Second Prize Winner of the 2016-17 Writing Contest

Katrina Keegan, Class of 2020, studied for nine months in Chisinau, Moldova through the National Security Language Initiative for Youth (NSLI-Y) program.


Четверг [Thursday]

Cello music swells, because my former alarm-setting NPR does not exist in Chisinau, Moldova. This would have been obvious had I thought about it before departure, but nevertheless it shocked me when I realized I would have to abandon my years-long habit as I set my alarm for the first day of school two months ago. It’s 5:30 am с копейками [with small change] by the time I open my eyes, glance at my phone, and swipe left: rejection. Silence settles until 7:00, when weak morning light and rooster crowing would have stirred my consciousness without an alarm. But I went to bed last night without doing any homework, even though yesterday was a holiday, City Day, and we гуляли весь день [messed around the whole day] until I found myself late last night sitting in the kitchen, peeling walnuts and listening to friends of my host family speak drunken Russmanian (Russian-Romanian).

I click the light on by my bed and daydream (in English, yes, I’m weak, can’t force myself to think in Russian) for a few minutes until I have to go to the bathroom. Slide into тапочки [slippers]. The bathroom is cold. Someone keeps opening the window, even though осень наступила [fall has arrived]. My host mom worries I will catch a cold if I spend ten seconds with bare feet on the cold floor. Apparently cold toilet seats, on the other hand, are not an issue.

I climb back into bed and достаю [obtain with some difficulty] my school bag—not a backpack, can’t look that American—off the stool behind me. Anxiety over my research presentation today sets in, prickling in my chest like a limb that fell asleep. I didn’t learn it well enough. I didn’t practice enough. But I have other homework. I debate for a moment whether to start with the yellow folder of Valerii Pavlovich’s class, which will tell me to do some mindless exercises, or the blue folder of Nina Ivanovna’s, which will tell me to do some other things that might involve effort and/or learning. I start with the yellow folder of course, finish in 7 minutes. Pull out the blue one and read: “Отвеить на вопросы на листочке. Выучить стихотворение.” Не трудно. [“Answer the question on the handout. Memorize the poem.” Not hard.]

Семь уже [it’s 7:00 already]. I consider my options for clothes today. Слои [Layers]. Jeans. My favorite black turtleneck. Undershirt, so that I can avoid washing my sweaters this winter. In general I avoid washing things. Without a dryer, they get stiff and crusty. I glance in the mirror. Ничего [not bad].

Breakfast is oatmeal kasha, waiting for me on the table as usual, wrapped in a towel to preserve heat. Then an apple from our farm. Tea with a cookie after that. Back to my room for contacts, vitamin, teeth brushing, deodorant, makeup. As I bold, underline and equalize at my mirror, host mom calls out from the mudroom as she looks over at me:

“Кат-я. Ты уходишь?” [Kaht-ya. Are you leaving?]

I don’t know how to answer that, and not because of Russian grammar. At once, obviously yes, I’ll be leaving in the present-to-indicate-near-future sense and also obviously no, I’m not currently doing the present-continuous-action.

“Скоро.” [Soon].

Bag thrown over my shoulder, I switch slippers for my new boots before heading out the door. As I tug at the zipper a blister stings on my finger, a product of trying on boots that were very nearly too tight for my thighs, which I guess are bigger than those of Moldovan girls. To think in America people thought I was skinny. I won’t pretend to not have felt the позор [disgrace].

The misuse of that слишком сильное слово [too strong word] simultaneously conjures the sound of Valerii Pavlovich’s disapproving “Нет нет нет нет нет. Еще раз объясню. [No no no no no. I’ll explain again]” and the laughter of my friends. For whatever reason, any word or expression we spend more than 2 minutes talking about in class becomes an inside joke to use indiscriminately in only barely suitable situations.

Valerii Pavlovich is a linguist who съел собаку [ate the dog] in words and expressions. We therefore have a lot of inside jokes.

I’m the first one to arrive at our corner, as usual, and I wait for my коллегги [colleagues], as my host family calls them. A chill settles on the bridge of my nose, drips down to my lips, is swallowed with an indrawn breath deep to the core. As soon of they arrive, brisk air is traded for a brisk walk, and by the time we reach the trolleybus ten minutes later we have run out of conversation that everyone can have in Russian (our levels differ wildly) and I have run out of layers of clothes I can remove. As we stand with teens waiting to cross to the high school side of the street looking at the young adults waiting to cross to the university side of the street, I can feel the radiating disapproval of all, glancing at the coat on my arm as they bundle up more tightly. One of the most baffling facts about Moldova so far is the fur puffer coats, gloves and hats for the 60 degree tundra.

