Sunday Morning. A Bourgeois Walk In A Post-Communist City

clockwise from top left: Smardan St., Stavropoleos St., Caru cu bere pub (2), Stavropoleos Church (3), Russian Church.

Early Sunday morning before 10 A.M., the city offers its first surprise. It is empty. The bare streets are visible in all their twisted length, without being covered in cars driven by angry drivers who honk their horns at every cross of their lives, and, I assure you, without the many, countless, gray, fatigued, hurrying working people who usually run to bus or tram stops or to subway stations; now the city is also without alert newspaper vendors, beggars, real or fake disabled people, street children, pensioners who cannot afford medicine, or unfortunate but persistent people insisting to wash your windshield; and even without policemen willing to open the way for some dignitary's motorcade, which barges into our daily blockages with blue lights and sirens. Nothing of the above. A breezy and friendly tranquility prompts you to feel like taking a walk, to discover something new in some place you have known since always, so you leave your car in the parking lot, which is also deserted, and start walking through what is called the Old City Center. It is important to point out that there is not much to see, at least not at first sight. Many of the buildings have not been remodeled, there are holes in the streets – of course, that is natural, because this is where they will place a pipe which will be fundamental for the comfort of the area; vendors' stands made of rusty and distressing metal enter democratically into this framework alongside impersonal construction site benches or fillings of these new times made up of glass and metal, which are inadequate and inappropriate, but still very present. However, in the tranquility of Sunday morning, apart from discreet pensioners walking their cat-sized doggies and watching the students who are hurrying toward the Russian church to pray for a miracle at next week's exams, this apparently decayed area of the city acquires a dimension of its own. In the Glassmakers' Yard all is quiet, while a handful of customers are coming to sit at the surrounding cafes and the bitter-sugary smell of Turkish coffee pots is stealthily finding its way around the dirty walls. A demolished rather than a built city, Bucharest lacks mystery and a Gothic atmosphere… The neighborhoods with mansions built between the wars – Cotroceni, Domenii, or upper Dorobanti – , with their exaggeratedly manicured gardens, with bodyguards protecting them professionally and efficiently, and with snobbish cars parked negligently in or out of the fences with motion sensors, are beautiful and full of light; they create an illusion of wealth as a universal solution to our daily torments, lead to questions about equality, legality, and legitimacy, but cannot become the emblem of the city. They are rather a conceited dessert served to people who are accustomed to plum doughnuts and sweet pies. The abandoned Old City Center smells like the typical Bucharester, like the endless neighborhoods of apartment buildings constructed under communism, or like the slums that existed before the arrival of the Soviet troops. In comparison to those, the Old City Center is stylish, and, under certain circumstances, even beautiful. It is beautiful in the evening, when the red sun colors the sky in violet hues and paints the old buildings in dull amber, it is beautiful again a little later, when the natural light disappears almost completely, but its shadows endure here and there, and when, under the pressure of the dark blue shades, the walls become whitish; it is beautiful before summer storms, when black clouds hover close to you and the unnatural darkness of midday settles like a cover over houses, streets, vendors' booths, and passageways, and when, with each drop of rain, the smell of dust, sewage, and putridity is cleansed and the air becomes fresh for a few minutes… In the old days, when I was a teenager, the Lipscani neighborhood was some kind of a headquarters for the Bucharest underworld, a place where people could exchange foreign currency illegally, could bargain for a pair of blue jeans, and where they were able to buy cassette recorders, foreign cigarettes, or instant coffee to offer as bribes to doctors or to the faculty secretariat to obtain an exemption from attending some classes. There were also a handful of working class pubs, a few gardens with tables without chairs where people drank beer and ate dubious food while standing, consignment stores and old book stores, shops where they sold shoe laces, buttons, lace, zippers, stockings, ties, pipes, tools, stove pipes, screws, paper, and stamps; and there were pretzel shops working around the clock, the only such places in Bucharest at a time when the lights were turned off everywhere at 10 P.M., namely the same moment when the national television station concluded its broadcast for the day; there, in tailor shops peopled by some who had lived long enough to know different times or who had been trained by others who had known different times, they took out wonderful, imported fabrics from under the counter and used them to configure your wedding suit or an overcoat for special occasions. On one of those little streets that goes down to the Dambovita River embankment, in a crowded little shop, you could find records imported from Russia, Hungary, and Bulgaria, so, when you passed by, you got to hear the Rolling Stones, Deep Purple, Led Zeppelin, The Who, Mahalia Jackson, or Johnny Cash. After the Revolution, the shops first flourished, only to go bankrupt afterwards, the houses got damaged, windows were broken, the woodwork was destroyed, and the streets were cleaned… Rebuilding projects have been launched, and now we are somehow in between stations – or stools… Some things have been restored, bars, clubs, cafes, and fashionable boutiques have been opened, state institutions have moved their headquarters out of that neighborhood, and they have remodeled various buildings, including edifices of banks, law firms, and advertising companies, which are mixed in a totally non-homogeneous manner with houses that have no windows, but which have holes in their roofs and time-eroded facades. In the midst of this mixture survives what is possibly the most beautiful place of worship in Bucharest: the Stavropoleos monastery, erected in 1724 and now hidden among tall buildings, a small church in a street corner, slightly buried under the sidewalk level, which makes it look like the Greek churches of Monastiraki or Plaka in central Athens. Since this was a Sunday morning, we could hear the inside liturgy through the speakers placed near the fresco-painted porch, while the smell of incense and of lit candles came out through the open wooden gates. And from there, a little farther, some 20 meters in a narrow street, you find the Caru cu bere (Beer Wagon) restaurant, a Bucharest institution that is over 100 years old and which has been rebuilt after a long and unjust neglect. Still that Sunday, I was surprised to find the terrace open at 11:30, with nice and communicative waiters ready to offer a local variant of brunch well seasoned with tea, coffee, and juices for tame people and strong beverages or wine bottles for the more determined customers. A large breakfast meant large plates with all kinds of cheese, including leavened sweet cheese, salty and buttery cottage cheese from Sibiu, soft cottage cheese, skin cheese with a fir-tree scent, all with a brush of red onion, so that everything would be well combined; then came another large plate with smoked, dry meat, salami, bacons, fried eggs and some mustard, of course; plus an a la Boeuf salad, but one made for you to actually feel the taste of beef, mayonnaise, finely cut but still crisp pickles, and the sweetness of boiled carrots; plus a little plate with eggplant salad (which is wonderful in Romania, but the best I have eaten so far was on the Bosporus shore, only to find out afterwards that it also included vegetable marrow); and, at the end, to wind it up, a hot pie with cheese and raisins, and/or cheese dumplings with sour cream and sour cherry confiture. The meal was over by noon, when the restaurant was getting filled up with newcomers who wanted sour soup, peppered sausages, meat with various vegetables or rice – all taken with the house beer. Then, I walked again to that little part of our Old City Center, among the old buildings, some of which had been fixed while others had not, toward the statue called the "Tail of the Horse" – a horse ridden by Voivode Michael the Brave. And from there, on to Revolution Square, where, 19 years ago, a new life began for very many of us. Which new life definitely includes this walk without any allegorical meanings through one corner of Bucharest, forgotten by time, where both the remnants of the past and some illusions of the present always flicker. Translated by Monica Voiculescu

by Bogdan Teodorescu