31 October 2009

Eastern Hospitality

Over the past two weeks, we have gotten a glimpse into Moldovan life outside of Chisinau, but we have also seen a more intimate portrait of life within the city itself. Last weekend, we were invited as guests to the house of some very kind people that we met at the winery, and last night, we had someone over for dinner who has lived in Moldova for his entire life. In both of these scenarios, we were offered insight into Moldovan culture that aptly corresponded with many of our first impressions. That is to say that we have met some genuinely good people in the relatively short amount of time that we have been here.

Granted, the language barrier continues to be an issue. In this regard, even small talk has proven challenging. For example, it took Victor - our dinner guest who works in the building where we live and speaks very limited English - about five minutes to explain that he is the youngest of four boys and that the rest of his family live in a village about an hour from here. On the same token, rather than explain that Jamie was born in Detroit and has lived in Cincinnati, Greece and Grand Rapids, Michigan as a kid, which is where we met before living out on the west coast and then moving to a small town about an hour outside of Chicago, it was easier to just say that we're from Chicago. All in all, it was both enlightening and to be honest, a little exhausting, but it was nonetheless a great opportunity learn something about life in Moldova, not to mention practice our Romanian with a native speaker.

Last week, I was also able to get some great footage of the changing season in the park at the heart of downtown Chisinau. There were a lot of people walking around as golden leaves cascaded from the trees and blanketed the paths. It was not uncommon to see couples making out on park benches or young professionals working on laptops, taking advantage of the free wi-fi. There were vendors selling popcorn, juice and coffee, and amidst the relaxed atmosphere, it was easy to forget that we in the middle of a thriving metropolis. Chisinau truly has some beautiful parks, and nearly every street in the city is lined with old trees that are full of character. Sure, much of the architecture is standard fare Communist bloc design, where it was all more or less designed with the same aesthetic - as opposed to buildings in American cities that express the individualism of its tenants and the architects who initially designed the structures - but Chisinau makes up for it with its many trees and its many beautiful people.

24 October 2009

A Drive in the Country

On Thursday, we went to the world's largest underground wine cellar. Milestii Mici, about fifteen miles south of Chisinau, has over 200 kilometers (124 miles) of tunnels. These are former mine shafts that have been converted into storage facilities, which now house nearly two million bottles of wine. This is to say nothing of the giant barrels where the wine is aged before it is bottled, either. At one point in its history, this was the headquarters of much of the wine production for the former Soviet Union. When the U.S.S.R. collapsed, they lost a lot of their business, but even today, they continue to manufacture world-class wines that most of the rest of the world, it seems, has never heard about.

We had to rent a car in order to get there, and then we also had to drive the car through the tunnels in order to get to the various points on the tour. Of course, driving in Moldova was an experience unto itself. Imagine Los Angeles or Chicago without lines on the road and the added obstacles of giant potholes everywhere. This is what it was like driving in Chisinau. I should also note that they don't have street signs here. If you want to know where you are, buildings at corners often (but not always) have the names of each of the cross streets either painted or attached to the respective outer walls. They're not usually all that easy to see, and next to impossible at night.

Once we got out of the city, the traffic eased up considerably and lines appeared on the road that at least separated us from the oncoming cars, which were relatively infrequent, but certainly present nonetheless. To minimize the risk of getting completely lost, after we left Milestii Mici, we stayed on what I would consider to be a main road (in that it was paved) and made note of landmarks whenever we veered off from our path.

It was interesting to pass through these villages that speckled the otherwise unadulterated countryside. It would have been easy to forget what year it was as we were given glimpses into these lives which had likely changed very little over the past century or so. In most of the villages that we passed through, every hundred yards or so, there was a community well where people got their water for drinking, cleaning and cooking, and outhouses were a common sight beside their homes. There were power lines which ran along the main road, though, and I saw a surprising number of satellite television dishes. It may not be quite as rustic as I had imagined it would be in some of these villages; rather, it just seemed like a relatively simple life. This isn't to say that life in the Moldovan countryside isn't without its challenges, to be sure, but seeing what little we had the opportunity to see provided an interesting insight into the reality of our modern needs.

