Friday Fun: City vs. Country

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!

The Museum of Romanian Literature is housed in a former noble townhouse in Bucharest.
My grandmother’s house has been repainted, the vine replanted, but you can still see the porch where we used to sleep in summer, because it was too hot indoors.
Architectural detail on Calea Victoriei, Bucharest.
Interior delight at my grandmother’s house in the countryside. We loved the stove, which was used both for cooking and for heating in winter. The ubiquitous Abduction from the Seraglio wall hanging (barely glimpsed on the left) was less popular with us children…
Charming room over the carriage entrance at a grand house in Bucharest.
Although my grandparents’ house had two rooms, one was kept pristine ‘The Good Room’ for guests, while the parents and seven children all crowded in two beds in this room. My father, the youngest of seven children, says that they slept horizontally across the bed, with their feet either dangling or propped up on chairs.
The best restaurant in Bucharest at the moment, or so I hear.
During the summer months, my grandmother used this summer kitchen next to the main house, with a vegetable and herb garden right next to it, and grapevines hanging over a trellis (no longer there) while we played cards at the table – and occasionally helped her.
The Bucharest villa of pianist Dinu Lipatti, lit up in Ukrainian colours.
One of the three cemeteries where family members lie buried in the countryside.
There isn’t much love for modernist architecture, but this 1930s building designed for a ministry deserves to be renovated.
Museum of Art Collections was one of my favourite places to visit while at school, with frequent talks about art and culture from other countries.

Friday Fun: The Little Royal Town

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.

Built by 1351, although the interior frescoes weren’t completed until 1369.
Detail: this style of building with layers of horizontal bricks alternating with stone is quite unique to this area, as far as I am aware. The renovated sculptural details around the window casing data from the 17th century.
The grand entrance to the royal court: the ruler himself lived in a fairly simple two-room accommodation on the right-hand side as you walk in, but his ‘offices’ on the left-hand side, where people came to petition him and where he received foreign dignitaries, were much grander. Still, he could walk from home to work, right?
The gatekeeper’s house was built in the mid-19th century to mimic a traditional peasant house from the local area.
Couldn’t resist this juxtaposition of old and new – this church was built at around the same time on a hill just outside the Royal Court and probably served as a watchtower. Nowadays, the small park contains the War Memorial.
The covered market was built in the late 19th century, when the little market town became popular again because King Carol I decided to make it his final resting place for him and his descendants.
Not my picture, but to give you an idea of what it looks like inside: from ZiarulActualitatea.com. Nowadays, however, the farmers’ market is next door in a slightly more modern building, while the main building is dedicated to butchers and fishmongers. Still a great place to shop, though!
This, however, is what the town is best known for: the Monastery, with its rather gruesome legend with echoes of Icarus and human sacrifice, which has led to one of the most enduring and heartrending ballads in Romanian literature. Proud to say that my younger son was christened inside it, especially since the church is no longer used for ceremonies.
But there are plenty of examples of eclectic 18th and 19th century architecture peppered across town, despite the Communist drive towards industrialisation and ugly blocks of flats.
Traditional architecture in Casa Cioculestilor, from ro.wikipedia.org
Casa Chiriță from the early 20th century in neo-Romanian style.
Casa Norocea from 1913.
The town is also an important archdiocese for the Archbishop of the local area and obviously has reserved a fine building for him and his workers.
The Teodorescu House, from ro.wikipedia.org
The Hohenzollern royal family liked this place so much, they built a whole railway track from Pitesti, with each station along the way in a distinctive red brick style and of course culminating in this gorgeous oversized end of the line station. Sadly, although the local council wants to renovate it as a historical monument, it belongs to the National Rail equivalent in Romania, who doesn’t have the money to maintain it. From ro.wikipedia.org

Trip to Romania

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!

  1. 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).
Temporary shelters set up in the main railway station in Bucharest, for late arrivals from the Ukrainian border around 483 kms to the north. (There is another Ukrainian border to the east which is much closer)

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.

