25 May 2010


This past weekend, I had the privilege of being invited to a village about an hour south of Chisinau. According to Eastern Orthodox tradition, all of the villages in Moldova have their own patron saints, and each saint has its own special day. On that day, as well as the days immediately preceding and following it, there is a celebration. This Saturday was St. Nicolai's Day in the village of Cenac.

Celebration, village style, involves church, food, dancing and of course, wine. Nearly household in Cenac had its own beci, pronounced "bitch" (and yes, the jokes to us English speakers are nearly endless). A beci is where they keep canned fruits, pickled vegetables and barrels of homemade wine, where men often go to escape from their wives and consume large quantities of alcohol.

Moldovan villagers, I have learned, do not drink wine the way that most people do. Despite the fact that it actually does taste quite good, the tradition is to throw back a whole glass in one drink, as if it was a massive shot. They also pass around one glass between them, and everyone calls "noroc" ("cheers" in Romanian) to family, health, good wine, or whatever. I should also add that Moldovan village wine is a bit stronger than what most of us are probably used to. I don't know what the exact alcohol content is - and frankly, I doubt anyone does - but let's just say that if you happen to be sitting while you're passing around the glass, you may be in for a bit of a surprise when you try to stand up.

The day of celebration started at the church in the center of town, where the priest led the congregation around the outside of the structure, pausing periodically to offer blessings and throw holy water on the people and on the walls of the church. From there, they went inside, where the ceremony continued. One at a time, people would step forward and light a candle while the priest led the sermon. All of the women were dressed in head scarves, all over to one side and to the back of the church, while the men were on the other side and closer to the front.

The service went on for over an hour, and then everyone followed the priest over to what appeared to be a converted stable next door, where there were three long tables laid out, completely covered in plates of food. There must have been dozens of people working for days to make all of this, and as many people as could fit were all given places at the table. Before we ate, the priest said a prayer for everyone, accompanied by a toast, and by eleven a.m., along with this tremendous meal, the drinking began.

In fairness, I think that this was largely because it was an important day of celebration, but a good many people were very drunk by mid-afternoon. Luckily, my host, a Peace Corps volunteer, had let me in on a secret: if you keep a little bit of wine in your glass, they are less likely to insist that it be refilled. But when they insist, they are persistent. It almost seemed like they were offended if you don't want to keep up with them drink for drink.

Later in the afternoon, there was a talent show in the local cultural center. It doubled as a discotheque on Friday nights, but today, it was where the locals gathered to watch plays and hear poetry and music that celebrated life in the village of Cenac. There were performances that ranged from a family of flute playing children, led by their father on accordion, to some good old-fashioned breakdancing. Seriously.

In many Moldovan villages, including this one, the population primarily consists of young, school-age children and old, retirement-age people. All of the people that are able to work usually have to go elsewhere to do so. Many of them seek employment in Chisinau, and an even larger percentage leave Moldova in search of work. Because of the difficulties inherent in their absentee voting system, this means that people who are not in the country generally have no voice in Moldovan elections, which is how the Communist party has maintained control here significantly more than they have in many other former Soviet states. The outcomes of the elections are basically determined by the older generation who still live here.

On more than one occasion during my time in Cenac, I was approached by old men, who spoke to me through the translation provided by my host, who is much more fluent than I am. They told me how hard life is in the villages, and within a few minutes, they had broken into tears. As a fan of Dostoyevsky and other classical Russian authors, I thought that the open weeping of otherwise callused men could be attributed to the author's artistic flourish, but here I learned otherwise. Granted, it may also have something to do with the excessive consumption of homemade wine, but the point that these men were trying to make was clear: theirs was a difficult existence.

Despite the smiles on the faces of those who participated in jubilant song and dance, or the kind words offered by everyone who called a toast that day, I walked away from this experience with the understanding that a simple life is not always easy.

21 May 2010

Got Milk?

When I was a kid, I always knew that my birthday or some other important date was coming up soon when I would see it on the expiration date on the gallons of milk in the fridge. On the same token, if we ever ran out, it meant that a trip to the store would soon be necessary.

