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While grand residential projects help regenerate the outer centre of the Spanish capital’s district of Delicias, Romanian beggars build shanty-huts in the dirt

Madrid favelas: Each nationality of homeless has its own separate community (Picture: Michael Bird)

 

Delicias. In English this means ‘Delights’. A district in outer central Madrid. A warm Wednesday. Huge new apartment complexes of brick and concrete tower either side of a railway. Connecting the two estates is a wide footbridge, with a smooth incline to allow the passage of bicycles. Below the shining new buildings are fenced-off tennis courts, where buff players sport fancy designer wear, and serve aces across the clay.

But alongside the railway is a plot strewn with rubble, overgrown bushes and two massive rusting water towers, separated from the new blocks by a white wall. Under the footbridge are shacks of wooden boards nailed together and covered with tarpaulin. A mini favela takes shelter in the shadow of this huge development. On a sofa outside a shanty-hut sits a man in his late fifties, listening to the radio and drinking beer from a glass teacup. Next to him is a stroller filled with aluminium foil.

This is Costică, from Băilești, a small town in Romania’s arable heartland close to the Danube. He won’t talk to journalists. So we pretend we’re researchers for a university. He will not let us take his picture.

Before the 1989 revolution, Costică worked as a store manager and his family lived well, because he had access to food and goods. “Back then I used to work with a pen in my hand,” he says.

When communism fell, the local economy collapsed. Farming in his town turned from a collective employing every resident into a mechanised industry that ran on profit. “They don’t need people anymore,” he says.

In the 1990s, the post-Communist Government gave back land seized by the state to millions of families, hoping to create a new peasant class of smallholders. But each citizen received barely more than an acre. Costică was not impressed by this amount.

He takes a stick, leans out from the sofa and maps out a small square in the dust.

“How can you make farming on that?” he says.

So three years ago, Costică moved with his wife, his son and his sister-in-law to Spain. “As I didn’t have a job anymore, I had to come here,” he says. “God brought us here.”

He has a house and relatives in Băilești, including three grandsons. But he can’t bring them here. This is because the local social services would take the kids away, as Costică isn’t allowed to grow up children between four pieces of wood nailed together underneath a bridge.

As to why he choose this to come to this country and city, he says:

“We heard about Spain from the TV - and now we’re in the capital!”

A rat scuttles across a barbed wire fence. There is no one else here except Costică’s sister-in-law. They speak Romani together. Most of the shanty-huts are unoccupied, because the Romanians from Băilești have gone to Seville to pick grapes. But Costică is too old for fruit-picking.

Instead he says he makes a living from selling scrap wire and aluminium, as well as begging. “I sit in the street and I stretch out my hand,” he says.

He earns up to seven Euro per day, but his family - of three people - can earn 300 Euro a week.

The cops only come to check their papers. “We don’t steal - that’s the last thing we would need. The police leave us alone because we don’t commit crimes," he sighs.  "God protected us so far.”

But he says other residents in the squat were not so peaceful. “When they drink, all Madrid can hear them,” he says. Costică claims they were Turkish, although he doesn’t seem 100 per cent sure. A woman in the new blocks called the local mayor to complain when they played their music loud or set bonfires alight.

“We have learned to have smaller fires and not to play our music so loud,” says Costică. Now the local residents are used to him - he says.

There are eight Romanian families on the other side of the camp, from Craiova - a large town near Băilești. They live one hundred metres away. But Costică won’t make the short two-minute journey to speak to them.

“Because they are from another race,” he says.

 

Forced beggary “only from Romania”

We were here in Spain last September to examine forced labour run by criminal gangs. In 2013, the Spanish police say the only proven cases of work exploitation for begging came from Romania. From those taken to trial, eight victims were minors between the ages of 13 and 15. In 2014, the sale price a family would cash in selling their child to a begging gang in Spain was between 1,000 and 1,500 Euro.

Vans in Madrid drop off beggars at crowded areas within the city centre at seven A.M and pick them up in the evening. These include old and disabled people - many of whom could not come to Spain on their own. The Catholic Charity Esperanza details one case of a woman and teenage child forced into begging.

“They had to work for 12 hours in the same place every day, and to obtain 50 Euro every day. If they failed - they were not given food, or were beaten up,” says Marta González, general coordinator at Esperanza.

 

Fruit loot: In the middle of ironing a blanket, Romanians left for Seville to pick grapes for cash (picture: Michael Bird) 

 

But among the Romanian beggars of Delicias, the atmosphere is calm, and there are no kids or gang bosses, claim the residents. On the other side of the footbridge, two men are sitting outside a shanty-hut. One is large, almost bald, with blonde-hair, blue eyes and thick black tattoos, the other is smaller, pockmarked, his eyes damp and red. He is smoking red Pall Malls and holding out his thumb, which is bloody, and wrapped in a bandage.

When we arrive, a girl in her twenties hides behind a curtain to a hut, guarded by a  plastic white pony.

These men are Florin and Florin. Both are from Craiova. They don’t want to talk to journalists. But they let us pull up a chair and speak to them - because we 'are Romanian'.

The big Florin says he cannot work in Romania - and he shows us a scar that has cut into his ankle.

They arrived here three years ago. How do they make their money?

“Here we find a piece of metal or we beg,” says Florin.

They says they can earn 400 to 500 Euro in a month from their activities. But even if they manage six to ten Euro every day, “it’s pretty good”.

Sometimes they send home 100 Euro a month.

Both Florins say they don’t steal. “The cops would kill us if they caught us,” says big Florin.

There is no running water, nor is there electricity, but the larger Florin days he does not need it. “We arrive at ten at night and we go directly to bed,” he says.

On this wide abandoned railway siding squat people from around the world. There are Spanish, Romanians, and Turks (although no one here is quite sure they are Turks). But each group keep to their own separate shanty community, and the Romanians here don’t even know how to speak Spanish. Big Florin say they have no problems with the neighbours.

