Posted by: biblioglobal | February 22, 2012

#6 Moldova

Playing the Moldovans at Tennis by Tony HawksPlaying the Moldovans at Tennis by Tony Hawks

Date finished: 2/14/12

How I found this book: When I told my brother about this project, he responded with the following e-mail: “I recommend ‘Playing the Moldovans at Tennis’ since you are unlikely to find a more interesting book about Moldova.  It isn’t quite as good as ‘Round Ireland with a Fridge’ by the same author, but your choices for Ireland are much more diverse.”

A few years ago I read an excellent book entitled The Geography of Bliss by Eric Weiner in which the author travels around the world to countries which rank as notably happy or unhappy based on happiness surveys. Moldova is one of the unhappy. In fact, if I remember correctly, it is pretty much the unhappiest country that isn’t a war zone or desperately impoverished. In reading about Eric Weiner’s visit, I was definitely left with impression that people in Moldova were pretty miserable. So I was curious whether Playing the Moldovans at Tennis would portray Moldova differently.

The premise of the book is that the author has made a bet that he can beat all of the players of the Moldovan national football (soccer) team at tennis. (He avoids mentioning until the end of the book that he is in fact ranked as the 45th best tennis player in England.) His previous book about a bet that he could travel around Ireland carrying a fridge was quite successful, so I assume he was quite happy to take on another wacky bet. I’d categorize the book as funny and mildly enjoyable, but not amazing. Not surprisingly, it isn’t that easy to track down the players and convince them to play tennis. More than half of the book goes by before he manages to play a single one. That’s okay though because the tennis games themselves are really the least exciting part of the book. The descriptions of life and travels in Moldova are much more interesting.

Overall, Tony Hawks also paints a picture of Moldovans as morose and unsmiling and life in Moldova as grim and colorless. At the same time he also paints a more affectionate picture and becomes close to the family he stays with. Moldova is the poorest country in Europe, so it’s understandable that they might rank low on the happiness scales. Particularly given that studies show that it is not absolute wealth but rather wealth relative to neighbors that has the most influence on happiness. A lack of streetlights at night combined with open manholes whose covers have been stolen for scrap metal probably doesn’t help. (The book was written in the late 90’s, hopefully this has improved.) Interestingly, the Gypsies in Moldova are apparently relatively well off, with a settlement of large houses. This comes up in the book because Tony Hawks decides to bring a round plastic table as a gift to the new Gypsy king whose name happens to be Arthur. It’s that sort of book…

Having two data points now on how Moldova appears to outside visitors, I would like to see how Moldovans are portrayed by an actual Moldovan author. How do Moldovans see themselves? Do they see themselves as unhappy?* I went so far as to do some light Google searching for Moldovan novels, but without success. I found an interview with a Moldovan author in which he mentions several other Moldovan authors he likes, but sadly none of them seem to have been translated into English.

*There seems to be a Facebook group entitled “Moldova is the happiest” created in response to The Geography of Bliss. If I were Moldovan, I would probably be unhappy with the way my country has been presented too.


  1. What is the definition of unhappiness? Do Moldovans go around all the time saying “Woe is me?” Is there huge suicide rate? I have been around farmers much of my life and they are never very happy about the state of the farm economy in general and the economic viability of their farm in particular. I rarely hear a farmer say that they are having a great year. It might be a bit of superstition not to temp fate. Sailors are the same way. I find it interesting that an entire group of people are so unhappy and negative. I wonder if there is not something in the general culture going on, like people who are actually upbeat are regularly put down by their fellow citizens.

    • If I remember correctly, the data in The Geography of Bliss are based on happiness survey asking people to self-report on various questions related to happiness. So, in some sense, it is equivalent to their going around saying “Woe is me”! Surveys definitely aren’t a perfect means of evaluation and there could certainly be cultural differences in how people respond to questions.

      I suspect that there is at least some over-generalization going on in the portrayal of Moldovans as unhappy, but I thought that it was interesting that an author who went to Moldova for completely unrelated reasons came to the same conclusions.

      I wouldn’t be at all surprised if there was some sort of cultural reinforcement by negative reactions to more upbeat people. (Sort of like the peer pressure in middle school that puts people down for acting smart.)

  2. It has been a while since I read the book, but I recall the following impressions:

    1) If there was a place which conspired to make one feel miserable, Moldova seemed to be it. The grey, industrial Soviet architecture, the lousy economy and a fragmented societal structure dominated by corruption and incompetence create an atmosphere where not only is the present lousy but tomorrow promises to be equally and indistiguishably lousy. I suspect a lot the former Warsaw Pact looks like that. It helps me appreciate how well our government operates, relatively speaking, and what risks we take if we follow the “starve the beast” strategy of some politicians.

    2) The kindness of strangers, a common theme with the previous book. Despite the dourness of the country, the ridiculousness of his task and even potential risks, many people go to great lengths to help the author. This common strand of humanity is the best part of the book and one of the best incentives for travel in general.

    3) The sports theory. This was probably Biblioglobal’s least interesting part, but it intrigued me. While the author is a good tennis player, I think that his opponents were superior athletes. The examination of how hard it is to pick up a sport from scratch, even for natural athletes, was fascinating. If that was the main point of the book, it would have been more interesting to challenge opponents who weren’t picking up a racket for the first time. There is so much strategy in tennis that a good athlete with excellent strategy should beat a great athlete with negligible strategy. This book didn’t really test that theory, but the discussion of it made me think.

  3. […] reminds me a bit of Moldova, a country famous for its unhappiness. (Though actually it has moved up substantially in the happiness rankings in more recent surveys.) […]

  4. […] well represented.  I particularly enjoy the fact that Moldova comes out on top, given that they so often get attention for more negative statistics. Sri Lanka, it turns out, makes some sense as it has a quite high literacy rate for a developing […]

  5. You could try “The Good Life Elsewhere” by Vladimir Lorchenkov, a Russian-language author from Moldova (New Vessel Press). It is the first part of a trilogy and one of the few books by a Moldovan author translated in English. I enjoyed this satirical novel. In case you are interested, this is my review of “Playing the Moldovans at Tennis”:

    • Since the time I wrote this post, I’ve actually read “The Good Life Elsewhere”. I agree That it’s a good one! I didn’t realize it was part of a trilogy though, so I’ll have to keep an eye out for the other books.

      • All three books are available in French; let’s hope an English translation of part 2 and 3 will follow.

  6. I just read “The Good Life Elsewhere” as my book from Moldova, it was great but as Playing the Moldovans at Tennis is the only other one I’ve read about Moldova, I feel an absolutely desperate need to read something positive about the country (and which includes a sport actually played by Moldovans)!

    • Yes, “The Good Life Elsewhere” was very funny, but definitely dark humor. Let me know if you find something!

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