In Moldova, milk is a little different than what we were used to in the U.S. Realistically, it's probably the lack of hormones and antibiotics that make it taste and smell more like, well... milk. To me, even a fresh box of milk (yes, it comes in boxes or even more common, bags) smells like it's well past the expiration date. Of course, oddly, the expiration dates here are usually a few months out, and for some reason, it doesn't have to be refrigerated unless it is open.

Yes, in Moldova, I have lost any tangible sense of the immediate future, because the milk I bought today doesn't expire until October.

12 May 2010

Another article that I wrote:

(for the charity organization that is raising awareness for the need for clean water in Moldova)


11 May 2010

Mergând la spital...

A couple of nights ago, I woke up at about two a.m. with a terrible pain in my abdomen. As a rule, I try to avoid medical treatment unless absolutely necessary, no doubt a result of having gone several years without health insurance, but this was an incredibly intense and unfamiliar pain. Concerned that it may be something very serious, Jamie called a taxi to take us to the hospital.

The driver asked us what hospital we wanted to go to, and I told him that I did not know, so for better or worse, our fate was left to his judgment. Ten minutes later, we were at the door to the emergency room, which I soon learned was where the doctors on the night shift like to smoke.

Inside, compared to Western standards, the conditions were squalid at best. After being completely ignored by the receptionist for about ten minutes, I approached a nurse and explained to the best of my ability that I had an intense pain in my abdomen. She took me to a small room where I was advised to lay down on a gurney. The sheet was stained and torn, and the room was nearly filled to capacity.

The man on the bed across from me seemed noticeably intoxicated, but his swagger and slurred speech may have also been a result of the bloody wound on the back of his head. From what I discerned through awkward pantomime as the man pointed to the hallway, then made raspberries with his mouth while rubbing his thumb and forefingers together in the universal sign for money, only patients who could afford it received adequate service.

After peeing in a cup that was still wet from having recently been rinsed, I was surprised to be greeted by a urologist who spoke fluent English. His first question was whether or not I had insurance. I told him that I wasn't exactly sure how or if my insurance worked, and he explained that it would probably be easier if I could just pay cash. He said that there would be less paperwork that way. I wasn't really in a position to argue, nor did I want to deal with what I perceive to be a characteristically crooked American insurance company, so I agreed to pay cash for services rendered.

When I told the doctor that I was an American, he apologized for the conditions of the hospital and he promptly had my wife and children wait in his office. As he explained, "This is not a good place for children. This is a place for drunks and criminals and stupid people." From there, he escorted me to a room where I was given two shots: one was a pain killer and the other was an anti-inflammatory drug. Then he took me to the various labs, where first a blood sample was taken, and then I received an ultrasound and two x-rays.

When it was all said and done, he told me that it looked as though I had a kidney stone, and that there wasn't any reason to think that this was anything but an isolated occurrence. Nonetheless, he reminded me that I should drink a lot of water and try to avoid pork, both of which I tend to do anyway.

The total bill for services rendered, not counting the two dollar cab rides to and from the hospital was seventy-one lei, which equals a little less than six bucks. All facts considered, the service that I received here, aesthetics of the hospital itself notwithstanding, were actually equal to or better than that of any clinic or hospital that I've been to in the U.S. The urologist was every bit as professional as any American doctor that I have encountered and the lab technicians were equally good at their jobs.

After he called me a cab, the urologist explained that if I had any additional symptoms or if the pain persisted, that I should probably go to the Republican Hospital. He said it was cleaner there and that more of the staff speaks English. Yes, I actually heard the word "Republican" and positive statements about health care mentioned in the same sentence.

In any case, would I want to go to this hospital again if I had or a more serious ailment? It is hard to say. Would I want to take my kids there if they needed any kind of medical treatment? Probably not. But at two in the morning, with the equivalent of about twenty bucks in my pocket, it could have been a lot worse. I could have been a thousand dollars in debt for what amounted to a couple of shots and the simple assurance that I was going to be alright.

After doing some research into the matter, I now have reason to believe that it's actually because I drink a lot of water that I got the kidney stone in the first place. You see, the water here contains a lot of calcium and other hard elements, and it seems that our water filter probably should have been replaced a few months ago, as it was doing little good anymore. Now that I have replaced it, our filtered drinking water is considerably less cloudy, and with any luck, this experience will not be repeated.

