Monday, January 26, 2009

Site-ul meu complet

I am a man of many hats, and therefore I have created many different websites over many years to cover many aspects of my life. From now on, the center of my web universe will be From there, you'll always be able to find out what I'm doing and find the web presence of my next adventure, whether it be politics, travel, or other things.

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Si acum, un om politic

After much thought, I have decided to run for the U.S. House of Representatives in my home district in California. Please visit the campaign web site and get involved.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Si apoi, ce?

What's next for me? I invite you all to read my new blog, The Trip: Rediscovering America by Car, as I document my long road trip across America.


Tuesday, August 14, 2007

La revedere

Tonight, I'm closing out my blog. Not from Moldova, but from Lincoln, Nebraska.

A lot has happened since my last post: a four-day camp in my village put on by several volunteers, a handful of Moldovans and myself; a spectacular week at the Peace Corps' national English-language summer camp; finishing up my work in the school's computer lab; a week-long crash course for the functionaries in my village's primaria; a trip to Milestii Mici, a wine factory and underground cellar that has won a place in the Guiness Book of World Records for its 55 km of wine storage space; and a visit to Transnistria, the breakaway republic that claims the eastern portion of Moldova. I might return to the blog and fill in these stories when I have the time, but I want to talk about the most important part; saying goodbye.

The first big goodbye was to the cleaning ladies at my school. I invited them to a small masa at the school one night, and served them a simple fare of salami, bread and ketchup. Of course, I also included a lot of champagne and wine. This handful of women clean the halls and most of the school's classrooms, including my own, every day, and they are rarely appreciated, monetarily or otherwise. Each of them makes less than $40 a month, with which they have to support themselves and their families. I gave them a small present as we parted for the night, and exchanged kisses on the cheeks with each of them. One of them, Doichita, a large, boisterous and hilarious woman in her 40s, picked me up off the ground and kissed me on the lips.

I had decided to leave my village a full week before my flight to America, meaning that Saturday would be my last night in the village before leaving Sunday morning. During the day on Saturday, I visited and said goodbye to some of the teachers with whom I was close, and that night we had a big final masa at my house, which included my host family, my host dad's relatives in the village, a set of neighbors with whom I was close, and the school's principal and her family. All told, there were 18 of us at a table with barbecue pork, salads, and a load of other foods that I can't remember but ate a lot of.

The next morning, I ate my last meal with my host family, including Maria and Dumitru, my host parents; Diana, my host sister; Sergiu, my host brother; Olesea, Sergiu's wife; and Gabriel, their one-year-old son. Ever since he was born, I had spoken only English with Gabe. He understood some of what I was saying, but he had never said a word of English back. Then, at the last meal with the family, he pointed to the fruit pattern on the tablecloth and said, "apple". I pumped my fist in the air and declared my mission accomplished.

After breakfast, I finished packing and loaded my things into Sergiu's car; I was going to leave most of my bags at his house and stay there a couple nights during the week. Once the car was packed, the seven of us stood in front of the house and passed around a final glass of wine. I teared up just making toasts.

"I've seen you more in the last two years than I've seen my real parents in the last six," I told Maria and Dumitru. "I remember how I felt when I said goodbye to my family in America two years ago. It feels the same now here."

After two glasses of wine, it was time to really say goodbye. Sergiu drove out the gate, and we walked after him. I kissed Maria and Dumitru goodbye, and I'm not ashamed to say that all three of us were openly weeping. I got in the car, and soaked in every detail of what would be my final drive through the village for a long time.

I said lots of goodbyes to other Moldovans not from my village in the following week, but I don't think I need to document each one of them here. Suffice it to say that there were many people with whom I would have liked to spend more time, but my two years had run out, and it was time to move on.

