A Walk around Iași

I only spent one day in Iași in the far east of Romania, which is the far east of Europe for most of my readers anyway, when I was on the way back from Moldova, even further east. But fear not, dear reader, for the further east, the more interesting it gets. One day was too short, but enough for some first impressions and photos which I am going to share with you generously.

The name of the city is pronounced “yash”, by the way.


When you arrive in Iași by train, you could easily think that you are inside the Doge’s Palace in Venice.


And if you begin your trip here, you are already off to a stylish start of the journey when you receive the ticket through an inverse oriel window adorned with Gothic pointed arches.


That there are sufficient taxis in front of the palace train station at any time, day or night, which are happy to take you anywhere in town for two or three dollars without any need for bargaining, goes without saying. After one year in Romania, I really don’t understand anymore why some countries limit the number of taxi licences so severely that you need to wait longer than 15 seconds for a yellow car. In Romania, it seemed like every third car was a taxi.


The bus station across the road looks equally castle-like.


I know what you are wondering now: if simple buildings for everyday use look like castles, what do real castles look like? We don’t want to digress, particularly not so early into the treatise, but I recommend a look at Peleș Castle.


Iași has a population of less than 300,000, but space for many more, for in 1992 that number was still at 345,000. If you want to know where the difference has disappeared to, just look for a doctor in Germany or visit a software company in California.


Due to this depopulation, the city doesn’t appear overly full, rather like a homely park.

Except for 14 October, when there is the festival of Saint Parashiva, who is – as the name suggests, rendering any further research moot – a deputy goddess to the Hindu deity Shiva, and whose relics are stored in the refrigerator of the Metropolitan Cathedral in Iași. Once a year, they are taken out, and, swoosh, hundreds of thousands from across the Balkans are embarking on the Orthodox Hajj to partake in that event.


In mid-October you therefore better avoid the city, unless you are keen on sleeping in large tents next to thousands of people who have come to Iași to see a skeleton.

Looking through my photos now, I realize that I haven’t even seen the Metropolitan Cathedral from inside.



This oversight was probably due to a much smaller, but more interesting church which stands in a nice garden to the left of the cathedral: the Church of the Three Holy Hierarchs, consecrated in 1639.

Some smarty-pants is going to write me that the proper term in Christianity is trinity instead of three hierarchs. But no, we are really dealing with the three hierarchs here, namely Basil the Great, Gregory of Nazianzus and John Chrysostom, who are not to be confused with the three wise men, although Basil the Great, together with the aforementioned Gregory Nazianzus, who confusingly is also doing business under the name of Gregory the Theologian, and his (Basil’s, not Gregory’s) brother Gregory of Nyssa are also (un)known as the three Cappadocian fathers. – And you thought the difference between Shiites and Sunnis was complicated?


This church is small, but beautiful. Ornaments go all around and up to the roof, incorporating Turkish, Persian, Arab, Armenian, Georgian and of course Romanian influences. An explanatory plaque refers to this work as “embroidery”, which is a nice comparison indeed.


Curious, I stepped inside and wanted to pay the entrance fee of 5 Lei (= 1.15 $). But the monk on guard duty handed a piece of paper and a pen across the counter and said: “You write your name and we will pray for you. For this, I don’t need to sell you a ticket.” OK. In that case, even I could withhold my usual atheist remarks about the power of prayer. Apparently, the Romanian Orthodox Church doesn’t have an urgent financial problem.

Inside the church, too, there was an eclectic mix of different styles.


The seriousness of the warning of electric shocks in the garden of the church was somehow mitigated by the smiling heart where there should have been a skull .

smiley death skull.JPG


In Romania, it is not unusual for political parties who hate each other’s guts to have offices in the same building, like the Social-Democratic Party PSD and the Christian-Liberal Alliance ACL in this example. Nobody here has to instruct the Russian President to spy on opposing parties. You simply listen to each other’s conversations in the canteen.



