T is for Transnistria

Transnistria, a sliver of land at the eastern border of Moldova, right next to the Ukraine, wanted to be part of Russia, not Moldova, when the former Soviet Union broke apart in 1992. Refusing to assimilate into Moldova, Transnistria continued to use the Russian ruble even after Russia had issued new rubles and stopped accepting the old-style currency as legal tender. The Transnistrians added a postage stamp to the Russian rubles to indicate they were their currency.

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russian troops have been present in Transnistria. While my husband Alex and I were in Moldova, from 1992 until 1994, General Alexander Lebed was in command of the Russian 14th Guards Army in Moldova which was involved in skirmishes in Transnistria and another semi-autonomous region, Gaugazia.

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) has had a presence in Moldova since the early 1990s, charged with facilitating a negotiated settlement between Moldova and Transnistria. At the time we were in Moldova, the ambassador from the OSCE to Moldova was a Canadian. One weekend, he, his wife, one of his local staff, Oksana, the U.S. Ambassador to Moldova, Mary Pendleton, Alex, and I set off for a relaxing few days in Odessa, on the Black Sea coast of the Ukraine. We left Friday afternoon in two cars, the OSCE ambassador, his wife and Oksana in one, Ambassador Pendleton, Alex, and I in the other. The OSCE ambassador’s car was in the lead since Oksana was to be our translator for the trip. She was to explain to the guards at the Transnistrian “border,” which the U.S. government did not recognize, why we needed to be given speedy and unimpeded passage through Transnistria to the Ukraine.

Oksana had been a university student in Odessa and she was very eager to show us what Odessa had to offer.  Her initial responsibility, getting us through the Transnistrian border, was not a problem as Ambassador Pendleton was waved through without having to stop. Once we reached Odessa, we checked in at a private sanitarium at the edge of the city. The name conjured up visions of patients with tuberculosis or schizophrenia, but Oksana explained it was a place that offered a relaxing and calming setting and was very desirable for weekend stays.

We didn’t spend much time there. That evening we headed for a meal at a restaurant overlooking the coastline and beach. The restaurant was full of very well-dressed, cosmopolitan young couples, some of whom looked as though they had just walked out of a stylish European casino.  There was music and dancing, although we chose to remain spectators as the fashionably dressed couples filled the dance floor.

The next day we toured several museums, many of them with a strong military slant. We also went to see the Potemkin stairs, originally 200 steps leading from the city situated on a high steppe plateau to the harbor. That evening we went to a concert where one of the most noticeable acknowledgements of the change in the government was the hole in the flag on the stage curtain where the hammer and sickle had been. After the concert, Oksana suggested we go to a hotel that was well known for its entertainment at the bar.  As she had done at nearly every other stop, she recommended that we not park directly in front of the location we intended to spend our time. Instead, she had the OSCE ambassador drive around the corner from the hotel where she located two parking spots so that the two cars would be parked one in front of the other. It may have been that desire that the two cars remain close to one another than led her to make the recommendation. We didn’t ask; we just wondered.

The next morning, Sunday and our last day in Odessa, Oksana recommended we have breakfast at a famous downtown restaurant before we headed a short distance out of town to see another Ukrainian Black Sea site. At this location, there were plenty of parking spaces directly in front of the restaurant, including on a very wide sidewalk where others parked their cars. But instead, Oksana again took us around the corner to park the two cars out of sight, and we then walked back to the restaurant. At the end of the meal, we walked back to the corner. It was immediately obvious that something was wrong. There was only one car on the street, Ambassador Pendleton’s Honda. The OSCE ambassador’s Lada was missing. Instead of spending a short time at the other site after which we planned to travel back through Transnistria, arriving at the border while it was still daylight, we ended up back at the restaurant where we had had breakfast and Oksana called the police.

Gasoline was in very short supply in all of the former Soviet Union at that time, so when Oksana got through to the police, she was asked to arrange to pick up a policeman who would investigate the missing vehicle. Ambassador Pendleton, the OSCE ambassador, and Oksana headed out to pick up the policeman, leaving the OSCE ambassador’s wife, Alex, and me behind.

Once the policeman was on site, he seemed optimistic that they would be able to find the ambassador’s car. He recommended that we just wait. In the meantime, Ambassador Pendleton, the OSCE ambassador, Oksana and the policeman made a few other stops to file reports and investigate options.

By 3 p.m., Ambassador Pendleton was concerned that if we didn’t leave soon, we would arrive at the Transnistrian border at dusk. She did not want to  confront the informal Transnistrian militia at any disadvantage, so she began to press for the six of us squeezing ourselves into her car so that we could return. Oksana assured her that she could get us past the border without a problem, so waiting a little longer would be fine.

So we waited. By 5 p.m., Ambassador Pendleton decided waiting any longer was out of the question. She insisted that the six of us get into her car and head back. But Oksana and the OSCE ambassador were unwilling to give up. Instead of getting into Ambassador Pendleton’s car, they agreed that the four of us–Ambassador Pendleton, Mrs. OSCE Ambassador, Alex, and I–should head back to Moldova while they waited in town until the car could be located. Oksana gave Ambassador Pendleton directions for what she called a short-cut so that we would get to the border more quickly.

