Some things I like about Moldova

Traditional house in Moldova
Traditional house, freshly painted

Every time I met locals or even other tourists in Moldova, they would ask me why I decided to come to the country. When I told them it was actually my second time, they were quite confused! They couldn’t understand the appeal in coming once to the country, so for me to keep coming back was definitely a strange idea!

There are many things I really liked in Moldova. And a few things I didn’t quite understand. In no particular order, here are the things that either surprised me or had an impact on me.

People sitting on a minibus
Fairly new minibus, comfortable and not too packed!

Minibusses (Rutiere)

The minibusses, or rutiere, are the way to get around in Moldova. It takes a while to understand how they work and their different routes. They all have the destination written on a cardboard sign in the front. As they usually do the same routes back and forth, it will  tell you the route but not necessarily the direction. The signs are usually written in both Romanian and Russian. The minibusses tend to be quite full, and it’s always interesting to see how many people can fit in.

Even though most people in Moldova seem pretty relaxed, when they get on the minibus, it’s different. As soon as the minibus arrives, you jump in, closing the door very quickly behind you. You are barely in that the driver will speed off. In order to pay your fare, you hand the money to the driver and quickly find a seat or grab something to hold on to. The driver will use one of his free hands (if he’s not on the phone) to go through the change on the dashboard and hand it to the person sitting behind him. The money will then travel back, hand to hand, to you or the person who just got on.

When you are ready to get off, you go stand next to the driver to tell him where you’d want to be dropped off, usually on the side of the road. The minibus will slow down and stop, you jump off, shut the door and off the minibus keeps going. You can get in at stations or bus stops, which are not always very well sign posted, and if they are, sometimes, they are no longer in use. The other option is to signal to the driver when he goes by and he’ll slow down or stop if there’s room for one more in the minibus.

Dried beans and legumes area in Chisinau official market
Dried beans and legumes area in Chisinau official market

Food and wine

One of the things I did enjoy in Moldova was some of the food and wine. Locals all grow they own vines and make their own wine. The home made wine tends to be very sweet, as the grapes take in a lot of sun during the summer and also because the wine usually is bottled and enjoyed right away, without allowing it to age. They usually reuse some old plastic bottles, making this the unofficial Moldovan coke, easily bought in any of the markets. Used plastic bottles are also filled with milk, oil, wine, anything liquid and that can be bought at the market.

Locals selling stuff on the sidewalk
Noticed the Coke and water bottles filled with either homemade wine or milk?

Moldovan food includes a lot of meat, and of course being vegetarian did mean that my options to eat out were a lot more limited, but thanks to my stay at Constantin’s hostel, I had learned what was vegetarian and what was not! Mamaliga (polenta served with sour cream or meat) and Placinta (pastry filled with everything from meat, potatoes, apples, cherries, etc) are very common everywhere in Moldova. While I did like Placinta (even though the name reminds me of the word placenta, making this a bit weird) one of the things I did not enjoy as much was the fermented veggies. Salads made of fermented veggies are also quite common, and even though I do enjoy eating veggies, I’m not a big fan of any fermented food. I did, however, enjoy what is called vinaigrette, a salad made with potatoes, carrots, peas, beetroot and pickles.

Outside the apartment building where the Retro Moldova hostel is located
Outside the apartment building where the Retro Moldova hostel is located, Chisinau

Basic level of life

During my stay in Moldova, I visited multiple cities and villages, which allowed me to notice first hand the level of poverty experienced by a lot of people. It’s very common in a lot of villages to have unpaved streets and water wells everywhere. Most homes also still have backhouses outside the house. And chicken, goose, or other farm animals hanging out in the yards. It felt like going back in time.

When I was walking in some traditional neighborhoods, it crossed my mind that I could have easily been in Nepal. The life conditions were really basic. I find it hard to understand how people in Europe can still live in such precarious situations. And with an average monthly salary of about 150 Euro per month, there’s not much hope in anybody managing to save enough money to improve said situations. I do enjoy going out of the big cities and tourist areas as I always find it eye opening.

