I’ve been in Moldova for less than 72 hours and yet I feel as though it has been weeks. Maybe this is what it feels like for small children, and it certainly would explain why they become so tired: I arrived here knowing literally nothing about the country so every time I experience anything, see anything, am told anything, it is new to me. Every piece of information I take in is new.
I always feel that the way to start to feel comfortable in a new place is to take public transport and to go shopping for food. I guess it’s about doing the real life things that help me to feel settled and grounded. Yesterday we did both.
The public transport here in the capital Chisinua is fantastic. A mix of trolley buses and mini buses run through the city and into the surrounding countryside. A trolley bus journey costs 2 Leu, no matter the distance; a mini bus, 3 leu. That is, for Brits, equivalent to around 8p or 12p. I don’t think anything in the UK costs only 12p anymore. The trolley buses have official stops but the mini buses stop wherever you want them to. They are keen not to waste time so getting on and off has to be quick as they are quite liable to drive off with the door still open. The money can be handed over at any time in the journey. Yesterday I watched a very well dressed lady ( it’s all furs and heels in the city) tap the man in front of her on the shoulder and pass him her 3 leu. The money was passed up the bus and eventually made it to the driver. Today we are going to a village by bus so our 3 leu will take us about 60km.
I was asked by a Moldovan whether we think things here are expensive or cheap. For us, nothing here is very expensive because of our relative wealth coming from the UK, but it is interesting to think about the relative pricing of goods. Public transport is very cheap. Fruit and vegetables are expensive, however we bought our lunch in a restaurant yesterday and for the equivalent of £7 we had drinks, soup, bread, a delicious beetroot and feta salad, and one of the best pizzas we’ve ever tasted. The salad actually cost less than it would cost to buy the raw ingredients for it in the supermarket. I’m not quite sure how that works out. It is very difficult in this country to have a business, and the restaurant we ate in although originally set up by an Italian, was taken over by the government when it became successful. That’s what happens. The government simply step in and take your business away from you. We’ve met individuals to whom that has happened. No payment, no compensation, nothing. One of the things the organisation we are here visiting does is to run a scheme called ‘Business for Transformation’ which offers business training, small loans and ongoing consultation for Moldovans to set up their own businesses so that they can support their families without having to work abroad. This is obviously not without risks given the insecurity of business ownership, but most recently they have helped to set up a women’s gym which now employs 16 people.
Last night we cooked a meal for a number of the OM team members. I had been told that they didn’t often eat meat as it is very expensive, so we cooked a chicken. The price of the chicken in the supermarket was much less than I would pay in the UK. There was only one size and ‘type’ of chicken available. Eight of us shared the meal and there was meat leftover. I’m being challenged constantly about all that I take for granted in the UK. I am doing my best to share the good cultural stuff from the UK with those we meet so last night we finished our meal with a British staple – Mini eggs ( tiny chocolate eggs with a coloured sugar coating), and we shared the cereal box game with our hosts. Given the success of both of these exports in creating camaradarie and shared laughter among a group of Europeans from several countries I really think the Brexit negotiators should perhaps add them to their ‘negotiating toolkit’.
Yesterday was a deep blue skies and sunshine day. We walked around the centre of the city and enjoyed sitting in a park people-watching. The thing that struck me was that nobody seemed to be in a hurry. There we were, in the Moldovan equivalent of Whitehall or Capitol Hill, and no one was rushing. I asked our host about that later and she said that it might be a combination of things. Firstly, people are very relaxed about time here, and secondly, many people actually have very little to do because they don’t actually have work. Appearance is of crucial importance, and so although people looked well dressed and we saw some of the fanciest prams for babies I’ve ever seen, it’s entirely possible that those people go home to bare apartments without heating.
We weren’t expecting to see protesters out on the streets as we’d understood that self expression has been repressed in this post communist society, but yesterday we saw about 200 people outside the parliament building. We found someone who spoke English and she explained to us that the government had decided without consultation to cut two faculties from the University. Teachers and students were gathered to protest against the decision. It was a quiet protest but I was impressed by the courage of those people to be one of a small group taking a stand against a notoriously corrupt regime. Again a challenge to consider how far outside of my comfort zone and security am I prepared to go for things I believe in.
The city was looking so beautiful yesterday I’ll end with some snow snaps!