From Pest To Bucharest

excerpt Baneasa used to be the favourite meeting place for those living in Bucharest. It was there that they came to listen to the cuckoo singing for the first time, pretending that in this monotonous song they discovered the secrets of their lives. Back then Bucharest was indeed a city of entertainment and everybody wanted nothing but to have fun. There, under the thick shadow of the forest Baneasa, a unique performance could be witnessed. Among those who came there, there were old boyars, wearing sumptuous, picturesque costumes, yellow leather slippers and boots of a matching colour, sewn to the large red cashmere breeches, called "ciachir"; they also wore large mantles in gaudy silk, cashmere vests adorned with expensive fur; they wrapped their loins in stylish scarves on which the gold dagger embedded in gems was hanging; on their heads they had high fur caps or red fez which had to be caique-shaped in order to be fashionable.Seventeen years ago, when I came to Wallachia, many old men would dress up like that. The last of them, Mr. Stefanescu, died recently. The young wore embroidered leggings and a sort of a tunic that fitted closely on the hips, with golden stripes. Women's garments were as original and as rich as men's. On their braided hair they had expensive fur caps, to which they attached a diamond necklace with the help of an emerald fastener. Their footwear had pointed toe caps and the stockings were perforated and fastened to the garter with red ribbons. The most coquettish things of all was to let the end of these ribbons show under the embroidered gown that touched the ankles. Over a large woolen coat they put on a vest embroidered with golden threads. The belt was outstandingly sumptuous. The soft and transparent blouse, elegantly embroidered, revealed the nakedness of the breasts. A necklace would hang to the neck, most often a necklace made of gold coins, according to the old Byzantine custom. In the middle of the forest the royal tent was set up. The tent was made of white cloth, with patches of woolen fabric and red silk tassels; it was there that the boyars who had gone out for a walk had a rest. Sprawled on cushions, on large and comfortable sofas, they smoked Medina tobacco from jasmine and crystal hookahs with amber mouthpieces, embedded with gems. They were served hot coffee with grounds, in small cups, without handles, put on trays of gold worked in filigree, called zart. The ladies sat on red morocco chairs, propped by golden griffons. The jesters entertained the audience with their smutty, even obscene jokes, as for example a game from Constantinople called karaghioz. Back then everybody spoke Greek just as today the language that is mostly used when socializing is French. The fresh flower smell got mixed with the flavour of the wet branches and the musk perfume or rose essence; in order to be fashionable you had to carry them in ivory boxes and offer them to the ladies in a gentlemanlike manner. On the lawn, the dance wouldn't cease. People of the lower classes, mixed in solidarity with the noble ones, danced the "hora" in the rhythm of the fiddlers' music. Young riders played a dangerous game called djeret, borrowed from the Arabians. Others, similarly to Tityr, Vergil's shepherd, played different instruments, especially flute and tambourine, under the thick oak shadow. To ice the cake, all the noises were accompanied by the music of the orchestra made up of Muslim gypsies dressed up in Turkish costumes, who played the clarinet, the trumpets, the big drums covered in red fabric, the cembalo, the kettledrums, the tambourines. You can imagine the deafening din they partied in! After you have trekked over twenty chasms, climbed twenty hills and wetted your feet, it feels good to know you will end your journey. But there is a deep precipice between you and the house you have to reach. If, by chance, there is a water carrier around, you call him and, borne on a barrel, impersonating Bacchus, you finally reach your destination. But not everybody is lucky enough to run into a water carrier in such critical moments. Do you think that such state of things condemns the world to isolation and that entertainment places are, under force of circumstances, closed? You are wrong! The carnival triumphs as a result of the defrost. Women and girls face these dangers without whining about. I witnessed many cases in which the passion for the polka and the delirium of the waltz were pushed to the extreme of heroism. The carriages were broken down, smart horses let people to believe that they were sick in order to remain in their stables, the coachmen feigned to be drunk and they were lying for the first time in their life; there was no carriage in the street. What was to be done? O, ingenious daughters of Eve! All dressed up for the ball, they found it difficult to go out but impossible to stay in. Fortunately, there were servants, wood boards and lanterns. A lamp lighter, as they would call him in the times of Villon, led the way, feeling the ground with a cane; another servant laid a board on that particular part of the road that was difficult to cross; other two propped their mistress, the fifth one picked up the hem of the dress that had never been to such parties, the sixth one carried another board that would serve as a prolongation for the first one and so on, one board in front of the other, the group advanced. Bucharest is just as I have depicted it to you and my description is close to reality. Romanians have a saying that resembles a proverb: "Dimbovita, he who has drunk up your sweet water / will never ever leave this land."1869

by Ulysse de Marsillac