True Love and Apple Pie

Word Count: 4625

Oh my lord, am I even still alive? Well, it appears I’m still breathing, which is a good thing :)

I'd like to teach the world to drink water
I’d like to teach the world to drink water

A couple of weeks ago, a man named Bill Backer finally died, leading to a lot of sympathetic news coverage. I’ve made my sentiments on advertising men well-known over the years but even I couldn’t escape the clutches of Coca-Cola’s famous commercial when I was a kid.

What I didn’t notice during my youth is what you can clearly see from the screenshot pictured above: the woman on the right is clearly wearing a Romanian (or a Balkan-region) “peasant blouse”. I guess that’s how the advertisers helped signify that the song-loving Coke swillers on the hilltop were truly multicultural.

I now wonder whether that image lodged in my subconscious, only to become awakened decades later when I stepped foot in Romania for the first time.

Wherein The Author Is Besieged By Questions Of An Impertinent Nature

Actually, that’s a bit of an exaggeration but it has been interesting hearing from people lately. The world’s a strange place to me, more and more so as the internet continues to evolve and develop.

First, many people on the net seem to have a greatly enhanced feeling of righteous entitlement. Back in the era of TV, radios and movies, the viewer was almost entirely passive. You had to rush to get to your device to hear/watch the program, the “stars” were remote and distant, and the most common emotion was gratitude for what they did to alleviate the tedium of your daily life.

Now all video (which encompasses TV, movies and “clips” online, Snapchat stories, etc) is served up at the user‘s discretion, on his/her timeline, and in the format that he/she wants. The stars are out there on Twitter/FB/etc and you can engage with them. Now there are 5 billion channels of everything and so every consumer is a petty tyrant, a small king who demands something in return for his/her likes, follows and shares.

Secondly, this splintering of on-demand entertainment has led to a similar fracturing of attention. It makes me feel like a time traveler to recall poring over printed (on paper!) guides of entertainment schedules and then carefully analyzing which programs to watch in the future. By the time it actually came around to view the entertainment, my attention was entirely riveted. But these days, a 10-second video is better than a two-hour movie, and quick and funny gifs are better than a lengthy 2000-word article.

What makes all of the above so intriguing is that the “geniuses” at Google have a completely different approach. When I’m not busy writing here, I am scurrying around for my masters in order to appease the unknowable, unseen gods of Silicon Valley and their search algorithms. And what they like (at least for now) is the long, the well-written, and the substantive. At least when it comes to text.

Hence the odd dichotomy: my blog (despite its recent dearth of new material) is becoming more and more popular than ever. Not with actual living, breathing, Snapchatting people but with the magic elves at Google. In my mind, I can almost imagine a virtual Dickensian circumlocution machine which goes like this:

  1. Low attention span 20-year-old Snapchatter goes to Google and looks for information about Romania
  2. Google sends my site to/near the top of the results
  3. User lands on my site and becomes incredibly bored/frustrated
  4. Rinse, lather and repeat

So I get a lot of messages from these frustrated people. And all I can say to them is, “Sorry.” Truly, I am.

I appreciated the “love” from Google but I’ve never been able to “monetize” it or find any practical application for it. I’m just a guy who likes to write. And that appeals to a few extremely patient people, not the general population.

So it goes!

Welcome to the Republic of West Korea

A few months ago, I befriended a global nomad who washed up on the beach here in Chisinau after breezing through several other countries in the region. After we became friends, he started asking me a few questions about life here in the Republic of Moldova, puzzled by a few oddities that don’t exist anywhere else.

That’s when I unveiled to him my grand theory: the signs on the border say Moldova but this is actually the Republic of West Korea.

Most people, both here and abroad, tend to focus on whether Moldova is more Romanian or Russian, and the contrasts between the two. My theory is that it is neither. It’s actually the third Korea. And I say that knowing full well that very few people here have Asian faces :P

But my friend was struck by the idea and we soon came up with a long list of just how weirdly it fits. It starts with the huge amount of pickled foods for sale here, far more than just the Romanian standards like cabbage, cucumbers, and peppers. You can get pickled carrots, cauliflower and tomatoes all year-round, to say nothing of “salads” of mixed pickled vegetables. But it doesn’t stop there, does it? Of course not! I’ve yet to try it but there are several vendors at the piata who sell pickled fruit, including entire watermelons which have been pickled. My wife swears they’re delicious but I haven’t been brave enough to try it. And then there’s pickled ginger, pickled hot peppers, and more that I can’t remember at the moment.

