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Eddie's holiday in Moldova
12 days in Moldova from
May, 20 till May, 31,
visiting Chisinau, Tiraspol, Bender, Soroca, Balti/Baltzi
I squatted naked in a partly
filled bath as the wooden doors of the bathhouse were closed noisily and then
secured. I had been taken to an unknown location in the countryside outside
Soroca and I guessed it was about midnight. My clothes were behind the doors,
my luggage had been taken off me and the hire car was hundreds of yards away
behind the locked gates of another property. I wondered: "is the lowest point
of my life ?" Nadina had called this a sauna so I wondered whether masses of
steam would come pouring in from somewhere. I hated heat and I was trapped.
Hurriedly I washed myself. I thought if I am to be found in my underpants by the Moldovan police at least I could be clean. I visualised my mother in front of me with her head slightly on one side: "well, you have been a fool" she said. I reflected on the evening's events.
I had signed out of the Hotel Nistru in Soroca and left with Nadina and Sergiu who had somewhere nicer for me to stay. I was a day early and Nadina hadn't expected my call. Nadina was 18 and Sergiu, her cousin was I guess a little older. They were smiling and directed me up Soroca's main road to a cafe on a corner. There in a back room we all had something to eat and drink. They didn't eat much and looked at me expectantly as we had a friendly discussion. After the meal, I was directed down a long narrow unlit track towards some apartment blocks. It was completely dark. Nadina disappeared to see her Aunt but returned to say that her Aunt wouldn't have me. This was worrying. It was 11:15. "Don't worry" she smiled. "I have another Aunt". I was then directed to a shop. Nadina went in and seemed to spend an age in there. She explained she had a friend or relative in the shop. In her emails, Nadina had told me she had a lot of relatives. She returned and we headed out of Soroca into the countryside. The journey seemed to go on and on.
Now very concerned I started to look for signs and landmarks I could remember. All I could see was the road. Eventually they told me to turn up a track and we headed for an unlit one storey house. Sergiu opened the gates and wanted the car keys. I said to Nadina: "that's OK, I can drive it in there". But Nadina said "there are hidden obstructions". I was deeply unconvinced and for a second looked to weigh up my options. But what choice did I have ? Reluctantly I handed over the car keys and got out of the car as requested. Sergiu drove the car into the space behind the gates. I walked over. "What obstructions ?" I couldn't see any. I waited. "We need to take your luggage" Nadina said. The gates were closed and locked. They took my cases across what looked like part of a field, not the track which we had driven up. It was pitch black and I stumbled over the rutted ground. "Is it all to end here ?" I thought. As I followed behind them I tried to visualise Nadina's face and remember her words. She had been so sweet, so attentive, so apparently kind throughout. Could such a nice girl really be so wicked ? It couldn't be true. But in the history of the world such things have happened many times. I certainly wasn't the first person to be taken in by such a sweet girl. In any case she was part of a family group and she was expected to play her part. They had been caught by surprise with my early arrival and hastily had to make alternative arrangements.
As I washed myself, I wondered again whether they were gypsies. It might be hard to tell as I had seen pictures of some Eastern European gypsies who didn't look so very unusual.
I had found very little about Soroca on the internet. It did say however that the gypsies live in an unmarked, undefined region on the top of a hill. There was a brief article about a red haired girl called Anastasia who had fallen into the clutches of these gypsies. They sold her into prostitution in Russia. There predictably she had a truly terrible time before escaping back to Moldova.
|I had another penfriend called Alina who had come from Soroca and was an au pair in Norway. She said her parents "live in a new region and there is not yet an address". When I told Nadina this and that I had their phone number, she said she'd contact them. Surely only gypsies would contact gypsies ? I had posted Nadina a copy of "Playing The Moldovans At Tennis" (I comment on this book later) but I didn't tell her I'd sent it. She didn't receive it. With one exception (to be explained) where items were refused, all the many items I'd sent to Moldova proper (excluding Transnistria) had been delivered. So I'd tested out Nadina's credibility. She appeared to have failed but my ego refused to believe it. Because of the doubts I'd had, I phoned her three times. I hadn't phoned anyone else in Moldova at that time. She had an American accent. She sounded very pleasant. I'd introduced her to my quiet son, William born a few days after her. I read her very nice helpful emails and believed I could trust her. I was now feeling very mixed up.|
Mixed up ? When I first contacted
Nadina, she had just suffered some terrible personal tragedies. Her cousin had
been brutally murdered by the mafia in Moscow and there was no-one to look after
the body. Her grandfather had died the day before. Another cousin had just died
in the States. Nadina sent me a picture. It showed the face of her cousin in
the States with her face superimposed over his along with what looked like blood
stains and a skull and crossbones. It was possible that such terrible shocks
in combination had split her personality. It was not that uncommon. She might
be living two lives. Certainly few people who had suffered in such a way would
just pick up their lives the week after as if nothing had happened. Or if they
did, would they be normal ? I shuddered as I dried myself. I looked at the wooden
doors. I reckoned I could break them open if I had to.
It had been in my mind to report my arrival in Soroca to the Moldovan police. I had read somewhere that this used to be a requirement in Moldova. Perhaps it still was if the Moldovan police wanted to be as officious and awkward as they could be. The problem was that I only knew a few words of Romanian. Later when other penfriends heard that I had driven to Soroca on my own they were astounded. "You didn't take a guide ?!" Now I saw my vulnerability and stupidity all too clearly. The Moldovans I had met always expected me to need a guide wherever I went. Even if it was just walking around a few local streets in Chisinau. In my wisdom I had got into a car and driven halfway across Moldova on my own to stay the night at an unknown address that no-one except a relative stranger knew about. Nadina had resisted giving me her Aunt's address. I had to ask three times. "Trust me" she'd said. I guessed that what she had finally given me was a false address. Her partial explanation for the book not being delivered was that the house she lived in was only partly built. Better and better I'd thought. Sergiu had offered to beat me Russian style with a branch on the wall before he left me standing naked in the bath. Perversely I had nearly accepted on the basis that if I was going on in for humiliation, I might as well go the whole way. Looking at my situation it was obvious I had broken every rule in the book. Now I was going to pay the price. Even then I thought I ought to publicise my folly as an example to others. It would give them a laugh and they might be wiser travellers themselves. It was so sad as my tour of Moldova had got off to such a promising start.
Friday, May 20th
The aircraft levelled out as it had reached its cruising altitude. I was a day late travelling to Moldova having spent a day in Vienna following a baggage mix up. Many people might have regarded this as a bonus but I was furious. I had never visited Vienna before but I am the kind of person who knows what he wants. Would Liliana, Marisha and Irina "Blondira" be waiting at the airport ? Would the hire car still be available ?
I reflected on the previous day. In the coach from the airport I had met twoYanks. One, a high flying lawyer who pursued governments and didn't want his name disclosed or his picture taken. Ed F----, had introduced himself as an "ambulance chaser" to test my reaction. In Moldova, I had to explain to people that these are the worst kind of lawyers who chase after victims in the US. In the most dramatic cases, the injured party might have intravenous drips being attached to them when the lawyer offers his or her services to sue the offender who has caused this outrage. Ed went onto explain that he was a human rights lawyer pursuing governments and had to wait 6 or 7 years for his pay cheque. The girl in the seat in front of the coach was an occupational therapist from Los Angeles. I had started speaking to her first. She was called Brie, a shortened form of her first name. She was running half of a full marathon in Vienna. Ed joined the conversation early on. I explained my situation. He said it would be difficult for me to find accommodation in Vienna at such short notice.
The Russian lady in the seat in front asked me to change seats as her child was fidgeting. I declined, explaining that I wanted to film out of the window with my camcorder. The man sitting next to her moved to the seat next to me. I asked him why he was flying to Chisinau. He explained that he had worked in Chisinau five years before pursuing corruption cases for the European Union. He was returning now to support gay (homosexual) rights in Moldova. He smiled: "we Dutch like to change the world". I smiled: "we British like to invade the world !" The next day, when retelling the story Liliana asked: "what do we Moldovans do?" Awkwardly I said: "you infiltrate the world". She laughed and made some comment. Liliana had said of the Dutchman: "we don't want those sort of people in our country". I scanned the Dutchman's face wondering if I could have guessed he was gay.
Once we were out of the coach in Vienna we walked through picturesque streets to Brie's hotel. There the hotel manager phoned around looking for a room for me. I should add that was after he said there was a spare bed that could be moved into Brie's room. There had been a pregnant silence followed by Ed's voice: "It's not going to happen". Brie smiled and said: "if I knew you better…" So I ended up walking across the centre of Vienna with a map to find the 15th hotel that the manager had phoned.
The child smiled at me from the seat in front and I wondered whether it was a boy or a girl. The Dutchman didn't know either. I played silly games with it and when it had disappeared asked the Dutchman about the pursuit of corruption in Moldova. He told me that on the United Nations scale, Moldova was the fourth most corrupt country in the world. Nigeria was first. He went on to explain that various arbitary requirements went into assessing this. I asked him about his own experiences and he said that in his time they had pursued a Moldovan government minister who had stolen $68 million. The outcome of this investigation he would not expand on. Most Moldovans I spoke to were sceptical about this fourth worst rating and I was inclined to agree with them.
Ed had guided us to St Stephen's Kirch. Proudly he recommended that we go to the oldest coffee shop in Vienna just opposite the cathedral. There we could have the best of any kind of coffee available. Before we did I took some photos and camcorder footage of Ed & Brie. Ed saw me filming him in the coffee shop and became angry. He couldn't be seen on film with this young girl. He added that he might have to have me tracked down and killed. He had enemies in his business. Brie looked impressed. I was nonplussed. He left the table for a while and Brie said: "isn't he wonderful ?". I looked at her blankly. That was the third time she'd made such a statement. She added that Ed had been very helpful to me. I felt like saying that the price of this had been having him try and take the mickey out of me as part of his ego trip. Ed returned and emphasised again that he was very sensitive about being filmed. He said that he had been secretly filmed at a night club with two strippers. He brightened up and said to me: "I don't know about you but I can deal with one pairs of hands but not two coming at me from front and behind". Brie's eyes opened wide. The strippers had taken Ed's clothes off and this had been filmed. Brie asked him about the film and Ed said his girlfriend still had it. Later when I examined my camcorder and camera, there was no film record of him or Brie on it. or my later filming of the buildings in Vienna. I remember Ed handling them outside the cathedral saying he was a novice with such things… Ed settled the bill for our coffees and cake, we said our goodbyes outside and went our separate ways. Remembering that I had seen Brie and Ed having long private conversations together, perhaps theirs was only a brief parting.
Finally, I reached my hotel. On the way, I passed some beautiful buildings and monuments. Later that evening after my dinner I wandered into an art exhibition held in a cleared out shop with white painted walls. People were out in the street and inside. I found one of the artists and her friend whose English was so good that she could explain the art clearly. It used paintings next to materials jutting from the walls. It was thought provoking and interesting. One picture looked like suitcases being dumped into a stagnant or polluted pond next to some whirling propellers or a kind of vortex. It looked very real. There was no message or meaning or purpose behind this art I was told in response to my obvious questions. It was to make me look at things in different ways. I felt like a heretic. We chatted cheerfully for an hour and drank wine. I reflected on how open things are on the continent. I'd never seen such an event in the UK. It struck me that all continentals might have much more in common with each other than us reserved English. If I had seen such an event in England, I would have walked past not expecting to be welcome or anticipating that business would have been uppermost on the minds of those talking to me. These people gave me their time freely and gladly. I gave the artist a 10 Euro note and the response from her and her friend was great surprise. No-one had made a donation before. Partly, I expected that reaction.
The plane dipped on the final approach to Chisinau. I asked the Dutchman for his email address. His first name was Casper. Was this a "dodgy" name ? According to 1970s & 80's English thinking (if not before), some names were considered "dodgy". Quentin and Crispin for instance had definite homosexual overtones. People with these names might most likely be limp wristed artists of some talent - and "queer". This condemned any person with such a name to closer scrutiny. Casper was a dodgy name, I decided. Perhaps there was something in this thinking after all ? The clouds refused to clear as I waited with camcorder poised. Then they did. I pushed the record button and zoomed in and out on small lakes and tall buildings. I was aware of a ban on electrical equipment while flying but hoped it didn't apply to my Sony Handycam.
We landed and headed by coach to the airport terminal. There while waiting for my visa to be issued, I phoned my wife Barbara and asked her to phone Marisha, Irina "Blondira" and Liliana. My mobile phone couldn't connect to phones in Moldova. Later on I bought another mobile phone in Chisinau. Irina and Liliana weren't able to make it to the airport.
I went through the customs checks. I opened my suitcases and was questioned by a blonde customs officer. I explained that I had 15 female penfriends in Moldova and the books, DVDs and videos were to help them with their English. As I fumbled around in my suitcase she said: "look at me in the eye". I did so and was most surprised to meet her very warm smile.
Marisha was waiting for me in a crowd of people carrying peoples' names. She was only the second Russian person I had ever knowingly met. Marisha had blue-green eyes identical in colour to my own, slightly close together just like mine. I couldn't remember seeing anyone with exactly my eye colour before. She wore a slightly mischievous smile that I came to regard as her trademark. I soon learned that Marisha combined this with a calculator like mind. She lead me to the Hertz desk a few yards away. Since her email on the subject Marisha had arranged a cheaper deal for my car hire. After the formalities were completed we went to the hire car, a turquoise Suzuki Swift saloon. We drove out of the airport and immediately Marisha pointed out calmly that we were driving the wrong way up the multi laned carriageway. But I was on the right (correct) side of the road ! There had been no signs to indicate that I couldn't turn up this road. In fact the lack of signs and road markings was a feature of Moldova, I was to become familiar with. I reversed the car to the accompaniment of flashing lights and horns. "Let's hope the police don't see us" said Marisha as calmly as before. I headed onto the opposite carriageway and immediately into a petrol station. I soon discovered some of the many potholes that are a routine feature of roads in Moldova. There were no signs in Chisinau to indicate where we were. Marisha was the first of many guides to tell me to drive close to the centre of the road. There tended to be less potholes there and more importantly you avoided the chaotic driving behaviour of the "maxi taxis" or minibuses that transport most people around the capital. They drop people off on request and when you've been in them you find in practice the requests come with little notice. Despite appearing to be dangerous, the system is very efficient and cheap. It was getting dark and I was having trouble working out where I should be driving as usually there was no visible white line down the centre of the road…
We reached an unmarked crossroads with several cars blocking the way as they attempted to turn in front of us. I slowed down. Marisha said firmly: "you have priority". The cars cleared. I asked Marisha to put on her seat belt but she declined. Instead she sat poised, forward on her seat, watching alertly. We soon reached a similar junction with a similar situation. "You have priority" said Marisha again as I slowed down vainly looking for traffic lights or signs. Marisha asked if we could pick someone up and rather like a maxi taxi we suddenly ended up lurching obliquely into the side of the road. It was Virginia. Virginia was Marisha's friend and associate who I had been introduced to on the unreal world of the internet. Now here she was smiling warmly as she got into the car. This was unexpected. It was always amazing for both parties to meet for the first time in Moldova. None of my many female penfriends really expected me to come. Why would anyone want to visit Moldova ? A country described by a Canadian author in one of the few books on it as a "Lost Province". (Lost Province, Adventures In A Moldovan Family by Stephen Henighan). A colleague on one of my contracts had surprisingly met a Moldovan lady working in Brussels while on a holiday there. He told her that I was visiting Moldova as a tourist. She had scoffed, no-one visits Moldova as a tourist.
Virginia had been introduced in internet world as a very highly qualified and business experienced lady who was currently out of work. She would take on the humble task of placing adverts in local papers advertising my free offering of books, CDs, DVDs or videos. In fact I had not been overwhelmed by the response but had picked up some penfriends. She had copied me in on the adverts placed in the papers. A mass of Romanian with an English block in the middle. Part of what I was offering were free copies of "Playing The Moldovans At Tennis" by Tony Hawks. Virginia had declined any email dialogue on what I was doing but had placed masses of adverts for the $50 sent. In fact one of these was copied by another paper and I gained a new and regular penfriend months later from Colibasi on the very southern tip of Moldova. Marisha had asked on Virginia's behalf whether she could have one of the copies of PTMAT sitting in Marisha's flat. Virginia read it and following another conversational email from me replied simply: "sense of humour ?". In fact Tony Hawks's book produced one of two responses: silence or great amusement. There was no dividing line between Russians and Romanians in this choice. Virginia had wanted the book to show or discuss with her new bosses at a major Chisinau football Club. She had been appointed its Marketing Manager. The book covered the story of how Tony Hawks, professional comedian and excellent tennis player had taken on a bet to play and beat the entire national Moldovan football team at tennis. Virginia's club was one of the clubs Tony had visited. Some weeks after this I asked Marisha whether Virginia would accommodate me in her city centre flat as advertised and also provide breakfast. The answer came back that Virginia was too busy to provide breakfast. So I booked up Marisha's neighbour Tamara.
