Tag Archives: Romania

Visit to Iași

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Visit to where? If you’re an American pondering this post’s title, let me help you with the pronunciation. It’s not Eye-a-see or Ee-ah-sigh, but Yash (with a slight ee in front).

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However you pronounce (or mispronounce) it, this Romanian city near the Moldovan border is a fun place to explore, as Champa and I discovered when we drove there with Nina and Andrei from our host family.

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Together we visited a lovely botanical garden, a “palace of culture” with four museums, a giant shopping mall, churches, gardens, a historic theater and a synagogue. The latter was closed but we enjoyed chatting with two Israelis we met outside, whose family has local roots.

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Iași is among Romania’s largest cities and a traditional center of cultural, academic and artistic life, with several universities. It has an international airport and an impressive industrial base, which we passed on our drive to the city center. If you’re coming from Moldova, it’s where you can find a Starbucks latte, a Subway sandwich, an H&M sweater or an adventure park, as well as an assortment of churches, museums and wineries.

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If you’re a tourist or shopper, you might visit Iași as a day trip or weekend excursion from Moldova, or as part of a larger Romania trip that includes Transylvania, Bucharest, the Black Sea or other popular destinations. Whatever. No matter how you end up there, you’ll probably enjoy it — and you might even learn to pronounce it correctly.

 

 

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Beyond the Comfort Zone

One of the things for which I’m most grateful about serving in the Peace Corps is how it’s made me less fearful about traveling to places that seem exotic or dangerous to some Americans even though they’re actually safe, beautiful, fascinating and cheap.

I’ve been reminded of this during our recent trips to countries near Moldova, where Champa and I are serving as volunteers.

This past week we visited Sofia and Bucharest. If we’d traveled instead to London, Rome or Barcelona, we probably would have seen Americans on every corner. But in these two cities we saw very few.

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The photo above shows what I mean. The tourists are listening to the guide in the purple coat, who led us on a free walking tour through Bucharest’s old town, which is filled with lovely churches and Parisian-style architecture. They came from Australia, Canada, Germany, India, Italy, Netherlands, Russia and Serbia. The only Americans were Champa and me.

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Here’s a photo of another walking tour we took, this one through the heart of Sofia, where we received a fascinating history lesson from the woman with the blue bag. We viewed beautiful churches, a mosque, a synagogue, the presidential residence, the former Communist Party headquarters and more. Joining Champa and me were 23 other tourists, who came from the Basque region, Bulgaria, Canada, Italy, Japan, Latvia, Netherlands and Spain, plus one other American.

The same was true on our tours of Bulgaria’s Boylan Church and Rila Monastery,  and of the ancient city of Plovdiv, the country’s second largest. You can see these above. The only American in the photos is Champa.

Likewise when we visited Armenia and Georgia a few months ago, shown below, touring monasteries and ancient sites in Armenia and Georgia’s capital city, Tbilisi. The only other American in our groups was a software engineer from Boston who came to learn about his Armenian roots. The others hailed from China, Dubai, Germany, Italy, New Zealand, Philippines, Russia and other countries. All of our tours were in English, with the Armenian and Georgian guides also speaking in Russian.

It’s possible we just happened to be in groups without Americans. Certainly I didn’t expect to see swarms of American tourists in these Eastern European countries, as I might have in Cancun, San Juan or Toronto. Americans who search for flights to Europe look first to London, Paris and Rome, and to familiar places such as Dublin, Madrid and Frankfurt. Destinations in Central Europe such as Prague and Budapest have become popular, too.

Moreover, people travel abroad for many reasons. The two of us enjoy exploring new cultures but others prefer shopping, fine dining or resorts, or hiking, or visiting friends, pursuing a special interest or something else. A 2015 New York Times article said “nearly half of overseas travelers are from the East Coast, and they make trips within the Western Hemisphere or to Western Europe, to places that are more affordable and easier to reach (with shorter and direct flights) than those farther afield.” Tourists from other countries have their favored destinations, too.

