An account of a conference in Chisinau, Moldova, September 2003.

BREAKFAST IN THE INTOURIST HOTEL was arbitrary. You got what you were given. Sometimes two eggs, sometimes four, sometimes none at all – it depended on what they had. The same went for coffee and bread. This is not a complaint about breakfast, but a comment on the uncertainty that Moldovans live with every day and on every level. Food supplies, wages, petrol, phone connections, electricity – all these come and go. And if you live on the fourteenth floor of a Russian-built high rise, there’s nothing abstract about the experience.

When Moldova (formerly Bessarabia) was ceded to the USSR at the end of the Second World War, the process of Sovietisation began. A million Moldovans were ‘disappeared’ or sent to labour camps, Russian became the official language, the Moldovan script was changed from Latin to Cyrillic, Russian bureaucrats and their families were brought in. One third of the population is now Russian and there are also Jewish and Turkish minorities. After independence a democratic Moldovan Government was elected, but the economic deterioration was so devastating that the next election saw the return of a pro-Russian Communist government. Better a few crumbs than no crumbs at all. In fact the economy – what there is of it – is now largely Mafia-run. The average wage is €10 a month, poverty is endemic, the country survives on emigration – legal and illegal – and on what those emigrants send home.

After breakfast we set off with Dan Mihailescu, the Bucharest-based writer, in search of the National Museum, the conference venue, but got hopelessly lost. No matter, Chisinau’s centre is a pleasant place to walk, you just have to watch where you put your feet as the pavements are more broken than Belfast’s were in the Seventies. There are few cars so the air is clean, there are trees everywhere, and such low-rise buildings as survived the war are dilapidated but graceful. It is a different story after dark. The absence of streetlights makes the city too dangerous to move about in. Respectable citizens stay home and bolt their doors.

We did eventually find the National Museum, an imposing 1 9th-century building, set back in a park. The conference itself took place in an echoing ground-floor gallery: wide staircases, marble columns, long expanses of tiled floors. There appeared to be little in the way of artefacts, but we didn’t penetrate the upper galleries. About forty people sat in a square, with onlookers coming and going. The conference was run by the leading Moldovan literary magazine, Sud Est (that there were literary magazines at all in a society as close to the edge as Moldova amazed me), and sponsored by the Soros Foundation, the creation of the Hungarian, George Soros, now living in America. Between them, Mr Soros and our own Department of Foreign Affairs had paid our fares.

We had a personal translator – a theatre administrator called Zena Plamadeala, who spoke beautiful and near-perfect English. There were Moldovans, Romanians, us, but no Russians.

What did we talk about? The usual stuff-dumbing down, homogenisation, the erosion of minority languages. But there was an edge to it. To understand the dynamic of discussing globalisation in Chisinau you have to imagine how it would feel to us if we were not part of the EU; did not speak English (now rapidly becoming the new Latin of the changed world order); and existed – as we once did – on the money that emigrants scraped together to send back home. A little threatening? Add to this the fact that the Moldovan identity and culture has already been decimated by more than half a century’s inclusion in the Soviet Union.

A Romanian academic – denim-dressed, fluent in English, well-travelled – told the Moldovans that globalisation was not a choice, it was already here to stay and they should embrace it. Another Romanian, a television personality who had just bought his first car, felt the same.

‘It is true, it is here, but how can we survive when we have no protection, no umbrella?’ – this from a passionate voice across the table. Someone passed him an umbrella. Everyone laughed but the laughter was black. Another delegate, his voice quivering, said he’d just heard that his niece’s young husband, a migrant worker, had been killed in a crash on a German autobahn. The minibus in which he was travelling was full of Moldovans – all illegals – all trying to penetrate fortress Europe, the Promised Land.

Day two. More speeches. My husband, Sean, gave a paper in which he was cautious but optimistic. I told them about our experience of language, both Irish and English, the near extinction of Irish, its gradual revival. We broke for lunch and someone came up to me and told me about her children’s determination to learn English. ‘They tell me you cannot eat language,’ she said sorrowfully.

We were winding down, nearing the end, so Zina and I gave up on translating and listening and she told me a little about herself. Yes, life was easier in the theatre under the Soviets. There were proper wages, guaranteed audiences and funding, you knew where you were as long as you stayed just within the boundaries. Now everyone works for almost nothing, they tour but people cannot afford to pay for tickets, they perform in unheated theatres because there’s no money to pay the bills. In the old days she travelled widely inside the Soviet Union but she wasn’t allowed to go to the West. Now she can go where she likes but she hasn’t the money to cross a single border and there are no more international tours. But no, she isn’t sorry, she believes that somehow it will all be worth it, and no again, she doesn’t want to leave Moldova, she wants to stay and help rebuild the country that she loves