Saturday, June 4, 2016

June Notes

Notes from a Small Country

(with continued apologies to Bill Bryson)

It’s been an eventful couple of months, my friends.  The year started off in a bit of an unusual manner, including some alone time over Christmas and a little travel to Italy and Germany.  Happily, the travel pattern continued off and on throughout the spring, and two rather major events punctuated a similarly eventful season.

Travels But Not Travails
It’s certainly proving to be much easier to visit some cool places from our little corner of Europe.  From the US, a long weekend in Europe would be downright crazy under most circumstances, but from here we can be in any number of countries in just a few hours, and for about $300 per person round-trip.  Totally makes it worth leaving on a Thursday after work if you can be in Vienna two-and-a-half hours later, which is exactly what my best friend and I did back in March for a long weekend.  Because, why not??

I try, really I do.  Most of the time it works out in my favor, but sometimes I’m not as good at being secretive as I would like.  My attempted ruse didn’t quite work out as I planned as we pulled up to the famous old Hotel Sacher, right in the center of Vienna; she knew all along that’s what I had done, even though she had no hard evidence of my plans.  But no matter.  I suppose nearly 30 years together will do that.

We spent our days walking the city, tiring ourselves out by window shopping along the beautiful, clean streets. We had three full days, and we packed in quite a lot, visiting the Imperial Treasury (home of the Habsburg crown jewels, among much else) and the beautiful palace and gardens at Schönbrunn, a short train ride outside the city.  Little hidden wine bars, an Australian pub serving Victoria Bitter, and nice Italian restaurants (and one dinner of an über delicious Weiner schnitzel as big as your head) characterized our evenings.  One cool, rainy day we hopped a train and visited Bratislava, Slovakia, because it was only about an hour away, and if you have a little extra time, why wouldn’t you add another country and city to the list?  Originally, we were going to take a boat ride on the Danube to Bratislava, but it was a few weeks too early in the season for that.  We enjoyed a damp, chilly walk through this nice little city on the Danube, had a light lunch and a wonderful coffee and tort, and then hit the rails back to Vienna on the afternoon train.  The fantastic and lush Hotel Sacher provided us with a really relaxing, and convenient, spot to rest our weary selves each afternoon after a busy day of touristing, and was a welcome place to return to each night as we prepared for another quiet, enjoyable day in this beautiful European capital.  I imagine it’s even more beautiful once everything is in bloom and the city turns green for the summer.  We’ll definitely be back.

Cultural Learnings of the Capitalists for Making Benefit the Glorious ATU of Gagauia
One April weekend, a small busload of us from the Embassy ventured out to visit the ever popular Autonomous Territorial Unit of Gagauzia, a couple hours south of Chisinau.  So what, exactly, is Gagauzia, you ask?  Well, odds are pretty high that the two of you have never heard of it before (although you probably hadn’t heard of Moldova before, either), but I’ve been told that, at just over 700 square miles, Gagauzia is one of the smallest autonomous governmental units in the world.  (Most certainly that clarifies things, right?)  It amounts to several small patches of land in south-central Moldova, and its inhabitants (the Gagauz people) are descendants of either Bulgars or Turks, or maybe both, it’s still not really that clear to me.  The major city and nominal capital is called Comrat (“black horse” in the Turkic language of most of the 150,000 or so people who live there), and outside of a few municipalities, it’s largely agricultural territory, like the rest of Moldova.  They grow a lot of wine there, which can’t be a bad thing.  J

They are autonomous since the Moldovan constitution guarantees them autonomy, meaning they control their own education system and local development, and if there is a conflict between Gagauzian and Moldovan law, they have the right of appeal to the Moldovan Supreme Court.  Likely most importantly, if Moldova were ever to attempt a reunification with Romania, the Gagauz people retain the right to self-determination.   Much of this was explained to us by very helpful attendants in the little museum we toured outside of Comrat, where we were most probably one of the only tour groups to visit in months.  They were very grateful we made the effort to stop by, or so our tour guide told us.  (Her word perhaps comes with a grain of salt, as she had earlier explained to us how wonderful life was for her as a young Communist in Moldova under not-yet-ordained Soviet Premier Leonid Brezhnev, Communist Party leader of Moldova in the early 50s.)  But I believe her; she is dating an Aussie bloke, after all.

