So typical

We had a little trek today that was oh, so, typically Moldovan. We went to evening church today for an ‘international’ service – basically, church in English with American-style Sunday School. Living on the other side of town, and traveling with 3 small kids, we took a trolleybus – the method of transport for the ‘working class,’ students, the elderly – basically for those whose wallets are challenged.

Now, one of the things about trolleys is that they don’t always come very often and when they do, you better be ready. So hubbs had Bean and Bruiser up the street from me on our way to the trolley bus stop, which was maybe half a kilometer away. As I hung back with Little Man trying to hurry him along, I looked up only to see trolley #23 coming our way. So, with me in my heels and skirt and Little Man doing his best hunched over slow motion run, I knew we weren’t going to make it at that pace. I swept my 36 pound toddler up into my arms and sprinted the whole half kilometer over uneven sidewalk – it might as well have been cobbled – in my 2″ heels. The trolley won, but at least the driver had enough pity to wait 30 seconds on me and my slow sprinting self. Those 30 seconds – wondering if he’d take off without me in spite of my efforts – were torturous. The #23 trolley doesn’t come so often, which is why it’s quite normal to see people in a full on sprint to the bus stop – elderly, people with young children, people hobbling on a walking stick. When the trolley comes, you want to be on it, not waiting for the next one. Moldovans will break out into a full throttle run in their best suit just to make it to the trolley.

Once I was on, (huffing and puffing) I pulled Little Man up into my lap for the long ride to church. A couple stops before ours two little boys got on with their mom – probably 6 and 8 years old. The boys sat next to me and noticed the spiderman toy in Little Man’s hand. The older one started telling me – in an extraordinarily excited voice – about a pet spider his friend had once and the spider bit this other kid and it was a black spider and really furry and on and on, getting louder and more excited as he told me more details… His mom eventually hushed him, at which point he offered us some of his cherries, which we politely declined. (It’s impolite to accept a first offer – you have to wait until the 2nd or 3rd offer to accept.) And soon he was asking us where we were going. “We’re going to church,” I said. The little boy’s face dropped. “That’s awful. What a nightmare!”

Church carries lots of senses for Moldovans – an exercise in futility, something you do to make your grandparents happy, a place to be still and quiet and pinch your nose against the wafting incense, a corrupt institution, a good way to end your career, a place to be beaten over the head with all the things you’ve done wrong… A large, furry biting spider is still more nightmarish in my eyes, but then hey, what do I know?

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Driver man Joe

There are 3 modes of public transport in Chisinau. Trolleybuses are electric-powered buses that run on regular roads with electric lines over them. Bus rides are a little more expensive but much more comfortable than trolleys, but both buses and trolleybuses have few routes. Often the only way to get to where you want to go directly is with a marshrutka – it’s Russian for ‘route’. They’re converted vans that run on numbered routes and that’s how we ususally get where we need to go.

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I’ve never had a problem on a marshrutka. You get on, pay 3 lei (about a quarter), and when you get to where you’re going you ask the driver to stop. Easy. In fact the first week I was here the first time I was in Moldova (in 2001) I got lost on one of these. The driver was at the end of his shift and kindly took me all the way home after he’d dropped off his other passengers.

Yesterday’s ride was a different story. I took Bean and Little Man with me to a discipleship group meeting on the other side of town. Kids ride for free up to 7 years old on any public transport. But on my way home the driver – we’ll call him Driver Man Joe – yelled at me for something when I got on. What with his mumbled slang, I didn’t get it. So I asked him to please explain, which started him on another tirade, and then he refused to take my money for the fare. I sat quietly smooshing the kids together on my lap – I’d figured out that he didn’t like me taking up so much space with my 2 well-behaved quiet children.

As we drove on a little boy outside chased his ball across the road, causing the driver to have to slow down ever so slightly. Driver man Joe pulled over, leaned out the window and called the boy (maybe 8 years old) over to the window. Being the obedient child he was, he came, much to his disadvantage. The driver yelled at him for going into the road, then leaned out the window and snatched the boy’s ball out of his hand and quickly drove off. The boy flinched as Joe stole his ball – Joe was pretty darn mean-looking. As we drove off the other passengers asked Joe to give the ball back and then began to berate him for being so mean to children – stealing the boy’s ball, yelling at me about bringing kids on his bus – they defended me, which felt pretty good. In the end he let the passengers give the ball back, but it had to be thrown out a window because he wouldn’t slow down for it.

