“Meet You at the Well”


THE bride watches nervously as water is drawn from the well and poured onto the road. She laughs with delight as the groom sweeps her into his arms and carries her across the damp patch of ground. Friends and family members gather to watch and cheer the newlyweds as they perform the age-old ritual. This unusual wedding custom aptly demonstrates that in Moldova, a local well is much more than just a watering hole.

Situated in southeastern Europe, Moldova is flanked by Ukraine to the north, east, and south and by Romania to the west. It has a total land area of some 13,000 square miles [34,000 sq km].

Although there are nearly 3,100 rivers in Moldova, droughts frequently prevent the rivers from adequately supplying the needs of its 4,300,000 inhabitants. To supplement its  surface waters, more than 20 percent of the nation’s water supply comes from wells. It is estimated that there are between 100,000 and 200,000 wells scattered across the Moldovan sector of the Prut basin!

Conveniently located along Moldova’s roads and byways, ornately covered wells stand ready to quench the thirst of weary travelers. In many of the country’s villages, the local well is also a place to meet friends and discuss the day’s events.

A Traditional Respect for Water

In Moldova respect for well water is shown in a variety of ways. For example, toilets are constructed a safe distance from the family well, and to safeguard a well’s purity further, there is a prohibition against pouring excess water back into the well. If more water is drawn than is needed, the excess is to be poured out onto the ground or into a container near the well. In addition, it is considered bad manners to spit on the ground near a well. Why, tradition even forbids having an argument near a well!

Wells foster a community spirit among Moldovans. The digging of a new well is a community event and is considered as important as the construction of a new house. This is reflected in the local saying, The person who has failed to build a home, to raise a son, to dig a well, and to plant a tree has wasted his life. When a well is completed, all from the community who participated in preparing it are invited to a large banquet.

Environmental Concerns

Most wells in Moldova tap a water table that lies between 15 and 40 feet [5 to 12 m] underground. Another layer of water is found at a depth of between 500 and 800 feet [150 and 250 m]. Despite traditional safeguards, much of Moldova’s groundwater has been contaminated by past industrial and agricultural excesses. The 1996 United Nations publication Republic of Moldova Human Development Report noted that nitrates and pathogenic bacteria had contaminated “approximately 60% of the wells located in Moldova.” In recent years, however, the quality of well water has improved as a result of the drop in industrial production and the decline in the quantity of chemicals and fuels seeping into the water table.

If you visit Moldova, you don’t have to toss water on the road to have a friendly conversation. You might even catch up on the day’s events as you quench your thirst with a cool glass of water. All you need is for a hospitable Moldovan to offer to meet you at the well.

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Oleg is a local sheet-metal tradesman, and he has been making ornate well covers since he left school. “I think sheet-metal working is in our blood,” says Oleg. “At the beginning of the last century, my grandfather learned the metalworking craft from one of the many Jewish sheet-metal tradesmen who lived in the large Jewish community outside his village of Lipcani. After the pogroms of the second world war, the few tradesmen left were non-Jewish. That is when my father learned the trade, and he has passed his skills on to me.”

While forming the intricate shapes that decorate his well covers, Oleg uses simple tools and a few templates; tradition and imagination guide his hands. His skills are highly valued by the local residents. Says Oleg: “My customers usually haggle for a better price for most other jobs, but when I make a well cover for them, they are generally glad to pay the price asked.”

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