Yesterday I mentioned the money here in Moldova but now it’s time for a full post on the topic. As I said, you can tell a lot about a country by its money. Let’s see what it has to say!
Moldovan money is called the leu (singular) or lei (plural). Just like its neighbors in Bulgaria and Romania, the name literally means “lions”. Why is the money in 3 European countries called “lions”? Don’t ask questions, that’s why!
Prior to independence in 1991, Moldova used the Soviet ruble. Unfortunately, when they had a chance to design an all new currency, they did a pretty crappy job.
The “grades” I am assigning are based on a scale from 1-10 where 10 is the best.
Here’s the 1 leu note:
And here’s the 100 lei note:
Notice anything? They are almost identical. They are also almost the same color. This is a huge problem. I’ve been out at night and had enormous trouble distinguishing one bill from another.
Here is the list of colors for Moldovan money:
1 leu = brown
5 lei = blue
10 lei = orange red
20 lei = green
50 lei = brick red
100 lei = brownish red
200 lei = reddish brown
Except for the 5 and 20 lei notes, all the rest of Moldovan money looks nearly identical at a distance.
At the bottom of each note you see a little circle that says “pe-un picior de plai pe-o gura de rai”. This is a line from the famous poem Miorita, which I’ve written about before. Although it is beautifully written, the message of the poem is “when someone is trying to kill you, just give up and let them do it”. Ugh. Easily the least inspirational text I’ve ever seen in my life to put on the money.
According to the BNM (central bank), that little “V” between the words is supposed to be “V for Victory”. Uh, what? What victory? Moldova hasn’t won any victories in the past 200 years. Jeez.
All the notes feature Stefan cel Mare on the front. As I mentioned yesterday, any time you see a country with just one (dead) person on them, it’s a sign of political problems because otherwise there’d be more people on the money to represent the country and culture.
Stefan Cel Mare lived 500 years ago so obviously there aren’t any photographs of him but there are much better portraits in existence than the one the central bank chose to feature on the money. The Stefan Cel Mare on the money frankly looks startled and/or confused, poor guy.
On the back of each note (not pictured) is a different Orthodox monastery. Again, this tells you right away that the population is pretty religious (which it is) and that the Orthodox faith is dominant (which it is).
The one exception to the pattern of showing Orthodox monasteries is the 100 lei note, the obverse of which shows the Tighina citadel. It was built by Stefan cel Mare (yay for him) but is now a ruin. Furthermore, it is located inside territory controlled by the de facto independent “country” of Transnistria, which is depressing.
The obverse of the 200 lei note is the Chisinau City Hall, which is all very nice and patriotic, except that the architecture style is Italian gothic and was designed by a ethnic Italian (but Russian citizen) named Bernadazzi. So sadly, there’s nothing Moldovan about it at all.
Between the poor color choices, the single portrait of Stefan cel Mare looking confused, the Miorita poem and the weird buildings on the obverse of every bill, this is some of the ugliest, most poorly-designed money I’ve ever seen.
I got used to Romanian money, which is absolutely top notch quality, its only peer being Canadian dollars. Romanian money is made out of some kind of durable plastic that takes a lot of abuse before it starts to look faded or worn out. Romanian money is also well designed and has a lot of cool features.
Moldovan money, on the other hand, is made from a kind of cloth paper, similar to American dollars, but far inferior. Moldovan lei doesn’t age very well but it is light years ahead of some other currencies I’ve seen, particularly those in Central America and Southeast Asia, which rapidly end up looking like toilet paper.
The Moldovan Central Bank does do a fairly good job of retiring worn out bank notes fairly quickly and it’s rare to see bills that are 10 years old or older.
Compared to other European money, the Moldovan lei bank notes are tiny. The 1 leu note, which gets a lot of use, is so small that it almost looks like it came from a board game or is some kind of “toy” money for children.
Is Moldovan money so small because the country is small and feels kind of inferior and not confident about themselves? Or os it small because it’s cheaper to print smaller bills? Or is it all of the above? I don’t know.
Furthermore, the gradations are not done very well. Almost all currencies today use different size bills, so that the “100” is bigger than the “50”, etc. Unfortunately, Moldovan bills are almost all identical in size, which again makes it difficult to tell them apart.
The only country I’m aware of that uses identically-sized bank notes is the United States. I never paid much attention to this until I met a blind man years ago while we were waiting in line at a Burger King. I was having a conversation with him and I saw that he had his money intricately folded to the point that they almost looked like origami and I asked him why he had done that.
As a blind man, he told me that since he obviously couldn’t see the money, the only way he could distinguish the bills was by using his “origami” method of folding them in different ways. Well that’s fine for when you’re paying but how did he know what bills he was receiving in change from the cashier?
