My Bloody Romania: Ia

Dateline: Ia??i, Romania

Further to my short list of conspicuous changes that have taken hold in Ia??i in the past 12 months, equally some things haven’t changed at all. Things that you’d kinda wished they’d prioritized. Like the city works.

I’m staying in a private apartment that hasn’t had hot water in over a week. Unless you go to the store and buy a dodgy mini-boiler that sucks down so much electricity that it makes the power point smoke, hot water in Romania is provided by the city and since the city suddenly has all these EU funds, they’ve made themselves busy replacing all the perfectly good municipal water pipes with new pipes that make the water taste metallic and hurt your kidneys. And they’re in no particular rushed to complete the conversion.


The haste to beatify the city, sadly, hasn’t included one of the coolest edifices in town: The Church of the Three Hierarchs. Its unique exterior is embroidered in a wealth of intricate patterns in stone, but this beauty has been languishing under scaffolding since before I first visited here and doesn’t appear to be much closer to being unveiled than when I took this picture in 2004. Indeed, there’s actually more scaffolding on it now and parts of it are wallpapered in plastic sheeting. For my money, they could have put off replacing the hot water pipes forever in lieu of fixing this wonderful piece of history.

Also, the Flintstones-era German trams that were handed down to Poland, that were handed down to eastern Slovakia, that were handed down to Romania, are still groaning along, tinkling chandeliers in every house they pass, filthy and sounding as if they’re one bolt failure away from collapsing into a thousand pieces then spontaneously bursting in flames, a la the Simpsons. Bucharest has futuristic trams, why not Iaşi?

The train station is still a crumbing eyesore. The platforms look as if they were shelled in 1941 and no one has gotten around to filling the holes, or even sweeping away the debris. Travelers who didn’t have specific business in Iaşi might be tempted to simply stay on the train and go anywhere else if they followed gut instinct upon seeing this sorry station.

On a positive note, three blocks of the city center’s main artery, Stefan cel Mare Boulevard, is still closed down each weekend to motor vehicles, so Iaşi’s families, unattended children and young couples in love can idly stroll back and forth (or race along on precarious rollerblades), much like the Italian passeggiata, without fear of being run down by maniacal, suicidal Romanian drivers. This may be one of Iaşi’s most pleasurable (free) pastimes.

Also, those wanting to do some quality souvenir shopping for the ladies in their lives, Romanian amber (yellow, brownish-orange and green) set in Turkish silver continues to be sold at shockingly low prices. In fact, going by my dim memory, prices may have even dropped in the past year. As always, the pieces have a very non-manufactured, unique and genuine look, as if some countryside matriarch was fashioning the pieces out in the shed during her downtime between milking the cows and hauling water from the community well.

Well, that’s enough reminiscing for now, I’ve gotta pack. Tomorrow I depart on a seven day road trip through Transylvania, visiting towns like Targu Mures and Sibiu (a 2007 European Capital of Culture), driving the Transfagarasan Road, seeing Poienari Castle (the real Dracula’s castle) and climbing the Bucegi Mountains. A somewhat dubious rental car has been acquired (22 euros per day) and a stash of Valium will be secreted in one of my cargo shorts pockets to deal with the non-stop, white knuckle, sphincter-collapsing danger that is driving in the Romanian countryside.

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 why he should be a city planner and how his lady friends hate being referred to as ‘ladies’.

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…


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.

My Bloody Romania: Hero gloriously returns to zero fanfare

Dateline: Cruising altitude, en route from Minneapolis to JFK

I hold in my hands a just-out-of-the-box, mint condition copy of Lonely Planet’s Romania and Moldova. This is significant for two reasons: One, I plan to do a fair bit of travel in Romania’s Moldavia and Transylvania regions over the course of the next month. Two, it just so happens that I wrote/updated half this staggering work of brilliance and I’m more than a little pleased to finally be flipping through the final product.

Is there anything as sweet as traveling in a country carrying a guidebook that has your name printed in blue 16 point font on page one? No really, I’m asking. I have no idea. This is my first time. Will celebrity spotters identify me? Will the paparazzi chase me down the street? Will girls shriek with primal lust and tear at my clothes when I rush from my hostel into my waiting Dacia 1310?

Hmmm, perhaps a test run here on the plane. I’ll prop the book open on the tray table exposing my bio page, fetching black and white picture and all, angle it so my neighbor can see it and wait for the slobbering reverence to ensue.

She doesn’t see it. I’ll tap the book on the table.

Nothing. I’ll rhythmically tap-point at my picture.

Emphatically circle it with my finger.


Man, she is really out of it. Is that rum I smell? OK , switching to other neighbor.

Drat. She’s asleep already. How is that possible? We’ve been in the air 12 effing minutes. I hate those people.

Well, until Romania then, where I’ll probably be less worshiped for my fame and literary genius and more chastised and mercilessly critiqued about content balance, misplaced map icons and how the bus from Brasov to Sighisoara actually costs 45 cents more than it says in the book and how could I have screwed up so badly?

Everyone’s a critic, especially me. I lived in Romania for a cumulative 16 months between 2004-06 (in the northeast city of Iasi, the country’s second largest city, 20 kilometers from the Moldovan border) and I complained like I was getting paid US$0.08 a word. Meaning I was compelled to complain at great length or not make rent. The startlingly narrow choice of cuisine, the kamikaze drivers, the alarming state of corruption and bureaucracy perpetrated by those who are in charge of processing used car title changes, the complete lack of desire by the entire population to satisfy the bare minimum of their assigned job duties without some kind of extra incentive and the demoralizing number of achingly beautiful women who were, for lack of any other option, dating horribly unattractive, style-starved, drunken, lecherous men while much more attractive American, travel writing, David Beckham look-alikes with asses that have to been seen to be believed were roundly ignored.

Apart from a 10 day visit over the previous New Years that saw Romania narrowly gain European Union membership, an interval that was spent largely drunk and prone (I was exceedingly happy on their behalf), I have not spent significant time in Romania for over a year. I’m told that EU membership has sparked some fast and occasionally mirthfully executed changes in that time and I can’t wait to criticize/mock it to a quivering pulp. Oh there’ll probably be moments of amazement and veneration too, but that’s hardly funny is it?

But before any of that can happen, there’s the small matter of getting to Iasi, which has never been easy, and has been enlivened on this occasion by the fact that my Minneapolis/JFK flight on Northwest Airlines has been delayed repeatedly and we are currently due to touch down exactly seven minutes before my connecting flight to Madrid departs. Will I get to Iasi or will I blog about John F. Kennedy Airport for the next four weeks? The mind swirls.

POSTSCRIPT: My plane to Madrid departed while my plane from Minneapolis circled JFK for reasons that were never shared.

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 about Romanian food, Italian internet and the exquisite contours of his booty.