When we were almost home and the marshrutka was almost empty I apologized for offending and asked him to kindly take my fare for the ride. He started yelling again, and this time, listening more closely – I got it. He was mad that I had 2 free kids with only 1 paying adult. So I offered him a second fare, explaining that I didn’t know… his rule isn’t the standard… if only I’d known… yada yada yada.

He continued yelling, and then as he turned a corner going in a direction I didn’t need to go, I asked him to stop. Driver man Joe was mad that I asked him after he turned instead of before. If I wanted to get off I should have done it before he turned. So he kept driving. Two blocks later he let me and the kids out and we walked the 2 blocks back to the main road, and then the 1/2 mile or so back home.

Let me assure you, if you’re worried – drivers don’t typically do that. In fact, I’ve never met a driver like Driver Man Joe. And just in case, I won’t be taking any white marshrutkas numbered 108 again – just to avoid Driver Man Joe.

There’s a widespread idea among service providers and vendors here that the customer is a nuissance. That very attitude will challenge Moldova’s integration into the European sphere, the global economy, and the tourist industry. People come to visit, spend their money, invest in the local economy, and are treated as an annoyance to the very businesses who should be thankful for their patronage.

It isn’t like that everywhere, but it’s certainy widespread. And until vendors and service providers learn to cherish their customers as the reason they have a business, the country’s small businesses and individual vendors will continue to falter.

Which world?

This week Bruiser was given a prescription for a medication that I wasn’t thrilled with.  I googled it and wiki-ed it and found out that it’s only recommended for use in our situation ‘in third world countries.’ Third world? I guess it was the first time I’d heard it suggested that Moldova is a third world country. I mean, to be politically correct we’d probably say part of the two-thirds world or a developing country. Emerging nation. Something along those lines.

When I think about developing nations I think of countries with a low literacy rate. Barefoot people living in shanties. Chickens running free in the city streets. That’s a far cry from Moldova (and those images mostly come from movies, anyhow). I know people who would call Moldova ‘backwards’ or even, yes, ‘third world.’ But I have a hard time seeing it that way.

Sure, there are beggars on the street. The poverty rate is high and jobs with decent pay and benefits are very hard to come by. The economic state is depressed, so much so that it’s been called ‘crisis-proof‘ since it’s not high enough to actually fall very far. Six years ago when I worked at a foreign-funded English language school our janitor gave me medical advice one day. Turns out, she’s an infectious disease doctor, but makes more money mopping floors and scrubbing toilets.

There’s a combination of legal limitations, taxation issues, lack of funding, and

Moldova has a higher literacy rate than the US. The population is highly educated and most people speak at least 2 language – many speak 3 or 4 languages. The universities produce a large number of mathematicians, accountants, engineers, scientists. But there’s a sort of socio-political ceiling for what the general public can acheive, economically.

And yet, it’s considered ‘third world.’ Welcome home, Mudlark.

The world’s finest playground

Well, maybe finest isn’t quite the best word for it. We are very blessed in that the region we live in is full of playgrounds. See, we’re in a giant concrete apartment building in a cluster of giant concrete apartment buildings. If you saw it your first thought would probably be “ghetto.” And it’s a far cry from the ghetto, but it does bear a striking resemblance to the row upon rows of giant concrete buildings in New York public housing disctricts.

Anyhow, in our district at least, each cluster of apartments surrounds a playground or cluster of playgrounds. Each spring the state sends someone out to put a fresh coat of paint, but as far as I can tell that’s the most care they get. So we have this:

img_2013The slide has a thick layer of rust that keeps kids from sliding down too fast – probably a safety measure, right? At the bottom there’s a jagged hole in the rust-covered metal, just large enough to swallow a small child.

Next to the jungle gym is a thorny rose bush growing out of control, placed strategically where kids will land as they swing off the bars.

Hanging down right in the center of the playground is a loose electrical wire – no hanging precariously there to keep kids from running too fast through the playground. We wouldn’t want someone to trip and fall now, would we?

My kids are learning agility – how to avoid electric wires blowing in the breeze; they’re learning how to navigate steep, tall slides by putting their feet against the sides to stop themselves before they reach the child-eating tetanus-ridden hole. I got some smart kids, and the brand of street smarts they’re learning will carry them far in life.

Seriously though, in a city that doesn’t tend to pay a lot of attention to its children, we lucked out in finding an apartment in a place that provides multiple playgrounds. There’s one around the corner with none of the aforementioned hazards, so that’s where we usually play. We’re hoping to move to an apartment near the kids’ school – many playgrounds, walking distance to the school, and walking distance to one of the best parks in the city, complete with a lake, peddal boats, and miniature golf.

