Sunday, February 21, 2016

Winter Notes

Notes from a Small Country
(with apologies to Bill Bryson)

Winter sunset from 30A Anton Ablov.

С новым годом!! Желаю вам счастья, удачи и здоровья всего года!

Sorry, not going to transliterate that for you; unless you know these holiday greetings, you’ll just have to believe me when I tell you that it says “Happy New Year!! I wish you happiness, success and health all year!” Or maybe, like that scene in My Big, Fat Greek Wedding, I’m saying something completely inappropriate without you knowing it. Guess you’ll have to trust me, but more on that issue later…

The Holiday Season
The normal rhythm of life tends to follow the seasons, and quite often the school year, both of which are inextricably tied together, more generally in the northern hemisphere, but particularly in Minnesota. Every August, for example, I feel the tug to re-watch two of my all-time favorite films – Dead Poet’s Society and Stand and Deliver – just as I did each year in the lead up to the start of school in my old life. Back-to-School sales; the start of football season; the leaves changing and the first snowfall; traveling and overeating at Thanksgiving; the clean, fresh smell of the air and the sounds of returning birds as spring reawakens the earth: these, among others of course, are the markers of the seasons. Of particular import are the various holidays which occur throughout the year.

Russians in modern times often celebrate Christmas in both the style familiar to most Americans as well as the Orthodox tradition. Of course in North America, Europe and other parts of the world with heavy Catholic and/or Protestant influence, Christmas falls on December 25th. In nations and cultures influenced by the Eastern Orthodox church (the branch of Christianity which split from the Latin church a millennium ago and which was brought to the Kievan Rus at that time by Byzantine-era brothers and saints Cyril and Methodius – the former for whom the written Russian alphabet, Cyrillic, is named), Christmas falls on January 7th, based on the church’s use of the old Julian calendar. (Certainly it is also true that many non-Christian cultures celebrate Christmas in a non-religious, secular manner, but mostly these nations and cultures stick with December 25th as the key date.)

As 95% of Moldovans claim to be Orthodox (Moldovan Orthodoxy is associated either with the Russian or Romanian Orthodox Church), and they have a general – but not yet overwhelming – desire to align more closely with Europe to their west, Christmas has become a celebration roughly from one date to the other, because, well, why not? During Soviet times when the “opiate of the masses” was officially forbidden (yet was never fully extinguished), the celebration of the New Year replaced Christmas as the winter holiday. However, the old pre-Christian characters known as Дед Морoз / Dyed Moroz (Grandfather Frost) and his young female companion Снегурочка / Snegurochka (the Snow Maiden) were eventually adopted by the Soviet state as a positive influence for Soviet children and symbol of the New Year. (Small aside: How is it exactly that an old man with his young “maiden” are a positive influence for children, again?) And like Santa Claus and his many variants, Dyed Moroz also was the bearer of gifts, so essentially from ‘first Christmas’ in December to ‘second Christmas’ in January, you have roughly two weeks of constant celebrations across the Russian-speaking Orthodox world. And then, if you were so inclined, you could add the Old New Year, which, according to the Julian calendar, falls on the 14th of January. Quite happily, that equals essentially three full weeks of winter holidays in which to eat and drink too much.

I love Christmas. The lights and decorations, the music, the cold bracing air, being together with family, the ceremony and traditions, the general overall mood. Putting into rather sharp relief these past months of change in my life, for the first time in almost 50 years I spent Christmas alone, away from family. The confluence of events which led to this rather unhappy – and hopefully one-off – occasion included: Tommy taking leave time over the holidays and returning to Minnesota, Sophie having winter break from school in Minnesota, Kate flying home to be with them and her mom, and my being the new guy in an office of only two Officers where one of us must be in-country at all times. Of course once in fifty years is nothing compared to the number of times my military colleagues have had to be away from family at the holidays – often in the far more trying conditions of conflict and war – but rattling around in this big old house with only RTWD as a daily companion was, well, rather unfortunate.

Riley attempting to make friends.

