More News From Nowhere
The minibus crossed the border and entered Codri Forest, the patches of oaks and willows broken by small farmsteads. The economy of landlocked Moldova, Europe's poorest country and one of its most densely populated, is almost entirely agricultural, especially after all their industry seceded with Transnistria twenty years ago. They grow grapes for Moldovan wine, famous for its freshness and fruity flavor according to the expertise of the Frenchman on the bus.
Everyone else was Romanian, but I sat in the back with Pierre-Henri of France, Lidy of Moldova, and a Romanian. Lidy had taught English before marrying, and although she had not spoken in four years remembered it quickly. She pointed out the forest and Lake Ghidighici when we passed, and recommended some Moldovan cuisine: goulash, rolls in grape leaf and cabbage, and mamaliga, a sort of cornmeal mush. Her brother lives in Boston and she has to correct his English. She wants to visit but not to stay. She would miss the air, sky, people, and faith of Moldova too much.
When we came into Chişinău's central depot, Lidy and her husband showed me where the tram station was, and I took one out to the Malldova mall at the edge of town, behind which was my hostel. The Welshman who opened the Chişinău Hostel also owns one in Varna and much property in Eastern Europe, and is surely the most successful and least alcoholic of that club of Welsh ex-patriots who frequent the world's strange places. He was very proud of his region, and informed us that Richard Burton and Catherine Zeta-Jone also hailed from there.
The hostel was nearly full on Friday night, including another four travelers I had met in Varna: two Aussies and two of the staffers from the Flag Hostel. They came from Varna Veche on Romania's Black Sea coast, just near the Bulgarian border, and told stories of drinking till dawn around the dance floors that stretched from the houses to the surf, and then sleeping uneasily until the sun grew too hot, at which point they would wander around until the drinking began anew at 5.
The original idea of the Varna Veche festival, which starts every year on May 1 and usually peters out by late August, was to save that small resort town with rock and roll. Now up to 20,000 Romanians will show up on the warm weekends during the festival to enjoy their youth. The houses of the overrun town, saved from eviction at least, turn into nightclubs, bars, guesthouses, and brothels.
(From the Welshman who ran the Chişinău Hostel I heard some sorry news out of Varna. It seemed that Dave had not paid any taxes on his Flag Hostel and was being shut down, not accepting any reservations past the middle of this month.)
Saturday I didn't do much, and at night went to get cheap Chinese food from a stall in the Malldova food court. I also checked the times for Harry Potter, but all movies there and east are dubbed in Russian. I went with a Swede named Cristian, a social worker who spent a few weeks a year partying in Eastern Europe, where the clubs are bloated by mafia money into magnificent spectacles all their own. He wanted to go out that night, and I felt the first constraints of my light packing, having no shoes or long pants for the glamorous places in which he intended to be seen drinking.
Well fine then! I drank with the expeditionary party, composed of Cristian, a Rough Guides writer named Yuri, and a Nipponese named Miyamoto, and then when they left finished the vodka with the Welshman and Niles, an older American. The only other lodger at that rare place, a Dutchman, had already gone to bed. One of the Moldovan girls who ran the hostel named Helena was watching Wall-E on her laptop, and the sounds coming from the kitchen made me very nostalgic. She came out looking like she had fallen in love. O Wall-E, may you be everyone's favorite movie!
I wandered around the old town on Sunday. I saw more mullets than I had ever seen before, and also noted that along the Black Sea coast, it is okay for guys to roll up the hems of their shirts and walk around like that with their stomachs hanging out.
I went in a church, a great Orthodox gallery crowded with wedding guests. From what I could tell, there were three weddings going on concurrently, at different stages of the ritual and in different corners of the church. One couple stood before the Templon and the speaking priest in a familiar display of oath-taking. In the corner, a priest waved a censer over a pile of pastries with candles stuck in them, and as he chanted a choir of women sang a hymnal.
Outside, three newlywed couples and their parties were dispersed around the square. Two posed for photographs, and one groom had his smiling bride bent over the lip of a fountain while he planted himself behind her hips in a pose sure to please his father-in-law and inspire his children. Caravans of cars bedecked in flowers, streamers, and balloons awaited the customary slow drive through town, accompanied by much fanfare of car horns.
