My Bloody Romania: Ia

Dateline: Ia??i, Romania

Having finally found the strength to leave the house for a good wander around the city center, I slipped into a phone booth and switched into my alter ego, Travel Writer Man.

Travel Writer Man has a lot of crap that he likes to haul around: Palm Pilot, digital camera, pens, map, guidebook, sunglasses, business cards, cell phone, three kinds of currency, key-chain light, extra socks, crash helmet, death ray, almost-death ray, breath mints and lotion.

In cold weather, outfitting himself with this array of paraphernalia was never a problem having acquired a jacket with seven pockets that weighs almost 20 pounds when fully loaded. However, in warm weather, Travel Writer Man has always struggled with how to carry all of his critical apparatuses without resorting to a Man Bag, until recently when he discovered the exquisite beauty and priceless utilitarianism of cargo shorts.

Travel Writer Man used to openly mock people wearing these hilarious things outside of jungle safari, but Travel Writer Man changed his tune last April while he was writing the definitive works on large parts of Tuscany for an obscure guidebook series that rhymes with ‘Homely Janet’. Having acquired a pair of cargo shorts for lack of any other option during an emergency fit of speed shopping, he was amazed at how versatile and accommodating of spare death-ray clips these garments were. He is now a convert, having recently bought a new pair with nine pockets of varying size, including special receptacles for a cell phone and flash bombs and nine, yes nine, pen/pencil loops that can double as a bandolier for groupie-dispersing nerve gas slugs. But I digress back into the first person, before this becomes unfunny…

I paid rent in Iaşi (pronounced ‘yash’) for a cumulative 16 months between 2004-06, making it, longevity-wise, my second home. I have a love/hate relationship with this town that I could drone on about for 10,000 words, but since a post like that would put Gadling’s payroll into overdraft, I’ll keep this topical.

Iaşi has had an industrious year, with several changes/improvements standing out. Most heartening, an honest-to-Buddha tourism office has been opened just off Piaţa Unirii, being manned in part by a woman not opposed to wearing Elvira Mistress of the Night cast-off blouses and giving away wondrous 64-color city maps that money couldn’t buy 12 months ago. People, this should be your first stop in Iaşi, both for the brochures and the view. Loved it.

On that note, Piaţa Unirii (‘Union Plaza’) which has been in various stages of ruin and slo-mo refurbishment since 2004 is finally cleaned up and not even that unsightly, considering that butt-ugly piece of leftover 70′s tastelessness, Hotel Unirea, is sitting behind it at center stage. For a better view, move to the east side of the square, so your backdrop is taken up by the neoclassic Hotel Traian, designed by Gustave Eiffel in 1882 who, legend has it, was inspired to build his tower in Paris a few years later by the long legs and short skirts of Iaşi’s women (see historically accurate 19th century photo, right).

Some cleaver entrepreneur was standing ready at the Romanian border on January 1st 2007. While a legion of Romanians seeking work in Western Europe surged forward at the stroke of midnight, this guy towed about 10 pizza slice wagons across the country and parked them all over Iaşi (and I assume the rest of Romania). The pizza sucks, but at least now one has the choice of grabbing a sucky pizza over a sucky sandwich or a sucky hotdog while on the go.

The streets are in much better condition. Historically, Romania had some of the worst roads in Europe. During the eight months that I was a demoralized owner of a 1990 Dacia 1310, I averaged one flat tire per week. Inevitably on a Sunday. On my way to get anti-hangover coffee. I rarely handled it gracefully. Now streets are smooth and, more importantly, not disintegrating two weeks after being ‘fixed’ by a team of road workers consisting of the foreman’s out of work nephews and sons in-law. On a related note, despite the silky smooth streets, pizza delivery drivers still can’t seem to break the 90 minute mark (or the luke-warm serving temperature). Maybe in 2008.

Restaurants are opening at a dizzying pace, a trend that started at the beginning of 2006, with a focus on mid-range prices (previously non-existent), making the Iaşi eating section of the LP guide partially obsolete.

Also, many of you will be dying to know, beer prices have been affected, or rather not affected in the post-EU membership way that we’d hoped. A 0.5 liter glass of the local Romanian brew, which doesn’t suck by a long shot, can still be acquired in a stylish bar for a mere US$2. However, the fancy imports that used to cost US$5 for a .25 liter bottle, well they still cost US$5. Having EU import tariffs disappear has had zero effect, unless you count the new clutch of luxury homes being snatched up by Romania’s Heineken jackhole distributor.

Some photos from around Iasi to further intrigue you…

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Leif Pettersen, originally from Minneapolis, Minnesota, co-authored the current edition of Lonely Planet’s Romania and Moldova. Visit his personal blog, Killing Batteries, for further musings on beer, sucky food and his limited wardrobe.