"I'm a legal alien,
I'm an Englishman in New York"
It was in my early childhood when I first heard
about "our brothers across the Prut River," the
Moldavians: Romanians by language and history,
Russians by occupation.
I heard many stories of divided families living on opposite sides of the river, of people who could not speak their mother tongue in their own country. I heard of terrifying deportations in Siberia for those who tried it, of the KGB and Securitate who were trying to reduce people to silence. And all these built the image of the region in my mind. After 1991, however, the border opened. Romanians and Moldavians got back together, families reunited, the Russian language ceased to be compulsory, and the Soviet ghost drew back to the East. For a while at least.
At this time of great change I became interested in what happened there. But since there was no strong motivation, I didn't actually study the situation as I should have. But at the end of 1996 I joined AEGEE-Iasi, and there it was again: Moldavia, the destination and subject of the Case Study Trip. In order to organize the event I had to read more, to get a little extra information beside all the chopped-up and shortened pieces of news that I heard on radio and TV. It didn't help much. Black-on-white articles, books, media. . . all were just cold words. And that is why I wanted so much to go to Chisinau myself, to see it myself and get my own impressions. When the event in Iasi ended I took the bus east; my first visit to Moldavia, my first visit to the "Wild East," as some jokingly called it. My first shock came during the bus ride. People were speaking Romanian. And arguing in Russian. The accent was strange, yet the language was more than familiar. When I arrived in Chisinau the situation changed a bit. For better or for worse, I can't say. Everyone understood me when I spoke Romanian. But in a number of cases I got answers only in Russian. Confusing enough. Part of me said: you are at home here, this is/was/will be Romanian territory as well, and these people are of the same origin, have the same history and live by the same customs that you live by. The other part just cried out: you're an alien here, this is not Romania anymore. Even so, everyone was very nice. I recognized in the people there the old, much- talked-about Moldavian hospitality, and I felt at ease speaking to them. It was very nice when one day, while I was sitting on a bench in Pushkin Park, an old man walked by me and we started a little conversation. He was kind and old and wise...like the good wizard in the stories. When he learned that I came from Iasi, he started to tell me all about his life. About how he served in the Romanian army, at the beginning of World War II, then how the country was suddenly divided one night and he was sent back home to his native village, then how he was again called to arms, by the Soviets this time, and ended up in a military unit near the border, in today's Transdniestria. However, it was not very nice when, in a bookstore, I tried to ask the shop assistant something in Romanian and all I got were some angry words in Russian. Even more painful was to go to Tiraspolí. Someone asked me whether I could imagine that I could be at home there. My answer was a definite "no." In Tiraspolí people are sad and gloomy and poor and hopeless. . . But most of all they didn't feel Romanian at all, not even Moldavian. They are Russians. I would have liked to see the countryside, or some other small town, too. Tiraspolí was a shock. I expected militiamen all over the streets, fights, shooting and crying babies. What I've seen was somehow worse. The people are normal people, of different ethnic origin, but they don't have an identity anymore. Foreign governments don't recognize their country, and they themselves don't think there should be a Transdniestrian Republic, but would rather have an economic union with Moldavia, or rejoin the Russian Federation.
Then came Comrat, where people were a bit happier but also seemed to be a bit lost among Moldavians, Turks and Russians. These Christian Turks have their own lifestyle, live by their own rules and, more than the Transdniestrians, feel at home in a Moldavian Republic.
My last experience outside Chisinau was Sofia, a small village in the north of the country. It is one of the traditional rural areas with considerable economic autonomy, ancient people and beautiful surroundings. I met there people so much like the Moldavians west of the Prut. The language was the same language spoken by my grandparents, the habits were just out of the folk stories and everything was very familiar to me.
At some point I even felt I was one of the hosts and tried to explain things to the "others," to the foreigners in the group.
This is what I felt and how I felt during my first visit in Moldavia. I could not state whether it was good or bad, but I am very glad I was there. From my point of view Moldavia is still Romanian in its roots but was deeply influenced by the time spent under Mama Russia's wing. I liked the people in the countryside very much; I liked their openness. But I feared the city folk.