Chisinau, Moldova
Chisinau, Moldova

Supermarket and lockers

Most people in Moldova buy their food at the markets, but there are some traditional supermarkets in some larger cities. Most supermarkets have lockers at the entrance for people to leave their bags in while shopping, and to prevent shoplifting. When I was staying in Rosu, I went to Fourchette, the supermarket in Cahul. And because I had my backpack with me, I decided to use one of the lockers. I didn’t think anything more to this until it was time to leave. One of the straps of my bag was left sticking out of my locker, and when people using the lower lockers closed it, the strap was stuck. I waited for a bit knowing that the person would be in the store but because it was taking too long, I decided to ask the clerk if I could have scissors (gesturing to my bag and then making scissors with my fingers of course). Gladly, he thought of pulling on the door to try to widen the gap and we were able to slip the strap out. My bag was finally free!

Fruit stall
Unofficial market, meaning people pick up their stuff every day at night

Managing to communicate and sometimes not being able to

Sometimes communication is easy with gestures and all, even though there are no common languages. And sometimes it’s a lot harder. When I caught the bus back to Rosu one day, it was so full people were literally pushing to fit more people in. I decided to move to a very tiny empty spot behind the driver’s seat. I made the mistake of stepping on the place where people leave the money and was told off by the driver. And of course, I had no idea what he was saying.

I was trying to be helpful and let more person in, but instead, I got everybody’s attention and I felt very awkward. I wanted to apologize for stepping somewhere I shouldn’t have, but I couldn’t remember the word. I felt very self-conscious and foreign, sitting right behind the driver, facing everybody else, and not understanding a word that was spoken around me. Most of the times, I am okay with situations like this, but some days it makes me very uncomfortable. Not speaking the language definitely makes it more challenging to connect with people even for the most basic things like apologizing or saying thanks.

Sometimes, though, you decide to buy oranges and apples at the market. You point and smile and at the end of the transaction, after using a calculator to tell you how much it costs, the girl working at the market will say thank you in English and you’ll answer Mulțumesc. The conversation will stop there obviously because it’s as far as both your languages skills extend, but you will leave feeling this was a good human interaction. I find that whether it’s a good experience or a challenging one depends on a lot on the situation and the mood I am in that day.

Unofficial market, next to the train station in Chisinau
Unofficial market, next to the train station in Chisinau

Shopping in Chisinau

Shopping in Moldova is also quite different from Canada. There are obviously ”normal” shops, but if you shop for clothes in the official market it feels a little different. I was looking to buy a dress (shocking right?) and as I was walking through the market, I saw one I wanted to try on. When I told the salesperson, she had me come in her little ”shop”. The shops are about 3 meters by 1.5m. They vary greatly in style and sizes, but they clearly have no room for a dressing room. So when I gestured to the lady I wasn’t sure the dress would fit, she pulled a curtain (which looked more like a bed sheet) and held it between me and the aisle so I could change here and there. The dress was unfortunately too small. She told me something but I clearly couldn’t understand so she asked around if someone spoke English. Another girl came in and the first one left to have a look at another shop. Leaving me there with a dress that didn’t zip. It was a bit funny. A few long minutes later, she came back with the dress in a different size and colour. It didn’t work either, but it made for an interesting experience!

Some people selling shoes also will have their little shops, with shoes laid out on a table. And if you want to try them on, they will have you stand on a piece of cardboard to make sure you keep the shoes clean.

Every year, the unofficial markets get cleared off, but people always come back. Whereas the official markets are more organized, the unofficial ones are mostly people selling anything from used clothing to tools and homemade wine or milk.

As usual in markets, you can find about anything you can imagine, including bras and underwear, but I didn’t try to figure out how one was supposed to try them on…

Valea Morilor, Chisinau. One of my favourite places in the city
Valea Morilor, Chisinau. One of my favourite places in the city

Challenges to overcome in Moldova

People always ask me why I picked Moldova and it’s always difficult to pinpoint why I like it so much. I like how lush and green it is and the many great encounters I’ve had with locals. I find that when you take the time to listen to people and try to communicate with gestures and smiles, it (almost) always works. And most people are nice, especially if you meet them with a genuine interest.

While there are still a lot of challenges for Moldovans to overcome, starting with poverty, and corruption, I truly believe that Moldova has great tourism potential. However if I’m being totally honest, the fact that it is not quite developed for tourists yet is one of my favourite things about the country. That, and the curiosity and friendliness of locals.

