The Bucharest Of Former Times

Volume I, 1871 - 1884 The Christmas of 1871? My young age then was so eagerly waiting for it. By 10 o'clock the night of the Eve, the shrill voices of the carolers would resound all over Bucharest. In those days the carolers were children from the edge of town, children of the poor, who would go out caroling to bring to their cold, desolate homes whatever came their way, be it apples, walnuts or pretzels. The commercial district in the center of town was not so friendly and welcoming to these traditional manifestations but the closer to the edge of town the more often you could hear the crystal-clear voices of the children: "Good morning to you on this Christmas Eve! Give us something, will you? Give us something, will you?"Not that I believe in the magic of old customs, I don't, but to this day, I enjoy listening to this song foretelling something indistinct yet always touching. And now, when I hear the song at daybreak, I am seized by melancholy remembering the carefree years, so full of hope, which are gone forever. After two years of living in Bucharest, I also went caroling on the day before Christmas. In those days, high school students too would get together in pretty large groups, sometimes close to forty of them, and go caroling. And there were always plenty of households who observed the custom partying and welcoming the carolers into their homes. Pascaly, the actor, was one of them. He would, quite early in the evening, set a big table in the hallway of the house, and on it basketfuls of walnuts, small pretzels and apples, wine glasses and the samovar. With the wine wicker bottles by him, Pascaly was seated at this table, facing the entrance.Well into the early hours of the morning, he would tirelessly and cheerfully welcome the children, wishing them good health and a more prosperous new year, drinking to their health and imparting a good word to each. There was also our teacher of Greek at St. Sava High School. He too would receive the carolers well. In his rather small house, assisted by his daughter, a beautiful and charming dark-haired young lady – married to a certain officer Olănescu and prematurely dead – Ilie Bănescu would greet, give, cheer but also drink. He was very fond of the good wine you could find in Bucharest at the time. And there were others, men and women. The rowdy boys by now knew certain lovely young ladies in Bucharest, who observed the custom and kept their homes open to carolers. One year we gathered together close to forty of us. I don't quite remember who these people were. The only one I remember is Alexandru Macedonski. I had kept drinking at each and every house and by the time we got to the house of Laura and Smărăndiţa B., I was quite tipsy. The sisters and their whole family gave us a very warm welcome. I repaid one of the hostesses for this kind welcome by spilling a glass of wine on to the sleeve of Miss Laura's white dress. After the Christmas Eve caroling came Christmas, with its nativity songs, its Bethlehem mystery plays and fancy dress balls. As time passed, all these customs degenerated and the only boys singing nativity songs and acting the Bethlehem scenes were some young gypsy kids or some hoodlums, the worst you could find at the edge of town, who would go into yards to steal. Later, still worse, our beautiful old customs turned into a profession for the perverse profiteers. Certain such profiteers would get groups of kid together, organize them into larger units, teach them several nativity songs and then keep an eye on them while they were performing. When the kids would come out of a yard, the enterpriser was nearby to collect everything the kids had been given. It goes without saying that the kids were paid a pittance, a couple of pennies a night. Life in Bucharest There was something very special about life in Bucharest at the time and a lot has changed for the upper classes since then. When you walked into the Hall of the National Theater on the evenings of Italian opera, you would see the social elite comfortably seated in all the boxes. The "benoir" boxes were all, or almost all, taken by well-known families, who would buy tickets for the whole season. The Florescus, the Cantacuzinos, the Suţus, the Văcărescus, the Manus, the Creţus, etc. All these people are gone, almost no one is left. The bourgeoisie, in power today, were hardly visible in those days. It was on very rare occasions that a Boerescu or one such illustrious representative of the middle class would show up at a party of the elite. The outstanding personalities dominating both politics and social life were Mitică Ghica, son of a bey and President of the Chamber, I. Em. Florescu, War Minister, and several others of the country's gentry. Two salons in Bucharest were the front runners: Mrs. Oteteleşeanu's salon, on the same place now occupied by the Oteteleşeanu Terrace, and that of Princess Irina Grigore Suţu, in her home in Colţea Street, which now houses the offices of the municipality. The