28 February 2011

CRF: Poland

"CRF" is not a crime show you've never heard of, it stands for "Cutting Room Floor." Below are some of our favorite pics that never made the blog. We figured we'd reminisce a little while we're driving from Moldova to Italy (which should take about five days).
Rebecca: The market in Wroclaw was the biggest I'd ever seen, until Riga. It was like a tiered wedding cakes of goods - some goods better than others. As is often the case with countries whose currency is inflated, I just didn't have any bills small enough in my pocket to get the bag of pumpkin seeds I wanted.
The buildings seemed different, to us, after more south-western Europe. We were entranced by the balconies and offset windows.
A flower vendor in an underground passage in Wroclaw.
Merlin: Poland has some beautiful natural scenery, and we caught it just before the snow. Their autumn was cool and bright, at least while we were there.
Rebecca: Poland's trees were immediately different - taller, thinner and with these really beautiful cluster on one branch or two or all of them. They reminded me enormous geraniums. Merlin told me that they are actually a sign that the tree is diseased - tree tumors. I'm not sure why disease seemed to overwhelm the entirety of Poland's tree population, but I can't say it wasn't very pretty.
Merlin: Beautiful, surprising Krakow. It was always a city that I thought sounded menacing - in fact, it's just the opposite. This is the central rynok at dusk.
This was at the cloth market in Kazimierz.
Rebecca: Sometimes it was difficult to tell who was the vendor, who was their friend just there keeping them company and who was a customer, sitting for a rest.
We found Poland's markets interesting because they seemed - to us, at the time - to be so grungy and ramshackle.

See all Poland posts...

27 February 2011

Moldova to Italy Road Trip: Day 1

A lot of our Day 1 driving time was taken up by a border crossing (Moldova/Romania - mostly the Romanian side) and getting semi-lost while driving through a bigger city here and there. But when we were on the open road, it was beautiful.
The roads in Romania are amazingly well paved. Our car isn't making weird squeaking noises anymore and we don't need to swerve at the last minute to avoid potholes. The one strange thing is that they don't seem to have any shoulders, making it a little hard to stop when nature calls.
We drove through the plains early in the day and spent our entire afternoon up in the mountains of Transylvania.
Just as there aren't shoulders on the highway, there aren't really sidewalks in town. As night approached, the roads seemed to get curvier and our fear of hitting a pedestrian increased. So, we pulled over for dinner and a night's stay.

CRF: Luxembourg

"CRF" is not a crime show you've never heard of, it stands for "Cutting Room Floor." Below are some of our favorite pics that never made the blog. We figured we'd reminisce a little while we're driving from Moldova to Italy (which should take about five days).
Luxemboug City is surprisingly beautiful - it's one of those places that should be better known. The cliffs surrounding the old town are incredible.
We spent a little while in the Moselle valley, one of the tiniest wine regions in Europe. The weather felt more like August than October, but harvest was in full swing.
Another shot of the Moselle valley, and the rolling, vine-covered hills. We camped down near the river below at a marina/campground.
This was the outdoor kitchen and bathroom at another campsite in the Mullerthal region. It was chilly there, and we became celebrities among the other campers because we were brave enough to sleep in a tent. The campground provided sliced bread every morning, and I remember the line of old men at the office waiting to pick up their loaves.
This is also in the Mullerthal region. Although the grass was still green, we were beginning to see frost in the mornings and the wildflowers were dying. Here, along a riverbank, a few blossoms survived. The houses in the background are actually across the water, in Germany.
This picture was taken on a sunny afternoon down in "the Grund" section of Luxembourg City.
We attended two festivals in Luxembourg - the huge, overwhelming Nutfest and the smaller, more intimate apple fest, pictured above.
Luxembourg is obsessed with cleanliness. There were plastic gloves provided at gas stations, so that you didn't have to touch the pumps. These dog-related bags were all over, even in tiny hamlets and on the outskirts of towns.
We stayed at a pretty hotel in Vianden, and never ate at the celebrated restaurant attached. The walls were crowded with awards and pictures - the kitchen had a long and illustrious history, but the dining room was always empty.

See all Luxembourg posts...

26 February 2011

Well, Well, Well...

