Tuesday, December 4, 2007

top dog and a dog in a topper

Despite the warning in Bucharest, nothing happened on the train to Chișinău. Not to me. I was in a four-berth sleeping car, shared with a very polite young man and an older woman. Young Man spoke some English, and told me to let him know if I needed any help. He was helpful without my asking, translating for the porter who would show up and bark out stuff in Romanian ("ticket and passport!"). I can't remember what time we hit the border, sometime around don't-want-to-be-awake-o'clock. Neither Young Man nor I raised any exit immigration eyebrows, but our travel companion did. First her passport disappeared down the hallway in the hands of an agent, and then the agent returned, with the porter, words were exchanged, and in the end she took her luggage, and disappeared down the hallway as well. I waited a decent amount of time, then asked Young Man what just happened. Searching for some English words, he explained that she had overstayed the time allowed in Romania. "And now there is a problem." Umm. The train started rolling again without her having returned, and not knowing when the entry border check would be, I dozed off clutching my passport, with the cabin light on. The next stop came a couple of hours later, at what I guess was the first full stop beyond the Moldovan border. An agent in very formal military dress, up to his combination cap halo, who spoke English, asked me to fill out a customs declaration, which he pulled from a leather satchel. Having heard vague warnings about occasionally corrupt Moldovan agents, I declared only a very small amount of money, my emergency cash and souvenir notes from other countries safely stowed down my trousers. Young Man disembarked, and train rolling again, I went back to sleep. I woke up to the door opening, and the disappeared woman reappeared. Don't know where she was for those few hours, but I'm curious to find out.

The mysterious, temporary disappearance of a passenger only reinforced the pure, old school Eastern European-ness of the train. I've been on a lot of trains on this trip, and this one took the cake, the frosting, and the jimmies sprinkled on top. The berths by themselves would have been sufficient for sleeping, but a bed roll was also provided, as well as a pillow, pillow case, two sheets, and a blanket. Each berth had a reading light. The main corridor had a runner. The cabins had rugs. The windows had curtains. The table had a tablecloth. And the flooring hid compartments, which I only realized when the border agents came through with flashlights, lifting them up to check for anything (anyone?) squirreled away. By my standards, ritzy.

Okay, I admit it. I hadn't the foggiest where Moldova was before I started this trip. Now I do. Next to Romania, below Ukraine. Someone in Braşov asked me why I was going to Chișinău, and I didn't really have a good answer for him. Moldova doesn't exactly top the lists of holiday hot spots, and I wasn't aware of any offbeat oddball attractions. But I had a wodge of Moldovan lei, Chișinău is sort of on the way to my next destination (Kiev), and since the train conveniently arrived in the morning, why not stop for a couple of days. It's not the most compelling reason to visit a city, but it isn't the worst reason, either.

Before leaving the train station I was taking a moment to study the departure board to see what I could deduce about Kiev-bound trains. Looking like a backpacker with my big turquoise rucksack, now a bit dingy, an American approached me and asked me if I wanted to share transportation to the city center. He had made friends with a Romanian guy in his train compartment, who was meeting a Moldovan friend, who might be able to help us out. I said okay, and twenty minutes later wished I'd hadn't. It was nothing terrible, just something annoying. Watching these three grown men figure out first how to get to city center, and then once we'd gotten there, how to purchase sim cards for their phones, and thereafter how to install purchased sim cards in their phones and get them working was worse than a roomful of pre-teens deciding which outfit to wear to the mall on a Friday night. Actually, the two Europeans were okay and perfectly friendly, it was mostly the American, Niles, who was unbearable. He had that special gift of sucking those around him into solving his problems, ie, having left the address of his accommodation in his email instead of writing it out. I was feeling guilty by association, like I had imposed on the Moldovan guy to help me out, when I knew I could have made it to the hostel on my own. I like traveling alone because decisions don't involve wishy-washy twenty minute conversations where no one can decide what they want or how to achieve it, especially when it's something that's ultimately insignificant. We could have gotten to city center in a cab or in a minibus. Both achieved the same end. Both were cheap. It didn't matter which one we took. Niles also suffered from that condition where he talked too much, and complicated issues that were really quite simple. I should have known, since a couple times during the border stops, I had heard him yammering on from down the hallway. During the cab ride, he somehow got onto a discussion with the Romanian on how many liters were in a gallon, but he didn't really know what a liter was. Pulling my canteen from my bag, I waved it in front of his face. "This is a half liter." My Nalgene-clear demonstration wasn't quite enough the resolve the matter, and I tuned out. I wanted to ditch him as soon as we got out of the cab, but he wanted to follow me to the hostel, in case he couldn't locate he place he had booked, and I figured 10:00 in the morning was too early to be heartless. 22:00 would have been a different story, I would have walked off in a heartbeat. He was such a scatterbrain. After the interminable discussion of sim card and mobile phones (reason enough to never own one), we were finally on our way, and he left his duffle sitting on the sidewalk.

