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My goodness, where has the time gone? It seems like only yesterday that I was getting a police escort out of Romania. Can it really be possible that I’ve been in Moldova for six months?
Well, of course, the answer is yes. And what a long, strange trip it’s been.
I’ve been writing for a while about living here, but a number of people have asked me to describe things in a more general sense. It’s nice to know how the parliament works, but what is day to day life like in the poorest country in Europe?
Well, the first answer is that it just got a lot poorer. The currency is nose diving and so now all of my neighbors are going to have to tighten their belts even further.
But instead of dwelling on just the news of the moment, I thought it’d be worthwhile to give a broader overview. Therefore, what follows are my observations. Take them as you wish.
Compared to Romania, Moldova is definitely the wild, wild west. Or east, I guess I should say. Chisinau isn’t just a big city, it’s also a swirl of chaos, and even many of the residents struggle to catch up. This is definitely not a country for a timid traveler.
I also note that very few Romanians come here, at least as far as I can see. Just going by the license plates that I see, by far the most come from the country that doesn’t exist, Transnistria. It’s obvious that these cars are crossing over the border with little or no problem but I’ve always been curious what happens if a Transnistrian-registered car gets into a crash with a Moldovan car. Is T-nistrian insurance valid here? I have no idea.
After that, the most common foreign license plates are from Lithuania. Yep. For those of you who are good with geography, you know that Lithuania is nowhere near here. The “catch” is that plenty of people speak Russian in Lithuania, and Lithuania has cheaper and easier registration so most of these cars are actually owned by Moldovans. The real foreign cars that I see are from Ukraine, and then in distant second comes Romania.
Moldova is dirty on the outside. If gray and brown are your favorite colors, Moldova is the right country for you. I’ve seen some pretty drab blocuri in Romania but the shabby old buildings around here really take the cake. And when the gray, dull buildings aren’t enough to depress you, there’s plenty of mud to go around. Add in buckled sidewalks and cracked asphalt and you’ve got the perfect recipe for puddles as well. Toss in a dash of snow and ice and voila, Moldovan winter!
Conversely, Moldovans are obsessed with cleanliness on the inside. Some of you read my awesome book about my life in Romania, and remember the story with Mr. Proper. Well take that and jack it up 10 levels for Moldova. If keeping your house clean were an Olympic sport, Moldova would win the gold medal every time.
A few weeks ago, I went to the local supermarket and I picked up a net bag of potatoes. When I put them on the conveyor belt at the checkout (Ro: casa de marcat), the lady yelled at me. Was I raised in a barn? Didn’t I know that I should’ve put the net bag of potatoes inside of a plastic bag in order to keep tiny bits of dirt from spilling out on her nice clean conveyor belt? My goodness!
And then you walk out of the supermarket and go down the sidewalk and there’s a guy with a table covered in slabs of pork meat. There’s even a whole pig’s head laying there on the table. I’ve always wondered who buys the head. I mean it’s huge, and you’d either have to own a super big cooking pot (Ro: oala) or else do a fair bit of butchering in your own kitchen. Either way, I can barely imagine it but obviously somebody is buying it because the guy is out there day after day in the cold with his pig heads for sale.
Pork might be a luxury but fish is for everyone, and Moldovans love fresh fish. They call it peste viu, or live fish, but it isn’t exactly alive. It’s sitting in a plastic basin filled with bloody water. The fish is long dead but Moldovans call it “live” because it’s never been frozen.
And my gosh, some of those fish are huge. I seriously think one of those big ones could feed an entire restaurant worth of diners. I’ve heard tell that most customers don’t actually buy the whole fish, only a chunk of it, but all the monster fish I’ve seen were lying in their plastic tubs whole.
Since I’m already talking about food, I will add that by far most of the processed food in the supermarkets around here comes from Ukraine. There might be a war going on over there but the factories keep on churning out everything from ketchup to (frozen) seafood to juice and everything else in between. And that includes some big-name brands like Nestle, Heinz and Coca-Cola.
Moldovan processed food tends to be exclusively bread, pastries and bread products. There are also some canned vegetables (particularly peas) that come from Moldova, but not a whole lot else in terms of processed/industrial foods.
There’s lots of Moldovan dairy though, including their weird butter. I call it weird butter not because of its ingredients or how it’s made (all normal), but because the supermarket always insists on keeping butter in the freezer. Why? I looked on the labels and they say nothing about needing to keep it frozen – and I know from experience that it is fine in my refrigerator at home. It’s just that Moldovan supermarkets always keep it in the freezer for some reason.
