Since some enjoyed my missives from Afghanistan, I have been away in places not as dangerous but nearly as exotic and thought I would write from my latest destinations. I’ll never say never but I have no plans to return to Afghanistan as things are even worse on the ground than last summer. I am currently in Moldova, the poorest country in Europe. For those of Eastern European ancestry who are Bessarabians, Bessarabia is in Moldova. Moldova was the most Western republic in the Soviet Union and is now an independent country. The country is divided in two by the Transdniester river. The Western half is a pro-Europe region that is ethnically and historically linked to Romania. The Eastern half is a pro-Russian, pro-Communist place that hosts Russian military and is a center for human trafficking.
On to the thoughts:
THE ICEMAN COMETH: My job here is to be an independent evaluator of a US Government project designed to stimulate the IT, Wine and Apparel industries. This week we decided to do some site visits outside of the capital city of Chisinau. After our site visits, we were headed to spend the night at a winery which received assistance from the project and also featured a four-star hotel. The roads in Moldova cannot be described. My Moldovan colleague says “We have roads in some places and space for roads in other places.” Entire villages have no roads only spaces between buildings that have been sufficiently trodden to create some sort of path or ersatz road. There were roads built during the Soviet days but they just end. No barrier, no sign. Just end of pavement. There was one road that ended into a ditch. My Moldovan colleague was driving and knew where he was going. I’d have driven in the ditch. The roads that are paved are filled with potholes, have few markings, etc. The roads in rural Romania seem like superhighways by comparison. Anyway, we finished our last appointment and headed toward the hotel for what was supposed to be a 90 minute ride. After 30 minutes, an ice storm started. Our colleague was being pretty careful but the road was really slick. We hit an ice patch and skidded across the road. As we were skidding, I had no fear of serious injury. Fortunately, there were no walls or trees roadside nor were there other cars near us. There was nothing hard to hit nor could we fall too far and we were driving pretty slow. But I was thinking, “Oh Lord, I hope I am not sitting roadside in 20 degree (Fahrenheit) weather with a broken leg or a concussion for six hours awaiting to go to some country hospital where I have to bribe a drunk, unqualified butcher of a doctor to treat me with medical technology from the 1940s.” Fortunately, Slava knew what to do and we eventually straightened out. We drove about 20 miles per hour the rest of the way and made it to our destination in 3 1/2 hours. Safe and sound but exhausted.
THE WINE TASTING: We had pre-arranged a tasting at the winery. After our ride, we were ready. Moldova produces some very good wines for the price but cannot compete with inexpensive wines from Chile, Argentina, South Africa and Italy. I hadn’t realized we were tasting 8 wines that evening. Needless to say, by the end of the evening, the skid was a distant memory. The fellow leading the wine tasting was leading it in a Communist style; meaning rather than leading the wine tasting as an experience to be enjoyed, it was more like a class in didactics. It was all I could do not to punch him after a long day of interviewing people and riding in the car. But after the fourth wine, my mood improved considerably. Because of the ice, we canceled our appointments for the next day and drove slowly back to Chisinau, the capital.
WOOLLY BULLY: One of our site visits was to a wool collection company. Moldova has some carpet making companies. Most of the carpet wool is imported but until recently about 20% of the wool was produced locally. We visited a wool collection company. I can’t begin to describe this place. You couldn’t believe this place was Europe. I have been to nicer production facilities in East Timor. First, after our long journey, we visited the fetid outhouse which made the portajohn at Jesse and Lucy’s rugby field seem like the Plaza Hotel of “cans.” Then, when we went to talk to the Vice President of the company, he invited us into an unheated hut with an unfinished floor, a table covered in newspapers, a bed, and three chairs. There were 3 or 4 very grizzled looking workers and an intimidating dog on a chain. We talked to this gentleman and he said no one will buy the wool they collect any more. There is a plant (Curnutsi) that grows on their pasture that gets stuck on the sheep’s wool. They try to clean the wool and wash it but the plant remains stuck to the wool. They don’t have other land without this plant to raise the sheep. So, now no one buys their wool. He is trying to work as a service provider by collecting wool for a fee in Ukraine. It is difficult to go back and report that an industry is dying and there is little to be done about it. There is little other work for these people. Moldova has the second highest percentage of remittances as a percent of Gross National Product in the world. Remittances are funds sent home from working overseas. There are 3-4 million Moldovans in Moldova and 1-2 million working outside the country.
