Tomatoes, Cucumbers, and Homemade Wine

Jul
14th
2010

CHISINAU, MOLDOVA — When I first met Ion of Moldova in 2001, he claimed he slept with his pillow close to his rack of hard drives because he found the whirring noises they made “comforting.” He was shameless in this admission, and I couldn’t help but admire him for it: the man’s a nerd’s nerd. Back then, I was fresh off the boat in Budapest, and I was crashing on his flatmate’s couch, his flatmate being an old friend of mine from the Canadian Grenadier Guards. In the following years Ion had emigrated to Australia, entered the mining business, and gotten into parasailing, of all things, in a very big way. He’d caught wind of my trip on the Facebook, and was scheduled to make a rare trip home around the same time. And so, last week sometime after dark, I found myself rumbling up and down the streets of Ion’s parents’ neighbourhood in the Moldovan capital of Chisinau, wishing he’d given me GPS coordinates accurate to just one more decimal point.

Ion in the hood, some time later when the sun came up

I met Ion’s parents, dropped my stuff off in their lovely home, and was immediately subjected to this Moldovan hospitality I’d heard so much about. Sure enough, their kitchen table did groan under the weight of impossibly delicious tomatoes and cucumbers. There was all kinds of Moldovan food, and wine, and then more food until we couldn’t take it any more. Ion and I then made our excuses, and we hit the town. We met up with another Moldovan-by-way-of-Budapest, Cristina, downtown at a karaoke bar. She was visiting home, too, and was out with her friends for the night.

With the Moldovan crew


I’ve developed this unfortunate habit, after a week or so of being on the road and not really knowing anybody along the way, of jabbering away nonstop the instant I meet up with folks. There’s all this pent-up talking to be done, which I managed to do that night. I was also still a bit keyed up from the day’s difficult drive, and I hit the local firewater pretty hard — so much so that early the next morning, as I stumbled around looking for the bathroom, I managed to knock over a glass table holding the family’s entire home entertainment system, as well as a framed photo of a young Ion. It’s official: I was the world’s worst houseguest. Ion’s parents were the very picture of gracious hospitality, claiming it was an old and ugly piece of furniture and that they were going to throw it out anyway. I resolved to replace everything before I left.

Meanwhile, Ion had cooked up all manner of fun and wholesome touristy things to do. Cristina, having been away from Moldova for her entire adult life, wanted to see some tourist attractions in her own country for once, and she jumped on board. Ion’s dad, who’s an A-1 stand-up dad if there ever was one, fired up the family truckster — a Lada Niva, renowned for its simplicity and indestructibility — and off we went to the world’s largest wine cellar, a bone-rattling 50 kilometres southeast of the city.

The Cricova Wine Cellars have had some money sunk into them, and they put on a pretty impressive show. You pull up in your car, your tour guide hops in the passenger seat, and then you actually drive in to the cellars. The network of tunnels down there is enormous.

We must've taken a wrong left turn at Albuquerque

One of the very few noble things I’m trying to do on this trip is challenge my own preconceptions about people and places. Psychologists talk about a phenomenon called “confirmation bias,” which is a tendency all human beings have to actively seek out patterns in the world around them that confirm and entrench their already-held beliefs. Other patterns that don’t fit, so the story goes, are rejected outright. I’m aware of the problems that this confirmation bias leads to, the big one being stereotyping.

And then there was our tour guide, who was straight out of central casting. The Soviet Union died nearly two decades ago, but she spoke English exactly like a Soviet tour guide should, with a thick accent and a rapid-fire monotone delivery that played fast and loose with dubiously precise figures about feats of engineering. Her introductory bit, for example, was full of myriad statistics about the gross tonnage and volume of limestone removed from the cellars during their construction. It was, for lack of a better word, awesome.

After a few kilometres cruising around underground, it was time for the main event. We hopped out of the Niva, massive barrel-shaped doors in the cellar walls groaned open like something out of Dr. No, and the three of us shuffled into a subterranean banquet hall to the rousing accompaniment of a two-piece Moldovan folk duo. Primitive wooden carvings on the walls helped tone down the gigantism of the space, what with its high-backed chairs and 20-foot ceilings. We sat at the immaculately laid table, which, unsurprisingly, was loaded up with cucumbers and tomatoes as well as a selection of Cricovan reds and whites, and we got down to some serious tastin’. The Moldovan two-piece dropped by later to serenade us with a tune close to the heart of anyone who spent their childhood in this country, and I think Ion had himself a moment.

Quite some time later we wobbled out of there, blinking into the sunlight, and made our way home. The wine kept flowing, though: Ion’s dad had a bottomless reserve of his homemade stuff, and I simply had to try some. Sure enough, it was delicious, a sort of cloudy pinkish table wine that was halfway to a port. Sitting around the kitchen table, with my glass constantly being refilled, it slowly dawned on me that in this uber-hospitable society the only way to call it a night is to forcibly cut oneself off. Ion’s dad probably would’ve kept dutifully hydrating me until dawn had I not resigned in protest.

After our heroic tasting efforts underground, the afternoon sun was bracing

The booze-based tourism out of the way, we set off for the archeological complex of Orheiul Vechi the next morning. The Butuceni promontory, riddled with caves and monasteries carved out over two millennia of human habitation, runs the length of this picturesque valley. Ramshackle but brightly-painted villages spill down the hill on both sides, and as you stand overlooking the scene, you can’t help but be impressed by how country life in these parts is so loud. Cattle, pigs, dogs, ducks, roosters, horses, frogs, and Ladas all contribute to the infernal racket.