My grandmother’s house used to be the traditional white of the region with grapevines growing all over its facade. It is now empty for most of the year, although my father and other relatives go there occasionally to maintain it. It is NOT one of the impressive houses I mention above, but full of fond memories.

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.

The Writers’ Union was housed in this Monteoru Palace in Bucharest and returned to the descendents of the family in 2013, who declared their intention to turn it into a cultural centre. So far, the only change I have seen is a mobile cafe/bar in its front garden.
Luckily, the Romanian Academy was purpose-built for the organisation in the late 19th century. I used to laughingly call it ‘my future workplace’ as a child.

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.

Friday Fun: Romanian Writers’ Memorial Homes

Here is just a handful of the many examples I could have picked. However, it might be worth mentioning that more recent writers would have lived in blocks of flats and therefore have a less attractive backdrop for their creativity.

Nicolae Labis (1935 -1956) showed astounding promise as a poet but died far too young. He wrote his most famous poem ‘The Death of the Deer’ in this childhood home in Suceava county. From muzeedelasat.ro
Lucian Blaga (1895-1961) was one of our most famous poets, originally from Transylvania, as you can see from the different style of architecture of his parental home. From viziteazaalbaiulia.ro
Novelist Mihail Sadoveanu (1892 – 1952) wrote about a third of his works in Falticeni, the small town where he grew up, although this is not the parental home, but a house he built after WW1. From tripadvisor.com
When Sadoveanu became one of the best-loved Romanian writers, he was able to afford this house in Iasi. After the Communists came to power, it was nationalised and is now the Museum of Romanian Literature. From muzeulliteraturiiromane.ro.
Cezar Petrescu (1892-1961) was a popular novelist in the period between the two world wars, and was thus able to afford to buy this house in the mountain resort of Busteni in 1937. From tripadvisor.com.au
Nicolae Iorga (1871-1940) was a writer and historian, who later became a politician and was assassinated by the far-right Iron Guards. He spent every summer at his house in Valenii de Munte for over thirty years. From visitprahova.ro
Mihai Codreanu (1876-1957) is now virtually forgotten, but was a popular poet (known mainly for his sonnets) and journalist. His career is all the more astonishing since he was almost completely blind from the age of about 30. He was given the piece of land by the Iasi city council, upon which he built this house, known as Villa Sonnet. From planiada.ro

When Reading and Reviewing Leads to Reflection on Life Choices

I’ve just finished reading two superb books for #WITMonth, both of which I intend to review: Minae Mizumura’s An I-Novel and Mireille Gansel’s Translation as Transhumance. Both of them discuss linguistic and ethnic identity, the possibility of bridging cultures, how to find a home (or not) in exile – whether voluntary or not. These are topics so close to my heart that I could not remain indifferent and they both got me thinking deeply about my own situation, past and present, and pondering about future decisions – where I might settle next. It doesn’t seem fair to include such personal musing within my reviews of those books (‘we’re not interested in your life story, Marina, just tell us what the bloody book is like, will you?’). In fact, it’s not fair to share all these personal details in a public format online (even if I am not a huge celebrity or have that many blog readers – which probably would be even more of a reason for me to remain quiet). So I will wrestle with the granular decisions and uncertainties mostly in my offline diary, but here are some higher-level thoughts which may be more universal.

Shepherd. Painting by Nicolae Grigorescu.

Illusory Freedom of Choice

I am very fortunate at present to have dual citizenship and therefore settle anywhere within the EU or the UK. However, for the longest time, the Romanian passport was an albatross around my neck. Therefore, I cannot help but think of all the people who have no choice about moving to a different country: they might not be able to get out of their country at all, very few countries might ‘accept’ them (after making the process of entering or settlement as complicated as possible), the information they might have about the relative safety of certain countries might be out of date and so on.