As Jamie wrote about in greater detail in her blog, our excursion ended at a Pizzeria/wedding hall in some relatively remote village about an hour outside of Chisinau. Oddly, it almost became as if we were the tourist attraction. The waiter brought the cook out of the kitchen to see the American family in the otherwise empty dining room. He even called his friend who speaks English, then handed the phone to me. Not knowing what else to say, I asked him how you say black olives in Romanian, then I said thanks and handed the phone back to the waiter. I don't even like black olives.

After we had eaten our pizza, the owners of the establishment had essentially taken us in as surrogate children and grandchildren. The woman insisted that Alexander's name is actually Sasha and didn't seem to want to let him go when it came time to leave. She gave Chloe a candy bar and an apple and gave Jamie some flowers that she had pulled right out of the ground. They were truly lovely people, and again, I wish that my Romanian was better so that I might have aptly been able to thank them for their kindness and generosity. Even with the language barrier, though, where communicating simple ideas requires a quick game of charades, I think they understood at least as well as we did.

American Studies

The lecture that I gave in a grad-level American Studies course went well. I talked about Cold War media and Postmodernism for a bit, and then I gave a bit of a history lesson in terms of the popular culture of the forties and fifties in the U.S. After that, I opened up a dialogue with the class about the kind of rhetoric they grew up with in their mass media.

To my surprise, many of them said that they were inundated with American movies as kids, so much of the "Us versus Them" mentality that they were exposed to was coming primarily from our side of the planet. In particular, they saw a lot of the overtly pro-Western media from the 1980s, such as Rambo movies and the like, even before 1989, and I couldn't help but wonder if this massive influx of American pop culture had any discernible influence over the eventual fall of the Soviet empire.

I know David Hasselhoff claims that his music is at least partially responsible for the fall of the Berlin Wall, and I'm not saying that the influence of Western media was necessarily this direct by any delusional stretches of the imagination (I'm talking to you, Hoff), but I do wonder if the dominant discourses of American mass media were enough to help plant the basic idea that in the Cold War, which was continuing to isolate the U.S.S.R. from the rest of the world, maybe the Soviets were in fact the bad guys. At the very least, our propaganda was more convincing, anyway. Then in the late eighties, when there wasn't any food and their economy was falling apart, people knew who to blame because their nationalistic rhetoric had already been undermined by that which they saw in these American movies that had found receptive audiences within their culture. This was a truly fascinating insight into what it was like to grow up in an outlying state of the former Soviet Union, at what was in many ways, the cultural faultline between East and West.

As the class continued, I asked them if they thought of Moldova as associated more with the East or the West, and they told me that the division here is primarily ethnic. People with familial ties to Russia tend to associate themselves more with that culture and are therefore more likely to be adverse to American influences, whereas Moldovans with ties to Romania tend to more readily embrace Western culture. This fits what I've seen with the language divide here that seems to also correspond with some kind of social hierarchy. Russian speakers tend to look down on those who speak Romanian. I've even heard it referred to as a "peasant's language."

All in all, it was indeed educational for me, and I hope that the students were able to get something out of it as well. They seemed genuinely interested in the topics that we discussed, and time permitting, the class probably could have gone on for much longer. I always consider that a good sign of an engaging lecture: when you go past the allotted time and no one in the class seems to mind or even notice.

I only wish my Romanian was as good as their English.

18 October 2009

The Licurici Puppet Theatre

This afternoon, Jamie and I took Chloe and Alexander to a puppet theatre in downtown Chisinau. I couldn't tell you the name of the performance or what it was about exactly (as the entire thing was, of course, in Romanian), but it had something to do with good versus evil and winning the love of a princess through acts of profound valor. Standard fare in any culture, it seems.

Chloe thought it was a little scary and Alexander slept through the whole thing. He is a baby, after all. I thought it was pretty cool, though. Jamie had to step out toward the end, when Alexander woke up. She asked me how it ended and I told her. "The good guy won."

She figured as much.

