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Getting There • Team ASL "A Spanish Life"
This particular form of shopping became my source of supplies later, mainly
because of the cheaper prices compared to that found in the shops and
because I felt that I was helping the little man.
Most would have to be outside selling for up to sixteen hours a day, their
stalls could be found on the side of all busy roads or where large groups of
people could be found, outside a school or a bus stop. The main reason for
all these small businesses was not just the free market economy that now
existed but the fact that it cost nothing to start your own business, a little
table and some stock and off you went. The need to make money is strong in
most people but here it was far more important, as it could mean the
difference between life and death, most sellers were old people who could do
nothing else to try to make money to survive.
All businesses are still owned by the government and have not been taken
over by private investors yet, they mostly consisted of out of date, and
dangerous machines that in most cases were beyond the point of repair.
Even if they could produce goods at a satisfactory rate, no one in this
country would be able to afford them. The knock on affect of this was that
the government hadn’t any money to pay its workers, or in many cases
provide work, so most would be forced onto the streets to scratch a meager
Our Lada taxi, which seemed to be the most common car around, finally
pulled up outside a very dilapidated building, which much to our surprise
turned out to be the hostel. The driver was quick out of the car and had got
our bags in his hands before I had even got on to the pavement, marching
into the building with our belongings we followed closely, his outstretched
hand and yet another $1 tip for carrying our bags all of 10 feet brought a grin
to his face as he marched off again, in the direction of a Vodka seller,
Christmas had come early for him. Surprisingly enough on presenting our
passports to a very miserable looking woman was all that was needed to get
a room. We were both given separate rooms but across the corridor from
each other, and fortunately on the ground floor. I don’t think that I could
have carried those bags up any more flights of stairs.
A cockroach-infested room awaited me, a shared toilet without running
water and a shower without a lock on the door again. Little reward for all the
traveling that I had done to get here, plus all of the problems I had endured.
But the journey for the time being had robbed me of all my Western airs and
graces, so I used the toilet, showered with only two interruptions.
Barricading my bedroom door I slept for sixteen hours. Obviously the last
nineteen hours on the train and the bus ride before had taken more out of me
than I had expected.
I finally awoke at 10oclock on the Friday morning, six days after leaving
England, with my batteries fully charged and my Western ways seemed to be
back in full control of my brain.
Quickly dressing I went to find Jane, who for some reason I had forgotten
She was still asleep and could only be brought back to consciousness by my
continuous banging on the door, which she had also taken the precaution of
barricading. Retreating back to my room to give her time to ready herself I
was surprised if not annoyed to find that in my brief absence from my room
someone had already moved in. But my anger soon passed when I found out
that he was a countryman, well nearly. Andrew was Welsh and over here
with his girlfriend for a month teaching. Fortunately for them they had flown
to Bucharest in Romania and had taken a train for six hours to get here. After
some quick introductions he started to describe the difficulties they had
experienced, but I soon gave him a full descriptive account of my own
misfortunes which far out did his. With open mouth he listened in silence,
and a relieved look on his face at how lucky he had been to fly.
I was cut off in mid sentence by the arrival of Jane and Andrew's girlfriend,
Amanda who had been moved in with Jennifer. We were soon to find out
from our new companions, who like us had selected Chisinau for their stay
that we were suppose to be catching a bus in a few hours time to a town in
the north that sounded like Belson, but in fact was Belti.
Upon hearing this news we immediately started to form a committee of
which I was the spokesman, so as to inform Teaching Abroad that we were
not going to be sent anywhere, and no one or anything was going to make us
Our new companions, who had been here for an extra day had already found
their bearings so led the way to the company' s office some twenty minute
Their headquarters was situated in a very fine looking hotel over looking a
park. The rich Americans that were coming out as we walked up the steps
indicated that this was where all our money had gone.
The décor inside only convinced us more that we were right. Asking for
directions at the reception I picked up a tariff sheet As we followed the
direction, I looked at the prices and found that a double room cost one
hundred dollars a night, about one year’s wages for the average person.
C.N.D the parent companies offices were not as plush as I would have
thought, but still were very comfortable.
The heated argument that followed is one that I wish to forget seeing how I
lost, but when you are dealing with people who when it suits them seem to
conveniently forget the English language your chances are limited. But in
hindsight being sent to Belti was the best thing that could have happened to
me in all my life for not only was I to find Moldovan friends that will stay
with me for ever and a new way of life but I also found my wife.
