Chisinau, Moldova Report of what it's like to live there - 04/26/19

Personal Experiences from Chisinau, Moldova

Chisinau, Moldova 04/26/19

Background:

1. Was this post your first expatriate experience? If not, what other cities have you lived in as an expat?

This is our seventh expat experience over an 18 year period. Other cities include Dushanbe, Tajikistan; Pristina, Kosovo; Yerevan, Armenia; and Bucharest, Romania.

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2. What is your home city/country? How long is the trip to post from there, with what connections? How easy/difficult is it to travel to this city/country?

Home base is Germany. It's about two and a half hours by plane, or a 22 hour drive (two and a half days in a car). Air travel to Germany is very easy, with direct flights eight times a week.

US expats typically travel to the US by flying to Frankfurt (2.5 hours) and then catching a direct flight to a US destination (eight to nine hours to the US East Coast).

In general Chisinau is very well connected by air. Air Moldova, the national airline, is no-frills but competent, and it has flights to destinations all over Europe. It's not hard to slip away for a weekend to Vienna or Florence. By land Moldova is more isolated, but you can still catch a train to Odessa, Ukraine (4 hours away) or to Bucharest, Romania (overnight train).

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3. How long have you lived here?

One and half years.

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4. What brought you to this city (e.g. diplomatic mission, business, NGO, teaching, retirement, etc.)?

Running an aid project.

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Housing, Groceries & Food:

1. What is your housing like? What are typical housing sizes, locations, and commute times for expatriates?

We're living in a large comfortable house in a nice neighborhood. Western-style housing is widely available, with a mix including houses, town houses and apartments. I've heard US diplomat housing is mostly around the downtown and "Telecentru" area. The quality of housing varies, so if you're house-hunting, use a reputable realtor and do your homework. There is no shortage of decent quality housing, much of it in, or near, the downtown area.

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2. How would you describe the availability and cost of groceries and household supplies relative to your home country?

95% of all groceries and household supplies are available, though the brands and packaging may differ from what you're used to. This includes expat oddities like peanut butter and maple syrup. Costs are reasonable. For bulk shopping runs, check out the Metro mega-store out towards the airport.

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3. What household or grocery items do you wish you had shipped to post?

Poop bags for the dog.

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4. What typical restaurants, food delivery services, and/or takeout options are popular among expatriates?

Not many Western chains are here yet except McDonalds, but there are a lot of decent local restaurants. There are dozens of pizzerias, several burger places, and a number of high-end restaurants that are nice for dining out. There are a couple of Chinese places, a lot of Italian places, a faux-British pub, a faux-Irish pub... really pretty much everything you'd expect in a small European city. There are even two or three sushi places, of which at least one is okay.

For dining with kids, we can recommend Andy's Pizza, a local chain with about a dozen restaurants around the center of Chisinau (if you're American, this is basically the Moldovan Denny's).If you're lonesome for American cooking, Smokehouse Barbecue is run by a former Peace Corps guy from Virginia and has pretty good smoked meats and barbecue in a pleasant atmosphere.

Coffee shop culture has exploded in the last few years. Cafe Tucano is another Moldovan chain; it's basically the local Starbucks, and is not bad at all.

If you want takeout, go online to straus.md which is a consolidated delivery service for about 50 local restaurants.

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5. Are there any unusual problems with insects or other infestations in housing?

Nothing serious. Ants can be an issue in the summer. If you have a dog and walk them in the large, forested parks, the dog may pick up the occasional tick.

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Daily Life:

1. How do you send and receive your letters and package mail? Are local postal facilities adequate?

Local postal facilities are functional but slow. You can send and receive mail but it's going to take a while.

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2. What is the availability and cost of household help, and what types of help are typically employed by expatriates?

Help is cheap, typically US $3-$5 per hour. Expats often employ maids and nannies. English speakers are less common and are at a premium.

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3. What kinds of gyms or other sports/workout facilities are available? Are they expensive?

Lots, as there's a well developed workout culture here. Both price and quality vary a lot, from little local weightlifting places to large western-style fitness centers with Nautilus machines and treadmills.

