Sunday, June 10, 2007

An urban village

Quiet weekend in Chisinau - could have been livelier if I had discovered the Friday night concert at the National Philharmonic in time - looks like there is a concert every Friday, and with interesting programming, too. Next Friday we will have Szymanowski and Vaughan Williams' Tuba Concerto....

Instead went off to the market for my food. At the beginning of the week I had mentioned the difficulties of buying small quantities of food, especially meat, for my tiny household. 'Nooo', said my colleagues, 'there won't be any difficulties at all!' They should have seen the face of the shop assistant in the supermarket when I asked for 300 g of goulash. 'What? You want less? And even less than this?' it seemed to say. Unbelievable! This was the same shop which displayed 500g packs of dried rosemary - it would last me for a lifetime of roast lamb. So while I bought several kilos of tomatoes, I also bought 3 garlic bulbs, which looked like the minimum. One whole bulb promptly went into the goulash, together with plenty of tomatoes, onions and a very good lashing of Moldovan Cabernet, of which I bought a carton of 3 litres (for about 8 nights....). There may need to be red wine soup with something else....I've gone off buying wine in fancy bottles....

Out for a run on Saturday (and Sunday). Found, quite near my flat, a park with three lakes, heavily in use even at 9.30 in the morning with people getting ready for their picnics, taking walks, the odd runner etc. Moldovans, like Russians and probably Ukrainians, don't seem to like to travel heavy on their trips to the lakeside, so their bikinis and swimming trunks are nearly always tiny. Unlike the bodies they often have to stretch over.

Another walk round the town confirmed my earlier impression - while there are plenty of Soviet apartment blocks, there are also very many little houses with nice sized gardens, chickens and all, right in the middle of the town, no more than 5 minutes from the main thoroughfares. The town centre is arranged in a grid, with only a small corner or two of irregular little streets. But these are just like village streets, with houses that don't look particularly old; unlike Vilnius' old town, or the old town of Tbilisi which have been 'town' for a long time. I thought, therefore, that Chisinau is like Dushanbe, which was a village until about 1919 when the Soviets took over.

In fact, no. This wikipedia article suggests that Chisinau has been around since the 15th century, and already in the mid-19th century had a population of 92,000. Following pogroms elsewhere, many Jews fled to Chisinau in the late 19th century, ending with a 43% share of the population by 1900. Alas, that was almost the end of that, and in 1903 and 1905 two major pogroms took place. I wonder how many of the Chisinau Jews participated in the beginnings of the state of Israel. Then in the second world war Chisinau was rolled over three times, with the Soviets taking it from Romania in 1940, by the Germans going east in 1941 and making it part of Romania again, and the Soviets going west in 1944, with the Germans addressing the Jewish population in between.

But where's the history? It seems that not only was the country rolled over all those times, but shortly after the first invasion by the Red Army it suffered a devastating earthquake (Richter Scale 7.3) and between this and the multiple invasions the town was almost completely destroyed. The wikipedia talks about Stalinist architecture but of this so far I have seen only very little. It is true, though, that Chisinau is one of the greenest cities of Europe. Wherever you look you see trees, forests, little parks....

Stalin may not have done much good, but his town planning people were quite talented - always allowing for much open space, wide roads, and underpasses to cross those roads safely. In the former Soviet Union people were quite happy to move into flats because they had (at least the pretense of) modern conveniences, such as running water and indoor toilets. Unlike in the UK where everyone needs to have their own house.

Talking of running water reminds me - during the trips to the countryside I noticed lots of modern, purposebuilt wells with buckets thoughtfully provided everywhere. On enquiry I was told (code for 'I don't believe') that these were built because often the water supply fails and this way families can get water. Well, of course. But why then are these fancy wells a good mile or two outside the village, often near busy road junctions? Is it for watering the animals that are tied up everywhere, or for the many horses and carts?

The other noticeable thing about Moldovan roads is the amount of roadkill that you see. A reasonable amount of dead animals, but in particular the high number of crosses remembering people that have died in accidents. Be careful when you drive here! What are the drink driving laws here?

And finally I was told (see above) that much of the population is of the orthodox persuasion, either Romanian or Russian. How come then that many of the crosses are of the normal catholic variety, and that at many roadsides (not accident spots) there are little shrines with crucifixes, as you would find in Austria? But maybe Romanian orthodoxy is different.

Wikipedia also tells me that Chisinau has 36 universities - wow! I wonder if that is the highest rate in the world, for the population of about 650,000?