The Good Life Elsewhere

The Good Life Elsewhere is a very funny book. It is also a very sad one. Moldovan writer Vladimir Lorchenkov tells the story of a group of villagers and their tragicomic efforts, against all odds and at any cost, to emigrate from Europe’s most impoverished nation to Italy for work. This is a book with wild imagination and heartbreaking honesty, grim appraisals alongside optimistic commentary about the nature of human striving. In Lorchenkov’s uproarious tale, an Orthodox priest is deserted by his wife for an art-dealing atheist; a rookie curling team makes it to an international competition; a mechanic redesigns his tractor for travel by air and sea; thousands of villagers take to the road on a modern-day religious crusade to make it to the promised land of Italy; meanwhile, politicians remain politicians. Like many great satirists from Voltaire to Gogol to Vonnegut, Lorchenkov makes use of the grotesque to both horrify us and help us laugh. It is not often that stories from forgotten countries such as Moldova reach us in the English-speaking world. A country where 25 percent of its population works abroad, where remittances make up nearly 40 percent of the GDP, where alcohol consumption per capita is the highest in the world, and which has the lowest per capita income in all of Europe – this is a country that surely has its problems. But, as Lorchenkov vividly shows, it’s a country whose residents don’t easily give up.

Excerpt from The Good Life Elsewhere

 

 

Chapter One

October 1993

“Here you are! Italy, our Italy.”

Serafim Botezatu narrowed his eyes and blinked, but the city spreading out beneath him in the valleys between the hills didn’t disappear. Buildings of white stone were just as blinding as the joy Serafim and his forty-five fellow travelers—Moldovans all—were feeling. They were standing in a little grove on a hill beside the capital of capitals, Rome herself, and none of them could believe what was happening. Finally, they’d made it to Italy. Finally, life had become clear and simple. Just like it used to be, like it was in their childhoods. They’d left behind Larga, their village in Moldova. They’d left behind the poverty, the Moldovan devastation, the repellent earth that, no matter which way you worked it, when you planted corn you reaped just the husks. In front of them was Rome. Which meant, in front of them was breezy work in construction ort he like [something’s wrong here]. In comparison to toiling on the land, what wasn’t a breeze? And for the women, there was work cleaning house for wealthy Italians – to whom, with a bit of luck, they might even end up getting hitched.

Serafim looked around at his fellow travelers. He was nearly guilty of the sin of pride. After all, it was thanks to him they’d been able to extract themselves from the swamp at the end of a small and dirty river, where they’d been dumped by the runners smuggling them into Italy.

“That’s it. We go no further. It’s too dangerous,” said the driver, a dark-haired youth with a painful resemblance to a gypsy, which didn’t sit well with the Largans.

“But if you throw in an extra ten euros a nose, I’ll take you to the doorstep of the Roman buildings.”

The Largans refused. Over the course of the four days they’d been en route, the driver had taken an extra sixty euros from each of them, on top of the four thousand euros they’d all paid for the trip and the promise of a job upon arrival. There was ten for lodging, twenty each for grub, and thirty euros to bribe the Slovak policeman.

“We’ll go the rest of the road ourselves,” the group decided, especially since they had Serafim. Everyone in Larga knew that Serafim Botezatu had had a painful love affair with Italy for a long time. As a ten-year-old boy he’d found a photo book called Views of Rome in the half-ruined library, and since then he was lost to the world. He’d tracked down a textbook somewhere in the district center to teach himself Italian and read everything in any way connected with Italy, the country of his dreams. Back then, in the eighties, this wasn’t smiled upon. But did anybody know in those days that in twenty years’ time, tens of thousands of Moldovans would make their way to Italy to work? And that Serafim, whom everybody had laughed at—from the village shepherds and their helpers to the chairman of the collective farm—would become an authority in Larga?

Serafim labored over Italian for twenty years, made do with bread and water and waited and waited for fate to deliver him to Rome. And here he was, a stone’s throw away from the city of his dreams: all atremble, he was even a bit sad it was all happening so quickly.

“Twenty years,” mumbled Serafim wistfully. “Twenty whole years…”

The villagers waited respectfully. The only one who knew Italian, and the one they hung all their hopes on, was Serafim. Him, and him alone.

He was listening to the lapping of the water.

“This – is a river. Rome’s not far away. In Rome there’s only one river, and it’s called the Tiber. It follows, we’re standing on the banks of the Tiber!” he declared.