Down in one of the local villages, they’ve made a half-hearted attempt at recreating a traditional Moldovan homestead for the slow trickle of tourists. Moldova is unique compared to countries further west, though, in that they don’t have to try too hard. Most villages here actually look like the phoney-baloney old-timey tourist towns you see in Western and Central Europe. Locals still draw their water from colourfully painted communal wells, the dirt streets are caked in manure, and apart from the occasional power line and satellite dish you could easily be fooled into thinking you’d been transported to the 18th century. That didn’t stop us from hamming it up in the tourist museum, mind you.

Ion, decked out in serious safari wear, kept us charging around the complex, and we poked our heads into a cave monastery. The Moldovan Orthodox monk in there wore a bemused look on his face, and we took care to be respectful and quiet as we had a look around at the view and the various trinkets adorning what I assume is his home. Then, as I made to leave, I made the mistake of unscrewing the cap of my bottle of water. Ascending the stairs at the exit, I took a quick swig without thinking, and the monk shouted something after me. I profusely apologized, but the dressing-down kept coming, complete with a long, crooked finger being waved ominously at me. Ion was soon on hand to translate. So the monk claims, one day I’ll have to pay for my sins. He got angrier and angrier, and we simply walked out, his remonstrations trailing behind us. It brought to mind Christopher Hitchens’ memorable description of the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi as a “sinister windbag”: that’s exactly what this guy was. He’s probably in the business of frightening small children when he’s not giving Canadian tourists the heebie-jeebies.

The view from the monastery was nice, though

Aside from that one unfortunate encounter, I did find Moldova noticeably relaxed and friendly and down-to-earth. On the roads, drivers were no less haphazard than in any neighbouring countries, but were thankfully bereft of the murderous instinct I’d grown used to elsewhere. Adjacent motorists would startle me by leaning on the horn, but when I’d look over they’d invariably be giving me the thumbs-up. (Presumably they’d never seen some jackass on an overloaded Vespa before.) If one thing demonstrates how admirably the Moldovans are unwilling to take themselves too seriously, here’s what’s on the front door of the gleaming new shopping mall where we watched the World Cup final:

Before I left Chisinau, I had to hit the market on the outskirts of town to pick up some replacement supplies for the entertainment centre I had so graciously demolished earlier. Lucky for me, I had Cristina on hand, and she led me down through the underwear district, past the plumbing supplies, around the astonishingly comprehensive mops & brooms section, and eventually we rounded up most of what I needed. Here she (unconvincingly) demonstrates the frustration of the average Moldovan shopper looking for a glass tabletop on a Friday afternoon:

After that, I sank my first-ever kvass, a delicious, non-alcoholic, beer-like brew available everywhere you look on the streets of Chisinau, and went back to Ion’s to figure out my route to the Black Sea city of Odessa. I’d planned to meet my friend John there in two days — he was flying in from Dublin — and to get there, I had to ride through Transdniester. Wat dat, you say. Everything you’d like to know about it is there on Wikipedia, but I’ll summarize it thus: it’s a renegade breakaway Moldovan quasi-republic of half a million souls, many of them ethnic Russians, and despite its de facto independence after a small war with Moldova in 1990-1992, it’s unrecognized by the UN and every country on earth other than Russia. It’s got its own border controls, flag, currency, constitution, national anthem, army, rigged elections, and communist government, but alas, no usable passport. Being a sort of legal and geopolitical black hole, it also does a tidy business as a hub for smuggled drugs, arms, and people, not to mention a fair deal of money-laundering. My Canadian heart trembled at the thought of muddling my way through such lawlessness.

Ion, on the other hand, reassured me that going through Transdniester was no big deal. This was coming from a guy, you’ll remember, who routinely flings himself off of cliffs wearing nothing but street clothes and a very narrow parachute, and so I remained unconvinced. He tried phoning to get me a reservation at one of a handful of hotels in Tiraspol, the capital, but all the lines there were dead. It turns out that Transdniester had recently applied to whatever international governing body for its very own country code, and had been rejected. The Moldovan government, being still in charge of the +373, had then summarily cut off all calls to Transdniester out of spite. Ion tried calling on his Australian mobile phone, which in theory should’ve worked, but no dice. I said to hell with it and decided to just ride to Tiraspol and wing it.

It was getting late in the day, and I had to get a move-on. I fired up the Hamburglar and headed east, chasing the lengthening shadows over the Bessarabian plains. Despite my being bloated with slightly too much delicious Moldovan home cooking, one of the many hundreds of watermelon stands lining the road finally got the better of me. I made my purchase, sat down at the side of the road, and went at it with my Leatherman multi-tool. I ate the whole damn thing. It was the best watermelon I’d ever had.

It's been real, Moldova!


24 Responses to “Tomatoes, Cucumbers, and Homemade Wine”

  • Cristina Says:

    Aww that was so much fun reading it :) it was really great to see you in Moldova and to hang out with you guys :) Big Thanks to Ion and his father for organizing the best touristic trips I had ever had in my own country :) And to you Sean, well what can I say..mhh even though I try to show frustration on my picture, I actually much enjoyed the afternoon table glass shopping/hunting with you (who could have thought) :) enjoy your year and hope to see you soon sometimes again :) until then we will all be following your blog for the interesting updates on your project and dream about it :) ))

  • Cristina Says:

    P.S. check your email, I finally sent you my pictures as I promised long ago :P Xoxo

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