Loving Chișinău in its beauty, grit, and complexity

For this fall semester, I help run a weekly event at a community center: it is a cross between a Greek life mixer / church youth group / Oprah segment. We don’t have a good name for it, but it gives students in Chisinau a safe place to make friends and get a break from life.

Even though our feelings are a little mixed about it, we do spend a lot of time each week developing content. Most of the content, unfortunately, won’t be useful to us in the future as it a) is geared towards young adults and b) highlights Moldovan culture in the Romanian language. BUT, one bit of content that I am happy to have is all the photos in this blog post.

For the past week or two, I’ve been taking pictures of Chișinău landmarks as I wander around the city. I’ll use them this week for an activity with the students, but I must say I myself am happy to have them. It’s a constant struggle to share our daily life in Moldova with our friends and family. [Or maybe the struggle is that it’s actually not that interesting to other people?!?] Either way, these photos represent some of the most iconic places in Chișinău, but they are also the things we see on an almost daily basis.

Arcul de Triumf

The Arc de Triumf is one of the most famous landmarks in Chișinău. It is directly across from the Piața Marii Adunări Naționale, which is where ~750,000 Moldovans gathered on August 27, 1989 to demand from communist leaders the ability to write Romanian in Latin script.

Perhaps a little history is in order here. Language in Moldova has been real complicated since the 1800s when Russia won the region from the Turkish Empire. For over 200 years, Russia and the USSR subjected Moldovans to a variety of language initiatives. During certain eras they encouraged the use of a distinct Moldavian language with unique vocabulary, thereby magnifying differences with Romania. In other eras they encouraged the use of only Russian. Following WWII, they demanded that Moldovans write their native tongue (Romanian), in Cyrillic letters. They called this written language Moldavian.

The Moldavian Language

It’s been interesting to me to figure out what Moldavian is exactly. Is it truly a distinct language? Or perhaps just a dialect? Maybe it is merely Romanian written with different letters?

Upon first arriving in Moldova, I was inclined to say that Moldavian is simply Romanian with just a couple of new words. Or at most, it was a blending of Russian and Romanian within the same sentence. The longer I am here, the more I am inclined to say that it is unique. The students I work with know to teach me the Romanian words for objects and not the Moldovan ones.

Okay – back to my pictures. Below you will see a plaque that is found on the Arc de Triumf. Can you identify the two languages on the plaque?

The bottom text is Russian – Russian words written in Cyrillic text. The top is what people would consider written Moldavian – that is, Romanian words written in Cyrillic text. If Daniel knew the sounds for each of the Cyrillic characters, the top text would be perfectly legible to him as a Romanian speaker (even though he does not speak Moldavian).

Do any of you find it ironic that this plaque written in Moldavian and Russian exists directly across the street from the location where close to one million Moldovans gathered to demand the ability to write Romanian in Latin characters?

One of these things is not Ex-pat friendly

Whew – that was quite the linguistic history lesson for you there. Let’s move on to lighter things…like ex-pat life in this city.

Life as an ex-pat in Chișinău is VERY easy. For starters, the value of 1 USD goes a long way in this country. And let’s not forget that Moldovans are often fascinated by foreigners who want to come to their country. I receive a gold star simply by being an American in this country. But when they hear me try to speak in Romanian? That is when gold starts just fall from the sky all around me. It’s unicorn time, people. (Or they get super annoyed at me…but generally it’s stars and unicorns).

Living the Ex-pat Dream

I digress – back to the cost of living. Because the dollar is so strong compared to the Moldovan lei, we find it extremely cheap to eat out at nice establishments. Two such establishments frequented by foreigners are Tucano Coffee and Andy’s Food Market.

Tucano Coffee was founded by a Moldovan 8 or so years ago. Consider Tucano the Starbucks of Moldova. (There is not a single Starbucks in this country). The cappuccinos are around $2-3 USD – cheaper than in the US, but much more expensive than the $0.60 USD cappuccinos you can buy from vendors on the street. At Tucano, though, you are paying for that coffee shop vibe; wealthy Moldovans and ex-pats alike gather here to work on their laptops.

