Bucharest Wit

In Romanian, Bucharest is a plural noun. This implies it is a multifaceted city, dazzling in its diversity. However, it is not a conglomerate of villages, of boroughs, like London or New York. There are not self-contained neighborhoods, each with its main street (High Street), its places of interest, in short, with its own identity. The suburbs are mere dormitories; its habitants leave them in the early morning and return late in the afternoon. They cross practically every day the inner city, going to and coming from work, they linger in the main avenues and boulevards in search of vivid impressions that would fuel their zest for living. In spite of being quite a large city - about the size of Chicago - the core of Bucharest is restricted to just a few streets blazing with lights, bustling with activity, while even the adjoining parts look quiet and forlorn. However, unlike Munich, the city does not look like a large village. However poor, dirty and badly managed, Bucharest is still a metropolis. What makes Bucharest a city comparable to much more famous ones is its pulse, its rhythms, and its vivacity. One may wonder what it is that defines a city: its monuments, its mansions or its wealth? The stately church may be the counterpart of the castle and, as such, it may well be located in the countryside; the palace looks its best when isolated, but the theatre cannot find its place in a provincial setting, and neither can the marketplace. A town is the proper environment for the exchange: it cannot live on, unless people from without come and go, bringing in raw materials and taking out sophisticated products, bringing in fuel and taking out stimulation. One could envision a small community close to its church, proud of its castle, stuck to its customs, but one could not imagine a town without a market, or without its modern counterpart, the stock exchange. In recent days, factories and plants were the inevitable strongholds of a town. However, the end of the industrial era did not prove to be the end of the cities. The exchange of goods, ideas, patterns and illusions is, in fact, the proper function of a town, not the production of machinery. The speed of flows is more important than the extension in space. However, as far as modern cities are concerned, size matters. Small towns can flourish and become famous and influential if and only if rich families or powerful princes support the inner artistic and intellectual excitement. The Medicis supported the fame of Florence, Weimar was made possible by the grand-duke Karl August, the Renaissance and Baroque Rome was the creation of several enlightened Popes. In a democratic regime, the only chance for excellence is size. The critical mass has to be attained in order to select the best voices worth to be listened to. The glamor of the city lies first and foremost in its sounds. Bucharest is large, so that it speaks through many voices; Bucharest is noisy, maybe vulgar, but it is by no means commonplace. The verbal fluency, the wicked irony and the innovative wordplay are the main characteristics of the Bucharest spirit. Hermann Keyserling noticed in 1927 that the city preserved the Byzantine wit: "even today, the Romanians cultivate the art of the repartee, of the epigram which, as a heritage of the antiquity, does not survive anywhere else." In the 15th century, when Bucharest was only just mentioned in documents, François Villon claimed: Prince, aux dames ParisiennesDe bien parler donnez le prix;Quoi que l'on die d'Italiennes,Il n'est bon bec que de Paris. Nowadays, one could apply the same judgement to the colorful and clever comments that may be overheard in the underground, at the tables of pubs, at social gatherings and so on. Bucharest has been famous for its cafés and restaurants, where many a witty remark has been overheard and recorded. However, one of the most striking features of this city is that the most brilliant and meaningful conversations do not necessarily take place in surroundings related to the processing of food. The electrically charged information exchanges happen while wandering along the fashionable boulevards, strolling in the mysterious little streets, lingering in the theatre and concert halls, socializing in exhibition-halls, or staying in bookshops almost past closing time. The admirable variety of the architecture helps the spirit recover from routine during peripatetic hours. My favorite spot is at a crossroads (Spătarului Street, close to the Armenian Church), where one can see, at a glance, the oldest house in Bucharest, the Melik Mansion, with its delightfully typical closed loggia at the second floor, a small palace in the style of Napoleon III and an Art Deco building of the late twenties. I look around and feel at ease with my time. I also remember a typical Bucharest fashionable evening in the early seventies, during the intermission of Christoph Eschenbach's piano recital at the Atheneum. The round hall, a better version of Albert Hall, was full of spectacularly turned-on people, who seemed to have nothing more important to discuss than the debatable manner the artist chose to play Mozart, with a dramatic, Beethovenian touch. In the late eighties, a bookshop became a gathering spot for the Bucharest elites. It was situated behind a historical church, left almost in ruins, although it preserved the remnants of a heroic and refined prince, Constantin Brâncoveanu. The booksellers were highly educated and distinguished ladies, forced by the circumstances to take up subordinate jobs. They were eager to offer helpful hints and to provide a cosy environment for the customers, in spite of the cold and misery of that time. Once, they were patiently waiting for me to end up a controversial dialogue concerning some literary detail, in order to close the shop. When I recall the clever guys involved in such episodes, Villon's verse come back to my memory: Où sont les gracieux galantsQue je suivoie ou temps jadis,Si bien chantants, si bien parlants,Si plaisants en faits et en dits? The intellectuals who were sensitive to the peculiar beauty of this city dreamed of a monumental environment that would replace the subtle refinement of the old style. Upon re-reading Călinescu's novels, one can easily realize that such sumptuous additions as he imagined would not be capable to provide the appropriate spaces where the social wit could be exerted. There is, however, an interesting exception. The arbitrary will of the former communist dictator transformed the interesting building of the National Theatre, a daring interpretation of a traditional church, into a commonplace candy-box with large windows. Surprisingly enough, the former roof of the building became thus the floor of one of the best looking exhibition halls in Europe, where people can meet and delight in the arts, while sharing their interest in the ideas. Bucharest provides a stimulating environment for the exertion of the wit, but one seldom realizes it unless one has been absent from the city for a longer period of time. More often than not, people complain that this city is stifling, that it nails them down to petty issues, condemns them either to anonymity or to a provincial status. Cavaphy's verse seem to offer the clue and to provide the remedy to this discomfort: You said: "I shall go elsewhere, to another country, to another sea.Another city will be a better choice for me.Here, all my efforts are doomed;And my heart lies here in a grave - like a corpse.How long shall I let my spirit choke in these marshes?I look around I see onlythe dark ruins of my life,here, where I have lived too many years, destroyed years, wasted years." New places you will not find, nor other seas.The City will follow you: you will wind up in the same streets,you will get old in the same neighborhood;your hair will get white under the same roof.You will always end up in this city. As for departing- do not hope -Not a ship for you, not a road.Just as you ruined your life in this spot,You would have ruined it elsewhere, all the same.  Bucharest is not the city of bliss, it is the city of purposeless wit and, as such, it is exuberant and discomfited at the same time. It is a place where to be merely straightforward and honest means, as Keyserling well noticed, to be unattractive.

by Adrian Mihalache