Tag Archives: Chisinau

Places You Should Visit

Champa and I have taken several interesting trips to neighboring countries while serving as Peace Corps Volunteers in Moldova. Now that we’re nearly finished, which places would we recommend the most?


I’ve written previously about our impressions of Transylvania; Armenia and Georgia; Bulgaria and Bucharest; Odessa; Vienna, Budapest and Bratislava; and the Romanian city of Iași. In Moldova, our visits included Soroca, Comrat and several famous monasteries. 


We enjoyed all of these places. But if you have limited time and resources, here’s our Top Three for your consideration:

  • The Transylvania region of Romania
  • Tbilisi, Georgia
  • Bratislava, Slovakia

We also recommend a visit to Moldova!


Transylvania was our favorite spot. Many Americans associate it mainly with Dracula, the  fictional vampire inspired by the real-life Vlad Țepeș. But Transylvania is one of Europe’s most beautiful and undiscovered tourist spots. It offers majestic castles (including one named for Dracula), beautiful churches and picturesque cities such as Brașov, Sibiu and Sighișoara. It has nice hotels and restaurants, with architecture reminiscent of Germany and Hungary, whose people settled here. You’re also near Romania’s capital, Bucharest, which is worth a visit, too. Prices are lower than in most other parts of Europe, people are friendly, the weather is mild and the wine is delicious. What’s not to like?


Tbilisi was called “one of the hottest tourist destinations” last year by The Independent, and for good reason. The Georgian capital, located on the eastern side of the Black Sea, offers distinctive cuisine, interesting sites and rich opportunities for nearby hiking and other outdoor activities. Vogue included it among its “10 Hottest Travel Destinations” and Anthony Bourdain devoted a program to its emerging food scene, including “hangover soup” to recover from a night in the city’s clubs. Don’t miss a visit to the Holy Trinity Cathedral, the gorgeous church overlooking the city, or the nearby monastery in Mtskheta.


Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia, surprised us with its beauty and charm. Like many tourists, we visited it mainly because it was near Vienna and Budapest, which are better known. We loved those cities, too, but Bratislava was where we’d live if we had to choose among them. It has a friendly vibe, lovely places to visit, fun places to eat, a castle atop the city, even a bridge with a restaurant shaped like a UFO. Bratislava is cozier than its better-known neighbor, Prague, but you can happily spend hours or days enjoying its restaurants and shops, or strolling along the Danube. If you prefer a day trip, it’s just one hour by train from Vienna.


We’ve come to love Moldova the most of all. Its travel infrastructure is far behind these other places, but you can spend several enjoyable days or more exploring its wineries, monasteries, countryside and attractions. Moldova offers a variety of adventure sports and outdoor activities, great meals, music and cultural festivals and nightlife that ranges from dance clubs to opera, all for a fraction of what you’d pay in most other European cities. This website provides a nice overview of Moldova’s travel possibilities.


If you prefer to explore the fascinating culture of Armenia, the glorious Rila Monastery of Bulgaria or the famous steps of Odessa instead of our Top Three, well, those are great choices, too, and you can’t go wrong visiting Vienna or Budapest. My main suggestion is simply to give this part of the world a try. As I’ve written previously, too many Americans are missing out on great places here because they never even consider them. We found all of them to be interesting, safe, inexpensive and fun. Maybe you will, too.


The Smokehouse Experiment

Smokehouse, a restaurant opened here in Moldova by two former Peace Corps Volunteers, shows how some PCVs contribute even more to a country after they finish their service.  It’s serving up optimism with a side of slaw

WorldView, the magazine of the National Peace Corps Association, just published this article I wrote about Smokehouse. You can read it below or link to this PDF version: WorldView – Smokehouse Experiment.

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Metro Shopping

If you shop at Costco, BJ’s or Sam’s Club, the two Metro stores in Moldova will seem familiar.


I was astonished the first time Champa and I visited one of these local warehouse stores with our host family. The displays of Barbie dolls, blenders and Italian pastas seemed more appropriate to an American suburb than a country hosting Peace Corps volunteers. The brand names ranged from Coca Cola to Samsung, with ATM machines available to help customers buy even more merchandise.


The two stores in Chișinău are among more than 750 across Europe and Asia run by the German company Metro Cash & Carry. Together with France’s Carrefour and the British company Tesco, Metro has a big presence in this part of the world even if most Americans have never heard of it.