Enjoying the sunset in Valea Morilor, Chisinau
Enjoying the sunset in Valea Morilor, Chisinau

Village life in Moldova

Biserica Sfîntul Vasile church in Cahul, Moldova
Biserica Sfîntul Vasile church in Cahul

Southern Moldova

Roşu is a small village located about five kilometers from Cahul, the largest city in Southern Moldova. Cahul, Roşu and to a lesser extent, Chişinau are not your typical touristic destination. Don’t be looking for tourist attractions in Roşu or Cahul. Except for the church and some monuments, there isn’t much to see and do. Which means you get to experience a true Moldovan experience. It is also why it’s so relaxing to spend time here. The streets are unpaved (very dusty or muddy depending on the weather), and many people still rely on wells to get water in their houses.

One of the many public wells in Rosu
One of the many public wells in Rosu

Do not expect English to be spoken wildly here. Or at all. There are a few people that can speak the language, but because Moldova became its own country following the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, you have a better chance to communicate if you know some Russian. The official language is Romanian however both Russian and Romanian are widely spoken.

Unpaved street, dusty when dry, very muddy and slippery when wet
Unpaved street, dusty when dry, very muddy and slippery when wet

The transition from communism to democracy is slowly making some headway. Well, it did before the big scandal of the Moldovan oligarch who put over 1 billion USD in off-shore accounts by fraudulent loans. Corruption is still very much present. Not so much in ”officials” asking tourists for ”fines” of all sort, but mostly in the daily lives of people with good friends. Locals are very much aware of that, and while most of them want to eradicate corruption, it is so ingrained in the mentality that it will take more time to see change.

Monument in Rosu
Monument in Rosu

CostelHostel

I first heard about Constantin on Workaway. He runs the CostelHostel in his childhood home. Like a lot of hostels in this part of the world, it is actually his house, where he has three rooms available to rent. The facilities are shared, and for a small additional fee, guests can enjoy the lovely sauna. With the essential oils poured onto the volcanic rocks and the fresh tea made from the herbs grown in his garden, it is truly a purifying and relaxing experience.

Lovely work area, outside shower and toilet
Lovely work area, outside shower and toilet

I spent a few weeks helping out when we had guests, general cleaning up and helping with the garden. Because it was spring, the garden work was mostly planting beans and veggies and collecting, cleaning and drying some of the precious herbs for teas or smoothies.

While there are a toilet and a shower inside, if you do go in the summer, I would recommend trying the outside shower. The water gets warmed by the sun during the day and gets quite comfortable.

Gotzu the dog, and the only picture where he doesn't look like he wants to eat me.
Gotzu, and the only picture where he doesn’t look like he wants to eat me.

Another feature of the CostelHostel I really enjoyed is Gotzu, the mean-looking dog. He is not the friendliest of dog. It almost feels like he’s more of a cat in a very hairy dog body. He’ll come to you on his own terms. And while I do not recommend petting him anywhere else but the head (don’t worry he’ll tell you he’s not a big fan), if you crouch down, and he feels like it, he’ll come up and snuggle with you, until he’s had enough of course!

Varied fruits trees, plants, and herbs from Constantin's garden
Varied fruits trees, plants, and herbs from Constantin’s garden

Permaculture

To say that Constantin is passionate about his garden and seeds would be an understatement. It is all he thinks, talks and lives for. Which makes this the perfect place to learn about permaculture, the difference between organic and heirloom seeds or raw vegan diet. If you want to learn more, he will show you the many varieties of plants he grows in his garden. Depending on the season, you might be able to feast on fresh berries, herbs, fruits and vegetables. Growing up with his mom, he always worked in the garden, but it’s only about five years ago that he decided to turn to permaculture.

Red tulip means early spring for me while my friends and family from Canada are still being hit with snowstorms!
Red tulips mean early spring for me while my friends and family from Canada are still being hit with snowstorms!