It seemed that Mr Goldfinger was in town, too.



The thing that struck me right away in Iași is the cultural and intellectual character of the city. Everywhere are posters calling your attention to concerts or art exhibitions. At least 50,000 students are living in town, studying at five public and several private universities.


Famous writers lived and worked in Iași. There are heaps of theaters, opera houses and orchestras.


Plus a literature museum, a theater museum, art museums, historical and scientific museums.


Four of these museums are housed in the Palace of Culture. By now you may already have an idea what it might look like.

Exactly, like the royal palace in Versailles.





On the other side of the park behind the Palace of Culture, there is a large mall, Palas Mall, which is as depressing and boring as malls anywhere in the world, but which has a well-stocked tobacco shop at the southern end. Here, the famished traveler may even obtain the palatable Toscano cigars from Italy – the best cigars known to this connoisseur. They are not even expensive.

Talking about tobacco, on the way from Chișinău to Iași, the whole minibus, including the usually law-abiding author, was involved in smuggling cigarettes and alcohol. But that’s a story for another day.


Smoking one of those cigars in the sprawling park below the Palace of Culture with its lush green and the cooling water fountains, there was only one thing missing to make it a perfect day… No, not a girlfriend. (What a silly idea!) A newspaper, of course.

But to no avail had I been looking for an international newspaper in this city, where the first newspaper in the Romanian language was published in 1829. That’s less of a local problem, though. It’s the fault of that stupid internet, which is now spreading everywhere. Have I ever told you that Romania has the fastest internet in Europe? In Târgu Mureș, I even got this super-fast internet for free for a whole year, but that’s yet another story.


Actually, if one didn’t mind reading newspapers from a few weeks ago, one could probably find international ones in one of the many foreign cultural centers in Iași. There is a German, a French, a British, a Latin American, a Greek and an Arab cultural center in town.

Non-Romanian readers may be surprised by these international offers, but every mid-sized town in Romania has a cultural life that you can’t even find in some of the world’s capital cities. When I briefly returned to Bavaria after one year in Romania, I felt like I was marooned in an intellectually dry wasteland, which of course didn’t prevent the people there from throwing around negative stereotypes about the Romania that they had never visited. The only bright spot was when I encountered a Syrian refugee in Amberg, who had studied pharmacology in Romania. He was disappointed, though, that I didn’t speak as much Romanian as he did.


That deficit was however not entirely my fault. It’s just too easy to survive in Romania speaking English or German. To make it easier for immigrants, business travelers, tourists and refugees from the German tax authority, Romania even purchases old German trams and leaves both the instructions and the advertising in German.

I always wondered what Romanians make of the fact that their trams and buses have instructions in a language that is incomprehensible to many of them. For a country where people sometimes get violent over whether the Romanian street sign should be above the one in Hungarian or vice versa – or indeed how to spell town names in Romanian -, that’s remarkably relaxed. When people in other countries think that their civilization will collapse because some children in a playground are speaking Turkish, they might want to visit Romania for a lesson in serenity.

Confusingly, the destination on tram no. 7 still says “Hauptbahnhof” although it really doesn’t go to the train station.


At the stop in front of the opera house, classical music is being played over a loudspeaker, making the waiting so agreeable that I let a few trains pass. An opera for the poor, a very nice idea.



From afar, Cinema Republica looked as if it was the decaying monumental building that is compulsory for any city in Eastern Europe.


But the flags, the light and the posters of current films attested to the open- and busyness of the republican movie palace.


One of the films on display was Aferim, the biggest success of Romanian cinematography in recent years. It was only through this film that many learned about slavery, which existed in Romania until 1855, but of course – like with current discrimination – only for the Roma.


As a translator for German and English, I appreciated that German translations earn 50% more than English or French ones. It pays to learn a complicated language, literally.


Greek is probably even more expensive because you need to get a different keyboard for it, for which you need to go all the way to Greece first. That’s an enormous upfront investment. Or you could ask one of the Greek pilgrims to bring a keyboard next 14 October.


