If you want to have some fun, ask a random person to pinpoint Moldova on the map They won’t know the pickle they’re in until they’ll look for it in the wrong continent. So what to expect from a small strip of land few have ever heard of, stuck at the frontier between the old East and the West? Simple: expect the unexpected.
In our travels, we tend to overlook these small countries in the far corners of the world. Once part of a massive empire and invading communist union, bordering Romania and Ukraine, Moldova swims between two waters. Romanians refer to Moldovan people as their brothers on the other side of the river Prut. Once you cross the border into Moldova, you’ll be surprised to find out they don’t necessarily feel the same.
The overall atmosphere in the country has a smack of tragicomedy with a hint of satire I might add. After all, it’s hard to escape communism after it’s been fed to you with a ladle. Its identity may still be blurry, but its personality is probably stronger than ever.
Moldova, a strategic location
I do not wish to bore you with history lessons, but a short introduction is imperative if we are to understand the current situation. Moldova has been a collateral victim in someone else’s war way too many times. Used as currency in the hands of its invaders, it has been tossed around for centuries.
Inhabited by Dacian tribes in Antiquity, its strategic position at the borderline between Asia and Europe made the territory a mark for many usurpers. In the 15th century, the Turks laid their eyes on Moldova, but it remained a Romanian principality. In 1812, the territory between the rivers Prut and Nistru was ceded by the Ottoman Empire to the Russians. Throughout the 19th century, Moldova underwent an intense process of Russian colonization and denationalization. Romanian language was banned from schools and the capital is renamed in Russian: Kishinev. In 1917, Moldova breaks free when its territorial autonomy is proclaimed at Chisinau. One year later, the Democratic Republic of Moldova becomes part of the Romanian Kingdom and of the newly formed, unified Greater Romania. It didn’t last long. In 1940, the Soviet Union got its hands on the territory. Armed troops entered and occupied the country. After World War 2, Moldova fell under Soviet occupation. Thousands were killed, thrown into concentration camps, or deported to Siberia. The denationalization process continued. In 1991, with the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Moldova earned its independence. Many continue to call it Kishinev.
Chisinau, a city of contrasts
Old and modern blend together in a hypnotic urban landscape. Buildings, some shabby and others quite glamorous, remind of three distinctive historical periods: Russian Imperialism, Soviet communism, and European-oriented modernism. I’m sure they could do a better job restoring the numerous historic buildings and manors currently left in ruin, but that aside, there isn’t a street corner without some historical significance.
Built on seven hills, just like Rome, Chisinau is a green city with many parks, something you rarely get to see these days in most European cities. It is the capital of one way streets. It’s almost impossible not to get lost, even with a map. And for some reason, our GPS wasn’t getting any signal, as if even the satellites forgot such a corner of the world existed.
We visited Chisinau around the time of the 2014 Parliamentary elections. A dark cloud lay over the city. Or was it just the bad weather? Sure, we hadn’t had much luck with the forecast, but there was definitely something in the air. Moldova is at the crossroads: communists or pro-Europeans. People take sides as if there’s nothing in between. Some have made up their minds, others need convincing. The election campaign swallowed the city.
Part of the campaign was a massive concert stage mounted right in front of the Moldavian Government. The stage was almost as big as the building itself and the whole thing had been put together by the Democratic Party of Moldova. European singers entertained the public on the first day, despite the freezing cold and occasional snowfall. Russian performers stepped on the stage the following day while a mob of young Democratic Party supporters chanted in the crowd on both days. It all ended with a spectacular fireworks show launched from the roof of the Government building. There was something very strange about the whole picture.
Moldovan people are either very welcoming or ice-cold. They’ll all treat you with some suspicion. It seemed to me that Moldovan people preferred to put on a poker face. Maybe it’s an attitude that was passed on from the Russians or maybe that’s just how they are. It struck me as rather sad…
Although Romanian is the official language, you’ll hear plenty of Russian on the streets. One evening, we took a taxi from the city center to the hotel. We got in, told the driver the name of the hotel loud and clear, and nothing happened. He tried to enter the address on his GPS. No luck here either. He almost hit another car while typing. He was Russian and we didn’t understand a word he said. Apparently, neither did he. We all laughed our hearts out. Luckily, we knew the way to the hotel and managed to lead the way using some kind of a frenetic sign language. Once we arrived at our destination, our young Russian driver had no problem enunciating the fee in intelligible Romanian and charged almost double than the usual. He should have paid us for showing him around the city!
