Romania: Easter Everywhere

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5 May 2002

More on that French film crew who were through here: apparently TV5 was doing a "24 hours in Bucharest" thing. The exotic-looking on-air personality I saw was Elisabeth Tchoungui; her colleague with the other crew was Frederic Mitterand. The press here has written a lot about the event. They seem torn between praising the generally favorable (though not without warts) coverage of the city and pointing out the inevitable warts of a 24-hour live broadcast.

One writer remarked on the fact that this may be the first time since the Thirties that someone could, in good conscience, present a visit to Bucharest as a visit to a "normal" city instead of a visit to either a totalitarian nightmare or a crisis in progress, and went on to point out some of the genuinely wonderful things about Bucharest that natives take for granted (the parks, the best of the architecture) or underestimate (nighlife, high arts). He was also one of several to observe that foreign television's much-maligned past coverage of glue-sniffing homeless kids and wild street dogs was probably a key factor in getting Bucharest to finally in the last few years start wrestling with these problems.

On the other hand, I guess M. Mitterand had a tendency to accidentally call the city "Budapest" (I guess not only Americans make this mistake!); there was an inevitable tendency to interview mostly people who spoke good French, leading to a rather biassed sample of Bucharesteans; the Gypsies were given short shrift, handled mainly in pre-recorded segments; and there were all the inevitable screwups you would expect in having two film crews leapfrogging each other for a 24-hour live broadcast. Of these last, probably the most amusing anecdote is that right in the middle of interviewing the head of the National Gallery about the opening of the "Medieval" collection (I'd want to ask how can you call it "medieval" when it extends into the early Nineteenth Century, but that might be a mean question about Romanian history) a brass band started playing, rehearsing for the opening ceremony. The negotiation to get them to postpone their rehersal by a few minutes became part of the broadcast. (I happen to think that is live television at its best. If the show-business kids are going to make movies of themselves, it's nice to have reality intrude once in a while).

Speaking of culturally confused Francophones, can anyone explain to me the appeal of Celine Dion? I tend to think my musical tastes are broad (Mozart, the Sex Pistols, Louis Prima, Igor Stravinsky, Elvis Costello, Woody Guthrie, I could go one) and I even feel I understand the appeal of a lot I don't particularly like (the Archies, Johann Strauss, Van Halen) and even ocasionally I like something but would hesitate to say why (Abba, Donna Summers, Dean Martin), but Ms. Dion just mystifies me. Often when I'm mystified by someone's popularity it's explained by seeing their videos: some records sell just because they are the soundtracks of great music videos, but I've seen the video of "Touched by an Angel" and it is incoherent even by the low standards of music videos, a combination of the intentionally -- even cloyingly -- sentimental, the banally quasi-erotic (like the least erotic sort of romance novel), and the unintentionally comic. In short, it neither adds anything to, nor subtracts anything from her sentimental, banal, occasionally -- at its greatest heights -- moderately pretty music. She has a good enough voice, I guess, but her material is awful and her phrasing sounds like she would underline all the important words when she's reading a Hallmark greeting card. It's not like I think she's the Antichrist, but she's at least the Anti-Sinatra.

[8 May 02: I still haven't gotten an answer that really satisfies me, but there have been a few comments worth sharing:

So there we have it: well-packaged chicken fat that sounds better in French.]

It's Easter. I know that will be news to most of you, but here, it's Easter. Due to a series of mishaps that need not be recounted, I am stuck here in Bucharest while my passport sits in a government office. Otherwise, I'd have gone to the mountains or to the Black Sea coast like pretty much all of my colleagues. You can't stay in a Romanian hotel without a proper travel document.

Bucharest is relatively quiet at Easter, but not as dead as I'd been led to expect. Offices and schools all close for a few days, but stores, museums, etc. keep pretty much their usual hours. It's a slightly slow weekend for the bars, but they are mostly open, and with the good weather that includes a lot of pleasant terasas. The theaters close, the cinemas get patchy, but a lot of this is made up for by the pageantry of the holiday itself. And there was some good music at the bandshell of Cismigiu Thursday morning, the "popular" orchestra of a radio station (Radiodifuzione), the next best traditional music I've heard here after the Haidouks.