That’s when he told me the old story of Ray Charles (a blind musician), who always insisted in being paid in single dollar bills. That way he was sure that he wasn’t being cheated.
While relatively few people are completely blind, a lot of people have vision problems. Having (notably) different sized bills is very useful for the blind, people who can’t see well, people who forgot their glasses (or contact lenses) or in low light situations. Sadly, almost all Moldovan bills are nearly identical in size.
You know you’re in trouble when every single Moldovan bank note says “counterfeiting is a crime punishable by law”.
Is counterfeiting a big problem here? I’m guessing it is, as I will outline below.
Unfortunately, there are only two security measures on Moldovan money. The first is a watermark of Stefan Cel Mare’s (confused) face. Any ordinary person can hold up a bank note to the light and see the watermark.
The second measure is that there is supposed to be a fluorescent bit that shines under ultraviolet light (“black” light). Well unless you own a UV light, how can you ever check and see if your money has this fluorescent bit? You can’t.
And so people (and businesses) pass around bills missing this fluorescent bill all the time and you’ll never find out until a cashier with a UV light informs you that your money is worthless. Fun.
While Romanian bank notes are top quality, Romanian coins are pretty boring. Let’s look at a couple of Moldovan coins.
This is almost identical to the Romanian 10 bani (“cents”) coin. But what you can’t see in the picture is that Romanian coins are made out of some kind of solid, durable alloy while most Moldovan coins are light as a feather.
The Central Bank of Moldova doesn’t list the metals in their coins but I’m going to guess that they’re all made out of aluminum. You can practically bend them with your bare fingers.
Again, the big problem with Moldovan coins it that they look almost identical, having no distinguishing features (such as rough edges versus smooth edges) and are nearly identical in size. The only way you can tell one from another is by squinting and reading the number.
The only design on the front (which you can barely see in the image above) is a tiny tree branch. The Central Bank says that this is an oak, to symbolize the country’s durability and strength. I doubt 1 Moldovan in 100 even knows that oak cluster is even on there because it’s so tiny.
Moldovan coins are boring, made out of cheap material and are nearly identical.
The one exception is the 50 bani coin, which is gold in color. It features a nice grapevine and cluster of grapes, which symbolizes the country’s wine and grape industry. Very nice!
For some reason though, the 50 bani coin is in short supply and you rarely see them. Sadly, even when you do find one, they’re usually quite tarnished and the grapes get black from handling.
Still though, compared to the rest of the Moldovan money, the 50 bani coin is a work of art.
Problems and Pitfalls
As fun as discussing Moldovan currency is, the real reason I’m writing this post is to warn foreigners coming here about some of the huge problems that exist with the money.
First, just like in Romania, everybody here is hyper sensitive about the money. If it gets too ripped, or used, or worn out, they’re likely not to accept it as valid tender.
Secondly, the banks will fuck you. They are more than happy to give you bills that are Scotch taped, have enormous rips, or are completely missing the security features.
Do the banks care? No, they do not.
I got some bills that were missing the UV fluorescent bits and when I complained they just shrugged and did nothing. Later they gave me a ripped 20 euro note and refused to exchange it or change it to lei. I’m not quite sure how they’re in the business of passing off substandard money but not “able” to accept it. How did they even get it in the first place then?
If you get money from a bank in Moldova, check it very carefully!
Third, the “regular” watermark is hugely important. Almost all cashiers in all businesses have to hold up the money to the light and verify that the watermark is there precisely because so many bills are lacking it.
Of course the reason they’re lacking the watermark is because so much of the money in circulation is clearly counterfeit. So yeah, counterfeit money is a huge problem and not something I’ve ever seen in my lifetime on this scale.
This is especially weird because a 50 lei note is only worth about 3 Euros and almost completely impossible to convert outside of Moldova so it can’t be a very profitable (criminal) business to make fake Moldovan money. If the Central Bank had been designed the money just a tiny bit better, counterfeiting would be eradicated almost instantly.
If you’re foolish enough to get counterfeit money from a bank or in change from a business, you are screwed.
Except for the fact that it’s easy to stash a lot of money in a small space (like the front pocket of your jeans), Moldovan currency sucks. It looks like it was designed by a committee of bored bureaucrats on their lunch break.
Moldovan money is poorly designed from both an artistic and security standpoint and counterfeiting is a huge problem.
I realize that Moldova is a poor country but the money in neighboring Ukraine is far, far superior in every way. Ukrainian money is colorful and easy to distinguish, made out of better paper stock and rarely counterfeited. I almost want to cry when I see how beautiful and amazing Ukrainian money is compared to the utter crap that the Moldovan Central Bank is issuing.
FINAL GRADE: 10 (out of a possible 50)