Upon exiting customs clearance, I looked for a bathroom but was confused when the WC sign seemed to lead down a flight of stairs. At an airport? Seriously? I was fortunate to only have carry-on luggage with me for the weekend of workshops I was giving. Once I ascended back up to baggage claim, I found an ATM but realized I didn’t know the conversion rate to Moldovan Lei. Found a currency exchange listing, did the math, back to the machine. And the entire time, since I had come out of baggage claim, I had been hounded by men. “Taxi? You need taxi? Missus? I can take you!” In such situations, I find it best to forge ahead without eye contact; while it seems rude, it takes much less time than fruitlessly declining their offers. Besides, I needed to find the yellow taxi counter that Nick, my fellow English Language Fellow here in Moldova, had told me to use. There it is, I guess…with all of these same men swarming around it like a hive with the Queen Bee behind the counter. “Hi,” I said to Queen Bee. “How does this work? I need a taxi to Bălți (‘Belts’).” She looked a bit bemused and waved her hands towards the swarm of drivers around me. Many of them were already accepting my request, and two had a surprisingly firm grip on my bag. One a bit further away complained, “Yes! I speak English! I ask you before! Why you afraid me?” Gee, I wonder.
I walked out the door after the one who had triumphantly gained possession of my bag and slid into the back seat. He had claimed inside during the tug-of-war that he spoke English, but now he turned to me and asked a bit sheepishly, “Russki?” No, my Russian is at no level to claim yet. “Ukrainski?” Nope. “Romana?” (Romanian and Moldovian are highly similar.) No, definitely not. Now I was beginning to feel badly about my language abilities. I’d better take the lead for a bit. “Deutsch?” I asked. “Ja! Du kannst Deutsch sprechen?” Whew – German it was. He turned and started the car, using our newfound lingua franca to tell me that it would be two hours to Bălți. “Ja, ich weiss, danke,” I said. It was about 9:30 at night already, and he chatted as we started off through the sleepy-looking capital city of Chișinău (“Ki-shi-now”). His German turned out to be quite limited, but enough for him to continue to try to make comments about what we were passing. I only caught about half of it, but I think it’s just as well not to have too much common language when you need to spend two hours in a car with your taxi driver. I had told him this was my first time in Moldova, and he was eager to introduce it to me. After some time, he told me his name was Johan, Giovanni, Ivan, John. And in Moldovian, I asked? “Ee-o-an.” He asked my name, and I told him. He tried it out as if it were a new experience for his tongue. “Jea-nie. Jea-nie. Ah, Jea-nie. Gut! Gut! Beautiful!” We were now through the city and headed into countryside to the north. “Bye-bye, Chișinău!” He said, and told me we were now going into Northern Moldova. We were sailing along on a road with almost no other cars, but every now and then Ioan would hit the brakes and point to a line overhead with a camera that flashed as we passed. “Politzei,” he would say each time, and shake his head. He seemed to be quite familiar with these traffic cameras, and at one point proclaimed with a big X of his arms that they were finished. He confirmed that by accelerating with enthusiasm. We soon settled into a lovely quiet, punctuated only by comments here and there about the temperature or who knows what.
About halfway through the trip, he pulled into a gas station and announced “Alimente!” as he motioned to the mini-mart. Did I want anything? No, I told him, I was good. How about something to eat? No, I’m fine. To drink? No thanks. It was late night in a foreign land, and my senses told me to stay inside the taxicab. Every time I declined, he said “Ah, Jean-nie, Jea-nie, gut, gut” and gave me a thumbs-up sign as if my resistance was something to be admired. He opened the hood and hooked up the gas nozzle.
Then his door opened. “Toalet?” No, I shook my head and smiled. Gut, gut. Thumbs-up. A few minutes later, again the door opened. “Kaffee? Tee?” Goodness gracious. I wondered if he was in cahoots with the owner of this place. He took the nozzle out and walked around the other side of the car. A rap on my window. Smoke? He held up his carton of cigarettes inquisitively. No, no thank you, no. Thumbs-up. As he walked off with his smokes, I noticed the sign posted on the inside of my back seat window, and got more worried as I read. I began to wonder if I was safe. He had already smoked and used the telephone, and I could see the warning that was next. But how was I supposed to report my driver if indeed he was a murderer? Wasn’t it then too late? I tried not to think about it as he came back to the car and opened the door.
He turned around to me, smiling, and handed me a bottle of Pulpy peach drink “With fruit bites” and a bag of candy. “Moldova!” he said proudly. The candy wrappers, as I found later when I had a bit of light, actually said “Moldova” on them. Gosh, how nice of him. How many of you have ever had your taxi driver buy you a treat for the trip?? He’s of the non-murdering type, I figured, and relaxed a bit as we zoomed off into the north. I was thinking that it was odd that here in the poorest country in Europe, poorer than Ukraine, the roads were so much better. My marshrutka (jitney bus) ride from Cherkasy to Kyiv that morning (in Ukraine) had been like driving on a giant crusty English muffin. (I am hopeful that the roads may actually even out pretty soon when the whole thing just becomes one giant pothole.)
It was almost midnight when we descended into Bălți. It took at least 20 minutes of driving around, asking other drivers where the Hotel Bălți was, before we finally found it. It was a kind of victory, and I asked Ioan if I could take his picture with his taxi. I proclaimed him to be my first friend in Moldava, which pleased him quite a bit.
Ioan brought my bag into the hotel and talked with the less-than-friendly receptionist to announce the arrival of Jea-nie. It was a nice gesture, especially since the receptionist couldn’t seem to care less that I had indeed arrived. Ioan also wanted to secure a job driving me back, but I told him I thought I would be coming back with some other folks. Either his German really wasn’t that good, or he just claimed he couldn’t understand, but in any case, he made sure I had his card and number and would call if I needed a ride. I found the airport taxi card quite interesting. I must say that Ioan and the other drivers at the airport bore very little resemblance to the featured driver, but you can bet I gave Nick a hard time about this being his “recommended” company!
And the end of the story? Well, I settled into the room, one of the sparsest I’ve stayed in. I was happy that I had some soap along with me, as there was none in the bathroom.
I went back down to reception to get a bottle of water and have the man on duty come up and plug a space heater into the freezing room. The blanket under the sheet on the bed sadly did little to ameliorate the effect of the springs, and despite being so tired, it did take me a bit of time to fall asleep. In the morning I could see the view from my window. I went up to the fourth floor and walked up and down the hallway before finally discovering which door must lead to the breakfast room. My worries over how to order were for naught as a woman came and plunked a plate of food down in front of me.
Experiencing differences in look, and taste, and feel, and practice (for better or for worse), and taxi rides with drivers named Ioan — now THIS is what travel is all about.