Everything Must Go, Or 5 Reasons Why I Stayed In Bucharest Instead Of Moving To Paris, Florence Or New York

I've always been fascinated by this city. Still, I can understand it doesn't easily "translate" to others. Here is a list of things one should try to perceive as "charming", although - by all standards - they don't qualify as such:1. Filth. It is the quintessential ingredient of a truly Latin city. You'll be amazed, however, to discover that Bucharest is a brand of its own because, here, "filth" is not simply the decorative spice of a thriving urban spread: it is the spread itself - less urban, never thriving. One can only stay in awe at the ever-resourceful dump one finds everywhere. Where does it come from? Bucharest is - surely - no New York, the affluence is scarce and the time-limit of domestic utilities, indefinite; but I guess these people compensate their being on the outskirts of the consumers' chain by a pervasive, yet perverse, culture of sub-junk. The sub-junk is, as the name itself suggests, recyclable junk. In other words, Bucharest is not simply blessed with one of the most enduring trash scenes ever displayed in a big city; it is also blessed with one of its most self-reproducing! It stays there to prove we've been here - at the gates of the Orient - longer than history books tell us, and we've managed to turn dumps into picturesque second-chances. The whole city seems to have been built on junk - of previous, undetected origin. Junk - and not some shepherd with his flock - is the true founder of Bucharest; it gave the city its lasting gaudiness, its crumbling frailty, its numbing smells. It gave it the coat-of-arms: "Everything Must Go".2. Cobbled streets. Unfortunately, they get rarer as we speak... When I edited the "Secolul 20" issue dedicated to this city, I asked a very successful photographer, Cosmin Bumbuţ, to take pictures of some of the remaining cobbled streets (their variety and ingenuity seemed infinite). He came back with one! Had he tried harder, he would've certainly found about a dozen - some, right in the center. They are terrible to walk on, and almost impossible to drive on, but their charm stems from this very impracticability. They are the last remains of a time when horses, or horse-pulled carriages and wagons, took people where they wanted to go - and indeed arrived, since traffic-jams were unheard-of. But when Bucharest turned "Western", some five years ago, most of these streets were covered in asphalt, with total disregard for the blissful uselessness of such irretrievable relics of yore. It's a disgrace one cannot refrain from deploring over and over.3. Ivy-clad houses. Most often it's ivy indeed, but other creeping plants take possession of the facades as well, such as honeysuckle and wisteria. Surely, they hide the facades themselves; but very few are worthy of a close scrutiny, so there's no harm done. Ivy-clad houses (generally situated in the center - Grădina Icoanei, Floreasca, Aviatorilor -, but also in Cotroceni) bear little resemblance to architecture and seem to be crossbreeds between dwelling and vegetation. If one tries really hard, one can find poetic equivalents in "Sleeping Beauty" - stretching the comparison beyond all ridicule and striving to discover one slumbering lady in all such houses... It's safer to assume, though, that the remaining dwellers, prying each morning outside the ivy (honeysuckle, wisteria) curtain, or silently swaying away at sunset, are "beauties" immemorially forgotten by their "Princes-Charming", bereft of hope, besieged with atrophy and arthritis, sordid and solitary like some home-happy homeless... Their houses slowly crumble under their insignificant weight, pulled down by ever-reviving vegetation rather than by sheer age; one more glance, and it's just ivy (honeysuckle, wisteria) and creeping Charlies the only living soul around.4. Cats & dogs. The former category has never caused a problem (except when black and inadvertently crossing one's path!), but it is surely represented in large numbers throughout this pet-unfriendly city. The best way to deal with Bucharestine felines is simply to ignore them, since they definitely ignore you, and all attempts to become "pals" is nipped in the bud by their smooth aloofness. Furthermore, they are practically everywhere - don't fool yourself that because you don't see them, there aren't any! Cats - a Garbo-like brand of divas - seldom grace one with their glances, let alone their fuller entity; they prefer (ay, this is the word they abuse) solitude to the dubious charm of the multitude and keeping a low profile to the vulgar lures of self-publicity.Dogs are the exact opposites. They clamor even when they should scuttle away, and revel in the scurrilous when they have all the interest in the world to scram... Dogs of Bucharest have become legendary in doing, with dogged determination, the very things all dog-haters hated them for: bark, bite, bite & bark. Those defending them kept repeating this is what dogs usually do - those accusing them retorted this is precisely why they don't want loose dogs in the city! Truth is, the mongrels of Bucharest are perhaps the stupidest dogs in the world - while even the stray cats of Bucharest are maybe the cleverest. Those who don't particularly like cats admit they're nice, in a listless, subdued and unassuming way (cats being the exact opposites of that); those who generally like dogs admit they're awful - in a loud, pestering and genuinely perverse way. My advice is: if you ever come to Bucharest, bring your own dog - and keep it in a cage!5. Finally, the thing everyone understates most about Bucharest - its inhabitants. What, to foreign lookers-on, may seem as erratic behavior still has a pattern of its own. You can trust a Bucharest native for not keeping his promise - s/he'll make up for that in good company. You can be sure there's very little about what he says which has anything to do with truth as defined in the Bible - but s/he'll employ such exquisite technique in making you see s/he's right you don't need any additional proof. The Bucharest native is a juggler with words as s/he is with fact; and you should be more cautious of whatever s/he complains about than about s/he brags about: there is a natural disposition to elaborate on grief rather than on gaiety. Last, but not least, the Bucharest native (a conventional term, a high percentage of the city's dwellers being rural folk brought in by Ceauşescu in order to work on the factories he senselessly built and to fill the blocks of flats he senselessly built) strives to make a good impression in all circumstances - but has only limited means to do so. S/he's all buoyant solicitude at the start of an affair and bitter regrets at its (non)completion. Of course, much of its failure can be directly attributed to her/him, but s/he'll never admit to that - or, by venting her/his feelings, hereunder admitting to any flaw of character. The Bucharest native may sometimes comply with accusations of past misdemeanors - never with present ones. S/he is a perpetual naive, fallible because misinformed, with a lot to repent for but, also, eternally trustworthy because at this very moment what s/he says is true. You can take my word for it - I'm a bona fide Bucharest native!* (*Plus: I like cats, I hate dogs, I live in a formerly-ivy-clad house a few yards from Grădina Icoanei (now there's some honeysuckle growing in my balcony), I crave for more cobbled streets (although I know it's impossible to dig them out from the asphalt), I know next to nothing about the history of Bucharest before the 1930s and I tolerate trash; that makes me a good Bucharest-dweller, I guess.)

by Alex. Leo Şerban