IMG_8532Fair enough, and I certainly understand why so many Americans love visiting London or Paris, since I enjoyed these cities, too. Even these tourists are more adventurous than Americans who won’t venture further than a summer beach house. Moreover, millions of Americans lack the resources to do even that and can only dream of foreign adventures. I know how lucky Champa and I have been to pursue our lifelong passion for travel.

I also know serving as an older Peace Corps Volunteer in Moldova now affects my perception of what’s interesting and reasonable. But for goodness sake, I’m not suggesting Americans forego the Eiffel Tower to visit North Korea. I just wish more of them were joining all of the other foreign tourists we saw in experiencing these amazing countries instead of defaulting to the same predictable list, like ordering only vanilla or chocolate ice cream cones in a shop offering many flavors.

Serving as Peace Corps Volunteers, living and working in an unfamiliar culture, has made us even more comfortable with travel alternatives. But you hardly need to have served abroad to expand your horizons a bit, especially with so many companies now offering trips to “exotic” destinations and the internet making it easy to find reputable local travel companies and guides for almost any budget.

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Champa and I hope to keep exploring both familiar and less-familiar destinations in the years ahead, assuming our health and circumstances make this possible. Our current wish list includes Sri Lanka, the Baltics and other places we can visit easily with a limited budget, just as we have recently.

I hope we’ll see some of you out there or perhaps somewhere else off the beaten track. There’s a big world waiting beyond the American comfort zone.

Sofia and Bucharest

If you can’t find two European capital cities, Sofia and Bucharest, on a map, much less say why they’re great places to visit, don’t feel bad. Before I began serving nearby as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Moldova, I didn’t know much about them either.Screen Shot 2018-01-04 at 1.43.58 PM

Sofia is the capital of Bulgaria. Bucharest is Romania’s capital. Champa and I visited both this past week during a holiday break, using Sofia as a base to explore western Bulgaria and then making a quick stop in Bucharest.

Neither city is as beautiful as Paris or Venice. They still have plentiful Soviet-style apartments and government buildings. But they also have magnificent churches, lovely parks, modern hotels, excellent restaurants and interesting places to visit, all with prices much lower than elsewhere. Together with Krakow, Poland, they were the cheapest tourist cities on the latest European Backpacker Index.

We were very glad to visit both.

We toured Sofia and the surrounding area for four days, beginning with a free walking tour of the city. It’s a laid-back capital that Lonely Planet described as “a largely modern, youthful city, with a scattering of onion-domed churches, Ottoman mosques and stubborn Red Army monuments that lend an eclectic, exotic feel.” You can see some of its sights in the photos above, including the stunning Alexander Nevski Cathedral,

On our second day, we joined a group that visited the Boyana Church, a medieval Bulgarian Orthodox structure with striking frescoes on the city’s outskirts. We continued on to Rila Monastery, the largest and most famous Eastern Orthodox monastery in Bulgaria.

Snow began falling during our visit, making the setting even more beautiful, as you can see in the video clip.

Next we visited Plovdiv, an ancient city straddling seven hills, with an amphitheater, stadium and other ruins dating back to Roman times. Today it’s Bulgaria’s second-largest city, blending museums and tourist attractions with shopping and nightlife.

We shifted gears with our final visit in Bulgaria, this time to Koprivshtitsa, a historic mountain town known for its traditional architecture. We visited several of the town’s colorful houses and churches before taking a break in a charming local restaurant to sample some of Bulgaria’s famous soups, salads and breads. We arranged this and the other tours with Traventuria, a local company that provided great service. We stayed in a nice Airbnb apartment two blocks from the cathedral.

On Monday, we took a bus from Sofia to Bucharest, arriving in the evening at an out-of-the-way bus station where it took us several minutes to flag down a taxi. Eventually we arrived at our hotel in Old Town, where we strolled for a late snack and view of the many clubs, which were pulsating with music and, in a couple of cases, scantily clad dancers in the windows.

