For the past two weeks, I have received smiles when I have asked for directions. I have spent with little regard for money. I have ridden underground city transportation systems. I have spoken English.
I have been on vacation.
My 13-day vacation through Brasov, Romania and Budapest, Hungary could not have gone better. It featured beautiful buildings, restaurants with varied cuisines, access to high-speed Internet, Hungarian bathhouses, a hike down a steep snow-covered mountain, English-language films in large movie theaters, ice skating and the greatest New Year's celebration in which I have ever partaken.
I travelled with seven other TEFL volunteers, all with connections to Mereseni; six of them trained in Mereseni over the summer and the seventh is the wife of one of those trainees. On Friday, December 23rd, we took a day off from school and left Moldova on a 13-hour night bus ride (the first bathroom break coming about seven hours into the trip) to Brasov, a spectacular skiing location and a bit of a college town in central Romania. Based on my American travels, Brasov (pronounced brash-ohv) reminds me of Boulder, Colorado, except with class, character and an atmosphere that doesn't depress me into leaving my hotel room at 1 a.m. to find a drink. We stayed at the Kismet Dao Hostel
, which I thoroughly recommend for its friendly young staff, kitchen and clean facilities. Christmas dinner was at a Chinese restaurant with four other Americans and a Brit who works in the embassy in Moldova.
We took a night train on the 27th to Budapest, sweating it out in our sleeper car with the heat stuck on full blast. Not the most comfortable transportation, but we got there. Budapest immediately blew us away simply by being a real city. Chisinau is not a real city; it is an urban jungle where you go when you need to buy something you can't find in your county or you want to take a shower in the Peace Corps office. Budapest is a real city; it has attractions such as an ice-skating rink the size of a football field (my fastest lap was a minute flat), art museums, beautiful architecture and night clubs that aren't discotece. We stayed there until January 3rd, then made our way back on a pair of night trains to Bucharest and to Chisinau.
I could write on and on about my vacation, but this isn't a tourism blog. Instead, I'll ruminate on the questions that kept coming into my mind throughout vacation; How is Moldova different from more successful Eastern European countries? and What steps can Moldova take to have that same success?
The first question is easier to answer. I feel that tourism is a major contributor to the success to Romania and Hungary. Attractions like castles, baths and ski slopesвЂ”after meeting many English 20-somethings there for ski and snowboard vacations, I have concluded that Brasov is a poor man's Swiss AlpsвЂ”bring money from Europe, America and Australia into the country and allow restaurants and other tourism-related industries to flourish.
Another major difference is the commitment to foreign language education. From the discussions I had with hostel staff and waiters, I gathered that schoolchildren in Romania begin a foreign language (usually English) in first grade, and have lessons four or five times a week. Compare that to Moldova, where they start in second grade and commit to only two hours a week until ninth grade, when they begin studying three hours a week, and you can mathematically deduce that Romanians have double the English experience of a Moldovan by the time they graduate high school. In modern Europe, and especially in Eastern Europe, command of the English language is a vital international job skill and is required in order to work a high-profile job in another European country.
Even in Hungary, a country whose people repeatedly described themselves to me as loathe to learn foreign languages, I had no problem speaking with nearly every waiter, Internet club worker, ice skate rental worker, and person under the age of 35 I stopped on the street. Nearly everywhere I went (with the exception of the baths), there was information written in English, even so far as translating "push" and "pull" on most doors in the city. Compare this to Chisinau, where clerks often speak only Russian, refusing to speak Romanian, the official state language. In some of the ritzier restaurants in Chisinau, you will find waiters who recognize your accent and begin speaking in English, but the overall city experience could not be described as hospitable to someone who knows neither Romanian nor Russian.
