An Apple for an Apple: An International Tale of Citizen Diplomacy

As the midnight train bound for St. Petersburg rumbled through the pitch-black Moldovan countryside, I tried valiantly to remain asleep, but my attempts were futile. The cabin was cozier than expected. We had plenty of room to stretch out and we were given care packages filled with comfortable bedding. However, the atmosphere was sweltering hot and unfamiliar. Romanian-Moldovan and Russian filled the air, and even though the train was nowhere near capacity, the cacophony of noise made it hard to drift into a deep slumber.

When the train again screeched to a halt, half-asleep, I heard the conductor usher a newly-arrived, Russian-speaking passenger toward our compartment.

‘Oh no,’ I realized. The bed I occupied was not the one assigned to me. For safety reasons, I’d opted for a lower bunk. I started to sit up, ready to move my belongings and myself up to my assigned, and somewhat scary perch.

The lighthearted conductor, who reminded us of a Russian-speaking Joe Pesci chuckled, and said something about “Amerikansky.” He held a flashlight in his hand. Since we couldn’t find a common language in which to speak, he reverted to one line that he knew in French.

Je m’appelle Jean,” he exclaimed, while giggling and also uttering “Amerikansky — Las Vegas!” I don’t think the conductor’s name was really John, and we’re not from Las Vegas, but the unrelated snippets of his words made the exchange comical.

More mumbling ensued, in Russian, and then the conductor and the new passenger emphatically said, “Okay” as the passenger opted to take another bed, so that I could stay where I was. I was grateful to this kind stranger for his thoughtfulness, but could only offer a simple thanks in Russian — спасибо (spasibo) — in return.

A moment later, the thoughtful man returned from his bed around the corner. He held two green apples in his hands. With a wide grin on his face, he assertively plopped them into my hands.

He was 2-for-2 in the random-act-of-kindness department. Now fully awake, but still lacking a common language in which to communicate, Shawn and I brainstormed.

Then we had an idea.

Two days before, in another act of citizen diplomacy, a Moldovan fruit grower and cold-storage manager named Ion Tulei had invited us to his expansive orchards near the town of Stefan Voda. For a few hours, we’d strolled the outdoor rows of apples, plums, and pears. We met some of the locals who were harvesting the fruit by hand, and toured the indoor cold-storage facility. We felt like Adam and Eve as Ion encouraged us to pluck the fruit right off the trees. We would be utterly stuffed by the time we left the 80-hectare orchard.

Among the tempting candidates of all shapes and hues, I saw one massive apple specimen hanging on a tree. Red, with a hint of green, it was probably the largest apple I’d ever seen. It looked to be the size of a grapefruit. It likely weighed 500 grams or more.

Ion asked us if we wanted more apples to take with us. “Yes, please,” we said. “We’ll happily take one or two.” Instead, he appeared from around the corner carrying a cardboard crate full of apples — 80 or more.

Since we were set to soon embark on another road trip, this time from Chisinau, Moldova to Lviv, Ukraine, we knew we’d only be able to enjoy 6 or so. Still, Ion was insistent.

“Actually, would you like a second crate of fruit?” Ion asked. We laughed and graciously declined.

Reluctantly, as we were preparing to depart Moldova, we ended up leaving the bulk of the beautiful apples with our new friends at the nearby Et Cetera Winery. They assured us that they would share them with their family or take them to a community orphanage. In our luggage, we managed to fit 6 apples, including the elephant apple.

When snacking on the apples as we traveled, I just couldn’t get myself to eat the mammoth one. I was treating it like a trophy. Or perhaps, I was awaiting the perfect picnicking moment at our next destination. On the night train however, we’d found the ideal recipient for the prized apple.

Mischievously, I grabbed the gargantuan specimen, turned the corner of the train to where the thoughtful Russian-speaking passenger was sitting, smiled, and assertively dropped it down into his hands. He erupted in laughter. We didn’t exchange a word, but it was just as if we’d both reached the punchline of an elaborate joke.

The random acts of kindness would prove to be contagious.

In the morning, we reluctantly bid farewell to Moldova, a country in which we’d created so many wonderful memories. As we approached the Ukrainian border, Moldovan and Ukrainian guards came on board to scan our passports. The Moldovan looked Shawn squarely in the eye, and said, “thank you” as he shook his hand. It was a touching gesture.

The spirit of citizen diplomacy would continue.

As our train rolled into Жмеринка (Zhmerynka), a city in central Ukraine, we disembarked, changing from a Moldovan green to a Ukrainian blue train car. We made the acquaintance of a new, friendly conductor. Seemingly on cue, Ukrainian passengers took on the role of citizen diplomats, enthusiastically waving at us through a neighboring train’s window so we could capture a photograph of them.

As our westward train pulled away, we waved do svidaniya to our friendly apple diplomat bound for Russia. And we wondered what other apple ambassadors might emerge, thanks to the remaining Moldovan apples.

Ion Tulei, the Moldovan grower who started off a chain of goodwill when he took the time to show us his orchards and cold-storage facility, and then surprised us with this carton of apples. One of the largest apples from his orchard would become an integral part of the story as we travelled from Moldova to Ukraine by train a few days after meeting Ion.
From apples of many varieties, to sweet plums and pears, we got to taste the fruit right from the trees.
Moldovan harvesters pick heaping crates of apples, and then prepare to head home after a day’s work.
On the right, the mammoth apple that was to embark on a long train journey.
An engineer enthusiastically waves and toots the train’s horn as he arrives into the train station in Chisinau, Moldova. Though we weren’t set to board the overnight train for a few hours, we stopped by to get a lay of the land beforehand.
The train station in Chisinau, Moldova.
The exterior of our Moldovan train. Patriotic curtains bearing the colors of the Moldovan flag (red, yellow, and blue) graced the windows.
An early-morning arrival at the Жмеринка (Zhmerynka) Train Station, a city in central Ukraine.
Riding through the Ukrainian countryside.
Relaxing in our train’s cabin with hot tea, and one of Ion’s magnificent Moldovan apples.
Shawn, feeling rather sleepy, following our overnight train ride from Moldova to Ukraine.
Passengers make us feel welcome as we prepare to board a Ukrainian train headed to the city of Lviv.

Planning Pointers:

  • We had our sights set on traveling from Moldova to the Ukrainian city of (Львів) Lviv by train, but trip-planning was not always straightforward. In the end, several Moldovans recommended that we travel from Moldova’s capital Chisinau, to the central Ukrainian city of Жмеринка (Zhmerynka). From there, we got on to a train bound for Lviv. The Chisinau-Zhmerynka leg took about 8 hours and the Zhmerynka-Lviv leg took about 6.
  • To view bus routes and schedules throughout Moldova, visit the following transportation website (in Romanian-Moldovan).
  • Need more inspiration? These links contain indexes of all my posts from Moldova and my posts from Ukraine.

Photography & text © Tricia A. Mitchell. All Rights Reserved.


Originally published at triciaannemitchell.com on December 7, 2014.

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