Marina Skaletskaya Featured
Bălți,  Moldova

Inequality & Youth Culture in Moldova

Yellow pipes
Marina Skaletskaya
Mamalyga

The Place: Bălți, Moldova

“…shadows gradually emerged from the white, and Moldova’s peculiarities began to reveal themselves; indistinguishable at first, but gradually they began to take shape… the clip-clopping of a horse and cart carrying farming supplies, audible long before it was visible, which seemed to materialise from thin air. I was in a bubble, extending 100 metres from me in every direction, obscuring everything outside it from view. “

Read More About Bălți

I forced my wheels forward as they squelched, slipped and slid over slush and snow, the sky-blue and corn-yellow of the Ukrainian flag melting into trees behind me, and I waved goodbye to any semblance of familiarity, and the dog that had just stolen one of my gloves. Before me lay an enigma; a country so neglected by tourists that even it’s Ukrainian neighbours were barely able to tell me anything about it. If you’d asked me to describe the flag, I’d have drawn a blank. The culture? I had no idea of the demographic, political and cultural complexities I’d come to learn the tiny, landlocked country has battled with for most of its existence. It was like stepping off a cliff.

Wisps of water vapour swirled through the air, playing tricks on the mind, and the rest of the world disappeared. No sound, no movement, save for the clangs, squeaks and scrapes from my bike as I trundled through the Moldovan countryside. As I distanced myself from the border with Ukraine, shadows gradually emerged from the white, and Moldova’s peculiarities began to reveal themselves; indistinguishable at first, but gradually they began to take shape. The noisy complaints from my bicycle were joined by the clip-clopping of a horse and cart carrying farming supplies, audible long before it was visible, which seemed to materialise from thin air.

I was in a bubble, extending 100 metres from me in every direction, obscuring everything outside it from view. Traditional Moldovan homes, front doors and windows lined with strips of brightly coloured paint, faded into view before evaporating behind me. Flaking yellow pipes carrying gas overhead, rather than underground, traced the edges of houses, disappearing and then reappearing as I cycled between them, and countless wells, beautifully decorated with intricate and complex patterns, lined the streets of villages at regular intervals, each with a working bucket-and-chain mechanism to retrieve water. If I close my eyes right now, I can still hear the rattle of meltwater striking the corrugated iron that stood above porches as it trickled from above echoing through empty streets in those tiny villages, made up of just one road flanked by several homes.

Dusk fell, and I waited for the fluorescent white and yellow glow from street lights to reveal my path. But as the sky turned from orange, to purple, to a deep blue that slowly shrunk towards the horizon, the towns, villages, and even parts of the cities were soon enshrouded in darkness, illuminated only by the occasional flashing neon sign outside a bar or restaurant or the light from someones living room spilling out through a window into the night, now beacons for me to aim for as I struggled to make out the road before me. My bubble had shrunk even more.

I write all this, because my experience of all the Moldovan oddities in the countryside merged with my memories of my first major stop in Moldova, the city of Bălți (pronounced “Belts”). My preconceptions about the city had formed during my three-day ride there, and for me, it’s impossible to isolate my memories of Bălți from my journey to it. Alone, it’s difficult to sell Moldova’s second-largest city as a tourist destination; it’s a city of practicality and not much else. Potholes large enough to swallow a person mar the streets, those yellow pipes I’d gotten used to in the small towns I’d passed had now increased in size to supply a larger population, and stood as pillars erupting from the the roadside, with smaller, protruding offshoots crisscrossing each other, forming a sickly-yellow lattice over the surrounding infrastructure. Buildings and monuments seemed to be placed without much consideration of appearance, and the resulting aesthetic seemed clunky and unpolished, and the ‘main square’ felt like a stretch of paved surface with a slightly higher than normal pedestrian count. Mud-coloured buildings, mud-coloured roads and, well, mud; I sensed February wasn’t the peak season to be visiting.

