What Goes Back

This is a sequel to my post from August “What Goes” (you can reread it here: https://katyaskishinyov.wordpress.com/2015/08/25/what-goes/)

“Da” is the only word I know.
Will you miss Moldova?
Do you miss home?
Are you sad to leave?
Are you glad to go?
My lives are two,
But I am one.
I will always be both here and there-
Here, I was the girl from there.
There, I’ll be back from here.

What else goes back?
Three suitcases in navy
Still with tags from Emirate Air
And a sticker from Russian security.

Clothes, not very useful,
But the ones I love the most:
A hand-knit sweater dress
An apron,
Rugs worn as a skirt.

Fruits and from-scratch pastries
In the form of fifteen pounds.
Friends, already invited to my wedding.
Mounds of books that will become
Companions to my bedding.

Words in those books, words in this blog,
Words in a Russian dictionary.
Skills in speaking Russian,
For when a dictionary fails.
Thankfulness to my teachers,
And their emails.

Opinions, religion, self-reflection.
A lot of thinking,
As depicted in a local artist’s painting.

Hats, a new haircut, gifts.
A broader field of vision.
The knowledge that my life
Has been changed by this decision.

Plus a lot of other stuff
Packed not in a suitcase, but my mind.
Stuff that has made this year
More than enough.



For the past week, I have been a strict vegan. In Orthodox countries, several times of year there is a post (a time of fasting), when according to church guidelines people should decline to consume any animal products. The longest post, called the great post in Russian, corresponds to lent on the orthodox calendar (Easter will be on May 1st this year). The list of valid and important reasons the people go vegan is long: animal rights, saving the environment, staying healthy, maintaining your relationship with God.
My reasons?
1. I wonder what it would be like to be vegan.
2. I should probably eat less chocolate.
3. That amazing vegan chocolate cake my host mom made makes me believe I can actually live without eating non-vegan chocolate.
My host family observes post, so the basis of my dinners and breakfasts was vegan anyway. That’s over half the time, right? Making up the other half should be simple. All I have to do is swear off:
-Milk in my tea in the morning
-All lunches except the 5 options on the vegan menu (borscht, arugula and potato salad, cabbage and peas, beans, cheeseless pizza).
-All the German chocolate I buy
-Coffee drinks
-Cake with those coffee drinks
-Ice cream (the program somehow managed to find occasion to order it twice for us in the last week)
-Random American candies that somehow make their way to people here
-Brinza (goat cheese) on my salads, potatoes, pasta, mini sandwiches…
You know what’s funny? If you told me I had to give up any one of those, I would probably tell you that I don’t have the willpower to do it. It is actually easier to go without all of them. I think the reason is that when you have such a limited diet, everything is framed in terms of foods that you can eat, rather foods that you can’t. No one bothers to go through the regular menu and ask if every item is vegan. They just ask for a list of vegan foods, and choose from there. Among the list of foods that have become my staples:
-Placinta, a Moldovan pastry with thin dough and various fillings. My host mom makes it often during post with cabbage or nuts and jam. The nut one is sweet and helps stave off cravings for other desserts. Both are an excellent thing to pack and take with me when I will invariably still be hungry after lunch.
-Walnuts and almonds have always been available, because my family has a nut farm. My consumption of them has resurged.
-Everything fried in sunflower oil. Because eating foods that taste unhealthy is a must sometimes. When I say everything, I really mean just potatoes. But I eat a lot of potatoes, so that almost counts as everything.
-Pasta with jarred tomato-pepper something. After loads and loads of potatoes every day, pasta raises my mood as much as candy used to. Simple white carbs.
-Jarred things in general. My mom was preparing for post back in August, when she filled our cellar with cabbage, tomatoes, jams, etc.
-Oatmeal. Are it before, eat it now.
-Golupsi. If you remember them back from my post about the holidays, then about double the love I expressed for them there, you’ll have an accurate idea of our current relationship status. They are just as good without meat.
-Beets. I might have to go ahead and call them my favorite food. Filling, healthy, and they satisfy my sweet tooth.
-My vitamin. Got to get calcium somewhere. And when I looked up online good sources of calcium for vegans, I found lists that included “foods vegans typically eat”: tofu, soy milk, collards, broccoli. Um…I had broccoli a couple times here in restaurants…and the western cafe now offers tiny amounts of soy milk to add to coffee…
My conviction is stronger than I thought it would be. Of course there have been times when I’ve thought “wow, that chicken smells really good” but I’ve never actually wavered about whether I should eat it or not. The worst moment was when I actually opened a peppermint patty from America, and just as the minty chocolate hit my nostrils, I thought: I can’t eat this. By far the hardest thing to deal with has not been denying myself foods, but being hungry. Before my hunger level ranged from I guess I could eat to stuffed. Over the past week, it ranged from starving to pleasantly satisfied.
I’m no longer fasting, because I had to move host families and my new family had a tough enough time with their previous vegetarian host daughter, let alone a vegan. I’m back to eating chocolate; so much for that. However, the fact that I started the fast planning to stay vegan for an entire month made the past week, I believe, representative of how I would have felt had I actually stayed vegan for a month. And I accomplished what I set out to do, even if I started on a whim and didn’t realize it at the time. I proved to myself that nothing, not even chocolate, controls my life. I treat myself because I want to, not because I need to.
In my last two months in Moldova, I will do a lot. I will also not get around to doing everything. And I will try to apply this lesson as much as I can to my life here: doing things because I want to do them, not because I feel like I should do them. I will work towards appreciating the simple, the beets and pasta, and not constantly craving something more–which, to be honest, may or may not have satisfied me anyway.
Simple things, like enjoying my new host mom’s fried eggs, packing brinza to put on everything at a picnic, and accepting gifts of German chocolate from my friends.

Memorable moments

Each month we have to fill out anonymous quality control surveys for the program. The most recent survey included the question: “what is one memorable thing you did this month?” I was horrified when nothing came to mind. Nothing special, that is. I went to class. I read. I ate dinner with my family. I went to the theater a couple times. I made a birthday cake. I hung out in my friend’s sauna (while escaping the Romanian-language birthday party). Am I a terrible exchange student? Where’s the adventure, the what-a-great-experience-your-gap-year-in-Moldova-is? Why can’t I think of one moment in the last 30 days when I did something unforgettable?