16 October 2009

A Well-Rounded Education

It seems like we've been here for much longer than two weeks. I only say that because it seems like months have passed since we were visiting our families in Michigan or a lifetime ago since we were living quietly in our little house in Illinois. Plus it feels like we've done quite a bit since we've been in Moldova.

Last weekend, we went to Moldova's annual wine festival, which was pretty amazing, and considerably bigger than I had imagined it would be. I had meat-on-a-stick and red wine in a plastic cup, and I got a fair amount of footage for the documentary. In all honesty, I'm not much of a wine drinker, but I can tell you that this was some damn good wine. Moldovans have a right to be proud. This festival was also a great opportunity to see their culture at its finest, in full celebration mode. These are a people that like to enjoy themselves.

Since then, though, it's been kind of grey and rainy, so aside from the photos that I got during intermittent periods of sunshine, in terms of the project, I haven't been all that productive this week. However, I should note that the project is only half the reason that I'm here. Perhaps more importantly, I am also here to experience life in Moldova and to share with the people I meet what it means to be American. Through this blog and through the documentary that I'm working on, I hope to relay my experiences here so that others can gain something from it as well, and this is a responsibility that is to continue indefinitely upon our return to the United States. As I was told at the orientation in D.C. shortly before we left, we are not just scholars, we are cultural ambassadors.

Last week, I met a guy who works at the electronics store down the street who speaks very good English and wants to study hospitality management in the United States. Ever since then, I've been doing some research, trying to figure out how to make his ambitions a reality. I'd love to see this guy be able to study in the U.S., then come back here and be able to apply what he's learned to benefit the rest of Moldova. I firmly believe that education is an investment, not only in the individual, but also in the community at large. Of course, what I don't want to tell this guy is that it was hard for even me to afford my undergraduate studies in the U.S., but then again, I like to think that things are improving in that regard as well, and I don't just say that as someone who wants to teach college for a living.

Next week, I'm supposed to go into the Universitatea de Stat din Moldova and give a guest lecture in an American Studies class about post-war media in the United States. Of course, it also just so happens that I have a significant scholarly interest in the rhetoric of Cold War media and have done a considerable amount of research on the subject. For me, it will be interesting to hear the perspectives of people who grew up on the other side of the fence. Was the "us versus them" mentality that was so pervasive in our culture from the end of World War II to the fall of the Berlin Wall similar to that which was experienced by people growing up under the rule of communism? In what ways did their mass media paint us as the evil empire? I was able to find the entire film of "Atomic Cafe" on YouTube, and I might like to show a few clips of this to help illustrate some of my points. Frankly, though, I think this lecture will be at least as interesting for me as it is for them. I think that's kind of the point.

15 October 2009


I just uploaded some photos of Moldova to a new set on our Flickr page. Click on the "photos" link to the right to see them. This page will also be updated regularly.

13 October 2009

Readers, digest.

I went for about a seven mile walk today. I was looking for a music store that I didn't exactly know how to get to, and this seemed like the best way to familiarize myself with the area anyway. Besides, it's supposed to start getting colder, so I figured that if I was going to do something like this, now is the time to do it. Luckily, my Spidey-senses (and maybe a little dumb luck) took me right where I was trying to get to, even though my orientation to the map that I looked at before I left was completely wrong. In any case, I was able to purchase a relatively cheap acoustic guitar and then retrace my steps back to our apartment without getting completely lost.

Bear in mind, going for a walk here is a lot like passing through a Flintstones backdrop: Alimentara, Farmacie, Biroul de Turism, repeat ad infinitum. I should also note that I have played guitar virtually every day for the past fifteen years, and frankly, it has been strange to not have one here. To make up for lost time, I played for a solid two hours this afternoon. It was awesome.

The other part of my mission today was to find some stomach medicine. Back in the states, I took prescription stomach medicine everyday which prevented me from getting heartburn. Too many years of eating unhealthy food and drink has forced me to change my diet considerably and take medicine everyday for acid reflux. (Thank you very much, Buffalo Wing Challenge.) In any case, I went to a "farmacie" (farm-a-chee-a) today and was able to ask the pharmacist for what I was looking for and get it for the equivalent of about $5 U.S. Without insurance, in the U.S., a thirty-day supply of the same medicine would have cost about $200. Insert your own conclusion about the state of capitalist health care and the unrestrained power of the pharmaceutical industry in the United States here.