But what Bălți lacked in beauty, it made up for with intrigue. A region that I, personally, have never seen mentioned in the news back at home, my fascination with it’s inner-workings overrode my grievances with it’s looks. I found myself at an election rally for a local candidate (not the first time I’d attend a political Moldovan event) and discussing the country’s fractures – it’s autonomous region of Gagauzia and it’s self-declared independent nation, Transnistria – with locals, each conversation raising new questions and drawing me further down the rabbit hole I’d entered. I explored markets hidden beneath corrugated iron panels, where traders would offer Moldovan leu for one of my English or American coins and, despite being surrounded by Moldova’s large and comparatively powerful neighbours, I felt isolated. Most locals I spoke with had never met an Englishman. The few who do visit the country mostly go to the capital, Chișinău, and the only foreigners I encountered were the American Peace Core volunteers who were kind enough to host me. There was a sense of mystery, of true exploration that I hadn’t felt before, and one that would remain for the next 4 weeks as I made my way South.

Moldovan WellsYellow pipesCycling in MoldovaYellow PipesMoldovan Wells


Please note that we do not fact-check our interviewees, and that their views do not necessarily represent our own.

The Person: Marina Skaletskaya, 16, High-School Student

I was a volunteer for one-and-a-half years at a small youth centre in our city. This place really opened up my potential, and I really started to understand who I am and what I want from this life.”

See Marina's Full Background

I’m in the 10th grade in high-school. I am very big extrovert and I really like to meet people. I was a volunteer for one-and-a-half years at a small youth centre in our city. This place really opened up my potential, and I really started to understand who I am and what I want from this life. I began to work on different projects to change society, and to make our country better. After high-school, I want to go and live in Europe. I love Moldova, but here it is so hard to live. People here are really just surviving. I would like to go to Finland, because its one of the best educations. I would also like to go to the United Kingdom or the Netherlands. 

I would like to study foreign languages or international relations. I speak English, Russian, Romanian and Ukrainian, and I am currently learning French and German. German is the hardest one. Because I know Romanian, it’s easier to learn French since its from the same language group. I understood half the words already.

What does ‘home’ mean to you?

“It’s not a place, it’s not a building, it’s just people and their souls.”

See Marina's Full Answer

For me, I don’t think that “Moldova” is home. People that I love are home for me. I can be anywhere in the world, but if my family would be with me, that would be home. It’s not a place, it’s not a building, it’s just people and their souls. There is a good slogan: “Birthplace: Earth.”  If I move away to Finland, I would definitely miss my family.

What is special about Bălți?

This place gave me my name, my personality, and so on. It’s my hometown. It’s special for me. As a city, it is only special for me…You can find these kind of places anywhere… You should explore the villages… try the wine, even try to make the wine… see our Grandma’s – our babushki – wearing traditional dresses.”

See Marina's Full Answer

For me it’s just special because I was born here, and I got education here and everything I know came from Bălți. This place gave me my name, my personality, and so on. It’s my hometown. It’s special for me. As a city, it is only special for me. It’s a basic small city, a small town. You can find these kind of places anywhere. If you come to Moldova, you shouldn’t do it to explore the cities. You should explore the villages. You should try to find a host in a village, try the wine, even try to make the wine, to see our Grandma’s – our babushki – wearing traditional dresses. To see the old houses that are really traditional. In Moldova, there is not a lot to explore in the cities, so go to the villages. 

When I was young, every summer I went to Odessa in Ukraine because my Grandma is from there. It’s very similar to Moldova. They’re supposed to be different countries, but they’re practically the same. In Ukraine and Moldova, only the language is different. There are some villages here that are Ukrainian, and we have some Ukrainian schools here.

How did you learn English?

“When I was younger, I met some guys from America who were part of a church and were volunteers here, and they were painting outside. I was like ‘…I should say something to them’… So I started to come every day to talk to them and help them to paint…”

See Marina's Full Answer

I learned English in school. I had to choose between English, French and German. My second language in school is English, and I study French and German by myself. When I was younger, I met some guys from America who were part of a church and were volunteers here, and they were painting outside. I was like “oh, Americans! I should say something to them!” So I went up to them and said, “hello, can I help you?” This was the only thing that I knew. So I started to come every day to talk to them and help them to paint even though I wasn’t a member of their church. At that time, I realised I really wanted to learn the language, because it’s a way to know people. I want to understand people, and you can only do that by learning a language like English. So I studied it for nine years, but I have only spoken it like this for two years.