However, certainly not all was lost. Friends and colleagues here at post came to the rescue. In the end I spent Christmas Eve at the home of Nelson and Lauren and their three adorable young boys, where we enjoyed wonderful food, good wine, and excellent company, along with a visit by carolers and the successful lift-off of seven out of eight Chinese lanterns. The boys read the story of Jesus’ birth from the Book of Luke, which was quite touching and brought back such pleasant memories of Grandpa Tom reading the same story each year in Madison, and I was very glad this beautiful family included me on this special day. On Christmas Day, Riley and I watched a few movies with another colleague here at post by himself, and then on Saturday there was brunch hosted by still others. So in the end I was busy with friends and had a good, but decidedly different, Christmas holiday. Not particularly interested in a repeat next year, however…

Reading the story of Jesus' birth.

And then, just into the New Year and coinciding with Orthodox Christmas, Kate and I flew to Rome for the long holiday weekend. Ostensibly I alone was there to meet Sophie in order to send her off on her semester abroad in the little medieval town of Perugia, between Rome and Florence. The plan had always been for me to meet Sophie there for those few days before she started school, but in a nice little twist, we were able to get secure coverage for RTWD thanks to an accommodating colleague and her family, allowing Kate to surprise The Dish at the airport, just after she cleared immigration. We spent a very pleasant couple of days with her before she met up with the group from the Umbria Institute, and then she, too, was off on a new adventure.

A very generous Foreign Service colleague had offered up his spare room to us while in Rome, and after getting Sophie all set, we spent the next few days eating and drinking our way around the streets of the city. Good friends came through many-a-time over the holiday season, salvaging what I expected would be a rather lonely couple of weeks.


Team Panetti visits the Trevi Fountain.

Whimsical Christmas decorations.

American Cemetery in Nettuno.

Sunset view of St. Peter's from Castel St. Angelo.

Statuary from Villa Borghese.

Roman rooftop selfie.
After a fantastic few days in Italy with my best friend, I spent another week in Frankfurt for some training, and then a long weekend hosted by good friends from Haiti who are currently posted to Stuttgart. It turned into a great way to start 2016.

A Few Thoughts on Language
I heard a story awhile back from a local colleague which I found humorous. It does a pretty good job of summing up some of the challenges with learning and using a new language. It seems he, a native Russian speaker, married an American girl and of course needed to learn English, itself not the easiest of languages. While in the US one time, he and his new father-in-law were tinkering under the hood of the car. Turns out the car needed new sparkplugs, which is Russian is свеча / svetcha. However, in Russian this word also means candle, and so when my colleague suggested this might be the problem with the car, he said that maybe the car needed new candles. His father-in-law was understandably confused. I can sympathize easily with this, and pretty much every day say something completely unintelligible, although not likely with the understanding behind it that my colleague had. Just the other day I meant to ask a young man if he’d ever been married before, but instead I told him he should never get married. He, too, was understandably confused, but at least I was able to amuse my local colleagues.

Languages are weird. I remember traveling to the Soviet Union many moons ago as a college senior, and even though my Russian at the time was ridiculous (read: really bad), I recall having a strange realization that different countries and peoples may have the exact same things and yet use different words to name them. But show someone in any country around the world a spider and they know exactly what it is. Sounds really elementary, and maybe it is, but at the time this was quite the realization, even a revelation, to me. I guess I had never really given this idea any thought before, which might pretty well sum up my life at that time in almost all areas, I suppose.

Languages are also hard. For me, anyway. I have such admiration for those who speak multiple – or even one – other languages well. They make it look so easy, and yet of course it’s usually an enormous amount of hard work that makes it appear so easy for them. (Don’t even get me started on those who do simultaneous translating – wow!) Take our local staff, for example. They – and Moldovans in general – seem to flow seamlessly and effortlessly between Romanian and Russian, often switching from one to the other sentence by sentence, word by word. Shopkeepers and restaurant workers often start in one language and switch to the other as soon as you utter “hello,” once they identify which language you’ve used. Most people know some English here, at least in the capital. However, my colleagues in the Consulate know English better than many Americans, I would bet. And that’s on top of Romanian and Russian (and several speak French, too). Then you factor in the type of English they are using on a day-to-day basis, and it very quickly becomes crystal clear that I am but a kindergartner in comparison. When I – a native English speaker – read State Department policies and procedures relating to internal operations, rules and immigration law, often written in dense, complicated legalese, my head feels like it is going to explode. These colleagues do it daily and routinely and it’s their third or fourth language! Hardly a day goes by that I don’t shake my head in awe.