An article that I wrote:

Last weekend, I went out to a couple of villages with the mayor of the region and some other volunteers to take a look at a terrible situation involving water pollution. As part of a fundraising effort, I've offered to write some articles on the subject. Below is a link to the first of them:


26 April 2010


One of the first things that I noticed in Moldova was the music. Not the traditional, old-fashioned music that comes with a particular style of dress, but rather, the techno music. It's everywhere. Go to the grocery store, techno music. Go to a cafe, techno music. Ride in a cab, techno music. It's like this one steady beat has been playing since we've been here, just this one song on repeat, everywhere we go.

Please note that this is just my personal opinion and that I mean no offense by this, but as a musician myself, I can't say that I have all that high of a regard for what I perceive to be terrible Russian techno music. I say this because a.) I don't really enjoy club dancing, and b.) I have a pretty good idea as to how much work and/or talent goes into the production of this stuff. That is to say that if I sat my four-year-old daughter in front of a computer with Fruity Loops or Rebirth or any number of programs like this open, with a little bit of help, she could produce something that is roughly the same caliber as most of the stuff we hear around here. It is atonal, beat-driven crap. If there are vocals, oddly, they are usually in English, which makes me embarrassed for my language if this is all some people know of it. The vocals are also incredibly over-produced, polished to death by auto-tune. There are, of course, exceptions, and I do try to listen to all music with an open mind, but I cannot get around the fact that this music, to me, barely qualifies as such.

And I quote:

Hello, hello, hello Mr. Monkey, 
You're so fast and funky.
Hello, hello, hello Mr. Monkey,
I think I love you.

(rinse and repeat)

In Moldovans' defense, I have a theory. Whistling, for various reasons, is considered bad luck. As Jamie mentioned in her blog, the lady who lives downstairs from us has actually called the landlord to complain about my whistling in the stairwell. I have been whistling since I was five years old, and modesty aside, I'm pretty good at it. I would also argue that my abilities as a musician started with being able to whistle a simple tune. From there, I taught myself how to play piano by ear, and years later, I taught myself how to play guitar and bass, also by ear. Without first developing the ability to hear something and then reproduce it with an instrument that required no technical ability (i.e. whistling), I may never have continued on to more challenging means of creating music. 

In other words, had I grown up in Moldova, where whistling is generally frowned upon, I may have never learned how to play an instrument by ear. As someone who has played music with many, many people in my life, I will say that in my experience, there is a marked difference between people who play by ear and those who are more classically trained. Again, this is just based on my own experiences, but people I have known who play by ear tend to play with a bit more originality, which to me, is one of the things that makes music interesting. 

Most of the time when I'm whistling, I'm not whistling a song that I heard. I'm just making it up as I go along, simply because I like the sound of it. The lady who lives downstairs, however, apparently doesn't like it. But if I have to listen to techno music everywhere I go, then the least she can do is put up with the thirty seconds or so it takes me to take the trash out when I may be whistling something quietly to myself.  

14 April 2010

Cowboy Chicken

We found a place here last week called Cowboy Chicken. The sign out front prominently featured a picture of big, juicy hamburger, so the homesick carnivore in me thought we should make it a point to check this place out. Inside, people who spoke extremely limited English were dressed in cowboy getup, complete with giant cowboy hats, while Johnny Cash blared through little computer speakers in the corners of the room. The walls were adorned with an odd collection of black and white photos of cowboys and indians, each assuming their various stereotypes as exemplified in staged poses.

Jamie, Chloe and I each ordered a hamburger. After about half an hour, our waitress brought us what appeared to be a bun. It was cut in the middle, oozing mayonnaise. I opened it up to reveal a translucent patty of questionable meat; it tasted like it was cut with the ground up pages of a Russian phone book with some dill thrown into the mix for no other reason than to give it some kind of flavor to transcend everything that worked against it. Meanwhile, my two ounces of "meat" was swimming in about eight ounces of mayonnaise on a bun that was literally about twenty times the thickness of the patty. My first thoughts were quickly replaced by a conscious choice to not think about it anymore. It was probably best that way.

