The other afternoon I took a trip into Chisinau. As I’ve mentioned previously, the highway between Chisinau and Odessa runs within a few hundred yards of my house, and instead of walking down into the valley to the bus station to take the massive bus that stops at every stop between here and the capital, I thought I would try to flag down a faster routiera on the side of the highway. Taking the smaller routiera has the advantage of potentially saving me about forty minutes on the trip. The disadvantage is that it’s less comfortable; it’s more like being in a cattle car than on a bus.
I waited for about twenty minutes and had no luck. While I waited, a herd of goats came down the hill in the distance to the west, moving like the shadow of a cloud across the open field. Right when I was about to give up — two buses from Ukraine had passed me without stopping — a routiera from the nearby district center of Causeni skidded to a halt in the gravel in front of me. I’m lucky it stopped, because there was one “seat” remaining — a stool in the middle of the aisle — and on the longer distance routieras you must be seated (unlike the van from Costesti; I was rarely sitting on that ride except for on the dashboard). Unfortunately, a young mother had laid her infant on that stool, and so I was either going to have to make her hold her baby or bear the wrath of the driver. Thankfully she saw that I was going to have to sit somewhere and picked up the baby without me saying anything. I was still mortified, though, because you don’t mess with babies and their young mothers (in general, and also in this country), so I offered to split the tiny stool with her. She looked at me like I was crazy, a look I’m getting used to.
It was hot inside the bus. It had been a sticky afternoon already, and the routieras are usually hot during the summer because there’s no air conditioning and often the windows are closed. And a summertime routiera that has a baby on it is always going to be hot, because none of the windows will be open to let fresh air in. The reason for this is the “current.”
The current is what some Moldovans call an indoor breeze, or perhaps more precisely, “air circulation.” Current happens when you roll down the windows of a car, or when you have two windows in different rooms open in your house with no closed doors between them. It’s common knowledge, of course, that the current will make you sick. How this happens is unclear. And it’s completely unpredictable which Moldovans will make a fuss about the current and which won’t. My host parents in Costesti did not fear it but my 17 year-old host brother did. But those who don’t make a fuss about it are a silent lot; they don’t argue if someone voices a concern about the current. And, of course, babies are especially susceptible to the current, so opening a window on a routiera that has a baby passenger is strictly verboten. I was stuck with the heat.
As we went from my district into the municipality of the capital, we passed a traffic checkpoint. The checkpoint is a small hut, outside of which is a small sign giving statistics about the number of accidents in the area. A guard stands in the road who will (theoretically) at random stop passing cars to inspect the drivers’ and passengers’ documents, though I’ve never been in a car that was stopped. The guard will also check that routiera passengers all have tickets — which we don’t have because you don’t pay until you get off the bus — so before a checkpoint sometimes drivers will pass a stack of tickets to the back so everyone can take one; this was not one of those days.
As we passed through the checkpoint, the driver of this routiera buckled his seat belt, then unbuckled it again after we were out of visual range of the checkpoint guard. This is fairly common, despite the posted accident statistics at the checkpoint as well as the wrecked cars elevated on metal columns along the side of the highway.
Traffic was miserable once we got close to the middle of town so I persuaded the driver to let me off while we were stuck in traffic. I had to go to the piata to pick up a few things, and it wasn’t much further. The piata is a lot like a bazaar or a flea market; it covers maybe four blocks in the middle of the capital and most of it is outdoors. It’s also right next to the central bus station, which was poorly thought out, because the lumbering buses have to fight with pedestrians and vendors just to get in and out of the station.
You can buy anything you need at the piata: vegetables, fruit, meat, cheese, lingerie, chainsaws, toilet paper (single ply, of course), CDs, kittens, bed linens that say “Merry Christmas,” fake gold watches, mesh t-shirts. You won’t find art or trinkets there, or at least I haven’t seen anything for sale that is not practical or useful in some way. Most vendors have kiosks. The kiosks are organized into miniature blocks with narrow walkways in between that lead to the wider north-south and east-west thoroughfares that meet in the center of the piata. Some vendors simply stand in the middle of the paths with their wares hung on their bodies. The piata is walled in by buildings where there are booths for clothes; the meats and cheeses are in a building that has refrigerators that don’t look very cold. Fruits and vegetables are sold in a covered pavilion area near the center. Kiosk after kiosk appears to sell the same merchandise, and then suddenly you will see an abrupt change in the goods, from tea to power tools or from school supplies to whiskey.
The sidewalks outside the piata, in and around the bus station, are lined by those vendors who don’t have kiosks inside the piata. Packs of desperate-looking dogs trot up and down the street and dodge buses. One odd stretch of sidewalk is made of some kind of malleable tar instead of cement, and you can feel it compressing under your feet as you walk; it has the consistency of gum that’s been stuck underneath a school desk for some time.
Near the bus station there’s usually a line of milk and cheese sellers squatting over their wares; they don’t have chairs and it’s a no-no to sit on any form of concrete. Concrete is like the current: it is widely believed to make you sick. How sick that will make you is not settled, some believe you will catch a cold, while others seem to think that if a girl sits on concrete that her ovaries will freeze and she won’t be able to have children. There may or may not be a similar effect on men; I’ve sat on a lot of concrete myself over the years, and, indeed, I have not fathered any children. But the general consensus is that the concrete is “cold” and somehow this is bad for you. In a similar vein, drinking cold liquids will also make you sick; whistling indoors makes your money disappear.
Between the dangers posed by the current, concrete, cold liquids, and whistling, I encourage you to be vigilant about your health and safety. A seat belt certainly won’t protect you.