Who…What is Moldova?

Reflections after two years of living in Moldova….

This past week I served on a panel, convened by our Public Affairs Section of the US Embassy here in Chisinau, to interview Moldovans who were applying for Fulbright post-doc fellowships and Humphrey grants, which allow 6-12 months to work with professional counterparts in the USA.  Our panel had the opportunity to consider proposals from a wide range of professionals, from a plant geneticist working on developing drought-resistant corn,  to a waste-water engineer working on improving Moldova’s water treatment facilities, a shipper who is trying to expand the use of Moldova’s only seaport on the Danube, a psychiatrist who wants to improve prevention and treatment of substance abuse in Moldova, and a historian who wants to study the content and effects of messaging that came from Radio Free Europe and Liberty Radio into Soviet Moldova during the Cold War.  (The latter, it seems to me, is a very pertinent topic for Americans too, and an ironic one, given our current position on the other end of a social media propaganda campaign coming from Russia.)  One of the members of our panel, a Fulbright alumna, asked each of our applicants, “What slogan might you use to characterize Moldova when asked by Americans about what Moldova is like?” I thought her question rather difficult, and indeed, most of the applicants had to give it considerable thought.  Listening to them struggling to answer, challenged me to think, how would I characterize Moldova in a brief slogan?  I have lived here for two years now, is there a concise way to describe my impressions of Moldova?

At another event this week, organized by the American Embassy’s Community Liaison Office, I heard a historian give a presentation about Moldova, present and past, to Americans who are newly-arrived at post.  She began with an exposition of the logo that Moldova’s Tourism industry uses to promote Moldova, a stylized and colorful Tree of Life, which on its branches bears symbols of Moldova’s wineries, its hospitality, and its religious culture.  Under the Tree stands a large M, symbolizing the roots anchoring the agrarian culture/Tree of Life into the soil, and under it all the slogan:                    “Moldova: Discover the Routes of Life.”

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Moldova is indeed a society still rooted firmly in agriculture and that agricultural heritage, along with the wine, food, music, dance and craft traditions that arose from it, were on full display at two summer festivals we took in this summer: “Ia Mania,” (pronounced “EEya Muneeya”) a celebration of Moldovan hand-embroidered clothing, and the Hoginesti Pottery Festival.  At both of these festivals Moldovans displayed their handwork, weaving, pottery, wood carving and villages competed for the award of best prepared traditional foods.

The agricultural sector still employs about 25% of working Moldovans, but Moldova’s sources of income are changing, and Moldova’s identity will change along with the changing occupations of its people.

Dealing with change, as it turns out, has been an integral facet of Moldova’s identity for centuries.  Another slide in the historian’s presentation summarized, with pictures of maps, how Moldova’s national affiliation, its geographic boundaries, its size, and its name, have changed repeatedly since the 13th century, from its semi-independent status as half of Moldavia under the Ottoman Empire, to its being split off from the western half of Moldavia and annexed by Russia in 1812 as part of the Russian Turk Wars, to its later rejoining with Moldavia and all of Romania when it departed from the Russian Empire shortly after the Russian revolution, to its subsequent fall into Soviet hands after WWII, and its final independence with the breakdown of the Soviet Union in 1989.  Presently, the struggle between those who identify with the other half of historic Moldavia (which is now part of Romania) and therefore favor an affiliation with Western Europe, versus those who continue to identify with Russia, continues to profoundly influence Moldova’s struggle for a clear identity.

Throughout all of the re-drawing of boundaries, the renaming, and the reinvention, Moldovans have not only held onto their traditions, but have also resisted domination.  Under the Ottomans, they held a semi-independent status thanks to the terms of agreement won by Stephan cel Mare.  During the Soviet era there was resistance as well.  The story of Moldovans who suffered for their resistance to Soviet domination, (sent into exile and dying in Siberia,) is told through a photographic exhibit in the basement of the National History Museum.   Many Moldovans now recognize a current threat of domination in the form of a wealthy, powerful elite and the culture of corruption which they have helped to shape.  It is nearly impossible to live in Moldova for more than a few weeks and not be aware of these ongoing and historical political controversies.

As I write this post, a protest demonstration is occurring in Chisinau.  It began yesterday with reportedly thousands of participants waving Moldovan and European Union flags, and chanting slogans such as “Down with the Mafia!”  They are charging that one of the political parties, headed by a billionaire, has interfered in the recent election for the Chisinau mayor.  Chisinau residents elected a pro-EU candidate who campaigned on an anti-corruption platform, but someone immediately brought an appeal to a judge who declared the election invalid on grounds that both candidates used social media on the day of the election to urge voters to vote.  The EU suspended a $116 million aid package for Moldova in protest of the voided election.  The protestors claim that this billionaire has undue influence in both the media and in the current government, and view him and his circle as members of a Russian-style oligarchy who would subvert democracy in order to run Moldova for their own benefit.  The demonstration continued into the morning today, interrupting Chisinau’s street festival observance of Moldovan Independence Day.  As government officials laid a wreath at the foot of the statue of Stephan cel Mare this morning, a crowd of protesters, held back by police, chanted in Romanian, “No More Mafia!”

As we were passing through another downtown area this morning, the outdoor art market, we greeted an elderly acquaintance, a bunica (grandmother.)   She was sitting there among her displayed embroidered goods, as she does every day, and we asked her, “Why are you working today? It’s a holiday… Independence Day!”  Her bright blue eyes blazed as she tugged at the ties of the scarf around her head and retorted, “I never received any independence! I am still tied!”

Earlier this summer, our US Embassy Public Affairs office sponsored a Student Essay Contest, inviting essays on the subject of “How Youth Can Fight Corruption in Moldova.”   I served on the panel of judges and found it inspiring to hear these Moldovan high school students express their belief that, with a commitment to personal integrity and activism, they can in fact eventually succeed in reducing the acceptance of corruption as a modus operandi in Moldova.

At the same time however, some of my ESL students express cynicism about political freedom and democratic processes in Moldova.  During one of my English classes this past week we listened to a TED Talk about the Social Progress Index, “SPI” and discussed a chart comparing Moldova SPI scores to other countries of similar GDP.  When they saw a favorable score for “political rights” on that chart, they expressed their disbelief.  They may have political rights on paper, they told me, the right to vote when they turn 18, but corruption and events such as the stolen recent mayoral election negate those rights.

These students are all very bright young people, but because of lack of opportunities at home, unfortunately for Moldova, most of them aspire to study and eventually work abroad.   I find myself wondering whether there will come a day when this younger generation of highly trained diaspora will want to return to their country to help develop Moldova, as are doing more and more frequently, members of the diaspora of African countries like Ethiopia, who were once part of a similar “brain drain,” phenomenon.  Moldovan young people who attend university in Western Europe will generally find it easier to assimilate there than Africans do.  They will not experience the kind of racial discrimination that African immigrants often experience, which can give rise to some of the desire to return to help develop their homelands.  To be sure, much of the motivation of returning African diaspora is completely altruistic, grounded in gratitude for the opportunities they have been given abroad and the desire to “give back,” and hopefully some of Moldova’s educated diaspora will eventually feel some of that same motivation.  Any hope for Moldova’s future does reside with its educated younger generation, and Moldova must find a way to not only give them opportunity here in Moldova, but to welcome them back with more opportunity if and when they want to return.

Getting back to the Fulbright alumna’s question,  “How would you describe Moldova,” after two years of living in Moldova, I would have to say that the longer I am here, the more I appreciate the complexity of Moldovan identity and character, and the less confident I feel in my own ability as an expat to truly understand it.   I cannot come up with a simple slogan.  I would attempt to answer with this long-winded summary:

Moldova is a country strongly rooted in agrarian life and Moldovans are great at preserving and celebrating their folk traditions.  They are very family-oriented and those who have moved to the city continue to make frequent visits to their extended families in the village.  Moldova’s older generation is strongly grounded in Orthodox Christian religion and has experienced a lot of hardship, both during the Soviet era and during the period of a collapsed economy immediately after independence, but they are strong and enduring, and they are still eager to celebrate the pleasures of a simple life.  Older Moldovans can appear quite reserved and closed to strangers, but they become very warm and hospitable once they have been introduced to you and especially after they have had a chance to learn to know you a bit.   Moldova is blessed with bright young people who are very capable, open, and forward-looking, but Moldova is still the poorest country in Europe, and better opportunities outside Moldova lure many of the young people away.  Moldovan society is also torn, divided between those who lean toward Western Europe with their Moldavian/Romanian identity, and those who lean toward Russia.  Throughout their history, Moldovans have resisted domination, and currently there is rising resistance to corruption, and to an oligarchical approach to governing which many  Moldovans feel is threatening their democracy.

With its abundant agricultural resources, it’s traditional villages and beautiful rolling countryside, with its vibrant wine-making industry and Winery Tours, (including Wine-and-Bike tours,) Moldova has great potential for agritourism….and it deserves a visit from you!

