Our neighbors ate, drank and shared memories a few days ago in a place that may surprise you: the local cemetery.
They were there for Paştele Blajinilor, or Memorial Easter, a week after Orthodox Easter. Like families across Moldova, they gathered at the graves of their loved ones, placing flowers and food besides the tombstones, lighting candles and enjoying a meal together.
The photo on the left shows what the cemetery at the Biserica Acoperământul Maicii Domnului in Ialoveni usually looks like. On the right is the same cemetery on Monday, when Champa and I visited.
We saw dozens of families spreading containers of food and bottles of soda, wine and cognac on tables or cloths near the graves. They had traditional local foods along with colored eggs and special bread. A priest circulated to say prayers. Families visited with their friends and neighbors, sharing food and wine as they remembered grandparents, parents, spouses and others. They dribbled wine on the graves and left behind food and candles. The mood was friendly but subdued and respectful.
Our host family was out of town visiting the village home of our host mother. Yet we felt welcome among everyone we saw. The woman in the middle of the photo with Champa knows us. She and her daughters stopped us as we were wandering around and insisted we share some food and wine with them. They also gave us a small gift bag with treats inside. Many families also use this occasion to donate food and small gifts to the poor.
Paştele Blajinilor, which traces it origins back to pre-Christian times, is celebrated widely in Moldova and parts of neighboring Romania. It reminded me of the Mexican holiday Día de los Muertos, although the religious significance is quite different since it coincides with Easter instead of Halloween.
The church you see here is on a hill on the other side of Ialoveni from where we live. As usual in Moldova, we traveled there on foot, walking about 9 km. roundtrip on roads still slick and muddy from a recent spring snowstorm. The trip was worth every step. We were moved by what we saw and felt privileged to take part in such a memorable event, a picnic in a cemetery to feed your soul.
If I said “Transylvania,” would you think “Dracula”?
Transylvania was indeed the home of Vlad Țepeș, or “Vlad the Impaler,” whose bloody reign and hilltop castle inspired the famous vampire novel by Bram Stoker. That’s Vlad in the top-right picture, which we saw when we visited Bran Castle this past week.
However, as we discovered during our 5-day trip to Transylvania, there’s so much more to see than tacky Dracula T shirts and coffee mugs.
Transylvania is located in central Romania, west of the Republic of Moldova, which was once part of Romania and retains close cultural ties to it. Transylvania has lovely rolling hills, picturesque villages and snowy mountain peaks. Its monasteries are stunning, and more than 150 fortified churches with moats and dense stone walls dot the countryside. Brașov, Sibiu, Sighișoara and other cities combine charm with great dining at low prices.
They are also brimming with history, as you can see from these trip photos. If much of the architecture appears German or Hungarian, that’s because many of Transylvania’s people came from those countries.
Romania’s Western ties have grown steadily since Nicolae Ceaușescu was overthrown and 42 years of Communist rule ended in 1989. Especially since it joined the European Union in 2007, Romania has been prospering, with one of Europe’s fastest growth rates.
Champa and I drove there with a Moldovan physician we met through an online ride-sharing service called BlaBlaCar. Once in Transylvania, we toured with Florin Ilea, a wonderful local guide who I recommend highly. We stayed in hotels in Brașov and at a great Airbnb apartment in Sibiu located just a block from the historic Bridge of Lies.
If Transylvania seems exotic to you, let me gently suggest you’re living in the past. I am old enough myself to remember when Prague was considered exotic, too. Now it has become a popular tourist destination for many Americans, as have Budapest, Warsaw and Dubrovnik. Based on what we saw during our visit, I expect Transylvania to join that list soon.
My advice is to visit it now, before everyone else discovers it. As Elizabeth Berkley famously said in Showgirls, a movie even tackier than the coffee mugs: It doesn’t suck (regardless of the vampire legends).
If you haven’t planned your summer vacation yet, how about a trip to Macedonia, Ukraine or Bulgaria?
Not for you? Well, then maybe someplace here in Moldova: to see crafts in Nisporeni, a beautiful mansion in Hîncești or the castle in Soroca?
All of these destinations had booths at a travel fair Champa and I attended on Saturday at the MoldExpo convention center in Chișinău. Therewas also information about destinations more familiar to American travelers, such as Greece, Israel and Hungary. But most were places you’ve probably never heard of, much less considered visiting.
In other words, it was our kind of travel fair. We went there to gather information for a trip we hope to take at the end of 2017 to Bulgaria, Macedonia and Albania. But we were also curious to see what the travel industry looks like in this part of the world. I’ve also been working with several other Peace Corps volunteers on a project to highlight the importance of friendly customer service and online marketing for Moldovan travel destinations.
Bulgaria, Romania and Turkey had some of the biggest exhibits at this weekend’s fair. All are popular among Moldovans who have the means and interest to travel. Moldovan national travel organizations and companies had exhibits, too, as did some of its 37 raions, or districts. There was a small booth for Georgia, where an enthusiastic guy told us about that country’s hiking, food scene and night life in Tbilisi. We also picked up brochures for everything from holidays in Montenegro to the painted monasteries of Bucovina, Romania.
