Wine, Beer and Vodka with Archaeologists, Soldiers and Watermelon Farmers
After just more than two months, I think I might be ready to start answering the question, What is a Moldovan? Is he a Soviet? Is he democratic? Is he Russian? Is he Romanian? The simple, yet painfully easy answer is, A Moldovan is none of these things and he is all of these things, because he is a Moldovan.
A week ago, on a Friday night, Levi, a fellow trainee, and I went to what Levi's host father, Mihai, calls "Costesti Vechi," or "Old Costesti." Levi, Mihai, Mihai's wife, one of their daughters and I went to the eastern border of the town, where at first we saw little more than some Moldovan soldiers digging three ditches in the middle of a field as a rotund man in a black-and-pastel colored short-sleeved shirt and a shirtless, bearded man who looked like Tommy Chong with a pot-belly watched over them.
It was difficult for Levi and I to catch much of the extensive history that was described to us, but basically the archaeologists-with help from the Moldovan army, because they don't have too many wars to fight at the moment-are digging up the remains of a Muslim city from the 14th century that was then conquered by Genghis Khan and the Golden Hoarde. They showed us coins, bones, and tools for creating ceramics. The archaeologists repeatedly stated, and were repeatedly echoed by Mihai, that these societies and empires that had been here were far more advanced at the time than Dark-Age Western Europe, and were a strong civilization before America was even discovered by the rest of the world. They had sewer pipes and baths long before their Western counterparts. Throughout their discussion was an underlying pride that their town had once been part of the most advanced civilization in the world, even if it is now a shrinking town with nearly a tenth of its population seeking work outside of the country.
After a trip to a more thoroughly excavated area of the old town, a ceramics factory where Levi and I could play catch with 600-year-old human shoulder bones without our hosts batting an eye, we went to drink some wine and eat some food at the soldiers' camp. We saw a few more ancient tools there, and I discovered that Baltica Beer is the best that this country has, imported or domestic.
Levi and I thought that our evening was over, since the sun had been down for 45 minutes and lightning was the only light on our path. We were sorely mistaken, as we walked down into a field that Mihai was leasing to watermelon farmers for the season. The seven of us ate three watermelons, had some wine and vodka, and took as good of pictures of we could in the light of the single kerosene lamp. We stayed there for a good hour and a half before finally driving home slightly after 11 p.m.
The next day, all of the Costesti trainees travelled north to Orheiul Vechi, or Old Orhei. I didn't place quotations around this like I did with "Costesti Vechi," because while "Costesti Vechi" is a name in the mind of Mihai, Orheiul Vechi is a national historical site, with remnants of Dacian civilizations that lived in this hill-and-river-encircled village for centuries before the birth of Christ. The village has been settled many times by different civilizations, as old as the Dacians and including the Muslims, Genghis Khan, the warlord Stefan Cel Mare ("Steven the Great"), who fought valiantly against the Turkish invasion and is immortalized on every piece of Moldovan paper currency, and 19th-century ethnic Romanian settlers. Levi and I saw many of the same clay pots, tools and coins that we saw the night before, but they were in glass cases, and playing catch with human bones was out of the question.
The many inhabitants of Orheiul Vechi brings us to the ever-present question for a foreigner in Moldova-What is a Moldovan? Well, it depends on who you want to listen to.
First, there are the extremists on both the Romanian and Russian sides. On the Russian side, there are many immigrants to Moldova, not even necessarily from Russia, but from other Soviet Republics, who kept the Russian language because it was universal throughout the Union. After the dissolution of the Soviet Union, these people were the main forces, particularly in the southern Gagauzia and the eastern Transnistria regions, that rejected the push of Moldovan nationalists. After nationalists changed the official state language to Romanian in 1989 and declared its independence in 1991, these Russian speakers, who are perceived by Romanian speakers as arrogant oppressors who cannot accept Moldova's nationalist push, moved Moldova into a 1994 civil war that resulted in a Russian military presence in Transnistria that remains to this day. Peace Corps doesn't send volunteers to Transistria, but it does to Gagauzia, which does not have the recent history of violence. Russian speakers are much more common in the large cities of Chisinau, Balti ("Bults"), Comrat (in Gagauzia), Cahul, and Tiraspol (in Transnistria). Russian is side-by-side with Romanian in nearly every store, and is often more prevalent on food packaging, regardless of where you are in the country. Russian is still a necessary language for every Moldovan, even if there is a feeling of resentment when they are forced to speak it by a shopkeeper who refuses to do business with Romanian-speakers.
