Corrections, Confessions and Questions

My goodness! Lately I’ve realized I’ve let a few errors slip past my usually stringent editing process so I thought I’d take the time to correct them. I’ve also been getting some interesting messages lately, and I’ve been asked some amusing questions.

Let’s begin, shall we?

In my post A Filing of Childish Happiness, I wrote about my discovery of the most delicious soft drink I have ever tasted – cream soda from a company called Natakhtari.

I poked mild fun at the English-language skills of the Georgian distributors of the drink, including the fact that they use the word “lemonade” in lieu of “soft drink”. I later discovered that they actually do have a “lemon flavor” lemonade but I haven’t tasted it yet.

I’ve also since discovered that there’s a second, completely unrelated brand of Georgian “lemonade” being sold in shops here in Moldova, a brand named Zedazeni.

I haven’t tried any of their products, but I am absolutely delighted to see that their website is even more awesome than Natakhtari’s, if that’s possible.

Their description of the tarragon flavored “lemonade”:

Fresh green colored, one of the best among soft drinks made of Georgian greens – Tarragon, with the unforgettable aroma, exceptionally popular among the youth.

You crazy kids with your “rock” music and tarragon drinks get off my lawn!

In my post The Tip of the Spear, I badly mischaracterized the Moldovan Socialist Party.

The election season is in full swing now, ahead of the November 30 vote, and I’m regularly accosted on the sidewalk by representatives of the various parties. As such, I’ve had a chance to talk to them all and get a much better sense of what’s going on.

In my original post I said that the Socialist Party was a “re-branding” of the old Communist Party. That’s not strictly true. The short version of what actually happened is that most of the Communist Party revolted against their maximum leader, Vladimir Voronin, and then formed the Socialist Party. So the old Communist Party still exists but the Socialist Party has now appropriated much of its platform.

Later this week I’ll write a much more in-depth look at the Moldovan elections (yawn, right?).

In my original post about Jamie Oliver, I mislabeled one of the categories for causes of death in Moldova. I was going half blind from reading lengthy PDF files (in Romanian/Russian) and was transcribing them to Excel in order to sort them and make them roughly equivalent to Jamie’s graphic.

The column I labeled “Accidents” should actually be “Traffic Fatalities”. The title in the original Moldovan documents was perfectly clear – I just somehow got a wire crossed in my mind.

The category I labeled “Homicide” is actually just called “Violence” in the Moldovan documents, which doesn’t really specifically make clear whether that encompasses solely homicide or also means death by other violent means.

In my follow-up piece, Losing our Religion, I discussed diabetes. But I neglected to include statistics on diabetes deaths in Moldova in either article.

According to my tabulations, 22130 people died in Moldova in 2013 from heart disease (the #1 cause of death) while just 360 people died from diabetes (making it the #14 ranked cause of death). That puts it just barely ahead of urinary tract diseases (291 people – the #18 ranked cause of death) and choking deaths (216 people – #19).

Far more gruesome on the list (and not included in my original post) are dying from alcohol intoxication (181 people), drowning (158 people) and freezing to death (180 people). Jeez, what a bad way to go.

In other words, as many people died from drowning or freezing to death combined as they did from diabetes, and all of those causes of death were far lower than suicide (576 people). That’s also true in the United States, by the way – suicide is a Top 10 leading cause of death in most countries.

Fun times.

Now let’s address some of the questions I’ve received.

Q: Hey Sam, Jamie Oliver’s sauces aren’t processed. Would you consider pesto to be processed food too?

Uh, what?

What exactly is your definition of processed food then? I say that if it comes out of a giant factory from a stainless steel vat, it’s fucking processed food.

I guess you could split hairs and say that any food that’s “manipulated” somehow is processed food. If I eat a raw apple straight from a tree, that’s not processed but if I peel a banana, is it now “processed”?

I’ve purchased pesto sauce from shops before and I’ve made it from “scratch” at home. So what is the difference? The primary ingredient in pesto sauce is pine nuts and basil, both of which must be crushed. If I make it at home, does that mean that my the sauce “processed”?

