Vasya offers some homemade wine    photo: Jett Thomason

Vasya offers some homemade wine

I am in Moldova. Now a former republic of the Soviet Union, the region has previously been known as Bessarabia and has changed hands between Russian, Austria-Hungarian, Ottoman, and home-grown empires a number of times. The population is largely Romanian in culture and language. The elected Communist government has tried to avoid the forces of “Greater Romania” by insisting on the separation between Moldovan and Romanian. This has even led to a Moldovan-Romanian dictionary. Widely mocked, it’s about the same as writing a dictionary for Californian-New Yorkian.

I came here a bit more than a month ago at the invitation of an old friend. Overall, it’s been a great place to wait out the winter, study Russian, and see a relatively unknown but fascinating corner of Eastern Europe.

I’ve been staying mostly in the capital of Chisinau (pronounced Kishinow). You would have trouble believing it to be the capital of one of Europe’s poorest countries. The nightlife is booming and the cafes are packed with people. New BMWs and Mercedes race the streets and stores are packed with shoppers. Most of the economy is funded by the tremendous quantity of remittances from young Moldovans overseas. While the country’s official population is about four million, a huge portion of the young workforce has left to find work in Russia, Italy, and Spain.

The difference between the small towns and the capital is stark. Essentially the only people left in the villages are the very old and the very young. Once school is completed, people leave for the capital or an overseas job – usually illegally. One result of this mass migration is that Moldovans have a distinct appreciation of the difference between European and their own standard of living. I’ve repeatedly had to assure locals that I wasn’t offended by their less-than-ideal living conditions. Many of the young women have seen how modern Western women enjoy more privileges and balanced roles in the house. These experiences are rapidly changing the traditional culture and gender relations in the country.

a babushka sweeps the snow

a babushka sweeps the snow

A few weeks ago I went to a small village about an hour outside of Chisinau and had a chance to see the rural life first-hand. After a long night of shish kebabs and beer, I was woken up early, given another large meal and strong tea, and led down to the basement for a “quick tour” with the same pride an American might show off their new home theater.

The signature product of Moldova is their wine. The larger wineries have imported modern production techniques and are producing excellent wine at very inexpensive prices. Still, any Moldovan worth their salt has a large store of homemade wine from the massive barrel or two in their basement.

The basement belongs to the Moldovan men just as the kitchen is the preserve of their wives. A single glass is all that they needed to begin showing off the wares. Several pairs of eyes waiting for you to finish the drink inevitably mean the wine is drunk quickly and with vigor. After a few draughts I stopped wondering why they had complained that the two-and-a-half tons of wine they make in the autumn barely lasts the year.

We sampled the open barrel of red wine, the older barrel of red wine, a little bit of the white, a couple drinks from last year’s reserve, a few shots of the grape moonshine steeped in walnut husks (to help settle the stomach), and again a small glass of the red just to round out the visit. I emerged from the basement before noon a little less steady and with my arms full of bottles of the local reserve as well as a hefty jar of salted pig fat known as “sala” – an especially proud local delicacy. (I made a personal note to avoid complimenting the quality of any other local’s sala.)

Posted by Jett Thomason