They told me I’d be asked. Told me to have an answer ready

But I was otherwise engaged, and besides, I didn’t know how to answer.  And they were right; people do ask.

“So, what was Peace Corps like?”

Some expect a two-line answer.  Others want to really get into it, to imagine it vicariously through you, sometimes to think on doing it themselves.

Peace Corps… I loved it; even the worst of times was worth it.  The insight gained from those times lingers with me still, a million miles away from those moments.

They say Peace Corps is the toughest job you’ll ever love.

They say Peace Corps is different for everyone.

They’re right; which of course means they’re wrong.  🙂  If it’s different for everyone, it stands to reason that for some it’s not the toughest job they’ll ever love.

I never regretted joining Peace Corps.  Not for an instant.  And it was true for me: it was the toughest job I’ve ever loved, and I credit it with so much, personally.

There were times I wept with frustration.  There was even one time when I locked myself into an outhouse to cry, so you can imagine… (!!!)  But there were also times I cried with happiness.

Are my tear ducts too willing to gush, you wonder?

Nay, I say.  They’re about average.

I remember the winter when I cried in the outhouse.  (How could I forget?)  I texted my site-mate to ask if it was safe out; if I could escape unseen.  (A site-mate is a fellow volunteer placed in the same village/town/city.)

“Yes,” he texted back.

Together we ran from the building down the only main street in town.  Well, I exaggerate.  We walked.  But swiftly.  Stumbling, for the ground was cracked and slippery with ice.

My bedroom also, by the way, had ice in it.  I look back now and realize that for the first time I was experiencing seasonal stress, which only seemed to be eclipsed by the frustrations of culture shock.

“I’ve had it,” I said.

“With Peace Corps?” Sig asked.

I laughed. “No, I love Peace Corps,” I said, and then a few more frozen tears eked out.

Again he probably wondered why he’d been paired with me.  With nowhere to go, we followed our feet down the road, eventually reaching my other workplace there.  I was working directly with four NGOs (non-governmental organizations) at the time.  With a sigh, I stumbled into the building.  He followed me.  This place was the only one which had heat…  And in that cold, brutal winter, heat was something precious and not to be turned down when available.  (Have I mentioned the ice in my bedroom?)

We walked into my large shared office.

There was a spread laid out on the table.  Delicious Georgian foods and wine.  I looked at my colleague sitting there.

“It’s been forty days since my relative died,” she explained in Russian.

Ah.  My face grew hot.  That meant it had been 39 days since I’d misunderstood the word “passed away” in Georgian and had told her that her relative would be fine the next day.  This is why she was now reminding me in Russian, my stronger language.

“I’m sorry,” I said.

She sighed deeply and nodded at the chairs next to her. “Sit down.  We must toast her and commemorate her with this meal.”

I wasn’t supposed to drink at work, you know.  Peace Corps rules.  But I felt this superseded the rules.  I opened a spot at the table with a shift of a chair, and sat down heavily.

I think I needed to commemorate life and death that day.  And I think I needed a drink.

I toasted loquaciously and many, many times.  In the Republic of Georgia, that’s the only way to drink.  Actually, that’s literally the case. Whereas in the US you sip your wine throughout your meal, in Georgia that is VERY bad form, and no-one would lift a glass without toasting first.  A long toast.  Fortunately, I happen to love toasting, and my Georgian friends loved that about me.  I knew how to honor a glass of wine and the people around the table (and away from it, and passed on, and future generations,–and everyone that one tends to toast at Georgian parties).

So I toasted and toasted and toasted, and soon we were all toasted.

Which was precisely when Sig’s cell rang.  He looked up suddenly.

“Peace Corps is here,” he said.

I lowered my glass. “Huh?”  (See what I mean by eloquence?)

“Right outside the building.  They’re here to inspect my new place before letting me move.”

I sat up. “Sig, they can’t come in!  I’m wearing jeans!”

