Ukraine continued to display paranoia when we left. Long waits for no apparent reason; although they may have been waiting for a small token of appreciation for our release. We wondered if they were just sorry to see us go, or perhaps they were checking to see if we had indeed assisted their comrades achieve a world record – in which case they may have wished to celebrate with us. It was 8.30am and the Vodka was on the desk. Our new hosts just down the road showed a lot more pleasure at our arrival. One of the ‘big hats’ actually smiled and asked if we would care to wait in their 37 degrees C airless carpark. Nice of him.
The country that staunchly carries the title ‘poorest economy in Europe’ is one that most people have never heard of. When did you last discuss the trials and tribulations of The Republic of Moldova? It’s a country about the size of Otago with 3.5 million people squeezed (in more ways than one) between Ukraine and Romania. It should be a little bit larger but a 60km strip of land next to Ukraine called Transnistria has declared itself independent and created its own president, constitution, army, currency and even a postal service. It took a few notes about this and believe the Bay of Plenty could easily do the same.
When researching this country to discover whether to include it in the program, I discovered …Moldova is well endowed with sedimentary rocks, sand and gravel. Natural hazards include landslides. That did it for me. Being proud of ones gravel and sand makes one more able to live happy at the bottom of the economic scale. Notwithstanding these treasures, there is really only 1 industry in Moldova – I’m serious, this is official – its wine making. They’ve been at it for about 5,000 years and believe me; they are really getting the hang of it. We visited the 2nd largest winemaking and storage facility – Cricova. It has a mere 120km of underground limestone caves (the biggest winemaker just down the road has 250kms). We are talking serious roads where the management drive their big Mercs to work underground and we zipped around in a surprisingly fast golf cart train. People regularly go inside and never emerge again. Astronaut Yuri Gagarin was assisted out after 2 days tasting. A well known Russian named Putin had his 50th birthday party down there. They gave him 500 bottles as a present. One bottle is rumored to be poisoned. We could see that very few have been drunk at this stage. Cricova have a ‘collection’ of wines comprising of 1.3 million bottles. In addition, their current maturing wine in storage is 4,000,000 liters. The wines are highly prized in Russia which is their biggest customer. Many affluent people purchase vintages and store them here in the ideal conditions. Some we viewed belonged to notable Germans – including Angela Merkel and Herman Goering. Goering is a bit behind with his rent. The stats on the big place down the road, Milestii Mici are even more mindboggling.
Given this, it’s easy to believe the proud Moldovan boast that they drink more Alcohol than anyone else in the world. The quality of their wines and beers are excellent – some say their Brandys’ surpass all others. The prices are astonishingly low. This provides the population with a cheap daily anesthetic making it unlikely Moldovan will ever escape their position at the bottom of the economic heap. Politics is a devilishly cunning business.
The other astounding asset – in their capital city Chisinau - is the sensation hotel we were fortunate to stay in. The Weekend Boutique Hotel is an amazing art gallery that must have been built by a hugely talented artist with an unlimited budget. I walked around gaping and pointing, totally in awe. Check it out – www.weekend-boutique-hotel.com (Actually, the web site doesn’t do it justice – there are others) It made the visit to Moldova worthy all by itself.
We couldn’t find the hotel so resorted to paying a taxi driver to lead us in. When I approached him he had no idea of its existence either. He called all his mates who were equally ignorant and started to wonder if he would ever earn the fat fee from the silly English speaking people who probably spent most of their life lost and being rescued by people like him. Finally I convinced him to call the hotel direct. I reasoned that even in a country with the world’s highest alcohol consumption, the receptionist would likely know where she shows up each morning. All this would be of little interest except for the fact that when we arrived, the doorman was a long lost best friend of the taxi driver. We saw them out the window chatting and smoking for hours. I imagine the exorbitant fare he charged us went up in smoke pretty quickly.
A country this size and one with a single industry, doesn’t have much to hold the tourists interest. We drove over a high percentage of its roads, saw most of the city twice, checked out the wine business and enjoyed the best looking hotel we have ever stayed in – all in 2 days. I did want to discuss the level of corruption which I understand is their other claim to greatness, but found no-one with any wish to talk to someone who may be a guvmint spy. I understand that this is a two class society - one class that spends its time creating and honing corrupt opportunities and procedures … and the other that spends its time hugely frustrated by the loss of a substantial portion of their meager incomes to these practices. For all that, the country looked good. The roads were far superior to both Ukraine and Romania; the people we meet were pleasant, helpful and willing to laugh at my racist and sexist jokes even if they didn’t understand them. I guess this is how they have coped with successive invaders.
