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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.