The next morning we walked across the boulevard to Unirii Square for a two-hour walking tour that provided a great overview of the city’s complicated history, which ranges from the Roman and Ottoman Empires to Vlad the Impaler (also known as Dracula), as well as the more recent Communist reign of Nicolae Ceaușescu, who was executed with his wife in 1989. Nearby was his People’s Palace, the world’s second-largest building after the Pentagon.

On Wednesday, we flew back to Moldova, where our host family welcomed us with a great dinner and lots of questions about our travels.

All in all, it was a fascinating week, and fun, too. I know now why Sofia and Bucharest are great places to visit. Maybe you should find out, too.

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‘Wealthy’ Neighbors

When your neighbor appears wealthier than you, it affects how you view your own life. I’ve seen this in both of the countries where I’ve served as a Peace Corps Volunteer, in how Nepalis view India and how Moldovans view Romania.

Most Americans probably view India and Romania as developing economies, which they are relative to ours. But in Nepal, India is the wealthier neighbor next door, as is China to the north. In Moldova, which was once part of Romania, many people look admiringly at their western neighbor’s economy, which has prospered since joining the European Union in 2007. This is especially true in our home city of Ialoveni, which has strong cultural ties with Romania. In some other parts of Moldova, the outward focus is more on Russia, whose economy is also much wealthier.

Many Moldovans are eligible for dual citizenship with Romania. If they can obtain a Romanian passport, they can work in EU countries. Every day, they line up outside the Romanian Embassy, which is located down the block from the Peace Corps office. In between are passport photo shops, travel companies and employment agencies.

The three high school students who were on my Diamond Challenge entrepreneurship team last year are all studying now at universities in Romania. Several of the girls on my current team may study in Romania, too. A young man from Ialoveni who I tutored in English is now there as well, as are people from across Moldova. Many others are in Italy, Germany, France and other Western countries, as well as in Russia and other countries to the East.

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Before we came to Moldova, we visited our nephew Shankar and other members of our family in Nepal who live near its eastern border. India is on the left side of the river behind us in this photo.

It all reminds me of what I’ve seen in Nepal, where India is a larger, wealthier and more powerful neighbor — and one much more accessible than China for most Nepalis. A large percentage of Nepal’s adult population has left to work across the border or elsewhere, especially in the Gulf, although there are also Indians who come to work in Nepal.

When Champa and I visited Nepal before we came to Moldova, we spent several days at her sister’s home in a small village near the Indian border. In the evening, we could look across the river into India and see homes whose brighter lights contrasted with those on our side, where electricity was weak and  irregular. We often had to use candles and flashlights. So did the family next door, which had a television and other nice things purchased by their son who worked abroad.

Here in Moldova, many of my colleagues at the library earn a bit more than $100 per month. Monthly pensions for retirees are far lower. Highly-educated employees at the local county government earn only a few hundred dollars per month. No wonder some Moldovans look lookingly at their counterparts in Romania, whose GDP per capita in 2016 was $9,474 compared to $1,900 for Moldova, according to the World Bank. (For the United States, it was $57,467.)

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We saw Romania’s economic growth for ourselves when we visited Transylvania last spring.

All I can say is that what I’ve seen here in Moldova feels familiar to me, as does the irony that the same Romanians whose economic situation seems better may aspire themselves to get a green card to live and work in the United States. Likewise for people from India and other countries whose economies look impressive to their poorer neighbors but remain behind our own and, of course, include wide disparities in income and opportunity.

It’s all relative, and we’re not immune from these comparisons ourselves. When Champa and I flew home from Nepal last time, we stopped for several hours in the oil-rich Gulf state of Qatar, whose Doha airport felt like a palace compared to many of ours in the United States. I was impressed, if not a little jealous, even though I was glad to leave and continue home.

Our sense of other people and places begins with our own lives. Wealth, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder.

 

Where Are You, Reader?

Screen Shot 2017-08-12 at 11.27.18 AMMore than 12,000 readers have visited “Not Exactly Retired” since its launch two years ago. I was curious where all of you are located, so recently ran a search on WordPress, which hosts the site.