The people silently followed his conclusions, amazed at the broad span of his mind. Serafim, recalling with perfect lucidity how Rome looked in pictures in Echo of the Planet, a magazine he’d subscribed to back when there still was such a thing as USSR-wide subscriptions, led the people farther from the water, into a grove. They were waiting for the morning. Meanwhile, the sun hadn’t yet lifted its veil from Rome to show them the city, that sleeping beauty, in her full glory. Rapture shone on all their faces, but their reasons were different. Serafim, for example, was already savoring his visits to the museums and theaters, and his sublime walks through the crooked streets of Rome. The others looked at Rome from a strictly practical point of view, as a place where Lady Luck would finally flash them a smile. They’d find work. Of course, Serafim would have to work, too: he needed to pay back the four thousand euros he’d gone to such great pains to collect. But that was of secondary concern… One way or another, they all had the same goal: Rome!

“Take a look at the city,” said Serafim anxiously. “This city was built upon hills. A majestic picture! True, I don’t see the Coliseum, and Saint Peter’s Basilica hasn’t come into view yet, but the city is so great that, after all, you can’t see everything at once!”

The citizens of Larga, a village three kilometers long and four across, inhaled with delight.

“Serafim,” Rodika Kretsu, one of the group, spoke up timidly, “when can we start down for the city? I’m dying to take a bath, change my clothes and have a nap. On a bed, not the damp ground.”

The people began to whisper approvingly, like autumn leaves in a grove. For four whole days the bus carrying the villagers had traveled only at night, though they bore official documents listing them as two curling teams and two underwater swim teams. By day, the driver pulled off into the bushes at the side of the road and camouflaged the vehicle with shrubbery. He especially forbade the villagers from making noise or stepping out of the bus. For four days, as Serafim colorfully put it, they’d lived through another Turkish Yoke. Many of them even complained they’d shrunk in size. But the driver was intractable and strict.

“Whoever doesn’t want to go to Italy can clear right out of this bus,” he shouted at the unhappy cargo.

Everybody wanted to go to Italy, so for four days they waited patiently. And to remain in place now, if they were just a kilometer from their sacred goal, was something they didn’t have the strength for. Serafim understood them; he didn’t have the strength, either. The entire insufferable bus ride, he hadn’t had the chance to see a single Italian city by daylight. Everything was done at night. Once in a while, a cop would pull the bus over and Serafim, hidden inside a blanket and with a sinking heart, peered through a small window and watched the driver negotiate for the right to keep going. Then the driver would come running into the back of the bus, announce in a sinister whisper the amount of the bribe each of them would have to pay, take the money and bound back onto the road, like a bat out of hell. Nobody was sorry for the money. They would’ve gladly paid in blood. For the villagers, once they reached Italy, their past sins would be redeemed and they’d gain possession of a new life. What difference did it make how much money they left behind in the past, when there were fat paychecks of seven hundred, nine hundred euros a month in the future? If somebody had told them to commit suicide and Italy would be waiting for them in the afterlife, they would have done it. In this respect, noticed the erudite Serafim, they were like the residents of Europe awaiting the Apocalypse in the year 1000.

“People were ready for anything,” Serafim whispered with sorrow. “They turned into wild animals, lost all hope…”

But he understood: it wasn’t the Largan’s fault. Everyone had grown painfully weary of life in Moldova today. But Moldovans have never been a people capable of revolt. There was only one option left: to run. When representatives of a tourism agency showed up in Larga, everybody got excited. The firm, it was rumored, sent people to Italy. Father Paisii, the fine-looking priest who served two competing confessions—the Metropolitan Church of Moldova and the Metropolitan Church of Bessarabia——read a prayer of gratitude for the occasion in the ramshackle village church. He was even planning on a Cross Procession, but the weather hadn’t allowed for it. A cold hail cut down the remnants of the late harvest, and, turning gradually into freezing rain, made the roads soupier than purée.

“We’ll make do without the Procession, Father,” enjoined the representatives of the tourism agency. After suffering through a prayer in their honor, they began the meeting in the village clubhouse.

“Who wants to work in Italy?”

Five hundred and twenty three people lived in Larga. Five hundred and twenty three hands went up in the air. Every adult present, in an effort to get noticed, put up both hands. The odd number was on account of the one-armed war veteran, the watchman Sergei Mokanu.

“We’ve no strength left!” said Postolaki, the former chairman, putting his hand over his heart. “We plow like the devil. From morning to night we crawl like worms and still, we don’t have two coins to rub together. A year goes by, we don’t see any money. Well, that’s not true. Yesterday I saw fifty thousand lei – on the TV show Lotto-Bingo. But nothing in real life. We’re sick and tired of this place. How do we get out? What do we have to do? Show us what’s what!”

