An attractive woman with yellowish hair dressed in layers of black reminding me of the coolcats of the Paris jazz scene stood clutching onto the iron railings of the National Museum of Romanian Art, her melancholy features softened more so by the tears rolling down her face, looking defeated she stared straight ahead trying to compose herself once again. My instinct was to approach her, to ask if she was alright but then I glanced across the road to the thing that held her attention, a stage holding an orchestra, their classical notes distant but still audible above the dim of traffic beside Piața George Enescu. Why was she crying I thought, for her grandfather, a lover, or for the Romania of old or maybe just for the music itself. This was not the first time i’d saw someone cry at music in the city, the night before the same thing happened near Piața Universității only this time the woman was slightly older and the orchestra larger, the tears the same. How alien and far off sterile Japan seemed where emotions were never shown. I wanted to remain in this real world with it’s raw feelings forever, exposed, in Bucharest.
The infamous balcony
I continued walking along Calea Victoriei, Bucharest’s most famous avenue as the classical notes faded away to be replaced by the low dim of traffic. I passed the red factory-like brick walls of Kretzulescu Church, the narrow structure seemed like a marooned ship in a sea of concrete, it’s steeple a funnel, its walls scarred and torn, only not from icebergs but from bullet holes reminding me just where I was, the spot where the everyday people, the workers, had stood up against the dictator as bullets rained down, this was the revolution in Bucharest, Piața Revoluției. On the other side of the street stood an ordinary looking building with a balcony where a bewilderd dictator, Ceaușescu had slipped from his life of privilege, the balcony only one storey tall but the fall everlasting. The further I walked along this avenue I felt like I was walking through a Zoetrope, the images not of animals or clowns but of Bucharest past, a decade here, a century there. As Piața Revoluției faded into the distance the afternoon was interrupted by the screeching of tyres burning rubber, the sight of two porsches drag racing along the avenue suddenly jolted me out of the eighties and revolutions, reminding me that I was in a district of the wealthy. Calea Victoriei, long the haunt of those above the law, the rich, the famous, the dubious. Once lined by the mansions of the boyars, merchants would sell Persian rugs, exotic animals, Venetian glass, Russian sable and caviar. Calea Victoriei was the first street in Bucharest to be “paved” in the 17th century, not by asphalt but by wooden logs. This elevated street and the lure of escape from the muddy sidestreets irresistable to the wealthy where they began to build their mansions. Now the elegant shops were selling designer brands and wares no different than Bond Street or Fifth Avenue, the shopkeepers seemed flamboyant, almost peculiar and eccentric in comparison to the everyday Romanian, lost in a cloud of money. I found just what I had searched all over Sibiu for, a woolen rug just like the one I had saw in the documentary Elena & Constantin. Burgundy with vibrant flowers of various colours, each unique flower representing ancestors, the outrageously camp shop assistant assured me it was handmade from the villages, once part of a dowry.
Detail of Stavropoleos Church
I headed south through the city’s Old Town past unabashed cafes full of ear-splitting tourists shouting at widescreen televisions showing sport and through groups of tourists too busy holding up their selfie sticks like lost extraterrestials with their antennas trying to contact other worlds, from windows crude neon flashed the word ‘G-I-R-L-S’ in red and blue, the calling cards of practically topless masseurs stuck to car windows advertised erotic massage, jaded street hookers approached lone men in the quieter streets to a background of shops with their glaring lightbulbs and ubiquitous dracula mugs, in amongst this an uptight middle class dined in open air restaurants. It saddened me to realise that the Old Town had gone down this route but in a world which seemed preoccupied with vulgarity, hedonism and pornographic sex I guess no one could blame them in their capitalist freefall, it was just simply the quickest way to get rich.
Walking further along a pedestrianised street I noticed the oriental façade of the Stavropoleos Church on a streetcorner and stepped inside its shadowy interiors of soot covered frescoes and the chants of a choir of nuns, the features on their faces lit by dim lamps and candles their mouths chanting austerly in the flickering light. How quickly I had travelled from a crude animation zone a street block away into what could have been the dark ages. I had wanted to see Stavropoleos Church with it’s hints of Istanbul for a long time but sadly due to it’s central location and reputation amongst tourists it was swarmed, a caretaker now and again hushing visitors to be quiet and pulling at the arms of those about to take photos. As beautiful as it looked I missed the empty churches of the north and the inevitable search for their caretakers with key
A gang of teenage Aurolac boys in tracksuits broke into a fight on a bridge crossing the Dâmbovița River, intoxicated by paint fumes and driven no doubt by hunger oblivious to the glares of the Bucharesters who, long suffering in silence from their antics had cast them out long ago like distant drug addicted cousins after all hope had gone. If the boys hadn’t been so manic I would have asked them if they knew of Macarena and how she was doing. I had planned to pause at the river to imagine how it used to be when once it had been sweet enough to drink but after many floods the river had been tamed into a modern concrete channel, the mishmash of architectural styles lining the river bank from highly ornated to drab cardboard box too conflicting for me to contemplate and anyway the river flowed abruptly under the marble smörgåsbord that is Piața Unirii.