There are a couple of large parks just outside the center (Valea Morilor and Valea Rosilor) that are good for running and biking. Bicycle culture is catching on in Chisinau but not all drivers are comfortable with cyclists yet, so wear a helmet and stay alert.

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4. Are credit cards widely accepted and safe to use locally? Are ATMs common and do you recommend using them? Are they safe to use?

Be thoughtful about using credit cards outside of large hotels, as it is Eastern Europe, and theft of credit card numbers can be an issue. ATMs are very common and quite safe, though they will charge a fee for accessing a foreign account.

Withdrawal limits at ATMs tend to be low, typically 5000 to 6000 Moldovan lei (about US $300-$350). Pro-tip: the ATM out at the Metro mega-supermarket out towards the airport has a limit of 15,000 lei (about US $850-900).

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5. What English-language religious services are available locally?

There are Catholic services once a week. I believe there is also a Church of Latter Day Saints.

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6. How much of the local language do you need for daily living? Are local language classes/tutors available and affordable?

The two local languages are Romanian and Russian, and you should pick up at least a few hundred words in one of them; it will make your life a lot easier. Many people in Chisinau have some English, especially younger people, but outside of the city that drops off fast. Language classes are available though not always cheap. If you want to try a free self-taught online course, check out duolingo.com; it's not bad and, hey, it's free.

Most English speakers find Romanian easier than Russian, especially if you have some Spanish or French, but YMMV.

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7. Would someone with physical disabilities have difficulties living in this city?

Yes. It's not very disability-friendly. Lots of bumpy sidewalks and high curbs. They are very slowly installing disability access e.g., ramps on buildings, beepers on traffic lights, but it's going to take many years. A lot of the building stock is still 20th century and that's a thing.

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Transportation:

1. Are local buses, trams, trains or taxis safe and affordable?

Buses and trams are safe and affordable. Buses and trams are safe and go all over the city for less than US $0.25, though they do get crowded at rush hour.

Taxis are cheap, but make sure you get a taxi with a meter and that it is used; taxi drivers tend to view foreigners as a windfall, especially if the foreigner doesn't speak the language. The iTaxi app can be downloaded on your phone and will only call taxis with meters, so there's that.

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2. What kind of car do you recommend bringing to post, given the terrain, availability of parts, burglary/carjacking risks, etc.? What kind of car do you advise not to bring?

No special requirements unless you're doing a lot of traveling outside Chisinau, in which case you might want something with high clearance and good suspension, as there are a lot of bad roads.

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Phone & Internet:

1. Is high-speed home Internet access available? How long does it typically take to install it after arrival?

Internet is everywhere, quality is okay. Moldova claims the best internet in Europe. This is definitely not true, but it's okay. Almost all housing these days comes with internet pre-installed.

If you are responsible for paying your own utility bills, make sure you pay them on time, because the phone / internet company will disconnect you very fast if you don't. You can pay bills online if you have a local bank account; otherwise, go to any bank or post office.

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2. Do you have any recommendations regarding mobile phones? Did you keep your home-country plan or use a local provider?

Local provider is generally better. Local phones and plans are cheap and work just fine. Reception is generally good. If you want to open a post-pay account, be prepared to jump through some bureaucratic hoops.

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Pets:

1. Are qualified veterinarians and/or good kennel services available? Do animals need to be quarantined upon entry to the country? Are there other considerations regarding pets that are particular to this country?

Lots of expats with dogs and cats. No quarantine requirements but get your shots and have your documentation ready. Bringing dogs in to Moldova by air can be tricky: one airline just doesn't do it, another only with cabin-sized dogs. Check with airlines re: pet travel in advance. There are lots of vets but the quality varies wildly, so ask around.

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Employment & Volunteer Opportunities:

1. What types of jobs do most expatriate spouses/partners have? Locally based or telecommuting? Full-time or part-time? Can you comment on local salary scales?

Not a great country for trailing spouses in terms of employment. Local salary scales are very low compared to the US or Europe.

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2. What is the typical dress code at work and in public places? Is formal dress ever required?

Standard American / European dress code: office casual, suits for meetings and more formal occasions. Formal dress is almost never required unless you're attending high-end diplomatic or ceremonial functions.