For no particular reason, I chose Good Friday as the day to finally visit the (Jewish) Choral Temple, central institution of the remaining several thousand Bucharest Jews. It's a really impressive building, especially the interior. My guide was a somewhat crochety old Jewish man, definitely weirdly amused to have an American Jewish visitor who knew more Romanian than Yiddish or Hebrew (he himself had very little English, though we occasionally went over to German), definitely willing to go on at some surprising length about not being thrilled with the Israeli government -- not about their handling of the Palestinian situation, which never came up, but over the fact that the only thing they will do for the Romanian Jews is to encourage them to emigrate. Definitely, like myself, a diasporist. I guess, almost by definition, any really Zionist Romanian Jew is living in Israel. (Interestingly, one Israeli artist, Sarah Einek, who judging by her name must be a Hungarian Jew, recently emigrated from Israel to Bucharest, another sign of oncoming normalcy here I guess. She has a show right now at Simeza, a good gallery near my office.)

On Good Friday evening I was wandering around, saw a lot of candlelight processions around various churches. Just outside Sf. Gheorghe (one of the three competing locations for the honor of being Km. 0), two men were watching the procession while continuing a spirited game of backgammon. I assume the winner did not get to keep Jesus's clothes.

(OK, if you were offended by that, just stop here, because I'm probably only going to get worse. Back when I was in my teens, Newsday once really pissed off some people with the headline just before Rosh Hashanah, "High Holy Days Still Packing Them In." The headline was, I think, entirely appropriate to their reporting on the general falling off of Jewish attendance at services not affecting the attendance for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, but some people just don't want humor and religion getting onto the same page.)

The big ceremony here is the arrival of Easter itself. I considered two places to be (well, actually I considered three: I could have ignored the holiday entirely and hung out drinking on the terasa of the Lăptăria Enache, but that seemed pointless). I could have, as my late Uncle Bill would have said, taken the "acoustic" option and gone to the Biserica Stavropoleos, not the oldest church in town, but the oldest-feeling, a quiet, cloistered place in the old city, with a very fine all-male choir, very Eastern Orthodox, very mystical. I did finally go by there for about 20 minutes around 1:30 in the morning and I'm sure it was everything I thought it would be, and maybe I was foolish to skip it, but instead I went "electric": the grounds of the Patriarchal Palace.

Early on Saturday evening just before the Easter service is very quiet. Many people are home having their last Lenten meal; the streets around churches are generally closed to traffic, to facilitate that later arrivals without having to impound anyone's car; the few people moving through the city at nine o'clock are nearly all either on foot or on public transit.

The Patriachal Palace (and a few associated buildings, including a very nice, though surprisingly small, "day church") sits on a hill which you reach by walking up from Paita Unirii, which is one of the most secular places imaginable, the massive central plaza of Ceausescu's appalling Bourbon Stalinist Centru Civic, now overlayed with a certain amount of capitalist neon and glitz. It must once have sat wonderfully, like a Montmartre at the center of the Little Paris that Ceausescu had torn down to build his Little Pyongyang. Now it sits more like New York's St. Patrick's, though without anything quite as grand a Rockefeller Center to counterpoint it.

I had already noticed, especially on Good Friday, that Romanians do not conform to, say, Greek standards of sober, modest church garb. Plenty of women in blue jeans, lots of athletic gear, etc. However, I was still not prepared for this wonderfully various crowd. I was an early arrival, so I got a great spot, on the steps of the day church, facing across the plaza to the temporary altar on the steps of a rather Turkish-looking L-shaped building of whose precise nature I am not certain.

As I said, the crowd were wonderfully various: peasant women in from the country, wearing a combination of threadbare dresses and wonderfully intricate lace blouses, the latter presumably handmade by themselves; a few older men in suits; some of the few upwardly mobile Gypsies I have seen, elegantly dressed; young married couples from all walks of life with babes in arms or in strollers (and three-year-olds on shoulders to get the best view); lots of good, recent haircuts (the few days before Easter must be a goldmine for the barbers). However, to me the most entertaining part of this was the ones whose dress or behaviour was not entirely within the realm of the obviously appropriate: one girl with a t-shirt depicting a gyrating, naked dancer; a guy with a cap celebrating a comic-book called Diabolik; little kids in Pokemon T-shirts; a lot of young people who looked like they had put on their best clothes, but their best clothes happened to involve a lot of sequins and vinyl. Also some really weird combinations: a young woman in swirly disco blouse and modest headscarf or a young man in clothing entirely appropriate for church in Greece or Sicily but with feathered, multicolored hair. Someone could have made a pretty good sequel to Heavy Metal Parking Lot.

