Back in the USSR

Life in Moldova

by Mariah Oxford and Chris Sturm
Peace Corps Volunteers

Hello Galesburg! It's been almost a year since we've seen Illinois but sometimes it feels as though we haven't left at all. As the Midwest is known for it agriculture, Moldova was known as the breadbasket of the Soviet Union. However, in Illinois where you can see for miles, here we are lucky if we can see for a couple of kilometers (a mile and a half). Moldova is a beautiful, picturesque country with rolling hills and small valleys in the central and northern parts and with flat plains to the south. To place Moldova for you, we are sandwiched between Romania and the Ukraine. Moldova is about as far north as the state of North Dakota. The entire area is a steppe to the Carpathian mountains, which are to the west in Romania. Moldovahas the highest population density of all the former Soviet states, with around 4.4 million people in an area the size of Maryland. The native people here descended from the ''Dacian'' tribes and speak the Romanian language.

Moldova has been conquered and traded back and forth several times in its long history, leaving an interesting mix of culture, language and traditions. We're in an interesting position here to see the effects of 50 years of Soviet rule and the struggles this tiny country is going through now to remain independent.

Our Jobs

As English teachers in the Peace Corps, we have pretty rigorous jobs. If any of you are thinking of joining the Peace Corps for a nice, relaxing vacation with a little work here and there, don't choose the TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) program. If you want to do your job well here, you really have to put a lot of time into lesson planning, motivating the kids, finding supplementary resources and working with colleagues. We teach around 18 hours a week, which is a normal work load for a first-year volunteer. In addition to this, we study Romanian, work with secondary projects and spend a lot of time on the basics in life (taking baths, cooking, shopping and hand washing clothes).

We've finally acclimated to our school life in the sense that some things don't completely shock us anymore. For example, it's normal to have a faculty gathering in between classes to celebrate a colleague's birthday-- complete with champagne and cognac. It's normal for teachers to be late to classes. It's normal for the school bell (which is not automated) to be five or ten minutes off depending on who's in charge of it. It's normal for students to say they couldn't complete their homework because they didn't have electricity the night before. It's normal to have to take over someone else's classes at the drop of a hat because they are sick (substitute teachers don't exist here). And it's normal to find a student's old notebook in the teacher's bathroom to be used as toilet paper (if there's any toilet paper at all).

Daily Life

Aside from school, much of our time is consumed in the process of taking care of a few basic things: laundry, meal preparation and baths. We live in an apartment complex, so we do have cold running waterŠ at least we do when the city turns it on, which is once or twice a day for about an hour and a half. However, it's never a sure thing. We are lucky to have an engineer as a landlord who had built a reservoir in the kitchen and in the bathroom. This reservoir fills automatically when water is ''in the system'' so we have at least a trickle of water all day and we can flush the toilet anytime we are so inclined! This kind of setup is rare, however. Enter the apartment of a typical Moldovan and you'll find a bathtub and several pails and buckets full of water or the bathtub will be completely filled with water. (The bathtub is never used as we would use it. It's only used as a storage container for water).

To heat water for a bath or laundry, we have three options. We can heat a bucket on the gas stove; we can heat it with an electric ''plunger'' (a little dangerous), or we can heat it with an electric water heater. Again, the water heater is rareŠ most Moldovans can't afford them or the electricity that is used to heat the water. In order to use the water heater, we must anticipate when we will have water ''in the system'' (since the water won't come out of the heater unless there is sufficient water pressure to push it out). It also takes a while for the water to heat. In the winter we would get up at 4:30am, plug in the heater and then get up again at 6:30 (It took two hours to heat the water because the room temperature of the bathroom was around 55 degrees.). If there was water in the city system, we could start running the bathwater. The pressure isn't that great so it usually takes 20-30 minutes to have enough water to take a bath.

