Perdition, Old-Style

When on the 20th of September, 1459, the throne of Wallachia moved from Târgovişte to Bucharest, the new settlement, which was lying along Dâmboviţa River, was a picturesque settlement, with slow hills, lakes and boundless orchards and especially with venerable forests. By the year 1856, the Romanian inhabitants, who were true Christian believers, had built over 120 churches and 14 monasteries, without mentioning their branches called metocs, the hermitages and other prayer houses. The string of Bucharest's natural lakes (Colentina, Floreasca, Snagov, Tei, Fundeni, Herăstrău) was providing the monks with a lot of fish and crawfish, while the sprawling vineyards allowed the flourishing of pubs and inns, turning the new capital of the Romanian Land, known in Europe under the name of Wallachia, into a city of churches and inns. If during the 19th century the church defined the slum as being a means of identification of the city districts, the townspeople considered the pub as a lighthouse for street guidance. While the number of Bucharest quarters was 68 between 1830 and 1850, the number of pubs was more than 150. These were the heaven of lăutari[1]. We may wonder why there appeared so many pubs in utter contradiction to the church rule that was promoting a temperate life. This is the paradox created by a feudal financial rule, which had a boomerang effect upon the inhabitants' behavior and, implicitly, upon the decisions of the community.In this huge thicket of orchards and lakes, forests and vineyards, a few main roads were traversing and "cutting" the city. In order to avoid the dust, the holes and the mud, they were paved with wooden planks and called "bridges". The main axle in Bucharest consisted of Mogoşoaia Bridge (today's Calea Victoriei avenue), completed on the four cardinal points by Beilicului Bridge (today's Calea Şerban Vodă), Calicilor Bridge (today's Calea Rahovei), Earth Bridge (today's Calea Plevnei) and Outside Fair Bridge (today's Calea Moşilor). This huge octopus of streets had a customs barrier at each entrance to the city. The people arriving in coaches with goods or in oxcarts full of grains, fruit and vegetables used to make halts at the customs and remain there for days, spending the nights in pubs or in inns that had lăutari. The law of communal tax turned the barriers from the outskirts of the city into a "gate of tributes on pubs". Considering that the Bucharest barrier during Matei Basarab's time, the king of Wallachia (1632-1654), stopped somewhere near Zlătari church, situated at the other end of Mogoşoaiei Bridge (according to what Henri Stahl wrote in his volume The Fading Bucharest, 1910) –, the publican eager to avoid taxes would open a new pub, ten meters outwards from the church. As all publicans from the end of the bridges were practicing the same trick in order to avoid taxes, we would get a hilarious image of the spectacular thriving of the pubs in the city slums. To avoid fraud, the mayors immediately moved the city barriers farther than the pubs. The publicans would not let themselves outwitted, so they would open a branch, a bigger pub, a few meters outside the city, thus avoiding the tax law. No sooner had the taxes become due than the outskirts became larger and larger and the pubs moved again. In fact, they became more: they doubled and tripled. Writing about this situation, Henri Stahl humorously mused: "If they had not put an end to this tax law, it is more than clear that Bucharest would have spread towards the Danube and the Carpathians".Jesting apart, the pubs, the inns and the taverns flourished on the great roads at the entrances of the capital for about 150 years! These cheerful places, which had soloists and lăutărească music, became picturesque centers of amusement and attraction for the inhabitants of the city and especially for the foreigners who visited those places.Three main dynasties of lăutari dominated the artistic life, the parties, the fairs, the receptions and the boyars' zaiafets[2] in the city in the 19th century: Ochialbi, Dinicu and Pădureanu. They established an original repertoire of folk songs, sentimental songs and folk dances to the great delight of those who used to spend their time in the main Bucharest restaurants and pubs. That was the age of the first generation of singers and poets such as Anton Pann, Chiosea, Barbu Paris Mumuleanu, Petrache Nănescu, Nicolae Alexandrescu, the Văcăreşti brothers and poets and Theodor Georgescu. The streets, the gardens and the restaurants were vibrating with the melodies of the tarafs[3] and of cheerful bawdy songs, called "ripped open songs" by the boyars and sung by famous and peerless musicians, such as: Before I started loving you,I could really lie and sleep;Since I've been in