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05.29.2009

Moldova

In a sufficiently parallel universe, Moldova would be the Napa Valley. There are vineyards and grapevines everywhere, and the area is famous for its wine and brandy. The country is a pretty green landscape of rolling hills and forest, in a mild climate tempered by the nearby Black Sea. The local produce is better than the expensive heirloom varietals you would find at a Northern California farmers' market, possibly because it is intensively cultivated by hand on small plots. Strawberries, for example, are ugly as sin, go bad in a day, and taste better than any I've ever found in the United States. Sour cherries transport me back to early childhood visits to my grandfather's large orchard, which was similarly run on hand labor and lacked expensive Western techniques for making fruit beautiful and durable.

Moldova also has a perfect location, sitting midway between the Carpathian mountains and the Black Sea, scenic places that are full of hot springs, therapeutic mud, and have been attracting European tourists and convalescents for centuries. If not for the baneful roads and resentful Transnistrians, both Odessa and Iași (Romania's second city) would be an hour's drive away from the Moldovan capital. It's possible that the country could benefit from a small name change—“Moldova” doesn't sit well on many foreign ears, especially when you start in with derived company names like “Moldtrans” and “Moldcell”—but otherwise the conditions are perfect for yuppie tourism. Even the old regional flag is awesome:

Instead, of course, Moldova is the poorest country in Europe. After 1991, when the Soviet Union fell apart, trade collapsed and the most industrialied region in Moldova (the strip of land east of the Dniestr) seceded to form its own unrecognized nation. It wasn't until a couple of years ago that Moldova returned to the economic output of its last years under Soviet rule, and per capita income is $650—five times less than Albania. The country suffers the ususal constellation of Second World symptoms: bad infrastructure, rural poverty, weak and corrupt government, a kleptocratic political system, and large numbers of people forced to leave the country to find work, often in terrible conditions.

Moldova sits atop Romania like a liver sits atop a stomach. The relationship between the two countries has involved a certain amount of bile. You arrive in Moldova from Romania by crossing a little river called the Prut, without many outward signs that you are in a different country. There is no difference in language or culture between the people on either side of this river, although the Soviet Union went to enormous lengths to try and foster a Moldovan national identity disjoint from Romania, to the extent of not telling people the language they spoke was Romanian.

The province of Romania adjoining the country is also called ‘Moldova’, and the two Moldovas are the halves of what used to be an independent kingdom during the Middle Ages. In those times, anybody with a horse, a pointy stick in his hand, and a song in his heart would at some point try to invade the territory. Moldavian kings became adept at pitting various combinations of Hungarians, Turks, Poles, Cossacks, Wallachians and Tatars against one another in order to drive these invaders off while preserving their independence.

In this, they were pretty much successful until the early 19th century, when Russia fought a war against the Turks and annexed the eastern half of Moldavia to its growing empire. Except for a brief interval between the world wars, this territory stayed under Russian control until the fall of the Soviet Union. This difference in historical trajectories, along with the sizable Russian minority that moved to Moldova during the period of Russian rule, is what prevents Romania and Moldova from seeking unification today.

The Russian influence is particularly strong in the capital city, Chișinău. My first impression of the city was strongly colored by the fact that I had been living in Romania for many weeks without speaking the language. In Chișinău, my world acquired subtitles. Street names, signs, billboards, newspapers, flyers, conversations in the street, everything was suddenly in Russian, and therefore comprehensible. I fell in love with the city immediately.

Chișinău has the kind of modern history that makes you want to crawl back into bed and not come out for a while. At the start of the 20th century, it was a predominantly Jewish city. Nearly half the population were Jews, with a mixture of Moldavians, Russians and Ukrainians making up the rest. When the Russians capitulated during the First World War, the city along with the rest of the province decided to join Romania. It remained Romanian for twenty–two years, until the Soviet Union annexed Moldova under the terms of a secret pact with Hitler. Less then six months later, a strong earthquake severely damaged the city. And six months after that, Romanian armies allied with Germany poured over the border to demolish what was left, murdering Jews and Roma as they went.

The city was retaken in 1944 by the Red Army, and Moldova again became a part of the Soviet Union. But the good times weren't over. in 1946, there was a famine (in a country where you can't drop your lunch on the ground without accidentally growing a crop!) due to Stalin's efforts to wipe out the richer peasants as he had previously done in Ukraine. By the time it was all over, the province was severely depopulated, and over the next decades many Russians and new settlers would come in, leading to the ethnic distribution you see in Moldova today: Russian cities, Moldovan countryside.

In rebuilding Chișinău, some anonymous genius had the good sense to order trees planted along every major road. There is nothing 1950's Soviet architects could throw at a city that a sufficient number of big trees hasn't been able to neutralize. The trees form a beautiful leafy canopy down each block, and along the main street, Stefan Cel Mare, there is even a double row down either side, creating a pleasant and airy tunnel effect on the sidewalk.

Enjoying your time in Chișinău, like other places in the former Soviet Union, depends on the appropriate setting of expectations. A visitor unfamiliar with the Soviet hotel experience, for example, might enter the Hotel Cosmos with the same mixture of feelings Dante experienced as he boarded the ferry that would take him to Hell. All the standard elements of advanced socialist hospitality are present and conspire against the senses: massive concrete exterior, dim lobby, that strange hallway smell that permeates hallways from Kaliningrad to Vladivostok, and a certain ammoniac harshness to the bright blue tile bathroom, occupied by a coarse toilet paper roll with no tube in the middle and several strips of cheap newsprint that have been placed across toilet, sink and shower drain, proclaiming the Russian word DISINFECTED in sickly blue ink.

The visitor willing to overlook such superficialities would find himself in a jewel of a hotel. The Cosmos has that great rarity—a competent, friendly staff—and the rooms are clean, comfortable and actually seem to have been DISINFECTED. There is hot water round the clock, room service, cable TV, and in certain rooms even such gems of old product design as the Mayak radio or Latvian rotary phone. And please take a look inside the minibar (the full-size refrigerator standing unplugged in the corner of the room):

  1 bottle red wine
  1 bottle white wine
  1 bottle champagne
  500 mL cognac
  500 mL vodka
  500 mL “Chișinău” beer
  1 carton orange juice

That is nearly four liters of booze, replaced nightly. I am sure if you make a significant dent in it, they bump your quota.

Tell me how it is possible to stay in a place like this and not enjoy each day of your stay, descending in the mornings into the quiet breakfast room to eat pale pink sausages fished out of a chafing dish, with a hearty spoonful of buckwheat and a hot cup of Nescafé. I wanted nothing more than to stick around and wander the Moldovan capital, but I had already booked my trip to Odessa, and Chișinău would have to wait.

Class issues in food production bug me. Specifically, it bugs me that industrialized farming techniques that have made farmers in the West relatively wealthy have also stripped most of the flavor out of common foods (see: chicken, pork, tomatoes, apples). It additionally bugs me that natural-tasting fruit is now either a luxury product for the rich (see: Whole Foods), or an unintended side-effect of widespread rural poverty in places like Moldova. It is nearly 2010; we should not need to seek out adjectives like "heirloom", "organic", "artisanal" in front of fruits and vegetables in order for them to have some kind of identifiable flavor. We should also not have to choose between widespread exploitation of small farmers and mechanized cultivation on industrial scales that eliminates an entire rural culture of family-owned farms. It is important that we find a way to turn Eastern Europe into Vermont rather than Nebraska. Already the ham is starting to suck.

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