A week ago I returned from a 10-day trip to Kishinev (Chișinău), my hometown and the capital of Moldova, a former Soviet Republic and a small country located between Romania and Ukraine. The purpose of the journey was blissful but serene—my own wedding—hence its elopement nature.
Being in part a wedding photographer myself, I wanted to skip the pre-event talks among my peers and clients so I pulled this off unannounced until after the fact. Only a couple of people knew where and why I was going. I will leave the actual wedding story to our local wedding photographers Natalia Ciobanu and her husband Vitali Bolucevschi to tell later but for now, I thought of sharing my narrative and informal coverage done mostly via multiple cell phones and a GoPro. I intended this as a diary for my own close circles but as I put the imagery together, they started to look interesting… I hope you find them as such but don’t be too critical of the image quality. There will be a glimpse at the wedding day and my bride Larisa, too. 🙂
The highlight of this trip was accompaniment by my 12-year-old daughter Evelyn who was secretly ordained into my “best mare”. It was her first cross-Atlantic trip to the Old World, into the post-Soviet space. I left Moldova when 20 and she was born in the US so she has never met her grandparents from my side but she heard lots of stories about when “papa (or mama) was little”, including the house in a forest where I lived for five years, the manholes where I fell in as a child, a village house where her mom and aunt crawled and scavenged during school vacation, and others. It was expected to be quite a root-digging experience for her on top of emotions of meeting my fiancé and her daughter Lisa, plus my half-brother and -sister.
Our two friends accompanied us for a support in this adventure: Happy, whom I’ve taken as my daughter’s ambassador to all my far trips, and a Squeak, her toy bat (dubbed as Batman by grandma) and a sleep buddy. Speaking of sleep, it took her several days to accommodate to a new time zone, making her sleepy during the first few days when her stepsister would share the burden.
(Click images for larger size)
I haven’t been to Kishinev for years so the memory walks were rather sentimental to me as well. Almost all walks were done by all four of us and we started them with visiting the site of a 19-century house in which I lived between ages 10 and 16. It secured itself a unique positioning during the Soviet years—within the premises of a municipal park (now called Valea Morilor), several hundred yards away from a lake. Somehow the park grew around it without the authorities demolishing the house. On the down side, which I could not care less as a teen, we had no plumbing, no sewer, no bathtub, no heat, no AC, no phone. We did have electricity but had to bring water from an outdoor pump in buckets, use wood and coal to warm the house and water, use the wooden shower and restroom cabins outside even in freezing winters, and go to a payphone on the street when needed (so no one could call us). That mattered little with my own little one-room summer cabin, a strong and faithful dog to walk kilometers in the forest and fields (the park led to the city outskirts), and of course tons of home-grown berries and fruits. There was also semi-abandoned parachute tower nearby where I loved to climb and watch the city.
The house approached its breakdown point after several earthquakes so we were finally given a new apartment with our very own basic utilities, for first time in my life at age 16 (read below what it was like for me until age 10). The house was demolished soon after and decades later, only part of the road leading to it and a few brick particles remain today; the site is unrecognizably covered with shrubs and vegetation. But now our daughters, especially the American-brewed one, know how it could be for people to live without comfort taken for granted, and for millions still, even worse.
Another day we went to my school which I attended for all 10 grades, elementary to high. Unlike the previous site, the school #34 (now liceum D. Cantemir) remained oddly unchanged, every piece of a stone, hardware, structure reminding me of one moment of school days or another. That mural… never changed! It shows an oktyabrenok (a Soviet-era politically- and socially-versed youngster) calling for peace to children of the planet! Well, the message is ever-important, I have to agree. The outdoor gym equipment has not changed in about 40 years (I’m sure it was built there before I came at age 6). Looking at them, I hallucinated seeing myself climbing and rocking, jumping and falling. Those decorative holes in the entrance wall? As kids, we played there by having to spot other players moving and dodging behind the wall. I showed girls the classroom where some lad with thick eyeglasses was drawing in a heavy backpack through the grades 1-3. The school was empty for the summer break but the guard graciously allowed us in, feeling for my nostalgia, and even showed some new developments (there turned out to be).
Meanwhile, Larisa and I were beating down the doors of the civil offices as we encountered some unexpected challenges. The pre-wedding paperwork started to take a week instead of the promised two days so our plans for fun time with kids and families were on the verge of failing. Two of us scrambling during the day, four of us tried to spend time getting to know each other at least in the evenings, walking in the beautiful old town and dining out. A cool place that we visited twice to get a cucumber lemonade that I got hooked on, was a hip cafe Propaganda. Charming retro decor, a touch of decadent culture, delicious food, and a “foreigner” smell make it quite a place to visit. Menus make a decent paper plane material. Oh yeah, and that cucumber lemonade of mine, several in a row, with a customized heart-shaped straw from Evelyn.
