Ideal Village // John Michael Flynn
Iorge introduced the concept to me. If I understood him correctly, it wasn’t a physical place, but a mosaic of impressions that fused in one’s mind to form a tiny civilization. It was a microcosm I could claim ownership of and live in as long as I spoke its language. Once fluent, I could connect my impressions to roots that had been there long before I’d seen them. Iorge said the best way to begin this process was to understand Camus, that I was a stranger everywhere I went, always would be, so I should talk to myself, trust myself, use as often as possible the language others around me spoke.
Taking his advice, I began a habit of talking to myself in Romanian while walking dust-soaked Chisinau. I’d try to feel the city’s ghosts, whether Bessarabians, Pechenegs, Wallachians, Turks, or Tartars. Even with a million residents, I heard the crowing of roosters each morning. I enjoyed my goofy solo efforts seeking to connect to the city’s anciency as the sand of lumpy streets and sooty air coated my skin. Like me, it was a city on a road toward redefinition.
I discovered an old church tucked away, one of the rare ones with a blue onion dome. Keyhole doorways to medieval palace-like buildings rose out of the wobbly sidewalk of a back street. Hidden between low sagging rolling tiled rooftops were the demarcating lines formed by steel fences painted green or blue in front of family homes with crooked windows.
A wind kicked up to remind me of the outhouse out back. I saw chickens pecking blond hardpan, a trellis laced with lush grape vines that shaded an outdoor table, and a small Russian-made car that hadn’t run in years due to the gasoline shortage. In the turned-up black soil of a yard, dill grew as tall as I stood. Sunflower plants bent over the tops of these steel fences. Not an inch of the soil wasted, all of it producing herbs and vegetables.
These Moldovan households were in neighborhoods hidden away, yet woven through the city’s core. They were quiet areas where it wasn’t unusual to see goats browsing a sidewalk’s edges. The busier enclaves felt far away. This was a reprieve from the Soviet-era buildings and block neighborhoods of decaying limestone apartments all the same height. Along the trolley bus routes there were monstrous glass and slab municipal and ministry buildings that looked spare and uninspired. I assumed they were built during the Khrushchev and Brezhnev eras. These included City Hall, and the International Telephone Building, but at the time I didn’t know the names of these buildings. To me, all Soviet architecture remained true to a disturbingly large-scale aesthetic and a denial of anything ornate. Massive cold-blooded efficiency lacking in graciousness, color, or imagination.
It wasn’t as if American cities didn’t suffer this same excess of deplorable architecture.
I preferred these older quiet neighborhoods with their decorous apartment buildings made from stucco, adobe mud, and sandstone. Usually pink, mustard yellow, or tangerine. These weren’t tall or large, and they often featured balconies with short fat columns. They showed the influence of the Turks and Europeans. I assumed most were pre-Soviet, perhaps two centuries old. They’d never been bombed, tended to be dirty and in need of repair, their stucco bulging, crackled and flaking off. They were, to me, soothing in their low-slung tired mud-caked fashion. They spoke of the city’s roots, back before pogroms and conquering hordes on horseback.
In case I got lost (which happened often), one landmark was the new bland Dacia Hotel. I knew I’d find at least one Westerner there who had a connection with someone at the recently-built American embassy. This embassy, one year old, still wasn’t finished. It was a compound, its size alone a statement of the lengthening reach of American influence now that the Cold War was over. It was a cottage compared to the embassies in Moscow and Kiev.
There were other hotels, but many appeared empty, in a state of transition. Like much of the city, they didn’t function in any recognizable way. Yet I sensed things were happening. Chisinau felt as if still in hiding, as if daring itself to emerge. Any burgeoning economic activity still stirred underground.
Situated near Pushkin Park and the impressive statue memorializing the Moldovan hero, Stefan cel Mare (Stephen The Great), The Sebaco Hotel was a busy more modern spot. I’d often see foreigners, ex-KGB, and newly arrived CIA reading Pravda or the Wall Street Journal in the lobby. I was told this hotel was owned by a Swiss company, that it never lost electricity during unannounced blackouts, and was the only place in Moldova where one could watch CNN.