Arriving back in Romania 6 weeks after leaving was like meeting an acquaintance and not remembering if they have body odour or something equally worrying. There were things we had forgotten. Spring had turned to summer. The heat had ripened the horse manure on the roads causing us to run full time on recirculating air conditioning. When a ‘greenie’ starts whining that cars cause pollution, mention that the streets of large cities used to be ‘feet’ deep in horse poo. Suggest we revert to this, but first tell them to scoot over to Romania in July for a preview. The underside of HeeHaw now has a new pungent veneer of anti-customs snooping material. The Carpathian Mountains in the North East of Romania are the most spectacular part of the country, and the poorest. Particularly the area known as northern Transylvania. The fecal road cover is created by farmers driving their horse and ancient looking carts with wonky wheels on the roads. There are thousands of them. Tractors are virtually nonexistent yet. One horsepower is usual but a contractor or perhaps someone mortgage free may show off with a 2 horsepower unit. Mum, Dad and the boy who will inherit the farm and lifestyle can be seen plodding along – usually sitting up on top of an enormous load. Interestingly we never saw a young lady on a cart. I expect they wouldn’t be seen dead near a wonky wheel. I’m afraid the farmer boys are going to have difficulty finding wives. I suggest they hang about down at the church – they may be able to help answer a desperate prayer. This also raises the question of a future for the 2nd son. Perhaps they can become a priest, or a truck driver. Both talk regularly to God. The roads are narrow, winding and very rough. There are a few cars. I’m pretty sure I saw a bumper sticker on an old cart that said, “My other car is a Dacia”. I doubt that daughter would be impressed with that either.
The loads pulled by the horses are astonishing. Fresh cut Hay, 4 meters high by 4 meters wide by 5 meters long must weigh quite a bit. Multiple tree trunks, rocks or muck from the cowsheds must also be a ton or two. Horse lovers would be indignant. However, they should consider the options … Romanians love their dark red meat.
Mid summer is haymaking time. In the poorer regions they still do it just like their forefathers did hundreds of years ago. Some still have the same wooden rakes and pitchforks. Probably family heirlooms with new handles and heads. The process starts by spending months watching the grass grow – much like farmers everywhere. Then they sharpen up the scythe and shout, “Stand Clear!” (No they don’t – but they would if they had any health and safety rules) The last time I saw someone scything in New Zealand was in the very early 1950’s. It’s a beautiful sight. The scythe is a tool that was perfected over thousands of years. It’s perfectly balanced and angled to lay down a large sweep of grass in a single stroke with minimal effort. My father had a scythe. I think I inherited it and maybe it’s in my shed. Perhaps I’ll instruct Flypaper to get rid of her lawn ‘chappie’ and she can do it herself in future. The next stage of Transylvanian haymaking is to rake the grass into wind-rows then regularly turn it over until it is sufficiently wilted and ready to stack. I mentioned the spectacular scenery of this region. It is hard to find a more atractive sight than 3 or 4 good women raking and turning hay. Their pretty shawls keeping their hair under control, their full skirts swaying to the movement of the applied tool and gaily recalling that the crop of ’94 was better but old Agripina was a bit of a burden after she lost her marbles. (Of course, they would say this in Romanian) Actually, I do recall a better sight and one that will remain with me always. (I digress –sorry) It was in 1975 in front of the Taj Mahal. There were about 120 women trimming the grass perfectly – with scissors.
Once the hay is properly conditioned they choose a spot to build a haystack – goodness knows how or why the reach a decision. I could see no reason for the position and, indeed, many reasons to put it somewhere else. The women and younger men start dragging the hay in while a man of experience and wisdom builds the stack in a certain time tested pattern. As it gets higher they hoist a woman up on top. This could be the highlight of the season. She follows instruction until the stack is too high to hand pitch the hay up to her. Before you ask, I don’t know how she gets down because Flypaper said I’d had enough excitement for one day and made me drive on.
Wood is split by hand and stacked just like hay. From our observation, every farming task is done by hand or with the aid of a horse. We saw dogs – but they don’t work. They were so fat and lazy they often didn’t get off the road before a truck created a feast for the 36 species of Romanian hawks, falcons and eagles. Again, this is an example of the motor vehicle being put to good use. Some of the birds are endangered and would probably be extinct if the stray dog protection group had its way.
Throughout Ukraine, Moldova, Romania and on into the other Eastern European countries, the roads are lined with fresh fruit, nut and vegetable vendors at this time of year. They are selling an astonishing variety of mouthwatering produce. From buckets of wild mushrooms to bins of capsicums to cartloads of water melons. It all looked superb and the low prices had Flypaper weeping. If I had stopped every time she demanded, I would have likely had diarrhea every day.
Having now seen many other people in many other countries recently, it was interesting to revisit some. This offered the opportunity to compare peoples and cultures back-to-back. The thing that struck me about Hungary – which you will recall was previously reported as looking much more affluent than its neighbours – was that many of the people looked overweight and poorly dressed. Chubby slobs is a phrase that comes to mind. I guess this is the ultimate proof that they are more westernized and ‘successful’. Isn’t a prospering free-market economy wonderful?