Adult males don't usually wear shorts unless playing sports. It's no big deal, but people will notice you as a foreigner.

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Health & Safety:

1. Are there personal security concerns to be aware of at this post? Please describe.

Moldova is quite safe. Violent crime is very rare. Chisinau is a city, so exercise reasonable caution about walking alone at night, situational awareness, etc., but it's safer than a comparable sized US city.

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2. Are there any particular health concerns? What is the quality of available medical care? What medical conditions typically require medical evacuation?

No special health concerns. You can drink the water. There are two or three expat-quality clinics that can handle typical health issues. For serious stuff you'll want to go home.

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3. What is the air quality like at post (good/moderate/bad)? Are there seasonal air quality issues? Does the air quality have an impact on health?

Air quality is okay to good. Summers can be long, hot and dry, so a bit dusty.

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4. What do people who suffer from environmental or food allergies need to know?

The pollen count can get quite high, especially in spring, so if you have pollen allergies that can be a thing. Otherwise, no particular issues here that I know of.

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5. Are there any particular mental health issues that tend to crop up at post, such as Seasonal Affective Disorder (winter blues)?

Moldova has a climate like Iowa, but Chisinau is actually further north, on the same latitude as northern Minnesota, so winter nights do get a bit long. It's nothing compared to Moscow or Stockholm, though, and if the winter is getting you down there are cheap direct flights to places like Istanbul, Athens, and Rome.

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6. What is the overall climate: is it extremely hot or cold, wet or dry, at any time of year, for example?

Continental climate; winters are cold and snowy, summers are long and tend to be hot and a bit dry. It's similar to the US Midwest or Great Plains.

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Schools & Children:

1. What is the availability of international schools? What has been your general experience with them, if any?

Two international schools, Heritage and QSI. Heritage is the new one, opened 2017. Our kids go there. It's definitely still undergoing problems. Ask around for more details, because Heritage is getting a new director (summer 2019) while QSI is planning some upgrades to respond to the challenge from Heritage. Both of these should be considered troubled but with potential for improvement. Talk to other parents, ask around.

If your child speaks Russian or Romanian (or is young enough to learn) then there are some local "magnet" schools that are very good academically. Discipline and tradition in school may be different from what you're used to, so do your homework in advance.

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2. What accommodations do schools make for special-needs kids?

Heritage has a new building with access ramps and elevators. Otherwise, I don't know of any.

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3. Are preschools available? Day care? Are these expensive? What has been your experience with them, if any? Do the schools provide before- and/or after-school care?

Day care is very common. Day care in English is less common but I believe there are at least two or three. I know that Heritage has an expat-oriented day care/kindergarten associated with it:"CHIPS", located in the Telecentru area.

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4. Are local sports classes and/or activities available for kids?

Yes, lots. Of course a lot of them do not have English-speaking instructors, but you if you're willing to pay a bit, you can find English-speaking instructors for everything from tennis to horseback riding. Expats sometimes organize for things like Saturday soccer/football for kids.

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Expat Life:

1. What is the relative size of the expatriate community? How would you describe overall morale among expatriates?

The expat community is small but mixed: Americans, Germans, Brits, a lot of Russians (who don't mingle that much with the others usually).

Morale is fine. I heard the State Department used to call this a hardship post. I don't know if they still do, but this is not a hardship post by my standards. It is a bit quiet and something of a backwater, but with just a little effort you can build a very pleasant life here.

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2. What are some typical ways to socialize, either with local people or with other expatriates? Are there groups or clubs that you can recommend?

We know there are a lot of activities, even though we only participate in a few. There's an International Women's Club of Moldova which meets every Wednesday: iwcm.md and male trailing spouses are welcome. There is an English-language Pub Quiz every Tuesday at Smokehouse Barbecue. There's a flag football team that is mixed US / Moldovan. There's a lively local music scene with a lot of local bands.

There used to be a Hash House Harriers, but it stopped when a couple of key people left. If you're interested, ask around.

For Americans, there's a local chapter of Democrats Abroad.

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3. Is this a good city for single people? For couples? For families? Why or why not?

