Playing the Moldovans at Tennis

ChisinauKircheSoborulAdormiriiMaiciDomnului2Orthodox church in Chișinău, Moldova (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)


So. Tell me what you know about Moldova, eh? Tucked between Romania and Ukraine, the former Soviet country of Moldova is the least-visited country in Europe.

I confess my interest in Moldova had been nonexistent. During a marathon phone call with one of my brothers, he tossed out a random recommendation. “I think you’d like Playing the Moldovans at Tennis,” he said. “It’s about an English guy who bets he can beat the entire Moldovan national football team one by one…playing tennis.”

Sure. Let me write down the title.

[Sidebar: I’ve long wanted to write about reading as an expression of love. If my sibling, or child, or in-law asks me to read a book, I say yes! Unless it is The Silmarillion, in which case I started; alas, I could not finish. I believe it is so valuable to have shared experiences; when you are long-distance, reading and discussing the same book bridges a gap. Reading a book a dear one loves can help you understand each other better. And spending the time to read what he/she recommends is an investment in the relationship.]

Warmth, I was learning, was a luxury commodity in Moldova.

It is quirky. The bet is so eccentric, a limp pretext for a trip to Moldova. But the travel bit is what I appreciated the most. Tony stays with a family, sees life from the inside. It is cold. It is drab. It is dispassionate. It is grim.

People came into this bar to abolish drinks. No passing of the time of day, not even a nod which acknowledged the presence of anyone else; simply a quick fix and then out again. Nurse, give me something to deaden the pain.

When he first visited in 1998 there wasn’t enough money to keep streetlights lit. So people walked the streets in the dark. Tony realizes that stuff he takes for granted in England—being warm and fed—are not givens in Moldova. The transition to independence was not easy. His host family is kind, warm, and helpful.

‘You have to remember,’ she’d said rather poetically, ‘that for more than half a century we have been like caged birds. Now the cage is open we don’t know how to fly.’

I would have enjoyed this book and would recommend it if the tone wasn’t so coarse (f-bombs, body humor, locker-room bawdiness). Tony made a full-length movie of the book, available on YouTube. I’ve only watched 20 minutes, but it might be worth a look.