Once again, it was underlined for me what a safe city this is: lots of very young people here on their own (e.g. a 12-year-old girl minding a younger sibling, a lot of things along those lines) even though being here almost certainly meant walking home somewhere after one AM. (They also kept an atypical amount of public transit running through the night, but I don't know the details.) There were enough teens in their flashy best that some of the milling about before services started actually took on a flirty/cruisy aspect (it probably helped that this was all outdoors on what at least started out as a mildly warm evening). By the way, how do you time your confession if you are flirting bigtime right before Easter services? Some of the young people here are amazingly poised: it's really scary sometimes to see a girl or boy whose body language would, in Seattle, mean mid-twenties and then to realize that this is probably someone just about pubescent. Especially dramatic when the next person over is a 45-year-old peasant who is a clear example that you can't take the country out of the boy.

Shortly before eleven PM, the plaza, already well lit, was flooded by lights bright as day for the benefit of the (many) TV cameras. Things got quiet, quiet enough that you could hear the ringing of cell phones; these continued to ring right through the entire service. Yes, we are ready for the EU. Yes. "Where am I? Oh I'm up in front of the Patriarchal Palace. Which church service are you blabbing away in the middle of. Oh, you're at a movie?" (On the other hand, the few people who smoked cigarettes or continued major flirting during the service, or tried packing onto the already overcroweded steps got nasty looks, and occasionally remarks, which generally got them to desist.)

At eleven a young priest began an hour-long telling of the Easter story, definitely a none-too-charismatic, though word-perfect reading from a text. On a scale from 0 to 10, where I'm not sure what a 0 or a 10 are, but about a 1 is your uncle Mort attempting the Passover Haggadah after one too many glassed of Manischevitz and a 9 is the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King Junior talking about having been to the mountaintop, he was about a 2.5. Definitely a perpetual opening act, but the crowd were with him for an entire hour. Well, most of them. Inside the day church behind me was a hubbub worthy of the bar at the Hammersmith Odeon.

Off to one side, on a balcony, in what can best be described as box seats, were a group of very well dressed East Asians, probably diplomats of some sort. Off to the other side were a group of gendarmes and a (for now silent) choir. Milling about "backstage" were miscellaneous priests and acolytes. Some of these were sufficiently more charismatic than the reader that when they came briefly forward I was reminded of Peter Schickele's joke about the bagpipe drowning out the sound of the lute even when nobody's playing it.

Midnight approached, the reading finished (I guess timing must be a crucial requirement for getting to do this reading), the altar boys and girls gathered with candles, the choir started singing, a large assembly of priests came forward. I already knew that candles would be lit from one another and the flame would slowly pass back through the crowd, but I was totally unprepared for the clamor to be the first to get flame directly from the patriarch. Now I understood why the gendarmes. Just think rock show crowd (though mostly older) rushing a stage, plus flame, with young altar boys and girls and a maybe 80-year-old patriarch at the focus of their surge.

The bearded patriarch, remarkably calm during the whole affair, garbed in regal robes and crown, looked like a cross between Santa Claus and King Lear, perhaps six months before the latter had that bad idea about the daughters and carving up the kingdom. As the fire was passed back through the crowd, candle, to candle, some of them in glass bowls, some in bare hands, some in McDonald's cups or plastic beer glasses, some of them on a scale worthy of a vampire-hunting torch in the last reel of the movie, the choir sang, amplified enough that their voices seemed to come from nowhere in particular. Afterwards, still surrounded by the sort of Court that rap artists try (and generally fail) to emulate with their "posses", and after three ritual call-and-response repetions of "Hristos a inviat / A inviat, c-adeverat" ("Christ is risen / He has risen, it is true") launched into a long sermon not all of which I followed but which seemed to mix religious and partriotic feeling in talking about Romania's unique role in any unification of Europe as the only country both Latin and Orthodox. This lasted nearly another hour, followed by more singing and bell-ringing. At about that point I decided to wend my way out of there, even if I didn't have a family, a well-cooked lamb, or a big bottle of palinca waiting for me. (I'm told many people feast till dawn, maybe sleep and hour or two, and show up at church rather hung over in the morning. Instead, I got a good night's sleep, stir-fried some boiling potatoes with olive oil, peppers and garlic, and headed here to the cybercafe to tell you all about it.)

On the way home, a bit cold, I wandered by several other churches (including the idyllic Stavropeleos), past streams of people carrying their candles with holy flame in all directions through the city. Even in the few cars driving by, typically everyone but the driver had a candle burning brightly.

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Originally written: May 5, 2002

Last modified: 25 February 2021

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