Next in line, in terms of number of items in the store, comes Russia. There’s about a billion food factories in Russia and around here we get everything from salted fish to mayonnaise (Russians frigging love mayo) to lots of different drinks, alcoholic and non-alcoholic.
But what about Romanian products? Mighty slim pickings, to be honest. Scandia, a company from Sibiu that makes pate, sells over here, although I bet it would be funny for many Romanians to see the bilingual labels used here that include Russian in all its Cyrillic glory. A few kinds of potato chips are sold here (Lay’s) as well as products from European Drinks (Tutti Frutti, Izvorul Minunilor) but that’s about it besides some dairy products from Brasov.
Honestly, about 80% of the stuff in the store is either local or from Ukraine and Russia. Of the rest, most of the products coming from the EU actually come from Poland. Lots and lots of things are sold here from Poland, including cheese and chips, as well a strange and unusual snack made from potatoes. Perhaps one day I’ll buy those and photograph them for you to see. The way these “work” is they’re in a bag and look like little chips, but you’ve actually got to fry them at home before you eat them. Very interesting.
But there’s much more to Moldova than food, and we can’t forget the crazy transportation system. Most people have got a limited set of options, starting with taking a bus. The ticket is cheap (about 10 cents) but the bus is nearly always crowded. Taxis are plentiful but few of them run on the honest “meter” system. Instead, it’s usually customary to negotiate a price before you get in. And then if you decide on a sum (like 40 lei), don’t be surprised if the driver is “unable” to give you change back (from a 50 lei note). And some taxis are well-marked and others are barely more than an illuminated sign slapped on the roof.
Outside, on the street, there’s a lot of deregulation, which is a fancy way to say you can pretty much do as you wish. It’s not just selling pig heads, but cheap Chinese toys for kids or gigantic sacks of potatoes. Do you need a license or permission from anyone? Not as far as I can tell. And then there are the ubiquitous street dogs, to say nothing of the hordes of alley cats.
As I’ve written about before, there’s also a lack of garbage cans. Sometimes the neighbors pitch in and set up receptacles, but there doesn’t seem to be any municipal garbage cans at all. And even after six months of living here, I still can’t figure out who it is that empties all the local garbage cans even though I’ve seen them do it a hundred times.
The reason I can’t figure it out is because there’s also another job that Moldovans have that I’ve really never seen before, and that is the street sweeper. Mind you, this isn’t a machine, or a person operating a machine or cleaning vehicle. What I see all the time is a person with a long broom, and their job seems to be sweeping the street itself.
Again, I’m sure this all makes sense to Moldovans, but the streets around here aren’t exactly dusty. Most of the time they are muddy, not to mention the multiple puddles. So how do you sweep a wet, muddy street? Well they do it. I just can’t understand why they’re sweeping a muddy street, because it doesn’t really do anything.
These poor souls are also tasked with sweeping up the garbage, which usually includes a ton of cigarette butts mixed with food wrappers and other miscellaneous trash. The sweepers/collectors don’t even have large bags to haul all this garbage/dirt away, either. Instead, they use ordinary shopping (UK: carrier) bags that are just “regular” sized, and obviously don’t hold much material. So the sweeper/collector then has to haul off a number of bags of wet garbage when they’re done.
This entire process is hideously inefficient and moves at a snail’s pace. I’ve seen the sweeper who does my street (about 100m in length, or a “football field” if you’re American) and that’ll take her about 4-5 hours to do. So we’re talking about a pretty dreary job that moves as slow as molasses, and all of it is wet, dirty work being done outdoors during a pretty cold winter.
During the warmer months I saw a guy who was our local sweeper/collector, but he’s since disappeared. He was replaced by a middle-aged woman, dressed up in so many layers of clothes and cavernous hoods (Ro: gluga) that she looks like an Eskimo. She’s outdoors, slowly sweeping the length of the street all day in the bitter cold, and her face is usually chapped and quite red.
But even stranger is her assistant, who looks to be about 30 years old, and usually dressed less warmly, although she does wear rubber boots. It’s the younger woman’s job to empty the garbage cans, which she does using ordinary shopping bags, a messy close-order task. She then has to bend over and pick up all the loose beer cans, soda bottles and other trash that gets tossed around everywhere here.
All this takes all day, so on the days when they’re working, I usually see the sweepers/collectors multiple times. We’ve talked on occasion, and even though the Eskimo lady speaks Romanian, she prefers to communicate in Russian. Which, I must say, is eerily sneaking into my mind as I am surrounded by it every day. Whereas once the Cyrillic bedazzled my brain, now I’m completely used to it.
