Transsiberian, Day 4: Trusting Moldovan strangers

Day 4: Friday, December 30th, 2016 

At 8:45am, I am jolted awake by the conductor slamming open my cabin door to inform me we have arrived in Chisinau. I either didn’t set my alarm or slept through it (plus, we arrived early), and now a Romanian man is hovering in my doorway yelling at me to get off the train. I shut the door again as I am still wearing pajamas and need to go on a thirty minute walk to my hostel. Pajama pants just won’t do in 30*F weather. I scramble to change as fast as possible, even throwing my bra on over my sleep shirt and tossing a shirt on over that, stuffing things in a spare bag I brought as I have no time to methodically roll my clothes back into their packing cubes. The man comes by again, swinging open the door, yelling Romanian and I just frustratingly shout back “DA DA DA DA!” until he goes away. I throw on my shoes, run down the train hallway and literally jump off the train, nearly dropping all my bags.

Welcome to Moldova!

I walk the thirty minutes to the hostel in the cold, uphill. I am so glad I only have one backpack, otherwise this would be torturous.

I get to the Funky Mamaliga hotel and ring the gate door. Parked just outside the gate is a running car, but the windows are rolled up and I can’t see inside. There’s a phone number on the gate, but my Romanian phone card can’t call it. After frustratingly ringing the doorbell a few more times, I turn to the car. There’s a woman in the driver’s seat talking on the phone, and her car is angled as though she’s going to enter the gate, so I ask her if she speaks English and if she’s going to the hostel.

She doesn’t speak English, but she understands the query. She nods her head while she continues her phone call, speaks some Romanian into the phone, and then hands the phone to me. I am very confused. A woman on the other end (I assume from the hostel) speaks broken English, telling me she is on her way, and for me to wait there for fifteen minutes. It’s cold. “Where should I wait?” “ok thank you!” Not an answer.

I wait and wait, and watch the blonde woman from the car finish her phone call, lock her car, and leave. I have no idea who she is or her connection to the hostel. She just was coincidentally on the phone with the owner when I approached? I am very confused.

So I wait. And I wait. Fifteen minutes pass as I sit on the curb outside the hostel in the cold. Then a black SUV pulls up. If I thought the Riga flea market was a Liam Neeson movie moment, this one was the sequel. A man with white hair and Harry Carey glasses steps out, walks straight to me and asks me something in Romanian. I tell him “English?” and he says “a little” then pulls out his phone, calls someone and hands it to me. It’s the same woman who was on the phone before. She now informs me that I needed to check into the hostel at their sister hostel, the Retro Moldova. I tell her I don’t yet have a map and don’t know how to get there. “You can drive.” “How am I supposed to do that; I have no car.” “The man with the phone will take you." I hand the phone back to the man, and with few words he takes my bags and I get in his car. Trust, I guess. It was a Mercedes, too, so even if I were entering my final doom, it would probably be more of “high cost hostage” over someone cutting out my liver or something.

The man drives me, and through my English and his Romanian, we communicate that he is from Moldova, I am from Chicago, and his son lives in Cincinnati, surprisingly. He pulls up to the Retro Moldova hostel and helps me remove my bags, then he bids me farewell. Oh, so I guess I’m safe, yay!

There’s a young woman finishing a cigarette outside of the Retro Moldova building, and just as she enters the building, I piggyback on her entry and slip in. The building is an apartment building and the Retro Moldova is the first floor on the right. I ring the doorbell and there’s no answer. I wait and ring again. No answer. I am so frustrated at these people. I sit on the apartment steps inside the hallway with my bags and wait. It’s unheated, but it is protected by the elements so it’s not too bad.

About ten minutes later, cigarette woman descends the staircase. “Are you looking for something?” “No, I am waiting for someone to arrive to let me into the hostel.” The woman told me it was too cold, and insisted I come upstairs with her. “Please, my brother lives here, you can wait inside the warmth.” I denied her and laughed, but she kept insisting, so I thought “Why not!” I already escaped a potential missing kidney situation, and maybe I’ll luck out again. Honestly, though, I thought about it and this would have to be some really elaborate plan to kidnap me, as the circumstances were just too coincidental to be a dangerous situation. I don't think I'm that valuable.

