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Literature Text

Inspired by one of the country descriptions in The Onion's Our Dumb World.

The nation of Moldova, lying between Romania and the Ukraine, is often referred to as “Europe’s basement.” This is partly because of the local survival of many elsewhere vanished groups of peoples, customs, and artifacts from times long past, dusty remnants of ages mostly forgotten in other parts of Europe. Here dwell the last of the Patzinaks and the Cumans, here remain traces of the old Slavic faiths elsewhere extinguished. But it is mainly known as a basement because of the local’s stubborn insistence on living underground whenever possible.

It is uncertain when the locals took up a subterranean lifestyle, but historians generally agree that the shift began during the medieval migrations: the chronicles of St. Baeticus indicate than Moldova was already well-known for its underground communities by the late 800s. In spite of its inconveniences, the constant threat of nomadic invasions along the steppe route through what would eventually become the Ukraine gave Mole Life certain advantages. More profoundly, by 1000s historical records note something of a national psychological change, a development of a sort of cultural agoraphobia that made walking under the open sky seem positively dangerous. The development of various myth-cycles about aerial and “sky demons” during this era are indicative, so is the fact that portrayals of the Heavenly City in surviving mosaics often show the structure as entirely roofed over, presaging the notion of the Afterlife as an enclosed sphere of limited circumference but infinite radius in the 16th century poems of Milescu.

By the 1100s a lifestyle based in underground fortifications with people only coming to the surface to farm had made the country essentially unconquerable, if often overrun: the use of extremely long tunnels and underground rivers meant that no section of the country could be starved into submission. The Mongols armies of Batu Khan only succeeded in forcing surrender by carrying out a country-wide process of crop destruction, sustained over a year and a half till stored supplies ran out. And the massacres inflicted as punishment for defiance were less severe than elsewhere, largely due to the Mongols underestimating substantially the total population of the country (songs are still sung about how guides took Mongol troops into the tunnels and so confused them through endless twists and turns that they never saw more than a fraction of the underground cities, yet thought they had seen them all).

After the Mongol withdrawal, Moldova became independent until the Ottoman period, when they accepted a role as Ottoman vassals, paying tribute and allowing the passage of Ottoman troops, but largely maintaining their own self-government. Moldova later passed into the Russian sphere of influence, and during WWII would win everlasting national glory by being occupied by the Nazis for three years without ever surrendering, at the cost of an estimated third of its population. Too battered to resist, Moldova would accept Soviet protection after the war, and become communized, at least on the surface: or perhaps one should say on the upper levels, since no government since the early modern era had managed to successfully keep track of everything that happened in the deeper tunnels, diggings, secret passages, etc.

With the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Moldovan Communist regime collapsed as promptly as any in eastern Europe, and since then Moldova has struggled to modernize and develop its economy (still difficult to measure by foreigners, with so much of it being underground in both senses), aided by its most unique draw as a tourist destination.

There are some resemblances to the underground cities of Anatolia (modern Turkey) – the Derinkuyu site being the closest to a traditional Moldovan settlement – but in sophistication, extent, and interconnectedness, the cities of Moldova greatly surpassed the cities of Anatolia from an early date. (Possible transfer of knowledge and techniques for underground life from Anatolia to Moldovan remains a source of contention among historians). Many settlements extend down to depths of 100 meters or more: in areas where diggings coincide with Moldova’s extensive natural cave systems, some inhabited tunnels may lie as much as a mile below the surface, although permanent residences drop off sharply in numbers below the 70 meter line.

There are a scattering of surface communities, mostly Russian and Turkish immigrant populations which failed to adapt to the local lifestyle: there were also some German communities, some of which, located in mining areas, show a mix of above and below ground construction, but due to the events of the Nazi invasion, most of the German population is now long-departed. Some of these cities are actually two clearly separate cities, with a native Moldovan population city extending under the outlander city. (In some cases without the above-grounders knowing: some Russian immigrants in Ctescu were rather surprised in 1985 to find that their effort to expand their cellar had knocked a large hole in a Moldovan family’s attic, much to the Moldovan’s annoyance).

There are also some traditional (but modernizing) wandering pastoralist groups, descendants of the various nomadic groups which have passed through the area, as well as gypsy populations. They are less resented than in other eastern European nations, both because of the more limited communications between the groups leads to less raw nerves, and because these groups have until recently played a much larger role in the production of milk, cheese and other cattle, sheep and goat products than similar groups elsewhere: underground cattle raising is not cheap due to the lack of natural grass, and the ground-dwelling Moldovans have little desire to herd cattle or sheep under the open sky. (For this reason, the local pastoralists had less trouble with forced collectivization than tribal groups in, say, the USSR, since they usually ended up managing their own communes with far less day-to-day intervention from ruling ethnicities such as the Russians).

