Exploring Moldova through its pools: where Soviet and modern and rich and poor mix

Why is it so dang hot?

On and off during the course of this summer in Chișinău it has been REALLY hot. To be fair, I don’t think it’s any worse than some of the temperatures we experience in the course of a Madison summer. However, our lifestyle in Chișinău seems a lot more sensitive to the heat. For example, if it is 95 F in Madison then you might need to start your car a little early before you drive anywhere in order to get the AC running well. But for the most part, in the U.S. it is possible to move from air conditioned house to air conditioned car to mega air conditioned grocery store, etc.

In Moldova, we have no car. And you better believe that public transportation is always at least 10 F hotter than it is outside. Though we run AC in our apartment, the AC in most stores and restaurants is a little….lacking. What is more, it feels like the eternal amounts of concrete in this city emanate back the heat so it is coming at you from all sides. For these reasons, Daniel has taken to packing an extra shirt whenever we go anywhere. He soaks through one on the trip and then changes into a fresh one when we arrive at our destination.

Humans are not supposed to live like this….

All this feels doable…….for like a day. After a couple of days camping out in our AC-ed apartment, though, we got a little antsy. Thus began the search: what can we do outside of our apartment when it is 95 F?

One viable option is the mall (called Malldova), but malls generally make us sad. Quickly we eliminated that option. We then turned to the internet. And there we found – miracle of miracles – some pool options. The only pools I had ever heard of up to this point were linked to saunas or gyms. They don’t provide options for one day passes. But Facebook showed us two possibilities: a water park outside of Chișinău and a pool in the city center.

Everything is more complicated as a foreigner in a new country

With only a few hours left before Daniel started his work day, we set our focus on the pool in the city center. Daniel called them to verify they were real – and they were! The lady on the phone confirmed that we could pay a one time fee for swimming (~3 USD per person), that we needed to bring indoor sandals with us, and also something about 12:45. The 12:45 part didn’t really make sense to us, but everything else seemed fine. So off we went.

We started our adventure on the sauna that is the trolleybus in the summer. Emerging 15 or so minutes later, dripping in sweat, we nonetheless headed excitedly to the pool. Everything following is classic “I had no idea how many things I take for granted that I simply understand in the U.S.” For starters, even the door was hard to find. But once we got inside, it got even stranger.

There was a lobby with 3 different “windows” into various closets, offices, etc. There were older women at each of these windows, but nobody said anything to us. We looked at some signs that made minimal sense (even to my fluent Romanian husband), and then finally approached the window that sold tickets. The lady inside was ruffling through papers and didn’t even look up to acknowledge us. We stood there.

Finally, a woman from another window came over and explained that swimmers were only allowed in the pool once an hour. At 10 minutes to every hour, swimmers would be allowed in to the locker rooms to change. Then they could swim for 45 minutes before they would be required to get out and allow a new batch of swimmers into the pool. (So that’s what the lady meant on the phone about 12:45….) We looked at the clock: 2 PM.

And this is why everything takes so long for us to do…

With 45 minutes to kill, we made our way to a nearby cafe. I am not ashamed to admit that our pre-swim snack involved coffee and a dessert. Due to the relaxed pace of Moldovan restaurants, we just had time to finish before we needed to be back at the pool.

So here goes attempt #2. This time when we entered the lobby area there was already a line of people (mostly kids) at the ticket counter. A teen-aged girl shamelessly cut right in front of us and I remembered again that I wasn’t in Madison. Nevertheless, we bought our tickets and sat down on a bench to change into our indoor sandals. (Side note: the Romanian word for flip-flop is șlapi (shlahp-ee) and I LOVE it. It is totally an onomatopoeia.)

After changing our shoes, things got confusing again. We followed the crowd over to another one of the windows where people were leaving their outside shoes. We tried to give the Romanian lady ours, but she wouldn’t take them. Apparently (except not apparent to us at all), the shoes HAD to be in a plastic bag. We ended up buying a bag from her for 1 lei (i.e. 6 cents). (Thank goodness all the unexpectedness is so cheap in Moldova! Can you imagine how much this would have cost in SF if they followed the same system??). The reason for this rigmarole is that the only way you could get a key for a locker is if you left your shoes as collateral – which also ensured that no one walked into the locker room with outside shoes.

Finally we presented our ticket to another lady and proceeded down the stairs to the locker room.

