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to grow you must eat (and to eat you must grow)

I feel like I’m at the point in my exchange trip where Russian is finally starting to become my default. I definitely do not feel comfortable communicating yet — that would take a lot more than six weeks — but I am able to get across what I’m thinking more and more. I’m also really enjoying myself here and if given the chance I would love to come back and visit Moldova.

This week has been mostly school-oriented. But you know me; I can’t help but procrastinate a little bit. (Ok, more than a little bit).

This procrastination this week has taken the form of getting a haircut, a massage, and visiting the Jewish cemetery. The haircut was pretty darn fancy; it was my first haircut ever where a hair-washing has been included! I’m a SuperCuts kinda guy. And at the reasonable price of 10 US dollars, I was very satisfied. The massage was a tad more expensive, and I do not have any way to judge its quality because it was my first (and probably only) massage experience. The zen meditation music made me want to punch something.

Yesterday was also the mid-program evaluation, which sounds scary but was really just a nice chat with the Resident Director. He informed me that I am not failing my classes. Thank Kabbalah Monster.

The Jewish Cemetery in Chisinau hidden in the northwestern corner of the city, close to the university where we are taking classes. I went with a few friends to pay our respect to the victims of the Holocaust in Moldova and I was blown away by what I saw. The cemetery is overgrown with ivy, and there are very few paths that aren’t covered in plant matter. We found it difficult to avoid stepping on gravestones at some points of our walk. The graves that are marked, however, are very ornate and many even have etched drawings of the deceased. I was able to place some stones on a few of the graves and say Kaddish. In the heart of the cemetery is an abandoned synagogue. What once was the floor is now covered in litter and more ivy. There is graffiti all over the walls and the arches are starting to crumble. There are no accessible entryways — we had to squeeze through an iron gate that was slightly ajar but stuck in the gravel. But despite all of the debris and the state of disrepair, the temple had a magical quality to it. Light came in through the dome and reflected on the broken liquor bottles, and we all stood in the center of the space in awe for about 15 minutes. Photos don’t do it justice.

 

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mormon game night + almost transnistria

This week has been jam-packed with activities! Not sure if I mentioned my interaction with some Mormon missionaries from Idaho and Utah in the park a few weeks ago, but they invited me and the rest of the cohort to Mormon Game Night (trademark pending)! We decided to get out of our NSLI-Y bubble and took them up on the offer. Turns out Mormon Game Night is very popular with both Mormons and Moldovans alike. I was able to make a few Moldovan teen friends and we are planning on hanging out this week. The missionaries were very accommodating and tolerant of our horrendous volleyball skills. We chatted in Russian, English, and Romanian, and were able to have a nice night out on the park away from our studies. I’ll keep you updated on how I did on the grammar test the following day – whoops! I think Mormon Game Night will take a spot on my calendar for the next few Thursday nights.

Ok, on to the next topic: Moldovan dance workshop! This one was not my favorite, as it consisted of 20 clumsy Americans desperately trying to keep up with the instructions of the two dance teachers. I think we ended up getting the basics down, but one would be hard-pressed to call it “dancing.” More like clomping in a line for two hours.

Today we went on a group excursion to the bank of the Dniester River for a traditional Moldovan festival called “IA Mania.” From what I could see, there was no clear theme to the festivities, but there were stalls upon stalls selling baked goods, drinks, and Moldovan shirts. There was also a child wrestling ring, where kids aged 4-8 wrestled pretty intensely surrounded by about 100 cheering onlookers. Not something you see every day in the US. We were all given traditional Moldovan outfits for the festival and fit in quite nicely. The most exciting part of the excursion, however, was our brief glimpse of the enigma that is Transnistria. Trans = across, Nistr = Dniester River. NSLI-Y students are forbidden from going to this breakaway republic, and Americans are strongly advised against it, as the Russian military presence is considerable, and the situation is still quite tense. I’m attaching the wikipedia link if anyone wants to read more: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Transnistria

After a long day of fun in the sun, I sat down at the kitchen table with my host family to make some Uzbek dumplings, or manti. My host mom lived in Uzbekistan for 15 years, so is an expert on all things Central Asian. We made the manti completely from scratch. Alina made the dough, I prepped the onions and ground the meat with a hand-grinder, my host mom crushed up the cumin and other spices, and then we all folded up the little dumplings together and plopped them in a custom manti steamer. Our hard work paid off — they were probably the most delicious things I’ve eaten here so far (and there has definitely been some competition).

Photo time!

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a reflection on nationalism

Yesterday was Independence Day back home, and I found myself feeling remarkably unpatriotic and to be honest a bit embarrassed to be an American right now. Even without being immersed in the barrage of bad news, (I am a huge news junkie), and even with my pledge of only watching a half-hour of American news per day while I am here in Moldova, I have found myself thinking way too much about the political tailspin occurring in the US. We had the day off for July 4th, and due to the bad weather recently, our group excursion to the water park was cancelled. Most of the group opted to go to an American restaurant with some other expats but some friends and I went on a long walk in the park and ate some good ol’ La Placinte instead. I didn’t realize at the time that I was intentionally avoiding any America-related festivities, but I think it was some kind of subconscious aversion to further expressing my American-ness, or just foreignness in general.