A discussion developed between Marisha and myself on what we were doing, where we were going. I was worried that Natalie and her family wouldn't be home to take my suitcase of books, DVDs and videos. I wanted all this sorted out as soon as possible before going to Marisha's place. For the next day I should hopefully be off early to Transnistria. Also it was getting dark and I was on the edge of this strange unknown city with no signs and seemingly abnormal traffic system. Unexpectedly Virginia got out the car. At the time it struck me sadly that she might have thought she'd been snubbed for not answering my emails. In fact, Marisha had decided we couldn't reconcile so many requirements at once. I didn't see her Virginia again.
We headed into the deepening gloom, more potholes and more advice to drive close to the centre line. I strained my eyes to judge the width of the road. Starting out from a right hand lane, I found that I faced the block in front as the road ahead was narrower. This was another unusual but regular feature of Chisinau's road system. If this lane was for right turns, well as usual there were no markings or they were too faint to be visible in the dark. I waited for the maxi taxis to pass. There was the usual regular hooting. Sometimes this seemed more like an established social custom than a necessary warning or rebuke.
We arrived outside what I hoped was Natalie's apartment block. We stepped into the dark corridor. There was no smell or graffiti or rubbish. "Well this is Chisinau, not an English inner city block of flats " I reflected ironically as we got into the lift. It clunked into life and clunked to a halt as someone else got in a few doors up. Then it clunked and jolted vigorously when it reached the eleventh floor. We got out. I was confused looking for the right door. It all looked so plain, drab and anonymous. Marisha rang the bell while I was looking around. It was quickly opened by a blonde girl who said "hello", smiled shyly and backed away. This had to be Natalie. I tried to match this girl with the two similar photographs she had emailed me. We went in. We were introduced. Marisha's face broke into a very warm but seemingly familiar wicked smile. I felt a strangely strong pleasant feeling amongst all parties. The effect was like an adrenaline kick. Again a little voice inside said: "Eddie, what have you let yourself in for ?" Mr Donets apologised for the "reparations" in a seemingly long description. It was probably very short. I was introduced to his wife. The dog barked fiercely. This was the Rottweiler kept locked away in another room. But wasn't it supposed to be just a puppy ? That was the picture Natalie had sent me.
Our penfriendship had got off to a very bad start. I had unwisely emailed Natalie with information about the Dangerous Dogs Act and the newspaper coverage that had resulted in it. Natalie was just 15 and soon to become my most regular penfriend. I frequently remembered the moment I'd first seen her entry on a purple coloured language site. "15 ? for God's sake, where are you going to draw the line ?". However I had read that a large part of the middle aged population was out of the country working, mainly in Italy and Russia. They'd left behind children who had to look after themselves. They would appreciate some kindly moral support and a book or a magazine. Somebody cared. Two of my first penfriends fell into this category. But it was a distorted picture as the problem was not as widespread as I had supposed. Yes, it happened, but not most of the time.
Natalie would be 16 on Sunday. My agreement to attend her birthday party along with her information that the school term ended at the end of May had made me chose that time. I wanted to visit some schools. Hers was to be one of them. Also as a contract accountant I needed to pick the end of a month for my holiday. It should be a quiet time if I was involved in a typical assignment.
During the following conversation it was agreed that I would stay the night in the Donets's flat rather than go to Marisha's place. I was lead into a long room by Natalie. That is where I would sleep. Like the rest of the flat it appeared to be furnished in a simple 1950s or 60s style. But it had a comfortable easily liveable feel about it. I was concerned to contact Liliana to confirm that she would arrive the following day so we could go to Transnistria. How would I get to her ? Mr Donets assured me that they had a very efficient transport system. "Don't worry, Liliana will come tomorrow". The arrangements were made by phone. Liliana would be there at 10am. I was very relieved. Marisha had a busy schedule and had to leave. We said our quick goodbyes.
We sat down to eat. Mr Donets had a large downturned Mexican style moustache. He looked as if he might have been able to secure a bit part in a spaghetti western but his accent may not have fitted. His wife was a quiet, relaxed and very pleasant lady. As Russian people they did not fit the western stereotype. The acting in those Cold War films now seemed as credible as a spaghetti western. [A fictional film story from the days of America's Wild West, produced on a low budget by an Italian film studio and usually filmed in Spain. Some have become popular film classics]. So Mr Donets should have had his bit part. In fact in the real world, Mr Donets had been a doctor which perhaps explained his reassuring manner. He was now a sports journalist. It didn't seem appropriate to enquire about this.
They were just a very ordinary family. There had been some concern amongst my family that I would meet so many Russians. Thinking about that increased my enjoyment of the meal and the accompanying conversation.
The first thing I had been introduced to was pelmeni.
Then I was given Borsch. There were a variety of things to eat and all the food was delicious. As I was to discover in Moldova, the produce is grown organically in fertile soil and expertly cooked. By comparison English supermarket food often seems synthetic and tasteless. It is an absolute requirement for the woman in the Moldovan household to cook well. She will buy fresh produce in the market from the "peasants". Peasants just means farming families. Western connotations of the word "peasant" have no relevance here. The town and the countryside are but different parts of one seamless whole. Moldovans in Chisinau happily decamp to the countryside to swim and pick fruit in the summer. The difference is the standard of living. Town and city dwellers usually live better lives. Natalie's grandfather had a dacha near the river Nistru at Vadul Lui Voda. They often went there on weekends.
I was served some deliciously sweet white Moldovan wine which was identical in taste and appearance to the Spanish Moscatel wine from Valencia we used to buy.
Natalie's grandfather had been wounded in the eye in the war. This had resulted in years of pain and many operations. Despite that he had become "The First Doctor" of Moldova and was mentioned in official historical records. He was obviously an inspiration to Natalie who had some health problems and carried on stoically.
We finished the meal with coffee and sweet snacks. Conversation was easy as Mr Donets and Natalie spoke good English. He explained that I would be wise to move the car to a proper secure parking compound. This was my first introduction to what was a regular feature for Moldovan car owners. It was unwise to leave your car on a public street. Mr Donets's faced creased into his familiar genial smile as he pointed out that otherwise the car might not be there in the morning or its wheels may have been removed. So he guided me to a car compound but it was full. So we went to another one. We drove up a short heavily rutted muddy track and stopped outside a large sentry hut and a man came out. A brief conversation followed seemingly in Russian. I handed over some lei worth a few pence. We drove the car over heavily rutted ground relying mainly on the headlights to see where we were going.. As the car slewed about vigorously I wondered what the compound would be like following heavy rainfall. We found a space next to a rope on which the number 65 hung. Mr Donets advised me to memorise the number. How safe was the car there ? I enquired but then noticing more expensive cars, pointed them out in answer to my own question. Mr Donets characteristically shrugged his shoulders and made a comment reflecting the uncertainty of the situation. I thought of Vienna where I had noticed how old the cars and motorbikes were relative to those in the UK. How prosperous England had become. How fortunes can change ! As I trod slowly and carefully passed some prestige vehicles I reflected on the strange nature of wealth and peoples' living standards that economists try to assess with their arbitrary measures. We crossed the road onto a dark pavement and walked by the regularly spaced trees and the occasional small huddle of people. It was not far to the Donets apartment.
Mr Donets showed me the bathroom facilities. The dog sometimes barked loudly when I passed the frosted glass door of the room in which it was kept. I went to my room where Natalie joined me. Her parents called her "Natasha". She sat upright like a 1960s English Public School girl. (Confusingly perhaps, a Public School is an elitist fee paying private school for teenagers which uses rigorous selection testing). I showed Natalie the contents of my suitcase, books and DVDs which I was happy to leave for her use for a few days and a few things I wanted her to keep. But she just wanted to talk. Natalie paused thoughtfully between questions. Her head would dip, partly hiding her eyes behind her long blonde hair. All the time she tried hard to suppress a smile. Like some other Moldovan girls I would meet, her chest would heave as she took a deep breath while straightening up to recover a dignified pose. I hadn't seen this for a long time. It was my turn to try not to smile. I remembered I had to make a call. I was expecting a pass to bypass the requirement for foreigners to report to a police station within three days of their arrival. I would have been happy to make that visit but for the fact that I didn't know where I would be staying every night. Also by then I simply didn't have the time. The system is mainly geared for foreign visitors staying with friends in one place or at a hotel for their visit. I was not entirely unsympathetic. There are some nasty foreign criminals who prey on young women and children. Like everything in Moldova, the police service is under resourced. However the hotels charge exorbitant prices which are not advertised. Until the late nineties the Romanian authorities required hotels in Romania to charge foreigners six times the rate for Romanians. When Romania applied to join the EU, one of the first requirements placed on them was to scrap that policy. No doubt the hotels had also been heavily taxed. The Moldovan taxation system is influenced by the latest crazy methodology used to replace a more workable system. This rigged system backfired as a number of hotels closed in Chisinau while the business in private flat rentals took off. I asked to use the phone and spoke to my penfriend who at the time was a receptionist at a hotel in Chisinau. She turned up later with a pass from the hotel. It recorded my name and the fact that I was staying for 12 days at that hotel. I handed over 15 euros and was mightily relieved. She had to rush off and sadly I wasn't able to see her again.
Natalie and I discussed things happily until just after 11pm when she had to leave to go to bed.
I looked around the room when she was gone. Like the other apartments as I was to visit, along with the 1950s style sofa which adapted as a bed, there was a smart glass fronted bookcase. In it was a large paperback book which Natalie had asked me for. She had read it very quickly. I reflected on the expectations I had of Moldova before leaving England. I had expected to see some terribly drab and sad places. I hadn't expected the lifts to work. The reality was much better than anticipated.
I awoke early on my sofa bed, set about organising my things, and gazed out the window at the other apartment blocks in the Riscani district. I took some photos and my first camcorder film footage since leaving the airport. I had breakfast in the kitchen and anticipated Liliana's arrival. I walked into the hall and there she was.
Liliana looked very foreign and different from the two photos she had emailed me. Her gaze settled on a point low on the opposite wall. She looked slightly worried. Liliana was one of just three girls who would get into the hire car alone with me, a foreigner and a stranger known to her through the world of the internet. Like Marisha, Liliana had met English people before. This may have reassured her in my case. Additionally, as well as the emails I had sent, she like Marisha and Natalie had received webcam footage of me reading Playing The Moldovans At Tennis. There was another thing. We had nearly bought a place together in Moldova. To show my sincerity I had sent Liliana a recording of myself on a webcam CD proposing this. She and her mother were to be the tenants for $1 a year. Liliana obtained permission to use the College's digital camera. She went around taking photos of various plots of land and houses. Huge unreduced pictures came through over two days while I was sitting at home between contracts. There was a frantic email exchange. The problem was that I had very limited capital I could commit. One of the pictures contained a strip of land on a slope with a long windowless workman's hut or toolshed. We had agreed that we might try to build on land so I suggested this site. Indignantly Liliana replied that she was not prepared to live in this hut. It was not even safe. I immediately replied with equal annoyance. This was a low point. One of those incidents that looking back makes you laugh and nearly cry. In the end I realised I couldn't afford what Liliana and her mother needed. That was April and after this mad scramble I thought it best to calm things down a bit.
Liliana spoke. Her accent neither English nor American sounded unusual. I felt another strange sense of excitement. This was good. Later I was to meet Ana Porumbrica a very bright and eloquent Moldovan girl who could even have passed herself off as an ex English Public School girl. Ana did everything perfectly and with a warm mischievous smile seemed to suggest: "look I'm the best, do you need the rest ?". She said as much in a tongue in cheek sort of way.
Mr Donets offered to guide us out of Chisinau in the direction of Transnistria. The behaviour of other car drivers was crazy at times. It reminded me of banger races I'd seen as a teenager. [Banger races - old cars with windows removed and internal steel cages added racing around a dirt circuit]. He said the Americans refused to drive in Chisinau. That made me feel much better as I consider that British people usually have more natural courage. Mr Donets added: "you are the brave Englishman in search of adventure". I wondered whether there was some ambiguity in this statement. Was I to end up as the Moldovan equivalent of the missionary in the cannibals' cooking pot ? We pulled in at a bank and I was directed passed a large queue straight into a large cubicle where I changed some of my dollars into Moldovan lei. I commented on this and Liliana grinned broadly. "You have special treatment", she said mischievously. When she smiled enthusiastically she looked like a completely different person. I wondered whether Moldovan women lost the ability to smile broadly as they became careworn with years of worrying. We drove off. Mr Donets's words intruded into my thoughts: "We have to turn left here" followed by: "the traffic turns from two places". There was some dialogue between us as I edged towards an unmarked spot on the unmarked pitted road judging that I was just to the right of the centre of the road. In the mirror I could see that cars had stopped about 15 yards behind me, well back from a normal turning position. This was unreal. There was only one lane to turn into. Mr Donets thought it was normal. At the right moment cars from the back turned very quickly into this road. "Turn" shouted Mr Donets. "I can't, I'll crash into them". "Turn" he shouted again and again as I shouted back at him. He was obviously enjoying himself. For a second I thought of the famous Russian tank riders in the Second World War who had taken massive casualties. Well, courage should be contained within the bounds of sense I thought. Mr Donets guided us onto the main route towards the airport and Transnistria and said goodbye.
Heading to Transdniestr
Liliana and I headed out of Chisinau along the straight road to the border with Transnistria. It was the other side of the carriageway I had travelled with Marisha the previous evening. Approaching the airport road junction with the petrol station, I remembered the previous evening's incident and in a relaxed mood explained it to Liliana. Time ticked by and there was an uneasy silence in the car. I didn't know what to say. The situation I had chosen was a strange one. But as someone who has always liked to do things differently, I felt elated.
Cars on the other side of the road flashed their lights to warn of the police. I hit the brakes and explained this to Liliana as we passed the Moldovan police. This broke the ice (as we British say). Liliana was most impressed by this international drivers' convention. She had travelled up and down this road as a bus passenger and missed the significance of the gesture. It was then good to pass the Moldovan police who were situated in two further places along the road.
We arrived at the border with Transnistria. It was the same border post seen on a BBC programme of Transnistria, one in a series of "Places That Don't Exist" - provinces not internationally recognised. It was with this border post in mind that I had bought a camcorder which just fitted into my inside anorak pocket. My luggage had been carefully chosen. I didn't want any trouble or difficulties. At the first border post we went into an ancient caravan or temporary building for me to pay a small environmental tax. Liliana was sceptical about the purpose of this. The interior of the dilapidated railway carriage type caravan was heavily stained with damp marks. The floor was uneven. Surely even the Moldovans could afford to replace it ? I was curious, did this building have some historical significance ? But I didn't ask. It had to be a stupid question.
Then we went to the proper Transdniestr border control point. This was a typical purpose built construction. Liliana guided me through the handing over of papers, all very smooth and quick. Once through this, the Transnistrian authorities were only interested in a quick search of the boot. Driving out I said to Liliana: "no problems at all". Liliana responded ruefully: "foreigners are welcome in Transnistria, Moldovans are not".
Liliana directed me to the Baptist Church in Bender. It was situated a short way down a quiet road behind large impressive gates. I parked the car inside, filmed the outside of the church and recorded a brief conversation with Liliana. We had to wait for someone to open up the church. In fact we headed for the house opposite and climbed some steps at the back to an upstairs room. There people arrived for a Bible class. They brought beautiful and very tasty cakes and bottles of lime juice. By modern British standards, The quality of the food was exceptional. But then our women have forgotten the art of cooking and cake making. Liliana had set a test on the Bible and the class gave their answers. An elderly man on my right told me that he had worked for the KGB but saw the error of his ways and became a Baptist. He said: "man's love is a selfish love". I said: "better selfish love than no love". He responded that God's love was a perfect love. I took some photographs of the class. Some of them then went into another room and started singing. I recorded this on my camcorder. Then we had a chat. There was a young girl called Kate whose husband came in while I was filming. She never stopped smiling. Kate was obviously a genuinely very happy young lady. Her wide lips curled upwards into her cheeks as the dominating feature of her face. Slow faltering conversations in English developed. They were surprised at my age. You can keep looking young if you don't smoke and grow a beard I said with gestures, looking at the women. Kate's husband was embarrassed I was told because he smoked. I decided to have a short friendly conversation with him but he still looked worried as if he had committed an offence. Kate's eyes twinkled. I thought this is definitely not your "have a nice day" cheesy American smile. How could she be so happy in such a poor country ?