Continuing on the Korean (or at least Asian) theme, every corner store here sells a bevy of Asian foods ranging from glass noodles to thai noodles, green curry powder, 10 kinds of soy sauce, wasabi, seaweed wraps (nori?), sushi rolls, and more things that I can’t remember since I don’t eat that stuff. My friend is from California and he was quite impressed at the variety of Asian foods on sale all over the place, not just in one specialty shop. Heck, you can even get sushi delivered here.

And it goes beyond just the food. There’s a few cultural aspects to RM that have a very Asian feel to them, including the concept of saving face. And while nobody from any country wants to be embarrassed, the things that people consider “face” here are quite odd sometimes.

The Locus of Control

In Romania, I went to the American embassy exactly once in 10 years, a hugely significant event that led directly to the creation of the very website you are reading now. But due to a number of reasons, I’ve been down to the American embassy here in Chisinau several times, even once to take an English proficiency exam (don’t ask why) where all the instructions were given in Romanian (really, it’s a long story).

And while I met a few very interesting and intelligent people, by and large I was struck by the stupidity of the employees. Wait now, hear me out! By and large, they’re ordinary folks doing their jobs and I haven’t seen any cases of spectacular idiocy but I’ve been struck by just how differently institutions function in America (and Canada, UK, etc) versus around here.

In case you’re thinking of going to visit your friendly [sic] local American embassy, there’s a few things you should know (and for more information, I’ve covered this at length before). For every American, there are 10-20 local people. The Americans do the “sensitive” stuff and process the visas. Literally everything else, from sweeping the floor to doing all of the consular stuff for American citizens, is done by locals. Oh and yes, locals guard the embassies too (the Marine Corp is “in charge” of security but do very little actual guarding except for special occasions).

The Americans get assigned to a given embassy, so it’s like a “tour of duty”, and they might be there from six months to six years. They almost never speak the local language, get paid in dollars, and are usually far wealthier than their neighbors so they live in a kind of bubble. And it’s the locals who know how to do everything. So it’s the locals who are running the place with a few overpaid American supervisors nominally “in charge”.

So what ends up happening is that the institution is smarter than any individual working for it. Shit like visas and passports get processed according to the institution’s rules, which are extremely lengthy and detailed precisely because they’re designed to make sure even a retard can’t fuck them up. Everything from the mandatory wheelchair ramp to what kind of computers they use are determined by the institution, not any individual employee or manager.

Therefore the locus of control is entirely in the institution’s hands, not any employee. Even the ambassador can barely sneeze without getting “guidance” from Washington.

In Moldova (and Romania), it’s the complete opposite. The institution is the idiot, and the individual employees are the ones making the decisions. That’s why I’ve written about the immigration process in RM/Romania and how so much of it depends on which individual employee you’re dealing with. If he/she likes you, you can get your papers with ease (and less money) but if they don’t like you, getting a visa can be a fucking nightmare (as this guy found out).

A couple of weeks ago, the scandal du jour in Romania was about diluted disinfectants. I had planned on writing a whole article on that (including “Univeristy” Square) but the long and short of it is that corruption in Romania stems entirely from a culture where the individual is smarter than the institution.

Even if the world’s greediest man (or woman) was working for the American embassy and wanted to make some fast money by selling visas to people who shouldn’t get them, it’d be nearly impossible. It’s not that greedy (or disgusting perverts) are never employed by the embassy. It’s that the institution is (usually) smarter than they are, making it (virtually) impossible to defraud the institution.

But in Romania and Moldova, the individual is always smarter than the institution. That’s how the Theft of the Century occurred here in Moldova – a handful of smart individuals bamboozled the fucking Central Bank using nothing but forged paperwork! Oh, and plenty of help from Britain, which as we now know from the Panama Papers, is one of the best places in the world to set up a bullshit, fake corporation.

Every Romanian (and Moldovan) that I’ve ever known who has worked for or dealt directly with the government or other institution (like the church, etc) knows that there’s always a way around, a “little bribe”, a friend with “juice” to call on, a way to steal, defraud and bend (if not break) the rules. The institution is blind, weak and helpless and the individual employees consider it their god-given right to plunder what they can during the length of their employment.

During the Soviet days, Moscow ruled with a tighter hand so there were fewer problems here in Moldova (making it understandable why so many people reminisce fondly on those days) but Romania, oddly enough, encouraged this way of doing things under most of Ceausescu’s reign. Yes, he put a few folks in prison for speaking out but as this story clearly demonstrates, everybody in Communist (1965-1989) Romania was busy stealing from the state with relative impunity.

Failure of the Franchise

A few years ago, I began to note just how much the European Union had failed Romania in my piece The Franchise. A week or so ago, I got an email from a fan (of my guidebook) who found my blog and then commented to me, “Gosh, I didn’t know Europe had so many problems!”