At the border between Romania and Hungry, a pleasant pimply faced young man with a lot to learn, took our passports and left us in the control of his colleague who didn’t appear so happy to see us. After one look at her I had an instant flashback. My first business as a tender 20 year old was in the ‘Red Light’ district of Wellington. This was a very educational location and era. One of my customers was an acknowledged dominatrix. I was a little bit frightened of her but one day I plucked up courage and asked if she had a whip. The following day she bought it to show me when she came to buy her lunch. The other customers were equally fascinated - but I worried through a sleepless night as to whether this display may adversely affect business. It turned out well. The next day everyone bought their friend in the hope of another lecture on the benefits of regular humiliation. The woman at the Romanian border reminded me of her and I envisaged her dressed in leather with her tools of trade. Imagine my surprise when the vision looked exactly like Helen Clark. I was glad to get out of there.
The benefit of Hungary’s early entry into the EEC was evidenced by the change from scythes to motorized weedeaters. Army’s of men (for goodness sake) on bicycles’ (for goodness sake) roamed the roadsides keeping it tidy. It soon became apparent as to how the guvmint could afford to pay them and provide good roads – Speed Camera’s. We saw them all through our journey and only by good fortune never had an opportunity to discuss them in detail with their operators. Each camera was old and set up on a tripod in or on a Dacia. Behind the camera and ready for pursuit was another Dacia. Almost certainly the Police would have had the latest model … with the 1.1 litre engine. Each time I passed one I watched my mirror and planned our escape – Flypaper saw this and said … “Don’t even think about it”. She has no sense of adventure.
It was a great surprise to discover that somehow we had transited Hungary and were serenely driving through Slovakia. What happened to the border controls? Who cares? From here on to the UK we have only one more border … at the English Channel. I wonder if they will look under HeeHaw and be disgusted? Slovakia is another invisible country in Europe. Some will recall it as the southern part of Czechoslovakia until they parted company in 1993. The national pastime in Slovakia is … ‘going for a walk’. That says everything. From what we can see so far, Slovakia is very ‘folksy’ and there are lots of ruins. The ruins are mostly forts that obviously didn’t fulfill their early promise.
I was interested to learn that a Slovak invented the ‘actively used’ parachute – patenting it in 1913. It does make one wonder … what was he doing? It’s all very well to invent ‘penicillin’ or the ‘Showerdome’ – but a parachute is a serious thing to prototype and test. It’s unlikely there has been a braver Slovak since. I wonder what happened to him? Before him was another nutter. Jan Bahyf flew a helicopter for 1500m in 1905 – less than 2 years after the Wright Bros stopped crashing in fixed wing aircraft which are much easier to keep in the air.
There is little to see and do in Slovakia apart from over 300 well maintained castles and an unbelievable number of ruined castles. The locals make up for this by saying that lots of famous people have Slovak roots. Angelina Jolie, Paul Newman, Andy Warhol and Paul Simon – their families all came from here. I was also told that some of the world’s most beautiful women and top models come from here. Like, Sklenarikova Carambeu. Who? The locals also worry that people confuse them with Slovenia. They are well justified – George W Bush and Silvio Berlusconi both had it embarrassingly mixed up. The embassies of both countries meet every month to exchange mail wrongly addressed. It doesn’t matter. I’ve been there too and it’s not a lot different. Don’t get me wrong, I like them both and wish other places were as delightful. However, I do wonder why Angelina isn’t coming home.
Flypaper insists I tell you the Capital of Slovakia, Bratislava, is the nicest of all the old European cities. I agree. This place was originally put firmly on the map by a woman called Maria Theresa during the mid 1700’s. Another woman almost lost its top spot in my eyes during mid afternoon on a Friday. We arrived a little early for our ‘city tour’ and were ‘greeted’ by a woman who appeared to have suffered from a runaway Botox gun and with the personality of Ilse Koch (who was also known as the Bitch of Buchenwald.) She snapped that we should sit down and wait to be called. Flypaper saw my response surfacing and sweetly said, “Breath deeply dear”. A few minutes later all became well again. A large tourist bus pulled into the place the B of B had reserved for her carts. She went berserk. The bus driver was easily her match. After saying, “Spicaty ktobuk je potrebne yourfangs ostrenis” (which means, “Your pointy hat is on crooked and your fangs need sharpening”), he walked away and had a smoke. He eventually drove away just as she was about to self destruct. I enjoyed that – but the show was just starting. A hippie who had obviously also had a smoke or two, crawled out from behind a seat and stood stiffly to attention. He made a faultless Nazi salute and cried, “Seig Heil” – then fell over. He repeated this 4 times then couldn’t get up. By this time the B of B herded us on the bus and screamed to the driver to take us away. It took quite a few blocks to stop laughing and I was again felling well towards Bratislava – and Slovakia generally.