My flight back to America was scheduled for 8:30 a.m. on Sunday, August 5, and I almost slept through it. I had been out drinking until 2 a.m. with some of the volunteers who had come in 2006 and still had another year of service, and I was sleeping alone in a hotel room. I had set my alarm for 5:15 so that I could wake up, get dressed and walk a mile to the Peace Corps office. There I would meet with Shawn, my friend who was flying home on the same day as me and was going with me to Frankfurt on the first leg of the trip. Our plan was to meet at the office at 6, take showers, and be in a cab to the airport by 6:30. I woke up at 6 when my phone rang. I didn't answer in time, but I saw that I had missed a call from the Peace Corps and realized I was running late. I got dressed, hustled downstairs, and hired a cab to take me to the office. I got there, took a shower, and we got in a cab at 7.

"Hey, 6:30, just like we planned," I said to Shawn.

The flight was uneventful; in fact, Shawn and I both fell asleep almost as soon as we were in the air. Our conversations before and after sleeping centered mostly on the phrase, "We did it."

Our flights to AmericaÑhim to New York, me to AtlantaÑleft from gates that were near one another, so Shawn and I were able to walk around together in the airport, although I had to hustle to make my connection. I took time, however, to notice a drinking fountain.

"Whoa, hold on there, Shawn," I said as we both stopped in our tracks. "I think we've got something here." He laughed as I bent down and used a drinking fountain for the first time in years.

After I finished, we continued walking. "You know, Pete," Shawn said. "When you said, 'I think we've got something here,' there was a girl in front of the water fountain, and she turned around and gave you the dirtiest look." I laughed; obviously, not everyone can share my joy in the simple things.

When we arrived at the final security checkpoint, a Delta representative hurried me through the line because my flight was leaving soon. I said a rushed goodbye to Shawn, and then walked quickly to my gate, where two other passengers and I were running late. One of them was a tall guy with an American flag on the back of his hat, who told the lady at the gate he was coming from Kuwait and responded to everyone with "Sir" or "Ma'am". He and I found out the same bad news at the same time; our flight had been overbooked, and Delta had to put us in first class. We walked down the jet-way with big smiles on our faces, and we briefly introduced ourselves; I was coming back from two years in the Peace Corps in Moldova, and he was coming back from his third eight-month stint in Iraq with the Army's Special Ops.

Minutes later, I was sitting in a seat that I would later find out cost everyone else around me Û5,000. Evidently, another passenger had noticed that something was wrong with the headrest on my chair, but when a mechanic came onboard, I told him he didn't need to delay the flight in order to fix it. "I've been living without running water for the last two years," I said. "I can deal with this."

Soon, I had a gin and tonic, a four-course meal complete with chocolate chip coookies, on-demand audio entertainment (the video portion was broken, which I'm sure I could have complained about and gotten a voucher or something, but I figured I had gotten a lot more than what I'd bargained for) and an electronically-controlled seat that reclined waay back. I thought about how quickly my idea of luxury had changed from a Chisinau restaurant where I spent $15 the night before to sitting in first-class on a trans-Atlantic flight.

When we landed, I started talking with the soldier a little more. "Boy, Uncle Sam sends us to some shit places," I said to him, "but they bring you back in style." He introduced himself as James, and we stuck together as we cleared customs (me without my bags, which I would later find out hadn't transferred in time in Frankfurt), then we headed to the airport T.G.I. Friday's for some beer and burgers.

On a side note, I hadn't noticed in Moldova that the beer bottles there are half a liter, as opposed to the 330 mL bottles in America. When I picked up my first Heineken at the bar in Atlanta, I thought it was some kind of special airport mini-beer.

James and I parted ways after our early dinner, and I made my way to my gate for my flight home to San Jose. I don't remember much about the flight, because I think I slept through most of it. I woke up for the descent, though, and for the final 20 minutes of the flight, I was slapping my thighs and literally bouncing up and down in my seat in anticipation to finally be home.

My parents met me just outside the gate, and we went to the baggage claim area, only to find out that my bags weren't there. No problem. We started to walk toward the car, which my parents told me was parked in a new area because of construction at the airport.

As we walked toward the new parking lot, I saw a taxi stand with about 10 cabs. Cabs are very rare in San Jose, and I expressed my surprise to my parents.

