This is the first of a series of articles written by Logan Hulsey about his experiences as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Moldova, where he taught English at a local school in the small town of Riscani for 27 months.
The kettle screeches. I’m changing into a clean undershirt and sweatpants, shedding my sweaty collared shirt and necktie that, by the end of the workday, is choking me. Without putting a single thought into my movement, I pour two scoops of instant coffee and two scoops of sugar into a metal mug that’s probably older than I am, judging by the rust. As per my daily ritual, I take my coffee in one hand and a copy of Crime and Punishment in the other and exit my Casa Mica. I slip on the sandals that Mama Gazda forces me to wear and walk toward the gazebo, relieved that no one but Misha the cat is occupying the couch. I put my coffee on the table, pull it close to the couch, kick off the tight shoes and sit next to Misha.
Behind me my host-father, Jenia and some of his friends are arguing as they repair one of his Ladas from the 1970s. A strong smell of baking dill and brinza (goat cheese) lingers from the kitchen window of the Casa Mica, along with the all too familiar smell of Placinta, a Moldovan stuffed puff pastry. This could only mean one thing: I’ll be forced to eat at least three of them once my host mother comes outside and sees my plate empty.
I get a full 10 minutes of peacefully reading my book before a visitor comes through the gate. Seeing that my host parents are occupied, he comes up to me and asks me something in indistinguishable Russian. I respond by saying that I don’t understand and if he could possibly speak slower. Forgetting his original question, he asks me where I’m from. I explain that I am the local Peace Corps Volunteer and that I am living with Mrs. Alla and Uncle Jenia, as they are locally known. He responds in the only way plausible: he takes off his shirt, pulls up the bucket from the well next to me and dumps it over his head.
The man was older, possibly in his 60’s. His hands are worn and callused, his back arched and his torso completely covered in tattoos. With a gentle and reassuring smile, he starts asking me about my life. I tell him my story, and he returns the favor by telling me his. The life he lived was a tragic and surreal one, having been born in the late 1940’s shortly after the Red army took Moldova from the Nazis. His father was taken in the middle of the night during Stalin’s reign, and has been gone ever since. He himself was sent to prison in Uzbekistan in his 20’s, where he received his tattoos that spoke of the discontent he felt toward the Soviet government. He also tells me about the crimes that he committed, leading to a sentence of 30 years picking cotton in a small town outside of Tashkent. Before we can finish our conversation, my host-mom, knowing why this stranger had arrived, brings him some homemade wine in a reused plastic coke bottle. Assuming that he was bothering me, she shoos him off and tells him to let me read. With a hand shake our first meeting is over, and I never see him again.
This was but one of many memorable encounters that I had as a Peace Corps volunteer in a small town in northwestern Moldova. Had I been asked where I saw myself in three years, while I was still studying at my American state university in southern Georgia, I certainly would not have thought that I would be having a conversation with a former Soviet convict in Russian while chickens, ducks, and goats grazed around us. I was chosen to teach English in the town of Riscani, Moldova, a town mostly populated by Russian speakers in a predominantly Romanian speaking country. During this time, I was completely on my own in my assigned duties, where I had to communicate in Russian, a language I had only studied for 3 months, upon my arrival. I worked at the town’s Russian school, different from the Romanian school in that instruction was given in Russian, so most of my students were of Ukrainian, Russian, or Roma descent. I taught students from the ages of 10 to 19 along with a partner teacher, of which I had three. In addition to teaching, I conducted community projects such as installing projectors in the school, and renovating the school’s library. Throughout this time, I learned a lot about life in Moldova, but more importantly, I gained experiences that gave me a unique perspective on what life is like in a post-Soviet country, rich in history and tradition.
The stories I collected during my time in Moldova could be written in a book. Through my experiences, I learned so much about culture, language, the Soviet Union, Roma, and what it was like living in one of the battlegrounds between east and west. These experiences occurred on a daily basis as I walked past a statue of Vladimir Lenin on my way to work, or overheard teenagers discussing how they thought Romanian was a useless language. I would still be surprised when I came across a woman at a bus stop showing me where a sniper shot her husband in the 1990s, or how I met the country’s prime minister. In the coming months, I will be telling the story of a volunteer abroad through his own eyes, and hopefully I can help give a personal account to those who I met through my journey and the experiences I shared with them.
Logan Hulsey is an American student taking part in the CEERES program at the University of Glasgow, Scotland. His dissertation research will be focused on religious and linguistic minority groups in the Republic of Georgia. Additionally, Logan spent 2.5 years in Moldova with the Peace Corps, where he devoted an extensive amount of time studying Russian and traveling around the Eastern European region.