Supercars and poverty
The roaring sound of a powerful engine is something you get used to on the streets of Chisinau. And so is poverty. What’s even worse is that there doesn’t seem to anything in between. There are those who can afford everything and those who can’t afford anything. If you leave the usual tip, waiters will thank you several times until you walk out the door, sometimes follow you outside in case you haven’t heard them the last ten times. Women stand in the cold near public restrooms in parks, hoping to sell a piece of toilet paper. Young workers will pick up a morsel of bread they dropped in the dirt and eat it. They can’t afford to waste anything. Almost every time we passed by the Triumphal Arch in the city center, there would be a man dressed as a teddy bear trying to give hugs for money. He was all rags, stuffing coming out of his paws, and I’m pretty sure I saw him smoking on the job. Hell of a teddy bear! This is the everyday sketch of Chisinau’s streets.
Food and restaurants
This chapter deserves way too many pages, so I’ll try to keep it simple. When in Moldova, you must try Soleanca, a soup made from leftovers. That’s right, you’ll find everything from sausages, bacon, pastrami, olives, and a slice of lemon to cut the grease floating in your bowl. Doesn’t sound very appealing, but the way they bend together will leave you wanting more. If you want to try something different, Blini is the way to go. These are Russian pancakes packed with a whole meal inside: meat, cheese, sour cream, bacon, fish, you name it. And you can make your own personal combination of ingredients.
A strange habit you’ll notice in most Moldovan restaurants is that waiters tend to bring all courses at once. Soup is served with dessert, steak on the side, and while you’re halfway through your first course you can’t help but take a bite of that delicious cheesecake, just to be sure it’s as good as you’d hoped. Why do they serve like this? They don’t want the meals to get cold. Note to self: next time when in Chisinau, remember to insist dessert should be brought at the end. The rest is a hopeless war.
Moldovan people sure know their sweets and beverages. Bucuria candies are a signature mark. Once you step inside one of their stores, you’ll feel like a kid lost in chocolate paradise. What to choose? A little bit of everything, but my personal favorites are the sour cherry in chocolate candies. Such a delight!
Moldova is a wine haven, with a wine tradition that spreads over 4,000 years. Cricova, one of the world’s largest wine cellars, counts 120 km of tunnels acting as storage galleries. The most popular Moldovan beverage is divin, a Moldovan recipe for brandy. That’s right, it means divine and they probably called it so for good reason.
The Moldovan police
Of course, the Moldovan police deserves a special place in my story, with their Russian accent and their funny-looking fur hats. I do not wish to criticize their looks, just their attitude. I had never visited a communist country before and therefore had no idea what to expect. I thought the typical security guards, with their walkie-talkies, their taser guns, and batons offered enough protection. That was until I saw Moldovan guards: tall and slender, wearing khaki uniforms, knee and elbow pads, and shouldering their rifle in public.
There was something of Orwell’s 1984 on these streets that made my skin crawl. Remember Bugs Bunny’s words “Have you ever had the feeling you were being watched?” I never had until now. Surveillance cameras at all major junctions take pictures of cars, drivers, and passengers. Policemen are scattered all around, just waiting for you to make a wrong move. Foreign license plates are an easy target, but they are merciless with their own as well, removing license plates from illegally parked vehicles. What is strange is that they seem to be watching you at all times. Even if you’ve done nothing wrong, they’ll stop you anyway and try their luck, make up a story of how you’ve crossed on orange light, they’ll try to convince you it’s illegal in Moldova, or how you smell of alcohol even though you didn’t drink. If you cave in, they’ll threaten you with a huge fine unless you reach some kind of friendly agreement with the officer.
To sum things up, there’s so much more to Moldova than meets the eye. The fact that it is on both sides of the fence makes it even more intriguing and I didn’t even come close to revealing its true colors. This means I should be heading back for an even longer incursion in the land of contrasts. Until then, I’ll leave you with a short video I believe does one hell of a job describing Chisinau and its strong personality.