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 .
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.