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Stories From The Field

This is a section for real entrepreneurs running real business in Moldova to share their experience, frustrations, lessons and insights with the community at large.

Category contains 27 blog entries contributed to teamblogs

In life there are the problems that you see coming a mile off and those that just pop up out of no where. As we'll see from this short post culture has a whole lot to do with what you do and don't see coming. This is a condensed version of the tale of our final search and closing on a location for Smokehouse

 

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provided without comment

 

So first I will say that this is all in the context of negotiating and eventurally signing a lease for the future location of Smokehouse. The location we chose one that we looked at back in September and were approaching the point of making an offer when we got slapped with massive visa problems that staggered our entire planning effort. Following the resolution of those problems we became focused on a new location that ultimately fell through for a variety of financial issues (upcoming post about Moldovan banks and credit here). We only returned to our final location, at the corner of Stefan Cel Mare and Vasile Alecsandri after taking fresh stock of our situation in over the holidays (and finding that the place was still open putting us in a good negotiating position). 

 

The Problem You Expect (in Moldova)

The landlord didn't want a written contract. Insane as that sounds things here work on handshakes and smiles along with vague assurances that he will totally never screw us over. Such is Moldova's Soviet legacy. As far as I can tell it comes from the dual reasons that a) contracts are ridiculously hard to implement (in paperwork terms and in number of stamps) with weak enforcement mechanisms and b) in the not so recent past anything the state can "see" it could take so it's much better to work between individuals. Obviously this did not fly with us and given that we were Americans (and therefore quite peculiar) our landlord acquiesced. We had to draft the contract which was more or less opposite of the norm but after a few marathon rounds of negotiation, clarification and correcting the occasional typo all was well. We were ready to sign and get this man his money.

 

The Problem You Least Expect (unless you're Vlad, our Moldovan partner, in which case you're shocked the Americans never saw it coming)

Hmmm... that section title was a little on the long side. Got the point across though. [say that with a graphic?] 

This one requires a little background. Of the many real estate agencies in Chisinau the standout winner in terms of listings and responsiveness is Proimobil. Proimobil's (apparent) business model is ideal for renter because for you their services are free. They list properties on their website and you can call up the responsible agent who sets a meeting with the landlord and mediates things. In general they are primarily interested in closing the deal and we found them to be our advocate more often than not. From the landlord they require first month's rent and in return provide a whole lot more exposure than the ubiquitous dingy red sign that says "rent" in Romanian or Russian. In theory everyone wins but naturally there's incentive for the landlord to find some way not to pay them.

This is where our story get's a little complicated. You see we found this location independent of Proimobil AND before they signed a contract with our landlord in November. Furthermore, that contract I mentioned? They never actually signed it. 

 

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it is constant struggle for me not to use this in every single post I write

 

As a side note, Vlad knew there were problems coming from this direction as soon as he realized that since the last time we talked with this building they listed with Proimobil. He warned more than once that there would be problems here. Matt and I responded incredulously "sure there will be but they aren't our problems." How silly we were. 

Predictably our landlord informed Proimobil that he didn't feel he owed them anything (not untrue). They responded back that he did. He countered with "how about 1/2 first month's rent?" My feeling here is that the appropriate counter is "this is where you (proimobil) learn a tough life lesson about the importance of contracts because I'm just not paying you." Either way my main feeling was "not my problem." That's when the calls started. Both sides maneuvering to see where we stood on the issue. "Not our problem" and "we have no dog in this fight" and "we literally could not give fewer fucks" seemed to bounce off of people left and right. Finally our landlord decided that we could pay proimobil out of our initial rent payment to him. It turns out he didn't mind paying but he steadfastly refused to sign a contract. We allowed ourselves (foolishly) to be lured in here by agreeing to transfer the money on his behalf. Our lawyer felt the need to tell him though that as this would be outlined in our rental contract and audit would lead to his door not ours with questions about why that money went there. This led all parties to helpfully suggest that WE conclude a contract with Proimobil and pay them. 

 

b2ap3_thumbnail_beeker-what-is-this-i-dont-even.gif

also provided without comment

 

Suffice to say "you really don't want to sign a contract requiring you to pay for a service you engaged but did not use while that the same time having no problem paying them the money so long as it isn't inked so you want me to sign this (evidently very frightening) contract AND pay them" was a nonstarter (as well as an epic run on sentence). 

I'm not writing this today angry or frustrated. Proimobil was nothing but good to us and we have a really good relationship with our landlord. I'm pointing out what an interesting cultural mess this was. In America  "that really doesn't sound like my problem" or, the all time favorite of my 8th grade teacher "poor planning on your part does not constitute and emergency on mine" is a totally valid response to this situation. In Moldova, it's up to everyone to figure something out. Who deserves to be the the mess (*cough* Proimobil) doesn't matter. What negatives might come out in the long run (*cough* us signing a contract for services that we didn't use and actually that the company doesn't even provide) is unimportant. The only important thing is that the "team" get out of this mess alive. This idea of community is one of the weirdest parts about Moldova to me. In American this was a meeting of 3 entities with very divergent interests seeking common ground (in a rental contract). In Moldova it's 3 frenemies caught in a self imposed clusterfuck and adamantly avoiding what, to an American, seem the easiest ways out in favor of ever more complicated (and unnecessary) compromises.

Oh Moldova what great frenemies we are...


If you haven't already taken a look at the above link jump over to our company website to hear more about the future location for Smokehouse!!!

feel free to like us on facebook as well and follow our (doubtless interesting) remodel process there or on instagram

 

 

 

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Posted by on in Stories From The Field
Bank Loans in Moldova

quick note: don't forget our site has a comments function. With something as complex as banking and loans / many of the topics we cover there is a very good chance that you know more about some element of it than we do. Share your thoughts!! Comments are at the bottom. 

Introduction - funding a startup

So here we have an interesting post detailing the last month and a half we've spent trying to get to a "happy spot" regarding startup capital. There are many ways to fund a startup (as this nice article explains) but for something brick and mortar like a BBQ restaurant many options aren't as available as they would be if, say we were starting a scaleable tech company. With that reality the most common way for people in the US to start a small business is by "bootstrapping" it with their own capital, either in the form of cash, a 2nd mortgage, personal credit or help from friends and family as loans or in exchange for equity. In our case we are a very "bootstrapped" company. We have our own assets on the table and have approached lots of friends and family for investment. All told this just isn't enough so we started looking to other options. This is when we began to investigate the possibility of a Moldovan bank loan.  

