Joe Mabel > Travel writing > Letters from Romania 2001-2002 > French Invasion

French Invasion

29 Apr 2002

A rather mixed weekend. Sometimes I have a bit more time on my own than I might want, and with my departure imminent I perhaps feel overly obliged to fill that time with things I can do only here. Also, my Saturday evening was not a winner. Guess I might as well start there & then go on to the better stuff.

National Gallery, former royal palace

The National Gallery reopened its collection of older Romanian art this weekend. More on that later. Anyway, Şapte Seri (Sapte Seri, "Seven Evenings" the local weekly of what's going on) had listed the opening as 6pm on Saturday and I was looking forward to it. As it turned out, the report was only half accurate: yes, there was an opening, but it was by invitation only. I ended up in (Romanian language) conversation with another of the people who was shut out. The conversation was interesting for a while, but he seemed overly inclined to stick with me as I was trying to leave after 20-30 minutes. I had to be much more direct than I like to be in saying I was headed to my apartment and that he was not invited.

Hung out for an hour or so, played guitar, went for a good dinner (which turned out to be the highlight of the evening; not a great thing when dining alone is the highlight of your Saturday night) at the recently opened Amsterdam Grand Cafe, and then went over to the Lăptăria Enache to catch a band I had heard good things about. For our purposes, we can call this band "SR".

SR certainly have the chops; the bassist, in particular, can put down a really funky bassline, and none of them are weak, but their show was very musically scattered. They'd get the crowd going with a good uptempo number and then follow it with some totally mediocre ballad, then something vaguely Latino, etc. Variety is fine, but a performance needs some sort of thread running through it and there was none.

Meanwhile, French television (TV5) was apparently doing some big 2-crew sweep through Bucharest that evening and swept through the Lăptăria. 20 people in miscellaneous capacities including 4 or five electrical techs, 2 cameramen, a very beautiful, very tall, mocha-skinned on-air personality, and a lot of people who looked to me like self-important hangers on, but probably had titles like assistant producer. They were very full of themselves, and kind of annoying in my opinion. The weirdest part of all this is that the four TVs in the bar were all tuned to TV5 (with the sound off) and about a quarter of the people in the bar started watching on TV what was happening 10 meters away instead of watching the thing itself. Sound and fury, signifying nothing. [More on this later.]

On the way home I was accosted by a rather persistent pimp ("You speak English? Girls? Prettiest girls in the city?" finally ending with "You want my card, you call me when you are in the mood?" etc.) but I shook loose of him.

As I mentioned, the National Gallery reopened part of its collection this weekend. On Sunday I actually got to see it. I believe this is the first time since '89 most of this had been on display (quite a few pieces were apparently damaged in the fighting then). Most of what was on display was religious art and artifacts from the feudal era (which here extended almost to the nineteenth century), plus a few thrones and other lordly paraphenalia and a couple of dozen late eighteenth and early nineteenth century portraits of the mighty and the wealthy. They collection is beautifully displayed and worth seeing, even a little overwhelming in its vastness. One of the more interesting parts was a room with a display of what little remains from a Bucharest monastery destroyed under Ceausescu. Apparently, the people responsible for the demolition managed to salvage quite a few wall sections with frescoes, a few carved doors, etc., and hide them until after the revolution of '89. Other than that, an amazing collection of icons, wall-sized iconostases (the decorative frames that cover an entire wall and hold together an altar-piece of icons), early Romanian bibles, procession crosses, ecclesiastical sculpture, ornamental ceramics, etc.

One thing I have not written about is the very different organization of space in Bucharest than in places with which I am more familiar. Anyone who has traveled in Central and Eastern Europe is familiar with the fact that courtyards and the like figure far more prominently than in the West. There is nothing unusual in, say, Vienna, about going through a breezeway to enter a massive courtyard and to have apartment buildings whose only access is through that courtyard. Bucharest, in a manner I am told can also be found farther east, carries this to far more of an extreme: there are often freestanding villas, churches, etc., which do not open onto any actual street. Often, the only access to an entire row of small houses will involve passing through another building. There are very few photographs that are at all suggestive of this, partly because there is no one place you can stand and make an image that makes this situation clear, partly because the courtyard spaces are mostly, at least by social convention, relatively private, so no one unconnected to the place could easily take pictures and in the case of, for example, a small gypsy settlement in the middle of the city, the residents are unlikely to do so.

One of the more positive consequences of this layout is that a lot of people end up with space which is really somewhat secluded and private while right in the middle of town. One of the more negative consequences is that is makes for superblocks as much as a hundred meters to a side, and hence is one of the many things that makes Bucharest traffic miserable. (There are many others, like streets cobbled with seemingly random stones, utterly insane drivers, the occasional horsecart, potholes the size of a small village, etc.)

Have I mentioned how small the unit of currency is here? I think not. There are currently about 33,000 lei to the dollar. The singular of lei is leu ("lion"). There isn't much use for that word. The word that was comparable to penny, ban, plural bani, lives on only because the plural is the generic term for money.

A cheap taxi costs about 4500-5000 lei per kilometer, plus an initial fee of about 6000 lei, an amazing bargain. Other than the inital fee, this works out to be 4.5-5 lei per meter. For the taxi, a compact car, to move through its own length, the price in lei is in double digits. A million lei is about US$30.

Teatrul Comedie

Also this weekend I went to the Teatrul Comedie for what I thought was Beaumarchais's Marriage of Figaro but which turned out to be, instead, an excellent contemporary - postmodern, even - reworking. I sat in the second row, close enough to smell powder, greasepaint, and sweat. The costumes were magnificent, the staging otherwise minimal, the acting excellent, very stylized but not hammy.

Why do I say "postmodern"? Things like actors overtly calling out sound queues for scene changes ("gong"), announcing their asides by saying "monolog", blatantly painted-on faces drawing on mime and kabuki, Dan Tudor as Figaro breaking character at one point and giving a soliloquy about himself instead of his character, etc. Also, the costuming was along lines that will be familiar to any who saw, for example, Seattle's Greek Active Theater's production of Macbeth: appropriate to role, but exaggerated to the point of fetishization. Figaro had a wig of long hair, feathered at the front, which the actor removed in the scene where he broke character. The Count was dressed in a manner suggestive of both 18th-century finery and the Castro district, Gabriela Popescu as the Countess wore a dress whose cut was appropriate to the period but which was blatantly made out of a shiny synthetic material, and Delia Sereleanu as Suzanne was dressed in a series of white outfits that managed to suggest an even less virginal virgin than Britney Spears.

(Does this mean the post-modern began in the Twenties with Dada and Brecht and all that when the modern was still at it's height? Yes, I think it does. If post-modern is anything but a chronological term, the set of attitudes it involves already existed that early in some circles.)


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Originally written: April 29, 2002
Last modified: February 9, 2009

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