This was why I brought Peyton Carter there for dinner. He was jonesing for fast food and television. We ate in the restaurant and enjoyed a view of the lobby where we tried to guess which men in dark suits and sunglasses were former KGB and which were CIA.
Peyton hadn’t known about CNN, and his face lit up when he saw a live television screen. It was my surprise for him. We ate cheeseburgers with French fries. The experience was not for me; I found it slightly disgusting as I remembered the Moldovans I’d met who were enduring extreme hardship. But I loved Peyton’s smile. My Alabama colleague was in hog heaven.
A room for one night cost $100 American, cash only. This meant nothing to lobby men at corner tables with the clunky devices that passed for cell phones. I saw one gent who resembled a former Middleweight boxer. He was reading the International Herald Tribune, had a plug in one ear and no doubt a link directly to either the Pentagon or Kremlin.
The spy game ambience of the lobby intrigued and humored me. I visited when I needed a bit of delusional thinking, as if I were in a Graham Greene novel. It was the only place I could drink bottled European beer and imagine myself an expat in an existential struggle trying to seize on what was happening in the former USSR during this rocky period of transition.
I didn’t frequent the hotel too often because I invariably ran into American construction workers; about a dozen of them were in Chisinau to finish the embassy.
No doubt these were good men, solid hard-hat types, but our brief conversations proved they were there to cash in. They represented all I was trying to get away from. They didn’t give a damn about Moldovans and the difficulties of an emerging democracy. Today Chisinau, tomorrow Ulan Bator. It was all the same to them. They couldn’t wait to get home.
I learned they hailed from Montana, South Carolina, Arizona. Electricians, security consultants, structural engineers. The more loquacious ones—and they were rare—told me basic labor was supplied by in-country nationals whose work was shoddy and over-priced and created cost overruns that raped the US taxpayer. But nobody cared as long as it got done on time.
Per-diem for such workers allowed them to hire a prostitute each night, cash only. Before Americans arrived, a Moldovan whore was lucky to get $20 for her services. With these boys, the going rate spiked to $100 cash per hour.
They lived in a hotel near the Central Market, and their rooms were decent, but The Sebaco was the place to be. Like Peyton, they enjoyed the ketchup and French fries, the clean lobby and sports highlights on CNN.
Was my home country really this boring?
If I liked The Sebaco (and a small guilt-plagued part of me did) it was because it forced me to question my motives. Nowhere else was it more evident that American interests were unleashing maggots that would feed on the Soviet corpse. I wasn’t in Moldova to make my bundle. I’d been invited to work there. I spoke the language. I wanted to make a contribution.
Was I a moron atop a puny raft of idealism riding the latest geo-political wave? No matter how I answered that question, I had to admit I was there as part of an imperialistic expansion.
Now, in 2014, as I recall those days and try to make sense of growing tensions with Vladimir Putin’s Russia, this disturbs me. My input, no matter how long ago, makes me part of the problem. I can do little about it. I know more than the average American about this neck of the world, but I still don’t know what to trust from the tsunami of agenda-driven information.
During hours alone walking Chisinau, hanging out in hotel lobbies, I often told myself to remain determined to help individuals, one at a time. By doing so, I’d be helping the country. I had to keep learning both Romanian and Russian, the cultural ways, the traditions. I had to grow each day with both eyes open, aware of how small I stood compared to the over-sized naiveté of my ambition. I’d be there for some years. I should be humble.
It was a first step, and it smelled like diplomacy.
I turned away increasingly from what I’d left behind, less willing to see myself as a product packaged to represent the great and powerful Oz called America. Neither was I a dilettante or a rebel. I was defining my terms. I asked myself if I knew anything about the teachers working so hard to school me in Romanian. I spent more time with them and began mulling over the idea of starting a translation project. Whenever possible, I didn’t sit with American colleagues during lunch. I sat with Moldovan teachers, asked many questions, begged them to speak Romanian naturally, at full speed.