Now if you are like me, you might have heard the name, but you might be clueless to know what the difference is with ”regular” gardening. According to Wikipedia, ”permaculture is a system of agricultural and social design principles centered around simulating or directly utilizing the patterns and features observed in natural ecosystems”. In short, observing the nature and acting the same way. Planting seeds, removing weeds and watering are still needed, but will be done in a more nature like way. For example, when removing weeds, we would leave them on the ground to decompose, next to the plants we wanted to encourage the growth. Returning the surplus to nature. There are a lot more core tenets and principles, and if you come here, Constantin will be able to provide you with hands-on lessons.

Happily cutting herbs to dry them
Happily cutting herbs to dry them

A well-deserved relaxing break

After being on the move for a few months with barely any stops, I needed to catch my breath for a short while. Feasting on great organic food (even though it included a lot of fermented veggies, which I’m not a big fan of but are an essential staple of Moldovan food), tasting some of the local homemade wines, meeting some of Constantin’s friends, all of this gave me a really good insight on the local village life. Constantly hearing roosters, geese and dogs express themselves, being surrounded by people minding their own business and their land, exchanging smiles and laughter with the ladies in the shops while trying to communicate what I wanted to buy made my short stay here very enjoyable.

I learned a lot and managed to be really present. Simply enjoying watching the plants grow every day. Observing the never-ending aerial ballet of all the birds hurrying to built their nest. Enjoying gorgeous sunsets daily. I have the feeling Chişinau will feel extremely busy when I go back!

One of the many gorgeous sunsets from CostelHostel
One of the many gorgeous sunsets from CostelHostel

Cycling from Chisinau to Odessa, via Transnistria

It’s funny how life can change rather quickly sometimes. I had found a housesit in Nottingham that was advertised for about 5 weeks. I was looking forward to spending some time cuddling with two dogs and stay put for a short while. When I arrived, the owner mentioned coming back on Sunday, which I thought was odd… I asked her if we were talking about this coming Sunday and when she answered yes, I knew I had a bit of an issue. She had made a typo in the listing, and instead of needing someone for five weeks, it was only for five days.

To say that I was disappointed would be a very big understatement. I had a general idea of maybe heading to a less expensive country after that housesit, but I thought I would have a month to think about it and plan my next destination. I tried to find another housesit in the UK, but unfortunately, I couldn’t find anything suitable. I had to make a decision. I could go back to Scotland and stay at my friends for a few days. Or I could spend about the same amount of money and fly to Moldova.

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I do love Tiraspol

Leaving the UK, again!

My decision wasn’t really hard to make. I was in Moldova about three years ago and I had really enjoyed my experience. I looked at the flights and found one that was not too expensive, leaving on the next Tuesday. We were Sunday night. This meant I had to repack my bags to fly and find a way to reach the airport. Luckily the homeowner offered to drive me to the airport when she came back from her trip.

After a short direct flight from Stansted, I arrived in Chisinau Airport. When I was waiting in line at the immigration and the officer was asking the guy in front of me a few questions about the length of his stay and where he was staying, I realized I was a bit crazy. I had booked a bed in the same hostel I stayed at last time, but that was as far as my plans went. That’s also the moment I realized I hadn’t told any of my friends in the UK that instead of being in Nottingham and being possibly able to meet up for day trips, I was no longer in the same country. When my turn came, the officer didn’t ask me any question, only wishing me a nice stay in Moldova.

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Arcul de Triumf in Chisinau

I picked up my bags and walked out of the terminal. There was a guy coordinating taxis, but I had read online that the minibus no 165 was going from the airport to Ismail Rd, right in the center of the city, for only 3 Moldovan Lei (about 0.20 CAD). I told the men I was looking for the minibus and he tried his best to remember his English to tell me I would have to wait for about 10 minutes. When the right minibus arrived, he made sure I was ready and helped me carry my bag to the bus stop. When the minibus picked up some more people and I saw change being passed around to the people now sitting behind me, I quickly remembered how lovely and different it was, and how it would never happen in Canada or the UK.

When I arrived in the city, I started to recognize some buildings, and as I made my way to the hostel I felt as if no time had passed at all in the last three years. The holes in the sidewalk were still there. I was also quite proud I could remember the way after such a long time and so many countries visited!

