Updates from Luke Grenfell-Shaw’s “Bristol2Beijing” expedition

Here are two articles from Luke Grenfell-Shaw’s time in Moldova as part of an intrepid journey cycling over 23,000km from Bristol to Beijing, via many of the countries which BEARR supports. He has been raising money for different charities and visiting some of BEARR’s grant recipients – past and present – along the way. Whilst in Moldova, Luke visited two 2019 grant recipients – The League of Polish Women in Chisinau and Women’s Initiatives in Tiraspol.

The following articles are abridged versions of the originals, which can be found at https://lukegrenfellshaw.com/bristol2beijing. To find out more about Luke’s expedition, follow “Bristol2Beijing” on Facebook or Instagram.  

A Question for the Traveller 

This first article discusses Luke’s visit to The Playback Theatre, a project developed by the League of Polish Women in Moldova to combat domestic violence when they were a BEARR Small Grant recipient in 2019.

Aside from asking your name, “what do you think of our country?” is perhaps the most common question a traveller faces.  

Moldova is frequently known as the poorest country in Europe – with a GDP per capita of $4,499 according to the World Bank, this measure places the Moldovans as marginally wealthier than the average citizen of Mongolia. Pass through villages and you will see teapot-shaped (but somewhat disappointingly spoutless) wells, often ribbed in blue and white, with an iron bucket poised to topple down and be retrieved by chain and pulley. The roads are occasionally smooth, though mostly resemble a cheese grater – rough enough for a vibrating ride, but generally without gaping potholes. Though not evident as I rolled through, I was told many toilets lay in outhouses, lying behind squat and concrete houses, themselves behind steel gates.  

Luke upon his arrival by tandem in Chisinau, Moldova

Chisinau is a different story – fairy lights twinkle in central upmarket cafes where a fine flat white can be sipped – cheaply by UK standards, but three times the price of a petrol station Americano. Restaurants can serve ribs, pizza and curry, though golubtsy (stuffed cabbage leaves) or placinta (crispy pastry swirls filled with cheese or cabbage) would be the traditional choice and just as tasty. Pints of Moldovan-brewed IPA, weissbier and bitter can be pulled. Here, between high-rise communist-era apartment blocks and a surprisingly low-slung and unimposing centre, the middle-class babies of globalisation are present. As are the cars – their abundance as surprising as the lack of cycle lanes; it is clear German car dealers do brisk business and probably attractive credit lines. 

However, to see Moldova through this prism will take you no further than preconceptions – if you had any. To answer the original questions you must Luke elsewhere.  

Where? For example, through a metal door in a nondescript apartment block off Dacia Boulevard on the outskirts of Chisinau… 

As per usual, I was lost. Not that I didn’t know where I was – in front of me was apartment block 6, the very place I needed to be. It was just that number six stretched for thirty metres in either direction and eight stories up. In one of these rooms, through one of the doors in front of me, was the Playback Theatre Group, set up by the League of Polish Women of Moldova.  I circumnavigated the apartment block once, twice, passing identical metal doors. As I rounded the end of the block one of these clone doors opened.  Tamara ushered me in, and after threading the tandem through the door and manoeuvring it around a sharp and narrow corner, in a manner analogous to camels and needles, I found myself inside.  

Growing up, and particularly as a teenage boy, I had what I saw as a healthy suspicion of showing emotions, still less the benefit of deliberately displaying them. Yet this is exactly what the Playback Theatre does. After working in groups to display various feelings, including vdokhnoveniye (“inspired”, if you’re wondering), the seasoned black-clad performers took the stage. I recounted an anecdote from that morning: my reluctance to plunge into the cold water of the Valea Morilor lake and then the excitement and invigoration that followed. To my surprise, when the emotions were played out in front of me by the four actors, I felt that invigoration once again, yet so much more strongly. It resonated in a way I hadn’t expected, plucking chords inside me which largely lay untouched. I was surprisingly moved by the experience. One mother told the group of her son stuck in Transnistria – the unrecognised statelet in the east, officially part of Moldova but with its own Russia-backed government, a relic and caricature of the Soviet era – whom she has not seen since Covid spiked in late February and the borders closed. Each actor became a human radio mast, transmitting frustration, anger, longing and hope to each person sitting in the room. I looked across at the mother. Tears slid down her cheeks.  

Playback is much more than theatre. As its motto attests “Acting, Healing, Uniting,” drama is only a small part of its purpose. I can only imagine the cathartic effect it has on those brave enough to recount their stories, and I can think of no environment safer or more supportive in which to do so.  

