If you have enjoyed reading about Moldova on the Cu Placere blog, or if you would like to introduce friends to Moldova, perhaps enticing them to visit, you may be interested to know that my new book, Cu Placere: Seasons of Pleasure in Moldova, a Journal with Photos, is now available on Amazon at the following link: Cu Placere, the book at Amazon.
Last weekend Bob and I enjoyed a fascinating production of “The New Miorita” by a local contemporary ballet company here in Chişinau. The billboard caught my attention because I had heard of this ancient ballad several times––my first exposure being through a school play, and I had been intrigued by its seemingly strange outcome. I mentioned it to a Moldovan friend who sent me an English translation, and told me that every school child in Moldova knows this ballad, as it is often assigned for memorization as well as reenacted in school plays. It tells of a ewe, the mioriţa, who tries to save her beloved shepherd from being murdered by two other shepherds.
The Mioriţa ballad began as oral tradition, centuries before the region of Moldavia was split up at the Prut River, back when the land which is now Moldova was still part of a unified Moldavia. It tells a story of three shepherds, one from the Moldavian region, one from the Transylvanian region, and one from the Wallachian region, who all pastured their sheep in a central valley. The Moldavian shepherd was a bit wealthier, and the other two, out of jealousy, conspired to murder him. The mioriţa overheard their scheming and told the shepherd, begging him to protect himself. He, however, sat down and waited to be killed. He told the ewe how he wished to be buried, and instructed her to tell his mother and friends not that he had died, but that he had gone off to be married to a noble immortal princess, describing his wedding with beautiful and cosmic imagery.
The ballad was first transcribed by Alecu Russo who gave it to the poet Vasile Alecsandri, who published it in 1850. According to “A Piece of European Treasure,” an online textbook of the European Interdisciplinary Curricula, the ballad of Mioriţa has 1500 variations and is found in all regions of Romania and Moldova, but it is not known to other nations. In the version translated below, it is considered one of the most eloquent Romanian folk ballads ever written, one of four fundamental myths of Romanian literature.
Near a low foothill at Heaven’s doorsill,
Where the trail’s descending to the plain and ending,
Here three shepherds keep their three flocks of sheep,
One, Moldavian, one, Transylvanian, and one, Vrancean.
Now, the Vrancean and the Transylvanian,
In their thoughts conniving, have laid plans, contriving
At the close of day, to ambush and slay
The Moldavian; He, the wealthier one,
had more flocks to keep, handsome, long-horned sheep,
Horses, trained and sound, and the fiercest hounds.
One small ewe-lamb though, dappled gray as tow,
While three full days passed bleated loud and fast; Would not touch the grass.
“Ewe-lamb, dapple-gray, muzzled black and gray,
While three full days passed you bleat loud and fast; Don’t you like this grass?
Are you too sick to eat, little lamb so sweet?”
“Oh my master dear, drive the flock out near to that field
Dark to view, where the grass grows new, where there’s shade for you.
“Master, master dear, call a large hound near,
A fierce one and fearless, strong and loyal, peerless.
The Transylvanian and the Vrancean,
When the daylight’s through, mean to murder you.”
“Lamb, my little ewe, if this omen’s true,
If I’m doomed to death, on this tract of heath,
Tell the Vrancean and Transylvanian
to let my bones lie somewhere here close by,
By the sheepfold here, so my flocks are near,
Back of my hut’s grounds so I’ll hear my hounds.
Tell them what I say: There, beside me lay
One small pipe of beech, with its soft, sweet speech,
One small pipe of bone, with its loving tone,
One of elderwood, fiery-tongued and good.
Then the winds that blow would play on them so
All my listening sheep would draw near and weep
Tears, no blood so deep.
How I met my death, tell them not a breath;
Say I could not tarry, I have gone to marry
A princess; My bride, is the whole world’s pride.
At my wedding, tell how a bright star fell;
Sun and moon came down, to hold my bridal crown,
Firs and maple trees, were my guests, my priests
Were the mountains high; Fiddlers, birds that fly, all birds of the sky;
Torchlights, stars on high.
