Joe Mabel > Travel writing > Letters from Romania 2001-2002 > The Best and Worst of Bucharest

The Best and Worst of Bucharest

26 Nov 2001

Events and impressions are outstripping my available time to write about them. This is mostly good, but means a lag in telling you all what's going on.

Last week I got hold of a cheap radio/CD/tape player. Spares me watching TV. Also got hold of a guitar (cheap 3/4 sized classical), a very good addition to my life in exile.

The guitar has been an enormous pleasure. Played for about 3 hours this weekend, fingers and brain both working quite well, thank you.

Can't say much about Romanian talk radio (since I don't have enough Romanian to be tempted to listen) but the music radio here is nothing if not eclectic. Some stations pump out nonstop dance-oriented whatever, but others rival Seattle's KEXP external 
link for variety. One day on one station I heard Gary Glitter's external link version of "Baby, Please Don't Go" followed by a probably Turkish folk tune, then some piece of flamenco-tinged rock, and a Jamaican DJ toasting over "Volare"! [I swear I am not making that up, and if anyone can identify that last recording I'd be very happy to know who it was.]

Music in the lobby of my hotel is equally eclectic: The Andrews Sisters followed by Steppenwolf, that sort of thing.

This weekend I visited the Museum of the Romanian Peasant. Utterly magnificent. Puts to shame some countries' National Galleries. They have a first-rate collection of religious art, more variety of textiles than Bloomingdales, tons of other artifacts including the ruins of an entire rural church, and it is displayed as well as any one museum I have ever seen. They could give lessons to New York or London. (Especially to London: the lighting was good.) They also have a one-room mini-museum of communist-era Romania in the basement, treated somewhere between nostalgia and dread.

To me, the most notable exhibits were some of the icon paintings. Some are very primitive, but others would look at home in any good art museum. I never thought about this before, but looking at this many icons in ome place I realized how much icon art actually influenced Russian constructivism.

One piece was particularly notable. (Unfortunately, no reproduction of it was to be had. This winter, I will go back, pay the fee to use a camera, and take a photo of it.) In the center, Jesus, surrounded by a just slightly off kilter ovoid shape, holds an Eastern Orthodox double cross. The hem of Jesus's garment extends beyond the bounds of the ovoid (to the viewer's left) and is held by one of three kings. In turn, several objects, including one king's right leg, break the frame entirely, extending onto space that is otherwise treated as frame. To the viewer's right, Jesus takes the hand of a kneeling male saint (if this were Western, I'd presume Peter, but I'm not so sure), which has extended into his ovoid. Behind that saint is the partially obscured face of a female saint (probably the Virgin) visible only from the nose up. Various emblems, including two keys, are scattered near the bottom of the icon. At the very top, a shape which may be the sun, but which has some appendages off of it that also invoke keys. Below that, over Jesus, a winged figure, probably the Holy Spirit, whose wings blend into a series of craggy mountains that form the background for most of the picture.

Unlike most icons, it is clear who is looking at whom: everyone is looking at Jesus; Jesus is looking at the kneeling saint.

They date this as anonymous Romanian 18th or 19th century. If they are right, all I can say is that some iconographer was way ahead of his time in terms of exposure to (and influence by) Western (or Western-influenced) art.

Let's talk about the weather external link. Weather has been back & forth across the freezing line, with occasional rain or even snow. Then you get a marvelous sunny day and the only reminder of the recent rain is the miserable puddles that presumably result from lack of maintenance funds, but seem to result from some engineer not understanding that water flows down, and that the drain therefore ought to be lower than the pavement.

My room has a desk. It does not have a desk chair. The hotel does not have a desk chair I can borrow. Those of you who are receiving postcards should please excuse the penmanship.

Had one really lousy restaurant experience at lunchtime today. Usually here you pick your own seat: in this case (maybe because I was a party of one?) they insisted on placing me by the door (this in freezing weather). Then they brought me a menu and ignored me for 15 minutes. This at a highly reputed restaurant, an Italian place owned by the people who own what I've ben told is the best Romanian restaurant in town, and supposedly this (newish) Italian place maintains the standard. Guess someone decided I didn't meet the standard. I left, grabbed a cheap meal to go from a nearby storefront place, and went back to the office. Because this place (Il Calcio) is so highly reputed, I may give it one more chance, but not when I have only a finite amount of time.