In fact, Moldova is almost custom tailored to be the perfect place for me to learn Russian, because everything here is bilingual with one language that I already speak. It’s like everything’s been turned into a Rosetta stone, the text I understand (Romanian) on one side and the other language (Russian) underneath it. When you see signs every day saying “program de lucru” juxtaposed with “grafik rabotu”, it doesn’t take too long before you know how to say “hours of operation” in both Romanian and Russian.
Near where I live there is a kind of university that teaches students how to sew, cut leather and make different kinds of clothes. If you decide to live in-house in the dormitories (Ro: camine), you get free room and board, meals are provided for and you get a monthly stipend of 300 lei (not much money).
Clothes in Moldova are on a completely different level than Romania, or indeed anywhere else in Europe that I’ve been. That’s because a lot of clothes that Moldovans wear are made here, something few countries outside of Asia can say. There are students at that boarding technical school precisely because there are a lot of jobs making clothes, and shoes here in Moldova.
As a consumer, you can buy those clothes not only at the mall or larger stores in the city center but also from mobile trailers set up on the sidewalks near where you live. Although I’ve yet to sample their wares, these trailers sell everything from underwear to shirts, tops and pants for children, women and men. Pretty nifty!
Moldovans also adhere to a viciously cyclical fashion trend. In summertime, it was Jack Daniels t-shirts for guys and gals. Wintertime it’s knee length puffy coats with a fur-lined hoods for women, and pseudo-Timberland hiking boots for guys. Regardless of what’s “hot” at the moment, at least 80% of the people walking around on the streets seem to be wearing clothes made by the same, limited range of manufacturers.
My first instinct is that Moldovans are fashionistas, all rushing to the market to get their hands on the new look. And there’s definitely some truth to that, particularly when it comes to the young women. But the other factor in play here is that Moldovan clothes don’t last very long. It’s pretty common to assume that your winter jacket and/or boots are really only expected to last a single season here.
So uniform is the Moldovan “look” that I easily spotted a Romanian as he was lounging on the sidewalk in the city center a few weeks ago. He was a younger man, perhaps 25-27 years old, wearing a “driver’s cap” and a tweed sweater. He also had a rather full beard, and was wearing proper trousers and not jeans. I instantly smelled “hipster” and looked down at his car’s license plate, which identified it as being from Romania.
When it comes to all of the languages spoken here in Moldova, the thing to remember is that there is absolutely zero prejudice against using Russian. Some people even go so far as to mix it 50/50. Just a few days ago I was witness to the “perfect” conversation, as four people bantered back and forth, switching between Russian and Romanian with ease.
The signs, labels and public information panels are always in Romanian, but most Moldovans approach strangers by first using Russian. If you speak poor Russian, they laugh or relax. If you speak English, and they understand English, they’re friendly and welcoming. But if you speak Romanian like a Romanian, more specifically how I speak it, then sometimes people react with quite a bit of hostility.
When it comes to Romanians, there is the eternal question of whether “Moldovan” is a separate language or not. I’ll spare you the boring history lesson and just say that there are definitely some people around here who speak in a mumbly, heavily accented way that’s basically impossible for me to understand.
Moldovans can come across as quite rude at first, especially when you’re dealing with cashiers, kiosk employees or other people performing their jobs. But on the other hand, Moldovans tend to be extremely forthright and nice when they’re dealing with you on a personal level.
Here’s a true story – one day I was walking down the street on a windy day when I infelicitously decided to count my money. A strong gust of wind snatched a 5-lei note out of my hand and rapidly blew it down the sidewalk far too fast for me to be able to catch it.
I gave it up as lost but then I saw a young boy snatch it out of the air. He turned to the group of people behind him – three young men in their early 20s – and offered the 5-lei note to them, thinking it was theirs. In turn, they pointed over their shoulders at me, somehow knowing the money was mine. And so the young kid handed me my own money, and of course I thanked him profusely.
All in all, it’s been an interesting experience so far. A few people have asked me if one day I’ll be more Moldovan than you, but I think that’s a long, long way off. It’s definitely different here, and I enjoy seeing things from a new perspective, but I spent a full decade in Romania.
As for what the future holds, your guess is as good as mine. But I’ve been working on a few exciting things, so plenty more new experiences to come!
AND NOW YOU KNOW ABOUT 6 MONTHS IN MOLDOVA