Moldovan nationalism is a completely different phenomenon than the fiery, rhetoric-filled American nationalism that is currently on the rise in the US. Here it is something much more subtle, and much more inclusive. I have found that despite the overwhelming racial homogeneity in Moldova — I have only seen four non-white people so far — nationality is an equally big deal. However, at least on the surface, tension is not very visible between Romanians, Russians, Ukrainians, etc. From what I have seen, people are much more willing to branch out and accept people of other nationalities. Perhaps it is out of necessity; part of it is definitely due to the contentious history of Romanification and Russification; but I think it also just has to do with the fact that people here, while blunt, are overall more tolerant than people in the United States. Even when we visited Gagauzia, an autonomous region in the south with a predominantly Turkic population, I saw people code-switch between Gagauz, Romanian, and Russian without a problem.

I guess what I am trying to get at with this post is that language learning is essential if we want to break down barriers. As recently as the last election back in the US, there was a huge campaign in California to keep English as the only language that can be taught in school for ESL students. It boggles my mind why we as a country are so resistant when it comes to gaining deeper understanding of others, especially in the context of language learning. The predominant mindset is “you come to America, you’d better learn English and assimilate or you will get left behind.” Here, it is, “I prefer to speak Russian, but my colleagues all speak Romanian, my husband is Ukrainian, and we want our children to be able to get good jobs, so we are all learning English together.” I am very grateful to have received this scholarship to learn Russian, because without it, there are very few resources to learn it back in San Francisco. Programs like these are essential for the future of our country and I hope Congress will continue to fund them.

 

Anyway,

 

Sorry for the late post — I will try to be more on top of things in the next few days. Photos to come!

stress reduction

Class has been picking up speed this week and homework is overwhelming but helpful. We are about halfway finished with our Russian case charts (which explain the countless rules and exceptions to noun declensions). Hey, that rhymed! Everyone is settling in to the routine here and I have been loving every moment of my Moldovan life. I could do without the 90 degree weather, however. This week we took a short trip to Orhei Monastery, about an hour north of Chisinau. It is located in a huge circular valley surrounded by steep cliffs, so when we drove down to the valley floor, it seemed like we were inside the footprint of a crater. The monastery was relatively plain on the outside, but the interior was filled with ornate paintings and decorations. We were also allowed to walk inside the caves below the monastery which used to serve as storage for a fortress that the Mongol Golden Horde used. The history here is very interesting but I haven’t been able to understand a lot of what our teacher has told us so I’ve been using Wikipedia to supplement my knowledge.

After a long three days of classes (oh god it’s only Wednesday), my host mom announced that we were going on an impromptu trip to the Black Sea. I was a tad confused, given that Moldova is not on the Black Sea, but said “Da,” my standard answer to everything, and off we went. It turns out the purpose of the trip was stress reduction for the dogs. My host mom took turns walking each dog about 20 feet into the lake so they could paddle around, and then after about 15 minutes of all the rest of us watching this exercise, we packed back into the car and went home. I must admit that the dogs were much less obnoxious on the car ride back, so I’d say the mission was a success.

I am planning on posting again tomorrow because there is a whole other VERY INTRIGUING story to tell. However, since it is an ongoing story, I shall channel my inner James Comey and save it for tomorrow. Stay tuned.

Side note: I have no idea how to respond to comments on WordPress so I just want to assure y’all that I am not ignoring you, I am simply incompetent.

Photo time!

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i was struck by lightning!

Not really. It was at least two feet in front of me. However, I was struck by a metaphorical lightning bolt entitled “always prepare for the worst.” Today after a long Friday at school, our first exam of the summer, and an overwhelming first week here, a group of friends and I decided to go for a little jaunt to Malldova, the largest mall in the country. Major props to them for the wordplay. I dig it. Malldova was exactly like any mall you’d find in the United States, but with plenty of half-English half-Romanian store names and a lovely establishment called Don Taco. We were tempted to see Wonder Woman in Russian but it was getting late. And then the rain came. When I say rain, I don’t mean a nice hearty San Francisco style drizzle — I mean a TORRENTIAL downpour of water. The sky went gray and there was thunder and lightning and flooding (oh my!) My host mom called me and told me to come home right away. Cameron and I then proceeded to run to the bus stop through shin-deep water. That’s about when the lightning bolt appeared before me. Excuse me if this whole blog post reads as gibberish — my brain might be completely fried right now. I walked in the house soaking wet after the two-bus and ten minute walk commute home. Definitely bringing my raincoat with me tomorrow.