City Hall was the provisional seat of the Romanian government from 1916 to 1918, when Bucharest was occupied by the Central Powers. (It was World War I back then, I am adding after noticing your questioning looks.)


I haven’t yet made personal acquaintance with Bucharest, but according to everything I hear from there, it may have been better to leave the capital in Iași. On the other hand, for the city itself it was probably better to hand it back to students, writers and actors.


In front of City Hall, this “time capsule” was sunk into the ground.


On 6 October 2008 some letters and items were buried here, which are not to be exhumed before 6 October 2058. Well, that’s the kind of thing artists come up with when they aren’t creative enough to write amusing articles.


More useful than a time capsule would be a time machine in order to travel back before 1941 in order to prevent the most horrible chapter of this history.

Iași was one of the centers of Jewish life and culture in Europe, with 127 synagogues in town, among them the oldest synagogue in Romania. In 1855 the first newspaper in Yiddish, Korot Haitim, was published here and in 1876 Abraham Goldfaden founded the first professional Yiddish theater. The text of what later became Israel’s national anthem Hatikva was written in Iași.

None of this, nor the fact that at least 30% of the population of Iași was Jewish, provided any protection against the antisemitism that gained ground in Romania from the 1920s onward. From 1937 on, antisemitism was official government policy, with deprivation of citizenship, exclusion from academic professions, exclusion from military service, but extra taxes levied as “compensation”, ban of inter-religious marriage, and so on. Since at least 1940 there were state-orchestrated acts of violence and murder, arson and looting against Jewish Romanians.

Even before the Wannsee Conference, the Romanian conducător (yes, it means “Führer”) Ion Antonescu had put together a plan to deport all Jews living in Romania. As always in such cases, “deportation” gladly accepted the death of the deportees. The first big step was the pogrom of Iași beginning on 27 June 1941. At least 8,000 people died there in the first days of mass murder committed by Romanian soldiers, police and even civilians, supported by the German Wehrmacht.


The survivors were hurdled into freight cars and slowly taken around the Romanian hinterlands until 6 July 1941, without water, without food, and with the ventilation slots nailed shut. The destination was less a geographic one, so much as death itself. Within ten days, more than 13,000 people were dead.


Of course there were also decent and brave people in Romania, who tried to protect their threatened neighbors, friends and colleagues, but to most people, it was more urgent to get hold of the piano, a valuable painting or why not the whole house of the neighbor who had just been murdered. Pretty much like everywhere in Europe, with the laudable exception of Albania.

Properly analyzing, debating and teaching this history is a slow process even in contemporary Romania. As slow as those death trains. It still isn’t hard to find people with surprising levels of ignorance or who purposefully falsify history all the way to open antisemitism. – And I don’t even want to get started about the Roma, the other large group of victims during the Holocaust, which would open another can of issues which are better left to a separate article, or indeed a book.

If you read Romanian, I recommend this recent article on Holocaust memory in Romania.


Well, now you see why nobody ever wants to travel with me. I am constantly talking about history and about complex topics, while other people want to move from one café to the next, photographing cups of coffee for their Instagraph account.

Luckily, in Iași one can combine cake, drinks and books, for example at Café Time-Out. Here, you can see construction workers on their lunch break reading Eminescu or Creangă.



My impression may have been distorted by the fact that I visited Iași on an overwhelmingly sunny day in July, but it did seem to me like a city where I would like to spend a few months.

Even the dark clouds did not unload their cargo over the city, cooperatively taking it to the fields of desperate farmers instead,


but on their way offering a contrasty contribution to the atmosphere.



Next time I will certainly go to the Botanical Garden, for which I didn’t have time on this visit. With sufficient cigars, 200 acres should be enough to spend a whole day there.


(Hier könnt Ihr diesen Artikel auf Deutsch lesen.)

