Memory And Strolls

If you read travel notes by simple tourists or people on journalistic, cultural or political assignments, from the 1920s or 30s, if you peruse recurrent images about a Bucharest imprinted with evil or good charms, equally decrypted and encoded, moving and repulsive, you could ask yourself why this Balkan city that claims to be European, is so shocking. It may be this gap between the pretence to belong to Europe and a reality that is only partly so that intrigues and engenders this queasiness. And this queasiness mingles with fascination: Bucharest is a challenge. It seems that each wide-scope transformation, the 1920s and the creation of Greater Romania that justified a renewed and a true capital on a par with the political ambitions, the 1930s and the rule of King Carol II seething with desires, political and architectural projects, the Soviet years, and then the Ceauşescu period led to many a reshaping and remolding of style that failed to go the whole hog. The political and architectural will was cornered. Going backwards could perhaps represent one way of following, approaching and comprehending the passionate setting up of these castles of cards that are falling apart or are taken over by new masters who have a different dream about the rationale of beauty and of power. They abandon, detour or tend to destroy the past, and the city expands, gets richer in disarticulated spaces, and juxtaposed walls. Nobody escapes the choice or vestiges of the past. And in this haste to build more and better nobody escapes the temptation to look elsewhere and seek inspiration someplace else, in the European West or the Soviet East. This dynamics of Bucharest plunges the stroller in wonder or irritation, depending if you let yourself go or keep back. In Bucharest, discomfort is latent, the city evolving between voluntarism and precariousness: slow exaltation pours out of those sights that do not recede. This city is the product of the passionate desires of some and of the peaceful or resigned adaptation of those coming from the countryside or the provinces reintegrated in 1919 to the Old Kingdom in order to make up Greater Romania, the forerunner of present-day Romania. Bucharest was a little awkward and rural, worldly and boisterous at the same time, Sovietized into a rigidity of forms and a considerable Stalin-type propriety, and pitted by Ceauşescu's city-planning schemes. Today Bucharest is the fruit of these shocks and of an intense desire to survive, to live while experiencing the anguish of living on the side, the fear of being pushed on the side.The people of Bucharest are afraid of being the scapegoats of post-communist transition. Bucharest was a poor communist city; today it grows hating this poverty. All definition of the contemporary city is achieved by reaction. An identity is coined in a space where the population gets adapted to exterior requirements. At the turn of the 19th century, under Ottoman suzerainty it was necessary to become westernized, given that the state had turned independent in 1878 under the rule of a Hohenzollern prince. In 1920, since it belonged to the camp of the democracies that came out triumphant from the war and that the Versaille-negotiated peace favored, it was necessary to be "Parisianized". At the end of the 1930s, when the tilt was towards a new Europe as envisaged by Hitler, the style sought was one of fascist pomp. Then when Moscow won the war, the 1945 peace, and afterwards, it had to become Sovietized, to build what Moscow said to and to speak Russian, or at least to learn some. One needs to see Ceauşescu wave and gesticulate next to pageants and well-orchestrated folk groups that welcomed de Gaulle and then Nixon in May 1968 or August 1969 in Bucharest. After 1989 individuals had to be allowed to become free, and then the avalanche had to be accepted of second-hand jolting cars side by side with de luxe Mercedes that blow their honks. The miserable gray suits of party apparatchiks had to be shed in favor of jeans and T-shirts. The apartment blocks built in the 60s and later on are falling apart in misery, with rare bulbs in gangways smelling dirty, although bulbs are no longer in short supply, but then theft has become a habit. The McDonald's on Magheru Boulevard is closed on the first of January, no doubt a sign of local distinction; small restaurants, opened in yards and little gardens fill the center of the city and serve old/new Romanian cuisine. The city never minds the terrible fatigue of some, the poor, the panhandlers, and the mirthful voracity of the others. Plunged into a modernization that rushes over it from the West with its McDonald's shops, with Pakistani and Turks, Kurds and Ukrainians from the East, it may be that in the extraordinary movement of today Bucharest has stopped to ask itself any questions This new wave prevents, most likely, a precise clarity but after so many years of order, the absence of a present decoding opens up a horizon of anarchistic freedoms. Bucharest is now in the books. It has its communist historians of the end of the 1960s and its travelers of the early 20th century. It boasts a legendary origin, the ballad of Bucur the shepherd who took his flock to the plain of the Dâmboviţa river where he erected a chapel, and a shelter for his family and sheep. It has architects who want to reinstate sense and achieve a synthetic