Saturday, June 23, 2012

Multinational Socializing

Last night I met with a group of masters' students that I taught in May.  We went out for some good conversation about life and economic development here, and how to choose a baby name (among other topics).

I met these Moldovans at an Irish Pub, and they ordered in Russian. I drank Czech beer, while listening to them speak to each other in Romanian, as we conversed in English.  I then ate a Greek salad with American television playing in the background (MTV - mostly R&B).  I spoke to the student on my left about her job working for a Dutch furniture company and her trip to Holland in a few weeks.  All that while waiting for the EURO quarterfinal between Germany and Greece.

Fun times during our last week in Moldova...

Monday, June 11, 2012


I took another great trip last weekend, with Strider, to Istanbul.  It is only an hour flight from Chisinau, so we decided to celebrate Strider's 12th birthday in grand fashion.

Istanbul is an amazing city with centuries of fascinating history from the Byzantine empire through the Ottomans (who expanded their reach into what is now Moldova).

Below is the Hagia Sophia.  It is a beautiful cathedral with an interesting mix of both Christian and Muslim icons and art.

Strider in one of the courtyards at Topkapi Palace.  This was the primary residence of the Ottoman Sultans and it sits on a beautiful peninsula that overlooks the Bosphours River, the Golden Horn River, and the Sea of Marmara.

View from the Palace....

One of the many buildings at the Palace.  I find the choice of words in the description of this room quite curious.  Is this really how rare tiles are referred to?

Another highlight was the Archaeological Museum.  It was remarkable to see so many statues, tombs (like the one below), and other works of art from centuries ago.  Strider and  I discussed whether art today will ever rival what was created many hundred years ago.  Will a museum in a few hundred years have what we call modern art today and will it be viewed as brilliant, creative, and timeless?

The spice market (for me) and the food (for both of us) were also highlights.

I strongly recommend Istanbul for anyone interested in visiting what was at one point a city at the apex of western civilization.

Thursday, May 31, 2012


Since my formal teaching and speaking responsibilities are finished in Moldova, I am continuing my exploration of this part of the world.  So on Tuesday I traveled to Odessa, Ukraine for a visit with a former Wingate Student, Vasyl and his wife Maria, and a tour of the city.  Odessa is a beautiful port city on the Black Sea, and if it was easier for the family to get there we would all make the trip.

I decided to take the train because the bus is usually a very cramped, body-jolting ride on rough roads and I cannot read or do much in a car/bus.  The train, on the other hand, is not the most comfortable ride (see the nice wooden benches below) but it is spacious and it is relatively smooth for reading and writing.

I had a long bench to myself, but the downside is that it takes a long time to travel 157 kilometers.  With essentially three border stops (Moldova, Transnistria, and Ukraine), there is a lot of stopping and waiting for someone to check your passport, ask questions, look intimidating, and prolong the journey. So after 4.5-5 hours the train finally traveled between Chisinau and Odessa.

Mark Twain said, "I have not felt so much at home for a long time as I did when I 'raised the hill' and stood in Odessa for the first time."  I'm not sure I felt the same, for Odessa is unlike Charlotte, but it does look like a very modern Western European city.  Catherine the Great wanted to build Odessa with European architecture and this style was preserved.  She is revered, in contrast to other Soviet era leaders, for I saw no statues of Lenin, etc.

Twain's "raised the hill" comment reminds me of climbing the Potemkin Stairs which leads from the huge sea port to the heart of old Odessa.  Potemkin was a Russian military leader and lover of Catherine the Great, and she called him Prince of the Russian Empire.  The view from these stairs shows the size of this beautiful port and the Black Sea.

Below, Vasyl and I are standing near the famous opera house....

and Vasyl and his wife Maria in one of the many park areas.

For my friend Trey, you can see Odessa is around 8000 kilometers from Baltimore...

It was a great day in this beautiful Ukrainian city, and I hope to return sometime to take in more of the rich culture there.