Posted in Films, History, Holocaust, Language, Photography, Religion, Romania, Travel | Tagged , , , , | 11 Comments

Video of La Paz in 1942

Anyone who has been to La Paz in Bolivia will notice that some things haven’t changed all that much since 1942, for example how food is sold at the market, the fashion and smiles all around.

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On the plain you see the so-called valley sheep, while the mountain sheep are grazing halfway up on the side of the mountains. Now in winter they are slowly making their way down where they will set up camp close to the valley sheep, but they will keep their distance from each other.


Right next to the road live the sheep who think of themselves as more civilized. They get run over by cars more often.


Because only a small number of experts can tell these different kinds of sheep apart, we simply use the generic term “sheep” for all three and further groups of sheep.

In a way, it’s the same with humans, which are all pretty similar, but who decide to focus on tiny differences and to delimit themselves in national, regional or religious groups.

(Photographed on the road from Cluj-Napoca to Târgu Mureș in Romania.)

Posted in Philosophy, Photography, Romania | Tagged | 2 Comments

Persecution of Lawyers in South America

Persecution of lawyers has a long history in South America.

From Marie Arana’s biography Bolívar – American Liberator:

Bolívar was handed an agitated letter from Páez, reporting the miserable state of affairs in Venezuela. “Your cannot imagine how ruinous the intrigues have been in this country,” Páez told him. “Morillo was right when he said he did you a favor when he killed all the lawyers.” But according to Páez, the Spaniards hadn’t killed enough of them. It was men of laws, he insisted, who were crippling the republic.

Apparently, too many people had read Shakespeare’s Henry VI.


“This has nothing to do with an inferiority complex because I didn’t study law myself. Or go to university at all, for that matter.”

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Bay of Sheep

Isla del Sol in Lake Titicaca has not only the famous Bay of Pigs, but also a secret Bay of Sheep.


With a view like this, I bet the wool produced by these sheep is extra cozy.

Posted in Bolivia, Photography, Travel, Video Blog | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

Thoughts of the Day 6

  1. If you read the comments below this article, you get a taste of what’s wrong with Peru. I have never encountered a country that is so bad at dealing with criticism.
  2. After my article on Bolivia and the sea, many people understandably asked what irredentism is. Irredentism is a political movement to reclaim or reoccupy territory that used to be part of a country but has since been lost. Wikipedia has a list of irredentist claims.
  3. I feel sorry for copyright law because so many otherwise law-abiding people don’t believe in it.
  4. Because I cannot cook many other dishes, I am making Kaiserschmarrn famous all over the world.kaiserschmarrn-veganer
  5. When you celebrate Christmas this year, don’t forget to commemorate the millions of people killed by your God. There is no other way to say it, this Christian God is a psychopath.
  6. If you want to know why Google became so big, use Bing for a day.
  7. Bing is so bad, I can’t even find my own blog with it.
  8. Dear Donald Trump, what’s the point of a nuclear arms race when you are allegedly best friends with Russia?
  9. I don’t understand it when people talk about private jets. Aren’t most jets private? I have never seen a public jet at the bus stop.
  10. After homegrown terrorism, we now have to worry about homegrown autocrats.
  11. Many people use the word “Bohemian” without ever having been to Bohemia or even knowing where it is.
  12. What does it feel like to be a fridge? To have all this food, but never consume any of it yourself.
  13. When I referred to my wishlist the last time, some of you actually wanted to mail me books, but then remarked that postage to South America was too expensive. You were right. So I have added a German address, from where my parents will (hopefully) forward the books every few months. From Amazon UK or Amazon Germany, you can ship to Germany at reasonable postage fees.
  14. Of course, any book donor will receive a postcard from South America.
  15. With all the movies that are set in the White House, is there a fake White House that all Hollywood studios can use?
  16. When I watched Thirteen Days again this week, I couldn’t help but wonder how the Trump administration would handle such a crisis. A disconcerting thought.