Then I realized that the most memorable thing about this month, and the most memorable thing in general about my recent experience in Moldova, is conversations. Once I thought of this, I immediately reproached myself for undervaluing it. Caroling with my host brothers on New Years and getting lost on an abandoned kolhoz (soviet-era collective farm) in the snow are nice and all, and are certainly the anecdotes I will rely on when acquaintances want a 60-second answer to the question “How was Russia??”, but they are far from the most important memories. After all, conversations most neatly combine everything I truly want out of this gap year: learning Russian, sharing cultures and contemplating life. So here are 10 of the most memorable conversations I’ve had recently. This, of course, is only a tiny sample, seeing as I probably spend about 2 hours a day on average involved in some sort of “deep” conversation. (Come to think of it, I probably can thank the lack of adventure for that; my day-to-day life doesn’t leave a ton to talk about.)

Discussing career-family balance with my host dad. Conclusion: don’t give up family for your career, or you will end up feeling unfulfilled and will drive away your husband by being too controlling.

Discussing career-family balance with my host mom. Conclusion: don’t give up your career for your husband, or you will end up feeling unfulfilled and controlled by other people.

Ranting about geopolitics and over-focus on history with my friend. Opinions here are rarely moderate- either Russia is evil or America is evil. While the American is evil argument is not phrased this way, it certainly has Cold War flavor. The Russian is evil argument is more blatant: usually backed by the “we suffered under Stalin and Stalin is evil, Putin is basically Stalin” argument. Geopolitical problems, created. Out of nothing really that substantially exists in 2016.

Defending America’s dominance in the world to my teacher. On a test. Each week we have an oral component of our test, and one week my topic was American’s external politics. I said my bit, and then she started asking very pointed questions, like “Does one country have the right to dictate its will to the rest of the world?” For whatever reason I made the choice to complicate my life and answer yes, every country has the right to seek practical ways to defend and expand their interests, as long as they are not not in violation of international law.

Exchanging views on religion with a couple of my friends. Before coming here, my circle of friends was a liberal salad. Views ranged from moderately liberal iceberg to very liberal kale. Discussions usually centered around the degree of dark-greenest of leaf that balances healthiness and palatableness. Now my circle of friends includes, say, plums. Which means conversations about topics like politics and religion have suddenly become much more interesting. Also, for the first time I’ve had the opportunity to explain what Quakerism means to me from a religious point of view, not just the school tour “At the Friendly school, we interpret Quaker values in x y z way and love meeting for worship!”

Attempting to debate the existence of Israel with my friends. I say attempting, because we were just getting somewhere (our conclusions: it probably “should” not exist, but neither “should” America, and regardless it a moot point. And now the way to deal with that is…) when my friend’s host dad came over and asked if he could join us. By join us, he meant that he wanted to begin a photo-imbedded lecture about how awesome of a country Israel is.

Musing about the changes in our personalities and our names (and our weight…) with a friend. What exactly is different and whether it matters, and whether the changes will stick. Conclusions tbd.

Hearing about the war in Ukraine from someone whose family fled it. My friend has had a rough past few years, moving around and dealing with her father’s death.

Listening to any recollections of my host parents’ childhood. From frosting made from melted ice cream (there was no milk at the time in the city) to a dog that protected my host dad on the walk to school and low-quality shoes that did not protect my host dad from the walk to school, you would think the conclusion would be the opposite of what it is: “We were happy. We thought that out of the whole world, we were the children that lived best.”

Complaining about our frustrations learning Russian. In Russian, of course. I don’t think we’ve ever stopped to fully appreciate the irony of the fairly frequently spoken sentence “Мой русский ужасный сегодня. Не могу говорить.” (My Russian is horrible today. I can’t speak.)

Prazdniki (Holdidays!)

The holidays are finally over in Moldova. What and when exactly were those holidays, you may ask? (Secret goal: to show so many overwhelming events that clearly I had no free minutes to post anything for the last month!)

December 19, 2016: NSLI-Y students kick off the holidays with a house party. There was Secret Santa, there were cut-sugar cookies (literally cut-outs, not press-the-mold-outs), there were elf hats, there was Christmas and/or Russian music when the Internet worked, there was something along the lines of guacamole (no faulting you Nick. On the contrary. Kudos for getting close), there was ping pong, there was a guess-who type of game by only asking questions like “what element would they be?” In other words, it was great.

December 24, 2015: Do you think I’m going to say Christmas Eve? Nope. Midterm exams. Wouldn’t be the holidays without them though.

December 25, 2015: Western Christmas. Christmas is celebrated on this day in Romania, and many Moldovans consider their culture to be largely identical to that of Romania. However, technically the Orthodox Church recognizes December 7th as Chrismas by the old Gregorian calendar. The result is that some celebrate on the 25th, some on the 7th, some both. My family falls into the first category. We opened presents from under the tree in the morning, then sat down as a family to the first of many many many many праздничные столы (holiday tables). My favorite are shuba (literally fur coat), which is a layered salad made from cut up raw fish, onion, shredded boiled potatoes, carrots and beets, and more mayonnaise than I was personally willing to add. My host mom had to take over the process at that point. My other favorite is golupsi, which is rice, meat and carrot wrapped up in cabbage. After lunch my friend Sasha came over and my older host brother Kristi beat us all in Risk, as usual. (Yet to play any game of strategy with him that he has not won. Oh wait- is Jenga a game of strategy?)

December 30, 2015: Last day of class for the semester!

