To prevent my 40th birthday from becoming legally effective, I spent 6 July 2015 in Transnistria which is not recognized by any other country. As always, I had not planned a large party. Instead, the journey and the new impressions and experiences were celebration, gift and reward enough.
In the evening, I sat in a park with the typically Soviet name “Victory Park” in the capital city of Tiraspol and celebrated the victory of relaxation over the hottest day of the year, which even 15 minutes of torrential downpour had not managed to cool down. Yes, in the Soviet Union one did not limit oneself to boring names for parks like “Municipal Park”. And why change the name? “Victory” is always good, even if the victorious country has since long disappeared and fallen apart.
Under the eyes of a Soviet officer about whom I don’t know any details except that he was adorned with medals (as intended) and a pigeon on his head (as had not been intended), I enjoyed the last cigar from my stash (juicily one from the former class enemy in Virginia) and was reading a spy novel. Some of my more intellectual readers may turn up their nose at such literature, but this is my protection against the charge of being a spy myself. “If I was really a spy, I would hardly read spy novels in public,” would convince even the toughest KGB officer. In such a scenario, Pushkin or Dostoyevsky would be of less practical use. And yes, in Transnistria the secret police is still called KGB. Why change the name? It’s a known brand.
Soon, two guys of the type “high-school dropout, and the more aggressive for it” build themselves up in front me, a bit too close for my liking, and start talking to me in Russian, both of them at the same time. Friendly, unintimidated and in English, I explain that I sadly don’t speak any Russian. The non-understood sentences go back and forth until they manage to convey that they want a cigar. No way! With my last cigar, on my birthday on top of that, I remain more steadfast than the aforementioned monument.
Scowling, the guys walk off, but return after a few minutes. “Have they learned English in the meantime?” I wonder. No, but now they have a deal to suggest, although “suggest” sounds too friendly for their pushy manner. They want cigars from me and are willing to offer Marlboro cigarettes in exchange. Apart from the fact that I wouldn’t have any more cigars with me, the offered four to six Marlboros would really be a bad deal for me. Curiously, they now do speak three words in English, which they keep repeating while praising their offered merchandise: “American, duty free!” Yeah, I have no doubt these cigarettes are duty free indeed. Transnistria is a paradise for smugglers, for everything from cigarettes and alcohol, to weapons and plutonium and even organs or whole humans.
Finally the two intrusives give up and I can return my attention to the inter-war period and observe the action in Victory Park. A few benches to my right, a woman rents out plastic cars to parents who want to occupy their children that way. The children can either drive the cars themselves, or the parents can control them remotely. It’s telling that all the boys are allowed to drive on their own, while the parents retain the control if their child is a girl. If it’s the mother at the control, the car jerks back and forth so erratically that the little ones must get whiplash. Hopefully, they haven’t had any ice cream before. So this is how bad driving is passed on from mother to daughter.
Opposite from me, on the other side of the wide square where I am enjoying the evening sun, two boys overheard me speaking in English. They get up from their bench and come towards me, a bit shy but determined. These two are discernibly of the type “polite and well-mannered”, a welcome change to my previous visitors. They don’t ask for cigars, but if they may practice their English with me. They have both finished university where they had English classes while studying engineering, but they have no opportunity to practice it in Tiraspol.
Igor is 23, Denis is 24, both are in that phase after university and military service and are considering whether it’s worth trying to look for the improbable employment or whether they should first try some volunteering that would allow them to travel. We talk about traveling, about how to finance it, about priorities in life, about relationships, freedom, politics, Transnistria, Moldova, Russia and about languages.
After a while, Igor takes out his guitar and both of the guys play and sing a few songs for me, without knowing that it’s my birthday.
Couples walk past and look at us with smiling curiosity while they enjoy their ice cream or are holding hands, with their children running around them in circles. I feel amused by all the warnings about Transnistria that I had received before my journey. So much ignorance, so much useless fear, and they would be so easy to counter. All you need to do is hop on a train, go to another country, walk around with open eyes and an open mind and talk to people. Just try it!