There you have it, 230 words, not a slogan…. and I’m not even done yet…. one last thing…

I have mentioned before that Moldovans have especially endeared themselves to me with their tremendous love of music.  In Chisinau and in the village, Moldovans learn to play instruments, participate in choirs, and make sure their children also have those opportunities.  Through both their folk traditions and their professional music schools they produce very accomplished musicians.

Yesterday afternoon we attended a concert focused on one such accomplished musician, at the outdoor amphitheater near our house, which was, as usual, packed with Moldovans of all ages.   Constantin Moscovici, the beloved Moldovan panpipe player, presented a program entitled, “Melodia Sufletului” or “Melody of the Soul.”  Sufletu in Romanian means “soul” while sufle means “blow,” so the program was fittingly named as it not only included the soulful and haunting music of the traditional shepherd’s panpipe, but also the music of many other wind instrumentalists whom Moscovici had invited from around the world to join him.  Along with Moscovici on the panpipes, we heard an Azerbaijani on the “balaban,” an Israeli Klezmer musician on clarinet, a Kazakhstani on a wooden flute the name of which I cannot remember, a Czech saxophonist, and an Italian tenor.  The Azerbaijani also “sang” in the deep-throated overtone chanting that is unique to that part of the world.  Even more amazing was Moscovici’s panpipe playing of klezmer music at breakneck tempo.

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And last but not least,  I love the fact that, despite the many reasons Moldovans might have for discouragement or cynicism, they do not scorn romantic, sentimental nostalgia and schmaltz.  At this concert, one of the warm-up bands played Frank Sinatra’s “Fly Me to the Moon.”  The audience, young and old, loved it.

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Enjoying  Moldova’s “Routes of Life”

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The newest Peace Corps volunteers demonstrate their dancing skills at their recent Swearing-In ceremony.

 

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Migration and the Danube Delta

“You’re not from around here are you?” The grocery clerk asked this casually of the man ahead of me in the checkout lane, as she carefully placed his eggs on top of the canned beans in his grocery bag.  I stifled an amused chuckle.  She was Vietnamese American and spoke with a heavy Vietnamese accent, but she had lived long enough in the mountains of North Carolina to recognize as foreign this stranger’s Bostonian accent.  Her question was innocent, not meant to exclude, just curious, and I delighted in the fact that her freedom to ask it signified her own comfort with the question.  She belonged here now, whether she was born here or not.

I have recalled that scene often over the past seven years, as I am often now the foreigner, someone asked by curious others where I am from.  I am clearly not from Moldova, where I currently live.  My face is too open, my smile too ready, my countenance too unguarded for my age.  I am patently American.  They know this before they ask, before I open my mouth to say in elementary Romanian, “Im pare rau; nu am înțeles.  Repetați, vă rog.”  (I’m sorry, I didn’t understand. Please repeat that.)

I recall the grocery clerk’s question again, as another clerk behind the counter of this tiny roadside Alimentare in rural southern Moldova eyes me curiously.  I have asked her, in my halting Romanian if she has any placinte fierbinte, the hot cheese-filled Moldovan pastries which I have come to love fresh from the oven.  No, she shakes her head, feeling no need to offer an explanation.  The sign in the window clearly advertises placinte fierbinte.  Perhaps she thinks I wouldn’t understand; and likely I wouldn’t.  I see the question in her eyes, she wonders where I am from­, but she is too reserved to ask.

I return to the car hungry and we drive on, past rolling fields of sunflowers and ripening wheat.  Bob and I are on our way to the Danube Delta, that vast marsh land just across the border in Romania, where the Danube River meets the Black Sea.  We hope to do some birdwatching.  It is mid-June, too late in the year to see any of the bird species that migrate through in the early spring on their way to destinations further north, but not too late to see those who claim the Delta as their breeding grounds.

I feel a certain kinship with migrating birds.  Like them, I have two homes.  I migrate seasonally.  Even as I am constantly conscious that I am a foreigner in Moldova, I have come to view our home in Chisinau as a home away from home.  And like the migrating birds, I straddle two worlds, but perhaps less adeptly than they do.  In one world, I am greeted warmly by name; I am known as a community pediatrician, a professional; I am competent, loved.  In the other world, I am a stranger, a bumbling pre-schooler, barely able to speak, making my needs known with the vocabulary of a two-year old.

Migration is on my mind; birds, humans, we are all on the move, either by choice or for survival.  I am a “foreigner,” living abroad, only because I chose to retire and accompany my husband to his post overseas.  But so many others are dislocated not by choice, but by desperate circumstances.  As I write this, the European Union is struggling with how to respond to thousands of African and Middle Eastern immigrants, refugees who have fled situations so hopeless that they were willing to brave a dangerous boat ride across the Mediterranean in hopes of safe refuge.

Here in Moldova, where jobs are scarce and pay very low, the migration problem is emigration.  More than 20% of the country’s citizens now live outside Moldova.  Approximately 20,000 Moldovan children have neither parent living at home, as both parents are working abroad.  They have been left in the care of grandparents or, far too often in the case of teenagers, left on their own, in touch with their parents only by cell phone.  Most of the young Moldovans I meet aspire to leave their country.

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We have been driving for two and a half hours when we cross the border into Romania at Oancea, just west of Cahul.  From there we head south to Galați, where we board a car ferry to cross the Danube River.  As it approaches the Black Sea, the Danube splits into two branches, the Kilia which runs north through Ukraine, and the Romanian Tulcea, which further splits into the Sulina and the Sfantul Gheorghe.  After the short ferry crossing, it is this Sfantul Gheorghe branch that we follow, another three and a half hours south and east by car, through the town of Tulcea where fields of wheat give way to stands of reeds.  At Murighiol the road ends and we park our car in a guarded riverside lot.  From here we will travel by boat.

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The Danube Delta is a low alluvial plain made up of reed marshes, swamps, channels, streamlets, lakes, forested levees and barrier beaches. It has an approximate surface area of 4,152 km2 making it the second largest delta in Europe after the Volga River Delta.  If one includes the Razim–Sinoe lagoon complex, just south of the main delta but ecologically related to the delta proper, this brings the total area of the Danube Delta to 5,165 km2, which is about the size of the state of Delaware. This combined territory is included on the list of “Wetlands of International Importance,” under the 1971 Ramsar Convention.  It has been listed as a World Heritage Site since 1991, and a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve since 1998.

Although it is considered the best preserved of Europe’s deltas, the Danube Delta has, and continues to be, greatly affected by human activity.  Much of the alluvium deposited in the delta has come from soil erosion that resulted from the clearing of forests in the Danube basin during the past 2000 years, and at the mouth of each of its three channels, new land continues to form. Twenty percent of this vast wetland lies below sea level, and more than half of it is flooded in spring and autumn.

It is the reed marsh however, that make the Danube Delta so important.  Reed beds cover almost one third of this delta, 156,000 hectares of its surface area, making it one of the largest expanses of reed beds in the world.   Because this vast reed bed provides the right conditions for nesting and hatching, and because it is situated on major migratory routes, the Danube Delta attracts birds from six major eco-regions of the world.  Whooper swans, plovers, arctic grebes, and cranes fly in from Siberia; saker falcons come from Mongolia; mute swans and mandarin ducks come from China.  Large populations of Great White Pelicans, tufted duck, red-crested pochard, graylag goose, pygmy cormorant, purple heron, grey heron, great white egret, little egret, Eurasian spoonbill, glossy ibis, and pheasant are found in the Delta.  Golden eagles, white-tailed eagles, osprey, avocets, stilts, shelducks, and various Afro-European song-birds also visit.  According to the UNESCO World Heritage Center, over one million individual birds winter in the Danube Delta, and over 320 species can be found in the delta during summer, of which 166 are hatching species and 159 are migratory.

At the dock on the outskirts of Murighiol, where the boat from Green Village will pick us up, we find fellow travelers waiting under the awning of a dockside bar:  Romanian couples and families with children, a rowdy group of college students speaking Spanish, and another group of English speaking siblings assembled from their respective homes in Paris, Tel Aviv, and San Francisco.  When the motor boat arrives, a twenty-seater with a canvas roof and a hold for the baggage, the captain checks off our names on his list of reservations.  His assistant loads our bags and we climb aboard for an hour’s ride.

The Sfantul Gheorghe is wide here, maybe 200 meters across, but it soon branches into narrower interlacing channels that snake their way through the thick reed beds. The firm land of the delta was once covered with large groves of willow trees which have since been cut down almost entirely and replaced with white poplars, but on a few river banks we see the small groves of willows that still remain.  Mixed stands of oak, ash, elm and aspen also grow on the levees between sand dunes.   We pass smaller boats moored along the banks under sheltering tree branches, each with a lone fisherman who observes us solemnly.  An occasional grey heron glides low across the river in front of us.

As we near the far end of the river Sfantu Gheorghe, the low-lying rooftops of the village of Sfantu Gheorghe come into view along the left bank.  Here the river widens again, and ahead we can see the flux created by the brown water of the freshwater Danube mixing with the deep blue saltwater of the Black Sea.