representation of this city out of the concatenation of contemporary juxtapositions and its spite gestures thrown in the face of a past that does not seem to go away. For Dana Harhoiu, Bucharest in 1977 is a city of discontinuity conceived on the basis of parish units, a sacred city through its will to withstand the Ottomans' continuous onslaught. Bucharest was willingly aggressed by a restoring and destructive craze of a chief of state, Ceauşescu. He took it to his head to build a grand central axis, arbitrarily taken as related to the topography of the place. This lopsided development traverses the city that stretches on both sides of the little Dâmboviţa river. Ceauşescu placed his gigantic palace and the avenue facing it from the east to the west. Traditionally, the city's thoroughfares go from north to the south. About 40,000 Bucharesters found themselves displaced. Ceauşescu gone, the arbitrary development was condemned, and Parliament took seat in the respective palace. Architects are dreaming of a new harmony, of a reunited, reintegrated Bucharest. The MPs first proved reluctant, the palace of the former head of state is not much loved, but then they got used to it. The area has become animated, the beautiful chalk white buildings have yellowed, the trees growing along the avenue have become lush, while the grass of the lawn is dry, dirty and poorly manicured. Here and there a stray dog goes its way… You can admire the dream that made architects in 1995 promptly respond to a competition offer for Bucharest in the year 2000: 235 teams from 35 countries showed up. The Competition went on under the patronage of the president of Romania, of UNESCO, and the International Union of Architects. The jury decided in favor of a project put forth by a German team, the Von Gerkan Agency. The basic idea is to plug the gap performed by Ceauşescu between the old and the new and to restructure an ensemble by ties on the diagonal, thus relieving the monumentality of the Palace and inscribing in a circle the buildings erected. The tall constructions are conceived as a new business center of the city. "We have envisaged," says Joachim Zais from the Von Gerkan team, "a development for fifty years. Not everything will be done in the following ten years therefore. We have devised several stages…" Let's allow the battered times of Bucharest to flow back in a slow walk, a walk into the past. I first came to this city in 1971 in a scorching summer, as a Paris student. It has stuck to me, grown on me. Because of its silence broken by the lacerating song of the turtledoves, because of its architectural sights mingling Stalin-type derring-do with heavy awkwardness, in contrast with the antiquated charm of the pell-mell houses side by side with bourgeois residences in an advanced state of decay, with melancholy gardens and rusty wrought-iron balconies. Because of its grand boulevards, almost deserted, attesting the police order of once and the ambitious projects of before the war. After a long, ten-year absence when I refused to be controlled and supervised as the regulations demanded, I returned in 1990. Excited, amazed by the new emotions attached to the still fresh memory of those December 1989 days. Bucharest was singing in the UniversityPlaza; the nights were animated like never before after so many silent nights in a capital bent on itself. The city was coming alive. Bucharest has been presented to me by friends, friends to go with on long walks before 1989, and then hasty meetings in the much more accelerated pace of the anarchic capitalism of the transition. What I have received in these years is the gift of a present-day Bucharest, of a present endowed by several pasts: a somber memory of the communist years, a golden memory of an age reinvented between the two world wars. We stroll along, listening to pasts that get slowly articulated in an oscillation leaning now towards nostalgia, now the anger towards them, the others, the winning comrades of the communist revolution and administration. THE SHOCK OF THE PRESENT  STROLLS Today Bucharest is a poor city, with its stray dogs, its street children, its children of the sewers: there are some three or five thousand of them, abandoned. Street children panhandle, steal, smoke. These kids are thin, their faces have no age. A city where the violence is masked, where the strange pace of time, a disarticulated time, strikes the visitors smack in the face. The flight towards a speedy thundering modernization mingles with the return to a past fed by the nostalgia of a different Bucharest that was or would have been better. Every one cherishes their Bucharest of yesteryear: that of the 1960s, orderly and clean, those of the 1930s, rich and beautiful in the collective imagination, a "little Paris", the famous "little Paris" of the Balkans. Bucharest is uptight and growling. It is the city of grandiose jobs that erected vast commercial centers financed by foreign money – Bouygues built a huge WorldTradeCenter. It is the city where dust gets into your eyes when the wind blows, where you bump into Gypsy women that pester you with their begging, that pull you by the sleeve, and then you pass by a posh perfume shop with the windows dressed up with luxurious lipsticks advertised by Rochas perfumes, while a little further you slosh in the mud of a peasant mart. It's the city of weather contrasts, of