My favorite booth was for the Slovak Republic, where I recognized the man in a casual shirt and blue jeans who was laying out brochures and pouring free beer. It was Robert Kirnág, the Slovak ambassador to Moldova, who I met last month at a ceremony to launch a water project.
I said hello and he thanked me for the the article I wrote about the project, which his embassy posted on its website. We chatted and posed for the photo you see here of him with Champa, me and our friend Denise, a Peace Corps volunteer from California who is working with me on our tourism project. He also told us more about Slovakia, which we now plan to visit if only because we like its ambassador so much.
Champa’s favorite moment was learning to paint an egg in the traditional style of Romania, which we’re visiting in one week. In my next post, I’ll show you what she created.
Shopping in Moldova can include Heinz ketchup, Lay’s potato chips, Tide detergent, Nescafe and a Coke. Add a bag of Skittles, too, if you want.
When Champa and I shop for groceries in Ialoveni, however, we usually buy products made in Moldova or in nearby countries such as Ukraine, Russia or Romania.
We cook our own food, a mixture of Nepalese, American and Moldovan dishes. There’s no doubt we eat better than some other Peace Corps volunteers around the world, especially since we live in a small city, but we always stay within our official food budget. Our daily diet is more modest than some of these photos suggest.
The local bread comes in many forms and is cheap and delicious. Cheeses are great, too. As you see, they come in many varieties. Salami is a local favorite. We love the fresh chicken and pork, which is much tastier than our supermarkets sell back in Durham. (Yes, that’s a pig’s head in the photo.)
Moldova is famous for wine and, as I’ve noted previously, its grocery shelves are stocked with local merlots, cabernet sauvignon, chardonnay and more, as well as cognacs, brandies and sparkling wines. The Ialoveni Winery is just up the street from us.
Our neighborhood markets also offer cakes from local bakeries, noodles from local pasta makers, candies from local confectioners and, of course, local fruits and vegetables that will soon be abundant and delicious. No surprise, we eat a lot of rice. We also can enjoy cheeses from Holland, persimmons from Israel and beer from Germany. One block from our house is the Sandra ice cream factory, with flags from both France and Moldova.
Champa and I have become regular customers at all of Ialoveni’s grocery stores, including two Victoria Markets and a UniMarket. We also shop at the Casa Cărnii store shown above, where I shot many of the photos in this post, and at some of the kiosk shops we pass on the main street as we walk home. Local farmers and vendors sell goods along the sidewalk, too.
Just up the street is an apartment complex with a corner market where we often buy groceries. If you look carefully at the photo, to the left of the door, you’ll see it also offers an ATM machine for our bank. The “Farmacie” to the right of the door is actually a separate shop. Downstairs, by the yellow brick, is another shop, selling meat. The windows to the right are yet another shop, selling soaps and toiletries.
In other words, shopping in Ialoveni is a mixture of small grocery stores, neighborhood shops resembling bodegas and smaller shops specializing in certain kinds of products. At the other end of the spectrum is Moldova’s “super store,” Metro, which resembles Costco. We’ll visit there in a future post. Right now, I’m hungry.
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Ialoveni students performed poems, dances and songs to welcome Claudia Partole, a popular Moldovan author of children’s stories and other books. She spoke at the local library. Don’t miss Champa receiving her certificate. (The video is also on YouTube at https://youtu.be/_eRms9fmshU.)
My paternal grandmother Sarah grew up in Odessa, Ukraine, not far from where I now serve as a Peace Corps volunteer in Moldova. Her family — my ancestors — fled to America to survive the violent anti-semitism depicted in “Fiddler on the Roof.”
At that time, more than 50,000 Jews lived in Moldova’s capital, Chișinău, comprising 46 percent of the city’s population according to an 1897 census. In 1903, 49 of them were killed in anti-semitic riots. A survivor said: “Dead bodies were everywhere, many of them horribly mutilated, and in most cases with the clothes torn off. There were ears, fingers, noses lying on the pavements. Babies were tossed in the air to be caught on the points of spears and swords. Young girls were horribly mistreated before death came to end their torture. I saw these things with my own eyes.”
It’s hard to imagine anything more chilling than that, but things got worse for Moldova’s Jews. A few decades later they were nearly wiped out by Nazi death squads who rounded them up and executed them in every corner of the country, sometimes with local help. Shortly before Champa and I joined the Peace Corps, “60 Minutes” broadcast a chilling story about a French Catholic priest investigating The Hidden Holocaust in the former Soviet States. (A clip is at the end of this story and on YouTube .)
“We traveled with Father Desbois to the former Soviet Republic of Moldova, where in one day he took us to four unmarked mass graves,” reporter Lara Logan said in the story. “In this field, he told us, 60 Jews beneath this farm, 100 above this city, under this hill, a thousand.”