On my way back I saw Cristian and the Dutchman, whose name I forgot, on the way back, and we got coffee and dinner and looked through the closing market. Only Cristian went out that night, and he did it yawning all the way across the threshhold, for he had not left last night's club until 8 that morning and was at the end of a week spent traveling and clubbing. The other four of us drank in the common room and jawed about manly subjects like music and girls and parasites while Helena played Act I of Diablo II in the kitchen, though she needed help with potions and Scrolls of Town Portal, which my sad experience provided.
The seperatist region of Transnistria, which occupies a skinny strip of steppe between the east bank of the Dniestr and the incredulous Ukrainian border, has become easier and easier to enter. When I first heard of it, you needed American cigarettes and Russian vodka to gift to the guards; later this became a bribe of $15 to $60; soon the price was reduced to a standard fee of 17 lei, which is just over one Euro; and finally the mandatory bribe was entirely eradicated, in all situations but a few unlucky (but exciting) outliers.
Monday I took a bus into Tiraspol, the capital. I intended to stay the night, though foreigners have to register themselves with the police to stay longer than twelve hours, but learned too late that I could not withdraw money, only exchange real currencies for worthless Transnistrian scrip, recognized nowhere but there. I changed my €10 of Moldovan lei into Transnistrian rubles, which was enough to buy a hearty lunch and a ticket to Odessa after a brief wander.
To summarize, Transnistria is a country that does not exist, recognized by no nation of importance but Russia, who it seeks to rejoin despite Ukraine's intervening bulk, and the Russians are as happy to play along as they are in Abkhazia and South Ossetia and Azerbaijan. Tiraspol serves Moscow in gestures of Lenin statues and Putin posters, of billboards proclaiming the benefices of socialism and the nobility of the worker, and by the squadrons of soldiers, many of them deployed by Russia, who patrol its streets. And yet none in Transnistria would shed tears were her impossible goal never realized, the nation being owned wholesale by Igor Smirnov and his family, who run the star-logoed Sherif Company and profit immensely from the country's confused status.
How now Pridnestrovie? What dost thou intend, O fake nation, with thy fictitious name, sovereignless magistrates, and counterfeit currency, thy mock police in costumed livery? Why further burden the lists of nations with conflict, fetter your people with a meaningless citizenship, and squander all wealth on folly, you East Bank of Moldova, last Republic of the USSR? Why weather the storm as a picket of nothing? Be thee Oblivious or just Uncaring?
Here I come to the make-believe border, and a sham soldier with a greased AKS-47 dangling from his neck checked the aisle of the bus. Another collected the passports. They were all returned but one, for the Bald Eagle in that stack might as well be a dollar sign, so clearly did he portrude to acute eyes. I was called outside the bus to an office in a guard station with an iron door.
I waited for the leather-bound detachment of Free Riders to be dealt with, and then went inside and took a seat before the metal desk of a young officer. Behind him a man with a moustache sat at a computer facing the room's only window. In Russian, the officer told me I did not have an exit stamp for Moldova and that I would have to go back there and proceed around Transnistria to make my passport complete, if I wanted to get into Ukraine. He drew a word map on a piece of paper, an X through a line from Tiraspol to Odessa, and a new arrow drawn from Chişinău around to the Ukrainian port.
The Welshman and Niles had assured me that this would not be a problem, so I started arguing and calling Transnistria a fake country and said Odessa a few times. The man kept saying no, and finally said something about a present.
"Present?" I asked, knowing what he meant but wanting him to ask for it.
The officer scoffed at my naïveté and looked comically to the man at the desk behind him, and I had to fight back a grin as he turned back to say again, "Present!"
I learned later that this guard sometimes catches unwary travelers for €50 or even €100, but by some windfall I was happily broke. Even though he kept saying, "Too small," I handed over €2 of Transnistrian rubles and said, "No euro, no dollar, no lei. Only rubles." The fake officer clicked his tongue but took the bills and returned to me my passport.