Screen Shot 2017-10-15 at 10.03.14 AMThe stores here resemble Costco, from their giant shelves and forklifts to their membership cards and crowded parking lots where customers unload giant boxes of laundry detergent or dog food. Here, too, customers seem to buy more than they need because they can’t resist an apparent bargain. Many pay with cash, although credit and debit cards are becoming more popular with the kinds of Moldovans who shop here. IMG_7207

They are among the more prosperous consumers in this country, where many people still shop mainly at village alimentaras that resemble larger convenience stores back home. Those shopping at Metro illustrate Moldova’s aspirations for a modern European economy.

One thing Metro doesn’t have are the giant muffins Costco sells. I’m partial to the ones with chocolate chips myself. I’m hoping Metro will have them if our host family ever brings us back for another visit.



Moldova’s Marathon

If you’ve run in the Boston Marathon or the New York Marathon, maybe it’s time for you to step up and compete in the annual marathon here in Moldova’s capital city.

On Sunday morning, 17,000 runners from here and other countries participated in the Chișinău International Marathon. Cheering onlookers filled the central square. Nicolai Gorbușco and Olesea Smovjenco won the men’s and women’s marathons, along with winners of the half-marathon, 10 km and 5 km competitions.


Chișinău’s marathon is only three years old but its local organizing committee does a great job of producing a professional event with everything you’d expect: racing bibs, water stations, a big stage, music and colorful signs.


There are sponsors ranging from a local supermarket chain, bank and television station to familiar international names such as Lenovo, Hyundai and Herbalife. Booths sell running shoes, running clothes, vitamin supplements and souvenirs. Food merchants offer everything from energy drinks to draft beer and barbecue.

IMG_7936As in other cities, Moldova’s marathon disrupts local traffic and bus schedules. I discovered this on Sunday when the bus I usually take downtown wasn’t running. I had to scramble to find another bus to take me to a meeting I’d scheduled at a downtown library. (The people I was supposed to meet didn’t show up at all.)

IMG_7943If you’re a runner, put the Chișinău International Marathon on your list. You’ll enjoy participating and you can spend a few days exploring Moldova’s other attractions, such as its churches, wineries and countryside. You’ll also get a cool medal, like the one you see here. Boston and New York are great, to be sure, but how many of your friends have a medal like this?

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Ethno Jazz Festival

Which is more remarkable: (a) a flamenco band whose musicians are all Polish, or (b) someone in their audience who stared at her cell phone the entire time they and two other bands played?

To help you decide, here’s a snippet of the band, Viva Flamenco!

Pretty great, right? I’d like to now show you my photo of the woman who sat in front of me chewing gum and flipping nonstop through Facebook as her phone illuminated the darkness. I won’t, though, since Champa says I may sound like an angry old man screaming at kids to “get off my lawn!”


So I’ll just say I loved the Polish flamenco band, and also really liked the act before them, the Antonio Silva Quartet, whose members came from Portugal, Ireland and Sweden. Both groups played on Saturday evening at Chișinău’s national philharmonic hall in an “Ethno Jazz Festival.” We went to the second of three concerts there, with the series also organizing events in Cahul, Soroca and Tiraspol.

As you can see, the theater itself is magnificent, its wooden walls lined with the portraits of famous composers and a giant chandelier shimmering overhead.


There was also an opening act: a Norwegian pianist playing with a Russian accordionist who wailed, chirped and otherwise vocalized in ways that seemed to elude most of the audience, including us. Nonetheless, she played her accordion with enthusiasm, advancing the concert’s theme of international harmony, if not necessarily musical harmony.

So we had a great time. Now, get off my lawn. 😃 Happy face!

Happy Patients, By Design

The doctor in the poster looks confident, doesn’t he? He’s wearing a white coat over his shirt and tie, his arms are crossed, his gaze is fixed, his medical equipment is gleaming in the background. The poster tells us he is Hakan Eraslan, an expert in cardiology. Come to him for a second medical opinion, it says, and he may help save your heart.

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Now look to the right of the poster. The nicely designed brochures on the rack tell you why you should come to Medpark, the hospital where Dr. Eraslan and others treat patients in Moldova’s capital city. The brochures describe the high quality you can expect for surgery, opthamology, maternity care and other services.

The poster, brochures and other signage at Medpark caught my eye when I went there on Saturday for a routine medical consult. (I’m fine.) They looked like what I used to see on the walls at Duke’s hospital and medical clinics. Other American medical settings have similar posters and signs filled with earnest doctors, loving parents and photogenic children. Medpark also has video monitors showing its caring doctors at work, with narration in Romanian and subtitles in Russian. (See the clip at the bottom of this post.)

IMG_7762I may pay more attention than most people to signs and videos like these because I work in communications, although even for me they often  blended into the background when I was back home. In Moldova, though, I noticed them immediately on Saturday because they were so different from the drab walls and signage I’ve seen in some medical settings here.