The federal government uses standards for determining language ability, which are called the ILR Language (Inter-Agency Language Roundtable) standards. In order to pass a language exam in the Foreign Service, one needs to be able to read and speak at pre-determined levels that are specifically associated with a job assignment. For example, my specific job here in Moldova required that I pass the Russian exam with at least a level 2 in reading and a level 2 in speaking (tests are scored from 0 to 5, with 5 being fluent at a highly educated, native level). Last summer, when I was in Washington, I managed to score the 2/2 needed, but the interesting thing is how a 2/2 (called limited working proficiency) is actually described in the regulations. According to the ILR, I am able to speak Russian with usage that “generally disturbs the native speaker,” “with confidence, but not with facility,” and my “utterances are minimally cohesive.” So, pretty much worse than your average kindergartner.

At the same time, language can be fun. If the both of you had asked me ten years ago if I would ever be able to speak and use another language in my day-to-day work life, I would have simply laughed. Now I have specialized training in French (which I passed at the 3/3 level, called professionally proficient), practical and on-the-job training in Haitian Creole (which I feel I was speaking at the 3 level or higher, but which I rarely read), and now a 2/2 in Russian. It’s still very difficult for me, and I’m reasonably certain that I still disturb the native speaker quite routinely as I charge forward with confidence but little coherence, but undoubtedly it’s pretty cool to be able to say that. One might even say ‘шикарный.’    :)

You don’t need to know much to know that Russian is a particularly tough language to learn. Not the most difficult, according to people who study this kind of thing, but difficult nonetheless. Of course there is the different alphabet, but the grammar can be bewildering. For example, speakers of English understand that double negatives are considered poor grammar, or produce weakened affirmatives, or are outright prohibited in formal constructions. We don’t say “He doesn’t know nothing,” “I won’t go nowhere tonight,” or “She didn’t listen to nobody.”

But of course Russian is different. In fact, when one negates a statement in Russian, it not only isn’t forbidden to use a double negative, it’s generally required. (In the following sentences, the negations in Russian are in bold.) In Russian, one says “Он ничего не знает / He doesn’t know nothing,” which translates into “He doesn’t know anything.” In Russian, one says “Сегодня вечером, я никуда не пойду / This evening I won’t go nowhere,” which translates into “I won’t go anywhere tonight.” In Russian, one says “Она никого не слушалa / She didn’t listen to no one,” which translates into “She didn’t listen to anyone.”

It gets even better. In Russian, one can make a statement with triple or even quadruple negation, and be completely grammatically correct. This sentence contains three negations: “Анна ни с кем ни о чём не разговаривала / Anna (to) no one about nothing didn’t talk,” which of course translates into “Anna didn’t talk to anyone about anything.” And the coup de grâce, the quadruple negation: Я никогда никому ни о чём не говарил / I never (to) nobody about nothing didn’t talk,” which really means “I never told anyone about anything.”

See how much fun this is?

When I was in Washington last year, I saw a hand-written note on a bulletin board in the halls of the Foreign Service Institute, where we study our languages (among other things). I can only imagine the Russian language learner who must have spent several hours on this note, as it detailed for one sample verb every single possible conjugation. It seems to me there were at least a hundred possibilities; I wish I had taken a photo. The page was scrawled in what can only be described as having been done in a fit after realizing what this meant for learning the language. For example, take any old verb, and realize that it of course has an infinitive version (the dictionary form); that it changes for each of the personal pronouns (with two versions of ‘you,’ the singular/familiar and the plural/polite versions); changes for each of the tenses (past, present or future); changes based on the gender of the noun doing the action; often changes based on whether or not the actor is doing the action him or herself; changes based on the aspect (perfective, which are actions that are completed, or imperfective, which are actions that are incomplete or ongoing); and then can change again when adding a prefix (which subtly changes the meaning of the verb), of which there are maybe a dozen, and then – voila! – you have a whole new verb to conjugate, again with all of the aforementioned possibilities.