Andy’s Food Market is another ex-pat staple as it has a set menu of safe “international” food. Again, Andy’s is pricey for a Moldovan living off an average salary. But we consider it a bargain that we can have a soup, a salad, and a large cappuccino (tax and tip included) for $6-8 USD.

Something most Ex-pats don’t do? That would be ride the trolleybus or the minibuses you see in the above picture. We are one of the few ex-pats we know who don’t have a car in this country. (Well…us and all the Peace Corps volunteers.) Although that’s not for lack of trying

Grădina Publică “Stefan cel Mare și Sfânt”

Rivaling the Arc de Triumf in notoriety is the Stefan cel Mare statue in Chișinău’s central park. Are you ready for another brief history lesson on the importance of our friend Stefan?

Stefan cel Mare și Sfânt (Steven the Great and Saint) is one of the few historical figures that both Romanians and the Soviets embraced during their stints as bosses of Moldova. Why is this? Well, Stefan (1457-1504) was leader during the only time prior to present day that the Moldovan region (encompassing both present day Moldova as well as portions of Romania) was truly independent. During his reign, he fought off the Turkish armies and united a large area of land under his rule.

Romanians liked him because he is considered a Romanian leader. They believed Moldova to be a part of Romania that had been co-opted by the Russians. The communists liked him because he created an independent Moldavia – thereby justifying their own creation of a Moldovan Republic distinct from Romania (though part of the USSR).

In any case, this man lends his name to the most manicured park in Chișinău. It is a lovely place full of benches, statues, flowers, and a central fountain. On any given day you will find small children playing, teens making out on benches, Jehovah’s Witnesses setting up stands, and older adults dancing to recorded music.

Lacul “Valea Morilor”

A mile or less from Grădina Publică Stefan cel Mare și Sfânt is another popular park. Valea Morilor boasts a decent-sized lake surrounded by a 1.5 mile walking path, trees, and several ornate stairs leading up to the surrounding streets.

It is one of our favorite places to run, but timing is everything. During the morning and early afternoon, the park contains just a few walkers, bicyclists, and sun bathers. Every evening, though, it is packed with families. I try to celebrate the fact that families are enjoying the outdoors, even as I become frustrated by dodging the frenzied mix of kids on bikes, teens on scooters, and random pony rides. Oh – and let’s not forget the brides that flock to his park for photos. On one jog around the lake we saw NINE different brides posing for wedding photos. Just yesterday I saw six brides during my 20 minute workout.

Piața Centrala

The last stop on this photo tour rivals the Arc de Triumf and Stefan cel Mare statue in importance. The Piăța Centrală is Chișinău’s largest outdoor market and it is open every day of the week. I took the pictures below on a Tuesday afternoon; I wouldn’t dream of attempting pictures on a busy weekend shopping day.

Moldovans come from across the city – and even from surrounding villages – to do their weekly shopping at the Piață. Public transportation on weekends is full of women with large bags of produce, bread, and other items. Truly you can find just about anything you need at the Piață….and usually for a very good price. Fruits, vegetables, fresh fish, pots and pans, car parts, perfume, toilet paper – the only limitation is the capacity of your own arms to carry what you bought.

Although Moldovans regularly do their shopping at Piața Centrală, ex-pats go there more for the experience. As an American, I don’t need to battle crowds to find the cheapest deals to feed my family. A Moldovan, however, might do just that. To give you an idea of what I mean, look at these prices below:

The number is in Moldovan lei. (Remember: $1 USD is close to 18 lei.) And the number is generally price per kilogram. (Remember: 1 kg = 2.2 pounds). So dried apricots are roughly $1 USD for 2.2 pounds. At the grocery story right now, apples are just under 0.50 cents (USD) for 2.2 pounds. I bet you that price is even lower at Piața Centrală.