the place between there and there
When we first told people we were going to be posted to Chisinau, we would generally receive one of two responses. Half of the people knew somebody from Moldova. The other half had no idea where in the world this country is located and a few even thought we were pulling their leg and making up a fictitious place. As a colleague who is posted here quipped, serving in Chisinau one quickly learns to stem the inevitable tide of further questions by saying in one breath, “Moldova, between Romania and Ukraine,” as if this was the full title of the country.
So, what is it like in this oft overlooked corner of Eastern Europe? We picked a great time to move to Moldova. This region used to provide a good deal of the fresh produce for the Soviet Union, and the country has remained true to its agricultural roots since independence. The fresh produce is both varied and delicious. Moldovans tend to discuss harvest seasons the way others discuss the weather. We are in grape season now, by the way. Unfortunately, the fresh crops won’t last year-round like they do on the equator. Already, in the two weeks that D has been here, the weather has cooled off noticeably. The summer heat has given way to the pleasantly warm beginning of fall. S is preparing her canning gear so that we can continue enjoying the fresh taste of summer fruits and veggies when winter descends.
Moldova’s cultural and linguistic heritage bears the unmistakeable imprint of a country that has spent most of its history under the rule of various bigger regional powers. There is a sizable ethnic Russian minority, and in Chisinau D has yet to find anyone who does not understand Russian. However, the country’s national language is Romanian, and not only do most people prefer to speak it, but also there are many places outside the capital where it is the only language. Those Moldovans who have a stronger affinity for Romania or who espouse nationalistic sentiments get frustrated with their countrymen who refuse to learn Romanian, as a significant minority do. When we traveled outside Chisinau recently, D also found himself on the receiving end of one or two nasty looks when he spoke Russian to people. When we stopped to buy ice cream in a small kiosk, the vendor twice repeated the price in Romanian before spitting out the Russian word when D asked again for clarification.
The dual languages add an extra level of confusion for S, who will resume her Russian studies next month. Most of the restaurants, for example, employ Russian-speaking wait staff. Most of the street signs, on the other hand, are in Romanian, as are the recorded announcements in the public transport vehicles. Although D doesn’t need Romanian to get by, he has also signed up for language classes. The two languages are completely dissimilar, as Romanian is a Romance language, though Moldovans do at times mix the two in amusing ways. For example, a colleague recently recounted how it took two Americans to decipher an opera programme that had been printed in cyrillic script but used Romanian words. The one who spoke Russian read the text aloud without understanding its meaning, while the one who spoke Romanian translated the words she was unable to read.
We have barely begun our Moldovan adventures, but our initial impressions are favorable. The people seem friendly and welcoming. In Kenya, we largely hung out with other expats and made few friends amongst the locals. The international community is much smaller here — a real fishbowl — so we hope to make more Moldovan friends, and through them learn more about this country and its culture.