 

What type of loan we need

Firstly, let me say that we are terrible loan candidates. The only tangible asset any of us has in Moldova that could be considered collateral is my 1986  Жигули (Lada - her name is Nadia) worth around $500 (less if you ask my partner Vlad who harbors a passionate hatred of my, admittedly intermittently-reliable, car). This combined with none of us having any side income and Moldova not having any interest in my US credit score puts us in a pickle. As such we are looking for an unsecured small business startup loan. In the US this would likely be a hard sell even with SBA backed loans.

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What do you mean I don't seem serious? (source)

 

Please please please don't flash back to that fact when reading the following as the sole reason for our experience. It is certainly a factor but as I will explain it is only part of the story. The other part is that loans in Moldova are in general very difficult to get and subject to some pretty outrageous terms. Firstly though... 

Why even look for loans in Moldova? 2 partners are Americans and we have a Virginia LLC, why no look in America?

Actually we are an even harder sell in the states. As any discerning reader probably already can guess the idea of having an LLC set up simply to manage a foreign entity doesn't generate love from a loan officer. No assets stateside means it's very hard for them to grasp our value and almost impossible for them to seize company assets in the case of trouble. Furthermore, Matt and I have lived overseas generating what we might call "almost zero" income as Peace Corps Volunteers for the last 2 years. This isn't to say that we didn't talk to our bank it's just to say that we never really approached this as a very realistic option (that's not to say that a business credit card in the states isn't a reasonable option for startups - credit cards are much easier). 

So why are Moldovan banks a realistic option? 

Good question. Our thinking was like this: 1) We had half the capital we were looking for in cash - proving we were serious. 2) we weren't looking for a huge sum (there are limits to transparency but let's say it was under $50k). Furthermore, most Moldovans just starting out 1) don't have any credit (complicated as to why but basically personal finance is quite a bit different here from the states) 2) there are numerous programs backed by the Moldovan Government, the EU and others to help startups and 3) we have personally worked with many people looking for startup loans with a whole lot less of their own skin in the game than we did who managed to figure something out. 4) while we don't have collateral personally or with company assets the company will be buying a lot of things that could be put into the loan collateral (like kitchen equipment).

So with that we began by... 

Visiting banks

Firstly, let me say that our strategy was "visit 3 banks and if we get more or less the same (negative) response take it as representative and move on." We didn't want to waste too much time on something that was literally just a waste of time. What we found though, while being a major waste of time, was so confusing and nuanced that we got sucked further and further into trying to figure it out. 

Ok, so we first went to Mobias which is our company's bank. After talking to our account executive there it became clear that we didn't have any options there. The immediate focus of the conversation was on what collateral we could put up to secure the loan and when we said "none" / "a 28 year old Soviet car" (joke) she said that they had no unsecured loan options at all. We asked to see a loan officer and she said "it's a waste of time so no." Ok then, big thanks.

For brevity's sake I won't tell the next ~6 bank visits as a narrative and focus on the highlights:

  • Unsecured loans were mostly not an option at all for a company. There was one lending institutions (MicroInvest) that had a program that could offer us $10k USD (150k MDL) but the utter indifference of their loan officer bordering on hostility made it clear he wasn't interested in our application at all. 
  • Unsecured personal loans were available to our Moldovan partner Vlad ranging from 50k MDL ($3.19k USD) to 150k MDL (~$10k USD)
  • To get a business loan most banks required a minimum collateral amount ranging from 116% of the loan value to 150% of the loan value (150% being more normal). 
    • We were told that banks sometimes try and force a quick default as it is more profitable to take your stuff than have you pay for the loan
  • Collateral 
    • land is valued in collateral at 100% of it's market value
    • cash can be used as collateral in a CD (more on that below)
    • cars and equipment (like kitchen equipment) is valued around 40%
  • Loans can be given in USD or MDL
    • Loans in USD are given at an interest rate between 4-8%
    • Loans in MDL are given at a rate between 15-21% (I assume largely due to the inflation and instability risk in the currency)
  • All loans are subject to a number of fees and commissions (more in the example below). We were told by friends who are local businessmen that in practice the lending rate between USD and MDL balances out due to commissions banks leverage on USD loans. This makes MDL loans more desirable. 
  • Loans can be secured with insurance on "financial risk" 
    • knowing little about banking this is how I assume banks in the US work. If you are a riskier loan then your rate is higher in part because they are insuring a part of your loan. 
    • In Moldova this works "differently" (see below)

 

Ok, with that technical bit aside let me share a few general impressions about how this whole process worked. 

General Impression 1: Blank stares

This was our general reaction on walking into a bank and asking for the loan officer. Most employees at a given branch didn't know who / where this person was. Furthermore, when we first approached said person (interrupting their facebooking) we received a second round of blank stares. To say the least we got the impression that they didn't get a lot of business (could be because of the whopping 150% collateral mentioned above). 

General Impression 2: Most were unwilling or unable to do their jobs

The reason we visited so many banks is that we began to realized that we were/are eligible for *something* but that getting them to give us the time of day much less try and figure out how to give a loan was like pulling teeth. In general we got "we need collateral" and then a slammed door. When we gave them more information about our business or any numbers they remained uninterested. This would be ok if there was some inescapable reality that only people with 150% collateral (aka who really don't need a loan at all) are the ones eligible. The reality though is that this is not true because...

Government non-government and international programs

  • LOTS of these
  • mostly focused on guaranteeing loans for the banks via putting up collateral
  • for most of them you apply to the bank and the bank applies for the guarantees under these programs as part of evaluating you

The banks had literally no idea about any of these and never brought them up. When we brought them up the loan officers gave us a tired look and, after clicking through a few pages on their computer found that they literally had pages and pages of information about it. To this realization they continued to look bored and asked us which one we wanted to apply for. We said "we have no idea - all the information is on your computer on your company's intranet." This resulted in shrugs. We tried calling the loan programs themselves (e.g. ODIMM) and they were quite clear that only the bank deals with them. The only conclusion here is that the people at the banks (plural - this was ALL of them) just had no interest in doing their jobs. 