A legit Soviet Era Pool

The locker room felt like every pool locker room I have ever been in. Damp and slightly awkward. I changed, showered quickly, and then went outside to the pool. The pool seemed like it might have been a nice competition pool in the 1970s. It was entirely concrete and divided into lanes. Various swim records were posted on the walls of the surrounding buildings. The pool itself was surrounded on three sides by 2-3 story buildings of unknown use, and the fourth side was fenced in from the parking lot.

It was a fairly diverse crowd in the pool (at least by Moldova standards.) Some people appeared to be legitimate swimmers – they mostly stayed to the inner lanes. Rowdy kids claimed one edge of the pool to jump in and splash around. The other edge held swimming lessons. From what I saw, there was a lot of whistling and minimal instruction during the lessons.

Despite the confusion, chaos, and overall concrete decor – the pool was lovely. Perfect for a hot day and just the right amount of exercise. We have plans to go back. But hopefully the next time we won’t stick out as utterly clueless about all things Soviet-era swimming.

When it’s still hotter than Hades

The next day dawned as another scorcher. Although Daniel would have been happy to go back to the same swimming pool. I had my eye on the water park that we had seen on the internet the day before. This time we started our day earlier – planning to be back before Daniel had to start work. We packed our bags with suits and towels, and headed for the bus station in the city center.

Again, it was a blazing inferno on the trolley bus to the center. And honestly, stepping off the trolley bus didn’t improve the situation all that much. It was simply too hot to be outside in concrete-covered Chișinău. We rushed around the bus station trying to find the right ticket counter in order to get tickets for the micro bus to the water park. (There are like 10+ different places to buy tickets scattered across a couple blocks.) Thankfully we found the right counter and bought the tickets with just 10 minutes to spare before the bus left. Having ridden micro buses before, we knew better than to get on until we had to. Just like trolley buses, they are generally cramped and hot.

Our microbus is the blue one behind us

The closest I have come to feeling like I might die on public transporation

Okay – yes – sometimes I am a little dramatic. But friends, I’m not exaggerating about this trip. When we got onto the micro bus there was only room for us to stand in the aisle along the right side of the bus. (Don’t get me started about seats and seat belts and general safety…..I just turn off that part of my brain every time I travel in Moldova.) Honestly, standing in an aisle is sometimes the best place to be because you can get closer to a window with some air flow. Remember – public transportation does not have AC in Moldova.

The thing I failed to take into consideration was the stop and go traffic in the city. Meaning that for probably 20 minutes of our 40 minute ride we were at a standstill in a crowded metal bus that had to have been hotter than 105 F inside. I literally felt ill. I was nauseous and sweating from places that you aren’t supposed to sweat. Any of you ever sweat from your knee caps? Now I have. It sucks.

I honestly don’t even know how to describe how miserable it was. And you know the thing? I was miserable on one day on my way to an expensive water park that I can afford because I’m American. But I was surrounded by older Moldovan women wearing scarves on their heads and carrying bags full of potatoes. Their faces were red like tomatoes, and they too were sweating profusely. These women have to do their grocery shopping day in and day out whether it is 100 F or 0 F.

Talk about humbling.

Always holding the two extremes in tension

And I suppose it is the contradictions like these that are so challenging to my spirit. We did end up surviving the microbus ride. We arrived at the water park and paid ~12 USD each for a day pass. It was an American price, and it certainly delivered an American experience. There was a large circular pool surrounded by lounge chairs and umbrellas, complete with a swim up bar. Another shallow, large circular pool held small slides and playgrounds for children. Up the hill and behind us were at least 5 different long, winding slides. It was lovely.

But of course, lovely in a different way than our Soviet lap pool experience. Lovely in a more conflicting way. The lap pool probably drew more average Moldovans. The water park was certainly for the rich. And is it wrong to enjoy nice things when you have the money for it? I would be a hypocrite if I said yes. Daniel and myself are wealthy enough that we were able to quit our jobs for a year and live in Moldova (albeit the poorest country in Europe) without working. We definitely take the time and money to enjoy the things that we like.

BUT. I hope that we will always try to embrace the tension. In this case it was taking a microbus when we could afford a private taxi to the water park. (I must be honest – we DID take a private taxi home. And it cost us like 10 USD). By sweating from my kneecaps I experienced the reality of life for the vast majority of the world’s population. It’s really hard for a lot of people in the world.  I don’t want to forget that.