I have a simple personal rule for food I cook at home – I don’t use appliances with a motor. If I am crushing nuts or macerating herbs, I do it entirely by hand. That’s largely an aesthetic choice, as I prefer a more organic, “chunkier” style over the fine-grained powder that you get from using a (motorized) blender.

I failed to photograph the ingredient list of Jamie Oliver’s sauces, but a lot of processed food contains chemicals, stabilizers, artificial colors, flavors and preservatives, something my homemade sauces never have.

Commercial sauces (and soups, juices, milk, etc) are also usually pasteurized, subjected to very high heat in order to kill bacteria. My homemade sauces, of course, are never pasteurized and are loaded with bacteria (and enzymes) that are quite healthy for you.

Indeed, pesto sauce is unique (compared to marinara or “red” pasta sauce, for instance) because the homemade version is always raw. Not only is it not pasteurized, it’s not even cooked. Prior to making it, all the ingredients are in their raw, living state. The basil is plucked from a living plant. The pine nuts could be planted and made to sprout. Commercial, processed pesto sauces are always cooked, usually pasteurized.

Again, if you want to be pedantic about it, you could say that fermented vegetables (pickles), chopped nuts, macerated basil, olive oil and fruit juice or even sliced tomatoes are all “processed”.

But I think it’s pretty fucking clear that even Jamie Oliver isn’t preaching against “processed foods” to mean foods that are made using a knife to chop nuts or a mortal and pestle to crush basil.

If using a knife makes a food “processed”, then what’s left to eat that isn’t processed?


Sam, tell us more about those delicious foods you’ve found in Moldova

Glad to.

Belarus + chopsticks = awesome
Belarus + chopsticks = awesome sauce

I keep scouring the shops and markets around here for amazing food and I keep finding it.

If your Russian is a little rusty, the product above says “Sea Cabbage”. On the back (not pictured), it’s called the same thing in Romanian (varza de mare). But “sea cabbage” doesn’t exist in English, so what is it?

After searching through a number of Russian websites, it looks like this is actually kelp, a marine plant that is loaded with nutrients and trace minerals.

The package of food I bought is advertised as being “Korean-style with mushrooms” and you can see the chopsticks on the label. I don’t know what “Korean style” means but the kelp (or seaweed?) is pickled in brine and absolutely delicious. The mushrooms are described as “tree mushrooms” on the label so I honestly don’t know what it is that I ate, only that it was quite dazzling on the palate.

Even better, this is a product of Belarus, another landlocked country in Europe. Was the kelp grown in Belarus, perhaps in a tank or something? Or was it harvested somewhere else and then packaged and prepared in Belarus and then later shipped to Moldova?

I’ll never know. All I do know is that it’s raw, it’s vegetarian, and it’s delicious.

Sam, I’m learning Romanian and blah, blah, blah…

Good heavens!

I’ve always wondered where exactly the line is that, once you cross it, you can say you “speak” a language. Just yesterday I had two separate conversations in Russian but I certainly don’t consider myself as someone who “speaks” Russian. The way I talk sounds like this: “at me money house yes now but electricity bill no now”. I sound like a total retard but yet I am communicating, so does that mean I am “speaking” the language?

Likewise, I’ve been “speaking” English my entire life as I was born and raised in the United States by two monolingual parents but sometimes I forget a word or I mix up a word or phrase. Do I not speak English? Clearly I do, right? But when I make these mistakes, am I really “speaking” English?

So when people ask me how many languages I speak, I always reply using the same joke. You have my permission to steal it and use it yourself.

Person: Sam, my gosh, you’re so amazing and cool and witty and handsome. How many languages do you speak?
Me: Languages I speak fluently or also including ones where I only know a few words?
Person: Yes, just the ones you speak fluently.

*long pause for effect while I stroke my chin and pretend to ponder the matter*

Me: Zero *huge grin*

Makes ’em laugh every time.

Seriously though, there’s no reason to learn Romanian. Everyone under the age of 30 speaks English, as does almost everyone who lives or works in the bigger cities, which is probably where 99% of foreigners are going to spend their time. My own mother came to visit me years ago (in Romania) and traveled around the country by herself for a few days and she was just fine even though she doesn’t speak a single word of Romanian.

