There are contrasts between the urban and rural in any country, but I sometimes think that Romania is an extreme example of that. No wonder I am dazed when I go back there for any period of time!
My parents chose to retire in the little town of Curtea de Argeș (population 27,000), because they were both originally from the local area, still have family there and can easily go and visit the family graves or native village without having to live in a completely rural environment. Despite its idyllic location in the foothills of the Carpathians, it is a sleepy town for most of the year, without a single theatre, cinema or leisure centre, and a library and museum that are hardly ever open or visited by anyone. In recent years, quite a few people from Bucharest have chosen to retire there (usually because of family connections) and built quite beautiful and large houses, in the hope of luring back their children for the holidays. But the children tend to find the place completely dead after they turn seven or so.
However, the name of the town itself hints at its former glory, for it literally means The Court on the Argeș, which is the name of a rather manky looking river nowadays (because they have built hydro power stations all along it), and also the name of the county. In the Middle Ages, when several local fiefdoms united to form the basis for Wallachia (which later became one of the founding states of modern Romania), it was here that they established the first capital city. You can still see the ruins of the court of the Basarab family and the church that they built here, which is even older than the famous local monastery.
I wanted to keep all of the architectural pictures I took in Romania in one place, although there are so many of them, that it will end up being two or even three Friday posts, if you can cope. The first installment is from Bucharest, on the boulevard I walked down nearly every day to get to my university department (which was not at the main university building). It was always a prestigious location, with fine noble houses from the 19th century. Now back to its old name (of a 19th century conservative politician) to replace the 1848 woman revolutionary Ana Ipătescu, simply because that was the name of the street during Communist times, although naturally she had nothing to do with Communism. I’m quite incensed about this change of name, actually, and not quite sure whether I should be grateful or sad that the most beautifully renovated buildings are embassies or foreign companies nowadays.
It wasn’t exactly the most restful of holidays, but it was something that my soul had been begging for over the past 29 months – a trip back ‘home’ to my country of birth, to see my parents. I have shared various pictures and trips down memory lane via Twitter – and I will probably use my many, many attempts to capture Romanian architecture over the next few Friday Fun posts. Here are a few rather haphazard thoughts about my first trip abroad since the Covid outbreak – almost like an attempt at catching a few birds before they all scatter and fly off!
- For a country that is among the poorest in the EU and has had a somewhat troubled history with Ukraine, I was very impressed at the genuinely warm and well-organised welcome being extended to the Ukrainian refugees. Not so impressed with the news about the lone madman (and convicted criminal, and also ex-politician) who tried to ram his car into the gate of the Russian Embassy in Bucharest after dousing himself in flammable liquid. But the war seems more immediate when you’re bordering the country involved (which is why I remember the war in Yugoslavia so clearly still).
2. Romanian government, state institutions and bureaucracy are difficult to navigate, chaotic and corrupt and all too often quarreling amongst themselves. However, the Romanian population are almost resigned at seeing themselves as being at the ‘back of the class for misbehaviour’ and refuse to believe that other countries can have equally appalling public institutions or politicians.
Did I manage to complete all the paperwork required for renewing my passport? Very nearly, except it will take three months until they return them and I can then submit them to the Romanian consulate in London. Just as well I have another passport, isn’t it?
3. My parents have become frail over the past two and a half years, especially my mother. I will have to start planning more frequent trips back to Romania to see her and help support my father in caring for her. Our relationship has not been a very harmonious one over the years, but this time we managed not to quarrel. Doubtlessly, the long absence played a part. Besides, she only mentioned two of her major disappointments with me (my weight and that my career did not live up to my initial promise) instead of the habitual four. I did weakly attempt to justify my many sideways career moves and changes, but then realised that no matter how good my career might have been (and how content I might have been with it), it would not have lived up to her expectations.
4. The countryside is still filled with middle-aged people who toil in hard-core manual labour on their small pieces of land in what is essentially subsistence agriculture – and who have built or renovated quite impressive houses for their children to inherit. Yet their children have either moved to the city or abroad and have no intention of ever inhabiting those houses. It breaks my heart to see them all working so hard for nothing, and never getting a chance to enjoy their own lives or retire properly.
5. I was determined to focus on the positives and took lots of pictures of well-renovated buildings in both Bucharest and the small town of Curtea de Arges, which was the first capital of Wallachia in the 13th century – before regaining its royal favour in the late 19th century, when the Hohenzollern kings imported to Romania at that time decided to make the famous monastery there their official burial site. Sadly, some of the beautiful old buildings that were nationalised by the Communists and then reclaimed by the original owners are being allowed to fall into ruin deliberately, so that the land can be sold or something more lucrative (like a block of flats) built in its place.
6. There had been a cold snap during the previous weeks in Romania (and two heavy rainstorms while I was there), so the tree blossoms and flowers were far behind their British counterparts. I still enjoyed walking through the parks where I spent so many lovely and romantic moments in my youth (I lived entirely in Bucharest – with the exception of the summer holidays – from the age of 14 to 22), but the trees did look slightly threadbare. Nevertheless, I made several trips to check out the beautiful protected magnolia tree which I walked past each morning on my way to school and where I first kissed my high-school boyfriend. Although we moved to different countries, married, had children, divorced, remarried, we have loosely kept in touch over the years (incidentally, the only one of my exes to ever ask me how I was and how my writing was going instead of boasting about his achievements), so I couldn’t resist sending him a picture of the magnolia and he wrote back at once to say: ‘So many lovely memories!’
And now I am still floating around in that state of limbo, in which my mind has been scrambled and shaken out of its routine and habits. I have been confronted with a culture that is still so familiar to me but so different from my everyday life here in Britain. I became immersed in my past and that of my family, talking almost non-stop with my parents about all the friends and relatives, about family secrets and my own childhood as well as theirs. But actually, what I find most confusing and tiring is that the country, culture and language has moved on without me while I have been living abroad. It’s not just the change in street names or orthography, or the new bars and restaurants that have opened up, the Americanised vocabulary… It’s the fact that those young people who have known no other political and economic system than the current one (those born after 1990) are now approaching their thirties and finding our tales of life under Communism quaint and ever so slightly unbelievable.
My Friday Fun fluffy posts have always been about escapism rather than practicalities, but the houses below might strain credulity.
Ah, to be a city council or a homeowner with the budget to allow an architect to design your library! Some of the examples below might be less practical than others, but they all undeniably have the wow factor.
Earlier this month I came across a dream villa in a dream location on the shores of Lake Geneva, designed by Olson Kundig Architects. I was so intrigued by it that I stalked them on their website and systematically worked my way through their portfolio. Alongside public buildings all over the world, they also have a knack for very modern private houses, with huge windows, in stunning locations, really allowing nature to mingle with the indoors. When I win the lottery (or a whole dozen of them, I think), you know whom I will employ to build me the dream home. All the photos are from their website
The temptation to live off-grid somewhere in a tiny (but well-insulated) house is becoming well-nigh overwhelming. No, this is not a comment on current politics or fears; this is a worry-free, escapist zone.
This Friday Fun post is pure escapism, nothing political about it at all… but for some reason all of today’s houses seem to be located in New Zealand. A country I very much hope to visit some day. Most if not all of these pictures are taken from the wonderful website ArchitectureNow.co.nz
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.
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.
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!