Everyone With The Bucharest He Deserves

After my first visit to Bucharest, in the mid-eighties, I returned to my native province with a splitting headache; I recounted the details of this anecdote elsewhere* – anyway, they had to do with two mugs of beer and a few mititei – spicy burgers – swallowed on a bistro terrace by the boulevard formerly named Gheorghiu-Dej, not far from the Opera house.Soon after, upon my second coming to Bucharest, I simply got lost. I had to take a certain trolley-bus from the center, at the stop across the statue of Michael the Brave, and I must have got on another, which took me to a place I can hardly locate even now. When I eventually got to the right address, the family friends who accommodated me and most of their neighbors welcomed me as a little Ulysses – that is, praising the Lord, but only after having recognized me, for in the meantime evening had fallen and street lighting was no longer a priority for the city fathers of the last decade of the Ceauşescu regime.Finally, the third time I arrived in this city full of surprises I lost my mother in the subway. Meanwhile, of course, I have found her, so now I can feel more relaxed and tell how it happened. We were in the train that was taking us to some station south; as everybody knows, provincials who get on the Bucharest underground do not have a specifically named destination, C. Brâncoveanu station, say; instead, they know they have to get off at the second or  at the fourth from the center (or railroad station). I don't remember how many stations we were supposed to travel then; anyhow, the person who had drawn for us the diagram of the route from his memory didn't know that an intermediate station had appeared on the respective line in the meantime. In the middle of our underground trip someone, a very nice person quite marked by a nervous tic that made him lift his left shoulder rhythmically, enlightened us: an additional station had simply emerged, although it was not yet inscribed on the station maps. Nonetheless, disaster struck, for – carried away by our conversation – we found ourselves unexpectedly at the station we were bound for. At the last moment, I managed to get out on the platform; my less nimble mother remained in the car, while the doors were closing between us. The way in which we gestured in order to fix a meeting point, during the ten seconds we were still in the visual radius of each other, must have seemed hilarious to the onlookers. This was happening in the summer when I became not only a student, but a Bucharester too – albeit without being aware yet.These recollections are not exactly the type of confession I would feel comfortable to make at any time. However, they are necessary here, because they too must have led me, without notice, to the idea that, after all, each of us – whether Bucharester or not – has the Bucharest he deserves. I believe this is how matters have always stood, in fact.Undoubtedly, Bucharest exists, and it is one, according to facts. Generally speaking, it may be described as a city that, over the last century, had several excellent, very proficient mayors, but no city planner. In other words, Bucharest, or Little Paris, as it was once pet-named (and had come to picture itself), has never had its Baron Haussmann. Nicolae Ceauşescu toyed with the idea for a while, but did it in such a questionable manner that, before a city-planning baron, he became a sort of out-and-out pharaoh, and Bucharest already had its own pyramid, maladroitly concealed under the name of People's House Building Site. Yet Ceauşescu was not a complete pharaoh either, as he left behind a lot to be repaired on the wrinkled face of his former Capital.As I said, Bucharest definitely exists, but it is difficult to say what its inheritors have been handing down from one generation to another. Whoever is somewhat familiar with the central area of the city is not in for any surprise upon seeing a Bucharest map dating from the late 19th or early 20th century. The streets in its most beautiful district were cut for coaches, not automobiles, and this is what any cab driver you may hear swearing at a crossroad means to say.Bucharest exists, but it is very hard to identify its limits (and, with the exception of a few episodes, it has always been the case, throughout its history). The present-day city is truly outspread, its neighborhoods – not necessarily working-class ones – twisting into a labyrinth that would instantly raise even Daedalus' blood pressure. As for the inhabitants, it is even harder to identify the center and the outskirts. Real estate classifieds prove, without much subtlety, that relatively decent areas may be found galore on the fringe of the city, whereas the traditional center of the city – i.e. Lipscani St., the slope ending on the banks of Dâmboviţa river, the Old Court environs – is inhabited, in conditions often beyond description in Romanian (hence untranslatable into English) by families whose Bucharester pride is inversely proportional to the number of members, and whose civic sense is very, very hard to distinguish.The city exists, but there are some opinions already according to which the city that may be seen is not exactly a city, but a galactic black hole set down on earth: the distance between Titan quarter and Carol I Boulevard can be covered in fifteen minutes by car; but, miraculously, from one end of the trip to the other you have the impression that you started from Tirana and arrived in Paris. One may depart from Drumul Taberei quarter toward Romană Circus: unadvised, he may think he has gone all the way from the outskirts of the former town of Voroshilovgrad to the limits of Turin in just twenty minutes. So it goes.Bucharest exists, but Bucharesters as such are so hard to find that rumors have it that only two dozens are left in the whole city who went in hiding, panic-stricken, like hounded animals. There are newcomers from throughout the country every year. Nevertheless, it is funny how Bucharesters become sparser day by day, yet the number of provincials doesn't go up either, so that the only visible growth is at an intermediate level, half-Bucharester, half-provincial – or, it may be said, neither one nor the other. I met people who, after four decades in the Capital, were not yet Bucharesters, but neither were they provincials any longer. Some bring along, inside themselves, the town or village they came from. As a matter of fact, truth to tell, I really saw – in Bucharest – villages that live in apartment buildings, which may constitute a world premiere and – why not? – an attraction for tourists (I must add, without delay, that this last sentence is a typical East-European lament that may be heard anywhere on the Moscow-Leipzig route).All this being said, an observation must be added: in spite of the calamities that befell it – generally natural, but also, in particular cases, of a human nature – Bucharest has preserved both interesting and strange spots of beauty that make it worthy of itself: something around lake Herăstrău, with its adjacent Şosea (promenade); something around Grădina Icoanei (Icon's Garden), and the streets left and right of the central avenues; something around Cotroceni quarter; and quite a few more. Bucharest exists, it is this city too, but – as any other city on this planet – cannot defend itself alone against the constant threats it is facing. Some of its residents, at least some, must help it out.All this, in the hope that future generations too will have the chance to leave the city with a splitting headache only to come back later and get lost in the city, or lose their close relatives in the subway. For, as the last line in a movie about another dusty capital sounded, only such adventures may constitute the beginning of a lifelong friendship with the city… Or love, call it what you wish.
* Bucharest Up Until the Mid of Our Century – as It Used to Be and Never Will Again, in "Bucharest in communist times: resistance, normality, survival" (Martor, no. 5, 2000, pp. 11-26).

by Adrian Cioroianu