 

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(source)

 

After trying our best to research and call people who had no interest in talking to us because we weren't a bank we discovered that we weren't generally eligible to these programs anyhow because we are not involved in their target industries or locations (more on that below). Lots's of time wasted because the loan officer was unable to clarify literally anything. 

A second example of this is insurance for loans. One bank mentioned that maybe we could insure the loan as part of the collateral. The thinking would be that we somehow come up with 50% of the needed collateral and then insure the rest. This seemed interesting to us so we asked how it was done. He said, he has no idea and that we need to talk to an insurance company. After visiting 4 and getting answers ranging from "the only person in our entire company who knows anything about that is on vacation for a while" to "never heard of that type of insurance before" to companies that are not licensed for that type of insurance we finally found one that did know. We waited patiently in the lobby of their building to be buzzed up because their office was closed. Instead they send down a confused manager to explain to us that we don't go to them to insure our loan - the bank does. 

 

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General Impression 3: No one cares

Following closely with General Impression 2 we never found anyone who actually cared. Not only were they uninterested in answering our questions or finding a way to give us a loan but many of them treated us like we were interrupting their facebooking / youtube watching time. Not every meeting was hostile or passive aggressive but literally no one was willing to work to try and figure something out. 

I'm told that all the major banks in Moldova are having a really hard time and aren't being very profitable. Maybe that has something to do with turning people away based on one simple criteria vs. looking at what options are available to them. Anyone who's ever been to a US bank for any reason knows that they never miss an opportunity to try and sell you on something - another credit card, their latest awards opportunity, etc etc. These dudes in Moldova just couldn't care less. 

 

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this is what I assume a normal business planning meeting looks
like here. Off topic, very passionate and hilarious to outsiders

 

General Impression 4: How do you get real treatment? have a connection

So how do you get anything done? Same way as always here - know someone. We reached out to friends and contacts and found someone who knew a branch manager at Moldova Agroindbank. This got us a real sit down and a way to crunch through what opportunities might exist for us. 

 

The best deal available

Let me preface this by saying that the deal following is so terrible that playing it out with the bank representative was largely an exercise in curiosity. 

 

 assumptions (these are not our numbers but are a representative set to discuss terms - again limits to transparency):
need: $60k
have: $31k (51% of what's needed)
access to 11k in personal loans (an assumption tossed out by the bank guy to make numbers start to work)
 
= $18k still needed
 
Conditions:
* 100% collateral 
* put $31k in CD for 5 yrs @ 5% annual (USD) (aka all our cash)
* Odimm agrees to guarantee this loan. (e.g. we put up $31k CD collateral meaning we need additional $18. Odimm covers 50% of this meaning we need $9k more)
* contract for rent signed > length of the loan (it must also be signed and fully official BEFORE the loan application is accepted)
* all purchases to be put into collateral are to be prepared and signed before submitting all documents. This equipment will be included at 62%-65% of value in collateral (this means that before knowing if we get the loan we would need to prepare a MASSIVE amount of documentation stipulating all of the equipment we would purchase). 
* cosigner for remaining amount of loan with sufficient land or house assets to cover remaining (aka if we're still short after the equipment as collateral)
 
Terms:
* get $60k loan (aka taking a loan to cover the whole cost because we put the 1/2 of the cash we had in a CD)
* interest will be 14.25% annual
* application fees will amount to ~1000 lei
* 1% fee on final early payback (charged on amounts over the stated monthly rate)
 
Commissions
1) initial commission of 2% on entire credit amount ($60k)
2) 1% annual commission on remaining sum
3) 1% commission on amount removed at each withdraw from the credit line
 
Odimm:
has a ~2.5% commission on the remaining sum yearly starting after the first year
 
 

if anyone reading is a glutton for pain and / or really really bored feel free to try and calculate what the actual APR is after all of those commissions. 

 

Lessons Learned

Here are some general lessons learned from the process. These are by no means comprehensive and some touch off some topics that might best be handled separately but here goes... (remember - leave comments below if you have anything to add :)

Collateral is king

In Moldova most families have land and a house / apartment. This is due to land redistribution when the country became independent and the fact that everyone just assumed ownership of where ever they were living when the Soviet Union fell. When they do not generally have is debt. This means that people are much more likely to have collateral than credit. This explains the focus on collateral. If you are not of the generation that reaped those benefits (and lived through the economic disaster of the 90s that came with it) then the banking system doesn't seem to know what to do with you. 

Weak Laws

The AgroindBank loan officer who helped us figure out that terrible deal above explained to us that one major barrier in lending here is that the laws that would assist the bank in getting their money back if you default or just take the money and run are weak. I can't independently verify this but would love to hear from someone who knows more about it (comments are below!)

Grants / seed capital

Most Moldovans don't look to loans as a first stop in loans. They look for grants (free money!). This and likely numerous other factors means that banks aren't really in the business of giving loans to a startup company. Some loan officers said that this entire process would be totally different if we had cashflow and an operating business which I believe (though they still implied collateral is king). 

Target sectors and special treatment outside of Chisinau

The Moldovan Government and international organizations target certain areas and industries for growth which leads to our ineligibility from many programs. In particular rural development and agribusiness are big target areas. The ODIMM program mentioned in the above example is the only one that we are technically eligible for and they state a clear preference for agribusiness and things out of Chisinau. We were joking that if we wanted to become an apple exporter or startup a restaurant in a small village where no one will eat out we would be contenders. 

To me this is all stupid. I understand that developing the agriculture sector is wise and will put the country on track for it's European ambitions. That said, what about the rest of the economy? Much is said about urbanization of Moldova (usually negative) but when compared to developed countries a much larger percentage of Moldovans still live in villages - where there are few, if any jobs. Developing entrepreneurial business shouldn't fear social change by trying only to bolster the status quo. If a developed economy means people go to cities for opportunity that can't be fought by only supporting startup businesses outside of the cities. It only retards the growth of startups. 

Ok, I have that off my chest. Feel free to contest it if you like. I feel strongly that more planning = weaker economy. Imagine if SBA loans in the US were only for certain sectors as ODIMM programs are here? It assumes you know what will drive your economy in the future and excludes possibilities like a high-tech boom and more. 

 

Conclusion

I never want to do any of that again.  

 

 

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The DMV or "to do without money..."