December 31, 2015: New Years Eve. A remnant of Soviet times, New Years is the most festive and wide-spread holiday in Moldova. It was easily my most memorable night so far in Moldova, thanks to the fact that I was invited to go caroling with my host brothers. By invited I mean I told them I was joining them, they told me it was in Romanian, and they looked at me skeptically but supportively when I told them I was in anyway. That’s how you make things happen as an exchange student. Several stressful evenings of memorizing a song about goats (that is all I understood. I got that from the fact that my host brother donned a goat costume and danced around) and four lines of well-wishes later, I was sewn into a Moldovan traditional costume: rugs hand sheared, spun and woven by my late host grandmother and a ripped-up blouse to make the skirt, about 6 sweaters and a not-ripped-up blouse on top, and a head scarf. Jingle bells in hand, we set off to knock on doors, enter strangers’ houses, sing about a goat and do something like stand-up, throw grain into their hands, and in return be lavished with candy, bread, fruit, and money. Particularly moving was one house, where we did our routine for a family that included a very ill grandmother, who, despite being in bed, unable to move or speak easily, listened attentively and nodded to us appreciatively throughout our visit. Even more moving, to the point of tears, was when my host mom gifted me just yesterday the entirety of the costume, including the rugs that her mother spent countless hours laboring over. At the end, we ran home, quickly divided the spoils, raised our glasses of champagne…

January 1, 2015: New Years Day. …we clinked our glasses, and then I absolutely, most definitely did not drink it. Rules are rules. (On an unrelated topic, I hear Moldovan champagne is very tasty.) Then my host mom and host dad both gave me a kiss on the cheek, because I told them that the only real American traditions for New Years are partying and kissing at midnight. We ate very quickly and went out onto the street, where our neighbors were all setting off fireworks. It was quite a show. The rest of the evening until 5 am when I went to sleep, I hung out with my host brothers, listening to them play the piano, introducing them to Rudolph and the Grinch (life-changing I’m sure, especially for my younger host brother. [He was asleep the whole time.]), and watching college humor, the uniting force of all 17-23 year-olds worldwide.
I have no idea what I did on the rest of New Years Day when I was not sleeping. Then again, that’s probably the case for most people around the world.

January 3, 2016: My host mom’s birthday. Lots of friends, relatives and food. That about sums it up.

January 6, 2016: Orthodox Christmas Eve. This is unrelated to Christmas, but it happened this day so I thought I would mention: merciless snowball fight with host brothers. Merciless.
Before: “Want to come play in the snow Katya?” “Sure!” Thinks: why does everyone except me have every inch of skin covered with waterproof material?
After: “Can you help me get this snow out of my hood?” Host brother comes over and dumps the remaining show onto my head. “Really? Was that necessary?” “It’s more fun this way.”
From that I assume you can guess the middle.

January 7, 2016: Orthodox Christmas. My family, as I mentioned, does not particularly celebrate this holiday. Actually, it was kind of a sad day, because my host brother left at 4 am for his university in Holland. However, my mood was lifted significantly by a) the fact that it started snowing, b) going for a hike in the snow with my friends through some forest we didn’t know of previously and c) the fact that we still had some golupsi left over.

January 10-12, 2016: group vacation in Beltsi, a Russian city to the north. Pizza, anti-Soviet museum tour, Asati’s ice rink, balloons and bowling are my biggest take-aways. Also loved the bus ride. Read lots of Anna Karenina.

January 13, 2016: Old New Years. Remember the deal with Orthodox Christmas by the old calendar? This one is New Years by the old calendar, because it is illogical of course that the most-celebrated New Years date comes before the most-celebrated Christmas date, and therefore to make everything write in the world an extra New Years is tacked on to the end of the holiday season. We had a group excursion to a village, where we witnessed the interesting tradition of dressing up like monsters and “caroling.” Also loved the bus ride. Memorized tons of words.

January 18, 2016: return to class. Which is sort of a holiday? At least I’m trying to look at it that way. Also love the bus rides. I forgot how much concentrated time that is to read and memorize words.

New pictures are up!


This past weekend we had the pleasure of getting tickets to see the famous Moldovan traditional dance troupe ЖОК (gok, where g is pronounced like in mileage) at their 70th anniversary concert (as far as I could gather from the Romanian speeches on the subject). Not only were we there, alongside some of the most important people in Moldova, but we got what I would consider to be the best seats in the house for watching traditional dance: first row of the balcony. Besides being delightful and thrilling to watch, the concert illustrated a few things I’ve been thinking about lately.

When we first were told that we had tickets to ЖОК, I couldn’t remember the name of the group in order to tell my host family about it. Through repetition throughout the concert, I learned the word. We were even explicitly given some background information beforehand, namely that the group is one of the most famous things about Moldova and that they travel all over the world. And yet I will never understand the significance of going to a ЖОК performance the way a Moldovan would. This parallels language learning, and not just the fact that it took hearing a word about 20 times in order for me to remember it. When we speak our native language, words are rich. They recall, even if subconsciously, idioms, quotes, song lyrics; through the thousands of times we have heard, read, said, written and thought them, we have a nuanced, contextual understanding of them. We feel the words; they resonate deeply. They have power, because they are at once completely independent–never hostage to specific contexts like some words are when I learn them in Russian–and completely connected to real life. For example, take the word for brother. When you see that, what do you think? Besides picturing your actual brother, probably the slang “friend”–and you probably have a firm conception of the type of person who would use brother that way–the childish and old fashioned “oh brother!,” Orwell’s “big brother,” Martin Luther King’s “little white black boys and white girls will be able to join hands with little black boys and black girls as sisters and brothers.” The word for brother in Russian, брат (brat), means exactly the same thing in a dictionary; there is not even a nuanced or connotational difference. Yet of course there is a difference in how the word is rich. It is used not just for full brothers, but for cousins; a famous movie from the 90’s called Брат; Dostoevsky’s Братья Кармазовы (Brothers Karmazov); the linguistic similarity of блат (blat, connections) and брат has probably been used in some poem, or at the very least would have been associated in my own mind; the Soviet Union’s emphasis on the “brotherhood” of nations. (Speaking of which, I read an interesting article once about how the Soviet Union’s constant use of meaningful words in cliched contexts caused a linguistic crisis, because it was very difficult to express sincerity.) You can learn a language quickly, but it takes a long time–more than a lifetime–to feel it’s full weight.

