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New Europe

Day Forty-six: Chisinau, Moldova

Moldova 
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Olga takes me home to meet her mum, Helena, still living in the village, and the house, in which she was born.
Michael Palin - New EuropeI look out of my hotel window in downtown Chisinau (pronounced Kish-i-now), expecting a panorama of Soviet drabness but all I can see is a sylvan carpet stretching across the city. Below me is a park, full of fine, tall trees, into which people are disappearing with various bits of equipment. I mean to ask the staff what's going on but they don't encourage contact.

The breakfast room, with high ceilings, huge paintings and long brocaded curtains, is a temple of scarcity. Everything has to be specially asked for, and even quite basic items, like milk or butter, receive the same response.

'Ten minutes.'

A request for toast is met with a look of exasperated disgust, as if I'd asked them to get a child off the street and roast it for me.

At least you know where you are. As more and more of the big East European city hotels are adopting the smile-at-everybody, 'Have a nice day!' school of insincerity, it's quite refreshing to find that saying what you mean and behaving like you really feel still survives here in Moldova.

I'm further cheered by a pleasant stroll in the Stefan cel Mare Park, where display boards, book racks and a small stage have been erected for what a lady organiser helpfully tells me is National Tongue Day. This raises all sorts of expectations and I'm quite disappointed when I learn later that the correct translation of the event is actually National Language Day. This is a celebration of the Moldovan language, and is a bit of a political hot potato as the language is basically Romanian, and yet a quarter of Moldova's four and half million inhabitants are Russian and its current government is communist. The tug of war between Romania and Russia for the soul of this tiny country seems to be Moldova's biggest problem.

'I hope that, if Romania will enter the European Union... Moldova will go to the European Union. Not to the Russians, to the West. That's my opinion.'

Olga is in her later twenties. Born in Moldova, she went to Romania at the age of sixteen to become an actress. She lives in Bucharest but comes home regularly to see family and friends.

She embodies the predicament of this young republic, the most fragile of all the post-Soviet newcomers. Stretching some 200 miles north to south, and little more than 50 miles from east to west, Moldova is an awkward compromise between an historically Romanian-leaning west, which used to be called Bessarabia, and an historically Russian-leaning east, separated by the Dniester River. The result of this split personality is that, tiny though the country may be (and I could find no English-language guidebook solely dedicated to Moldova), she has already nurtured two breakaway republics. One of these, called Gagauzia, has settled for autonomy within Moldova, but the other, which calls itself Transdniester, not only declared independence, but went to war to establish it.

In 1992 thousands were killed and wounded, and though it has no international recognition, Transdniester is as good as lost to Moldova.

Once away from the hotel, the capital of this much compromised republic is a comfortable, almost cosy place to be on this warm and sunny morning. The Cactus Saloon in which I sit with Olga serves a fine espresso and its terrace looks out on colourful, tree-shaded streets. It feels more like California than the capital of a country ranked the poorest in Europe.
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PALIN'S GUIDES

  • Series: New Europe
  • Chapter: Day Forty-six: Chisinau, Moldova
  • Country/sea: Moldova
  • Place: Chişinău
  • Book page no: 117

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