Moldova was an unexpected treat. A beautiful tryst that swept me off my feet when I wasn’t paying attention (I was distracted by the wine.) I’m prone to crushes when I travel – without fail, during each trip I am scooped up by two admirers – a man, and a dog. (Given some of my encounters, I may argue that those are one and the same…) I think they take pity on me – I am usually lost, disheveled, and hungry. They give me what I’m after – food, comfort, safety. But Moldova was different, it spared me the drama that comes along with men and dogs, and simply bared her soul. I am forever grateful.
Moldova’s courtship was simple, she satisfied my cravings, entertained me late into the night, offered a warm smile, and dazzled me with character. She opened up about a tempestuous past, proved herself trustworthy, and we danced the night away. This is how a country steals your heart:
At home, we often hear of the 100 Mile Diet – a planet-friendly diet that encourages us to eat food grown nearby. Folks in Moldova puts this diet to shame with their version – a backyard diet. Traveling through villages and the countryside, I noticed that there are few backyards as we know them, instead yards were thriving, lush vegetable gardens. Front walkways were filled with pumpkins, squash and corn. Our meals were seasonally inspired, root vegetables, cabbages, apples and fresh cheese, all bursting with an absurd amount of flavour. Mystery stews, sweet black dates, rich desserts. Oh how I gorged. By the end of the week I was begging for my stretchy pants.
A Rich Cultural Heritage
Many of us have dirty secrets, bits of our past that we might like to sweep away and not talk about. Moldova has struggled; there have been wars, religious persecution, famines, and oppression. In the first weeks of the Second World War, 70% of the capital city Chisinau was destroyed. Under Soviet rule many vanished to Siberian gulags – from political prisoners to poets. Independence has brought hard fought freedom, and a fiercely patriotic country was reborn. Moldovans are proud to celebrate the people and events that have thrust their country forward. They have a street named ‘August 31 1989′, the day that their Moldovan language (identical to Romanian according to linguists) became the official language. Their parks are lined with statues featuring artists, writers, activists and game changers. And just ask anyone you meet, their passion for Moldova pours from their hearts.
Their feisty spirit thrives. My last day visiting Moldova was full of protests across the capital city. It’s a tempestuous time, Moldova is on track to join the European Union, but in doing so, they need to make some changes, particularly to their human rights policies. Previously, their legislation paralleled Russia’s views on the LGBT community – don’t talk about it, don’t support it, and certainly don’t be a part of it. I’d like to think that this isn’t reflective of an entire country, but the fact that I watched a human chain encompassing government buildings in an attempt to prevent entry to those making changes to that horribly archaic law left me feeling wholly unsettled. There were other protests too, over what remains a mystery as the police, military and security folks I quizzed were quite vague. For the most part, the demonstrations were peaceful, a bit of yelling, sign waving and even singing. But isn’t that what freedom is – the ability to shake your fist and demand change?
Lately Russia has been a bit of a bully to Moldova. Just around the same time that Moldova took its steps towards joining the European Union, Russia, losing a political tug of war, coincidentally placed an embargo on Moldovan wine claiming poor quality and contamination. This was a huge blow to Moldova, as Russia was their largest customer, and trust me - their wine is just fine. But Moldova, a resilient nation, persevered as other European markets quickly stepped up to buy their delicious (and safe) wine.
But Moldova is far more than just a bumpy past. It’s delightful music, warm smiles, stunning architecture, and colourful art. At first glance, Moldovans may not appear warm. Rather like a stern old auntie, or an uncle that keeps to himself. But it’s a thin, thin veneer.
The streets of Chisinau are lined with vendors, everything from nail polish to warm wool socks. I stopped at a book vendor to inquire about a book I collect – I have The Little Prince in several language picked up along my travels – a title hard to convey through charades. After failing with several languages, a young woman discovered that I had a bit of French. “Wait” she gestured with her hands as she quickly dialed her mobile. For 5 minutes we awkwardly smiled at each other while I waited. Soon a lady came rushing down the street towards us, hair in a kerchief, apron loosely tied around her waist, and I’m sure a dusting of flour on her face. We spoke in French, this was the vendor’s mother. Sadly no book, but bonus points for hospitality.
Gently stepping around any discussion of religion, I will tell you that Moldova does churches well. Exceptionally well. From a 400 year old wooden church in a tiny village, to brightly coloured monasteries with gold framed ancient paintings and natural light streaming in just to show off how holy it is. To top it off, add in geese that stroll the properties all content, priests that will very abruptly give you the boot for even carrying a camera, to monks blessing a feast before distributing it to those in need. It’s all very humbling.
And, (again, side-stepping the religion conversation) I discovered “relics”. Apparently the Orthodox churches are like interconnected libraries, except instead of swapping books, they swap bits of saints. Literally, bits – human remains in covered class cases up near the front, you can see fragments of remains of saints. Oh, I also learned how to figure out if you’re a saint – if they suspect you have saintlike qualities, they will dig up your remains after you’ve been dead for three years. If you stink, you’re not a saint, however, if you’re just waxy and smell ok, bingo, you’re a saint! (There may have been something lost in translation, and a bit of wine, but that’s what I got out of the story.)
Step away from the hustle of Chisinau, and watch time slow to a halt. And then reverse 100 years. This is Old Orhei, an open air museum/quaint village not far from the city. Ladies in their kerchiefs linger by the front gate. Children roam the gravel lane ways stopping to wrestle each other, chickens scratch about in the front yard, while a farmer leads his horse and wagon down the main street. You’ll need to spend the night here – resistance is futile. The peaceful pace, the fresh air, the warm smiles and delicious foods will suck you right in. I borrowed a bike and roamed around with my camera, only stopping long enough to ponder quitting my job and relocating here. In a word: bliss.
My favourite stunt was simply learning how to cross the street. I only recommend this after you’ve been there a few days and have observed the locals doing it. Then, you must practice by shadowing the locals, and once you’ve done this a few times, you are ready. Find a busy street. Watch the cars race by, bumper to bumper. Take a deep breath. Gather up every last ounce of courage, and step boldly into the street. Suddenly, you are Moses parting the Red Sea. The traffic immediately stops, clearing the way for you to pass safely. Once your heart starts again, you are free to cross. I admit, I spent longer than I should have just stopping traffic, crossing the same street multiple times for the thrill of it. I’m easily entertained.
Moldova charmed me, she’s firmly planted in my heart. But I’m not the possessive sort, you can fall in love with her too. Something that extraordinary deserves to be shared.
Stay tuned for part three where I share the forbidden part of this little love affair!
The writer travelled as a guest of USAID’s Competitiveness Enhancement and Enterprise Development ll who sponsored this familiarization tour. USAID did not review or approve this article.
For more about Moldova Tourism, here’s a good place to start.