Month: April 2009
OK, so I got your attention 😉
It’s Sunday morning on the 19th of April and today is Easter day in Ukraine and other Orthodox Christian countries. I left Chisinau on the 19.55 Chisinau-Moscow train and I’m about two hours from arriving at Kiev. The journey has been pretty standard. The conductor calls me ‘Hey! English’ every time he wants my attention, the border guards (stern looking military women again) finger my passport angrily until they realize I’m not gonna offer a bribe and then give me the ‘angry sigh’ and ‘disappointed look’ that Ukrainians do so well. Everything else just wobbles and creeks. Even by Russian standards – this train is a wobbler.
So anyway, I have until my battery expires to write about Moldova but before I started this I had to decide, am I gonna rant about the political troubles in Moldova? The answer is – no, it’s a big topic so I’ll tackle the political situation on its own later.
Monday (they day after I last wrote) wasn’t very exciting but I managed to explore Chisinau in the Sun, watch life unfold in the busy street markets (where you can buy everything – eggs, sunglasses, kittens, washing machines etc etc) and then met up with Cristina for a drink in the evening. I met Cristina when I was in Chisinau two years ago and thanks to Facebook keeping in touch isn’t a problem. However, I had a few problems trying to meet her because I was 5 minutes late so I arrived, waiving my arms and smiling like an idiot from the other side of the road only to realize that the girl I’m harassing isn’t Cristina! Whoops. Then I was saluted and then told off by a Policeman for sitting on the Stefan Cel Mare statue (maybe he was saluting Stefan I dunno) and then, after I found her we found refreshments in a nice French brasserie.
The rest of the week, until Friday followed a pretty similar pattern only some days I met Oxana, on Tuesday I visited Martin Wyss from the IOM mission in Chisinau, Wednesday an opposition activist from the Our Moldova party and Thursday Alexandrina from Couch-Surfing. Yes, I know they are all girls but this is purely coincidental – honestly.
How do you like Moldova?
It’s the first question that rolls of most peoples lips and thankfully, I can answer in all honesty – I really like it. Once you’ve adjusted to the state of the infrastructure it’s easy to be charmed by the Moldovans. Firstly, unlike the UK – everything happens in front of your face (OK not everything) but a lot. People are expressive, friendly and often loud and you’ll see levels of poverty (unrivaled elsewhere in Europe) fighting for space with the men in leather, the Vogue-like girls, Police in Ladas and the well-connected in BMWs.
In addition to my previous list.You’ll also find:
> People eating bananas the wrong way! This doesn’t make any sense to me but people in these parts have turned the banana world on its head. They hold the long stem and peel it from the bottom-up! It’s just not right.
> SIM cards that cost 3 Euros and last all week (see the helpful girls in the Moldcell shop on Stefan Cel Mare if you need one)
> Cash Machines where you can withdraw 20 Lei (1 Euro and 30 cents)
> Men drinking beer like water at any time of the day
> Amazingly overpriced restaurants (Chisinau is more expensive than Koszeg)
> 3 Million mini-buses to take you anywhere in the city. (once on board, pay your 3 lei to the driver by handing money to the person in front of you and then wait for your change to arrive the same way)
> Stray, but harmless (because they’re mostly sleeping) dogs
> Plastic flowers
> People everywhere who speak English (at least enough to help which they’re happy to do)
> Ambition – its everywhere in Moldova
> wherever you are – a sea of multi-coloured head-scarves. No self respecting communist grandma would leave home without a head scarf, blue and white dress and woolen tights and the Moldovan babushkas do it in style and their head scarves almost warrant sunglasses.
What you wont find:
> Fences, gates or roofs painted any colour except green and blue. Now, I dunno why but, variety of colour is NOT the spice of life when it comes to Moldovan fences. It’s a kinda unofficial national colour which has nothing to do with the flag. You paint your fence and gate – you do it green and blue, it’s not open for debate,
> Kids without a hat. Moldovan kids (actually, looking out of the window this might hold for Ukraine too) are all wrapped up in thick coats and topped with thick woolly hats. Everywhere you go you’ll see little round faces peering from a ball of protective layers. It’s amusing because a) it’s insanely hot here this week and b) because I asked and everyone agrees that mothers here are a little over-protective. A bus load of kids arrived next to us on Friday and they all waddled of like Moldovan penguins.
> Free and fair elections but, like I said, we’ll deal with that later…
PS, I don’t know why Moldova compels me to write lists, I feel like the guy from Hi Fidelity
PPS, It’s not actually Saturday evening – now it’s Monday and, after two nights and two days on a train – I’m still not home! I’m stuck in a hostel in Budapest.
Walking around the back streets of Chisinau at night is not for pussies …there’s too many stray dogs! (get it?) …it’s not for wimps though, or for people with vivid imaginations. I mean, I don’t want to bash Moldova, I like it here but, even the most loyal Moldovan nationalist would have to agree – the infrastructure here is in a mess. There’s not much street lighting, the footpaths are destroyed and occasionally manhole covers are missing too. Walking home tonight I fell over three times, was attacked by four stray dogs and fell into three manholes. It puts hairs on your chest navigating these paths.