"There are cabs in San Jose? What happened while I was gone?" I joked. Then I saw a white stretch Hummer limo, the ultimate sign of American decadence. "See, that I expect to see here."

"Why?" my mom asked.

"Because it's so completely ridiculous," I said as we walked next to it and the chauffeur.

"This must be Peter," said the chauffeur.

"Yes it is," my mom said.

I have no idea what sound I made at that moment or what look I had on my face, but I'm sure it was pretty entertaining.

Willy, as the chauffeur introduced himself, snapped a Polaroid of me and my parents, and then opened the door for me. Inside were about 20 of my friends and some of their parents. One of my friends had set up the limo months earlier. I sat, sipped champagne and sang "Easy like Sunday Morning" with my family and friends, all the while in a complete state of disbelief as Willy took us all over to my house. People stayed at the house until nearly midnight, and I stayed up past 1 talking to my parents.

After two years in Moldova, I came home flying first class and riding in a limo. It was the most grandiose, shocking and ridiculous way to transition back to America, but how I got back didn't matter.

I was home.

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Monday, June 25, 2007

Un alt sat: Partea a doua

As I woke up on my second day in Rosietici, a small village in Floresti county, I had only two objectives: to see the village's second bridge, which is even less stable than the one I had crossed the day before; and to leave the village in the early afternoon so that I could be back home in Mereseni in the evening. Shawn, the volunteer I was visiting, was more than happy to help me with the first part of my day. No one, it seemed, was eager to help me with the second part.

Even the bus system conspired against my leaving. Normally, there are two buses out of Rosietici that leave on the paved road from the center of the village: one at 7:30 a.m. and the other at 10:15 a.m. If you miss these two buses and still want to leave the village, you have to walk 45 minutes to the highway and hitch a ride from there. Compare this to my village, which is on a major road and from which you can find a ride to the county seat or the capital city almost any time of day.

I slept until about 8 a.m., then prepared for the 10:15 bus. But when I woke up, Shawn's host family told me that there was no 10:15 bus that day because it was Sunday. Actually, I was glad to have a chance to repeat the 45-minute walk I had taken the day before, and I was happy to have the flexibility to leave the village any time I wanted during the day. Shawn and I agreed on a plan; first we would see the second bridge, and then in the early afternoon, we would walk to the highway.

Shawn and his family made it clear that I was welcome to stay a second night, especially because the 9th grade graduation ceremony was that night and I could be Shawn's guest. It sounded interesting, but I had no clothes for the occasion and I wanted to get home.

At 11, Shawn and I went for a walk through his village. We saw all three of the stores in the village, two of which had opened in the past month and had already taken large amounts of business away from the poorly stocked store which had previously enjoyed a monopoly. One night several months ago, the owner of one of the new stores was drunk and asked Shawn if he should add a second story to his building and put in a pool table. Shawn said it was a good idea, so the guy climbed up to the newly constructed roof and, in his inebriated state, tore it down to make way for the pool table. The next day, the guy realized that it was a bad idea, and he had to rebuild the store's roof.

We walked to the edge of the village and continued another 10 minutes through some fields until we got to a different bridge on the other side of the village from the bridge we had crossed the day before. This bridge was equal parts scary and hilarious; scary because of its construction, and hilarious because it's hard to imagine a place in the 21st century that depends on a bridge this poor as its connection to the outside world. The bridge was made from four 15-meter steel cables, two on the bottom to support the foot-planks and two up top to serve as handrails. On the bottom, two-by-fours spanned the cables every three or four meters, and those two-by-fours supported 20 cm-wide beams. Each section of the bridge had only one of these beams, creating what basically amounted to an unstable balance beam with handrails.

Shawn said that he had crossed the bridge plenty of times in the past two years, and that he wanted to see me try it on my own while he took pictures from the bank. I started walking across, more confident than I had been on the other bridge the day before because this time I could use my hands to balance. I had no major problems until I got halfway across and noticed that the next beam I needed to walk on was detached from the supporting two-by-four. Putting my weight on it would probably cause it to bend down a foot and cause me to slip backward. I turned around to look at Shawn.