Protests

Here in Chisinau things are in a bit of upheaval. National elections held on Sunday re-elected the Communist Party as the majority holder in the Parliament. They ‘won’ such a majority that they’ll presumably be able to choose the President (and him, the Prime Minister and Cabinet) from their ranks. That means all branches of the government will remain in Communist hands.

There’s talk of election tampering, propaganda and lies, and all sorts of fraudulent behavior. Planned peaceful protests are currently erupting into something ominous. Here are some pictures, provided by Unimedia.md:

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Before long, violence broke out.

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Over 10,000 protesters broke down the door of the Presidential building and the Parliament building. They fought the anti-riot police, broke windows of one of the fire trucks. The building in that last picture is the Presidency. The picture above it (with the fire) is the Parliament.

I had hoped to see the type of peaceful protests I witnessed here in 2001 – sit ins, camping out in front of the government buildings – but never did I expect to see crowds erupting into violence.

On toys

Someone asked about toys. If our kids have lots of them, if they’re strewn everywhere, and if Moldovan kids typically have lots of toys. That last question is a tough one, so we’ll get that in a minute. But to start with, yes my kids have toys.

In fact, we came with a very small selection of their most favorite (and packable) toys. When we arrived my sister-in-law came over with baskets of toys for each of the kids, and a missionary friend of ours handed down a very nice selection of toys and books. And then Bean had a birthday and got more scantily-clad Barbie-type dolls than any family needs. We’re in the process of choosing some things to pull out and pass on to one of Bean’s good friends from school. Several of Bean’s classmates are from a Christian-run ‘compound’ of foster homes. We’ll pass on some of our toys to them, and we’ll pull out a few more for Sunday school – Sunday School doesn’t have anything for kids to play with, and we’d like to help remedy that.

Their toys aren’t typically strewn over the house because we have to keep the house tidy. Culturally speaking, friends visit each other at home more often than they do in the US. And they do so without much advance notice. Someone might call, make sure I’m not busy, and say “oh, good, because I’m already on my way over.” So, we have to have the apartment reasonably clean most all the time. Their rooms, however, are a different story. We spend time picking up at the end of the day each day, but I don’t think their rooms are ever really “clean.” It’s a constant battle, but I’ll give up clean kids’ rooms for a while if it means the rest of the house will be clean and toy-free.

Now, how many toys do Moldovan kids have? That’s almost a topic for an entire post. There’s no such thing as ‘the typical Moldovan kid.’ Just as there are the privileged and the underprivileged in the US, so there are here. There are families here with a single child in a luxury apartment with a car and tons of toys. There are other families with multiple children, a very small living space and handful of toys very well loved and shared by all. I’d say that the difference is that in the US the majority are weighted toward privileged with many toys, and here the majority are weighted in the other direction.

I don’t fit in here

It’s kind of funny. Americans have a reputation for being loud. Go to nearly any international city and you’ll be able to pick out Americans from a mile away. They don’t care much about what others think of them, they’re louder than anyone else, and they spread out – either with large gestures or just by putting their superfluous stuff everywhere. They need their space.

We’ve tried to blend in here. Hubbs is a local and I lived here long enough to be able to imitate some of the local behaviors. I know to keep my voice down, to not smile at strangers, to make myself comfortable – but not too comfortable. I know to wear winter clothes longer the weather necessitates and to keep my shoes brushed and cleaned at all times. In fact, when I lived here before we had kids, I could blend in fairly well. If people realized I wasn’t local they usually thought I was from some other Eastern European country – I learned to blend.

But now I have kids. I try hard to blend in. We try hard to blend in. But in spite of it all, my kids betray me. They’re the only ones running down the sidewalk, jumping in puddles, and giggling for no reason at all. They’re loud. They take their hats off when they get hot, even if it’s windy. They don’t eat soup and my boys don’t wear tights under their pants. My girl doesn’t keep her hair tightly pulled into a perfect braid or ponytail. They go against the grain.

I used to try to speak to them in Romanian when we’re out – you know, to blend in, to respect the people around me. But now I’ve figured it out. Not a single local will ever think we’re from here, even after just a single glance at my kids. I might as well just speak English. I might as well speak it loud. I’m not fooling anyone.

Craziness

Psalm 91. Bean’s class is memorizing it. In Romanian. They already have the Lord’s Prayer memorized. In Romanian. They recite it each morning. From memory. Can I just say that these little 4 and 5 year olds put me to shame? No way I’d be able to do that.