The Moldovan landscape is generally only lightly marked by human presence: there are extensive cultivated fields, but no visible cityscapes, and roads tend to be scattered and often made of dirt (mud in the wet season). Human habitations are usually marked by low concrete or stone tumuli, small shed-like structures, or what appear to be barn doors opening into the sides of hills: at best by windowless stone towers. These are in fact entrances to the Moldovan Underground Kingdom, as it is still referred to in these republican days. Entrances tend to be heavily fortified steel and iron doors and gates, which are followed by stairs or stone ramps leading downhill. Tractors and trucks and carts coming from farms or going to them are disgorged from the larger gates and doors, while people come in and out to work the fields through the smaller gates.

Moldovan cities are built underground, a complex network of well-drained, well-ventilated tunnels, some dug through solid rock over many generations, others through softer ground elaborately supplemented with stone work, plaster, fossilized wood, etc. Traditionally these cities used an ingenious system of pumps powered by water or people or cattle, shafts, chimneys and use of local winds to keep things comfortable: the more purely mechanical systems built during modern times, especially during the Communist era, tended to be more fragile, prone to breakdown, and difficult to maintain. Nowadays a national effort to combine the best of the new and the old is under way, as thousands of miles of poorly aired tunnel and hundreds of thousands of stuffy or soggy caves need to be “brought up to spec” by a population increasingly looking to western Europe as a standard of what comfortable living should be.

Long ago the tunnel network grew pervasive enough to allow one to walk or drive a cart the entire length of the country without coming above ground: this has been supplemented by the development of the bicycle, the electric runabout tunnel car, and finally the electric subway train: the first full north-to-south route was built using an enlargement of existing tunnels in the 1920s, and the underground train network was greatly expanded during the Communist years. Still, the transportation network is still a bit thin by western European standards, and there is talk of improving its deplorable surface road network (in response to grumbles that only foreigners will use them, it has been suggested that if sheds or some other sort of sky-blocker is built over the roads, the locals will make much more use of them).

Moldovan society has historically had a communal, group-centric structure, due to the need for large groups of people to carry out necessary digging, building, etc., and getting along in cramped quarters while exposing themselves to aboveground threats as little as possible. Cooking in traditional communities has tended to be in communal kitchens, minimizing the number of concealed chimney outlets required by the town: some of the larger communities have aboveground extensions in the form of massive “smoke towers” for ventilation, solid masses of stone with no windows save narrow slits for the dispensing of boiling oil or molten lead and no entrance save deep underground. (Foreign siege engineers feared the prospect of being ordered to undermine a Moldovan fortification: the game of mine and countermine was one the Moldovans knew better than anywhere else on earth). Some have claimed that this collective mindset pre-adapted the Moldovans for Communist rule, but Moldovan collectivist tendencies have never extended much beyond their immediate underground neighborhood: having to follow the orders of a distant elite ignorant of local conditions was no more popular in Moldova than anywhere else in the Communist Block.

The locals tend to be pale, usually wear sunglasses and large hats when above ground, and on sunny days tend to slather themselves with sun-tan lotion, a fear of skin cancer being a national phobia, a new and “rational” version of the old fears re evil sky-forces. Moldovans tend to have very acute night vision, and there is some evidence of micro-evolution over the last millennium towards a more nocturnal existence, although Nazi propaganda about Moldovan “mole men” from the deepest tunnels is of course nonsensical. Although a variety of methods are used to light the underground cities, from the traditional narrow shafts and carefully placed mirrors to the most modern LED lights, most of the underground was, until recently, dark save for whatever light individual Moldovans brought with them: elaborate traditional systems of wall markers and guides combined with the traditional Moldovan “dark walking” cane allow any life-long burrow dweller to make their way through lightless tunnels as easily as above ground dwellers move through the streets of a familiar city. Nowadays the increasing spread of electrification into the most remote tunnels is eroding traditional dark-walking skills, and elders grumble that some young children have spent so much of their time in lighted areas that they are afraid of the dark.

Traditional Moldovan men have been raised with no such fear, raised to believe that they were the most dangerous thing in the darkness, and if something went bump in the night it was probably their club on someone else’s skull. Fighting blind and moving noiselessly have been traditional skills of the Moldovan fighting man, and enemy forces on Moldovan land have always feared night attack by enemies that by morning have vanished underground. To this day, Moldovan special forces have gained respect from their US and Russian equivalents as badass MoFos, to say the least: but once again, traditional skills have been made somewhat obsolete by the spread of powerful portable lights and night-vision goggles.

Another important aspect of Moldovan manliness is the ability to dig very fast: Moldovan male models are often portrayed holding a shovel or pickaxe. (Appreciators of a well-dug hole world-wide buy Moldovan picks, shovels, and other digging tools, many of which have no exact equivalent outside of Moldova: it represents one of the country’s biggest export classes.)

