I originally wrote this post for culture magazine. It was published on May 20, 2014.
When the minibus slows down, approaching the border in Bendery, my heartbeat accelerates. I’m mostly just giddy; it’s sunny, 70 degrees, the trees and flowers have just blossomed, I’m on spring break, and we’ve just passed a bunch of guys in KGB uniforms. Gripping my passport and meticulously completed immigration card, I shuffle alongside babushkas and guys in leather jackets toward the notorious border crossing into Transnistria (or Trans-Dniestr, or Приднестровие).
Yes, spring break. While my classmates don bikinis and flock to the Black Sea beaches, I have decided to travel east from my current home in Romania, through Moldova and Ukraine, in search of cheese.
Granted, my timing is a bit odd. The border crossing into this pro-Russian autonomous breakaway region of Moldova has been heavily guarded by both Russian and Moldovan troops since the war between the two parts of the country ended in 1992. Famous for corrupt and unpredictable guards, the crossing is even more tense than usual these days given the potential spillover of problems from next-door Ukraine.
Journalists are flocking here to feature what may be ‘the next Crimea,’ but they usually recount stories of bribery or rejection at the border. Since Transnistria is not an officially recognized country (it’s often described as a mafia-run hub of human and weapons trafficking), it’s difficult to know what to expect. We’ve heard that the border crossing has been closed to all foreigners since a week before, and the website for the only hostel in the city of Tiraspol has been mysteriously shut down. So we’re nervous. Sure, I’m only a cheese journalist, but I’ve decided to avoid ‘the J word’ altogether and tell the border guard that I’m simply dying to visit the Kvint brandy distillery.
As an impassioned traveler and turophile, I like to use cheese as a lens. Maybe I’m like a taxonomist, or a linguist; I think that observing the similarities and differences between species, or between languages, or between cheeses, can tell us something bigger about the world. Can the cheeses of Transnistria and its neighboring regions of Moldova and Ukraine reveal something about a common Soviet past? About the current political tensions? I’m not sure what I will find, but in any case, I’m hungry. For knowledge, experience, and cheese. And food has a funny way of building connections in the unlikeliest of places.
“So… you like Brandy?” asks the giant Transnistrian border guard, the hammer and sickle emblem of his uniform shining in the fluorescent light of the questioning area, where I’ve been directed to the side.
“You …. like Vodka?”
“Yes!” I reply, and feeling a boost of confidence, or insanity, I respond: “do you?”
“Of course.” he replies, “but prefer beer.”
“I like beer too. Pivo.” I say, shamelessly flaunting the full extent of my Russian skills. He smiles.
“What is name of father?”
I tell him my dad’s name, obediently. He makes me repeat it. And with that, I am free to explore the cheeses of Transnistria until exactly 12:42 pm the next day.
The Piata Centrala market I’d attended the day before in Chișinău, Moldova, was huge. Sprawling outdoor booths surrounded many buildings, each with different themes. The cheese room was blue and white, with giant paintings of grazing animals on the walls. In one corner, aged and smoked cheeses sat behind glass cases, but most of the room was filled with heaping blocks of fresh cheeses, sitting exposed on counters in front of old ladies in white bonnets. Surrounding the giant heaps were buckets of smântână, or sour cream, and plastic water bottles refilled with raw milk and homemade kvass (fermented drink made from rye bread).
The market I find in Tiraspol, Transnistria is smaller and slightly less busy, but similarly designed. At both markets, competition is so fierce that the old ladies yell “goat’s cheese!” “sheep’s cheese!” and hold out samples. Despite the exclusive use of Russian language in this region, the homemade cheeses are identical: fresh, firm, and salty, with a sheepy tang. The ladies behind the mounds of cheese appear identical, too: strong hands, colorful sweaters, and frowns that–if I’m patient and respectful – gradually transform into smiles.
The only difference in the Tiraspol market is that security guards won’t let me take pictures. And that I haven’t yet figured out how to get cash with which to buy the cheese; since Transnistria is not an officially recognized country, its currency can’t be exchanged anywhere else in the world, and ATMs in the city only dispense Russian rubles or American 100 dollar bills.
My friends and I spend the day strolling past Lenin statues and Soviet monuments, and a construction site where the headquarters of Putin’s political party are being constructed. We drink kvass from street stands, snacking on oblong puff pastries stuffed with dill and cottage cheese. Eventually we end up in the nearby village of Ternovka, where old ladies tend to their sprawling gardens, and we visit a random, enormous Spirit Museum that showcases 7 floors of bottles of alcohol from around the world. We drink beer and eat delicious sour-cream-based Russian soup at a restaurant called Plăcinte. And I find my Kvint brandy; it’s aged for six years, it’s 3 dollars a bottle, and – like the Transnistrian border crossing – it’s surprisingly smooth.
After my 24 hours expire, I move on to Odessa, Ukraine, where I spend the morning drinking tea in the sun at a peaceful demonstration. Then I bumble around trying to find my way through the giant Privoz Market, Georgian-Sulguni-cheese-smothered bread in hand, before dining and reading old Soviet atlases in cozy restaurant Druzya I Pivo. Odessa is beautiful, with great restaurants, ubiquitous mobile espresso stands and sprawling parks by the sea.
I head back to Moldova on a bumpy night bus, next to an old lady with gold teeth who forces her sweet cheese-filled blini (blintzes) upon me and laughs heartily each time she drops her 2-liter plastic bottle of beer on the bus floor.
Two weeks later, my images of sunny Chișinău, Tiraspol, and Odessa have been blurred by the harsh ones on the news stations: protests, arrests, fires, and deaths.
I’m still not sure if the ‘cheese lens’ gave me any special insight into the socio-political particularities of these regions, but I now understand this: If you go there looking for instability and political conflict, you might find it. If you go looking for cheese, you’ll find not only cheese; you’ll find laughing old ladies, friendly border guards, thriving markets, bountiful gardens, and kind people who want to live in peace.
It doesn’t mean that the media should ignore the bad things, but it is certainly worth it to stop and enjoy the good ones.