The bleached buildings surrounding Piața Unirii, an expansive square, looked like a forgotten mold-covered wedding cake, about to collapse in on itself making the Bucharesters look almost ant-like, marching around its base in all directions. Paradoxically the architecture, Socialist-Realism, had me in awe, it’s 20th century optimism and scale both disturbing and fantastic at the same time. Underneath me stood the dust of monasteries, churches and the cities historical Jewish neighbourhood, obliterated in what the Romanians called Ceaușima, a portmanteau of Ceaușescu and Hiroshima. On the dictator’s orders large swathes of downtown had been reduced to rubble and cleared, the expanse reminiscent of Hiroshima ’45. Like the Japanese city this desolate place had risen once again only this time taking the form of the dictator’s grand vision, the Civic Centre, endless offices and apartments with a view built for his cronies. As I walked passed its polluted marble and dried out fountains, it’s main boulevard choked by car fumes I realised I was highly impressed, it deserved to be up there with all the other grandeur of our ancestors. You would be hard pressed to find such scale being built in the Europe of austerity today.
On the otherside of the square I headed up Patriarchate Hill. This hill held a special place in the hearts of the Bucharesters. Once covered in vineyards and a place where princes were crowned at the top had stood the defensive walls of the Patriarchal Cathedral. All that remained of the wall was the red brick clocktower, the vineyards replaced by drab apartment blocks. In the centre still stood the Cathedral, like a precious ivory box topped off with silver cruxifixes, to the right of the Cathedral people moved in a cloud of black smoke coming from a small shrine where the believers were lighting candles and praying. Stepping onto the red carpet of the Cathedral the sparkling, gem encrusted altar literally blinded me for a few seconds. I was speechless, seeing this altar was one of my highlights of Romania. I must have stood with bewildered eyes and mouth open like an animal caught in headlights for a good five minutes. I realised this wasn’t somewhere to just pass through, this had to be savoured. I sat on a wooden bench near the altar for I imagine must have been three hours. Mostly the only sound you could hear was the brush strokes of an elderly woman bent over who was scrubbing what seemed like a grave stone, sometimes a lone tourist or tour groups would wander in. After a while I would wait for them to see their bambi-in-the-headlights impressions, very rarely some had no expression at all. In a corner of the cathedral was a silver coffin incased in glass, the relics of Saint Demetrios, sometimes people would kiss the glass while blessing themselves and praying. Of all my memories of Romania seeing people pray like this has remained with me the longest, their devotion unfathomable, unable to be crushed by something so fleeting as Communism.
Your bambi-in-the-headlight moment, photo does not do it justice.
I walked past the Romani flower sellers and down the cracked marble stairs of Piața Unirii subway station, past the mocca-coloured walls which were hard to see under layers of grime and diesel, past small kiosks selling newspapers printed in Romanian and Cyrillic, penknifes and old transistor radios further into the subterreanean world of dim lights, leaking ceilings and large shiny Canadian built train carriages. As the train headed north from the corner of my eye I quietly observed the faces of the Bucharesters caught in their thoughts. They sat in silence, as people do in a city of six million, but in their minds, I thought, must have spanned a lifetime concealing many different characters, how they were forced to become different people who had to adjust to war, allied bombings, Socialism, earthquakes, dictators, Communism, revolutions and now Capitalism.
A big onion on some matchsticks, the St Nicholas Russian Church
Near my hotel I walked into the St Nicholas Russian Church, sadly covered in wooden scaffolding only the main dome was visable, like a massive gold onion balancing on a stack of matches. There was a service taking place, even though I knew practically nothing about Orthodox Christanity I stood quietly, watching what seemed like rural women in woolen jumpers, pretty skirts and bright headscarfs with flower motifs, the wholesome composition of their facial features mysterious and so different to anything I had ever saw before. They stood around a Priest dressed in black robes, chanting the way it always has been whether out in the open or in secret.
Before I knew it I was in the back of a black limousine heading to the airport, being addressed as Miss Grace by a smartly dressed chauffeur. As the Mercedes made it’s way along Șoseaua Kiseleff Avenue I looked out from behind the glass onto twisted Sycamore trees like gnarling fingers about to snatch the shadowy figures who lingered below them out of the rain. I felt, strangely, like a divorcee, thrown out into a savage world without a lifeline, like a distorted Lady Di that fateful night only for me there would be no Pont d’Alma or Dodi Al-Fayed, at least not this time, life would go on. The only paparazzi chasing me were thoughts of my ex-lover and our failed relationship, those newborn days when slipping into love we had spoke for hours in another universe, the far-off world miniscule and irrelevant. As the great hulk of our relationship sank beneath the waves I felt like a screaming child trapped on it’s deck, unsure whether to stay or to try and swim back to the volcanic shores of an uncaring world. In the distance of my thoughts I could hear a man speaking with a Romanian accent, the words of my white-gloved chauffeur pulling me back to the present. “Everything had worked out in the end” he said. “We had been pulled away from our villages, our fields, our past by the dictator and forced to relocate to a city where we knew no one. At first my grandmother had hated this city but after time the pain faded and in the end from the pieces she managed to create for herself a new life”.
A new life. As the plane climbed at one point the cloud cover seperated to reveal a road far below, from the resevoirs I realised it was the road I had travelled along, through the Olt Defile on my journey north to Transylvania. That very same road where Romania had encaptured me was suddenly concealed by cloud cover once again, as if the country was playfully showing me just what I had lost, laughing and whispering for me to return.
I imagine the stewardess must have thought how odd I was, that strangely ecstatic person sitting in seat 37A. Just another face in a crowd but little did they know where I had came from, how I had travelled to Romania across landscapes of broken glass, heavy hearted and nervous, travelling the first time alone in years. Little did they know that the inhabitants far below in Romania, on just another one of their flightpaths had, just by being the sweet people that they are unwittingly shown me I can do things on my own, and more importantly love doing things on my own. For this reason alone I will forever love Romania.
Romania, once you were a footnote in a glossy magazine but today you are the cover story.