What are your thoughts on the levels of inequality here in Moldova?

“Here it is very strange, people divide into groups. Some are very, very rich; they work in parliament or something. The rest are very poor and they just try to survive… this imbalance is because of corruption. If people want to get better medical assistance, for example, they have to pay, because everyone knows that if you’re not going to pay a bribe then you won’t be treated as well.”

See Marina's Full Answer

Here it is very strange, people divide into groups. Some are very, very rich; they work in parliament or something. The rest are very poor and they just try to survive. Here, you don’t have people that have found a balance. People are either working three jobs to get enough money, or they have a huge salary. It’s not balanced. 

So basically people always talk about these things, like how we can change that, but in fact this imbalance is because of corruption. If people want to get better medical assistance, for example, they have to pay, because everyone knows that if you’re not going to pay a bribe then you won’t be treated as well. Instead of investing in roads, education, healthcare and salaries, those who work in Parliament just steal all the money. Normal, honest people work eight hours per day and get $300 per month , and others work less and get ten times more. I understand that everyone wants to gave a good life and living here with $200 per month is just surviving. So I think first we should deal with corruption and then talk about other problems.

Can you think of a time you have been proud of Bălți or Moldova?

“I’m always proud of Moldova… I don’t think this country can give me what I want – the kind of life that I want – but I still want to try and fight for it. I want to go abroad to study, and get experience from different countries, and then come back and change our country.”

See Marina's Full Answer

I’m always proud of Moldova. Look, I have here a ukelele with a sticker that says “I choose Moldova”. So I’m always proud. I don’t think this country can give me what I want – the kind of life that I want – but I still want to try and fight for it. I want to go abroad to study, and get experience from different countries, and then come back and change our country. I think it would not be that hard to change the mentality of people here. There are a lot of international cultural exchanges, so you can go to these other places to get their mentality and to change yourself, and then you can come back and change Moldova. So I love my country. And my end goal is to come back to Moldova and change it. Maybe I can make a community of people who want to change things. I don’t really like politics, but I think that I can only change things through politics, so I think I will go into politics.

What is your main concern or worry about Bălți and Moldova?

“I’m afraid that every young person will leave, and we will leave behind only the old people, and they could ruin everything. I worry that they could choose the wrong president, and so on, and people will not be able to return to Moldova. …here in Bălți, we don’t have cultural events. You just don’t know where to go on a Sunday evening. There is nowhere to go. You can’t develop yourself.”

See Marina's Full Answer

I’m afraid that every young person will leave, and we will leave behind only the old people, and they could ruin everything. I worry that they could choose the wrong president, and so on, and people will not be able to return to Moldova. They leave because of studying, because of jobs, because of everything. Actually, here in Bălți, we don’t have cultural events. You just don’t know where to go on a Sunday evening. There is nowhere to go. You can’t develop yourself. You don’t have places to go or things to do. In Chișinău, it’s different because it’s the capital. Bălți is the second-largest city in Moldova, and it’s like this. So imagine how people in the villages live. They can’t do anything. They don’t have youth centres like we do. There is no way to develop yourself.

But I’m also very worried about ecology. It’s very dirty here. You know, we had some snow and at first it was nice. But today I walked outside in my district area, and I saw loads of cigarettes and plastic packets. That’s not ok. There is an environmental movement here, kind of, but they just go out once per year to clean the streets. It’s not enough. The most important thing is not to be cleaning streets, but to be keeping the streets clean. In government, they are not doing anything, but for the people there are lots of volunteer centres that are trying to get youth out to change things. 

Does fighting in Ukraine have any effect on Moldova?

“…there is a part of Moldova called Transnistria, or Pridnestrovie. It’s a similar situation there; they want to be with Russia. But the rest of Moldova does not want to be part of Russia… We are afraid that the same thing could happen here; a civil war.”