So I’m at a ЖОК concert, only partially understanding the significance of that fact. The curtain opens and out walk the dancers, eyes locked on their partners, not paying any attention to the fact that we were there. For me this gesture sent a clear message: we are doing this for us, not for you. Of course, they did end up looking out at the audience a lot, but even from where I was sitting their smiles of real enjoyment were obvious. They were having fun. The audience was not as important as the dance itself, but they were also not afraid of the audience. When I speak Russian, I almost always have an audience. That is the entire point of a language: to communicate. Yet as ЖОК demonstrated, the communication of culture was effective because it came from a place of love, not a place of desperation. It’s like an article that our teacher gave us: Меняйте слова, меняйте жизнь (Change Your Words, Change Your Life). One piece of advice was to replace должен (I should) with хочу (I want). While the examples they provided were a little ridiculous (I want to go grocery shopping!), the principle applies well to me, at a point in my life when, as long as a bare minimum of behavior and performance is maintained, there are no real negative consequences. Everything I do is an addition, not the prevention of a subtraction. And I’m doing it all for me.

After a few songs, the dancers cleared the stage and we were left to focus on just the background music, which became foreground music. I was at a ЖОК concert to see dancing, but all of a sudden I was enjoying hauntingly beautiful notes held fluttering from wooden pipes. I came to Moldova to learn Russian, and learning Russian is very nearly my entire existence, my dance: steps, formations, smile. You can dance without music, theoretically; this was demonstrated to us for a few measures, when the steps formed the only sound. You can speak a language and admire it as a pure entity too. However, mostly languages is built on people, cultures, and our own subjective selves as we interpret it. I have to be careful not to miss the background music of Moldova and the relationships I’ve made here. For example, the background music of my mom’s kindness as she prepares me breakfast right now. I should go eat it.

New pictures are up!

P.S. I highly recommend checking out some of ЖОК’s videos. Just copy and paste this blog post title into YouTube. They do a great job making high art from folk art without being snobbish about it or glorifying the folksiness; it felt like they weren’t trying to make high art at all, but rather demonstrating that the only difference between a village wedding and ЖОК is that the most talented were plucked out of the wedding and given some rehearsal to coordinate their skills. Actually, that is exactly how dancers are found, according to my teacher.

Один день Екатерины Браяновны [One Day in the Life of Ekaterina Bryanovna]

I realized that even the most loyal readers of my blog might not have a great idea what my life is like. I have spent the last two weeks writing this in an attempt to fix that. The following is inspired by a piece I wrote about a few days in my high school life (if you want to read it, let me know and I’ll send it to you, it might be an interesting contrast if this type of thing doesn’t bore you to tears), which was in turn inspired by the first real piece of Russian literature I read, a novella called Неделя как неделя [A week Like Any Other]. The title is a reference to another novella I tried, but failed, to read: Один день Ивана Денисовича [One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich] by Solzhenitsyn. Just like in that title the use of the full name and patronymic is at once dignified and ironic, highlighting the hero’s position as a prisoner, I too chose to use a Russified name for myself. Ironic, yes; as has been noted on probably hundreds of such blogs, I am never more American than when I am abroad. But just like Solzhenitsyn treats his prisoner with respect, even if no one else does, I am trying to show myself the same courtesy: I am truly making an effort to live по-русски [in Russian] (except for the time I take out of my day to write this obnoxiously long blog post), as demonstrated by the fact that I could not accurately describe my day without using the language. Unlike last time, though, I’ve provided helpful English translations for my beloved readers who don’t speak the language of the Родина [motherland].

