Postcards from Chisinau

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Chișinău, Moldova – April 2014

Dear K—

I’m sitting in a pleasant outdoor cafe, resting my feet after a day of aimless wandering. I looked and looked for a postcard to send you for your collection, but none are to be found in the shops here. I found a faded one on a shelf in the apartment that I’m renting, tucked amid the dog-eared books and the travel brochures for other countries. The photo on it is of the post office building. It’s a striking building. Isn’t it funny how it makes the people look so miniature? In most other European cities, such a building would fade into the background. But this is Chișinău.

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It takes a little effort to see beyond the dingy Socialist dwellings that are packed together like hives. But there are traces of beauty to be found.

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Here, in Chișinău, I finally asked myself why it is that I travel. What is it that I seek? As I walked the chaotic streets on this glorious spring day, I remembered the time when I first stepped out into the world, so many years ago. The wonder I feigned when I saw the Eiffel Tower and Sacre Coeur. The disappointment I felt inside at my lack of awe. Now I realize that it was because I had been taken by the hand and shown. And told. Dates and events and important people. All of these things are fascinating, of course, but what about real life? The greatest joy has come from discovering the true personality of a place.

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Speaking of iconic tourist attractions, there is a miniature version of the Arc de Triomphe here. It reminds me of the Stonehenge scene in This is Spinal Tap. Funny and a little sad. While seeking an identity, there is often an urge to imitate.

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The park behind the Arc is decked out in Easter decorations. This is the first time I’ve seen a city decorate for Easter. It must be just as important to them as Christmas.

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The main boulevard, Stefan cel Mare, is a street photographer’s dream. Men sporting suits, long ponytails, dark glasses, and gold chains congregate next to luxury cars with tinted windows. Gnarled little babushky scuttle along wielding straw baskets full of flowers. Girls in precarious stilettos march into and out of designer shops. Perfectly manicured claws and eyes of steel. At the traffic light near the bus station, an elderly man in a wheelchair moved himself back and forth in the street. Slowly, slowly. His expression was one of defiance. The drivers didn’t honk. Pedestrians walked around him with blank expressions. I stared at him until he noticed me. He gave me a nod and continued his insolence. I passed one man who was dressed in a tan leisure suit. One side of his jacket was hanging off his shoulder, as if he had forgotten to put it all the way on. Or maybe he thought it looked better that way. Like a shawl, or something. He swaggered down the sidewalk, grooving to his own private Saturday Night Fever. I held my camera in my hand and bit my lip. But in the end I was too wary to take photos of these subjects. They were too erratic, too fierce.

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At the edge of the city, I came across this abandoned circus building. Elevated and illuminated under a bright afternoon sun. A tarnished crown of days gone by. I paused and stared up at it. The vast silence of wonder filled my mind. I walked around the entire structure, peering into the grimy windows, hoping to find an unlocked door or broken window. I filled in the empty spaces with my imagination. Boisterous music and squeals of delight. Flamboyant costumes and quivering tightropes.

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I shuffled back into the city center, exhausted. I made a quick lap around the small open air market. You can find something resembling souvenirs here – wooden carvings and needlework. There are also trinkets from the past. The Lenin bust would make a delightfully obnoxious bookend, but I restrained myself. I wanted to get you some vintage Soviet Union coins, but when the vendor noticed that I was a foreigner, her eyes lit up a little too much. My Russian isn’t good enough to haggle. I don’t want to end my trip getting ripped off. I’ll send you some Moldovan coins, which are even less common, for your collection.

Well, your eccentric aunt has rambled on enough. Besides, my food has arrived. They make the most delicious Russian salad at this place. I’ve eaten here every day at least once. The waiters are amused, but whatever. I hope you are doing well in school and wish you a fantastic summer.

May you have many adventures in your life.

Love,

Aunt Julie

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24 thoughts on “Postcards from Chisinau

  1. Reblogged this on From Now On I Live Mad and commented:
    I have been remiss in blogging, but a fellow blogger saves me! Julie is an inveterate traveler, a gifted photographer and an accomplished writer. I am lucky to have met her in person when she traveled to Moldova last April. Here she does a wonderful piece on Chisinau – much better than anything I have managed to compose. Thanks Julie and may you continue to traipse about the globe with fortune at your heels!