He looked me flat in the eyes then let his glance travel to my glass.  I lowered it slightly.

“Go on, meet them outside, come on!” I pleaded.

“It’s cold outside,” he grumbled, but he dashed out.

And I toasted him next.  🙂

Yeah.  Peace Corps isn’t what you expect.  Good times, bad times, hard times…  Okay, no easy times.  But my God, if you put your all into it, and if you’re lucky and get great colleagues…  It’s all worth it.  One hundred times over.  More.

You know the US Army slogan– “Be All You Can Be”?

That’s EXACTLY what Peace Corps is to me.  A two year increment of your life where you put yourself to the test and you make sure you pass.  Sure, you can do it at home.  But many of us don’t.  We forget to live life to the full, back home.  But make it the whole point of a period of your life, and you can achieve so much.  You can begin to achieve being yourself, the way you want to be.

Just not a particularly well-scrubbed self. 🙂

Gori Apartment, Republic of Georgia

Gori Apartment, Republic of Georgia

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About sputnitsa

Born in the US, I grew up in Africa and the West Indies, and returned stateside in my teens. After a decade in international development, democracy work, and inclusivity training for domestic NGOs, I joined Peace Corps, and after a year, experienced my first Russian invasion. I followed that up by volunteering with refugees and youth, and after some vacation time climbing minarets and mountains, I returned to New York City, where today I work on social justice with college students, produce short films, and write.
This entry was posted in challenges, communication, culture shock, drop in the ocean, escape, Georgian, international service, language, learning from others, Marneuli, Peace Corps, photos, Republic of Georgia, volunteering, volunteerism and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to They told me I’d be asked. Told me to have an answer ready

  1. Yarnspnr says:

    What an excellent commentary on living life!! Thank you for a peek into the marrow of your bones! The peace corps was a life building experience like no other. Not that there isn’t others out there, but it’s one of the best mirrors for seeing yourself as you are. I appreciate you sharing that! Thank you!!

    • sputnitsa says:

      Thank you! It is a great mirror, I agree. It breaks expectations across its knees, and breaks a volunteer too, at least for part of the time. It’s part luck and part attitude…

      It can really grow a person; I know it did me. You can learn what to let go of….what you don’t need to be happy in life. And I’m not just talking about things. But it certainly isn’t easy, this crazy lesson. 🙂 🙂

      Did you by chance serve in Peace Corps too?

      Thanks again 🙂

  2. Yarnspnr says:

    Skarozha, You’re welcome No, unfortunately the Peace Corps was not an option for me after I graduated high school. That was 1966 and the US was up to its elbows in a little fracas called the Vietnam War. My choices were to go to college, but if I didn’t do well enough to stay there, I’d get drafted into the Army or Marines. My second choice was to enlist and get what I wanted. I did that and joined the Navy. They sent me to Yeoman school then when I reenlisted they sent me to England where I stayed until I exited. Because of my clearance, I couldn’t leave country very often. I needed approvals that took a lot of time. So, I stayed mostly in England. I did get to Holland, which I truly enjoyed. Although the Navy was a huge learning experience, I’ve worked a plethora of jobs and that’s where I learned more about life than I ever could have imagined!

    • sputnitsa says:

      What an interesting life path.

      But wait, clarify–where did you learn more about life than you ever could have imagined? The Navy? Your other jobs? What sort of jobs, by the way?