See Marina's Full Answer

People actually got a lot of jobs and money from that situation, because they go and fight there. They fight for money. I know there aren’t a lot of people that do this, but some do. Also, there is a part of Moldova called Transnistria, or Pridnestrovie. It’s a similar situation there; they want to be with Russia. There was a referendum, and people voted that they wanted to be a part of Russia. The situation is terrible. They have different money, a different president, and they have monuments of Lenin and Stalin. They have old Soviet buildings. But the rest of Moldova does not want to be part of Russia. Half of Moldova wants to be with Russia, and half wants to be part of the European Union. There is even a hard border between Transnistria and the rest of Moldova, but it’s the same country. The people there have Transnistrian passports, which allow them to go only to Russia or Moldova. If they don’t also have a Moldovan passport, they are more-or-less forever locked in their country.

We are afraid that the same thing could happen here; a civil war. Now it’s a big problem, because some people from the Moldovan government want to become a part of Romania. We were one country 100 years ago in 1918. They want to have this union again and be together. They say that only through Romania can we get EU membership. 

Did you notice a difference in free speech or attitudes to Social Issues between the West and Moldova?

“Attitudes to LGBT people are becoming more accepting because of young people, but the old people don’t understand it and will never accept it. They have different minds… there are some youth that maybe don’t accept it, and… they say ‘you don’t belong here, just go to Europe’… It’s because of the Soviet Union mindset. In Soviet times, if you were different that was bad.”

See Marina's Full Answer

No one will kill you for the things you say. You are free to talk. Even now, we have had lots of LGBT parades. We have had lots of people who say you should be free to talk, to express yourself, and who promote feminism and women’s rights. So that kind of thing is developing here. Attitudes to LGBT people are becoming more accepting because of young people, but the old people don’t understand it and will never accept it. They have different minds. They grew up thinking about different things. Youth like me, though, are usually ok with it. We understand that you are born a certain way, and we will accept that. But there are some youth that maybe don’t accept it, and they are calling members of the LGBT community very bad words, and they say “you don’t belong here, just go to Europe.” But it shouldn’t be that way, if you were born here you should feel ok here. I think the problems old people have with the LGBT community come from religion, but that’s not the case with the youth. The youth are mostly atheists. It’s because of the Soviet Union mindset. In Soviet times, if you were different that was bad. So it’s mostly because of that mentality, rather than religious values. Now there are even some legal protections in the workplace for LGBT people that protect them from being fired.

Can you think of a stereotype of Moldovan people?

“In Russia and other places, they say we are only good to build things. So to make renovations. They say we wear those orange costumes and just work as builders.”

See Marina's Full Answer

In Russia and other places, they say we are only good to build things. So to make renovations. They say we wear those orange costumes and just work as builders. They also say that everyone drinks wine, and that one is actually kind of true, but that’s ok. They say we drink wine from three years old. But we’re not all alcoholics. 

What do you do during the Holidays here?

“We have a special salad called olivie. It’s a Russian salad so every post-Soviet country eats it. Around New Year, we have a tradition to be with family and watch TV. We first watch a speech from Putin, and then one from our own President. Because of the time difference (Russia is one hour ahead), new year happens there first, so Putin comes on first.”

See Marina's Full Answer

We have a special salad called olivie. It’s a Russian salad so every post-Soviet country eats it. Olivie is kind of like a potato salad with carrots, ham, peas, eggs and mayonnaise. We also have a tasty soup with sugar instead of salt called Kutia. It’s made with poppyseed, orange, lemon and water.

Around New Year, we have a tradition to be with family and watch TV. We first watch a speech from Putin, and then one from our own President. Because of the time difference (Russia is one hour ahead), new year happens there first, so Putin comes on first. We don’t really celebrate Christmas, we celebrate more on New Year. It’s the biggest public holiday. That’s when we get presents; on the 1st of January. It’s just the same as in American movies, except it’s not on Christmas, it’s on New Year. There are some people who celebrate Christmas by going to church, though, and then they come home and make food. Christmas doesn’t happen on the 25th of December, by the way, it happens on the 7th of January.

What is your favourite and least favourite Moldovan Dish?

“My favourite is Mamalyga. It’s yellow. It’s not a porridge, but it looks a bit like one. It’s harder than porridge and you cut it with a needle. It’s served with Brynzda, which is made of milk, so it’s not vegan! It can be served with grilled fish or Salo, which is grilled fat.”