“We are on our field, they are on theirs,” he says.

In the shade of a tree is a black man in his twenties, sitting down, nodding and mumbling to himself. His shirt is open, and there is broad and heavy jewellery in faux-gold around his neck.

“Alaska: 10 degrees,” he says, “Canada: 12 degrees, West Coast America, 20 degrees, East Coast America…”

In Spanish, he is reciting the weather forecast to himself. Florin says he does this a lot. Every day, the guy makes money from begging in the street.

We ask where he is from.

Florin looks over with a mix of disdain and a faint note of sympathy.  

“Somewhere in Africa…” he says.

 

 

This short blog is part of the Eurocrimes project - fieldwork took place in September 2016

 

 

 

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We wanted to expose how Romanians are the main nationality of male prostitutes in Rome… and we did not do it

An elegant setting

 

A taxi driver told us where to find boys. His name was Mario. He wasn’t an average taxi driver. He ran an NGO helping women convicts land jobs after they left jail. Also he was an anarchist. And a former soldier who was incarcerated in a military prison after pouring a pan of spaghetti over his senior officer.

Now in his fifties, Mario knew the streets of Rome. He had socialised with murderers and generals. The high and low life of the eternal city. So he was the perfect man to show us exactly where we could see men soliciting boys for sex.

“It’s the opposite of women,” said Mario. “The client hangs out and waits for the boys to arrive.”

We knew from talking to charities, experts in prostitution and east European ex-pats that young Romanian men were the number one nationality of male vice in Rome.

This was not a sleazy part of the Italian capital. If such sleaze even exists. Here were the austere steps of Piazzale Simon Bolivar. At its summit was a brass equestrian statue of the Venezuelan freedom fighter. Nearby were the grand chambers of the Museum of Modern Art.

At the corner of a stone wall, halfway up the steps, and sheltered by an overhanging tree, stood a short 35 year-old man in sunglasses and an upturned collar. Next to him was a bike.

As we moved close to him, he crouched down with a bicycle pump in his hand, ready to inflate his tyres.

We walked into a small grove of cedars and stone pines. Here was a brass bust of Chilean independence leader Bernardo O’Higgins, taking a less prominent position than his Venezuelan counterpart. In the bushes was a blue one-man tent. It was occupied.

Opposite Bernardo O’Higgins was a broken blue chair. Scattered on the ground were empty packets of Durex condoms, Camel cigarette butts and Lube, trampled into the mud, branches and pine needles.

I took a photo with my phone.

It was a bad photo.

It even had my feet in it.

 

A bad photo

 

This is where Italian men have sex with Romanian boys - thought to be over the age of 16. The men wait near to the entrance of the grove. Usually older men, as younger men don't need to pay for sex. They stand like lost tourists waiting for a guide, the boys come up to them, they negotiate an amount, and go into the bushes.

But right now there was only one man with a bike. We walked past him on our way out of the grove, and he was still crouching down, with the pump in his hand.

I don’t think he was inflating his tyres.

He looked at us, through his sunglasses.

He seemed to be worried (although we could not be sure - because he had on sunglasses).

Perhaps he was thinking ‘you know that I am not really inflating these tyres. But I am going to keep on pretending that I am, so that you won’t think I am waiting for some Romanian boys.’

But there were no boys.

We needed a new strategy. We went to the outdoor Caffè della Arti, part of the National Museum of Modern Art, and ordered some coffee and water. It was a hot day. Refreshment was essential. But these drinks were expensive.

Then we took turns to walk around the area, seeing if we could find old Italian men or Romanian boys.

I carried a bulky camera and stood behind stone walls trying to take pictures in secret with a long lens. But my lens was not long enough. And there was nothing for me to photograph.

Then I spied a 60 year-old thin man in cap and shades and shorts, slightly sunburnt and looking around at the edge of wall with a small bum bag around his shoulder.

I went back to the cafe, and then my colleague took over the watch.

After ten minutes we realised that it looked as though the only people wandering around looking to procure young Romanian boys were us.

Half an hour later, we saw someone we suspected could be a prostitute. A young man, between 18 and 25, with slightly dark skin, short hair at the sides and a small beard.

We took a picture with a phone.

It was terrible.

 

Another bad photo

 

He started talking to the old guy.

The conversation seemed to be neutral, but cordial.

Then the younger man walked into the bushes with his telephone, came back, and showed the older guy something on his screen.

What did this picture show?

We were too far away to see.

Then the 'client' left. And the young man in shorts walked in and out of the bushes, seemingly on the hunt for someone else. Did we talk to him? We were staking him out. So we didn’t talk to him. Which was stupid. Did we talk to the old man? No. But we didn’t speak Italian.

We stayed in the cafe for a long time. The waitress kept asking if we wanted anything else. And we did that thing where you order the cheapest item on the menu. Which was a small water. 

Then she bought us the bill - which we hadn't ask for.

I think she hated us.

Did we hang around to see if more Romanian boys were arriving. Yes, but we were walking around with big cameras - or trying to take pictures craftily with our phones. Either the people looking for boys saw us, and became scared, or they were not there.

It wasn’t happening.

So we walked back to the grove, which was empty. Someone was coming out of the blue tent.

Who could it be?

It was a tramp with a muddy face and torn clothes.

We looked to the other side of the street. Opposite where Italians have sex with men in bushes.

The building that was standing there.

 

An irony

 

The Italian branch of the Romanian Academy. Inspired by the Académie Française, this is an institution that aims to “gather the preeminent personalities of Romania’s intellectual life”  to build progress in science and art through reflection and action.

I took a picture of the gated classical mansion with its mission statement sculpted in Latin.

And we remained without a story, standing next to a broken chair, on a carpet of cigarette ends, used condoms and muddy jars of empty lube.