I finally went to the infamous Centru Civic, Ceausescu's presumably most lasting impact on Romania, or at least on Bucharest. [Properly, one should write "Ceauşescu," but that name is going to come up so much I'm not going to bother with the tricky orthography.] The architecture is not as utterly bad as I had expected, just mediocre and grandiose. If this had been developed on empty land, instead of tearing down historic neighborhoods; if this had been developed on unpeopled land, rather than kicking tens of thousands of people out of their homes; if this had been developed by a country that could have afforded to build on such a grand scale, rather than by one where the consequences for all but a small priviligentsia were winters without heat; then it would merely be Redmond Town Center external link or Milton Keynes writ large, in marble. A joyless (but admittedly tree-lined and well drained) boulevard external link down the middle of this abomination of a district is slightly longer than the Champs Elysées (that was apparently the point) and culminates on the world's second largest building external link (by volume), smaller only than the Pentagon. It is massive. It is clearly a dictator's dream. It now houses the Parliament of the government that overthrew and executed him. I am told that parts of the building are still unfinished and probably always will be. [By the way, the boulevard, now known as "Unirii" ("unification", as in the unification of the three major regions of Romania) was originally known as the "Boulevard of the Victory of Socialism."]

A few older buildings were left standing whent they built the Centru Civic, including some quite fine old churches. Sadly, some of the latter were moved within the district, not given good foundations, and will probably tumble in the next earthquake if something is not done soon. Nothing will be done soon.

Met some Brits who are in town making a Sherlock Holmes movie (with an angle: young Holmes and Watson, in their late 20s). No doubt Bucharest can easily be made to stand in for Victorian Britain, once you get the cars off the streets and sidewalks.

Yes, once you get the cars off the sidewalks. In other cities I've seen people park with two wheels on the sidewalk, leaving pedestrians little or no space to get by. Here, a broad sidewalk is simply an invitation to get all four wheels on the sidewalk. If they made them yet wider, people would double park on the sidewalk.

Actually, I've been meeting a lot of interesting people, more than I have time to write about. At my hotel, over Sunday breakfast, I met a 76-year-old American citizen named Berndt, originally from Riga, Latvia, now living in Paris. He is semi-retired from a career in paper and pulp, which among other things had made him the first American to travel legally on business to US-embargoed Cuba. He is now an independent consultant in the same field, hopes to keep it up for another five years. He was headed up to Transylvania to look at a facility there (I'm not sure to what end). Next week he will be in Bellingham hoping to buy (on behalf of a client) some of the remaining equipment from the infamous GP facility. I'm sure both GP and Bellingham will be happy to see it leave.

This morning, over breakfast, I spoke with an Israeli who had spent his teen years in Atlanta, Georgia and a man from Cleveland, Herts in England. Both were headed north, the former for a mountain vacation, the latter on some sort of business related to a factory. We (well, mostly the Israeli and I) compared notes on a number of topics, including who could do the better southern accent (he won, hands down, pretty impressive for a non-native speaker).

Yesterday (Sunday) I finally hit up with the Bucharest go-playing community. They gather weekly, late Sunday afternoon at the bar of the Casa de Cultura Studenteasca. Very strong players here: I played two 4-dans, and I wouldn't be surprised if by AGA ratings they would be 5-dans (they certainly wouldn't be 3-dans!). Looks like against them I can win at 6 stones or lose at 5, and I'm a strong 2-kyu or a weak 1-kyu by US rankings. Nice people, mostly techies, mostly speak excellent English, comparable to my co-workers here. Definitely a healthy "coffee house go" attitude: people take back bad moves, people kibbitz (but not overly), lots of cross conversation, strong players liable to do an impromptu simul.


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Originally written: November 26, 2001
Last modified: November 9, 2003

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