The hostel is just a family run affair in an apartment. Who knows if it's even legal. The owner isn't usually there, and the man onsite is Viktor, her dad. His soft, white-haired, track-suited appearance is jarred slightly by a mouthful of gold teeth. He speaks very little English, communicating instead in Russian, and spends all of his time playing solitaire on a computer monitor so old it's gone all sorts of horrible colors. He sleeps on a couch in the front room, next to the galley kitchen. If anything complicated needs to be communicated, he calls his daughter, and hands you the phone. You tell her whatever, and hand the phone back to Viktor. Sounds a little convoluted, but actually works quite well. There isn't much about hostel life and particulars that can't be demonstrated with simple words and gestures. This toilet seat certainly needs no words.

Before being freed of Niles, who went in search of an internet café, I was treated to his theories about DDT and corresponding breast sizes of women in Moldova and Ukraine. I won't try to explain, since I didn't understand, didn't want to understand. I walked for about six hours and returned to the hostel when my feet hurt and night was falling. There was an average of five currency exchange offices for each city block, and by chance I came across one that exchanged Bulgarian leva, along with about twenty other currencies. I got rid of extra leva, Romanian lei, and Turkish lira, exchanging the lira into euros. The wads of toilet tissue I keep stuffed in all my trouser pockets are more valuable than the dollar right now. Thank you, US Government. I can't wait until you're voted out of office. I was the only person at the hostel, besides Viktor, and he set me up in the private dorm with the television. After being sick in Plovdiv, I thought I had paid my vacation illness dues, but I could feel something nefarious sneaking up on me during the day. By evening I developed a low fever. I contemplated going to a pharmacy, but had no idea what to ask for, or how to ask for something to make me feel better. Instead I just slouched in an armchair all evening, flipping through television stations. Moldovan television airs lots of English language shows and movies, but most of them have been subjected to a kind of low quality dub; the English soundtrack is turned down (but not all the way), and a couple of actors do double, triple, quadruple duty voicing lines for however many characters. I was pretty sure some of them had simply one voice for men, and one for women. They must be doing it on the fly, since the Moldovan, possibly Russian, dialogue was always about a beat behind the English. Feeling more and more googly as the evening progressed, I finally crawled into bed and wadded myself up under the covers. The hostel was quiet enough, but sometime in the middle of the night, a barking dog chorus kicked up outside. It was like the twilight bark from 101 Dalmatians, except this one didn't stop, and the one dog that seemed to have a lot to say must have been sitting right outside of the building. My fevered brain started fantasizing about a tranquilizer gun. Nothing that would hurt him, just something to shut him up until morning. Eventually he stopped, or I fell asleep despite the noise, I can't remember which.

I peeled my eyes open at 10:00 in the morning, way later than I ever sleep in. I felt slightly better, and resumed my city perambulations, toying with the idea of food. I had eaten barely anything since getting into town, but didn't really have an appetite. Nothing sounded appetizing, and my stomach felt fragile. I compromised with a yogurt. A lot of the yogurt, or yogurty products, over here are sour, and every time I get one there's a moment of thinking it's gone way off. I check the date, tell myself it's fine, and get it down.

