Equipped with my minimal but hopefully effective photography kit, I went forth to explore. This was not an exclusively photographic trip. Much of the time I was with non-photographers and looking after my 5 year old, neither of which is conducive to thoughtful, patient, time consuming photography at the best times of day. It was more a case of snatching what opportunities arose as and when I could. Well that is my excuse for the images I took!
Even on my initial arrival in Romania and driving from the Airport, I sensed that things had improved somewhat since my last visit. I mean that in the sense that Iasi at least looked a bit tidier, a bit cleaner, the number of newer cars from both east and west had increased markedly and some nice buildings had been restored. There was a sense of moving forward, more dynamic ideas and progress, rather than the post-communist rut that inevitably took time to get out of. More people seemed to be out enjoying this, having a coffee or beer with their friends, which was good to see.
Visitors from western countries have varying reactions to Romania when they first arrive, but I am now over those of course. When I first came (to Oradea, not Iasi) I got off a bus and stood among rows of frankly hideous communist-era concrete apartment blocks. I instinctively clutched my wallet and tensed up, feeling on edge....such areas in England tend to be linked with high crime, drug use, social problems and the like. However, I was soon to learn that in Romania, these blocks are home to the vast majority of town and city dwellers; normal, working people with kids, who feel lucky to have somewhere to live. To my eyes, if someone told me to design the most hideous building possible, I couldn't better some of those I have seen in Romania. They are often tatty with unappealing surroundings of worn concrete and weeds. However, high crime areas they are not.
Here is a post-sunset view from an apartment in a typical residential area of Iasi, to give an idea of the style of these buildings.
A wider daytime view.
Here are some other areas of the city showing the bleak, concrete architecture of the communist era. It actually makes for good black and white photography subjects.
I was pleased to see some of the restored buildings of historical and cultural significance in iasi, including the Palace of Culture (Museum), the Theatre and some of the churches. IMHO the theatre is a beautiful building with a tasteful and subtle architecture and colour palette. Thank goodness these buildings survived the communist-era taste vacuum and are being looked after!
This is my favourite church in Iasi, with its dramatic copper roofing and wall engravings .
This monastery can also be found in the city. It can be a challenge (as in many western cities) to isolate such buildings from the surrounding unsympathetic architecture in photographic compositions.
A trip to the roof of the tower on the outer wall gives us location context reality and an interesting juxtaposition of old and newer, many examples of which you find in Romania.
Palace of Culture....a grand building now tastefully combined with a large shopping complex nearby at a lower level.
Aside from some of the architecture, another shock to westerners are the people you see rifling through the big litter bins and dumpsters in built-up areas, using their bare hands to pick stuff from the stinking mess. Many people are still extremely poor. You see gypsies regularly begging and occasionally kids, who ( I am reliably informed) they have deformed for purposes of begging more effectively.
On the other hand there are now lots of new houses being built outside cities like Iasi, where professional couples are breaking away from life in apartments. Some significant foreign companies are investing in factories and modern IT based industry to replace the dead, communist era heavy industry.
Interestingly, as a foreigner, when you engage in conversation with many Romanians, they are especially anxious to point out that Romanians are not gypsies. They feel very aggrieved that the perceptions and expectations of Romania and it's people are based around the negative impact that Gypsies from Romania have created over Europe since open borders allowed free movement around the EU. They appear upset and worried that this perception leads to prejudice against Romanians generally, especially now the Brexit vote is a reality and that they could be excluded from working and living in the UK, despite upholding hard-working and decent lifestyles there.
In the first few days my sister in law kindly took us on a 3 day road trip up to the north eastern corner of Romania, into the Carpathian Mountains and to the Bucovina area, which I rapidly decided was one of my favourite areas of the country.
