The Poorest Country in Europe


Considering how I am not much of a fan of Harry Potter (I’ve only read one book from the series – and never seen a single film), it’s amazing just how often the author J.K. Rowling continues to intertwine with my own life.

This summer, on a burning hot day when I was tired, scared and deeply lost inside of a country where I don’t speak the language, I found some comfort from seeing that old familiar name. By the time I got to Moldova with just a single backpack (the rest of my hurriedly assembled luggage being temporarily left behind in Hungary), I had just three books – one of which was Rowling’s non-fiction work (The Accidental Vacancy), which had been given to me as a present. Her words, although somewhat trite and overworked (in my opinion, anyway), were a comforting taste of English as I tried my best to regain my bearings after a very chaotic period of my life.

And just last week, the Unsleeping Eye picked up a report of her works here in the Republic of Moldova, which I had previously known nothing about. I learned that she is the “permanent” director of a children’s charity named Lumos, which derives its name from one of the “magic spells” in her Harry Potter books. This charity, which helps orphan and abandoned children escape institutions and be placed with families, apparently has been operating in the Republic of Moldova for a while (she says 2007, the website says 2006).

That’s a little surreal to think about, if you sit back a moment and contemplate it. A writer – someone in my own profession – created a fabulous, imaginary world. And in that fantasy universe, where magic spells are real, came the name for an incantation (Lumos – a bastardization of the Latin word for “light”) that is now doing real work in the real world.

It reminds me of the lovely Transylvanian city of Bistrita, where I once spent the night in the “Golden Crown” Hotel (Ro: Coroana de Aur), a real building that is styled as an exact copy of the hotel in Bram Stoker’s entirely fictional book (called Dracula – I think you might’ve heard of it). For breakfast you can order the “same” meal that Jonathan Harker, the protagonist in the book, also “ate” in the book. Fiction becoming reality.

I have no idea what Rowling’s charity Lumos has been doing in Moldova, or whether it is a well-run operation or just a good idea. The Lumos website’s section on Moldova is quite vague, with stories about people, identified only by first names, in unnamed villages apparently getting the help that they need. If all of that is true, then of course I wish nothing but the best for Rowling’s charity. I’ve certainly spent enough time in Romania dealing with former children who grew up in state institutions.

But what prompted me to write today’s post was this interview with Rowling about her charitable work in Moldova (and other countries):

Since Lumos began working in Moldova in 2007, there has been a 70% reduction in the number of children in institutions nationally, despite chronic political instability and Moldova’s standing as the poorest country in Europe.

Jeez, is that really true? I’ve been traveling around Europe since I was a kid and I’ve been to a number of poor places, but is the Republic of Moldova really the poor-est? The poorest of the poor? Even poorer than such places as Serbia, Albania, Belarus or Ukraine?

I have no idea how to answer that, except to say that if Moldova isn’t the poor-est then it certainly is at the bottom of the list. Financial wealth is easy enough to measure and I am sure the economists (and charitable organizations) know exactly how much money people here make.

Another day in the poorest country in Europe
Another day in the poorest country in Europe

I guess, to me, Moldova just doesn’t seem that extremely poor. But wait a second, how can I say that? Am I blind? Do I not see the crumbling infrastructure, the bad roads, the dilapidated buildings? I may not have traveled around RM as much as I have in Romania, but even here in Chisinau there are definitely some poor people, the kind of people who scrounge every month just to pay their bills, the kind of people who count every penny, the kind of people who work long hours for very low salaries.

But measuring money is easy – I can log online right now and tell you my exact bank balance (it’s pretty damn low). But is that the only real measure of wealth? I guess in some ways it is, and in some ways it isn’t. I might be worried about paying my electrical bill and be unable to afford a proper pair of winter boots at the moment, but is that the only measure by which I live my life?

I’ve been thinking about these topics for years. I remember in my post The Secret to Happiness how strange it is that we have metrics for measuring money and income but none for measuring happiness (unless, of course, you live in Bhutan).

If Moldova is the poorest country in Europe, which is the unhappiest?

