An American In Bucharest

Both me and the editor of the show listened with great delight to the story of the young American, of Romanian origin, who had come back to Romania in search of his roots and to set up a business. The young man had married a girl from Humuleşti, and now he spoke wonderful Romanian. A beautiful story, perfect for broadcasting. "How do you spend your free time?", the editor of the show asked. "Have you visited the country, what other places do you know in Romania?" "We usually go to the country side, to visit the in-laws. I've been here many times. The entire Humuleşti area is very beautiful…" "Oh, yes, indeed," we exclaimed, day-dreaming. "There's so much peace and quiet, and the people are so nice, so different from the ones in the city, it's like a totally different world out there. It's very relaxing!" "Yes, it is!" we exclaimed, proud of our identity and our minds full of childhood memories. "So, you like our countryside, don't you?" the editor added, sounding more like a confirmation rather than a question. "No!" came the dry and calm answer. "It's very nice to go and relax there… as they say, it's… tourism. You like passing by, but I get bored there. I was born in New York, I like Bucharest!" "You like Bucharest!?" we exclaimed in a chorus, our voices full of disillusionment. That was the end of the poetic vision. Who could understand these Americans, who'd rather trade Creangă's Humuleşti for Mitică's Bucharest! "Yes, I love it. It's a real city, it's alive, it has everything. If I wake up at three in the morning and I feel like eating a shaorma, I can go out and get a shaorma. Not to mention the shows, the books, the people on the street, the cars…" "Doesn't the traffic in Bucharest bother you?" the editor asked prudently. "No, why would it bother me? I told you, I was born in New York, I like the noise and the city commotion, I get sleepy without it… yes, I understand what you mean: the cars in Bucharest are responsible for all the disorder in the city. It's true, I've noticed it too. It'll settle down in time, that's how it is in all big cities, you'll see, you don't have to get scared." There followed an entire praise of Bucharest, unlike anything I'd ever heard before, told with simple pleasure and a strange kid of perception – so strange that I ended up wondering who was the one born in Bucharest after all, was it him or me? There were many things I didn't know, buildings and institutions I had no idea existed in Bucharest. But above all, there were different meanings, the people and places meant something different for him, and attracted him in the most natural way possible. Where I normally saw the disappearance of the city, he'd see the emergence of the urbanization in Romania; where my eyes gazed nostalgically at the sunset, his eyes anxiously welcomed the sunrise. A few days later, maybe under the influence of this talk, I went for a walk in the neighborhood of my childhood. I hadn't been there in over ten years. Nothing had remained the same, except our block of flats from the interwar period and four ghetto houses forgotten at the end of a street. The surrounding streets no longer existed either, full of villas and office buildings oriented in every possible direction. Not to mention the park at the corner of the street, the one with the huge mulberry tree in the middle… I was walking up and down my childhood street, feeling lost and trying to find an explanation for the way I felt. I realized that when Ceauşescu's town-planners came and traced the new Titulescu avenue, thus amputating the end of our street and that of others in the neighborhood, there was a huge bleeding, but the body of the city finally managed to stay alive. It remained the same, despite the amputations and scars. I found myself in it, with even more frenzy, as if to make it up for what had disappeared. But now I feel lost, and sad. I saw the death of Bucharest in my childhood neighborhood. Not because someone came to take a bite of its body, not because the capitalist real estate market is worse than communist systematization, not (only) because of the sheer lack of memory and method of the new town-planners, but simply because all four houses at the end of the street were deserted. They had died and now they were waiting, of course, to be buried under the concrete of some office buildings. Communism wasn't the only one to die in 1990; an entire secular world went down with it, a world in which both our ancestors and we were born, and the city also. And this new world (which some call postmodern, others postindustrial, post-capitalist, and so on) no longer needs that Bucharest; therefore, the city dies a natural death. Ceauşescu would be anachronistic now… But without my noticing it, without many other people just like me noticing it, the City has recovered this distance faster than its inhabitants, installing itself in the New World with the insolence of its regained youth. It recovered to such an extent that now it can offer much delight to a young Yankee from the old New World. No, this is not Aznavour's "bohème". It's something much more crepuscular… Dilema veche, 16-22 March 2007 Translated by Daniela Oancea

by Vintilă Mihăilescu