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Parcul catedralei in Chisinau

The next day, I was sitting in the hostel kitchen when a Swiss brother and sister walked in. We started talking and I learned that they were cycling from Switzerland to Kirghistan! Kim’s leg was hurting so they asked the receptionist if he knew of a doctor who spoke English in Chisinau and he simply answered no. He was obviously not really willing to find out the information for his guests, so I did a quick Google search and found that the American embassy was listing some English-friendly clinics. I shared the information and they left.

When Leila and Kim came back from the clinic, after being told he needed to rest his leg for about a week, they started to look for a way to bring Kim and his bike to Tiraspol and then Odessa, where they would get on a boat to Batumi in Georgia. We were half-joking when I said I could bring Kim’s bike to Odessa for him, and come back to Chisinau later on as I would have time anyway before my next assignment (a workaway gig I had since found in Rosu, a small village in the south of Moldova).

After talking to them the next morning, I decided I was going to give it a try and go with Leila and Moritz, their friend who was now joining them, to Ukraine. I would leave my bags in Chisinau, cycle to Odessa and catch the bus or train back before heading to Rosu. I knew it would be very challenging and probably very cold to cycle but I did also think it would be quite the experience! Another unplanned experience just like I love them!

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Getting Moritz’s bike ready at the airport

First cycling day

It’s quite funny having no plans at all and being on my own. As hard as it is sometimes to be traveling by myself and not knowing what will happen, I really do appreciate it when it allows me to join Leila and Moritz for that cycle experience. Moritz was landing in Chisinau airport at around 11am so Leila and I set off to meet him. Chisinau is far from being the most cyclist-friendly city, with the traffic and potholes so my first 12km to the airport were a good warm up. We arrived and saw Moritz with his big box, getting ready to assemble his bike. Locals at the airport were very curious to see what we were doing. We ended up with a group of people looking very puzzled standing around us, watching us put a bike together.

We left shortly after lunchtime and made our way to Transnistria, a region of Moldova which declared its independence in 1990, but is barely recognized by anyone else than other breakaway regions. They do have their own currency, borders, government etc, yet according to many countries, it simply doesn’t exist.

Cycling to the border went pretty smoothly but we were getting worried to be facing a closed border as we had read it was closing at 4pm. When we arrived shortly after 4, we realized it was actually closing at 5pm so we had time to catch our breath. We went through the first control; the Moldovan police had a look at our passports and just as I was coming down one step, after being on a bike for a few hours, my legs had forgotten how to work. They went soft and I actually fell right on the ground. What a way to make an entrance!

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Main road in Transnistria

We cycled through the no man’s land and stopped at the Transnistrian immigration to get our 24-hour visa. At the border, there were a lot of barking stray dogs which can be quite scary when you are surrounded and on a bike! The officer didn’t speak English so we used a lot of gestures and Leila’s Russian skills. The officer pointed at the buses to know which one was ours, we pointed back at our bicycles. The puzzled look on her face was great, she could clearly not fathom the idea to cycle all the way from Chisinau to Odessa.

As soon as we crossed into Transnistria the road was so much smoother, and drivers a lot more careful. We had booked a night at Dmitri’s Go Tiraspol hostel where Kim was already waiting for us. Leila and I went to change some of our Moldovan Lei into Transnistrian Rubles, but unfortunately, the three different changing offices we found were closed. Leila asked a shopkeeper where we could change our Lei and she agreed to change them into Transnistrian rubles, at the official rate. We went back to the flat to meet with Dmitri and followed his restaurant suggestion.

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Tank monument in Tiraspol

Second day of cycling

The next morning we went for a walk in Tiraspol to see the war memorial, the Dniester River, and the super Lenin statue before following everybody towards the green market. Very busy on a Sunday. Dmitri decided to cycle with us to the edge of the city where the Tiraspol sign is located and we did a little photoshoot. It was already past lunch time when we finally set off.

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Tiraspol (picture by Dmitri from GoTiraspol)

The roads in Transnistria are actually quite lovely to cycle on and people drive quite carefully. When we crossed into Ukraine, things changed! People were driving a bit more recklessly and there were potholes everywhere. Crossing the border was quite simple but both the Moldovan/Transnistrian police and the Ukrainian asked if we had drugs and weapons. As if we were going to carry that on a bicycle! It took a while to enter Ukraine and we ended up chatting with one of the guards who turned out to be quite nice even though that was definitely not our first impression. The road to Odessa is fairly flat with a few hills and very few villages. When we were getting tired after one such hill, we started to look for a place to pitch our tent, not too close from the road but somewhat sheltered from the view.