The wheeler-dealers chuckled good-naturedly, clasped their hands together and began to show the villagers what was what. First of all, they explained, a trip to Italy is not one of life’s cheaper pleasures. It would cost four thousand euros…

After the town medical attendant served valerian tea to calm the nerves of the seven people who fell ill following the announcement of the sum, the slave traders continued. According to them, not everybody could leave at once. Three thousand people from all across Moldova were already signed up, and that would be a crowd. They suggested transporting the villagers in small groups, as they came up with the means. Where to find those means was up to the villagers. They could take out loans or sell their land. It was every man for himself, however he could manage it.

“But if I were in your shoes,” said the man in the suit, “I wouldn’t be afraid and I wouldn’t be sorry. What the hell do you need Moldova for, if you’re already practically in Italy?”

“And what if things start improving here as soon as we get there?” came a voice from the audience.

“Well, what if?” countered the wheeler-dealer. “Stay in Moldova and wait for the European Union – Moldova Cooperation Plan to be implemented. Wait for the tenfold increase in the living standard your president’s been talking about for six years now…”

After the villagers had a laugh and gave the speaker an ovation, he concluded his speech. They weren’t going to let Moldovans into the West just like that. They’d have to travel disguised as sports team. For a start, the first group of forty or fifty people would be divided into four teams. Two curling teams, and two underwater swim teams. Nobody was really going to have to swim or stand around on the ice, of course. The main thing was to get the proper papers.

And the papers materialized. Forty-five underwater swimmers and curlers from the village of Larga, plus Serafim Botezatu, who’d been dreaming of Italy his entire life, were about to see their dreams come true.

Serafim felt like a worm who’s just found an apple. The sun rose higher over Rome, once again blinding Serafim’s rejoicing soul. He began quietly descending the hill without bothering to look around. He was sure the entire group was following. In his mind, Serafim carefully repeated the phrase he was going to say to the first Italian who crossed his path. After that, he’d ask for directions to a church. He knew that in Italian churches, they often fed the Moldovans and gave them work. Serafim reached the bottom of the hill and turned onto a paved road. It wasn’t of the best quality, of course, but really, isn’t that always the case in industrial areas? In front of him loomed the spine of a workman who, apparently deciding not to wait for a bus, had started walking.

“Buongiorno,” muttered Serafim, in relatively passable Italian. “Respected Citizen of Italy, descendant of the Roman Caesars and the courageous Bersaglieri, buongiorno! I am glad to greet you on behalf of the fraternal Moldovan people. Would you mind telling me where the nearest church is, and please, don’t inform the police on us! I offer you my gratitude! A million compliments!”

Serafim could physically feel the respect of his fellow villagers behind him. The workman looked around and picked up his step. “I’ve scared him, I’m sure,” thought Serafim. He understood how the situation might look dubious: a lone Roman, being pursued by a throng of dirty-chinned, stinking, wrinkled Moldovans. A scary sight! Serafim started running and caught up with the Italian. He grabbed him by the arm and shouted:

“Respected Citizen of Italy, descendant of the Roman Caesars and the courageous Bersaglieri, buongiorno! Don’t be frightened! I am glad to greet you on behalf of the fraternal Moldovan people!”

The terrified Roman glanced at the Moldovans gathered around him and silently tried to tear himself away. Serafim smiled as wide as he could and attempted to explain one more time.

“Listen, heir of the Roman Caesars and the courageous Bersaglieri. I am a representative of the fraternal Moldovan people. We’ve come to you, to Italy, to perform the crummy jobs you Italians don’t want. We’re not your enemies. I am glad to greet you. Tell me, where’s the church here?”

The Italian took his hand back with a frown and wiped it off. Slowly his eyes became clear, intelligent. He tried explaining something to them with gestures.

“What’s going on, Serafim?” asked Chairman Postolaki, smiling widely so as not to the scare the Italian. “What, your Italian’s no good?”

“It should be alright,” said Serafim, guiltily acquitting himself. “But I can’t make any guarantees. Practice makes perfect, but I’ve had nobody to speak it with.”

“Oh, don’t start with your ‘perfect’ business,” said Postolaki threateningly. Even when angry, he couldn’t let a chance slip by to make a pun: “Practice didn’t even make you imperfect!”

The foreigner, who’d been observing the squabble with a surprised look on his face, spoke up.

“What, you’re Moldovans? You should have just said so. What are you messing with my head for? What is this, Candid Camera?”

