Living room: A horse in the corner

I have finally completed my feng shui homework and it’s taken me so long that I can’t really remember why I needed a horse in the corner of my living room, the corner where my reputation sits. I have a vague recollection of the feng shui maestro explaining that ló  is Hungarian for horse. And that I should pay careful attention to the type of horse I put there as udvarló (literally a courtyard horse) is Hungarian for suitor. I daren’t venture any further in to what might be verging on Freudian interpretations of similarities between horses and suitors. Suffice to say that I took her at her word and have been searching since August for a horse I could bond with.

I tried all my usual haunts – the BÁVs, Petőfi Csarnok, the antique shops around town, even my mother’s living room – but it wasn’t until I was walking up the main street in Chişinău, Moldova, a few weeks ago that I found what I was looking for. It was sitting under some plastic, sheltering from the rain. The stall owner was also sheltering somewhere because he or she never made an appearance. I stood a while and looked and decided that I’d pass by this place again on my way back and in the meantime, would think about him. And so I did – and almost immediately, out popped not one, but two stall owners and the haggling began. My horse was born in 1960 in St Petersburg in Russia. He’s silver plated (there was a number 9 used repeatedly but I’m not at all sure what that relates to – something to do with the silver) over something heavy… sitting on a wooden base.

Such is the economic situation in Moldova that a lot of older residents are selling off their silver and brass to make ends meet. That in itself is quite sad to see and I wondered then, and I still wonder, what sights my horse has seen. If only he could talk. Am well impressed with him though. And I was fortunate enough to have enough euro in my wallet to take him home. My stall owners, having exhausted their English and my French, nabbed someone from the street to translate. She seemed to think I was getting a good deal. But that didn’t matter really. Good deal or not, he is just what I’ve been looking for and now has pride of place in my living room, underneath one of Kerényi Zoltán’s photographs, on his own pedestal. What more could an udvarló want?

Bricks and mortar

City Hall

Wandering around Chişinău on Sunday, still trying to put my finger on what I find so interesting about the place, I decided to focus on the buildings. As I said, it has none of the gobsmacking beauty of Budapest but there are a few gems tucked away here and there – a random mix of styles that keeps you guessing and plenty to be seen once you venture off main street.


I was strangely taken with the Parliament building which was built in 1974 in the shape of an open book (I am smiling to myself at the implied transparency and wonder what was running through the architect’s mind when he designed it).  It seems to be unoccupied right now though – no lights on at night – no guards – no life. And an election coming up. The mind boggles. The President’s building just across the road is quite impressive, too.

It’s strange to think what passes for a tourist sight. The official tourist map has 18 places marked on it and I’m sure that there are as many again that didn’t make the cut. I wonder who decides what’s ‘worthy’ of tourist attention. Perhaps I should offer my services to the city of  Chişinău – I think it’s missing a few tricks.

Sunday is definitely a day of rest though – what with the sidestreets near the market overflowing with stalls selling everything you could imagine wanting… and more; and the park full of arts and crafts and pictures and old brass and silver and all sorts – it’s a day for wandering and sitting and chatting. It seemed as if all was well in the world – well, except for one couple who were having an absolutely blazing row outside a church, just after the service. What a place to pick for a domestic. I didn’t understand a word that was being said but with the gestures and the miming, I reckon one Moldovan man got caught between someone else’s sheets!

Lots of random buildings seem to warrant police protection. I put my bag down on a window sill while I was trying to sort out where I was and was promptly asked to remove it. How do cops manage to make themselves understood??? I didn’t quite  figure out what the building was or why it was important but I’ve made a note for next time that it’s on the corner of Puskin and Bucharest strade.

There are police everywhere – and sometimes they walk up the main street in a neat column of pairs. Shift change? Not sure. Some of them look as if they might still have their confirmation money. The more serious-looking ones get to drive the newer squad cars while others are relegated to old colourful Lada-like cars that wouldn’t look out of place in a comedy show. There are so many walking the streets and minding the buildings that it’s nigh on impossible to get a photo without them popping up in it. Come to think of it, when walking through the park last night, with minimal lighting and lots of shadows, I never once felt afraid. Why don’t Hungarian policemen instill the same sense of security I wonder?

President's Building

Chişinău definitely has its moments. And it’s quite refreshing not to have it all served up to you on a plate. It makes a pleasant change to have to do some work  – to find things out for yourself – to walk the streets and discover without the aid of maps and guidebooks. It puts the adventure back into travel and the touring back into tourist. The language barrier is quite real – and the scarcity of street signs makes you wonder just what the city is hiding. In the taxi, on the way to the airport, I noticed the Ciuflea monastery – which was within walking distance from my hotel, had I ever turned right instead of left. So, that, the possibility of a live rugby match, the wine, and the mămăligă, have ensured Chişinău a place on my list of cities to revisit.

Burnt hair and beans

Step off Stefan cel Mare into another world – the Piata Centralã – which opened its doors (or its gates) in 1994 and since then has been a veritable hive of activity. You can buy just about anything here  – from mohair shawls to plastic sheets and tweezers. And, while there’s a fair amount of genuine tat, there are plenty of good bargains to be found – if you have the time and the inclination to root around. Or, as in my case, you couldn’t find your way out of a paper bag on a good day and end up wandering for hours trying to find a way out.

