What Lies Benneath

The strangest, most awkward partnership assembled yet a thing of beauty.

The day started off with a powerpoint project working with my business partner. He recently won an opportunity to participate in the Open World Leadership Center conferences in North Carolina, which provided only five other Moldovan leaders with invitations. September 7th marks the first time he will be heading to the United States in his entire life. 38 years old and every time I ask him how he feels about his upcoming 10 day excursion with a stop in Washington D.C. and the White House, he seems to shrug his shoulders like it is no big deal. That is my business partner. It is hard to understand. He is a man who commands so much respect in the community, is proud, a social mastermind, incredibly outgoing, yet when the light shines onto himself he tends to cower into the darkness. I have been trying to put my finger on him for one year now without luck. Maybe with success, comes unwanted pressure for him. With spotlight, comes more accountability. It seems that he would rather assist people than to take charge and it blows my mind because he is so gifted.

One thing is clear. Leova is his oyster. No one messes with his building, his office, his car, his belongings, or his environment. No one dares to speak or think lowly of it, either. While tinkering away at the slideshow we created, I decided to insert a  well-produced YouTube video of a missionary group’s visit to Leova this summer to provide footage of our city in the presentation. He instantly blurted out, “I don’t want that in there! It makes us look impoverished and that we need help.” Normally this outburst would strike me as odd, but after one year this train of thought amongst natives has become pretty commonplace. The sense of pride that Moldovans share about their current economic situation coincides with their desire to beautify the images of their homes, cars, weddings, careers, and even reputations. It seems that their starvation for material equality leads to this delusion of reality. A concept I learned while reading “The Lean Startup” by Eric Ries would label it “success theater”. On the surface everything looks squeaky clean but once you peel back the first layer what lies beneath is atrocious. The car received a spin at the car wash but the transmission is shot. The house received new siding but the basement is flooded. The reports said we added 10 new jobs in one year, but the business is still deeply in the red. It is no secret to anyone from these parts; Moldova is the poorest country in Europe. 45% of their active population works abroad, the majority illegally, and 38% of their current GDP comes from remittances which is good for the second-highest percentage in the world! The view of being innovative is frowned upon, corruption is high, government spending is wildly inefficient, political parties and officials seem to change daily, and many people lack a true passion to learn or establish proper goals for their institutions. This picture once was so hard for me to accept, but the scarier thing is that for Moldovans it has never quite taken place. To be polite, I sat there and nodded my head towards my business partner. I did not challenge his ideal nor do I know if I will, yet I want to scream out the obvious, “Look around! This place is a ghost town, a no man’s land.”  A wave of ignorance and apathy seems to have drowned everyone in the land of lethargy. Unfortunately, it leads to further sluggishness, a lack of motivation, and becomes extremely disheartening to ignore. Pride is not a bad thing, but a surplus is destructive.

We put the finishing touches on the slideshow with the footage begrudgingly added. For the first time in three months my business partner looked up at me and said, “Patrick, do you want to eat lunch at my place?” Surprised, yet delighted I answered, “Yes. I would really like that.” One hour later we left the incubator and headed over to this apartment where we were greeted by his wife and young son. The wife was cooking stew in the kitchen while his son was sniping soldiers in the computer room. I walked over to his son, gave him an informal handshake, and asked him what he had been up to all summer. Specifically, I questioned whether he had reached his mark of reading ten books over the summer to which he smiled and his father interjected, “He’s played ten games of cards, that’s for sure.” Amusingly, the word books and cards mean the same in Romanian. We all shared a laugh and then dug in for lunch: a beet-colored stew with carrots, cabbage, onion, and a large chicken wing floating in the center of each bowl. The son finished quickly and scampered back to his computer game. Alone, my business partner and I opened up a conversation about fruits, vegetables, and wine that I had never partaken in with him before. He elaborated on easy crops to grow such as apples, prunes, and cherries and provided the reason why they are so inexpensive versus the more difficult and expensive ones, peppers and tomatoes. He said it is determined by the amount of water they receive and the amount of time and care each one merits during the growth process. He then explained the difference between the grapes that are to be eaten and the ones that are used to produce wine. Each year he purchases 500 kilograms of grapes to produce 600 liters of wine and plenty of grape juice with his father. He mentioned that he could tell me what kind of wine and how old it is based on one sniff. Based on his knowledge and thoroughness of the topic, I did not doubt the man.

Leaving the kitchen to clean my hands, I was then motioned by my business partner to join him in the living room. Speaking of wine, his father, and family topics during lunch my business partner and his wife eagerly began showing me pictures from their marriage and of their son’s upbringing. I was speechless. The man had three albums worth of shots of him, his wife, and child together. They were playing in the snow, celebrating birthdays, decorating the Christmas tree, bathing their son, taking him to school for the first time, dressed in pajamas. I saw pictures of my business partner in his youth getting married, wearing the wedding crowns, dancing the hora, with his parents and relatives, and holding his young gorgeous bride. We sat there in his living room for one hour after lunch sifting through the pages slowly and discussing all of the places and people captured in each shot. We laughed at the funny pictures. He even told me about the misfortune of his brother who moved far up north due to being involuntarily reassigned by his company. In fact, his brother has only been able to see his family once per week over the last three years. He travels three hours to and from his home in the capital.

A dose of reality returned my way.

My  business partner and I returned to work in the afternoon and did not have much contact. I finished up some work for independent projects when I heard a knock at the door at five o’clock. In came my partner with his customary goodbye, firm handshake, and quick exit. I refocused back on the screen when a few minutes later I heard one more tap on my office window. I peered through the open blinds and heard my business partner say, “Good day, Patrick” with a smile on his face. A wave of happiness took over me in that moment, inexplicable.

Some days I feel like a true monster at site. I get so caught up in goals, monitoring results, progress, deadlines, emails, and the rest that I forget that my business partner is a person and not some experiment or project himself. The man opened up his heart and home to me this afternoon, and frankly he has since day one. The dose I received today was a good reminder of why I am serving. It is not to judge Moldovans on what they have or do not have, it is to offer all that we have with kindness and a personable touch. My business partner reminded me of that this afternoon, whether or not it was a conscious decision.

The exterior shall remain squeaky clean and yes very proud, but I know the interior is just as sound.

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