The only compensation that they gave us was a free lunch, which when
mentioned reminded me that I had not had a square meal since Sunday lunch
in a seaside pub in Exeter Devon. The thought of sitting down in this haven
of civilisation soon made me forget that there would be another leg to my
journey before I could find a place to call home.
But again everything was not as it seemed, and with our new female guide
we were led right past the hotel restaurant and into the street.
The café that we were taken into across the road from the hotel did at first
sight show signs of being half decent, but as soon as we were led up to the
self-service counter the illusion was shattered. The rows of large metal trays
similar to those in school dining halls were filled with the same unattractive
mess similar to that I had been forced to eat all those years before. On closer
inspection I realised that the mess that was now being presented to me as
food would be beyond my ability to eat. My old school days came flooding
back and all those wasted meals I passed up.
For the first time I became envious of the kids back home tucking into
bangers and mash. My only saviour was some hard-boiled eggs I spotted at
the end of the counter, which at six pence each were very expensive at this
establishment, but what the heck I wasn’t paying. Accompanied with a fruit
drink still with the fruit in it and I think some baby cockroaches for three
pence I was able to subdue my hunger for the time being.
My companions had joined me in my choice of food but opted for Vodka,
which cost less than my fruit juice. Our guide for some reason went without.
We were later to find a place that sold an excuse for a hamburger at forty
pence but money was the least of our problems by now.
Belti, a small city of some 177,000 people was to be our next stop. One of
three to be found in the north of the country that surrounded the capital it
was about two hours away by bus; or so we were told. Rumours suggested a
strong Mafia presence, and that cholera was waiting to greet us, I tried not to
let my imagination get the better of me, but I was getting more than a little
nerves as to what awaited us.
But what could go wrong I was English.
As the weeks went past it was to become obvious that being English was
going to be no protection to me whatsoever, I was stuck in a country which
did not have a British Embassy, letters would take three weeks to reach
home and the telephones never worked. To top it all the company we were
with had no regard for us or thoughts for our safety, why should they, we
had already paid our cash to them. We found that we were very much on our
As we collected our bags and departed the hostel to angry cries from the staff
for not paying the bill that we assumed was down to the company to do, we
decided that maybe it was time to go home. More arguments followed as we
tried to board the bus, the driver was insisting that we paid full fare for our
bags, which we had already locked away, which made it impossible to
retrieve them. A very cunning tactic indeed. We were able to come to a
compromise, which suited him and simply paid.
Half an hour’s wait, and a few funny looks from the other passengers who all
knew that they were in the company of foreigners was all we had to endure
before the twenty year old bus which seemed to have never been cleaned
inside or out in its whole life pulled out of the bus depot and out of Chisinau.
I had found in the hostel a newspaper that had been left by another fellow
traveler called East and West printed in Moldova for English people and
visitors. Flicking through the pages my attention was drawn to an article that
had been marked C.N.D. Corruption, I settled down the best I could to read
an article that, had I taken the time to read before, would definitely have sent
me home. The long and the short of it was that the company was corrupt.
Needless to say the discussion that followed took up most of the four-hour
journey. I was sure that most of what had been written could have been true
due to my own experiences. I now know that it is.
We all decided that if we ever got back to England we would complain to
whoever it was possible to complain to so as to put this company out of
business. As it turned out the only steps that were taken was to contact a
friend of Andrews back home who had planned to come out at Christmas so
as to stop him coming.
As we pulled into this new city that was to be my home for some time to
come, or until the government kicked me out. I realised it looked just the
same as everywhere else that I had seen in the East, colourless and dreary.
As we neared the centre I noticed out of the dirty bus window that so many
people seemed as if they were wearing their Sunday best. I could not
remember ever seeing so many nicely dressed people in my life. The women
of course stood out more than the men. They wore bright and colourful
clothes like bunches of flowers on legs. But as the days went by I saw that
when ever I was in town I saw the same people would appear wearing the
same things. This was because they would take so much pride in themselves
and always wanted to look their best when out, but did not have more than
one set of good clothes. To own one set of nice clothes was a luxury, to have
two was an impossibility.
So they would wash by hand and prepare the outfit each night in readiness
for its next outing. For some it would have taken a whole year to save to buy
an outfit costing twenty pounds which most of us would turn our noses up at
in the West, its quality being something to be desired.
