Romanian Journey 2019

Last year we had a magical holiday in Romania. This year the holidays were much shorter, we stayed mainly in Bucharest and I didn’t expect any magic (and, indeed, none was forthcoming).

My parents are getting old and frail, so they wanted to talk mainly about what to do in case of ill health, emergencies or if one of them should die. I also tend to forget just how difficult it is to live in the same house as my mother until I am confronted with it on a daily basis. Last but not least, Bucharest is as chaotic, busy and polluted as most capital cities, plus a generous extra portion! So it was not the most restful of holidays.

However, there were some good bits, most of which I tweeted about while we were there.

It was nice to see that some of the 19th century architecture of Bucharest had been renovated and lived up to its reputation of ‘Little Paris’.
Just opposite this, however, and right next to the 1930 example of architecture of the Post and Telephone Building, you have this horror of a Novotel modern extension to an old facade (former National Theatre building, bombed during the WW2 and never rebuilt).
Other highlights include telling my older son (the history fiend) about the time when Ceausescu spoke live on TV from this balcony at the Central Committee of the Communist Party building on December 21st 1989 and was booed, sparking the full-scale public protests in Bucharest.
This building belonged to the Securitate forces and was riddled with bullets during the bloody days that followed the victory of the revolution on 22nd December 1989 (inevitable glass monstrosity was added later).
Rooftop bar can be used on rainy days thanks to these ingenious (heated) bubbles.
More examples of preserved architecture: the George Enescu museum, in one of the most impressive mansions on Calea Victoriei. Sadly, the exhibition itself is quite small and you can’t visit the entire house.
The Museum of the City of Bucharest in the Palais Sutu is really worth a visit: a carefully curated trip back in time in the history of the city.
For example, here is a portrait of a typical Phanariot of the 18th century – Greek administrators from the Fanari neighbourhood of Istanbul, imposed as de facto rulers of Wallachia by the Ottoman Empire for nearly a century.
I was somewhat shocked at the excessive luxury (and prices) in this giant shopping mall, complete with skating rink, climbing wall, food court, Imax cinema etc. when you consider that 80% of the population can probably not afford to buy anything other than a drink here.

I was discussing with my boys why Bucharest can feel like a shock to the system to those who live in other capital cities. It has all the traffic jams, lack of parking, crowded places, noise and building sites that we also associate with Paris and London. But, unlike those two cities, wealth and poverty jostle here more openly side by side. You can live in your protected bubble in the 6th and 7th Arrondissements in Paris, or in Chelsea and Hampstead in London, without ever coming across the less salubrious examples of daily life. That is simply not possible in Bucharest. You come out of the most extravagant restaurant and end up in a back street with crumbling old buildings. You drive your fancy Lamborghini through terrible potholes. On public transport you see fine ladies with expensive haircuts and camelhair coats as well as bow-legged peasant women with knotted scarves covering their hair – and both of them might be making the sign of the cross whenever the tram passes by a church.

The best bit was seeing that some of the beautiful older buildings had been sensitively and lovingly rehabilitated, rather than having ugly extensions built behind them.

If you are a foreign tourist with a bit of money, you can have a great time in Bucharest. For me, it will always be a city where pain and joy, anger and nostalgia blend. I can never ignore the dirt or inequality or those who have been left behind. I cannot unsee the price of foreign investment: people of my generation and younger who are being eaten alive by the Western corporations, a form of indentured labour for the present-day. The city will never be relaxing because there are too many threads binding me to it and never enough time to meet and greet all the people that I want to see – or that my family feel that I should see.

If you know the Cavafy poem ‘The City’, you will understand how I feel about this fascinating, infuriating, sleazy, beautiful, ugly city.

You won’t find a new country, won’t find another shore.

This city will always pursue you.

You’ll walk the same streets, grow old

in the same neighbourhoods, tunr grey in these same houses.

You’ll always end up in this city. Don’t hope for things elsewhere:

there’s no ship for you, there’s no road.

(transl. Keeley and Sherrard)

My dream of trawling through bookshops and cafés remained just that: a dream. Nevertheless, I did experience two nice restaurants while meeting up with people and one café for breakfast. I only entered three bookshops (two of them quite small), but somehow managed to return with a massive pile of books. More about that in my next post!

21 thoughts on “Romanian Journey 2019”

  1. I can understand how you feel such complex (sometimes even contradictory) things about Bucharest, Marina Sofia. And it’s all the more complicated because of your personal ties there. It must be hard in that sense to be there, even as you are glad to visit. That duality makes a lot of sense to me. Thank you for sharing the lovely ‘photos. The architecture is beautiful, and I find that rooftop restaurant fascinating! What a clever idea so that people can dine there whatever the weather. Oh, and about the books? I’d have done the same…

    1. Thank you, Margot, yes, I always feel like I need a holiday after spending some time on holiday there. But there were some compensations, books of course being amongst them!

  2. Over the past few years, having explored a little of central Europe, I have wondered what it must have felt like to live there over the mid- to late-twentieth century and what it must feel like to come home. Your post give and insight into that, Marina. I hope to visit Bucahrest sometime over the next couple of years and I’ll try to keep it in mind.

  3. My own visits to Bucharest in the last years were frequent, and unfortunately in most cases very short – I am at home in Sofia and worked for two years in Chisinau, so Bucharest was during that period the place where I changed buses (call me a snob, but I almost always travel by bus in South-Eastern Europe). Of course that’s a shame, considering what Bucharest has to offer! In general, Romania, just like the rest of this part of Europe is strongly underrated and worth a longer visit. Looking forward to your bookshop findings – Romanian literature is so interesting!