This short post is a bit of a departure in that it does not directly pertain to business in Moldova. That said it a) discusses a proces that any expat needs to go through to stay here (aka - registering with the DMV if you have a car) and b) exemplifies a prevelant mindset here reguarding bribes or "to do something with money" 

So... anyone who has ever gone to the DMV (the "Department of Motor Vehicals" for non-drivers) in the US is aware of what a "fun" process this is. I can't speak to any other countries in the world but I suspect that this is a universally hated institution. I once called the DMV helpline in Virginia and after 30 minutes on hold was told that "there was a higher than normal call volume" and I should call back on Wendsday. It was Thursday. So with the background of having once been put on hold for a week in the US here is the tale of the Moldovan DMV - МРЭО. 

 

After finally achieving my visa to live and work in Moldova it was time to re-register my car. I drive a 1986 Lada Жигули named Надя (Nadia - "hope" in Russian). Nadia and I have been on many adventures together but have had to take a prolonged break while waiting for my visa as her tags expired. So it was with spring in my step that I grabbed the tags off the car and took a marshrutka (mini-bus) out to where google told me the DMV was. It was my figuring that I would have to pay some fees and do some paperwork but that this would be fairly straight forward. In Virginia you do this by mail. Sadly (but predictably) in Moldova things are more complicated. I was turned away from the DMV because they needed to see my car as well. I asked them "am I allowed to drive here with expired plates?" This was met by a blank stare which I took to mean "yes sir we will personally vouch for you in the event of trouble and go so far as to expound upon your great personal character should the police have doubts." I drove in the next day. 

 

At this point we began a major "checking over" (translated from Russian - "to control") every aspect of the car. First it started with whether or not I had my mechanical inspection (I did), it progressed to whether or not the engine was the one stated on my previous registration (it was) and then it moved to whether all the car's VIN numbers checked out. I'll add that in this process the many was quite friendly and amused/bemused that an American would own such a car as this. When he went to check the VIN number though he became much more confrontational. He asked why I had painted the body VIN number over (I didn't own the car when it was painted) and was quite unhappy and insisted I hire an "expert" to determine what the number was under the paint. I wasn't sure what this meant until he pointed me to an office across from the service window in the DMV with the door plaque "EXPERT." He also was wearing a service jumpsuit with the label "EXPERT" on the back. 

 

b2ap3_thumbnail_mcmakin.jpgIf only all people came with descritive labels (fyi this is a DUI mugshot)

 

The expert then proceeded to dissolve my paint on the VIN number. When he got down to the number it was there and seemingly matched my registration fine. That said, this part of the car had a layer of primer paint they considered "suspect" under the outer red paint. In order to check elsewhere they dissolved paint on another part of the car (selected at random) to see what that looked like. It did not have the primer which made them even more suspicious. At this point the "expert" (who is like 60+ years old) declared that he needs to consult an "expert" specialized in old cars. So we hopped in my car and drove to another DMV where he grabbed another guy with "EXPERT" on his back to look at my car. This dude was like 23 years old. After much bickering and inspection of the numbers they determined that I was not trying to register a stolen car. While that was a relief I couldn't help but think it was a whole lot of time to figure out it an American was guilty of stealing a car worth far less than $1000. Total cost of headache and paint dissolution? 200 lei (~$13).

Back we go to the DMV and it's time to pay fees. The man behind the counter (friendlier now) give me a sticky note with 5 numbers written on it and tells me these are the fees and I need to pay them at the bank. The bank is across the hall and is staffed by one very bored and indifferent kid. He takes the sticky note and charges me the sum + 5 lei. I asked why 5 lei more? and he says that's the bank fee. I then bring the receipts he gave me back to the DMV window and am loudly berated for having missed one fee for 40 lei. I go back to the bank and tell the kid he forgot one. He rings it up for 45 lei. Interest in the fact that this was his fault? zero. 

 

b2ap3_thumbnail_images.jpg

customer, why you are still distracting me from playing on my phone?

 

Finally all is done and I go the next day to pick up my shiny new plates from the central DMV. The DMV branch I was at gave me trouble because they wanted me to turn my old ones in first and when I pointed out that I would be driving across the city without plates they were confused as this never occurred to them. Eventually they made me promise to bring them back and let me go. I got my new plates but the man giving them to me didn't take my receipt for having paid for them (not including the expert I've paid upwards of 800 lei in fees by now - about ~$52). I figured that they didn't need it and after all they had a copy elsewhere at the branch DMV. Done and done.

Not exactly. Two days later I get an extremely angry call from an unknown cell number. It is a man raving about a receipt and he is so mad that I can't even understand what he's saying. I was in a meeting and asked my business partner Vlad to take the call and see what this person wanted (they wouldn't even reply who it was or where from). Lo and behold it was DMV man and he was REALLY mad about the receipt. He seemed to think I was trying to screw him over personally and was especially "hurt" by this because we conducted my business there "without money." This means I didn't bribe him and he was so kind as to accept that.

The next day I turned in the receipt and that was that. The mentality really makes you think though. That bribe wasn't something I could have offered to speed things up or make problems go away. It was his "due" and he waived it because he liked me or was afraid to deal with a foreigner. When bribes aren't offered or even expected but so commonplace as they are "owed" you have a systemic problem. More on that another time...

 

 

 

 

 

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Posted by on in Stories From The Field
On Menus...

Picture above from Listen 2 Uncle Jay and apparently taken in Tatarstan Russia. Good to know that "business launch" is not just a Moldova phenomenon :)

 

If you live in Moldova or have ever traveled here one question sticks out above the rest in terms of how constantly it is encountered and how frustrated it is bound to make any westerner.

 

Why does every restaurant have a 50 page menu with hundreds and hundreds

of items listed that they do not have. Furthermore why won't anyone, anywhere, just tell me what they have instead of making me guess half a dozen times before I hit something they will serve?!

 

Sadly part 2 of that question will forever remain a mystery. Matt and I once guessed every single beer on a menu (7) before realizing that a.) they only had non-alcoholic Chisinau and b.) the waitress had absolutely no intention of telling me that, preferring instead to say "no" to each one in succession.