Given that they retain their own local authority, within Gaguzuia lives the last remaining “kol-khoz” in the country.  A колхоз is a form of collective farm, a holdover from Soviet times, and in fact the word itself is a contraction of the words for “collective ownership.”  (The other major form of collective farm in the USSR was called a “совхоз / sov-khoz,” a contraction of “soviet ownership,” which were state-owned farms.)

We drove into Copceac, the small town where the main building and headquarters for the kolkhoz is located.  There we were greeted by the leader of the kolkhoz, who gave out the most firm handshake I’ve ever felt.  He was quite gregarious for an old/current Communist (he even has a portrait of Uncle Lenin in his office), and very helpfully described the benefits of life for the workers in the kolkhoz and their adaptations into a form of capitalism, selling their agricultural products on the world market (meaning, to Russia).   He held court for our group of American diplomats for about half-an-hour or so, even explaining how the collective has elections.  I might have been a bit distracted by the Lenin quote on the wall just over his head, or perhaps by the juxtaposition of the cheap print of the Last Supper on the wall opposite, so it’s quite possible I missed some critical details about the glorious life on the collective farm.

We were then treated to a very nice and quite bountiful lunch at the canteen where the actual farm workers are offered several meals each day, all homemade by the actual kolkhoz kitchen workers themselves.  It really was quite a feast, with soup, lamb, bread, plates of fresh vegetables and fruits, and of course juice and wine.  Perhaps a throwback to the halcyon days of the kolkhoz in Soviet times or maybe just a show for the Americans, either way it’s safe to say no one left hungry.

The Real Italian Dish
Sophie spent the last semester of her junior year suffering through four months in the small medieval town of Perugia, Italy, and as her devoted father I felt it my obligation to go there and provide moral support.  It was a tough job, but after all, that’s what fathers do. 

The long May Day weekend was spent with my girl trudging laboriously around the narrow, cobbled streets of the town, lugging the camera and a full stomach after several small, strong coffees and Italian croissants (called cornettos), finding the "Secret Bakery," and taking in the obligatory beautiful sights that of course one must see when in Italy. 

Awful tasting hand-tossed pizzas and bitter, sour house red wines for dinner in little hole-in-the-wall joints; walking the ancient aqueduct through the oldest part of town en route to the serene, beautiful, terribly boring Convento San Francesco del Monte which we essentially had to ourselves; taking in the historical record at the dusty old National Archeological Museum of Umbria; and being forced to “train it” to visit the even smaller medieval town of Assisi to see where St. Francis and St. Clare were born.  All of these things simply had to be done, and so that is precisely what we did.  It was a real hardship, let me tell you.

The Prague-idal Daughter
After Sophie and I parted ways at the Rome airport (and after a completely unexpected chance meeting with some friends who were in Haiti with us), I returned to Moldova to retrieve the retriever and, you know, work and stuff.  Sophie proceeded on to Prague where she spent a couple of days seeing some cool sights and meeting up with a buddy from Perugia, and then she popped on over to Budapest to meet up with Kate, who was in training there for the week.  They spent a very pleasant few days together seeing the sights and generally marauding around the old streets of Buda and Pest, enjoying some much needed mother-daughter time.  And then it was off to Moldova, which led to the first major event of the spring:  Sophie will spend the summer with us and RTWD, working as a summer intern in the Public Affairs Section at the Embassy.  It’s certainly nice to have her back, and ¾ of the Team in one country and under one roof for the summer is great progress, but of course that, too, will only last a few months.  I remain, however, very grateful for the time we do have together.

Dave and Nelson’s Nuclear Adventure Through the Red Window
While Kate and Sophie spent a few days wandering the streets of beautiful and vibrant European cities, my colleague and friend Nelson and I spent a day wandering the deserted and overgrown streets of the former town of Pripyat, in the shadow of reactor #4 of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in north-central Ukraine, about 60 miles from Kiev. 