But here they would take the utmost care to preserve its life even if the
continuous hand washing was more than its bad and cheap stitching could
stand. It’s easy to understand that if you live in a country that doesn’t have
much, then you can only do the best with what you’ve got, and that’s
It was four o'clock on a Friday afternoon that saw us finally arrive. One
hundred and fifteen hours after leaving Victoria Bus Station London.
After unloading our luggage and ourselves we stood waiting for our next
Feeling rather helpless and very lost it was only a few minutes that seemed
like hours before I heard an English voice, which at first I could not locate.
The voice came again this time right next to us. On looking down I saw a
small Russian lady who must have been well under five feet tall. She
introduced herself as Sofia the head of the English department at school 16,
the best English speaking school in Moldova. Or so she said!
With the same sort of efficiency as we had seen from our rep in Chisinau, we
were claimed by our assigned families.
Jane went with a very respectful couple with an eleven-year-old daughter,
seeing the distress on our faces as we parted; Sofia quickly reassured us that
she would give us all each other’s addresses and phone numbers so that we
could meet up later any way we were all going to be teaching in the same
school. Next to go were Andrew and Amanda, though at first two separate
people came to take them away, they soon were able to convinced Sofia that
they were married and needed to live together, though they were not it was
easy to prove due to the coincidence of both having the same surname
stamped in their passports
A ten-year-old girl ended up in tears as she was told that she could not have
one of us to take home. It reminded me of a child who could not have a
I was last to be claimed, so I waited on the platform with little Sofia by my
side waiting to be taken home. Thoughts of being unwanted started to creep
into my mind and I started to look around anxiously into the crowds of
people for some one to give a sign that they were there to claim me. Then
from above the heads of the people a very large man approached us, he
stood some six inches above my own six foot, and made Sofia look like a
midget. Grabbing my suit case and carrying it off with the greatest of ease,
he led me away from the bus station. I followed with only a backward glance
to see that Sofia was nodding her approval and smiling. My home was to be
for a month or so with a family of two, a mother and her son. Fortunately for
me the twenty-year-old who met me spoke enough English for me to
understand. For the first time since arriving things were looking up.
Tolic, who I was later to regard as being my Moldavian father, a title he
became very proud of, was by all accounts as strange a person to his own
people as I was. On almost all of our trips out people would stare at him just
as much as they did at me, but for very different reasons. At six foot six
inches he was a very well built man, which came in very useful in the many
disagreements that seemed to find us wherever we went. Wearing shorts and
a black tee shirt and baseball cap and his hair down to his waist, plus an
earring, he would have been out of place anywhere. Most of the people who
remembered the normality and restrictions of communism dressed
conservatively, and those too young to remember just followed everyone
else. But Tolic was different, an out spoken youth in his early teens he had
caused himself and his mother very many problems. He was now very proud
of the fact that things had now changed to his way of thinking and not the
other way around.
He played in his own rock band and seemed to have his own group of
followers, all poising the hair and earring trademark. Rock music was not the
choice of most people it just happened to be one of the types of Western
music that they had first started to listen to when freedom came their way.
Just imagine the impression people here in Moldova must have had of us
when the first thing they get see is The Who, Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd.
Not only does this leave them with the thought of Western people being long
haired rockers who enjoy having their eardrums blasted to death, it also
deprives them of the wonderful sounds of other musicians like Simon and
Garfunkel, Neil Diamond and Take That to mention a few.
My heavy and still full case was lifted onto the trolley bus with the greatest
of ease by Tolic, up to now I had still managed to resist the temptation to eat
any of the food that I had brought with me, but my resolve was fast running
out. The thought of tinned ham or corned beef flashed into my mind,
followed by Angel Delight or custard. If my new host could not cook
something that I was able to recognise as being edible food I would have to
forgo my plans of rationing, lock my bedroom door, and pig out.
My new form of transport was just an electric tram powered by overhead
cables, but with all the new sights to see and my effort to strike up a
friendship with my new companion, I paid it little attention.
But the horrors of this coffin on wheels was to become my daily nightmare
and one that I came to dread. It was worse than almost anything else I was to
Being attacked in the street and robbed by the police even seemed like a
minor misfortune compared to it. Tolic and I were quickly able to reach
common ground and I became his hero and my status raised to rock god
when I informed him that Robert Plant, the lead singer from Led Zeppelin
drank in my local back home, and some times with me, he had even been to
my home for a meal. A fact as it happened that was true, but in hindsight I
would have lied about had the need arose. I was able to live off my stories
about Robert Plant for most of my stay with Tolic, all of his friends just
wanted to be in the same room as me, which meant that my status as a
celebrity increased to a level that Robert himself does not even receive in
When it was finally our turn to get off the trolley bus I found myself in the
middle of the large blocks of flats that up until now I had only seen from a
But like most other things, being close up made it look totally different. We
walked only a short way before the entrance to a building was pointed out to
me, followed by the word, home.