Except for the citizens of a few big towns - Chisinau, Balti, some of Tiraspol - people in Moldova get their water from communal wells. They show up on the side of the road in villages and in isolated fields. They are sometimes decorated, sometimes plain, sometimes dilapidated, almost always with well-worn paths leading up to them. This is an example of a levered well - the handle acts as a counterweight to help pull up the water.
Unlike in Ukraine - which also has very few municipal water and sewage systems in the countryside - Moldovan wells tend to be shared amongst several families. In Ukraine, each house would have its own well, usually quite close to the building. Here, people walk to a larger, town well and it is common to see people gathered there, waiting their turn at the crank.
Almost all of these shafts were covered both by some type of cap and by a roof - probably to keep the water-drawing people dry as much as to keep detritus and snow out of the water. Often, the wells and shelters would be decorated with elaborate designs, colors and trim.
Most of the cranks were operated by hand and connected to chains, not rope. The buckets had interesting designs - notice how this one points down in one corner. My theory is that it makes it less likely that the bucket will land and float on the water instead of filling, but I'm not sure.
It's interesting to me how wells seem tied so closely to a primitive way of life, or to underdevelopment. It's amazing how swiftly indoor plumbing has become normal in Europe - snaking pipes through old buildings isn't simple. I'm actually surprised that more of the continent doesn't rely on their old wells for water.
We actually haven't turned a well crank yet - partly because we don't want to look silly if someone comes along, but mostly because we don't want to drink the water. Sadly, all of our fluids come out of plastic or glass bottles - some of the outhouses are a little to close to seem safe.

Tiraspol - The Capital of Transdniestr

Tiraspol is a strange place - we were told that it was strange by everyone who had been there. Actually, it is strange more in theory than it is in reality. After being in Belarus, the Lenin statues aren't as interesting and the military presence doesn't feel so threatening. It feels like most mid-sized, ex-soviet backwaters do - poor, constructed of concrete and somewhat lawless.
Of course, it isn't like all ex-soviet cities. Being the capital of an unrecognized, breakaway state, it has it's differences. A man staying in our hostel got arrested there a few days before we went. His crime: walking too close to a tank monument. Rebecca was approached by a man who forced her to delete pictures from her camera's memory card. We had to a cross a border to get here. It's in a frozen conflict zone. The US state department warns people that they won't be able to provide any consular help should a traveler get in trouble. It's a popular city for drug, weapons and human traffickers. It's also very, very poor - the whole city seems to be made up of huge buildings like this one or dilapidated shanties.
We took very few pictures because it is illegal to photograph any government buildings, employees or vehicles - there are a lot of things that fall into one of those categories in Tiraspol. Also, there are soldiers and police everywhere, and they would love to have a reason to make some tourist pay a "fine." Mostly, we kept our cameras tucked away. This, however, is the Kvint "Cognac" factory, which is the pride of the country. I thought that it would probably be safe to take a picture of it and the truck pulling out of it's gates - at home, I realized that the truck has "water" painted on its side and is, in fact, a street cleaning vehicle. Municipal vehicles probably aren't a big deal, really, but I'm glad nobody checked.
Like in Belarus, most of the billboards were for the country (if you want to call it that) that we were in. This one shows the president, Igor Smirnov, shaking hands with some un-identified, smiling man. Smirnov is on the right with the stereotypical "evil-villain" shaved head and beard.
We left our car in Chisinau because we didn't want to try to bring it across the border. The bus there took about an hour and twenty minutes, including a little stop at the border where we (because we were American) were called off the bus for some kind of registration. The bus back, from this little bus station, took about two and a half hours - not because of border troubles, but because our driver seemed unenthusiastic about driving anywhere. He stopped for a cigarette and coffee, for a bottle of cognac and for gas. Also, he was reluctant to go much more than thirty miles per hour or shift above second gear. It was quite dark by the time we got home, and we dozed in our uncomfortable, shabby seats for much of the ride.
One of the things that people say about Tiraspol is that it's strange to see statues of Lenin still standing in all of the squares. Like I said, in Belarus we saw them daily, so it didn't seem all that odd to us. This one, though, was amazing. It appeared that he had sprouted wings, or that he was wearing a cape in a gale. He had the typical Lenin stare and cocked head and he was positioned a good twenty-five feet above the ground.

