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IN THE LATE NINETIES, my parents surprised everyone when they applied for the Peace Corps. Recent empty nesters, they were a lifetime older than your typical volunteer. They were also no West African well diggers. A management consultant (Mom) and commodities broker (Dad), they remembered fondly the policies of Ronald Reagan and played tennis once a week at a private club with an all-white dress code. Without ever clarifying exactly why they wanted to trade their well-appointed life for “the toughest job you’ll ever love,” they assured me, my two sisters, and my octogenarian grandmothers that we would be fine without them for a couple of years. And then they left.
Mom and Dad posted to Zvolen, a lumber and railroad town of some 43,000 in the hills of central Slovakia. Forget backbreaking physical labor: Mom taught English, and Dad worked as a business adviser. Early letters and calls indicated that they’d ended up installed not in a mud hut but an apartment building. The cement monstrosity wasn’t as luxurious as the sea-view condo they’d left behind in Seattle, but it did have flower boxes in the windows. In short, they had not contracted malaria or strangled each other, as we’d half guessed they would.
So we promptly forgot about them. My older sister continued supporting a husband who couldn’t find work. I flailed at securing my first postcollege job and, on a lark, moved to New York City. A freshman in college, my younger sister was left in our hometown with little more than a hug and instructions to call if either of the grandmas became mortally ill. So she pierced her tongue, maxed out the emergency credit card, and partied so hard she ended up on academic probation.
Our parents, meanwhile, were too preoccupied to take a sincere interest. Mom said that Dad’s nightmares had magically disappeared, perhaps because he was getting a full night’s sleep for the first time in decades. Dad wrote that Mom was picking up Slovak with lightning speed. When my sister and I visited roughly a year on, we hardly recognized them.
They looked younger. Dad was tasked with advising the national home ministry on mortgages and offering advice to the public on how to start a small business in Slovakia’s newly free market. Since few lifelong communists were jumping at the chance to open car washes or Arby’s franchises, he spent a lot of time “keeping his finger on the pulse of the community,” meaning drinking coffee with other old men on the town square. Mom taught a couple of classes and helped start a leadership-development program. In their ample spare time, they accepted dinner invitations from local families, hosted an English-language conversation club, and took afternoon walks to a castle in the surrounding forest. As far as we could tell, they encouraged Slovaks’ capitalist hustle while relishing a break from their own.
I didn’t know it at the time, but this has always been the goal of the Peace Corps. When President John F. Kennedy created it in 1961, he simply wanted Americans to burnish the Yankee brand, sharing their smarts and good cheer around the world, and return a little wiser and more compassionate. Remarkably, this remains the purpose. Peace Corps volunteers—some 550 of the current 8,000 are over 50 years old—currently help with AIDS education, environmental preservation, IT, and more in some 76 countries. For “asking not,” volunteers receive housing, a livable monthly stipend, great benefits (including student-loan assistance, paid vacation days, and medical and dental care), and a generous relocation fund to ease reentry.
In return, they have an experience that usually goes something like this: Volunteers arrive euphoric, delighted by every exotic detail of their new country, before the realities of life abroad pull them low. For a couple of months, they miss the familiar comforts of home. And then they become consistently happier and happier. At the end of their posting, they suffer pangs of nostalgia for the tough early days.
I assumed Mom and Dad were going through something like this, and I had seen long-term studies of Peace Corps volunteers’ emotional well-being; the graphs over the course of their stint looked like big check marks. But low points didn’t figure into my parents’ stories. We just heard about Mom’s new gay friend, her first, and Dad’s half-baked plan to ditch the States altogether and focus on pottery, his newfound passion.
Back in the old New World, things slowly began to turn around for the rest of the family. My big sister’s husband found a job, and I developed, if not a friendship, then an easy rapport with my paternal grandma: I’d call her from New York; she’d complain about being alone, complain about my little sister, and then abruptly end the call by saying, “This is probably costing you a fortune,” even after I assured her, repeatedly, that it wasn’t. Lonely and broke, I finally buckled down and learned how to write a proper résumé. My sister eventually got off academic probation and started studying. The grandmas survived another 15 years and more.
In the summer of 2000, Mom and Dad returned home. Every tint of conservatism was gone. They’d transformed into not just Democrats, but gay-proud, tennis-club-annoying socialists. Only then did they reveal that a big part of their motivation for enlisting in the Peace Corps had, ironically, been selfish. They had burned out and thought that a government-subsidized stint as volunteers in the developing world would offer a late-stage career reboot, which it sort of did. Mom returned to management consulting, eventually retiring as a senior executive; Dad became a Peace Corps recruiter and started a couple of small businesses. In the end, we all grew up a bit. Even my little sister agrees that—with our parents now retired and traveling all over the developing world—joining the Peace Corps made Mom and Dad pretty darn cool.