28 December 2009

Poorest Nation in Europe?

Before we came here, one of the things that I had repeatedly read about Moldova was that it holds the unfortunate title of being "the poorest country in Europe." Depending on the source, the average wage here equals anywhere from eighty to three hundred dollars per month U.S., which is nowhere near enough to cover the cost of living.

Not that I dispute these figures, per se, but I think that there may be other factors to consider as well. Granted, these numbers are purportedly offset by money that is sent here by family members working abroad, as Moldova also holds the distinction of having the highest percentage of their GDP earned in other countries and sent back, but I think that this does more to throw off inflation than anything else. In theory, this is why the cost of living is relatively high here, even considering the low wages.

Still, I'd like to bring up a point that I have not seen mentioned elsewhere, and that is that a large percentage of business here is done without any official records of the transactions. Moldova's economy is very much cash-based, and due to the residual distrust that many Moldovans have for their government, it would not surprise me in the least if most money that changes hands here is not officially accounted for and therefore does not appear in government reports.

In that sense, on paper, Moldova may appear to be an incredibly poor nation - and in fairness, they do have their share of economic troubles - but I don't think it's really quite as bad as it may seem to the outside world. Moreover, I think that they're a people that have historically tried to keep the government out of any personal capitalistic enterprises, particularly when they were officially a communist nation, and that this mentality has carried over into the infancy of their developing democracy.

24 December 2009

Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and TIME

As an American, one of the most immediate differences that I experienced between everyday life in Moldova and that which we had become accustomed to in the U.S. is perhaps best exemplified in grocery shopping. As a general rule, things just take longer here. All of the little timesavers that we take for granted in the states really do add up in the course of an ordinary day.

For example, in the U.S., I would usually drive to the local supermarket about once a week and come home with a trunk full of groceries an hour later. Once a month, give or take, we'd take a twenty-minute drive out to the mega-warehouse wholesale store, where everything comes in bomb shelter size and the labels usually feature exclamation points (Our Biggest Size!), and we would stock up on staple foods and other items of convenience. Seldom were we unable to find what we were looking for, and if we did it right, we could usually get most things on sale.

In Moldova, groceries cost roughly the same as they do in the United States, with the notably inexpensive exceptions of bread, seasonal produce and fresh meats from the Piaţă Centrala, which is the central open-air market in Chisinau. In theory, you can find just about anything you need there, so long as you know where to look. As far as I can tell, though, there's hardly any discernible semblance of organization among the vendors at Piaţă Centrala. At one table, a person is selling batteries and light bulbs, and right next door, someone's selling bananas and pomegranates. Couple that with the fact that there's foot traffic moving in every direction and it's difficult to stop and turn around without body checking some little old lady, it can be a bit chaotic, to put it mildly. Nonetheless, if you want to find a good deal and aren't afraid to haggle, this is the place to do it.

Of course, we can never find everything we need at the market, even though we know it's all probably there somewhere, so shopping day literally does take all day, often several. I pretty much only buy meats from the vendors at Piaţă Centrala, because I know it's fresh (the chicken usually still has some of its feathers), though we do usually get some if not most of our vegetables there as well. We get the rest of our produce at a store called Uno, which is set up somewhat like the central market, except it's inside, the selection is significantly more limited, the prices are a little more expensive, and there are a lot less people to contend with. However, it's worth noting that Uno is only a couple of blocks away from our apartment, so it's an easy walk, even with an armful of groceries and two young kids, whereas Piaţă Centrala is probably about a half mile away. 

With this in mind, even closer still is Green Hills Market, which resembles more of a grocery store like those which we have back home. They even have peanut butter there, which is apparently an odd rarity outside of the U.S. This is where we get a lot of our day-to-day items such as milk, frozen vegetables, water, etc. Our landlord also gave us a discount card to Green Hills with the keys that unlock our front door. This helps make prices there a bit more reasonable, though they are still somewhat inflated relative to their U.S. counterparts. The general rule is that things made in Moldova are cheaper here, such as sunflower oil and wine, but a disproportionate number of items are only available by import and are therefore more expensive than they would be in the U.S., though often just marginally. Exceptions include sweet potatoes, walnuts and corn oil, among others, all of which are ridiculously expensive. Furthermore, there are, of course, things that just don't seem to be available here, like cake mixes, soft pretzels and baking powder, to name a few. 

The other store that we go to is Fidesco, which is also a very westernized grocery store, but it requires taking a maxi-taxi if we're not up for an even longer walk with several bags of groceries. The main thing we get there is bread, for which Jamie has a preference from this particular store, but in general, prices there are about the same for most items as they are at Green Hills.

With that, I'd like to indulge in a brief tangent. Have you ever noticed how most cities in the United States have at least two grocery stores (or chains of grocery stores), often owned and/or supplied by the same companies, yet one store has higher prices and better looking produce than the other? I'm convinced that this works to reinforce social segregation by offering separate stores for the rich and poor, so that their carts don't ever meet in the aisles, thereby effectively preventing them from sharing in this most personal of American experiences.