There was a well built lady in a coat with a very unusual flesh pink colour. She asked me if I was married. "Y Xenat" I replied. She and the lady next to her were impressed with my attempt at Russian. She smiled warmly. It appeared she was my age, married and said she could tell by someone's eyes whether they were happy. She was and she thought I was. "The eyes are the windows into the soul" is a well known English expression. There was a brief discussion about religion and the class broke up. The two middle aged ladies accompanied me and Liliana to the church which had a magnificent interior. It was well above the average standard for English churches. Compared to modern English churches it appeared to be a cross between different styles. The large picture at the front was almost catholic in style. The balconies reminded me of early protestant churches. Centuries ago these had been designed so that all parts of the congregation were about equidistant from the preacher. This had been to break the social protocol which existed in catholic churches at the time. All were equal in the eyes of God. So protestants had dressed in dull clothes. Flashy pink would have met with strong disapproval. Fortunately times have moved on. [The protestant faith started at the beginning of the sixteenth century when Martin Luther in Germany protested against corruption in the catholic church and became part of a successful rebellion which lead to religious wars across Europe over the following centuries].
I got out the camcorder and filmed the church, Liliana and the two ladies in their forties. We had a brief conversation on film. Then we went to another room in the church. On the walls were pictures by children. There were long tables. This is where a lot of homeless children were fed and looked after during the day. They had a generous donor and in Transnistria this translated into a big operation. Liliana said: "many of their parents are drunkards".
The value for money aspect was enormous. I have always been a great believer in targetted and directly accountable charitable support. It is supposedly more expensive to administer but in this case it was much more effective. I left disappointed that I couldn't see the children.
I said my goodbyes and we left for Liliana's mother's flat on the outskirts of Bender.
We parked outside the flats. There were people hanging around outside. We went up in the lift. Liliana seemed uneasy. I was introduced to her mother who was a jolly person and kept speaking to me, presumably in Romanian. "Nu Inteleg" I repeated. She looked puzzled and I grinned. I think she found it unbelievable that being able to communicate with people around her for decades, she would come across someone who had no idea what she was talking about. There was no television in the flat which could have shown foreign language programmes.
It was an interesting situation for me as I was aged 44 but in England most people estimate my age at about 33 - 37. In the Russian school I was to visit, the teacher there reckoned I was about 27 which was Liliana's age. Liliana's mother was 51 and my wife, Barbara who is nearly 11 years older than me was 55. When I met Barbara, her excellent skin and good looks fooled me into thinking the gap was much less. In the West, it is considered important to marry someone about your own age. A 10 year gap in either direction is considered too much and likely to lead to the marriage failing. The norm is that the man is 0 to 5 years older than his wife. My father married my mother who was 13 years younger than him in 1957. They were still happily married when he died aged 89 in March 2005. After moving in my luggage I asked whether they could phone Anna and Alexander. I didn't feel guilty about this because in his book "Playing The Moldovans At Tennis", Tony Hawks is pictured in a Transnistrian phone box with the comment: "In Transnistria the phone calls are free, but no-one has anything good to say to each other". So I put this to Liliana who'd greatly enjoyed reading this book which I'd sent to her in January.
She laughed and said: "that was a very long time ago" - that the calls were free. But it may also have applied to the supposed unfriendliness as well, as I was to see. Liliana and her mother hadn't been to Tiraspol for many years and were looking forward to the trip. We all headed off in the hire car to see Anna and Alexander.
Anna and Alexander in Tiraspol
Marisha had as requested supplied me with as many maps as she could find which was three. These covered Chisinau and Baltsi plus a national map of Moldova. Given the security situation between Moldova proper and Transnistria it didn't surprise me that Marisha couldn't find maps of Tiraspol and Bender. However here we were already beyond the 2pm meeting time and depending on directions from locals. A man in a Lada said follow him and directed us. However he sent us to the wrong part of Tiraspol. Further directions were more successful. When we finally turned up in the right road, I nervously parked the car nearby. There were few parked cars and it was obvious the streets hadn't been designed with private car owners in mind.
We quickly found the rough whereabouts of Anna and Alexander's flat. As usual there was no graffiti. I always got the sense in Moldova that people there felt a sense of pride, belonging and respect for their environment. We went into a courtyard with very uneven ground. The foreign visitor soon learns that money is saved in Moldova by not flattening out and tarmacking many surfaces. In fact this place like many others looked like a nearly completed building site which had been tidied up, abandoned and ignored for many years. Except for the fact that there were many inquisitive children out playing. Unsurprisingly perhaps I saw less fat people in Moldova and they tended to be older. What we call "middle aged spread". The children were thin but some were tall. A few were kicking around a dilapidated football. As the three of us made our way carefully towards the correct entrance I reflected with what pride owners of newly built properties in our country happily put up with building site conditions for many months to say they had been there first. Photographs would later be proudly displayed of "the building site". They didn't suffer during that period. Better to feed and educate children than spend money on roadrollers, concrete and tarmac.
Like other blocks of flats I was to go into in Moldova, the numbering wasn't clear. I suppose each area had its own regular postman who thoroughly knew his locality. My camcorder was on as we went into Anna and Alexander's apartment. "You're on film" I said and received cheerful responses. Anna taught English in a state school and Alexander was a Russian peacekeeping soldier. He had seemed to be slightly annoyed with me contacting his wife when we first started exchanging emails in December and January. Anna sent me a photograph of Alexander in the countryside with his face on her shoulder looking fierce. This was the only picture I was sent of him. Relations softened over the months. However I reflected that I would not have liked to confront him with his Kalashnikov rifle. 15 years ago he would have been my enemy. An article in a newspaper supposedly derived from leaked Russian archives claimed that at one point in the early 1980s the Soviet Army reached an emergency highest state of alert. It was ready to pour over the borders into Western Europe. Had any serious incident occurred I would have been conscripted in my early twenties and sent to fight people like Alexander. At the time, he would have been at nursery school. Up until 1990, my friendship with people like Anna and Alexander might have been described as "giving aid and comfort to our enemies".
I produced a Scottish tartan cap with synthetic red hair attached and put it straight onto Alexander's head. In response Alexander produced a camouflage cap and quickly forced a metal badge onto it. It was a badge of the Russian Army. He put it on my head. There it stayed until I was back in Liliana's mother's flat. He then attached a very smart looking badge to my souvenir "Luxembourg" T shirt. I assumed this was the badge of his regiment. Laughter filled the apartment as I filmed. Looking at Alexander, Anna made some comment about Scottish football fans who had visited to attend a football match. The Scots had chatted up all the local girls, got very drunk but otherwise behaved themselves. Anna showed off some photographs of family and friends.
They shared their food and drink with us. Then we headed in the car to the outside of The Palace Of Marriage Ceremonies in Tiraspol where more filming took place. After that we visited the Botanical Gardens. President Smirnov's offices were at the front of these in a large and smart but modestly styled rectangular building. On the outside were air conditioning outlets reminiscent of US buildings from a former era. For a man and a family of such reputed power and wealth it seemed an unusual cost saving measure. There was no noticeable security.
I remembered an article on the internet of how someone who had taken pictures of an important building in Transnistria had been grabbed by a security man hiding in the trees. With my heart in my mouth I took a couple of pictures of this most important building from an oblique angle. No-one confronted me. Perhaps the Transnistrian authorities were moving away from the old siege mentality, sandbagged machine gun emplacements etc.
I caught up with the others. Alexander took the camcorder. We walked through the gardens and Alexander did most of the filming.
We explored the large Botanical Gardens. Anna explained they had once been one of the showcases of the former Soviet Union. A great deal of research and experimentation was carried out there. Now the budget had been severely cut back but still a lot of time and effort was expended on these gardens. Anna pointed out some new plants, the result of recent research and experimentation. Anna was proud of these gardens and wished she had more time to spend there. I took photographs of my new friends. A wedding party went passed. We moved on.
Liliana bent down in the long grass and after a few attempts picked up a butterfly. I felt this was wrong (by Western standards) and told her off. Alexander was elsewhere and missed filming our first conversation. Liliana was amused. I suddenly understood her. Liliana felt she had so little that she was going to have and appreciate everything she was entitled to. She never asked me for anything but when she had something in her possession it was hers.
An American colleague at her Baptist College had told her off for photocopying supposedly copyrighted material. When we discussed this back at Liliana's mother's flat I said it was a legal "grey area" and started to expand on the issues. But she would have none of it. "If it's mine I can do what I like with it", she asserted with a girlish grin. In a country like Moldova, Liliana has to be right in one sense. If her detractor had to live on $100 a month, moving from apartment to apartment with belongings and supporting her mother in another province, a different attitude may have prevailed. Trying to impose a foreign rule book in a country like Moldova is usually a mistake.
In Moldova, normal rules don't apply. However if you become sick, it's the rule that you will receive medical treatment at little or no cost. Shouldn't this be the normal rule in every civilised country ?
We headed back the way we had come in. Alexander pointed out a hare and I had a go at filming it. As we reached President's Smirnov's residence an official behind its high wire fence directed us to leave around the other side of the building. We drove off. A few streets further on, a drunk lurched into the street in front of us. He had one eye closed as he leaned forwards with an angry and disorientated look.
We went to look at the shops. There were two or perhaps three that I could see in the centre of the city of Tiraspol. The first was an art shop. There were paintings and rugs inside. We then went to a wine shop where Anna insisted on buying me a bottle of "Kvint" cognac. I opened it at home in England and had two weeks of very pleasant sipping. I am usually a light wine drinker. We headed out of Tiraspol and I thought this was just a drive through the countryside but it went on and on. Alexander would occasionally shout from the back adding the words: "Eddie Schumacher". I thought he was saying this in a light hearted way but much later Liliana explained that he was very worried. "He's ignoring all the road signs", he had shouted in Russian. From my point of view, I did see some strange Cyrillic symbols but those could have meant anything ! My passengers were amazed we weren't stopped. This good fortune was later attributed to the army cap I was wearing.
Friendly reception in Liliana's family
After a time I was directed
down a narrow road to a one storey farmhouse in a row of such farmhouses. We
went in. There was some confusion. Obviously we weren't expected. There followed
a very friendly reception. Liliana's family had lived two doors down I was told.
They hadn't seen their good neighbours for years.
A table was brought out and a girl who looked about six, laid out the cutlery. She had a very serious and determined expression but she was also obviously enjoying herself. We had a meal. It was very rough and ready (as we British say) but it was most pleasurable. I drank a lot of their good wine, too much in fact.
Everyone thoroughly enjoyed themselves. I didn't understand a word they were saying. An elderly man showed me his farm while Alexander filmed. It was sad that I hardly understood anything he said. Looking out over the fields to the distant horizon I felt the timelessness of nature and this family's connection to it.
In March and April I had exchanged emails on the internet with Liliana on buying a place in the Moldovan countryside. On my visit, Liliana was keen to show me all aspects of Moldovan life. It gave her a great deal of pleasure to see how much of this I could take and what my reaction would be !
It was time to leave but this family didn't think so. We stood by the car outside the gates for what could have been half an hour exchanging pleasantries. I felt pangs of irrational fear that they wouldn't let us leave combined with the fear that we would leave ungraciously.
The old farmer gave me a two
litre plastic bottle of their fruity tasting red wine.
Eventually with the sun low in the sky, we were on our way.
Earlier that day, as Liliana and I had approached the Transnistrian border, she said: "It was a mistake to hiring a car ?" (although it had been in my mind too).
I wondered how she felt about it now.
As we approached Tiraspol, we saw a drunk walking in the middle of the road with his back facing us. He was staggering as he followed the line of the road. A car passed him at speed coming our way. Liliana started shouting as we approached him with the width of several feet between us. She thought we might run him over. I carried on confident that even a sober man would have trouble walking several feet sideways at great speed. Also even the drunkard must understand the situation he was in. We passed him quickly and Liliana was angry with me.
Back at Anna and Alexander flat
We arrived back at Anna and Alexander's flat. I gave Alexander a British Army combat jacket. It was genuine army surplus with the name of the British soldier sown inside. The left arm had slight scuff marks on it.
The Army Surplus shop in my hometown of Reading only had large sizes. I had worried that the jacket would be too big but Alexander was taller than I had expected. Alexander was delighted. He posed in front of the mirror in their bedroom.
I also gave him a small poster detailing all the ranks in the British Army. Alexander pointed to the two stripes of the corporal and said enthusiastically: "corporal, that's me".
I asked Anna about Alexander's progress in learning English. She characteristically raised her eyes to the ceiling, sighed loudly and leaned back with an amused expression.
Anna showed us photographs of their family and friends in albums and on their Russian DVD player. The subject moved to Alexander's peacekeeping role. He had photographs of his fellow peacekeeping soldiers from two other distant parts of the world. He mentioned that his unit used a T70. "Don't you mean a T72 ?", I said thinking of the famous Soviet battle tank. But no, he showed us a 3 second video clip of himself rotating the heavy machinegun or cannon inside the T70 armoured vehicle. He proudly showed this again and again.
Alexander was a Transnistrian citizen born and bred. That he was a Russian soldier in the Russian part of the international peace keeping force would have raised eyebrows in the western media. A BBC correspondent interviewing him would have asked him where his loyalties lay. But that would have partly missed the point. Had Alexander been born in St Petersburg, his motivation and actions may have been little different in a crisis. Indeed had he witnessed the chaos and destruction of war in his own province he might have been more willing to put up his hands. Alexander made it clear to us that he strongly believed in peacekeeping. He combined that view with a love of all things military ! Anna showed us pictures of firework celebrations in Tiraspol. I was struck with her genuine sense of pride for Transnistria. Years ago Anna had signed up to study Romanian in her home town of Baltsi. She felt she was being discriminated against and had moved to study at Tiraspol University.
As a parting present, I gave Anna a detailed and well illustrated book covering the best of English heritage.
It was now dark and Alexander offered to guide us out of Tiraspol. As we approached a crossroads, I asked for directions. Alexander said: "left, right". "Make up your mind !" I said. It turned out he didn't know the English for straight ahead. He hoped I would understand. We dropped him off on the main road back to Bender and said goodbye.
Throughout the day everyone had clearly enjoyed themselves. There was always a natural sense of ease, comfort and good humour which I came to associate with Moldovan people. The only occasional arguments had been between me and Liliana. In England an observer might have said to Liliana and me: "are you married ?!" That's a typical piece of English tongue in cheek humour for you.
Soroca and Nadina
A few miles outside Soroca is "The Candle", a tall monument with a chapel inside it finished in 2004. From its balcony, the observer can see beautiful views of the Nistru river valley around Soroca with the Ukraine on the other side. It is very attractive when the skies are clear.
The Candle was built to celebrate the efforts of those Moldovans or Moldavians who attempted to preserve Moldova's culture and identity in very adverse circumstances. Its completion was timed to coincide with the fiftieth anniversary of the ending of the Second World War and all its misery and destruction.
The poorest country in Europe spared no expense on its construction. Had it been appropriately sited in Western Europe it would have become a major tourist attraction.
Sergiu and a friend of his directed me to this place in the darkness. They took the hire car and left me with Nadina. They knew I would co-operate and that in this situation Nadina was safe with me. We would have a chat and then walk down the 600 steps from the monument to where Sergiu and his friend would be waiting in the car by the Nistru. I will say this for the Moldovans. Whatever they do, whatever the situation, they handle it with style. It was a lovely warm summer night and we were completely alone. I could sympathise with Nadina's situation. She had to look after herself and her 15 year old brother. Both of them depended on her father working in the Czech Republic as an underpaid builder worker. He was probably "an illegal". Nadina had said that he and his work colleagues paid in advance for several weeks accommodation. Their money was taken but the accommodation was withheld. They were defrauded. The situation of Moldovans working abroad is often difficult and painful.