 
 
 
You can read a more thorough exploration of Romanian prostitutes in Naples here - and thanks to Cecilia Ferrara, who helped us, but was professional throughout
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"Why here?"

I am used to being the only non-Romanian and non-Moldovan on the night bus that connects Bucharest to Chisinau. This has never been a problem before.

The coach leaves the Romanian capital at ten pm and takes five hours to reach the Moldovan border. The bus is packed mostly with students, families and pensioners.

After crossing the Romanian border, the Moldovan guards board the bus and collect the passengers' passports, staring at the photo in the document, and then at its owner.

They return to their booths and then hand back the passports to the driver, who gives the pile of 40 or so documents to the passengers.

One traveller opens the back-page of each passport and shouts out the surnames to the back of the bus -  “Ivanov!” “Petrescu!” revealing the mix of Russian and Romanian heritage.

But this time, as the passengers collected their passports, and the pile diminished, no one called out my name.

A heavy-set and bearded guard entered, pointed to me and said: “Michael James” and beckoned me out of my seat.

Soon I stood in a car park in zero degrees facing two guards, dressed in sable hats and long grey jackets. One young, short and eager, in his mid-twenties, the other in his mid-thirties, calmer, more mature.

“Do. You. Speak. Russian?” said the young one, in English, robotically, as though talking to someone who had dropped his hearing aid.

I replied, in Romanian, that it would be better if we continued in Romanian.

“What is the purpose of your visit to Moldova?” said the older man.

“Visiting friends.”

“Visiting friends?”

He paused. Both of the guards watched me. I have seen this before, It is called profiling. They stand back and let the guilty person sweat, breaking them down until they shake and confess. They were professional. They knew their job.

“And how long are you staying for?”

“Two or three days.”

“Two of three days,” he repeated.

“I don’t even have baggage,” I said.

Pause. This is what you shouldn’t do. It's a rookie mistake. Never offer information that isn’t requested.

I later talked to a friend who knows about these things. I asked him why he thought they hauled me off the bus and took me to one side. He told me they are worried about terrorists. I can understand this. Everyone is worried about terrorists.

But English terrorists? Have they been inundated with English terrorists in Moldova? What is their weapon of choice? A suicide teapot?

“In which field do you work?”

“I am a writer.”

Pause. Longer this time. I stayed silent.

“A writer?”

The eyebrows lifted. Eyes widened. I think I detected a sigh. There was surprise that such a career could exist. In fairness, I share their wonder that this domain could be considered a source of income.

“We noticed in your passport that you travel very regularly to Moldova.”

Every time I enter and exit the country, the guards have to stamp my passport. But I had been through Moldova only three times in that year.

And then came the killer inquiry, something sad, but expected:

“Why do you come to Moldova so often?”

How starved of confidence must a country be that it feels necessary to question every traveler who makes a regular visit over its border? Does it not occur to them that there may be good reasons to come to Moldova - that the country may offer something that is unavailable elsewhere? Isn’t this what Moldova wants? To be wanted. To be missed.

"I like Moldova," I said.

Pause. An even longer pause than before.

I do not think this reply made them any less suspicious.

But none of us had anything more to say.

"OK, go," said the older guard.

Later in a bar in Chisinau, I told a Moldovan friend about this, and he said to me:

“You should have kept it simple and just said you were here for the girls.”

Had it come to this? That to mask an honest attempt to access a country, one had to assume a sexist, cliched and criminal intent: to pretend to be a client for prostitution?



Also read our feature: The Timebomb: Moldova's ruling class is in freefall - but its opposition is fiercely divided

 

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As Georgia aims to boost its seaside holiday offer, Elena Lomora explores the deserted resort of Anaklia and the bustling crowds of Batumi

 

 

Deserted at the height of summer: luxury Anaklia Hotel, Georgia

 
'My baby came down from Romania/
 
She was the queen of Transylvania/
 
But now we live in suburbia/
 
Without any friends in Bosnia…'

 

To the Balkan beat of Disko Disko Partizani by Shantel, we end our night ride in a marshrutka minibus between the Georgian coast of Batumi and its capital Tbilisi.

I am left with the image of a fat young man trying to cheat me and a Finnish friend into getting off the bus with him and his three mates.

We needed to stop to use the bathroom on the eight hour journey - but he was blocking our route to the driver.

So my friend asked him – in Russian - if he could tell the driver to stop, so we could go to the toilet.

“Toilet, no problem!” he replied.

But he would not speak to the driver.

Instead, he had an excuse to talk to us, so he launched into a pick-up technique.

He began dancing on the bus aisle, moving his ample belly to the rhythms of tunes from Russia, Georgia and Romania.

When it was time for him to leave the bus, he told us:

“Toilet? Come follow me!”

We did not take him up on his offer.

On a marshrutka ride, besides being psychologically prepared for the idea that anything can happen, I found out that, no matter how long the ride, using a toilet was simply something I could not do.

Or it was something that depends on the good will of the driver and the other passengers. In any case, I had to restrict the amount of liquids I drank.

Before leaving for Batumi we had been to Anaklia, a resort on the northern end of Georgia’s Black Sea coast, right at the border with Abkhazia.

Anaklia was a village that Mikhail Saakashvili, Georgia’s former president and now governor of Ukraine’s Odessa, wanted to modernize into a luxury tourist hub.

But, because he stopped being President, the transformation never happened.

Except for locals and a handful of tourists, the main boulevard, wide and flanked by palm trees, is empty.

The promenade features two sumptuous hotels, one inspired by a fantasy of 1,001 Nights and a glass and steel residence called ‘Golden Fleece’, named after the mythic strip of wool that supposedly resided in Georgia.

There is a mock-up of a Chinese pavilion built out to sea and another five-star hotel called Palm Beach. They surround a block of circular concrete that was supposed to become a further opulent construction for modernizing Anaklia.

But this is now an abandoned construction site. Right in front of the hotels, the beach is clean and the grass is cut to the smallest millimeter.

