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Report 1792: Tempus Fugit - A Return to Bucharest, 48 years later...
By Doru from Canada, Fall 2009
Page 3 of 18: A mixture of past and present, or where memory lane starts
Here was where we've met...
(Sunday, September 13, 2009)
We are getting into a routine. We found most of the stuff that we thought we had left home. We found again that we took way too much clothing with a view to late September and early October. So far, the weather was incredible: 25-26 degrees Celsius each day, full sun, short sleeve days, long sleeve evenings and nights. Perfect. We were told that last winter hardly brought more than a dusting of snow. This is the place that the Crivăţ, a wild wind coming in from the plains of the Bărăgan, used to dump on meters of snow every winter. In early 1954 I definitely recall snow higher than street signs, and using cross-country skis to get to work at the other end of the city, meeting similarly on skis on Şoseaua Kiseleff, in the “nomenclature” neighbourhood, the then Prime Minister, Petru Groza, with his personal guard in front and behind him, on skis too. We said “Buna ziua” (Good day) like the polite people we were, and the PM stopped to ask me where I go and why. I told him I was on the way to write about the workers of the municipal transportation system, who were trying desperately to defrost the electric motors of the buses, trams and trolley buses that criss-cross the city in normal time. He said something like “good work”; and I didn’t get any medal for it, but the article made it to the coveted first page.
But I digress.
This is about September 2009, the 13th of this month more precisely.
We have breakfast with our hostess; Mr. M. is already off to Breaza. We ask and find out that during the revolution this building was under fire, particularly the upper floors, the third and the fifth. Mr. M. was on the street with the demonstrators but returned home before the shooting started. It is hard to imagine what went on here, but questions linger, doubts worm their way till this day, almost 20 years later. We are just trying to listen.
But this is Sunday, a day in which the infernal automotive traffic of Bucharest slows down, the streets are pretty empty, because “everybody” is out of town. My friend V. and his wife, AP, come to pick us up for another quick tour of the town by car, a gift from them to us, where we will get to see many of the places we knew and we will get to imagine some that have disappeared. We will not get off the car because V. wants to be practical in using the time: at five they go to a concert at the Enescu Festival. So off we go at above legal speed (normal in Bucharest, this driving above legal speed...), to take a look at the famous “Casa Poporului” (“The House of the People”), which was built in the last years of the old regime and was not completely finished. It was described as a monstrosity, it is the second largest building in the world after the Pentagon, but whoever was used to the Stalinist architecture, and has seen it in Moscow, Leningrad, Warsaw, etc., is already conditioned to the pomposity and features exaggeration of the style. Still, even a critical eye, like mine and Josette’s, might say: “Hey, it isn’t too bad for a monument.” Hard to see what use will be found for this enormity, but around it were built wide boulevards, with eight lanes of traffic separated in two by rows of water fountains (all actually functional, to our surprise!), and the sides of these boulevards are lined in turn with high rise buildings after high rise which, we are told, were actually built at a pretty high level of quality and with good materials. A new city.
On we go, by my University, on to the Opera, around and around and we arrive at a mall. It is a nice and modern building, with beautiful stores, good espresso found in a café, but I am not allowed to take pictures by a security guard who addresses me in English; obviously, only a tourist would take pictures here (or an industrial spy? A reminder of the paranoia of old times, or just some over-zealous administration?)
The point for me is that this mall was built over what used to be Strada Vitan and Piaţa Vitan, street and open air market that played a huge role in my childhood. And V. well knew. Here is where I used to come early in the morning, before going to school, to ask the peasants who brought produce to the market and were arranging their stalls, to give me some greens for my pet rabbit. And here rest some of the coldest days and nights in my memory because here, in this very spot, was during the war years (WWII) a centre for distribution of petrol to the population. My father was gone for five years in a labour camp, taken there straight from the army, and my Mom and I lined up every week, sometimes more often, rain or shine or freeze to the heart inside, to get our ration of petrol. I started at age five with a “bidon” of five litres, and by the end of the war I was nine and could carry 20 litres. My Mom carried her share. As I write this, I remember the cutting wind, the freezing cold, and the darkness, and my mother trying to warm my hands, and the overpowering smell of petrol and gasoline, and I want to cry.
We went then by the Post Office Vitan, where we used to use the public phones (no private phones for the ordinary people till the late 60s, I believe), and nothing is left of our little streets. It’s tough to imagine that you were born and grew up in a fantasy, but at least I still remember with my mind’s eye the streets, and the stores, and the “Troiţa” church whose priest knew Hebrew because he had studied in Jerusalem and who allowed us to play in the backyard and sneak an apple from the trees, and the ”maidan” (Turkish, for "open field") where we played soccer (“fotbal”) with balls made from stuffed old socks, and the restaurant where I would go with my mother, with bread from home, and get two “mititei”, a traditional Romanian delight made of ground meet and spices, sausage-shaped and barbequed (“grătar”) as you wait. We go by the place where the old stadium was, the home field of the Jewish soccer team Maccabi, which later took the name of the next door Trade School “Ciocanul” (“The Hammer”) and by the Trade School itself, and I recognize the dépôt of street cars (Depoul”) and this is just one street away from where we lived for a while (we were always renters). But we can’t stop and look for the street; maybe another time.
The truth and nothing but the truth: I had here a happy childhood, and adolescence, and youth: we didn’t know better, we didn’t know another possible way of life, and there is no bitterness now; just some sadness and envy for those who can still find their places. There will be no need or case for closure, because this is a different reality.
On we go by the big soccer stadium of my youth, where the big soccer games were played, and then we turn back towards the totally preserved and still the most beautiful part of this city: the big boulevards, framed by huge, leafy old trees; the lake and the parks and the little streets with wonderful houses, late 19th and early 20th century houses, built for the rich of the time; and then the place where the nomenclature lived, and V. can point to us each house and tell us who used to live in it, or does now.
We end on one of the most beautiful of these boulevards, Şoseaua Aviatorilor, and stop to take in the open air antiques market, a riot of colours and of the dizzying variety of things one finds in these markets everywhere. I stop at one of the kiosks, where 20” high busts of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Stalin, are on display. I ask how much they cost. The answer amounts to about $1,200. Each! Then the person at the stall laughs and says: “No, they are not for sale really. I keep them here because they attract buyers, and those may buy something else.” (Laughs:...) “No, they are not for sale…!” We spend some time here, and we are taken back home, then V. and AP return to theirs to change for their concert.
We rest for a short time, have a light dinner, and walk to our concert at the Palace Hall, a large and still beautiful concert hall despite its carpets and seats looking quite tired, where the orchestra Maggio Musicale Fiorentino, conducted by Roberto Abbado, plays Enescu and Mahler. We have excellent seats bought for us by V., and from my seat in the box I can see the two where Josette and I sat in the late 50s when I managed to get tickets to one of the most sensational shows of those times, the amazing singer Ima Sumak, who could sing at an unbelievable voice range, and the Peruvian Folk Ensemble. I am told it was an extraordinary event, but I wouldn’t remember because on that evening I had the most terrible toothache one can imagine, and all I saw throughout the show was a white veil of pain, each of Ima Sumak’s trills a drill. The tooth went next day; the dentists of that time worried about the present, not the future.
To return to our apartment, we cross the lively Calea Victoriei, one of the longest and most diverse streets of Bucharest. The car traffic is non-stop, people are out by the thousands, somewhere to our right the Enescu al fresco stage hosts an orchestra whose sounds we can make out over the din of people and cars. My parents may have seen Bucharest as lively in their youth. Not me. This is now a city whose heart pulses strongly; in our time it suffered of congestive heart failure...
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