The four of us left, now minus the only Russian speaker among us, and headed for the border as the sun sank lower and lower. By the time we reached the border, daylight was nearly gone and we realized that the guards there, most of them very young men without any identifiable uniforms, had been standing in the sun while drinking all afternoon. When the car stopped, the guard who approached the ambassador stumbled as he walked towards the driver side window. His rifle was slung over his shoulder, but the other guards were holding their rifles by the barrels, resting the butts on the ground, like walking sticks.

The guard insisted the ambassador get out of the car. She tried to speak with him in Romanian, but that didn’t work. He motioned for her to go to the back of the car and then he pointed to the trunk, indicating he wanted her to open it. She did. But when he started opening the suitcases in the trunk she pushed his hands out of the way and told him he didn’t have any right to inspect anything in her car because we were all diplomats and her car had diplomatic plates on it. She closed the trunk, got back into the car, put it in gear and drove off. The rest of us slunk down into the seats so our heads were below the level of the back window, expecting the worst.

It took a few minutes before we all exhaled.

Originally published in The Guilded Pen, Third Edition, the Anthology of the San Diego Writers/Editors Guild.

R is for Romania

I learned I had been selected for a Fulbright grant to teach English in Romania just weeks before I expected to leave Iran in July of 1977. And I was astonished that a friend was able to find a Teach-Yourself-Romanian book in Tehran so I could get a head start on the language.

It was difficult to figure out just how to pronounce Romanian words and phrases, having no audio sources. Some of the phrases didn’t look too difficult. For example, bună ziua, good afternoon, had only four syllables and more vowels than consonants. I figured it should sound something like “BOON-a ZI-wa.” Likewise bună seara, good evening, looked manageable as BOON-a se-YAR-a. But the Romanian equivalent of good morning had a lot more syllables and nearly as high a vowel to consonant ratio: bună dimineaţa. I understood that little tail under the “t” was pronounced as two English sounds: ts. Thus good morning in Romanian was BOON-a dee-meen-ee-YATS-ah, a mouthful for a non-morning person like myself.

But when I got to the pronouns, I just wasn’t sure I could believe the book. I thought it might be a version of Romanian spoken by those of several generations ago. Who ever heard of a personal pronoun having more syllables than the noun it represented?

English pronouns are all short: I, you, he, she, it, we, they. Not a multisyllabic one among them. But the Teach-Yourself-Romanian book said the Romanian equivalent of the plural (and “formal” or polite form) of you was Dumneavoastră. That is six syllables! And the single, informal form of you wasn’t much shorter, Dumneata, four syllables. I just couldn’t believe that Romanians waste that much effort and time on the personal pronoun, you.

On the plane from Frankfurt to Bucharest, I met someone who had at least heard Romanian spoken by those living in Bucharest at that time. I decided to test out my theory by asking her to tell me how to say good morning, good evening, and good afternoon as a benchmark of my interpretation of the sounds. She confirmed that I had figured out how to say those phrases fine.

Then I asked her about the pronouns, starting with the ones I wasn’t amazed at: I is eu (which sounds a lot like the Spanish equivalent, yo), we is noi, he is el, she is ea, all of them short. So I fully expected my semi-native informant to give me short versions of the singular and plural you. But she didn’t. She confirmed what the book said, Dumneavoastră was the polite form of you. But the familiar, singular form was often shortened to ta, although Romanian has many cases so the spelling varies, depending on whether it is the subject or object in a sentence.

So I learned to roll Dumneavoastră off my tongue when addressing strangers. After all, there was no point becoming too familiar too quickly.


P is for Paris

Who doesn’t love Paris?

There’s just one thing wrong with it for me–I kept being sent back there when I really wanted to see some other places, too.

My first trip to Paris was in December 1987 1977, during the New Year’s break at Alexandru Ioan Cuza University in Iași (pronounced “Yahsh”), Romania, where I was the American lecturer, sponsored by the Fulbright-Hayes Exchange Program. I refer to the break as the New Year’s break because Romania in those days didn’t observe Christmas, or at least they didn’t observe it by name. The store windows displayed banners inviting shoppers in to buy presents to observe “December–the month of gifts.” Children in Romania looked forward to receiving New Year’s presents.

My trip began by tram from the industrial zone of Iași where I lived to downtown where I would catch the bus to the airport. As I stepped off the tram, the heel on my right shoe snapped off, making it necessary for me to walk on one tip toe as I made my way from Piața Unirii (Unification Plaza) to the Air Moldova ticket office where the bus picked up passengers for the morning’s flight to Bucharest and from there onward to Paris. Once I reached Bucharest, I was able to open my suitcase and switch shoes. First on my to-do list when I got to Paris was to find a shoe repair shop.

I chose to spend my vacation in Paris because, well, who doesn’t love Paris? In addition, a couple I knew from Tehran had moved there a year earlier. Shellagh had been our secretary and her husband, Bill, worked for IBM in Tehran until the company transferred him to Paris. They lived in an apartment in Neuilley-sur-Seine on a floor high enough up for a their living room windows to offer a splendid view of the Eiffel Tower.

