A Peace Corps volunteer spends two years teaching English in Moldova in this debut memoir.
When Weiss first arrived in Riscani, a city in northern Moldova, the outlook appeared bleak. Emerging from an alley of vodka bars packed tight with track-suited afternoon drinkers, he eyeballed his first major landmark: “the ruined brick skeleton of an asylum burned down by an angry mob some years back.” The second landmark he saw was a statue of Lenin. Despite having gained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, Moldova still displayed its ties to that nation. Weiss took up residence with a Moldovan family and began teaching English at the Russian School, made infamous by its reputation for “undisciplined children.” At first, lessons were impossible. Weiss’ students preferred talking among themselves, mocking him, or leaving the classroom without permission. On one occasion, pupils started a fire causing the school to be evacuated; on another, a boy brought a pistol to class. In time, Weiss began to acclimatize. As a teacher, he made a minor breakthrough when a student asked him to translate a pop song into English, albeit rather embarrassingly the lyrics to Tom Jones’ “Sex Bomb.” On the street, the author discovered that he would be treated as less of an outsider if he snacked on sunflower seeds as he walked. This is an inspiring memoir about forging cross-cultural bonds against daunting odds. The country that Weiss lived in was, in many ways, mysterious to him. But through tenacity, patience, and the help of the locals, he slowly found his way. Weiss’ writing displays an understated, world-weary wit. He deftly describes Teacher’s Day, a Russian tradition, when students recite poems, dance, and serve shots of vodka and cognac to honor their instructors. Recounting the following day, Weiss remembers he was nursing a hangover and wryly confides: “I stayed out of the teachers’ room because we were expected to finish the leftover cognac during the breaks between classes.” More could have been said about Moldova’s Soviet past and how it shaped its present—surprisingly, the word “communism” is used just once in the entire book (and “communist” only three times). But the author’s two years in Moldova are a delight to follow and could prove inspiring to anyone hoping to discover other cultures as a Peace Corps volunteer.
An incisive, amusing, and thoroughly engrossing account of working in a former Soviet republic.