Regardless, here we go, teaching our 4-year old Psalm 91. In Romanian – with words like rasplatirea and nenorocire. After that we get to work on handwriting. Because I looked at all the other kids’ little notebooks, and they have page after page dedicated to writing each letter perfectly. As in, a whole page of s after s after s after s – all the way across a line, and on every line below it. A whole page of s. And another for every other letter. Perfect little handwritten s’s and m’s and everything else. Did I mention that this is preschool and she’s 4 years old?

Seriously, folks. I’m going to have to borrow someone’s caiet and scan a page for you to see this craziness. The good news? When we eventually get back to the US, she’ll have perfect handwriting, she’ll have memorized epic poems and about 1/3 of the Bible, and she’ll be doing statistics and trig while her American classmates are working on x + 4=7. She’ll probably have found a cure for cancer by then, and she’ll be able to reverse engineer a glazovykoloopovatelnytsa. Of course, she won’t be able to write an essay or do a book report to save her life – they don’t really do those here. But who needs that when she can build a nuclear reactor and calculate 27 to the 9th degree in her head?

With eyes wide open

Hubbs and I watched Slumdog Millionaire last night and we loved it. If you haven’t seen it, go now. It’s a great movie. If I could believe it to be a fictional tale, it would be what the PR folks have dubbed it – the year’s best Feel Good movie. (No worries, no spoilers here.)

For me the problem is that I see every day how very based in reality the movie is, specifically in its treatment of beggars and children begging. We see beggars daily here. I don’t give money – think what you’d like about me, but I just don’t. I’m not cold or calloused about it. But I don’t want to be a factor in perpetuating the cycle. The kids and elderly begging? It’s not like my 1o lei (roughly $1) will do a part in raising their standard of living and help them eventually buy a nice suit and get a good job – not even if I gave them $100.

If I were to give anything the whole sum would go to the ‘owner’, the very one who has a mansion down the street from me. And he would continue to exploit the needy, giving them just enough to remain content, and filling them up with manipulative warm fuzzies masquerading as conditional love. I don’t want to be a part of that cycle, as much as it hurts to see it.

There’s a woman who begs outside the store where I do most of my daily shopping. She’s there every morning, and every morning I wonder if I should give her some food or loose change – perhaps she’s really poor. Perhaps she’s not a part of the cycle. I wondered every morning, until this morning. This morning as I walked out of the store she pulled 2 bags out from under her coat. One was full of fresh oranges. Oranges, so you know, are ridiculously expensive here, somewhere around $5/lb. In fact, for the price of 1 small orange I could buy enough potatoes to feed my family for a week, enough rice to feed us for a month. Oranges are for the upwardly mobile, not the destitute. Her other bag was full of money, the money she’d collected that morning. The bag was clear so I could see just how full it was, and with what type of bills. Let’s just say, by 11AM she’d collected more than enough money to feed my family of 5 for a week, and with more than just potatoes. As I rounded the corner I turned and looked back. She was secretly peeling her orange under her coat with one hand, and with the other she was putting the money someone had just given her into the bag under her coat.

I don’t know her situation. I don’t know who she gives the money to at the end of the day. I do know that she’s pretending to be something she’s not. I also know that she’s not starving, unlike some others I’ve seen here. There was a man on my way home last week digging through dumpsters. He walked with a cane and a limp, and looked to be in his 70s. He started at the dumster near the store I go to and as I walked home he wasn’t far from me – checking every dumster along the way. By the time I got inside and gathered some food for him he was gone. I’ve seen him again since then, doing the same thing.

There’s real poverty here. I stare it down every time I go outside. My eyes are wide open. I cannot turn a blind eye to it. It’s easy to close yourself off from it when it’s an ocean away. But it’s at my doorstep. It sits next to me on the bus. It stares me down when I leave the store, produce in hand. It stands next to me at the market, hoping I’ll share.

God hasn’t tasked me to judge – who’s really poor and who’s not. But He has told me to be a steward of what He gives. I’m still trying to figure out what that means, but there’s something inside me that screams out against the cycle that exploiters have created here. I cannot in good conscience support a slave owner. But my eyes are wide open every day now looking for that 70-something man. My dumster-diver with a cane. Real poverty demands a response. And I hope – and pray – that our response to it here will bring more than just a meal to someone needy. Hubbs is doing everything in his power to change the political structures that turn a blind eye to exploitation, and he’s working at starting something that will employ the jobless. That response resonates. And it stares back, with eyes wide open.

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