Home by all accounts was a slum; very similar to the tower block estates we
have in our inner cities. But in a way even to call them a slum would be
wrong but I have no other word that could describe how down trodden the
place was. All around were concrete skyscrapers with their occupants
crammed into the tiny boxes which they called flats. A slum can only be a
slum when there is somewhere better to compare it with.
Here it is all the same, the colour scheme had not changed from those
buildings that we had seen in the Ukraine, but there wasn’t any reason why it
should, as when they were built it was all the same country. I did get the
impression that they must only of had one paint factory in the whole of
Russia and the director was colour blind.
The cracks that I was now able to see much closer were very bad and in the
case of our particular block went from the ground floor right to the top 5th
floor and must have been three inches wide in places. There wasn’t any fire
escapes or signs of fire fighting equipment; all windowsills were rotten and
unpainted the over all appearance was depressing. The other thing was the
smell that I had first come across when in Chisinau but here it was much
much stronger, it was foul and sickening, I was later to find out that it was
from the toilet systems that did not work, most of the time in some of the
areas of town, so people were forced to use the gardens like the dogs would.
This form of sanitation and the hot weather made things terrible.
On many mornings to come I would step out of my front door on a clear
sunny morning only to be greeted with the foul stench that came from the
contents of my neighbour’s stomach. This was brought home to me even
more as I realised that I was standing in a yard with eight tower blocks
around me with at least 36 apartments in each and four people in each one of
those. That's the human waste from over one thousand people lingering in
Dubiously entering the flat I was surprised by the contrast that the inside had
from the out. I had expected a hovel but found a very comfortable and cosy
O.K. it’s not what most of us are use to, but what the heck, from what I had
seen up to now this was nice.
Only having three rooms, a bathroom and a kitchen meant that it was small.
The ‘fridge was standing in the hall which made it difficult to pass, but there
was nowhere else to put it. The sitting room converted into a bedroom when
needed. My own room was fine even if it didn’t have a wardrobe; these were
back in the sitting room. I had a half decent view over a quiet road with the
sun streaming through the window in the morning, the bed was soft and
there was carpet on the floor. What more could a man ask for. My own
answer to that would be a bathroom, maybe that was asking too much but the
rest of the flat had made me believe if only for a short time that things were
back to normal.
I was soon to come down to earth with an almighty bump when I had to use
it for the first time. To start with the door hadn’t a lock but what was new,
maybe no one wanted to spend much time in there to need one.
The bath was one of the old iron ones without enamel, a very dangerous
looking boiler was on the wall with its little gas pilot light burning, the type
if I recall that has been banned in England due to the light extinguishing
itself subsequently killing anyone in the house. The best thing though was
the toilet, which seemed at first glance unsafe even to sit on. Its seat looked
as if it started out as being white plastic, was now mostly brown and broken,
though its construction was of the European type that enabled one to view
the contents before flushing. The most amazing thing about this little room,
which was no bigger that 6 x 6 and also doubled up as a wash room, washing
machine included, was the bucket I saw when I first sat down to use the
facility. It seemed at a glance to be filled with crumpled paper and in easy
reach of the toilet user, so I leaned over and took one of the pieces of paper
from the container, it did not take me more than one hundredth of a second
to realise that it was used toilet paper.
Discarding it as quickly as possible I had to sit and think for a few minutes
before I could conclude that I was not meant to put used and dirty paper
down the toilet in case of blocking it. This was later confirmed to me when I
This little bucket with its foul contents always seemed to be full, and always
in a place that I could see when ever I was in the bathroom. I came to the
decision from the first day that I would never use it regardless of the
To be honest this was a far cry from my encounters with the public toilets,
which could be found in places like schools, swimming pools and the
universities. In these places they had dispensed with the tiny bucket and the
paper would be left in small piles all around the room.
Don’t be misled to believe that we are talking about conventional toilet
paper, none of that could be found anywhere, so everything from school
exercise books to newspaper was used. The lack of privacy was something
else I could not come to terms with, not only were there no toilets to sit on,
but just a hole in the ground where the user would have to carefully position
themselves the best they could so as not to relieve themselves all over their
feet. To top it all they had even dispensed with the individual cubicle, so not
only were you within touching distance of the next person, you were also in
full view of the waiting queue of potential users.