"This board isn't even connected!" I shouted. "How the hell am I supposed to get any further?"

Shawn laughed. "Oh yeah. That just broke recently. Just walk on the cables." That made sense to me, so I spread my legs a meter wide, putting my left foot on one cable and my right foot on the other, and shuffled along for a few meters until I reached a stable plank.

I finished crossing, then got back on the bridge for a few posed pictures. After I crossed back over to the original side and we started walking back to Shawn's village, he told me that I was probably the third American to ever cross that bridge.

We got back to Shawn's house and I prepared to leave for the main road, but Stela, Shawn's host sister, insisted on us eating lunch before we left. In the middle of lunch, Shawn's brother called from America, so he left the table and Stela and I continued talking.

Stela is 28 and has her own tailoring business in Soroca, but has had to leave multiple times to work in Moscow in order to support herself and her mother. After finishing 11th grade, she went to a vocational school, where she learned all of the necessary skills to become a tailor. She then took correspondence courses at the state university in the same subject, but dropped out before her last year because the family didn't have the money to continue her education and she didn't think she was learning anything new that she hadn't already learned in vocational school. After that, as I understood, was the first time that she left for work in Moscow. It was odd seeing her photos from that time, especially because many of the pictures were with her neighbors who were Vietnamese immigrants. Even though I know Russia has the second-largest immigrant population in the world (only the U.S.'s is larger), I have trouble wrapping my head around the idea of Vietnamese immigrants speaking Russian and living in Moscow.

When Stela returned from Moscow, she started a tailoring and clothing rental business with a partner in the large town of Soroca. The first year, she told me, was good. They were able to make money and she enjoyed the work. The second year, however, the government began taxing her business at a higher rate and created a new law saying that businesses like hers had to also own arable land. Why did a tailoring business need to purchase farmland? Stela said she had no idea. She bought land, but soon the new taxes hurt her business too much, and she had to return to work in Moscow.

Only a stupid and corrupt government would make these kinds of regulations to hurt entrepreneurs, I told her. Stela agreed that it was completely non-sensical, but also told me how she copes.

Any time you don't understand how the government could function so poorly, how the system could have so little sense, she said, "just close your eyes, take a deep breath, and say to yourself, 'I'm in Moldova.' Then it'll all make sense, and you can move on."

Our conversation took place on a Sunday, and on Wednesday Stela would return to Moscow to work again as a shopkeeper. "She hates it there," Shawn told me, "but she does what she has to do."

After Stela and I had talked for a half-hour, Shawn got off the phone and we were ready to go. The weather, however, was now looking inhospitable. Clouds were starting to gather, and while I didn't mind walking a little bit in the rain, I didn't want to force Shawn out into the rain, especially because if it started to rain hard, he would have to walk back from the road to his village in the mud. I said goodbye to Stela, and Shawn and I started walking down the side of the gorge to the river. We stopped several times during the descent as the rain went through short spurts of intensity. Every time we stopped, we looked up the hill and saw Stela waving us back to the house. We crossed the same bridge that we had crossed the day before, but just after we had crossed it, it started raining more heavily. I stopped, looked at Shawn, and laughed.

"It's your call, man," Shawn said.

"Oh, screw it," I said. We turned around, crossed the river again and headed back to the village.

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Sunday, June 24, 2007

Un alt sat: Partea intii

Sometimes I think that my life in my village of 2,500 people is small and dull, with few people and nothing to do. I recently found a place in Moldova that makes my village look like Manhattan.

Last week I visited my fellow Peace Corps volunteer Shawn's village of Rosietici, in Floresti county. Shawn and I have gotten along since the day we met, largely because of our sense of humor and because we've both spent considerable amounts of our lives in Boston; I was there for college, while Shawn was born and raised in Southie until he joined the Air Force at 18 and later went to college in Oklahoma. Despite our friendship, I had never visited his village. The opportunity presented itself while we were eating lunch in Chisinau and he invited me. I went, carrying with me only a toothbrush, a hairbrush and a stick of deodorant.