Moldovan skills at mining and tunneling have made the nation a major exporter of engineering talent, and Moldovans have been involved in every tunnel-digging major project in Europe, from the first Alpine train tunnels to the Chunnel. (Moldovan engineers were reportedly rather disappointed by the scale of the Chunnel: apparently they had drawn up plans for an entire sub-channel town extending along on either side of the tracks). Currently, a Moldovan tunneling and mining company has representatives in the US and Russia trying to drum up support for a sub-Bering-Straits tunnel.

Factories and industrial centers also tend to be built underground, in some cases for convenience being built above ground and then largely buried in dirt: a Moldovan factory usually looks like a mound of earth with chimneys coming out of it. Mines and mining cities tend to overlap, although the health hazards of coal mines means that there is usually a fair amount of tunnel separating where the miners dig from where they live. Rivers are one of the few areas where above-ground activity is the norm, the importance of water transport in the pre-modern area being too important to abandon boats: until recently, ship transport was dominated by ethnic minorities, most notably Cumans, Magyars, and some Slavic groups, who followed a more above-ground lifestyle and built their communities along the river banks. In the last century the business of boats and barges has become less of a “caste” activity, and ships with heavily smoked window glass are often driven along the boats by brave men of underground upbringing who yet can look up at a roofless sky without vertigo.

Moldova has several large and rather rickety Communist-era atomic reactors still in operation, and the population is generally rather sanguine about the possibility of an accident: after all, although fallout would put crops at risk, it’s not like it would fall on their city streets. Due to its subterranean existence and national obsession with emergency food storage, during the Cold War Moldovans were regularly assessed as the northern hemisphere’s nation “best suited to survive a nuclear holocaust”, and nuclear survivalists both Soviet and American attempted (with limited success) to convince their fellow citizens to take up the Moldovan lifestyle. (Rumors circulate that still-classified US nuclear war targeting plans reserved a truly unholy megatonnage for the little Moldovan nation).

Although the bulk of Moldovan crops are grown above-ground, there is also a sizeable below-ground farming industry, centered on over four hundred varieties of edible fungi and mushrooms. Always prepared to withdraw into the depths in case of an invasion, the Moldovans make a fetish of food storage and preparation, and are well known for their ability to pickle almost anything: still, in pre-modern times harvests were often scanty enough that there was little to add to the communal emergency store, and efforts were made to develop food that could be grown underground. Shafts too narrow and well-hidden to serve as egress to invaders, through cunning use of mirrors allowed the growing of some partial-illumination plants, such as the giant Moldovan white asparagus, but the largest form of “dark farming” has long been the fungus and mushroom business, and Moldovan mushrooms are another important export. Some of the local varieties are admittedly an acquired taste: the Purple Turk’s Head, although growing vigorously in a number of varieties of excrement, has been described as a “thoroughly boiled sock”, and is generally something one should avoid when visiting Moldovan restaurants.

Moldovans, starting during the Communist era and continuing today, have invested in developing hydroponic and other techniques for indoor food production, with artificial rather than natural light. Due to the economic limits of Communism and the post-Communist economic slump (which only really began to reverse itself in the early 2000s), the scale of such efforts have remained fairly small, but the boosters of a fresh-air-and-sunlight-free agriculture remain enthusiastic, and remind American visitors that once humanity moves into space, such agricultural practices will be necessary on the Moon or Mars.

Underground animal raising is less important but not insignificant: the Moldovan Blind White pig is known for its tender flesh as well as for its disturbing appearance, and Moldovan domesticated varieties of rat are quite clean, although a certain degree of prejudice still exists in foreign markets. The stocking and tending of fish in underground streams is another source of protein, as is the practice of bat-farming. (Reports of cannibalism against foreign visitors is generally dismissed as prejudice and foreign fantasy by the great majority of students of the country).

Those afflicted with claustrophobia have, historically, been the largest source of immigrants abroad. The strongly afflicted with agoraphobia, on the other hand, tend to form something of a special community within Moldovan society, rarely if ever coming to the surface. Some of these people suffer from what is known as “rock universe” delusions, in which the surface does not exist and the universe is simply an infinite mass of tunnel-filled rock. (Explanations of how food is grown under these conditions tend to be quite ingenious. Foreign visitors are recommended to follow local custom and humor such individuals, since they can become rather unpleasant if people persist in contradicting them). Various peculiar, darkness-related Saints are worshipped in the deeper caves, some not recognized by the Orthodox Church, and indeed some rather ferociously persecuted as heretical by the Moldovan Patriarchate before WWII: in some ways the Communist interval benefitted such groups, since Communist rule broke the power of the old Patriarchate, and when a religious revival began in the post-Communist era, there was nobody to say nay to some of the, shall we say, less orthodox old practices.