Well, Europe certainly does have its problems as anyone who lives here knows (if you live in a benighted country like the USA, watch EuroNews some time). Here’s my brief summary of EU countries:

Austria – Veering sharply right and ultra-nationalist, migration issues
Belgium – Big-time terrorism issues
Bulgaria – Widespread corruption, mafia violence, and poverty
Croatia – Widespread poverty and lingering effects from genocidal actions
Cyprus – Third of the country is militarily occupied by hostile forces
Czech Rep. – Doing all right
Denmark – Doing well
Estonia – Huge problems with Russia, including trade and security
Finland – Doing all right
France – Still under martial law, widescale riots, and right-wing extremists gaining power
Germany – Right-wing extremists gaining power, widespread discontent over migration issues
Greece – Total clusterfuck
Hungary – Under the grip of rightwing nationalists who are curbing media freedoms
Ireland – Hanging in there after economy started slowing down
Italy – Hanging in there for now but all hands are gunning for PM Renzi
Latvia – Brain drain issues and declining population due to mass emigration
Lithuania – Costs spiraling out of control, poverty is still widespread problem
Luxembourg – Wealthy due to being a tax haven and dependence on migrant workers from other EU states
Malta – Crippling unemployment issues
Netherlands – Managing to thread the needle, so far, between far-right extremists, migrants and other issues
Poland – Under the grip of rightwing nationalists who are curbing media freedoms
Portugal – Crippling unemployment and brain drain
Romania – Enough said elsewhere for you to get the picture :P
Slovakia – Doing all right for now
Slovenia – Migrant issues
Spain – Crippling unemployment, political gridlock
Sweden – Battles over migration issues
UK – On the verge of a Brexit

Minus a few bright spots here and there, the EU is in a mess. And it almost all stems from the fact that nobody is really in control. Whether it was Ponta and his gang effecting a coup in 2012 or Poland going batshit insane recently, the EU was never designed to actually govern the member states.

The EU began as a way for Britain and France to ship grain to each other without paying so many excise taxes. That, plus a huge groundswell for peace following WW2, led to the EU that eventually decided to absorb about 15 members that really weren’t qualified, all with the starry-eyed optimism that each member would stand up and grow into the position. Well, we can see now that this isn’t going to happen. And courting countries like Moldova (and Georgia, Ukraine, Turkey et al) where shit is even worse is pure folly.

And so we get a weird mix of high taxes, cumbersome bureaucracy, sloppy monetary policy, freedom of travel, and paranoia, fear and suspicion. And so all of the smart politicians (or let’s say “crafty”) have now realized that they can “game” the situation by pandering to patriotism, nationalism, and race/cultural/religious pride while simultaneously bleeding the EU dry of funds, freedom, and inter-cultural exchanges (like Erasmus).

If you ever have a million dollars “extra” lying around your house and you decide you want to open your own McDonald’s franchise, you’ll quickly realize that the institution of McDonald’s is far “smarter” than you are. You cannot even decide which kinds of napkins to serve at “your” restaurant. But the EU is the opposite, and it’s showing.

It won’t be long before everyone “exits” the EU, waves a lot of flags around, and then life gets crappy and then nostalgia for the good old days will set in.

Lateral epicondylitis and carpal tunnel syndrome

When I was a child, we had a typewriter (RO: masina de scris) in our home, and I somehow or other learned to type on it without any formal instruction. Later, we got a computer and I got even more proficient on typing with that (it’s far harder to PUSH the keys on a mechanical typewriter) until I was pretty darn fast. I’ve taken a number of typing tests over the years and my highest score was 112 words per minute (a “word” is five characters), meaning that I had somehow developed the ability to accurately (!) push 560 keys in a minute or 9 per second (jeez!).

Fast forward to my last year in high school. I wanted to graduate with the least amount of effort possible so I chose a typing class as my elective. What could be easier than a typing class when I was in the top 1% of all typists worldwide, right?

But no sir, it was not that easy. My teacher was an old battleaxe who believed that what mattered was not accuracy, speed or ability but following the rules of how to correctly type. And so my grades rapidly plummeted despite the fact that I was blazing through every test. A (American) football player student who sat behind me nearly had his head explore when he saw the dichotomy of his better marks for following the rules (even if he was slow as a turtle) and my worse marks because I wasn’t (despite my speed and accuracy).

I’ve told that story in bars for years but it’s especially poignant to me now. Even on days when I’m not writing here, I am always writing (and writing = typing). A slow day for me is 4,000 words and yesterday I wrote 13,512 words for a single client. Writing is my life, and it’s how I pay the bills. I’d prefer to be relaxing and writing novels but it is what it is. Doing the math, I easily type the equivalent of about 20 full-length books a year.

