Romania: The Singer of his own Mishegas

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This weekend I played tourist, and also did some photography for Wikipedia: in many cases the two coincided.

First things first: souvenir shopping. I made it back to the museum store at the Peasant Museum 🔗. Those who have been promised painted eggs can rest easy, the chicken has landed. Many traditional ones, plus several that are clearly from the Kazimir Malevich 🔗 of egg-painting.

Friday night I attended a quite good performance of Verdi's Rigoletto at the National Opera, with a Japanese conductor (Kyosuke Matsushita) and a Korean Duke of Mantua (Ki Sun Kim). Needless to say, several Japanese and Korean diplomats and their families were in attendance. In general, there are more Asians and Blacks in Bucharest than four years ago, mostly tourists and business travelers, a few living here. My sense is that the Asians no longer turn heads by their mere presence, but the Blacks still do. But I'm sure that now, unlike four years ago, there are people of African descent in Bucharest who don't know each other.

Museum of the Romanian Peasant
Museum of the Romanian Peasant

Anyway, the orchestra played well, Ki Sun Kim was wonderful - you could absolutely imagine him wandering off the stage and still being an amoral Italian duke who, for some odd reason, looked rather Asian. Which is to say, among other things, that his acting style was notably naturalistic for opera, possibly assisted by the fact that the Duke is a bit "operatic" as a character anyway. Irina Iordachescu as Gilda was magnificent: a really wonderful voice, "light" in the best sense of the word, the kind that makes the singing seem effortless rather than virtuosic, while handling perfectly every grace note. Also a very fine actress: there was as much nuance (and as many grace notes) in her facial expressions as in her singing. Apparently 🔗, she has sung in Greece and Turkey a bit, and has made it at least once each to Poland, Spain, and Italy. She's quite young, got her degree in 2000: I'm not an expert, but I would say that she is a name to watch out for. A very different performance style than Kim's naturalism, in that no one would run through so many facial expressions so rapidly in "real life", but I would say hers was an even richer performance than his. If anyone is casting a film that needs a young soprano, she would be a prime candidate (did I mention she's gorgeous?).

Everything else was solid, but a notch below these two stellar performances. Oleg Ionese, from the opera company in Cluj-Napoca, sang the title role more than adequately, but was a bit old-school for my tastes, big operatic gestures, and while I wouldn't fault his voice, I just didn't find him equally exciting. Horia Sandu as Sparafucile and Adriana Alexandru as Maddalena were also fine. Sandu looked rather young, very solid in this medium-sized role, I'd love to see how he is in something bigger. Stefan Schuller as Count Ceprano was also solid, but it's not exactly a prime role. Big voice (again, in the best sense).

The crowd scenes were massive (probably 40 people onstage) but, given that the last crowd scene is at the start of Act Three (out of four) none of them took curtain calls (nor did Schuller, nor the various ladies from Act One): they had presumably already gone home.

Slightly sparse attendance, perhaps 70%. I only heard one mobile phone ring during the performance (though I noticed a lot of people text messaging). A few annoying flash photos (the flash, of course, is a pure liability in those circumstances, useless or worse for the picture and annoying to everyone); inevitably for Romania, quite a few people commenting on the performance while it was in progress, and applause certainly did not wait for the end of a scene, and, oh, yes, the woman behind me started singing along, badly, with "La donna mobile" until she was roundly shushed. I guess you have to admire her insouciant enthusiasm.

Saturday I ran some errands, bought the abovementioned painted eggs, had my first cup of coffee since February, along with a very nice amandina (one of the local pastries, more or less in the French style), wandered around (finally some really nice weather: warm, sunny, reasonably dry), got back to the go club where I met up with a few people I knew from 2001-2 (by the way, I was wrong about them having a kitchen, all that works is a small refrigerator). I had not noticed on the rainy night I was there before: they have a commanding view, one of the best views of the cityscape I've seen.

