« Idle Words Spring OffensiveMoldova »

Into Moldova

At some point in late April, the countryside in northeastern Romania explodes in bright crayon green leaves, the cats all come out to lounge in the sun, and the hatching of a million mosquitoes tells the world that spring has arrived. Suddenly the streets are full of Romanian youth in their faux-hawks and colorful Puma sneakers, looking for all the world like little San Francisco hipsters. It is a good time for a road trip.

The straight-line distance between Iași and Odessa is 247 kilometers, and there's not much in the way of natural obstacles - just a couple of small rivers and low rolling hills. In more innocent times, I would have expected to find a cozy regional train, or maybe an Argentine-style bus service that would feed me a steak dinner while covering the distance in a comfortable three hours. But after a couple of months in the region, I knew better. Fortified with maps, dramamine, two passports, and my trademark sunny disposition, I climbed aboard a bus to Iași and tried not to worry.

Few parts of the developed world embrace the motto “you can't get there from here” with the enthusiasm of the old Soviet Bloc. Under advanced socialism, border crossings even between fraternal nations were never really encouraged. There was the understanding that if you really needed to cross a border, you would pour over it with armored divisions. And there was little reason for trade between the satellite states when their goods could more usefully be sent directly to Russia. The massive changes since 1989 have made the old borders far more permeable, but they haven't done much for the infrastructure. The train cars may be new, but they still run on a 1983 timetable. And no one has the budget to even contemplate building new roads, when the old ones need so much help adapting to the sudden presence of actual cars.

So the eastern half of Europe is very poorly and strangely connected. Ljubljana is practically on the Italian border, but getting from there to Trieste (72 km) means a seven hour train ride, despite the lack of any border formalities. Suceava (Romania) is 40 kilometers from Chernivtsi (Ukraine), but there is at best one bus a day. Lviv to Kraków (390 km) requires a nine hour train ride, complete with a wheel change. Timișoara is 119 kilometers from Belgrade, but the one daily train takes a sleepy five hours to reach Belgrade after leaving Timișoara at 5 AM.

In the Balkans, things are even worse. Most of the Croatian coast is only accessible by air from western Europe, except in summertime. And if you want to go to Albania, it's probably easier to fly in from Italy than travel overland from any neighboring country.

In Iași I enjoy a pizza covered in the inevitable cașcaval (“tastes like velveeta, smells like feet!”*) and wander around the edge of town for a while. Every second store is a branch of some regional bank, a mysterious pattern common to all of eastern Europe. The central bus station is a large, empty lot surrounding a little sheet-metal roof and some benches. I am not confident that the maxi-taxi to Chișinău will be clearly labeled, and i don't speak enough Romanian to ask for help. But the gruff guy in the information kiosk sees me fretting and walks out to calm me down. “Vine, vine. Cinc minut!” ["it will get here in about an hour"].

If you think of Romania as a big round goldfish, Moldova is the remora that has attached itself to its back. There's no real geographical reason for the border between the two countries; rather, it's a historical artifact of old wars between Russia and the Ottoman Empire. The two sides ended up drawing a line along a dinky little river called the Prut, surrounded on both sides by the same rolling landscape of dark earth and bright green fields. Like everywhere else east of the Carpathians, this is prime invadin' country.

The maxi-taxi to Chișinău is a big creaky van with soft seats. I am the fourth passenger, after an elderly Moldovan couple and a young woman up front who seems to be friends with the driver. Soon after leaving the city we pick up the first of many hitchikers, a smiling blond woman and two kids who look to be about thirteen. The kids are dressed in old muddy jeans. One of them has a pair of disintegrating sneakers completely covered in mud. They get out after a few miles, while the woman stays on.

Near the border the driver pulls over to tighten the lug nuts on each wheel - an ominous sign that I don't pick up on. The blond woman takes off running down a nearby dirt road, and we spend a long time waitng for her to come back, out of breath and apologetic, carrying a basket. The van is full of other cargo, notably several dozen bottles of tasty Borsec mineral water being taken to their fate in Moldova. I'm the only person with a suitcase.

We are met at the Moldovan border by Ann Coulter, looking dashing in a Soviet officer's cap, military jacket, black miniskirt and heels. For a moment I worry that I have taken something other than dramamine, and have wafted into some weird Republican fantasy. But the pseudo-Coulter turns her head and the resemblance fades. Her colleague is much more conservatively dressed, wearing full military uniform and the familiar expression of distaste common to border guards the world over. It is no fun being asked to do one's easy and well-paying job. I notice that the Moldovan border patrol is an enthusiastic contestant in the popular post-Soviet game, "who wants to wear the ugliest shade of green"?

Things have been tense lately between Moldova and Romania, but there is no unpleasantness at the border. We are pretty much the only people there. Coulter brings us back our passports, but before we can leave the security perimiter a grandma appears and knocks on the van door. She is selling filled pastries, kept warm through some kind of black magic.

The next two hours are unforgettable. It's not clear whether the roads are just more awful here than on the Romanian side, or if it's the driver's decision to go at full speed that's to blame, but everyone is bouncing all over the van. Luckily for me, the dramamine has kicked in and I feel no sense of motion sickness. Unluckily for me, the dramamine has kicked in and I am so drowsy that I fall asleep for a few seconds after each major bump, waking up only when my head whips around from the next one.

Every few minutes the van stops to admit or expel a hitchhiker. The protocol seems to be that you can flag down whatever passing bus or van you like, and it will stop and take you for a negotiated fee. After what seems like a very long time we bounce our way from open fields to the outskirts of Chișinău, and soon we are under a leafy canopy of trees, zipping around an old but pretty city. The last passenger hops out at the corner of a large park, and i figure it's a good time to make my own exit. I find myself standing in a beautiful, tree-lined street, next to a clean and beautifully maintained park. People are strolling along, all the signs are in Russian, and it isn't even raining anymore.

* I will one day have a lot to say about cașcaval, a.k.a kashkaval, a.k.a кашкавал, a.k.a. cacciocavallo. I have spent far too much time with this cheese of a thousand faces to leave it without comment. But revenge, unlike cașcaval, is a dish best served cold.

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