Cello music swells, because my former best friend NPR does not exist in Moldova, which is so obvious that it shocked me when I realized that I would have to set my alarm to something else. 5:30 am с копейками [with small change] by the time I swipe left. Rejection. Silence settles until 7:00, when the weak morning light and rooster crowing would have stirred my consciousness without an alarm. But I went to bed last night without doing any homework, even though yesterday was City Day and we гуляли весь день [did not go to class and walked around the whole day] until I found myself late last night sitting around listening to drunkish Russmanian and peeling walnuts.
I click the light on by my bed and daydream (in English, yes, I’m weak) for a few minutes until I have to go to the bathroom. Slide into тапочки [slippers]. The bathroom is cold. Someone keeps opening the window, even though осень наступила [fall has arrived]. They worry I will catch a cold if I spend ten seconds with bare feet on the cold floor. Apparently cold toilet seats, on the other hand, are not an issue.
I climb back into bed and достаю [obtain with some difficulty] my school bag off the stool behind me. It didn’t occur to me to grab it as I walked past it just now. Anxiety over the presentation today sets in, prickling in my chest like a limb that fell asleep. I didn’t learn it well enough. I didn’t practice enough. But I have other homework. I debate for a moment whether to start with the yellow folder of Valerii Pavlovich’s class, which will tell me to do some mindless exercises, or the blue folder of Nina Ivanovna’s, which will tell me to do some other things that might involve effort and/or learning. I start with the yellow folder of course, finish in 7 minutes. Pull out the blue one and read: “Отвеить на вопросы на листочке. Выучить стихотворение.” Не трудно. [“Answer the question on the handout. Memorize the poem.” Not hard.]
Семь уже [it’s 7:00 already]. I consider my options for clothes today. Слои [Layers]. Jeans are clean. My favorite black turtleneck. Undershirt, so that I can avoid washing my sweaters this winter. Нечего [not bad].
Breakfast is oatmeal kasha, as usual, wrapped in a towel to preserve heat. Then an apple from our farm. Tea with a cookie after that. Back to my room for contacts, vitamin, teeth brushing, deodorant, makeup. As I bold, underline and equalize at my mirror, my mom’s voice from the mudroom as she looks over at me:
“Кат-я. Ты уходишь?” [Kaht-ya. Are you leaving?]
I don’t even know how to answer that. At once, obviously yes, I’ll be leaving in the present-to-indicate-near-future sense and also obviously no, I’m not currently doing the present-continuous-action.
“Скоро.” [Soon].
Bag thrown over my shoulder, its fringe swinging, I look in the mirror, brush my hair behind on ear, behind the other, finger comb it free, and lastly switch slippers for boots before heading out the door. As I tug at the zipper a blister stings on my finger, a product of trying on boots that were very nearly too tight for my thighs, which I guess are than those of Moldovan girls. I won’t pretend to not have felt the позор [disgrace].
The misuse of the слишком сильное слово [too strong word] simultaneously conjures the sound of Valerii’s disapproving “Нет нет нет нет нет. Еще раз объясню. [No no no no no. I’ll explain again]” and the laughter of my friends. For whatever reason, any word or expression we spend more than 2 minutes talking about in class becomes an inside joke to use indiscriminately in only barely suitable situations.
Valerii Pavlovich ate the dog in words and expressions. We therefore have a lot of inside jokes.
I’m the first one to arrive at our corner, as usual, and I wait for my коллег [colleagues]. A chill settles on the bridge of my nose, drips down to my lips, is swallowed with an indrawn breath deep to the core. As soon of they arrive, brisk air is traded for a brisk walk, and by the time we reach the trolleybus ten minutes later we have run out of conversation that everyone can have in Russian and I have run out of layers I can remove. As we stand with teens waiting to cross to the high school side of the street looking at the young adults waiting to cross to the university side of the street, I can feel the radiating disapproval of all, glancing at the coat on my arm as they bundle up more tightly. One of the most baffling facts about Moldova so far is the fur puffer coats, gloves and hats for the 60 degree tundra.
Moldovans are southerners. Of course, the soviet south was a little chillier than the American south, but все равно менталитет остается [the mentality remains anyway].
We are the first stop, our neighborhood is the end of civilization, so I get a seat and take out my transcript. I successfully used to memorize mock trial speeches of this length in this amount of time, but плохо сейчас получаться [it’s being gotten/working out poorly now]. I think the woman next to me is reading it surreptitiously. I wonder what she thinks. It’s probably not bad enough to be obvious that a foreigner wrote it, but definitely bad enough to make her think I am an idiot. Настоящий позор на сей раз [A real disgrace this time]. Не могу сосредоточивать [I can’t concentrate].
I’m cold again as I step of the bus, so I put my coat back on while everyone gets off. We set off through the park. The kiosks aren’t open yet. There is something dignified about this little patch of land where once upon a time, Pushkin wrote some poems, as we are reminded on every tour on our way past it out of the city. Dignity in the mustached busts of deceased writers. Dignity in the tall trees, beginning to golden, in the heeled and cloaked women passing by. Dignity and Truth should should set up their tents and protests here; it would suit their name and the landed молавская душа [Moldovan soul] better to camp out here on the earth rather than on the parliamentary concrete.
Plus, they might get better results. I have a feeling it would perturb Moldovans far more to have their park occupied than their main square.
The дворь [courtyard] of the university is empty save for the Americans, who get a special schedule. Everyone else starts at eight, I assume. Здоровимся, болтаем, повторяем стихи. [We greet each other, chat, repeat the poem.] A minute before nine we file into the classroom, hang our jackets on the вещалки [coat racks] our teacher insisted on having, take out pens (не дай Бог, карандаш [God forbid, a pencil]) and notebooks. Valerii Pavlovich is first today. I brace myself by pasting an expression of absolute neutrality on my face, which he has actually commented on several times when asking if I understand his explanation as to why he cannot explain the formation of past passive participles.
“Поняла [I understand],” I say.
“Мой ответ вас удовлеторил? [Did my answer satisfy you?]”
I just smile and think “нет [no].”
His face, in contrast, is очень выразительный [very expressive]: squinting, even closing his eyes, as he considers the answer to a question (“это очень тонкие вещи” [these are very fine distinctions]); lips pinched up toward his nose when we make mistakes (“стоп стоп стоп стоп стоп” [Stop stop stop stop stop]); eyes opened so wide that his eyebrows fly up when we get to the right answer (“Вот! Теперь правильно.” [Exactly! Now it’s right]); big smile when we start talking about politics or the Soviet Union.
We end up discussing gun control, which somehow came out of a reading on Russian schools.
In the break between classes we normally go out into the courtyard, but today I stay inside to reread my presentation. To my chagrin, Valerii Pavlovich engages me in conversation about my pleasure reading. He and every other Moldovan believes I should spend my time with modern детективы, женские романы, или по крайней мере рассказы [mysteries, romances, or at least short stories], and refuses to be convinced that you don’t have to be a genius to understand Chekhov.
First read through, you might miss the extremely important plot point that two characters are having an affair, which our beloved Wikipedia clarified. But keep it positive! Focus on what you do understand! That’s the way to learn!
For the first time all year Nina Ivanovna picks me to write the date on the board. I accidentally write September rather than October. Habit or internal message that I’m not ready to acknowledge that I’ve already been here for two-ish months, and therefore only have seven left? As usual, her class is on point. We each get a thorough commentary, in front of the class, on our homework mistakes; demolish some ИК [intonation]; and learn how to talk about time. Seems simple, except that when Russians say five minutes of nine they mean 8:05 and while it is “in” the day, it is “on” the week. I admire the efficiency, but no new material for me except for the expression “any day now.”
I’m sure we’ll start new material any day now.
Before we start the walk to lunch I run to the bathroom, bringing with me tissues for toilet paper. Don’t knock squat toilets until you’ve tried them. Really very comfortable.
The walk to lunch is uphill and brisk, at our pace anyway. I can almost convince myself that it counts as exercise, until one of my friends starts talking (по-русски [in Russian]) about how they don’t think they will be able to go running today, but they should have time tomorrow.
Lunch is nervous. The walk back to the university is nervous. I spend it talking (in English) about my main experience with nerves: my old frienemy Mock Trial. When I release English, especially to talk about my former life, the words run out of my mouth, desperate to be heard before I shut it again and insist on русский язык [Russian].
The presentations begin. I have my transcript in front of me. They are all so good, beautifully memorized…I guiltily repeat my presentation in my head during the less interesting presentations. The theme was people, and about a third chose their host mom. Это те, коротые я имею виду. [Those are the ones I mean]. By not volunteering, I end up going last. I realize partway through that I am last, the only thing standing between my friends and freedom is my analysis of the soviet woman in Moldova, and I cut out major chunks. It doesn’t flow as well as I would have liked, and there were probably a lot more mistakes than in the written version, but at least I had fun fulfilling one of the requirements: retell a story with dramatic effect.
Probably physically reenacting picking corn off the road and changing my voice between intimidating soviet officer and starving woman was a little more extreme than what they had it mind. Then it’s over, it’s over, I’m gone.
As we walk back toward the center, we start complaining in English about this and that, and I know that after that stress none of us will be making our usual effort to speak Russian to each other. All of a sudden dozens of police officers run out and block the road прямо перед нашими носами [right in front of our noses]. What the hell? We sort of turn back for a few steps, take out our phones and consider alerting our RD (resident director) as we are supposed to, turn back, and then it’s over, the police disperse. The лагерь (camp) seems a little more boisterous than usual, but it is boisterous in Romanian, so мы не в курсе в том, что случилось [we’re not aware of what happened].