Most of Moldova’s medical facilities are public. Their challenges, including a lack of modern equipment and facilities, are much bigger than font choices and graphic design. Their signs tend to be functional and their amenities limited.


Medpark, by contrast, is a fairly new medical center in Chișinău. It operates privately, with patients generally paying out-of-pocket for most services. Its rates are high for Moldova, although lower than in Western Europe and much lower than in the United States. As a result, many of its patients are from wealthier families, visiting home from jobs abroad or, as in my case, foreigners.

The hospital has an attractive coffee bar in its lobby, a free charging station for cell phones and colorful play equipment for children. Its pharmacy sells fancy creams and lotions along with medical prescriptions, and it offers artfully arranged eyeglass frames in a glass kiosk. The corridor signs look like they could have been plucked from a modern American hospital and translated into Romanian.

All of this didn’t happen by accident. Someone in the hospital’s senior management and communications department gave it a lot of thought, right down to the lower-case logo in sans-serif type and the aqua color palette. Once I began to notice and think about this visual environment around me, it was obvious Medpark is deliberately sending a message: We’re modern! You can trust us!

IMG_7756And do you know what? Its strategy works, at least for me. I felt reassured as soon as I entered through the revolving glass door into a bright lobby. The medical care I received turned out to be good, too, but I was already primed to expect this because of everything I’d seen, even if I wasn’t immediately conscious of why I felt optimistic.

None of this matters, of course, if the hospital doesn’t offer high-quality medical care. But my experience on Saturday reminded me how important thoughtful design and communications can be in advancing an organization’s business strategy. That’s true in Moldova just like back home. It’s why individual American hospitals and health centers and organizations such as the Society for Healthcare Strategy & Market Development, the Association of American Medical Colleges, the Public Relations Society of America and others pay so much attention to these kinds of issues.

Effective communications may be even more important here in Moldova, a former Soviet state striving to assert its identity as a modern European country. This is true not only in the healthcare arena but more generally, a subject I hope to explore further in the future.

For now: Dr. Eraslan, your confident gaze is working for me.


Street People

I yearned for Duke’s famous basketball coach when I took the #9 bus to the Moldova Peace Corps office on Friday.


The bus drove along a street named for the Moldovan writer and artist Gheorghe Asachi, turned at a street named for the poet Vasile Alecsandri and continued past a street named for a lawyer, Avram Iancu. I got off at a street named for another writer, Alexandru Hâjdeu.

Finally, at a street named for a Moldavian historian, Grigore Ureche, I reached the Peace Corps, which is named for … well, nobody. Here in Moldova they might have called it “Peace Corps John F. Kennedy” or “Peace Corps Sargent Shriver.”

Moldovans are passionate about naming streets and institutions after prominent people, especially writers and political figures. The central street in Chișinau, the capital, is named for the beloved king Ștefan cel Mare și Sfânt, or “Steven the Great and Holy.”

Other large streets in the city honor everyone from Orthodox church leaders to Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space. There are also streets named for famous dates, like “31 August 1989,” when Moldova adopted Romanian as its official language.

In Ialoveni, where we currently live, we have adjacent streets named after famous dates in May, as well as many streets and buildings named for people. The library, where I work, and one of the two main schools are named for Petre Ștefănucă, a Bessarabian sociologist who died in a Russian gulag. The other main school, where Champa works, is named after Andrei Vartic, a writer and physicist.


Seeing all of these names has been a learning experience for me. I grew up near New York City, which has a systematic grid of streets and avenues with numbers. Many other U.S. cities have numbered streets as well. For many years, Champa and I lived near Washington, D.C., where many streets are named after U.S. states. In Durham, our home now back in the States, our subdivision has streets named after trees; ours is Pine Bark Trail.

To be sure, New York also has the George Washington Bridge, Lincoln Tunnel and FDR Drive, and many cities in America have streets named for Martin Luther King or other people. My personal favorite is Champa Street in Denver. But we also have plentiful streets with simple names like “Main Street” or “Market Street.”

Well, simple if you’re an American, I suppose. For a Moldovan visitor, “Lexington Avenue” or “Rock Creek Parkway” may sound as foreign as “Strada Mihail Kogălniceanu” does to me.

I’m sure Mihail was a great guy. I can’t help but think, though, it would have been easier if they’d handled him like our own famous Mike in Durham and just called him Coach K.

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Faces of Change

IMG_7370There are few galleries in Moldova where young artists can show their work. This weekend, though, more than 20 of them are taking part in an exhibit inside an old museum, featuring more than 100 portraits ranging from painting to caricature.