As much as I'd like to recommend Cowboy Chicken to anyone who travels to the eastern edge of the western world, who am I kidding? It may have been a mirage, and maybe I really was eating a phone book that had been smothered in mayonnaise.

Moldova has such excellent local cuisine that it seems a shame to try to "Americanize" it. 

23 March 2010

Comic Relief

Before we moved here, Jamie and I had no intention of buying a television or subscribing to any kind of cable service while we are in Moldova. In fact, I was kind of looking forward to a year without TV. Of course, then we moved into an apartment that already had a television, and since we were already being billed for satellite TV - at a mere $12 a month, including HBO and Cinemax - we took it as it came.

We still hardly ever watch it, but every once in a while, it is kind of interesting to watch television channels from this region of the world. Admittedly, it's also nice to watch some familiar shows in English every now and then as well.

The satellite TV provider is based out of Romania, so many of the channels are, too, including HBO and Cinemax. Consequently, any stand-up comedy specials that are broadcast on either of those channels tend to be in Romanian.

My grasp of the language is getting better. I'm to the point now where I can typically get through an entire day without having to converse to anyone other than my family in English. Still, when I watch stand-up comedy in Romanian, I just don't get it.

Paradoxically, even though laughter is in many ways the universal language, that which prompts such a response is often very dependent upon linguistic subtleties. In my English conversational group, on more than one occasion, I've made jokes that have completely bombed, and I like to think that this has something to do with my students' command of the nuances of the English language. Of course, then the lesson momentarily shifts focus to explain why something I said could have been interpreted as funny, which actually makes it even less humorous.

On the same token, when I watch stand up comedy specials on HBO Romania, I can usually understand the gist of what they're talking about, but I have no idea why it's funny, just because my command of the language is not yet strong enough.

To make an obvious point, this is why physical comedy translates fairly well: because it's not so dependent on language. In terms of films made in the past twenty years, we have seen a fairly significant shift to this type of comedy dominating mainstream culture in the U.S., and I suspect that this largely has to do with the fact that foreign markets have become such an important consideration in regard to motion picture distribution.

After all, domestic ticket sales are only one aspect of box office revenue, and what's funny in the U.S. may not be in other cultures. This is especially true with language-based humor. Consequently, "Jackass: The Movie" does significantly better in overseas markets than something like "Hamlet 2" (the latter of which I happened to think was particularly funny). Of course, "Jackass" did much better in domestic markets as well, but I wonder if American audiences have been conditioned to a certain degree in terms of defining a collective sense of humor.

We all find different things to be funny than someone else. It's one of the things that makes us each unique. But when comedic films are marketed to reach a mass audience, are they essentially telling us what we should think is funny? When comedy actors and actresses are making $10-20 million per film, they need to sell a lot of tickets to recoup those kinds of costs, and filmmakers do this essentially two ways: they create a film that appeals to as broad of an audience as possible, and by trying to convince us that this movie is in fact hilarious.

In terms of my first point, this is why we see so many cross-genre movies in the past 10-20 years. Not a fan of comedies? Can I interest you in a science-fiction? Or a western? Or an action film? What about a remake of something with a proven track record? We'll take "Land of the Lost" and make it funny. Ok, bad example, but you get the idea. Lowest common denominator equals biggest potential audience. To "dumb it down" in this sense, means to make it less dependent on language. Then it can reach a foreign audience more easily, if only a domestic audience can also be convinced that this stuff is funny.

This brings me to my second point, that what is mass-marketed as comedy tends to wear the label in vain. For example, "Funny People" wasn't funny any more than "Smart People" was smart. Comedy, as an art form, must surprise us, as all art forms must do. It must present an unfamiliar perspective of something that is familiar. If it doesn't, then it is a cliche. Comedy is no exception.

23 February 2010

Banca de Economii

When we lived in the U.S., paying bills was something we often did quickly and put as little thought into as possible. We would simply write a check and drop it in the mail, or better yet, pay online. It was easy and could usually be completed in no more than a couple of minutes.