Four of us end up walking much faster than the rest, and we decide to get gelato. We turn down the wrong street and go too far. We know this can’t be right, but we can’t imagine what is right; we are on Пушкин [Pushkin]. Everything is on Пушкин. We see another gelato place and go in, but realize that it is just some gelato that happens to be sold in Andy’s Pizza. The combination of the nauseous memory of cold white sauce and corn on pizza and the fact that the woman and the counter says we can’t order lemon with chocolate потому что не подходит [because it doesn’t work together] adds up to us deciding to leave, determined to find the right place.
One person is convinced that it is just a little farther down. Another takes out his iPad and tries to find it on the map. A third calls our RD and asks him.
Somehow, we get there. It’s amazing how after a two minute walk from the main square, we could end up on a tiny, barely drivable road with no stores, no one except an old man who asks if we are lost.
You get this anywhere in Chisinau. Driving along, you think: this looks fairly modern! Make any turn. Literally any turn off any main road, and within 45 seconds you will be surrounded by paved-ish streets and buildings in a maze, the colors of fruit sold by grandmothers and of clothes hanging out to dry on the street popping from the grey-grey-grey backdrop.
I never realized how much color commercialism adds to our life. Cereal boxes, cars, signs.
And how stunningly beautiful a rainbow of socks can be.
Pulling me from my thoughts is a rainbow of gelato flavors. I get chocolate with cinnamon. Chocolate here is a прелесть [delight]; dark, not milk. As we eat we hear about further development in plans for a belt business that one of my friends dreamed up. The brilliant idea is to shatter the apparently lucrative embroidered belts market with handmade ones from Moldovan babushki at a tenth of the labor cost. Local contacts and prototypes: this shouldn’t work but it very well might, like bees and local map apps. He could pay his way through college.
Pay his way through college Starbucks visits at least. Don’t know how I will readjust to $4 coffee.
Oh wait, he doesn’t drink caffeine. Damn, he really thought this one through.
The gelato was not satisfying enough. I buy something that tastes good when I’m not remembering that it is supposed to be something called a cannoli.
It’s dark already by the time I get to the trolleybus stop.
Молодой человек [a young man] stands up on the trolleybus and motions for me to sit down. I open my bloknote. Words glare at me as I stare out the window. Осколок, порыв, гвоздь, упрек. Толковать, тосковать, внушать, растрепать. [Fragment, impulse, highlight, reproach. To interpret, to be depressed, to inspire, to wear out.]
Растрепать [to wear out]. Растрепать.
I look at the window. An un-American night: the streetlights solidify the darkness, cracking rather than melting it. To wear out?
I glance down. Растрепать.
That one is not sticking.
I have no fully formed thoughts the entire walk home. Почему-то не скучно [For some reason, I don’t feel an absence].
The gate requires a particularly forceful shove to open tonight. I change to slippers, call out that I’m home, head for the bathroom to blow my nose. The cat jumps up on the washing machine, startling me. He meows, then purrs loudly, demanding that I greet him. I pick him up and head to the kitchen. With my free arm I lift the lids of the pots on the stove. Борщ, но не приготовлен, на завтра, небось. [Borshch, but it’s not ready, for tomorrow I guess]. Another pot seems to contain just hot milk. I’m not sure where dinner is. My mom comes in and apologizes for eating without me. I tell her it’s nothing, that I’m not that hungry. There is fish in the oven, made by papa apparently, boiled potatoes and green onion on the table. I heat up a plate. The cat is in my seat when I return, so I plop him in my lap, where he settles in very happily. My mom sits with me while I eat, peeling walnuts from our farm. She is having a long week at work, organizing seminars for her elderly clients. Ноги болят [feet/legs hurt]. I tell her about some of the other projects, don’t mention getting gelato after, complain about how I still don’t have a hobby, how long it is taking them что-нибудь устраивать [to work something out]. Мол [they say] complaining is a national pastime in Eastern Europe.
My mom says she is leaving.
“Куда ты?” [Where are you going?]
“У нашего знакомого, ну, у его жены родился мальчик. Принесу ей пить молоко, чтобы у нее было что кормить ребенка. Бедный. Плачет…” [Our friend, well, his wife had a baby. I’m bringing her milk to drink, so that she’ll be able to feed him. Poor thing. He’s crying…]
“У какого знакомого?” [What friend?]
“Ну, работник в ферме, как-то, начальник там. Знаком с папой уже пятнадцать лет.” [Uh, a worker on the farm, more like the manager there. He’s known papa 15 years already].
Как раз [just then] my dad comes in. He announces the news of the baby, then sits down at the table. I ask mama:
“Сейчас уходишь?” [Are you leaving now?]
“Нет, чай попьем, потом. Григораж-олей! Hai beau ceai!” [No, we’ll drink tea first. Gregory-olay! Come drink tea!” (in Romanian)].
My brother joins us. Green tea tonight, with honey and lemon. Gelato weighing on my conscience, I eat a slice of leftover пирог [cake without frosting] from last night. Romanian buzzes in my ear. I can’t tune it out; the second the blissful switch to Russian occurs, I am on top of it. My mom’s “слышь Катя” [listen Katya] is unnecessary. Жужу, жужу [Bz bz, bz bz]…
My host dad takes pity on me. We strike up a conversation about music. He is trying to listen to American songs to improve his overall English, which is right now concentrated on the ability to read scholarly articles about agriculture. He asks me if I like Rihanna. I reply that she was popular when I was in middle school, but not much. With a huge smile, he tells me she is black and therefore I am a racist.
I grunt and look annoyed. My mom laughs explains, as if I didn’t get it:
“Когда он сказал что он не расист, у него нечего против черных, а они ему не нравятся, ты его назвала расистом. А сейчас ты говоришь, что тебе черная не нравится, поэтому значит ты…” [When he said that he is not a racist, that he doesn’t have anything against blacks, but he doesn’t like them, you said he was a racist. And now you say that you don’t like a black person, therefore you…”]
I talk over her. “Поняла. Но если бы я сказала бы, что она мне нравится только из-за того что она черная, я как раз станет расистом, расист думает, что человек не человек, а относится к группе прежде всего…” [I get it. But if I had said that I like her just because she is black, that would in fact be racism, a racist thinks that a person is not a person, but a member of a group more than anything else…”] They are already not listening anymore.
My dad mentions that he read my transcript. Ну как [what’d you think], I ask. It was interesting, but there were mistakes of course, he says.
Of course. Of course there were. I can rationally explain why this should not upset me at all.
I convince my mom to let me do the dishes, reminding her of the hungry baby. We exchange kisses on the cheek.
Back in my room, I have missed a lot of messages in our group chat. Their words fill my chest like the good food filled my stomach. These clever, fun, diverse people are my friends. Круто [dope]. There’s the standard homework clarification, this time about a Washington task:
“How long do the riddle things have to be”
“What riddle things?”
“100 words”
“Oh for the quest. Yeah 100 words”
“I just realized they can be in English.
I’m so good at English”
” *have to be in English”
“Well if they insist
I’m not going to fight them
Who am I to play god”
“Surprised the revolutionary spirit in this city hasn’t affected you”
With that perfect seguidor the conversation turns to the insanity of this country’s government. They figured out that the commotion we saw in the street today was the former prime minister and current leader of one of the two parties in the coalition currently in powder being arrested. We saw one of the most powerful people in Moldova get arrested. From that launching point I’m now getting the least dry crash course imaginable on all the political changes of the last few years from someone who is clearly giving themselves a crash course as we talk, все удивительно, изумно [everything is surprising, shocking]. A prime minister who were also the president because no one wanted to be president. A prime minister who forged a high school diploma. A prime minister who was prime minister for eight days.
“Do you even put that on your resume?” I write.
The last thing I see of the night is that a 6 year old brother is now throwing real darts at a dartboard and the host mom is not around. I hope that doesn’t end poorly. Все хорошо, что хорошо кончается [All’s well that ends well].
I decide to put off homework until tomorrow morning, as usual. Run my fingers through my hair to decide whether to take a shower. Eh, I took one yesterday. The thought of fighting with the temperamental temperature, and even more so, the moment when I’ll have to put down the shower head and soap myself in the cold air, is not particularly appealing. Раскладываю [lay out] the old off-white Chekhov book from the library, my red dictionary and my blue bloknote on my lap. Working through Три сестры [Three Sisters] for the second time now, I внимательно читаю и пишу новые слова [read attentively and write down new words]. Стараюсь. [I’m trying.] I love them, these sisters, I want to breathe in the stuffy on-stage air that заглушает [muffles, stifles, deadens] their lives and breathe out their words, their living words. Они все мечтают по-своему. Одна неспелая, другая разочарованная, а третья–одновременно и так и так. [The all dream in their own way. One is immature, another disillusioned, and the third is both at once]. My eyes soon start to щипать [sting, burn, tingle] so give up on the reading for today and update my little personal dictionary by making letters of yesterday’s scribble and an exact Russian word from the letters and an English word from the Russian word. Of course left out of all this sense making is the original sense of the conversation from which I must have plucked these words. I don’t remember. My life is microscopic. I memorize the details, feel the moments, but can’t conclude, summarize, remember…
Осколок, порыв, гвоздь, упрек. Толковать, тосковать, внушать, растрепать. [Fragment, impulse, highlight, reproach. To interpret, to be depressed, to inspire, to wear out.]
Take off my sweatshirt. Drop it on the floor. Take out my contacts. Drop them in the пакет [plastic bag] on my desk that I use as my trash can. Click off the light. Climb under the covers. Fall asleep instantly.
Wake up to the cat meowing. Didn’t know he ночевал [spent the night] with me. Stumble to open the door. Fall back asleep.
Dream that we get moved to Estonia. Wake to a pounding heart and a damp pressure in my eyes. Overwhelming relief and gratitude when I realize that no one is making me leave. Fall back asleep.
Wake up to gentle light and the crow of a rooster.
Блин [shit]. I forgot to set my alarm.

