You know your parents love you when they drop thousands of dollars to come visit you in a country that most Americans have never heard of.
I don’t know that I can fully describe what a gift it was to have them in Moldova. Even with blog posts and phone calls, it’s impossible to share the full experience of living in a different country with those you left at home. So when my parents came, they were able to see the neighborhood where we live, they went to our grocery store, they visited the student center. And of course, they had some distinctly Moldovan experiences.
But perhaps even more important to me than the sharing of names, places, and experiences, is the support they gave. They listened to us talk about everything we knew about Chișinău and Moldova for literal hours…long after it stopped being interesting. What started as “tour guiding” quickly turned into a neutral vent session. I wouldn’t say that we were necessarily venting negative feelings about the country, we were just sharing all the things we’ve learned and felt about this place in our time here.
Yet through it all, Mom and Dad listened attentively and asked all the right questions. They jumped right into all the things we threw at them, and Dad even did so with a pretty nasty head cold. But more to come on that later.
Buiucani is the name of the region in Chișinău where we live. It’s close to downtown, but not necessarily the place a tourist would explore. Wanting my parents to be close, though, we purposely found a hotel within walking distance of our apartment. I would say the hotel was a pleasant – but very Moldovan – experience. There is a 24 hour security guard who probably speaks only Russian and minimal Romanian. The showers in the bathrooms have hand-held shower heads only. (I’m not sure why, but I don’t usually see shower heads mounted on the walls in this part of the world.) The rooms are large, with a full-sized kitchen table in addition to a “kitchenette”. However, said kitchenette lacks a stove, refrigerator, or microwave. It’s pretty much just a sink and empty cabinets.
The service, though, was very hospitable. Anna (the proprietor) was extremely concerned that my parents ordered breakfast every morning, even if they didn’t want it. And as I said, the hotel is within walking distance of our apartment. The walk, too, is rather lovely. On first glance your eye might focus on the imposing fences and crumbling road. But in reality, the neighborhood has large old houses with fruit trees and grape vines showing through the walls. Often you can just glimpse a bunică (grandmother) hanging laundry in her yard.
Same things, different seasons, new eyes
I think one of the great things about having visitors – especially this deep into our time here – is seeing things with new eyes. My parents had a fresh perspective on some of the hilarious signs – including the one telling restaurant guests not to stand on the toilet seat when using the bathroom. As I’ve grown accustomed to Moldova I forget how unusual some things seem to an American!
Another perk, though, is re-visiting sites in a new season. As you know, we’ve visited the Jewish Cemetery by our house several times before. But that was in the early spring, when the ground was still bare and the entire cemetery was walkable. Visiting the cemetery in the fall felt like a different experience. In some ways it was more beautiful – with lush greenery contrasting the stark tombstones. But in other ways it was more sad than ever in its completely overgrown state.
And in fact, I think it was helpful to think aloud with my parents regarding the horrors in Europe that led – among many other unspeakable things – to the degradation of this particular cemetery. As an American living abroad I have the temptation to view the whole thing as an outsider. But as a human I have a lot more self-reflecting to do. Reflecting with my parents on this location helped me bring order and clarity to my thoughts.
But of course this melancholic stop was just a small part of our trip. As I said, we tried to share just about everything in our Moldovan life with my parents. Which means….
An intro to OUR life
…that of course we took them to the student center where we volunteer. And boy were they troopers!! It’s a bit of a switch to feel proud of your parents, when it seems like all of childhood is the inverse. And yet I was truly proud of them. Despite language and age and cultural barriers they jumped right in to the English Club they visited on Tuesday night.
And when I say jump – I really mean it. That night we were short on native English speakers, so my parents took over their own table of 7 or 8 Moldovans and bravely carried on a conversation about fall traditions in America. I plopped them down at a table and left them there for 90 minutes. They were wonderful as they gracefully fielded the frequent question of “What do you really think of Moldova?”
And the real kicker, my Mom spent both the evening of her birthday and the night after at the student center. You can see her in the 2nd picture below blowing out candles with two Moldovans who also had birthdays around that time.
But don’t you worry – it wasn’t all sad cemeteries and obligatory volunteering. We also tried to do a couple of fun and characteristically “Moldovan” things with my parents.
One of those things was a visit to the wine cellars at Mileștii Mici. If you remember, Daniel and I already visited the Cricova wine cellars back in the spring. Cricova boasts extensive underground wine storage tunnels, but apparently Mileștii Mici beats them out by some kilometers.
We have discovered that wine is a huge part of local culture. Many Moldovans grow their own grapes and ferment their own wine at home. And though until recently Moldova was recognized mostly for its wine storage, it is currently working hard to break in to the international wine market itslef.
Therefore, it seemed quite appropriate to introduce my parents to this side of Moldova.
Upon arriving at the winery, a Moldovan doppleganger of my cousin Ben (eerily similar in looks and mannerisms) hopped into our car with us and directed us down into the caves.
We made a couple of stops along the way to admire the cutting pattern from the limestone extraction (the initial purpose for these vast tunnels) as well as the wine collections themselves.
One especially interesting spot was a secret cavern created during Gorbachev’s anti-alcohol campaign of the late 1980s. The Moldovans were worried their wine might be destroyed as part of this campaign, so they made a secret hiding place for it.
Of course, there is no hiding of wine in this day and age. All the wine is displayed in the little vaults you see below. We were told that a year’s rent for one of these vaults is just a few hundred Euros as well as the purchase of 50 bottles of Milestii Mici wine. Just in case anyone is interested in storing their personal collection in the ideal conditions of Moldovan limestone tunnels….
And a Moldovan feast
Following our tour, we settled into a large and luxurious room for a tasting. In my opinion, the tasting portion of the tour at Mileștii Mici far outweighed that of Cricova. Cricova has one simple tasting, but at Mileștii Mici you can choose from different packages. We chose the “Moldova” package which included traditional food and 4 different wines.
The food was delicious and included zeamă (Moldovan chicken noodle soup), mămăligă (polenta), sour cream, goat cheese, seasoned pork, bread/cheese/tomato/meat for an appetizer, and cake for dessert. And I can’t forget the violinist and accordion player who came to our table. They played an Elvis song for the Americans at the table, as well as a song traditional to Daniel’s region of Romania. How about that – lunch and a show?!
Despite being underground, the ambiance added to the food and the wine to create a really lovely experience. I would highly recommend!
A funny little side story
Oh – and before I forget. Remember how I told you my Dad was feeling pretty sick during his days in Moldova? Well, before we went to Mileștii Mici, we made a stop at a pharmacist to pick up some medication for him. Per the usual, we talked to the pharmacist about his symptoms and received the equivalent of menthol throat drops and a round of antibiotics (without a doctor’s prescription of course!) Pharmacies in Moldova are ever-interesting to me.
In any case, we went along with our day and had the aforementioned lovely time at Mileștii Mici. The trouble occurred after arriving at home much later that afternoon: I couldn’t find my credit card. I could have sworn I put it back in my bag after the pharmacy. So I called Mileștii Mici and had a less than pleasant conversation when I asked if anyone had seen it there.
Feeling upset, I tried to call the pharmacy. On the second try, a woman picked up and confirmed they had my card! Daniel and I raced over there, and we were greeted by the very same pharmacist who sold us the medication that morning. She was so flustered on my behalf. Paraphrasing in English she basically kept saying, “I was so worried that I wouldn’t find you! There was no phone number on the card to call! Glory be to God that you came back for your card!”
I’ve never had anyone be more worried than ME about something I lost. It was so sweet. And I have since vowed that I only want to go to her for my future pharmacy needs….even though it’s not really that close to home…
…and despite the fact that my Dad’s pharmacy experience was just a little different than mine. Let him tell you about that:
I recall being given an antibiotic that I later learned from WebMD is effective in the treatment of Gonorrhea in women…I later learned from reading the ultra-tiny fine print English on the package [that the antibiotics are] ‘especially developed for cleaning the genital area.’
(Just a reminder that he received this medication for a sinus infection.) So yeah, this story all together about sums up a trip to the pharmacy in Moldova.
The final stop with my parents was a trip to see the solitary monk at Orhei Vechi. Again, I enjoyed seeing this familiar place in a new season. The drive from Chișinău takes you along a generally flat area (albeit with low scrubby hills). Then almost without warning, you suddenly drop into the Orhei Vechi valley and see the Orthodox church glinting on the ridge.
We stopped in the monastery built into the ridge itself, and I’m so glad my Dad was brave enough to take pictures. I’m always afraid of being offensive, but the monastery is pretty interesting. The low ceilings have the markings of being carved by hand. Although decorated more simply than most Orthodox churches, the room is still adorned with gilded icons.
And then there is the monk himself. For some reason I loved the mix of old and new in his outfit. He had on his traditional black robes, but then had covered it with a puffy vest. He was just one pair of Ugg boots away from trendy fall fashion.
After leaving the monastery, we completed the walk up the crest of the hill and visited the church. A small wedding party was taking pictures around the grounds, and I smiled to see it. I tend to find the physical Orthodox Church imposing and stifling. So seeing a wedding party was a breath of new life to my preconceptions.
Though I still stand by my opinion that the Orthodox church has an imposing quality. Just take a look at the pictures below. Although I love the rich colors, I can’t imagine ever feeling comfortable in this space. And yet, can you imagine an Orthodox believer attending a polished American mega-church? I have to believe they would feel the presence of God had been sucked straight out of the place.
All in all – a fantastic trip
Whereas our time together in Istanbul was ultimate tourism, the time in Moldova was a little bit “other”. And as I said, Mom and Dad were the most willing travel companions for this “other” experience. From now on we should probably call them Pavel and Trudi (with a rolled “r”).