Were her father to become sick or be unable to find work, he wouldn't even be able to support himself let alone his two children. Money arrived irregularly and Nadina had a precarious existence. It was a test of her courage and resourcefulness. The Candle was partly a testimony to the bravery of Moldovans caught up in the Second World War. Unwilling participants and victims of the global ambitions of brutal dictators. To me it was clear that Moldovans thought they should face their fears and life's challenges with the very best of their own style. The value placed on this belief was well expressed by "The Candle".
We leaned on the balcony railings and looked at the snake of the Nistru gleaming in the moonlight. I spoke and Nadina collapsed in laughter on the railings. "I could tell you were frightened when you ran after your luggage" she said. We had a brief discussion and agreed things. We headed down the many steps to the car waiting below. I was in all their hands.
I woke up early on my second morning in Moldova. I was on a sofa bed similar to the one I'd slept on the night before and I'd slept well. I decided to film from the balcony of the flat with my camcorder. Liliana and her mother had slept in the neighbouring room. Liliana's mother saw me and tried to rouse her daughter. I could hear muffled groans as I stood by the lounge door. I wondered how long it had been since either of them had experienced such an event filled day.
The drama hadn't finished after we reached their block of flats. After some anxious moments finding a place just outside the local car compound, we then had a plumbing emergency. I went to the toilet to find a bowl of water with a shower attachment in it, overflowing onto the tiles. "Flood, flood" I shouted and they came running. The authorities switched off the water every day between 11pm and 6am. It was about 10:30pm when we'd finished our brief evening snack and there was then a lot of activity in the bathroom and toilet cubicles. "What happens if you want to go to the toilet after 11pm" I asked. Liliana smiled and choking back her laughter, said: "You take a walk in the field". She was lovingly cleaning items from my toilet bag over which shampoo had leaked. She had insisted on doing this.
I was shown a large round cylinder in the bath full of water. It looked like the kind of container used to cook food for many people. Liliana apologised that the water was only lukewarm. I washed myself sitting in the bath in a squat position.
As I got out of bed that Sunday morning, I looked around me. Despite only having two main rooms and a kitchen, the flat was big. In England, the same space would have been used to create two or even three bedrooms. After 9 O'Clock, Liliana appeared and we had breakfast. I filmed them with the camcorder. I decided to phone my wife Barbara. I had two prepay mobile phones with me. One had ?44 worth of calltime. The other ?20. I dialled using the one with ?44 on it. Barbara was very worried. Why hadn't I phoned before ? Despite this I kept the call down to a just a few minutes. I was astounded to see there was only ?11 left on it ! This must have been because I was phoning from Transnistria. I knew immediately I now had a serious problem. That was the last call Barbara received from me in Moldova.
I wanted a quieter day myself so we just went to Bender on the bus and had a look around. I deliberately left the cameras behind. There was a large covered marketplace with lines of identical weighing machines. We went into an electrical shop where I saw some very cheap cookers and washing machines.
Then we went into the Orthodox Church where there were many old people. Old women backed out of the church, crossing themselves and sometimes bumped into each other without noticing. Each appeared to be on their own personal mission of salvation.
We returned for lunch which contained a huge variety of things. They were nearly all vegetables but there was a great variety by UK standards. In the UK, a typical meal is often what is known as "a meat and two veg.". I had to refuse a lot of what was offered because the quantity was too much. I said: "I am on a diet and honestly my stomach has shrunk. I just can't eat all of this". Liliana said "we usually have five course meals here". I replied, "I try to keep my food intake down to 1,800 calories and 30 grams of fat a day. The packets people buy from the supermarkets have the calorie and fat contents listed on them". Liliana laughed: "you will be fat when you leave Moldova.". The irony of the situation was not lost on either of us.
We sat down in the lounge after lunch. Time was pressing as we had to get back to Chisinau for Natalie's birthday. I had told Natalie I would be there no later than 5pm. I handed over a water filter I'd brought for them. They had to filter the water which came out of the tap. They didn't say how they did it. We talked. Liliana translated parts of the conversation for her mother. I described my first contacts with Moldovan penfriends. I was amazed at how open and honest the responses were.
It gladdened my heart. The
first email responses were on November 24th from Liliana and Irina who came
to the party. Liliana had typed:
"Our people are very friendly, very hospitable, intelligent, sensitive to others needs. Our country is beautiful, especially in the summer (this is my favourite season), it has a lot of sunflower fields, forests, hills (I am quite romantic), though it is poor."
Irina had said her mother was a paediatrician who treated the Prime Minister's (V.Tarlev) two daughters. She gave her mother's very low salary and listed the cost of their main outgoings. She added:
"Maybe I shouldn't have told you all this, but this is the way we live.
Still I love my country, it's small, but beautiful, it's a green country. We have a lot of trees in Chisinau, so it's beautiful during the four seasons we have: spring, summer, autumn and winter. We have interesting customs for the national holidays. But we also celebrate some of the international holidays, such as Halloween or Valentine's Day."
I told Liliana about Irina's
mother being a doctor and an email I had from another penfriend This girl described
in detail a problem she had with her reproductive organs and added: (I have
corrected some of the English).
"They did some analysis and after two weeks they will give me the answer. I am very scared, and all the nights I am crying, because I want to be a good mother to 3 children. Sorry for my letter, but no-one knows about this. If my mother will know she will die, she loves me very much. My friends are only friends, and I am alone."
I sent the full details to
Irina and passed on her answer. The problem was easily and inexpensibly curable.
The young lady replied:
Thanks for being such a good and kind man with a girl which you never saw." This was one of a few medical problems which my penfriends described to me with amazing candour. The nature of these problems often seemed to fit with symptoms of radiation sickness. That didn't have to be the cause of course and that thought would never have crossed my mind had I not read some articles on the internet about the effects of the Chernobyl disaster on people in Moldova. But it appeared to be a taboo subject. I quoted the English expression: "Is this the thing that dare not speak its name ?" Liliana then astounded me by describing what happened to her at the time of the Chernobyl disaster. In summary she had ended up very sick at home and hadn't eaten for a whole month. It sounded like she very nearly died. I asked her whether there had been any lasting effects. Liliana said: "Since Chernobyl, I don't have the same energy. I often get tired particularly in the afternoons". In the nineties she had gone on to learn English and French to a high standard and now "was working all the hours God gives" (English turn of phrase). The subject turned to the civil war. "What were you doing in May and June of 1992 ?" I asked remembering that Bender had seen the worst part of the fighting. "We were hiding in a cellar in a village for two days while it was being shelled" she said grimly. "Then we drove out in a car carrying a large white flag."
Back to Chisinau
There are some people whose ideal holiday is sunning themselves on a beach. Others prefer activity holidays, some of these can be quite adventurous and even include extreme sports. I like culturally enriched activity holidays in Western Europe. I like a bit of excitement and even some risk but I was to get much more of that than I expected in Moldova. It was a rollercoaster of a ride.
We went to the car compound and picked up the car where we had left it parked slightly outside but in sight of the sentry box. Liliana revealed that Alexander had advised us not to take the normal route out of Bender. The officials manning the customs post there that weekend were likely to be difficult. This was useful inside information. Also I had overstayed my 24 hours without reporting to a police station. On the internet it had said that people staying in Bender had to report to the police station at Varnitsa. The general view was that it wasn't such a problem for foreigners these days but I couldn't be sure of that. We weren't far from and would be getting close to Varnitsa, internationally reported as the scene of border protests and disturbances a few months previously.
Distance wise it was far quicker to travel across a heavily rutted route of a few hundred yards starting just yards from the car compound. It bypassed the customs post. But it became apparent why the authorities didn't think that was a likely prospect for car drivers. Liliana's mother was to accompany us across the few hundred yards. By now, I very much wanted a quiet time for a while.
We set off and the going was dreadful. Liliana thought that we should turn down a side route and then turn again. So we went down this slope. The underside of the car scraped against the mud. The car driven very carefully at a very slow walking pace lurched violently in all directions. Small crowds of people formed to watch the entertainment. We reached the bottom of the slope and looked across. There were big puddles of unknown depth. I thought about it and said it was too risky. It was bad enough trying to get a grip on the mud we were on. Added to this I had another problem. I had hurt my feet while running and they were recovering. It was an old established problem and I knew very well that too much tension in my feet would cause me a lot of problems. Yet aggressive juggling of the pedals was called for. As curious bystanders watched the idiots in the car, the conversations had become heated. Liliana insisted that we had to see it through to the other side. I thought of how she might have suffered in the past in Transnistria being a Moldovan citizen of Romanian descent. I felt like I wanted to explode.
Anyway, I turned the car round and we headed back up the slope. Sometimes the wheels lost their grip and the car slewed about. We made it back up to the top and carried on. The bottom of the car ground on the mud. I worried about the exhaust system and listened keenly for the sound of noises from the bottom of the car. Finally we made it out onto the main road. I stopped and nervously examined the bottom of the car which was caked in mud. It seemed fine. It was time to say goodbye to Liliana's mother and these weren't the best circumstances to do that. Liliana told me her mother had appreciated having me as a guest and I was most welcome to return. Given everything that had happened, all of us found that amusing. We parted company with warm smiles. Throughout, Liliana's mother had quietly and calmly enjoyed our adventures.
A few miles (or kilometres) up the road, I mentioned "the muddy track" we had passed over. "Road" said Liliana. "That is not a road", I said indignantly. "It's a Moldovan road" Liliana insisted.
We arrived at the Transnistrian border post and were waved through.
We then stopped by a sort of gazebo, where five Moldovan customs officers were crammed in. They wore smart black uniforms and were smiling as they talked to Liliana who was blushing. There was a slight testosterone charged tension but the atmosphere was good. I was interested in this process. It was now very warm and it was good to be out of the sun. I may have seemed relaxed and over interested as they told Liliana they thought I was a journalist. Apparently another journalist had visited the previous week. I wondered whether this was for the Guardian newspaper. On the plane, I'd looked over someone's shoulder and was surprised to see an article on Transnistria in the Guardian. When they left the paper behind, I picked it up and had given it to Anna. It wasn't a very informative article for people who have read about Transnistria. It used the usual expression: "a black hole". The Dutchman used those words as well. But how does that translate ? It really refers to its economic, political and legal situation. The journalist had recorded that one in three people in Transnistria were in uniform which I found unconvincing. I didn't see anyone in uniform in Transnistria which was disappointing. Perhaps that was because it was the weekend. Anyway, I gained the impression that the customs officers thought the more journalists that visited Transnistria the better. Their papers could only report how bad it was and give the customs men a laugh if the article was translated. The men in black thought Liliana was my interpreter but suggested something more than that…. "Make sure you get well paid for what you do", the senior officer kept on saying to her in Romanian.
On the road again, we saw children selling what looked like cherries by the side of the road. A flash of lights from a passing car and Liliana brightened up. I saw the Moldovan police pull over a slow moving white van on the opposite side of the road. The driver hadn't done anything wrong. It was completely arbitrary. However I remember reading how a young Moldovan girl forced into prostitution used such a situation to escape from her brutal pimp and indirectly help other victims of this man.
We drove through Chisinau without incident. Liliana said she wished she could drive. We arrived outside the Donets's block of flats without making any false turns. I looked at the bottom of the car. The potholes had shaken off nearly all the mud.
The Donets's had decided to postpone Natalie's birthday party. This was due to some issue connected with her grandfather. I started filming with my camcorder. The atmosphere was sombre. This was partly due to me wearing the badge and Russian Army cap. The badge wasn't a regimental badge. It celebrated the Transnistrian army's "victory" in defending its homeland in the civil war. I had no idea. Mr Donets was a Russian by origin but as he had emphasised on my previous stay, he was Moldovan. His view of the situation was that under the Soviet system people had choices but few people would help you. "Comrade you can choose this option or that option". But if one choice might most likely lead to prosperity and good fortune and the other the equivalent of falling down a black hole, often no guidance would be given. In post Soviet Moldova, people will help you but if you think the Soviet system was such a good thing, then you may not need his advice.
I was surprised by such an unusual though logical perspective. We sat down to eat. Natalie's mobile rang and she handed it to me. I responded to the voice. "Are you Ana or Anna or Anea ?" I asked spelling out the first names and giving several surnames. I was aware of smiling faces around me. It was Ana and she would arrive in an hour's time.
After the meal it was time to say goodbye to Liliana. We would meet up the following day. Mr Donets and myself took the car to the compounds as before. The second one was now full too. However Mr Donets suggested parking the car in an unofficial car parking spot next to it which was also a building site. As we approached another sentry box only yards from the one we'd come from, we were met by two nasty looking dogs. I was to see that type again. They stuck their long snouts forward and one bared all its sharp looking teeth. Mr Donets walked passed them in a relaxed manner as they growled aggressively and circled him. Occasionally the dominant one would threaten the other one which scampered away. Mr Donets returned and said genially: "Yes, you can park here". I asked the obvious question about security and he gave me his typical shrug and non committal response. I had to decide. The dogs had already made their point and gave me less trouble as I handed over a few lei.
As we walked back towards the first sentry box, Mr Donets said: "the difference between them is that one pays taxes and the other does not".
Back at the apartment, Mr Donets showed me his British football team memorabilia. There was a smart plaque placed on their lounge wall with the emblems of famous English football clubs. I had to admit that sadly I was one of a minority in England who didn't follow these things. The subject moved to relations between Moldova and Russia. I mentioned what had happened to Nadina's cousin but suggested the Russians were usually fair in employing Moldovans as building workers in Moscow. Mr Donets responded that if Russians were paid $600 a month, Moldovans were often paid $300 a month. When it was time to pay them, they might be killed. They might be incorporated into the concrete structure of the building they were working on.
It was time to meet Ana. Natalie and myself stood outside the apartment block in near darkness.
To nearly every young lady who approached I said: "Ana ?" Whenever I turned round, Natalie was desperately trying not to grin. But I was very keen not to miss my visitor due to a misunderstanding. After a while Natalie made a brief comment almost choking with laughter. I shut up.
Shortly afterwards a young lady approached from an unexpected direction. Natalie had read her body movements and moved towards her. Yes it was Ana.
We went upstairs and in the lobby of the flat the lady introduced herself as Elena. I was confused. I had given contact details to so many young ladies, I thought Ana would now turn up and be missed. Elena looked disappointed. I put my hand on her shoulder and said we were pleased to have her. She looked unconvinced. As Liliana had explained, Moldovans are so used to disappointment that they expect things to go wrong. I realised that Ana was in fact Elena. All three of us went to my room. Tea and cakes were brought in very quickly. I pointed my camcorder at them and pushed the "record" button.
On the Monday morning I found myself walking to Natalie's Russian school to meet the pupils and the teacher there.
In February, Natalie and myself had agreed that I would visit at the end of May. That coincided with Natalie's 16th birthday and the end of her school term which was a convenient time to visit her school. Also I wanted somewhere to stay and wondered whether it was possible to stay at their flat. I wanted to stay in as many places as possible. Although this didn't fit in well with Moldovan registration requirements, I knew that some of my penfriends had different registered addresses from those in which they lived. They had to keep changing their accommodation to find affordable places to stay as rent took a very large part of their income and kept on rising.
It was a nice fresh morning when we walked through a lightly wooded area to the Aleco Russo school in Riscani. The school was clean and freshly painted. It was light, airy and spacious. I was introduced to the English language schoolteacher, Mrs Alla Rubanka.
With typical Moldovan candour she immediately told me she was caring for her husband who had "suffered an insult while working in Moscow". Mrs Rubanka's English was of a very high standard but she meant "assault". Or did she ? English has a marvellous quality of being ambiguous and having words of similar sounds and similar meanings. Foreigners are often afraid of not speaking English correctly. But in fact unlike the French, we like to see how foreigners use our language. The unusual use of English is a regular comedy theme.
We have an established way of expressing things. Some of our expressions date back over a hundred years. There are turns of phrase with historical causes that 9 out of 10 English people don't know about. Take basic English and use it properly taking no account of the way we use it and how it has developed and it's easy to understand. That's fine by us. Also many English people love to hear and read foreigners mangle our language. I personally get endless pleasure from it. But although it may be hard for foreigners to believe it, English people are laughing with them not at them. The way that foreigners use our language to make a point is often very revealing of their true nature. It's also often a fair use of our words. Like a typical Englishman I'm hopeless at learning languages and I hope I'm not a hypocrite. So if a Moldovan can speak English at all, they're smarter than me. If they're much smarter but also much poorer that's because it's not a fair world and never will be.