And then there is declension, where nouns, pronouns and adjectives change their endings based on gender, number and grammatical case, of which there are six in Russian. Under such circumstances, my ability to get beyond a 2/2 seems unlikely, at least at this juncture. They say that a clear sign a language learner is gaining proficiency or closing in on some degree of fluency is when they start dreaming in that language. Nope. Has yet to happen for me, not in any other language. Seems the signs are pretty clear to me that Борьба продолжается / Bar-ba pra-dal-zha-yetca / the struggle continues…

I never learned Romanian before coming to Moldova, but since it is a Romance language like French, I hear and read many things that I can understand, mostly individual vocabulary words. (When spoken, native Romanian sounds a lot like Italian to me.) However, one of my favorite Romanian words is the word for children, which is copii (pronounced much like “copy”)! Don’t you just love that?

10,001 Dalmatians
We spend a lot of time at home, particularly during the week. It’s a very nice home, in a nice neighborhood and with a great yard, so we don’t mind all that much, and we do have RTWD to care for, so in the evenings we generally have dinner, watch a little TV (ok, maybe more than a little), and call it a night. Of course, we also walk RTWD several times per day, and those walks have certainly provided us with some interesting experiences.

It seems virtually everyone around here has a dog. Or two. Add to these canines the street dogs (in Russian a stray is called a ‘without home dog’ J ), and there are just sooo many dogs. And they all bark. All. The. Time. And they all talk to each other. Seriously. We’ll be walking along, minding our own business and in relative quiet, and one Cujo with super-bionic hearing behind a wall (everyone has fences, walls and gates here, too) begins eating the gate and growling and barking his damn fool head off, and then the Cujo across the street will start in, and then the one down the block, and then pretty soon they’re all going at it. We live just on the downhill slope of a hill south of Chisinau, and the hill continues down quite a steep incline into a small valley, which then rises on the other side, the whole of which is dotted with homes and yards and each with at least one dog. I swear there are hundreds of dogs on both sides of the valley, all of whom need to make their opinions known as soon as one dog-domino (dog-ino??) starts the string going. When I first arrived back in September, when the weather was warm, I once tried to sleep with the windows open. Yeah, well, that didn’t work when the valley dogs sent their messages to the neighboring dogs and they all had a concert all night long. It seems to continue all winter long, too, unless we’re having rain or snow.

Riley the Wonder Dog has made peace with all these shenanigans, and mostly just ignores the fools snapping and growling behind their gates. He has even made friends with a couple of strays on the next street, who he calls Betty and Walter. He’s even pretty good at sharing some of his treats with them when he’s out on his walks each day.

In general (other than the local hounds), our neighborhood is pretty quiet and has many nice homes, some of which are quite remarkable, ostentatious even. These are often interspersed with vacant lots, homes in various stages of construction, and what might be best described as cottages, likely quite old and in various states of repair or disrepair. It’s an interesting mix, and quite different from our neighborhood in Minnesota, where we have just a few models of homes, most if not all of which were built by the same builder. Here it seems everything is custom, in the sense that little seems standard, each home is built to the specifications of the owners, and it seems often by the owners themselves. Homes generally are built in phases, likely when the owners have saved enough extra money to add the next details. Mortgages are rare here, if not non-existent. And interest rates are very high, currently around 17%. And that’s from the more reliable banks which are still in business after the near-collapse of the economy last summer due to the “disappearance” of that billion dollars.

A new White Castle coming to the neighborhood??

Commercial buildings around town are equally diverse, with some modern apartments and offices next to the same type of three or four room cottages seen in neighborhoods, which might be next to an old Soviet-era apartment complex which looks like it was built of concrete-colored Legos. The city itself has many parks, and of course there are the requisite statues and monuments and Orthodox churches sprinkled in for good measure. It makes for an interesting mix.

Teenagers sneaking a smoke in the park.
And me sneaking a shot of them sneaking.

Art on the walls showing historic street scenes of Chisinau.

The park near the Embassy.

Walking around the lake near the Embassy.

Old cafe in the park.

Soviet-era housing.

Yeah, these guys are still around.
They are granite, after all.

The lake near the Embassy.

Closed cafe and graffiti.

Abandoned development.

Giant chessboard in the park.

Bell tower and cathedral in Cathedral Park.

Cathedral Park in central Chisinau.