On the opposite side are the ardent Romanian supporters, of which my language and cross-cultural facilitator, Galina, is the only one I have met. These people seem to be intellectuals and students, and come out of the woodwork when the government leans in a direction that they view as drawing closer to the Soviet past. There were massive student protests in Chisinau in 2002 when the Communist government began to initiate pro-Russian and pro-Soviet reforms. In this group, there seems to be a sense that they were lied to for so many years by their government, and that a return to their original ethnically Romanian traditions is the only logical path. Included in this is a returned devotion to religion, which was largely banned during the Soviet era, and a desire to be considered Romanian. With this desire to be considered Romanian comes a great amount of pride and refusal to be submissive again.
The Russians "say we are pigs," Galina said several weeks ago. "We are not pigs. We are people."
The majority of Moldovans, however, consider themselves neither Romanian or Russian. They are simply Moldovan, which for them means that they have a culture unique unto themselves. Their dialect of Romanian is mixed with Russian words, and so you are just as likely to be called maladeti ("mal-u-daetz"), the Russian word, as you are to be called bravo, the Romanian word. My host-aunt's husband, Slavic, was showing me around the garage and pointed to a hubcap, saying, "I don't know the word in Romanian, but in Russian, it's calpac." There are many such instances. When I asked Tudor's brother, Victor, how to say a particular vulgar English word in Romanian, he said, "I don't know. All of our vulgar words are in Russian." These are not isolated incidents. It has led to the population embracing the concept of moldovaneste, or a separate Moldovan language. This was originally the label placed by the Soviets when they imposed the Cyrillic alphabet on the Romanian language in Moldova, but its acceptance is wide-spread now.
This Moldovan identity shapes the people's view of the past. Any Moldovan over the age of 30 will fondly remember when national identity across the Union was the most important aspect of every citizen's life, and when a loaf of bread cost less than a penny, as opposed to the some 20 cents it costs today. They look at the gas prices of over 75 cents per liter-just slightly more than in America in a country where the average salary is a twentieth of America's average salary-and wonder why it was such a good idea for the ruling Communist Party to lean toward the West and away from Russia, when every loyal C.I.S. member pays much less at the pump. They are prone to saying things such as what Tudor's brother said at his birthday a month and a half ago: "Democracy is good. But too much democracy can be dangerous."
The average Moldovan feels much less kinship with Romania than the die-hard ethnic Romanians. When I discussed World War II with Tudor and mentioned the brief period in which Romania "liberated" Moldova, Tudor was quick to stop me.
"Romania occupied us. Russia occupied us. We were never liberated," he said. "Only now are we free."
Tatiana, an English teacher from Susleni, said that actual Romanians tend to condescend toward Moldovans just as much as the Russians do. Tatiana and Cesara, my resource teacher from Glodeni, had a wonderful exchange with me after Cesara had found a junked poster of Lenin and I had asked if I could keep it. We discussed Soviet times for about an hour, and it was interesting to hear some of the propagandist spins on history.
"I know that Lenin did some bad things," Cesara said. "I've heard some things about them, but I can't think of anything specific right now." She turned her attention toward Tatiana.
"But as I was telling Peter, Lenin is no Hitler. No one will look back at Hitler as a good man. But people will remember Lenin with love," Cesara said.
"Did you know," Tatiana said, turning to me, "that when there was a great famine over the country, people tried to bring the best food to Lenin. And he turned it away, saying, 'No. Give this to the hungry people who need it most.'" Tatiana's face glowed as she said this. Cesara was quick to jump in before I ran the risk of being impolite.
"Or maybe that's just a story," Cesara said. "We were told so much over the years, that it's hard to tell what's true and what's not."
Regardless, the Russian and Soviet occupation of this country has changed the people of this country. You can see it in their attitudes toward their neighbors, in their politics, in their church-going habits, and even what they call their own language. They are their own people, and they are proud of it.
Mila, my host mother, put it simply the other night.
"Look at my identification card," she said. "It says I'm a Moldovan. It doesn't say Romanian anywhere. I don't know any Romanians. I'm a Moldovan."