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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Memorial

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Strășeni, Moldova – April 2014

“If anyone asks me to toast, could you please tell them that I’m pregnant?” I ask Yvette as we approach the cemetery. “I don’t want to offend anyone, but I also don’t want to be buzzed riding back to Chisinau in a packed minibus.” A steady stream of people dressed in their best attire pass us going in the other direction. The holiday starts early in the day and people usually have a few cemeteries to visit.

In the Orthodox religion, Easter is more important than Christmas. One week after Orthodox Easter is Paștile Blajinilor, Memorial Easter. It’s the day when the living visit the graves of their relatives and have a little party. I’ve experienced a similar holiday in Poland and Slovakia, but it’s done on November 1st in the evening. The ambiance is eerie and mystical. Whispering shadows illuminated by candlelight.

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Here, in Moldova, the atmosphere is boisterous. There are smiles and laughter. The crosses over the graves are painted in bright blues and greens. The dirt mounds are meticulously tended. Photographs of the departed are on many of the headstones. Lilac trees are in full bloom. It is a time of resurrection.

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I snap furtive photos as we walk down the narrow aisles. Yvette has told me that Moldovans love to have their photos taken. She speaks Romanian, so she asks a family if I can take some photos. They offer us cognac to toast. When Yvette tells them I’m pregnant, they offer me some meat and cheese. I take some cheese, but shake my head at the meat. “Vegetarian,” I say. Feeling like a party pooper. The blonde lady shrugs and offers me some sheep cheese.

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As we move deeper into the cemetery, I become bolder with the camera. It is true indeed that no one seems camera shy.

When I booked this trip back in January, I was unaware of this holiday. Before recent events, you didn’t hear much about Moldova. Moldova is the least visited country in Europe, and one of the least visited in the world. While I was waiting to board the flight from Vienna to Chisinau, I looked around and realized that I was the only tourist, the only person who didn’t have a reason to go. I suddenly felt very ridiculous. What the hell was I doing? Why couldn’t I go to Greece or Italy like normal people? The feeling passed when I took my first walk around Chisinau. While not posh or picturesque, Moldova is a place like no other. A people watcher’s dream. This stroll around a village cemetery is a reaffirmation of why I travel to offbeat places.

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Yvette and I get looks of curiosity. Some of the people know her as the American in town. Amid the revelry, a lone woman sits in a plot of two graves. She has a soft, contemplative smile on her face and her hands are folded in her lap. She tells Yvette that she’s with her husband and her brother. She points at the graves as if making introductions.

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“I see this guy everywhere,” Yvette says as we move on down the row. “It’s amazing how far he gets with those crutches.”

I flick my camera to the right and take a clandestine photo. He’s an interesting character, but I hesitate to take photos of handicapped people. He inches along, stopping when he comes to me.

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He looks down at my camera and says something. Then I realize that he wants me to take his photo. He’s not going to let me pass until I do.

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I oblige and he ambles away without a word.

Yvette laughs. “I told you Moldovans love to have their photo taken.”

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Some of the graves are neglected and lonely. Guilt washes over me as I think of my father’s grave. He’s been gone over twenty years and I’ve only visited once or twice. Before I moved to Eastern Europe, I never thought that visiting a grave was important. My father was not in that small rectangle of earth below a stone slab. He was no longer of the Earth. I now realize the power in having one spot, one focal point for people to gather and remember. And if you can’t go there, at least you have one day when everyone agrees to remember and celebrate. Light candles, build a shrine, party.

I feel a pang of sadness that there isn’t such a holiday in America and other Western countries. One doesn’t need to be religious, or even believe in a soul, to take one day to remember those who have had an impact on one’s life. As I sweep my eyes over the faces of the departed, I think of my father, my maternal grandfather, my paternal grandmother, my friends Breezy and Deanna, and all of the beloved animals who have kept me company along the way.

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*Massive thanks to fellow WP blogger Yvette who informed me about the holiday and offered to take me to the cemetery in her village.