Lunch with the gym teacher

I didn’t even think he knew my name until today. The 62 year-old gym teacher at my school is a hoot and has invited me to his apartment (across from the school) for lunch or dinner countless times since I first arrived in Varatic, but I never really took him seriously. In all honesty I was a bit nervous to go there since he lives in an apartment by himself (his wife left him to make money for their children’s education, and his grown children both now live in Romania). Since the semester began I’ve been telling him I would visit on Easter vacation and I planned to take a friend with me as to not start rumors in the village or not give the wrong idea (trust me… it happens). But yesterday I was invited, once again, to join him for lunch because the daily holiday is celebrating 40 saints and the tradition says one must drink 40 Moldovan glasses – American shots- of wine. Apparently this was a true invite and I couldn’t refuse, as he went so far as to ask my partner teacher what I like to eat and what I don’t eat. By the second lesson I was hungry and looking forward to what he had prepared since I was told he can cook even better than some Moldovan women… and I can attest that this rumor is, in fact, true. The traditional meal he cooked was mamaliga, sheep cheese, and rabbit. Delicious.

The food was great and all but what I really enjoyed was the conversation. In two hours over lunch I learned more about this teacher and what life was like during the Soviet Union than I’ve learned since being here. Or maybe not learned since being here, but understood. He told me life during the Soviet Union worked because no one knew a different life. They were sheltered from the rest of the world and they were only taught to work. He then told me the story of a wolf and a dog. They story goes that a hungry wolf and a not-hungry dog met and the wolf asked the dog what it was that he had around his neck. He responded it was a collar that kept him home (so where they met, I’m not so sure… but moving on…). Then the dog told the wolf he can come live with him at the house because then he would never be hungry and the wolf responded, “I would rather be hungry and be free than have enough food and be trapped.”
The reason for this story was to explain the life during the Soviet times for them. Everyone had work. Everyone had enough to eat. Life seemed to be good… but they were not free. They were terrified to make a mistake because if they made a mistake they were taken to Siberia without a word and weren’t allowed to resist. He said this system of fear worked in the schools because the kids were afraid of discipline (oh, wait. What? Discipline? Ha). Kids actually had to- and DID- learn the information being taught to them. As soon as the bell rang signaling the end of the lesson the kids did not run out of the classrooms screaming. Kids didn’t skip lessons because they would be severely punished for doing so. Bad language wasn’t spoken in the schools or at home. But, again, they weren’t free and when the revolution started is when everything began to fall apart. People wanted to be free, but they’d been taught what to do and only how to do that since 1918-ish. That is why Moldova struggles today- they still need someone to come in and change how they think, not just what they do.
It really saddens me just how hard life is here- because really, it is. Unless a Moldovan lives- and is successful- in Chisinau, it is difficult for them. Children don’t see the importance of an education because most likely their future consists of working abroad (in Russia, Ukraine, or Italy primarily unless they’re lucky to sneak in the US). There really are no jobs in the villages for them to do unless, like I suggested earlier, someone comes in and changes how they think to then change what they do. Chisinau is becoming a more “modern” and “cosmopolitan” city but it’s only in a small part of the city and it still has a really long ways to go. The story of many old people here is pretty much, “I’m alone because my children and my spouse went to work abroad and then my spouse found someone else so now I’m here alone and I take care of the animals every day so I have something to eat and I drink so I have something to do. There is no happiness in life because there is no work and there is no money.” It’s unfortunate and heartbreaking.
Sorry for such a sad and depressing post. I’ll end it on a positive note saying he really made me feel good about my 2 years here. He told me that I am leaving an impression on the kids that they will never forget. As we walked through the halls to leave the school, every student we walked by (even the little 1st graders who don’t have English yet) told me, “hello” and some asked, “how are you?”. He told me the kids that don’t want to learn are never going to want to learn… as much as I wanted to change that when I came here, I can’t. But I taught them to say “hello” and I smile back at them and that is enough of an impression to last a lifetime.

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