I travelled to Moldova at the end of June 2017.
I had read somewhere that going to Moldova would have made me cry twice: first, while stepping off the plane upon landing at Chisinau airport; second, while boarding the plane to leave.
When I arrived, I was too charmed by the beauty of the unknown to even process the thought of crying. Besides, it was a gloriously sunny day, and Chisinau looked radiant under a glowing sun. On that morning, it mattered little that my designated taxi driver had just badly ripped me off (haggling is not my thing, I guess).
I’m in a white Dacia car and Chisinau runs fast past the windows. The city looks nothing like the grim place that many reviews online had anticipated.
The Republic of Moldova is one of the least visited countries of the world. It has quite of a notorious reputation online – and that was the kind of preliminary knowledge I was myself equipped with before departure. Barely two years older than myself, it is a young nation with a very complex history that involves the Cucuteni-Trypilla civilization,the Ottomans, Romania, the Russian Empire, the Soviet Union, the EU.
On the map, Moldova is like a tiny bow wedged between two rivers: Romania is its Cupid and Ukraine a soon-to-be lover. The river Prut, the bowstring, streams down in the west, whilst the Nistru (or Dniester), the handle, flows along the eastern border. The capital city, Chisinau (which, for the record, should be spelled Chișinău) is at the heart of the country. There are a few other medium-sized cities, such as Bălti, Tiraspol, Soroca. Between them, a green blanket of hills that looks like the bed sheets of a morning bed. Tiny villages scattered across the land remind travellers that time does not flow at the same pace in all places. A couple of months later, a friend of mine would say:
‘Chisinau is a restless dog surrounded by sleeping cats’
On the way to my new home, the city gates engulf me with a firm hug. They’re two huge, gate-shaped apartment blocks built on both sides of the broad street linking the airport to the city centre – 24 floors in the sides adjacent to the road, a few less at the ends.The City Gates, captured from the back seat of a Taxi heading to the airport. Past the gates, I am introduced to an extravagant melange of beautiful, one-storey art-nouveau houses sided by grey, soviet-style apartment blocks. At their feet, tiny grey boxes house supermarkets, newsagents’, and bakeries. It’s 6AM, and the buses are already packed. They ride up and down Bulevardul Stefan Cel Mare, the main street that cuts the city centre in half. The map of the city centre (Sectorul Centru) looks like a perfect grid of cardines and decumani. Just halfway across the cardo maximus that is Blvd. Stefan Cel Mare, the headquarters of secular power (the Moldovan government) spies its otherworldly counterpart through the archway of the Arcul de Triumf. The cathedral rises in the middle of Piața Marii Adunării Nationale, the city’s main square where, on the 27th of August 1989, 750,000 Moldovans proclaimed an Independent Republic of Moldova. They also made the Romanian language written in Latin characters (and not Cyrillic) the national language: Limba Româna (the Romanian language of Moldova) replaced лимба молдовеняскэ (the Moldovan language, or the Romanian language of Moldova written in Cyrillic).
My new home is located in the western side of the city centre, just by a beautiful church topped by the typical, stunning golden domes of orthodox churches. Opposite, an old abandoned museum that maintains its past beauty like no time is passing. A kind of damp warmth welcomes me when I get off the taxi and stumble upon the threshold with my excessive luggage. The humidity reminds me of home, and for a few instants it does not seem like I am in an unknown country – it’s like I’m just at home, like another summer holiday after nine months at university.
The house in which I will be staying is on two floors. It looks like a holiday home, and is doubtlessly the best accommodation arrangement I have ever enjoyed in my life as a perpetually broke student. Actually, after an academic year spent in one of the most expensive cities in Britain (= Oxford), this felt like luxury, to say the least. Rents are crazily cheap – although I am told it is still quite expensive for Moldovan standards, because I am in the city centre. It’s barely half past six in the morning and I have been in Moldova for about forty minutes, but everything looks so familiar that it is as if months have passed already. Looking back now, it’s clear that all signs were there already.
It felt pretty much like home.
