Romania: Jewish Geography and Stark Sculpture

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3 Dec 2001

A bit less incident to describe than in some of these. I seem to have settled in a bit. Must be time to throw some chaos into my life by travelling around a bit.

I spent much of the weekend wandering town & talking politics, language, and "Jewish geography" with an Israeli guy named Jonathan, whom I mentioned before (the one who spent his teen years in Atlanta). Also, played go again on Sunday.

Sunday at 11AM (when they say "matinee" here, they really mean it) we (Jonathan and I) went to the State Jewish Theater to see, of all things, a Romanian translation of the Ray Cooney farce "Out of Order" (which was strangely titled in Romanian something like "And Minister...Such a Twist"). Acting very good, audience (very young, half under 20) far more appropriately behaved in my view than at the ballet (at least here when they were talking it was things like yelling to a character about what he wasn't seeing on the stage, very age-appropriate), very nice smallish theater on the edge of the old part of town (which wasn't the edge until Ceausescu). I realize that farce is largely comprehensible even without understanding a word (that's his mistress, that's his wife, that's his assistant, that's the hotel manager, that corpse isn't really dead...), but I do believe I followed the bulk of the dialog down to the point of understanding the inconsistent stories that the central character is telling about where he's phoning from, who is related to whom how, etc. Fun.

Jonathan works in a hotel in Tel Aviv (I'm not sure in what capacity, but I suspect somewhere in the middle of the pecking order). He has a friend who has a hotel in Transylvania and he was passing through Bucharest for two weekends on his way to and from a busman's holiday working for a week in his friend's hotel.

Through Jonathan I met a woman named Lorena, a successful travel agent who is certainly the most travelled Romanian I've met. About age 30, she's been all over Europe and the Eastern US and the Middle East. Very cool person, bright, witty; I'm hoping paths will cross again.

One unusual aspect of this city is the public sculpture. In each city I've been to, the public sculpture sends a different message. London's public sculpture seems to say, "We Londoners have been here a long, long time, and many of us are very important. After all, we used to rule the world and by rights we still should." (In Paris it's the same, but somehow more artistic and less convincing.) In Vienna, there are so many portrayals of angels that an uninformed person might think the city used to be ruled by a winged aristocracy.

Here in Bucharest, a lot of the public sculpture is very stark: elongated, emaciated versions of public figures, large busts teetering on thin pedestals, runners leaned perilously forward straining every muscle, a simple wooden memorial to the "anti-communist heroes" of '89. The message is definitely that a hero is the one who takes upon himself the greatest suffering. (OK, so there is also a triumphal arch modeled after the one in Paris, but it's way out on the edge of town.) The Orthodox religious art on the churches, of course, sends a rather similar message, with an overly of beatitude.

Bucharest really is a rather safe city, especially by day. Middle-class 6-year-olds are allowed to walk to school alone or in small groups; what more need be said? However, there can be a lot of annoying street hassle, especially in the evening. I've learned that while "Nu" ("no") will often not get rid of a persistent street beggar, following it with "Nu înţelegeţi 'nu'?" ("Nu intelegeti 'nu'?", "Don't you understand 'no'?") will. [My Romanian at the time was not good enough for an equivalent of "What part of 'no' don't you understand?"] (By the way, I do sometimes give them money, but you can't give money to all of them [and if I don't give money right away, I don't give it at all. I won't reward hassling me].) The pimps are probably no danger, but they sure are annoying. Typical dialog as they follow you down the street "Hey, you want some pretty girls?" "Nu." "You speak English?" "Da, şi Romaneşte." ("Da, si Romaneste", "Yes, and Romanian") "What's the matter, you don't like girls? You prefer boys?" etc. I have so far refrained from saying anything like, "No, I just don't like pimps": I'm not that intersted in finding out if they actually are dangerous.

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Originally written: December 3, 2001

Last modified: 24 February 2021

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