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: