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!

The Past Has a Name and Always Catches Up with Us

A little piece of flash fiction today, inspired by a prompt during one of the workshops at the Flash Fiction Festival in Bristol earlier this year.

His voice preceded him.

‘Ain’t this just the quaintest place? Is it Hogwarts or what? Look, it’s even got the date written on the frontispiece or whatever you call ‘em bits.’

‘Bet they don’t have air-conditioning in this old pile of stones, eh? … Mind the step, honey, can’t be having you spraining your pretty ankle, Mary Lou.’

Only then did he materialise in the doorway. He had lost some hair and put on weight, but it matched the Hawaiian shirt he was wearing. His clothes were trying just a little too hard, I thought. Birkenstocks and bermudas, a red bandana knotted carelessly around his sunburnt neck, as if it had just fallen from his head while playing a particularly tricky guitar solo. He still clicked his fingers when he expected everyone to burst out laughing at his jokes.

He was surrounded, as always, by a gaggle of ladies. This time they were elderly and American, to match his newfound accent. They followed his every move with the requisite giggles, gasps and applause. He was their tour guide, their leader, their go-to person. As he had once been for us.

Nearly Perfect Weekend in Lyon

Lyon is one of my favourite cities, not just because it hosts the annual Quais du Polar crime festival. Yet, no matter how often I come here, I never seem to have enough time to visit everything. So I was determined to do two completely new things this ‘weekend of adieus’: see a show in the Roman amphitheatre for Les Nuits de Fourvière festival; and get to see the Brothers Lumière Museum about early cinema. Well, one out of two is not bad…

The stage is ready in the oldest Roman amphitheatre in France.
The stage is ready in the oldest Roman amphitheatre in France.

The Blues Night featured American blues music legend Taj Mahal; a ‘Mali meets New York’ session with guitarists Habib Koité and Eric Bibb; and local boy (relatively speaking), saxophonist Raphaël Imbert and his band. The atmosphere was very special (at least until the cushions went flying onstage), and it was delightful to see people of all ages and backgrounds enjoying this kind of music. Thank you to Emma from Book Around the Corner, who suggested I join her for this event!

But the rest of the weekend involved doing a few of my favourite things.

Some eating at a traditional Lyonnais bouchon may have been involved...
Some eating at a traditional Lyonnais bouchon may have been involved…

Wandering through some of the spectacular old traboules.
Wandering through some of the spectacular old traboules.

One of my favourite 'hidden gardens': the cafe at the top of the Gadagne Museum.
One of my favourite ‘hidden gardens’: the cafe at the top of the Gadagne Museum.

Visiting the Art Museum, with its beautiful shady gardens.
Visiting the Art Museum, with its inner courtyard, a haven of peace.

I didn't go to see a Guignol show this time, but I do like the French equivalent of 'Punch and Judy'.
I didn’t go to see a Guignol show this time, but I do like the French equivalent of ‘Punch and Judy’.

Popping into the boulangerie for a croissant (old shop sign in the Old Town).
Popping into the boulangerie for a croissant (old shop sign in the Old Town).

Looking through the second-hand books on the quay.
Looking through the second-hand books on the quay.

Of course, it’s the last thing I needed right now, but a few books just seemed to sneak their way into my bag. I will write more about the bookshop I got them from in a follow-up post.

With HUGE thanks to Emma for the Romain Gary book.
With HUGE thanks to Emma for the Romain Gary book.

So what prevented it from being the perfect weekend? Not the fact that I didn’t make it to the Lumière Museum, but that when I sat down for breakfast at a local café, there was a disturbance outside. A group of diverse young men, some black, some white, some drunk, some sober, started making a great deal of noise and one of them grabbed another by the neck in what looked like a rather violent incident. The police were called and managed to walk one or two of the worst troublemakers away. Then, as I passed in front of the remaining group, I heard them speaking Romanian.

I wanted the pavement to open up and swallow me right then and there.