22 February 2011

Urban Spelunking

When we're not on the road in this country, we always seem to be underground. Cave monasteries, underground wine cities, it's really the perfect sight-seeing when the weather is awful. Our hostel in Chisinau is outside the city center, which means that a lot of our walk in and/or out involves crossing highways via underground walkways.
We like these walkways, not only because they are wonderfully logical and safe, but because they let us dip into something that feels a little more 'real' in this splashy capital. That's not to say that the shopping center directly behind our hostel named "Mall Dova" isn't absolutely and totally real. It's not to say that the uber stylish people and cappuccino cafes and congestion of cars isn't an integral part of the Moldovan capital's modern identity.

However, when you're in the poorest country in Europe, where 38% of the GDP comes from citizens working in other countries and sending money home, passing swank store after store feels particularly off-putting. When a huge amount of a country's economy goes unrecorded because of corruption, there's an overwhelming desire to get to the bottom of it. We just take that a little more literally than others.
Most undergrounds are lined with store fronts. There will be a sign for shoe repair, offering a phone number if you'd like to call for the person to come in to the 'office,' there will be a MoldCell shop, there will be a beggar on the stairs walking down and on the stairs walking up and there will be decorative art, either commissioned or organic on the concrete walls.
Other walkways are packed to the brim with counterfeit DVDs, shoddy underwear, hair accessories and the like. These mall caves are some of our favorite places in the city with their barbershops and shoeshines and cafeneas that serve men beer at 9am. (Still better than the vodka breakfasts in Belarus). We've stopped in for lunch, for use of the public restroom, for a head shave.
The food stands may look like they offer hamburgers, hotdogs and tortilla wraps, but they really only have pastries. When I emerge from underground, I never have to worry about my hair smelling like meat or cigarettes, just dough.
I think this potato-ccentric cart is a holdover from Soviet time. It, blissfully, sells not a single potato. In fact, unlike the 'snack shop,' it actually does sell hot dogs. Wrapped in dough.
This is the sort of spelunking that makes me feel at home. It makes me think of the stores under Port Authority and walking under Times Square to avoid walking through it. It gives me that old familiar feeling of disorientation, emerging and immediately thinking, "where the hell am I and which way is north?" Mostly, though, it makes me feel at home because I feel like I'm where the locals are, where other people feel at home, where there's a heart that's not blinking in neon outside some 'poker club' called Nevada.

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