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Drumul Tabarei through the back door

On Wednesday I had a proper adventure. A Wikipedia colleague of mine has been trying to get hold of a particular book about General Ioan Emanoil Florescu, victor of the Battle of Plevna. It is published by Editura Militara here in Bucharest. They have a web site, but they don't ship abroad. Their address was clearly very close to where I am working, so I decided I'd try to go there and pick it up. (The easy way would have been to go by the military bookshop in the Cercul Militar National not far from my apartment but, as Tina Turner said, "There's just one thing... We never ever do nothin' nice and easy.")

Drumul Tabarei is a likely enough part of town for a military publisher: there are several military facilities nearby; our building was originally an annex to the offices of an armaments manufacturer (which is still next door); the very name of the neighborhood means "the road of the camp". I couldn't quite make sense of the address, so I decided to ask one of the soldiers who were either on rather lax guard duty or rather rigidly hanging around (hard to tell which) near the entrance to the army headquarters. It turns out that the office of the publisher is inside the base.

I was directed into a small building, where I explained my business to a woman in her thirties and was told to wait. I handed my passport to her through a window like a bank teller's in exchange for a visitor's badge. After a few minutes I was told to go outside and follow another woman who would come down the (long, straight) road from the center of the base. A woman in civilian dress (wearing slightly high heels, even) was, indeed, walking toward me; she beckoned from a distance of about 75 yards. As we headed into the base, a man, also in civilian dress, silently fell in with us. Other than an initial greeting, no one said a word. We walked past buildings rather similar to the ones around our office, although more open spaces and fewer trees, passed about a dozen stray dogs and the occasional soldier on guard duty; I was finally led into a building that houses several of the sort of entities that fall under the military side of a government but which aren't exactly military themselves. One of these is Editura Militara, which, from what I can tell, must be an operation of about 25 or 30 people (possibly more elsewhere, I guess). I was directed into the office of the director, one Adrian Paudea, where I again explained my errand. After a certain amount of aimless semi-bi-lingual small talk, he called out to a woman in the outer office; about a minute later she returned with a copy of the book. After some slightly awkward back and forth (I'm not used to having to ask in Romanian "to whom do I hand my money?") he asked the same woman the price; she said the Romanian equivalent of "sixteen". He nodded and said to me (this is all in Romanian, I'll stop annotating that) "one hundred sixty". I said "but she said sixteen!" And, of course, it was the currency thing all over again: she was talking new lei, he was talking thousands of old lei.

Cash changed hands (no receipt, oddly), then more miscellaneous small talk, and a handshake. This time just the woman walked me back to the front gate, with now some small talk on the way (where am I from, why did I want this book), finally I exchanged my visitor's badge for my passport, and was back on Drumul Tabarei (the road itself), a free man with book in hand (or, more precisely, in backpack). Much more interesting than a sit-down lunch. Rick Steves would be proud of me.

The weirdest part of this all was that they never at any point asked me to open my backpack and show them the contents. I could have walked onto a very important military base with almost anything in my pack, and no one would have been the wiser.

Needless to say, I do not have any photos of any of that. One does not photograph foreign military bases.

View from the Saijo club

The prior evening (Tuesday) I made it to the go club here. It's a nice space - a converted corner apartment with about 7 tables and boards, well-stocked with stones, one large demo board, two computers, a small library - in a not-so-well-maintained building (on the day I came, the elevator was not working and I had to walk up 6 flights) 2 blocks from the Bank of Romania in the historic Lipscani district, where a rather helpful and friendly woman in the lobby apologized about the elevator, pointed me to the correct staircase, and seemed happy to help.

I unconsciously carried on a Seattle tradition by being there on Tuesday (the big night at the Seattle Go Center). There were about 15 players, all male, mostly Romanian, although one Korean was playing against a Romanian multi-dan. The club was a bit "Korean" in that when I arrived half the men were smoking and the windows were closed (it was a rainy night). Still, one of the rooms was pretty much smoke-free; I sat down there to play a game with my (also non-smoking) friend Miron, who I knew from last time I was here. I'm sad to report that he pretty much wiped the board with me, handed me my ass, etc., but I hope to redeem myself on Saturday and uphold our national honor.

Wednesday evening was spent again with my not-to-be-named post-office-PR friend. We talked about various things, largely culture and politics (on both of which we sometimes agree but more often disagree respectfully). The evening was a bit wet, so we mostly sat in the Pasajul Macca-Villacrosse, a more or less indoor space which, among other things, contains several bars and a (reportedly unimpressive) Chinese restaurant. I say "more or less indoor" because it's not like the arcade is totally waterproof, but you get a fine mist and the occasional drop rather than getting soaked to the skin.

Work and health both go well, but I can't talk about the former and once you've said, "fine, thanks! And you?", what is there to say about the latter?

OK, let's do another brief digression on the state of the nation.

As I remarked earlier, the move towards "Europe" is papable. As you can imagine, there are winners and losers, and they are not always whom you'd expect. Obviously, the poor and uneducated are somewhat screwed: communism was relatively good to them, capitalism is not (except for those who have actually broken out of poverty with some clever business scheme or clever criminal scam); I don't have a lot else to say on that front. I'm not sure I'd want to know too much about what life is like for the women you see cleaning the streets with long brooms, or the men laying stone sidewalks entirely by hand. As Hobbes said, "Cruel, nasty, brutish, and short" (life, that is, not Danny DeVito). And, reportedly, some people are even worse off now than these. The news today had a report about the truly appalling institutional conditions for people here with mental and intellectual disabilities; someone must be publicizing this a great deal right now, probably hoping to use EU entry as a lever to do something about it, because I just had an email yesterday from my brother in the US that he had read a story about the same thing. In general, this is a very tough place for the disabled of any sort: getting around Bucharest would be difficult with a cane, impossible with a wheelchair.

But even in the middle class the results are mixed. Real estate is going up fast, great for owners, lousy for renters. Most of the people I've talked to here seem to feel that the trend is positive, and no one I've spoken to is against EU entry, but at least two have remarked that they personally are doing less well than four years ago because of the way things have fallen out. One, in particular, does not think salaries are keeping pace with prices. Both of the people who remarked on not doing as well are my age or older; I suspect (though I am not sure) that the younger people I talk to are still at a phase where their career is emphatically moving forward, so at least keeping pace with the changes, while those in the "prime of life" who might have reached a mature career level are more sensitive to price changes and less likely to see their wages grow proportionately.

Anyway, I'm not going to get a deep understanding of this in a 17-day visit. This is not like when I was here for half a year.

On one other front, despite some miscellaneous aquisitions by international chains, there still seems to be a lively press here. I haven't looked so much at the daily papers as at the intellectual weeklies, Observator Cultural and Dilema Veche (formerly just Dilema; "vechi" - old - got added after some kind of ownership struggle), which remain excellent. There are about as many national dailies as in Britain, pretty much all in tabloid form, and an investigative cum satiric weekly comparable to Private Eye. Which reminds me, there is now a Time Out Bucuresti (in Romanian), though I haven't yet taken a look at it.


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Originally written: June 1, 2006
Last modified: May 11, 2006

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