But there are other reasons why this ‘I’m choosing to start a new life in X’ is seldom a clear-cut decision for people.

First of all, countries change over time, as do your requirements. You may be fine in your twenties, living in London or New York, working shit jobs and living in inadequate accommodation, learning the ropes for a future splendid career. But when you have children and it’s time to move to the ‘suburbs’, you might prefer the safety of rule-bound societies like Switzerland or family-friendly policies like the Scandinavian countries. When you start feeling the creak in your knees and a twinge in your back, you may decide you need the warmth of the Mediterranean or Australia. It’s a little bit like moving houses over the course of a lifetime, but just much, much harder to do, because it usually involves lots of paperwork and learning of new languages and ways of doing things.

Secondly, in my experience, the choices are never quite as deliberate as we make them sound with the benefit of hindsight. We often ascribe patterns or purpose where there was mere serendipity, or where small steps and choices led us up a corridor we didn’t even know we wanted, and by the time we wanted to turn back, too many doors had slammed in our face. How could we know at the time that our professional qualifications might be worthless in another country (or require many expensive years of re-qualifying)? Should we have picked our life partners by the worth of their passport – and what if that passport becomes worthless when political circumstances change? What to do if your pension is no longer recognised in other countries and you are never going to be able to achieve the minimum number of years required for somewhere else? What happens when the value of your house or your currency is not enough for you to afford something even halfway decent in another country? Worst of all, once children come along, you have only a limited number of years left for uprooting them, before it can seriously impact their education or their mental wellbeing, before they start formulating their own preferences and tying you down.

Nostalgia for Something Which Never Existed

Many immigrants and expats have a great nostalgia for the country they left behind – or the country that might have been… if poverty, war, nationalism, hateful ideology, corrupt politicians and so on hadn’t driven them away. As we grow older, we start remembering the butterflies fluttering across the meadows, picking cherries and peaches directly from the trees, the warmth of the sun as we lay in a haystack, the low mooing of cattle coming down from the mountains, grandmother’s apricot dumplings… Our senses tingle with all of these rich memories – and we forget that this is because we were children, and life was easier for us as children, even when it was hard. Our memories become selective and bring forth the sensual pleasures, while banishing any less than perfect images. In Mizumura’s novel, the protagonist craves a Taisho or Meiji Japan she has glimpsed in the literature she loves to read, but which hasn’t existed in that country for over a century. The very title of Gansel’s book ‘Translation as Transhumance’ conjures up my ancestors’ almost mythical occupation as shepherds (one of the most famous Romanian ballads Miorița is about three shepherds), which I will proudy proclaim at every opportunity. Yet I only visited my great-uncle’s flock once when I was a small child and thought the mountain hut smelled revolting.

Comfort, Friendship, Heritage?

Pragmatism and sentimentalism are at war within me as I try to decide, over the next two years, where I will go.

Remaining in the UK is probably the easiest option, now that I am so familiar with everything here and have established networks and connections, as well as pension rights and a house. But is it truly the comfortable choice, even if this absurd and corrupt government comes to an end within a few years. The curtain has been lifted on the dirty mechanisms and assumptions that lie below the magic of the stage, and I don’t know if I will ever recapture my entire love for the theatre again.

Perhaps I can forget that I never truly felt ‘at home’ in Romania while I was living there and return to a country that has changed so much since I left it in my early twenties. There are certain thirsty pockets within me that nothing but the Romanian landscape, language and literature (and food) can quench. Perhaps the happiness of my childhood there is less illusory than the nostalgia of my Viennese childhood. Who can afford a flat in Vienna, anyway? Plus, all of my childhood friends were so international that they have moved away from Vienna, even if we all love returning there from time to time.

As we approach old age, perhaps it’s friendships that nourish us most – and, oddly, the vast majority of my close friends seem to be divorced or single now. But when your friends are scattered all over the world, replacing the biological family and supporting each other becomes difficult. Nevertheless, I am fortunate once again in having two of my oldest friends both living in Berlin. Two friends that I can see myself growing old with, sharing stories, joys and burdens. A city I have often visited with delight, but which would be an entirely new adventure for me.