I mention all of this because so many of my writing colleagues and peers are suffering from medical conditions like “tennis elbow” (lateral epicondylitis) and carpal tunnel syndrome. And they’re always warning me to buy an ergonomic keyboard (no thanks) or do all of these hand stretching exercises or invest in a fancy chair (can’t afford it) to prevent me shredding my wrists/hands/tendons from typing too much.

Those warnings scared me, I’ll be honest. But I finally figured out that I’m doing just fine precisely because I (long ago) developed my own style of typing that works for me and my hands. It’s more comfortable than the “official” way you’re “supposed” to do it, and I never ever use my pinky finger to type the letter “1” and countless other “rule violations”.

Long story short: sometimes breaking the rules is for your own good. Don’t ever let someone tell you that the “right” way is best when the facts on the ground clearly contradict it. And sometimes following the rules will literally fuck you up, requiring surgery that often makes it even worse.

All Hail The Piata

The other day, my wife asked me if I missed Romania, having lived here now in Moldova for nearly two years (sheesh, where has the time gone?). And I do, I really do. But there is one overwhelming reason why living in Chisinau is an amazing blessing: the market (piata).

Even in the “good old days” in Romania, I’d never seen anything quite like the Piata Centrala here in Chisinau. It’s not just a food market, although it is that, but also a place where you can buy an incredible assortment of goods. Here’s just a few things you can find in the piata in Chisinau:

  • A pig’s head (complete with flies)
  • A lamb fetus
  • Live crustaceans (that look like scorpions – don’t know the name)
  • Broken eggs (half price of whole eggs)
  • Wedding dresses
  • Saplings
  • Pills for your dog/cat/rabbit/parrot
  • Washing machines and refrigerators
  • 50 kinds of pickled vegetables/fruits
  • Axes, hatchets, and other weapons of destruction
  • Lengths of chain
  • Bicycles
  • Flowers
  • Purses/wallets/murses
  • Live fish
  • Gorgeous plates and dishes
  • Memory cards for your phone/tablet/device
  • Homemade wine and spirits
  • Radios and speakers
  • Any size and shape screws, bolts, washers and nails
  • Baby clothes and supplies, including strollers
  • Keys (made to order)

And all of this in one place! It’s astounding. And it just makes me want to go visit the world’s greatest piata even more. And then right down the street a bit is the “second-hand” piata, where anything and everything is sold, including 1970s LPs in Russian and (working) phones with badly cracked screens. If it’s new, gently used, or badly worn out, and somebody can get a nickel for it, it’s for sale in the piata.

Mostly I go there for fresh food, and it struck me the other day after watching yet another BBC documentary on food (seriously, there are a lot of them) just how blessed we are here in Moldova to have something that so few westerners have: choice.

When you go to the grocery store and you want tomatoes, that’s it. You see the tomatoes that they have and you pick through them but there’s no choice. If you want smaller ones, or different ones, or redder ones, or greener ones, you don’t get an option. They have the tomatoes that they have (in maybe 2-3 varieties) and you either accept it or you go home without tomatoes.

That’s why I love the piata. There are at least 50 different people selling tomatoes, so I can get exactly the ones that I want. Same for strawberries (now in season, yum!), cherries, lettuce and everything else. I mostly only go to the grocery store for bananas (they’re all identical) and a few odds and ends like Indian spices and coconut oil. That’s it. Because in the piata I can can find it better, cheaper, and have the option of getting exactly what I want. So that’s where I do all my shopping, even though the grocery store is 100 meters away.

Yes, I admit that life in Cluj-Napoca is much sweeter, and the architecture and life in Odessa is much more beautiful, and Cernauti is truly a jewel, and there are better malls in Bucharest, etc, etc, but the piata in Chisinau is truly worth its weight in gold. I haven’t done too much traveling lately but I know the next time I go anywhere, I’m going to pack my suitcase full with food from Moldova.

The other day I was reading the book written by the two women who were held prisoner for a decade by a sick pervert and I kept being struck by the passages where she talked about food. I realized she had no choice in the matter but it was weird reading how her favorite foods were things like Hershey’s chocolate bars and Tennessee Pride sausages. And there are plenty of people who aren’t being held prisoner whose favorite foods are all brands.

Here though for my wife and I, all of our favorite foods are just foods with no brand, and not from a restaurant. We don’t love “McDonald’s” or “Pringles”, we love strawberries and green peppers. Quite an interesting difference.