    • Thanks so much, Yvette. I take this as a huge compliment. It was so cool to meet you and I’m so thankful that you took me to that cemetery. I’m sure you’re so ready to get out of there, but you know that one day you’ll look back on your time there with nostalgia.

  2. Dear aunt Julie (I hope you don’t mind)
    the way you discovered Chișinău, a city I’ve never heard of, on your own, certainly was of much greatur pleasure to me than the most spectacular post card. Thank you very much for the insight, also for the pictures of the buildings, you have given me. Your niece M…..:)

  3. I think every letter from aunt Julie is a little adventure for K. and an inspiration for travelling.
    A wonderful composition of text and story!
    Greetings,
    Ulli

  4. You , dear Julie are an amazingly unusual traveler … What an inspiring postcard to receive… I love your writing always and the way you make me see thru your eyes , those building descriptions are like human character sketches , ” while seeking an identity , there is often an urge to imitate ” . And your raw description of that man dressed in a tan leisure suit made me laugh ! …thank you for taking me along once more in ” discovering the true personality of a place “. You are a beautiful ” LaVagabonde” …love and hugs megxxx

    • Mr. Leisure Suit was simply fabulous. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a person walk with so much enthusiasm. Not even Travolta.
      I love taking you along with me, Meg. You always “get” my groove. 😀

  5. Your appetite and the challenges you are willing to face for travel to exotic places is amazing, Julie. Your Moldovian presentation also reminds me of a by-gone era of picture post cards, of travellers buying and posting it home from wherever they were at a particular point of time. Quaint buildings and characters suddenly acquire a life of their own through your descriptions…sending an appreciative hug and best wishes..xx.

  6. Great photos and great stories again Julie – the sun is shining too; Pam would approve 🙂
    Your photo of the souvenir stall reminds me that in a moment of uncharacteristic weakness I was persuaded to buy some old Russian coins on the streets of pre-EU Tallinn. It disappoints me to think that I have no idea where they are.

  7. I loved your description of erratic, unusual folks that you don’t photograph, but give us a terrific description. Beautifully written and illustrated!

  8. Every place has its own personality, and it is hard to understand why they all need to be the “Paris” or “Venice” of their countries. Thank you for revealing the hidden beauty of Chisinau to us.

  9. A day in the life of Moldova sounds fascinating. I’m happy to experience it, albeit from afar, via your writings. Is this one of those places that wants to return under the Russian wing?

    • Oh, LD, I thought of you when I was there. You’d be in street photog heaven. It would blow that dragon mask right off your head.

      As for them going back to Russia…with the situation in next door Ukraine, the USA is working very hard to, uh, convince Moldova that it’s in their best interest to try to join the EU instead. John McCain had visited just before I was there and the EU did away with visa requirements for Moldovans, etc.

  10. Aunt Julie-
    Whenever I read your blog it reminds me of the timelessness of some places. It seems to me like everything is rushed nowadays and nobody and time to do anything. Just reading the descriptions of the fascinating people and places you visit makes me a bit sad but hopeful at the same time. I don’t really know the right word for the feeling. I always enjoy the postcards and coins you send even if I don’t always show my thanks. I hope to someday have unique experiences like yours.
    Love
    K

    • Such a thoughtful and mature comment, young lady. Thank you. I think the feeling you mean is wistfulness. The sadness of yearning. Never fear – your time will come and you will shine. If you make an effort to observe with your own senses, your experiences will be unique no matter where you may roam. I’m sure you’re getting excited for your big trip this summer. Bon Voyage!

  11. Yes, finding out, and exploring for oneself. That is such a good gift to pass on to a niece. If only someone had told me I could do that sooner instead of filling me with anxious thoughts about strangers and strange places. On the other hand, perhaps one has to be a little grown up to get the best from one’s own discoveries. Your photographs and words do indeed convey the wonder of your discoveries. Happy travelling.

    • Thank you, Tish. It took a while for me to be able to fully appreciate discovery. As you said, that comes with maturity. It’s all part of the journey.

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