Things Moldovan People Like

Tributes to Stefan cel Mare. Stefan cel Mare aka Stephen the Great aka Stephen the Great and Holy is the namesake of buildings, streets and the likeness of busts and statues all throughout Moldova. He was the prince of Moldavia (as it was then called) during its only period of independence in its history before 1992. Hungary, Poland and the Ottoman Empire all tried to get their claws on the country, but Stefan successfully kept them at bay. I wouldn't be at all surprised if the base of this statue used to support a stone Lenin.
Andy's Pizza. They say that the only Moldovan thing that crosses the border into Transniestria is Andy's Pizza. It's nice that they can agree on something and that that something is a shared love for pizza, ice cream, cappuccinos and some of the meatiest chicken soup I have ever seen in my life. The one above was in Tiraspol and stuck out like a sore thumb, because it was one of the only signs written in Roman characters. (As opposed to cyrillic - according to the tour guide at the Tiraspol museum, speaking Russian was the singular right Transniestrians broke apart from Moldova to protect. So, it's a pretty big deal). The Andy's Pizzas in the rest of Moldova are much cheerier looking, much more wasteful of electricity.
Sterilized Utensils. On our first day in the country, we saw this contraption on the checkout line of a cafeteria. As you pushed your tray across, you could drop the utensils you've collected in to steam in hot water before using them. Andy's Pizza, a huge Moldovan chain, supplied all utensils in little paper envelopes and small cafeneas wrapped forks, knives and spoons up in napkins so tightly that removing it rendered the paper useless.
Jesus in a Box. Roadside altars, crosses and Virgin Marys have been pretty commonplace in this part of the world. However, we've never seen as many crucifixes as in Moldova - and almost every single one was displayed in a plexiglass box. We liked this one the best, because the square in front of Jesus' face was all fogged up, giving it an eerie "I'm alive!" vibe. There are always other little compartments in the boxes, surrounding the cross with other saints or figurines. Just today, I saw a group of people lined up to have a moment with a boxed Jesus. A man approached, stepped up to eye level and kissed him! Then, the next person did it and the next. So, that may be the reason for the box - or just something people in this particular town (Balti) like to do.
Disco Balls. Like in Belarus, restaurants and cafes always look like they're decorated for a party. Here, though, it's taken a step further. No matter how tiny the place, there is inevitably a disco ball strung up somewhere. We were eating in the back corner of this dark spot, sipping soup and munching some cabbage, when another couple came in and sat down in the other room. The woman working there turned on the lights and the disco ball started a-spinnin' as the couple drank tea and shared a piece of cake. Even hotel breakfast rooms have them. It's good to be prepared.
Popcorn. I love popcorn. I miss popcorn. In Moldova, I've been able to eat popcorn to my heart's content. In Chisinau, there were carts popping fresh kernels all day long and seasoning it with sunflower oil and salt. It was the perfect amount, about a sandwich baggie's worth and the perfect price, about 25 cents, to grab here and there throughout the day. At the grocery store, there were big bags of it and microwaveable pouches. Some were butter, some were cheddar, some were salt, all packages were adorned with stars and strips in red, white and blue. It may not seem like something all that unique, but popcorn is really not commonplace in Europe - and for this, I commend the Moldovan people for their good taste.
Tourist Agencies. We're not exactly sure how many people here take vacations to foreign lands, but there are definitely enough tourist agencies around to aid them each individually in finding the destination of their dreams. It was strange how many there were, touting great deals on getaways to Turkey, America, Canada and France. If a town had any sort of Main Street, there was a tourist agency there. Or three.
Chicken Noodle Soup aka Zama. Every country has its signature soup and Moldova's is 'zama.' It's credited to Romania and traditionally includes green beans, but since they're sort of out of season right now, we never encountered any in our bowls. (Maybe when we're in Romania next May they'll pop up more). Zama is on every menu and anytime we ordered it the recipe was slightly different. Some were lemony, some had more parsley than dill, some had a dollop of sour cream on top. The noodles were always homemade, almost breaking apart in the warm broth. Like almost everything, our bowls were served alongside a huge pile of bread.

