Social No Man’s Land

Since June 2012, I have embarked on an incredible professional, cultural, and personal journey. The decision has given me so much strength in all three domains of life, which I felt were weak upon departure from Chicago. More than halfway done with the four year program (which started at the University of South Carolina and sent me to Mexico and Moldova) I have had plenty of time to reflect, to observe life through a radically different lens, and to decide where it all will lead me in the future. There are times where I feel incredibly lost, rewarded, confused, independent, apathetic, and highly-motivated. The swings are extreme. I am proud of where I have come in the process and what I have learned, yet undeniably the hardest part is being social and maintaining personal relationships along the way.

It is hard to say good-bye to people. I have experienced the feeling plenty of times over the past few years and each time it does not become easier. So, I pull back. It is a defense mechanism. In part because I will have to make three more moves before graduation in 2015. I have become entirely focused on projects, learning, personal development, and volunteering. Partying deep into the night and early morning has subsided. I lack interest in it. I have found myself obsessed with progressing projects and developing new ideas. I am maximizing potential while sacrificing short-term satisfaction. I find it necessary and unavoidable, given the structure of the environment us Peace Corps volunteers live in.

Local

As a Peace Corps volunteer I was assigned to the town of Leova, Moldova which is home to 12,000 residents on record. In reality, many citizens either work in other countries or commute to work or college in the capital, Chișinău. In Leova remain many retirees, young children, and fragmented families.

Being 26 years old, single, and male is a rarity. I do not find many people of the same demographic. The majority of people my age are married and have young children based on cultural traditions. Many locals have told me that a woman that is 25 years old and unwed is considered a spinster. The same goes for young male bachelors. The closest group I associate myself with are the high school boys and recent college graduates. We find time to play basketball two to three times per week and occasionally have meals together at their parent’s homes. Conversations become very difficult to maintain; not only due to Russian or highly-colloquailized Romanian, but also due to content. We talk about the results of the basketball game we played, American and Moldovan culture, and then we move to silence or I tune out to others’ conversations. It becomes increasingly difficult when my local friends do not have work either. They do not understand or take interest in my perspective and spend ample time attempting to socialize with me in non-productive ways. I have put up walls in order to concentrate on what I would like to accomplish. This has created distance and perhaps resentment from those I was once very close to at site.

Family visits Leova, Moldova

Parents visit Leova, Moldova

Another source of friendship at site is my roommate. He is in his mid-50’s, with his wife and son living away from home, and is in need of companionship. He reminds me of my late Uncle Dan, due to his goofy personality and antics. I feel more mature than him in spirit but love to go back and forth with him with practical jokes and Romanian quips. He drinks heavily, but is jovial and warm. I characterize the habit as a remedy for loneliness. He cares for my happiness and security, which is something I have observed and come to respect. We have prepared many BBQs together and I have become good friends with his in-laws who are in their 60’s. They are the closest thing to family that I have here. The clear disadvantage is the lack of youthfulness and relatability in culture and disposition.

Eugen and I BBQing

Roommate and I barbecuing

I resort to silence in public, which is hard for a natural extrovert. I stop speaking and internalize what it is I would like to express. People will say “hello” to me and strangers yell out my first name and wave. It’s gratifying but makes me uncomfortable. I keep a low profile. I think deep within myself there is a fear that certain people will follow me post-service and I am not sure if mentally I can or want to handle this responsibility when service ends. I can be blatantly obvious with my lack of caring to create distance and that’s not me.

Options for socializing are slim, so every two weeks I am in need of a mental and social break. I turn to the big city.

Capital

There comes a sense of relief when I enter Chișinău. Being from a concrete jungle, the pace of life and ability to escape pleases me.

By establishing relationships through startup events, skills trainings, independent projects, and Peace Corps volunteer parties I have made a solid cluster of friend groups throughout Chișinău, though there is a kicker. Each time I come to the city, I normally have a full agenda of company meetings, events, or administrative tasks for the Peace Corps to fulfill. 90% of my time is normally booked in-advance to arriving to the capital and makes the plan I choose a highly selective one. Normally, they are extremely fun. It becomes my one night in two weeks to let loose and enjoy the event or company I am keeping. Recently, I have had the pleasure to attend an African music night, a celebration party for a national newspaper, and a night out at the U.S. Ambassador’s house followed by singing and dancing at a local bar.

Volunteers at PC Prom

Volunteers at Peace Corps Prom

Startup Weekend Moldova

Startup Weekend Moldova

The problem that exists is the constant change in available friend groups and plans. There are so many interesting people amongst those that I have met and I like engaging with them when time permits. If I am lucky I am able to see a good friend once or twice per month. Planning becomes difficult to coordinate and I do not have the financial resources or time to progress the relationships like I would if we lived in closer proximity. I resort to social media in order to keep up with them and that frustrates me.

International

While juggling the personal relationships I have in-country, I also consider the ones I have established abroad and in Chicago. I speak with my family just about every weekend. I consider this a priority. No matter how busy I get, I find time to schedule a Skype conversation weekly. Beyond that, every few months I like to video chat with a close friend from back home. It keeps me updated on their lives and it makes me feel connected.

The few exceptions I have had during my Peace Corps service have been meet ups in other countries for vacations. All of them have been incredible, but forced me to play “catch-up” in a sense. I have not seen the majority of my family members and good friends in about two years.

CouchSurfing in Zurich, Switzerland with favorites.

In Zurich, Switzerland with familiar favorites

Social media becomes a nice substitute for the real deal but leaves way too much to be desired to be considered a viable social outlet.

Outcome

I find myself living in three locations at once and it becomes difficult to cope with. I have never found myself in this predicament before joining the Peace Corps, but I am thankful. The rigors of this type of lifestyle has allowed me to become more independent and eliminate bad habits. I have been able to read plenty of books, progress my foreign language skills, create exceptional projects, meditate, become more responsible, improve my personal health, and create clear paths towards success in the future.

Not being connected to a social group provides clarity. I have been able to discover more about myself than I could ever imagine. I advise any volunteer struggling with similar problems to dig into projects at site and continue to invest time in personal growth if the social connections are lackluster. I do not know where I would be without this experience, this focus, and for that I am grateful.

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