We had booked a room at the Hotel Unirea in the heart of the city. It was a three-star hotel which, in Europe, normally means one or even two stars lower than in the States. We were bracing ourselves.
The hotel turned out to be a delightful surprise. It’s a thirteen-story, very attractive building, situated right in front of the Piata (plaza) where two other famous hotels are located. Free parking, free breakfast, free Internet, and a three-bed suite (they ran out of two-bed suites) for 60 Euros a night! The only problem we had was the AC. But that’s a problem almost everywhere in Europe. Keeping it running 24/7 gets the room down to about 80 degrees.
We got in late and decided to eat at the hotel restaurant. It’s on the thirteenth floor. Yes, it’s not marked the fourteenth floor. The old superstitions that prevent architects and builders in the West from calling a building’s thirteenth floor what it is apparently did not infect Romania. Increasingly in the last few years, almost entirely in Europe, I’ve been in buildings with a labeled 13th floor. It’s a refreshing change. This hotel wasn’t quite that bold, however. Their floor went up to the 12th. Then, one walked up another floor to the restaurant which was on an unnumbered floor.
Noah and I got to the restaurant at 11 PM, just in time for a late dinner. We had eaten a lunch on the road, which constantly reminded our bodies that we made a bad decision. Belches, farts, gas, and upset stomachs—just what you need when you’re about to drive through Pothole Hell for the last 35 km of your trip! We thought we would be on a crash diet in Romania after that experience. We were in for a big surprise!
The menu listed a veritable feast—pork medallions, chicken parmesan, steaks galore including Chateaubriand, different kinds of duck, lamb, etc. We decided that after the harsh road trip, we would give ourselves a little treat. The prices were ridiculously low. We each ordered duck, shared a salad, had some Romanian wine (which was really good!), and various side dishes and other unmentionables—all for about $60. Although more than our daily budget for food, this was a special day. Like a parent welcoming a son coming home from war, we celebrated our survival of the DN24 (the road into Iasi).
The waitress spoke almost no English, but she did speak German quite well. Our conversations were thus in the Fatherland’s tongue for the rest of the evening. At one point, she asked what we were doing in Iasi. It had quickly become apparent to us that this was no tourist town. The DN24 made sure of that. It was a university town, but like the Eagles’ “Hotel California,” it seemed to be a place where people checked in but they didn’t check out. We dubbed the city, Hotel Californ-Iasi (“Californ-yawsh”).
Back to her question. We told her that we were here to photograph ancient manuscripts of the New Testament. She didn’t understand. “What is the New Testament,” she inquired in German. I told her that it was part of the Bible. Before I could explain (which would have been a real chore, since my German skills are elementary at best), she said, “Oh, the Bible! Yes, I know it. I’ve seen the movie.” I tried to explain that the Bible was not a movie, but that the movie was based on the sacred text of Christians and Jews. She had never heard that before.
Here was a European woman, mid-30s, who had never heard of the Bible. I was astounded. As I mused over the matter, however, I realized that she had probably not been exposed to the Bible in any way in school. After all, the country was Communist until Christmas Day, 1989, when President Nicolae Ceausescu and his wife were executed by a firing squad. How long would it take before the Bible would even be introduced into the curriculum again after that? If it was three or four years, she would never have been exposed to it in school.
The next night we ate at a restaurant nestled in a residential neighborhood (zoning laws are quite different here than in the States) and the waitress was in her early 20s. We had figured that the younger a person was, the more likely it was for them to have heard of the New Testament and Bible. I was hoping for an opportunity to tell her about what we do. But I didn’t need to start the conversation. Like our waitress at the hotel, she, too, was curious about why we came to Iasi. When I told her that we came to photograph ancient manuscripts of the New Testament, she understood. I asked, “Have you heard of the New Testament?” “Yes, of course,” she replied.
These two incidents put in bold relief how the old Soviet bloc countries are undergoing dramatic change. The irony is that—as I have witnessed multiple times—the students growing up in these post-Communist countries are getting greater exposure to the Bible than most American students get in what is increasingly becoming a post-Christian country.