Posted in Books, Cold War, Cuba, Food, History, Law, Peru, Politics, Religion, USA | Tagged , , , , , | 4 Comments

Christmas Child

Nepomuk was the main attraction of the party, as if he had been the reason for the gathering in the first place. All the ladies’ eyes were on him, while the men’s eyes flickered back and forth between their wives or girlfriends and Nepomuk, disturbed to see the deep bond that had been established so quickly. If that was the effect of their first encounter, one had to be wary of the charm that the young man could develop over time.

The ladies were so taken in that they forgot all manners and etiquette. They interrupted each other, vying for Nepomuk’s attention. They babbled unintelligibly. They repeated their questions over and over. They didn’t even notice that Nepomuk was not the brightest man at the table and that his conversational skills were below par. The ladies took photos of him as if he was a pop star and only took their eyes off him when they needed to refill their glasses, getting ever more tipsy and dreamy as the evening progressed.

Nepomuk was not even one year old. He had been born in February and this was the first Christmas that Lisa and John had introduced him to his uncles and aunts, grandparents and cousins. The family had spread out from Tennessee to pursue careers, jobs without careers and relationships in different parts of the country. Each Christmas they returned and got together. Every couple of years, they met for a funeral in between. In 2003, grandpa Sam had died on 19 December. That had been very practical for those who had a long way to drive.

John was a distant second in popularity after Nepomuk. But he was second. After all, he was the father. He had produced this little thing, and although Lisa was the one who had carried him inside of her, John was family and she was not. They weren’t married (yet) and that was strange, suspicious even. Or it had been until Nepomuk had shown up. Now they were kind of a family. Still, it was wrong. Grandma wondered “what Grandpa would have said about folks doing things the wrong way round,” thus discounting, as she always did, the possibility that Sam might have changed his mind between 2003 and now, had he still been alive. John had to fend off questions about any impeding engagement and at the same time he had to defend Lisa, for his family of course blamed her for this immoral state of affairs. She was from New Orleans and everyone knew that people down there committed more sins than those in the other 49 states combined.

“It’s not a priority for us.” The more he repeated that sentence, the more John stressed the “for us” part.

“It won’t change anything.”

“It’s too expensive.” Practical reasons resonated most.

“At least we do have a child.” John knew he had gone too far in defending his decisions when all eyes turned on his sister Sandra. “Ouch,” Sandra thought, saying nothing. “Sorry,” John indicated towards her. But it was too late. She was the only adult at the table who had never had a child. Heck, even some of the teenagers in the family had children already.

Sandra was 29 and worked as a receptionist at a hospital in Nashville. She saw enough sick children every day not to want any of her own, she saw enough pregnant women not to idolize that messy biological state, and she frankly had no time for a relationship. She worked different shifts each week and slept most of the time in between.

“How old are you, Sandra?” Had she been more alert, she could have pointed out that with an ever increasing life expectancy it’s not necessary to have children as early in life as it was in the 18th century.

“Do you have a boyfriend?”

“Why not?”

“Aren’t there any attractive doctors at work?” Ever since she had found the job at the hospital, her parents’ dream had been for her to marry a doctor. In her family’s eyes, this was much more prestigious than going to medical school herself.

“Don’t you think Nepomuk is cute?” Not when he’ll throw up tonight.

“It would be nice if he had a cousin.”

“You shouldn’t wait too long or the age difference will be too great.” Not to speak of the different places that they would grow up in, making it rather unlikely that Nepomuk would see much of his hypothetical cousin.

“You don’t look too bad, you know.” Thanks. “I think you could find someone if you tried.”

If Sandra had studied European history, she would have realized there and then that like a fascist society, her family would never respect her until she reproduced. Not having studied anything and being put into a corner by her relatives, she decided that she would surprise them next Christmas.

The following September, a girl was born. It was an ugly child.


(Hier gibt es diese Geschichte auf Deutsch.)

Posted in Feminism, Fiction, Love, USA | Tagged , , | 9 Comments