Sunday, October 17, 2010

Where in the World is Chisinau?

I spent the last week in Moldova working on a project on behalf of UK DfID. Moldova? What? Where's that? The truth is very few people know where Moldova is, and why would anyone know where this country is? It is definitely not on the tourist circuit whatsoever. To start, this small former Soviet Republic is a landlocked country sandwiched between Romania to the west and Ukraine to the east. A bit of history -- the region is historically known as Bessarabia, the geographical area bounded by the Dniester River and the Prut River, which you may have heard of in international news due to the severe floods in June 2010, or maybe not as this country is relatively unknown outside of Europe.
Following the Russian Revolution of 1917, Bessarabia proclaimed independence from Russia in February 1918, and subsequently united with the Kingdom of Romania two months later. Fast forward two decades later, just before the outbreak of World War II, Stalin and Hitler signed a secret treaty known as the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact of 1939 in which the Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union agreed to divide Northern and Eastern Europe into spheres of influence. Under this agreement, Soviet Union annexed the eastern part of Poland; Baltic nations of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania; and Bessarabia in modern day Moldova.  In 1940, under an ultimatum by USSR, Romania relinquished control of Bessarabia, and the Moldavian SSR was shortly established. It was not until 27 August 1991 that Moldova declared independence, along with 14 post Soviet countries. Today, both Russian and Romanian are widely spoken in Moldova. 

I arrived to Chisinau, the capital of Moldova, on Sunday evening after a long flight via Vienna on a propeller (!) plane full of World Bank, European Commission, USAID type people. As you can imagine, after five decades of Soviet rule, the architecture is dreadful, hideous, and uninspiring. Of course, it didn’t help that on my day of arrival, it was cold, dark, and rainy -- which  certainly did not help with my first impressions of Chisinau. Moldova is considered one of the poorest countries in Europe however you wouldn’t know it with all the construction cranes, shining new Mercedes and Lexus on the road, and banks on every major intersection.
There is literally nothing to see or do in Chisinau – nothing. I spent the entire week working out of an office on the 6th floor of the Government House,  a huge, gray, concrete building occupying an entire city block on the corner of Stefan Cel Mare and Bodoni Streets. The long dark corridor of the 6th floor was straight out of the movie, The Shining. No joke. At least I had a beautiful view overlooking the Central Orthodox Church and gorgeous blue skies.
My week-long project visit also coincided with City Day on 14th October, a public holiday in Chisinau. The main drag, Stefan Cel Mare, was transformed into a street fair with live music, food stalls, and outdoor pubs. I got away from work for a few hours to check out the festivities, so that was fun. Among other "major" sites to see in Chisinau is Mall Dova (get the play on words of Moldova?). I didn't make it to Chisinau's newest western-style mall which came highly recommended by one of Keenan's work acquaintances. Next time, I suppose.
If you make it to Moldova, be sure to try Zama, a traditional Moldovan chicken noodle soup; Mamaliga, the national dish of Moldova, which is a corn mash similar to polenta; and of course excellent Moldovan wine.  In addition to several private wineries, there are also two state-run wineries, Cricova and Milestii Mici, which together have almost 100 miles of underground winemaking and storage facilities. I didn’t have time to make to the vineyards just outside of Chisinau, however, I did managed to smuggle back three bottles of Moldovan reds to London.
Overall, I enjoyed my time in Chisinau. As I mentioned, there isn't a whole lot to do and the days would be really dull if I wasn't spending all day every day in the Government House. Of course, it helps that I have wonderful colleagues to make the long days and evenings more bearable. This certainly won't be my last trip to Chisinau so more to come another time...

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