In a small village near Telenești, an 85-year-old man tells them what he witnessed as a boy: “The Jews were facing the ditch, so they were shooting them in the back of their heads or their backs to fall into the ditch. They were shooting them as if they were dogs.”
Moldova’s Jews were murdered in their homes, in ravines, on death marches, in camps — everywhere. By the time the Soviet Army returned in August 1944, the Nazis had killed as many as 300,000 Jews across Moldova and neighboring areas of Bucovina, Bessarabia and Transnistria. Few survived.
After we were accepted as Peace Corps volunteers, one of our sons saw the “60 Minutes” story and told us he was worried about our own safety in Moldova, even though I am not an observant Jew and Champa grew up with local religions in Nepal.
In fact, we have both been welcomed warmly with few exceptions. We’ve now been here more than nine months and enjoy living here. I have yet to knowingly encounter anti-semitism, even though it still exists in Moldova and extremist groups can be found in much of Europe. What I have seen are some promising, if modest, signs of a Jewish revival.
Roughly 25,000 Jews live in Moldova these days, mainly in Chișinău but also in places such as Bălţi, Bender, Soroky, Rybnitsa, Orhei and Tiraspol. Their numbers grew under Soviet rule until the 1970s and 1980s, when anti-semitism led many of them to emigrate, mainly to Israel and North America.
Many of Moldova’s Jews now are elderly and living on small fixed incomes. In October, Champa and I spent an afternoon with Alex Weisler and others from the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, which is doing wonderful work here to support the Jewish community with basic services and religious, educational, legal and cultural programs.
Earlier, shortly after arriving in Chișinău, my friend Tom and I visited the local Chabad, where they were happy to welcome us after I joined them in the prayer they were reciting, although I declined their attempt to wrap me in tefillin. Tom and I also passed the nearby synagogue shown at the beginning of this post, with the sky showing through its smashed windows. A few blocks away, on Jerusalem St., was the red granite monument you see here, honoring victims of the Chișinău ghetto.
On Sunday, Champa and I saw this display of a Torah, menorah and other Jewish symbols in the religion exhibit at Chișinău’s history museum. Just outside of town is Europe’s largest Jewish cemetery, now overgrown beside an abandoned synagogue. A new website, JewishMemory: History of the Jews in Moldova, provides an excellent introduction for anyone who wants to learn more, as does this site.
In other words, Moldova’s Jewish legacy is here if you look for it. The Israeli Embassy maintains a good list of current organizations and activities. If any of my Moldovan friends or Peace Corps colleagues are curious, this article tells where to find graveyards, memorials and other Holocaust sites in Bălți, Cahul, Comrat, Briceni, Florești, Hincești, Calarași, Leova, Soroca, Ungheni and other locations.
I hope to visit Odessa before we leave, to honor my grandmother and the rest of my family who endured so much before finding a better life in America. I think their spirit is still here, like those of so many others, whispering to us from the sky-filled synagogues, bullet-pocked walls and broken cemetery stones.
Duke Chapel, the Durham Bulls Athletic Park and the American Tobacco Campus are among the destinations I’ll be featuring today.
Wait, you’re thinking, isn’t this blog about our experiences as “not exactly retired” Peace Corps volunteers in Eastern Europe?
Yes, exactly. On Thursday, we handed out souvenir postcards of Durham, N.C., as prizes for students competing in geography quizzes we held during two presentations we gave in the town of Criuleni. Watching them react to the Durham bull and other landmarks from back home was an experience we won’t forget.
My friends at the Durham Convention & Visitors Bureau gave me the cards before Champa and I left to join the Peace Corps last spring. Thanks anew to Shelly Green (@DCVBPrez) and her colleagues for helping us show off our home town with people we’ve met in Moldova. (Durham! Fresh Daily with great restaurants, arts and entertainment!)
As I’ve written before, North Carolina has a special relationship with Moldova. Just in my group, we have volunteers from Asheville, Boone, Charlotte, Winston-Salem, Raleigh and, of course, Durham.
Champa and I went to Criuleni to help commemorate Peace Corps Week, the annual celebration of President Kennedy’s founding of the Peace Corps on March 1, 1961. We joined other volunteers and country director Tracey Hébert-Seck in speaking at a week-long series of events organized by volunteers Chris Flowers and Rebecca Lehman. Further to the south, in Causeni, volunteer Anne Reed and her colleagues are planning a big event on Saturday to celebrate Peace Corps Week and International Women’s Month.
In our two presentations, Champa and I highlighted Peace Corps activities around the world. Our quizzes challenged the students to match photographs of Peace Corps volunteers with the countries where they served. In the middle photo of the three-photo strip above, for example, the boy is guessing which Peace Corps photos came from Albania, China or Swaziland. We also showed a video of our 2015 trip to Nepal and this video featuring people from 156 countries joining together to sing “All You Need Is Love.”