Shellagh gave me directions to get from the airport to downtown where she met me and brought me to their apartment. Since she had to return to work, I had the afternoon to explore the neighborhood and get as many of the tasks on my to-do list done as possible.

Before I left for Paris, I worried about how I would get by since I had never studied French, and I had heard how impatient the French were with tourists who don’t know the language. One of the French lecturers in Iași assured me I would get by just fine. He told me I didn’t need the whole French language, I should just speak French words. In addition, Romanian is a Romance language with many cognates with French.

It pleased me greatly to be able to tell Bill and Shellagh that on the first afternoon I was able to find a place to repair my shoe, another to get film developed, a beauty shop where I made an appointment for later in the week to get my hair cut, and a boutique where I purchased a black velvet pant suit and a black dress with a subtle print in a fabric that could be washed in my bathtub and then just hung to dry without needing any pressing to wear again. All with only French words, and one French sentence, Parlez-vous anglais?

At the end of the academic year, I traveled again to Paris to see Shellagh and Bill, this time with my parents.

Two years later, the company in Minneapolis where I worked once I returned to the US scheduled several of their staff members to travel to Europe to meet with their distributors. I was among those chosen, but they sent me only to Paris.

The company knew I enjoyed traveling. In contrast, a colleague, Thom, hadn’t really wanted to go on the trip at all. So he complained. In response to each complaint, the company added an additional city to his itinerary. He was sent to the Netherlands, Norway, and France.

Maybe I should have complained, too. But it just didn’t seem right. Who doesn’t love Paris?

M is for Moldova

When the former Soviet Union broke apart, the small country of Moldova was one of many that emerged from its ruins. Many pundits expected it wouldn’t last, that it would be absorbed by its neighbor to the west, Romania, as part of a grand reconstruction of what had been the country of Romania before the end of World War II. But on the ground, Moldova looked very different from Romania.

While all of what makes up modern day Moldova was once part of Romania, the language continued to be written in Cyrillic script in Moldova, in contrast to the adoption of the Latin alphabet in Romania back in the 19th century. The switch from Cyrillic to Latin alphabets in Moldova occurred in the last decade of the 20th century, more than 100 years later.

By the time I arrived in Moldova in 1992, the street signs had all been replaced to display the names in the Latin alphabet, but the transformation was not yet complete. The ambassador at the US embassy in Chisinau spoke Romania, not Russian. The political/economic officer spoke Russian, not Romanian. They attended a concert together where the program handed to all attendees was in Moldovan in Cyrillic script. The Russian speaker “read” the words aloud for the Romanian speaker to translate into English, the only way either of them could understand the program.

After World War II, the Soviets moved ethnic Russians into positions of importance in the Moldovan capital to run the banks, factories, and schools. This further diminished the role of the Romanian language, which by the time of independence was used primarily on the collective farms. Since Russian was the language taught in the schools, many people who spoke Romanian only did so at home. The version they spoke often made them sound like peasants, not professionals.

Yet in 1989 the state language law declared that Moldovan citizens have the right to choose Russian or Moldovan when doing business with the government. A deadline in the early 1990s was specified. Educated Romanian speakers had no difficulty meeting this requirement.  The deadline has been indefinitely postponed because of the large number of Russian speakers who cannot speak Moldovan.

The embassy had a difficult time finding Romanian speakers in Moldova who also spoke English. The Romanian speakers often spoke French or Spanish in addition to Russian. As a result, we had to recruit staff members who were at least trilingual–Russian, Romanian, and English.

A British comedy writer, Tony Hawks, wrote a book about his effort to win a bet that he could play and beat all the members of the Moldovan national football team at tennis. At stake–the loser would have to strip naked and sing the Moldovan national anthem on Balham High Road in London. You don’t need to know anything about Moldova or tennis to enjoy the book. If you read it, I predict you will, like Tony, agree that Moldovans are the friendliest people in the world.

H is for Hungary

Five days in Budapest, Hungary, in October 2000: that’s all the time I spent there. On the Thursday of that week, October 12, while I was attending a conference on travel issues in Budapest, the USS Cole was attacked in Aden Harbor on the southern coast of Yemen.

What’s the connection? Why does that matter?

If it were not for the travel conference, I would have been in Yemen, possibly even in Aden, on that day. Two of my colleagues were in Aden, spending the long weekend coinciding with the US embassy’s observation of Columbus Day.

I have always felt the presence of a guardian angel in my life. Even when things go wrong, there is a way that true disaster is averted. For example, the engine of my 1969 VW bug blew out a piston the summer I drove it from San Francisco to my home town, a distance of more than 2000 miles, but the piston didn’t blow until I was just two miles from home.

And then in October 2000, my guardian angel kept me out of the danger brought by suicide bombers in Aden where 17 American sailors were killed and another 39 were injured. By the time I returned to Sana’a, my colleagues were exhausted. Everything had changed.

But because I was not in town when the suicide attack occurred, I was refreshed, as though simply being in proximity to Hungary’s famous wellness spas was enough.