The morning went very well. Early on I was surprised by Mrs Rubanka tucking my shirt in for me. It had been decades before that the last person had done this for me, probably my mother. She took good care of me and insisted on treating me in the canteen. There was a very good atmosphere in the school. The children were obviously happy. What struck me most was the amount of affectionate pushing and shoving. I had never seen anything like it. Boy with boy, boy with girl, girl with girl. Natalie however avoided this and temperamentally it wasn't her style I guessed. Sometimes during the morning in breaks between lessons, children would pile on one another. All this good natured behaviour put me at my ease and on the video that was taken I am seen to be very relaxed. I didn't get the feeling I was boring these children. I saw a number of different classes. The children were bright, positive, confident and knew enough English to talk to me. They would leave their things lying around trusting they would be safe. Mrs Rubanka insisted on giving me a guide for the rest of the day. This was tall Andrei. He patiently, diligently and intelligently helped me with all my requirements. But what followed was four hours of pure farce. Still at the end of it, my luggage was booked into Tamara's (Marisha's next door neighbour in Ciocana district), I had a new mobile phone with the Voxtel service on it and I expected to see Irka, Olga and Ana at La Taifas at 7pm.
I still wanted to sort out the arrangements for a party to be hosted by me at 129 Columna Street on Saturday at 5pm. This place had been found by Stefana. I had asked all my penfriends for details of bed and breakfast places. Only Stefana came up with any kind of non hotel accommodation.
"Bed and breakfast" may be a foreign term to Moldovans but that possibility didn't cross my mind until early May when Inka explained the situation in Baltsi. In the UK, there are many "B & Bs". The case for them is undeniable. The fact is that when you get up and start the day, you will not be very effective unless you've had something to eat. It makes perfect sense to have that meal in the place you've spent the night in. In England that breakfast is usually "The Full English (Breakfast)". The main part consists of bacon, eggs, sausages, fried mushrooms, baked beans or tinned tomatoes and usually fried bread. In an email exchange with Inka I said that I would be happy to have whatever Moldovans normally have for breakfast. I was keen to know what that was. The initial result was a confusing email exchange. Finally light dawned and I got a sense or reminder of what life was really like in Moldova. The accommodation that Stefana found had a sauna and perhaps another large room. She gave me the name of the person to pay but omitted to mention that he was Italian and was just introducing the property to me. His fee might depend on what I booked (or what I thought I was booking). I also found out later that he depended on an occasionally employed translator. Stefana sent me photographs of the property but the position became confused. I had paid a lot of Euros (by Moldova standards). I wanted hard facts and a clear agreement but the Italian introducer gave me sales hype which suggested he wanted more money.
There was a further aspect. Many Britons are distrustful of the Italians. Of European Union funds stolen in corruption rackets, most is stolen by Italians, especially the mafia. I have worked with Italian males and dealt with Italian companies and often been unimpressed. (Interestingly, I've found Italian women to be very trustworthy and confidential). It was now mid May and I asked Stefana to intervene personally at 129 Columna. Perhaps unwisely I added the following extract I had just received from Inka in Baltsi. (Stefana was from Baltsi). I hadn't discussed Italians with Inka.
"Company that heats our flats in winter is owned by some Italians. Yes, the service did become better, but... the bills. The bills are higher than our salaries. An average person makes about 700 lei. Only bill for one month of winter central heating is 600. Now you can be sure, we have fun spending money here. :)
The other sewing company is also owned by some Italians. First people work at night and day. Second, their salary is nothing, just nothing. Third, not a single item of clothing sewed by this company is sold in Moldova, everything is exported. So you see, Italians do not care about people here."
On the eve of me leaving for Moldova, Stefana apologised and said her Italian boyfriend wanted her to leave for Italy at that time. I had accommodation booked at 129 Columna. I had a party booked there with up to 20 people turning up but no food had been sorted out. I wasn't sure whether the owner and cook spoke Russian or Romanian. I knew she didn't speak any English.
Sitting with Andrei in the car at about 4:30pm, I decided to phone Stefana in the vague hope she may not have left Moldova after all. She answered. She was in Chisinau but I knew that she lived and worked in the southeastern part of Chisinau. But no, she had just started a new job at the Agrobank in Riscani. She was also free that evening. I couldn't believe my luck. After an abortive search at the "wrong Agrobank", Andrei and myself found the right building. We were 20 minutes late but Stefana had waited for us. We would go to 129 Columna together. First though, I rang Liliana. I wanted her to be involved too and she agreed. At this point Andrei rang his parents who wanted him home. I was enormously grateful for his help but he refused to accept anything in return. Stefana and I drove to the Baptist Theological College. On the way, we went over a relatively small pothole and there was a crash in the car. I swore. Stefana laughed. The stereo had fallen out ! Stefana revealed that Barbara had phoned her. I guessed from what she said that Barbara must have been in an agitated state. I had in fact emailed all my contact details and a detailed timetable to William (as he sat next to me) before I left. But omitted to tell him I'd done so. It was only towards the end of my holiday that he found it. In the meantime Barbara had obtained some details from Marisha and phoned a few of these lovely sounding girls… "Where's my husband, Eddie…"
It was after 6pm when we turned up at 129 Columna. Galina, the owner was in. Galina was an excellent cook and we had previously agreed a fixed price for her to cook an English buffet. I produced a list which had been translated into Russian. Galina was a Romanian Moldovan. We now had to explain to her how to produce an English buffet. The problem was I couldn't cook anything to save my life (as we say). I had to communicate what I thought I wanted and answer Galina's questions via Liliana and Stefana.
We had very little time if we were to get to La Taifas on time. Added to this I was still suspicious. So for example when Galina wanted to know how many kilograms of each meat I wanted, I proverbally put on my accountant's hat. (That is my profession). Again and again I responded that she was the cook, the price was fixed and I trusted her judgement. I have to say that everyone handled this cheerfully and competently. Although I left the place in an anxious mood, I was worrying needlessly. As a hostess, Galina well exceded my expectations and we had a lot of laughs together. Her establishment carries my strongest recommendations. After all their invaluable help, I invited Liliana and Stefana to La Taifas restaurant. We arrived after 7:20pm (19:20). Irka, Olga and Ana had waited for us.
Dinner at La Taifas restaurant
We sat down and looked at
the menu. There was live traditional Moldovan music. I got up to film the five
girls with my camcorder and take some photos.
Irka said: "Olga and I are very good friends". "But" she added "we argue a lot". They cast each other friendly but mischievous glances.
"Have you got boyfriends ?" I asked. "Of course" they both replied cheerfully together (as if it was a silly question).
"Are you both going to get married at the same time ?" I asked and saw Liliana smiling broadly on my right.
They both reacted as if they thought this was a slightly wicked question (which it was).
"No" replied Irka smiling.
Ana said: "I haven't got a boyfriend". "Of course you have", I said. "It's errr…your cousin". "It's a Chinaman", said Ana sweetly.
We made our way through five courses of traditional Moldovan food including Mamaliga. I wanted to know how this was made but immediately forgot what I was told as I was getting very drunk.
I believed I'd read that La Taifas was the most expensive or second most expensive restaurant in Moldova. I'd spent ten years with other committee members of our local Institute branch (Chartered Secretaries) helping to organise local dinners and other events. The bill I received was the equivalent cost of two good three course dinners without wine in an inexpensive restaurant. The six of us each had five courses with extras and a few bottles of the best Moldovan wine. It was a wonderful evening. I ended up at Tamara's flat but I can't remember exactly how. I know at least Liliana helped me.
English classes at the lyceum "P. Zadnipru" at Ciocana
On Tuesday morning, I had to get to the Romanian school. Marisha said that Tamara would help me. I had discussed this briefly with Tamara when I'd moved my luggage in the previous day. Tamara was a Russian lady in her fifties who was a bit exasperated with the world. Her husband was an engineer who couldn't get work and that was bad enough. But she was more exasperated with me. Her English was very minimal but as she got to know me, she loosened up and said many more things in English. I would say "Marisha said…" "Mareesha say" she repeated holding up her hands in the air and looking upwards as if Marisha hadn't told her the full story. Her husband had arranged for us to be transported part way down the straight Milescu Spataru road to this school but no vehicle arrived. More exasperation for her but as always accompanied by a half smile. We ended up in a maxitaxi and Tamara insisted on paying. I never learned what lay behind that smile. Perhaps it was a reaction to me grinning most of the time.
Anyway, I found myself in the Petru Zadnipru school where I had to ask to see Inga Magaluc who was a friend of Marisha.
I wondered what is different about Romanian children compared to Russian children ? I didn't think there would be a great difference because I expected the Russians to be so different from us Europeans and often they weren't. Russian males often have a pronounced facial bone structure but most of the girls could pass themselves off as Western Europeans. I stood in the foyer watching and like the Russian school there was a very warm and friendly buzz. It was nice just standing there and watching so many happy faces. Inga said her English was limited so she introduced me to Mr Shimeket who was a black teacher ! (I only saw one other black person in Chisinau). His English was good. I was then taken to the headmistress's office. So far so good. I sat down at the end of a long table with a coffee. There were staff on either side. The headmistress spoke to me using a blonde lady as an interpreter. The blonde lady only spoke to me after the headmistress had spoken to her in Romanian.
There was a brief introduction
during which I explained (in response to an enquiry) that I had 15 female penfriends
in Moldova but added: "they are all just friends".
Blonde lady: "We would like you to help us exchange students with schools in England".
E: "I will make enquiries but it's not my area. I've never been involved with schools".
Bl: "Our headmistress asks for your help with the exchange of students".
E: (shrugging shoulders) "I'm an accountant. I don't have any real connections with schools in England. But I will try and help you"
Bl: "Our headmistress wants to know how you can help us arrange for English students to stay with good families here and have our students stay with families in England".
E: (looking and sounding very annoyed) "I've told you I will make enquiries. In fact these things can take years to organise. You have to take them step by step by step. I will look at helping you with the very first steps". (accompanying hand movements "to step by step by step").
Bl: (very expressively and with a concerned expression) "M-i-s-t-e-r E-d-d-i-e, p-l-e-a-s-e don't be a-n-g-r-y with us. We want some help to give our students some good experience in your country".
E: (alarmed, silent and worried)
Bl: "The headmistress says: "We have very nice girls here that I'm sure your boys will like". (suggestive looks from the headmistress).
E: "In the UK, we have very strict anti discrimination legislation. Any exchange would have to contain about the same number of boys as girls".
Bl: (expressed as before) "M-i-s-t-e-r E-d-d-i-e, p-l-e-a-s-e don't be a-n-g-r-y with us. We are against discrimination. We have a black teacher here."
E: "I'll do my best to look into this for you."
I was in a state of mental turmoil. My first thought was how very unMoldovan this was. Then I thought it must have been like that in the Soviet system. You are asked a question by someone in authority. If you give the "wrong answer", then they start: "comrade…", asking the same question again. Then perhaps again, "comrade…" I thought, I'm British and we don't put up with this kind of thing but then I didn't want my visit to end there and then.
Anyway, it was with great
relief and pleasure that I was shown around the rest of the school. To start
with, a beaming young girl showed me their museum. This contained ancient Moldovan
artefacts. I nearly asked whether they were still using those types of implements
in parts of Moldova ! Like at the Russian school, I met many Moldovan children
who spoke English well. Their style was a bit more gentle and also bursting
with enthusiasm. The photograph taken in the class says it all. I can still
feel the warm glow when I look at it. I got to know Mr Shimeket and the blonde
lady who introduced herself as Zina. Mr Shimeket had a fascinating story to
tell. He took me into the large staff room and we talked.
E: "Well, I have to ask the obvious question. How did you come to work here ?"
S: "I was a student in my own country, Ethiopia. I did a bad thing. I was studying for my degree and the authorities suspended me for a year. My parents were concerned that it would affect my education. At the time Ethiopia was under Soviet influence. So I was sent to the Soviet Union. I got married and you have seen my teenage daughter."
E: "You are now a Moldovan citizen ?".
S: "No I'm not. I'm Ethiopian. The Moldovan authorities wouldn't let me have dual nationality. The problem is that I can't confirm my Ethiopian citizenship without going back to Ethiopia and I can't afford to do that."
E: "But your daughter is a Moldovan citizen ?"
S: "Yes she is. I can't deny what I am. You can see I'm an Ethiopian".
I went to another class. Along the way I was directed by one of the cleaning ladies who are a prominent feature of that school. It was a fascinating communication system. These mainly plump middle aged ladies leaned on their mops to keep the floors gleaming but they also passed on messages. I turned up on a floor and was strangely drawn to place a hand on one of these ladies shoulders. She didn't mind. But then there was a lot of touching of arms and guiding people physically. There was something very comfortable and reassuring about how people operated in that school. I wanted to absorb this atmosphere. Later on I saw one of these ladies telling off a boy who was late for class. He cowed his head in shame. It was bizarre. In the West, where huge amounts of money are spent on expensive communication systems this Moldovan system probably works much better. No-one can go anywhere without passing these ladies and they are well informed. They are one of my lasting images of Moldova.
After school, I had a snack lunch with Mr Shimeket and Zina in a nearby cafe. It was hot all day and it would be hot for the rest of my stay. I would have been very surprised if I had known that I was to run to that cafe after 10pm that evening in a very sweaty state and shout "Zina" over and over again while Moldovan bystanders regarded me strangely. I spent the early part of the afternoon discussing things with my stateless Ethiopian friend. It was mainly about me contributing a small amount of money every month so that the school could have internet access. It had been my suggestion, not his. But he greeted it readily. I also pointed out that the school needed its own internet site if it expected to be taken seriously. Along with a contact email address it was a vital requirement if they wanted to be properly considered for a student exchange programme.
We saw Zina who was rushing but wanted me to tell her the details later on. So I took her telephone number and agreed to phone after 10pm. Zina worked at the University and was also doing a degree course there. It was a typical Moldovan thing to do. Everyone in Moldova was rushing around, working and/or studying hard. Liliana told me she had to do three jobs to pay for the bare essentials. It was so strangely different from what I imagined life would be like in Moldova when I first looked into it in November. The tiny amount of coverage I had seen on television and the brief news articles suggested a very different picture. Moldovans had seemed to always live boring lives in total poverty in crumbling apartment blocks framed by forests. It was as if people had been inserted in places unnaturally against nature. They were the surviving sons and daughters of desperate survivors. Living in a place where coaches would arrive to take out large numbers of very ignorant bored young girls to positions falsely, even tragically advertised as dancers or waitresses.
Later that afternoon I walked back to Tamara's apartment. I passed my car which was parked out in the sun next to a car compound on Milescu Spataru.
Prior to me leaving for Moldova, it had been arranged that I would have dinner with Ana Porumbrica at La Taifas that evening but she had cancelled two days previously. Ana was in the middle of her final exams. I phoned Doina but there was no answer. Doina was a friend of Irka but she had been too busy to see me on a previous occasion.
Doina lived on Moscovei. Natalie and I had wandered up and down Moscovei trying to find her apartment block only to discover that it was directly opposite where they lived ! But Moscovei is a wide main road.
Marisha phoned and said she
expected to be back at 6pm, so Tamara and myself chatted, went to the local
shop and had something to eat in her kitchen.
I discovered that Marisha and Tamara went back a long way (as we say).
I told her my story with the aid of her dictionary, pieces of paper and a pen. When she understood that I was married and had 15 female penfriends, she reacted strongly, waving her arms.
T: "These girls, your wife, she kill you !" ("kill" pronounced "keeeell"). Fired up, she then went on to tell me about her daughter.
T: "Daughter marry Frenchman, go Paris. He have affair, marriage finish. She go Moscow".
At the time of my visit, a non EU citizen marrying a French citizen would have to wait a year before being granted citizenship. It had struck me immediately that a small number of Frenchmen might take advantage of their new foreign wife's situation. Tamara's daughter was too proud to hang on for EU citizenship which many Russians prize so highly.
In April 2005, Barbara, William and myself had lunch in London with a Romanian lady (Moldavia province) and her French husband. She, Narcisa was in the UK on an English course and had been unemployed for five years. For this she blamed France's restrictive labour laws. In October I found myself sitting next to and working with Gabriela, also from Moldavia province. The other three nearest people to me were all immigrants. One was from Australia and two from Poland. A few months later, the fact that Britain welcomes foreign immigrants more than the French helped London win the 2012 Olympics. The whole world had expected Paris to win the bid to host the 2012 Olympics. In the closing hours, the British delegation presented a brilliantly effective video to foreign delegates pointing out just how friendly and helpful Britain is to foreign immigrants. Fellow citizens of these delegates had suffered worse treatment as immigrants in France. As the decision was read out, all the photographers were facing the French delegation. A BBC correspondent who had been given privileged inside access, joyfully told the story. He added the well worn phrase: "It's not over 'till it's over".