But just a few meters away, plastic bottles and plastic bags litter the beach and there are cows. Cows grazing on the beach.

 

Eastern promise: empty Chinese-style pier - Anaklia

 

However Batumi, Georgia’s most hip seaside resort, is the polar opposite to the vacated Anaklia. There is a high-rise tower, where the Georgian flag is projected on the building and a miniature ferris wheel turns.

A wooden boat has been transformed into a café and restaurant. Here there is so much zeal about service that a waiter comes every five minutes to have a look at my plate and cup of coffee to see if I have finished.

The moment I put down my fork, the question comes: Cheque?! A bit surprised, I could not decide if I was, exactly at that moment, being forced to either order more or get out.

High-rise, lavish, kitsch hotels, designed for Georgia’s nouveaux-riche, are a trademark for Batumi as well. The main boulevard runs alongside the seashore and, in spite of the flash new buildings, there is garbage on the pebbles.

Across the street from western style hotels, next to a row of stones that end in the sea, a rat tries to pull a bag of rubbish into his hole.

Foreign women traveling alone seem to be an exotic treat. People are still surprised that two women, unaccompanied by a man, can order for themselves a bottle of wine in Georgia’s summer party capital.

Here we were also not immune to propositions. Strolling on Batumi’s boulevard, as English speaking women, we were approached by a man, in his late 20s, in dark jeans and a t-shirt, who approached us and said:

“Do you speak English? I have sex super.”

Again we refused the tempting offer.

But in general in Georgia, people are willing to help to an incredible degree. In the bus station in Tbilisi, a stranger found us a taxi without expecting anything in return - and whenever we asked for directions, Georgians would take us to the place we needed to go, to make sure we arrived. This is a country that should be renowned for a helpful and welcoming attitude - with only a few libidinous exceptions on the seaside.

 

Shells of hopes for a five-star experience in Anaklia

Yet here the food was great. The service at worst overzealous.

However failed and forced attempts at modernization are visible in the architecture of both Anaklia and Batumi, conditioned on the idea that ostentation equals modernization.

Both are standing illustrations of Georgia’s post-soviet authenticity, but also testimonies to its failed attempt to find a replacement for Abkhazia’s Sukhumi, and the Russian Sochi, which used to be the top summer holiday destinations in the South Caucasus before the Georgian-Russian war - and which now - due to regional politics - Georgians find it hard to see again.

 

 

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Romania is poor. Get over it.

 
Western Europeans cannot get enough of Romanian poverty. In photos. In news. In features. In TV shows. The appetite is immense.
 
It has become the biggest tourist attraction in the country. Foreigners now plan minibreaks here, hoping for a three-day fix of extreme poverty - in the yard of a four-storey slum in Bucharest or in blocks at the edge of any major town, they are hit in the face - Bang! - a panorama of depravity - filth, dogs, barefoot children, bonfires, cauldrons of steaming soup, all draped with washing lines of drying clothes. 
 
Timidly, they take out their cameras and phones to capture what they learned to look for in the only photography class they ever took - contrasts and extremes! 
 
Snap! - a child grinning in a yard full of mud - Snap! - a pig in a bathtub - Brilliant! Snap! - a village drunk lying next to a sign that says something they don’t understand, but it’s probably funny! - Snap!
 
But they need anecdotes too. They need to tell their friends what a laugh they had with these poor and miserable Romanians. Photos aren’t enough now. People need stories.
 
So, helped by a multilingual Romanian companion, they poke a Roma woman in flowery clothes, asking her: 'Are you a witch? Curse me, ‘gypsy’, go on curse me, here’s a hundred dollars, curse me, won’t you? I need something to tell my mates when I get home.' 
 
Romania is a poor country. Especially in the countryside. And in large pockets of cities. This becomes a profitable enterprise for foreign journalists and film-makers - and the locals who do all the work for them.
 
These Germans, French, Dutch or English come with a shopping list for their Romanian fixers.
 
First they need either 1. a tumbledown shanty-hut with dogs, pigs, chickens and a roof made out of an advertising poster for Coca Cola or Snickers or 2. a crappy Communist block preferably having just suffered an act of arson and/or earthquake damage.
 
Maybe the village doesn’t appear on a map! Crazy! Maybe the village is cursed! Even better! Sick children, bring it on! Nuns! Must have nuns! Orphans. What do you mean there were no orphans? Abandoned children, then, let’s call them orphans! 
 
It is said that in the Romanian countryside, there are only there sources of cash - the church, making a lethal plum brandy called Tuica and German documentary film crews.
 
But why Romania? Other countries are poor. England is poor. England has growing poverty. Millions are on on such low incomes, they don’t even need to pay tax. The same number are dependent on food handouts from charities - the UK has poverty, loads of poverty - more poverty than France and Germany, but Romanian poverty is so much more picturesque.
 
People’s faces are dirtier, the alcoholics are smellier, the locations are more dramatic, the children are ill, thin and friendly - it’s where Totalitarianism clashes with the Middle Ages. Where 1984 meets Game of Thrones.
 
It arouses a mix of pity and awe in westerners - in other words - they look at poor Romanians and say ‘How can you live like this?’ and ‘Isn’t it cool that you live like this!’ 
 
Is this wrong? I don’t know. No one is lying. No one is building dilapidated villages as sets for film crews.
 
Does it paint a biased picture of Romania? Romania is poor. Very poor. And the poorest suffer more due to their failure to access good education and medical care. They stumble before managing to catch on to the first rung of the career ladder - creating a cycle of poverty which is not coming to a standstill.
 
Can Romania do anything to redress the balance?
 
One of the most pathetic moments in Romanian public life recently was when the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Prime Minister Victor Ponta complained to UK TV’s Channel 4 about their television programme ‘The Romanians are Coming’.
 
