Joe Mabel > Travel writing > Letters from Romania 2001-2002 > Romania: Ateneul, Alcohol, Newsies

Romania: Ateneul, Alcohol, Newsies

18 Jan 2002

I finally made it to a concert at the Ateneul Romăn (Ateneul Roman, the Romanian Atheneum). For those of you to whom it may mean something, it was the Orchestra (and Chorus) "George Enescu", who are the resident orchestra of the Atheneul, under the direction of Alain Paris. The solo piano was Désiré N'Kaoua, who despite his odd name is French.

The program consisted of relatively short pieces by Edouard Lalo, Gabriel Fauré, and César Franck, followed by Charles Gounoud's Missa Solemnis (or as they would have it here, "Messe Solennelle") Saint CÚcile.

As at the Opera, the performers were excellent, with the possible exception of a young soprano who was at least OK and will probably be excellent in a few more years, but who was very lovely to look at. If nothing else, she could have a career as a starlet who sings.

The Atheneul was built in 1888. The phrase "Gilded Age" was devised to refer to buildings like this: the auditorium, which is circular and domed, has a mural frieze running the entire circumference except for the stage, and above that are more curlicues than you can shake a baton at. Over the stage are sculpted angels with trumpets and a few cherubim, one of whom happens to have his left hand in precisely the position of the metalhead's "devil horn," which I for one found amusing.

The auditorium sits over a massive marble lobby, which is elegant, but not quite as ornate as the auditorium itself. They are connected by four rather wide helical staircases, with landings about 10 feet below the ceiling of the lobby, allowing a great place to observe the comings and goings.

Unfortunately, a circular hall with a dome is not the best shape from an acoustical point of view [although many others seem to like the acoustics better than I. They're interesting. I like them unnoticeable]. The echoes would great for Gregorian chants, but left a bit to be desired in terms of late Nineteenth and early Twentieth Century classical music.

Last time I talked about food. A few of you seem more interested in knowing about alcohol. Here goes.

I haven't been drinking much, so take this all with a grain of salt. But don't put the salt in your drinks.

From what I can tell, Romanians are moderate drinkers [Nov 2003: Make that, "My co-workers, and most Bucharesteans with the budget to hit the bars, are moderate drinkers." Or they save their heavy drinking for somewhere cheaper than a bar. But there were no smuggled-in hip flasks, as when American students go to expensive bars and don't want to fully pay. And, throughout my visit, I saw very few street drunks, etc.]. I've seen almost no one really drunk while I've been here, but I don't think there are many teetotalers, either. Every 24-hour ("non-stop") convenience store has booze, but I bet they sell more candy, cigarettes, and mineral water.

Wine and beer seem about equally likely to accompany restaurant meals. As in many countries, the more upmarket the venue, the more things tilt towards wine. The local wines are decent, but not dazzling. The local custom is often to mix them with mineral water.

In bars, people tend towards beer; a group might get a bottle of wine. Wine by the glass is uncommon. Hard liquor tends to be more expensive; I'm told the hard-liquor drinkers tend to drink at home.

The local beers are Ciuc and Ursus. There are also Romanian licensees brewing Efes and Stella Artois for the domestic market. ( I believe Carlsberg recently entered that fray as well.)

I already mentioned a few months back the plum brandy called palinca.

If I were to say more about drinking in Romania, I'd just be cribbing from other sources. You can surf the net as well as I can.

On another front, I was asked about the local news stories. Well, for one thing, there is little enough violence here that almost any violence can make the news: a fight at a drunken party that doesn't even result in anyone hurt enough to go to the hospital can be news, especially if anyone involved in the fight has ever been heard of before for any reason whatsoever. Minor corruption is a commonplace here, but anyone getting caught (and tried) is news. The big international stories are what you'd expect: mostly Afghanistan and Israel/Palestine these days. The introduction of the Euro was a nine-days wonder. I think people here were secretly happy the Italians had a hard time switching over.

Other than that, the plight of Romanians on fixed incomes gets almost as much attention as it probably deserves. One of the TV stations sent a reporter out to try to buy a week's groceries on a pensioner's weekly income, and didn't just do the "well, we're back, here are the meager groceries" thing. They showed haggling over the price of eggs, going back and returning an item to the shelf because she didn't quite have the money to cover, etc.

Similarly, political action by pensioners is often in the news. As are miscellaneous maneuverings by the country's 30 or so parties. Anywhere the President or Prime Minister travel is news.

And there is the inevitable fluff, the "look at this traditional ceremony this time of year in Sibiu" stories, "Isn't the Hanul lui Manuc scenic on a snowy day", etc.

Once a week, one of the stations apparently shows a Moldovan newscast, which I'm told is like something straight out of the communist era, but I've never happened to catch it.

Again, I'm trying to answer a question & not speaking of what I know best: I've been getting a lot of my news from CNN Europe or even the dreaded EuroNews, because it is a lot easier for me to follow the news in English.

On the specific issue of relations with neighboring countries, as far as I know, mostly decent, give or take the ongoing less than warm relationship with Hungary. Romania may rule Transylvania, but Hungary will probably never entirely accept that, and the Romanians still resent how they were treated there when Hungary ruled. In general, it's hard to find a Romanian with nice things to say about Hungarians, but it's equally hard to find any real anger or invective. They save that for the Gypsies.

Speaking of news, I have some: they're very happy with my work here and I've been offered a further contract (on similar terms). Looks like I will be home in Seattle only a couple of weeks in February, then here again until some time in May. I guess I will manage to be in Romania at a time of year when one might do so on purpose.

Plan is to rent a furnished apartment, since this is really getting to be enough hotel living. I'm supposed to see the place next week; assuming it is OK, I will actually be back to having things like a kitchen. (And back to buying my own toilet paper, making my own bed, maybe even doing my own laundry...)

And I guess I am going to get more systematic about learning Romanian.


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Originally written: January 18, 2002
Last modified: November 9, 2003

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