So I follow the woman upstairs and she lets me into her brother Mik’s (Mikhail) apartment. He is there when the door opens and confusedly smiles, as if to say “Who is this?” She tells her brother to make me tea, and that she is off to work.

The apartment is very sparse, with little furniture in the white tiled room except for a small table under the TV holding remotes and a kitchen table with some Chase bank receipts. I learn that Mik works as a brick layer in Georgia (USA, explaining the Chase receipts), but he is back home in Moldova for a short time. He speaks English, not perfectly, but enough for us to learn a little about each other. I get his wifi password to check email and he makes me some tea with pollen-infused honey. After a short while, he tells me he is running to the store. Here is a thirty-something year old man, leaving a complete stranger in his apartment. Now that’s trust. But again, look at the circumstances…I wasn’t begging to be here, it was offered to me. What motive would I have to steal from him?

He returns with more tea and some snacks, the kind you would get in a vending machine (a Moldovan one), such as packaged pancakes filled with raspberry jam, a croissant filled with apricot jam, candy bars, chips, and other junk food. He offers me some, and then I realize that he went out and bought this all specifically for me, to offer to his guest. I try to offer him some cash in repayment and he seems slightly insulted, telling me he makes good money and doesn’t need it. I understand but insist he take at least some Hershey kisses that I brought from home, and then I continue to enjoy the apricot croissant.

I get an email from the hostel from Viorica, with whom I presume was the person on the phone, saying she was in the hostel now. I tell her I am in a neighboring apartment and that I’ll be down shortly. I say goodbye to Mik, snap a photo of my temporary Moldovan host, and head off to the hostel.

I check into the hostel and Viorica gives me a grand rundown of the happenings, and since I will be here less than 24 hours, I need to make the most of it. I am a bit frustrated as now it is noon and I’ve wasted two hours of pre-hostel time, but I make every minute worth it.

First I run off to the main square, where I hit up an ATM and then snap photos of the Cathedral of Christ’s Nativity, and then off to the opera house to get tickets for a show tonight. However, they are closed for lunch at the moment, so I take the hint and go to the nearest La Placinte.

My friend Toby went to one of these when he was in Moldova and ordered quite the feast, but my small stomach and I ordered only a couple things. Viorica advised there was a good Moldovan restaurant but the portions are meant for just one dish per person, whereas the chain restaurant La Placinte allows you to order many small things for a good price. She gave me some recommendations of what to get, and I order a placinte and ask the waiter for his favorite, and out comes the fried pastry filled with cottage cheese and green onions. I also ordered zama, or chicken soup, to start my meal. All of this and some bottled water for less than four dollars. Score.

I get my leftovers to go and I am impressed by the design of the plastic bag I’m provided, perfectly cut to hold the mini pizza box for my placinte completely flat. The simple things, right? I head outside because Viorica and I coordinated for her to meet me here at 2:15 to take a wine tour. When in Moldova, do as the Moldovans do… and Moldovans do wine.

Viorica first takes me back to the opera house to help me buy my tickets. I get really good seats in the front section for less than ten USD. I then get back in her car and off I go to Milestii Mici, a famous winery. Along the way, as she zips between other cars at I’m sure an illegal speed, Viorica hits me with some interesting facts. I learn that the entire population of Moldova is around four million, but only on paper. About two million live or work abroad, one million lives in Chisinau, and about a half a million lives in Transnistria. The remaining are sprinkled in the smaller villages. Most people of Moldova work in agriculture, state/government positions, or banks.

What kind of agriculture? Well, grapes. We arrive at the winery and into our car hops a guide. I find this very odd, but then I realize we are to navigate the underground tunnels via car, and only occasionally step out. I learn this winery is in the Guinness book of world records for being the deepest winery in the world, and longest (covering 55 kilometers of tunnels) and it has the most bottles. Originally the tunnels were built to mine for limestone, and then they realized it was a perfect place to store wine.