Places like this get a bad rap. When I go to the grocery store in Chisinau, maybe I can't find an entire aisle dedicated to different brands of soft drinks, or when I go to the pharmacy, I can't find ten different brands of toothpaste or scents of deodorant ranging from "Extreme Burst" to "Power Sport," but come on... how many options do we really need? And what the hell is "Extreme Burst" supposed to smell like anyway? Here, I bought some deodorant in which the only word in English is "Men." Good enough.

So far, this has been the biggest difference in terms of lifestyle adjustments here. And in order to find what I'm looking for, I may go to three or four different stores instead of one "super-store" in the U.S., but when I buy vegetables here, you can tell that they just came from a farmer's field directly to the store that I bought them from. Case in point: the carrots still have dirt on them. The apples don't have a film of pesticide on them, and the tomatoes weren't ripened with ether after being shipped to a warehouse. (In the United States, most companies ship them while they're still green so that they won't bruise during shipping. True story.)

Between the walking and the healthy food I've been eating, maybe by the time we leave here, I won't need to take stomach medicine anymore. And I'll probably complain about how hard it is to find decent produce in the U.S., despite being one of the largest agricultural producing countries in the world. But I have to tell you, I do miss peanut butter and sliced bread. And I've never loved the English language so much as I do now. Frankly, I think that if I were to hear someone speaking it on the street, that person would become my new best friend. And even though my wife is a gourmet chef and the only times I've eaten a peanut butter and jelly sandwich in recent years were rare flashbacks to my days as a bachelor, strangely enough, it sounds pretty good right about now.

09 October 2009

First Impressions

On the flight from Frankfurt to Chisinau, we were served snacks that seemed more like the sack lunches that we used to bring to school as kids as opposed to any kind of cliches that may come to mind in terms of traditional airplane food. The attendants gave us fresh cheese and vegetables that tasted like they had been picked from a garden only hours before. To my surprise, many of the other passengers seemed to be American.

When the plane touched down, we got on a bus which took us to the airport terminal, where we then stepped in line behind a hundred or so other passengers who were waiting to clear the passport checkpoint. For the first time in over twenty-four hours of travel, Alexander began to fuss, which is the only reason that I can think of as to why we were escorted to the front of the line. Within a few minutes, we were past the checkpoint to the baggage claim, where all four of our checked bags had made it all the way from O'Hare and were there waiting for us. (Jamie and I had made a bet about this, and it looks like I won, which means that when we get back, she's going to have to write me a check for two bucks from our joint account.) In any case, airport personnel helped us load our bags onto a cart, then escorted us through customs without so much as a word to the guards as to whether or not we had anything to declare. Here, we met Tanya, who held a sign with the name of the woman from whom we had arranged to rent a temporary apartment. Boris, the driver, took our cart from the airport personnel and promptly loaded our luggage into his mid-sized car.

Boris took us to an old Soviet-era apartment building with an unpleasant but indistinguishable smell in the lobby and hands-down the scariest elevator that I have ever been in. We could only fit two bags and one person in the elevator at a time, and it dropped three inches when we stepped inside. Tanya informed us that although the apartment that we were staying in was on the eighth floor, we had to press nine in order to get there. "This," she said, "is Soviet engineering." She spoke English remarkably well.

The next morning, we arranged to meet with an old Ukrainian woman named Varvara, whose contact information I had received from the U.S. Embassy. She showed us about five apartments and also introduced us to a woman named Vera, who showed us one apartment and then another on Sunday, the latter of which we moved into on Monday.

It is probably the most secure apartment that I have ever lived in. It is only accessible via a mechanical gate which is situated next to the guard station, and the door of the building and that of the apartment itself are two of the heaviest that I have ever seen on a residential property. The apartment is well-lit, with tall ceilings featuring numerous skylights in every room as well as ornate lighting fixtures throughout. Frankly, it's not quite as big as the place where we lived in Illinois, but it is quite a bit fancier. Alexander and Chloe are in one bedroom and Jamie and I are in the other.