Moldovans are southerners. Of course, the Soviet south was a little chillier than the American south, but все равно менталитет остается [the mentality remains anyway].

  TrolleybusWe are the first stop, our neighborhood is the end of civilization, so I get a seat on the bus and take out my transcript for my presentation. I successfully used to memorize mock trial speeches of this length in this amount of time, but плохо сейчас получаeтся [it’s being gotten/working out poorly now]. A бабушка [grandmother] tells off my friend Joe for sitting when women are standing. He purses his lips and stands up. I think the woman who sits down next to me is reading my presentation surreptitiously over my shoulder. I wonder what she thinks. It’s probably not bad enough to be obvious that a foreigner wrote it, but definitely bad enough to make her think I am an idiot. Настоящий позор на сей раз [A real disgrace this time]. Не могу сосредоточивать [I can’t concentrate].

I’m cold again as I step off the bus, so I put my coat back on while everyone gets off. We set off through the park. The kiosks selling drinks, popcorn and newspapers aren’t open yet. There is something dignified about this little patch of land where once upon a time, the great Russian poet Pushkin wrote some poems, as we are reminded on every “cultural excursion” on our way past the park out of the city. Dignity in the mustached busts of deceased Romanian writers. Dignity in the tall trees, beginning to golden, in the heeled and cloaked women passing by. Dignity and Truth should set up their protests and tents here; it would suit their name and the landed молавская душа [Moldovan soul] better to camp out here on the earth rather than on the parliamentary concrete.

Plus, they might get better results. I have a feeling it would perturb Moldovans far more to have their park occupied than their main square. Then again, it’s not the average Moldovan they are trying to perturb, it’s the elites that stole a billion tax dollars. And those elites don’t walk through public parks.

 Courtyard in front of schoolThe дворь [courtyard] of the university is empty save for the Americans, who get a special schedule. Everyone else starts at eight, I assume, we at nine. Здоровимся, болтаем, повторяем стиховторение. [We greet each other, chat, repeat the poem.] A minute before nine we file into the classroom, hang our jackets on the coat rack our teacher insisted on installing (we were willing to throw our coats over the backs of chairs or even, не дай Бог [God forbid], on the ground under our seats), take out pens and notebooks. Valerii Pavlovich is first today. I brace myself by pasting an expression of absolute neutrality on my face, which he has commented on several times, telling me I would make an excellent spy (they all think we are secretly training for the CIA), when asking if I understand his explanation as to why he cannot explain the formation of past passive participles, that you just have to слушать музыку языка [hear the music of the language].

“Поняла [I understand],” I say.

“Мой ответ вас удовлеторил? [Did my answer satisfy you?]”

I just smile and think “нет [no].”

His face, in contrast, is очень выразительный [very expressive]: squinting, even closing his eyes, as he considers the answer to a question (“это очень тонкие вещи” [these are very fine distinctions]); lips pinched up toward his nose when we make mistakes (“стоп стоп стоп стоп стоп” [Stop stop stop stop stop]); eyes opened so wide that his eyebrows fly up when we get to the right answer (“Вот! Теперь правильно.” [Exactly! Now it’s right]); big smile when we start talking about politics or the Soviet Union. He really likes to go on tangents.

We end up discussing gun control, which somehow came out of a reading on Russian schools.

In the break between classes we normally go out into the courtyard, but today I stay inside to reread my presentation. To my chagrin, Valerii Pavlovich engages me in conversation about my pleasure reading. He and every other Moldovan believes I should spend my time with modern детективы, женские романы, или по крайней мере рассказы [mysteries, romances, or at least short stories], and refuses to be convinced that you don’t have to be a genius to understand Chekhov.

First read-through, you might miss the extremely important plot point that two characters are having an affair, which our beloved Wikipedia clarified. But keep it positive! Focus on what you do understand! That’s the way to learn!

For the first time all year Nina Ivanovna picks me to write the date on the board. I accidentally write September rather than October. Habit or internal message that I’m not ready to acknowledge that I’ve already been here for two-ish months, and therefore only have seven left? As usual, her class is on point. We each get a thorough commentary, in front of the class, on our homework mistakes; demolish some ИК [intonation]; and learn how to talk about time. Seems simple, except that when Russians say five minutes of nine they mean 8:05 and while it is “in” the day, it is “on” the week. I admire the efficiency, but no new material for me except for the expression “any day now.”