In Moldova, bills are paid at the bank from which the utility companies have established an account. They are not delivered through the mail, but rather, by the guy who lives in the small room near the entrance of our building. Instead of having my name on the bills, they are all addressed to the building owner, who I have never actually met.

For the first couple of months that we were here, I would pay the bills as we got them, which was usually sporadically - sometimes a couple of days before they were due and sometimes a few weeks - and all total, I would make five or six trips to various banks over the course of a month to pay water, gas, electricity, cable TV, internet and phone. In the winter months, these would total approximately the equivalent of $150 U.S., and in the months when our gas bill was not as high, it would add up to about $70 or $80.

Eventually, I figured out that the common denominator among the banks listed on the bills is the Banca de Economii, which has a branch less than a half mile from our apartment. Now I wait until I have received all of our bills, then make one trip to this bank to pay all of them.

There is a reason that I prefer to only do this once a month. When I walk into the Banca de Economii, no matter what time of day it happens to be, there is always a line. Despite that there are between four and five counters open for paying bills (depending on if any of the tellers are on break), there is one line, usually 2-3 people wide, that extends back as far as the entrance, then it generally splits to both the left and right, which only adds to the confusion as to who is next.

To make matters worse, there is also bench seating along the left wall, upon which most of the older people usually sit, waiting in line by proxy. Almost without fail, just when I think that I'm finally to the front of the line, people move from the bench to resume their positions in line - right in front of me. Also, there are almost always people who are clearly cutting in line. They walk in the door, then straight to the front of the line.

Luckily, every time that I have been to the Banca de Economii, there has been some random old lady who has taken it upon herself to watch over the line, presumably to make sure that everyone takes his or her turn in the correct order. These old ladies will usually call out the line-cutters, and they will point to the front when it is time for someone from the bench to get into the game. It is an interesting phenomenon.

When all is said and done, I've usually spent about forty-five minutes in line. Yes, it's all the fun of going to the DMV, once a month, with only the loosest semblance of order. Much like the DMV, though, it does provide an interesting cross-section of society, in that everyone has to go there. For this reason, it's a good place to do some people-watching.

One time, there was an Eastern Orthodox priest blessing all of us poor saps who were waiting in line. An old woman walked beside him, holding a small bucket of what I assume was holy water, into which he was dipping some kind of ceremonial tassel and then letting the water loose while monotonously chanting something in a language that I did not understand. On more than once occasion, I got pretty wet: my jacket, my pantleg, the side of my face, etc. Then he holds out his hand, asking for a donation for services rendered. Unfortunately, even once we were blessed, it didn't help the line move any faster.

28 January 2010

Orphan Nation

After the fall of the Soviet Union, some of the first significant attention that Moldova received from Western media focused on the squalid living conditions that many people here faced in the early nineties. In particular, relatively speaking, we heard a lot about Moldova's many orphanages, which were suddenly grossly overcrowded as parents left the country in search of work. In most if not all of these instances, one can only speculate that these must have been incredibly difficult decisions, choices that had to be made in order to ensure their family's survival.

In many ways, this provides an apt metaphor for post-Soviet Moldova in general. At that point, for nearly fifty years, Moldova had been dependent upon the Soviet Union for maintaining the standard of living that its citizens had come to know. Moldova was able to import what it needed without having to compete on the free market, and it had demand throughout the Soviet Union for the export of its agricultural commodities, such as sunflower oil and wine. However, when Mikhail Gorbachev called for the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Moldova became an orphaned nation.

For the twenty years that immediately followed, Moldovans have been learning how to be self-sufficient and have only just recently begun integrating their nation with the rest of the world. Understand that this is a country that grew up fast out of a basic necessity for survival, and in doing so, forged its own distinctive identity in the process. Moldova's oldest residents may vaguely remember when it was a part of Romania, from which it was essentially stolen during World War II, only to be all but abandoned by Russia after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Today, Moldova is its own separate nation for the first time in nearly seven hundred years. Only its youngest generation of citizens were born Moldovan. This country's fragmented history offers very little in terms of outlining a path forward, but now that it's all grown up, having only just recently survived its tumultuous adolescence, Moldova is now poised to take its place in the world at large.