Back to the topic at hand, when all is said and done, it usually takes four separate trips to get enough groceries to last all week for a family of four, but we're also limited by that which we can comfortably hold, considering that we have no personal vehicle here. For this reason, grocery shopping usually requires that we all go, so that Jamie and I can both carry the bags, even though that means that Alexander and Chloe have to go with us as well, which often brings with it its own set of headaches. Frankly, to visit all four locations with the kids in one day would be borderline insane, so more often than not, at least four times a week, a good portion of the day is dedicated to grocery shopping. Ironically, shopping in the U.S. was little more than an afterthought.

Once we get it all home, of course, cooking brings its own set of challenges, which I've alluded to elsewhere. The lack of simplified ingredients (i.e. taco seasoning, pre-sliced bread, etc.) as well as the requisite metric conversions and our near unwillingness to invest in cooking utensils that we'll more than likely have to leave behind at the end of our time here take a lot of the casual fun out of cooking, at least for me. Many of the signature dishes that I've improved over the course of many years of repetition and refinement are next to impossible to reproduce here, so it often feels as though I've forgotten how to cook.

Then there's laundry, which is a bit more of an ordeal on account of the strange absence of clothes dryers here. People use clotheslines on balconies or in public playgrounds, or in our case, we have a small drying rack in our bedroom. This means that it usually takes at least a day for clothes to dry and can only be done one load at a time, so pretty much every day, at least a half hour is dedicated to hanging and folding clothes.

Add it all up, and it makes for significantly less time in the day to put toward being productive. Oddly, it seems like I got more writing done in what limited spare time I had back in Illinois versus what I've been able to accomplish here. Granted, we also presently live in a smaller space, and with a teething baby and what I would otherwise appreciate as good acoustics, it can feel very small indeed. We have now been in Moldova for nearly three months, and although the weeks here seem longer, the days seem much shorter.

19 December 2009

Conversational English

For the past three weeks (minus the second week, due to a family trip to Italy and Germany), on a voluntary basis, I've been teaching conversational English to a group of Moldovan college students. For most of them, it's a chance to use the English that they've already learned so that they don't forget it, and for me, it's an opportunity to continue teaching simply because it's something that I love to do. Besides, the primary mission of the Fulbright program is to promote mutual cultural understanding, and this seems like an excellent chance to do just that. So far, it's been a lot of fun.

Each week, I pick a topic, and then we discuss that for the better part of an hour. This past week, due to the proximity of Christmas, I suggested that we talk about holidays in the U.S. and Moldova. Statistically, Moldovans overwhelmingly align with the Eastern Orthodox sect of Christianity, but on a political level, they are also making moves to fit in culturally with the European Union, so as a result, they celebrate two Christmases here. The first is on December 25, but then the traditional day of celebration is reserved for January 7. This is because the Eastern Orthodox church still works off from the Julian (as opposed to the Gregorian) calendar, which differs by a matter of thirteen days. In any case, from what I gathered, many of the traditions aren't all that different to what we're used to in the United States. They sing songs, families come together, and gifts are exchanged, all in a general spirit of goodwill toward one another.

As our class discussion progressed beyond the similarities and differences between holidays here versus those in the U.S., one of my students asked me if I am Catholic, Protestant or Eastern Orthodox, as if those were my only three options. I should note that topics that may be taboo elsewhere tend to be addressed matter-of-factly here. She was nonetheless taken aback to learn that I am in fact none of the above, but that we still celebrate Christmas with presents, songs and dinner. "How can you celebrate Christmas if you're not a Christian?" she asked.

"We do it for the kids," I told her, fully aware of just how foreign and how uniquely American that must have sounded. "For us, it's really just about family." It could have been worse, I suppose. I could have offered a diatribe about how this is really just a time of year reserved for buying each other things we want but don't really need and that maybe the world would be a better place if people maintained that same altruistic spirit twelve months a year... but then again, it was a valid question that I've asked myself before.

Festivus, anyone?

Production Notes

Now that the weather has changed, I've shifted gears somewhat in that I am now focusing more on the writing aspect of the documentary. Most people may not think of a documentary as something that is necessarily scripted, but it's important to recognize that documentary filmmaking is, of course, a form of storytelling, and it is not at all unusual for a story, regardless of form, to be written. In this case, however, rather than creating ideas from thin air, I'm working with that which already exists. Beyond that, though, the basic concepts between documentary and fictional filmmaking, as far as I am concerned, are essentially the same. The point is simply to tell a compelling story.

Here in Moldova, with the leaves gone and snow covering most everything in sight, the scenery all kind of looks the same, and frankly, it wouldn't cut together all that well with other footage that I've gotten and plan to get in the spring. Granted, I'll still be able to get some indoor/interview footage during the winter months, but for the most part, I hope to make the most of this otherwise idle time by figuring out what exactly the story is that I'm trying to convey and piecing together a script from which to work. I've decided that much of the narrative will probably be told through voiceover, whether my own or (more likely) someone else's, but I figure that if I can have a working script completed by March, then my job from there will be to collect footage that visually supports the dialogue that I've written.

With that noted, my blog posts during the winter months may be considerably less frequent, as much of my time spent writing is dedicated to other projects. Nonetheless, I will maintain regular updates of that which I am learning throughout my time here.