by Kevin McCaughey
There are many lessons to be learned teaching in the former Soviet Union.
It was a mistake, finishing that bottle of Kagor. But with no heat and no lights, no TNT all night movies, there wasn’t much to do, except wait for spring. But that was last night. This morning, outside my apartment block, the bare trees clump with snow, and the potholes in the road are filling. It’s the end of March.
The country is Moldova, a wishbone of a land scrunched between Romania and Ukraine. The year is 2000, and Moldova has surpassed Albania as Europe’s poorest nation. This is—will be—my third spring.
I ride the trolleybus, held upright by fur-coated people who squeeze from all sides. My wallet is in my front pocket. Stuffed in my shoulder bag are teaching tools and a towel. Down between my shoes, I watch the snow swish by through a hole in the floorboards.
The Didactic School of Language is on Armeneasca Street, four blocks off the main thoroughfare. It could be a village street. Its single-story houses with unstraight walls lean toward the sidewalk, and, as you walk by, you smell the steam of tea escaping beneath doors. The new snow muffles the noise of passing Ladas and makes the cars seem whispery and diffident.
I’m the first to arrive at the school, not from a sense of duty, but because there’s no water in my apartment. First I make coffee. Then I remove my shirt. Then I take my towel and the electric tea kettle into the bathroom, add icy tap water, and pour the mix over my head, splashing my armpits and soaping my hair.
I will have six hours of English lessons, and then some placement testing, but it’s Saturday, and in the evening—ah, the evening—we will have the yearly school-sponsored dinner at the restaurant Sanatate.
Most of my classes are downstairs in the windowless Green room. It has the shape of an uneven triangle, wedged into a corner of the building. The classroom decor is post-communist modern, meaning that contents have been purchased through a Western philanthropic concern, and while desk-chairs and whiteboards look new, they are falling apart because an administrator has cut corners. The furniture in the newly built home of said administrator is reported to be sturdier.
My twelve students, aged seventeen to forty, sit with their backs to the wall. Coats and fur hats overwhelm the rack in the corner, and occasionally topple it. The air is thick with body odor—no one likes cold water showers in unheated apartments—but despite this, they look fresh, especially the girls, who are made-up and snug into outfits—dresses or skirts or jeans with boots—of which they own just one or two, but wear them bright-eyed, again and again.
Today this Level 4 class is subdued. Perhaps it’s the snow— there is no window to see out of. The students steer clear of English, whispering in Russian and Romanian, “R &R” as it is known in our class. The game I have just made up, “Spill the Glove”—using one of my mittens and some torn up shreds of paper with questions on them—is not very good. But still they should try in English.
Eventually I start into a guilt-producing speech. How many hours are you in class with a chance to speak English? Five. How many hours in the rest of the week? One hundred sixty-three? And bla bla bla.
The speech sounds passionate and improvised, but after two years of teaching in the Republic, it is fairly well scripted.
“So you think about that…” I say, then exit the room without another word, ostensibly to quell my anger, but really to brew some more coffee.
In the teachers’ office Oksana and Alyona prepare for their lessons. They are like all our Didactic teachers: mid-twenties, pretty, and serious. Because they have lives outside of the school, they take the office to be a place of work.
“I gave my students the speech,” I say.
Carolina is shaking her head. “Kevin, ty zaraza.” Literally, You’re an infection. It means pain in the ass.
Alyona is cutting up strips of paper and doesn’t bother to look up. She is divorced, dating a big jolly bear of a drunk, an ex-military man who brings his alcoholism to office hours. (Years later, he will, astonishingly, become a bigwig in TV production; then, at a family picnic, showing how Russian roulette is played, will shoot his head off.)
“Hey, Alyona, did I ever tell you about Carolina’s wedding night?”
“Everybody told me,” she says.
For our first school-financed trip, in the spring of ’97, we crossed the border to Romania. That first evening, Carolina revealed that she was married; in fact, the ceremony had taken place that very day. She did not invite her husband on the trip.
“Carolina wouldn’t let me stay in her hotel room with her,” I tell Alyona. “I wasn’t going to make any moves. But it might’ve been my only chance at a wedding night.”
“Stop, tupeetsa,” Carolina says. Imbecile.
I get my coffee. “Remember girls, tonight’s Sanatate!”
Back in the classroom, the students put on sheepish faces. One girl, with bright lipsticky lips and awful teeth, acts as spokesperson: “Kevin, we promise not speak R and R.”