At the boat dock in the village of Sfantu Gheorghe, we disembark and are greeted by several Green Village staff.  Our bags are loaded onto a cart, and we follow on foot along a raised dike.  To our right, ramshackle wooden piers teeter through the reed beds into the river, and to our left, tin and thatch rooftops can be glimpsed through the trees.  We descend the left bank of the dike and pass a fenced muddy farmyard, complete with the aroma of fresh cow manure, as we approach the walled enclosure of Green Village.

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Our first agenda upon our arrival, is to line up a small boat for an early morning excursion through the small channels and streamlets, to the lakes where breeding birds can be seen.  Bigger boats with groups of tourists will be going out later in the morning and we want to get out on the water before they bring the noise of their gregarious conversations.   A helpful young man at the front desk calls up a boat owner who warns us that the only boat he has available at an early hour will not have a roof over it.  No rain is forecast and we tell him that’s fine, all the better to enter the smallest channels under low growing tree branches.

Our cabin at Green Village is a wooden duplex with a thatched roof and a porch, shaded by a mimosa tree, which overlooks a shallow channel, covered with lily pads. It is 5:30 by the time we have settled in and the low slanting late afternoon sun is perfect for photography, so we head out for an exploratory walk.

We stroll down the dike toward the Black Sea, and meet a line of cattle ambling toward us, returning from wherever it is they have been grazing all day.  A dirt road leads us to their pasture, which is interlaced with reed-lined streams, and there we find one cow still knee deep in mud, munching on crisp young reeds.

Does this grazing not cause erosion, contamination of the water, damage to fish; does it not jeopardize the wetland in some way, I wonder?   Later I search the Ramsar Convention online documents and find nothing specifically addressing the grazing of livestock in designated Ramsar sites.  But an ecologist who responds to my email inquires, addresses my questions.  According to Grigore Baboianu, who used to work for the Danube Delta Biosphere Reserve Authority (DDBRA) and is now a consulting ecology expert for the NGO, “The Association of Ecological and Social Consultancy,” both the Ramsar Convention and the DDBRA’s Management Plan, include the protection of traditional economic activities of local communities around the protected deltas.  Cattle grazing is allowed in dedicated grazing areas near the main settlements (about 25,000 hectares in total, less than 5% of the total area of the DD.) These areas are managed by local authorities who are responsible for making sure that the rules established by the Danube Delta Biosphere Authority to protect the carrying capacity of the grasslands and ensure sustainability of the wider ecology, are respected. In addition to the use of these dedicated grazing areas, the local people have the right to harvest the grass of the natural grassland by mowing, including the early spring vegetation of the reed beds, for feeding their domestic animals. Authorization for that harvest must be obtained from the Danube Delta Biosphere Reserve Authority.

A stroll through the pasture leads us to a break in the low dunes and out onto a sandy beach along the Black Sea.  Far to the north, hundreds of kilometers to our left as we face this shoreline, lies Odessa; and twice as far to the south, to our right and across the mouth of the Danube, lies Istanbul.  We walk toward Istanbul.

Close to the lapping waves the sand is covered in the dull black shells of Mediterranean mussels (Mytilus galloprovinicalis).  Flipped over they reveal their luminescent mother-of-pearl interiors.  I have read that mussels are susceptible to a type of leukemia, disseminated neoplasia, and that this Black Sea species was thought to be resistant, until one case was found among a sample of 200 on this shore.  Diseases too, inevitably migrate.

We turn and head back.  A few families are still out on the beach and are just now pulling down their kites and gathering up their paraphernalia to head back to the resort for supper.  We join them later on the upper deck of The Waterlily restaurant overlooking the river. My supper is a plate of baked peppers stuffed with pike, mamaliga (polenta), and perfectly sautéed spinach with garlic and cream.   From our perch on the deck we watch as the green reeds on the east side of the river take on an amber glow in the light of the setting sun behind us, and then the river gradually disappears into the dusk, and we head to our cabin for the night.

In the morning after an early breakfast at The Waterlily’s generous buffet, we walk out to the dock and meet our boat driver.  He speaks no English and our Romanian is very limited, but the telephoto lens on my camera and the binoculars hanging around both our necks tell him what he needs to know.

He quietly guides the boat on low speed through the smaller channels, drawing us near to black crowned night herons and bitterns crouched at the bases of reeds, cormorants perched on driftwood, perfectly still grey herons stalking among the reeds, a pair of mute swans with two cygnets, and a solitary great crested grebe.

In one of the secluded lakes we find a colony of Great White Pelicans.  Every March, thousands of these pelicans leave the Nile Delta and the Red Sea, migrating to the Danube Delta to nest and raise their brood.  Come October, they will depart, arriving back in Africa by late November.  The 3,500 pairs who spend their summers in the Danube Delta’s remote lakes make up Europe’s largest breeding population of this species, Pelecanus onocrotalus.  This is not the same species as the American white pelican, (Pelicanus erythrorhynchos,) but it is the same species that Bob and I saw in the lakes of the Rift valley when we lived in Ethiopia.

They are feeding this morning and we watch from a few meters away as they demonstrate their communal strategy, herding the fish into the center of a circle and then all at once, as if on cue, diving, tipping their hind ends up, tails into the air, around the circle like synchronized swimmers.  When their heads emerge again, their beaks are brimming with fish.  Black terns swoop overhead in hopes of getting a share in this bounty.

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As more pelicans arrive for the morning feast, they glide through the air in front of us and we get a close-up view of their wide wingspans.  This species’ wingspan can measure up to 360 cm, giving it the second widest wingspan among flying birds, after the great albatross.

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When we return from our morning of birding by boat, the sun has risen high in the sky and it is getting hot.  After lunch and a brief siesta, we head out again on foot, walking back through the pasture to the Black Sea, and then south again along the shore toward the river.  A woman from Bucharest, and her son who is home from his university studies in Denmark, are picking up trash on the beach and we stop to thank them for their efforts.  We gape as she stoops down and scoops up a handful of sea water and puts it to her lips, sipping it up.  “Sarat,” she says, (“salty”) and then she points down the beach to where the muddy brown river water of the Sfantu Gheorghe pours into the deep blue water of the Black sea. “Taste it down there. It’s sweet.”  We laugh and tell her, “No need; we believe you!”

We round a corner to reach the sandy bank of the river’s edge, and come upon a Hoopoe pecking in the sand with his long beak.  The brown crested head and black and white striped back make him immediately recognizable, a familiar bird that we learned to know in Ethiopia.  A Graylag Goose is leisurely paddling around a little lagoon protected by a sand bar covered in reeds.  As we rest there on the sandy shore of the little lagoon, we hear a Cuckoo call, and turn to see him perched behind us, atop a small tree.  Behind him, on a wild rose shrub, we spot a European Roller, its turquoise head brilliant in the afternoon sun.

We scramble through the scrub brush trying to find a trail to loop back along the river’s edge to Green Village, but find none and have to turn back to retrace our steps up the beach.  The sun is falling low behind the dunes when we pass through them and out onto the path that leads back to the village through the pasture.  Black-winged Stilts and Glossy Ibises are still feeding, wading along with the egrets among the reeds in the shallow water of the creeks running through the pasture.

In the evening, we tally the birds we have identified during this trip.  Our list contains forty-one species.  We must depart in the morning, but we hope to return in the fall, when the migrating species that have spent the summer in their more northerly breeding grounds, will be passing through again on their way south, back to Africa.

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The next morning, we board the boat for the trip back up the river, find our car in the parking lot, and head north, crossing the Danube by ferry again at Galați.  At the Romanian Moldovan border, we wait in line with a few other cars until our car is waved into a separate lane for those with diplomatic corps license plates.  A quick check of our passports and our vehicle’s documents allows us to cross, while the other vehicles are searched.   Our passage is privileged.  I think of the Central Americans families waiting in line on foot at the southern border to the US.  What they would give for such a passage. They who have fled the violence of gangs, arrive at the US border to find a shockingly cruel reception: their children taken away from them.  I have written everyone I can think of to protest this inhumane policy.

The border patrol who checked our passports, surprises us by  wishing us a good day in English, as we drive past him and on into Moldova.  I recall, by contrast, the agitated voice of an angry American I heard on a live stream radio broadcast, “They come here and they don’t even speak English!”  I spoke Spanish with the immigrant mothers in my pediatric practice back in North Carolina, women from Mexico and Central America.  They were wonderful mothers: gentle, patient, devoted, sacrificial.  They worked in the fields by day, picking tomatoes, peppers and apples, and attended English classes in the evenings.  Any of them could have asked the price of a bag of rice in English, but trying to communicate in a foreign language when you are worried about your child who is running a high fever, or when you are lying on a hospital gurney about to give birth, is another matter. Anyone who says “those immigrants should learn our language,” should themselves, I think, have to spend some extended time abroad, attempting to function with a new language.   Romanian is my third foreign language, after Spanish and Amharic, and learning it has not been as easy as I expected at age 63, nor have I given it the full effort that I should.  But Moldovans forgive me for not being very proficient with Romanian. They praise me, like a good two-year-old, for being able to saying “Buna diminuata,” (good morning).