Toto, I’ve got a feeling we’re not in Russia anymore

Before departing and even for some time after arriving, I was often guilty of mixing up the language I would be studying for the next year with the country in which I would be studying. “When I’m in Russia, I will have classes for four hours a day,” I might say. Or, speaking of last night’s dinner: “Russian food seems very fatty, but I never feel gross after eating it.” Of course, I knew this was a mistake, and when I noticed I corrected myself. Yet it has taken a month for me to truly believe wholeheartedly that Moldova is a very different country, that it is not just incorrect but wrong for me to now confuse the two. Here’s a dozen reasons why:

1. “Citizen ambassador?” Please.
When the rep from the State Department came to give his official spiel, we talked about our role as a citizen ambassador, how personal connections contribute to world peace, etc. etc. With a few exceptions, namely the host parents who never learned Romanian and look back very fondly on the Soviet Union, people here are even less naive than we are about the full spectrum of motives for the program. No need to dance around the fully name of the program (National Security Language Initiative for Youth) or avoid the fact that we are funded not just by the DoS, but also the DoD and NSA. At orientation we were warned to be careful talking about politics, because the political views of the people here might differ strongly from “ours” (i.e., America’s). Which is true, especially among the Russian speaking population with whom we spend most of our time. But it is even more likely, especially with young people, that feelings toward Russia and Putin are just like those in America, but often even stronger. When I was out walking with a friend, an elderly woman we had never met before struck up a conversation with us. Five minutes later, after telling us about the bad weeds we need to trample on the path and how her daughter is living in America, she launched into why Putin is a terrible human being.

