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Monday, August 15, 2011

Moldova: Who/What Are You? A country in the midst of a major identity crisis

**Written July 24, 2011.  Published August 15, 2011.

The road to Moldova...Sunflowers for as far as the eye can see!
Last Thursday night I was thinking about the weekend ahead and decided spontaneously to make a trip to Chisinau, the capital of Moldova.  Two of my friends from Belmont - Stas and Eugen - are international students and are back visiting their family in Moldova this summer.  (In fact, Stas just graduated this spring and got married this weekend -- a big congratulations to him and his new wife, Mariana!!)
Stas and Eugen have told me a lot about their country during the past few years at Belmont, and I always told them one day I would visit them in Moldova.  Now, living just 180 km away, I couldn't pass up the opportunity!  So on Thursday evening I walked into the kitchen where Anna, my Austrian roommate, was eating a buterbrod
, and said, "Hey Anna, I think I'm going to Moldova this weekend.  Do you wanna come?"
When I pulled my water bottle out of the fridge and turned around she was just staring at me.
"Are you serious?" she asked?
"Yeah, of course.  Let's just go for the weekend; spend one night; see the city a little; and come back by Sunday afternoon -- we'll still have enough time to do our homework and take a nap!"

Visiting with Stas in downtown Chisinau
It turns out Anna has been wanting to visit Moldova for a while, but wasn't too keen on the idea of traveling alone.  She didn't think anyone else would want to visit Chisinau, so she didn't even ask. Some things in life just work out... I was prepared to go alone, but I'm so glad I invited her along!  Although I love being a lone trekker who can easily lose herself in a new city and culture, there are some things about traveling in pairs that are really nice.  Sharing the experience and memories with a friend, and sharing common expenses are two of the benefits!

An hour before the bus left, I found Dasha's phone number -- the Moldovan girl we met on the train to Odessa the week before.  It was such a blessing that she offered to reserve a room in a private apartment hotel downtown, and she and her dad met Anna and I at the bus station when we arrived at 9.30 pm.  By 10.30 Anna and I were laying on our huge bed in a cozy little apartment when I said to her, "Just think, without Dasha we would still be wandering around the bus station in the dark, looking for a place to stay tonight!"   
Behind me - minibuses about to depart. We endured five hours
WITHOUT AIR CONDITIONING (on a 39 C/102 F day at 80% humidity)
 in a full van on the way to Chisinau.
Two of these hours were spent waiting at border crossings.
Dasha, making us an excursion! :)

Since we had absolutely no sightseeing itinerary and couldn't even name one thing in Chisinau that we knew we wanted to see, Dasha offered to "make an excursion" for us on Saturday.  Of course we took her up on this, and it was absolutely the most adorable thing in the world to see her show up on Saturday morning with a list of at least 20 things she wanted to show us, and a hand-drawn map of our downtown route.  She is really such a sweetheart!  And a talented guide as well.  It was neat to have her point of view on the city's history and current socio-political state.

Dasha shared lots of memories of growing up in Chisinau as we strolled the tree-lined streets, and I'll never forget her pointing to the street vendors and saying, "This is food that is impossible to eat. You always risk dying."

Parliament Building

Dasha and Anna prepare for the church
Our first stop: a church.  Dasha thought ahead and brought scarfs and extra skirts so that we could enter the churches, even if we weren't dressed according to Orthodox protocol.  In more touristy places you can often enter without a head covering, but out of respect I always usually have a small scarf in my purse to throw on while inside. Shoulders don't necessarily need to be covered, as the Catholic churches usually require, but skirts or shorts shouldn't fall much higher than your knees.

The National History Museum
We then continued to two museums -- the National History Museum and the Museum of Ethnography.  I enjoyed an overview of Moldova's history through  maps and other artifacts (Fun Fact: when Moldova was part of the USSR it was called Moldavia; it's proper name today, as an independent country, is "Moldova," but even in Moldova, Ukraine and Russia many people don't know this and both names are commonly used).
Communist propaganda poster with caption:
"And so it will be with the Fascist beast!"
The Museum of Ethnography
We spent a little more time in the Museum of Ethnography, where there were tons of great stuffed animals, fossils, old ceramics, and even a dinosaur!! -- all of which were found in the region.
It was really quite hot in the city that day; I drank four bottles of water and barely ate all day despite our trekking because it was just too hot.  By three o'clock we needed some relief from the sun and steamy city streets, so Dasha took us to a place called Three Lakes Park (really just three ponds) where we sat in the shade, took a walk, and enjoyed the breeze.