But if you see there, should you meet somewhere,
My old mother, little, with her white wool girdle,
Eyes with their tears flowing, over the plains going,
Asking one and all, saying to them all,
‘Who has ever known, who has seen my own
Shepherd fine to see, slim as a willow tree,
With his dear face, bright, as the milk-foam, white;
His small mustache like the young wheat’s ear, with his hair so dear,
As like plumes of the crow, little eyes that glow, like the ripe black sloe?’
Ewe-lamb, small and pretty, for her sake have pity,
Let it just be said, I have gone to wed
A princess most noble, there on Heaven’s doorsill.
To that mother, old, let it not be told
That a star fell bright, for my bridal night;
Firs and maple trees were my guests, Priests
Were the mountains high; Fiddlers, birds that fly, all birds of the sky;
Torchlights, stars on high.
From “A Piece of European Treasure” of the European Interdisciplinary Curricula
When I first heard the story of the Mioriţa, I found the shepherd’s response to the ewe’s warning very strange, and the popularity of the story completely mystifying. The shepherd accepted immediately that his murder was inevitable. He did not prepare to defend himself but rather prepared to die. It seemed to me that the poem was glorifying a passive and fatalistic attitude toward life, and thus it seemed a strange story to have survived as folklore to be celebrated in public schools and taught to school children.
I began inquiring further and learned that the Mioriţa has been widely examined by literary commentators of Romanian and Moldovan culture. While commentators have agreed that this legend represents some important traditional Romanian/Moldovan attitudes toward life, they have argued vigorously over opposing views about the shepherd’s resignation in the face of death. Vasile Alecsandri spoke of the shepherd’s resignation as characteristic of the Romanian peasant. Many commentators have adopted this particular interpretation, pointing out that the peasants of the Moldavian region, having experienced over the centuries one invasion after another, with themselves at the center of battles for domination from all sides, learned to keep their heads down, and accept, with resignation, their fate. But other commentators have seen the story in a different light.
According to Nicolae Babuts, Professor Emeritus of Languages, Literature and Linguistics at Syracuse University, in his article “‘Mioriţa’: A Romanian Ballad in a Homeric Perspective,” (published in Symposium 54, Spring 2000) a commentator named Eliade disagreed with those who have taken the shepherd’s acceptance of death as proof of his fatalism. “There is no fatalism here,” he wrote. “For a fatalist does not believe that he can alter the meaning of what has been predestined for him. …The most profound message of the ballad lies in the shepherd’s will to change the meaning of his destiny. …The shepherd transmutes the misfortune that sentences him to death, into a majestic and spectacular sacramental mystery, that in the end enables him to triumph over his own fate. …Meaning does not reside in events themselves, but in the interpretation of events.” He also described the shepherd’s death/marriage as cosmic sacramental mystery.
This argument initially seemed to me a less than convincing euphemistic dressing-up of what was, after all, fatalism. Waxing romantic about one’s death, rather than trying to defend oneself, seemed, at best, a second-best response to a threat on one’s life. It did occur to me that the Christian story of Christ waiting to be taken in the Garden of Gethsemane, also conveys what non-Christians might see as a similarly passive approach to eminent death, while Christians see in that story a cosmic sacramental mystery. Indeed the Miorita tale has been seen by some commentators as a metaphor for Christianity, and has even been interpreted to exemplify Christ’s courage in “turning the other cheek.”
Babuts’s article also describes at length the commentator Eliade’s comparison of the shepherd’s beliefs to those of one of Homer’s heroes, Hektor. In the scene of the Iliad by the Skaian gates, Andromache foresees Hektor’s death and pleads with him to be cautious, but he answers, “No man is going to hurl me to Hades unless it is fated, and as for fate, I think that no man yet has escaped it, once it has taken its first form, neither brave man nor coward.” Eliade concludes that both triumph and fatalism are present in the Ballad of Mioriţa, but as in the Iliad, their significance reverberates differently at two contrasting but interdependent levels, the level of actions and the level of spectators. The shepherd is murdered, and he as an actor dies, but as a spectator or interpreter, he lives on in his language and in the metaphors that reenact and celebrate his life. In fact, the actor dies in order to make it possible for the spectator to speak. “It is thus not a passive acceptance of the inevitable,” Eliade argues, “but a new initiative in a spiritual domain, where the physical no longer overwhelms the metaphoric power of desire and dream.”