Marisha was later than expected so Tamara and myself chatted on, used her dictionary and drew more pictures. Finally at about 9pm, Marisha arrived. But she was in a hurry. She had a shower and we chatted while she was ironing with her hair wrapped up in a towel. She had to get back to a hotel in Chisinau where she was looking after two nice Englishmen. Marisha seemed to attract a lot of "nice Englishmen". I emailed her before and after my holiday and often received an automatic pre-prepared email response saying she was away for a few days. Usually this said she was showing one or two "nice Englishmen" around Moldova, eastern Romania or Russia. Her website was open to the world but she only attracted the best people…!
I phoned Zina about 10pm and got directions but couldn't find her apartment. Typically the apartment blocks weren't labelled. It had been agreed that she would wait outside her apartment at 10:15. I was late even though I ran. Zina wasn't there. I shouted out her name over and over again. There were loads of people hanging around. Eventually a Moldovan woman told me off. I ran back and phoned. I was annoyed. I ran back again. I was dripping in sweat. The following morning when I picked up the shirt it had huge white sweat stains on it. I used to run four and a quarter miles every Saturday morning in 32 minutes and my T shirts never got into that state ! It was after 11pm and I saw Zina waiting near the cafe. I continued running up to her in a flat footed way to protect my feet. She smiled. We went to her apartment. I sat down about a foot from her on her sofa. We talked while her children, Rita aged 19 and Sandu, 15 listened attentively.
Zina told me she thought she
had given me good directions.
E: (still out of breath) "All these apartment blocks look all the same. They're so anonymous. They are not labelled at all."
Z: "I told you it was the third one along"
E: "Third one from what, third one from where ? Also do you think that I as a stranger and a foreigner in a country like this am going to go into an unlit apartment block at 11 O'Clock at night with all those youths hanging around outside ?"
We discussed the possibility
of the school gaining internet access. Zina's role was to be a translator again
for a conversation I was to have with the headmistress the following morning.
Mr Shimeket had set up the meeting. We agreed details. Zina then changed the
Z: "M-i-s-t-e-r E-d-d-i-e, how can I support my children ?" (She said this with a cheerful wail). She smiled wryly and jiggled her body. I was amazed, intrigued, amused and slightly annoyed all at the same time.
E: "I'm not going to tell you how to live your life".
Z: "But Mr Eddie, you have seen so much, you have travelled the world". Again she smiled and made a flirtatious gesture.
E: "I don't know anything about this country".
Z: "But you know so much".
At that point, I smiled back and grabbed her hand. She pulled away from me with a hurt expression. It was a most surprising move on my part. I had never done anything like it before. However while in Moldova, I was determined "to get to the bottom of things" in the little time I had. That is not a rude expression. It simply means to find out everything. I had the feeling that Zina was talking through me or at me and not to me. She was also like a person on a stage telling her grievances to the world. (Her daughter later won a prize for acting ). I was the person to address because I was important to her. I was the first English person she had met. I was a representative of a foreign country who could help her. I was more of those things than Eddie Barton. Yet Zina combined her enquiry with an expression of her complex femininity. As I said to her cheerfully in a later email: "you are so wonderfully foreign !" As she came to know me later on, I became Eddie Barton to her. When it was time to leave, she showed me out. I assumed she would carry on walking with me and took her hand when we'd walked 10 or more yards up the road. She pulled away again. I swung around to face her a few feet away and held up my left hand. We smiled at each other, said goodnight and went our separate ways.
Second day at P. Zadnipru school
I was awoken about 3 O'Clock in the morning by someone moving around in my room. The odd thing about my room at Tamara's was I couldn't close the door because another bed in it stuck out too far. Strangely I wasn't too bothered about this night time activity. It appeared that somebody else had turned up but was sleeping elsewhere. They needed the mattress and bed coverings. They made as little noise as possible and departed. From my reading, I had learned that many Russians have a different attitude to privacy and nudity. Different from Western and especially English attitudes that is. For example, in the book "Lost Province" already referred to, the Canadian author stayed with a Russian family in Chisinau. They were very strict about boys and girls being left alone together. However males and females would walk about in a state of undress, sometimes nude as they hurriedly looked for their clothes in the morning. Tamara's husband sometimes passed me in his underpants. He didn't seem to mind me talking to his wife for several hours.
I headed off for the Petru Zadnipru school again. I was nervous of meeting the headmistress again. Although I was always a bit anxious while I was in Moldova, I was rarely afraid. There was something comfortable and even comforting about the atmosphere. I looked at the apartment blocks on that hot morning. They were arranged with green spaces in between. Under trees and by large bushes, people chatted and children played. About the former Soviet Union and apartment blocks, there is a story that always makes me smile when I think about it. A very drunk Russian headed for his flat. He found the right floor and the right flat number. He entered, went to the bed which he shared with his wife in the usual place. He did what most men do with their wives (even if very drunk perhaps !) and went to sleep. He woke up to find himself in serious trouble. He wasn't in his apartment. How was that ? Well, unfortunately all the apartment blocks arranged in rows, looked the same as were the areas between them. The poor woman who lived in the flat said she was too terrified to fight him off. But he had a good defence to the charge of rape brought against him. It was an easy mistake to make. Something which could have happened to any man… The judge didn't think so and sent him to prison for many years.
The headmistress was delayed and I was shown into the Deputy Headmistress's office by Mr Shimeket. I was surprised to learn that she was his wife. I was offered an expensive sachet of coffee with hazelnut flavouring served in a beautiful china cup. The headmistress was on other urgent business. I explained to Zina and Mr Shimeket that I had to be back at the flat at 10am to see Irina "Blondira" and after that I would drive straight to Soroca. Mr Shimeket had given me insights into the administrative issues and requirements of trying to give their school an internet connection. However although he knew a lot, we both discovered that he didn't have the full complex picture. The headmistress arrived and the meeting went much more smoothly than the previous day. Unfortunately, the amounts required to deal with all the bureaucratic and technical requirements were far in excess of my offer. It was most disappointing. I could see how people trying to get anything done in Moldova suffer endless frustrations.
I arrived back at Tamara's
flat at 10am. I hadn't finished packing and was slightly relieved that Irina
hadn't arrived. I was rushing when she turned up with a friend called Val. Like
Irina, he was Russian. She was a beautiful blonde lady in her mid thirties.
She was a self employed accountant like me. In the weeks before I left for Moldova,
I had looked forward to her showing me around Chisinau. I thought she would
be on her own. Val was a tourist guide. They both took my luggage down to Val's
Lada hatchback. I said goodbye to Tamara. She had become worn out by me going
backwards and forwards into her flat.
Smiling Tamara said: "Eddie Barton, go away and don't come back !"
Did she mean it ? I think she half meant it !
We transferred my luggage into the boot of my hire car which was baking hot in the sun still outside the car compound.
We headed off in Val's Lada. I was given a five star tour of Chisinau. Val concentrated mainly on the historical buildings and monuments but pointed out all the major buildings in Chisinau. Irina and I took some pictures and did some filming. He certainly knew his history well. He also had an unusual view of Russian connections and involvement in Moldavia from medieval times. Val explained that members of the ruling Besserab tribe had entered into many marriages with important Russian families. I can't remember the many other details he gave me. But he charted Russian connections with Besserabia / Moldavia over hundreds of years. Six months later and after such a wait, I finally took delivery of "The Moldovans" by Charles King. This American Assistant Professor was part funded by Oxford University to produce the most authoritative examination of Moldova and its history. I read that the Russians played a major role in Moldova's history, particularly in the 19th century. Censuses at the end of the 19th and 20th centuries showed Russians and Ukrainians accounting for 27% of the total population.
Val took us to a number of Jewish monuments. At one he gravely announced how many Jews had been murdered by Moldavians because of some crazy rumour. I interrupted him with the details which I had previously read. I added that it was nothing compared to the number of Jews murdered in England under similar circumstances. Perhaps that was the wrong thing to say ! Val then described how many houses had also been destroyed. However I had and have the feeling that Moldovans sometimes apologise too much. As if their country is strangely different from other countries and peoples. But perhaps it makes Moldovans even more courteous, kind and deferential hosts. It certainly didn't make them shy of talking to me ! Many Moldovans don't realise how much better their country is compared to others in some ways. One thing I dreaded before I came to Moldova was the sewers. I thought that a country as run down as Moldova would have a serious problem with sewerage. I had raised the problem a few times when talking to Liliana about properties. Unsurprisingly she didn't want to talk about it. On country properties she said: "every area makes its own arrangements". What did that mean ? On visits to France, the smell in some places was awful. One hotel at Boulogne on the channel coast stands out in my memory. Many beds in France reminded me of film footage of President Ceaucescu's bedroom the day after he was executed. There were two sad looking sunken beds either side of a rough looking wooden cabinet which had a large model metal Russian tank on top of it. Yet the Romanian President wasted massive sums of money building and rebuilding an ornate palace in the centre of Bucharest. Building it meant ripping up a significant section of Bucharest's sewerage system causing serious problems to this day. In my English eccentricity, I associate grotty sunken beds with poor sewerage systems. I never saw or smelt either in Moldova. But there aren't any grand palaces either…
I asked Val about his beard. Wasn't it unusual for a Russian to have a beard ? But he didn't think it was very unusual. He offered the opinion that the British and Americans were usually better tour visitors than the French and Germans. In describing the British and Americans, he like many Moldovans lumped us into one category. I was very quick to comment on that perception ! The French and Germans were more arrogant he thought. I could imagine that many Germans would not be happy with a Russian guide concentrating on Jewish monuments and attributing blame to the former German regime. Nazis were still Germans even given that most Germans are very sorry for what they did in the Second World War. Val confidently took us around Chisinau. He edged his Lada assertively across packed crossroads with the occasional curse or comment. I didn't think he was allowed to do what he was doing. But what did I know ?! I was so glad he was driving. Irina and Val were very entertaining. The only bad thing was the heat. However I think Moldova's climate is similar to our own. I believe it gets slightly hotter in summer and slightly colder in the winter. A few weeks later, the UK was as hot as it was on those days and stayed like that. Gabriela, the Moldavian lady I sat next to in October described winter conditions in Romania. Her English husband had got stuck, snowed under in an unheated railway carriage two years previously on Christmas Eve (December 24th). He was on the way to Gabriela's village. The temperatures dropped to minus 15 in a mountainous area. He was with other Romanians but didn't speak any Romanian himself. Gabriela indicated that he never intended to return to Romania again ! "Are the Romanians like the Russians in a situation like that. Do they huddle together ?" I asked. Gabriela's silent look suggested not.
In a Chisinau shop doorway, Irina squeezed passed a big woman. I was amazed. If she had waited one second this could have been avoided. For a fraction of a second there had been a wiggle between the two women as the space was so tight. As she pressed passed this large busted woman, a ghost of a smile passed Irina's face. I don't remember ever seeing such a thing before. The purpose of the shop visit was to see if there were any Moldova T shirts there. Val had been sceptical about such an idea. He was right. I have to say however that it should be done. How can a country believe in itself if it can't even offer national T shirts for sale ? How many other countries in the world does this apply to ? Very few I hope. Even if none were sold, the very act of displaying good Moldova T shirts would be a confident assertion of Moldova's separate identity.
We headed down Columna street
which I recognised.
V: "What do you think of Chisinau ?" We passed no.129, which I had visited.
E: "This place has real character. You don't want it to change".
V: (mishearing me as he reached the junction) "You don't like Chisinau ?" Val stopped to take the right turn towards Stefan Cel Mare street.
E: "Quite the opposite. I think you should preserve its unique character"
V: (sounding as if he thought I was crazy) "We need a lot more tourists here".
E: "They will spoil its character", I said, adding: "just more tourists for you, Val."
V: (sounding as before) "No, we need a lot more tourists here".
Suddenly Val announced he had to go. But he refused to accept any payment for his service which was annoying. It had been a very good tour. He disappeared quickly leaving me with Irina.
It was now lunchtime. Irina guided me by minibus to Riscani district. Not far from the Donets's apartment block was a restaurant. She guided me into a large deserted room partly below ground level. It was wonderfully cool. We ordered wine and I gulped it down. Irina was in no hurry to drink hers. Irina and Val had surprised me by not drinking anything on our tour. I had stopped, bought a large bottle of cold lemonade and almost pleaded with them to let me buy them a drink or drink something. But like Andrei they would not. I guess this is a Russian thing. Two and a half hours of not taking in liquid in 28 - 30 degree heat is not clever. The British Army used to believe you could train soldiers to do with little water by strict rationing of that sort. Now after some research, it encourages soldiers to drink more regularly.
I looked nervously across
at Irina in that lovely room. I wanted her to choose what we would eat. The
truth is I'm happy eating virtually anything but strong vegetables. I mainly
wanted a lot of wine. She didn't encourage that. In response to every request
another very small jug turned up. We made tentative conversation. Irina had
a strong steady look. Her face gleamed as if it had been made up for a television
appearance. Her expression gave nothing away, no hint to what she might say.
Her English was not as good as some other penfriends but when she spoke, she
was clear and exact.
I: "A lady phoned me and asked me about you." She smiled more: "I like people phoning me from abroad. She started speaking clearly. Then she spoke fast. I couldn't understand her".
I thought: "O'h God, I know what that means".
I ate the lovely food Irina recommended. When we came to settle the bill, she wanted to pay most if not all of it. "I have a successful business", she asserted happily and firmly. I pushed dollar, euro and lei notes in front of her. She pushed her notes forward and we moved them around. It was a bit of a game. Irina insisted on paying nearly half the bill. Despite my concern, we were both amused.
Irina guided me back to my car. By now, I could have managed it on my own but it was nice to have her with me. Irina and I went to the welcome shade of the compound's shack. She spoke to the two men there. I paid a few extra lei. Irina laid out my Chisinau map for the men to help guide me out towards Soroca and translated. I thanked her and said I looked forward to seeing her at the party on Saturday. We said goodbye. Anxiously I drove off for Soroca.
Soroca town. Hotel Nistru
I peeped around the corner at the Moldovan police car watching my car. It was at that point that the effect of not eating for several hours and sheer apprehension hit me hard. I got out my mobile phone and phoned Nadina.
E: "Nadina, it's Eddie. I
need your help. I'm in Soroca not far from the Moldcell building. My car is
facing the wrong way down what seems to be a one way system. I'm stuck here
because a police car is watching it. I had no indication it was a one way. I'm
sure there was no sign. Although I thought it might be, none of the people in
the street shouted or waved at me. A police car came round the corner and I
stopped immediately. They've been watching the car for at least 15 minutes now.
I need your help. I can't find the hotel Nistru. Can you come and help me please
N: "No I'm sorry. I can't do that".
E: "Look I really need your help. I've never been here in my life before. This place just seems to be one long road up and down a hill. I can't find the hotel and no-one speaks any English".
N: "Where are you ? I don't understand".
E: "As I said. I'm about 50 yards from the Moldcell offices. There can't be any other offices of that type in a place like this. It's at the bottom of the hill".
N: "Are you near the town centre ?"
E: "I haven't seen any centre. There are just a few shops scattered about."
N: "I thought you were coming tomorrow".
E: "I booked the hotel Nistru for tonight. Otherwise I would have had to get up very early to find the Cafe Dolce Vita by 11am".
N: "I will see you as agreed at 11 tomorrow"
E: "Well, I hope I'll manage to sort this out and be there then".
N: "See you then".
As I went to end the call, the phone ran out of calltime. I couldn't believe it. According to the tariff, I had purchased at least 30 minutes calltime depending on whom I phoned. I was sure I hadn't used that much.
