Those days remain for me, over 20 years later, as poignant as Proust’s madeleines.
I often get too mushy or teary just trying to relate the lessons learned and the bitter sweetness that nostalgia just is. On the negative side of the spectrum, trauma bonding and Stockholm syndrome come to mind. On the positive, a culture that inhabited me, with all the muddy in-betweens that this sort of parallel dysfunction conjures.
When we choose to throw ourselves into chaos, as controlled as that chaos might promise or originally appear to be, we make a statement and commitment we can never really disown afterward. I f-ing volunteered. I signed my name. I was informed in advance of the reality of the program., at least to the degree it was divulged. Whatever pain was suffered in consequence, I knew very well it was going to be “tough”. That was the damn advertisement after all. In hindsight, was it a mistake? Did I overstate my enthusiasm, did I overestimate my commitment?
My father always said challenge, even to the point of pain, builds character. Maybe this is true, but it makes me question then why those who subject themselves to the most pain aren’t necessarily so strong in character. In fact, there would seem, as often as not, to be an inverse relationship. How does the Golden Rule play out when what the other wants, what he expects and has been trained for, is manipulation. My dad talked a lot about character, integrity, family values. He’s been married three times, so apparently he has a good base of experience from which to draw.
Chaos is sometimes mistaken for passion.
Intensity is often mistaken for intimacy.
We are only human. There’s a reason the slogan at the time I pined for the Peace Corps was : “The Toughest Job You’ll Ever Love”. I longed for it for three years before I made it happen.
Love? Tough? Got it! Know it! Sign me up.
I got one of the easiest assignments possible. I’ve written about that too many times to repeat it here now. Before I was sent just a few hours from Prague, I craved to be sent to rural West Africa, that was my dream. I was to be learning Wolof half the month in a village as I taught French at a university in Dakar. It almost happened. Then, I was threatened to be sent to Armenia, OMG! A clerical error, I hope?
I really hated it at times. Did then, still do, the bureaucracy, what’s not to hate? The jumping through hoops, the perpetual state of subservience and distancing and stonewalling, well it was just a precursor of all that was to come. Many events stand out, but what stood out most then and still is to be labeled a complainer from the outset. I was a huge idealist then; I wanted to give my skills and capacities to the service of my country and its ideals, as they’d been presented to me, and then and indeed now, the hierarchy meant nothing to me personally. Unless, as it stands, I can hardly maneuver myself from underneath its obvious and choking oppression.
The message is like a master to a slave: When I ask your opinion, what you are allowed to tell me is only what I want to hear. Or, consequences.
I completed the seemingly endless evaluations seriously and honestly. While others checked “fine” and “no comment” I filled them out for real. It still brings me to tears to remember this truth. This might be nationalistic brainwashing, I accept that, but my devotion was real. It wasn’t for America per se, because already at that time it was all plastic, I didn’t stand for McWorld, or I certainly never meant to, that’s for sure.
I really thought I could make a difference, that others, even those above me who said they wanted my opinions, really did want them, and the message I was getting on the outside was that I could make a difference if I tried, if I “applied” myself.
But on the inside, it was an entirely different game. Subservience is the currency. And that’s when I was introduced to the world of politics.
I know now one refers to this as naiveté. The rule is go along with the program, and if it’s too difficult, find another way to cope with your reality, like pain killers or anti-depressants or meditation or a new guru, or whatever. And if you can’t handle that, well, get out. Get out of the game. Good heavens, it’s not Afghanistan, you’re a teacher, not a soldier.
It wasn’t that hard, in hindsight. But, it was a lesson for life. It was a precarious political situation in some ways, and witnessing this was invaluable to me. There was a lot of propaganda, and little trust, and no one, systems, or people, I can honestly say, ‘needed us’ in any real and material way. We did not help. In hindsight now I know, we only expedited their transition from Soviet dominance to Globalist dominance. Some honest and more astute friends confided to me at the time: “We are only trading one big brother for another.” Intelligent, shrewd and industrious folk, those Slavs.
The level of distrust was at such a level that at the time it seemed absurd to me, at 26. How very foreign it felt to show my passport at every border, to have people question me when I snap a photo. I was so judgmental, but how I feel for them now! Now that mistrust and hostility plague all of America. What is happening to me now seeing our political tyranny and police state is so close to what I felt there, it’s like living Kafka. In the West we think of 1984 and Orwell and Huxley, but there it was already old news. Those dudes exalted the nightmare Kafka’s world was already living.
On one occasion I was innocently taking a photo of a garden in front of a large family home which I found particularly lovely nearby a friend’s house not far from the center of Prague when an irate woman stormed out and yelled, “What are you photographing here? Are you ill?
This spring at my home on a dirt road there was an unusualrecreational vehicle driving past during the two-month paranoia of “Jade Helm” and the parallel feeling was overwhelming. Something was off. These drivers were foreigners. This vehicle was not local or recreational. What was up with this? Was it me? Enter the world of psy-ops. More on that, much more, in future posts. The goal of the psy-op being always to trade ‘your’ freedom for ‘our’ security.
In those days, in just Soviet-occupied Eastern Europe once I stated myself to be American, instead of German or Russian, I got a better welcome from strangers. “Racism” was practiced openly, that is, if you were discovered to be Western and therfore “rich” you had a gravely augmented price ratio to almost everything. To cheat you, even if you were with other Czechs, was commonplace and expected. There was actually an accepted and stated price difference for foreigners. That was incentive to learn the language enough to fool them. It didn’t take that much really, because few were able to learn the Slavic languages all that well. Even with an accent, if you were lucky, you might be mistaken for Slovenian, or from the Baltics, because after all, what rich Westerners would try to learn your language.
Whatever, I digress. I love nostalgia and I’m wonderfully good at it. The truth: I was terribly lonely. In many ways it was an extension of adolescence, and the hallmark of all dysfunctional relationships—as long as you serve us, we will support you. Serve us means don’t ask questions, no personal boundaries allowed, don’t make waves, even when invited, walk the egg shells, and support “us” (we the institution or the personal ego) even when we’re wrong.
I haven’t seen any evidence that’s changed, politically or personally, though my tolerance of institutional coercion, and by default I hope, personal coercion, has consistently diminished to the point at present of, no f’ing tolerance.
One thought on “Peace Corps Remembrance (part 1)”
Interesting. I went through the hoops and was offered a chance to teach in East Africa because I speak French. In the end, I choose not to go…it was 1993…he asked me, “Do you mind working in a country with a huge population of Aids?” And I said, “What about Eastern Europe?” and he replied, “No.” So I ended up teaching in South Korea for 3 years.
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