AT THE END OF THE SUMMER, after completing my training and being sworn is as a Peace Corps Volunteer, I was assigned to the village of Rauel.
In the middle of that October, one of my teaching partners, Maria, and I watched chickens pick through a small grassy slope covered in household trash on a cold and overcast afternoon. At the bottom of the slope, ducks and geese swam in a stream of black water. The birds belonged to families whose homes stood at the edge of the dumping ground on the outskirts of Rauel. Maria and I were developing and teaching a health curriculum for the seventh graders of the village school. We had brought our class to this spot to observe different types of pollution as a part of a unit on environmental health.
She asked the children to write down descriptions of the trash that was scattered throughout the area. Using a stack of nearby concrete slabs as a table, they began scribbling in their notebooks.
A girl with long wavy brown hair and wearing an old hooded jacket stepped away from the other students and stared at a clump of garbage. Her face was earnest as if she was dissecting it in her mind.
“See that girl?” said Maria.
“Her father used to teach physical education at our school. He went to Italy to work and never came back. He left his family behind and stayed there,” she said. She paused for a moment.
“We used to have a different school director. She went to Italy to work too and left her parents behind in the village. She started a new life there,” Maria said. Her jaw tightened and her eyes narrowed.
“When her father died, she didn’t come home for the funeral and left her mother here all alone. Her mother was so distraught. These people are sick in the head!” snarled Maria.
Maria’s son, a doctor, and his family had been living in Romania on his teacher’s salary at a medical institute. Recently, he had accepted a job in Germany and was home that week for a few days before going there. If his new position worked out, he would move his wife and children there as well.
Getting to Romania for a visit had been relatively easy for her. From Chisinau a person could take an overnight bus or van to Bucharest. The simple travel arrangements made Maria think that her son didn’t live so far from her. Germany, though, three countries away, made the possibility of regular visits remote.
MARIA HAD NOT SPOKENMaria had not spoken about how her son’s move strained her, but it was visible. Several days later we had agreed to meet in the early evening to write a lesson plan together. Waiting for her in the teacher’s room, I sat at the wooden rectangular table that took up most of the space. On the wall in front of me was an empty coat rack. The other teachers had already bundled themselves up and gone home. The light outside was fading. Few street lights still worked. The village would soon be almost pitch-black, making walking on the frozen mud roads tricky. It was twenty minutes past the time we had appointed to meet.
Maria burst into the schoolroom, took off her scarf and sat down while apologizing for being late. We began to talk about the topic of the next class and started to write out a lesson plan in a notebook, but Maria couldn’t stay focused. Her fingers, with dirt under their nails from working in her garden, tapped on the table, while her eyes darted from my face to the notebook to the clock on the wall.
Suddenly, Maria leaned forward and asked to stop.