Three minutes later, the police car left. I went back to my car, turned it round and drove back up the hill. I saw the onion shaped top of a Russian Orthodox Church. It was gleaming. I drove down a short side road towards it. I parked the car nearby. I just wanted somewhere quiet and peaceful to sit and think. I looked across and saw a house with a plaque outside it. The front door was open. It looked more like an office than a house. I walked towards it. A man in his fifties or sixties came out. He only spoke Russian. It was an awkward situation. After a few minutes of getting nowhere, a barrel shaped lady about his age came out from behind the house. She was wearing what looked like cleaner's blue overalls. The same type as worn by the cleaning ladies in the corridors of the Romanian school. She hadn't seen us. He called to her. He looked at me. "Francesca" he said to me. A little bell rang in my head. "Did he mean French ?" I wondered. "Da" I said cautiously, pointing at myself. "Pommes de terre" he said. "Oui, da, da" I said smiling. He called the lady over and they spoke. She spoke French.
E: "Excusez-moi madame, on a besoin de trouver l'hotel Nistru. Je cherche l'hotel Nistru."
The lady gave me a serious look and pointed at the car. I was fairly sure she was Russian. "Da, Machine" I said expressively. She went towards it. I unlocked it. It seemed as if she couldn't get in it fast enough. I turned the car round in the wide road and headed for the main road.
E: "L'hotel Nistru, a gauche ou a droit ?"
L: "a gauche"
We drove down the hill straight to the hotel which faced a small archway in an enclosed courtyard not far from the one way system. The lady handed me over to the lady in reception. She wanted to be on her way. I thanked her and she hurried off.
I faced the lady in reception. There was a worrying few minutes while I established mainly with gestures that I was booked into this hotel. Then she wanted to see my passport. She took down the details from it. She indicated with gestures that I would have to pay for parking the car outside the hotel. It was the only car there in a large courtyard. "Kharasho" I responded. I laid out some dollars and Euros. She took 20 dollars. She showed me to the narrowest hotel room I have ever seen in my life. Long and narrow, it had three single beds crammed in it. It was clean and freshly painted in white but it was awful. I worried whether I would have to share it with anyone.
Normally, I shower in the morning but I just felt hot, bothered and contaminated by recent events. I badly wanted to shower. I didn't want to stay in that room. I wanted to be in a state where I could comfortably leave quickly. Despite my gesturing, for some reason the lady didn't (or chose not to) understand that I wanted a shower. After a while it became clear. There wasn't one. I looked at her. She was tanned with an intriguingly broad smile with small gaps between some teeth and that common Moldovan feature, a prominent gold tooth. Was she just working there or was she an owner or manager there ? I felt torn between different feelings. One set asked how she could accept such bad conditions in a hotel. The other set of feelings assumed that she just worked there. In such a poor country, hers was a good job. She had a wedding ring and an engagement ring on her tanned finger. I could tell they'd been there for many years. I couldn't connect the kindly and reasonable person opposite me with that hotel. Putting it bluntly, I wanted her to take me to the home I hoped she lived in. I didn't care whether she lived alone or with a large family. I just wanted a typical comfortable Moldovan environment. She retired to visibly watch a television set in the back. I could think of no acceptable or reasonable excuse to try and communicate with her. But I did need to go to the toilet and I couldn't find it. For a horrible moment it crossed my mind that there may not be one ! I indicated to her that's what I wanted. She opened a large unmarked door which took me into a big room with a toilet at one end. There was no toilet seat, no toilet paper, no soap, no means of drying one's hands and no lock on the door. It was spotlessly clean however. I thought I need toilet paper (although I had a small emergency supply). I decided not to use gestures to indicate what I needed… I went to my largest suitcase and unearthing the carefully and tightly packed items extracted a large Romanian - English dictionary. I found the words "toilet" and "paper" and showed them to this lady. She produced the usual narrow industrial grey roll of paper with no cardboard barrel centre. I don't think I'd seen these before I came to Moldova !
I had made it clear to Marisha that I was not prepared to be "ripped off" by any hotels in Soroca. Gloomily I remembered the expression: "you get what you pay for". I was depressed. I felt trapped within my own anxieties. I knew that in that state I would not want to venture beyond the archway. But I couldn't bring myself to go back to my room. I had noticed a very dull looking restaurant or cafe next to the hotel. I was hungry but I didn't want to go there. I thought tomorrow I will wait until 11:45 at the cafe Dolce Vita. Nadina won't turn up. Then I'll have to drive back. I remembered how the Moldovan police had arbitrarily pulled over the car behind me at a road junction. I would have that ordeal to face and I couldn't even phone anyone. I would have to ask Natalie's family to take me back at short notice. I took slow steps to the toilet door wondering where I would walk after that.
As I opened it, I saw two young people facing me, a boy and a girl. They were smiling and looking at me expectantly. For a strange moment, I thought one of them might have been Alina. If it was Nadina, she didn't look like her photo. The girl's expression flickered slightly with uncertainty as I must have looked uncertain. Nadina introduced herself and her cousin Sergiu. I was saved ! The sense of relief was enormous. I wanted to get out of there as fast as possible.
N: "We talked about it and
realised that it must be terrible for someone from abroad to be stuck in this
place. We couldn't leave you here".
E: "Let's go"
N: "What about the money you've paid ?"
E: "Tell the lady to go and have a good time with it !", I said joyfully and defiantly.
But the lady with her slightly shark like smile insisted on giving me back 40% of my money. Hastily and carelessly I stuffed the large wad of notes into the breast pocket of my shirt. We took the cases to the car and drove away.
Two weeks after returning from Moldova, I exchanged emails with Father Bill Haymaker, a vicar or Anglican priest from East Sussex, England. For many years, he has been involved with charity projects in Romania and Moldova. Here is an extract from his 17th June email.
"You are right in your thank you notes about the Moldovans...they always smile because they are still full of hope. In Romania, sadly, much of that hope is lost. When I first began working in Moldova I so clearly remember how desperately frightened my Romanian staff were about me going to Moldova. They were certain I would be dead within a matter of days…"
On 15th May, Maria a senior economics advisor in the Moldovan Government emailed me. She would be in London on business while I was in Moldova. She also said:
"I noticed from your letters, that you intend to visit Bender, that is Transnistrian region. Are you aware that British citizens are not advised to visit that region? [Standard British Foreign Office advice which I read and ignored]. Moreover…a foreigner was kidnapped in Moldova, and that was a businessman. Thank God he was released." Otherwise Maria was cheerful !
In October, Gabriela from Moldavia province told me how relatives of hers driving into Moldova had tried to out run Moldovan bandits disguised as police. They had been warned about this in the Romanian press. However they weren't able to escape them. When they finally faced up to their pursuers they discovered they were real police officers ! Unreasonable fear can be corrosive. It can cause someone to make false actions perhaps even creating the problem they fear most. This is an example of "the self fulfilling prophecy". Face your fear but don't be unwise either. (Young girls in particular rightly need to be very careful). Father Bill was happily back in Moldova soon after I left.
The bathhouse door opened easily and I stepped out cautiously. My fat wallet was sticking out of my trouser pocket. I walked outside over the flagstones to the front of the house in the dressing gown provided. I stepped inside for the first time pushing aside some curtains. It was an unfamiliar style of property. Is this how gypsies live ? I wondered. I remembered the good hospitality the Sorocan gypsies had offered Tony Hawks in his book. I was met and lead into a room on the right with a lot of food. People were waiting for me. There was Nadina and Sergiu. It still felt like another world.
Immediately Sergiu wanted to film the event with my camcorder. I had just sat down when he started filming.
E: "Well, thank you very much for your hospitality and the bathhouse treatment…"
I soon realised that I had misread the situation. It became apparent that these were ordinary decent Moldovans. I almost felt ashamed of myself. After the meal, I was shown to a large room with a double bed. My clothes and luggage were there and I slept very well that night.
In the morning, Nadina suggested firmly that I should wash and lead me to an outside basin. There was a blue plastic cylindrical water dispenser there and soap. I had to push a button underneath and water would come out. It must have held up to 5 litres of water. I stripped to the waist and washed myself. Out of the corner of my eye, I briefly saw Nadina trying not to laugh before she hurriedly walked away. Like Liliana, she took a mischievous (but not obtrusive) pleasure in seeing how the Englishman would deal with the Moldovan way of doing things. I had been given a torch and shown the outside toilet the night before. Now in the light of day, I looked down inside it. There was a large drop to the bottom of a pit. But as I said before, no smell. The hole was surrounded with a fluffy cushion which you sat on. People had to take care how they used it.
Sergiu, Nadina and myself drove to Nadina's house so she could sort out some things. I took photographs and shot moving film footage. Her 15 year old brother was there with a friend. As we arrived, Nadina's dog appeared. It was a vicious brute similar to other dogs I saw in Moldova. It barred its teeth and snarled rather than barked. Nadina grabbed it cheerfully by the neck and holding its head down, pushed it into the outside toilet. It was a stray dog which Nadina had taken in. The house had been built by Nadina's father but he had been unable to complete it. Only the bottom floor was habitable. Inside, it was very attractive.
Before I came to Moldova, I learned that the civil war in 1992 had interrupted a surge in confidence which followed the collapse of the Soviet Union. The war coincided with the start of a world recession. Many buildings had been started in the early nineties and work stopped abruptly. One such house was a magnificent large structure which Liliana had sent details of in Criuleni, south west of Dubasari. It was owned by a Baptist friend of hers. The view over the river valley was beautiful. But inside it was a mess having not been decorated and then abandoned shortly after the civil war. I got to the point with Liliana where I was prepared to buy it if she would supervise and participate in its restoration with barely sufficient funding. Her mother who had previously suffered a serious undefined illness would have to live there too. It was a long way from Chisinau and Liliana's job. Her occupation was much more of a fulltime career choice than a job just to pay the bills. It was her life. Liliana then disclosed that her mother was a Transnistrian citizen - more difficulties. Liliana had a binding contract in her hands with guarantees which would give her property rights after 7 years. She understood I couldn't offer any more. She turned the offer down. In other different cases too, I was unable to reach agreement with some Moldovan penfriends. But we've remained good friends. I have learned two things from these experiences. The first is that these girls are not "desperate". They have career preferences they believe they can pursue. In the meantime, they can do any number of things. For instance, Doina said: "there's plenty of work here". The second thing I learned is that Moldovan penfriends will often obediently follow instructions (sometimes for small rewards such as books). But may then avoid playing their part in the follow on project. This, despite having agreed it was a good idea in the first place ! Moldovan girls are usually keen to explain their country to strangers. Often they'll research a subject just to be helpful. But then… well perhaps that's just women for you ! Add to the above, that typically Moldovan expectation they will be disappointed with the outcome and an Italian type tendency to take their time. Those last two I had expected from the very beginning. I also knew that with very limited resources, a trip to an internet cafe might be an occasional thing. This is why it seemed (and still seems) to me fair to reward responses with small items sent by post. Usually they supplied their address merely for correspondence. Had they known what I intended, most would probably not have complied, particularly at an early stage. I can be very persuasive but they are very polite and busy in their lives. "You can take a horse to the water, but you can't make it drink". I was surprised to be refused by people so nice (and as I thought so vulnerable).
My own view of Westerners helping people in poorer countries has always been as follows. It is necessary and desirable to connect people and families from these different countries to learn about each other's situations. This is a very unusual and controversial view which I hold most strongly. The only regular charitable payments I've ever signed up for was to help Mabinty and his family. He was a 10 year old African boy in Sierra Leone whose photograph we were sent. This was through the large UK charity Action Aid. They sent us quarterly reports with drawings Mabinty had made for us. He then ran away ! So our contribution was used to help his village generally. There are billions of dollars waiting to be applied to the victims of the Asian Tsunami disaster over a year after it happened. It can't happen because of the corruption of governments there. People are starving with little shelter and no medical support. But there is less controversy and argument about letting uncounted people die needlessly and unnoticed than changing the rules or daring to pursue new ways of helping (those Asians). "Thinking outside the box" is the appropriate (American) expression. People in Britain gave more generously than any other country towards this disaster. Our government then also responded with world beating generosity. As in all the previous charitable appeals, I didn't give a penny. But I gave generously to an English girl collecting with a bucket in our supermarket for a well known charity. It was to help fund her trip to Translvannia, Romania to teach there. By now she's been there, done her job and that's a result. Charities say that personal support is expensive and can raise all sorts of other issues. But that's life ! Life is controversial ! UK charities have to measure money and resources according to strict legally binding rules. But they don't fully measure hope, confidence, friendship and the positive expectation which can encourage people to better their lives. I'm an accountant who has prepared charity accounts. Outside of the written statement made at the front of the annual report, there is no place or way to record the above. "People do what you inspect, not what you expect", accountant's quote.
It was time to leave Nadina's house. The road which contained this and other properties was as bad as the "muddy track" I had driven along with Liliana and her mother. However the mud had dried in the summer heat. I drove the car away very slowly and carefully. Nadina said to go to one part and I decided differently. The car grounded and she said: "I told you". They guided me to the magnificent fortress by the Nistru in Soroca and Sergiu filmed us.
We left the fortress to go to the market. I went into a small quarter stocked bookshop which had a history book of Moldova in French and Romanian. Barbara, my wife later enjoyed reading that. Then heading back, we stopped near the gypsy houses on the hill, the famous "Gypsy Hill" which was part of the main road which ran up and down Soroca. Sergiu and Nadina were nervous and excited by us stopping there. Sergiu filmed. The houses looked like temples and had a sinister sort of beauty. The gypsies liked to use different coloured stones or bricks. Living space was lost because of the overhang, an empty area fronted by pillars. Behind this, some houses on the main road had bare concrete walls and rectangular holes instead of windows. This is what I had seen on my first evening driving up and down trying to find the hotel. It gave me the kind of fear I had when as a child I watched "Star Trek", the enormously popular US science fiction series from the early 1970s. In it, the crew of the Starship Enterprise landed on distant planets, encountering all kinds of aliens with very strange intentions and terrible powers. The crew would walk into what seemed to be a deserted place but it wasn't… Fear of the unknown is the worst of all. We drove back to Nadina's aunt and uncle's place in the countryside just outside Soroca. After filming inside the house and having lunch we all drove off for the Cosauti monastery. That is Nadina, her aunt, uncle and cousin Sergiu.
I had to go very slowly and carefully in parts. Thankfully any mud we had to pass over had dried. We got stuck behind a horse and cart but hurrying was the last thing on my mind. The countryside was beautiful. I felt a sense of exhilaration. We arrived at the monastery. It was pleasing to be able to return some of the hospitality I had been shown. My hosts' table was always full of food and I was encouraged to eat more and more of it. I now understood that the ideas I had of people in Moldova (like us) eating different things at different times of the day did not apply. They were all pleased to re-visit this monastery as the film shows. They were all strict catholics. Their faith had helped them deal with the coinciding deaths of so many family members. One of whom had of course been terribly and brutally murdered in Moscow by the mafia. In March, Nadina had explained that her Aunt was terribly afraid more disasters would follow. That is why she was reluctant to have me visit. Nadina looked like and reminded her Aunt of her murdered son. I phoned Nadina in early April.
N: "Don't worry, my Aunt
is getting over her loss. She is living for her other son."
E: "I don't think she'll ever get over such a loss". I remember the telephone conversation I had with Nadina in late April.
At the time, I was wondering why Nadina was the only person in Moldova (not Transnistria) who had not received the package I had sent. Nadina's real first name is Nadejda and I had just sent her a few dollars through Western Union. I did that partly to prove her real identity. She needed to supply her ID to collect the money.
N: "Thank you for the money.
Thank you for trusting me". She said it with great relief and some emotion.
E: "Nadina, I need the address of your Aunt".
N: "No, I can't do that. You have to trust me. "When you come, I'll persuade her. You'll see. When my Aunt meets you, she'll change her mind".
E: "I have to give the address to the authorities. I have to let them know where I am staying every day. It's a legal requirement."
Nadina gave me the address. I emailed it along with all other contact details and my travel plan to Liliana and Marisha just before I left.
The reader might think I was stupid to take such risks. It was a "borderline decision". But we have a saying: "The person who makes the biggest mistake is the one that never makes any mistakes, because he (or she) never tries anything." While I was there, Nadina told me she had been shown photographs of her cousin's badly beaten body. She added: "the mafia had broken his bones". In the film, Sergiu zooms in on his murdered brother. I don't know how these people managed to stay so "cool and collected" under such terrible circumstances.
I could only communicate properly with Nadina. Her relatives thought it was amusing I could only say the few phrases I had learned in both Romanian and anglicised Russian, mainly: "buna" "zdrastvooytye", "bine" "kharasho", "multsumesc" "spaseebo". I often used both languages together. I wasn't surprised when Nadina passed on her uncle's comment that they were Romanian Moldovans. I then dropped the Russian. My point was that any visitor had to learn the basic words in both languages. I also assumed that my pronunciation was so bad that I needed to use both languages. It was bad enough having to learn one language (particularly for a British person) but two was expecting a lot !