Thursday, May 24, 2012


Yesterday, seven of us Fulbrighters and a few friends traveled by car (we hired a couple of drivers) to the breakaway region of Transnistria which is an area that covers much of Moldova's eastern border with Ukraine.  Transnistria broke off from Moldova just after independence from the Soviet Union in 1990, and they fought a war with Moldova until 1992.  The Transnistrians claim this area from the east of the Dnister river to the Ukrainian boarder, and although internationally they are unrecognized, Transnistria acts as an independent state. To enter this territory you must show your passport to border guards, and you must pass through a series of checkpoints while stopping to fill out what is effectively a customs form.

Since I am a defacto representative of the U.S. government, the embassy here does not encourage us to travel to Transnistria but they do desire to move this territory into greater Moldova via diplomacy (thus they want to spread goodwill).  The diplomatic relationship is sticky because the U.S. will not recognize them as an independent state (which they claim for themselves) and the diplomats are often denied entry because they will not present a diplomatic passport to the Transnistrian boarder guards.

Before crossing the Dnister river there is a town called Bender (Bendery) which has a lot of historic significance as an important checkpoint into the Russian territories.  A famous fortress is there and this area (although on the west side of the river) is also control by Transnistria.

We were fortunate to travel Andrey, a fellow Fulbrighter, who is a Russian-born U.S. citizen, and he arranged our sight-seeing excursions.  It would have been a difficult day for me to navigate on my own in terms of understanding the history as all signs are in Russian (in contrast to Romanian in Chisinau), and all tour guides have to be prearranged.  We had a really interesting tour of the Bendery Fortress, the construction of which was begun in 1538 by a Turkish Sultan.  It became a major site for battles during the following centuries as the Ottomans battled the Russians and the Russians battled the Romanians, etc.  It is a major access point to the Black Sea in this region.

Below Andrey and I are saluting beside the busts of several famous Russian generals.

We also toured a cemetery in Bendery that memorialized many of the Russians killed protecting this region for the past two centuries.

After leaving Bendery, we traveled a few miles across the river to the capital city of Tiraspol.  The first thing you notice when driving in is the large, state-of-the-art soccer stadium for the Sheriff football club.  Sheriff is a very wealthy Moldovan business man.  After the soccer stadium, what you see is a lot of loyalty to Russia, including many t-shirts that say "I love Russia," and, most especially, the large statue of Lenin outside a government building right near the main square.

The other main tourist destination is the memorial for the victims of the 1990-1992 war with Moldova proper.  It is a beautiful area that is flanked by a wall with all the victims names on one end of the "mall" and a Russian tank on the other end.

In various accounts that I have heard or read about visiting Transnistria, I was told of going back in time to the days of the Soviet Union.  In my brief visit, it was interesting to see the Russian focus everywhere but as one of my colleagues stated it feels a lot like other cities in Moldova. The main difference is that in Chisinau and Tiraspol both cities are modernizing but one is doing so while trying to keep relics of its Soviet past while the other is trying to get rid of that past.

The two flags speak to those differences as well (Moldova on the left).  It was a very interesting trip, and look into how a rogue state functions.  In some ways, it felt like the only people who really care if Transnistria remains separate from Moldova are those in the police/military.  Andrey talked to several people we met, and none of them seemed to want to talk much about being an independent country.

As least now I've been to a rogue should be on everyone's list.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Developing Country: A Continuing Series – Education

I have had a great experience here teaching two condensed classes, one undergraduate class on economic systems for three weeks in February and one master's class on development economics for two weeks in April/May.  I mention the duration of these classes partly because I typically teach semester-long courses and partly due to the fact that the first class (which concluded on March 2 with the final exam) is still not officially closed.

One of the things I have learned here, which has been a major source of frustration, is that one must be very flexible when navigating the education system.  The students in my first course are in their final semester of their degree, and they must complete this class in order to graduate.  Yet, several students did not attend the class at all or they attended only one or two sessions.  In America this behavior would result in failing the class and coming back in fall.  Not here.  The excuses are many, from "I had to work during your class" to "I was in Poland" to "It has been a busy term" to, very sadly, "My dad took his own life in December."