The show tried to understand why Romanians wanted to work in the UK. The camera focused on poor people in miserable places. Romanian politicians claimed this was a prejudiced view of the country, which has an abundance of beauty and brains to offer the world.
 
But what were these leaders trying to say with their facile complaints - that poverty in Romania is the fault of a film crew from London? 
 
Unfortunately for the political classes, a documentary about a clever Romanian maths graduate who gets a job in Microsoft is a story no foreign journalist will follow. It doesn’t matter how many Nobel Prizes Romanians win - nor how many awards they pick up at international film festivals. PR won’t work. Good news will never be victorious over bad news. 
 
Foreigners filming Romanian poverty won’t end until Romanian poverty ends.
 
Without action, Brits, French, Germans will keep coming to Romania with a series of prejudices that they want confirmed - and can get confirmed.
 
Sometimes they will try to paint a better picture - with a film that follows a poor child from a squat who wins a place at university, for example. 
But the eye of the viewer will wander away from the story to the lack of running water, the muddy roads, the emaciated donkeys and the wagons, the damned wagons that every documentary about Romania seems hell-bent to include. 
 
You can see the foreigners in the spring and summer in Transylvania or in villages near Bucharest. With their big lenses, headphones and booms on the dust-roads:
 
Open shot. From right screen, wagon and horse, in centre, driven by bearded man with no teeth. He picks up hat, waves it and says something - either a greeting or an insult - it doesn't matter - the camera tracks wagon as it drives out of shot.
 
Basta! They will love this in Dusseldorf!
 
 
 
 
A Romanian version of this article is published on Contributors
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Russia and the EU act towards Moldova like two fat men fighting over an after-dinner mint

Russia and the EU act towards Moldova like two fat men fighting over an after-dinner mint

'I am a Moldovan/Russian - I speak Moldovan/Russian'

Chisinau is dark. 

In the subterranean walkways, lights are scarce, burnt out, flashing or dim.

People walk in darkness. There are few lamps on the street.

In the playgrounds in the evening, children sway on the swings and climb on plastic castles. They can’t see each other. Parents sitting on nearby benches can’t see them, only hear their laughing and screaming. 

By the main square, people wait at the edge of the street for Mercedes minibuses to take them home.

But you can’t make out the number on the vehicle until it is a meter from your face - too late to hail it down.

Whenever you see the shape of a minibus emerging from the shadows, you reach out your arm. They all stop for you. Even if they don’t want to. Even if they don’t take you where you want to go.

When you board a bus, inside it is packed with bodies. All the seats are occupied and there are as many people standing as it is possible for the bus to hold.

They are crushed against the windows. Their heads bent under the ceiling. If you stand, you cannot see where you are supposed to get out. You can only guess at the road - and when you arch your face, wipe the steam from the glass and finally manage to see outside, it is too dark on the street to be sure of the location. 

“Where are we?” you ask the people in the bus, “and where are we going?” 

I don’t know why there is so much dark.

Maybe the city believes there are not enough people willing to go out at night to merit lighting up the city. Maybe there is no money for electricity.

But it discourages meetings in the late hours. It inhibits communication. It makes people afraid of footsteps behind them. Builds suspicion where there is no threat. It creates borders where none should exist.

Even beer containers chucked in the middle of the central park battle between languages

Chisinau is a city where you hear Russian in one bar, Romanian in the next, both on the street and you can speak in both languages - even mix them up - and people understand. 

In the towns to the west, they speak more Romanian and to the north, more Russian. Communism's policy of 'the Soviet churn' of moving races from one part of the Union to another created a rich but confused identity at its western border.

Now it has ambitious people with a vision too narrow for the country. Those I stayed with in Chisinau (who spoke Russian, Romanian and French) spend their evenings learning English and German by Skype. There is a desire to transcend Moldova, whatever that may be.

Almost half the workforce is abroad, on construction sites in Moscow, cleaning hotels in Milan, in nursing homes in Lyon, leaving a state of pensioners and kindergartens.

This is a nation in transit. Unsure of what it is, but aware of what it is not. It’s not Romania. It’s not Ukraine. It’s not Russia. Moldova has not yet fully become Moldova.

Torn, yes, but peaceful for now. Although there is pressure from larger states nearby. 

Romanian politicians talk up the idea of a union with Moldova.

Prime Minister Victor Ponta, in his bid to be President this year, has a ‘five-year plan’ for Moldova to be part of Romania within the EU. 

Meanwhile President Traian Basescu and centre-right candidates for head of state Monica Macovei and Klaus Iohannis also casually employ unionist rhetoric.

But what does Moldova say about that? Only ten per cent want a union with their western neighbour. 

This willingness to redraw the map of Europe raises the hopes of people who wish for Moldova to be part of Romania. But it is not realistic.

Some politicians in Romania who I have spoken to, who publicly endorse a union, say privately “I don’t mean it”.

They use this language because the ideal of a greater Romania wins votes from locals and Moldovans with Romanian passports.

Plus it has the added benefit of pissing off Russia - a game Romania has enjoyed ever since its entry into NATO.

But when Romania toys, Moldova trembles.

Russia does the same. It wants Moldova to join its customs’ union - an open market rival to the EU. Posters in Chisinau from the Socialist Party, ahead of the elections next month, advertise the benefits of the union with Russia, Kazakhstan and Belarus.

At the same time, Russia enforces an embargo on the sale of Moldovan wine in Russia. Moscow is sending hundreds of ex-pat migrants back to their home country. In a nation of four million people, where 100,000s work in Russia, this wounds the economy and job prospects of the people. 

Russia offers one hand out to greet Moldova and, with the other, it punches Moldova in the face.

Moldova is being wooed and fooled by both the east and the west. But there is no long-term plan. They don't know what to do with the country.

To them, the Republic is important, but not that important. This is not Ukraine. This is not Poland. Moldova is disposable, but also significant. From a geopolitical point of view, the empires of Russia and the EU act towards Moldova like two fat men fighting over an after-dinner mint.