 

Image available under Creative Commons (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/2.0/) and accessed at https://www.flickr.com/photos/justard/11892679423 The Cheerful Waitress

I smile because you're allowing me to fill my whole "saying NO to people"

quota today! soon I get to move on to "I don't know"

 

The good news is that today we are going to answer the first part of the question. Why are menus so big and why don't they ever have anything? To do that we need to descend back into the world of Moldovan bureaucracy. But first...

 

What is a menu anyhow and how are they made?

In theory this question has a simple answer. The menu is the list of things I want to serve to my customer and I make it however I damn please. At Ann's Snack Bar in Atlanta for example you pretty much eat the Ghetto Burger (Wall St. Journals' #1 burger in America 2007) she puts in front of you or she throws your ass out (something I have witnessed). That is their menu. Most places however have their basic menu + (maybe) a specials menu + (maybe) a chalkboard showing a "soup of the day" or something. Anyone who has ever lived in Moldova knows that none of that is the case here. The menu is very formulaic with Appetizer, First Dish, Second Dish, Meats, Fish, etc etc and is very very long. Only very modern places have pictures on the menu and everything is presented by weight (like the picture of the menu above with the o-so-delicious sounding "Salad Green Madness"). The reasons for these major differences between Moldova and countries outside of the post-Soviet world begin with...

The Health Department and their "Food Lab"

In Moldova the Health Department not only...

  1. dictates how your kitchen must be laid out specifying exactly what food is prepped where, how many employee showers you need (no joke) etc, (post on kitchen plan upcoming),

  2. selects a category of establishment for you (post here - additional post upcoming about insane profit limitations that accompany this classification)

  3. inspect and certify your establishment's cleanliness

  4. require testing for all your employees on food safety

they also...

  1. "control" your recipes to make sure you're doing them right (or something)

  2. certify your menu to make sure it conforms to the recipes you claim to be serving

note: this is only the national Health Department. The city Health Department has a different process entirely.

 

They do all of this via a giant Recipe Book of literally every recipe recognized as valid by the Moldovan Government.

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I, Stefan Cel Mare, King of Moldavia, Saint, Scourge of the Ottoman Empire,

cousin of Vlad "Dracula" Tepesh, and bequether of many road names

do hereby declare this scroll to be the final word on mashed potatoes.

 

In order to serve something in your restaurant it must be in the book. If it isn't in the book you must submit your recipe to a "food lab" so that they may recreate it (to make sure you weren't lying?) and then they put it in the book. You can imagine that this involves fees, time, lots of people who say "I have no idea" as a career, and more time. I can. We'll see because I'll update this post after we go through this whole process.

In the mean time I can explain a bit more of how this works. After the recipes are selected or submitted and returned you are given official "recipe cards" which are (naturally) officially stamped to indicate their relative importance when compared with your grandmother's recipe for mashed potatoes. These recipes are then placed in your kitchen and used by your staff. They must be followed exactly or there are consequences but more on that later. Let's see how this relates to menus...

Changing the Menu

So you have your recipes. They are awesome food is awesome AND the card is stamped. Time to make a menu. Print out a sheet of paper and write all the stuff you want to serve on it. Be sure to include the weights of the items as that is required by law. I'd like to think this is a kind of (misguided) attempt at consumer protection but seriously who knows. Also stamp every page of your menu with your company stamp because otherwise it could totally be a fake menu that that lunatic down the street keeps putting on your tables (evidently a problem here before the advent of the stamp system?). Finally you get the Health Department to check and approve your menu. You now have your menu. Congrats. We're done here right?

[do we ever end on a happy note?]

 

Coulda seen that coming. You see the problem occurs when you want to do anything not on the menu or the recipe cards. For example...

  1. offer a "soup of the day"

  2. have a special based on combining various ingredients you have on hand

  3. innovate and try new recipes

  4. allow the customer to "have it their way" and customize their order

  5. cater a party with special orders

  6. have a holiday special

  7. remove an unpopular item

etc etc etc

Why are all these things problems? because every time you change the menu you need to register the change with the Health Department. This triggers a new health inspection for your restaurant. Unless you want that kind of hassle, fees, under the table fees (if you pay those) and random scrutiny every time you offer a soup of the day then you're shit outta luck. Those are the rules. Want fries with that steak instead of mashed potatoes? Is that variant on the menu? if not, no. Hosting your kid's birthday at my restaurant and he loves bananas so you want me to make a banana cake? shit. outta. luck.

Anyone see where this is going? If you've been to Moldova you do.

 

This is why the menus are so long. They need to list everything they ever would conceivably want to cook for weddings, events, parties, seasonal dishes, etc. This is why they never have those things.

 

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this is the point that I realized much of what I attribute to "Moldovan Culture"

is really a case of "insanely horrific laws that make no sense whatsoever"

 

Escaping the Madness

Restaurateurs in Moldova aren't stupid. The majority I've talked to have been the clearest eyed business people I've talked to here and they are generally super helpful and open. They understand that this system is stupid and outdated. Some of these laws date from the 1970s before they were legally called capitalists or even business people. People know this needs to be changed or "gotten around" the question is how.

Firstly, I'll give a rare shout out to the Moldovan Government. Most people I've talked to say this is in effect a "Dead Law" meaning it's still on the books but the recipes and menu oversight isn't enforced. In this way the government realized "this silliness isn't worth our time" and moved on to better things (presumably finding ever more interesting ways to make foreign investment difficult). This doesn't mean that you don't have to do everything I mentioned above (submitting the recipes, getting the menu approved, etc). It just means that if you make changes later no one cares (maybe?, we hope). The problems with this are twofold. One, any unenforced law is an invitation for someone "in the know" to come and jack you up for "on the spot fines." This is especially true of something like this where compliance is so tedious compared to what you want to do (soup of the day - seriously why do they hate my seasonal curry pumpkin soup so much?). This fear alone keeps people in line. The second problem is accounting which I will explain in a moment.

Firstly, I want to mention a few interesting ways around this mess. The main one, that Andy's and the big chains seem to use is having multiple menu inserts based on season ("menu de post," etc). Another is the "Business Launch [sic]" as shown at the top of the page where they rotate "specials" based on the day. Obviously this isn't that fun because you KNOW that every monday is that cool thing you like but you're busy and ever friday they have the white rice and pork-broth special. Even if they were good though there's no variation or surprises. These are at best partial solutions.

