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Report 1792: Tempus Fugit - A Return to Bucharest, 48 years later...

By Doru from Canada, Fall 2009

Trip Description: September 12-27, 2009; October 4-9, 2009. A return to our city of birth during the 2009 George Enescu Festival: roots, memories, friends, music.

Destinations: Countries - Other Countries

Categories: Family/Friends; Art Trip; Sightseeing; Independent Travel; 2 People

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Page 1 of 18: Prologue: the why, the why now, the how...

photo by Doron Midroni

Bucharest: The New Perspective (from the Parliament Palace)

Dedicated to my good friend and colleague V. who caused this trip to happen by the force of his insistence; to his wife, AP, who brightened our stay with her lively and sunny presence; to Mrs. A., who has embraced us and has shared with us the apartment in which she was born and in which her mother was born...

It is also dedicated to a childhood and youth whose background was erased.

*****

In January 2009 I have decided: after 48 years, I will return as a visitor to my country of birth, Romania. For Josette it will be a return after 25 years. Alea iacta est- the die is cast!

It was the time of the year when we usually plan our autumn trips and the conjunction of the musical festival George Enescu, which takes place in Bucharest, (our native city) throughout September 2009, some nostalgia (well, more than some...), and timely, friendly but stubborn insistence from V., a friend and former university and professional colleague, conspired to push us to finally go ahead and commit after a similar effort of his, two years earlier, was trumped by the competition of a trip to Italy.

So the plan was to fly to Bucharest on September 11, stay there about two weeks, with day trips, till the end of the Enescu Festival and then to tour the country for a week or so.

It took me a long time to come to terms with when I left, why I left, how I left. It is a different country now, and I am much different too, alas...

But change happens, not all is bad, and we will face a different reality. It would be a mistake, I think, to wish to return to what was, as it was; this is a formula for disappointment.

There will be much to return to, and yet much we knew is gone. For example, we know that our neighbourhoods, Josette's and mine, have been erased. Demolished, to make room for a grandiose “Palace of the People”, from pictures another, the largest yet, iteration of Stalinist-era architecture.

I have to deal with old impressions of the place, with memories of profoundly unhappy faces, a life of colour grey. That is true for the whole period from 1946 to the 1989 uprising and, we’ve heard and read, for a good time thereafter. But, although the country may still have a long way to go, all reports point now to a much different atmosphere, colourful, very lively, in which young people claim their place with disdain for politicians and with happy ignorance of the difficult years their parents and grandparents went through.

Regarding the 1989 events, Romania’s bloody revolution, the only one among the East European countries which ended with heavy losses of life: we will be staying in an apartment right at the edge of the former Royal Palace Square area, near the Athenée Palace Hotel, where bullets from snipers were then very real and immediate.

Now I look forward to sitting in the Ateneul Român, the great old concert hall of Bucharest, and maybe, well, not maybe but for sure, to finding the seats Josette and I had as every Sunday morning subscription between 1954, a few months after we met, till July 1961 when we left.

Maybe visit the newspaper where I worked. The Radio Broadcast Centre where I worked later. The University. The high school, with the statue of the famous Matei Basarab Voivod (Slavic version of Dominus, Ruler) whose name it carries, and the memories of the many stupid things we used to do as young boys. The University field, where I played handball.

Meeting colleagues, though if they remained as dedicated to drinking as we all were those many years ago, this may make searching for them a bit trying. Childhood friends I am unlikely to find. Josette may do better in this field, because musicians live cleaner and longer lives and their brains are forever stimulated, while journalists of that era died young, on duty or of cirrhosis...

Walking the streets; remembering friends and girlfriends; tasting the local food in the restaurants we remember and that (if) are still standing up, or discovering new ones; visiting some of the beautiful gardens which must still freshen up the city; listening to the midnight concerts; taking a walk with Josette along the river (good part of it now covered, I hear) to retrace other walks, from so many years ago.

And that's just a quick, so pathetically superficial list. I didn't mention the mountains, and the sea, and the lakes and the rivers.

I am curious about hearing the language 24/7 after living in at least two other languages for 47-48 years. When I left I was 25, with university studies completed. I was a young journalist, broadcaster and aspiring writer, so I think the level at which I used the language then was quite high. (Note: In preparation for the trip Josette and I went through documents we were then able to sneak out with us, among them those attesting to our professional records, studies, etc. Strange feeling.)