Meanwhile Moldova’s political class is equally deceptive. The politicians boast of their connection to western Europe, but the businessmen who back the politicians have financial links with Russia.

Their heart turns to Brussels, their wallet to Moscow.

But on the ground, there are bonuses to this.

From the people I spoke to, a major difference is that this year they have gained the right to travel visa-free through the Schengen space of the European Union, which they can add to their access to former states of the USSR, as well as Turkey and the Balkans. 

Suddenly the poorest nation in Europe has the people with the greatest freedom of movement.

 

Outside a university: 'No to Satanism' / 'Chisinau for bicycles'

An evening in September. There are thousands of people out on the streets. In the distance in the town square is a stage flashing with red and white lights.

Chanteuse Sofia Rotaru is singing with Romanian lyrics, but when she ends a song, she shouts ‘Spasiba’ to the crowd. 

The Cernauti-born 70s pop star is now in her sixties, but still packs a crowd when she gives a free concert, this time sponsored by Renato Usati, a businessman turned political opportunist, looking to advance in November's Parliamentary election.

Crowds have brought their children to see Sofia.

But the sound is distorted. She needs to shout to be heard. The stage is no more than a blurry figure surrounded by bright colours.

The audience is standing, watching, unmoved, not lip-synching to the songs or clapping their hands. No one is eating or drinking. No one seems to care. They are here because there is something going on and that something is free. 

Two three-year old kids are chasing an empty plastic bottle down the street, moving between the legs of the audience, tripping up, falling down, getting up, grabbing the bottle again, throwing it, all the time laughing and shrieking with joy. 

The children don't want to see Sofia.

They only want to watch a plastic bottle skipping down a pavement.

The crowd nearby turn away from the stage and watch the kids, with sympathy and envy.

 

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At the entrance to the Republic of Moldova''s second-largest city Balti, huge Soviet mosaics celebrate a paradise for the proletariat and peasants

 

Giant mosaics decorate residential blocks constructed in the Soviet era in the industrial city of Balti in north Moldova.

These images combine traditional folklore with Socialist realism to promote hope in an industrial future embedded in the myths of the past.  

Above is a portrait of a Soviet pioneer with a red scarf from the Communist youth movement - next to the silver birch, a sacred symbol of Russia. 

 

 

Hidden behind trees is this woman in traditional dress dispatching a stork carrying grapes.

This refers to a myth from the 15th Century, during dimunitive Moldovan leader Stefan cel Mare's war against the Turks.

Afer a long battle with the Ottoman hoards, the Moldovan army was exhausted of food and supplies.

Nevertheless, the wives and mothers of the servicemen placed bunches of grapes in the beaks of storks, who flew them to soldiers at the front.

The grapes gave the men the energy and spirit to beat the Ottomans back from their land.

This legend is sublime propaganda, as it unites the myth of Moldovan ingenuity with national symbols, such as the grapes - which nourish the country's wine industry - and the stork - a ubiquitous visitor to the country's electricity poles and chimney pots.

 

 

Celebrating Balti's industrial future, this mosaic greets travellers from the Chisinau exit, with the name of the town rendered in the now near-obsolete language of Moldovan cyrillic.

 

 

The faceless proletariat at work on metal and fire show no discrimination between man and tool.

Balti is majority-Russian speaking, and during Communism was a centre for the production of irons, telephones and sonar equipment for Soviet military submarines.

Since the fall of Communism it remained a centre for agricultural processing, but the population fell as workers fled to Russia and Ukraine for jobs.

However now Balti's industrial past is seeing a renaissance as the city becomes a hub for manufacturing car parts for Germany.

 

 

Decades on from their construction, the elegant lines of these portraits off-set by the brutalist tower blocks reveal a deepening contrast between the marketing strategy for a Socialist utopia and the reality of living in an apartment which is falling to pieces.

 

 

With thanks to Elena Gutanu and Oxana Greadcenco of www.moldova.org for invaluable help with this short piece.

 

This article is supported by 'Fortification of the independence of online mass-media in the Republic of Moldova through the transfter of Know-how from the EU' - with support from the 'European Partnership for Democracy' and financial resources from the 'National Fund for Democracy' (NED).  

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Bugs! Depravity! Bodily fluids! Experiencing romance and nightmare on the overnight train linking Romania and Moldova

The means of transport to Moldova from the west are limited. There are expensive flights and overcrowded buses, but for those looking for a retro-chic experience of real travel, there is only one option - the overnight train.

Moldovan writer Lina Vdovii has written a passionate account in the Romanian magazine Dilema Vechi about the fading grace of this service - a Soviet-era chain of sleeping cars from a time when the line would link the glorious Socialist brotherhood of Bulgaria, Romania and the USSR. 

In her account, waiters serve hot pretzels and steaming tea in a buffet wagon, while the guards wax nostalgic over how the train was a vehicle for black marketeers and drunken students. 

But now the train - named Prietenia (Friendship) - is no more than a relic of hope in a great industrial future, and a rusty iron handshake between Moldova and Romania.

Lina traveled in first class and met some fascinating characters but, being English, I decided it was too expensive, so I opted for second class. 

I didn’t meet anyone. 

But this is what happened:

Bucharest-Chisinau express: Sparkling exteriors (photo: L Vdovii)

Gara de Nord. Bucharest’s central train station. Eight PM. A hot Tuesday in June. 

The express train to Hungary - a sapphire-colored bullet - stretches out from its platform in a silent and smooth movement. 

Two fat dogs chase after the train, barking and running on and off the tracks. Their legs risk being trapped in the wheels, leaving a bloody mix of paw, bone and ligament spinning through the undercarriage to Budapest.

Inside the dark second class wagon to Chisinau, I find my seat in a booth accommodating four people. 