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Our home for the night

Time to return the bike to his owner

After three days of cycling, we arrived safe, sound and a little sore in Odessa. Our last cycling day was quite uneventful except for the moment we decided to buy some apples with our leftover Transnistrian rubles (impossible to change anywhere else than Transnistria). The lady was filling up the bag, really wanting to give Moritz his money worth of the 16 Rubles, not understanding why he just wanted three apples! We had to stop her from filling the bag and as Leila and Moritz were leaving she added 3 oranges to the lot. We ended up eating apples every meal for the next few days.

We arrived in what felt like a busy Odessa with old cars and buses shortly after lunch time. As we were looking for the Babushka Grand Hostel, again not really well indicated with only  a very small sticker by the door bell, Kim was walking back from his Russian lesson so he could show us in the right direction.

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Along the road in Ukraine

Exploring Odessa

I spent the next couple of days visiting Odessa, seeing the nice touristy area around the Potemkin stairs and the pedestrian street, enjoying some dumplings and borscht.

I discovered Odessa the same way I always discover a new city: by walking around without planning what I’m going to see. It did end up in me doing an extra long detour after coming back from the bus station to the hostel, but I did discover new shops and restaurants I’ll make sure to visit next time I am in the city. Odessa seems to have quite a lot of unexploited tourism potential, just like Moldova. After a couple days in Odessa, it was time to say goodbye to Leila, Kim, and Moritz and head back to Moldova, with yet another stop in Tiraspol, the capital of Transnistria.

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Potemkin stairs, Odessa

When I went to the bus station to buy my ticket for the next day (with the help from a nice Russian speaking guy from the hostel) I learned that my options were a lot more limited than I expected. While there are frequent Marshrutkas from Chisinau to Tiraspol, the same can’t be said when it comes to returning to Moldova from Odessa. My options were either 7:30 or 12:30. I picked the 12:30 minibus knowing that it would give me enough time to arrive, find the flat and relax before meeting with Dmitri’s friends.

Back again in Tiraspol

I left the hostel in Odessa early because I wanted to make sure I would find the right bus. Bus stations are so busy they are already confusing places but when you add everything written in Russian it can quickly become overwhelming. It’s also a lot more challenging when you are on your own as nobody else can help you understand what people are saying!

Irina and I wearing our lovely skirts and scarves in Noul Neamts Monastery

After quite a bumpy ride on the Ukrainian side, I made it to Tiraspol. The road was almost more comfortable on the bicycle than in the minibus. I met up with Dmitri once again and at night, some of his friends came to the flat to have tea and sweets. We had lovely conversations about our respective countries and travels. At one point someone suggested I should cycle to the all-male Orthodox Noul Neamts Monastery in Kistkany village. It was quickly decided that Irina, Denis, Alexandr and I were going to meet in the morning, cycle to the monastery, borrowing Dmitri’s bicycles and come back early enough for me to have time to catch my minibus before my visa expired. I had so much fun cycling again. The road was fairly flat and when we arrived at the monastery, Irina asked if we could go up in the tower. It was very nice to see the village and monastery from up there. When we entered one of the churches, locals were attending the service. It was really interesting to see. Everybody was dressed very modestly. Irina and I wore a skirt on top of our trousers and a scarf for our visit. I’m really glad I got the chance to meet Dmitri and his friends, they are really fun and interesting people and I once again really liked my experience in Transnistria.

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Noul Neamts Monastery

My return to Chisinau was very straight forward, even at the borders, the officer just picking up all the passports in the minibus before going back to the office. When I arrived in Chisinau it felt chaotic and disorganized, especially in the market area after Tiraspol where people actually followed the rules.

After all those adventures, I must admit I’m quite happy the housesitting in Nottingham was only for five days as I would not have decided to come back to Moldova and had all my recent great experiences.

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Super Lenin statue in Tiraspol