I’m sure we’ll start new material на днях [any day now].

Before we start the walk to lunch I run to the bathroom, bringing with me tissues for toilet paper. Don’t knock squat toilets until you’ve tried them. More comfortable than you’d expect. It’s the toilet paper that gets me though—a real bummer when you try to use the bathroom in a library or cafe only to realize you forgot to bring any.

The walk to lunch is uphill and brisk, at our pace anyway. I can almost convince myself that it counts as exercise, until one of my friends starts talking (по-русски [in Russian]) about how they don’t think they will be able to go running today, but they should have time tomorrow.

Lunch is nervous. The walk back to the university is nervous. I spend it talking (in English) about my main experience with nerves: my old frenemy Mock Trial. When I release English, especially to talk about my former life, the words run out of my mouth, desperate to be heard before I shut it again and insist on русский язык [Russian].

The presentations begin. They are all so beautifully memorized...I guiltily repeat my presentation in my head during the less interesting presentations. The theme was people, and about a third chose their host mom. Это те, коротые я имею виду. [Those are the ones I mean]. By not volunteering, I end up going last. I realize partway through that I am last, that the only thing standing between my friends and freedom is my analysis of the Soviet woman in Moldova, and I cut out major chunks. It doesn’t flow as well as I would have liked, and there were probably a lot more mistakes than in the written version, but at least I had fun fulfilling one of the requirements: retell a story with dramatic effect.

Probably physically reenacting picking corn off the road and changing my voice between intimidating soviet officer and starving woman was a little more extreme than what they had in mind. Did I call that fun? Sometimes in learning about things so interesting, having such a first-hand intercultural connection experience insert-State-Department-exchange-program-jargon-here like talking with my host mom about her starving aunt that was sent to Siberia, I forget that we are talking about a starving aunt.

Then it’s over, it’s over, I’m gone.

As we walk back toward the center, we start complaining in English about this and that, and I know that after that stress none of us will be making our usual effort to speak Russian to each other. All of a sudden dozens of police officers run out and block the road прямо перед нашими носами [right in front of our noses]. What the hell? We sort of back up a few steps, take out our phones and consider alerting our RD (resident director) as we are supposed to, turn back, and then it’s over, the police disperse. The protest лягерь [camp] seems a little more boisterous than usual, but it is boisterous in Romanian, so мы не в курсе в том, что случилось [we’re not in the loop on what happened].

Four of us end up walking much faster than the rest, and we decide to get gelato. We turn down the wrong street and go too far. We know this can’t be right, but we can’t imagine what is right; we are on Пушкин [Pushkin]. Everything is on Пушкин. We see another gelato place and go in, but realize that it is just some gelato that happens to be sold in an Andy’s Pizza restaurant. The combination of the nauseous memory of cold white sauce and corn on pizza and the fact that the woman behind the counter says we can’t order lemon with chocolate потому что не подходит [because it doesn’t go together] adds up to us deciding to leave, determined to find the right place.

One person is convinced that it is just a little farther down. Another takes out his iPad and tries to find it on the map. A third calls our RD and asks him.

Somehow, we get there. It’s amazing how after a two-minute walk from the main square, we could end up on a tiny, barely drivable road with no stores, no one except an old man who asks if we are lost.

You get this anywhere in Chisinau. Driving along, you think: this looks fairly modern! Make any turn. Literally any turn off any main road, and within 45 seconds you will be surrounded by paved-ish streets and buildings in a maze, the colors of fruit sold by grandmothers and of clothes hanging out to dry on the street popping from the grey-grey-grey Soviet building backdrop.

I never realized how much color commercialism adds to our life. Cereal boxes, cars, signs.

And how stunningly beautiful a rainbow of socks can be.

Pulling me from my thoughts is a rainbow of gelato flavors. I get chocolate with cinnamon. Chocolate here is a прелесть [delight]; dark, not milk. As we eat we hear about further development in plans for a belt business that one of my friends dreamed up. The brilliant idea is to shatter the apparently lucrative embroidered belts market with handmade ones from Moldovan babushki at a tenth of the labor cost. Local contacts and prototypes: this shouldn’t work but it very well might. He could pay his way through college.