We left the Embassy in Chisinau on a Friday afternoon, and drove directly to Kiev, crossing the narrow disputed territory of Transnistria (in and of itself a worthy accomplishment) and the Dniester River in the process.  Shortly after passing the border into Ukraine, we drove along a bumpy and pot-hole-filled highway, bypassing the small Ukrainian village called Красні Окни in Ukrainian (Красное Окно in Russian, or Red Window in English), perhaps a fitting name for our soon-to-be adventure back into the Soviet past, 30 years distant.

We spent Friday evening in Kiev, enjoying live music and Guinness on tap at an Irish pub, and then met near the railroad station at 0730 the next morning for the start of our Nuclear Adventure, a full-day tour into the Exclusion Zone, a 30 kilometer buffer around the nuclear power plant.

Two young, good humored, twenty-something English speaking guides led our tour.  The comfortable coach bus was filled with maybe 60 or 70 tourists from all over Europe.  Another Russian language coach departed at roughly the same time, and about an hour later we arrived at the Exclusion Zone checkpoint.  Ukrainian authorities (or someone, anyway) have created two zones, the 30 kilometer outer zone, which serves as a buffer around the more contaminated 10 kilometer zone, which directly surrounds the power plant itself, along with the now abandoned town of Pripyat, among much else of interest.

In April 1986, a systems safety test of an emergency core cooling feature was to be conducted at the power plant during a maintenance shutdown of reactor #4.  Because another power plant in the region had gone off-line earlier in the day, the start of the test was delayed, and would be in mid-performance when the night crew would be on.  Due to the delay, the night crew – which would have only needed to maintain the test already underway if it had started on time – now had to carry out elements of the test instead, and they had limited time to prepare themselves.  Around 130 am, a sudden surge in power caused the team to attempt a shutdown, however another, much larger surge occurred, ultimately leading to a catastrophic increase, which caused a chain reaction of steam explosions which further led to an explosion within the core of reactor #4.  Within seconds, the graphite moderator within the reactor was exposed to air, causing it to instantly ignite, and this fire sent radioactive materials high into the atmosphere, which later spread all across Europe on the wind.  It is possible, maybe even likely, that the graphite and remaining core materials still smolder today, three decades later.

Neither plant nor Soviet authorities notified residents of the town of Pripyat (a purpose-built town for the plant workers, and just a few miles away) of the explosion, so consequently many of the residents were exposed to extremely high levels of radiation.  Once the government acknowledged the scope of the problem (36 hours later, and internally within the USSR only), the entire town of nearly 50,000 was evacuated in a matter of hours.  In fact, the government hadn’t notified anyone outside the USSR of the accident, and it wasn’t until three days later, when Swedish nuclear plant workers discovered unexpected traces of the fallout on their clothes, that any kind of problem was understood to have occurred, and was then acknowledged by the Soviet government.

Operator error is often seen as a direct cause of the accident, but the reality, as is often the case, seems to be a bit more complex.  Mistakes were made, and may have contributed to the accident, but in the end the IAEA’s report from 1992 suggests design flaws in the type of reactor played a larger role than simply human error.  Nonetheless, the release of radiation was something like 400 times the levels released after the bombing of Hiroshima in 1945.

Radiation is measured in several different ways, one of which is in units called microsieverts, or one millionth of a sievert.  Evidently, exposure to one full sievert by the human body means a 5.5% risk of eventually developing cancer, and half of all people exposed to 5 sieverts will die within a week.  We are all exposed to radiation daily, as it is all around us.  80% of it comes in natural forms, including the sun, the air and the Earth itself.  Americans are exposed to about 3600 microsieverts per year, just by existing.  (3600 microsieverts is equal to 0.0036 full sieverts.)

Most of the radiation present in 1986 consisted of short-lived isotopes which decayed quickly after the accident, and while radiation certainly still exists in the region, we were exposed to 0.003 microsieverts during our several hours within the Exclusion Zone.  Of course, this was according to our young tour guides who presented us with nifty certificates at the end of the day with that statistic prominently displayed.  I’m not entirely confident they are as accurate in their assessment as, you know, real nuclear scientists might be, but I am the proud owner of a cool certificate, so that makes it all worth it.