25 February 2011

Moldovan Eating

We’ve eaten very well in Chisinau, surprisingly so. People enjoy spending their money on good food, which is definitely a change of pace from basically anywhere we’ve been since Belgium. It’s not just about ‘exotic’ food and how many sleek sushi restaurants and American-type steakhouses offer people a chance to get dressed up and sip cocktails in public. In Chisinau, the food was actually executed well (with one huge exception – but more on that later).
When you’ve had your best meal in months at a restaurant, which also has free WIFI, it’s hard not to become a regular. Merlin and I ate and worked at Cactus CafĂ©/Saloon/Restaurant (depending on if you read the sign, the menu or the specials board) four times. They refer to themselves as an American restaurant, but it was actually just creative, delicious food with great ingredients, friendly service, big portions and – oh wait, that does sound American. At first, we were embarrassed to keep showing up, but who gives a crap when there’s ripe avocado.
The food there was eclipsed only by Grill House, a restaurant with more imagination than its name would have you think. The food was expertly grilled by these men, standing out on a patio and although their menus said “We turn vegetarians into carnivores,” they served us the best salads of our trip to date.
Even the cafeteria food was great. I pointed to what looked like cooked mushrooms on our first trip to this buffet and bit into something chewy and meat-y that tasted like tongue, but looked like it might be testicle. On our second visit, Merlin got some heaped on his plate. Doesn't it look like mushroom? We’re still not sure what it is, but it- along with everything else we tried – was really good.
Most people walked around with pastries from Fornetti Franchise, a bakery chain that had stands all around the city. This happy customer seemed to endorse the product and the two girls he was with endorsed our taking a photo of him.
While we never bought anything from Fornetti, we did sample some of the oblong pastries everyone seems to carry around at a great, grimy cafeteria. One was cabbage and the other had what looked and tasted exactly like canned pumpkin pie filling. Both were delicious.
And then there was Conus Pizza. Every block in Chisinau had at least one. The first day, we decided that at some point we’d have to get ourselves a pizza cone. You know, research for the blog. The second day, we noticed that they also sold something called an “umbrellina," essentially pizza with a handle, and we revised our plan. From the third day until the eighth, we noticed that we had never seen a single person buy anything but pastries from Conus Pizza. On our final day in Chisinau, we found out why.
After a long wait during which at least three customers purchased and ate items that were not pizza in any shape, we heard the ding of a toaster oven. Out of the window came this. I held the umbrellina by its handle and watched as the gooey mess of cheese, melted onto the plastic bag it was served in and flopped down, covering my entire first. Before it all oozed down my sleeve, we snapped this side by side comparison picture. Then, we ate it. Hey, it’s the poorest country in Europe, it’s not like we’re going to let food go to waste.

A Tale of Two Museums...

We've been to two museums in Moldova whose names might be translated into "National Museum of History." One of them is in Chisinau, the capital. The other is in Tiraspol, which is the capital of Transnistria. Transnistria likes to consider itself a country, but is unrecognized as such by most other nations. The US considers it a "frozen conflict zone" within Moldova. As you might imagine, the two museums had quite dissimilar ideas about national history.
The Chisinau museum - pictured above - was housed in a beautiful former university building on a tree-lined block of the city.
The museum mostly leaves out Transnistria, and focuses on two time periods which have become touchstones for the Moldovan republic. The first is the middle ages, when there was a putative Moldovan principality in the region (often, erroneously, referred to as "Moldavia"). The little nation reached its peak during the 14th century, when the prince Stephan cel Mare ruled. He is still the most important figure in Moldovan history - something like King Arthur. It is an important time for a certain type of national historian because it was the one period (until now) that Moldova can truly say it was its own country.
The second period that the museum focused on was much more recent - a complicated political dance emerged between the USSR and Romania during the 20th century, which saw Moldova pass hands twice before declaring independence. Essentially, the goal of the museum was to prove that Moldova's history was both more Romanian than Russian and more independent than regional. It is a complex, confusing identity, based primarily on being non-slavic. I am reading an excellent book on this subject called The Moldovans by Charles King, and I highly recommend it if you want to know more about this place.
One room was dominated by this huge diorama depicting Romanian forces defending the Moldovan hills during WWII.
The Tiraspol museum was much smaller and had an altogether different take on history. A quick primer: the Transnistrian breakaway state's primary objection to Moldova as a whole (and a country) is that the Russian language and the cyrillic alphabet were replaced by Romanian and latinate letters. Essentially, Transnistria is a majority slavic region that remains committed to Soviet-style communism (and corruption) and is opposed to the idea of a Romanian nation on what they consider "Russian" soil.
The museum was, largely, a travel brochure for the region. Pictures of the president, Igor Smirnov, shaking hands with athletes, farmers, nurses and businessmen filled a few glass cases. A large display of Kvint "cognac" - the country's pride and joy - occupied a prominent space in the middle of one of the main rooms.
It was a small place, but there was an English language guide on hand. She spoke excellently, but was a little biased. She was very interested in showing us pictures of Transnistrian soldiers fighting the Moldovans during the civil war of 1991-1992. Also, pictures of the soldiers feeding children and holding flowers. This is still, as I said, a frozen conflict zone, and the Military holds complete power.
There were a few displays of Transnistrian products from before the war - all somewhat dated. The state has very limited exports because of a nearly universal, worldwide embargo on goods produced here. Not that it's hard to find Kvint liquor everywhere in Moldova, or to go to Tiraspol to pick up illegal weapons or women.
There was a small, sweet exhibition depicting old-style handicrafts, which was pretty. The guides seemed genuinely happy that a pair of Americans had dropped in on them, though the soldier stationed out front was less cordial.