OOMPAH: Near our our hotel is Beer Platz, a German beer hall with the requisite schnitzel and sausages, waiters and waitresses in Germanic costumes (shockingly the waitresses were not in dirndls – exploitation of female pulchritude is big in these parts), beer hall style decor and a band. This part of the world had a large ethnic German community before the Second World War. When I asked if the place was founded by members of the ethnic German community, I was told that the place used to be a disco and someone just had the idea for a German beer hall. So much for history. My favorite part, besides the Weissbier on tap, was the band. Three guys who mainly played over pre-recorded music. They wore the green hats with the feathers but couldn’t be bothered to wear the rest of the outfits. The ultimate cheesy faux oompah band.
Before I came to Moldova, I spent a week in Azerbaijan. Azerbaijan is a fascinating place. When I tell people I was in Azerbaijan, the usual reaction is “Where?” or “I never heard of it.” Azerbaijan is on the Caspian Sea and is an oil producer. So, economic times are pretty good there relative to the rest of the world. What makes the place so fascinating is that is a former Soviet republic, near Iran and Turkey and trying to link with the US and Europe. It is a blend of the exotic and the modern, the Communist and rapid capitalist expansion — a real juxtaposition of Oriental and Occidental ways.
FAME: My purpose in Azerbaijan was to give a series of lectures. The main lecture being a two-day seminar to students from the State Economic University of Baku. After the lectures, the students came up and asked if they could take pictures with me as if I were some sort of celebrity. At first, I sort of looked over my shoulder, and thought, “You mean me?” But the young folks wanted to take their pictures with me since I was a “famous” visiting lecturer. I must have taken thirty pictures. One of the students sketched a picture of me and gave it to me as a present. I was taken aback. Other than he sketched me with an enormous double chin. Great. I lectured in Azerbaijan in 2009 at a University out in the countryside. And one young man was so appreciative that a foreigner came all the way out to the sticks, he offered me his watch. I declined and told him I couldn’t take his watch. I settled for three boxes of tea that he was selling for his MBA marketing project. When I left the University in the countryside on the last visit, the Rector of the University insisted I have dinner with him. I explained I had a flight back to Baku and I was leaving for the US early the next morning. My diplomatic colleagues told me it would be a great insult if I didn’t have dinner with the Rector. The Rector is one of the most important men in this republic. So, we agreed to have a cocktail reception at 6:00 at a restaurant near the airport. I would be able to check in for my 8:00 flight with no problem. We arrive at the restaurant at 6:00 and no Rector. 6:30 … 7:00 … still no Rector. I am starting to get nervous. Finally at 7:15, I ask my Azeri colleague if we can go. He calmly explained to me that the Rector called the airport and held the plane. The plane doesn’t leave until I arrive. It’s that simple. At 7:20, the Rector calls and asks me to meet him at the airport for tea. I meet the Rector for tea at 7:30. At 7:59, I walk to the plane — no checkin, security, anything. One of the Rector’s staff handed me a boarding pass. Amazing what goes on in an isolated, autonomous Central Asian republic.
ALL THAT JAZZ. One night in Baku, the capital city, I went to a jazz club with a colleague. There was a band that played fusion music with three young guys and two older guys. As the guitarist, one of the older guys, was ripping through Santana’s Soul Sacrifice as the final number, I couldn’t help but imagine him thirty years ago being in the basement of some Communist conservatory illegally trading Miles Davis and Led Zeppelin tapes and jamming with his buddies when the party apparatchiks were away.
LEAVING AZERBAIJAN: As I was checking in for my flight, the airline staffer looked at my ticket to Newark Airport and asked if I was from New Jersey. When I replied Yes, he said his uncle was living in Freehold and he had been to New Jersey. Small world.
Well, that’s all. I’ll be home in about 10 days. Happy Hanukkah, Merry Xmas, and Happy New Year.