Josette and I never stopped speaking Romanian among us: it is the language in which we knew each other, and I would die before I would call her "honey", baby", "sweetheart", "love", and other endearments in English, or in any other language. So English is our official language and Romanian our private one. Our sons know what they had picked up from us, and it's funny to hear them sometimes...

The reports I have on the language today allow for changes, modernisation of terminology but also for an extent of vulgarisation, that I don't think is unique to this country. I had been looking up lately the websites of the main newspapers there, and it felt (I am looking here for a really adequate description) like swimming in thick oil... It is daunting to go back after so much time, and this is why I kept delaying it.

Chasing for an apartment was more difficult than expected. I had found a very good selection of listings on a website called www.inapartment.ro and a similarly reasonably good list from another, www.in-bucharest.com. The prices were well, well below what we were used to when renting apartments in Western European large cities, and the amenities included, at least on paper, appeared equal or superior, i.e. what are definitely good apartments sleeping 2-3 (double bed and sofa in separate rooms, high speed Internet, DVD player, TV with international channels, cleaning, linen and towels changed twice weekly, initial comfort grocery supply, etc.) at between €60-70/night.

The problem I created for myself was that I had a prioritised list based on location, and I asked about them one by one instead of asking for the, say, highest three on my list from the beginning. The result was that I found drip by drip that those I was pursuing were already booked. No wonder, since they were all within walking proximity to the two most important venues for the concerts of the George Enescu Festival: Ateneul Român and the Palace Concert Hall (Sala Palatului).

To the rescue jumped my friend V. and, Deus ex machina!, overnight he arranged for an accommodation with two bedrooms, bath, kitchen and even included (which we don't require) breakfast and some meals preparation, with us paying for the groceries. And at even a lower cost than the Internet listings. But the main attraction in taking the apartment: from its windows one can see Ateneul Român, the concert hall I wrote about above. This means we will be able to go to many midnight concerts (start at 22:30) as we will be just next door.

We bought Air Canada/Lufthansa tickets through the travel affiliate of the Visa card we use and this saved us (all prices in Canadian dollars) circa $115/ticket from the lowest price available from Air Canada's direct website booking. We will also get a cash-back 5% after we return. Our Visa does not cover trip cancellation and interruption insurance for young people over 65 so we bought it, again through an affiliate, for a total of $185.

With all arrangements seemingly settled, it was then time to go over our initial Festival ticket purchase plans and add a few more night concerts. The tickets are really very inexpensive by Western European and North American standards, so we will be able to splurge.

When the festival will be over, the plans laid out by V. include a trip in the country with him and with his wife, AP, for a week or so, then returning for a few days to the apartment till the flight home, to Toronto, on October 9th.

In August my friend in Bucharest interrupted a long vacation in the countryside to come to the city and pick up the tickets for the Enescu Festival concerts. So we had the tickets covered. Then he rushed back to the hilly countryside North of Bucharest, where temperatures are more sufferable and the air cleaner.

Speaking of heat, it seems that this summer of 2009 Bucharest went through the hottest spell in its history, with temperatures hovering at and staying around 40 Celsius (104F) and forecast to go even higher, bringing terrible pollution and exodus to the countryside for those who can afford it. Summer is always pretty oppressive there and one of my childhood memories is how I used to leave imprints in the street’s asphalt when crossing from one sidewalk to the other.

The ironic thing is that, I read, Romanian authorities have asked for assistance in planning for these hot conditions from the... French authorities! If people remember, the French away on vacation forgot behind them a few years ago all their elderly with the known sad results. Chilling to think about it, I must say...

Well, we will be there in mid-September so being a bit warmer than usual may turn out to be an advantage.

I had debated with myself whether I really need to spend CAD200 to update my Garmin 670 with the latest Romania maps. I had to decide quickly because it would take time for the CD to arrive from a Romanian Garmin partner. On the other hand, we will spend most of the time in "our city" and we do not plan to rent a car since we will travel in the country together with our friends. One less device to take with us, with all related accessories? And if we rent a car, we can make sure we get one with GPS.