Here are the results, in order.

Not surprisingly, the largest group of readers is in the United States, followed by Moldova, where we are serving as Peace Corps Volunteers.

The Top Five also includes Nepal, where Champa was born and we maintain close ties, so that’s not a surprise either. Nor is Romania, which is next to Moldova, especially since I wrote a series of stories in April about our trip to Transylvania, some of which were featured on sites within the country.

Screen Shot 2017-08-12 at 12.02.12 PMSome of the other “Top Dozen,” though, surprised me. Who are all of you reading “Not Exactly” in Ecuador or the Philippines? Are you fellow Peace Corps Volunteers in those countries? How about in India, Germany and Italy? I know at least one loyal reader in Singapore (hi Corinna!), but who are the rest of you? The data provided by WordPress provide only a glimpse.

I’d love to hear from you, even if your country is not on this list. You may be in one of the other countries shown in yellow on the map. I’m so happy to be sharing our journey with you. Please comment here or send me a message at djarmul@gmail.com. Tell me who you are!

Sign of Confusion

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“Why is there a red line through the village’s name?” Champa asked our guide as we drove past a road sign while we were touring Romania recently.

Our guide, Florin, who was usually calm and mellow, almost jumped out of his driver’s seat. “I can’t believe you asked me that!” he said, trying not to laugh. “Every foreign tourist asks me this question!”

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The diagonal red line, he explained, indicates you are leaving a village. When you enter the same village, its name appears on a sign without a red line, as in the second photo here.

I confessed to Florin I’d been wondering about this, too, apparently like many other foreign visitors. I felt foolish when the answer turned out to be so blindingly obvious. I wish I’d known how to say “D’Oh!” in Romanian.

That’s the fun of living and traveling abroad. There’s not much “same old, same old.” Even after nearly a year of working in Eastern Europe with the Peace Corps, I am surprised regularly by things I see or hear. Something as humble as a village road sign can unexpectedly spark laughter and cultural exchange.

After we crossed the border from Romania into Moldova, I checked whether they use diagonal red lines on road signs here, too. As Champa had already noticed, the answer is yes. I’m happy to now know this, too. It’s one more fact on my mental checklist about Moldova. Call it a sign of progress.

Back to the Salt Mine

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I used to think “back to the salt mine!” implied drudgery or even slavery. Indeed, when Champa and I visited the Trotus salt mine in Romania recently, we expected to learn about the challenges of working deep underground, as we did at a Pennsylvania coal mine years ago.

Instead, as we descended by bus into the mine shaft, we saw children with scooters and famiies with picnic baskets.

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Things got stranger when we arrived and heard what sounded like a priest chanting. Sure enough, an Orthodox service was under way in what turned out to be a church honoring St. Varvara, the protector of miners. In the video below, you can see the priest giving communion beneath a dome carved into rock salt, with icons set into the white walls.

Just past the church, we came upon kids racing small carts around salt formations. Next we saw playgrounds, a basketball court, a badminton court, a mini-soccer field, a restaurant, a library, even a lake and waterfall. All of this was 240 meters below ground, covering 13,000 square meters.

Located near the small city of Onești, where Olympic gymnast Nadia Comăneci grew up, Târgu Ocna Salina dates its origins back to 1380. Its tourist complex is at the ninth layer of an operation that continues to produce salt for dinner tables and other purposes. Romania has an active salt industry, albeit smaller than in China, the United States and some other countries.

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Many Romanians visit Târgu Ocna Salina for health reasons, especially to breath the salty air to relieve respiratory problems. As we waited for the bus to drive back to the surface, we chatted with a guy who pointed out another potential benefit. “If there’s a nuclear war, we can all survive down here,” he said

Well, maybe. But there’s no denying they’ve carved out a great thing for now, an amazing sight if you’re ever in this part of Eastern Europe.

The next time you hear somebody say “Back to the salt mine!”, tell them you know just the place.