Berlin by night. From Strong Cities Network.

When you have no real sense of belonging, you have endless choices, or so it may seem. I remind myself that I am fortunate to have choices, but just how endless are they really? Will my choices be determined by my fragile parents, my children ready to fly the nest, my financial and legal position? And would I trade it all for a real sense of belonging?

If you want to read much more sophisticated musings on sense of belonging, then I really recommend the two books below, which I hope to review by next week.

An I-Novel: http://cup.columbia.edu/book/an-i-novel/9780231192132

Translation as Transhumance: https://www.lesfugitives.com/books/mireille-gansel-translation-as-transhumance

Friday Fun: Romanian Gardens

Romanians are very fond of their gardens but they’ve always had to combine their love of beauty with practicality. The climate ranges from very dry and hot in summer to very cold and snowy in winter, with everything in-between. Growing your own vegetables was never a trendy hobby but a necessity, and much of the land around your house (if you were lucky enough to own any) had to be given over to keeping hens, turkeys, pigs, cows or whatever livestock you could muster, to make up for the lack of food in the shops during Communist times. The younger generation now live mostly in the urban areas and have at best a balcony or terrace in which to unwind (or a park). Wealthier people, who have holiday homes in picturesque settings, are not there all the year round to look after their gardens properly, or are keen to copy Western models.

So, while they might not look as pretty and dreamy as the English country house or cottage gardens, these are hardworking gardens which deserve our admiration. And I can assure you quite a few are suitable for reading (tried and tested in my childhood).

Messy and busy, just like my grandmother’s garden, from the Botanical Garden in Bucharest.
Usually the flowers were in the immediate vicinity of the house, while the orchard and vegetable patch was behind. From adelaparvu.com
Flowers and vegetables alternate in rows in front of these traditionally painted houses from the Dobrogea region near the Black Sea coast. From Pinterest.
Some of the most beautiful flower gardens are at the nunneries, as here at Varatec. From AmFostAcolo.ro
Agapia Monastery also boasts a magnificent display of flowers in its courtyard. Photo credit. Stefan Cojocariu.
If you only have a balcony in the city, this will have to do. From Homelux.ro
But I prefer this porch, just like at my grandmother’s house. My cousins and I would sleep on little mattresses outside on really hot summer nights. From Pinterest.
Several of my relatives had dining tables under these vine-laden pergolas in the garden (with food coming out in a steady stream from the outdoor ‘summer’ kitchen). I think I read most of Dumas in places like these.

#20BooksofSummer Nos. 3 and 4: Eastern towns and dead end worlds

Bucharest in the 1970s, photo from Facebook group dedicated to old and new photos of Bucharest. For more pictures, go to the website bucurestiivechisinoi.ro

At this rate, I’m not sure I will finish 20 books this summer, or at least not read and review them, but I have read two more, and they both are set in Eastern Europe during Communist times.

Sarah Armstrong: The Starlings of Bucharest (Sandstone Press)

Set in Bucharest and Moscow in 1975. This is the story of a somewhat clueless young journalist, Ted Walker, who has escaped from the hardship of fishing life in Harwich and set off for the bright lights of London (albeit, living in an insalubrious bedsit in Plumstead). He is sent by the editor of his second-rate film review magazine to interview a famous Romanian film director in Bucharest and then later to an international film festival in Moscow, and becomes a target for the local security services.

Although it has some tense and dangerous moments, it is far less a spy thriller and more of a coming of age story, as Ted starts to realise what he is and isn’t capable of, and what people want from him. Coming from a humble background, without much education, he has been bruised by the class system in England and the Russians correctly surmise that he might be more sympathetic to their cause. Ted realises that, no matter how much he aspires occasionally to be part of the action, he is in fact far better at ‘watching it all unfold’. Above all, he is flattered by the attention that all of these mysterious bilingual people seem to be paying him: ‘I never knew I had anything to give, anything anyone wanted. It made me want to say yes without asking what it was.’