I spent as much time as possible with Iorge. He kept pushing me toward his concept of the ideal village, and I kept trying to make it happen. Iorge told the best stories. Tall, angular, graceful and lean with a skinny mustache, a round head and lively brown eyes, he used a sophisticated Romanian always just a bit beyond my grasp. He made me strive to improve, sending me to dictionaries each night and a running list of new words and phrases. If I couldn’t find or translate them myself, I’d remind Iorge the next day, and he’d ask me to repeat these words many times before he explained to me what they meant.
He loved his red wine, and one evening while getting drunk with him, he told me it wasn’t the Russification of Moldova that concerned him. Too late for that worry. Russians had crucified, bastardized, ruined the country. He derided Chisinau, claiming it wasn’t a metropolis but an experiment gone bad. He didn’t care about cities. He cared about pure Moldovan villages.
This brought him back to his ideal village concept. His eyes lit up as he spoke about it. There were many villages that lived in his memory, but there was one that stood out. It represented his ideal. There he had experienced a childhood of lumpy white-washed mud-brick houses with windows trimmed in thick chocolate-brown paint. He remembered each house featured a heavy, ornately hand-carved wooden door, a front parlor room that acted as a showpiece no one ever used, and a rear outdoor kitchen under walnut trees where a family ate in summer.
At his house, there was a pig sty out back next to the outhouse that once a year he and his father had to clean. They politely warned their neighbors of the stink to come since his father used all the outhouse pit waste to fertilize his yard, which, of course, was a garden year round. The pit waste made excellent fertilizer, but it stunk on the high winds for a week, sometimes more. All village residents knew this stench because every village father and son had to empty the family outhouse pit once a year.
I asked Iorge if there was one ideal house in his ideal village. He liked that I asked him this because his eyes lit up again as he explained that it seemed this house had risen out of the earth. Soft lines delineated its silhouette against the sky. It had a tendency toward sagging crookedly as if in a state of melting into and emerging from the soil at the same time. It wasn’t a house that stood proudly. It was a house that endured. Modest, like so many other village houses, it was in a perpetually mutable state, born of mud and shaped into a muscular earthen beauty, guarded behind a rigid fence made of steel plates, with a wide gate that was often locked.
There were cherry trees planted equidistantly, stained white up their trunks. They lined both sides of a packed dirt road where springtime mud grew so thick it wasn’t uncommon for a man to sink to his knees while stumbling home. A true village man—what Iorge insisted was the real Moldovan, not the cross-bred Sovietized one—knew how to move through that mud in all stages of drunkenness and in all types of weather. Barrel-chested in a nappy hat and sheepskin vest and knee-high rubber boots, he’d sing a song while he walked. This hat, usually dyed black or gray and made of coarse wool, would reveal by its design what part of Moldova he was from. Such hats had different names and shapes. Homemade, they were worn with pride.
When that mud road dried or froze over, it left deep tracks and ruts. By night it was always a hazard. Sometimes, it seemed to bubble up and freeze in that state, not ready to explode and not yet melting. In this way, the roads were like the houses, always in a condition of soft transiency, close to and a product of the earth.
I asked Iorge how he lived in such a village. How he connected to it. I loved that I’d set him off, so to speak, and we were conversing heatedly in Romanian. He wasn’t shy about answering me. He, too, seemed to enjoy this emotional spontaneous communication.
He related how he’d wander in this ideal village to follow tracks for sheep. How sheep peppered meadows and pastures along a horizon serrated with the fur of low grassy hills. Turned black loam that bordered those meadows lay like pudding and was tilled by hand year-round. Such silken rich soil it was, blacker than tar, if that was possible. One had to see it to believe how densely black it was.
