Mural 45 in Tiraspol, Transnistria

I’ve already established that most people I know have never heard of Moldova.  Let me add to the confusion and talk about Transnistria.  This little sliver of land, about the size of Rhode Island, stretches about 120 miles along the border of Moldova and the Ukraine.  It averages about eight miles in width and is the home of around 450,000 people.  Ask any of the residents and they’ll tell you that Transnistria is an independent country that broke away from Moldova, after Moldova broke away from the crumbling Soviet Union. The little “country” that nobody else in the United Nations recognizes has its own “government”, currency, post office, and standing army.

Problems started back in 1990.  Moldova, with a population that was mostly of Romanian descent, looked like it might rejoin its neighbor to the west.  It didn’t happen.  Transnistria declared their independence and moved to closer ties with Russia.  A civil war that claimed around 700 lives took place over the next two years.

In the end, a cease fire was declared.  Moldova agreed to grant Transnistria some autonomy but not complete independence.   Russia provides financial support and maintains a military presence in the region.  And, the little country that really isn’t is the only “country” in the world that still has the communist hammer and sickle on its flag.  Well, I saw that version on an online search.  But, upon arrival in Tiraspol, all I saw were red flags with a Christmas green stripe across the horizon.  Online I also learned that photos of Stalin and Putin were as common as those of the current “president”.  Do not believe everything you read.  I couldn’t find any souvenir shops at all.  But, if I did find any of those portraits, they wouldn’t tempt me to spend any of my Transnistrian rubles.

After 45 murals on four continents and 21 countries, I would seriously like to tell you that I've figured this all out.  There are no more surprises.  I've got all this down.  That would not be the truth.  Life and murals are a learning experience.  And, considering the alternatives, I plan to continue learning.

Usually, almost always, I wait until arrival at my destination to plan the murals.  I want local input in the process and that's the easiest way to get it. After the input, it takes me about a day to plan my masterpiece.  So far, that has worked well.  But, the people in Moldova requested a design early.  I received a cartoon full of kids doing school things that kids do.  It was all I needed to plan a mural at the school for the deaf in Tiraspol.

Or, so I thought.

It was suggested that maybe I throw in something "national" to give the mural a local flavoring.  I usually try to do that anyway.  But, I was warned I couldn't draw anything controversial.  However, anything "national" was bound to be controversial in this situation.  The Transnistria flag has the yellow hammer and sickle that used to adorn the old USSR flag.  It looks nothing like the Moldovan flag.  Using any flag was going to be flaming controversial.  Okay, no flags.

Maps were just as controversial.  Moldova considers Transnistria a part of their country.  No other country recognizes the independence of Transnistria (not even Russia, even though they've established a consulate there).  If I used a map, it would have to be all of Moldova.  So, once again, no controversy and no maps.

Fortunately, kids doing kid things does not stir up much controversy.  Plans were to have kids reading, studying, cooking, playing soccer, a few little ones at play, and finally two kids signing "welcome" as a part of the design.  I knew I'd have to wait until I landed in the country to learn that bit of information.  Do you sign that the same way in the United States?  No.  Not even the alphabet is the same.  If any language should be universal, it should be signing.  But, it isn’t.

But, there was one little surprise that I never considered.  And, I would not know the answer until I set foot on Moldovan soil.  There was a question about the spelling of "Tiraspol"' in the design.  Should I use the Latin alphabet that I am used to or the Cyrillic one used by Russian speakers?  Actually, the question never entered my mind.  But like I said, if I waited until I arrived, I think this would have been clarified right from the start.  I suspected I could guess what the choice would be.  I was going to learn how to write something in Cyrillic.

They opted for English.

Upon arrival in Tiraspol, I realized how surprising that decision really was.  Throughout most of Moldova, things are written in Romanian with a good amount of Russian and a smattering of English and French.  So, even though I understood very little written word, I could make out some information as I walked about.  And, I could at least try to sound out words.  All that changed as soon as I crossed the border into Transnistria.  All . . . well, okay, 99.99% of any text, anywhere, is in Russian.  It’s not only a language I don’t know, but it is the Cyrillic alphabet which makes no sense to me.  I had no starting point to begin sounding out words.  It’s so very strange to feel so completely illiterate.

But, that is certainly the way I felt.

Illiterate or not, it was love at first bite and first site in Tiraspol.  One of my embassy friends, Sandu, told me that I should eat “zama” while in Moldova. It’s a very colorful vegetable soup with a hint of lemon and a dollop of sour cream.  Anything tastes better with a dollop of sour cream, but zama really didn’t need it.  I told Sandu that he had to call his mother and get her zama recipe.  Now that’s something to look forward to with my recipes!

And as for love at first site, I met the children at the deaf school.  The school is actually part deaf school and part orphanage.  So, much to my surprise, some of the students could hear and even speak a little English.  That was totally unexpected.  They might have been shy for a couple of minutes.  After all, my interpreter told me that my visit was like meeting someone from another planet.  But, they were all smiles by the time I headed back across town to work on the mural design.

The mural design needed work?  Wait a second!  Didn’t I worked on both the mural and a T-shirt design before ever leaving the good ole U.S. of A.?  And, wasn’t the mural design approved?  Problem was, I never saw any dimensions for the wall we were going to paint.  Of course, I could fit my art on the width of the wall, but it was much narrower than the principal had in mind.  The whole design needed a work-over, but there was no pain in the process since I found a café that served cinnamon cappuccinos.

And, as for working with the kids at the school for the deaf/orphanage, it could not have been more positive.  We communicated with a little English, a little Russian, a dash of signing, and a whole lot of laughing.  The kids could not have been any more charming.  At the end of day one, one of the participants asked if I would also stay at the orphanage.  I passed on that adventure, but it didn’t take long to find the kids simply adorable.