Sunday Best

Cismigiu Gardens

Every time I visit this place, I feel the same. Maybe it’s because the elegant flower beds, the winding paths and the chatter of happy kids. Or maybe it’s the young lovers who paddle rowing boats, the skeletal old ladies who gossip on benches of battered wood or the grim-faced men who huddle around stone tables playing chess. Whatever it is, every time I walk through Cismigiu Gardens in the centre of busy, booming Bucharest, I feel as if I’m wandering through a painting by a French Impressionist. And there is a connection, after all. Wasn’t this city once known as Paris of the East? Crossing a bridge over the lake, I pause to wonder what Monet could have made of it, with his canvas and paint, some Sunday afternoon. The park was built in 1847. the first group exhibition of the Impressionists was 1874. There’s a tenuous symmetry. On the bandstand, portly men in brown military uniforms sit in concentric circles playing a medley of popular tunes for the watching crowds. The brass instruments glitter and shine in the sun. the big fat tube curls into the air like a gilded tree. The drummer wipes sweat from the back of his neck, scarcely missing a beat. Kids dawdle about in their Sunday best, nibbling pink clouds of candy floss. Snatches of chat float on the breeze, from middle-aged women who sit in a row, side by side, discussing last night’s TV. Specifically the ins-and-outs of older men who marry young girls. “How can she be pregnant?” asks one, sucking a sweet. “He’s over sixty.” “Are you kidding?” retorts her neighbour. “Men are fertile a lot longer than us.” “It won’t last,” suggests another, picking knots of fluff from her worn-out black cardigan. Further along sits a furry orange Chow dog, blue tongue hanging from its stubby snout. The dog looks like it should be guarding a Buddhist temple. Instead it’s guarding the blue toilets, the ones where you have to pay. Maybe it’s waiting for its master, inside on a business trip. Turbo-folk music booms from a café terrace, where waiters in white shirts and black waistcoats glide on shiny shoes among the crowded tables, dispensing drinks and fixed smiles. Most clients are smoking. Their happy chatter and innocuous silver wisps drift across the lake. It looks like a modern-day version of Renoir’s Luncheon of the Boating Party. Under a large tree near the zona de conifere, a couple of lovers kiss passionately. The young woman sits on the man’s knee. She’s in her mid-twenties, slim-hipped in a short T-shirt that exposes her waist and a red thong at the rear. He’s in his forties, overweight with messy hair and scuffed brown shoes, exposing his indifference to the stares of passers-by. At the edge of the boating lake, knots of people wait quietly on the debarcader – the jetty – for their turn. Two tiny children are dressed in identical outfits – denim dungarees and jelly shoes. They gaze towards the centre of the lake, where a fountain spurts great arcs of water into the air, teasing them to hurry up and join the fun. One of the kids spins around, hugging herself. The gravel crunches underfoot. The wind whispers through the leaves of a gigantic tree, easily a hundred years old. Teenagers on skates whiz down leafy avenues of smooth tarmac. Women in black crouch at the side, selling snacks and watching the energetic kids zoom by. I find an empty bench. Before I sit down, I glance up to check the trees for pigeons, in case of sloppy bombs that will spatter on my head. Shit happens, as the Americans say. But not here and not now, I hope. I take my seat and sit back to ponder the passage of time. This park has a place in history. It seems the name cismigiu is Turkish in origin. It means the person responsible for building or maintaining a public fountain. And never mind the rench Impressionists, Maxy, a Romanian avant-garde artist from the ‘20s painted Unemployed dozing on a bench in Cismigiu. It’s an intriguing picture with perilous perspective, a captivating blend of light and shade, action and inactivity, gossip and snoozing. It’s in the National Gallery at Cluj-Napoca. And then there’s Caragiale, the Romanian writer who used Cismigiu as the setting for stories featuring ‘Mitica’, the archetypal Bucharest scallywag, sly and a bit dim, but with a talent for surrealist one-liners. When a clerk loses his job, Mitica says he’s been promoted to chasing flies out of Cismigiu. Him and Beckett would get along, I reckon. On my way out, I walk towards heavy iron gates. A stocky guy in a ragged black blazer offers to sell me a cheap watch, cracks a joke about how accurate it is. I stop to buy a tiny handful of sunflower seeds from an old lady on a wooden stool. They’re still in their shells. I don’t know how to eat them the way some Romanians do. I always make a mess. As I pass through the gates to rejoin the real world of busy streets and honking traffic, I realize two things. First, Cismigiu is not really a Monet. It’s too neat, too precise for him. No, this park is more like Seurat’s island of La Grande Jatte. Second, I realize that like that painting, Cismigiu too is an island, at least to me. Because it’s one of the best things about Bucharest, and we’re lucky Ceausescu didn’t destroy it. It’s a safe haven, a quiet place for reflection, somewhere to paddle a boat, walk with friends, talk over a plan, solve a disagreement, snog someone you shouldn’t. I could come here every Sunday. In fact, maybe I will, it’s not so far. Maybe I could get a job chasing flies. from Mike Ormsby, Never Mind the Balkans, Here’s RomaniaCompania, 2008

by Mike Ormsby