Other commentators have found undertones of Dacian beliefs in the shepherd’s acceptance of his death. The Dacians, ancient inhabitants of the region located between the Carpathian Mountains and the Black Sea, confronted death without fear, as they considered themselves immortals. Dacian messengers were willing to die, it is said, to take their message to their god, Zalmoxis. Commentators who share this view have described the shepherd as courageous because “death didn’t seem to scare him.”
In still another interpretation, the transformation of the shepherd’s death into a wedding, is seen as related to one of Romania’s funeral customs. According to this custom, unmarried people are buried dressed in wedding clothes because every person must pass all three major events of life: the baptism, the wedding, and the death.
The Mioriţa ballad has also been used as evidence in a cultural-political conflict which continues to this day in Moldova. In a 2016 article in Nationalities Papers, (Vol 44, Issue no.3, January 2016), Roxanna Huma argues that the ballad of the Mioriţa serves as a key element in a potential articulation of a “Moldovan” national identity, as contrasted to a “Romanian” identity, (two perspectives which have co-exisited within Moldovan society since it became a Republic, and which continue to oppose each other today. See earlier posts.) She points to the writings of Ion Druţă, a Moldovan novelist who writes in both Romanian and Russian. According to Huma, Druţă placed the Mioriţa ballad at the center of his own construction of a “Moldovan” national identity, and in this construction, Huma sees the possibility for an all-encompassing Moldovan identity which breaches the chasm between the “Romanian” versus “Moldovan” perspectives. The logic of her argument, alas, continues to lie beyond my grasp as a foreigner here.
But there was nothing too subtle, for this foreigner to grasp, about the motifs that guided our local ballet company in their recent production of “The New Miorița.” The metaphors of the Cosmic Christ and the Cosmic Wedding dominated their interpretation of the tale. In fact, in the second act, which portrayed the wedding of the now immortal shepherd with the immortal princess, there was even a scene in which the two principal dancers together struck and held a familiar pose, that of Michelangelo’s Pieta. Another scene was reminiscent of a resurrected Christ descending in glory from the heavens down to Earth.
The staging was intricately designed, with each of the nine dancers’ movements choreographed individually throughout many of the scenes. Sometimes they were individual sheep, sometimes they were sheep moving as a flock, sometimes they were a pile of leaves ruffled by a wind, sometimes worshipers. All of the dancers performed the fluid movements beautifully and expressively–– and with amazing athleticism. The slender dancer who played the Miorita showed such breathtaking agility in extending her back that she seemed to have a hinge in her lumbar region.
The music, unfortunately, was not performed by live musicians, as our most opera and ballet performances at the National Opera and Ballet Theater. Had it been, this would have improved the experience greatly. Nonetheless, the compositions by Anatoli Ştefăneţ were beautifully evocative, and included the flute-like music of panpipes, traditionally played by shepherds, as well as ominous and eerie compositions appropriate for the otherworldly settings and scenes of looming danger.
According to a story run by a Moldovan local news outlet, Timpul.md, it was four years ago that the choreographer, Daria Simbiriova-Batrincea, first proposed a contemporary ballet performance of a modern interpretation of Miorița. She eventually gathered a team of nine dancers who had been trained in classical ballet, some of whom had been her students at the Academy of Music and Fine Arts, and others who were students at the College of Choreography. “But,” she explained, “contemporary ballet is not very well known in the Republic of Moldova, and the dancers had to learn a new way of dancing. In classical ballet the movements are precise and accurate, but in the contemporary ballet the body of the dancer must be soft and more expressive.” Thus the rehearsals required many hours of preparation. The dancers worked six days a week for nine months. Despite all this hard work, the production almost folded because of lack of sponsorship funds. Six months into the rehearsals, the dance company learned that their sponsors had run out of money for the project. “But the show was already mounted and the artists were expecting to be paid. …So I had to collect donations from my family and close friends for artist wages, costumes, decorations, lights…” Thankfully, when the box office opened, more than half of the tickets sold in less than half a week.