I accept this apology. Why not? I’ve got coffee now, and the Sanatate party tonight. The class deserves some fun, so we listen to Petula Clark’s “Downtown,” too loud, and one of the front desk girls arrives to scold me.
The day is long. Four 80-minute classes, then testing. During the next lessons, I dash out for coffee, my guitar, some dice, a ball or a stuffed animal—anything that will get me through.
Halfway through the late afternoon class, the last one, just as the caffeine in me is no longer pulling its weight, I catch a break. Olga, who is eighteen, and bundled in a red dress, with a whisper of mustache, announces it is her birthday, and, in this part of the world, she is duty-bound to provide merriment. She brings forth a fluffy Moldavian cake dabbed with ashy-tasting prunes; then, from behind the coat rack, digs out a bag clinking with bottles of wine.
The whole class drinks. A big Romanian business guy, always in a suit, tells a joke in English. The punch line is, “A hat on his head drinking a rose.” Everyone laughs. I pretend to. Why not? I’ve almost made it through the day.
“Kevin, you understand our specific humor?” the joke teller asks.
“Not at all.”
“Play ‘Cel Mai Mare,’” a student requests.
I feign reluctance a moment, then pick up my guitar.
“Cell Mai Mare” is the only song I have ever composed in (mostly) Romanian, and stretches my knowledge of that language to the brink:
Cel mai mare
Cel mai bun
Cel mai mare
Cel mai bun
Cel mai mare
Cel mai bun
Feed me mamaliga
With a silver spoon
The English translation would go like this:
Feed me your traditional national dish made from ground hominy
With a silver spoon
One of the Vicas pushes in—the front desk girls are all named Vica—and she says, “You know that placement testing started five minutes ago. You are in the Red Room.”
I carry a plastic cup of wine up the steep staircase and into a second-story classroom. There are windows, and the view from here astonishes me. Sunlight everywhere. In the last four hours, the temperature outside has risen twenty degrees. There is no snow in the trees, not a flake. The roofs of the one-story houses glint with light. There is not a trace of slush in the roads now, only brown puddles.
Prospective students come into the room, one by one, and face me. I question them for three minutes, five if they are girls, more if they are attractive girls. So what? The sun is warm. Wine lifts my insides. Spring comes running.
And in several hours I will be off to Sanatate restaurant for the once-in-a-year night of cheer paid for by the school.
It is 5:00 p.m., still light, and there is lots of time, so I walk through the spring-the-pretender weather with Michael. He is the only other American currently at the Didactic school. He has a Ph.D in literature, and a beard and glasses to prove it.
Stumpy the Dog is on the corner of Armeneasca and Scuisev, hobbling next to a plump woman with felt boots who sells cigarettes, candy, and detergent packs. Stumpy is homeless, but spends his daylight hours here, with the cigarette lady. He is dirty, wire-furred, and his right forepaw is gone. The stump is worn smooth, red and white like a neatly cut bone at the butchers.
“Two and a half years ago,” I say, “when I came to Moldova, Stumpy’s leg was longer. He used to actually walk on it. And I have honestly seen, I mean visibly, how it sort of got filed down.”
We are both wondering what years in Moldova have done to us.
We reach Boulevard Stefan Cel Mare (Stefan the Great), Chisinau’s main thoroughfare, where the streetlamps often work, where cars swarm, where the fashionable find Big Macs, and the legless wheel themselves on wheeled boards.
Farther down, the boulevard widens. Here are the government buildings, cast back from the main street; they have the look of mausoleums. We cross a park here, passing the blue-and-white onion dome church of St. Nicholas—storage shed in Soviet times—down to a street called The Youths’ Prospect, and one kilometer to the restaurant.
Sanatate restaurant is folk style Romanian. The staff is Romanian, the clientele Romanian. Old style, wooden tables and benches. Fast Moldavian music with its Turkish and gypsy influences. The Russians of the city prefer white tablecloth places and lip-sync pop divas.
Michael and I drink beer at the bar until the rest of the Didactic School of Languages arrives.
This is the big spring dinner, and there are thirteen of us—teachers, staff, and the director. Carolina and Alyona, among others, are no-shows. We’re squeezed at one long table in a semi-private room. Waiters in baggy white shirts and sashes jam the table surface with traditional Moldavian fare, everything on a separate plate: first bread, and thick salads soppy with sunflower oil, fresh cucumbers and piles of dill and parsley, tomatoes stuffed with whipped garlic, salty squares of sheep-milk brinsa; and later, more plates, overlapping now, chicken and cutlets. And there are ceramic pitchers of wine, as much as we like.
