you can say "bene" and that means good. However, molto bene as an expression over a good meal does not work as well as it does in Italy.

We arrived back at the hotel around 8:30, and Peter lay down on the bed and was asleep (fully clothed) within 15 minutes.

Monday, March 06, 2006

Meet the Peace Corps

Monday had us out in the world. We ate breakfast at the hotel, and met the Peace Corps class (which was doing some Environmental training) for lunch. Ann physically did ok with lunch... I won't give the details on my malady suffice to say I was never far from a bathroom the rest of the day.

We had lunch with about a dozen peace corps volunteers at a restaurant near the Hotel National where they were having their class on the environment. They were all good kids, and we enjoyed their company (and their tales of ethnic divisions between Russians, Ukranians, and native Romanian-speaking Moldovans). Some volunteers are in Russian-speaking areas of the country, and reported that Romanian-speaking Rutiera drivers had purposely given them wrong directions or not notified them of stops (may seem like a small thing, but imagine it being a 20F windy wintry day, and being told "hey, it's the end of the line... get out and wait for the next bus that will be here in an hour: if you want directions, learn our language." This is all pretty tough for a Peace Corps person first assigned to Uzbekistan, then reassigned to a Russian area of Moldova when the Peace Corps pulled folks out). There were questions of whether Moldova could overcome these ethnic issues, but then they were tempered by the enjoyment of their host families.

We walked back to our hotel, and went through the local department store. It was the "old style" of department store that housed 30-40 independent business on each floor, with each business specializing in an areas as sole proprietors: ribbons, phones, electronics, plastic flowers, watchmakers, etc. It was nothing like a department store in America, and we began to fully appreciate what we have at home.

Monday evening we met up with Peter's close group and had a delightful dinner (nothing for Charlie, thank you) in a private room at a quite good Mexican restaurant (El Paso). As usual, his friends are great and it was so nice to put faces to names (a picture of the group is attached... our waitress suggested that Peter wear the sombrero).

The conversation over dinner was interesting. Some of the topics were:

  • Where one could find Guiness beer in Chisinau (yes, there is an Irish bar, and they are reputed to have been quite pleased when a CD of Irish music arrived in the hands of a volunteer).
  • There was talk of the public "closedness" of Moldovan society. The thesis was that the culture was that you did not trust another person unless they were related to you in some fashion, and then they became quite open. We have not experienced a discussion with any Moldovans other than cab drivers, store clerks and hotel staff, so we have no way to judge. One thing we did learn on Sunday was not to speak English near the police. We didn't get a long explanation, but, simply stated, were told that the police were corrupt, and being non-Moldovan was suspect.
  • Interestingly enough, there was little complaining about life in Moldova. Or, to put it another way, the level of complaint was less than complaints about national or office politics at home. A few people expressed their desire to leave early (TEFL people have it easier, since they run their own classrooms... Public Health education folks have two strikes... they are paired with a Moldovan teacher and they teach more sensitive issues such as food groups and balance and sex education).
  • Food expectations have been set. A few choice comments were "the two major spices are flour and salt," "food in the summer is all vegetables and fruit, and the winter is all meat and some potatoes," and "everything is cooked in oil." Two interesting Mexican variations were deep-fat frying the quesadillas, and putting whipped cream on top of a tostado (it's supposed to be sour cream). I will note that few, if any, of these alleged biases hindered our later enjoyment of the food… in general, once we got to the villages and native houses, I felt like I was back with my grandmother's food (from the Polish side of the family).

Other than that. I have little to report on the day, since we were in our hotel room (sick/ recovering) for the majority. Not the best way to do things, but at least we'll be healthy for Costesti and free-flowing wine tomorrow.

Sunday, March 05, 2006

First Days in Moldova

We have arrived and are doing well in Moldova. We arrived Saturday, with fresh snow (almost a foot) on the ground, and Peter meeting us at the airport (with many long hugs). If you're reading this without all of the context, Peter is in the Peace Corps in Moldova, teaching English in middle school in a small village called Mereseni. We met a woman who was bringing in a Canadian diplomat skilled in conflict resolution to help work on the Transnsitria issue (a small sliver of land Moldova bounded on the west side by the Dneister river and the east by the Ukraine. While officially part of Moldova (and the home to most of the industry that Moldova could claim) it is currently occupied by the Soviet Army. She has been working on this issue for 16 years (which, for you modern history buffs, is slightly longer than the lifetime of Moldova as a country).

We packed our bags into a taxi (we had suitcases of gifts and items for Peter) and squeezed all three of us in the backseat of the taxi. We dodged potholes on the way into Chisinau, and got to our hotel. Peter luxuriated in plumbing, fresh towels, and our shower, and then we went out for a walk and dinner (and it's been a long time since I have trudged through slush on the sidewalk). I was admonished for not being a good father and teaching my son to shave in high school (there wasn't much to shave back then), but he did forgive me. We did get a picture of the event.

We did go out for dinner with Peter, at which time he explained a few fundamental survival tips. The most notable were "don't drink the regular water: just drink bottled water" and "don't speak English near the police." The first made good sense. The latter was never explained except for the short phrase "they are corrupt." He also taught us a few words, such as "puftim," (American phonetic spelling) which, if my memory serves me well, is "thank you." It was quite impressive to hear Peter speaking Romanian fluently.

Saturday evening brought us a stomach flu that had been communicable at the meetings we attended in France (in some groups, 20% of people were impacted on any given day). Not to get too gross on the details, Ann and I threw up multiple times that evening, and were thankful that we were still in a place with indoor plumbing. We spent all day Sunday in bed, drifting in and out of sleep. But I learned to enjoy 7-up, ginger ale, and their local flatbread. Peter had classes on Sunday, so we did not meet up with him then.

Sunday evening we met Peter's host brother, Sergiu, who is a lawyer in Chisinau and Hincesti. I had put together a Dell 266Mhz 144MB Windows 2000 Pentium II laptop for him (purchased on ebay in the states), and presented this to him Sunday night. Peter did all of the talking in Romanian.

We did venture out a bit on Monday, but that's the next day.

There is a photo journal of the trip. that contains everything, but I will link to specific pictures.

Friday, March 03, 2006

And it begins

I've considered doing a weblog for years, and have been avoiding it. However, I travel to a number of places, and stop to see my children in their new homes. Claire is a junior in vocal performance and at the University of Colorado at Boulder. Peter is in the Peace Corps in Moldova. The home front is covered by Ann and me.