I have lived in the Republic of Moldova for two months and three days. Probably too little to claim any expertise about the country, its culture, or its food, even. And yet I like to think that I have seen, listened to and tasted enough to share with the world what an incredible country Moldova, actually, is.
Right now, it is quite difficult to picture what kind of image of Moldova I had in mind before going there. If I try to remember, the actual Moldova pops up in my memories. However, I remember how those first anticipatory images took shape in my mind. I have this sort of ritual I religiously initiate every time I about to go to a new country – I explore the local pop-music scene (or what I can easily find on Youtube, at least). I think that pop music provides a very interesting portrait of a country, of its society, of its stereotypes.
Interestingly enough, Moldovan singers sing a lot about Moldova. Just type ‘Moldova’ and ‘music’ on Youtube and you will understand what I am talking about. Here’s a list of my early findings, which have also entered my official Moldovan playlist that allow me to take some Moldova with me wherever I go:
The first video is by Zdob si Zdub – they are very popular in Moldova, and they are generally quite well-known in Europe due to their participation at the Eurovision Contest. The videoclip shows an Italian man that lands at Chisinau Airport, randomly gets on the car of an improvised taxi driver and overcomes any language barrier by using Italian in the hope that its similarity to Romanian will help out. Pretty much my own experience, really. Although my taxi driver did not introduce me to any hardcore moldovenesc, nor has the taxi journey ended in a 360-degree introduction to Moldovan culture and main attractions, sadly. I’ll bring a guitar next time and see what happens!
I am particularly attached to this video because it was partly shot in the park I used to cross every day on my way to and from work. The people in the music video are just having the time for their lives singing about how happy they are of being Moldovan. These guys sing both in Romanian and Russian (this applies to the video below as well) and are accompanied by a jolly group of Moldovan dancers performing at the feet of the stature of St. Stephen the Great, the founder of the Romanian people. Sadly, I never found those t-shirts being sold anywhere. Because I really want one! (they say Iubesc Moldova, which means I love Moldova).
Same guys from the previous video, but this song is not as joyful. Again, traditional dancers, traditional costumes, St. Stephen the Great on a horse, typical Moldovan pies and wine. But this is more of a tale of the sorrows faced by the Moldovan people in today’s society. The title of the piece – Moldovenii care plâng – means ‘The Moldovans who cry’, after all. Regardless of whether you can understand or not, you can see men working in the countryside, an old lady looking after young children, who are Skyping their parents at the dinner table, violence between teenagers – just to mention a few. It is a catchy, simple account of what Moldova faces today, but ends on a positive, hopeful note.
The last videoclip was shot in a castle in Soroca, in the northern part of the country. The two singers wear the traditional costume and sing… about Moldovan things, really. The chorus goes ‘In Moldova there’s happiness, in Moldova we dance the hora, in Moldova brothers and sisters do not fight’. Again, wine, Moldovan pies (placinte), homemade baskets and pottery. My favourite bit is perhaps when they explain ‘how business is done in Moldova’: you make wine, sell wine and use the money to buy more wine’. Makes sense, right?
The proud, conscious nation of Moldova is widely present throughout its very popular hits. The videoclips show the stunning Moldovan countryside, the monasteries glowing on top green hills, the national costumes,the traditional dance, its food, its wine. All with a few words (both in Romanian and Russian) dedicated for those Moldovans who are peste hotare (abroad), contribute to the country’s economy but leave their families behind; those who stay and struggle to make the ends meet; those who want to leave; those who could not live anywhere else. Since I left Moldova, I keep telling people about the country. All the blank expressions in response to my mention of ‘Moldova’ are like the white pages of a diary that are just awaiting to be filled. I would talk for hours about Moldova’s position between Russia and the EU, the language issues that such a geopolitical position entails, their incredible wine industry. And I do have an unlimited number of posts I could dedicate to those topics over the next few weeks. But my first post about Moldova wants to be about my first impressions, about a country I would have not dreamed of visiting six months earlier opening up to me and disclosing its true self.
P.S. I did cry when I left, in the end.