In a Moldovan village just north of Cahul, we spot a stork’s nest and watch a mother stork feeding her brood, the upturned beaks reaching above the rim of the stick nest, open, insistent.  Having a stork nest in your village brings good luck, so the locals say.  They welcome these summer residents, building nesting platforms atop electric poles to attract them.  The stork mothers have it easy, I think.  Their flight may be long, but they move freely over one planet.  They have no borders to cross.  No one checks their passport for a visa.  No one questions their instinct to survive, to feed their children.

We drive north toward Chisinau.  A woman wearing an apron and a bandana stands by the side of the road, and next to her, a crate of peaches.  We pull over and I ask her where the peaches are from.  They are from her own orchard she says, and I try one.  They are juicy, sweet, bursting with flavor.   I buy a bagful and I see her studying me, gathering her courage to be so bold as to ask.  I know what’s coming and I smile, inviting the familiar question.   It causes me no problem, privileged foreigner that I am, but I think of the millions of others, in far different circumstances, for whom the coming question would invoke a reflex of fear:  “Nu sunteți de aich, nu-i așa?”  “You’re not from around here, are you?”

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Our Bird List from The Danube Delta:  41 species

White Pelican, Grey Heron, Black Crowned Night Heron, Cormorant, Great Egret,  Little Egret, Mute Swan, Glossy Ibis, Black-winged Stilt, Eurasian Coot, Moorhen, Bittern, Little Bittern, Black Headed Gull, Common Gull, Common Tern, Black Tern, Great Crested Grebe, Pied Billed Grebe, Mallard, Greylag Goose, White Stork, Great Reed Warbler, Black Kite, Marsh Harrier, Cuckoo, Greater Grey Shrike, Red-backed Shrike, Skylark, Pied Wagtail, European Roller, BeeEater, Hoopoe, Barn Swallow, Collared Dove, Pheasant, Magpie, House sparrow, Hooded Crow, Raven, Common Starling

Lavender, Cherries, Linden, and Cuckoos: June in Moldova

It’s June in Moldova and the markets are full of cherries, both sour and sweet.  Tree boughs, laden with cherries, reach over the walls of many a private backyard, spilling their bounty onto the sidewalks here in the city as well as in the village.  I would know that it’s June, even without the cherries, even with my eyes closed, because everywhere I walk along the streets of old Chișinau, I breathe in the sweet fragrance of Linden tree blossoms.  (Tilia x europaea,  known in Moldova as the “Tei” tree. )

Our neighbor’s sweet cherries; and the pendant blossoms of the Linden

In the countryside, the lavender fields are in bloom, drawing Chișinau residents out for photo opportunities.

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We happened upon these lavender fields by serendipity, as we were driving back to Chișinau from a Sunday morning birding trip at the Dneister River.  A bridge was out, and as we were bouncing along the rough dirt road of our detour, another car stopped us and asked where they might find the Lavender Festival.  A quick check online and on Google Maps led us to fields near the village of Cobusca Noua, just two kilometers from where we happened to be.

But the birding trip is the real subject of this post.  Bob and I had been looking unsuccessfully, since our arrival two years ago, for fellow English-speaking amateur “birders,” who, as it turns out, are rather rare birds themselves here in Moldova.   So we were delighted when we finally found Jonathon Hecke, a Swiss citizen who has been living and working in Moldova for the past seven years as Coordinator for the Swiss Water and Sanitation Project of Moldova.  Jonathon grew up in Chile and has worked all over the world, but only became an avid birder upon his arrival here in Moldova.   He graciously allowed us to tag along this past weekend while he did an official count of bird species in a particular tract of land that lies within an oxbow curve of the Dneister River near the village of Speia.  As a member of The Society for the Protection of Birds and Nature in Moldova, Jonathon is helping with the collection of data which will be used in a Moldovan section of a forthcoming European Atlas of Breeding Birds.

I was hoping to spot a Common Cuckoo on this birding trip.  I had cuckoos on my mind because throughout late May and early June, since my return to Chișinau, I have been hearing the call of the male cuckoo, that two toned “coo-coo” which cuckoo clocks are made to imitate.  The bird I have been hearing here is the Cuculus canorus, not the same species as the Coccyzus americanus, which is the Yellow-billed Cuckoo, an elusive species which I have seen only once at my home in the mountains of North Carolina.

I had hoped to title this blogpost, “Searching East, Searching West, Tracking the Elusive Cuckoo’s Nest,” with an allusion to the children’s poem from which the  “east, west and Cuckoo’s nest” rhyme is drawn.

“Tingle, Tingle, Tangle Toes
She’s a good fisherman,
Catches hens, puts ’em in pens.
Wier blier, limber lock,
Three geese inna flock,
One flew east, One flew west,
One flew over the cuckoo’s nest.
O-U-T spells out…
Goose swoops down and plucks you out.”

So goes the nursery rhyme.  The ironic thing about it, is that the cuckoo does not actually have a nest to fly over.  She is a “brood parasite,” meaning that she lays her eggs in other birds’ nests.  When her eggs hatch, the other bird parents are tricked into feeding her young.   You can witness the amazing survival behavior of the less-than-innocent imposter chick, in this clip from the movie  “RHYTHMS OF NATURE IN THE BARYCZ VALLEY,”  which was filmed in Poland by Artur Homan:   https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SO1WccH2_YM .   In the stands of reeds along Lake Morilor, we have an abundance of the Reed Warbler, one of the species the cuckoo commonly parasitizes, (featured in the clip above) thus the presence of the male cuckoos in the woods surrounding Lake Morilor.

The Cuculus canorus winters in Africa but is a summer migrant here in Europe and Asia, where it’s “coo coo” call announces the arrival of summer, as celebrated by many references in poetry and song.   The 13th century poem “Sumer is Icumen In,”  translated from the Wessex dialect of Middle English goes something like:

“Summer has arrived,
Sing loudly, cuckoo!
The seed is growing
And the meadow is blooming,
And the wood is coming into leaf now,
Sing, cuckoo….”

Bob and I heard the cuckoo call in northern Italy as well, while we were there in late May for some hiking in the Italian Alps of Grand Paradiso Park.

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Not Moldova  🙂

So I had been wanting to actually see a Common Cuckoo for some time before we set out on this birding outing this past Sunday morning.  Our walk took us through a forest of cottonwoods, lindens, and white poplars, and along the bank of the river…

(…and when we lost the trail, through a tangle of tall grasses, where I must have picked up the tick which I later discovered had hitched a ride home with me, but I will spare you a photo of that.)

It was already noon when we headed back toward Chișinau, but despite the late hour, we stopped at several ponds in the countryside, to see if any wading birds might still be out and about.  It was at one of these reed-bordered ponds, that we saw the Cuckoo.  It streaked out of a tree in front of us, and disappeared quickly into the woodland on the other side of the pond, giving us a long enough look to discern that it was in fact a cuckoo and not a sparrowhawk, but not long enough, or not close enough, to capture it on camera.  So, alas, I did not get the photo of a cuckoo that might have accompanied a catchier title for this post, (the bird in the top photo in the lavender field is a crested lark,) but you can see photos and hear a recording of the call of the Cuculus canorus in a Wikipedia article on the Common Cuckoo at:  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Common_cuckoo .

Back in Chișinau we are taking pleasure in the gifts of June, eating lots of cherries,  enjoying the lavender blooming in our own garden, and drinking tea made from the flower of the Linden or “Tei” tree.

For those of you who are interested, here is a list of the birds we saw this past Sunday morning:  Crested Lark (pictured in the feature photo), Jackdaw, Red-backed Shrike, Black Kite, Corn Bunting, European Goldfinch, Linnet, European Bee-Eater, Chaffinch, Blue Tit, Great Tit, Hoopoe, Whitethroat, Barn swallow, Sand Martin, House Martin, Black Crowned Heron, Little Bittern, Great Egret, Grey Heron, Common Kingfisher, White Stork, Black-headed Gull, Pied Wagtail, Moorhen, Mallard, Sparrowhawk, Common Cuckoo, Rook, Raven, Hooded Crow, Magpie, Collared Dove, Tree Sparrow and last but not least, the House Sparrow.

International Women’s Day in Moldova

Here in Moldova, where International Women’s Day is an officially recognized holiday, custom holds that men give flowers to women on this day, most especially to mothers and grandmothers, as well as to female friends and co-workers.  So, over the past week, in the days leading up to March 8th, the most visible evidence I saw related to IWD were the flower booths which sprang up along the main boulevards of Chisinau in and among the booths selling Martisor ornaments. The usual flower storefronts also spilled out onto the sidewalks all over the city.   Primroses, hyacinths and tulips appeared to be favorites.

 

Flowers for “Bunica” (Grandma) and for a girlfriend.

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And sprigs of mimosa.  Bob and I saw these same mimosa blossoms being given to women in Puglia, Italy when we were there three years ago on March 8th.  It was in fact, an Italian Communist female politician in 1936, who chose the yellow mimosa as the symbol of IWD in Italy, because they were readily available and not costly like other flowers.  That choice spread to other Communist countries, many of which, like Moldova, are now the post-communist countries of the old Soviet block.  The appearance of this flower on the streets of Chisinau therefore, served to remind me that IWD has its roots in the feminism of early socialist and communist movements.