We drove through the checkpoint and into the Exclusion Zone, proceeding to the small village of Chernobyl, still about 20 kms from the power plant.  This is still an inhabited village, albeit only in shifts for most everyone.  Aside from about 700 permanent residents, the other people who “live” there can only stay for short periods before they must cycle out.  These people are the workers who administer the Exclusion Zone (controlling access, patrolling the 2500 square kilometers, enforcing rules and laws regarding scavenging and looting, etc.), and others who are actively working on the power plant clean-up process and the construction of a waste disposal facility in the shadow of reactor #4.  Some of the workers building the new confinement dome over the reactor and the original sarcophagus can safely work no more than five hours per day, and then they must depart the Zone for fifteen days before they can return.

We visited several areas that day.  Our first stop was to a kindergarten outside the village of Chernobyl and the town center featuring a scary monument and an interesting memorial to the 96 abandoned villages in Ukraine.  Then we proceeded directly to the power plant site, stopping near reactor #4 and to see the new confinement dome and the remains of the plant itself, including the two additional reactors which were under construction at the time of the disaster but never completed, and the canteen in the shadow of reactor #4 where we were served an “ecologically friendly” lunch.  The abandoned town of Pripyat followed, which was probably a highlight for everyone.  The police station headquarters, a school, a grocery store and the amusement park were our stops.  After 30 years of neglect, each was of course being reclaimed by nature and had suffered quite a bit of random destruction and removal of what was left behind.  In many cases, the intense cleanup effort after the disaster caused a lot of the internal damage, but looters, vandals and tourists have added their two cents over the decades, creating a very otherworldly and spooky environment.

Our final stop before departing the Zone altogether was at a previously secret Soviet military site located within the 30 km zone in a “town” called Chernobyl-2, which had the not-so-unique quality of having appeared on Soviet maps as a summer camp for kids (so sayeth our young guides).  In reality, it was the site of an over-the-horizon radar installation used as part of the anti-ballistic missile early warning network, of course designed to detect incoming nukes from the US.

It’s called “Duga-1” (Дуга-1), which means arc or curve.  It was also evacuated after the power plant disaster, yet like the power plant itself continued operating for several years after until it was finally abandoned.  This thing is massive, more than 100 meters high and almost 400 meters long, yet is nearly invisible from the road into the village of Chernobyl due to sitting low in a slight bowl and being surrounded by pine forest planted strategically to keep away prying eyes of the locals.  A small town/village was built around it to house the soldiers and their families and support staff, all of which has been abandoned.  When in operation (from the mid-70s until it was shuttered in December 1989), it broadcast on shortwave radio bands and produced a sharp “tap-tap-tap” sound, earning it the nickname “the Russian Woodpecker.”

We wandered around the base of this enormous structure, posing for the requisite selfies, wondering about Cold War and its impact on so many millions and how it has led us to where we are now.  Well, at least I wondered about these things, although perhaps I was just muttering to myself, I can’t be quite sure.

Anyway, we hopped back on the bus to Kiev, arriving late in the evening in a downpour, which luckily had avoided us during the day.  Had a late, huge steak and a few whiskies at a nice spot not far from our rental apartment, and recounted our day.  It was quite a thing, it was.

The next day we wandered along the main drag in Kiev, found a nice spot for a late breakfast, and stopped by to see Rodina-Mat (
Родина-мать, literally the ‘motherland mother’ or ‘homeland mother’ but referred to as the Motherland Monument).  It was May 9th after all, and around the old Soviet empire this day is commemorated as Victory Day, marking the end of the Great Patriotic War.  She’s quite something, standing over 200 feet tall and with a museum to World War II in her pedestal.  There was a ceremony about to be held on the lower level honoring women heroes, so it was closed to hoi polloi such as us.  We walked around the grounds a bit, weaving in and out of the crowds, snapping a few photos and taking in the scene, and then hit the road back toward the Moldova.