The apartment is also centrally located. We can easily walk to any number of grocery stores and street markets. There's even an electronics store just down the street where I was able to get a monitor for our computer as well as some other miscellaneous stuff that I thought would be harder to find here. So far, nearly everything that we have needed, we have been able to find without much difficulty.

On our second day here, I also managed to contract a staph infection in my nose, which rendered me into a boardwalk caricature of myself, and I was able to find the necessary antibiotics at the local "farmacie" for the equivalent of about twelve bucks, no prescription needed.

In terms of expectations that have been proven false, before we came here, I was under the impression that although Romanian is certainly good to know, most people who went to school in 1989 or later are fluent in English. This is absolutely not the case. In fact, based on our experiences so far, it seems that about half the people speak Romanian and half speak Russian, and most do not seem to be fluent in both. Furthermore, aside from the people at the U.S. Embassy, we have only met three people who are fluent enough in English that my explanations do not require elaborate hand gestures in order to articulate. It also seems that most of the hundreds of flash cards that I made and memorized may not be terribly useful in a practical sense, at least not until I have developed my ear enough to actually understand what people are saying. As for Jamie's Russian, unless a need should arise for "The boy swims," or "The horse walks," she's going to need to work on that as well. She did, however, catch the word for "stupid" when we were trying to explain to a cab driver where our apartment was even though we did not yet know the address. So now we can check "being yelled at in Russian" from the list of experiences.

In terms of first impressions, though, I will say this: I like it here. That's not to say that there aren't plenty of things I miss about the United States, but as a temporary residence, it could be a lot worse. It's very green here, people smile a lot more than you might expect of Eastern Europeans, and the food is amazing, particularly the produce. For me, the hardest adjustment so far has been the fact that this is very much a cash-based economy. In the U.S., I had grown very used to never carrying any money on me and just paying for everything with a debit card, and although there are a surprising number of places here that do accept credit cards, most things are paid for in cash, including rent and utilities. That has already taken some getting used to, as does the fact that the exchange rate is approximately 11.5 to one - so not only am I carrying money everywhere I go, but I am also carrying a large quantity of bills. I also have to do a lot more math in my head in order to figure out if I'm getting a good deal or not. Of course, I'm also getting better at haggling, which is a skill that I've never really had to use before.

Moldova's annual wine festival is this weekend, and I'm hoping to get some good pictures as well as my first video clips to potentially be used in the documentary. Wine is one of Moldova's biggest exports, and the wine festival is one the biggest annual events here.

07 October 2009


This is the first time in my life that I have ever been a foreigner. Brief forays into Mexico and Canada notwithstanding, before this experience, I had never immersed myself in another culture to such a degree that I could rightfully think of myself as anything other than a tourist. As of today, we have been in Moldova for one week, which is already the longest period of time that I have ever spent in another country. It should also be noted that I am here with my wife, Jamie, as well as our two children, Chloe and Alexander, who are three and a half years old and seven months respectively.

As a Fulbright scholar, my research project is to create a documentary video that explores the complexities of Moldovan cultural identity. Although I have a few ideas in terms of the directions that I may like to take this project, the overall thesis of my film remains in soft focus, as I believe that to have a specific agenda going into the production of this documentary would work against the integrity of the medium itself.

In preparation for our trip, I taught myself some conversational Romanian and Jamie began to study Russian shortly before we left. I also absorbed what limited information I could find about this little-known country in Eastern Europe, though I can already see that many of my expectations had been based on myths, or at the very least, subjective impressions that fail to accurately represent any kind of universal experience. With that said, the observations that I present here are also limited to my own subjective point of view, though I will make every attempt to minimize any cultural biases which may otherwise distort my perspective.

On a regular basis, I will seek to articulate that which I am learning as I learn it, to relay the experiences that facilitate a deeper understanding of both their culture and our own. Chances are, you might not be in Chisinau anytime soon, so I will attempt to find empathy from the inside looking out. I will make every attempt to share this unique and valuable perspective that has been afforded to me by the Fulbright program, the opportunity for which I am deeply grateful.