Moldova: Have the fortitude to stay a while and this place really will grow on you

Sometimes you just have to take a bet. Two years ago, following a futile argument about my tennis-playing talents while watching England play Moldova at football on TV, I took on a bet that I would be able to track down the 11 members of the Moldovan team we had just watched, get them to agree to play me at tennis, and then beat them. It was agreed that the loser of the bet would have to strip naked in Balham High Road and sing the Moldovan national anthem.

Sometimes you just have to take a bet. Two years ago, following a futile argument about my tennis-playing talents while watching England play Moldova at football on TV, I took on a bet that I would be able to track down the 11 members of the Moldovan team we had just watched, get them to agree to play me at tennis, and then beat them. It was agreed that the loser of the bet would have to strip naked in Balham High Road and sing the Moldovan national anthem.

So it was that I found myself checking in for the Air Moldova direct flight to Chisinau, capital of this small land-locked country sandwiched between Romania and Ukraine, which does not even benefit from a page or two in the Lonely Planet guide to Eastern Europe. I was pretty damn ignorant about what would be awaiting me at the other end.

By the time I'd arrived and negotiated a ride with a grumpy taxi driver, darkness had fallen, so I couldn't see much as we bounced our way along uneven roads to my hotel, but to my right I could make out some shabby-looking high-rise blocks of flats. Come to think of it, that was pretty much the view on the left as well. Finally, we arrived my hotel that was situated alongside further ranges of shabby-looking high-rise blocks of flats. How should I describe it? Well, it was shabby-looking, tall and closely resembled... a block of flats.

The hotel reception was huge, empty, dimly lit and Spartan. The owners of this place were strangers to the world of interiors. Flaking paint covered the walls on which an occasional faded drab painting hung apologetically. Grey linoleum scarred by decades of discarded cigarette butts spread itself over the wantonly ample floor space. The words "Mmmm, this is nice," were an awfully long way from the tip of my tongue, and I certainly didn't know them in either Romanian or Russian, the two languages spoken here.

After a long struggle checking in with an unhelpful receptionist, I lumbered up to my room and let myself in. Until that moment I had no idea what prison life might be like, but suddenly I had a vivid glimpse of incarceration in a cell. I slumped onto the bed, a little shocked. My first impressions of this country had left me some way short of relishing the days ahead.

In the coming weeks, I was to learn that life is tough in the little-known East European state of Moldova. Yet, against the odds, I slowly grew to like it. I liked the capital, Chisinau. Much of it was destroyed in the Second World War and, as a consequence, I found it a city with a muddled and eclectic architecture. Charming 19th-century two-storey buildings adorned with ornate porticos were flanked by 1960s box-like structures, and many new buildings were under construction, a sure sign that western companies were moving in to exploit a new market.

The area of "old Chisinau" had a pleasant feel with tree-lined roads, free of traffic jams. How long before these streets would be grid-locked, I wondered? In the new capitalist system which this fledgling country was now openly embracing, owning a car was surely going to be the way citizens would announce to the rest of society that you were doing all right.

The hub of life in the capital centres around a main street called Boulevard Stefan cel Mare. At one end stand all the government buildings, at the other is the main shopping area. The people go about their business looking uncompromisingly stern, and the atmosphere, though not hostile, is hardly one of geniality. A privileged few sit outside cafés sipping coffee and basking in the winter sun, but laughter and frivolity are not the order of the day. I guessed that the years spent living under an oppressive regime kept afloat by secret police and informers had left the population favouring a cautious approach to any public display of emotion. Deadpan is big here. Talk without frills.

The nightlife isn't too jolly either. One evening I chose a simple bar in which to sit and ruminate on the complexity of the task which I'd managed to set myself. The bar was grim and stark, and initially I was its sole drinker until an old man ambled in. There was a short exchange at the bar and a vodka was poured. He took hold of the glass, threw the drink down his neck, turned around and walked straight out of the bar again. The whole transaction had taken no more than 30 seconds.

Other imbibers followed at regular intervals. The fastest time was set by a big bloke in a leather jacket who managed to order, down his drink, and be out of the bar in 17 seconds flat. I had been there 15 minutes and was still only half way through my beer. No wonder I was getting funny looks from the barmaid. This was not a place for social drinking, more a bar in which you ingested alchohol. Nurse, give me something to dampen the pain.

I don't want to make it sound like Moldova is a terrible place. It isn't. The people are friendly and warm once you get past their initial reticence, but there is no denying that the place has little to offer the regular tourist. I made one trip by bus to the northern town of Soroca and I was able to note the country's impressive list of shortcomings. It has no mountains, no coastline, no efficient transport, no quaint little villages, no night-life and no streetlights. It has occasional gentle rolling hills which are pleasant enough, but mostly what I saw from the bus were flat expanses of dull brown farmland. Villages were set back from the road, their names emblazoned in garish blue and yellow on large columns by the roadside.

From time to time the bus would pull out to overtake a farmer riding in a horse and cart, untouched by new technology. Then we would splutter to a halt at a bus-stop to exchange one set of life-weary passengers for another. No-one needed to tell you that village life was hard. The faces said it all. No plumbing, no hot water and in many cases no electricity. Bearable in the summer maybe, but during the Moldovan winter? No thanks.

My translator Iulian told me that the people here were worse off now than they were under Communism. When I asked how that could be, he replied: "Under the old system everyone could have what they needed but there was no choice. Under the new system, everything is available but no-one can afford it."

I thought of my friend Arthur back in comfortable, centrally heated London sipping on his pint in a jovial pub atmosphere, and I wondered for a moment if I'd lost my mind in accepting this bet. Little did I know that the next few weeks were going to enrich my life and provide me with some unexpected feelings of warmth. You shouldn't judge a book by its cover or, in the case of Moldova, by the first chapter. If you have the fortitude to get beyond that point you may just sense the distant prospect of a happy ending.

'Playing the Moldovans at Tennis' by Tony Hawks is published by Ebury Press (£6.99).

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