Romania: Dinner Chez Dracula, Blood Afterwards

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29 Nov 2001

How could I have failed to mention my visit to the Count Dracula Club?

As I'm sure most of you know, the Romanian tourist industry feeds heavily on the legend of Dracula, particularly the Bram Stoker novel and its descendants. There is even talk now of a Dracula theme park.

The funny thing is that while (1) Vlad Ţepeş (Vlad Tepes, Vlad the Impaler) was an actual ruler (and a fierce warrior against the Turks), (2) there are apparently vampire legends in Transyvania, and (3) Vlad's father was apparently known as Vlad Dracul (Vlad the Dragon), possibly making Vlad Ţepeş into Dracula (the little dragon) I don't think anyone before Bram Stoker ever brought any of this together. This is a British story, not a Romanian one (Hell, much of it is set in England). But they have embraced it.

The Count Dracula Club is actually a very fine and quite reasonably priced Romanian restaurant in a fine old villa along the river (but which, like almost all upmarket Romanian restaurants, covers its windows, so it might as well be anywhere once you are inside). It is themed up the wazoo, but it is all very well done: e.g. one room, decorated with hunting trophies, contains a very impressive bear skin and one hell of a stag head; another is done up like a British pub (in honor of Mina, sort of), etc. I am told that one room in the basement contains torture devices; they weren't too busy the night I went, so they were only using the main floor. Entering is a bit of a ritual in and of itself: you pull a chain, which rings a bell inside, and someone looks out a tiny window and asks (in Romanian) what you want, and as long as you aren't too fazed by that, the heavy wooden door slides (not swings) open and you choose your room and table.

The menu is also highly themed. One of the few vegetarian dishes is a beet salad (explained in terms of being the closest they can do to blood for vegetarians) and for one dish named after Renfield (who you will remember, eats rats and the like in his cell after he goes mad) the menu steadfastly refuses to tell you what sort of meat the dish contains.

[When I first emailed this, I had confused Renfield with Van Helsing. My friend Celeste wrote to correct my Dracula lore:

["I thought Renfield was the one who flipped out and ate bugs and rats at the asylum while Von Helsing ran around like a nut desecrating graves in the name of killing Dracula... I'll have to re-read the story. :-)"

[As usual on such topics, she is entirely correct.]

Interestingly, on the night I was there, the clientele were mostly Romanian. As I said, the food is excellent, the prices are reasonable for a good restaurant, the staff are reasonably attentive (not the prevailing pattern here), etc. Also, there are apparently no pricing scams, quite a contrast, I'm told, to some of the legitimately old restaurants in this city, where they will price a dish per 100 grammes instead of at a fixed price, and then (when the food is gone and there is no way to verify) insist that you received half a kilo of meat, etc. (I've been warned not to go to the 200-year-old -- and in some ways excellent -- Hanul Lui Manuc without a native speaker, a fat wallet, and/or a willingness to argue about the check).

In short, even doubly dead, the Count is still a good host.

[I later found an entire web page about the Count Dracula Club 🔗 but as of 2021 it's gone. If anyone can find it archived, please let me know!]

From old contested history to more recent contested history.

No one really knows all of what happened here during the revolution at Christmas '89. There is no question that Nicolae and Elena Ceausescu were executed. There is no question that thousands of others died in the fighting (although the exact numbers are hotly contested even today). Other than that, there is a lot of question about who did what and to whom. Prevailing opinion would have it that some of the most repressive elements in the old society actually participated in the overthrow of the regime, hoping to come out on top. Arguably, their hopes were fulfilled: Iliescu, the first Prime Minister after the revolution (and again now) was a prominent figure in the Ceausescu regime.

But I'm not going to go on about politics at any length. For once, I'm not really trying to understand the electoral politics of a country I am visiting. It's just too complicated. 30 parliamentary parties, ranging from the ethnic to the cosmopolitan and from left to right, with a public that seems often to vote personalities and grievances more than platforms. Enough said.

Besides, last night (Wednesday) I saw an absolutely wonderful ballet of Prokofiev's 🔗 "Romeo and Juliet", performed at the National Opera House (which is intimate and just sufficiently ornate to provide a sense of occasion). I almost hesitate to admit how cheap an evening this was: counting in a program and a beverage at the interval, the total was just over US$3. That is not a typo. A bargain, even here, about the cost of a good pizza and a bottle of mineral water.

