“Kaviar House”

The theme of the provincial man leaving his small town, a closed universe deprived of any kind of perspective and diving into the unknown, attracted by the Big City where he thinks he'll hit it big and get rich overnight, was and continues to be a successful recipe for American ordinary movies, and not only those. At the beginning, we see the protagonist, usually a confident young man, standing by the highway, carrying a little bundle on his back, trying to hitch a ride until some jolly truck driver with the radio turned to the maximum, listening to some country music, pulls over and asks: "Where do you want to go?", and our hero, without any hesitation, pronounces the name of some important place, adding a "city" at the end. From here on, the adventure begins and, practically, anything may happen; the writer is in charge of inventing the story. It's not New York City or L.A., but you could hitch a ride to Bucharest, too; most people, however, prefer taking the train, so our movie may begin at Gara de Nord, at 6 o'clock in the morning, with a long horizontal movement on a platform; in a crepuscular light, we catch glimpses of portraits, people of different ages, clothing, expressions, fragments of lines, people coming and going, the irritating rush and crowds, the ceaseless humming until we finally spot Relu, a half-fictitious character, and not at all the protagonist. He comes from Moldavia, somewhere around Vaslui, he leans in a confused state against a pole and his insignificant role is to introduce us into the world at "Kaviar House", and that's why he's holding a small piece of crumpled paper. He came to Bucharest to work as an unqualified worker somewhere on a construction site because he could no longer stay at home, because his mother would have kicked him out of the house: he had no income, he didn't like working on the field, he went to the disco-bar instead, he didn't want to get married and become "a respectable man", he didn't want anything! He's confused not because he has some scary and unsure future ahead of him, but because he can't decide whether to take a cab or not to that hostel for single people situated somewhere near Pajura marketplace. Back in Vaslui rumor has it that taxi drivers in Bucharest overcharge the poor provincials who do not know the city. Still, he really doesn't feel like carrying all that luggage: the pillow, the blanket, the electric heater, food for two weeks and a 2-liter bottle of beet brandy, half of which he has drunk on the train. He hopes that old school mate he used to call Ghiţă, like the pigs, but whom now he'll call Gheorghe, since he reached the "fine position" of a freelance auto mechanic, will put him up as soon as possible and get him a place in the hostel. He's very sleepy and he feels hungover, so he suddenly decides: he's going to take a cab. "It is forbidden to use electric heaters or any other improvised electric installations! Kaviar House". This is one of the many posters that fill the walls of the single people hostel. They all forbid something: from "using light bulbs after ten p.m." ("lights out"), to "throwing household refuse in the toilet". Everywhere, the same mysterious "signature": "Kaviar House", and our movie takes an absurd turn. It's hard to describe what the hostel looks like: broken or missing window panes, replaced with pieces of cardboard, dampness, cockroaches, bed bugs, sockets missing, iron beds, doors with holes in them, which do not close. "It's worse than in jail!" says Gheorghe, one of the "wealthiest" tenants. He painted his room himself, he has a cooking stove with a gas cylinder, a second-hand color TV, and a wrecked Dacia car which always seems to be in need of repair. Everybody respects him, calls him "the boss" because he buys them a pint of beer at the terrace across the street whenever he "cashed in some dough" for fixing yet another Dacia car of some engineer or doctor with no private practice cabinet. He came to Bucharest ten years ago, with the dream of saving enough money to open, to begin with, a spare parts shop. Even now, his room is full of wheels, spark plugs, planetary spindles and rusted screws which were supposed to be the future "merchandise" bought from the open market in Vitan and in which he "invested" all his savings. The most fearful tenant is Titi "the gypsy". As a pick-pocket, he had to flee from Alexandria because he was already "targeted" by the police, plus he actually didn't have too much to steal. "People there were as poor as a church mouse, they'd buy things on credit from the local shop, and then they paid for it with lunch tickets!" he remembers. He just couldn't steal lunch tickets! After a few raids in overcrowded buses at rush hours in Bucharest he got into conflict with the local "mafia" and he had to quit his job. He started doing shady and petty dealings around Obor market, he "found owners" for stolen mobile phones, he recovered cars, and now he's doing pretty well. He has a whole room all to himself (he pays for four places!), a nice wardrobe consisting of leather jackets and Turkish blue jeans, a smart phone; during the day he either sleeps or is out "on business", at night he's playing cards or visiting the sexy-clubs. His dream is to become one of the "big bosses" in Germany; he even visited the place a few times, to inspect the market. Cristi, from Brăila, came to Bucharest to "get a diploma" in economic studies, and then get a job in some company. He only made it through one year of private college, after that he could no longer pay the tuition. Now he's in his fifth job. He has been a salesman selling Chinese bed sheets from door to door, a night watchman, a assistant pastry cook, a sales clerk in a boutique. A friend from Brăila got him a job at a hypermarket as a "commercial worker". Although he earns a little less than minimum wage, he likes his new job because he has the prospect of being promoted. "That's the company policy: you carry the merchandise from the warehouse to the shelves for six months, and then, if you're smart and hard-working, they make you a head merchandiser, then head of department, manager, etc. Your education doesn't matter; they give this opportunity to every employee!" To be a manager, to have his own house: that's all Cristi wishes for! Dan, his roommate, works at an undertakers. When he left Focşani he used to be a wedding photographer, but he couldn't keep up with the competition. "That's life," he says, a philosophic smile on his face. "First you get married, and then you die!" He thinks of weddings and funerals as "profitable" business. At "Kaviar House", the unemployed or those who are between jobs usually sleep a lot or wander around the corridors in their slippers and short Bermuda pants. Or, they simply lie on the terrace, sipping from a beer bought on credit and going through the "job offers" in the papers. At night the chase for roaches and bed bugs is on. Only once did they have to deal with a major problem: a scabies epidemic. "We got it from those blankets on the beds!" says Gheorghe, pretty amused. "You should have seen everyone scratching themselves and swearing like mad… they couldn't take the itching anymore!" But, like any "plague", the scabies disappeared after about four months, either because of the traditional remedies they used, or the occasional cream from the pharmacy, or, simply, because of the cold; winter had settled it, and the entire hostel was full of icicles. I found the "Kaviar House" by accident about four years ago. At first I thought of making a movie about this place. A film that would start in Gara de Nord, with Relu, a semi-fictitious character, a film about the dreams and hopes of the provincial arriving in the Big City – such a common theme in American movies! I had no time to put my idea into practice: less than two months after my visit, the hostel was closed down for renovation, disinfection, disinfestation, etc. I don't know whether they re-opened it afterwards, or what it looks like today. Still, I solved the mystery of the "caviar house": it was the name of the company which owned the building. A company with luxurious headquarters in a villa just a few blocks away. This is where the new tenants used to come to "register" and pay for their place in the hostel: they'd step with their right foot forward on the blue carpet, in an elegantly designed room, and they'd take a deep breath of Bucharest air, the air of prosperity! Dilema veche, 24-30 October 2003 Translated by Daniela Oancea

by Adina Popescu