Chișinău's pleasant enough for a walkabout – lots of the sidewalks are nice and wide, and little markets are sprinkled around everywhere. Everything was so dirt cheap, I was tempted to buy just for the sheer bargain, but after a moment's reflection remembered that I didn't need anything, except a pair of thermal underwear. The vendor seemed to have them in bulk without a sizing chart, so I did some math on a piece of cardboard to convert my height, weight, and waist size to metric, and let her make a selection for me. I wasn't convinced they would fit, but for $5.00 decided I could risk a miss. They turned out to be kind of snug, but good enough. I felt better about my plans to head further north in the coming weeks. Much of the commerce in town was more specialized than I've seen elsewhere; there were a few grocery stores, but between them I found all sorts of shops devoted to one item - plastic bins and detergents were two of the big standouts. The market stalls sold shoes, undergarments, or second-hand sweaters, but never in the same place. And a good chunk of the transactions around town were taking place through windows of ubiquitous street kiosks.

Successful thermals purchase aside, I found Chișinău to be a bit impenetrable, at times literally so. It doesn't have a significant amount of noteworthy buildings which look inviting. Many of the cafés and restaurants I noticed were chains, all neon and staffed by apathetic teens in uniforms. Even though my appetite hadn't returned, I went into one to get something simple, and managed to be ignored for twenty minutes by at least three wait staff. I took it as a sign that maybe I shouldn't eat anything, not yet. Had I been feeling punchier, I would have grabbed one of them, ordered something, and then walked out before it was served. Other cafés had all the windows covered with screens, many of which were depicting the type of ladies that high-rolling business men seek the acquaintance of on a temporary basis. I was wondering if they were strip clubs, and kind of wanted to stroll through one of the doors to find out, but wasn't feeling up to it by myself. Such activities are far more worthwhile when attempted with a friend. I think Chișinău is a city best visited in the company of a local. In all fairness, I was feeling kinda gross for the couple of days that I was there, and wasn't motivated to do a lot of in-depth exploring. Moldova is also the one country where I visited only one city, for only three days, which isn't enough time to settle into any new culture or environment. I'd want to spend more time there before making any sweeping statements about Moldovan society. I can tell you, in no uncertain terms, that Chișinău has lots of parks, although at least one of them had a less than inviting entrance.

It took me three trips to the train station to get my ticket to Kiev. The first time I got the train timetable, and since there were two overnight trains, I wanted to think about which one to take. Curiously, when I asked about prices, the girl behind the window only gave me the price for the 20:00 train (382 lei), and not the 23:00 train. I know I asked her for both, so it seemed an odd, intentional omission of information. Going back the next day, to buy a ticket, I had to wait for one of the sellers (all women) to emerge from the back hallway, where I could see them hanging out together. Doing a little experiment, I asked for the prices for the two night trains, and was only given the first, which had dropped to 350 lei. I had to make a special point of getting the price for the second train (slightly more expensive at 410 lei). Having dutifully provided the information requested, the ticket seller promptly got up and walked back to the hallway. Clearly it wasn't worth her time to stick around to see if I actually wanted to purchase a ticket. I really wanted to know what the difference was between the two evening trains, since the one that left three hours later arrived in Kiev one hour earlier, but I had slim hope of getting any sort of answer. None of the women behind the counter seemed remotely interested in providing anything except the most minimal information. Since I wasn't leaving until the next day, I decided to not subject myself unduly to their brand of customer service. By the time I did buy a ticket the following day, the price had dropped yet again, to 336 lei. And as soon as the transaction was under way, my ticket seller immediately became more engaged in the process. She took the time to point out crucial bits of info on the ticket, and I even got a smile at the end. So, sort of a strange flock of birds behind the international tickets window at the Chișinău train station. In some sense, I suppose their demeanor was really just as impenetrable as I found the rest of the city, I just finally managed to crack through a bit with my repeated visits.

A few years ago, I became the temporary owner of an abandoned German shepherd. Not knowing if his owner would turn up the next day and his true identity would be revealed, he was named Mister Dog. He never sported a topper and a bow tie, but he did have to don the Elizabethan collar after getting neutered.


Cybele said...

mister dog!!!

monkeyassault said...

I also have a dog named mister dog!
Also, sometimes he is mr. stinker, mr. fluff, or doctor snout.

Oria said...

This is great info to know.