The Circle Without A Center

from left: Antiques store on Covaci St.; National Bank on Lipscani St.; Victoria department store; Dimbovitza river.

The navel of the city: one couldn’t find a better name. There was once an umbilical cord. Through it, Bucur’s shepherds village used to receive, no one knows from where, proteins and carbohydrates and cheese, which our ancestors wasted on fiery horses, elegant women and beautiful buildings. Somehow, the tradition was preserved: we have been living on the telluric energy of the place, on credit and the belief specific to those living in the Balkans that tomorrow is very far, at a 24-hour distance…We live this way, but to the north of Kiseleff avenue; downtown, where everything started, nothing happens any longer. The umbilical cord was broken and nothing comes from above: not even the garbage truck. We deserted the burg, with its vague traces of medieval past, with the houses of those merchants who got rich by selling millet beer and clothes, with its public houses always bigger than the schools of the time, all about to be closed, not for lack of clients, but for lack of landlords. The center of the city where I was born passed away quietly, like an old man with no relatives, in the night asylum of the City Hall. Dark night: you don’t know exactly what killed him, was it old age or a nurse determined to get hold of his house? It doesn’t matter anymore, and anyway this type of questions is not in the spirit of the place. Easy come, easy go, this has always been our way of thinking. No problem, we shall build another center: that is the answer of the inhabitant of Bucharest, incommoded by his own past, and even more by the city’s past!The navel of my city was once the most beautiful place to the south of the Carpathians and to the north of the Danube: a place in which, in spite of the poverty of the ‘80s, there were still some things to surprise you. A cassette player on Covaci street, a cup of coffee at Cina, an electric toy train at the toyshop next to what is now the National Bank, some palm reading or a pack of BT cigarettes sold illicitly in some passageway in Lipscani street .I have loved downtown Bucharest more than I could ever love Paris or Brasov, Rome or Sighisoara. Because I can understand it: it was made by people like me, who changed their mind, who were impatient, who built their houses in the middle of other people’s streets and put blue plaster ornamentations over pink marble. At the time of great changes happening a century ago, there was no better place for you to take off your shalwars and proudly put on some German pants, made at the already European tailor’s behind what is now Cocor department store. Here, downtown, the first modern Romanian got off his bed, in his long nightgown and nightcap. Downtown we mingled with the nations that introduced us to Europe as poor relatives, but with certain prospects. Downtown Bucharest was made by people who hurried to save before dying, but not too much, since waste has its own pleasures. It is downtown where all poems learned in high school, half from short stories, half from several good novels, are still happening. I am not the first one: this is a stage more appropriate for great-grandmother’s first European neuroses: “Can you believe that, he has been having an affair with the maid!” Here, in these small houses, great treasons were planned, and one hundred years later, even greater sums of money were exchanged into foreign currency, in the last year when it was cooler to walk from Victoria galleries to Bucuresti store.To this day, the center has remained the place where Oriental idleness meets the evil from Leipzig-Lipscani. This is translated into bored boors in German cars talking on Finnish phones. The music inside convinces you that the shalwars could come back and that the national soul has not chosen its identity yet, as the mind did. Around this new oriental perpetrators, the navel of the city collapses slowly, as in a SF movie in which a virus enters buildings and makes them crumbly and inconsistent.If there is a history to tell in Bucharest, then this is the most important one: here you cannot build pyramids. The battle against time is already lost, in each of us. The Dimbovita flows on and takes the stones away. The center? Like the homeland, it is where we are at ease.  Dilema veche, January 24-30, 2008 Translated by Fabiola Popa

by Lucian Mîndruţă