I am continuously surprised by how dangerous daily life in Eastern Europe is compared to the United States.  Business owners and private property owners aren't liable for incidents that take place on their property (at least not to the same extent as in the US - and even if an individual has the right to sue, the case would be backlogged in court so long that nobody fears actually having to pay the suit) and the governments don't use their funds to adequately maintain roads, manholes, bridges and such, so simply walking down a sidewalk requires a heightened sense of awareness and constant attention to detail (not to mention a bit of luck).  If you're not hit by a lawless, speeding taxi or careening marshrutka, you're likely to be caught by one of these other "traps," as I call them.
A dumb person trap.

As we came upon these bridges at the Three Lakes Park, I said to Dasha, "No wonder I've met so many intelligent people here!  The dumb ones simply don't survive. Looking at these big holes in the bridge and missing bits of railing, you really do your best to weed out the lower end of the gene pool!"
There's something charming about this dilapidated playground.
The colors are faded, but you know it's been loved.

Chisinau's famous city clock

Inside an old Soviet tram. Still in use, of course.

"Moldova is Romania!"

I asked Dasha about the graffiti I kept seeing - the same statement over and over: "Moldova is Romania."
What's that all about?

There's a bit of political and linguistic tension right now regarding the Moldovan identity.  In fact, when we asked Dasha (who has been studying in Moscow for the past three years) how she views her nationality, she said, "I don't even know.  I probably feel more Russian than anything -- my family speaks Russian and my parents are from Ukraine -- but really I don't really feel anything at all."  The fact is, most people in Moldova speak Romanian, a Latin-based language that has a lot in common with Italian. Moldova has its own official language -- Moldovan,  which is essentially Romanian that is written in Cyrillic (the Russian alphabet).  And of course, as a result of their former membership in the Soviet Union, all older generations (and most young people) can speak Russian as well.  In Chisinau, the capital of Moldova, Russian is very widely spoken as a primary language.  But even so, Anna and I ran into problems when the girl at the apartment-hotel we stayed at turned out to speak only Romanian. Either she genuinely didn't understand even basic Russian (which is very hard to believe) or she simply did not want to speak it. This made doing business with her annoyingly difficult.
As of late, there has been talk of Moldova becoming part of Romania, a member of the European Union since 2007. Some are for this potential merger, while others are strongly opposed. Romania doesn't appear to be against annexing the smaller, poorer country. Graffiti seems to have popped up everywhere, proclaiming that Moldova is, in fact, Romania.
There is a simultaneous, yet different, movement which Dasha says involves Romanian-speaking Moldovans chasing the Russian-speaking population out of the country. "They want all the Russians to leave," she says.  Even though the "Russians" to which she refers here are Moldovan citizens and many were even born there, they are by default "Russians" if their mother tongue and heritage is Russian. After hearing Dasha talk about this issue, I was left with the impression that it was quite a big deal, and although it doesn't appear to have escalated to violence in the streets, I sensed the presence of an ethnic oppression.  However, when I met up with my friend Stas later, and mentioned the issue, he assured me that it's more political hype than anything. It's propaganda and scare tactics, he told me. Interesting to note that Stas comes from a bilingual family -- his father is from a Romanian family but his mother is of Russian (or Ukrainian) descent and spoke Russian at home with Stas and his brother and sister. Stas' father is an elected member of Moldova's parliament.
I am of the opinion that a lot of political hype and propaganda are certainly involved, as Stas suggested, but perhaps the verbal image of ethnic oppression painted by Dasha provides a keener sense of the emotions this issue evokes in the Russian-speaking minority party. Stas is an observant young man and very politically aware, so I was struck by this situation in particular -- it illustrates the fact that even if we somewhat identify with a minority community, we will rarely feel the entire weight of the implications of a movement as will those who have no way out.  While someone like Stas can take refuge in the Romanian side of his linguistic and cultural identity amidst a situation such as this, a Moldovan with strictly Russian heritage has no escape from the shame and disdain pushed on them by the disapproving segment of society.

