Chisinau (KEE-shee-NOW) is powdered, more than lightly, with snow, but the city is awake and alive. We brush through immigration, and my dad introduces me to an employee of the Moldovan embassy, from Texas. I know I have to submit some assignments when we get into a wifi zone, and luckily the airport lobby has several cafes offering it for free. My dad leaves me to my work, exchanges some Euros for Moldovan lev, and asks around for bus information. When he comes back, I have finished submitting my assignments and am ready to board the bus which arrives three minutes later and costs 2 lev per person (about $0.25 for the both of us). Naturally, my dad makes a friend on the bus (when do I ever make friends abroad? Seems like never), who has been to the United States, recommends a restaurant, and smiles at my dad’s now-memorized schtick about who we are, and what we do. From across the bus, I hear him go through all the highlights: traveling every country, me being a student, our most recent itinerary and future countries. The bus becomes increasingly packed, and I am squashed between wall. One may say what he wants about Metro North, but Moldovan commuters must envy sardines for their enviably spacious tin-can abodes. Fearful of getting lost, I regularly check my phone by slipping it practically up my shirt, holding it to my face, and tapping the screen with my nose while I catch a golden-grilled babuschka giving me a 16 karat smile from the seat across from me.
Moldova’s capital may not be the most exciting, but it feels the most Eastern European, and the most unique. People are happy, people are outside. Maybe the sun has something to do with it, of maybe that’s just the Moldovan spririt. All signs are in Romanian (which the country has rebranded as “Moldovan”) and in Russian. It feels as though both are official languages, after many years of Soviet control, but other Russian relics remain as well. The Chisinau train station, for instance, offers three international departures daily: Moscow, Saint Peterburg, and Bucharest. Presumably, travelers are taking these two Russian overnight trains that first must traverse Ukraine before entering the motherland, and not just the regional ones. On the way to Ukraine, the Chisinau trains also stop at Tiraspol, the captital of theself-proclaimed state of Transnistria. This tiny sliver of Moldova’s East, which uses the Cyrillic alphabet and is supposed to feel much more like the old USSR, is only recognized by other self-proclaimed countries of Abkhazia, South Ossetia, and Artsakh.
Downtown, few are walking in the parks which house giant arch and several statues commemorating local heroes. We plan on leaving soon, on the daily 4:56 sleeper train to Bucharest, so we head to Moldovan chain “La Placinte,” which feels like a Denny’s in that their menu has pictures of the food professionally depicted on the page, and the decor feels Ikea-esque but not quite Ikea. We st in the booth, order $1 local beers from the waitress who understands no English (I get to use my Duolingo Russian), and my dad and I struggle to decide on what to eat. All I cheap, and all looks delicious. We settle on a thin potato pastry, a cold potato puree with stewed tomato and pepper, and some of those seemingly ubiquitous Eastern European sausages with very strong horseradish sauce. We finish every bite, which is a bit of a challenge, and pay about $12 for the three dishes and two beers.
From there, we go to the only two other tourist attractions within walking distance: the monument to Leninism (still not sure if the monument is “for” or “against” the idea) and the Alexander Pushkin house. The Pushkin house and museum is a small two-building complex, one if which is the house that Pushkin lived in while he was exiled to Moldova. The other building has various original writings, letter, and pictures from his time there. Eugene Onegin was penned there, and in the museum one can find a version of the table of contents to Pushkin’s famous narrative-in-verse. All the signage is in Russian and Romanian, but for 10 lev each we were able to get a brief, private Russian tour with one of the ladies who worked there, and were lent the 5-page English version of the tour they typically give. I was a fan of Eugene Onegin, and I enjoyed the experience of going to a tiny dacha that was once (and still is, to some) in the middle of nowhere to observe some literary history from another culture. All that and the museum had a resident cat who loved climbing all over the guest book as we were trying to write our names.
This city, and this country, were not supposed to be part of the tour at all, but I was enjoying the feeling of being in “Russia-adjacent.” Nowhere we had been thus far had Russian as a kind of lingua franca, and it was cool going to a “real” ex-Soviet-type country. We hunkered down in a local internet cafe, obtained some kofye lattes, and I began to do some work while the the radio played a pleasant mix of American soul, indie rock, and 80s pop.
We arrived at the station, which seemed as though it had long past it’s golden years. Half the station didn’t even have lights, benches, or maps, and just had a large sign board with the next four departures on it, which likely never changed day by day. The platform, which clearly did not get much more than freight traffic, was desolate a half-hour before our boarding, but we found a painted locomotive that was clearly there for the occasional tourist photo-op, and we took advantage of it. In the time we had before departure, we swapped most of our Moldovan money for Romanian, examined some of the eccentricities of the old Soviet station, and took several pictures of the snowy station before our train pulled up.
Victor Bernabei is just another millenial travel blogger. But here's the twist: He isn't a millenial! His goal is to see as many countries as he can, and spread the message that the world is not as scary as the news wants you to believe, and that there is beauty in all people, places and things.