Mitica Is Dead

Revolution Square
Last time when Bucharest was flooded, when in some districts the water rose as high as half of the Dacia car parked on the sidewalk, none of the Romanian reporters or newscasters failed to draw a comparison between our capital and a “European” one. Standing in water up to their knees, indignant about “the French staff of Apa Nova” who didn’t do anything, journalists asked rhetorically, from the premises: “How can this be happening in a European capital?”, supported by the newscasters in the studio, who had the prefect, the mayor, the people in charge from Apa Nova and various citizens speaking on air, repeating the question over and over again and enhancing its rhetorical effects: “How can this be happening in the capital of a country getting ready to join the EU?”The underlying issue in their question pertained to technology and civilization: how can the sewage fail to work, how can public services fail to do something for citizens who pay their taxes? The comparison is brought up whenever “something is going wrong” in Bucharest. But the status of a “European capital” should be an everyday concern for us, not only a concern in rough times brought about by out-of-the-ordinary weather phenomena. I am afraid that a comparison between Bucharest and Rome, Paris, Berlin or Budapest is unfavorable to us even or especially at times of normal weather. Abroad, the efficiency of public services is visible everywhere. There are terrible traffic jams everywhere, but then again, all over the place one can see authorities striving to systemize it as well as possible, to discourage transportation in one’s own car by organizing efficient public transportation. The police are present in the streets, you can always feel them “close to you”. Facilities work imperceptibly, any disruption is dealt with efficiently (although unforeseeable accidents happen: during the hot summer of 2004 in Rome there were long blackouts caused by the overuse of air-conditioning systems; since “modern technology” couldn’t do anything about it, the only solution the authorities had was to make an appeal to citizens to turn off the air conditioning every now and then…). Anyway, organizing citizens’ life has been a reflex for a long time, because Western cities have had a long history as urban entities. Rome, the mother of all capitals, has been familiar with the concept of sewage since Antiquity (unlike Paris, where in the time of the Sun King “residual waters” – or, to put it bluntly, slops – were still thrown directly in the street, mais enfin…) From this point of view, any comparison is useless, since the terms to be compared belong to different categories. On the other hand, Romanian fatalism is not useful either, when it takes civilization for granted and skeptically proclaims that “we will never catch up with them”. After all, we are speaking about a mere matter of technological evolution and organizational abilities: all these can be learned and internalized, the know-how is transferable… the outskirts of Bucharest, with no asphalt, no water and sewage system cannot be even defined as urban spaces, in modern terms: they are a kind of semi-rural areas (including the people’s lifestyle, who grow fowl and pigs and tomatoes and onion behind the house), “attached” to the city. Their real urbanization is just a matter of investments. European capitals are, first and foremost, cities with a certain personality which both their administration and their denizens cultivate. Beyond the common elements pertaining to civilization, each capital has a style its citizens are aware of; there are urban rites, there is a certain community life, there are shared traditions and celebrations. What is the personality of Bucharest, I wonder? And how can one define the present-day citizen of Bucharest in terms of a cultural type expressive for the city? I am afraid that the problem of our capital is not the fact that it is too different from the other European capitals with regard to public services: the sewage, the streets, the transportation system, the water system can reach the European standard with the right investments and the right organization. I am afraid that we live in a capital that is about to lose its personality, or (worse) runs the risk of creating a false personality for itself which is neither European nor non-European; it is a crammed place that keeps us all together, a place where each of us tries to make a profit; a territory where in the morning muzzy buses carry some people to their working places, and in the evening they carry them back; those who have money and who are in the right mood dive into clubs and pubs with the feeling they are active participants in “the nightlife”, as in the West. For the rest, we are not even in the habit of going out on the Corso (which in Rome continues to be an observance), not to mention other rites, myths and habits which should make us feel we belong to a human community. In exchange, we believe ourselves to be more Western if we cover the sidewalks with flashy cars, if we have fashion boutiques and new buildings of grey glass, nothing more. An obstructive veneer of civilization prevents us from seeing that a city with seven city halls allows its historical center to fall into decay, that the only “community events” are a few rock concerts in Revolution Square, that we live a casual existence in a big city in whose values we no longer believe and whose charm we can no longer save. We are more and more neurotic and all we can do is to snap at the authorities. We have lost our sense of humor. Mitica is dead.

: Mitica is a comic character created by I. L. Caragiale (1852-1912) which some people identify with a typical Bucharester.
Translated by Fabiola Popa

by Mircea Vasilescu