long winters of haze and soft, dirty snow, of springs that set in violently and all of a sudden, of summers bathed in scorching heat and crazy autumns, tinted in gold and sweet light, gray, irradiating, while the turtledoves remind of a constant monotonous, poignant melancholy. With the passing of the years, one never knows why, the turtledoves have become so rare. Their stubborn lament has almost ceased. Bucharest is the city of chaos and of a paradoxical form of vitality because in Romania you die young. Life expectancy declines with the return of the ailments of poverty. The city cries contrast. The children loitering in the streets bespeak the discomfort and crisis of a difficult post-communism time, ten years after the downfall of Nicolae and Elena Ceauşescu. Young people are noisily present, girls heavily made up, mini skirts that are extremely mini, platform shoes, and mobile phones in their hands. Toddlers are very rare. You seldom see a pram. In winter, very small children wear wool caps with flaps that cover their ears. There is a moment when all the children look alike: at Christmas. They go in small groups, often assailing the underground trains, where it is very warm, and they sing traditional Christmas carols, "colinde". They sing enthusiastically, shouting their lungs out, and the passengers give them a little money. At night, you can see here and there a kid with his cap turned backwards, counting dirty bills and smiling happily. The passage of Bucharest children is fleeting. The Magheru boulevard that goes from the University to a round plaza, the Romană Circus, is a decent boulevard, a safe thoroughfare of the city, no doubt because at first sight it is nothing to write home about. The numerous travel agencies, the concatenation of stores, some coffee houses dotting the promenade, the Patria Cinema Theater, now called Aro, the Nottara Theater and the newspaper stands are most reassuring. And yet this unpretentious alignment is somehow strange, shop windows dating from the communist epoch mingling with the latest fashions on a par with the tastes and means of the day. The Intercontinental Hotel, once the hang-out of foreign business people and of prostitutes on which the celebrated Securitate kept strict tabs, has changed. The lobby resembles a small corner in an airport with suitcases and travelers from all over the world. The French are not so numerous, the Japanese instead flock ceaselessly, just like Koreans who have taken the place once Germans used to hold. The bar is a nice somber affair, with deep and comfortable armchairs. Customers, visitors, regulars they all smoke as there is a lot of smoking going on in Bucharest. Kent cigarettes that before 1989 were the epitome of western luxury and got you out of trouble in case of need, have been replaced by Marlboros. The self-service in the basement is ugly and overcrowded, the restaurant on the ground floor is expensive and lacking in originality. This Intercontinental remains a landmark, a sort of rendezvous for the intrepid. The quality of excessive modernity, the arrogant vertical has come to terms with the miserable drabness around. The environment has become banal, with a tinge of efficiency prevailing. The Intercontinental would have become a place anywhere were it not that from time to time it is visited by those Mafiosi faces of the newly rich that stand out by their outrageously showy watches, genuine or fake Rolexes, by their extravagant luxury shoes and gaudy attire. Money is not idle in Bucharest. This display of richness can be found to a nicety in a few shops on the boulevard, luxury jewels, or a perfumery where young attractive shop assistants in mini skirts, over-made up in bad taste are waiting for customers that fail to show up. This brand-new richness can also be seen in winter when women pass by enveloped in fur coats, flouting with serene assurance Italian bags with a visible label. One of them, a silhouette taken out of a 50s movie, platinum blonde, wrapped up in a white fur, is accompanied by a bodyguard that watches her brisk entrance in a jewelry with barred windows. And yet it is not richness the trademark of Magheru Avenue but rather a hodge-podge. One tradition dating from before 1989 has endured: that of art galleries. Then they were under state control. Some of them have been barely renovated. They are now sort of cooperatives. On the side of the Intercontinental Hotel a Fund of Fine Artists opens at the good pleasure of God knows who. The supply consists in bronze bracelets, naive painting on wood and imitations of ancient icons. The shop window is sad. On the other side of the boulevard a vaster gallery points to a more professional and commercial enterprise. It specializes in contemporary paintings, mostly figurative, and in glass works: vases, pitchers. The sculptures in tinted or smoked glass are beautiful. Art is taking a chance in another shop with antiquities, genuine or false, a pell-mell collection of Bohemia glass and genuine/fake jewels from the 1930s. Objects sold by bankrupt owners or perhaps stolen, who knows! Imitation stuff, rings that lose their sparkle at first touch. No matter. Middle-aged assistants give that indifference-shot look that characterized salespersons in commercial centers in the communist epoch with its aggressive and somber ennui. The customers are rare, the tableware all dusty. You have