See Marina's Full Answer

My favourite is Mamalyga. It’s yellow. It’s not a porridge, but it looks a bit like one. It’s harder than porridge and you cut it with a needle. It’s served with Brynzda, which is made of milk, so it’s not vegan! It can be served with grilled fish or Salo, which is grilled fat. You use a garlic crusher to get the juice from the garlic, and then you mix it with oil and have it with the mamalyga. 

I don’t know if it’s Moldovan, but in Russian it’s called pichonka. It’s liver cooked on a grill. I hate the smell. We don’t have a lot of Moldovan food. If it’s Moldovan, it’s probably either Ukrainian or Romanian. Only Mamalyga is truly Moldovan. 

Reccomendation:

(See Above) Mamalyga!

Life According to Locals #Moldova #Balti #InterviewsWithLocals Click To Tweet

Marina Skaletskaya


The Plate: Mamalyga

“Visually, mamalyga is similar to Banosh…  maize flour… generates a thicker, heavier and somewhat drier texture which I can only describe as akin to a mound of wet couscous that has been squeezed so tightly that the grains have become indistinguishable from one another. The bright and soft nature of the mounds… belie the salty punch they deliver, and if you skip the addition of the cheese… the flavour can quickly become overpowering.”

Read More About Mamalyga

Head pounding from the cold, I rested my bike against a window in the Northern Moldovan town of Briceni, and stumbled inside. As the door swung shut behind me, raucous laughter and the scrapes of cutlery against plates silenced, and rows of heads underneath a feeble and flickering fluorescent light turned towards the new arrival. I paused for a moment, and looked back at the faces of bewildered locals, scanning me, and then my bike outside, and then me again. A nod from one of them, who uttered something in what I assume was Romanian before the place erupted in laughter once again and I slumped into a chair. Since it was the only Moldovan food I’d heard of before, I ordered Mamalyga, hunched over a cracked wooden table while the throbbing in my head subsided and waited.

Visually, mamalyga is similar to Banosh, which I’d tried in Ivano-Frankivsk, Ukraine, following my interview with Yulia Ostrohliad. With a near-identical colour scheme of bright yellow, browns and whites, you’d be forgiven for confusing the two. But where Banosh from Ukraine’s Carpathian region is derived from cornmeal, mamalyga utilizes maize flour, which generates a thicker, heavier and somewhat drier texture which I can only describe as akin to a mound of wet couscous that has been squeezed so tightly that the grains have become indistinguishable from one another. The bright and soft nature of the mounds of maize flour belie the salty punch they deliver, and if you skip the addition of the cheese which, once again, is left for you to sprinkle over the meal at your discretion, the flavour can quickly become overpowering. Addition of it not only blunts the salinity, which can become a little sickly as you plough through Moldova’s most traditional meal, but also brings the taste far closer to that of Banosh.

As such, my verdict doesn’t differ wildly from my review of Ukraine’s cornmeal dish; I appreciated the significance of mamalyga in Moldovan culture and history, more than I did the actual flavour, and despite a full day of cycling behind me, I conceded defeat to its sheer density, which after some time can become tedious and difficult to stomach. But perhaps the memories from my experience would have been more positive had they not been tainted by the owner of the restaurant, who attempted to charge me more than  double the menu price for my meal. After she forced me to argue at length to get her back down to the original cost, I left my first Moldovan dining experience feeling full, but confused.

Mamalyga


Thoughts? Leave a comment down below!


Check out our new interactive map, displaying the locations of each of our interviews!

Be sure to follow us on Facebook and Instagram to keep up to date with our blog. If you want to see more of the cycle touring side of our adventure, you can also have a gander at our YouTube channel! If you want to see how we’re doing on our journey, check out our Live Updates page.

Pros & Cons of the Soviet Union
You may also be interested in:  Pros & Cons of the Soviet Union

Attempting to cycle from Tromsø in Northern Norway to Baku, Azerbaijan while interviewing locals en route. Despite my chequered history with bikes, here’s to me returning home with an intact facial structure and at least as many body parts as I left with.

4 Comments

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

CommentLuv badge