    1. Ha, Bucharest as a bus-stop – very interesting indeed! Well, if you know Chisinau and Sofia, then Bucharest won’t come as such a shock to the system. I do like other parts of the country far more than the capital city, although that is where I spent my teenage years.

  4. I think I’ve commented on previous posts of yours about your Romanian visits; they remind me of mine back in the 70s, when the old regime was still very much in power. It’s interesting to hear what’s changed since, and what hasn’t. My visits to Berlin, in recent years to visit family, raised similar responses – though family have now left there and moved to Barcelona, so now we experience a different set of tensions in the air of Catalunya

    1. Ah, yes, I can imagine that Berlin to Barcelona must be quite some adjustment! I suppose Bucharest was never simply just Eastern European like Warsaw, Prague, East Berlin, those more straightforwardly Northern type of capital cities. There has always been a chaotic Oriental/Turkish/Balkanic influence to it, which I used to hate in my youth, and which still throws me nowadays, but which I have grown fonder of (at least occasionally) as I’ve aged.

  5. You have my sympathy about those awkward conversations with ageing parents.
    Your comments about the shopping mall with luxury goods reminded me of my last visit to Moscow. It had changed out of all recognition since I was there in 1979 – then there was hardly any evidence of shops (you had to look for the queues) and even if you found one, there was nothing worth buying. But on the last trip, there were branches of expensive luxury goods manufacturers everywhere – I kept wondering where people had the money from to buy such things or to eat in westernised restaurants.

    1. Someone pointed out to me that the further east you go in Europe, the wider the gap between the rich and the poor, and the rich become more willing to flaunt their wealth.

      1. From my recent visits to Kyiv, Bucharest, Tbilisi and Yerevan, I would certainly agree with rich-poor gap you refer to. To me, it was most striking in Yerevan. Bucharest is a lovely city, and so diverse, as you mention. I was lucky to be there in summer when there seemed to be less traffic, though from the comfort of my train towards Bucharest I could see where the cars were: blocked on the road to Sinaia!
        Looking forward to reading about the books.

  6. Speaking as one who has major baggage with her mother, I can empathise. But it gets difficult as they get older… I’m glad the visit wasn’t all bad, although the contrasts between rich and poor seem to be as extreme there as in any large city nowadays. Look forward to seeing what the book haul was like!

    1. Book haul post might have to wait until later this week, but I will get to it eventually.
      Yes, it is hard to keep on biting my tongue and remind myself that I’m only there on a short visit and accept to be bullied and manipulated as if I were five years old… But I’m not going to change her at the ripe old age of nearly 80, am I?

  7. No. Can’t change parents as they age. They get more dug in and less open to changing, and sometimes, even understanding what the issue is or any viewpoint other than their own. Just hope your mother doesn’t get dementia; that is really tough.
    Bucharest sounds fascinating. What you say about what Western corporations have done in Romania, and the indentured servitude is rough to hear, but real. And the income inequalities increasing as one goes east is an important point to know about Europe. Is much of Eastern European labor used to enrich the rich in Western Europe and the U.S.? Sounds like it.
    I’m glad your sons saw Bucharest.

    1. Quite a lot of Romanian companies/factories/resources have been bought out by multinationals, through ignorance and corruption of politicians etc. So yes, it does feel like a lot of the wealth created is being exported instantly. Still, there has been a little bit of trickle down effect… My sons are not too keen on Bucharest, but they do like other parts of Romania much better, luckily.

  8. My feelings and thoughts about Athens (not to mention the ugliness and poverty you see all around..) are so very similar to yours about Bucharest, Marina Sofia. At least you and your boys have managed to live in a better place and can only just visit there.
    It does get pretty gloomy with family members as the years go by… But you managed to acquire some wonderful books, and books always make life a little better, right? 🙂

    1. Books make life bearable and colourful. And yes, Athens has the same effect on me as Bucharest – the boys really noticed the similarity (and the parking in all the forbidden places etc.)

  9. Actually, most of the “19th Century” architecture on the boulevard that leads up to the palace, aren’t original. They were all 20th century remakes, because originally they were a conglomeration of different buildings, and Ceausescu (or rather his wife) wanted them all to look the same, so he tore the old ones down and built new ones in that style. During his reign, the ones nearest the palace were given to government ministers. I’ve been all over Romania (mostly because of a job I held for 22 years), and Bucharest is my least favorite.

    1. I think you might be referring to the ones Ceausescu built around the so-called People’s Palace – the horrible kitsch jumble of old architectural styles. He tore down whole neighbourhoods to build those, although not all of them were completed by the end of 1989. The ones on Calea Victoriei, leading up to the old Royal Palace, are original, mostly 19th century, smattering of inter-war periods and very few communist or post-communist constructions. Quite a few of them were falling apart, so I am pleased to see that they are being restored, although not always in the most graceful of ways.

  10. I would be shocked by the pictures of horrifying modern additions to old buildings, but it is exactly like Adelaide, where I live when I’m not in Geneva. Monstrous unforgiveable eyesores, it’s like developer’s revenge. If we can’t knock it down, we’ll make it look worse than if it wasn’t there at all. And how many are complicit in the decisions? Town planners, the architects, the buyers.

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