Moldova is the poorest country in Europe.
It’s landlocked, there’s conflict with breakaway territories and most of the population live below the poverty line. It’s got its problems and during my stay in the capital Chisinau, I learnt first hand that it’s not easy finding a job when you’re a young Moldovan. Even if you speak three languages.
I’d arrived in the city of Chisinau the day before- nice and early on the night train from Bucharest in Romania. I didn’t really have any expectations for Moldova, either good or bad. I just really, didn’t know that much about the place. I knew that it used to be part of the Soviet Union, until it declared independence in the 1990’s, and I knew that there was a breakaway territory on the border with Ukraine. These facts aside, as soon as I stepped out into the city, it was clear this was an unusually interesting place, but that sadly it wasn’t quite as affluent as its bigger neighbour Romania.
That first day I’d walked out into a second hand flea market, as locals bought and sold all kinds of product, some of which clearly dated back to the Soviet days, but all of which someone could find a use for, somewhere. And that day, walking around Chisinau, I’d realised that everything was cheap. Vodka cheapest of all. And that’s the easiest way to tell the state of a nation’s economy.
The following morning I awoke to meet a man I’ll call Mr Moldova who was staying at the same hostel. He was about the same age as me- around 25- and had just got back from Canada. Interestingly, over 25% of the population of this tiny country live and work abroad, and a huge percentage of GDP comes from outside the borders. Mr Moldova had just returned from Toronto, where he’d been studying, but for financial reasons, hadn’t been able to complete those studies just yet. Now he was back in his home country, and he needed to find a job, fast.
Mr Moldova spoke three languages fluently. He was originally from Transnistria, the breakaway region of Moldova, where Russian is the primary language, and he spoke this on top of Romanian- Moldovan/ Romanian are essentially the same- and English. He’d studied abroad, but now he was back he was ready to take whatever he could find for work. He made a few calls, and then asked if I wanted to accompany him for his first interview of the day, at an animal shelter.
Why the hell not I thought, it would give me a chance to see the city, although it did feel strange tagging along for a job interview. Mr Moldova assured me it would be fine though. The interviews were nothing that my British upbringing and Western defined brain could ever have comprehended without seeing.
I asked Mr Moldova if he had experience working with animals. He said he’d had a few pet dogs growing up, and of course a goat and a couple of chickens to look after. The dog shelter was offering a room to live in and a small wage, which I think worked out to be about around 2 USD a day. Not much by anyone’s standards.
We jumped on a minibus and got out at the end of the line, where the city had ended and rural Moldova had begun. Mr Moldova shouted a few questions to some nearby people, and then we headed off down a dirt track and into the woods. Then some dogs came charging out, but these weren’t the ones we were looking for. These were vicious, protecting their farm, and looked like they wanted to and very much could rip us to pieces. We stared them down until they backed off, then headed further down the track in search of the shelter.
A few beat up cars were parked outside a few wooden huts, and before we could reach the gate, we were surrounded by dogs. Some were healthy, others weren’t looking in the best shape. But they were friendlier than the dogs we’d met earlier. These were the dogs we’d been looking for.
A woman came over to the gate and Mr Moldova began conversing rapidly with her. All the while we were surrounded by more and more dogs, hundreds of them, running out of the woods and from under buildings and cars to greet us. Conditions were basic though- it was clean, but being outside, it was muddy and in the rain it was, of course, wet. Some of the animals must have been on death’s door, and Mr Moldova said that this one lady was having to look after all these dogs on her own, and she didn’t have the money to really help them like she wanted to. That’s why she was looking for help, even if she couldn’t pay much. There was a little room Mr Moldova could sleep in, but it was going to be hard work here.
After a lot of talk, and a lot of dogs hurling themselves at my legs for attention, we turned to leave. Mr Moldova still had another interviewer later on for a courier job, but despite the rough conditions here, in the middle of the woods, he liked the dogs, and knew he could help. He just wouldn’t have much money to live on.
As we waited for the next bus back to Chisinau, and having avoided the angrier dog again, we bought some vodka to warm us up in the cold winter weather. We knocked back two shots at a time- the Moldovan way- and Mr Moldova asked if I wanted to come to the next interview too.
By now I wanted to see the next job he was considering. He said courier, and I presumed this was some sort of mail related career he was looking at. As we shot more vodka, he made a call, and was told to meet a man outside the central train station. He had thought the operation was legitimate, and wondered why they couldn’t meet at the office he thought they had- but it was best not to ask too many questions. It was becoming clear that this wasn’t the job I thought it was.
I asked Mr Moldova what the job would entail, he said drugs probably. He didn’t seem too happy about this fact, but would hear the offer out. The money could be good. Much better than the dogs would pay anyway.
We made it back to Chisinau, and went to meet the man at the station. Mr Moldova and the man began talking in Russian. I was introduced as an English man, and then I lent against a wall the whole time trying to look inconspicuous. Half an hour later the Russian man left, slinking off along the street.
Mr Moldova said it was time to get some more vodka. Over double shots, he explained that yes it was a courier job in Russia, and it was dodgy as hell. He weighed up the good points and the bad. It was excellent money, he’d earn more in a month than he could in years at any other job, but rather than being concerned about jail, he was more concerned with the possibility that the Russians would harvest his organs. It seemed like a pretty risky employment opportunity to say the least. The fact that this man, fluent in three languages and close to having completed a degree in Canada was seriously taking into consideration this line of work spoke entirely for the situation the Moldovan economy was in. A few months work with the Russians could pay for a degree in the West. He asked what I would do, and I said I couldn’t answer that, I’d never been in this situation, luckily. Indeed, I realised I was in fact lucky to come from where I do, that I never had to make decisions like this.
Mr Moldova weighed up his options. He needed the money, but he told me the next day he was going to work with the dogs while he tried to find some funding elsewhere to complete his studies. It wasn’t worth the risks, even if the lucrative reward materialised, to go to Russia.
It was a surreal experience, to witness this young man going through these choices, in situations so alien to my own position. He had such limited opportunities in his home country for advancement, or even for money just to get by, but he was taking it all in as if it were the most normal predicament in the world.
Mr Moldova said as he left the hostel, that at least with the dogs he could help, and after all, it wasn’t worth losing his kidneys for a few bucks. And with that he was gone. I went and had another vodka.
For more stories from Moldova, have a read of my adventures in the breakaway Republic of Transnistria!