Other than that excitement, this week has been pretty low-key! I went to the bazaar yesterday but was not ready to do any hardcore bargaining quite yet. Class has been great and food has been excellent. The group’s favorite restaurant so far is La Placinte, which is about 15 minutes from school. I finally went to the park near my house yesterday evening and it was so beautiful. There was live music, kids running around the edge of the lake, couples strolling, Moldovan teens skateboarding, the works. I am planning on spending a lot more time there when the weather improves. Maybe I’ll even go running!

Tonight was Shabbat, so my host dad and I went to synagogue together. It was your standard orthodox service (very very long) and everyone there was so welcoming … and also quite tipsy by the end of dinner. I don’t have pictures, unfortunately, but it was a beautiful space. I am definitely going back next week. I also promptly forgot my own commitment to bring a raincoat and to be prepared for the worst because we got caught in another rainstorm on our way home from synagogue. That brings the wet outfit count to 2!

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the deep end

Moldova is unlike any place I’ve ever been. Everything seems strangely familiar (maybe the omnipresent Romanian subconsciously reminds me of Spanish?) yet I still feel completely out of place. I love it. My host family has been incredibly warm and welcoming and I can tell that we are going to have an amazing time together this summer. They just finished hosting a NSLI-Y Academic Year student from Texas, so they are pros at the hosting game. I have my own room and a great view of the garden, which is filled with fruit trees and flowers — I picked some cherries yesterday. I arrived here yesterday after a day and a night at a hotel in Eastern Chisinau. I promptly fell asleep for 5 hours, then had some delicious home-made borscht, and then watched some Russian news and detective shows with the family. The three dogs here are insane, but I am used to crazy dogs so it’s been fun coming home to a cacophony of screaming mini-dobermans. They are show dogs and are treated like the babies of the family. Today was day one of school at Ion Creanga State Pedagogical University, a lovely campus about 20 minutes away by bus. My jetlag and minimal knowledge of Russian grammar made for an exhilarating first day — we started off by taking a two hour placement test which I absolutely bombed, and then screamed the Russian alphabet for about an hour. I’m not joking. Our phonetics teacher really likes it when we PROJECT. I have some qualms about being placed in the most advanced of the three groups given my novice level, but I’m going to stick it out for a little while. I can deal with alphabet yelling but if class this week is anything like the placement test I think I am going to kindly ask to move down a level. Regardless, I’m cramming tonight in order to improve communication with my host family at least. I’m so grateful for all they are doing to make my stay enjoyable and productive and I hope I can contribute to their family in some way.

Chisinau itself is beautiful. I’ve never seen such a verdant city! The old Soviet architecture is incredible and it feels like there is a mini-park next to every building. My host family’s house is next to a huge park with a lake and also the Turkish embassy (don’t worry I’ve been steering clear of the many armed guards hanging around and have refrained from outwardly protesting President Erdoğan.) I have a sense that this is a more well-off neighborhood of Chisinau but I still have much of the city to explore.

P.S. Walker and I stumbled upon an abandoned Moldovan amusement park!

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1 fish 2 fish asian cafe / an ode to air conditioning

The past few days have been overwhelming, exhausting, and informative. I have been more extroverted in the last 48 hours than in the last two years. There is a Trader Joe’s right across the street from the hotel which has led to the impulse buy of a blueberry pie and many boxes of peanut butter chocolate cups. Today marks the end of Pre-Departure Orientation (or PDO as the cool kids say) in DC; tomorrow we actually leave for Moldova. We were able to get in a bit of sightseeing after sitting in the American Councils office building all day which was a nice change of scenery and a chance to stretch out our legs. Just for some context, I am being briefed on the trip with my fellow Moldova cohorts along with the group headed for Narva, Estonia. It appears that the Estonian kids are way more advanced and I have picked up some useful phrases from them. The two groups will split off tomorrow at the airport and go on to our respective sites. Today’s briefing included health and safety tips, program rules, a speech by a representative from the State Department (yes! it still exists!), and a panel with some alumni from last year’s programs. And an orientation would not be complete without your standard set of icebreakers and team-building exercises. There are also some truly incredible people here and I’m excited to learn more about them. Around half of the Moldova folks have formal Russian learning backgrounds, and the rest of us are stumbling into the void. Speaking of the void, today I was informed that my host family has three mini-doberman pinschers. Huzzah for dogs — even tiny ones! On another note there is a giant EU flag flying outside my hotel window which seems oddly fitting, although today we were given a presentation on how to be apolitical while in Moldova, at least until we get a better understanding of the issues from a local perspective. One of my favorite lines: “If someone asks what you think of Donald Trump, you should reply that you don’t know him personally.”

We leave for the airport at around 1:30pm tomorrow for a red-eye to Munich. I downloaded some This American Life on my phone and I am going to will myself to do a little bit of Russian review before we land, but the chances of that actually happening are slim. Now on to the photos!! (my apologies for the poor quality – I haven’t had the chance to take out the big camera yet).

 

See ya in Moldova!!

-H