Interestingly, this public park had free wifi!
Anna and I were surprised and awestruck, but Dasha said it's "normal."
In some ways Eastern Europe is definitely behind the times, but in
this respect they are far ahead!  Even some airports in the U.S. still
don't have free wifi!

A souvenir fair in downtown Chisinau

Dasha says all the Russian tourists sit on this lion to have their photo taken.

I was pleasantly surprised by the nice trees that line Chisinau's streets.

Modest attire required for entry to this Orthodox church.
I like the sketches of vintage clothing.

An especially beautiful Orthodox church interior in Chisinau.

Chisinau's Center Cathedral

Moldova's most famous and revered King.

Do you see the profile of a man in the right side of this bust's hair? 
It was really a treat to tour the city with a local, someone who grew up there. I feel that Anna and I left the city with a sense of the local legends and stories passed down through generations; the kinds of stories you can only get from someone who's lived in a place for a very long time.  Here's an example of exactly the type of story I'm talking about:
Dasha took us to see a collection of iron busts in a downtown park. About 12-15 busts are mounted on marble pedestals and line the main walkway, interspersed by benches and bushes. The busts present Moldova's most revered artists -- poets, painters, etc.  The artist who was commissioned to fabricate the busts wanted to have his statue included in the park's outdoor gallery.  The authorities refused this request, but the artist was determined to live on in the exhibition. Dasha tells us that Mihai Eminescu is for Moldovans the equivalent of Pushkin for Russians -- a most honored poet and author and symbol of national pride. The artist took it upon himself to etch his profile as a silhouette into the right side of Eminescu's hair, under the guise of Eminescu's hair blowing in the wind (or something. Who knows what he was thinking, exactly?).  Do you see it? Fascinating story!

Entering this church, we stumbled into a baby's dedication and baptism ceremony.
There was a beautiful sound of song and prayer emanating from the group.
I didn't feel bad about taking photos once I saw an older brother (about 12 years old)
capturing the entire ceremony on VHS.
Interesting to note that, while women's heads are covered, bare shoulders and short
skirts appear to be accepted.

As we prepared to head back to the center after our outing to the Three Lakes Park, Dasha's mom called and said she had bought some peaches for us to take back to Odessa.  Moldova is famous for its peaches, and Toma was sure that we had never tasted a proper peach!  I was expecting she might have a few for us, but when the tram pulled up at the stop near her house, the door opened and she handed Dasha a bag -- 3 kilos of peaches! (That's 6+ pounds!!)  
Needless to say, we had fresh peaches, peach pie, peaches on oatmeal,
baked peaches and honey, and tons more peachy recipes during the
following week at home in Odessa!  They were delicious!!

An hour outside of Chisinau, on the way home, the driver suddenly pulled over to the side of the road and hopped
out, yelling, "Anyone who wants peaches - get out now!" He and a dozen others proceeded to buy out some
local farmer's daily offering.  Our bus was ahead of schedule and I thought it was neat that our driver was so
enthusiastic about supporting local business. Moldova is the poorest country in Europe.  There are many farmers,
but their crops don't bring in much revenue. I often paid just 25 US cents for two big bunches of lettuce when I
bought produce at the downtown open air market in Odessa which is full of Moldovan farmers who bring their
crop to market each day.

Question of the Day: Can anyone tell me what tree this is?  Does it exist in the United States?
Do you see the little green, spiky seed pods?


  1. Shirah, I love your blog. It was so good to see you last week! The lion picture is one to be framed! Darling! And I know you will miss your friends Stas and Dasha! Great photos. I always learn so much from your travels. As for the tree, possibly a Sweet Gum tree, although the leaves are different, but the sticky ball is the same.

  2. Hi Shirah,

    I am writing a blog post about Chisinau and I found this great pictures on your blog. Can I use them, citing you as the author? My blog is http://da-scoprire.678voli.it/ (in Italian language) and I am writing about various cities, mostly in Europe.

    My email: debora@678voli.it


  3. Hi Debora,
    Thanks for contacting me. You're welcome to use images and/or quote my text as long as you cite me. It would be nice if you provided a link back to my blog when the image is clicked, etc.


  4. Jordi Pons (barcelona)June 18, 2017 at 5:09 PM

    The tree probably are Aesculus hippocastanum.. (no Castanea sativa)
    commonly known as horse-chestnut or conker tree.
    Interesting post! I will visit Moldova early...


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