It was nice and cool in the monastery but then we headed down and to the right to where the spring water collected. There was a small waterfall and in a shaded open building, clean, fresh spring water collected. Apparently it was very good for you with possible healing properties. Nadina's Uncle collected the water in a large plastic container. We all drank from the collecting pool in the small building.
On the way back we passed some horses.
As with Liliana, I had discussed buying land or property with Nadina. I wondered whether if I bought some, they would farm it. Nadina said that her Aunt and Uncle already had other land. I got the impression they weren't using all of it. Nadina said it was very hard work to grow things there with the lack of mechanised equipment. A picture which fitted in with my own research. The other problem for me is that foreigners are not allowed to buy agricultural land in Moldova. Land can be purchased with a property and not be too big. It must not be categorised for agricultural use under the land cadastre system. Natalie and myself had discovered these details in March and April. The foreigner would have to get his choice right first time as well because he was only allowed to own one modest property. I can understand the reasons for these rules but I think the restrictions on foreigners buying agricultural land are misguided. Provided the land is used for agriculture, I think foreigners should be allowed to buy some of it. The amount could be restricted. They would then most likely invest in machinery and facilities to increase the productivity of the land. The tax system could be used to encourage this. Foreigners are rightly very suspicious of the tax system in Moldova. So the best way would be to simply say: "you pay no taxes on your land or your production for 5 years if you invest a stipulated proportion (or multiple) of the cost of the land in increasing output." My own research on the internet presented a picture of undercapitalised agricultural activity. This was combined with a very good level of training provided to farmers under the Soviet system. Whatever criticisms can be aimed at the Soviets (and they are many), the Russians always trained people well. They monitored the agricultural output from different areas. Those farmers in parts of Moldova who operated the Soviet system achieved higher yields. So today we have (ageing) highly trained farmers in Moldova without the right equipment to fulfil their (and the land's) full potential. They need to practise their knowledge and develop their skills while training the next generation. The investment will mainly have to come from abroad but Moldova's laws don't properly allow that to happen.
Back on the main road back, there was the usual dodging around potholes. Other cars would sometimes worryingly swerve towards the middle of the road as they avoided a hole or a pattern of holes.
After supper we headed for The Candle. I described this evening trip before but missed out a few details… With us was a friend of Sergiu (also called Sergiu) who was hoping to join the police force. It was a beautiful evening as Nadina and I descended the 600 steps. They were waiting for us in the large deserted coach park by the Nistru. I decided we should give Nadina a driving lesson. They didn't like that at all but I insisted. So for the first time in her life, Nadina drove a car. It was just round in circles in the large car park. Immediately she did it very well but for one thing. She hadn't grasped how to use the clutch. I didn't know what she was doing but sometimes there were horrible grinding sounds. How could anyone do that to the clutch ? What was she doing ?! Otherwise Nadina operated the controls very confidently and capably. Finally, the car came to a halt. I went to drive it away but it wouldn't move. Now I was really worried. We got out the car and looked at the front and the wheels. Sergiu and Sergiu spoke to Nadina.
N: "The wheel is damaged".
E: "What do you mean damaged ? They've driven it into something on the way down". Nadina spoke to Sergiu and Sergiu. They looked alarmed and upset
N: "They say it was like that before."
E: "How could I drive the car back from the monastery like that".
N: "I saw you drive the car into the side."
I looked into her eyes and decided she was probably right. They were all still looking alarmed and upset. Nadina had told me earlier that her Aunt and Uncle had wondered whether I had problems with my eyesite as it seemed to them they had a very bumpy ride. I had an excellent driving record over 220,000 miles (cars) and 40,000 miles (motorbikes). But that was under "normal conditions"! I cheerfully and gracefully accepted their version of events. They straightened the front mudguard which is all that was required. Nadina wanted her lesson to continue. This girl's toughness amazed me. But I had had enough. Nadina asked me for more lessons the next day but concluded sadly: "I suppose I'll have to wait another year for my next lesson". May 2006 was my expected return date.
We went to "chill out" in the cafe Dolce Vita, the one I was supposed to have met Nadina at for the first time. It was at the bottom of the hill within easy walking distance of the fortress, the unsigned one way system and the hotel Nistru. I said immediately: "I'm paying." As we began to relax at our table, in came two tall brown, round faced boys. They looked around very anxiously at the back of the queue with unfriendly fixed expressions. They didn't seem to fit there. Then suddenly they walked out. As I glanced back towards my friends, I saw Nadina grinning broadly at me. "Gypsies" she said cheerfully.
I woke up on Friday morning knowing the only thing definitely planned was a quick visit to Nadina's school. There, hopefully I would meet Danielle, the American Peace Corps worker who had taught Nadina. Inka too had benefitted from being taught by an American Peace Corps teacher. Both girls are assertive and worked to get the greatest benefit from these situations.
My hosts kindly allowed me to use their phone to try and contact Inka in Baltsi. I didn't know if she was going to be there as she had expected to go on a short English course in Iasi at that time. Inka explained that this would increase her chances of becoming an English teacher after she graduated.
Inka answered the phone. That was a great relief. But I knew she was insanely busy with her final degree exams and looking after their three year old daughter Katea. Inka was one of my very first penfriends. At the beginning of December when I posted my first package to Moldova, it was addressed to her. It arrived at the end of January and contained a fleecy coat, hat and gloves for Katea. Inka told me she was so pleased as it had been delivered just days before the snows arrived. This delay reinforced my early view that it was going to be a struggle dealing with people in Moldova. I knew Inka was a student in a town north of Chisinau called Baltsi. Obviously it was a very dull and depressing place as there were no pictures of it on the internet. Being an unmarried mother in a religious country like Moldova would be considered very bad. Inka had sent me a photograph of herself and Katea. She also sent me a picture of a Christmas tree which appeared to be in a shop front. Such simple pleasures Moldovans enjoy in such a bleak place. She told me life was difficult. The heating was expensive. But her relatives helped her a bit. I could see her huddling up to Katea in her new clothes by a bare concrete wall in a tiny freezing flat saying: "God bless you Eddie !" So I was a bit surprised to receive a picture of her and Katea wearing the clothes I had sent with some nice wallpaper behind them. It was most welcome. I was delighted partly because it was one of my first proper responses from Moldova. These people were as real and charming as I had hoped for. Then in February, a package sent to Inka by registered post was returned to me unopened. A box was ticked by the word: "inconnu". (French for unknown - odd). I took a webcam photo of the package and emailed it to her. Inka, who is a proud but enigmatic character, responded by saying that she definitely lived at that address. But she questioned the need for me to send her things. Then in March she told me she was married, naughty Inka ! More surprises were to follow…
We drove to Nadina's school and I got confused again as to where we were going. In fact the arrangement of roads in Soroca is not complicated. But at junctions, other roads were often not surfaced properly and looked unimportant. In the UK and on the continent such turn offs would simply lead to a private road, probably to a farm ! I remember the unmarked turn off for the long country lane leading to the monastery. "Turn down there ?" I said almost disbelievingly. Worse than that however, was a junction I had reached driving to Soroca from Chisinau. There was a sign which said "Soroca". I had to turn left into another road. When I got there, there were two options. Turn left and up back over the bridge which crossed the main road I had just come from. Second option was to carry on. There were no signs at all. In Western Europe there are one way "feeder lanes" which take you onto the right road. I failed to appreciate that such sophisticated road systems are not a feature of Moldova. It's a question of habit, what you get used to. Also in the UK, we drive on the "correct" side of the road ! This adds to the sense of disorientation when driving on the continent. My sense of direction told me to turn left. I did so slowly and carefully. At the top I stopped. There was a girl on the bridge who half turned her head to regard my suspiciously. No, she wouldn't want to speak to me and I wouldn't blame her for that. We probably wouldn't understand each other anyway. On the lane of the far carriageway I saw traffic move. Nothing came anywhere near us. After at least 30 seconds, I understood. I was facing the wrong way up a one way road leading off the dual carriageway ! Next thought, let's get out of here before the Moldovan police turn up ! In the dark, I could easily have made that mistake with disastrous results. Standard British Foreign Office advice for Moldova is: "don't drive in the dark". I really think the Moldovan authorities should invest in some no entry signs. When I drove back to the one way road in Soroca which I had gone up the wrong way, there was a faceless round sign, only the grey background remained. That is what I had seen that first evening. Driving around that part of Soroca it was necessary to get directions from Nadina and Sergiu.
At the top of the hill in Soroca, heading for Nadina's school, I stopped the car. We were on the forecourt of what might have once been a small shop or petrol station. There was nothing there now. Resting my head on the steering wheel. I said: "Just give me clear instructions in English". Nadina said: "Sergiu says he's sorry". This had followed "spoony Sergiu's" excited chatter as we approached the top of the hill and Nadina's laughter. When Sergiu had a message to communicate to me via Nadina, I would hear a sound like: "spoony". I explained this to my hosts through Nadina one dinner time while holding up a spoon. Things were rarely quiet while driving with those two. Sergiu had a very good cassette tape of songs. One of them was by a Greek singer whose name sounded like "Aresh". Another, not so good song exclaimed: "hard core !" On hearing this, Nadina laughed as we approached the top of the hill. When played that first evening, she had squealed with embarrassment placing her hand over her mouth as she smiled at me uncertainly. This was one part of the confused picture I had when crouching in the bath wondering what the hell was in store for me. Well, I had no idea !
English lessons in Soroca
We arrived at Nadina's school which was a short walk from the cafe on the corner at the top of the hill. I have to say that the atmosphere was not as good as the schools in Chisinau. Nadina told me that a classmate of hers had hanged himself in January. Yet another terrible loss within the space of those few weeks. That's why Nadina thought she was jinxed. When I first contacted her in February, she replied defensively that she wanted "real friends" only. Jinxed is a bit like being cursed but it really means people who attract very bad luck. With a sense of irony, I think Nadina was suggesting she could be a dangerous person to know ! It reminded me again why I like these Moldovans. They see the other side of their situation. That requires emotional maturity and emotional intelligence. No matter how terrible the situation most still see the funny side to life.
I was introduced to Danielle, Nadina's American Peace Corps teacher. Danielle had helped Nadina achieve a very good standard of English. She had lent her books and been a good support. As a result, I could now take over as I have no great skills in helping English language beginners. Danielle had spent two frustrating years at that school and was due to return finally to the States in mid July. The Moldovan English teachers had very poor English skills and blocked Danielle's progress to protect their own positions. Consequently she had only been grudgingly given 8 pupils to teach. It was a waste and a farce. Of course I could see that potentially with her skills she could easily have put at least some of the other teachers out of a job. The higher authorities should have anticipated that situation and monitored it correctly. They should have acted in the interests of the pupils. I am aware of examples in Moldova of money passing hands (bribes) and standards suffering as a result. Poor standards mean reduced hope and opportunities. It means there is less to pass onto others. So to my mind, the corrupt official is responsible for the underachievement of future generations (of Moldovans). In the meantime, the poor boy hanging at the end of a rope is partly their responsibility as well. That's what happens when you remove someone's hope.
Danielle went on to explain that the teachers there used Soviet style teaching methods. There was no group learning and other modern teaching methods. She looked at me as if I would readily agree but I have an open mind on such things. Highly structured old fashioned teaching was a feature of my private education. It was very successful at getting excellent results. In my school, simple "chalk and talk" methods resulted in 13 year olds being able to successfully answer A level (Advanced Level) questions which 16 year olds would struggle to answer for admission to University. The choice of teaching methods is a complicated question involving considerations of society and its values. There is more respect for authority in Moldova than in Western Europe. I didn't notice any group learning at the schools in Chisinau. I did notice high standards being achieved. Highly successful teaching methods used in England in the 1960s wouldn't work now in the same classrooms. But they might work very well in Chisinau and Soroca. However the most important thing is that the teachers can teach and the English teachers know English.
There is a further very British point I wish to make about American methods used in other countries. The Americans arrive in other countries with manuals of rules and methods on how to do things. They are very seriously determined to apply their rules and their thinking. I read how one US charity tried persistently to strictly apply its own rules to help orphans and orphanages in Moldova. They eventually learned the hard way that what they found on the ground often doesn't fit the rules ! There are so many examples of the Americans making this kind of mistake that I or any number of people could write a large book on it very quickly. We Brits made our mistakes with centuries of empire building. Ultimately we designed systems which cleverly integrated into local cultures and structures. India is a good example of that. Every country and its people are so different you can't rigidly apply a worldwide rule book. Western Union may be an exception to that thinking. But that's just the transfer of money and it always has to be strictly controlled. However a penfriend of mine went to pick up a few dollars from a Western Union office in Chisinau. She had her Moldovan passport with her but had lost her I.D. Worldwide Western Union rules dictate that the passport is the very best form of identification which on its own can be used to pick up money. The many WU offices that she tried, refused to abide by this rule. I checked with WU. They were all breaking its rules. But were they simply abiding by Moldova's laws, regulations, or established practices ? The possession and use of manuals doesn't make a person or an organisation professional. A true professional has the necessary skills, knowledge, confidence and experience to know what they are doing. They have usually been well trained. They listen and open mindedly adapt their methods to suit local circumstances.
Meeting Inka in Balti
Inka had agreed to see us so we headed off for Baltsi. It was only Nadina's third trip to this neighbouring town (or city). An amazing fact given that she was 18 and it was only a short drive. It was hot that day. The road shimmered in the heat. Suddenly I saw men working in the middle of the road. They were filling potholes with tarmac. I felt sorry for them. There were no traffic cones to protect or mark the boundaries in which they operated. In the UK, the area would be coned off. If necessary there would either be temporary traffic lights or (much less often) a man with a round two sided lollipop sign. This has "STOP" in red and "GO" in green. The French have their dreaded deviations (deviations). They usually close a whole main road causing massive disruption. They are supposed to then clearly signpost the diversion but that rarely happens properly. It often requires 20 or more signs. One missing sign and you're lost. In my early twenties, when taking motorbike trips across France, I used to ignore these signs and drive passed. Usually there was no-one about where the road was closed. This deviant behaviour saved me much trouble. In English, deviation is spelt the same way (as we took it from the French) but its meaning can be different… For example up to the 1980s, homosexuals could be described as (sexual) deviants. Even "deviation" has overtones of perversity. These deviations are perverse. On my first trip into France I was deviated off a major road into a large town. There on my motorbike I went around in circles for half an hour. Then in desperation I stopped at a cafe and was approached by Bruno, a fellow motorcyclist. I explained my problem and he threw his arms up in the air and said it would be difficult to guide me out. After 10 minutes of twisting and turning through the suburbs I was back on the main road. This was one of the main arterial roads leading into France !
Driving out of Soroca, I tried to think of witty comments to say to Sergiu when I heard him say "spoony" again. "Tell spoony…" but I was interrupted. "Slow down" shouted Nadina as we approached the brow of a hill. I did and there was a Moldovan police car. "Spoony Sergiu" knew all the spots which they occupied.
We arrived in Baltsi and Marisha's map was useful. That morning we had established that there was calltime on my mobile. The "empty" sign I'd seen, simply referred to the mailbox ! So we phoned Inka from the car. She directed us to the large (by Moldovan standards) "Bum" store. I found this amusing. "Bum" is slang for a person's bottom in English. If you bought something in a bum deal, it would be no good or over priced. I was told it is pronounced "boom" (as in the boom of large guns). Nadina said Inka would turn up wearing dark blue. So when a blonde girl turned up in black I mainly ignored her. Then she spoke and the film reflects that confusion.
We got in the car and Inka directed us to her apartment. I started filming immediately. Her flat was nothing like the original image I had "burned" in my mind. You can tell by Inka's reaction on the film that she thought that perhaps my filming was a bit intrusive. But that wasn't my intention. I just "got carried away". I was amazed how different her flat was from what I expected. Supposing I showed ten people pictures of our kitchen built (with the house) in 1988 and Inka's kitchen. Then I asked "guess which one's in England and which one's in Moldova". Ten out of ten would get them the wrong way round ! On our lounges, I think they would make the same mistake by a majority verdict. Moldova often doesn't fit the image I and the outside world have of it.
To be continued ...
Accommodation in Chisinau, Tiraspol, Balti and other towns of Moldova
Other books and articles about Moldova in English
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