former was the better of the two, as it was more intimately connected to world of the Bucharest elite. Counted among the elite were not only the blue-blooded but also people of high repute and good standing in politics, the bench, the bar, the army, diplomacy, finance, literature, etc.The Oteteleşeanu Salon would establish you. To become somebody in high society one had to have frequented this place and enjoyed its matronage. This was the launching place of young ladies and young gentlemen, the place where sentimental intrigues were hatched and matches made and many political alliances were started here, too. The salon was open to everyone in "the high life" of Bucharest. Such an all embracing place no longer exists. The other salon belonged to Princess Irina Suţu and its all-inclusiveness was tempered by a certain reserve. On certain set days, however, all of Bucharest would pass through its doors. I never visited Mrs. Oteteleşeanu's Salon but I would go to Prince Grigore Suţu's twice a year, on their name days. The protocol was well known. Prince Grigore Suţu, a tiny fellow with a long soldierly mustache, by now going gray, the classical Greek type you'd see in cartoon, always elegantly dressed, would welcome all visitors standing close to the entrance into the first room. And on these reception days the visitors were quite a crowd. In the adjoining drawing room, Princess Irina was comfortably seated into a luxurious armchair, with guests parading in front of her, in order of their arrival. You'd bow, kiss the stretched hand, linger for a longer or a shorter time, depending on the degree of intimacy and on whether you were a man or a woman; according to rank and importance, you'd exchange a word or two of polite conversation, bow again and make your exit. The salon was always very crowded, with people coming and going all the time. Prince Grigore would have a kind word for everyone before leaving. The whole visit was over in less than ten minutes. It was very much the protocol of a Court, only less rigid and with less pomp. This very special family was regarded as one of Bucharest's oddities.On nice days, almost always, Mr. and Mrs. Grigore Suţu would go for a walk along the Promenade, accompanied by their sui-generis entourage. In their Victoria carriage the Princess would strike a majestic pose, sitting straight up, while Prince Grigore would barely be visible, tiny as he was and crouched among the cushions; a large poodle dog, always well groomed, would lie at their feet.Holding the reins up front, the Albanian hireling, wearing a skirt and along-tasseled fez, pistols and sword in sheath. Such was the old tradition and the old pomp of a lord's court in the Phanariot period. Not many Albanian hirelings were left in Bucharest by then and just a few households still had one, among them the household of the late Petrovici-Armis, the magnate of the time. Today, in 1927, such a sight would seem theatrical.Behind the carriage, on a raised stool, a Negro boy would sit, his arms crossed. Suţu's Arab was quite a familiar character all over Bucharest.The custom to own a Negro or an Arab as a token of great luxury had not yet disappeared altogether. In 1884, during the students' uprising, when I was arrested and jailed in the Văcăreşti prison for five days, I found there the Negro in the service of Mrs. Petre Grădisteanu, now Mrs. Theodor Capitanovici. The unfaithful servant had been arrested for theft.In Bucharest at the time one could find the last remnants of conservatism. The fall of the Lascăr Catargiu cabinet and the ascension to power of the liberals four years later did not bring about a new democratic epoch but marked the triumph of the bourgeoisie over the old national-Phanariot boyar class. For, as I have said before, if the grand old indigenous families were still highly visible among the elite of Bucharest, their number was not as high as that of Greek and Phanariot families. One should note that not all naturalized Greeks were Phanariots.As public life then was much less developed than today, it is only natural that family ties should have been much stronger. People would entertain at home and the number of guests would be more or less restricted. New Year's Eve at a restaurant and lunch out at a pub with the whole family were unheard of in those days. That is why, among the high society, the number of grand balls during winter was very large.The capital had a much more national look in those days. Today, especially since the Great War, Bucharest is more of a truly cosmopolitan city than the genuinely national one it used to be. Before one could only see Romanians everywhere: at the theater, in coffee houses, at the confectioner's, in pubs, at the promenade, everywhere you looked, only Romanians. Almost never would you see a foreigner and when you did you'd point your finger at him. We all knew each other in those days. Today we no longer do. The Editorial House of The Universe NewspaperBucharest, 1927

by Constantin Bacalbaşa (1856-1935)