Quite an enjoyable read, and a more realistic look at the mundane details of the world of spying and the Cold War in the 1970s, more Le Carre than James Bond. However, I’m not quite sure what was the point of setting the first part in Bucharest and even giving the book that title, as most of the action takes place in Moscow. Was it purely to have another setting to describe? At that point in time, the Soviet and Romanian spy networks were definitely NOT collaborating, Romania was viewed with suspicion by the Soviets for its non-alignment with the other Communist states, while Ceausescu was still very much the darling of the Western leaders for opposing the Soviet suppression of the Prague Spring, signing agreements with the then European Community, visiting the Queen and Jimmy Carter in 1978 and so on.

From someone coming from Britain in the mid 1970s, with the oil crisis, strikes, unemployment, Bucharest can’t have seemed as grey and poor as all that. The food crisis was not yet as great as in the 1980s, clothes were plentiful and cheap (so the story of Vasile the guide craving Ted’s trousers sounds bizarre), although I agree the architecture of hastily put up blocks of flats was pretty horrible. Sorry to be picky, but if there are readers who point out that the train no. 45823 has a black undercarriage instead of dark blue, I think I can get slightly riled by inaccurate historical details.

Cristina Sandu: The Union of Synchronised Swimmers (Scribe UK)

Originally written in Finnish and translated into English by the author herself, this is a novella describing the starting point of a group of six girls who decide to form a synchronised swimming team, and their subsequent lives after they illegally leave their country during an international competition. The country of the girls is never named (nor officially recognised) other than ‘The Near Side of the River’ after the fall of the Republic, but for anybody familiar with the region, it sounds remarkably like Transnistria, with Moldova being the Far Side of the River, the ‘correct’ side, the place ‘where they can get a new passport and membership to a sports club that is internationally recognised’, sport being the ‘fragile link between two countries looking away from each other’.

I particularly enjoyed the lyricism in the parts of the story describing the girls’ childhood and their determination to become competitive swimmers, to escape from their boring lives and jobs at the cigarette factory, in a country where ‘for most of the year, the men were gone. They grabbed any kind of work they managed to get in a neighbouring country. They sent letters and packages home, and came to visit when they had enough money or their homesickness had become too great. Only the women stayed. They kept life going. They worked the land, fed and slaughtered the animals, raised the children. They ensured that the metal factory filled the sky with red smoke. They prepared the cigarettes… to be shipped far away, by land or by sea, to places they could only dream of.’

These descriptions (written in italics) were interspersed with accounts of the present-day – the experience of the six girls, now grown women, as immigrants in different countries – Finland, France, Italy, California, Saint Martin in the Caribbean – or returning ‘home’ many years later. The exploitation and subtle (or not so subtle) discrimination) they face elsewhere, but the certainty that there is no turning back, that they can no longer fit into the place they left behind either.

Much is implied or left unsaid, so I can understand the frustrations of readers who were expecting this to be more of a novel. It is, in fact, a kaleidoscope of images, impressions, vignettes from the women’s lives, the people they encounter, the conversations that mark them, a novella in flash one might say, and the gaps signify the distance between the six girls who once used to be so close. This worked upon me as a prose poem, although you shouldn’t expect something purely dreamy and lyrical: there is a lot of anger and sharp social observation too. Perhaps if you go in expecting something more like Jenny Offill’s Weather or Dept. of Speculation, you would be less disappointed. I think I know why the author chose to focus on the ‘after-lives’ of all six of the characters – to emphasise some of the univerals of the immigrant experience – but that does feel like we only get to know any of them in a very limited way, in a book that is that short.

The view of the Near Side of the River, the real-life Rybnitsa in Transnistria, town of metallurgy, and the river which might be where the girls learn to swim.