Pay his way through college Starbucks visits at least. Don’t know how I will readjust to $4 coffee. Here, $2 is overpaying.

Oh wait, he doesn’t drink caffeine. Damn, he really thought this one through.

The gelato was not satisfying enough. I buy something that tastes good when I’m not remembering that it is supposed to be something called a cannoli.

 Commute homeIt’s dark already by the time I get to the trolleybus stop.

Молодой человек [a young man] stands up on the trolleybus and motions for me to sit down. I open my notebook. Words glare at me as I stare out the window. Осколок, порыв, гвоздь, упрек. Толковать, тосковать, внушать, растрепать. [Fragment, impulse, highlight, reproach. To interpret, to be depressed, to inspire, to wear out.]

Растрепать [to wear out]. Растрепать.

I look at the window. An un-American night: the sparse streetlights solidify the darkness, cracking rather than melting it. To wear out?

I glance down. Растрепать.

That one is not sticking.

I have no fully formed thoughts the entire walk home. Почему-то не скучно [For some reason, I don’t feel an absence].

The gate into our yard requires a particularly forceful shove to open tonight. I change to slippers, call out that I’m home, head for the bathroom to blow my nose. The cat jumps up on the washing machine, startling me. He meows, then purrs loudly, demanding that I greet him. I pick him up and head to the kitchen. With my free arm I lift the lids of the pots on the stove. Борщ, но не приготовлен, на завтра, небось. [Borshch, but it’s not ready, for tomorrow I guess]. Another pot seems to contain just hot milk. I’m not sure where dinner is. My host mom comes in and apologizes for eating without me. I tell her it’s nothing, that I’m not that hungry. There is fish in the oven, made by my host dad apparently, boiled potatoes and green onion on the table. I heat up a plate. The cat is in my seat when I return, so I plop him in my lap, where he settles in very happily. My host mom sits with me while I eat, peeling walnuts from our farm. She is having a long week at work, a social-work job that earns her a pittance. Before the fall of the Soviet Union, she was a highly-educated engineer. Сегодня ноги болят [Today her feet hurt]. I tell her about some of the other presentations from today, don’t mention getting gelato after (embarrassed by the income discrepancy, I don’t often talk about my spending habits), complain about how I still can’t find a singing group to join to fulfill my “official hobby” program requirement, how long it is taking them что-нибудь устраивать [to work something out]. Мол [they say] complaining is a national pastime in Eastern Europe.

My mom says she is leaving.

“Куда ты?” [Where are you going?]

“У нашего знакомого, ну, у его жены родился мальчик. Принесу ей пить молоко, чтобы у нее было что кормить ребенка. Бедный. Плачет...” [Our friend, well, his wife had a baby. I’m bringing her milk to drink, so that she’ll be able to feed him. Poor thing. He’s crying...]

“У какого знакомого?” [What friend?]

“Ну, работник на ферме, как-то, начальник там. Знаком с папой уже пятнадцать лет.” [Uh, a worker on the farm, more like the manager there. He’s known papa 15 years already].

Как раз [just then] my host dad comes in. He announces the news of the baby, then sits down at the table. I ask my host mom:

“Сейчас уходишь?” [Are you leaving now?]

“Нет, чай попьем, потом. Григораж-олей! Hai beau ceai!” [No, we’ll drink tea first. Gregory! Come drink tea!” (in Romanian)].

My host brother joins us. Green tea tonight, with honey and lemon. Gelato weighing on my conscience, I eat a slice of leftover пирог [cake without frosting] from last night. My host brother doesn’t speak much Russian, so they talk in Romanian. The unfamiliar words buzz in my ear. I can’t tune it out; the second the blissful switch to Russian occurs, I am on top of it. My host mom’s “слышь Катя” [listen Katya] is unnecessary. Then again Romanian, Romanian, жужу, жужу [Bz bz, bz bz]...

My host dad takes pity on me. We strike up a conversation about music. He is trying to listen to American songs to improve his overall English, which is right now concentrated on the ability to read scholarly articles about agriculture. He asks me if I like Rihanna. I reply that she was popular when I was in middle school, but not much. With a huge smile, he tells me she is black and therefore I am a racist.

I grunt and look annoyed. My mom laughs and explains, as if I didn’t get it:

“Когда он сказал что он не расист, у него нечего против черных, а они ему не нравятся, ты его назвала расистом. А сейчас ты говоришь, что тебе черная не нравится, поэтому значит ты...” [When he said that he is not a racist, that he doesn’t have anything against blacks, but he doesn’t like them, you said he was a racist. And now you say that you don’t like a black person, therefore you...”]