“So you’re from Moldova, too?” said Postolaki, overjoyed. “It’s great to meet a countryman!”

“Yeah,” said the countryman, exhibiting no signs of joy. “It’s not such a rarity in these parts…”

“Well,” said Postolaki, putting his hand on the other fellow’s shoulder. “Show us around! Where’s the closest church?”

“What for?” asked the man, dumbfounded.

“What do you mean, What for? Work and food. Listen, don’t you worry,” said Postolaki, understanding his countryman in his own way, “we’re not looking to crowd anybody out. Come on, come on.”

The man didn’t understand a thing. He followed behind Postolaki, who, for his part, waved his arms and inhaled a lungful of air, happy everything had worked out so well.

“Here you are! Italy, our Italy.” he said. “By the way, brother, where’s the famous Coliseum you folks have here?”

The countryman, pulling himself away rudely from Postolaki’s embrace, took off down a side street. “Lunatics!” he shouted.

The chairman was about to lament the fact that Moldovans are so inconsiderate and mean to each other, when he saw Serafim slowly slinking down a wall on the side of a building. Serafim slid down onto the pavement, unable to pull his eyes away from something in the sky. Postolaki followed his glance, already knowing…

…While Postolaki had been attempting to enter into a conversation with the Moldovan they’d encountered, Serafim had tried to figure out what was wrong with his Italian language skills. He’d learned everything from the textbook, hadn’t he? True, Serafim recalled as if it were yesterday, there had been no title page on the book he’d been given at the district library. There was no official way Serafim could be sure he’d learned Italian and not, say, Chinese. That was a risk he’d knowingly undertaken. On the other hand… Could he really have spent his whole if in vain?

Serafim felt a mass of questions bubbling up inside him. He stood up, almost rocking in the wind, but there was nobody he could ask these questions to. Usually, you seek advice from people you know. But Serafim didn’t know a soul in this city. He wasn’t even—and his heart froze when he realized this—he wasn’t even sure what city he was in. He hadn’t seen signs saying “Rome” anywhere. No – all this doubting was complete nonsense, a delusion! Nonetheless, Serafim lifted his head and noticed a banner in the gap between two beautiful clouds.

One. Two. Boom. Boom. Serafim threw back his head and began to lose consciousness. Before he did, he was able to catch the surprised look on the face of Chairman Postolaki. And even before that, he had time to see… Precisely to see, and not to read, what was written on the banner:

“WELCOME TO CHISINAU!!”

 

Chapter Two

Maria was planning on hanging herself from the acacia tree in the yard. Her husband, Vasily Velchev, could give a damn. He was extremely angry with Maria for the four thousand euros she’d paid for the voyage to Rome and a job in Italy. His wife’s guilt was not assuaged by the fact that she’d been swindled.

“It could happen to anyone,” frowned Vasily at the village drinking sessions, turning around the muddy sediments of the wine in his mouth. “You all were taken in by those swindlers. They led you through Moldova by night. They let you off outside of Chisinau. I agree – I can’t blame Maria for that. But who, if not her, infected us with that idiotic, childish dream about Italy?”

Thanks to that dream, Vasily had sold his tractor (though it was old), and gone into debt for one and a half thousand euros. The couple calculated that Maria would send home three hundred euros a month from Italy and, at that rate, they’d have the tractor and their farm back in a year.

“The tractor’s nonnegotiable.” Vasily shook his finger at his wife. “No tractor – nothing doing.”

Maria breathed a bitter sigh. She knew about Vasily’s extraordinary attachment to the tractor. It started in 1978, when Velchev, a peasant, was sent to attend a course for machine operators. Having discovered the world and machinery, as Vasily himself put it, he returned to the village with a tractor and a huge sense of self-importance. Alas, when Moldova gained its independence and lost its last remaining bits of prosperity, the need for Vasily’s tractor fell off. The villagers had no money for diesel anyhow, and they worked the land as in the days of old. With their hands. But Velchev, notwithstanding his wife’s exhortations, wouldn’t give up or sell his iron horse. It wasn’t until that very day in 2001, that Maria, tormented by poverty and wanting to escape, convinced him to temporarily sell his tractor.

“And then we’ll buy it back!” she promised grandly. “Trust me.”

Unfortunately, the forty-four underwater swimmers and curlers from Larga fell into the hands of crooks. Crooks who led the people through Moldova for four whole days, dumped them out onto the marshy ground near the Byk River—the very river that the local genius Serafim Botezatu took for the Tiber—and disappeared, just like that. When he found out he wasn’t getting his tractor back, Vasily fell into despair. When Maria returned home, first he beat her, then he stopped talking to his wife at all. Maria realized she’d never make it to Italy. She couldn’t imagine where she’d ever get the money for it, and so she decided to hang herself. True, she was helped her along toward that decision.

