Postcards from Chisinau

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Chișinău, Moldova – April 2014

Dear K—

I’m sitting in a pleasant outdoor cafe, resting my feet after a day of aimless wandering. I looked and looked for a postcard to send you for your collection, but none are to be found in the shops here. I found a faded one on a shelf in the apartment that I’m renting, tucked amid the dog-eared books and the travel brochures for other countries. The photo on it is of the post office building. It’s a striking building. Isn’t it funny how it makes the people look so miniature? In most other European cities, such a building would fade into the background. But this is Chișinău.

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It takes a little effort to see beyond the dingy Socialist dwellings that are packed together like hives. But there are traces of beauty to be found.

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Here, in Chișinău, I finally asked myself why it is that I travel. What is it that I seek? As I walked the chaotic streets on this glorious spring day, I remembered the time when I first stepped out into the world, so many years ago. The wonder I feigned when I saw the Eiffel Tower and Sacre Coeur. The disappointment I felt inside at my lack of awe. Now I realize that it was because I had been taken by the hand and shown. And told. Dates and events and important people. All of these things are fascinating, of course, but what about real life? The greatest joy has come from discovering the true personality of a place.

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Speaking of iconic tourist attractions, there is a miniature version of the Arc de Triomphe here. It reminds me of the Stonehenge scene in This is Spinal Tap. Funny and a little sad. While seeking an identity, there is often an urge to imitate.

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The park behind the Arc is decked out in Easter decorations. This is the first time I’ve seen a city decorate for Easter. It must be just as important to them as Christmas.

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The main boulevard, Stefan cel Mare, is a street photographer’s dream. Men sporting suits, long ponytails, dark glasses, and gold chains congregate next to luxury cars with tinted windows. Gnarled little babushky scuttle along wielding straw baskets full of flowers. Girls in precarious stilettos march into and out of designer shops. Perfectly manicured claws and eyes of steel. At the traffic light near the bus station, an elderly man in a wheelchair moved himself back and forth in the street. Slowly, slowly. His expression was one of defiance. The drivers didn’t honk. Pedestrians walked around him with blank expressions. I stared at him until he noticed me. He gave me a nod and continued his insolence. I passed one man who was dressed in a tan leisure suit. One side of his jacket was hanging off his shoulder, as if he had forgotten to put it all the way on. Or maybe he thought it looked better that way. Like a shawl, or something. He swaggered down the sidewalk, grooving to his own private Saturday Night Fever. I held my camera in my hand and bit my lip. But in the end I was too wary to take photos of these subjects. They were too erratic, too fierce.

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At the edge of the city, I came across this abandoned circus building. Elevated and illuminated under a bright afternoon sun. A tarnished crown of days gone by. I paused and stared up at it. The vast silence of wonder filled my mind. I walked around the entire structure, peering into the grimy windows, hoping to find an unlocked door or broken window. I filled in the empty spaces with my imagination. Boisterous music and squeals of delight. Flamboyant costumes and quivering tightropes.

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I shuffled back into the city center, exhausted. I made a quick lap around the small open air market. You can find something resembling souvenirs here – wooden carvings and needlework. There are also trinkets from the past. The Lenin bust would make a delightfully obnoxious bookend, but I restrained myself. I wanted to get you some vintage Soviet Union coins, but when the vendor noticed that I was a foreigner, her eyes lit up a little too much. My Russian isn’t good enough to haggle. I don’t want to end my trip getting ripped off. I’ll send you some Moldovan coins, which are even less common, for your collection.

Well, your eccentric aunt has rambled on enough. Besides, my food has arrived. They make the most delicious Russian salad at this place. I’ve eaten here every day at least once. The waiters are amused, but whatever. I hope you are doing well in school and wish you a fantastic summer.

May you have many adventures in your life.

Love,

Aunt Julie

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