I wrote to my former high school and I received a beautiful invitation from the Director to come and visit the school, maybe go through the records of those four years I have studied there, names of professors, lists of colleagues. It will be pretty moving.

The University is too big to even consider a more personalised visit but we will go, both Josette and I, to our respective campuses, no doubt.

We started googling names of colleagues and persons we knew. Josette, with the connection to the arts, has found a lot more than me. I started collecting names, addresses, telephone numbers. None of my former colleagues became a famous writer, only one published a book as far as I know, and he and all the others must by now be retired journalists...

Next debate: two suitcases, as usual, or three? When we travel anywhere else we're kind of incognito; here it will be different. Should I cave in and take a blazer, just in case? (N.B.: In the end, I did not!). The rest of my travel "wardrobe" is always almost formal, from dress shirts (folded sleeves if it is too hot), dark Tilley dress pants or travel long pants, to the Mephisto shoes. Oh, yes, a couple of ties.

One morning we were scouring old photo albums and boxes with extra copies, the target being photos with all school and university colleagues and friends, and colleagues from work, good topic of conversation if we will meet them. These are old black and white photos, 3 1/2"x2 1/4" dated from circa 1950 to 1960 and my job was to carefully take them out of albums, scan them on my Kodak ESP-9, save them, and print them on 4x6 paper, whether from file or directly from the scanner. This took me a good part of a whole day, but it was done.

Then, we had a call from Bucharest, from the acquaintances whose apartment we will use (they have a second house in the small city of Breaza, a bit North of Bucharest, in a charming region of rolling hills where many people who can afford it, or inherited it, maintain a second residence. It is very handy during this canicular summer). Our prospective host called to say "Ce se mai aude?", (loose translation: “What's new?”) and escaped the same day back to the hills. "The streets are melting!", she said.

One day I was watching a DVD, “Primo Levi’s Journey”, which follows the steps of Primo Levi and other Italian inmates freed from Auschwitz, trying to get back to Italy, a trek of one thousand miles that took more than nine months from Auschwitz to Torino. These were refugees; Europe at the time was flooded with these moving masses of people, seemingly aimless, but all determined to return where their life journeys were brutally interrupted many years before.

One of the stages of this migration for Primo Levi and his comrades, who went first east and then turned south and west, was Basarabia (a.k.a. Bessarabia), and then Romania (Basarabia remained under Russian control and is now the major part of the Republic of Moldova). As they crossed into Basarabia, Levi is quoted: “And suddenly I hear a speech familiar in its music.” He was referring to the softer Romanian, spoken in Moldavia on both sides of the border.

Then a shock for me: as the filming crew arrives in Bucharest, an old man, seemingly a local Romanian-Italian, is interviewed and he speaks Italian, an Italian weighted with the burden of the Romanian accent, and with the subtitles on the screen appears a name: Modesto Ferrarini. This Modesto Ferrarini was a person I knew very well, sports reporter at the same newspaper where I worked. He was older than me by 8-10 years, but we were close enough to consider him a friend despite the difference in age. He was a charming man, not very tall but strong, and when I last saw him he was probably 35, heavier by a good 10-15 kg. than the Modesto that now appeared on the screen. He talked about his family (his grandparents came from Gaio in Friuli to work as mosaic layers; I never knew!) and then I just hit the "pause" button and looked for a long time at Modesto at maybe 80 years old (the documentary was filmed in 2005).

In 1989, after the Ceausescu regime was taken down, I wrote a letter to Modesto and to another former colleague; they were both working at the national sports newspaper then. I never received a reply. I don't know if the letter was ever received. I did not follow up. I must look for Modesto and for P.H. the day after I arrive. And it is so that Primo Levi had now become a part of my trip to Romania.

Packing; it seems that in the post-Enescu Festival car trip we will include the famous monasteries in the Northern Bucovina so we have more stuff to take with us to cover possible mud and cold conditions. We spoke again with the lady at whose apartment we will stay in Bucharest, and she said that there was snow in the Carpathian mountains (6000 ft. or so...). We will be safe from snow in September but if we end up getting to elevations of 1400-2000 m. (multiply by three, for feet) at night we will need sweaters and related accessories.

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