Stop And Show Me Something Green!

I used to play this game when I was a child, I played it so often that, from one day to the next, I always remembered to keep some leaves of grass, small leaves or even an entire plant, root and all, in my pockets, socks or sleeves. Little children played it too, later on. I don't know if people still know this game today, but whenever I pass by a villa with green moquette glued over the pavement in the yard I can't help thinking how a child would feel carrying that plastic wire in his socks and it gives me the goose bumps. Where did the greenery of my Bucharest go? What happened to the old courtyards separated, just like in the countryside, by a wooden fence or a short wall covered with clay tiles? Since the passer-by was invited to glance indiscreetly or even engage in conversations over the fence, he could also see, during his walk, the flowery patch of land, vegetable beds and rows of strawberries, the vine trellis, one or several fruit trees – the shadow of the walnut tree or the mulberry tree protected the bench and the table actually used for eating – and waves of tall grass on every side of the narrow pathway connecting the gate to the entrance door. These yards – peripheral, if truth be told – were obviously inhabited, used, and full of life: laundry used to be washed and hung out to dry there, carpets were cleaned, linen was taken out to take some air, wine or jam was prepared in the autumn, chickens were raised for meat and eggs, the pig had its own pigsty behind the house, the dog would watch the house, the cat chased mice, everything made sense. And everything respected a certain order of events, because it was all meant to be seen. In time, starting from the second half of the previous century, these courtyards became fewer and dirtier, the trees died, the chickens nowadays peck among the vegetable beds, the pig is kept in deserted buffets or in improvised shelters and the owners, as if feeling embarrassed, came up with all sorts of means to make the fences opaque, to hide the disorder behind them. Recently, to my surprise, I realized that fragments of these courtyards were vertically reconstructed in workers' neighborhoods of blocks, in the closed balconies crowded with pots of flowers, rope and cords for drying the laundry, shelves full of jam jars, barrels of sour cabbage and linen taken out to air. Yet, there is also an urban tradition of gardens in Bucharest. Elegant fences, made of wrought iron, with sophisticated cable moldings and volutes, through which we could see multicolored flowers; I often wondered whether the fact that the same kind of flowers were grown in certain neighborhoods – streets full of garden phlox (Phlox paniculata), streets with garden hydrangea (Hydrangea macrophyll) or streets with cutleaf coneflower (Rudbeckia laciniata) – was because of the fashion, or a certain feeling of belonging to the same neighborhood, or simply because the wind carried and spread the seeds from one garden to another. The round pavilions in the yards, with a table in the center and benches or garden chairs, bear evidence that these green spaces were meant for relaxation and socializing. You could see animals here too (pedigree dogs and cats), but their role was strictly that of accompanying humans and, perhaps, being an emblem of a certain social status. These were oases of tamed nature, peace and beauty. They grew fewer too, and the ones that remained, negligently obsolete, stopped being a model of inhabitance for the third millennium. Bucharest, 2005. With the careful look of an ethnologist, I go over the streets of a fancy residential complex for the rich and picky. I don't look that much at the countless new villas with thermopane windows, aggressive blank walls and balconies accessible only through the window. Instead, I'm interested in the yards and gardens, hoping that the present obsession with living "on the ground" might possibly revive the ambient tradition and bring back the love for gardens. The first surprise I have is that looking through or over the fence (if possible) triggers an outburst of aggressive worries from the part of the owners: "What are you looking at, lady? This is my private space!" I step back, embarrassed, and I try to continue my walk, but I am once again told off by a lady neighbor who draws my attention that the sidewalk, and the street, even, are the private space of abutting residents. "Can't you read? There's a do-not-enter sign at the end of the street!" The tone of her voice admits no reply, so I give up asking her why their private space looks like a latrine – dirty, with geological layers from the former construction sites and with muddy pits and bumps. I indeed realize that the sidewalks have been eaten by courtyards, sometimes by extending the surface covered by the grass-like rug under the garden fence and all the way to the road, sometimes by taking down the limit separating the piece of land surrounding the house on the side with the street. And then, I realize the contrary: on neighboring streets properties were closed with high blind walls, locked gates secured with the help of modern equivalents to the iron locker – intercom, cell reflector or even surveillance cameras. Paradoxically, the fear of intruders and the stubbornness of controlling all the surrounding area mingle with the owner's desire to make himself visible, with some extra work on his image: the land around the house is designed in such a way that through the gate railings or straight on the sidewalk (in the case of fenceless yards) we may see the empty, light-blue pool, the superimposed brick barbecue facing the street (to which it displays its contents and sends its scent, if it's ever used), the pots and large plastic buckets with exotic plants making supernatural efforts to survive, given the local climate, which eventually will get thrown away every autumn, because fashion changes annually and the plants are not perennial. I had already noticed a similar process of destructive taking over of the common green area around the blocks of flats: the place is now populated with personal carpet beaters and improvised fences used as display stands for decorative fabrics; inside the ad hoc wire enclosures locked with an iron locker there are tables and chairs, and unused cars. In all these cases, we can sense a paradoxical, contradictory, retractile and invasive relationship with the environment, both secret and declarative at the same time. One of the most visible consequences of this hesitant evolution taking the gutter way to Europe is, in fact, the death of Bucharest gardens; the end of an inherited cultural behavior and that of a rather community-oriented mindset. You can't fight death, and mausoleums are nothing but an illusion of power. Speaking of which… inside some mausoleum-villas recently built in the place of former patriarchal merchant's houses there are jardinières plated with imitation of granite or tiles holding poor greenhouse flowers, like a material expression of the garden's agony. Moreover, as a surrealist apotheosis of Bucharest luxurious living, well-enclosed and professionally-guarded ghettos are built in the north of the city, consisting of uniform-houses, obediently lined up on both sides of the soundly-asphalted main alley, at the end of which there's the compulsory common playground, with its minuscule patches of grass slipped between mimeographed buildings. Beyond the border of these samples of contemporary paradise, the waste lots and the garbage remained, marking the buffer area between the city's tamed area and the natural one, haunted by disorder and the unknown. There's no concern for making contact or having a relationship with the other, the inhabitant from the neighboring street, or with the passer-by. Everything that is not brand new is considered to be trash. Actually, come to think of it, I may have discovered one of the main differences between the mentality of "courtyard" living and that of "parceled" living. The house with a rural-inspired, multi-functional courtyard implied a system of daily re-use of different household elements resorting to improvisation and adaptation according to our needs: this way, the courtyards in Bucharest suburbs produced little to no garbage at all, and it didn't end up on the common spaces, since it was reused, in its turn. The rule of this sui generis ecology was "I take the things I need from where I live". On the other hand, the inhabitants of the luxury parceled areas, obsessed with progress and the trend of the moment, easily give up the memory of the old object: being seen getting rid of everything that is not modern becomes a hallmark of the high socio-economic status. Consequently, this new form of inhabitance produces a lot of garbage and even exhibits it. The rule of the new ecology is "I dispose of my things wherever I may live". Cultura, 16-22 February 2005 Translated by Daniela Oancea

by Ioana Popescu