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Moldova, bridges and storytelling

Moldova is a place I only know through books. One of my favorite travel books is “Playing the Moldovans at Tennis” by Tony Hakws. It’s a classic of the “odd travel” genre, a trip through a little-known (in the west) Eastern European nation to settle a bar bet: Tony Hawks bets a friend that he can beat each member of the Moldovan national football side at tennis. The only logical resolution is for him to travel to Moldova (and Israel, as a couple of the Moldovan players play for Israeli sides) and challenge each player to a game.

Moldova doesn’t come out as a promising tourist destination in Hawks’s account, but he’s clearly grateful for the enthusiasm and good humor of the people he encounters along the way. The nations fares less well in Eric Weiner’s excellent “The Geography of Bliss“, a book in which Weiner travels the world visiting nations that show unusual levels of happiness or unhappiness. Moldova is one of the latter, and Weiner isn’t really able to find many people happy about living in Moldova… though many observe that the vegetables are very fresh.

Weiner offers a possible explanation – Moldova is caught between two cultures, Romanian and Russian, and doesn’t have a clear sense of national identity. Whether or not this theory is accurate, it’s certainly true that there’s a deep split in Moldova between Russian-speakers in the eastern Transnistria region, many of whom would like to see the region split and join with Ukraine or become an independent republic, and the rest of the nation, which is culturally closer to Romania.

My picture of Transnistria is a dark one, based solely on Hawks’s experiences there – which center on a scary experience with local tycoon who owns a football team and who ends up briefly kidnapping him. Transnistria frequently appears in reports about arms trade from former Soviet republics, with accusations that former Russian weaponry is exported via Odessa in the Ukraine. Between Hawks’s narrative and news stories about “frozen conflicts” in the former Soviet Union, I have a mental image of Transnistria as a dark, spooky place filled with vampire-infested castles and public markets where rocket-propelled grenades are lined up next to the vegetables… which, of course, are very fresh.

Which is why it’s always nice to chalenge imagined places with images from the real ones. Lyndon Allin has a set of translations on Global Voices from a Transnistrian Live Journal community, where Russian-speakers are talking about government propoganda, misallocation of health resources, and funny stories about uncooperative bus drivers. Basically, the same discussions that take place in any politically active blogosphere are taking place in Tiraspol.

Which has me thinking about the power of stories. On the one hand, the fact that I opened a link in today’s Global Voices Digest had everything to do with the previous stories I’d read about Moldova. I don’t pay attention to every story on Global Voices – who could? – and I tend to click on stories that appeal (as, I suspect, everyone does.) This usually means African and middle East stories, and stories I feel some sort of interest in. And Hawks and Weiner have brought me to the point where I’m sufficiently interested in Moldova to click. But they may also have given me a picture that’s so impossibly dark and depressing that a sunny picture of a cinema in Tiraspol is interesting to me simply because it’s vastly more… normal… than my mental picture of that breakaway republic. The storytellers have gotten me to pay attention, but they’ve also given me a frame for the stories that may be so inaccurate that I pay attention in the wrong ways. (See previous discussion on David Weinberger’s “Ninja Gap” here, here and here for lots more thoughts on storytelling, framing and media interest in developing nations.)

Doing a bit of reading on Lyndon Allin, the translator who wrote the Global Voices story, I discovered that he’s an ideal guide for me in getting to understand Moldova. Many of the bridgebloggers who get involved with Global Voices are people who want their countries and cultures to be better understood by the wider world. Some are people from the US or Western Europe who’ve fallen in love with little-known parts of the world and want to bridge the gaps between their experiences and their world at home. That’s been my story since heading to Ghana as a 20-year old grad student. And it sounds like Lyndon had a transformational summer in Chisinau almost a decade ago that has him committed to explaining Moldova to the wider world. Sorry we didn’t get to talk more at the GV summit, Lyndon, and thanks for helping bridge the gap between the Moldova I’ve read about and the one actually lodged between Romania and Ukraine.

2 thoughts on “Moldova, bridges and storytelling”

  1. Ethan, thanks for your kind words. It was a real privilege for me to meet you and all of the other wonderful people behind GV in Budapest.

    If anyone’s interested in further reading about Moldova, I can immodestly recommend a bunch of my own past posts and should also note that there are always at least a couple of good Peace Corps bloggers writing about life there. I’m hoping to do a GV post on the current crop once I’m done with this bar exam thing. The best PCV Moldova blogger in recent years was probably Peter Myers; here’s a current one who also does a good job capturing some of the essence of the country.

  2. You bring up a good point about how we gain initial interest in the places we then follow on Global Voices. Getting ready to spend some time in India, I watched Louis Malle’s Calcutta and the BBC’s series The Story of India. The camerawork for both documentaries is really something to behold. But as far as understanding India’s past and present, I think I’d be better off if I invested that time in Amit Varma’s India Uncut.

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