Laundry is usually a two to three day process. Day one: When we have water in the system, we fill three small plastic tubs for the ''wash'' cycle. Soaking clothes seems to work a lot better, so we leave them a day. (Believe us, it's an unhappy day when the water smells like rotten eggs or is rusty.) Day 2: Again, when we have water, we rinse the clothes and often leave them again to soak. Day 3: Wring out clothes by hand and hang them on the balcony to dry. Things were complicated in winter. Our clothes would ''freeze dry'' and then we'd bring them in to finish drying on the radiators. No worries about fires hereŠ the ''heat'' we got for only three months in winter was lukewarm. The top temperature was 60 degrees and that was with a space heater in the room. On the rare days that we had sunlight all day, the room would sometimes be as warm as 63 degrees. When we didn't have heat we just had to wait several days for clothes to dry. You can imagine that people here don't wash their clothes too often in winter.

Food preparations are also time consuming. We have a few small stores nearby. These carry everything in bulk, such as flour, sugar, cheese and eggs; some juices; and milk, but no produce. If we want fresh vegetables, we have to make time to go to the piata (pee-aht-sah), or open-air market, where vendors from all over the region sell everything from honey and goat cheese to raw meats (the meat booths are not a fun place to be in the heat of the summer). Nothing is packaged, so it's not unusual to see a loaf of fresh bread carried under someone's arm (or to see several lingering in the back seat window of cars) or an old plastic bag with raw pork stuck in someone's purse. So, our shopping usually consists of a few stops, not only because we can't find everything in one place, but because we don't want any particular vendor to think that we have much money. (Our teaching colleagues are still owed at least six months of back pay and maybe more. Other government workers are in similar situations-- no money to even buy bread.) So we might buy potatoes and carrots at the piata, flour and sugar at one store, and cheese and bread at another. We can find things like bouillon and soup starters, but for the most part, everything is made from scratch. (We've finally realized why the inventors of frozen dinners were successful.) Food planning is also difficult when we never know what we'll find at the piata or the store. In winter, for example, it was very difficult to get milk. The milk we do get is in 1 liter boxes or plastic bags, and it usually goes sour after two days (we've learned to cook a lot of different things which call for sour milk though!). In the winter we ate a lot of baked potatoes, partially because they were easy and partially because it made our kitchen warm!


The Moldovan currency, the leu (lay-oo), was stable for several years following independence, at around 4.7 leu per American dollar. This fall, within a two-month period, it fell to around 10 leu. This drove up the prices on everything. This devaluation came at a really bad time for the Moldovans, many of whom haven't been paid by the government for months (this includes teachers, pensioners, city workers, etc). Aside from the odd strike here or there, people keep going to work despite the fact that they don't know when they'll be paid next. The average teacher salary is around $30 a month. In the winter teachers in our region were paid salaries in bulk flour, sugar, sunflower oil, potatoes and canned goods. Our colleagues borrowed sleds from children in order to haul their ''paychecks'' home (not many people here own cars and if they do, the gas is too expensive to drive very often). In the face of these difficulties, many people are talking about ''the good old days'' under the communist system. Then, they say, everyone had jobs, everyone got paid on time. The street lights in town were lit at night. The park had benches that people hadn't stolen yet for firewood. And one could buy seven loaves of bread for the price of one loaf under democracy.

This attitude seems to be somewhat based on generation and on educational status. Most of the young people are excited about the changes, and they embrace all things Western and new. Older people are more afraid and see capitalism as an evil thing. Part of this is due to their education. When they were in school America was the symbol of what NOT to do in society. They were told that Americans don't work very hard, are unemployed and don't take care of their children. From what we've heard, many of the ''intelligentsia,'' or educated people, have left Moldova for Romania and other western countries, including the U.S., to make new lives there. Thus, there aren't many people left who are excited about freedom of speech or press. They only look at the higher prices at the store and exclaim that things have never been this bad.

It's true. In the past, people did not have to preserve their food to ensure that they could eat during the winter months. If people didn't have their own gardens here, they would starve. Many people are virtually self-sustaining. They preserve all of their winter foods, such as fruits and vegetables, and raise chickens, ducks, geese, turkeys, pigs, goats or cows for dairy and meat products. After independence, everyone was allowed a tiny piece of land, which they use to its fullest. The Moldovan soil is rich and the crops are bountiful. In the summer we ate all kinds of fresh fruits and vegetables from our host family's own backyardŠ strawberries, cherries, peaches, apricots, raspberries, gooseberries, garlic, onions, cabbage and tomatoes. (Compared with American standards, the food is amazingly cheap. In late summer for example, we were purchasing a pound of tomatoes for a nickel.) The food is also very delicious and the people here work hard with crops and preserves all spring, summer and fall to ensure that they can get through the winter.