The most important difference, I feel, is the extent of not just communism, but Soviet influence in Moldova compared to Romania and Hungary. Although Romania and Hungary were satellite republics, they operated with a degree of limited autonomy from the USSR, and as far as I know, ethnicities in these countries were not forced into lower social classes by systemic Russification and deportation. Because of this, the recoveries since the 1989 revolutions have been faster, because the people have not dealt with a continued ethnic Russian presence. In Moldova, a significant portion of the population would never call themselves Moldovan. In Romania and Hungary, there is for the most part ethnic solidarity and noВ question of the national language.
Soviet satellites like Hungary and Romania also developed their own industries, in order to be self-sufficient. Inside the USSR, however, the Party told each republic what they needed to contribute to the economy. In the Baltic nations, the national emphases were on industry and technology, and the post-Soviet success of those countries is well known. In Moldova, however, the country developed mostly agriculture. The small manufacturing sector produced parts for submarines and other items that weren't of great use to the land-locked nation after 1991. The USSR set up most of its republics to fail when left individually, because a break-up was never in anyone's plans.
Seeing the difference between satellite nations and an actual Soviet republic, I have become even more enraged with communism. It is very easy to sit in an American university dorm and debate the merits of communism and conclude at the end of the conversation, "Well, communism is a good idea on paper, but the Soviets didn't do it right." God knows it was easy for me to engage in that discussion countless times. But when you actually see the damage that this political system has done to a major portion of the world's population, the theory and the college talks are thrown out the window. It is an insipid system, and I despise it to the same extent that Orwell did. What Orwell will never see are the generations, even after "The Fall," that currently remain and will remain burdened by the system, by the brainwashing, by the decades of being told what to do and when to do it. Anyone who wishes to defend communism on an academic level is welcome to visit Moldova and see its lasting effects, even 14 years after its fall. Come visit; I'll pay.
ButВ the earlier question remains; What can Moldova do to help itself?В Unfortunately, it's much easier to point to problems than to solutions.
Perhaps the fact that I visited Romania and Budapest as a tourist makes me temporarily partial to tourism revenue as a major solution for Moldova. But how else can one bring Western money into the country? The current alternative of working as illegal aliens in Western countries is certainly flawed. But what is available as a possible tourist attraction?
The closest thing Moldova has is Orheiul Vechi, or "Old Orhei". Pronounced or-HAY-ool veck, Orheiul Vechi is a settlement nestled in mountains and a river that has been home to different civilizations over the course of thousands of years. At present, it is difficult to access by public transportвЂ”read comedian (not skateboarder) Tony Hawks' description of traveling to Orheiul Vechi in his bookВ Playing the Moldovans at Tennis
. Also, tours of Orheiul Vechi are offered only in Romanian and Russian. When my training group visited Orheiul Vechi over the summer, our language teachers translated for us. Orheiul Vechi is as interesting of a spot as many castles I have seen in Europe, with a more varied history than most of them. There is an old monastery dug into the cliff-side and examples of typical Moldovan houses of hundreds of years ago (some of them not so different from the ones you see in villages nowadays). If the government made this site more accessible, gave tours in different languages and promoted it more, this could be an interesting attraction for tourists. Or maybe not. Right now, it's the closest thing this country's got.
Also in the realm of tourism, but also extending more concretely to everyday citizens, the country needs to renovate its transportation infrastructure. Chisinau, Balti and other large Moldovan cities are in sore need of an intelligible transportation system, but could it be affordable? In Chisinau, you recognize a bus stop only because there are a lot of people standing there. There are no maps telling you where a given bus or rutiera will take you. There are no leaflets with maps of the city telling you how to get to the major stores, hotels, bus and train stations or monuments. So there is need, but how much would construction of all these signs and leaflets cost? And if Chisinau is unwilling to allow the city rutiera fare to raise from 16 cents to 24, it seems that they are content with transportation as is. As I write this, I cannot once remember a Moldovan complaining about the transportation system in this country. They complain about the roads, but never the transportation system. This is mostly because in the villages, rutiere that take villagers into the city relatively quickly are a development only in the past eight years or so. Either way, it seems that Moldovans are satisfied with their transportation system, even if it's crowded and absolutely impossible for a foreigner to understand. Any changes to the system would likely be shot down as too expensive.