The Arc de Triomphe, Chisinau style.

Stefan cel Mare, or Stefan the Great, Moldovan hero.

There are many nice restaurants in Chisinau, too, of course with varying degrees of quality and service, but it is fun to try them out and compare notes. Most Friday’s we hit a new place with colleagues from the Embassy, and while we would return to many, others have been placed on the list of establishments to avoid.

A Post-Soviet State
Of course you are both aware that Moldova is one of the fifteen former republics which made up the Soviet Union. And after 70 years of Soviet influence, and just over 20 of independence, it’s no wonder overall progress is rather slow going. In 1991, with the collapse of the USSR, I said it would take two or three generations to right the ship, to make advances in economic and political life that would have the former republics looking more like the modern countries of Western Europe. Progress is evident everywhere here, but it is indeed momentum punctuated by fits and starts.

Moldova is a relatively poor nation when compared to all 200 or so nation-states, with a per capita GDP of about $5000 (putting it at about 130 on that list; by comparison, Haiti is somewhere around 160 with about $1700 per capita, and the US is about 10th with about $54,000 per capita). And while still suffering from the post-Soviet hangover (old attitudes and behaviors die hard, and corruption and nepotism run deep), there is a base here, a foundation, which holds promise for the future. This starts with literacy and education: Nearly 100% of Moldovans are literate, and virtually everyone has a base education through at least high school. So there’s one thing the Soviets accomplished, anyway.

Another holdover from Soviet times seems to revolve around the issue of trust, a hard won attribute anywhere. But general distrust of a person unknown to you seems a typically Soviet attitude, and perhaps for good reason given that during Soviet times (and for hundreds of years before that, really) friends, colleagues and neighbors – even family – were often enlisted to keep watch and then inform on one another to the authorities. Perhaps not so much an issue of trust as it is an issue of suspicion, we experience this on our daily walks with RTWD, for example when coming upon another person out walking in the neighborhood. We routinely greet them with a simple, friendly hello, only to be met with what can only be described as a glare of wonder, which telegraphs the message “Who are you to be talking to me?? I don’t know you, and I’ll never know you, so just keep to yourselves, you Americans you.” Maybe that isn’t what they’re thinking, of course, and it isn’t totally universal, but the look of just plain disinterest is rather off-putting. But we keep at it, and Kate is determined that we break through to our neighbors and make them like us, darn it!

In fact, one day not long after she arrived in Moldova, Kate was taking a walk in a local park near the Embassy and sat for a few minutes on a bench to read. As two women approached, she looked up at them and smiled a friendly Minnesota hello. They stopped for a moment, and one woman asked Kate in a friendly way if she smiled at everyone like that, and after Kate said yes, the woman responded to her friend with surprise at how wonderful that was.

It’s also clear that no matter where we go we are recognized as Americans, or at the very least foreigners. In Haiti this was certainly understandable, being an old Caucasian guy in a country where approximately 95% of the people are of African descent, which of course isn’t the case here. And even when dressed in business attire (like most businessmen in Moldova, this involves a suit and tie), it seems I somehow stand out. One day I stopped at the little market up the street to pick up a few items on the way home from work. Unfortunately, I whacked my hand on the side of the grocery basket and the carton of eggs I was holding went kersplat. Fortunately there weren’t many people around, and so I popped over to the service desk and told the guy what had happened. (Well, for the record, I don’t really have the vocabulary to explain that in such detail in Russian, but I managed to say “eggs fell” and made a gesture and used sound effects, so I think I got the idea across.) I returned to the scene of the crime in order to at least make it seem like I was helping the young man clean them up, and then proceeded with the rest of my shopping, essentially assuming the matter was over. As I stood in line at the checkout, I could see two young manager-types talking to one another, and then they looked my way and I overheard one telling the other “yeah, it was that American guy over there.”

I don’t think I was doing anything particularly American during my visit, and I generally make a habit of removing my Embassy badge when out in public, so it had to just be the style of my clothes, my hairstyle, or maybe there’s just a giant cartoon bubble floating above my head shouting about my American-ness. I might have thought it was my Russian, but in a previous visit one of the manager-types asked me if I was British, so maybe that’s less likely. Either way, one of them approached me in the line and asked what had happened. I don’t think he was prepared for my reply that it was a simple accident, and that I’d be happy to pay for the eggs I broke. He seemed a little bewildered by that, but then maybe it was my bad Russian that befuddled him.