“Either way,” Vasily decided, “I’ll never forgive you. And I’ll thrash you till the end of your days, woman, like an ugly old dog. But God forbid I snuff the life out of you with my own hands. It’d be a sin. It’s better if you’d just snuff it out yourself.”

And in the course of a single day, these words grew inside Maria like a bean beneath the red sun in rich, black springtime soil.

“I’m off to hang myself, Vasily,” she said to her husband, holding back tears. “Our life is darkness. I’m tired.”

“Don’t even think about climbing up the walnut tree,” he said, without glancing up from his pocket Bible. “Or I’ll take you down off there and beat you to death. You’re going to break off the lower branches, and that’s where the nuts grow biggest.”

“Then I’ll hang myself from the acacia,” Maria offered. “The branches are stronger.”

“Well, now, that’s another story,” said Vasily, and bit his lip. “Hang yourself from the acacia. And stay until the Second Coming.”

Maria, knowing her husband’s kind heart, went to the acacia, tightened the rope and stood on a stool beneath the noose. Nobody emerged from the house. “He’s hiding behind the door,” she thought to herself. And she noticed people staring at her from neighboring windows. “They’ll pull me down straight away,” said the woman, and she jumped. First, it was her own jump that made her swing. Then, it was the wind.

Maria swung on the acacia all through the following week.

 

 

Chapter Three

 

Vasily Velchev turned out to be the only resident of Larga who didn’t dream of making it to Italy.

“It doesn’t exist, this Italy you keep talking about!” he would yell during village drinking bouts. “Has anyone ever seen it? Huh? That’s right!”

The only one who could challenge Velchev was Father Paisii, Larga’s priest. Everyone knew for a fact that his wife Elizaveta, the parish Matushka, had gone to Italy in 1999, using the money her ministering husband earned performing last rights, christenings, and requiem services. And since the land near Larga was barren and the peasants were poor, everybody knew the priest never swallowed a piece of bread he didn’t pay for. And he always paid full price.

“All day long, like a cursed man, I pray for rain, I offer benedictions, and all for a sack of beans,” Paisii would complain bitterly to his wife when she called from Bologna, where she’d found work as a housemaid. “I barely earn enough to feed myself and the kids. At least, if you sent money…”

For a while, Elizaveta, the priest’s wife, did send three hundred euros a month to her husband and three kids. Then she stopped. A year later she sent five hundred euros. Then silence for a year. Father Paisii wore himself out, tried everything, was even planning on appealing to the Red Cross or some other sort of Organization for the Search for Missing Priests’ Wives of Larga when Matushka Elizaveta turned up. Oh, did she turn up.

“Darling,” she said into the receiver, puffing away at a cigarette, “I’ve decided to stay here and link my fate with Adriano. Don’t be jealous. He’s a real man, a Man with a capital M. I’m sorry, I won’t be coming back to Larga, or Moldova. To that dump? After being in Italy? By the way, I’ve become a completely liberated woman. And I’ve found a job. Actually, Adriano found me a job. Where?”

It turned out, the woman once known as Matushka Elizaveta had become the secretary at the Center for Modern Art and Atheism. After breaking the news to her husband, she hung up the phone. Father Paisii cried the whole night through, and by morning he’d managed to fall asleep. He dreamed of Elizaveta in a miniskirt. She licked her lips and gave Paisii a wink. Twirling a cigarette in her hands, she said, “Got a light?” When Paisii shrugged his shoulders, Elizaveta disappeared. She said a reproachful goodbye: “You don’t have a light, but I’m one hot broad, see. You better stay in Larga, you knucklehead!”

Paisii woke up broken and convinced that, in the end, Italy did in fact exist. After all, that accursed bitch, that cheap prostitute, that fat cow, that thrice-damned fool, that snake in the grass, that rotten slut, his former wife, had telephoned him from there. And if Italy exists, and Elizaveta was there, then he was simply obligated to curse the country in his next sermon. Without a doubt, Italy was a font of vice, and he’d fallen out of love with it, and with his wife, too, during that terrible night.

“A country of degenerate tarts and their gigolos! Den of depravity, Whore of Babylon!” he proclaimed in church.

The crowd, after listening to the sermon, dispersed silently.

And in the spring, Father Paisii began collecting money and packing his suitcases for a trip to Italy.