I talk over her. “Поняла. Но если бы я сказала бы, что она мне нравится только из-за того что она черная, я как раз станy расистом, расист думает, что человек не человек, а относится к группе прежде всего...” [I get it. But if I had said that I like her just because she is black, that would in fact be racism, a racist thinks that a person is not a person, but a member of a group more than anything else...”] They are already not listening anymore.

My host dad mentions that he read my presentation transcript. Ну как [what’d you think], I ask. It was interesting, but there were mistakes of course, he says.

Of course. Of course there were. I can rationally explain why this should not upset me at all, but my mood plummets anyway.

I convince my mom to let me do the dishes, reminding her of the hungry baby. We exchange kisses on the cheek.

Back in my room, I have missed a lot of messages in our group chat. There’s the standard homework clarification, this time about a Washington (directly from the program) task:

“How long do the riddle things have to be”

“100 words”

“I just realized they can be in English. I’m so good at English”

“ *have to be in English”

“Well if they insist. I’m not going to fight them. Who am I to play god”

“Surprised the revolutionary spirit in this city hasn’t affected you”

With that perfect sequitur the conversation turns to the insanity of this country’s government. They figured out that the commotion we saw in the street today was the former prime minister and current leader of one of the two parties in the coalition currently in power being arrested. We saw one of the most powerful people in Moldova get arrested. From that launching point I’m now getting the least dry crash course imaginable on all the political changes of the last few years from someone who is clearly giving themselves a crash course as we talk, все удивительно, изумно [everything is surprising, shocking]. A prime minister who was also the president because no one wanted to be president. A prime minister who forged a high school diploma. A prime minister who was prime minister for eight days.

“Do you even put that on your resume?” I write.

The last thing I see of the night in the chat is that a 6-year-old host brother is now throwing real darts at a dartboard and the host mom is not around. I hope that doesn’t end poorly. Все хорошо, что хорошо кончается [All’s well that ends well].

 Schoolbooks and catI decide to put off homework until tomorrow morning, as usual. Run my fingers through my hair to decide whether to take a shower. Eh, I took one yesterday. The thought of fighting with the temperamental temperature, and even more so, the moment when I’ll have to put down the shower head and soap myself in the cold air, is not particularly appealing. Раскладываю [lay out] the old off-white Chekhov book from the library, my red dictionary and my blue notebook on my lap. Working through Три сестры [Three Sisters] for the second time now, I внимательно читаю и записываю новые слова [read attentively and write down new words]. Стараюсь. [I’m trying.] I love them, these sisters, I want to breathe in the stuffy on-stage air that заглушает [muffles, stifles, deadens] their lives and breathe out their words, their living words. Они все мечтают по-своему. Одна неспелая, другая разочарованная, а третья--одновременно и так и так. [They all dream in their own way. One is immature, another disillusioned, and the third is both at once]. My eyes soon start to щипать [sting, burn, tingle] so give up on the reading for today and update my little personal dictionary by making letters of yesterday’s scribble and an exact Russian word from the letters and an English word from the Russian word. Of course left out of all this sense making is the original sense of the conversation from which I must have plucked these words. I don’t remember. My life is microscopic. I memorize the details, feel the moments, but can’t conclude, summarize, remember...

Осколок, порыв, гвоздь, упрек. Толковать, тосковать, внушать, растрепать. [Fragment, impulse, highlight, reproach. To interpret, to be depressed, to inspire, to wear out.]

Take off my sweatshirt. Drop it on the floor. Take out my contacts. Drop them in the пакет [plastic bag] on my desk that I use as my trash can. Click off the light. Climb under the covers. Fall asleep instantly.

 Chicken on sidewalk Wake up to the cat meowing. Didn’t know he ночевал [spent the night] with me. Stumble to open the door. Fall back asleep.

Dream that we get moved to Estonia. Wake to a pounding heart and a damp pressure in my eyes. Overwhelming relief and gratitude when I realize that no one is making me leave. Fall back asleep.

Wake up to gentle light and the crow of a rooster.

Блин [shit]. I forgot to set my alarm.

 Home street view   Trolleybus  Courtyard in front of school  Commute home  Schoolbooks and cat  Chicken on sidewalk