to go out to see life and youth strolling or taking a seat in a new café on the corner of C.A. Rosetti Street. Here the inspiration of the settings is Italian. Yet the aesthetic effort is somewhat patchy. There are too many tables, and smoke floats over various sandwiches and cakes. The noise defies all conversation. Service is not very polite. But it's life, anyway. Life on Magheru Boulevard is no trifle. The old supermarket whose dirty window was practically empty more than seven years ago, today teems with customers who can find here everything. Everything, and it's especially imported products that are in big favor since they were absent for such a long time. A few signs still remain of the gray past, several small shops here and there, that have grown antiquated and give a shameful obsolete image: a book shop that has never been restored or repainted, drab in spite of the customers coming and going, with ocher and gray walls lit by pale neon, a sort of stationary shop with a poor window that displays a few textbooks and rigid, cheap school bags in plastic. There are then also those buildings dating from after the First World War, once daring in architecture and elegance, now with blackened facades, half crumbled balconies, entrance doors with broken window panes, in this condition from time out of mind. Huge iron garbage bins overflowing with leftovers tower over doorways that could be deemed beautiful relics were they less dirty. One must dare, one must push further, not despair in front of the garbage cans but take a flight of decaying stairs or an elevator that groans and moans and whose inadequate door most of the time makes for a stop between floors. You have to ring a bell at the flaked door of some friends' apartment and then step in. Let you go, because in Bucharest you let yourself go at home. Yes, you let your hair down at home. For home is your refuge. This habit came to strike root in the long years of fear, then what with the dearth and uncertainty of tomorrow…you had to shut the door and enter your private space. In a few years this private space has greatly changed, either with the new acquisitions, or because of a taste for and recent pleasure in exhibiting the rests of riches and beauties of yore that could not be displayed before 1989. Today, whether the wealth is of recent date or inherited from bourgeois families it is claimed to be positive. The feeling of perpetual building site, of incomplete construction is very pregnant on Victory Avenue, one of the thoroughfares that holds many memories downtown. The boulevard crosses a vast plaza, the plaza of the former RoyalPalace where the traffic is smooth but aberrant and where crossing the street proves haphazard. Today the place is called the RevolutionPlaza. The façade of the former RoyalPalace turned into a museum and that of the library facing it were riddled with bullets in December 1989 and then were covered by tall planks. Building sites with very few workers, building sites that change place at the height of the jobs so that you cannot fail to ask yourself whether they are ever going to end their tasks. No memories, no crosses, only stray dogs. They sleep here in peace, resigned. Some aged passers-by feed them, moved by the litters of puppies. The dogs are deplored, protected and feared. This plaza takes pride in a hotel erected in 1912, AthénéePalace, built on the design of a French architect. This classical looking building with a regular face is astonishing, with its tall windows. Its refurbishing was entrusted to Hilton. The uniform and thick material covering the walls drowns, in a sort of heavy paste, the previous elegance that burst out of the regular design of the arcades. The last years before 1989 of this prestigious hotel were sad, filled with harshness. Passers-by avoided this place too close to the palace of the Communist Party Central Committee and that vast plaza supervised by armed guards. Only official cars or automobiles belonging to the diplomatic corps used to halt before the big windows of the restaurant. With its brown and purple colors turned drab by the dust, the lobby was almost deserted. The shop opened to foreigners, offered a few items, the bare necessities or folk objects to be paid for in foreign currency only. You used to sit in one of the big armchairs in the lobby, waiting in semi-darkness. You did not read, did not move, only spied the boy supposed to serve you, who in his turn was spying on you from his station. The waiters feigned indifference in the presence of a customer and did not volunteer anything. Everything seemed dipped in that futile wait. What did one wait for in that semi-dark lobby? It is true that in those years of dearth, in the 80s, drinking a coffee in Bucharest was a sort of feat. Under the umbrella of Hilton, the big hotel was reopened in 1997. Its comfort is flawless but its charm has made room to a shining cleanliness that is almost aggressive. Almost medical. The new English bar at Hilton is filled with tourists and the golden youth of Bucharest. You order a small expresso, and are amazed to see a cup of real expresso be brought to you on a tray. At the next table a group of young boisterous people do some grandstanding. You can easily think you are in a luxury café in the XVIth district of Paris… © Editions Hesse, Paris, 2000, Bucarest, memoire et promenades

by Catherine Durandin