However, all the food preserves in the world won't help people pay the electricity bill or buy a new tank of natural gas with which to cook. Thus, many fathers and mothers have left children here in order to find illegal work in Israel, Greece, Italy, the Czech Republic, Turkey and Russia. We have students who haven't seen their mothers or fathers in over a year. In both of our schools we've recently lost colleagues (even the school principal) who have left to work in factories abroad. It's too soon to tell if this trend will have a psychological impact on the children growing up now-- however, with the best teachers either emigrating or finding other work because they aren't getting paid, you can imagine how the educational system is suffering and how the quality of education the children are getting is taking a nose dive.

Cultural Quirks

As left-handers, we've both received our fair share of comments. It seems that forcing kids to be right-handed is still pretty common. After the 10th colleague gasped and asked Mariah why she's left-handed after seeing her write, she started simply shrugging and saying ''I was born that way.'' Another volunteer was told she absolutely could not help in the kitchen after they discovered her chopping onions left-handed. Not only is chopping onions with the left hand frowned upon, but also chopping onions the wrong way is absolutely forbidden. One night we were at a friend's and were helping them preparing the meal. Chris was busy chopping onions while Mariah was talking with the mother of our friend. While talking with the Mariah, the mother asked her how she could watch Chris cut the onions that way-- meaning the wrong way. We have found that Moldovans are very strict about how they do things. There is a tendency to do things one way, that that way is correct and to do it any other way is completely wrong. A Moldovan friend of ours explained that this strictness is due to the Soviet ideology under which people would be pressured to follow the communist way. Being given the freedom to do things any way they wish doesn't necessarily mean that they will change their traditions.

As mentioned earlier, when communism fell, all people who belonged to the ''collective'' qualified for land to use for farming. Also, there was a change in how animals were housed and cared for. As the farmland was collectively maintained, so were the animals. However, with no collective, no one to care for the animals and no one who could afford to purchase and run the collective animal farms, the animals were brought into the towns and villages. It isn't uncommon to see young children herding cattle, goats or even taking their geese or ducks for a walk. And on the streets of the capital city recently, we even saw a man trying to stuff a full grown (live) turkey into a small bowling-ball bag to carry it to the market.

A Little TraditionMoldova's history is rich, taking from the various groups that have possessed and/or oppressed Moldovans for the past several hundred years. Moldova has integrated things from the Ukraines, the Russians, the Far East (having been ruled by the Mongols at one point) and the Romanians, who are the closest culturally and historically. In fact, it is Romania with which Moldova shares most of its traditions.

One of the strongest traditions here in Moldova is the making and drinking of wine. If you were to forget the incredibly slow pace of the bus as you drive through the hills of central Moldova (and the 14-hour flight that brought you here), you might think that you were in the Napa Valley, embarking on an extensive California wine tour. Vineyards are plastered all along the hillsides. Besides these, though, nearly everyone has their own personal vineyard that grows their favorite varieties of grapes. Vin de casa, or house wine, is a staple at homes where we visit. The wines vary from sweet red to dry white and nearly all have a slightly different taste which could be attributed to the wooden vat in which it was fermented (or the mixture of grape varieties-- we are not exactly sure of the science yet). To visit someone's house means to have four or five glasses of wine. This may or may not sound like much over the course of an evening, but it truly is. The reason has to do with the fact that here we don't drink a glass of wine during a meal, we gulp down an entire glass or three with a main course instead. But regardless of how much we drink with the meal we must always have the final bortul calului before we leave. This is the final glass of wine. The literal translation, though, is ''the horse's snout.'' This name comes from a story long, long ago about guests that came to visit some Moldovans. These guests ate and drank much of the hosts' food and wine. The guests even wished to have a last glass of wine at ''the horse's snout'' as they mounted their horses to ride home.