Not a measure of land went without agricultural use. Along the hillsides there was stronger sun and gentler winds and adequate drainage. There, planted long ago, ran one row after another of old heaving clutching grape vines. Mostly, they were Cabernet grapes that prospered as they grew during Moldova’s dry, sometimes chilly, nights. The air each fall sweetened with grape fumes, and their leaves shined with morning dew.
How Iorge remembered stomping those grapes with his father and mother. This was a time when a Moldovan man wasn’t reduced by Soviet vodka and urbane social systems designed to collectivize his home life. At that time, a Moldovan countryman, by his own hands, lived without systems and plans layered over systems and ruled by so-called experts in Moscow who forced farmers and teachers alike to abandon what they’d known as part of their ancestry.
Was he getting political on me? He said he was. He had to. He’d been silent too long.
Along came Stalin after the war, a Messiah of efficiency who told simple farmers how to plant crops, when to plant and harvest them. A market would grow, and the farmer’s crops would be bought for a low price and sold back to him at a profit. Nobody would understand this system. They would cry that their land had been taken away in the name of supporting the community, yet those who were hurt most were the community residents. Farmers and teachers were told to work for each other, for the good of the State, not for one’s family and table.
No one liked this system, but they grew accustomed to it. They ate and drank, and they didn’t worry about grapes and sheep. The State would buy them no matter what, at their price. The smartest farmers learned that other farmers stole just a little from the State, growing enough to feed their families and to hoard a portion of their crop without letting anyone know. Who was the State, after all, but the people?
Before the Soviet conquest, if a man had one cow in a village, he had all he needed. If he had a pig each year, along with his cow, he could feed a big family. It was with Stalin after the war that the Russians brought collective farming and took away the rights of one man, a simple farmer, to own a cow. Such a creature had to be owned by the State.
Did the farmer not see and understand this?
Iorge began to cry. I reached toward his arm as if to stop him, but I couldn’t. I pulled back. It seemed he needed this release. He dried his eyes and stared at me, doleful, as if hurt, his eyes red, his cheeks flushed. It was as if he was trying to see inside of me to make sure I was getting his message. What could I say to him to prove that I was? Wasn’t our time together a gift for both of us, a reason at last for him to speak to others in the world about the injustices inflicted on his ancestors? I understood that he wasn’t talking about any old Moldovan man, but about his father, grandfather and each one before them.
We had a way of life. We let them take it away. Now we do nothing. We don’t know how. There was a time when the Moldovan man, he was really something. He was strong, robust, he worked his farm, for himself and his family.
I didn’t try to stop him. I leaned back and listened as he spoke of how the dust rose during dry spells and perfumed smoke from distant wood fires. Linden, poplar, birch and wormwood, all of it oily with onion grass. Potato flowers like white buttons in a low pasture haze. Apricot and walnut trees. Tobacco rows. The sun glowing mellow and creamy off vales at dusk to create lingering brandies of light.
The sadness, the tears in Iorge at that moment were too plaintive and powerful. For a moment, I had to look down, unable to face him.
Now that Cold War is over, there will be no big war here. There will be no peace either. There will be endless fights, explosions, instability.
About two years ago, I received a letter from him. He wrote in English that he had rejected Moldova, had given up and now lived in Ireland, where he worked as a furniture mover. His daughter was in New York. She’d made it, at last.
Made what? I thought.
He asked if I could send money, but in his haste to reach me after so many years, he had forgotten to include a return address.
His words still haunt me. He’d said once that in the new century, no one would feel at ease or know who they were. There would be no ideal village. In all countries, there would be an eroding sense of personal and national identity, only technology to boast of, simple people feeling left out, isolated, enduring pain and confusion.
John Michael Flynn's most recent poetry collection, Keepers Meet Questing Eyes, is available from Leaf Garden Press. Links to other books and samples of published work can be found at basilrosa.com. He currently works in Khabarovsk, Russia, at the Far Eastern University of Humanities.