Friday Fun: Homesick for Romania

I was supposed to go to Romania this summer to celebrate my parents’ 80th birthdays (they are on different days, but both in the same year). I was hoping to take the boys for a hike in my beloved mountains, but instead will have to make do with these pictures instead. The first few pictures are from places that were within easy travel distance from Bucharest, so I used to go hiking and skiing there at least once a month when I was a pupil and a student. The last batch show the four seasons in different parts of the country.

N.B. I left Romania in the mid 1990s because it had a corrupt government, merciless exploitative capitalism combined with nostalgia for communist strong men, and because young people seemed to have no future there to fully develop their talents. There are still plenty of things wrong there, but I’m seriously thinking of moving back there in retirement at the latest.

One of my favourite places: the Sphinx on the summit of the Bucegi mountains. From Turist de Romania website.

Not far from there, Cabana Stana Tarla above Sinaia. From Booking.com

A little bit further away, sunset over the Caltun Lake in the Fagaras Mountain range, from muntii-fagaras.ro

The Seven Staircase Gorge near Brasov, photo credit Ionut Stoica. Not recommended if you suffer from vertigo!

Spring in the Apuseni mountains, from events.in

Summertime in the Retezat nature reserve, from Icar Tours.

Autumn is always spectacular in the mountains, from travelminit.ro

Last but not least, winter in Bucovina, with its traditional wooden churches. From The Romania Journal

December Reading and Writing Plans

After a few months of geographical reading, which I hugely enjoyed and which I intend to continue in 2020, I am having a ‘free-form jazz’ December. I will read whatever I please whenever I please, no plans, no judgements, perhaps no reviews?

I’ve started with Shirley Jackon’s Raising Demons, because I instantly thought of her when I finished the Euridice Gusmao book – the talented woman beset by domestic drama scenario. I will also finish Austrian writer Gerhard Jäger’s All die Nacht über uns (The Night All Around Us). I started it last week for German Literature Month but have only reached page 66 so far (I love it, but it’s a book to be savoured slowly and besides, I had a very full weekend). The only other book that I have lying on my bedside table and fully expect to pick up this month is The Last Hundred Days by Patrick McGuiness, because it will be 30 years this month since my generation (predominantly) brought down the Communist regime in Romania. As a side note, there’s a conference on this topic in Bucharest on the 21st of December that I’ve been invited to attend, but it’s too much of a logistical challenge. I’ll try to send a filmed contribution instead with the title: Thirty Years On: Illusory Revolutions?

Meanwhile, it’s only two weeks and a bit to go until I will be back in my beloved Genevois area, hunkering down to a lot of reading and writing, eating chocolates and fondue, and meeting some lovely old friends. I will probably buy some more books (on the French side of the border), so am travelling light on my way there, with just my Kindle, which contains a lot of goodies. For example, Will Dean’s Red Snow and Friederike Schmöe’s Drauß’ vom Walde – two crime thrillers set in snowy landscapes (Sweden and Germany respectively). I also have new books (even if they are not that new, but I simply haven’t got around to reading them yet) by authors whose career I like to follow, such as Lily King, Jenny Offill, Attica Locke, Deborah Levy, Valeria Luiselli, Yoko Ogawa… so plenty to keep me busy.

In terms of blogging, well I can’t let the end of the decade go by without at least attempting some personal literary (and perhaps film or theatre) highlights, so expect a few blog posts with ‘best of’ in their title. It’s been quite possibly the worst decade in my life, but even so there have been many happy moments and achievements. Happiness has been skiing, living in mountain country for a while and finally getting a cat, the perfect cat. And my main two achievements have been: returning to writing (after more than a decade in the wilderness) and even having some small things published here and there; and raising two intelligent, opinionated, occasionally lovable scamps.

Stock photo, taken from iii.org insurance website. Creator:yanik88
Credit:Getty Images/iStockphoto

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!