Every single Romanian (and Moldovan) who speaks English is going to prefer speaking English to you over you speaking Romanian to them. Speaking Romainan won’t help you make friends, pick up girls (or guys), do business, network or perform missionary work.

The only people who don’t speak English are Gypsies, the elderly, and people in Maramures. So why even bother?

Jeez Sam, that’s kind of a negative outlook!

No, it’s not. It’s realistic. Romanians are insanely proud of their language and they will never encourage you to speak their language (beyond a few basic words) because deep down they believe that since you’re not an “ethnic” Romanian then, really, you’re not good enough to speak their amazing, super cool language.

Hold on, now. I’ve seen you on TV speaking Romanian. Why did you learn it then?

Well, two reasons. First, I had a foolish dream that I’d spend the rest of my life in Romania so I figured I might as well learn the language. Whether I actually “speak” it though is debatable, my appearances on television notwithstanding.

Secondly, I’m a stubborn asshole and I hate translations because they always lose something in transition.

Sam, I’m learning Romanian and gosh darnit, that grammar sure is difficult

Damn right it is.

I’ve been traveling all my life and I’ve developed two shortcuts that will instantly tell you nearly everything you need to know about a country.

The first thing to do is look at the money and figure out who all those weird, old guys (rarely women) are. In Romania, you see a painter, a musician and a poet and no generals, kings or presidents, so that tells you a lot about the national priorities right there. They value culture over militant imperialism.

The only woman on Romanian money is an anonymous peasant woman hoisting a barrel of water, which also tells you its an entrenched patriarchal society.

Likewise, Moldovan money is hideously designed and poor quality (which tells you the country is poor). Far more worrisome, the same person (Stefan Cel Mare) is on all the bank notes, which tells you that the country has some serious political divisions. Likewise, all the money in India has the same person (Gandhi), for exactly all the same reasons.

The second shortcut is to turn on your television. Either the majority of the programs and channels will be subtitled or else they won’t be. If you see a lot of subtitles, it means that the people in that country are highly likely to be multilingual and thus speak English. If everything is in one language (dubbed if it’s not English) then the people who live there are monolingual and only speak their home language.

Romania, Poland, Moldova and Sweden are countries which use subtitles. America, Russia, Germany, Britain, Spain and Hungary are countries that don’t use subtitles. People in the non-subtitles countries don’t speak foreign languages worth a damn.

If you’re writing to me about learning Romanian (and its grammar), then you’re probably from a country that doesn’t use subtitles, which means that somewhere in your cultural “DNA” you’ve got a huge blockage that won’t let you learn foreign languages very easily.

Romanian grammar is difficult for English speakers precisely because it uses grammatical conventions that were abandoned by English about 1000 years ago (back in the days when reciting the poem Beowulf was a hit at all the parties).

First, you’ve got three “genders” for words, which makes zero sense (to an English speaker) because how in the hell does a word have a “gender”? People have genders, not words. But no, you’ve got to learn that chair is “masculine” but table is “feminine” and a pen is “neuter”. Fucking hell.

Even worse, unlike some much more sensible languages *cough Italian cough*, you can’t just look at a word and tell its gender. Some Romanian words that end in “a” are feminine while some are masculine.

Secondly, Romanian nouns also use “cases”, which is kind of similar to how verbs are “conjugated”. Most nouns have 11 “cases” or forms (including the “diminutive”), which is insane if you’re trying to learn it from a book.

How in the world can you memorize all that? You can’t.

If you really want to learn Romanian grammar, the best thing to do is just don’t even try. After you’ve been speaking it for a while you’ll just pick it up “naturally”.

Likewise, word placement and order is much different, which is why acest spital and spitalul aceasta both mean the exact same thing (“this hospital”) but are obviously different and which one to use depends on context.

And then the real kick in the nuts is that once you get past a certain point, even Romanians screw up their own grammar precisely because it is so difficult. Romanians love to nitpick and ridicule people (their fellow native speakers!) who make grammar mistakes and so unless you’re a genius, you’re never going to ever get it 100% correct.