2. Speaking of Russian leaders
In Russia, Stalin was a great, if also terrible, leader. Constantly harping on his minor failings–killing millions of people–was fashionable in the 60s, then the 90s, but has once again gone out of style. Here, it is the reverse situation: anything Stalin might have done that was good is the controversial point of view. Sure, after the city was destroyed, the USSR built a lot of new apartments and schools. But also Stalin not only took over the country, but refused my sister education because she was the daughter of a formerly rich peasant, put my aunt in prison for gathering kernels of corn from the dirt on the road because her family was starving, sent my grandfather to Siberia, and we never heard from him again…

3. Soviet relics…
For all the back and forth about whether the Soviet Union was great or terrible (conveniently, there is actually a word in Russian to describe this phenomenon, when something is both great and terrible: грозный), there is more leftover Soviet stuff than in Russia from what I saw there. For starters, poorly built but culturally-symbolic-of-hope apartment buildings quickly build under Khruschev (Хрущевки) were torn down decades ago throughout Russia. In Moldova, they still stand! For anyone interested in Soviet architecture, getting to see one in person is actually kind of exciting. Also, while about half the trolley buses are new, there are many that look like they were born in a similar year as my parents. My mom has a mixer and a sewing machine she got when she was younger than me. Both still work.

4. …without Soviet names.
Ask a passerby in Petersburg or Kazan how to get somewhere, and they’ll tell you in a second. Ask someone here, and they are just as likely to shrug. While I can’t be sure, I think this is in large part due to the fact that very few streets and landmarks retained their Soviet names. People don’t know what you’re talking about either because you are using the Russian name that in no longer really in use, or because you are using the new name that they aren’t very familiar with.

5. Old men
Old men just don’t exist in Russia, especially not when compared to the droves of babushki. Host grandfathers were very rare. Here, while they aren’t quite as common as babushki, there are also plenty of dedushki. I have two theories: the WWII generation was more evenly wiped out (that is, not just men died fighting but women died from starvation), so there is less of an imbalance, or, and this seems more likely, there is more wine drinking and less vodka drinking among the male population.

6. Pink and orange? Acceptable.
In Russia, going out with black shoes and a brown purse would be an atrocity. Here, it’s no big deal. Actually, I’ve seen quite interesting color and print combinations. It’s not that the women are less put together, they are just put together less according to the “rules.” Jewelry is also much less common.

7. Золотая осень (Golden autumn)
The weather here is beautiful: four crisp seasons. Thanks to an assignment, I ended up in a long conversation with my host family about all the different seasons. I was supposed to find out what their favorite was and why. They both came around to winter as the answer, but not without describing the best parts of every season. As far as I’ve seen it, it was very hot (unusual, I’m told) for a while and now it is a very pleasant fall with temperatures ranging from brisk and jacket-requiring to comfortable in short sleeves. I won’t give numbers because I wasn’t told them in Fahrenheit and they still don’t mean much to me in Celsius. For most Russians Moldova and Southern Ukraine were to the Soviet Union what California is to us in terms of weather…

8. Grown in Moldova
…and not just in terms of weather. Moldova used to feed half the Soviet Union, so I’m told. Could be an exaggeration. Could also be less of one. In Russia, fruits were mediocre and generally not an important part of the diet. Here they are so important that in order to get through the winter people jar fruits in enormous quantities. Our cellar (yes, very legitimately a cellar, it is not attached to the house and only stores food) is currently full of different jams, canned tomatoes and pickled everything.

9. Not made in Moldova
Besides food, there is nearly zero industry here. I was about to write except for the Bucuria candy factory, then remembered that candy counts as food. The entire mentality of a small agrarian country differs in this respect from a large country like Russia. People are very careful with their things, from ancient mixers to books, which libraries are reluctant to loan. There is a general air of dependence–independence for Moldovans is the freedom to choose on whom to depend. Russia is pretty much self-sufficient, just like America. In Moldova, as you would expect from the local protests and in general the situation throughout Eastern Europe, the core of the conversation is less about what Moldova and more about Moldova’s partners.

10. Green means go, as does eye contact
Unlike in Russia, jaywalking is less of a thing here. It happens, but most of the time, if there is a pedestrian light, people wait for it. Key word being if. Most of the time, the correct way to cross the street is to simply start crossing. Cars and trolley busses actually will stop for you, even if it seems like they are going to run you over. Of course, eye contact with the driver is important before just running out into the street.

11. Зеленый борщ (Green borsch)
Want to confuse a Russian real fast? Engage in the following dialogue.
Russian: “I’ll have the borsh please.”
Moldovan: “What kind? Red borsch?”
Russian: “The borsch borsch.”
Moldovan: “I recommend the green borsch, actually. It’s very fresh.”
Russian: “What??”
Moldovan: “The green borsch. Without beets.”
Russian: “Borsch always has beets.”
Moldovan: “Green borsch doesn’t.”
Russian: “Are you talking about shchi?”
Moldovan: “What’s that?”

12. Buna Ziua (=Здравствуйте=Hello)
It wouldn’t do to forget the obvious. Nearly all of my conversations with strangers start in Romanian, and I am forever in the uncomfortable situation of apologizing for not knowing said stranger’s preferred language and switching the conversation to Russian. I am in a country where I can function perfectly well, but I cannot understand what is going on around me much of the time. I can only engage with a conversation when someone who knows I don’t speak Romanian directly addresses me. I can only imagine what it is like for the Moldovans who live here and don’t speak Romanian. Gives me some sympathy for Transnistria. Also, speaking of language, the accent. Moldovans love the “ah” sound, while Russians tend to reduce further to “uh.”

13. Plus one
Alright, a baker’s dozen. I add this hesitantly because it relies less on my personal observations and more on what Moldovans have told me, so take it for what you will. The differences between western and eastern personalities are clear, but I did not spend enough time in Russia and have not yet spent enough time in Moldova to comment in great detail on the fine differences between Russian and Moldovan characters. In general, Moldovans seem more relaxed and open than Russians. You are less likely to see someone walking down the sidewalk quickly, gaze focussed straight ahead like people walk in Russia, for one thing. My well-practiced Russian blank stare has proved unnecessary.

New photos are up. Enjoy.