Whenever we’d step out of the car at certain checkpoints, there were three other men in the tour as well. The place was very expansive, as you’d imagine, but the guide spoke very quickly where it was hard to process it all due to my brain feeling like it was getting the vocal equivalent of a CSNBC screen during a presidential election. She tells us about some myth of a man who drank tons of wine and became super strong, so maybe after the wine tasting later we’ll feel super strong! The humor nearly goes over my head as the words fly by at 100mph. Here are some other facts she bestows upon us…

  • Because the winery has perfect conditions as far as humidity and temperature, people rent cages here to store their personal wine collections. It costs about 150 euros a year.
  • The oldest wine in the collection is from 1973, and it costs 1500 euros.
  • They are seeking a third record for the Guinness book, which is the longest untouched/fermented sparkling wine in the world. Normally sparkling wine is fermented for three years, but they have a bottle that has been sitting there for sixteen and counting.
  • Seventy percent of their wines are exported to China for sale. Thirty percent stays in Europe, from Italy to Germany to Moldova.
  • The tasting room is located 60 meters below ground.

We end of course in the tasting room and are provided three jugs of wine: a white, a red, and a sweet dessert, to share amongst the four of us. It is far too much. We’re also given so much food: apple pie, cheese pie, meat pie, nuts, pretzels, and dried fruits as two men come out and play us traditional Moldovan music with a violin and accordion.

I meet the three men beside me who are from Luxembourg, which is interesting enough on its own. That’s gotta be four percent of their entire population sitting beside me! Viorica appears to push more wine on us as we only have a few minutes remaining and still have three jugs of wine. I don’t know how people drink their wine here, but none of us four are down for chugging it. I bid the men farewell and get in the car as Viorica rapidly swings through the maze of tunnels towards the exit and flies down the highway back to the city. Despite her crazy handling, there is a comfort in the madness and I am lulled to sleep.

I’m then jolted awake as Viorica wakes me up. We’re now in the city center, and it’s dark as the thirty minute ride passed during the sunset hour. I am very dazed and confused as I jump out of the car, but manage to get my bearings straight with a map and navigate to the post office to purchase some stamps. I leave to go seek a souvenir shop for postcards but then find that souvenir shops in this part of the world don’t always sell the gimmicky stuff I am looking for. I ask an info desk employee, who tells me to talk to a cell phone store employee, who tells me to talk to a gift shop employee, who doesn’t want to help me at all.

I find a souvenir shop and they don’t have postcards, but they inform me the post office does. I think they may have misunderstood, but they insist they have postcards. I return to the post office once again to get assistance and sure enough, they have postcards as well. To save time, I decide to fill them out right then and there, slap some stamps on them, and send them off.

I return to the hostel because Viorica wanted me to meet her at the hostel to drive to the opera. I’m a bit frustrated at this because I don’t want to walk all the way in the opposite direction of the opera only to go back, but here I was, trudging back only to find that Viorica isn’t there. I head off to the opera on my own and it’s already started.

The opera was magnificent. There’s a huge LCD screen behind the orchestra projecting snowflakes and Christmas ornaments while various singers in extravagant costumes belt out familiar songs. The orchestra is dressed in black and white, and colored sashes are draped over their music stands to form a large Romanian flag of yellow, blue and red.

Meanwhile, I doze off for most of the show. It’s not that the show is unimpressive, but rather I am so tired that my eyes can’t bear to stay open. Eventually, though, I woke up to a familiar song and I’m glad I awoke at that moment, because they put on a great show to the point that people applauded and applauded until the singers returned for a second bow.

After the opera, I walked to an outdoor street market decorated for the upcoming Christmas (orthodox Christmas is January 6th). There were little huts lining a circle near the Arc de Triumf, serving cotton candy, warm nuts, coffee, tea, and pastries. I get some tea and pastries for dinner before I walk home and retire for some much-needed (albeit short) sleep.