The most creative solution I've seen is Gastrobar's "Test Menu." Now I haven't talked to the owner about this (if any readers know him/her please introduce me) but this seems pretty clear to me. If anyone asks tell them it's not permanent. Fullstop. Pretty creative if you ask me.

 

The Problem With Anything but Legal Reform - Accounting

Finally I will explain where the "recipe cards" get truly devious. Even if the Health Department never comes by and checks that you are using exactly as much cumin as you said you would per kilo of pork shoulder the Moldovan IRS does. That's because these recipe cards get entered into your official accounting tallies. So does the menu. For example, if I say that we use 1 cup of sugar and 1 cup of salt per x liters water to brine x kilos of meat and I decide to put less meat in the brine one night I'm responsible for spending according to the recipe. Meaning that if the recipe says that I should have used 1 kilo of sugar and I used 2 the company cannot legally buy the second kilo. Conversely if I was supposed to use 2 and I used 1 then I am subject to a government fine.  

 

Consider this a little teaser to upcoming posts about the accounting system here. We're quite new so we have a whole lot to learn on this front. That said, I am pretty ready to say that the accounting rules in Moldova are the single largest compliance problem for business here AND are structured in a way that yields far fewer taxes than owed. Anyhow, all that is to come.

 

In other news, now you know why the menus are so long here and they never have anything. And here I just thought they were being silly...

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Posted by on in Stories From The Field
Visa Denial and Appeal

Read Me First: I wrote this originally while this process was ongoing so I imagine a fair amount of frustration and anger comes through. I've edited the post to reflect the fact that we did eventually get our visas but I have tried to keep the tone the same. This was an incredibly terrible process and I have no desire to sugar coat it just because we got through it. I've had to put a little distance between the events and my posting to even look it over because the whole thing is mostly a mess of bad memories for me. So, without further ado please enjoy...

 

Well folks you're in for a doozy with this one. I apologize in advance. If you're the kind of person who doesn't want to see things about Moldova that make you sad, depressed or enraged I recommend stopping now. 

That picture you see there is my whiteboard's countdown. It was a countdown from the moment my visa got rejected to the day I needed to get myself out of this fine country I've called home for over 2 years. It reflects the fact that for almost a month our living room became a war room dedicated not to our business but to fighting a corrupt and confused visa process just in order to stay in the country. At the end of this process our appeal was accepted and we managed to get visas. Before it did though that whiteboard counter hit zero and went negative. Read on to follow the tale... 

 

jump to... 

Chapter 1 

The Gatekeepers

Chapter 2 

Official Rejection

Chapter 3 

What is to be done

Chapter 4 

The Meeting

Chapter 5

The Appeal

Chapter 6 

Conclusions

 


 

CHAPTER 1


"The Gatekeepers"  

or...

"A Tale of 4 Bureaucrats"

Our tale starts where we left off in the first post about visa applications where I posted an update saying that we could get a 5yr visa instead of a 1yr (the first post is recommended preliminary reading as this sorrowful saga builds on many of the same themes of ambiguity, misdirection, misinformation, obscurity and downright rudeness). This information was conveyed to us by a person at the immigration office who, it turns out, is one of 4 gatekeeper bureaucrats who review your visa application before they go before a final commission. This information came as a surprise that slowly dawned on us as it was never explained who was going to review the application. We were told that two departments needed to look them over but it was implied that the kindly woman at the submission window constituted one of those departments. Either that was untrue or she confused "2 departments" with "lots of people."

Anyhow, our 4 bureaucrats. It is unclear what their purpose is. Our theories revolve around the idea that they a.) just redundantly check for document completion (along with the application room receptionist and the person at the application booth) or b.) that they review the applications and make a recommendation to the following commission. Honestly we have no idea but theory a.) is strengthened by the fact that their behavior mirrored the reception woman and the kindly woman at the booth in that they all had totally different ideas of what was required for the application. 

 

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it is my hope that cute pictures of dogs and bad puns shall make this post less trying to read

 

So... bureaucrats 1-3 turned out to be quite nice. One of them was super insistent on our internal document numbering scheme (something we didn't want, they required, and then they judged was inadequate). Another was excited to tell us that as Americans we were eligible for 5 year visas instead of 1 year. This would have been excellent since this process has already consumed over a month and would need to be done every year. Then came bureaucrat number 4. 

This man was less helpful. He first attacked our company's capitalization. To some extent his questioning is understandable because the documents in his possession showed only a 100 MDL (just under $7) investment in the company. We had felt no need to provide more updated documents because there is no law requiring a certain level of capitalization for your company for you to get a visa

 

...let me reiterate that...

 

nolaw

image-2

image-3

image-6

...for all you English major's out there that's what you call some foreshadowing. 

 

Ok, back to our guy. So he's really unhappy with our 100 lei. 100 lei is the legal minimum for an SRL and all we need to prove to be, in theory, visa eligible. He took this clear state of undercapitalization as proof that we were, at best, unserious, or worse trying to scam our way into Moldova (this suspicion was reoccurring - do people actually do that?! *see note at end of chapter). We explained to him that we have an American company that has all of our capital and is really excited to send it (We neglected to end that sentence with ...as soon as your colleagues in the State Registration Chamber stop insisting that they are experts on Virginia Law or, put more simply will allow us to send the money here)Vlad signed an Affidavit affirming that this money was inbound imminently. Additionally we explained that the capital in our Moldovan company isn't 100 lei but 18000 lei at this time. He told us to prove it and we did. A few documents and stamps later we were clear bureaucrat #4. This one had left a bad taste in our mouths though. He wasn't a very nice person and made it super clear he would not approve us for a 5 year visa and had reservations about us entirely. 

This may be the time to mention that at literally no stage in the process of trying to get a visa to start a company in Moldova, or the process or starting that company, or the process or trying to invest money into the economy, has one. single. solitary. person said the words: "happy to have you! Moldova really needs investment and jobs! welcome aboard." This in spite of the fact that the government preaches this goal literally. every. day

 

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I'm unsure that the pictures of dogs are enough to make this less sad. I think I need more puns... 

 

*Update: Evidently they do have problem with people trying to scam the visa process in order to immigrate from areas in the middle east - especially Syria. One theory that was explained to us is that this gives them an excuse to hassle everyone more in order to extract more bribes from them. I cannot speak to the legitimacy of this theory but I can say 100% that we were treated like criminals for a good portion of this process for no reason whatsoever. 


 

CHAPTER 2


"Official Rejection"  

or...

"Dear Moldova Why Don't You Want Our $$$"

 

The title pretty much gives away the gist of this chapter. October 9th rolled around and we took a stroll down to the Immigration Office in the hopes of good news. Instead, we got what even we knew was more likely - no news at all. Mostly confused looks and a vague suggestion to return tomorrow. We did and this time everyone in the office knew who we were. We were barely through the door before they blurted "your visa has been rejected."

 

b2ap3_thumbnail_84628.jpg

no matter how prepared you are to find that the letters from
Hogwarts were just leading you on and that it was just your parents you still cry. It felt something like that.

 

If you would like to see a scan of the actual decision issued by the government please David and Matt's identical rejection letters. 

For those of you who can't read Romanian here is basically what it said. 

Under Article 32 para. (5) letter a.) Law no. 200 of 16.07.2010 on foreigners stay in Moldova and there is no basis for concluding, after examination, 1 of 09.09.2014 the administration "SMOKE HOUSE" LLC. for right of stay in order to work immigration US citizen DAVID LEO SMITH.

Additionally it explains at the bottom that we may appeal as stipulated in law nr. 793-XIV din 10.02.2000.

 

If you google translate that law and look at the relevant sections you will see, rather clearly, that this provides absolutely no information. The law essentially outlines the things you need to comply with in order to get a visa - our rejection says that we violated them. One of them? all of them? who knows. The appeal law is equally cryptic essentially providing for our right to appeal the decision within 30 days. The problem is that this law covers almost all federal agencies and therefore has no process information - each agency is different. How do you appeal then? I asked this. Here was the conversation:

Me: Why were we rejected?

Woman at the Immigration office who just gave us the decision (for brevity we'll call her Linda): I don't know. 

Me: Well, how do we appeal?

Linda: I don't know. 

Me: Well who do we appeal to?

Linda: I don't know. 

Me: When we make this appeal, somehow, to... someone, how long will it take? Can I stay in the country when it processes? 

Linda: I don't know. 

Me: Will it take one day? two?

Linda: I don't know. 

Linda's Coworker: Much longer. 

Me: Who does know?! who can tell me more?!?

Linda: I don't know. 

Linda's Coworker: [indifferent stare. It said "i could literally not give fewer fucks"]

 

After this and all of our other ordeals Matt and I really wanted to tear our hair out and say the following to Moldova:

 

b2ap3_thumbnail_takeOurMoney.jpgliterally. Please. 

So, what's next? As that nice dialog demonstrated rather clearly I have no idea and literally no one else does. The one thing I know is that as of the moment I got that decision the clock was ticking. I (David) had 19 days left in Moldova on my tourist visa and Matt had just over a month and a half. We had work to do. 

It's about time to mention the elephant in the room here. This problem can very quickly go away. It was conveyed to us in no uncertain terms that for 300 euros each this process can be "smoothed." No one asked for this (it came via a trusted lawyer associate) and no one ever asks for or takes your money. Said differently, no one can be caught as this is carefully done. It also needs to be done before the decision is rendered. Based on our previously mentioned ideals this was never going to be something we did. Our current situation could be said to be the result of that attitude. 


 

CHAPTER 3


"What is to be done"

or...

"Calling Everyone We Know"

 

When you don't know what to do find someone who does. These are words to live by no matter how hard they occasionally smart the prideful amongst us. Moldova has been pretty tough on my pride already so it was pretty much immediately time to set about finding help. We called and emailed lots of people. I'm going to keep this section brief because the next chapter is more informative and moves this strange tale along. The key here is that we consulted many good people from various orgs and agencies to try and get help and information. As mentioned at the beginning of this post I intended to post this as the process was ongoing but held off for a few weeks to put some distance between me and the problem and get some perspective. As such I originally I included chapter 3 here in case anyone reading had a good idea. Literally, any of them. No hair-brained idea sounded too silly at that point. I held off on posting this so this chapter is no longer a call for help. That said it accurately reflects the state of confusion that we were in. We were really looking for a plan...

 

b2ap3_thumbnail_rube.png

Once the rocket launches it deploys a flare that alerts the one person in Moldova
that cares that we want to invest in the economy and they ride a dragon to our rescue

 

Ok ok I know that sounds a bit sci-fi. We all know that that such person does not exist in the Moldovan government. 


 

CHAPTER 4

"The Meeting"

or...

"All the reasons we suck but none of the reason(s) we were rejected"

 

In our attempts to gain some insight into what happened to us Vlad called the Immigration Department and requested a meeting with the department Chief. To our surprise they agreed and scheduled it for Thursday the 16th. Talking to our contacts we found that her taking the meeting at all is very rare and unusual so we took this as a good omen. We prepared for the meeting via the aforementioned "calling everyone we know" and managed to get a friend to ask his brother, an immigration lawyer, to meet us before the meeting to talk things over. He basically said that we should go in and politely see what is the problem and how we can fix it. If they give us no recourse we'll got to court (other contacts have assured us that as they have essentially groundlessly rejected us we would almost certainly win in court... but they could drag it out for months). 

 

I have included a short summary of the meeting below. It was a very confrontational discussion in which they repeatedly accused us of either wrongdoing to ill intent in Moldova but never explained on what legal basis we were rejected. As you will see they had serious reservations about our company's capitalization but also admitted that this was not a legal basis for rejection. The outcome of the meeting is that we needed to submit all of our documents for re-review. They had promised to conduct the review in 10 days rather than 30. This was not necessarily encouraging given the process of the meeting (see below). 

All in all we were hoping for a friendly, frank, conversation with the director of the department (who studied in America and speaks English!) but instead we found her deputies who were like...

 

image-6

and you are nothing
wait... I've been here before...

Here's a rough transcript of the meeting: 

Smokehouse Team (David, Matt and Vlad): introduced ourselves, our company and our intended business in Moldova. Asked "what is wrong with our documents and how do we fix them"

Immigration People: They did not introduce themselves. Had no information about our case. Did not tell us their positions or titles. We gave them xeroxed copies of our packet and reiterated the question: "what is wrong with our documents and how do we fix them." After much shuffling of papers they said that the statutory capital of our company (100 lei - the legal minimum) was too low and angrily demanded how we were going to start a business with so little. 

Smokehouse Team: we explained that the statutory capital is only one part of a bigger picture with our capitalization. We directed them to documents in their possession showing personal loans of 18000 lei to the company and a sworn affidavit explaining that we would be transferring the bulk of the investment from the parent US company in the immediate future (greatly delayed because of disputes with another department that are finally reaching resolution).  

Immigration People: ignored the documents we referenced. Make a huge fuss about the 100 lei. Asked us if they would be allowed to go to America for 100 lei? I asked if there was a law determining minimum capital investment here (there is not - there is in many countries, not in the USA). They did not respond.  

Smokehouse Team: We showed them a bank statement clearly showing our American company's money ready to transfer.  

Immigration People: They made a big fuss about how we can (heavily implied "should") just give our Moldovan partner the money and go back to the states.  

Immigration People: As I (David) handed over the relevant financial documents (which they refused to look at or take form my hand) they loudly accused me of making a much larger fuss than most people who invest millions of dollars. When I placed the document on the table in front of them (after they refused to take them from my hand) they accused us of being dramatic and making a show. 

Immigration People: The woman present viciously verbally attacked Vlad, loudly yelling that this* was all his fault. That he failed to fix this* for the Americans. We asked, again, what is this*? what was wrong with the application? was it the 100 lei? is there a law for that? They agreed that there was not a law and 100 lei is all that is required. When pressed for what was wrong they simply pointed at the refusal document which references the immigration law. This was the best answer we got and is summed up as "we rejected you according to some point in the law." She remained adamant that it was Vlad's fault for failing to fix this* 

Immigration People: Agreed to review documents (according to our legal right - not exactly a concession on their part). Ended the meeting. Told us only what their first names were. We asked which documents we needed to resubmit (aka the whole application? just a clarifying document?). They did not respond or clarify - they simply said "all the documents you have." When asked if we can stay in the country while this process proceeds and the man personally guaranteed that we could and if the decision was negative we would have 3 days to leave. When asked if they could say if the decision would be positive they said no. 

 End of meeting. 

*It requires little imagination to understand what our Moldovan partner failed to do for us and why he was deemed to be solely at fault. American's aren't expected to understand the... out of office procedures here but Moldovans are. 


CHAPTER 5

"The Appeal" 

or... 

"all the documents" 

 

We're not done here yet. We have appeals to write. Documents to gather. Lawyers to hire. Phone calls to make. and emails to write. We're not giving up on the idea of opening a BBQ restaurant here. We're not going quietly.

 

I wrote that as the ending of the original post when this process was still ongoing. Combined with a major sting of rejection and fear of imminent defeat it summed up our attitude at the time. So here's what we did. 

 

Documents for the Appeal

In addition to a whole slew of documents they already had we submitted the following documents in the appeal. We managed to pull everything together in an afternoon which sounds a whole lot easier than it was and resulted in us literally running to the Immigration Department to submit them before close of work. 

  1. The appeal letter describing that we are appealing the decision in legalese and what documents we submitted. This document is critical because you get to keep a copy that they stamp proving that you actually submitted these documents on that day and that they were accepted. 
  2. Bank account statement Smoke House SRL - proving we had much more money than 100 lei
  3. Excerpt from personal bank account - this is required under different types of visas to prove you can support yourself and won't be seeking help from Moldova's nonexistent welfare state. 
  4. Bank account statement Moldova Company LLC - showing the money that was all set to transfer
  5. Decision of "The Moldova Company LLC"  to invest a stated sum in capital of Smoke House SRL
  6. Documents Apostilled in the U.S. showing proof of ownership in the Company Moldova Company LLC by us
  7. Copy of current loan contract between SRL Smoke House and Matt and I

 

As you can see from these documents we were basically working on their concern about the 100 lei in the statutory capital. As mentioned before this for sure wasn't their only problem but it was the only one we could take a whack at. 

Getting Permission to Stay Temporarily

After waiting, as requested, until the whiteboard counter almost hit zero I went to the office and got a meeting with the man from the previous meeting to request a document explaining that I can stay until the decision finishes. He was noticeably more polite (see strategy below) and was able to get me a document allowing me to stay until Nov. 24th (one month). 

Strategy

This is the key entry to this chapter. We were told via our back channel connections that we would be denied again no matter what went into the appeal. This isn't specific to us but a blanket pseudo-policy because to accept our appeal would be to admit to a mistake in the first place. Obviously this is flawed thinking but it pervades a lot of the thinking of Moldovan "Directors."Flawed or not though we clearly needed more than just "vague hope" to win this one.

As mentioned before we pay no bribes as a company policy. As such we decided that the best we could do is make it clear that we are more trouble than we are worth to them. We were able to ask people to call on our behalf and inquire about our process and to make it clear that if we didn't get a fair treatment we would not give up here (aka go to court). I know this is all rather vague but the key is that they needed to send the message that we would continue to fight via courts of media if we were rejected without just cause. 

The Waiting Game

Commence the waiting game. This sucked. 


 

CHAPTER 6

"Conclusions" 

or... 

"time to get back to work"

 

I won't go through all the back and forth and trips to their office that it took to get the answer eventually (it took 14 days) but the key is that they did eventually give it to us and it was positive. We will likely never know what exactly happened to create this outcome but we can say definitively that it was honest. All in all the fact that we made lots of calls to make it publicly clear that we would be shining a light on this process probably made the decide just not to bother with us. 

In conclusion... Being rejected and given neither good reason nor a way to make things right is rough. We always knew things would be hard (though maybe not this soul crushing). Put simply, Matt and I are still here, after two years pushing oversized stones up muddy slopes in the Peace Corps, because we believe, despite all of the (rather obvious) problems, that Moldova is full of opportunity. Put even more simply, we believe in Moldova. We are proud to call Vlad our third partner because he believes in Moldova too and is willing to endure hardship to make it a better place. Moldova made it abundantly clear that it doesn't want us. But just like that stage 5 clinger who gives out those too-long awkward hugs in high school we're just gonna grip tighter. Hey there Moldova, bring it in for the real thing

 

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closer... closer... closer...

 

This post is far too long but I'll follow it up with a concise set of recommendations for if you are trying to apply under this type of visa yourself. We learned a lot and I feel pretty confident that if we were to do it again we could have headed off a number of the problems. More to come. 

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