Maybe somewhere in the bowels of a university in Bucharest there’s some potbellied professor with a long beard who actually speaks perfectly “correct” Romanian but he’s the only one.

Sam, but surely it’s good to learn Romanian, right?

Says who? Just this week I met a Peace Corps “worker” who is here in Moldova (I presume) to save benighted souls and bring civilization and clean drinking water to the illiterate woggies who live here and yet she doesn’t speak one word of Romanian or Russian.

You have to have a university degree in order to work for the Peace Corps but you don’t have to speak one word of the local language(s). So if the United States government, in its infinite wisdom and majesty, doesn’t bother to provide language training to its faithful servants, who am I to disagree?

Frankly, if your native language is English and you do somehow manage to learn to speak Romanian, you have my undying and eternal respect. It’s a damned difficult thing to do.

Sam, don’t forget that you said that you’d write about the pizza sauce!

Oh, right! Thanks for reminding me.

In my first 24 hours in Moldova, I got into a fight in the city of Balti, I befriended a homeless woman in Chisinau, I met a drug dealer and I got kicked out of my hostel for bringing a prostitute onto the premises. It was quite an auspicious beginning for my first visit to this country :)

I met the homeless woman in downtown Chisinau when I was sitting on a bench, watching people walk by. Initially she asked me for money but when she heard my “accent”, she sat down next to me and we spoke for a long time. Her number one complaint was that there was too much trash (UK: rubbish) on the streets, which kind of surprised me.

The homeless woman was the first person to point out a strange anomaly that I’ve since confirmed. Moldovans, in their homes, are extremely clean and tidy. They bundle up their garbage and throw it away in large containers (“dumpsters”) that are conveniently located near the apartment blocuri. These containers are regularly emptied and hauled away by municipal waste collectors.

But what’s “missing” are smaller trash cans on the public streets. In every city in Romania (and Germany, Poland, etc) you’ll see little trash receptacles every few hundred meters where pedestrians can deposit their waste. But here in Chisinau, even in the downtown (UK: centre) area, they don’t exist. Apparently there is no municipal system of installing and emptying smaller trash containers.

So what happens to all the trash? Well, sadly, the homeless woman was right. A lot of people here just toss their litter on the ground. I’m a little more conscientious but sometimes I have to walk half a kilometer or more until I find somewhere appropriate to throw away my trash. Kiosks that sell magazines and newspapers usually have a trash can but otherwise you don’t really see them.

But what surprised me was when I saw a large, empty can of (industrial, processed) pizza sauce near a local bench. I’d seen litter there before (cigarette butts, empty beer bottles, etc) but I just couldn’t imagine that anyone sitting on that bench had brought a gigantic two-liter can of pizza sauce with them. I then began seeing more big empty cans of pizza sauce near benches and I briefly wondered whether maybe Moldovans have a secret craving for pizza sauce.

My wizened brain finally put the clues together – the empty pizza cans are there because the local people, my neighbors, are using them as an “unofficial” garbage can. Since that time, I’ve noticed other similar receptacles, sometimes a big empty can of olives, sometimes an old paint can and sometimes a cardboard box. They’re all there for people to deposit their trash – and somebody (I don’t know who) is emptying them.

I thought that was pretty cool. If the city won’t provide a regular system of trash cans, the neighbors have banded together to provide them out of whatever materials were handy. Instead of waiting around for the city to get off its ass and keep the neighborhoods nice, the local people did something about it.

Woah, that’s a cool story but you can’t just skip over the other parts and leave us hanging!

Oh, you mean the fight in Balti and the prostitute and all that? LOL

Ok, since you insist, I shall tell the rest of the story.

The fight I got into in Balti was a verbal altercation, not a physical fistfight. I was riding a “maxitaxi” (van) from Ukraine to Chisinau and I was quite fed up with the idiotic driver because he was in some kind of ungodly hurry and we only had a minute or two at each stop to take care of business.

