After three years away from Moldova, I returned to my home country together with my partner, photographer Jon Cuadros, last autumn, to attend the wedding of my cousin.
I met my partner at the Chișinău International Airport with traditional homemade potato and cherry pies. More was awaiting him in my family apartment: my mother’s cabbage rolls, and my aunt’s homemade red wine.
I wanted to share my Moldovan paradise with Jon as much as possible in the three days we had together. So we started off by taking the trolleybus to my flat. Surrounded by people of different ages and social statuses, I pointed out the city’s landmarks, while the driver’s Moldovan folk music crackled through the speakers.
Moldovan trolleybuses still have people collecting and validating tickets. They have a tough job, spending entire eight-hour shifts squeezing between passengers in the cabin. Jon asked me if this job couldn’t be automated. In 2015, dozens of trolleybus collectors protested on the streets after news circulated they would be replaced by ticket machines. Many ticket controllers have never held a different job, so it would be virtually impossible for them to find new work without retraining.
I had planned general sightseeing for Jon’s first full day in Moldova but things turned out differently for us. As we were sipping our morning coffee and indulging in my mum’s pies, we heard the sinister crescendo of funeral music through the windows. Leaning on the window sill, we saw a funeral across the street. In the open coffin, I recognised the father of my mother’s childhood friend. He had been a Soviet air force officer. Jon rushed out and paid his respects to my neighbours, who, as is the custom in Moldova, are like extended family. He photographed the widow as she leaned over the open coffin in the throes of grief, and the military brass band playing their dark music on the street. We were asked to join the ceremony. We travelled to the cemetery in the same van as the coffin, crammed and quiet, as the car bumped up and down on the rolling hills (and the bad roads) of the city outskirts towards Saint Lazarus, the largest cemetery in Europe, of a gigantic size of 2 million squared metres. After the church service, we saw the coffin being placed into the ground, and unceremoniously shovelled with fresh soil by day labourers.
We were also invited to join the post-funeral reception (called ‘praznic’ in Romanian). The meal was held in a classic post-Soviet architectural gem — with a typical mirrored bar reflecting old velvet curtains and fake diamond long drop chandeliers — that had been repurposed into an event space. We spent the whole afternoon with the family of the deceased. Cognac flowed as easily as the stories reminiscing the neighbourhood in years past, and dishes were literally stacked on top of one another for lack of table space. The scene eerily mirrored the wedding we attended the following evening.
We took an ancient, 100-year-old train towards the bride’s house in the northern town of Ungheni the next morning. When we arrived, we found that the party had already started the night before — Moldovan weddings often last for three days. Greetings were shouted, glasses were filled, and the outdoor table was set as we were pushed into our seats. We exchanged stories, as guests continued to arrive at a never ending dinner.
After taking Jon on a walk in the nearby forest, back home, we hurriedly got dressed. Doina, the bride, and all the other guests, were bustling in their elegant gowns, in a cloud of hair spray and perfume. After fitting more than 30 relatives in three cars, we set off on a winding road, passing by lakes and roadside crucifixes towards a restaurant in Moldova’s biggest forest, Codru, where the (main) wedding party was meant to take place.
It was an emotional day. I met relatives whom I hadn’t seen in years. As a bridesmaid, I helped my cousin get into her bride dress, and then watched her and her husband rehearse their first dance.
One of the unique Moldovan wedding traditions takes place late into the night, and is inappropriately called “the undressing of the bride”. No, it’s not a striptease. Quite the opposite — the bride removes her veil, passing it on to the bridesmaid (in this case, me); in its place, she gets given an apron, a headscarf, and pans, befitting a “housewife”. Traditionally, the bridesmaid dances with her date throughout the course of the transformation — which, for Jon and I, meant dancing for 30 minutes as guests looked on in various states of elation or confusion. In the end, Doina’s wedding hit all the hallmarks of a Moldovan wedding (besides the drunken fights, thankfully). Children and old people partied together well into the night, as the live band played traditional Moldovan folk music — weddings are a chance for everyone to dance their worries away. The drinking and dancing even continued on the crowded minibus we rented to take us home in the early hours of the morning.
As we were heading towards the guest house, Jon stopped so suddenly that I bumped into him. He was looking straight up, staring in wonder at the most complete night sky he had ever seen, muttering the name of constellations to himself. It meant so much for me to share a slice of my Moldovan heaven with him.
Back in Berlin, I was astounded to see his photos: they conjure all the complicated feelings I have towards my home country, family, and identity, and make me long for Moldova.