It's great for families and for couples. Single people, harder to say. Single men may find a lot of Moldovan women buying into the stereotype of rich Western man, for good and for bad. For single women, Moldova is still a pretty traditional / patriarchal culture in a lot of ways, but there's no shortage of places to go and things to do.

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4. Is this a good city for LGBT expatriates? Why or why not?

Moldova's in a transition place right now. Ten or even five years ago the answer would have been a firm "No!" as Moldova was a religiously Orthodox, very traditional country with all the standard negative post-Soviet prejudices against LGBT people. Now it's a bit more complex. Younger people, especially in Chisinau, have picked up a lot of European attitudes. It's probably okay now for expats. If there's a scene it's underground/discreet.

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5. Is it easy to make friends with locals here? Are there any prejudices or any ethnic groups who might feel uncomfortable here?

Yes, very easy to meet / talk to / make friends with locals.

No particular prejudices except against Roma, although you may occasionally hear some startling remarks about other nations and ethnic groups.

Moldovans are not very used to people who are visibly foreign, so nonwhites may get some stares, especially outside Chisinau.

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6. Are there problems with ethnic, race/racial minorities or religious prejudices? Gender equality?

There aren't a lot of Roma around, but I've not heard good things being said about them.

There seems to be tension between the local ethnic groups, especially a subtle division between Romanian Moldovans and Russians / Russophone Moldovans, and also a bit towards the Gagauz (Turkish-speaking Orthodox Christians, live in the southern part of the country). This is mostly limited to politics and the occasional snide remark.

Gender equality is a work in progress. It's still a pretty traditional society with regard to gender issues, especially once you get outside Chisinau. That said, there are no problems with women working, driving, wearing pants, or anything like that.

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7. What have been the highlights of your time in this country? Best trips or experiences?

Taking the dog for a long walk along the Dnistr river at Vadu Lui Voda, about an hour east of Chisinau. A muddy, half-wild riverbank and a Labrador retriever on a gorgeous autumn day, and the Eurasian steppe stretching out for five thousand miles on the other side of the river: what's not to like?

Great meal and wine at the underground wine storage (make sure there's a designated driver).

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8. What are some interesting/fun things to do in the area? Can you recommend any “hidden gems"?

Go to Orheiul Vecchi (hilltop monastery, very cool) but go on a weekday because everyone goes on the weekends.

Take the early morning train to Odessa for a shopping day or a weekend.

There are movies in English at the cinema in MallDova.

Drive to Transylvania, in Romania. Check out the mud volcanoes (really) in the Carpathians, about half a day's drive from Chisinau.

I'm told there's a rapidly growing hiking / trekking community in Romania.

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9. Is this a "shopping post"? Are there interesting handicrafts, artwork, antiques, or other items that people typically buy there?

Eh, not really. Some local crafts. I'm told you can find interesting antiques if you know people and are willing to buy them privately. Tourist stuff, such as Soviet coins, and the like, is available downtown diagonally across from the central Post Office. There's a vernissage / flea market behind the main train station; it's mostly secondhand stuff but a determined hunter might find a hidden gem.

The wines are good to excellent: there are a LOT of inexpensive, very good table wines.

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10. What are the particular advantages of living in this city?

Honestly, if you're an expat, it's pretty much a developed world existence. Moldova has a lot of poverty and problems but if you're drawing an expat salary those won't affect you much.

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Words of Wisdom:

1. What do you wish you had known about this particular city/country before moving there?

Amazon doesn't deliver here yet. If you have kids, both QSI and Heritage are works in progress; investigate in advance.

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2. Knowing what you know now, would you still move to this city?

Yup.

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3. If you move here, you can leave behind your:

Russophobia (lots of Russians here).

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4. But don't forget your:

Sense of humor. Crampons / microspikes.

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5. Do you recommend any books or movies about this city/country for those who are interested in learning more?

There aren't really any. A book from 15 years ago, "Beating the Moldovans at Tennis", is badly dated now.

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6. Do you have any other comments?

This is a pleasant, small Eastern European country; a bit of a backwater, but there's really nothing to dislike.

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