Another tradition here is the national dance, known as the hora. Basically this is a circle dance where everyone holds hands and moves around in a circle. It may sound easy, but there are many half steps to be done and it sometimes is difficult to maintain the rhythm. The music usually played with this dance is traditional Moldovan, which is difficult to describe. The music has some elements of Eastern chanting, but the words tell stories and are not religious. It is usually fast paced and has flutes and accordions or it could just be one person playing a synthesizer creating all the sounds. All that is needed is music and Moldovans will form a hora circleŠ at family gatherings, picnics, and especially weddings, where dancing goes on until 4 or 5am. We've even seen young people doing it at discos (though in these cases it's usually accompanied by modern dance music). We're well-acquainted with this dance and the loud yelling that goes with it, as we had a former neighbor who loved to invite his friends over for hora parties at 2 or 3am!

Recent times

One thing that you may have already realized hearing that Romania is our neighbor is that we are near Yugoslavia and the Kosovo conflict. We must admit, though, that we are cushioned with Romania separating Yugoslavia and Moldova. This has proved to be invaluable as far as insulating us from the situation there. Volunteers in Macedonia were forced to evacuate to Hungary and were eventually sent home or given the option of being reassigned to another country. Romanian volunteers have remained in place, but are certainly, as we are in Moldova, warned to be aware of anti-American sentiment. Here in Moldova there are ten Judicial districts, one of which is a renegade communist state that has never really come under control by the Moldovan government. The volunteers from this region have been pulled into the capital city for their own safety until the bombing stops in Kosovo. This comes on the heels of the U.S. State Department warning Americans not to travel to Trans-Dneister. There are still many Russian/communist sympathizers running Trans-Dneister, so the threat is real since Russia has spoken out against NATO airstrikes.

However, as all this goes on, Moldova maintains its neutral state. It has spoken out against the bombings, calling for a diplomatic resolution, but will not take sides. Since its independence, Moldova has maintained a neutral stance on international issues. The government's policies have focused on attempting to rebuild and strengthen their economy rather than involving themselves in international issues. This is of utmost importance, though. The current economic crisis here is not so much a product of poor crops or a lack of materials, but a lack of buyers. After independence, Moldova still supplied wine, foods and juices to Russia and the Ukraine. At one point it is estimated that as much as 90 percent of Moldova's exports went to these to countries. As the Russian economy fell apart last fall, the leu lost half its value. With the recent firing of the Russian Prime Minister, the leu lost another 25 percent of its value. Could it really be this bleak? The Economist recently ranked the economies in the transition of the former Eastern Bloc and Soviet States. Among them, Moldova has experienced the largest drop in Gross Domestic Product since its independence in 1989. Its economy was ranked as the worst of all the countries. In all, Moldova's GDP has shrunk 60 percent in the last ten years. The Peace Corps Country Director recently put this into perspective for us. He said that during the Great Depression, the US's GDP at its worst point had dropped about 30 percent.

Through all this, many Moldovans say Ce sa fac?-- What to do? It is sometimes a question that crosses our lips as volunteers when we look at the seemingly impossible situation these people face. This situation is further complicated by the fact that they once had what they thought was a great standard of living and now they work hard nearly everyday just to survive. Some of our colleagues will teach all day and then go to the fields and work the land and tend their animals until 8 at night. At that point they will head home for the night, looking forward to another day of the same.

Sometimes it's hard to keep a positive perspective through all of this, especially when nothing is certain. For example, because many people haven't paid their water bills lately (because they haven't been paid), the water company wasn't able to pay its power bill. So the power company disconnected the water company. We're on our third day without water in this bustling town of 18,000 and the paths to the city wells are being worn in. No one is sure when we will get water again. During these times we like to keep in mind the words of another Peace Corps volunteer, who said ''Not only did the Peace Corps teach me to see the glass as half full of water, but it taught me that I could bathe with it too!

Uploaded to The Zephyr website May 17, 1999

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