For those of you like me, who regard the toilet as being a thing of privacy
and you should do what you have to do with the minimum amount of fuss
and attention this is not the place to be. Also bear in mind that my
description is of the ladies toilets as well as the gents and some times they
At least we men have the advantage of being able to stand for most of our
daily toilet requirements.
I can still not believe that all those perfectly turned out ladies could even
contemplate using such a disgusting facility on a daily basis. As each day
went by I came to understand that hygiene was only on the surface in this
country. And so was most of the other things that I saw.
The apartment kitchen didn’t fare much better being about the same size as
the bathroom its small table could just about seat two people, and the work
surface, such as it was just about enabled you to slice a loaf. The sink, which
seemed to be right out of granny’s house, was squashed up in the corner.
That only left enough room for a very basic gas cooker, which must have
come out of Noah’s Ark.
My hobby was cooking so I was very disappointed that the conditions here
was going to make it impossible for me to do any.
After being given sometime to relax and unpack, which was only about
twenty minutes and not nearly enough time, I was persuaded to dine. I was
given a selection of different coloured peppers by Tolic's mother that had
been stuffed with ingredients such as rice and peas with a little of something
that looked like meat thrown in, I was able to see that this food had come out
of a large pot that was being reheated on the cooker and by the way it was
burnt on one side I knew it had gone though the same treatment more than
once and was already starting to taste off.
And this is what I was to be served every day for the next five, having been
made to last the week. After only a few mouthfuls we had opened a bottle of
wine. Dispensing with the food we sat about learning as much about each
other as possible over the contents of Moldavian red. It would be wrong for
me to describe in too much depth the true activities of my new friend, but
whatever he did to survive in this place, was fine by me.
Tolic did everything he could not only to look after me but also any other
English person he came across. On more than one occasion after a party he
would walk one of the girls home which at times was several miles away,
and then walk all the way back again, for no other reason than to help.
If ever there were a problem with the Mafia or just local thugs he would take
it as a personal insult and sort out the offending person in the only way he
could. Talking about a problem was never his strong point and why should it
be when you are built like a brick outhouse.
We were just cracking open our third bottle when the telephone rang, we
were surprised to find that it was for me. Taking the receiver I was greeted
by a tearful Jane. Difficult at first to make out what was wrong over her
sobbing, I quickly decided after establishing that whatever it was, was not
life threatening and with Tolic’s help of course to go and see her.
He was more than willing, so a bit worse for weather from the drink we set
off for the ride to the bus station that we had arrived at earlier that day, and
then the few minutes walk to the house where she was staying.
Another complex of flats like the ones that I was staying in greeted us, but
whereas I was on the first floor she was staying on the fourth. Without a lift
it must have been hard to carry her case, rucksack and sports bag.
The standard of these buildings were about the same as the ones I was
staying in and looked exactly the same which made it very difficult for a
visitor to distinguish one from another.
I was surprised to find that the interior of her home was even smaller than
mine having only one bedroom and a sitting room, far too small for a family
We were shown in to the only bedroom, which they had given to Jane by a
very respectable looking man, only to find her sitting writing a letter home,
drinking tea and in total control of her emotions. She soon told us that things
had just got to much for her when she found out that no-one in the family
could speak English. Under normal circumstances a very minor problem, but
I can’t blame her for over reacting due to the stress of our journey which she
had coped with exceptionally well even if she moaned at every opportunity.
This had just been the last straw, but the good thing that came out of it was
that who ever she had rang to get my number must have had the same
trouble understanding her as I had. Thinking the worst they had rung Peter
Slow in England and he then rang Jane. Maybe some of the things that we
had found out were not true and he really did care about us.
After a little bit of translation Tolic was able to explain to the family what
Jane was saying, you could see the obvious relief on their faces (I think at
one point they thought that a mad women had come to stay with them) after
this all three of us left.
My mood was quiet as we boarded yet another trolley bus, so I left Jane and
Tolic to get to know each other with in a few minutes they were laughing
and joking old friends. I was looking out the window at the city as dusk was
falling watching the people of this strange land going about their business as
if their lives were as normal as yours or mine, with each one of them
knowing that it wasn’t, this made me again reflect on why I had come in the
A City Trolly Bus