love with you,I can't say my rest is deep... Or: They were hammering the bellboardAt the Radu Vodă Church,When I grabbed her by the waist Asking her about her lovers!...But last night, what a company she had!Two were holding on her hands:One was bucketing the water,One her mouth was kissing well.And I was somewhere behind them. Rare pains of death upon me… To attract clients, the pubs were bearing funny, comical and astounding names such as: Lion & Sausage, Donkey's Jaw, Three Eyes Under the Blanket, Bull's Pizzle, Mitu Cloth in Nose, Match's Pub, Ghiţă the Ram's Pub, Three Cabbage Rolls, Black Cat, Little Ladder, Horseshoe, Black Eagle etc. Some of the pubs achieved particular fame according to the place or the quarter they were situated in. Pub In The Woods (not far from Cişmigiu Park) got its fame in 1848, when the writer Cezar Boliac invited the composer Johann Strauss, who was touring Wallachia with his orchestra, to listen to Năstase Ochialbi's lăutari and to soloists such as Anton Pann, Petrache Nănescu or Panait Unghiurliu. The Viennese guest took notes on the Bucharest folklore which he would work on to create the waltz Klänge aus der Walachei, op. 50 and the dance Marien-Quadrille, op. 51.On Filaret Hill, where there were the most beautiful vineyards and grapes and the thickest forests, there were chains of pubs and inns, especially because the lăutari used to devote songs to measure: Oh, green leaf of chicory,There's shade and cool for you At the springs of FilaretAnd the water is clean too.Come, my darling, in the shade,And we'd love each other well. In 1819, there were great oaks, nut-trees, limes and acacias on the shore of Colentina Lake, where deers and squirrels used to romp. On Spirei Hill they used to dance the chindia and the Boor's hora, composed by Ochialbi on verse written by A. Pelimon.Old Herăstrău had also great fame. It was situated on the shore of the lake bearing the same name. There you could have heard a popular ballad created by Ochialbi entitled "Meet you, baby, at Făgădău[4]": Meet you, baby, at Făgădău,To give you perch and fish,To fall asleep on your breast,'Cause this is what I wish… At the beginning of the 20th century, there was a pub called The Turk on the shore of Herăstrău Lake, which was visited by the dulcimer player Pistol. He used to play songs only in the clients' ear, walking through the tables. The price for each song was a small shot of ţuică[5], which he used to pour in a small bottle, tie it with a long rope and throw it in the lake, to keep it cold. He died drowned in the waters of Herăstrău, to the sorrow of the publican who found himself left without music in his pub.Each lăutar had his destiny, usually a sad destiny, known only to him, which he used to take to the grave. Many of them were so poor that, having no money for the coffin, they were buried by taking up a collection, as in restaurants. The Bucharest lăutari's cemetery was in Colentina, at Pătrunjel. In 1929, the composer Theodor Rogalski wrote a symphonic musical sketch with the title "Burial at Pătrunjel". Although they sang at the Russian tsars' court, at various openings in Hollywood, the Romanian lăutari returned to their home country when they reached old age, to sleep their eternal sleep next to their ancestors, in Colentina. Nor could sport performers avoid the troubles of Bucharest daily life, hostile to achieving success at world level. For example, the Romanian rowers have obtained European, world and Olympic titles for more than four decades, without turning to the best account the lake chain that traverses Bucharest from the north to the south of the city. The paradox is that a capital with so many lakes does not have at least one Olympic training track. The rowers row with the paddle in the training… hall, using equipment, or in the Danube Delta, because the shore of Snagov Lake is full of villas and private pontoons! The Olympic medals, the dozens of world and European titles were born either on the Danube or on land, in training halls, waiting for the happy day of the long-dreamt natural water runway. This is Romania's fate: to obtain spectacular victories in spirit and in sport, shunning the paradoxes of a historical destiny, which lend charm to the life of an optimistic nation. Translated by Monica Manolachi
[1] lăutar (lăutari for plural) = a Romanian word derived from lăută (a string instrument similar to the lute), which now designates a band player of any instrument, usually a violin, an accordion, a dulcimer etc.[2] zaiafet = a Turkish word for party.[3] taraf = a Turkish word for a music band, usually consisting of Gypsy instrumentalists.[4] făgădău = a word of Hungarian origin (fogadó) meaning inn. [5] ţuică = a Romanian word for schnapps or palinka.

by Viorel Cosma (b. 1927)