Scuffed brown and grey carpet lines the floor and the walls. Two beds are laid open above me. On these are rolled-up mattresses. Between the seats are a table and a small pot of plastic flowers. Behind is a white curtain held up by a long piece of wood across the windows. I draw the curtains. The wood falls from its breach and onto the floor. I try to put it back. I succeed. It falls again. I leave it on the table.

The levers creak. The brake loosens. The carriages move from the city and out into the rich and hot plains of Muntenia. No one will be staying in this booth with me.

In the corridor, thin red curtains drape from every window. Red pelmets hang above. Across their fabric is printed the Socialist Realist insignia of the Moldovan Railway Company. All the windows are open. The curtains gambol. The pelmets shimmy. As the sun goes down, the rays penetrate the thin linen, sparkling through the fading cloth.

Passing by my booth, a guard deposits a plastic bag of blankets and pillow cases. I kick off my shoes and lie down on a red leather couch. I listen to the rhythm of the wheels against the tracks. I look out at the verdant summer of the farms and the villages. Soon it darkens. I turn on the light and read Orhan Pamuk’s 17th century thriller about murder among rival miniaturists - ‘My Name is Red’.

But there is a smell. A familiar smell. A strong smell of urine. Yeasty. Like the urine of a cow. But aged. As though the urine has been frozen in the furnishings for some centuries - and only now been thawed. 

I try to find the source. I check the red leather sofas. Above me, I smell the mattresses. A sweaty hue. Below the cheap, byzantine-style carpet wreaks with a choking horror that invades my nose. Sickens my throat. I think about moving the carpet outside. But I do not want to bring attention to myself. I stay reading my book, ignoring the fetid air.

As I lie back, from the radiator next to the window emerges the black legs of a small insect. It creeps up between the railings of the iron grill. Its legs acute like a spider, its abdomen green, shining, almost emerald. I swear it makes a squelching noise as it moves.

Fearful, I pick up my copy of Orhan Pamuk’s ‘My Name is Red’ and slap it down on the beetle. 

I glance at the book jacket to see the remains of the squished body. But there is nothing there. I look to the grill. The creature has vanished. 

I need to go to the bathroom. It rests at the edge of the carriage. A rusted iron cabin, stuttering in rhythm with the rocking freight. Inside are only metal fittings - sink, toilet and taps - scratched and battered.

The toilet bowl has a view onto the passing tracks. On the floor is a plastic lattice-cut mat, steeped in inches of pee. So this is the reason for the urine in the booth. Men come to the toilet. They try to relieve themselves through the gash into the tracks. Because the shaking of the carriages is so fierce, their pee scatters everywhere except into the bowl. This creates a pool of urine. Every passenger who visits the toilet soaks their shoes in it. They leave the toilet. They step on the carpet, treading the swill into the fabric. Hence the carpet smells of urine. This is why the aroma is so intense and complex. Because it is not one person’s urine - it is a blend. 

Almost ten PM. I believe I should sleep. I put down Orhan Pamuk’s ‘My Name is Red’. Above me is the rolled-up mattress. This I unravel. Its links uncoil on the red leather. Staring me in the face, from the grey and open mattress, is a bloodstain. 

I put the bed linen on the mattress and lie down. I turn off the light. Outside the clattering of wheels on rails continues. A horn bellows whenever the train approaches a curve. The occasional light flashes on the windows. I think about the insect in the grill. I will not sleep.

Morning. Three in the morning. The door to my booth jangles open. My face tired. My eyes heavy. Two uniformed Romanian border guards stand there. A man and a woman. 

I wonder if they can smell the urine in the carpet. 

What are they thinking? He must have done this... He is the only foreigner on the train - and what kind of man is he? - a stranger who crosses the border between Romania and Moldova - why? - for the pleasure of discharging his bladder onto the floor of the train. And not just any train. Of Prietenia. The Englishman who pisses on our symbol of trans-national solidarity. Our Prietenia.

I want to blurt out to the guards - “That urine is not mine!” 

I prepare myself for how to say this in Romanian - “Pipi nu este al meu!”

For the Moldovan border patrol, I attempt to work out how to say this in Russian - “Ya ne mochilsaya zdes”. 

I think this means “I did not urinate here”.

However it could imply that I did urinate in another part of the train. 

I keep my mouth shut. 

The female guard asks me why I am going to Moldova. Are you a tourist? I am, I say. Do you have anywhere to stay? she asks. I tell her the name of my hotel. She does not seem satisfied with my answer. But what can I do? And what can she do? She sighs. Moves on to the next booth. This, like the others, is empty.

I lie back in my bed. Now I can sleep. My eyes begin to close. The tiredness can take me. I will forget about the smell, still emanating from the carpet. I will forget about the creature nesting in the radiator.

Another woman is standing at the door of the booth. She is dressed in a dark blue dress. Her eyes are half-shut. Her face is white. She is carrying a clipboard.

“I am a nurse,” she says. “How do you feel?”

I look at her.

She does not change her expression.

“Well,” I say.

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Twice-elected mayor of a Romanian sea resort and ex-prison detainee Nicolae Matei shows off his private zoo

credit: alecs candea


 
The mayor of the Black Sea town of Navodari, Nicolae Matei, sips a Turkish coffee in a pavilion, a few steps from his large detached villa in the town center.

A short and stocky man of 46, he arches his eyebrows, giving him the suspicious look of a public official who rules over 37,000 people, but is risking prison in a corruption trial.

Suddenly his smile is broad. His arms are open. With a slow move, he turns to his left, beckoning towards something in the distance.

"Llama!" he shouts. “Come to Daddy!”

Nothing stirs inside the enclosure. A llama chews some hay without responding to the twice-elected leader of the local community.

Around the beast’s legs, goats stir and chickens peck. From another cage, I hear baboons, macaques and creatures of an indefinable race.

"It's like in the jungle," says Matei.