Not that Church persecution was ever that effective. Although the Moldovan Orthodox Church historically dominated, its reach was always limited. Moldova is a diverse nation, with a variety of often distinct communities living in tunnel cities physically overlapping but meeting only at a few points underground. If foreigners had trouble making their way into the underground cities, local bullies and would-be tyrants often had a great deal of trouble making their way into the next city over: historically, the Grand Princes of Moldova ruled by persuasion and coalition-building as much as by force, and through control of above-ground agricultural activity rather than by posting troops in cities. Over time the princes of Moldova came to rule over a variety of people, and what people did in the privacy of their own tunnels was generally ignored unless it got just too gross. As well as the Romanisch-speaking majority, the underground communities include Slavs, Jews, Turks, Magyars, Cumans, Patzinaks, and a variety of stranger groups, including some unknown elsewhere, including the Tchow-Tchows, who speak a non-Indo European language of unknown derivation, and who claim to have lived in the area since before metal tools were invented. As mentioned in the case of the “dark saints”, a number of odd religious practices and rituals survive from unknown antiquity, and some ancient idols of the Slavic people are still worshipped in the north of the country, although under the identity of invented saints: it is believed that some Cathar-type religious communities may have survived in some areas as late as the 18th century. A variety of superstitious practices, such as the ceremonial “tossing of the eggs” during the mid-winter solstice celebrations, are not reported elsewhere in Europe.

Due to frequently poor lighting, Moldovan art and decoration tended historically to be not very colorful, although often with strongly differentiated light-dark patterning and geometric shapes. Textures are important, and the fineness and softness of Moldovan cloth won praise abroad even before the industrial era. Braille was anticipated by Moldovan touch-script, by which messages were written in wavy lines and bumps carved into wood and stone: the area around a Moldovan bedroom is often inscribed with various useful and uplifting sayings and quotes that can be read with the fingers as one lies in bed. As with other aspects of Moldovan culture and life, this is changing with the spread of cheap LED lighting: many Moldovan youths do not learn more than the basics needed to travel unused tunnels, and skilled carvers grow rare, while the bold dark and light of traditional decoration is replaced by bright colors. Of course, “good lighting” is a relative thing: aside from reading lights, Moldovan houses tend to be a bit dimly lit by, say, American standards, and Moldovan-made bulbs tend to have rather low wattages.

The foreign tourist will have a great deal to see, especially if they shell out the extra for the rental of some night-vision specs. There are the many fine old towns of the Underground Kingdom, with their fascinating decorations both visual and tactile, and the gloriously ugly Communist era constructions, which have inspired more than one first-person-shooter video game, are enjoyed by those with an appreciation for the creepy and ironic. In spite of the unfortunate effects of Communism, there are still some good restaurants, although foreigners are recommended to have someone who can read the language describe the menu to them. For the strong of nerves with their insurance paid up, anyone can sign up for the twice-annual Grand East Tunnel Boxcar Underground Rally, carried out in total darkness save lights carried on the vehicles in question.

There are the fine carvings of the Eelzo salt mines, the beautiful Church of the Redeemer under Gloresthy which is a profusely decorated and enhanced great natural cave, the marvelous early medieval pseudo-Byzantine frescoes of the deeper tunnels of Tarakssary, the only frescoes of their era to survive due to the near-constant local temperature and humidity, and the Great Ossuary of Ungtino, which although a much smaller city than Paris, has been doing interesting decorative work with human skeletons for far longer. There are such natural wonders as fishing in the phosphorescent waters of the underground river Lezjt, or the the great fungal colony of Chagul Kalabash, widely believed to be the world’s largest mushroom. There are such mysteries as the Bottomless Hole of Florek’liya, or the curious Temple of The Three Eyeless Sisters (most foreign archeologists think local authority Zamfir Balaban’s claims that the tunnels leading down to it were dug from beneath are just the rachiu talking.)

The foreign visitor will find the locals friendly and hospitable, and there are only two major local “taboos” one should avoid: first, if one brings a light of non-Moldovan origin with one, check with the locals re brightness level: shining a too-bright light in someone’s eyes is considered very rude. Secondly, do not mention mole-men. The legends of Moldovans who long ago withdrew into unknown abysses, to live in perpetual darkness, eating god knows what, worshipping the unmentionable? The Moldovans find these very embarrassing, not to mention racist. So if one thinks one sees something in the distant dark of a tunnel, or glimpses a hunchbacked, blind albino with heavy gloves hiding their hands, or finds that some deep and distant tunnel has been closed for “renovations” of an unclear type – don’t bring up mole-men. It will alienate your hosts.

Major credit cards are now accepted in any major Moldovan city.
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How difficult would it be to immigrate? I am a major agarophobe!