До встречи! Until Next Time!
Well, you’ve wasted another perfectly good half-a-hour with me again, and for that I’m grateful.

We keep busy here with more activities than ever existed for us in Haiti, like ice skating at the local rink, Friday night bowling-for-beers (and bragging rights, and a really sweet ribbon if you get three strikes in one game), and hosting a chili cook-off, a small New Year’s gathering and a pseudo Valentine’s Happy Hour featuring our signature cocktail, the Velvet Fog. There is a traveling exhibit about Leonardo da Vinci in town at the National History Museum that’s worth an hour and the six dollars we paid to see replicas of his inventions, paintings and notebooks, and our Friday night dinners to attend to, so we’re out and about much more on this tour, not to mention our daily constitutionals with RTWD.

Work continues as ever before, but with more opportunities to get out and do more than just visa interviews than I ever experienced in Haiti. I visited seven local universities to talk with students interested in the Summer Work and Travel program, a program available in about 40 countries which allows university students the chance to live and work in the US for a summer. I also met with a group of Moldovans interested in learning more about the Diversity Visa program (also known as the green card lottery), a program established by Congress to encourage immigration to the US from under-represented nations around the globe. 55,000 immigrant visas are made available annually to all but those from the 19 nations who dominate immigration to the US, and those visas are made available by lottery. It’s an interesting program, and we actually became acquainted with the lottery long before joining the Foreign Service, when, way back in 1998, our friends Serghei and Victoria won the lottery from right here in Moldova. Our assignment here did provide an interesting twist to that story…

Back in November I had the opportunity to meet, travel and introduce to the public a great little jazz quartet from New York City, here on a State Department sponsored program to expose local populations to American culture. The Gabrielle Stravelli Quartet performed in four towns around Moldova, the first stop on their four-country tour. In each town and country, they brought the house down with a rendition of a local favorite folk song, performed in the local language – which they don’t speak!! It was quite something to witness the crowd of about 300 in Cahul up on their feet, clapping and singing along with this young American jazz singer going full-bore to present the locals with a rousing version of “Ioane Ioane” in Romanian. (Have a look and listen here: .) It also just so happened that the same concert held a small surprise for me, as colleagues from the Embassy had leaked to the band that I had a birthday that day, and they led the crowd in singing Happy Birthday to me, which was very touching. And a little embarrassing. But, I did get personal congratulations from the young mayor of Cahul afterwards, and it was the first time I’ve ever had 300 strangers serenade me, so that was cool.

Warming up before the big show.
Good thing, too, since it was about 45 degrees in the concert hall!

Even cooler was stopping to visit my colleague’s mother in a small village on the ride back to Chisinau. Of course she had the table set with wonderful home grown vegetables, a homemade local delicacy called plăcintă along with homemade wine and local meats and cheeses for us all. Mama was indeed a gracious hostess. In all, not a bad way to spend a birthday.

A fully laid table.

Mama is the hostess with the most-ess.

The following Saturday we attended the Marine Corps Ball, the first time Kate and I were able to attend together. In 2014 we were in Haiti, but Kate was back in Minnesota that particular weekend. It was quite a shindig held at the local Radisson Bleu hotel in town, and everyone brushed off their finest for this annual black-tie and ball gown event.

Dressing up with the Staff Sergeant.

We clean up pretty well.  One of does, anyway.

Kate squared!
Pretending we know what we're doing.

Sophie is enjoying her semester in Italy, visiting new places each weekend, learning Italian and making travel plans for long weekends and spring break. Tommy completed Basic Training outside of Chicago back in early December, and just arrived in southern California for the next stage of his training in the Navy. Kate will soon start her job at the Embassy, and so once again – as in Haiti – we will be working together, which will certainly be nice. Riley continues to gather data about all the local dogs and cats in the neighborhood, although at present we’re a little unclear as to what he’ll do with all that information.

So in the end, we are all healthy and doing well. Life for us is good, and we hope you can say the same.

Embassy of France in Chisinau
after the terror attacks of 13 November.

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