Our elopement wedding was split into two days. I will skip the first one for now, the religious ceremony at a Russian Orthodox Church. It will be part of the professional photo set. The second part started early. Or you may say the previous day did not quite end. We wanted to do a photo session on the day of the wedding. Most couples and my clients do, no surprises here. We just decided to do it at 5:30 AM sunrise some 40 miles away from the city in a place that is meaningful to us. All in all, we needed to leave the city at 4 AM so the makeup and hair started at 2 AM at the beautician’s home. I must say, everyone involved, including our photographers and MUA/hair stylist Daniela Cosniceanu, were my type of pros: ready for the battle at any time of the day or night.
I rented a Honda SUV for several days so in the morning of the wedding, photographers and us head into the night, arriving to Old Orhei (Orheul Vechi) before sunrise. And here is a sneak peek at Natalia and Vitali at work with my very own beautiful bride. Now, it is difficult for me to stop saying how soul-matching and extraordinary she is… Don’t want to see your eyes rolling. Let me just give one of many proofs. I am yet to see a bride—a client of mine—who would not lose her cool about stepping over cow pies in her ethereal Greek Goddess wedding gown, thrusting through the shrubs, lying on the grass (forget insects stuck in the dress which I learned can cause quite a high pitch in NY), and all that not for some leisure trash-the-dress shoot but on the day of the wedding… after a sleepless night… with one foot badly swollen after a hornet’s sting a few days earlier. Not a single complaint, only warm and gentle smiles. Hat’s off. We were done by 10 AM and returned to the city to have a much-needed nap before the reception, also outside the city.
The reception took place at a carefully-selected, secluded place just outside of Kishinev, Poiana Bradului. It was a dream location for all of us. I witness and document endless plush celebrations in Manhattan, the US, and around the world. I appreciate and find delight in their fine taste, elegance, class, and exquisiteness. Yet I am a tamed wild animal; my heart does not require luxury. Moldova has no scarcity in a variety of venues, some opulent and still affordable… I wanted things down-to-earth but with character, warmth, and substance, to cuddle our small under 30-people party. And so did Larisa and our girls.
Secured area, family-friendly, log houses, clean air, smell of forest, swan lake (well, a pond), unspeakably friendly administration and staff (boy, did they accommodate!), authentic and enticing Moldovan cuisine, national costumes… just everything! I have little demands from anything other than expected but for my daughter’s comfort, I asked if they could remove the stuffed animal trophies from the walls (the banquet hall is heavily themed around a hunter’s hut). They did! We dreamed of planting a tree on our wedding day and wondered where we’d need to stop before arriving to the venue. Why, no further than five steps from the banquet hall! They gave us a shovel, too. I confused the heck out of them with my US credit card payments; they went out of their way to make numbers work (they did something I have never seen any venue do…). And finally, our waiters Marina and Vasilie were courteous and caring! Nevermind the piles of yummy food of which we could not possibly eat a half of.
Ah, back to us. Evelyn loves scallion. Look what she put first on her plate when sat at the table next to me… Lisa loved my bowtie. Since I have already had a signature portrait with Evelyn in bowtie, I made it up to Lisa.
A special thank-you goes to Larisa’s two nieces, especially Anastasia, who spent a tremendous amount of skill and time doing lots of DIY decorations and flower arrangements. She’s a hidden gem (yet) and a multi-talented artist with golden hands. I believe her design and art knowledge currently being acquired in Poland will take her a long way… Regretfully, I have not taken any phone photos of her masterpieces but I look forward to seeing them in the professional event coverage.
On a special note, my mini-reunion with my father’s family. Circumstances were such that I have not known him or them until adulthood, then I left the country. We communicated on occasion and I made a slightly clumsy but heartfelt and ultimately successful effort to bring them to the wedding, to much of my wife’s relief and pleasure. Meet my father, sister Elvira and brother Slava. You can see them making smooth moves with Macarena, and my daughter and I tried to catch up. More about them below.
We had to go back to the city for our unfinished paperwork torture. Seeing no progress there while counting the final days before the departure, we decided to quit that bureaucracy mill for the time being and make the most out of the remaining four days. The rented car was still ours so we hit the road again, back to Old Orhei where the photo session took place. We wanted to show one of the most beautiful places in the country to our girls, even if for a shorter time than planned.