The first National Women’s Day was organized by the Socialist Party of America in New York on February 28, 1909, and the first proposal for an International Women’s Day, –as a way of building world-wide support for women’s rights and for universal suffrage, came the next year, 1910, at an international meeting of socialist women in Copenhagen.   International Women’s Day was observed for the first time on March 19, 1911, in Austria, Denmark, Germany and Switzerland, where more than one million women and men attended rallies, demanding the right of women to vote and to hold public office, to receive vocational training and to work without discrimination on the job.

According to information from a UN website and a concise Wikipedia article, the earliest observances of International Women’s Day in Russia were closely tied to the granting of women’s suffrage, and to the Russian Revolution itself.  Russian women protested WWI in 1913, by observing their first International Women’s Day on the last Sunday in February.  The following year on March 8, all around Europe, women held rallies to protest the war and to express solidarity with other women’s rights activists.  Four years later, on March 8, 1917, in Petrograd, the capital of the Russian Empire, a demonstration that was initiated by women textile workers became the catalyst that set the revolution on fire.  The women went on strike that day for “Bread and Peace,” demanding the end of World War I, the end to Russian food shortages, and the end of czarism.  Leon Trotsky wrote, “23 February (8th March on the Gregorian calendar) was International Woman’s Day and meetings and actions were foreseen… but we did not imagine that this ‘Women’s Day’ would inaugurate the revolution. …In the morning, despite orders to the contrary, textile workers left their work in several factories and sent delegates to ask for support of the strike… which led to mass strike… all went out into the streets.”  Seven days later, Nicholas II abdicated and the provisional government granted women the right to vote.  Following the October Revolution, IWD on March 8th became an official holiday in the Soviet Union.

In its early years, IWD was predominantly celebrated in communist countries and by socialist and communist movements worldwide, but the United Nations began celebrating International Women’s Day in 1975, and in 1977, the UN General Assembly invited member states to proclaim March 8 as the UN Day for Women’s Rights and World Peace.

 There are now twenty-six countries around the world which, like Moldova, recognize IWD as an official holiday.  Among these are Uganda, Zambia, Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia, Mongolia and Nepal, and the majority of countries in the region of the world from which I now write,  including Ukraine, Russia, Belarus, Georgia, Armenia, and all the “stans,” – Kyrgystan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan.

Ironically, despite the political nature of IWD’s roots, the popular expression of this holiday in Moldova has now evolved into a kind of Hallmark-like commercially oriented observance, (just as has Mother’s Day in the US, the origins of which trace back to the peace movement.)  Many Moldovans tell me they now think of their IWD as a sort of hybrid between our Mother’s Day and Valentine’s Day.  In addition to giving flowers to their mothers and lovers, they may cook breakfast or supper for them that day.

I also hear from friends who are old enough to have grown up during the years of the old “Moldavian Soviet Republic,” that this lighthearted take on the holiday is nothing new since the advent of Moldova’s opening to the West, but was already in evidence during the Soviet era, when the holiday had become an occasion for much teasing between the sexes.  Despite its noble beginnings, the holiday had largely come to be understood by this last generation of Soviet citizens, as a celebration created for the purpose of balancing the holiday called “Defender of the Fatherland” for men and veterans on February 23rd.  That holiday was celebrated with parades and processions in honor of veterans; women gave gifts to men, especially husbands or boyfriends, fathers, sons and brothers, and as part of workplace culture, women also gave small gifts to their male co-workers. Consequently, in colloquial usage, that holiday was referred to as “Men’s Day.”  IWD’s became its balancing counterpart, and women were teased with the warning that the gifts they would receive on IWD would be in proportion to what they gave on “Men’s Day.”

In many countries today, IWD may not be an official holiday, but it is still observed as an opportunity to advocate for further actions needed to achieve gender equality for girls and women, and to highlight the achievements of women in every field.   This past week on IWD 2018, women in Spain, who are paid 13 percent less than men in the public sector and 19 percent less in the private sector, organized a country wide “domestic strike.” In France, where the gender pay gap is 25 percent, according to the newspaper, Libération, the March 8th’s edition of that paper was sold at a reduced price for women: 2 euros for women and €2.50 for men.  (In the USA, the gender pay gap is currently 20% by comparison.) In India, students and teachers marched toward Parliament, demanding action against domestic violence, sexual attacks and discrimination in jobs and wages.  Hundreds also marched in Kabul, Afghanistan, calling for actions to give Afghan woman more voice, ensure their education, and protect them from the violence of an oppressive patriarchic system.  More than 500 women’s rights activists gathered in Seoul, handing out white roses as a symbol of support for the #MeToo movement, and holding signs that said, “Stop at 3 p.m.” The wage gap between men and women was so wide in South Korea, they said, that women should stop working at 3pm in order to break even.  The Korean Women’s Associations United called for reform in the country’s “patriarchal social structure that breeds gender discrimination.”  “We see a revolution afoot,” it said. “And the leader of this revolution is women.”

Here in Chisinau there was an IWD march as well.  A number of nongovernmental human rights organizations staged the event, in order to promote gender equality, to demand that the rights of women be respected by state institutions, and to sensitize society to the problems faced by women in the Republic of Moldova, such as violence against women.   The following link connects to news coverage of Chisinau’s march:

http://www.moldova.org/en/march-8-womens-march-solidarity/

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(photo of Chisinau march taken from an article by Arina Livadari in Moldova.org)

The march was just one part of a “Festival of Women’s Solidarity,” organized by the Gender Equality Platform and Gender Doc-M in Chisinau between March 6-8.  The Festival included an open public forum to promote solidarity between women of varying circumstances and to urge women to fight against stereotypes.   An invitation to the event read:  “In 2017, women filled the Moldovan media space, being the protagonists of two types of content: either perfection and beauty to the superlative, or the victim of domestic violence, rape, and inhuman attitudes in some maternity wards. Otherwise, women’s lives remain in the shadows. In order to change this, we set out to organize the “Solidarity between Women” forum,  a night of discussion where women from different groups will tell about the challenges they face day by day. The purpose of this event is to bring the woman and the problems she faces into the center of Moldova’s social and political agenda. We invite you to participate in this event to listen to the stories of active women, to create new partnerships and to discuss what and how we can change to improve the lives of women in the Republic of Moldova.  Solidarity between women does not have a social status, skin color, religion or party. … Solidarity between women means being here for those who, day by day, strive for a better life, for equal opportunities, for decent conditions of childbirth, for the right to express their opinion, for the opportunity to educate their children in a state in which the respect for diversity and freedom of expression exists not only on paper, for the right to privacy and sexual identity, for the right to conscious and deliberate choices that go beyond the limitations of family or society.”

Women representing different social groups took part in the forum, sharing their experiences on: “being a woman with disabilities who has moved into business;” “age discrimination in our society and how invisible it is;” “lesbian experience in a society where tolerance is not yet a value;” “what it means to be a Roma woman and face the prejudices of origin;” and “what it is like to be the working mother of a young child;” A municipal councilor also talked about what it is like to be a woman of public authority.  Others gave motivational speeches about “how to insist on the use of feminine form in the names of professions, the importance of this approach, and how women themselves react to it;” and about “how to get out of the vicious circle of family violence and how important is other women’s solidarity towards the victims of violence.”

The UN’s most recent “Moldova Country Team Gender Scorecard” includes the following summary about the current status of gender equality in Moldova: “While the policy foundation for gender equality laid out by the Government of Moldova is laudable, patriarchal norms have proven resistant to change, and policies and laws aimed at enabling gender equality have not been sufficiently backed by resources required for full realization. Women have an unequal status in health, education, economy, and representation in public life and decision‐ making. Patriarchal attitudes are also the root cause of violence against women…”

A great new resource for statistical indicators about gender issues, called “Gender Pulse, was launched about a year ago through a partnership between the UN Development Program and the National Bureau of Statistics.  According to this site, and the CIA Fact Sheet on Moldova, women’s literacy is 99% in Moldova, and more women than men get a tertiary education.  The Gender Pay Gap in Moldova is 10.7%, (better than in the US.) But while approximately half of the population is female, only 25% of government ministers are women and only 21% of the members of Parliament are women.

The office of UNDP Moldova also reports that approximately two out of three adult women in Moldova have experienced at least one form of domestic violence at some point throughout their lives.  A UNDP Resident Representative in Moldova, noted: “For many years, the United Nations Organization in Moldova, in partnership with the Moldovan authorities, civil society and development partners, have been working hard to raise public awareness, break the silence and break this vicious circle of violence against women and girls. We remain firmly committed to continuing the same course in the years to come.”

The loss of IWD’s original focus in the popular mind here in Moldova, does seem not only a bit ironic, but definitely lamentable as well.   In ESL class this week, I presented a brief bio of an American woman whom I admire, Eleanor Roosevelt, and we re-read together Malala Yousafzai’s 2014 acceptance speech for the Nobel Peace Prize.  When I asked my students about the achievements of historical or contemporary Moldovan women who were being remembered and honored this year on International Women’s Day, they mostly come up with a blank.  “We don’t know about the historical achievements of Moldovan women,” they told me.  “They are not included in our curriculum in school.”  Today they learn about women deemed newsworthy from the internet, which is heavily weighted with a focus on entertainment celebrities.  Among the international women admired by one group of students were: Angelina Jolie, Princess Diana, Oprah Winfrey, and one politician, Margaret Thatcher, “the Iron Lady.”  They did come up with one celebrated Moldovan woman with whom they were all familiar: Doina Aldea-Teodorovici, (1958-1992) a Moldovan composer and singer who, along with her husband Ion, were known for their patriotic songs celebrating Moldova and its historical Romanian identification.

At the IWD march in Chisinau this week, one of the messages displayed on the banners and chanted by the participants was “We do not want flowers, we want equal rights.”  I sympathize with that sentiment; I fully support the goal of gender equality and I recognize that it is going to require a lot of serious cultural reform.  And I like flowers.  I do not wish to pit one against the other.  I would like to have both.  I think it wonderful to give your mother and grandmother flowers on IWD, to go to their homes and visit them if you no longer live with them, and to cook for them if they normally do all the cooking.  I’m all for these expressions of love and affection, and I love receiving flowers.

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(The rose given to me at a Filarmonic concert in Chisinau this Friday.  Roses were handed to each woman at the entrance in honor of International Women’s Day.)

But I will also make it a goal to learn what I can,  over the coming year, of the achievements of notable Moldovan women.  While past eras of patriarchy in this region, as in every region of the world, have no doubt repressed multitudes of women who never had the opportunity to develop their potential, I am sure there must be many contemporary and historical women of whom Moldovans should be proud, who have in fact contributed to Moldova’s progress toward a more humane society via the arts, sciences, education, and politics, but who have been buried in a patriarchal interpretation of history.  I hope to share some of what I learn in this blog.

A Cold Mărțișor

Like much of the rest of Europe, Moldova was plunged into a deep chill this past week.  It was minus 12 degrees Celsius in Chisinau on Wednesday, March 1, and the woodland park outside my window was covered in snow.  You would never have known by looking outside, but this was the first day of spring here in Moldova, whether the weather wanted to cooperate or not.  (Moldovans celebrate March 1, not the Equinox date of March 22, as their first day of spring. Scroll back to my blog post from last March and read about the Mărțișor holiday if you did not read it last year.)  This year, despite the frigid temperatures, the sidewalk of the main boulevard in Chisinau was once again lined with small booths where people were selling their handmade Mărțișor ornaments.

On Wednesday morning, the Romanian language TV News anchors were showing off their own handmade Mărțișor creations, and a reporter visited a school where children proudly displayed the ornaments they had made.

In December of last year UNESCO added the Mărțișor, as it is celebrated in Romania, Moldova, Bulgaria, and Macedonia, to its “Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity list, where it can be found under the name “Cultural Practices Associated with the 1st of March.”

See: https://ich.unesco.org/en/RL/cultural-practices-associated-to-the-1st-of-march-01287

The UNESCO Committee for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage noted that,   “All members of the communities concerned participate, irrespective of their age, and the practice contributes to social cohesion, intergenerational exchange and interaction with nature, fostering diversity and creativity. Informal education is the most frequent means of transmission: in rural areas, young girls are taught how to make the thread by older women, while in urban areas apprentices learn from teachers, craftspeople and through informal education. Another occasion for transmission is provided by Martenitsa/Martinka/Mărţişor workshops organized by ethnographic museums.”

Moldovans in Chisinau may consider March the month when spring weather is supposed to arrive, if the climate is behaving properly, but this year according to the forecast, February’s cold snowy weather pattern is going to continue a few weeks into March.  Moldovans don’t speak of March coming in like a lion and departing like a lamb, however a friend did tell me yesterday that February is going to say good bye not like a Brit, –who leaves suddenly without saying goodbye, but like a Russian, –who says good bye but never leaves, or says good-bye over and over and then sits down to visit one last time over one last vodka before he really departs.

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This is not how March in Chisinau is supposed to look.

Bob and I have been faithfully strapping on our yak tracks and taking our walking poles with us every time we go out, and yet, as if the snow and ice on the sidewalks have not been treacherous enough throughout February, we, not feeling we were living dangerously enough, and inspired by the Olympics, signed up for the Embassy community’s ice skating party at Bravo Rink this past Saturday.  I love to skate and was looking forward to getting in a good of hour of it, but after only a few rounds I made the mistake of trying to help a little girl who had fallen and would have managed quite well on her own I’m sure.  My skates slid out from under me, and I fell back onto my tailbone and smacked the back of my head on the ice.  I escaped, luckily, with only a sore tailbone, a little whiplash, and a sprained right wrist, and as I am now obviously able to type, life goes on.

For a couple of days though, unable to button a button or zip up a zipper, without the use of my two hands in tandem, I was looking at this amazing appendage with renewed awe and appreciation.  The things they can do, two hands in tandem, with all their fingers and thumbs intact!  The things you cannot do without your dominant hand!  …eat with a spoon, cut with a knife, spread butter, chop an onion, brush your teeth, cut with a scissors, jot down a legible grocery list, snap a photo on your cell phone …they are legion…  What a marvelous mechanical wonder is the hand, and yet how clumsy my left one was trying to pinch hit for my right!  If you are someone so lucky as to never have injured a dominant wrist or hand, try brushing your teeth or chopping an onion with your non-dominant hand.

By the way, my visit to Medpark to have my wrist x-rayed, was my first encounter with a medical practice here in Moldova outside our Embassy clinic, (other than the dentist and an acupuncturist.)  Medpark is a private hospital and clinic to which our Embassy Health Unit refers us for any medical needs which they themselves cannot provide, and I was in their emergency room on a Saturday evening, accompanied by our kindly Embassy doctor, Dr. Andre.  Everyone was very helpful and considerate.  There was only one other patient in the ER at the time, and both of us were being attended to promptly.  The facilities were clean and quiet and well equipped, and all appeared to be working efficiently.  In addition to incurring the services of the radiology technician and the radiologist, I was examined by a trauma surgeon who happened to be there.  My visit and digital x-ray cost a total of about $20.  (This may not be remarkable to those of you readers who live in Europe, but my American readers will be reading this and shaking their heads, as the same visit in the U.S. likely would have cost something closer to $1000.)

Despite my splinted wrist and still smarting tailbone, I showed up to lead yoga class as usual on Wednesday at the PC office.  My Downward Facing Dog looked a bit lopsided on only one hand, and the Navasana Boat Pose was definitely out of the question, but I was rewarded with some sprigs of pussy willows and a Mărțișor ornament to pin on my sweater, along with the one given to me at Excellent English class this week and another one from a friend.

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Today it is minus six degrees and the sun is out again.  We will venture out on foot, (yak tracks and walking poles in tow) for our weekly cappuccino and almond croissant at Crème de la Crème, where the indoor air will be warm and toasty, fragrant with the wonderful aroma of baking bread.

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Comfort food: “Terci de Ovaz cu Semințe,”  Oatmeal at Creme de la Creme

I hope the ice is thawing wherever you are, (unless you are at the north or south pole where we definitely do not want the ice to thaw as quickly as it has been lately.)  Stay safe and warm, and may spring come quickly.  Happy Mărțișor!

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P.S. Can any of my readers in Chisinau tell me the story behind this new sculpture that has gone up on Strada Medeevici this past month?

The Art of Antonina and Vitalie Grisciuc

I first came upon the work of Moldovan artists Antonina and Vitalie Grisciuc, when I was browsing one day, shortly after my arrival in Chisinau in the late summer of 2016, through the open-air art market on Stephan cel Mare, the main boulevard through downtown Chisinau.  (I mentioned this art market in a previous post, including it among the stops one would make if one were to visit “Funky Chisinau.”)  That afternoon I breezed past many displays of paintings and prints, but I was arrested by a glimpse from a distance of their display in a far back corner.  Their work drew me in, as it stood out as something in an entirely different league.  I was utterly charmed by the vision they had captured of the beauty of Chisinau’s old buildings and streets, the special light filtering through the trees, the quiet ease of an amble on those streets, and by their interpretations of life in rural Moldova.  It was the start of a bit of a love affair: Bob and I have by now purchased ten of their works, and I have since learned that Antonina and Vitalie have a much wider exposure than that modest Chisinau venue, extending to international exhibits.

Antonina was born in the Ungheni region of Moldova, where she began her art studies at the School of Fine Arts for Children.  She later graduated from the State Pedagogica University of the Republic of Moldova here in Chisinau, having completed her studies in the Ion Greanga Painting and Graphics department.  Antonina works mostly with oil on canvas, as well as watercolor painting and pen and ink drawing.

Vitalie was born in the Rezina region of Moldova, and attended the School of Fine Arts for Children at Soroca.   Like Antonina, he graduated from the State Pedagogic University, in the Ion Greanga Painting and Graphics department.  He also studied at the Academy of Arts in Bucharest, Romania in the college of Decorative Art and Design.  Vitalie works with watercolor painting, pen and ink drawings, etchings, and oil on canvas.

