Tag Archives: Gagauz

Visiting Gagauzia

If foreign tourists only visited New York City, they wouldn’t understand upstate New York, much less the rest of the country. Likewise if they visited my home town of Durham but skipped the rest of North Carolina.

Screen Shot 2018-01-16 at 2.49.50 PMThe same is true here in Moldova, even though the whole country is only slightly larger than Maryland. This past weekend, Champa and I were reminded of this when we visited Comrat, a small city that is the capital of Moldova’s autonomous region of Gagauzia.IMG_0640

Comrat has notable red wines and a lovely church, but it’s best known in Moldova as the home of the Gagauz people, an Orthodox Christian ethnic minority that left Bulgaria years ago to escape persecution from the Ottoman Empire. Almost all Gagauz people speak Russian instead of Romanian and they have no interest in Moldova reuniting with Romania, which is a popular idea in our part of the country. IMG_0653To the contrary, many have unhappy memories of Romanian rule.

When I served previously as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Nepal, it took me nearly a year until my American eyes adjusted enough to notice the different facial features of people in various ethnic groups. Here in Moldova, where we are well into our second year, I was struck by how Gagauz faces showed similarities with the Balkans, in ways I don’t usually see in Ialoveni.


We traveled to Comrat by bus so I could help teach a journalism class led by Haley, a member of my Peace Corps group who is working with Miras Moldova, an NGO that advances Gagauz culture. At her request, I discussed my career as a journalist and communicator, and we then worked together with the students to review projects they have been developing on topics such as Gagauz cuisine and traditional medical practices.


Haley and her partner Anna Celac also organized fun activities such as the one you see above, which challenged one student to draw a copy of a picture, guided only by verbal cues from her partner instead of seeing the original. The students also asked Champa to teach them some Nepali, as you can see in the video clip below (also on YouTube.)


Two other Peace Corps Volunteers in Comrat joined us, Haley and Anna for dinner at Haley’s house, where we spent the night. Haley cooked a fabulous meal and we loved meeting her host mother, a Gagauz journalist herself who remains active well into her 70s.

All in all, it was a short but fascinating reminder that even a small country can have big internal differences, in this case not “red states” vs. “blue states” but “bună ziua” vs. “Здравствуйте.”

Celebrating ‘Our Language’

Suppose America organized a big party every year to celebrate the English language.

That’s what Moldova does with Romanian through its annual Limba Noastră holiday, which it celebrated again on Thursday. IMG_7223The words mean “our language” in Romanian, which is the official national language here.

Simultaneously, one in four Moldovans speak another language as their native tongue, mainly Russian, Ukranian or Gagauz, all of which have official status in certain regions.


Limba noastră is also the title of Moldova’s national anthem. Just as The Star-Spangled Banner honors the American flag, Moldova’s anthem proclaims the Romanian language to be a “treasure” that is “more than holy,” a heritage that “surges from deep shadows the past.” You can see a video of the anthem at the top of this post or on YouTube.

The Limba Noastră holiday goes beyond language to celebrate Moldova’s heritage more broadly. It occurs immediately after the country’s Independence Day, adding a cultural counterpoint to the politics of Moldova’s identity. Both celebrations are followed by First Bell, on September 1, when schools across Moldova hold colorful ceremonies to open the new year and ring out summer.

Here in Ialoveni, hundreds of people gathered at the Casa de Cultură, or cultural center, on Thursday to celebrate Limba Noastră. There were musical performances, dramas, dances and poetry, some of which you can see here. The library where I work, Biblioteca publică orăşenească „Petre Ştefănucă,” organized the program together with the town hall, or primăria, and the cultural section of the county government, or Consiliul Raional. It also created a series of exhibits celebrating Moldovan authors and the Romanian language. That’s library director Valentina Plamadeala speaking at the ceremony in the photo above.

During its Soviet period, Romanian was called Moldovan to distinguish it from the adjacent country with which so many Moldovans feel connected. Some people still insist on calling the language “Moldovan” even though its differences with the Romanian spoken in Romania are slight.


In places like Ialoveni that have strong ties to Romania, most people embrace the holiday, seeing the Romanian language as part of their ethnic identity. One speaker at Thursday’s ceremony recalled how he and others were forced to speak Russian in the years before Moldova’s independence. For them, limba noastră has a resonance that goes deeper than the language itself.

Elsewhere in Moldova, the holiday can be perceived differently. One of my fellow volunteers who lives in a Russian-speaking area said his host father calls it limba voastră, or your (not our) language.

The relationship between language and identity is complicated, in other words, and not always easy for an American to understand. We have plenty of experience with these issues back home, though, so the story can sound familiar despite the translation.


Want to learn more? This article offers useful background about Moldova’s languages. Also interesting is this article about how language is perceived by different groups in Moldova. [Hat tip for the second article to my volunteer colleague Haley Bader, whose excellent blog you should check out.]