Friday, October 12, 2007
Back in the USSR
We left Romania, a place where many people look as if they’ve never had a square meal or a square deal in their life, and ventured into the former USSR. Our first stop: Moldova.
We arrived midmorning at the pleasant looking, modern border station. The Romanians in casual uniforms were nice as they checked our documents and okayed us to leave. We asked them about the road ahead and they said Moldova was nice but that Transdniestr was “Putinville”.
We got in line at the other side, with just a few cars in front of us. A young border guard with crew cut and impeccable uniform with the oversized pressed cap came out, gave us the Russian scowl and asked for our documents. It was just like the movies! He looked at our papers and asked for the originals of our Registrations, which we had provided him. We insisted for a few minutes that they were the originals and he disappeared, unhappily, into the guard house. 5 or 10 minutes later he reappeared and again insisted on having the original registrations, which he did. Apparently, Massachusetts Registrations don’t look very authentic, and to be honest compared with many European documents which are laminated they look quite flimsy. After a few more back and forths, he again went into the guard house, before finally reappearing a third time to again insist on the proper documents. At this point, a Moldovan trucker took a glance at the papers and told him they looked correct for America and he went back inside.
I almost felt sorry for the youngster. Now that the Cold War is over, and Moldova is (God Forbid!) trying to encourage openness and tourism and maybe get into the EU they don’t have Visa requirements or fees for most nationals so all he can do is basically wave people through. What fun is that when you’ve trained all your life to put terror and fear into travelers with just a disconcerting glance or disdainful look? So eventually he had to let us pass. But just to the vehicle inspection person.
As we moved up the line we were in for one delightful surprise. A huge rose garden was just inside the border in Moldova. I must say it was easily the most beautiful area at any border crossing we have made yet, completely unexpected. What wasn’t unexpected was the run around they put us through to admit our motorcycles. Go to this office, no one there. Go across the street and pay the lady in the big building. Get to the big building and the lady insists that we pay back where we started. Go back there and be sent to a different window. Then pay for the bikes but only one bike is on the paperwork, etc., etc. Meanwhile, it turns out that the Moldovan truck driver speaks Italian/Spanish and we have a nice conversation with him and he helps us out when he can. He says it is the same way all the time; they are always just bumbling around just like border guards everywhere. After about an hour, without any vehicle check we and about 4 cars made it through into Moldova.
It was about 80 miles to Chisinau, the capital, on a newly paved highway. The day was dry and somewhat bright, quite a pleasant Sunday. The scenery was mostly farmland and vineyards and forest. There were many people, families and couples, out picking mushrooms on the side of the road or picnicking. Only a few people were selling them, as opposed to Romania where there were multitudes selling the same products of either mushrooms or potatoes. Only a couple were enterprising enough to sell both and offer one stop shopping. There were more than the usual number of police on the road, but we got tipped off by opposing drivers flashing their lights so we had no problems. Some things are universal, thank god!
The other noticeable thing was the preponderance of Mercedes and BMW’s on the road. Between a third to half of the cars on the road were late model German cars. Odd, considering Moldova is one of the poorest countries in Europe, and not something we saw in Slovakia, Hungary or Romania. We got to Chisinau enjoyed a pizza lunch and rode up the Soviet designed main boulevard 8 lanes wide, so as to accommodate BIG parades! We stopped at the “arc de triumph” (no caps to signify its size in relation to the Parisian one) to get our bearings and made our way to “Tourist Hotel” Straight our of the guidebooks, this 5 story concrete bunker had so much charm that when we stopped Clara insisted that “it doesn’t look open”. But sure enough it was, and for about $45 we got the full experience. Dilapidated building: check. Two single beds put next to each other with a queen-sized sheet to make a double: check. Tile, flooring, wallpaper and plumbing from the early 60’s: check. A shower that you had to run 5 to 10 minutes to get warm, while sticking the handheld into the sink to drain so that the floor didn’t overflow: check. Strange people calling us on the phone: check. A ‘maid’ on the floor watching our comings and goings: check. Someone knocking on our door by accident: check. But, it was actually nowhere near as bad as many places we have stayed and for us it was almost comical all the stereotypes we racked up.
We took a walk around the town and were impressed with the two caddy cornered parks in the center of town. One had a lightly treed area around a central plaza that had a bell tower and non-descript church in it. Both held surprises. The tower had the most beautiful chimes to mark the time that I think I have ever heard from such a tower. And inside the plain Orthodox Church was a beautifully gilded setting, with richly painted walls and wonderful voices echoing around the domed ceilings to accent a wedding taking place with a purple clothed bride.
In fact, the whole plaza was filled with brides. There was one with a long limo who looked like a perfect doll, with curled hair of a color and hue not familiar, which Clara thought had pink in it although I only saw shades of white and blond. She had a large pouffy dress and she would have been right at home at Cinderella’s Ball. Another girl was younger, poorer and not quite so happy in her traditional white dress as they moved about and her maid of honor took the wedding shots by the tree, the tower, the fountain.
We passed by the ‘arc de triomphe’ on the way to the other park which was filled with trees, crisscrossing paths with many benches filled with lovers of all ages, and an active fountain in the center with parents and children playing. To enter the park you walked through an iron gate which also had brides and grooms lined up to take the picture of “crossing the threshold into marriage”. Clearly, there was a wedding machine in Chisinau with the Church spitting out brides as fast as they can, before the requisite pictures at the anointed places are taken. However, there wasn’t any cheesiness to it just a typical way to get married in the main church and square in the countries capital.
Clara took a break in the evening as I rode around to check out the town. There were some modern buildings around, definitely building was going on, but the most noticeable thing to me was the large number of casinos all around town. Not Vegas Casino’s but more like 7-11 size casino’s occupying the first floor and maybe basement of 4 or 5 story buildings. By far, casinos seemed to be the most consistent business in town. They usually had John Gotti gangster look alikes manning the door, with some of those BMW and Mercedes parked close by. In fact, the city seemed to need a census category for “Male, close shaven head, expensive shoes, suit with colored shirt, no tie. Chain optional.” This was something that Moldova had in common with Romania, as we noticed most of the people driving the BMW’s in Romania had the same description and gave no indication of any familiarity with an MBA or other advanced degree except perhaps high school diploma. The gangster houses in Romania were high comedy.
But I digress from Moldova. We went to the only restaurant I found earlier that took Visa, as I didn’t want to exchange Moldovan money for just one day in the country. I already was carrying about 7 denominations and didn’t want any more. It was a neat, hip, modern open air Italian place with huge fishtank and flat screen TV’s. Unfortunately, by the time we got there they only were serving pizza, the same as we had for lunch. The other problem was the clientele. It was filled with the FGM: Future Gangsters of Moldova. They were chainsmoking away in their junior Gotti suits, some of them even using a hukkah as their dates cuddled up in the nicely provided blankets. The look for women is short skirt, stockings, high heels or cowboy boots and something tight up top. We have seen this look all through Eastern Europe. Not necessarily a bad thing. But thanks to the open air nature of the restaurant and the surprisingly delicious pizza we had a good time and walked back to the hotel before collapsing and resting for the next days trip into the unknown: Transdniestr. A place not even mentioned by the country that supposedly it belongs to.