In a country that is as poor as Moldova, solutions need to be made not from money, but from thought processes. In this way, education reforms would be the cheapest and longest-lasting changes possible at the moment. After observing the Romanian system, I see very little standing in the way of four or five days a week of foreign language education for Moldovan students. Extended language study would allow for a more tourist-friendly Chisinau, full of people who could give directions when approached and able to work in shops.
The difficulty in finding time for more foreign language education is that Moldovan students are spread thin across 10 or more subjects a year, including study of different types of science in the same year. The study of this many subjects is not helpful, because students don't learn anything with enough depth. Over the summer, my ninth-grade students didn't know about the Big Bang Theory or the names of the nine planets in Romanian (why we were studying these concepts in English is another issue with the education system).
At present, there seems to be an aversion to education reforms. In the specific instance of the Ministry of Education and the Peace Corps' English teachers, the conversation is a one-way street. Although we could provide them with grammar corrections and other suggestions for their textbooks, we are never asked. One American professor was actually involved in textbook revisions, but when his time in Moldova was completed, the ministry changed the books back; evidently, they know English better than we do.
This instance links to Moldovans' strong sense of national pride. They love their poetry and their traditional music. This culture would be a huge key to their success if the other six billion people in the world knew what it was. To prove my point, here's a little quiz:
Name a Moldovan writer:
Too tough? Okay,В
Name a Romanian writer:
What? You don't know about Ion Creanga (Moldovan writer, mostly of prose) or Mihai Eminescu (Romanian, mostly of poetry)? You uncultured savage. Alright, here are some easier ones:
Name a famous Moldovan or Romanian composer:
Yeah, I'm stuck too.
Name a famous Moldovan or Romanian artist:
Beats me, and I've lived here for seven months.
Name the famous Moldovan warlord, who lived from 1436 to 1504:
You mean Americans don't knowВ about Stefan cel Mare?
Name the famous Romanian warlord whom Braham Stoker fictionalized into a vampire:
I bet you got this one. And is it any wonder that "Dracula's Castle," even though it really wasn't that of Vlad III, is one of Romania's largest tourist destinations?
The fact is, during the high times of classical music and art in the 17th-19th centuries, Moldova was a subject of the Ottoman or Russian Empires. The Western World of Mozart, Chopin, Beethoven, Verdi, Liszt (Hungarian), Renoir, Van Gogh and Degas never reached Moldova and didn't influence it as in France, Germany, Italy, Spain, England and America. Just as there is little understanding of Western art in Moldova, there is little understanding of Eastern art in the West. When I travelled to Paris in high school, I was fascinated by the famous pieces on display in the Louvre. Later, when I travelled to Germany late in high school, I was drawn to the culture of Hesse and Beethoven (not to mention Rammstein and Atari Teenage Riot). What cultural figures can a Western visitor cite when visiting Romania or Moldova? I repeat: You don't know Mihai Eminescu?В Sadly, there seems to be little Moldova or Romania can do on this cultural front, barring a sudden international urge to investigate the homeland of O-Zone.
As you have probably gathered from this thinking-out-loud post, there is a lot to be done in Moldova before it can approach the level of Romania and Hungary, let alone Germany or England. Each idea I have proposed, however, takes time and money. Money is something that this country doesn't have, and in the current political situation, the money would quickly go to the powerful and not help the lower rungs in society. What Moldova does have is time. It is easy to forget that the second half of 2006 will mark only the 15th birthday of this country, meaning that nearly all the decision-makers in this country have spent more than half of their lives under the USSR. It will be one or two more generations before Moldovans have a real sense of nationalism and pride. Then more people will decide to work in Moldova rather than in Italy and Russia, because they know that by staying in their country, they are helping it grow. Qualified, talented and, most importantly, imaginative young people are right around the generational corner in this country. This country just needs time.