Thursday, June 23, 2016

My Family in Moldova

"Have you been crying today?" she asked as we sat down to coffee and sunflower seeds at the kitchen table that I hadn't eaten at for over a year. 

How did she know? Besides the fact that I'm, um.. known for my tears, she knew because she's my mom. My "host" mom, sure. But she has been as much a real mom as she possibly could be for the last two years, even though I only lived at her house for two months when we first arrived for training in Moldova. Recently I went to visit my training host family after spending much too much time apart.

Our first Country Director said something about host families - even though you spend two years with one and two months with the other, often you'll have a stronger connection with the first, short-term family than you will with the one at your permanent site. She said this tends to be the case because when you get to this new country and you know absolutely nothing, your training host family has to teach you literally everything. When I arrived at Angela's house, I did not know one word in Romanian. I didn't know how to ask where the outhouse was (it took me two days to even try - don't ask), or how to find the school where I'd have lessons. When you can't communicate, it feels like you can't do anything, so that first family really has to help you learn how to live again. Of course this would form a strong bond; in order to survive, they are what you have. 

A few hours after we landed in Moldova, we were dropped off at our host families' houses. I was shown my room, I sat down on the couch, and then a tiny person came in to investigate. She was adorable and I didn't understand a word she said, but I knew she wanted to help me unpack. I was hot, exhausted, nervous, kind of scared, and maybe a little panicky.. But then she started trying on my bras and asking what literally every single item was for, so I was able to forget about some of those feelings for a little while. That was just the beginning of our being best friends. 

Day one in Moldova with Ionela.

Ionela was 4 years old when I arrived, and she was a little firecracker from day one. During our two months of training, she played with me, learned how to give me commands in English ("Come to eat, Catherine!"), fixed my hair, went through all my things, cuddled with me, drove me crazy, and forced me to watch Frozen about a gazillion times (who are we kidding though, I obviously started it - it's a quality movie). And I loved having her around; she was like my baby sister who I couldn't quite communicate with but who loved me just the same. Now she is 6 years old and she starts school in the fall. It can be hard to see time passing when it feels like every day in the village is the same, but when you walk into a house and see that the little girl you love so much is suddenly not as little, you realize that two years have indeed gone by. She is still perfect, wants to play 24/7, dreams up little kid scenarios, says I'm Anna and she's Elsa, and sleeps in my room with me. When I left to move to my permanent site, she sat in my suitcase so I couldn't pack. I already know she'll probably be the hardest person to leave.
We tried every single Snapchat filter roughly a hundred times each.
 Nina and Virgillia are my sisters, too. Two years ago when Nina finally came home from school or dance practice or somewhere and could speak some English to me was the best thing. Now I could communicate a little more easily! That summer they took me swimming, and out with their friends, and let me and Ionela join in on their YouTube workout sessions. Nina helped translate for me and Virgillia could occasionally convince Ionela that I did indeed have homework to do. 

After we had our coffee and sunflower seeds, mom asked, "Have you had any cherries yet this year?" I hadn't, so of course we had to go out back and pick some! Mom climbed the tree and passed handfuls of perfect cherries down to me, which I stuck in my pockets that were quickly overflowing. I spent the next two days just hanging out with everyone - playing with Ionela, walking to the store with Nina, attempting to make placinta, surprising extended family members at their house, even getting to see host dad on Skype. 

I'm thankful to this family because in just 15 minutes I easily feel more part of the family than I have in the whole two years at my permanent site. I often wonder how different my service would have been if I'd been fortunate enough to have such a caring family to live with the whole time. 

I remember one of my first days in Moldova, I sat down to dinner with the family and Nina said, "Catherine, you don't like fish, do you?" I may have avoided it in the lunch they had packed for me that day (and possibly another time or two). "No..." I said sheepishly, hoping that wasn't a deal breaker. They all laughed and said something like, aha, we thought so! Don't worry, it's fine! That night I truly felt like part of the family, and I'm pretty sure it's because they told me I was. Americans in Moldova use the term "host family," but not every host family uses it. It's normal to us to say "host sister" and "host dad" but to a lot of hosts, that doesn't really make sense. But here I am a sister and a daughter, and I have sisters and mom and dad. 

They still remember the list of foods I don't like to eat, and the first words I learned (puțin, puțin! - a little, a little! aka self-preservation during masas). We all remember how in the past I could barely hold a conversation, and now our world is completely changed because I can. Two summers ago, mom would make me breakfast and then get back to working around the house or in the garden. Now she makes me breakfast and sits down to chat. 

I had such a great time with them that I ended up staying even longer than I had planned, and I thought it would be my last visit, but I hope to make at least one more trip out there to properly say goodbye. Which I know will be practically impossible. There's so much more I could say about how much I love this family, but I really just want to say Thank you. Thank you for taking me in and helping me survive and being my family and loving this weird American girl that was put in your house for a summer. And please come visit me in America! Because I can't live without you.  

As I left the house again, mom and Ionela walked me out to the road and hugged me goodbye. "If you ever feel like you want to cry, just call me, and we'll talk through it," mom said. A simple statement that ironically makes me want to cry, because of how thoughtful it is, and how we never would have been able to do that two years ago. Now that we can finally communicate, it's time for me to go. Pardon me while I go cry about it.