Just getting to Rosietici was a challenge. From Chisinau, we took a rutiera north toward Soroca. After two hours of travel, Shawn told the driver to stop and we got off. We stood on the side of the highway, from which a long road turned off and led to a village. The village at the end of that road was not Rosietici; in order to get to Rosietici, we started walking in the opposite direction, where there were no buildings in sight. Shawn had told me about the long walk to his village, but I was finally going to experience it.

We had been walking down the country road for about 10 minutes, during which time we had seen a single horse-drawn carriage and no cars, when Shawn pointed to the horizon and said, "You see the new church over there?"

I strained my eyes and could barely distinguish a building that rose slightly higher than the others. "Yeah, I see it."

"That's my village," he said.

"It doesn't look that far away," I said. "How long will it take to get there? Maybe another 15 minutes?"

"It looks close, doesn't it?" he said with a smile. "You'll see how long it really takes."

The church, Shawn told me, was the idea of a young man in the village. Several years ago, he had had a dream in which he went to a church located at that exact spot in the village. He took it as a sign from God to build the village's first church, and after years of fundraising and construction, he finally fulfilled his vision; the first ever service had been held a week earlier.

After a few more minutes on the road, Shawn turned to the side and started along a worn footpath through the middle of a field. I had just left the last paved road of my walk. We walked toward the distant image of the church, following the path and gulping water from our bottles under the blasting rays of the sun.

"One time I was walking home from the bus at night, and I lost the path," Shawn said. "I was lost for about a half-hour."

We continued to walk, now crossing some rocky terrain and a well-constructed bridge that would be suitable for cars to cross. I felt safe crossing this bridge, and didn't realize that I had always taken safety on bridges for granted. That would soon change.

We walked along pathways for another 10 minutes, until we came across another village built into the walls of a river gorge. Only several hundred people lived in the village, and many of them had dug their homes out of the steep hills, so in essence they were living in caves.

"Just think about it," Shawn said. "People started living here 400 years ago, and it's pretty much the same as it was back then. Sure, they have electricity and phones now, but not much else has changed."

We reached the river, where kids greeted "Mr. Shawn" while they swam near the bridge. The kids didn't attract my attention, however, as much as the bridge. It stretched about 20 meters across and stood only two meters over the water. It was constructed out of wooden planks about 30 cm wide, placed in sets of two or three planks lengthwise across the river so that you walked along the same pieces of wood for about four meters before moving to the next set of planks. The bridge was held together by metal cables, causing the bridge to dip and sway as you crossed it. There were also cables on the sides of the bridge, conceivably as handrails, but they were so low that I would have lost my balance stooping to grab one.

Shawn led the way across the bridge with confidence, talking to the swimming kids as he walked. I followed more gingerly, laughing nervously and silently wishing that Shawn would slow down so that the bridge wouldn't shake so much. I got halfway over the river, looked down, and saw the water passing under the planks of the swaying bridge as dizziness set in. I stopped, regained my composure, and then continued across the bridge.

As I stepped onto the opposite bank, I laughed and said to Shawn, "I figured I'd do something like that at some point in my Peace Corps service."

"What's funny is that a lot of time, babas (old ladies) go across on their hands and knees so that they won't fall in," Shawn said.

"I thought I was going to fall in, but I got by."

"In the Air Force, we always used to say there are two kinds of people," Shawn said. "There are people who have puked, and there are people who haven't puked yet. It's the same with that bridge; there are people who have fallen in, and there are people who haven't fallen in yet." Shawn finished his military service without ever throwing up, but he still has over a month left to fall in the river.

After crossing the river, we went up the other side of the gorge and, after 45 minutes of walking, finally reached Shawn's village of 500 people. I thought I knew a lot of people in my village, but in a place one-fifth the size of Mereseni, Shawn really does know everyone, and he had stories about every person we passed.