The evening was pleasantly warm and I decided to wander over to Cişmigiu Garden 🔗. One of the delights of this city is that as late as midnight people are out boating on the little lake in the park, most of the half dozen terrace bars are still lively, and, much as in the daytime, the only thing that would normally be at all dangerous in the park is some fool riding his (always "his") bicycle too fast. Sadly, tonight was a bit nastier.

I hesitate to tell this story, because in my experience it is atypical. I'm glad I knew the city well before this happened, becuase if this had happened early in my first visit it would have really soured my perception of the city. It might even have made me avoid this usually pleasant urban oasis.

A group of about eight boys in their late teens was roaming around the park, dressed like typical Bucharest teenagers (jeans, T-shirts, light jackets, maybe someone in some athletic gear). As they approached me on the path, one of them lunged out of the pack at me, stopping just short of colliding, then fell back into the pack, laughing. I got just about in his face, saying "Ce vreți?" ("What do you want?"), the first vaguely appropriate Romanian phrase that came to mind. He and his friends just walked away laughing.

So, when they approached me on another path some 15 minutes later, I was more or less ready for another round of childish stupidity, and I wasn't surprised when the same kid lunged at me. But I was surprised when, instead of pulling back like the last time, he kept coming, knocking me down. There was a bench just slightly behind, and I managed to catch myself halfway down: my left hand caught a railing, my ass just about bounced off the seat, and I came up quickly and clearly ready to fight, which I don't think he expected. He ran away like a scared rabbit, his friends right behind him, me yelling "Ce curaj!" ("What courage!"). I think the cowardly little shit and his clique kept going straight out of the park, because it was the last I saw of them.

Only actual damage done: a very small cut on my left thumb where I hit the bench railing (so small it's already pretty much healed), and a bit of wasted adrenaline.

All I can say is that I hope the next time he pulls crap like that someone's reflexes are one step quicker than min and they permanently rearrange his smirk.

If you are a potential tourist, don't make of this a reason not to visit the park at night. I've been there dozens of times, and never even seen anything of the sort. I have no idea what triggered it. Full moon? Testosterone poisoning? Kid is practicing for his driving test? Guess I'll never know.

But back to the bright side. Sunday, another beautiful day, I lazed around in the morning, cooked myself some lunch (pasta with a simple sauce of olives and some really beautiful green onions, and the remnant of yesterdays baguette with a bit of mustard and some vegetable pate, yum), then went to the history museum 🔗, which I'd never visited before other than for a book fair in the lobby. Basically, the museum has two permanent exhibits: "Tezaur" (the "treasure" or "hoard") and a collection of large carved stone objects plus an excellent plaster cast of Trajan's column. The treasure didn't do much for me: lots of Roman gold, miscellaneous jewelry; maybe a few dozen pieces out of two thousand looked to me to of more than routine interest, just not my thing.

The column, although a replica, is actually of more interest: it's very well displayed, with the pediment occupying the center of a large exhibition hall and the hundred or so segments that originally went helically around a 40-meter-high column filling out the room. Some are displayed singly, others grouped in twos and threes, some in larger groups making a single revolution around a column one story high. The sculptures, in relief, tell the story of Trajan's conquest of Dacia, an area corresponding roughly to modern Romania, the only part of the Roman Empire this side of the Danube, and Roman's last major European conquest. The scale of the Roman Empire by that time was enormous: consider that Trajan was born and raised in what is now Sevilla, and here he was conquering territory on the Black Sea.

Some of the scenes are quite vividly depicted (battle scenes, crossing the Danube, Roman soldiers building roads and bridges, Dacian women torturing Roman captives) others a bit more routine, but it is certainly worth a visit; I gather that there are several similar casts in other museums, as well as the original, still standing in a piazza in Rome (very imposing, totally real, but not allowing for close examination).