But it’s clear that no one really wants a big night. Everyone is tired. Everyone has problems.
I have a problem too.
“This wine,” I say to Michael, “I can’t even drink it.” It is the mustiest thing I’ve ever tasted. I try to explain to the Romanian waiter, who must listen to my Russian. I don’t know how to say musty. So I describe it as old and dirty.
“It all comes from the barrel upstairs,” the waiter says. And he insists that I accompany him upstairs to prove it.
Up through a dark stairwell we go, then a dim corridor with chipped aqua walls, into a small room, where a metal wine cask is locked behind bars. The waiter keys open a padlock, and clanks upon the barred door.
“Now you will see that I’m not deceiving you,” he says.
The waiter turns the spigot and fills me a glass. I drink. “It’s disgusting,” I tell Michael in English.
“Is it the same?” asks the waiter.
“Yes, it’s the same all right.”
This is not really the point at all, but the waiter believes the case is solved. He pours himself a glass, and toasts to our health.
It is one of those Moldovan endings, like the punch line “a hat on his head drinking a rose.” Or like, to take things further, the reason we often have no electricity. The power plants exist only in the east, in a pro-Russian enclave called Transdniester, which has declared itself an independent country. They have their own borders, police, stamps, and money. They get testy on occasion, being poorer than the rest of the poorest country in Europe, and they pull the switch—presto, no electricity. They often do this at night. A student provides the punch line: “If they turn off light in the day people will not use it.”
Downstairs a non-electric Moldavian band has started up. A stand-up bass, accordion, timbu (like a piano-sized hammer-dulcimer), guitar, and pan flute churn out fast riffs for a few dancers. Only after an hour do they slow things down, and I ask our audio visual girl to dance. Mariana is a sweet moldavanka with light skin. Her husband is in business, a blanket term for Mafia employment. Mariana is in tight leather pants, her plump rump not quite buying into the look. We’re alone on the dance floor, and I ask a question.
“Why are slow songs so rare in Moldavian music?”
She thinks for a moment as we turn a small-stepped circle. “What do you name people who steal from rich and give to poor?”
“Bandits. Or Robin Hoods.”
“Well,” she says, “In these songs Robin Hoods sit and drink the wine.”
Another unintended puzzle, a Moldova punch line.
But I for one am done with the wine. After the dance, I order ten bottles of beer to our table, hoping to jump-start things.
Just then, the teachers and staff start rising to go. And it’s only ten o’clock.
“All right,” I say, “you have forced me to be silly.” I put a crown of parsley on my head and dill sprigs behind my ear, but their minds are made up, and I only succeed in being an infection.
Michael and I are the last to leave. We take our bottles of Chisinau beer with us out to the sidewalk. The night is coolly pleasant now, the morning’s snow like a memory from another season.
“I’m going to walk home,” I announce.
Michael suggests that it’s too far, and unsafe. There are holes in the sidewalks. Police ready for the shakedown. Wild dogs. Robin Hoods. Bandits. Most of us foreigners have been hassled, or bitten, beaten, or robbed. Michael has even been pistol whipped. But unlike our local friends, he doesn’t insist.
I walk a long way, a good hour, through the city center, then up towards Telecentre, my region at the edge of the city. Three quarters of the way home, something comes over me—an infection of sorts, I suppose—and I set off through streets I have never walked before, roads where the streetlamps haven’t worked in years, an area that looks like a village—with its thick-tree darkness, streets of mud, and shadowy dogs melting into the blackness.
And then, when I am utterly lost, like a miracle, I break out onto familiar Dacia Street, so close to the group of block buildings where I live. I feel wonderful, fate having guided me homeward. The first building, the tallest, has never been beautiful at all, a ten-story tombstone. But now coming out from the trees, the night so sharp and clean, seeing those rounded balconies on the corners, unlit but visible under the starlight in a faint glow…. So many stars. And everything makes sense for these moments. I feel like I have moved through the universe.
Here I am, in a city—the capital city of a country!—and there are so many stars I can practically feel the earth moving through them.
Out of one season and into the next.
Spring is definitely coming soon.
Even Moldova deserves spring.
Kevin McCaughey is a writer from Northern California. This story won the Grand Prize Silver Award in the Fourth Annual Solas Awards.
About Editors’ Choice:
Every week we choose one of the great stories we’ve received from travelers around the world and present it here as our “Editors’ Choice.” For more about the editors, see About Travelers’ Tales Staff.