We arrived at Shawn's house and I met his host mom, Emilia, a retired elementary school teacher, and his host sister, Stela, a 28-year-old tailor. Shawn bought some beer from the store and drew some wine from the barrel in the cellar, and we drank as we ate dinner with his host family and two neighbors, one of them also a girl in her 20s. I joked that Shawn, Stela, the neighbor and I should all go the village discoteca, but I pulled out of the plans when they told me that the disco was a 45-minute walk and two villages away.

The six of us stayed up late talking, and when the neighbors left, Shawn and I went to his room and talked more. If we were in my village, I would haven undoubtedly played a movie or something on my computer. Shawn is one of the few volunteers without a computer, though, so we just talked; nothing particularly profound, but living in a village makes you appreciate a long, un-rushed conversation between friends, especially with Shawn's picks of Irish music playing in the background. At about midnight, I went to the guest room and went to sleep, hours away from my own bed, yet feeling at home in a Moldovan village not so different from my own.

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Saturday, June 09, 2007

Reforma la bacalaureat?

The year-end baccalaureate exam required for graduation from 12th grade is best known for two things: being too hard and being a hotbed for cheating and bribes. So imagine my surprise on Thursday afternoon when I talked to Irina, a girl from my village who is finishing 12th grade at a school in the county seat, and she told me that the Romanian subject test she had taken earlier in the day was both accessible and very hard for people to copy on.

Cheating on tests, I discovered early in my service, is epidemic in Moldovan schools. I have done my best to crusade against it in my own classroom, but I've always known that English was probably the only class in which students didn't regularly copy off of each other. After talking to Irina, I was hopeful that the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sports had finally addressed a major problem in its system, but I didn't want to get my hopes up. On Thursday evening and Friday morning, I talked to my school's 11th graders about the test. (Like in many Moldovan villages, my school only goes to 11th grade, and students who finish 11th grade can take a slightly different version of the baccalaureate and continue to a trade school or a university. Starting next school year, universities will require students to finish 12th grades, meaning that students from my village must go to the county seat for 10th through 12th grades.) The 11th graders told me the same things Irina had told me earlier; the test was easier than they had expected, but there was almost no way to copy.

The bac used to be administered at each school by the school's own teachers. Teachers, wanting their students to succeed, turned a blind eye toward the rampant cheating, and would often even help the students in the middle of the test. The government tried to institute reforms last year, but schools and teachers complained, and the system remained as-is.

This year, however, the baccalaureate is only given in county seats. My students took a six km ride to Hincesti, along with all the other students their age in the county. Students were separated into rooms according to alphabetical order, so classmates with the last names Mititelu and Moscovici were in the same room, but they were surrounded by kids they didn't know, and their classmates with last names Colesnic and Chirita were far, far away. Also the tests were given by two teachers whom the students didn't know, and they were supervised by two observers from the Ministry of Education. This took away two important motivations for cheating; students wanting to help, feeling pressured to help, or expecting help from their classmates, and teachers having a personal stake in the results of the students in the room.

It seems to me that the Moldovan educational system has just taken a huge step forward. My 11th grade students, who know my feelings on this even though I never taught them English and I never gave them an informatica test, gave me some interesting reactions:

Tanea: "I was writing my essay, and this boy near me said something, and I realized he had been copying off me. I didn't know what to do. I covered my paper."

Nadea: "It was nice to worry about just my own test, not someone else's."

Iurie, in response to me saying that the changes were good for the future of Moldova: "Yeah, but they're not too good for me."

Dana: "It's hard to copy on the Romanian test, anyway, because if they see the same essay on two different tests, they'll just mark it zero. We'll see what happens on the math test."

I like Dana's pragmatic answer. Like everything else in this country, we'll just have to wait and see if these reforms are real, and if they'll stick around next year, or even next week. Until then, I'm smiling with cautious optimism.

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