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Trip 7 -- The Balkans

Message 2: Zagreb to Tiraspol

Date: 2 Sep 2003 19:45:09 -0000
From: seth@sethweinstein.com (Seth Weinstein)
Subject: Southeast Europe update #2: Zagreb to Tiraspol

Every four years, I call up my Hungarian friend Andi and proclaim my sudden presence in Budapest. I can't call in advance, partially because I never know what day I'm going to arrive, and partially because finding out where she's living involves a phone call to her mother, who only speaks Hungarian. Such was the case on Wednesday; a helpful lady from a Budapest tourism agency made the call and tracked her down for me. Andi is now married and eight months pregnant with her second child, but somehow that didn't stop her from welcoming, and whipping up dinner for, an unannounced guest who had been walking around in a major heat wave for two days without a shower.

And so I spent my few hours in Budapest en route from Croatia - the country that gave us the necktie, the parachute, the ball-point and fountain pens, and fingerprint identification, by the way - to Romania. I had my own train compartment entering Romania, and I awoke to the demanding hands of two child beggars. On my first day in the country, I checked out the ruins of a 14th-century hilltop fortress in Deva and the churches, guild halls, and old streets of Sibiu.

Romania is certainly one of the cheapest places for an American tourist. A one-day subway pass in Bucharest costs about 60 cents, as does an hour on the Internet. A decent meal can be had for $2. My 147,000-lei train ticket for the overnight local (11 hours) from Sibiu to Bucharest looked expensive with all those digits, but it was really only about $4.20.

Bucharest has its charms, mainly in the form of delightful old churches (the oldest dates from 1546), nearly all of which are still in use, alive with burning candles, people praying, and paintings covering every square inch of wall space. As they date from different periods, they cover a variety of architectural styles. Another highlight was the Village Museum, a huge outdoor ethnographic display including dozens of representative 18th-century homes, chapels, and farming equipment - even an old wooden, hand-cranked Ferris wheel - from Romania's various regions. Sadly, it was a most unwelcoming place: the outer boundaries of the museum grounds were guarded by armed officers (no doubt to destroy anyone who tries to avoid the entrance fee); all but seven of the buildings were firmly locked; and those that were only let one enter the main foyer and survey the remaining rooms from there, which was a pity, because nearly all contained beautiful icons and bright-red textiles worthy of a closer look.

Bucharest's old town is pleasant enough, but the massive communism-inspired open squares bake in the heat and teem with unforgiving traffic. We're talking about a city on which Ceausescu imposed socialism to a relentless degree. In the southern part of the city, he wiped out churches, synagogues, and neighborhoods in order to create large plazas and mammoth buildings; he even rerouted a river through the city in an attempt to make it more worldly. When the neighborhoods were razed, people were forced to live in close quarters and no longer had room for their pets, which is why the streets are now full of stray dogs.

I splurged $6 on dinner in Bucharest and met a most interesting character: someone who worked on the Romanian end of those "Get your college degree now" e-mail scams. Believe it or not, there were actually people who'd respond to those messages, and she'd happily sell them a master's or Ph.D. for $2400. Her company, Hyacinth, has been shut down, and she now spends her time calling up Scandinavian CEOs and convincing them to invest in pre-IPO stocks. After our dinner, she was meeting a co-worker for a date; no doubt she absconded with his money as well.

On the train from Bucharest to Chisinau, the capital of Moldova, I shared a compartment with a Moldovan clarinet player, and in the dining car I conversed with an American who had met a Moldovan on the Internet and was on his way there to bring her back to the USA and marry her. The ride began just before sunset and was simply gorgeous; we trundled through farms and cornfields and vineyards and enjoyed all the sights and smells. It was a 13.5-hour journey, about three hours of which was spent at the Moldovan border so they could change the bogies on the train: All of the former USSR runs on a different gauge than the rest of Europe (this prevented anyone from attacking Russia by train), so car by car our train was lifted up, the old wheels slid away, and the Russian ones installed.

And with that, on the last day of August, I was treated to a series of celebrations. In Chisinau, they were celebrating 12 years of independence (since 27 August 1991) and 14 years since the Moldovan language, written in the Latin alphabet, was officially adopted in place of Russian on 31 August 1989. All afternoon and evening a concert took place in the main square, in front of the massive logo of the country's main mobile-phone-service provider, Moldcell - I have to think the name must mean something else to a botanist.

Chisinau also is home to an enormous outdoor market, with all sorts of fruits, vegetables, cheese, unrefrigerated meats, clothing, and supplies. I could have spent hours happily getting lost in its labyrinthine lanes. My hotel was immediately behind the market, and each time I walked through it, it seemed there was a new section to explore.

Yesterday I took a bus to Tiraspol, capital of the self-declared republic of Transdniestr. Transdniestr declared independence from Moldova (or from the Soviet Union, depending on how you see it) on 2 September 1990, and it's the last remaining entity that's still trying to preserve Soviet communism. Streets are still named in honor of Lenin, Karl Marx, and the October revolution.

As Transdniestr is still technically part of Moldova, I didn't need a separate visa, though it does have its own currency, unrecognized president, and unofficial borders and border guards. Old-time Soviet bureaucracy is still in force: In order to check into a hotel I had to register with the local militia, which involved finding a certain bank (hidden at the end of an apartment block) and paying a fee conveniently amounting to 4.12 Transdniestran rubles (about 60 cents) - when I handed over a fiver, I was rewarded with a jackpot of weightless tiddlywinks in change. My hotel, the Aist, has a terrace and a pleasant view of the Dniestr River, but the charms end there. It's on the fifth floor (the elevators stopped working long ago) and features a non-functioning refrigerator, a bed with a very thoughtfully placed bar to keep my back from getting too comfortable, and a faucet that emits a trickle of cold water - there's no hot water in Tiraspol from April to October.

Today Transdniestr celebrated 13 years of "independence," so to speak. I awoke to the amplified sound of a speech of typically Soviet grandeur and infinitude, which was followed by the militia band's rendition of the same piece ad infinitum. But things got more festive after that, with an afternoon of street performances (often in the form of canned Russian pop music, but sometimes featuring traditional instruments and costumes) and food stalls along the length of the main street. The day culminated in a fireworks display of resplendent ephemerality. The most amusing moment, no doubt, was at the end of the militia band's presentation this morning, when, after much pomp, they concluded with "In the Mood."

There are a lot of elderly people in Transdniestr, who no doubt long for the comfortable lifestyle they had as citizens of the USSR. There are also a lot of young people. There doesn't seem to be much in between. Who can say what path the republic will follow?


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