I should have seen it coming. Nevertheless, I was amazed Sunday night when, for the first time in my life, I mentioned the name Michael Jordan and received back a blank stare.
I was sitting on the bed in the living room/parents' bedroom of one of three potential host families in Mereseni, where I will spend the next two years starting in August. The host mother, Nina, is the geography teacher at the village's school. The school teaches grades 1-11, which totals 369 students in this village of 2,800 and falling. Most Moldovan schools are separated by grade levels, and the lyceum level typically teaches grades 10-12. However, because of Mereseni's small size, its students graduate from 11th grade and can finish taking 12th grade classes while starting at a university.
As I said, Nina is the sole geography teacher at the small school, and at the moment, she was looking back at me, saying that she didn't know who Michael Jordan was.
"The singer?" she said to me in Romanian. "No, no. That's Michael Jackson. I know who that is."
I turned to Victor, the host father who works as a supervisor in the fields nearby, for help. Yes, he knew who Michael Jackson was.
"But Michael Jordan is like Nike and McDonald's! He's everywhere!" I said, throwing my arms up in an effort to demonstrate his ubiquity.
"We don't really play basketball here," Nina said, as if that excused it. "At the school, some of the children play basketball. Volleyball is popular. Everyone plays football."
Marin, the 11-year-old son, was not in the room, so the only possible messiah for the conversation was nowhere to be found. I had to let it go. It's not as though this family, or other Moldovan families, are not exposed to American culture. The walls on the inside of their outhouse have posters of Jennifer Lopez, Ciara, the Backstreet Boys and a white rapper with whom I'm not familiar, decked out in Boston Celtics and Oakland Athletics gear. A popular music station here, 105.2 FM, throws together a mix of Romanian, Russian, English and American music, although seemingly with no understanding of which American pop songs of the past 30 years are good and which ones are awful. The most recent American import is Desperate Housewives, which premiered with the first two episodes with Romanian sub-titles on Saturday night on state television.
The town of Mereseni has also been exposed to American people for almost 10 years. One volunteer came as an English teacher in 1996. She left after four months, and I gather that it was because of a combination of her Californian idea of weather and the Moldovan idea of how to react to black people.
Way back then, she stayed with Maria and Dumitru, the host family with whom I stayed on Friday and Saturday nights. Since then, Maria and Dumitru, now aged 52 and 57, respectively, have hosted seven more Americans, including a current trainee. I have the feeling that I will be number nine. Maria and Dumitru have two grown sons who work as lawyers in Chisinau, and a daughter who is heading to the state university in September to study law. Diana, the daughter, was quite amused with Desperate Housewives and was still talking about it Sunday.
Dumitru's reputation preceded him, because trainees staying in Mereseni had told me for a week that he was the most fun and generous person in the village. I certainly saw no evidence to the contrary. He also sees the value in well-built hygienic facilities. Although they have no running water, there is the illusion of it. The sink outside has a reservoir above the faucet that well water can be poured into once every day or two. There is an outdoor sun-shower with a black basin placed three feet above the person's head. The sunlight heats the basin and the water inside, creating a hot shower in a town that has almost no cars. That shower, my first in four weeks, made me so profoundly happy that I couldn't get the smile off my face for a half hour.
Of course, after my previous outhouse flashlight difficulties, what really impressed me was their ceramic toilet in a well-lit outhouse. "Flushing" is accomplished by dipping a open-topped liter bottle into the pail of well water, pouring the water down the inside of the bowl, and repeating as necessary. I took pictures of the shower and toilet, so those will be on the pictures page.
Saturday, I toured the school with Svetlana, my counterpart, Maria, the assistant director of the school, and Diana. The school is much more colorful than the school where we have been learning language in Costesti, with light-blue walls, intricate murals and student artwork better than anything I could do displayed in the hallway leading to the cafeteria and gym. Outside is a large garden and a playground. The outhouse even has separating half-walls between the squatting spots, which I consider a luxury after Costesti.
My discussions with Svetlana and Maria, went well. I may have to work hard to get enough classes so that I can teach 18 hours a week, as the Peace Corps requires, but Svetlana and Maria know that it is important, so I'm sure everything will work out.
Svetlana is a 25-year-old woman who graduated from the state university in Chisinau in 2004 with a degree in journalism, and starting last year teaching every English class from second to 11th grade. Needless to say, she's thankful to have me lighten her load.
What makes Svetlana interesting is that although her paycheck is at the school, her heart is in journalism. Sveta is a person with whom I shared a career path just two years ago and who made the same change as I did a year ago, and yet while I consider teaching in Mereseni a tremendous opportunity, she seems to see it more as a base camp before she climbs toward something better. Inherent in this is a seeming lack of interest in bettering the school and the mental dismissal of entire grade levels that she sees as trouble-makers. When I suggested building up after-school sports programs or having monthly community pot luck dinners at the school, I was repeatedly rebutted with, "I don't think they'll really be interested."
Maybe I'm being overly optimistic. Or maybe this is exactly why I'm in going to Mereseni.