The university has a policy that these students have several weeks, and several chances, to schedule a make-up time to take a final exam and pass the class (the final exam is worth seventy percent of the course grade).  What's more, this is a fluid policy and the several weeks has turned into two-and-a-half plus months.  So I send a student who never once attended the class several articles and slides, ask them to read and study the materials, and then show up at a certain time to take a written exam.  The expectation is that if the students  follow these instructions they will at least pass the course.

As a representative of the U.S., and someone who is here on behalf the U.S. State Department, I am encouraged to be a positive voice in the education system, trying at least to show a different (and hopefully improved) way of teaching, relating to students, etc.  It is unlikely that my lone voice at the Academy of Economic Studies will make a difference, but I'm trying to tell anyone who will listen that this system hurts the integrity of the institution.  The students who worked hard and attended the course everyday are classified with someone who never showed up once.  I certainly had some students who were stellar, and they did far better than those who never attended the class, but what I am learning is that in other courses this distinction (as to whether one attends the course or not) does not have a significant impact on the grade received.

I'm hopeful that positive changes that will help bring some credibility to the higher educational system here will soon evolve in the coming years.  For now, students are continuing to enter the universities here with the option of skating through without anything close to the effort one would expect of a college education.

I'm speaking at a conference this weekend where I will hopefully address some of these issues, and I'm learning that small/incremental changes are the only kind in Moldova.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Spring Clean-Up

It has been very nice in Moldova lately as we have transitioned from the coldest winter in Eastern Europe in a generation to what is turning out to be a warmer than normal spring.  When we arrived here in early January, it was striking how dirty and gray everything was.  The streets were full of dirt, mud, and eventually a lot of snow and during the snow melt-off there were small brown steams everywhere.  Also, it seemed that people were not very careful with putting trash where it belongs and keeping things nice.  Part of this is due to typical city living with a lot of apartment and rental housing and with a lot of public property to dump trash on.  It was very hard to imagine that Chisinau would ever look like all the pictures displayed on postcards, maps and the other publications highlighting how green this city is.

Yet, as the weather warmed we saw people all over the city cleaning up.  Some of them were city workers who spent considerable time sweeping the streets and cleaning areas around trash dumpsters and other public places.

Also, we began to see people everywhere painting curbs and tree-trunks white (something they do all over the city) in order to make things look nice.

It has been a beautiful and welcome transformation around here as moods are certainly affected by the weather and springtime here is turning out to be quite beautiful.

Below is our favorite park...

Sunday, April 22, 2012

The Registration Process

When I originally accepted the grant to Moldova, one of the conditions for being here for more than six months was that the U.S. Embassy would take care of our registration/visa process.  This was a huge relief because it is expensive and time consuming getting six visas.  We simply had to give our embassy contacts a passport photo of each of us, a copy of our passport, and sign a couple of forms.  Done.

Well, two months into our stay, the Moldovan government changed the process for us and it has turned out to be another one of the joys of living in a developing country.  We all had to go to a local hospital and get our blood typed, sign new forms, pay additional money, and take a trip to the ministry of registration/documentation (or something like that).

So, earlier this week Amy and I, along with Miles and Rayna, traveled to the embassy and met with Valentina (my primary contact there) and then we traveled by embassy transport to the aforementioned ministry building. We ending up meeting with four different people in this building, going from unmarked door to unmarked door.  We ended up having to pay an additional fee beyond the stated amount we were told ahead of time (this was for some sort of expedited process, of all things), and we had to get pictures taken again (for Amy this was the third time).  Throughout this process, Valentina had to talk with several different people, and we just blindly followed her from floor to floor.

The bottom line is that we should receive our "legitimatize" with one month to spare before we leave.  This allows us to exit the country and re-enter (otherwise if we leave we will be denied re-entry), and presumably this documentation is necessary so that when we leave for good we will not have to pay a fine.  After all we have spent, I'm not so sure we'll make out in the end.