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New Europe

Day Forty-six: Chisinau, Moldova

Supper with Olga and Helena 
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Tucking into supper, Moldovan country style. Helena grows all her own vegetables, bakes her own bread and makes her own wine.
Michael Palin - New EuropeBig cities are an often inaccurate gauge of the feel of a country, so I'm pleased when Olga suggests I come out to meet her mother in the countryside an hour or so south of Chisinau.

The landscape is wide and open, with long rolling fertile slopes. The Russians used to call this the Sunny Country. Once off the main road the tarmac breaks up and sometimes disappears altogether, leaving us to negotiate villages on unmade muddy tracks, with horses and carts trotting impatiently behind us. The women wear headscarves, jackets and floral skirts and there seem to be few young adults around. There's strong evidence of religion, both Romanian and Russian Orthodox, in the shape of decorated crosses above well-heads and freshly painted churches and graveyards in better shape than most of the houses.

The road into Gradiste, Olga's mother's village, runs down a long avenue of walnut trees before turning to follow the course of a sluggish, willow-bordered stream. A man comes towards us driving a flock of geese. Neither agricultural nor industrial revolutions seem to have made much mark here.

Olga's mother Helena has lived on her own since her husband died seven years ago. The family house, built by her grandparents, stands, as is the way here, end onto, rather than facing, the road. It's long and low with a tin roof and a blue-painted conservatory with stained-glass panels opening out onto a backyard full of cats and kittens, dogs and puppies, chickens and the occasional rabbit. The gardens at the back and front of the house are productive rather than decorative and, despite being the other side of seventy, Helena grows and gathers her own potatoes, tomatoes, cherries, apples, walnuts, plums, aubergines, sweet peppers, cranberries, raspberries, strawberries and watermelons as well as making wine from her own grapes. The house used to be heated with wood fires until gas came to the village, though with a connection cost of 500 euros, she's one of only a handful who've taken advantage. The toilet is out in the garden.

Helena is a doughty lady of restless energy who gets up at four most summer mornings and pretty soon she's got me out picking raspberries, which have a fresh juiciness I'd almost forgotten was possible. We talk a little about the old days when her husband was a local Party official and everyone worked on the collective farm. There was enough food and job security, even if nothing much ever happened, and it was tough for everyone after the glad hand of socialism was withdrawn in 1991.

When she isn't managing her sizeable estate she keeps abreast of things from the newspapers, reads her Bible and attends the local church, where congregations are routinely 100 or more, half the total population of the village.

Olga's older sister, the only one of the family's seven children still living in the village, comes by. She's been a teacher here for thirty years and seems downtrodden by it. She would desperately like to leave, but something in her eyes says that she knows she's left it too late.

Helena won't let us leave without cooking us a typical Moldovan supper. After she's said grace we tuck into chicken soup with home-made bread, a crusty cheese pie and pancakes stuffed with sesame, sunflower seeds and walnuts, washed down with a jug of her own white wine.

As we head back to Chisinau I muse on the contrasting lifestyles of self-sufficient Helena in her isolated village, and her daughter Olga, living in cosmopolitan Bucharest, chosen recently to be the face of Paco Rabanne in an ad campaign. The old and new worlds, one closed and secure, the other open, but insatiable. I know nothing much of Moldova but already I feel myself getting sentimental about it.
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  • Series: New Europe
  • Chapter: Day Forty-six: Chisinau, Moldova
  • Country/sea: Moldova
  • Place: Gradişte
  • Book page no: 118

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