IMG_7406Lucia Codreanu and Maks Graur, both young artists themselves, organized and curated the free show in downtown Chișinău, running through Sunday afternoon. You can see some of the work here.

Lucia, who just graduated from high school and will soon begin studying art at a university in Romania, is amazing. She’s already assembled an impressive portfolio that includes my own favorites, her whimsical Moldovan reinterpretations of famous paintings.

I came to know Lucia well during last year’s Diamond Challenge competition that encourages entrepreneurship among young Moldovans. She was one of the three high school students on the team I mentored, which ended up placing second nationally in the business category. It was a joy to work with her and the other two students. Lucia was the designer for their project to create a personalized children’s book, which she showed in this video clip:

I encouraged one of that competition’s judges, an American who runs a web development company here, to give her a look. He loved her work, hired her and says she did a great job working part-time on web projects while finishing her final year of high school.


Lucia’s partner in this weekend’s “Faces” exhibit is also impressive. Maks Graur, who you see with Lucia in the gallery here, has been studying art in England. He recently completed a Draw for Dogs project in which he drew portraits for people who donated to charities that assist stray dogs.

When Champa and I visited on Saturday morning, Lucia told me the question she and Maks have been asked most often is why they organized the show for free. Volunteering, at least as we know it in America, is not a strong tradition in Moldova, which is why people here often have a hard time understanding why Peace Corps Volunteers would leave their homes to serve others.

Young people like Lucia give me hope that things can change. Surrounded by the portraits she and Maks pulled together, she looked to me on Saturday like the face of Moldova’s future.

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Memorial Day


Memorial Day is on Monday back home. Champa and I got a head start earlier this month when we visited the big victory memorial here in Moldova.

Located in the heart of Chișinău, the memorial complex is built around a circle of five dramatic red pillars surrounding an eternal flame. IMG_4712Nearby are sculpted murals depicting the bloody struggle to defeat Nazi Germany. Smaller monuments honor fallen heroes and show the names of Soviet soldiers who gave their lives to liberate Moldova in August 1944. Rows of white grave markers in the adjacent cemetery are reminiscent of Arlington Cemetery, albeit with Russian inscriptions.

We visited the park with two Peace Corps friends, Beth and Andrea, shortly before Moldova’s Victory Day on May 9. Soldiers were mowing the grass, pulling weeds and sprucing up.

IMG_4715Moldova was part of the Soviet Union, which was America’s most important ally on the eastern European front of World War II. Yet we inevitably view our joint victory through the lens of the subsequent Cold War. For Moldovans, the legacy is even more complicated since the German occupation was followed by decades of Russian rule.

I found it fascinating how the Soviet gravestones lack any religious markings while those erected since Moldovan independence, just a few yards away, are adorned with crosses. One gravestone has an inscription saying (in Romanian), “Born speaking Romanian; died speaking Romanian,” a clear rejection of the Russian language. The cemetery also honors Moldovans who died shortly after independence in the war in Transnistria, the pro-Russian region that broke away and remains largely autonomous.


Yet many Moldovans have close personal ties to Russia, want closer relations with it and cherish its glorious triumph. Just outside the park we saw this billboard promoting Victory Day. It displays a Soviet hammer and sickle and the signature of Moldova’s current president, who sat beside Vladimir Putin at Moscow’s victory parade on May 9. IMG_4683Many thousands of Moldovans marched or gathered in Chișinău the same day, as they did around the country, especially in Russian-speaking areas. In places where Romanian is commonly spoken, the emphasis tended to be more on European unity, especially with the West.

Even the date of Moldova’s Memorial Day is complicated. Germany’s unconditional surrender to the Allies occurred on May 7, 1945, which Americans remember as V-E Day (Victory in Europe Day). People in this part of Europe, however, commemorate a ceremony that took place late the following day in which Germany formally surrendered to the Soviet forces. Since it was already May 9 by then in Moscow, that became the official date for Russia and other Soviet states, including Moldova.

IMG_4718More than 70 years after the war ended, its impact on the history and psyche of this region remains profound. As I have written previously, almost every Moldovan village has a memorial, usually accompanied by the names of local men who died. In the village where I lived during training, the list exceeded 100 names, an astonishing toll. Many Moldovans also have painful memories of family members and friends who were deported by the Soviets after the war.

As a Peace Corps volunteer, I avoid politics. Yet our visit to the memorial park was a reminder that history is never far away in this small but complex country. Like the flame inside Chișinău’s monument, memories here smolder, flicker and burn. Every day is Memorial Day.