  3. Yarnspnr says:

    I started out working for minimum wage (1.25 per hr) in my Grandfather’s cigar box factory. My father and 3 of my uncles also worked there. I stuffed cigars into boxes and put them into another larger box for shipment. Then I worked as a bus boy. After that I settled into garment industry jobs like being Manny’s bundle boy and working the thread machines. Loud but interesting, they took a single thread and added two others to make a stronger thread. My job was to rethread the machines when they stopped working. Then came the Navy for six years. When I got out I worked for a month in a hardware store. Afterward I managed a camera department for a place called Jewlcor. Then I sold camera accessories in PA and New Jersey for a company called Kalimar. After that I worked in construction framing a house. Then I joined McDonald’s management team in Philadelphia. I opened two new stores for them before I waved goodbye to the Golden Arches to join Burger King. I opened a new store for them and found it wasn’t as good as Mac. Then Britannica called and I learned how to sell encyclopaedias. Then I managed a kiosk in a local mall that sold car stereo equipment. I did that so well they opened a store locally and I managed that. I had a great crew and we beat all the Philadelphia stores and I won a trip to Las Vegas. I was promoted again when they shut down the kiosk in the mall and opened a full size store. I managed that. Then my assistant manager and myself opened our own business called ‘Conflicts of Lehigh Valley’, a strange kind of hobby shop where we sold war games, D&D and chess sets. The Lehigh Valley Chess club held there meetings there. After we sold the shop, I managed a Wendy’s for a few months but it was even worse than Burger King so I went back and worked with my old co-owner selling high end audio equipment again. This led me back to Britannica again. Believe it or not, out of all my jobs I loved selling Britannica the most. I wasn’t selling encyclopaedias, I was selling education. Then a new computer store opened in the valley and I joined their team. Within two months I was assistant manager, then about a year later, manager. I would probably still be working there, but the owner sold it out from under us. We went to work one day and the doors were locked with a moving van there. Oh Well. After a couple of months selling high end automobiles I moved to Arizona. My first job here was selling pizza machine businesses. Odd, I know. I was there a month before finding employment in the computer industry again. It was a phone sales job with a local company. Then I moved up to MicroAge. Leaving that, I joined a company called Computer Prep. We sold work books to teachers in the industry training their students in various software programs like Microsoft Word, Excel, etc. Once again, they got sold out from under me. My last job was with Qwest, the regional phone company, selling for them. Horrible job. It led to my stroke which ended my working life as I lost my short term memory. So now I write and that’s about it. BUT you might note that most of my work involved direct contact with people. That’s where the experience came from that grew my life. Sorry to put you through all this, but you did ask. 🙂

    • sputnitsa says:

      Don’t be sorry. 🙂 That was fascinating. That’s a lot of different jobs!!! You’ve certainly done the rounds; worked in so many different industries…

      I’m sorry about your stroke :-/ But now you have your time to write and focus on living, right?

  4. Yarnspnr says:

    You know, I’m a firm believer in “You play the cards you’re dealt.” The stroke underscored one of my few beliefs concerning life. “You never know what you never know.” I haven’t been dealt the next card yet, but no matter what it is, I’ll deal with it. Your hand is only as good or bad as the other players think it is. And guess who controls what they think? 🙂

    • sputnitsa says:

      You’re right.

      “You never know what you never know.” I like that. It’s true.

      I really like your attitude. 🙂

      Do you really think, though, that your hand is only as good or bad as the other players think it is? Explain that to me. If you have time. 🙂

  5. Yarnspnr says:

    This is a ‘poker’ analogy. In playing poker the ‘bluff’ is a large issue. You try to get others at the table to think your hand is better than it is. If they think it’s really good, they’ll all fold and you win the pot. You don’t have to show your cards unless someone ‘calls’ you. Conversely, if you have a real good hand, you bluff that it isn’t so good so everyone will keep bidding the pot (which you’re going to win) up and up. They don’t know your cards. They have to guess by watching your face, hands, body movement, for ‘tells’. The cards you hold don’t really matter. The expression ‘poker face’ means a player that never lets you know if his hand is good or bad. They’re expression and ‘tells’ never change.

    • sputnitsa says:

      If I ever had the mental acuity to play poker–and time and a thousand reiterations of the rules prove that I don’t currently–I would be disastrously bad. My face is far too expressive. My “tells” are more like “yodels.” 🙂

      Thanks for connecting the dots for me. 🙂

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