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Hope Dies Last

Patrick Burns
Turkmenistan

I travel because I like to explore, I explore because I like to learn, I learn because I like to understand. It was with these thoughts in mind that I set out for Peace Corps/Moldova in June 2003. Since then, it has been one lesson after the next.

When I landed in my pre-service training village of Mereseni, it was very quiet, hot, and dusty. I remember thinking to myself that this is where I’ll spend the next 10 weeks of my life learning the Romanian language, Moldovan culture, and a lot about myself. My host family was warm, friendly, and very hospitable. This meant that they would offer me their best vin de casa (wine of the house) upon my entering through the gate. Immediately, I realized that this was unlike any other wine I’d ever tasted. It was very young and tasted more like fortified grape juice than the wine I was used to drinking in other countries. However, I accepted their generosity and drank a glass. I was able to have a conversation at about a two-year-old level, which was a very humbling experience and reminded me of when I was an exchange student in Mexico during the early 1980s. I knew that the language would come, just how fast and at what speed remained to be seen. Two days later, I had my answer, six hours a day of language training at an amazing pace. What a way to go—and it works!

My fondest memory of the village is a little, seven-year-old girl named Irina. She had a beautiful smile and a curiosity as to what the American was doing in her village. Moreover, she had the patience to practice Romanian with me, a 41-year-old Volunteer. As the summer went on, I started teaching her English words and she’d sit outside the gate and wait for me to get home from school. She always wanted to know what I had learned that day. One day I received a care package from my mother back home and it contained Oreos. I gave Irina a sleeve and she sat there with the biggest smile you could imagine and ate them all. After a while the group got larger, and I was up to seven in this informal learning group. They learned from me, and I learned from them. I learned that, at times, the Peace Corps makes corporate America seem slow; we accomplish more in an hour than some firms do in a week. There are times when we move at light-speed, times when the clock seems to stand still, and times when it appears to run in reverse.

During pre-service training, I was assigned to teach business Eng-lish during practice school at a local university in the capital of Chisinau. At the end of my three-week course, one of my students came up to me and gave me a kiss on the cheek because she was so excited to practice and improve her English. This was very special because she’s an English teacher here in Moldova. Another student brought me a gift from her village. My students were so passionate to learn that it was difficult to understand how Moldova could be so poor. But the next generation has hope. In Moldova, there is a saying, “Speranta moare ultima!” (Hope dies last!)

There were times when I’d wonder what sort of an impact the Peace Corps and I were having on Moldova and my students. The best answers I can give are the following examples. First, my wife Rosie and I wanted to travel back home to see our ill fathers as they were both coping with diseases. Upon telling my students that we’d be going to Seattle, two of them asked if they could see us off at the train station. “Of course,” I responded. When we met Vadim and Cristina at the train station, they were holding two boxes of local chocolates and two bottles of Moldovan wine.

Cristina said, “These are for your parents. We want to thank them for having you!” I know that those chocolates never tasted better or the wine smoother.

The second example happened during one of my English language club meetings before the Christmas holiday during my first year as a Volunteer. I asked the group to write an answer to the question, “If there was a Santa Claus, what would you want him to bring Moldova?”

One of the students in the group responded, “Freedom, and the knowledge to know how to use it.” This remarkable answer led to a discussion of what it means to be free, the rights and responsibilities that we share when we live in a democracy, and the importance of improving ourselves to better our future and our community’s future.

I believe that the most important thing we do as Volunteers is provide hope. Everything else seems like an ancillary detail. This sounds so easy doesn’t it? That’s because we’re Americans, and we were born with a sense of optimism that doesn’t always exist elsewhere. A British friend once told me that he thinks that Americans have an optimism chip planted in our heads at birth. And so it goes.

To my friends, colleagues, and students in Moldova who helped me understand, “Multumesc mult!” (Thank you very much!)

“Speranta moare ultima!”

Patrick Burns (Turkmenistan)

Patrick Burns served as a Volunteer in Moldova from 2003-2005. He joined the Peace Corps after 18 years as a stockbroker/sales manager.

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