My husband and I, and the friends who attended with us, were very impressed with the production, but we were dismayed to learn that there was to be only one showing of The New Miorita in Chisinau. After all those months of hard work, with the result of such a beautiful rendition of this beloved story, it seemed a real shame that one showing was all the exposure this production would get.
“…We would like to continue with contemporary ballet in Moldova,” Ms. Simbiriova-Batrincea said, “but this will depend on the reception of the spectators. …In Moldova it is very stressful to come up with innovations in art, because many Moldovans do not understand them. …When a Moldovan man reads on a poster about contemporary ballet, he does not understand what will happen on the stage. …If the Moldovan public will understand the contemporary ballet, we will continue to work here, but if not, we will work for European viewers.” She has already begun discussions to present the show “New Miorita” in Romania and the Czech Republic. I, for one, hope she finds a growing audience for contemporary ballet productions right here in Chişinau.
The posts on this blog have been to this point, entirely about my recent experiences and observations in the Eastern European region, primarily in Moldova where we are currently living. However, with this post I want to let my readers know of a memoir I have just published which is titled, Outside My Skin: My Midlife Detour as a Trailing Spouse in Ghana. I began trailing Bob only in midlife, at the age of 55, after he had trailed me for 25 years in my career as an American pediatrician. Outside My Skin tells the story of the first year of our midlife detour, and about the period leading up to it.
It began with a discarded snakeskin––a sign, portent, a harbinger of change––and with Bob’s midlife angst. One spring Bob awoke to his midlife discontent, and ten months later, despite my resistance, we had left our comfortable home on a mountain in western North Carolina, and were living in Accra, a bustling African city known for its poverty, pollution, and congestion. I arrived dragging my feet, still attached to the life we had left behind, and anxious about losing my professional identity as a pediatrician.
In the course of that year I grappled with one of the crucial tasks of midlife development––that of learning to let go, and I discovered a rhythm, a spiral path for midlife personal growth: Molt, Stretch, Breathe, Repeat… The phases of that spiral rhythm provide the organizing themes for the four parts of the memoir.
In Part One, Molt, I share my reluctance to embark on the journey, my growing insight into the spiritual challenges of attachment and detachment, and my discovery of my own need to break out of the confines of a comfortable midlife.
Part Two, Stretch, reveals the challenges I encountered in Ghana, including a new and ill-fitting role in our marriage, a new cultural setting, and my complex status within that post-colonial culture; the poverty and pollution of Accra’s urban environment as the setting for my new home; an obscure process for obtaining a Ghanaian medical license; and the resource-limited settings where I eventually practiced pediatrics.
Part Three, Breathe, describes a restorative retreat, the months I spent away from Bob, alone at our North Carolina mountain home, coming to a gradual awareness of my readiness to move on to a new stage of life.
The Afterward, Repeat, provides a brief look ahead at the spiral cycles of molting, stretching, and breathing which have continued to expand my life. The detour year was a gateway year that led to further journeys, to be told in further books––about Ethiopia and hopefully eventually, about Moldova as well.
I wrote this memoir primarily to share my experiences with three groups: other trailing spouses, my non-foreign-service friends who wished to better understand the challenges of the foreign service life, and women in midlife who find themselves longing to transition into new possibilities for another phase of life. The book will also be of interest to readers who have lived or traveled in Ghana, or who enjoy vicariously traveling through travel writing.
Outside My Skin: My Midlife Detour as a Trailing Spouse in Ghana is currently available from Amazon as an e-book for download through the free Kindle app on any device (a laptop, an iPad, or a smartphone. ) You may find it at
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.”
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.
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.
Enjoying Moldova’s “Routes of Life”
The newest Peace Corps volunteers demonstrate their dancing skills at their recent Swearing-In ceremony.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?”
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
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.
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,
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.
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.
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.
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:
(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.
(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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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!
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?
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:
And from Vitalie:
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:
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.
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….