I tried to get to the military museum (about 2 kilometers west, not far from the Ceausescu-era insta-ruin known as the Sala Radio) but simply didn't make it before closing time. Sorry, Anittas, I didn't get to photograph the diorama of the Battle of Plevna, but I did get you some good photos of Plevna-related artifacts in a temporary history museum exhibit (generally uninspiring: good materials, but just sitting in vitrines) about Carol I. These include the inscribed sword handed over by Osman Pasha at the time of surrender, a commemorative plate, and an inscribed rifle stock indicating that the rifle (a Winchester) was taken at the battle. I hope these are of some use.

Having missed closing time at the Military Museum, I went to the park at Eroilor and took some pictures of skaters and skateboarders at the new skate park there. It's a "street style" park (railings, a skatable bench, a few miscellaneous obstacles, a 45-degree ramp and a quarter-pipe, no half-pipe). Still, quite a step up from 4 years ago where the main place to skate was to mangle the marble steps of the National Theater. Another contrast is that I didn't attract much attention taking photos: a few of the skaters (and the younger skaters' parents) had cameras of their own.

In contrast to a typical U.S. skatepark, there was no real contingent of hot-shot skater boys: in fact, one of the best skaters I saw was a girl about ten years old.

Afterwards I managed to get back to the center just in time to do something else I'd missed doing in 2001-2002: I went to the Constantin Tănase 🔗 Revue Theater, which is now at a fine old theater, the Sala Rapsodia in Lipscani, because the building on Calea Victoriei that housed the historic Carabuş Theater is undergoing renovations. (I don't know if the theater will be restored or if something else is going in; if someone knows, I'd love to hear from you.)

This type of entertainment hasn't really existed in America at least since vaudeville days, or at least since the demise of the Copacabana 🔗. Singers, dancers ranging from ballroom glamour to acrobatic cabaret glitz, costume changes galore, political satire, sexual innuendos, and sometimes almost all of these things happening at once. Cheap but well-done sets (lots of LEDs and sequins), basic stage lighting and a few hand-operated spotlights from the corners of the balcony. (I'm told Bucharest now has a newer, glitzier, frothier version - bigger budget, more girls, fewer jokes - called the Moulin Rouge, aimed more at the rich tourists.) The instrumental accompaniments were, unfortunately, pre-recorded, and two production numbers were lip-synched, but most of the singing was live and definitely up-to-snuff. Some songs evoked the '30s or so (at least one song was Tanase's own, and he died at the tail end of World War II), others were contemporary Eurobeat or light classics; the two pre-recorded songs even contained some quasi-rapping that also had elements of the couplets traditional to cabaret theater.

Naturally, I could undetstand only about a quarter of the jokes, but the ones I could follow were funny enough. There was a vague, almost neglected, framing story about this being a command performance for a senile king. There was a bit about two firemen calling a phone sex line: "I'm burning up" got a new meaning (not to mention "Good thing we have our protective gear"). The phone number consisted entirely of nines and zeroes (in Romanian, "noua" and - to spell it for anglophones - "oh", respectively), allowing lots of variously inflected repetitions of "noua, noua, oh, oh, oh, oh, noua, noua". A long, multi-faceted political bit imagined the Romanian Parliament being more like the British (mostly an excuse to get actors into kilts and to come up with half-English versions of prominent politicians' names: "Johnny" Iliescu 🔗, "Cornell" Vadim Tudor 🔗…) and was structured around a debate over a new law on bordellos, with jibes such as the leader of the ethnic Hungarian UDMR 🔗 being mainly concerned that the law confirm the right of ethnic minorities to address prostitutes in their native language.

There was a lot about the rise of the tech industry and the burgeoning American and Western European influences here, especially the adoption of English-language words into Romanian. Once routine was built largely on a husband failing to understand the English words in his wife's vocabulary, usually first echoing with something phonetically similar in Romanian ("un call de telefon" ==> "why would a telephone have a horse?"), then she would launch into a long explanation, and he would burst out with the perfectly good Romanian word ("o cheama!") that means exactly the same thing. ("Advertising"... "Ah! Publicitate!"). The punchline involved taking a job in technical support, or for a dictionary.