The Carpathians have defined much of the physical and human geography of Romania, being a crescent-shaped range of mountains that effectively divide the country and occupy a lot of area. I have seen the most rugged areas further south, but up here the mountains are more gentle with sometimes steep but graceful, rolling profiles, clad in fir trees with some rocky outcrops. The valleys are farmed in very traditional ways, with small fields occupied by wooden hay lofts, traditional hay stacks and hay drying racks. Hay is routinely cut by scythe and tossed onto stacks or horse carts by pitchfork. It is amazing to see this way of life still in existence as it has been gone from most countries for decades at least. People in rural Romania still grow their own food on subsistence farms and it is a totally different lifestyle to that found in the cities.
On one occasion I stopped to photograph a nice rural scene and these two happened by, painting a picture of hardship.
Bucovina is famous for its painted monasteries, which are very interesting to visit. Far from being curiosities or museums, many people are to be seen practising religion at these locations and they are still occupied by nuns as living, working monasteries. I was fortunate to see one of the most cherished, due to it's highly regarded paintings, this being the Voronet Monastery founded by Stephen the Great.
We visited the large Sucevita monastery on a sunday and it was amazing to see so may ordinary people of all ages visiting in reverence, some in traditional dress. The place had a real atmosphere with the nuns chanting prayers from within and so many followers paying attention outside.
On the way back from Bucovina we passed through the rather amusingly named village of "Clit" where a Romanian wildlife icon was to be seen in fair numbers. To those not used to seeing storks they are quite interesting, being large birds that build really big, conspicuous nests atop telegraph and power cable poles. They are often to be seen following tractors or farm workers hoping for an easy meal and there were often 3 or 4 birds in a nest, presumably parents and youngsters about to fledge. I didn't have a lens with much reach so this was the best I could do.
Now for the scary bit! At this point I would point out that I do not scare easily. 30 years of police work, age and a 2nd dan in Tae kwon-Do mean that I feel fairly safe most of the time and know what real risk is. However, I remain truly horrified at the standard of driving I see in Romania and yes, it does scare me, for the sake of my child and others I see using the roads. I do feel qualified to comment as I was a traffic police officer for 20 years, have been trained to police advanced level and spent 10 years as a forensic collision investigator within the police.
The lack of hazard perception and degree of risk taking I see on Romanian roads I find hard to comprehend sometimes, so I am not surprised to see that they have about the highest fatality rates in Europe per head of population. Drivers routinely travel at speeds way above the posted or national limits but lack the vehicle handling and observation skills to do so with any degree of safety. In villages and built-up areas (50 kmh limit) I routinely saw vehicles travelling at 90-100 kmh, their drivers apparently oblivious to horses, children playing, elderly pedestrians and the like, many of whom are in the carriageway due to lack of footpaths.
Most driver's observation outside the vehicle seems to extend to a radius not exceeding about 15 metres, so they fail to react to even obvious hazards they are approaching until it becomes a full-on emergency. There is absolutely no evidence of defensive driving, where a driver thinks for other road users and tries to eliminate risk by planning for the actions of others. It is totally reactive rather than proactive driving.
Insanity like forcing a closing gap, overtaking on blind bends or brows, using phones, not wearing a seatbelt and charging headlong into danger is routine. It actually surprises me there are not more accidents. In 2 weeks I nearly had at least 3 accidents in taxis and private cars (as a passenger, I would add!) At best progress is lurching, involves lots of acceleration and braking and erratic steering. Epic fail Romania...start looking after each other on the roads. It would be so easy to improve things a lot but there is little evidence of enforcement or of drivers trying to better themselves. I wondered if the legless man I had photographed in the mountains had lost his legs in a vehicle collision!
The road infrastucture does not help things, the worst offenders being the newer highways between major towns/cities, which are single carriageways but with a kind of "hard shoulder" to the nearside of each traffic lane. Drivers use them as 4 lane roads (which they clearly are not) making slower cars travel wholly or partly in the hard shoulder and forcing overtakes, often in the face of oncoming vehicles. It is all rather tight and you can see how major head-ons occur. The hard shoulder is often interrupted by low concrete bridge parapets that intrude partly into its width and is normally bordered by deep drain channels.
The standard of driving is one reason I often prefer train travel in Romania....there are others too, but more of that next time.