Dubbed as the country’s most important historical site and a place of stark natural beauty, Old Orhei is the open-air complex includes ruins, fortifications, baths, caves and monasteries, ranging from the earliest days of the Dacian tribes more than 2,000 years ago through the Mongol and Tatar invasions of the early Middle Ages. The most impressive sight is arguably the Cave Monastery, built inside a cliff overlooking the gently meandering river. It was dug by Orthodox monks in the 13th century and remained inhabited until the 18th century. In 1996 a handful of monks returned to this secluded place of worship and are slowly restoring it. Further along the ridge is a church dedicated to the Ascension of St Mary, built in 1905 and currently under restoration.
After visiting the monastery and church, we had one important job left to do—plant our second willow tree on the bank of the Răut River. The sun has set by the time we found our “historical” spot. It took some effort to dig up a stone-like soil after weeks of dry weather. Filling up the hole was quite easier—all four of us gave hand and a kiss to the tree. The concluding ritualized picnic took place in the midst of a gentle cacophony of nighttime creatures under the bearing stars.
We spent that night in one of the nearby village’s authentic accommodations, Vila Roz. Our generous host Liuba gave us a warm welcome and treated us to a delicious homemade country-style breakfast. She was quite disappointed that we had to leave soon… I so wish we could just relax there on the lawn, surrounded by fragrant roses and flown over but dozens of swallows feeding their pups nested right under the roof of the houses. Alas, we had to get back to the paper city again but make another local stop to visit more caves (where I took one of my favorite images on the trip, mother leading her daughter into the unknown… so many potential titles here!), water our tree again, and, possibly the most anticipated event of that day—take advantage of the isolated countryside to let our girls learn to drive. Enjoy the fun videos!
Another memory tour for my daughter was done with my mom to the apartment building in the outskirts of the city where I lived until age 10. “Apartment” is an overstatement. It was a dormitory for the Agricultural Institute in the 70s and 80s. My single mother and I lived there in a small room on the 4th floor, sharing the bathroom and shower room with about 10 people from the adjacent three rooms, and a large kitchen with about 150 people from the floor. Some story to tell my daughter… But again, what would a boy care? I kept showing and telling Evelyn about places I roamed around there, trying to make her see me as a tiny tot climbing this fence over here, or playing tricks on the pedestrians over there. And of course, we visited one of the two legendary manholes where I fell into. The one she’s standing on now got renovated and covered. There used to be just a hole and one winter I was returning from school aged around 7 or 8 watching the huge flock of crows spanning the sky horizon to horizon until I hit the underground pipes, broke my eyeglasses, and got a bruise on my face. I got off lightly and was immediately pulled out by the passing students who saw me vanish. As for the second time, I fell in another manhole in a wooded area nearby while backing off away from a stray dog. It took much longer, shouting for help, to be pulled out but I again was unharmed.
One of the final heritage tours led us to a village where Evelyn’s great-grandparents from her mom’s side used to live, where her grandmother grew up, and where her mom used to come from Russia every summer during the school break. I invited her to another thrust of imagination to see her mom as a little girl in a dress and panama climbing those stairs and walking among the vegetable beds. It was Evelyn’s first time using a real well and tasting its water. We got to meet her grandmother’s brother and passed the gifts from NY. Evelyn picked a gift for me, a beautiful flower.
For another fun family activity we spent several hours at the equestrian club Sparta outside of the city. After the tour around the area, all four of us got their formal training against another dramatic evening sky as a backdrop. Finding a cat with kittens while waiting for a cab ride back to the city was an icing on the cake.
Of a special significance was our meeting my father’s side of family, his wife and children who are my half brother and sister. We met in different groups throughout the trip but at the end were given a heart-warming surprise party and a farewell dinner. I’ll omit the emotional prelusion to this reunion but want to thank my cordial and coaching wife for the key role in helping this happen.
And some random photos taken throughout the trip while walking around, dining out (get that cucumber lemonade!), visiting the Dendrarium park, the Museum of Natural History, and getting exhausted by end of a day.
The time came for my daughter and I leave for the US. Larisa and Lisa are yet to follow us here, so more paperwork to do…
As we sat in Kiev’s airport waiting for our connecting flight, Evelyn asked me what this porcelain holder reminded me of. Her answer was “two people hugging a tree”. This may be a purely coincidental notion but felt just right to me as a concluding accord of the trip and setting the tone for the next.
UPDATE 10/08/15: The beautiful work of Natalia Ciobanu is in and we thoroughly enjoy it! I want to add them here but want to do it the right way, along with a narrative. It would take time and being in the busiest season, I realize it may not happen until a quiet cold winter day while sipping tea. So for now, here’s a sneak preview from the sunrise session the day of the wedding: