It took over a week to discover everything the thief took. Even now, fourteen years after leaving the second-poorest country in Europe, I still wonder who it was.

The day after we returned to our fourth-floor flat in Moldova’s second-largest city, I needed to check a statistic in my tiny world atlas, one of those miniature gift books you used to find beside the cash register at Barnes and Noble. My daughter had given it to me as a going-to-Peace-Corps present. But the atlas wasn’t in its place, or any other place. Nor was my videotape of Vanya on 42nd Street, which I’d promised to show my third-year students when they finished their translation of Uncle Vanya. I’d bought it in San Francisco when we flew back for my daughter’s wedding and I doubted I’d be able to locate another copy in time. A paperback edition of poems in English translation by the Polish poet Wislawa Szymborska had vanished. My stubby little Collins French/English dictionary–gone. A few days later, I mourned the loss of my atlas’s twin, a friend’s gift of a tiny book of quotations from women travelers.

My husband, Chuck, opened a drawer and saw his Leatherman had disappeared. He looked for his Magnalite. Nowhere. A pack of batteries had taken flight. A pocket-size tool kit had strayed.

All these things we discovered as the need arose for each of them. Otherwise, you’d never know anyone had been inside the flat. Nothing was out of place, everything just as sparsely neat as when we’d left more than two weeks earlier.

Whoever it was had all the time in the world to stroll through the four modest rooms we were calling home for two years and to pick and choose. Peace Corps had scheduled major dental work for me in Bucharest, and Chuck was taking vacation time to come with me. Word must have gone round we’d be away for at least a week because I’d had to cancel my classes.

Chuck had a key. I had a key. Usually the keys hung together from a hook on the tubular brown metal coat rack beside the front door. Several months earlier, one of them had dropped out of a pocket, probably landing in the weeds in the courtyard. We didn’t realize it was gone until we were well out of the neighborhood and didn’t give it much thought even then, just had a duplicate made. After the theft I had the fanciful notion that someone finding that key, someone with enough time and curiosity, might have tried the locks of flats in each drab bloc lining the courtyard and lucked out with ours. It was just one far-fetched possibility among several.

Often we had visitors, very often students. Chuck had been giving recorder lessons to the teenage daughter of our neighbors across the hall, an accordion prodigy. She liked looking at the American posters we Blu-Tacked to our walls. She’d welcomed us home with a smile and a plate of her mother’s placinta. But could she have “borrowed” the key, had a copy quickly made, returned the original surreptitiously to its hook during a visit, then waited until we were gone to make her selections? Could one of my students?

For centuries, Moldovans accepted whatever fate handed them. The end of fifty years of Soviet imposition only hardened their passivity. Our Moldovan landlady, who was also my colleague at the university, acted almost indifferent about the theft. Americans living in Moldova got robbed all the time, she reminded me. She advised me to be quiet, her way of saying, forget about it.

I try to imagine the person who took these things. Maybe it was two people. A brother and sister? A girl, certainly, and perhaps her boyfriend. Or maybe she took the Leatherman and the Magnalite for her boyfriend.

I see her removing her shoes as she enters, opening the glass double doors into the salon, gliding over to the dulap shelves and looking through the contents.Taking out, putting back, considering. Quietly moving from room to room, maybe unlatching my foot locker we used as a coffee table. Padding softly into the second bedroom Chuck had appropriated for his office, opening his desk and finding the tools. Cautious, not wanting to seem greedy–neither our laptop computer or short-wave radio had been touched. Everything chosen, perhaps, to fit neatly into the punga she carried out of the flat so she would look as though she’d just come from the corner alimentar with some sugar and bread and tea.

That none of my clothes went missing is no mystery. More than once my Moldovan colleagues would ask me why I, a citizen of the richest country in the world, wore second-hand skirts and jackets. No, this one knew what not to take.

I think of her selectivity, almost apologetic in its spareness and focus: qualities I had to admire in a thief. She knew English well enough to covet a commercially worthless tiny atlas and collection of travelers’ thoughts. Did she yearn for the world beyond Moldova, a world she’d never see? Did her tastes run to post-modern poetry? There wouldn’t have been much of a market for Szymborska’s poems. My students, growing up in a Soviet republic that had only just become an independent country, knew nothing of contemporary central European writers. But many of them in the Modern Languages Faculty where I taught studied French as a second foreign language. Could one of them have wanted the dictionary, with its bright blue and red cover, its convenient size?

Feeling stupid and helpless, I announced the theft in each of my classes. Said I’d be grateful for any information the students could give me. Watching the faces wreathed in sympathy, listening to the indignant choruses of Shame! I tried to zero in on a likely culprit. Most of my students liked me–or acted as though they did. A few didn’t: the ones to whom I gave low- to average marks, while their Moldovan teachers gave them 8s and 9s, typically for mediocre work.

With only my own emotional bias driving me, I veered back and forth in suspecting the thief had been a Russian Moldovan, a descendant of the country’s Soviet invaders. If so, I could almost see her: the makeup packed on with a trowel, the black leather jacket cinched at the waist, the platform boots.

The items were never recovered, of course. We had the lock changed. Chuck made do with the kind of ordinary tools all Moldovan men used to repair things. We bought a clunky flashlight at the piata. One of the Volunteers going home for a funeral in Wisconsin was able to find another Vanya videotape, which I showed several months later in my classes. Each time I watched the students watching it, I silently asked, Maybe one of you has already seen this? 

About the author

Lee Haas Norris has worked on an archaeological dig in Romania with a bunch of college students who boycotted cabbage and soup of all…

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Issue 15 · June 2012

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