I am not saying that comparing statistics on suicide can give us that answer, but if we look at those numbers, it is clear that in some European countries (like Hungary, Estonia and Latvia) there are a lot of unhappy people, while in others (including debt-ridden Greece and Portugal) there are a lot fewer unhappy people. And in South Korea and Japan, two prosperous, modern countries, a lot more people kill themselves than they do in impoverished, undeveloped Moldova.

Is it better to be rich and suicidal than poor and happy?

And how else do we define quality of life? Is it better to live in a warm, semi-tropical country like Greece or Portugal, where the weather is fine and the sun is bright but money is low? Or is it better to be in rich Norway or Britain, where the winters are long, dark and cold?

And what about family? Is it good to have families close by, albeit poor, as they do in Moldova and Romania, or is it better to have systems like they do in France and Britain, where young people move to the big cities in search of better-paying jobs?

And tradition and heritage? Is it better to have modern, higher-paying office jobs like they do in Czech Republic and Poland, at the cost of losing their villages and traditional livelihoods, or is it better how it is in Romania and RM, where ancient crafts like herding sheep and operating family farms still continue to thrive?

Is it better to pound a keyboard all day under fluorescent lights or grub in the dirt and fresh air to grow onions?

There are no easy answers. Yes, it is demonstrably better for children to be raised in families and not in state institutions. But all that falls under the rubric of progress and wealth is not good, as I have written about countless of times, whether it’s about the obsession for building roads (that exists in equal fervor in RM) or giving up traditional foods in exchange for modern, “cool” foods that ruin your health.

Moldova is poor, there’s no doubt about that. But it isn’t quite as poor as the statistics on wealth would lead you (or my Moldovan neighbors) to believe. True, the salaries are low, travel abroad is expensive and fancy goods like iPads and smart phones are expensive and out of reach.

But how wealthy are we to eat fresh, local, organic (Ro: bio) foods? What is true “cost/benefit analysis” of having such lovely parks to walk in, to stroll beneath the canopy of leaves on a gorgeous autumn day? What’s the “price point” for having a stray dog or cat to play with, animals who are allowed to “live” at the local garbage dump (UK: rubbish tip) because the government is too poor to catch and sterilize them?

In all my years of living in Romania, and in my short time here in Moldova, I’ve never met a single person who worked two jobs. I met a Romanian woman once who had a full-time job and did a few other things on the side, but two full-time jobs? I once had three jobs, something extremely common in the United States. I used to consider Sunday my “easy day” because I “only” worked 8 hours that day. Who does that in Romania or Moldova? Who here works a 60-hour week, or 80-hour, or even 100 hours in a single seven-day period?

I once worked 112 hours in a single week, something that seems as fabulous and as fictional as Harry Potter’s spells, but yet it is true. I once worked 17 days in a row without a single day off, 14 hours per day (an “easy” period during my working career). These are all just numbers but I once felt them in my bones, felt the exhaustion, the misery and the despair as I dragged myself once more into the breach. And millions of my fellow Americans (and now Britons with their “zero hours” contracts) go through this each and every day, year after year.

What Moldovan or Romanian appreciates the fact that they automatically get to stay home on Christmas, New Year’s and other major holidays with their friends and loved ones? Every year I celebrate Thanksgiving in my own way here in Europe but the last time I had a Thanksgiving in America was so long ago that I still had all my hair. I always worked the holidays – why not? Money is God. Better to make another dollar than spend an hour at home with someone who loved me.

Tired of poverty? Go work as a slave in one of Amazon’s “fulfillment” centers. Go work three jobs. Get hired on a “zero hours” contract or a part-time job where they change your schedule every week. Work during the day, the afternoon, and in the middle of the night. Go and get yourself hired where they time your bathroom breaks and dock your pay if you’re a minute late. Go set your clock for 4:00 in the morning and rise from your bed in the cold dark and begin the first of your thankless, robotic jobs.

Go work day and night, even when you’re sick, because you’re too poor to go to the doctor. And even if the medical services were free, you can’t afford time off work anyway. Go spend eight hours on your feet, forbidden to sit down for even a single minute while “on the clock”. Go drag yourself out to your broken and barely functional car, your legs so sore and crippled that you can barely walk. Go drive yourself home and flip on the TV and then microwave yourself a chemically processed meal and stack that cash and tell yourself just how lucky you really fucking are.