I found this fruit – and have absolutely no idea what it is. Any ideas? The seeds taste a little like cranberries. Before you buy, they cut a hole in the skin so that you can see the seeds (I assume to see if they’re ripe) and then you can flower them to eat. Am not quite sure whether you eat the white pith or not, but so far, I’m alive. Really tasty stuff, if a little messy. Am glad that the carpet in my hotel room has a little bit of red running through it:-)

With acres and acres of the usual fruit and veg, there are also bags and bags of beans and pulses and seeds. Each neatly labelled … in Moldavan. Still sore at being snapped at in a market in Bonn for daring to take a photo, I asked permission to take this one and was treated to a tasting session and a detailed explanation of what everything was … in Moldovan. A woman trying to sell me a shawl pulled a thread and burned it and made me smell it. It smelt like burnt hair. Didn’t quite get that particular marketing trick. One stall had recylable shopping bags from Carrolls in Dublin. There’s been quite a lot of oddities in the last few days – I’ve spent two hours each evening this week glued to the TV watching a show set in Alaska. The congregation at Mass was mostly Hungarian and then the shopping bags from Dublin – seems as if my life is passing before my eyes.

The sum of the parts is greater than the sum of the whole

Chişinău was never on my list of capital cities just begging to be paid a visit. Truth be told, until a few months ago, I didn’t know it existed and until a few days ago, I didn’t know how to pronounce it. But I’m here and I’m strangely fascinated. It has none of the gobsmacking beauty of Budapest or the exotic extremes of Baku – but is has a certain something that I can’t quite put my finger on…and it’s home to the country’s rugby team (who, apparently, are rather good – watch this space!)

I’ve been wandering up and down the main street – Stefan
cel Mare – for the last few days and am still seeing things I never noticed before. Like the chap who sits with a bathroom scales and charges 1 lei (about 6 cents) a weigh. mmmm… forgot to weigh myself this morning … oh good, there’s a scales! Or the plethora of xerox shops with one printer, one copier, and one computer – all with queues. Or the series of posters encouraging people to emigrate to Canada. With the average wage in Moldova coming in at €170 per month (that’s about $250), life in Whitehorse might be a viable option.

The second-smallest of the former Soviet republics and the most densely populated, Moldova is 96% orthodox so I wasn’t holding out much hope of finding a Catholic church – but I did and it served up a fine 20-minute mass to 13 of us this evening – in English. Two Americans, a family of Hungarians, one Maltese and the rest of unknown origin fitted neatly in the capela just around the corner from Embassy row.

Dinner afterwards in the Vatra Neamului on Puskin St was quite the treat. I ordered fried lamb – mocănească – and what turned up? The omnipotent mămăligă. Turns out that mămăligă refers to the polenta. Ah well, fourth time in as many days and it’s still good. And it came with a complimentary sparkling wine and a complimentary liquer – why didn’t I venture beyond the Christmas tree before now I wonder?

Perhaps one of the strangest sights in Chişinău though, are the phone boxes. There are banks of them, everywhere. It’s like stepping back in to the past a little – to the days before mobile phones, when we could remember phone numbers.

The Moldovans I have met in the past week have all, without exception, been extremely welcoming and open and friendly – and so what if they keep chatting away in Moldovan even after it’s clear that I’ve no clue what they’re talking about… they seem to get a kick out of it. And hey – twice already I’ve been stopped and asked directions  – by goodlooking men. Well, at least, that’s what I think they wanted…


So many men

Walking out of the airport in Chisinau was just a tad intimidating. A strange feeling for me, a woman who is somewhat allergic to oestrogen and far more comfortable with manageable doses of testosterone. The flight from Budapest to Chişinău was in one of those planes that have had some longtitudional sectioning – you know – where the seats go A, (skip B and C), D, (skip E), and F. We landed, we cleared passport control (first time in a long time I’ve been asked why I’m visiting a country and first time ever that I’ve had a legitimate business reason that was completely at odds with the rather dishevelled appearance I presented.). Still, they let me in. I sailed through to baggage claim, where my bag was waiting for me. I walked through customs and straight outside to where my taxi was waiting. Clockwork came to mind.

But walking through the front door to be met by a crowd of burly men in black coats was, as I said, just a tad intimidating. I had a flashback to landing in Dubai many years ago but at least these Moldovan men saw me, where as the lads in Dubai tried to walk through me.

I used to drive a 20-year-old Toyota Starlet – and it’s still parked at my parents’ house at home. This taxi was older though – much older. You could have carbon dated it by the smells alone. Somewhat amusingly, the one car broken down on the road into the city, blocking traffic, was a very new looking Toyota Passat. The drive into Chişinău was lined with high-rise panels (tower blocks) and for the first time EVER, I found myself drawing comparisons, not with Ireland, but with Hungary. These panelházok are a little more ornate that what we have (Get that ownership! What’s happening here?) in Budapest and rather than lone tower blocks, they’ve been rather creatively stuck together so that, in fact, they don’t actually look all that bad… at least at night.

We passed what could have passed for a South African township just on the outskirts of the city and it struck me that Moldova ain’t exactly rolling in dough. That said though, every other building lining the main street seems to be either a bank or a jeweller’s. And the one shop I ventured in to would have been at home on Bond Street. (Does that say more about my taste than the economy…I wonder.)

Tonight, in Moldova and Romania, St Nicolae comes and leaves sweets in your shoes if you clean them and leave them outside. Am half-tempted to park my loafers outside my hotel-room door to see what happens!

After wandering the streets for a couple of hours to get my bearings and in a half-hearted attempt to find a restaurant, I opted for the hotel menu. Whatever else about this city, it can’t be done for false advertising. They said that my Mămăligă would consist of  200 grams of pork, 220 grams of cornflour, and 25 grams of cheese and they were right. Mind you, I think the pork was beef and the cornflour was polenta but other than that, it all weighed in and was delicious.

Tomorrow, in daylight, should be interesting.