In fact, look out of any window in Moldova and you’ll see many reasons to protest however, talking to the people I’ve met it’s clear to see – there’s nothing rotten about them. Populations should definitely not be judged by their surroundings. Actually, it occurred to me this evening that, this is probably the biggest tragedy of the political mess here in Moldova – there’s a whole generation of smart, educated, loyal, funny, talented and overwhelmingly honest people who could do so much with this country.
Anyway, my flat is in downtown Chisinau on a road called Grigore Ureche street which runs parallel with the single most important road in Moldova – Stefan Cel Mare. Stefan is Mr Moldova and despite a tendency for brutal murder of invading Turks and Tartars – he was a “remarkable historic personality, fearless commander of armies and a bright diplomat”. He’s highly admired in MD where “his merits for this country cannot be doubted”. I think Grigore is a poet. Anyway, the flat is beautiful, in fact a little too beautiful (and big) for me but still it makes a change from being in a hostel and I can walk round naked without upsetting people …not that I do, but if I wanted too.
Amusingly, my Moldovan toilet, like the last time I visited, comes complete with a hand written nonsense notice. Last time the sign asked me not to “Flash the toilet paper” and this time it reads “push hard but gently”. Work that out.
So, as I said previously, after two nights of almost no sleep on those night trains – I spent Saturday with a headache, lost my sunglasses, rediscovered my bearings and then slept… only until 8pm though because, Saturday night in Chisinau is party night and naturally – I had to check the bright lights and loud noises of Chisinau’s hedonistic night spots. I can confirm that they are a) bright b) loud c) hedonistic. Taxi drivers still believe that god (not sensible driving) will save them.
On Sunday, I rediscovered Chisinau with a hangover, ate the most awful meat(?) pie in “Tari Bari” and watched as various desperate guys tried to seduce beautiful Moldovan girls. The first guy, a frustrated looking guy in a suit tried (unsuccessfully) a ‘number on a napkin’ approach with the girl on the table opposite me and the second guy simply pleaded until the girl in MacDonalds got annoyed. Unfortunately, it seems to be a one-way thing because I sat waiting but no Moldovan beauty came to harass me.
On Sunday evening I walked around the burnt-out Parliament building and the semi-destroyed President’s office then ate salad and fixed the worlds problems with Oxana in ‘Passion Bar’.
I’m off again, off to the far reaches of Europe and off to investigate life in Europe’s last, newest and only communist state – Moldova. It’s Easter and we have a free week from Uni so it’s rude not to really. OK, I should have gone back to Slovenia but this time I’m following my head not my heart.
So, we left on Thursday and after three hours on a train to Budapest and a long wait for a coffee that never arrived – we boarded at 6pm and in doing so, entered the familiar and fun Soviet night-train experience. I was traveling from Budapest to Chisinau via Vihnnica (central Ukraine) in a creaky by working Russian owned carriage and Maria was heading to Kiev in a separate Ukrainian owned creaky-carriage two down from me on the same train. Actually, the carriages perfectly represented Russia and Ukraine as I had an angry cabin assistant but functioning power sockets and Maria had no power but friendly staff, shinny silk-type curtains and kitschy but cute plastic flowers.
I was to share a cabin with Viky and Peter (vivki and piotr? or Petuska as Vicky affectionately called him), two Russian speaking Ukrainians who live in Budapest. Peter was a likable and friendly 13(ish) year old who asked me in perfect Slavic English (with a strong Russian R) if I was German? I said no, English and he said ‘veRy nice’ and squeezed passed to meet his mum – Vicky. Vicky also spoke perfect Slavic English with a broad UkRainian accent. She had stereotype blonde hair, was enthusiastically friendly and took exactly the right amount of cigarette breaks. Vicky happily told me about how much she loved Chisinau because it was such a green city with no big buildings and then proudly boasted about Peter’s private school where he studies in a class of 7 “6 now” (peter interrupts) because “one boy gone”. Peter was enthusiastically setting up his DVD player but did kindly offer to help with my customs declaration. As it was in English I didn’t need any help so I let him continue with his DVDs. I did however, ask if he studied German as well as English and Hungarian? He said no, by “I’m like” suggesting that he’d happily talk to me in German if I’d wanted.
After we set off the less-angry of my cabin crew offered me the spare cabin next door to us so it would be less cramped and so Maria (who had become my girlfriend by assumption) could join me. She did just that and naturally they tried to extort 10 Euros from her if she wanted to stay. So much for the friendly offer…
Anyway, we wobbled our way to the border Chop where we left the EU and rumbled back into the Russian ‘sphere of influence’. The English speaking Hungarian guard wished me a happy journey and as I type, the Ukrainian commando-style military woman in doing something with my customs form and passport. Last time a Ukrainian made off with my passport it also took 3 hours.
I’m now waiting to be lifted into the air so they can change the wheels (for those who don’t know) train-tracks in the ex-USSR are wider than the European standard and the solution is… to change the train wheels! (yes, really) and then we’re off to Ukraine. Maria modestly asked my not to make her ashamed by complaining that Ukraine is shitty. I’ll try not to and, as I enjoy this part of the world anyway – it shouldn’t be difficult.
Saturday 11th April
If economic development could be measured in military uniforms, the amount of leather jackets/trousers/hats or indeed the circumference of police hats – Ukraine would be on top of any world development indexes. Sadly, it’s not but if you’re used to a life in the ‘West’ it offers an interesting experience and despite the absence of customer service it’s not a bad place.
Anyway, I’m here – happily installed in my Moldovan apartment and although I’ve had a headache all day and lost my sunglasses (this will be no surprise to most of you) – everything is good.
After our train-wheels were swapped in Ukraine and I had my passport back (yes it took 3 hours again) we bedded down and woke up somewhere in the middle of the incredibly large territory of Ukraine. I guess we were somewhere high because there was snow outside. Luckily this is not a problem in a Russian night-train carriage as they simply fill the fire with more coal, serve tea in fancy glasses and everyone continues on as before. With a quick stop in Lviv so Maria could buy her onward ticket to Kiev and my ticket to Chisinau, we spent the rest of the journey watching DVD’s, drinking beer and eating some Ukrainian pasta/potato dish with sour-cream that we bought from a track-side babushka.
I spent an hour in Vihnica (probably not spelt like that) shopping for food at a crazy but busy little market, being messed about by the ‘information’ office who sent me to the wrong platform and people watching. In front of the station, proudly smoking a strong smelling cigar was an old Military man who’s hat was as wide as he was tall and all around him were communist grandmas, men in leather and girls in miniskirts, tight jeans and high-heels. On the opposite side of my platform was a teenage girl dressed as a pink fairy and next to me was a man in a leather suit jacket. I asked a young guy if I was at the right platform for Chisinau and he said yes and then shouted something victorious sounding and punched the air.
I sat on my suitcase until the train arrived and I clambered on Plus-Car (cheap carriage) number 10. The rest of the trip was as uncomfortable as it was amusing. Firstly, I caused quite a stir simply for being English and although nobody spoke English this didn’t stop them from forming a semi-circle around me and asking question after question which of course I didn’t understand. All I had was a note book with the following written in Russian…
“I’m a student studying in Hungary”
“I’m going to Chisinau to visit some friends” and
“Which is the platform for the train to Chisinau?”
Thankfully this was enough and after much debate and after everyone had read my passport they let me read make my bed (if you can call it a bed) in peace. The conductor was a short guy with big eyes, scruffy black hair and a big mustache, the guy at the end was a stocky, mean looking guy in a vest, black tracksuit and leather flat-cap and opposite me was a civilized looking woman in her late fifties. The train, with its open carriage full of metal beds (filled in turn with bored looking people) and ‘old’ smell reminded me of hospital, of a war film and of a Michael Palin pole-to-pole episode all at the same time. The passengers were more like characters from from creature comforts.
After the initial excitement died down, I got some sleep, read my book and at 9pm I was treated to cake, tea and honey by the civilized woman and her friend, another civilized looking old woman.
I was a little worried about the border crossing, firstly because of the political trouble and riots in Chisinau (after the communist party won the (rigged?) election last week*) and secondly because I didn’t have an exit stamp in my passport from my last trip here. I didn’t have an exit stamp because I left via the unrecognized territory of Transnistria and Moldova doesn’t recognize the borders however, it wasn’t a problem because the border guard didn’t see the stamp (probably because it’s upside down) and he happily stamped me back in to Moldova. However the Ukrainian guard too a little more convincing to let me out of Ukraine. He was a nosy shit asking all sorts of questions and seemed unconvincingly concerned by the fact that I didn’t have a Moldovan visa which, as he probably knows – I don’t need. Anyway, I played along and paid him off with a huge bribe of one British pound. I’m not sure if he’ll ever get the chance to spend it but – he seemed happy enough.
So, although I barely slept and it was uncomfortable as hell – my super cheap train (15 Euros for a 16 hour ride) was pretty uneventful. I arrived at 7.30 and within an hour I was exchanging money with Silvia my landlady for the week. I’m back in Moldova.
* See here for an interesting article about the Moldovan election
…or, at least it would appear that way as my Moldovan Internet cafe doesn’t serve-up Facebook 🙁
How am I supposed to check is any one’s ‘tagged me’ in a compromising photo?
How can I live not knowing who’s completed a shit quiz or received an online pet??
Anyway, until my face starts working again please use old-school email or text me on my posh new Moldovan mobile number: +373…. oh, it appears that I threw the number away 🙁 email me – ian at bearder.com, it’s the best way.
BTW, So far as I can tell, it’s business as usual in Chisinau. No rioting this afternoon.
PS, assumptions made in this post are exactly that – assumptions. I have no proof whatsoever that the facebook failure is a communist conspiracy or that my friends are involved with shit quizzes. It just appears this way