By the time we got to Balti (the name of the city means “swampy puddle”, which is both surreal and yet terrifying accurate), I was desperately tired and I wanted to buy a coffee. He said we would be there for five minutes but after a minute he was yelling at the passengers to get back on board.

I hadn’t even had a chance to buy my coffee and so I yelled at him, saying we hadn’t even been there a full five minutes. He then yelled at me that his van wasn’t “a disco” (no clue what that means) and I yelled right back and said it wasn’t a “professional transportation service” either and then we continued to exchange a few terse words until nothing more was said and I continued on my way to Chisinau without further incident.

The drug dealer that I met was a friend of a friend of a friend. I was standing outside a grocery store, drinking a beer (completely permissible in Moldova) and some guy showed up in a car, said hi to his friend and then went inside the store. The friend of the friend then told me that the guy in the car was a big-time dope dealer. I had no clue of his “profession” during the five seconds I met him but technically you could say I “met” a drug dealer on my first night in Chisinau :)

What about the prostitute?

Oh, right!

I was staying in one of those hostels that backpackers and foreigners either love or else they hate. It’s one of those places where “cool, groovy” hippies all congregate and exchange notes and brag about places they’ve been to and the guys in filthy shorts all try to hit on the scrawny girls and use broken English to communicate. Needless to say, I didn’t really fit in, but it was my first night in town and I needed a cheap place to stay.

The following afternoon (but still less than 24 hours from my arrival), I was in town when a rare rainstorm blew in and I was near the hostel so I thought I’d duck in there to wait it out. That’s when the shit hit the fucking fan, because the idiots who work there saw me (an older foreigner with an American passport) come in with a young (Moldovan) woman and immediately assumed she was a prostitute.

She isn’t a prostitute, by the way, and never was. In reality she’s an intellectual all-star who won a gold medal in the Moldovan academic Olympics and speaks five languages fluently. But they certainly thought she was a whore, because they were speaking Romanian about her, completely oblivious to the fact that I can understand that language.

At first our plan was to hang out in the “bedroom”, a kind of dorm room with four bunk beds, but one hostel worker said that non-guests were prohibited from going in there. No problem. We then made our way to the “common area”, a kind of combined living room and kitchen where about 10 bored hippies were hanging around with nothing to do.

The second hostel worker then began to scream and yell, saying that all of this was “against the rules”. I protested and pointed outside at the rain and said we were just going to hang out for half an hour and wait for it to subside. No matter. He was fixated on the idea that my companion was a prostitute (although he lacked the balls to say it directly) and kept yelling in his shitty English that it was “against the rules”.

I then challenged him and asked him to show me the rules, which he declined. After his fellow morons continued to reiterate that bringing anyone who wasn’t a guest was completely verboten, we said fuck it and went back out into the rain.

Later, I did find the rules, which were posted in English in plain view on the refrigerator right next to where all the arguing took place. They did state that non-guests couldn’t go in the bedroom areas but guests are permitted in the common area during the daytime hours. Obviously I hadn’t broken the rules but the idiots at the hostel just couldn’t believe that my companion wasn’t a prostitute, even though she was dressed demurely in a pair of black pants (UK: trousers) and a long-sleeved shirt.

Oh well.

The name of that hostel is Funky Mamaliga and they can go to hell as far as I’m concerned. Even if I hadn’t been tossed out for “consorting with a prostitute”, the conditions there were substandard and the “guests” were loudly partying until 4am, making it almost impossible to get some sleep.

There’s a far better hostel (with a cheaper price) down the street so my advice is skip “Funky Mamaliga” unless you are a white person with dredlocks who likes to wear bead necklaces and brag about how “totally spiritual” India is.


Yes, that’ll do for the time being


3 thoughts on “Corrections, Confessions and Questions

  1. “If your Russian is a little rusty, the product above says “Sea Cabbage”. On the back (not pictured), it’s called the same thing in Romanian (varza de mare). But “sea cabbage” doesn’t exist in English, so what is it?”

    Seaweed. The stuff I purchase in the Asian stores calls it seaweed. The picture on the package looks the same as the stuff we purchase. My guess is seaweed.


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