Quite a few other computer-related jokes, including a routine worthy of Sophie Tucker or Bette Midler - about the possibilities of a "virtual" woman. After running down the different behaviors of the virtual woman mainframe, desktop, server, and laptop, the upshot is that the virtual woman is usually a palm. At another point, an extended Japonoiserie included a long monologue full of double entendres about a woman receiving plants as gifts from her suitors, finally ending up that her cauliflower ("conopidă", the pun should be clear at least to those who know Spanish) really needs two cucumbers rather than one.

As I say, I'm sure 75% of it went straight past me, but even 25% (plus the music) was definitely an evening's entertainment (and very good language practice).

There was an enthusiastic audience from almost all walks of society. Near me was an older woman in peasant dress, and it was definitely not a costume. A group of about 30 older people had obviously gotten some kind of permission to come and go by van from this normally pedestrianized district. My immediate neighbors were a couple in their mid-20s with a slightly younger male friend in tow: they looked like they would probably be headed to a smoky basement bar after the show. Kids running around in the aisles or asking for explanations of jokes that no one was going to explain to an eight-year-old, old men repeating the punchlines to each other, the inevitable cell phones (outgoing calls, even), equally inevitably followed by asking their friend next to them to catch them up on whatever jokes they missed, and missing more in the process. Except for the cell phones - heck, maybe even including the cell phones - it just added to the atmosphere. The physical setup may have been your basic proscenium theater, but the mood was definitely cabaret.

On the way out, I ran into Adrian Milache, whom I was planning, in any event, to see the following evening. He was headed home from a different show. We exchanged pleasantries, and went on our respective ways, he with girlfriend in tow.

Adrian Mihalache in his apartment
Adrian Mihalache in his apartment

Monday evening I had a great time hanging out at Adrian's and catching up on four years of each other's life. Getting there was another story, though: a long subway ride, and a serious treasure hunt: the Iancului area where he lives could really use some signage. Without going into exhaustive detail, even people from the neighborhood had no idea where his address could possibly be (including, as it happens, two people who were leaning against that very building!). Bucharest addresses - at least in the areas where old, pre-war neigborhoods were replaced by apartment blocks - work according to principles as precise and abstruse as advanced physics. The rules and their consequences are well-defined, but it would take years study to master them. (For anyone who knows the Seattle area, and especially those twisty little roads in some of the communities east of Lake Washington, y'know how streets are named by where they would fall on a hypothetical orthogonal grid? Now imagine it's mostly apartment buildings, the gird is not orthogonal, and it's getting dark. And you are not fluent in the local language. Oh, and just for laughs, your phone card, the only way to use pay phones in this country, just ran out.) I finally managed to find a store in the neighborhood where they took pity on me and let me make a local call. When Adrian appeared, they said they should have known he was the one the lost American with a backpack and two eclairs would be looking for.

I was clearly an honored guest. I wish I had been able to sample Adrian's doubtless excellent brandy, but I'm currently under doctor's orders of no alcohol. But he provided me with some very good darjeeling tea and some excellent cheeses and really excellent dried fruit, and we chatted for hours, and I admired the art collection on his walls. He has numerous abstracts, some of them showing the same Japanese influences found in the work of Mark Tobey and the other artists of the mid-century Northwest School; he also has a painting that commemorates the 1925 visit to Bucharest of the Vilna Troupe, a very famous Yiddish Theater troupe that then settled in Bucharest for some years. The picture depicts a scene from Osip Dymov's "Der Zingher fun Zain Troirer" ("The Singer of His Own Tears"), a production that, about a year ago, I had written about in passing 🔗 in Wikipedia, drawing some of my material from a book by the late Israil Bercovici 🔗, whom it turns out Adrian knew well.

Post-midnight I walked back to Piata Iancului, from which a taxi whisked me rapidly 2 or 3 kilometers back to my apartment for an obscenely reasonable price of about US$2.25 including tip.

At work, my project is a monster that grows new tentacles almost as rapidly as we can cut them off, but there is honor in the fight and pleasure in the fray.

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Originally written: May 16, 2006

Last modified: 25 February 2021

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