And so when asked to give my verdict on Moldova, as I bounced from endorphins and cold in the Valea Morilor park in Chisinau, what was my reply? 

Yes, Moldova has its problems. No, these are not small nor easily solvable. But I have met many, many beautiful people who care deeply about changing this country and its people and are putting their life’s work into achieving this. This is my take on Moldova: it could be an extraordinary country, but it already has extraordinary people.  

Sergey. Serghei. Vasilii. Natalia. Victoria. Jazgul. Christina. Elena. Ana. Dave. Tamara. Sasha. Jane.   

Zhenskiye Initiativii – Women’s Initiatives

In this article Luke touches upon his visit to Zhenskiye Initiativii (Women’s Initiatives) in Tiraspol. Women’s Initiatives were another 2019 BEARR grant recipient, using the funding for group and individual counselling for women suffering from domestic violence and their children. 

My time in Tirapsol was one I will, no doubt, look back upon with great fondness. Indeed, I already do. However, it was nothing if not full on. Within ten minutes of crossing the border and meeting Yulia, Vitya and Bogdan, the first two to my great surprise on a blue racing tandem, we passed under the gatehouse of the fortress in Bender, the first town one comes upon in Transnistria. As I exited into the bright, crisp air I was confronted with six cameras and a posse of journalists, their aim unerringly on me and Chris the tandem. To say I was surprised would be to miss the point – unbeknownst to me the tourism agency had plans for exactly what I would be doing at almost every minute during my time in Transnistria. 

Four media interviews followed in the span of 24 hours, the most bizarre including me sending a couple of postcards from the post office – clearly a matter of some pride, though my previous experience as a tourist had lent to me understand one sends postcards to report on tourist attractions, rather than being one itself. The use of prittstick to secure the stamp to the card was an unusual quirk in the process.  

My one day in Transnistria had been mapped out by Igor of the tourism board and featured a tour of the city, visiting a carbon bike builder and a surprise night cycle up to a soviet-era column overlooking the golden lights of Tiraspol and Bender. Everyone I met was welcoming and kind, and Igor had gone to great lengths to integrate me with Transnistria’s cycling community – these were just the experiences I would have sought out myself, though no doubt with less success, had I travelled independently.  

However, it had stymied my efforts to meet Natalia of the Zhenskiye Initiativii (Women’s Initiatives), which helps women who have faced domestic violence and trafficking. However, early on the morning of my departure, I ran over to her office, my bare legs attracting stares, and was welcomed through a nondescript iron door.  

In her office Natalia – whilst plying me with coffee and cakes, the green kettle chugging periodically in the background –  told me about the work she leads. Domestic violence – both physical and verbal – is relatively common in the region, partly a hangover from soviet times when it was assumed the man led the household. The centre gives women psychological and legal support, but also helps some women find work, a place to stay or a kindergarten.  

There is significant stigma attached to domestic abuse and one of the successes of the programme has been the increasing number of women participating. However, this year they were forced to adapt their way of working as Transnistria went into lockdown. They moved online and helped 230 women during this period; their meetings, with psychologist Gabrielle, were a “lifeline” for the women stuck indoors, often with children, and short on resources and sanity. 

Although trafficking and domestic abuse are technically illegal, there is little to stop it in practice Natalia tells me. Women’s Initiative have taken four cases to court, two of which have already led to successful convictions. But therein lies the problem, Natalia tells me. I must have looked confused. “Those men were given a $100 fine, and a three-year prison sentence”; she looks away for a second, “but they never went to prison, they’re still on the street”. A paltry fine and non-existent jail time – this is the justice system Natalia and her lawyer appear to be up against. And whilst they do see progress, it can be slow and painful to watch. Gabrielle tells me that a woman might be beaten eight times by their partner, and only on the ninth time leave – it was difficult for me understand this, and Gabrielle explains further: “there is a psychological dependency between victim and aggressor, and this can be extremely difficult to break.”  The team at Women’s Initiatives do not have an easy task on their hands, and one they approach with a fraction of the support that similar initiatives in the UK are given.  

“Why do you continue?” I ask, “surely it would be easier for you to work in a bank? Natalia looks back at me. “I do this because these women have almost no one to support them.” Gabrielle concurs and adds “I get great pleasure from seeing the impact my work has.”  

Women’s Initiatives may only have small team and a limited impact. They work alongside a couple of other related organisations and were tided over during the lockdown period by a grant from BEARR. However, they are making a difference, in the face of indifference, and their determination and passion suggests that this difference will gradually grow.  

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