And so here I find myself still living in the poorest part of eastern Europe, some four years since I wrote my seminal post, What’s the difference between you and me? and the answer hasn’t seemed to change.

I (literally!) don’t have any more cash than do my neighbors, but inside I am one of the wealthiest people in this country. That’s because, when it comes to things that truly matter, I am richer here in Moldova than I ever dreamed possible when I used to live in America.

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10 Comments Add yours

  1. jos_cenzura says:

    I don’t know how many Moldovans live close to their families, in idyllic tightknit communities, given that one fourth of them work abroad.

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  2. adi says:

    SalutarI ,

    The only solutions to escape from poverty is to have some skills not to do only the low paid jobs like Amazon warehouse in this case I agree with Sam better to live in country like Moldova and Romania rest at the sun and eat cheap bio vegetables , but if you have some skills not only in IT or medicine field , skilled constructions worker like :welder , mechanic , truck driver etc. you can make real monney and return after 15 yearas and live like a good live in Moldova or some area in Romania

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  3. Simona says:

    Sorry, Sam, i am still in shock.
    Why would somebody work 100 hours a week? ( not just in a week, before a deadline, but in general) Are they making that little money that thay can not afford a bed and some food otherwise? Are they payed that much that it si worth it? How could it be worth it? You can die and not have time to spend it. And what are they doing with the money if they don’t have time to spend it ( for 100 hours a week of work, the rest of the time is travel to/ from work and sleep, so they don’t spend any of it) so what is the point? I guess i could do it for a couple of years if i could retire at 30 and have time. Or if i would have to buy a kidney on the black market for my kid. Or if i was in a forced labour camp. I can not think of another scenrio. Why??

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  4. Simona says:

    This is only partially true: of course healthy food, free time and stray kittens are priceless, and important for the quality of life; also working 100 hours a week is insane, but i doubt working more would make romania or rm less poor. Because it is not the amount of work but how much the work is being payed.
    Just a comparison between rich germany and poor romania in a specific field: working hours were 30% more in germany, but the amount of work done during this time was 30% less ( for the same kind of work including quality etc). It was quite a surprise for me to find out this, i always thought that the germans work much more and are more serious, but at least in this specific field, i was not impressed. The thing is we should not work more, but “cu cap”. Or as somebody told a friend of mine who was working late- ” nu mai munci asa de mult, ca nu iti mai ramane timp sa faci bani”

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  5. eu says:

    ha! sometimes ur posts are excellent.like this one.

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  6. petrunca says:

    Bună seară, Sam,
    am urmărit blogul tău de cam o lună și cred că e foarte interesant că prezinți un diferit punct de vedere. Eu sunt un bulgar, a cărui îi place România. Învăt informatică într-o țară dezvoltată, Danemarca și am avut mulți colegi și de clasă, și de cămin, din România. Iubirea mea către această țară s-a nascut aici. Voi fi voluntar acolo de câteva luni anul viitor și abia aștept.
    România și Bulgaria sunt pe ultimele locuri la economică în cadrul UE și eu am întâlnit în Bulgaria oameni, care nu se suștin doar din munca sa principală, iar fac și altceva.
    De acum o lună am avut aceași discusie cu un prieten din țara mea. ”Părerea mea e că n-ar fi bine să mergi în România, mai bine e să stai aici să căuți loc de muncă.”, a zis el. Și am început noi o discuție despre ce ne place în Danemarca și el n-a reușit să anumească altceva decât economică și infrastructură. Eu cunosc limba și cultura mai bine, dar oricum, oamenii aici sunt atât de independenți că n-au nevoie de nimeni și pe străzile nu vorbesc cu străini, e greu să intri în circurile lor sociale chiar și când cunoști limba. Dar într-adevăr, în țara cea mai bogată din Europa am întâlnit oameni(în special antrepenori) care mențin 2-3 locuri de muncă în același timp.

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    1. eu says:

      petru…. chiar esti bulgar?daca treci pe la mare anul viitor as vrea sa te cunosc. Tu ai scris textul sau ai dat translate?

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      1. petrunca says:

        Se vede foarte clar că am scris text-ul cu Google Translate :D :D :D Din păcate voi sta în cealalta parte țării, nu cred că voi merge la mare.
        Și da, e adevarat că m-am nascut în țara castravetelor

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