Both Antonina and Vitalie have exhibited multiple times in Israel, Romania, Luxembourg, and Turkey, and Vitalie has also exhibited in Japan.  The long list of sites that have hosted their exhibits here in Moldova includes the US Embassy, the Alliance Francaise, the UNDP Mission, The Swiss Cooperation Office, The World Bank Moldova office, The OSCE Moldova office (Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe,) and Chisinau’s Organ Hall.

Their paintings can be found in private collections in Romania, the USA, Canada, Israel, Ukraine, Russia, Turkey, Greece, Germany, France, Italy, Switzerland, Denmark, The Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg, Spain, Ireland, Tunisia, Japan, the Philippines, Sweden, Belarus, Poland, the Czech Republic, as well as in Moldova.   Vitalie also has works in the collections of Moldova’s National Museum of Fine Arts here in Chisinau.

Below are photos of some of their works which we have purchased:

From Antonina:

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And from Vitalie:

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Version 2

Below is a sampling of more of their work, first by Antonina:

 

 

 

And by Vitalie:

 

 

 

You can find more photos of their work on their Facebook pages.  Vitalie’s:

https://www.facebook.com/Vitalie-Grișciuc-Paintings-and-Drawings-242156702858213/?ref=settings

And Antonina’s:  https://www.facebook.com/274512643002947/photos/a.274514336336111.1073741826.274512643002947/274520236335521/?type=3

 

 

 

Made in Moldova

This week Chisinau’s exhibition center held a show by the Chamber of Trade and Commerce of Moldova, entitled “Made in Moldova.”  I wandered through the exhibits and saw displays of everything from products related to Moldova’s agriculture, (varieties of seed corn,nuts, dried and preserved fruits, wine, sunflower oils, honey and herb products, leather goods, and sheepskin vests, hats and slippers,)  to manufactured items  (clothing made from textiles woven here, soaps, cosmetic and beauty products, and furniture and kitchen cabinetry made in Moldova.)

 

While it is true that many Moldovans are still working abroad, that a chemical engineer who stays here may find himself working as a car mechanic, and that a lot of Moldovans still think they will get a better quality product or a better deal by going to Romania to shop,  Moldovans are working very hard to develop their domestic industry, export markets and income generating opportunities here at home.   (Our US government programs such as the Moldovan Competitiveness Project at USAID are contributing to this effort.)

I, being more of an arts and humanities kind of person, know very little about economic development, and I find myself wanting to include under this heading, “Made in Moldova”  another kind of “export,” or another kind of highly developed talent that Moldova has to offer to the world, one that has recently also been in the news, ––not the economic news but the music news.   At the 60th GRAMMY Awards show in New York on 28 January 2018 it was announced that Patricia Kopatchinskaja’s Death and the Maiden won the award for Best Chamber Music/Small Ensemble performance.   Patricia Kopatchinskaja was born here in Chisinau and lived in Moldova until she was 12, (when Moldova was “The Moldavian Soviet Socialist Republic.”)  Her parents were both with the state folk ensemble of Moldova, her mother, Emilia Kopatchinskaja, a violinist, and her father, Viktor Kopatchinsky,  a cimbalom player.  Patricia started playing violin at the age of 6.  In 1989, the family emigrated to Vienna, where she studied musical composition and violin.  At age 21, she won a scholarship to study in Bern, Switzerland,  where she continues to live today.   Her album, Death and the Maiden, was recorded with The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra and released in October 2016 on Alpha Classics.  You can read more about it and about her at:  http://patriciakopatchinskaja.com/   She will be the Music Director at the Ojai Music Festival in California in June.

Moldovan culture places a great value on music, both the classical and the traditional, and though Moldova’s musicians are not as well paid as they could be elsewhere, they do seem to receive excellent training here in Moldova, and their artistry enriches life here in Chisinau so greatly.   I do hope that some day, along with a more robust economy, Moldova will also be able to develop, support, and share this homegrown talent more widely.

January was a snowy month here in Chisinau, so I have included in this post two paintings that capture so well the beauty of Chisinau dressed in white.  The oil painting below, of the arches in Chisinau’s central park, is by Antonina Grisciuc.

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And Below is Vitalie Grisciuc’s “Belltower in the Snow” in pen/ink color.   Perhaps the “Made in Moldova” art of this talented Moldovan couple will be the subject of a future blog….

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Boboteaza and a Visiting Swan

I was walking around Lake Morilor last Thursday afternoon, January 19th, when I came upon a curious sight.   What looked to be about a dozen middle-aged men, all dressed in nothing but scanty swim trunks, were gathered on the boat dock at the Rescue Station.  It was below zero degrees Centigrade that day, as it has been here in Chisinau for the past couple of weeks, and the surface of the lake was frozen over.  I had noticed that the ice was about an inch thick where fisherman had broken holes in it with rocks and were continuing to fish from the sidewalk.  I stood and watched for a little while and saw none of the men jump into the lake, though they were all carrying towels and certainly looked prepared to jump in.  I wondered what could have prompted this apparent polar bear party.  None of the other pedestrians walking around the lake seemed to be taking any notice at all.

Later that evening I learned that the Orthodox Church had been celebrating a religious holiday that day: “Boboteaza,” the Baptism of Jesus in the River Jordan.   Evidently, the Orthodox churches here in Eastern Europe, have a tradition of not only doing a Blessing of the Waters, but also of taking a plunge into the icy water themselves.   Sometimes, the priest throws a wooden cross into the water and people jump in after it.   Not only is the dunking regarded as a cleansing and purifying experience,  but the one who retrieves the cross and returns it to the priest also receives a special blessing.

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And true to the old and new calendar differences, (see last blog)  January 19th was indeed 13 days after January 6th, when our contemporary Gregorian calendar had marked the observance for Jesus’ Baptism and Epiphany.   The 19th of January on the modern calendar was the day when January 6th would have occurred if we were still following the Julian calendar which is now 13 days behind.  I have since learned that the Orthodox church in Romania celebrated this  religious holiday on January 6th, and the Ukrainians were celebrating it along with Moldovans on Jan 19.th  (You can see a collection of photos, (from which I borrowed the one at the top of this post) , at the following links: http://a1.ro/news/social/boboteaza-2018-traditii-si-obiceiuri-de-boboteaza-ce-trebuie-sa-faca-toti-credinciosii-pentru-un-an-bun-id720612.html   and    https://www.kyivpost.com/ukraine-politics/112-ua-orthodox-christians-celebrate-baptism-jesus.html  )

I don’t recall this religious holiday having great significance in the liturgical year of the protestant church in which I grew up.   If it was observed, it would have likely been only with a sermon: how dull, by comparison to this exuberant take on the observance.

This week I saw an even stranger sight at the lake.  A group of people with cameras were gathered on the sidewalk by the lake’s edge, staring at little blue house floating on a wooden raft in the middle of a pond within the larger lake.  The pond is bordered on one side by the upper end of the lake where the creek enters, and on the other side, by a stand of tall reed grass about fifty yards out from the shore which follows the course of a cement walkway crossing the lake.  The water is slower to freeze in this pond due to the moving water of the entering creek and ducks and gulls tend to gather there when the lake begins to freeze over.

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I asked a woman standing by what the little house was for and she told me it was for “the bird.”  “She needs our help,” she told me, “for her babies.”  (This was communicated in simple Romanian, as I am not very proficient.)  She pointed beyond the floating house to the stand of reeds, and there was the visiting swan I had seen for the first time just the day before.

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On my first sighting, he had been feeding close to the sidewalk where the creek feeds into it the pond, and I had stood and watched as he repeatedly plunged his long neck deep under the swirling muddy surface for what seemed like about 30 seconds at a time, raising his head with a shake to remove a coating of mud, and then plunging it under again.  He looked like a juvenile Mute Swan in his first winter plumage, his head a downy greyish brown, and the rest of his feathery coat white with splotches of dirty gray.   Now he was preening his feathers at the far end of the pond amidst the reeds, ignoring the invitation to take up residence in this floating little palace built especially for him.  (Her?  The distinguishing features between a male and female swan are not visible before they are mature.)

I could not imagine that any swan would want to make a nest, or were she female, lay her eggs in this exposed, brightly colored and attention-attracting house, nor could I imagine that mid-January was a time to lay eggs.   I have since read that breeding time for swans is from February to May, and that swans do indeed nest on rafts made by people all over Europe and in the Americas.  Those rafts are not roofed, as swans, I read, do not like a roof over their heads, and they are big enough to accommodate a typical swan’s nest, which can be more than two meters in diameter.  The area inside the little roofed house floating on Lake Morilor looks to be less than a square meter.  It may be small, and regrettably roofed, but it is ever so much more playful than a flat brown raft.  So, we shall see… I will certainly keep you posted with photos if our swan does take up residence in the proffered houseboat.