 

 

 

A few years ago, the mayor traveled to a South African nature reserve, an event which inspired him to replicate the experience in his home town.

He started to build this zoo in 2009. But at that point he only housed squirrels.

Now, cages packed with tens of different species surround his house, as though a Biblical Ark has crashed onto a Romanian seaside resort.

The mayor intends to build a huge safari park over a few dozens hectares.
“It should have green areas, water and viaducts, as I've seen in other countries,” he says. “All the tourists who come to the seaside would spend a day visiting this park."

The mayor is also a businessman who owns a chicken farm. He imports the animals through his company and many of the carnivores feed on the meat he processes.

As the mayor takes me on a tour of the cages, he carries a large bowl full of fruit and bread. The animals capture his attention. I cannot interrupt him as he feeds them. The macaques prefer blueberries and grapes, while the mayor leaves an orange inside the fence for a baboon.

Matei feeds a three-week old baby deer with two bottles of milk, which the deer finishes off in a couple of minutes. It is a delicate creature, but Matei says she has powerful instincts.

"I used to leave her in the yard,” he says. “You should have seen the dogs running after her. They couldn’t catch her.”

In a cage under a roof hides a kangaroo. Right now he is not hungry.

The piece de resistance of the enclosure are the lions. Both the male and the female are in the mating period, so it is not the best time to bother them.

The male lion walks near the fence, his head dipped, posing a silent threat.
Matei says that he feeds them with only boiled meat, to reduce their aggressive instincts.

But when the male roars, you can hear the anger in his voice echoing between the blocks and along the boulevards of the town.

This is not the only place where one can find lions in Navodari. The industrial resort is packed with bronze and stone statues of the regal feline, emerging between communist blocks or guarding public institutions. I counted at least a dozen in the most visible places.

There is a reason. Matei is born under the sign of Leo. For him, the lion is a symbol of power.

In November 2012, Matei was arrested on corruption charges. He allegedly tried to bribe a police officer, in order to obtain his support in criminal cases under investigation by the cops in the nearby city of Constanta.

A few days after his arrest, around 1,000 residents of Navodari protested in the central square to petition for his release. He spent five months in detention, but his trial continues.

Nothing in this town seems to move without his approval. Every decision that takes place in the town hall is passed unanimously by the council. When Matei was in prison, vice-mayor Florin Chelaru consulted with him twice a week on local policy.

In the documents related to the case, one of the discussions intercepted by Romania’s graft-busting National Anticorruption Department (DNA) reveals how Matei styles himself as ‘The Emperor in Navodari’.

It seems every king needs a jungle.

 

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Every drug imaginable was available for a 21 year old with cash in his pocket in Russia’s capital

Drug dealers have used the secrecy of the Moscow Metro as a meeting place with customers (Picture: A Savin)

 

“I lived in Russia,” says 28 year-old Dimitri. “In Moscow I tried all the drugs there."

A resident of Chisinau, Dimitri is now recovering from a near-fatal operation that saw him lose his entire left jaw due to years of injecting a meth-like drug called Vint.

But he is feeling nostalgic for his two years spent in the Russian capital.

Working in a car wash, the 21 year-old Moldovan polished the bodywork and cleaned the insides of the status symbols of Moscow’s nouveau riche.

Pocketing up to 500 USD a day, he was ready to spend large on Russia’s huge clandestine drug market, every day sampling a new high.

“Everything is available in Moscow,” he says. “If you have money, you can buy any drug - you have a dealer and call him and he will work out what you need.”

Dimitri would meet his dealer for a drug swap in the corridors of Moscow’s vast underground train network.

“Because a lot of people are moving about there, it is the easiest place to meet as you can separate and disappear, so no one catches you,” says Dimitri.

Dealers drew up lists of hundreds of different types of drugs, imported from across the world and up for sale to Moscow’s spoilt youngsters and migrant workers with an appetite for stimulation, mind-alteration and escape.

“Before I had only tried vint, heroin and marijuana,” he says. “But now I could do speed, meth, LSD and a type of methadone that I could inject. Dealers brought GBH from England - a chemical spray you could squirt onto anything and then smoke. It’s a killer drug and gives you a feeling that you don’t have a body. When you wake up, you feel you have just woken up from a coma. I guess that’s why they call it GBH.”

Dimitri continued with his list, crossing off the drugs he had tried.

“There was also Spice, morphine, mushrooms, Krokodil, ten different kinds of ecstasy, Mitsubishi, Tears.”

He could even get hold of what he says was Ayahuasca - a bizarre plant brew favored by shamans in the Amazon basin.

“It’s the most horrible drug and I don’t want to try it again,” he says. “It’s very strong. It gives you such an understanding of different realities, but affects you for only five minutes. You feel like you have been in a different reality. It slows down times and transports you to another world.”

“Is it like LSD?” I ask.

“LSD is a joke compared to this,” he says. “I will show you on the computer the effect.”

I am not sure what he means.

Dimitri sits opposite a monitor, clicks onto YouTube. A video starts. A bearded traveller and a Latin American witch doctor drink from a wooden cup in a cave full of totems.

Computer-generated effects emerge. Cartoon fractal zooms spiral out from a cactus-like plant and twist in the manner of tentacles. The witch-doctor laughs at the foreigner, shouting at him in an indiscernable tongue - ‘Happa Dami Taha!’ - as he writhes on the floor.

Giant black insects bite and scratch at each other. I later find out this is a scene from a western starring Vincent Cassel called ‘Blueberry’, which flopped at the box office.

I am not that interested in the film.

“Yes,” I ask. “But tell me what you experienced?”

“This,” he says, pointing to the screen.

“But what did you see?” I ask. “What was your vision?”

He seems frustrated and is silent for a moment in his chair, watching the computer cartoon.

“It was exactly like this,” he says.

 

 

For the rest of Dmitri's story click on Deadly Moldovan drug provokes addicts to lose jaws

 

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