20 Months a Moldovan

The other day, my wife said something about how I came to Chisinau last year and I had to correct her and say, “No, that was two years ago.” Jeez, how the time has flied, eh? Some days I feel like I’ve been here a week and some days it feels like I’ve been here forever.

So am I getting more “Moldovan”? Nah, not really. But I am getting used to the place, which is a relief. When I first got here, half the people couldn’t understand my Romanian “accent” and the other half only spoke Russian, which I couldn’t understand. I still don’t speak Russian at any kind of useful level but I can read the wacky Cyrillic alphabet with no problem and I’m used to sellers in the piata quoting prices and other things in Russian to me.

Simply put, my life here is different, and only some of that has to do with it being Moldova instead of Romania. I’m older now, and married, so my social life has changed a lot. I spend more time walking the dog at the park and less time in grungy bars, for one.

But a lot of my Romanian friends are curious about Moldova, so I’ll sum it up in one sentence. If you encounter 10 Moldovans, 5 will be Russian gopniki (UK: chavs, USA: rednecks, RO: golani), 4 will be superstitious illiterate (ethnic Romanian) peasants and 1 will be a Romanian linguistic professor. For a lot of cultural and historic reasons, some Romanian speakers here are uber-proud of their language and pontificate upon it in lengthy academic jeremiads that few “real” Romanians could comprehend.

But it’s the Russians which I’d like to speak about today, mostly because so few people understand them. Whether that’s due to the language being cryptic and difficult (seriously, six noun cases??) or Cold War propaganda, Russia and Russian culture is either portrayed as paranoid warrior bad-asses or else mustache-twirling inscrutable geopolitical imperialists.

That might be true for the Russian leadership, but the average Russian is a mirror image of America. Seriously, if you had a Star Trek-style universal translator and plopped the average Russian down in West Virginia or Texas, they’d feel right at home.

Furthermore, there’s a Russian version of everything that Americans have. Here’s my brief table to show you what I’m talking about:

Thing America Russia
Gossipy 24-hour news channel CNN Rossiya 24
Music video channel MTV Music Hitbox
Social Media Facebook Vkontakte/Odnoklassiki
Search Engine Google Yandex
Flag Red, White and Blue White, Blue and Red
Cars Chevy/Ford/GM Lada/GAZ
Trucks Chevy/Ford GAZ/Kamaz/
Grilled Meat Steak w/BBQ sauce Steak w/ketchup
Favorite Condiment Ketchup Mayonnaise

And the list could go on and on. My Russian neighbor has the national anthem play when his phone rings. And Russians love their summer patriotic holiday (May 9 vs July 4) where they wave flags and sing songs.

Russia also has a “Comedy Central” television channel, the first time I’ve ever seen a dedicated TV channel to comedy that wasn’t in English. There are Russian stand-up comedians just as funny as American/British ones, but most other cultures aren’t really that into humor.

If you see a guy wearing a wifebeater, shorts and flip flops, guzzling beer while standing around a grill and listening to shitty music, he’s either Russian or American. It’s truly uncanny. And he probably has a patriotic decal on his truck, which he loves to tinker with on the weekends.

Russians revere the ancient literary greats who reinvented the language (Pushkin vs. Shakespeare) while rarely actually reading those works today. And they’re inordinately proud of their multicultural nation, home to lots of different races, ethnicities and religions, to say nothing of being welcoming to migrants (Russia is only #2 after the USA in terms of total immigrants), while a core of their constituency is virulently and openly racist. They love jingoistic, platitude-spewing politicians who want to make USA/Russia “great again”. And the pop music is vapid, silly and yet immensely popular. Oh, and Russians also love wearing T-shirts with stupid/silly slogans on them, just like Americans do.

Plus the guns. Can’t forget the guns. Moldova is an “open carry” country in sharp contrast to Romania, precisely because Russians sure do love their guns (heck, they’re famous for it).

It’s a little bit like looking through the funhouse mirror sometimes, an America from a different universe where the alphabet got jumbled up a bit but otherwise most things are entirely recognizable. And it all serves to make me really appreciate Romanian culture a lot more as I can hop on a plane and go swill cheap beer and fire off a gun anytime I wish without having to learn six noun declensions.

And Thus A Long And Wordy Discourse Is Finally Brought To A Conclusion

Okay, time to wrap it up because I know I’ve already written too much. Thanks for visiting my little jimmy of a site, and I hope to find some more free time in the near future to get things back to a livelier state around here ;)

Thanks for all your shares, emails, FB friend requests, kind messages, commentary, purchases of my books, and otherwise being generally cool and awesome people, even though we’ve never met, and I highly doubt that we ever will.


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