But then we hit the border back into Transnistria.  May 9 is not only Victory Day, but this year it was also Memorial or Parents Day.  Moldovans either visit their parents, or their graves in memory of them.  Either way, and especially near the border, many Moldovans have parents still in Ukraine.  And this day, every single one of them was lined up at the border with Transnistria in order to return to Moldova.  Seriously, there had to have been 200 cars lined up, and it was obvious that many had been there for a long time.  Like hours.  People were out talking in groups alongside the road, and some were sitting along the tree line on blankets picnicking.  I think I even saw people setting up a dining table, complete with candlesticks and tablecloths. Clearly the border crossing was hours away.

As diplomats, however, we have a neat little thing called “CD plates.”  The license plates of accredited diplomats all start with the letters CD (Corps Diplomatique, from French), and allows the drivers certain, um, privileges.  Happily for Nelson and I, one of those benefits includes the ability to jump to the head of the line at the border, and so we creeped slowly past all the people setting up camp – and staring at us quite intently – along the road toward the crossing.  I believe the news reported recently that some of them are still there…

The CCC (Co-CLO Coordinator)
The other major event of the spring, besides Sophie’s arrival, was that Kate started work again at the Embassy.  She arrived at Post in October and was offered the job that same month, but the security clearance process being the way it is, she didn’t start until four or five months later.  (Sophie finds herself in a somewhat similar situation at the moment, unfortunately.)  But start she did, and is now working half-time in the Community Liaison Office with a job-share partner and an assistant.  Her job is critical to the Mission, for the CLO is responsible for providing important support services to the Embassy community.  She is an education, community and employment liaison, and provides guidance and referral services as well as crisis management and support services.  In addition, the CLO is one of the very first points of contact for newly assigned or arriving employees and families, and is charged with building community spirit and enhancing morale at Post.  In other words, she gets to know everyone (local and American staff alike) pretty well, and is a strong advocate for employees and family members, advises Post management on quality of life issues, and recommends solutions and family-friendly Post policies.  She’s kind of a big deal. J

She’s a very welcome addition to Post, and without a doubt one of the most popular members of the community.  Of course it certainly doesn’t hurt when she brings in warm cinnamon rolls or various other treats to share with everyone, but I can’t be sure.  However, after sending that warm-cinnamon-roll-email, there is a line at her office door almost as long as the one at the Transnistrian border, so I think that is a pretty strong, clear statement.

Спасибо за ваша время!  Thanks for your time!
Well, if you made it this far, you’ve gone and wasted another perfectly good half-hour again.  Much appreciated!

Sophie has been at Post about a month already, has made some friends and hopefully will start her job soon before heading back for her senior year (!!!!) at Gustavus in the fall.  She’s thinking she might go to grad school, look for fellowships or internships after graduating, or maybe she’ll just follow us around the world as we continue on this crazy journey, which would be quite alright with her old dad.  (That last one might actually just be my idea.)

Tommy recently arrived in Pensacola, FL for his next stage of training in the Navy, where he’s studying CTM (cryptologic technician – maintenance), and where he’ll be for at least the next few months.  He flew back to Minnesota for a week back in May, theoretically to pick up one of the cars for the trip down south, but he may have had an ulterior motive (conveniently named Jenna) for that little break before the long drive toward his next stage in training.

Our NSA-like doggie continues his data collection around the neighborhood, and is generally enjoying his nice big yard and the kindness of various old ladies and children, who are the most likely to shower him with their attention as we ever-so-slowly walk the streets.  (Men tend to avoid him for whatever reason.)

As you can tell, spring has been filled with some interesting travel opportunities and adventures, which we hope to continue throughout our time here.  Lots of other interesting places not far away from here, and if you decide to join us in the area, I would recommend avoiding Air Moldova if at all possible.  Safe, sure, but on time?  That’s an open question.  But I’ll leave that for another day.

And speaking of another day, tune in then for more tantalizing tales about handshakes and air-kisses, talkin’ Turkey, being patiently impatient, winning the lottery, an American in Nettuno, and why the breeze might very well kill you in Moldova.  In addition, perhaps there’ll be a full explanation of this photo:

Thank you again, my friends, for humoring me once more.  Life for us is good, and we hope you can say the same.

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Additional photos can be found at:

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The opinions expressed above are my own and not those of the U.S. Government. Please do not disseminate widely without permission.

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