Worst things first. While Romanians in general seem badly dressed and well behaved, at the ballet they were quite the opposite. For the first time since my arrival I was underdressed. No glittering gowns or formal evening dress, but 75% of the people one step down from that: men in good suits (that they apparently save for this sort of thing, and wear their cheap suits to the office), women mostly in elegant long dresses. Their behavior, though, was roughly at the high school assembly or baseball game level. People arrived at the last minute and clambering not just down aisles but over rows of seats. One conversation during the performance was so loud I could hear it from the opposite side of the theater. (They were finally, after several minutes, loudly sssshh'd by their neighbors). There were two women to my immediate left: the farther one kept up a running commentary, whispered, but loud enough to get my attention, and never silent for even ninety seconds; the nearer one seemed to feel it was OK to fart throughout the first act, as long as one did so quietly. (Maybe not all her fault: like most places in Romania, the otherwise nice rest rooms had no toilet paper. Strictly BYO.)

[My friend Helene reminds me:

["Your description of crowd behavior at the ballet is not surprising. Traditionally, perhaps the Prussians and (maybe?) the British were the only Europeans who kept quiet and actually watched the ballet or opera. The rest of the European audiences were about as quiet and still as the members of your average Sephardic synagogue -- bima in the middle -- during a Bar Mitzvah."

[Helene is far more expert than I one the ballet- and opera-going manners of Europe.

[Actually, I've seen the same (and worse) in Italy, but not at a performance of this quality in such a formal setting. In Bologna about 6 years ago I attended an outdoor performance of "Carmina Burana" and the crowd was pretty much like a crowd at a rock concert.]

From the ridiculous to the sublime. The performance was wonderful, so good that I may go see it again when I am back in January. I'll get to the (excellent) dancing in a moment, but first let me praise the costuming (sumptous but not over the top), set design and props (an illustration of what great talent can do with a relatively modest budget: a few staircases; some mylar, cloth and paint for the drops; a bed with ropes to move it; one magnificent drop which was probably a patchwork of old discarded costumes and the like), and a fine orchestra.

The dancing was excellent and the choreography (by Ioan Tugearu, who also directed) even moreso: I suspect that if I ever see Prokofiev's "Romeo and Juliet" again with different choreography it will just seem wrong. Classical ballet combined with small elements of other dance technique to very good effect. Some of the cast seemed as much actors as dancers: Antonel Oprescu as Juliet's father had such stage presence that even standing still he sometimes distracted my eye from the main action, and Cristian Craciun as Mercutio seemed as much a mime as a ballet dancer, and the kind who could give mime a good name again (he also had a few moves that bordered on break dancing, but they were all so fleeting as not to subvert the tone).

Many of the excellent dancers in the corps du ballet (or should that be "ansamblul de balet"?) would not have had a chance in the States: many of the women clearly had hips and breasts (quel horreur!), and let us say that it was probably no accident that the costumes for many of the men included rather loose belted tunics. In general, even the women seemed more unabashedly athletic than most ballet dancers I have seen, and the choreography allowed for this: even the rather wispy Juliet (Cristina Opincaru) gets to drag and half-carry her dead Romeo (Eugen Dobrescu) around the stage quite a bit before she joins him.

Besides everything else, the choreographer never forgets that Romeo and Juliet are very young, playful and impulsive, as much in love with a tragic/melodramatic concept of love as with each other, young enough to kill themselves as a gesture. They almost seem like they are trying to work out how may ways ther are to move their bodies around and over each other, including a wonderfully slithery piece of horizontal choreography when they wake up next to one another in Juliet's bed. When Juliet drinks the potion that will feign death, it seems almost an afterthought: she spends a long time toying with a dagger, finally downs the potion almost as casually as an evening beverage, then has a minute to swoon gracefully the entire width of the stage.

Deaths more recent: as people have been telling me, violent crime is very unusual in Bucharest and when it occurs the normally ineffectual police show what they actually can achieve. This weekend, an armed robber held up a currency exchange, took about US$15,000, killed two employees of the exchange and covered his tracks rather professionally, in that he took the tape from the video system, etc. By Wednesday they had him in custody. He turns out to be Greece's most wanted criminal 🔗, who has killed five Greek policemen (among others) and managed to escape the country. Three days after his first known crime here, they had him. (He did manage a second armed robbery on Monday before they got him.)

I'm not sure if this should be reassuring or make me nervous: the currency exchange he robbed is about 2 blocks from my office.

I have approximately one more week here this time, then I start really bouncing for a while: a week in Seattle, a week back in Bucharest, and a week and a half in Barcelona, then back to Bucharest for the month of January. I should be reachable by email throughout.

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Originally written: November 29, 2001

Last modified: 24 February 2021

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