And here is a follow up on a previous post, the one about the controversy over an installation of sculptures, two lovers:  When we returned from the US after Christmas, we found the artist had installed a new set of statues, at Lake Morilor.  While they look like the same characters, this time she is on a skateboard, he is definitely not checking his watch, and what’s more, there is a dachshund eagerly looking on.

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I think that rubbing that little dog’s nose will bring you good luck, but you will have to visit Chisinau to get the chance.

 

Christmas Old and New

The Christmas holiday season is still ongoing here in Moldova as I am writing this post on Monday, January 8, the date that the Moldovan government observes a work holiday for “Old” Orthodox Christmas, which actually fell on Sunday, January 7th.   “New” Christmas on December 25, and “New” New-Year’s on January 1, have come and gone, each fully celebrated with their own state observed holidays.  Next weekend the “Old” New Year’s Day will be celebrated along with Saint Vasile’s Day.  The entire season of holidays will have stretched over three weeks and four weekends by the time all of the observances are past, beginning with December 25th for “New” Christmas and ending with January 14th for “Old” New Year’s.

The “Old” and the “New” as they are referred to here in Moldova, represent observances based on two different calendars: the Gregorian, which is used by most of the world today, and the Julian, which was used predominately from 46 BC to 1582 AD.  Like our present Gregorian calendar, the Julian calendar was based on the earth’s revolution around the sun, divided the year into12-months, and it had the same number of days in each month as our present Gregorian calendar does.  But it defined the length of the calendar year as 365.25 days, and it set a schedule which gave 365 days to three years in a row, followed by a leap year of 366 days exactly once every four years. Unfortunately, the Earth actually takes closer to 365.2425 days to make its complete orbit around the sun, (365 days 5 hours 49 minutes and 12 seconds) and this slight error of .0075 days, results in a loss of 10 minutes 48 seconds per year in the calendar, which results in a gain, ahead of the Earth’s actual path, of one calendar day every 128 years.

Pope Gregory VIII in 1582, proposed a new calendar in order to correct this error.  The newer Gregorian calendar defines a year as 365.2425 days and allows for a leap year almost every four years but not quite.  By our present Gregorian calendar schedule, years that are divisible by four are usually leap years, but not always; years that are divisible by 100 are not leap years unless they are also divisible by 400.  For example, the years 1700, 1800, and 1900 were not leap years, but the year 2000 was.  The Gregorian schedule of leap years creates a calendar that is more precise than the Julian, but it is not perfect, as it results in a gain of one day ahead of the Earth’s revolution, every 3,030 years, instead of every 128 years.

When the new Gregorian calendar was proposed, it was not immediately adopted universally, but did gradually take hold.  The Orthodox churches in many countries, however, persisted in using the old Julian calendar for setting their liturgical schedules.   That older calendar is now 13 days behind the Gregorian calendar (and will be until February 28th 2100, when it will presumably be 14 days ahead.)  Currently December 25th on the Julian calendar, falls on January 7th on the Gregorian calendar, so that is the date when “Old Christmas,” as it is commonly referred to in Moldova, is observed by Orthodox churches here.

The Moldovan government recognizes both the Old and the New and many Moldovan families celebrate both Christmases, but it gets a bit more complicated yet.  During the Soviet era, Old Orthodox Christmas was purely a religious observance, not a state recognized or commercial holiday, so the gift giving practice often was transferred onto the New Year’s celebration.   Consequently, I am told, “Old Christmas” today, for many Moldovan families, does not include the giving of gifts, while “Old New Year’s Day” may include more gifts.  Children of course, especially enjoy having two Christmases, whenever and wherever they occur, and families are adapting all sorts of variations of the holiday schedule to suit their own schedules.  Many families use the Old Christmas holiday weekend to travel to their home villages to celebrate with extended family members.

Families here in Chisinau have been enjoying the little Christmas market on the street in front of the Art and History Museums, which has been open since December 15 and will remain open to January 14.  The market may not compete with bigger Christmas markets in bigger cities across Europe, but it is complete with an outdoor ice-skating rink, carousels, venders making popcorn and cotton candy, food stalls selling mulled wine, coffee, tea, hot chocolate and pastries, and artisan selling carved wooden ornaments, pottery, and brass bells.

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Throughout the holiday season, the Nutcracker has been playing at the Opera and Ballet House, and the Filarmonic has hosted numerous Christmas music performances.   This weekend we heard a concert of international carols performed by an ensemble of university students in the “Sala Mica,” a small room upstairs in the Filarmonic building. That particular hall may look a bit shabby to readers from countries with more well-endowed musical facilities, but the lack of glitzy surroundings does not deter Moldovans, and this performance drew a packed hall of very appreciative Chisinau residents for a program which was quite different from what you might hear performed by a traditional Moldovan choir in traditional dress.  What seemed especially delightful to us was that their conductor was so smiley, so openly pleased, nearly jolly…all so uncharacteristic for a Moldovan, and the audience seemed not to feel any discomfort at all with his enthusiasm.   Their international program included a rather sedate “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” in English, which I recorded for you at the  video link below, and in which there is a lovely saxophone and trumpet duo toward the end.

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On Old Christmas morning, we attended the service in the main Russian Orthodox Cathedral downtown, where we enjoyed some especially beautiful choir music, which you can hear at the link below.

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We were driving out of our neighborhood in the late afternoon of January 6, the Eve of Old Christmas, when we met a small group of singers with an accordion, who were knocking on doors to offer “colinde” or Christmas carols.   As we pulled up alongside them, they were knocking on a gate and getting no answer, so we rolled down our windows and asked them to sing for us…. also recorded at the link below:

https://youtu.be/KLFkQap4g_c

There will be more groups of children and adults going from house to house in Moldovan villages this coming Saturday, Jan 13th, which is the Eve of another holiday, Saint Vasile Day, a traditional Saint Day which coincides with Old New Year’s Day, January 14th.   This time the revelers will dress up in costumes and recite, very loudly, poems and good wishes for the New Year.  The holiday goes on….

Hippotherapy in Moldova

If  the term “hippotherapy” conjures up in your mind an image of a hippo lying on a couch revealing his neuroses to his psychiatrist, you would be commended for imagining that I might be able to write that kind of humorous post, but, alas, you would be wrong. Zoologically speaking, a hippo is more closely related to a pig than to a horse, but our English word hippopotamus, comes from the Greek words for “horse of the river,” and the term “hippotherapy,” for those you who might be unfamiliar with it, refers to the use of especially trained horses in therapy for people.  And hippotherapy, I was surprised to learn recently, is available here in Moldova.

I had long been aware that The American Hippotherapy Association was providing training and certification in hippotherapy for physical therapists, speech therapists and occupational therapists in the USA,  and that a couple of places in western NC were providing hippotherapy for pediatric patients, children who had developmental and neuromuscular disorders such as cerebral palsy, Down’s syndrome and autism; but I had never actually observed a session of hippotherapy before coming here to Moldova.

As it turns out, one very enterprising, big-hearted, and determined young Moldovan woman named Maria, has teamed up with a certified hippotherapist named Oxana, to start a program, “Gallop Moldova,” which provides hippotherapy to Moldovan children with neuromuscular problems who are either living in foster homes in and near Chisinau, or are receiving day services at the Tony Hawks Center here in Chisinau.  Maria works as a kindergarten teacher to these children with special needs, and has advanced degrees in recreational therapy (which here in Moldova includes training in occupational and physical therapies.)  I first learned about Maria through two friends who interviewed her for a scholarship program at the US Embassy.  They knew that I was a horse lover and a pediatrician, so they put us in touch with each other, and Maria invited me to go with her for a session.

One cold grey day in November Maria picked me up in her very modest little old car, along with our young friend, whom I will call Ari, strapped safely in the backseat, and a Finnish young woman who volunteers at his foster home.  We drove out to Budesti, a town just 30 minutes outside of Chisinau to the Sparta Horse Riding Club, and there I observed a session for the first time.  Bob and I had been to this horse club before, to watch a jumping show in the outdoor ring on another very cold day last year, when we had nearly frozen sitting in the outdoor stands.  Ari’s hippotherapy, thank goodness, took place in an indoor ring.

Ari had already had several sessions of therapy and was a very willing and enthusiastic “patient.” I loved watching his transformation as he was lifted and maneuvered into position and eventually came to a straight-backed seated posture at ease on the back of that big horse.

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Oxana had traveled to the Republic of Georgia for her training and certification in hippotherapy.  I was very impressed with her attentiveness and skill in working with Ari.  She put him through a wide variety of exercises while seated or lying on the horse in various positions.

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The curves of the horse’s back and rump were perfect for helping Ari to counter his own back’s tendency to slump, and allowed him to relax into a more than full extension.  He even did some sit-ups from this position.

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“Belosnejzka,” this gentle old mare, was specially trained for hippotherapy.

An hour-long session of hippotherapy in Moldova costs 200 Lei, equivalent to about $12, and Maria is currently hoping to provide 10 sessions for about 10 children. You can read more about Gallop Moldova on their Facebook page, and donate to their fund at Go Fund Me:  https://www.gofundme.com/GallopMoldova

I very much look forward to observing and assisting with future hippotherapy sessions when I return to Chisinau.