Bucharest, Images From A Backpack

No matter how much you tried to humanize it, to make a mental projection of it as seen through a magic lens which deforms the world and makes it look more beautiful than it actually is, no matter how much you looked for its weaknesses, you'll never find a new vision, a new angle that no one else had discovered before. This city lies down at your feet like a tamed, grey animal, all shabby-looking from all that running in search of food and which, at the same time, waits around the corner to take a bite of your tender flesh and feast on the energy and voluptuousness flowing through your veins. Its old and rotten bones, with fine cuts in the petrified figure and encrusted embroideries on the forehead of the columns, sway scared in front of the cold aluminum of the bluish thermopane window which strangles your throat and dries your lips.  Bucharest is a piece of land where, day after day, an invisible master stages some tragicomedies to an audience whose members, one by one, as in a cheap lottery, lose and earn the part of the actor or that of the spectator. Nothing can match Bucharest's movement, nerve, and daring among the narrow streets and the not-wide-enough boulevards. Here, life flows with the grace of a ballerina dancer, being at the same time heavy, uneasy, just like an old lady, disappointed that she can no longer pass the thread through the needle, although she hasn't been able to eat by herself in two years. Yet Bucharest doesn't suffer from anything, or at least it doesn't let it show. It's never let itself fall, defeated, on the soft asphalt of the sidewalks in Unirii Square, nor has it caressed its figure violently against the macadam going towards the Arch of Triumph. It always stood stiff in front of the never-ending queues at the drug store, all tensed up and with rugged fists, swore you and then lifted the car window, guessed your confusion and wanted to take advantage of your naivety. Bucharest doesn't worry about its health, because it severely educated its inhabitants and taught them that nothing comes for free. And it taught them something else too; the theory of a prolonged experience: if you come across someone dying on the street, don't bend to help him, just walk on by as if nothing happened. You begin to understand Bucharest when you shut up and listen to its lines. People pass by, Bucharest sighs …in Unirii Square. At the entrance to the subway, the escalator screeches its hinges and descends into the smell of fornetti pastries mixed with the smell of urine. At the other end, a woman displays her sorrow on a piece of cardboard with a few crooked letters written on it, held between the bleeding stumps that used to be her fingers. She's almost 50 years old. She used to work in a furniture factory until, three months ago, she cut her hand with an electric saw. It was her right hand, the one she would occasionally hold out at he corner of the street, or the one with which she held the broom to clean the stairways of the blocks of flats. Now she holds out her left hand. "I have diabetes, and my wounds won't close. I can't work anymore. I'm just sitting here, waiting for people's mercy." Nobody would hire her now. She holds back the eyes behind her bushy eyebrows and remains silent in the noise of the escalator taking people up and down. "Who wants to have anything to do with an old hag like me?!" Her eyes give out a few wet and obedient sparkles, and then retreat back in their holes, like a snail that only finds peace and quiet in the middle of its shell. People pass by, Bucharest hums …in Gara de Nord (North Station). A red bonnet, reminiscent of the fashion worn in a Paris long buried under forgotten memories, is finding its way among luggage moving hurriedly. Wearing a pair of comfortable sandals and a vapory dress, slightly covering her knees, putting on a playful smile, a woman comes near, sure of herself. "Hello. We represent the press and we're doing a market research… or rather a psychological study among press readers. Would you like to take part in our project?" Her large black eyes, very intense, stare at my gestures, and then rush into the raffia bag from where the woman takes out an old copy of Atac. She smiles, showing her impeccable teeth. "This is our newspaper, the one we use to conduct the research." She recites her lesson obediently, I think she practiced telling it hundreds of times in the stained bathroom mirror, and then she adds: "This is it, if you wish to buy it." She won't have me as a client. She doesn't linger much, though. She hides the newspaper in the bag and then resumes her dance, disappearing among the passengers confused after the trip or because of the delayed trains. The voice from the information office echoes behind, against the dusty corners of the station, and then, the sweet, melancholic words, "Hello. We represent the press and we're doing a market research…" The hurried suitcases slowly hit the pavement. People pass by, Bucharest remains silent …in the shadow, in a balcony overcome with dampness on Calea Mosilor (Mosilor Avenue). I'm sure he's lived there since forever, and yet he still glances with his yellow eyes over the first floor balustrade, curious to see what's with all that noise in his neighborhood. He's wearing white and blue striped pajamas, he's crippled by old age and his bones are impregnated with rheumatism. […] Eventually, the subway train stops. The woman stops scribbling on her Sudoku game, she gets unusually close to my ear, the sudden movement takes the person on my right by surprise, he gawps and grabs his suitcase, scared, as if being under attack. She gets out of the train and sits smiling on one of the hard chairs. She opens her magazine and carries on her counting for Sudoku, indifferent to whatever happens around her. Pipera is the end of the line, but not for her. The woman with the Sudoku game is waiting. She has all day, while other people's minutes tick away much quicker. People pass by, Bucharest swears …from the yellow cars driving on the much too narrow boulevards. Istodor's characters hold between their coffee and cigarette-stained teeth a copy of the auto journal, full of the juicy and spicy details brought as a gift from the periphery of the city and from the rusty mouths of the sewage pipes. They pull chaotically at the steering wheel, and their gear shift is twisted from all that gear changing. Under the cars, the gear boxes groan with pain. We hear the screeching sound of metal against metal. The middle finger sticks out violently in the warm air. The traffic light turns green. The devil is mentioned in every possible way. Mothers can't take the swearing anymore. The inhabitants of Bucharest step casually on the crossing, as if walking on the boulevard, although on both sides of the sidewalk, hidden in a black box, the miniature man is turning red with anger. The horns lose their voices. "Oh, go to hell, man, what's the matter, can't you wait? People pass by, Bucharest lies hidden in a cool place….at the entrance of a public toilet. Pieces of toilet paper are distributed from a woman's hands. In front of her, a tall, skinny young man, with a pair of glasses covering his blue eyes, tells her about his achievements. Several nights ago, he held a violin concert and people applauded him for minutes in a row. Holding the toilet paper, the woman contemplates him while a dark voice is heard from behind, coming from a thick throat, with a tattoo right next to the jugular: "Bozo, if you can't steal, it's useless!" Dilema veche, 23-29 June 2006 Translated by Daniela Oancea

by Andrei Ciurcanu