We had planned to spend last weekend in Ukraine. There was an indoor frisbee tournament at a sports complex outside Odessa, the seaside Ukrainian resort town that is just across Moldova’s south-eastern border. While D played, S intended to do some touristing with Munchkin, with the hopes that D would save a little energy to go out with her in the evenings. Among its attractions, Odessa has an excellent restaurant scene and a well-regarded opera house. Unfortunately, an administrative snafu (emphasis on the last two letters) forced us to cancel the trip just hours before our planned departure.
Our initial reaction was one of bitter frustration, but life is too short to stay bitter for too long. And besides, as the Spanish are fond of saying, no hay mal que por bien no venga. We endeavored to fill the weekend with last-minute plans to take advantage of our unexpected stay in Chisinau. On Saturday, we took Munchkin to a birthday party for one of his playmates, who turned 1 two days before him. And on Sunday we hosted a baby party of our own, moving up Munchkin’s birthday celebration from the following weekend so that it fell closer to his actual date of birth.
One of the things we enjoy most about living in Chisinau is that many seemingly commonplace activities acquire a distinctively surreal quality here. To a certain extent this is true for any expatriate living in any foreign land. Long after one becomes integrated and accustomed to the idiosyncrasies of one’s adoptive country, certain things continue to seem a little strange. Still, this little corner of post-Soviet democracy tends to evoke such feelings with more regularity than other places we’ve lived.
Friday evening, for example, we went out for some ping pong and bowling with a group of friends. There are many places for the latter, but not as many venues for the former. One of our Moldovan friends suggested the Megapolis mall, which has both. Lying on the outskirts of Chisinau, Megapolis was initially built to be the USSR’s largest computer and software factory. It was meant to be the Soviet Union’s answer to Silicon Valley, but like many late-Soviet-era designs on global domination, its dream went unrealized with the USSR’s collapse.
After lying abandoned for some years, the property was bought by Chinese investors, who converted it into a massive mall, where all of the concessions, restaurants, and retail outlets are run by Chinese businessmen. This is somewhat remarkable, as the surly Chinese man who manned the combination bowling alley/pool hall may well have been the first Asian person we have seen in Chisinau. Certainly there are none in the several Asian-themed restaurants we frequent.
The ping pong tables are on the fourth floor — in a room that stretches endlessly along the high-ceilinged corridor. There were at least five or six dozen tables, most of them occupied. A few people had the same idea as we did and accompanied their ping pong play with beers. Many others, however, took a much more serious approach to the game, and looked like they could have been auditioning for a spot on the national ping pong team. The sounds of so many ping pong balls bouncing asynchronously was both hypnotic and slightly intimidating, almost as if admonishing us for not taking the game as seriously as it deserves.
Megapolis stays open until midnight, but for some reason the bowling alley shut down early, so we drove to another place, which combined bowling with the atmosphere of a late-night discotheque. There was thumping techno music, a smoke machine by the bar, and an MC who tried to rev up the crowd of Friday night bowlers. Periodically the MC announced competitions between the different lanes: the first group of patrons to bowl ten strikes and/or spares was awarded their choice of several prizes. In this way, S wound up being the beneficiary of a pair of piña coladas thanks to our friends’ unexpectedly strong bowling skills.
Normally, we leave our computers at home when we travel. Because this was supposed to be a travel weekend, D suggested we try to unplug and limit our screen time even though we stayed home. It proved nearly impossible. Despite our late Friday night and the two birthday parties, we still caught ourselves sneaking a quick peek at Facebook every now and then and aimlessly scrolling through the Internet’s brainless offerings on our phones. We did spend much less time in front of our computers than we do on a normal weekend, and D read through several hundred pages of the novel he had started in Portugal and abandoned when we returned. Overall, we give our efforts to unplug a B-, but it was a worthwhile exercise, and one we’ll try to repeat in the future.
We also normally do not talk about the exchange rate, but to give context: a combination of external factors and a banking scandal recently sent Moldova’s currency on a bit of a downward spiral, from which it is just now beginning to recover.