ROMANIA #3: TO THE SOUTH

It was 20 k.s of dirt before we got back on the macadam and and then a few dozen more before we got somewhere else. Brasov. It was hot day in the square which you can see right in the middle of the photo, gearing up for an even hotter night. It was party time in Crown City. Thousands were out in their Saturday best, with families a speciality, a stage being erected, scores of big umbrellas already up like a field of flowers. We could hear the noise from the Oktoberfest (whereby a perfectly innocent month has come to mean ‘beer’) happening in the huge white marquee above left, and a big tennis tournament was on. The city was also awash in brides. A truly Spring occasion. I really didn’t know what was happening. I just got excited.

We had a guided walking tour provided by a Moldovan who didn’t think there were many Saxons left in Brasov but those who remained were considered hard-working and competitive, perhaps like Claudia herself. Brasov’s old town was like a child of Vienna — tidy, solid, safe, not awash in grand buildings but with plenty of the nooks and crannies that make Vienna fun. I loved it. These stylish lads outside the university caught the feel.

[This photo of a plaque on that building has been included only for my friends at the AEF. The relevant (black) inscription: ‘Confucious Institute at Transilvania University’. China’s reach is both broad and deep. Prepare. It won’t be all fun.]

After the tour we went for a walk looking for the real town. We sort of found it — a bus station, several dry cleaners, pretzel shops, shawarma shops, roads fat with traffic — but without much contention decided to get back to the festa.

We followed a bridal party up Strada Nicolae Titulescu, the most dense of the party streets. Their photos will be wonderful. For their wedding feast bride and groom slumped in front of pizzas. Good luck to them.

Then we had a crap meal. I did anyway. A shocker. A dud. I would like to place this on record among all this exuding and promiscuous delight. The lamb I ordered was taken exclusively from the heal to the bottom of the calf, a disgraceful collection of gristle parked in some dry polenta. There. I’ve said it. I don’t have to say it again.

We got back to the square just as an opera recital was finishing and we were treated to the ever popular, always tedious ‘Brindisi’. There is music you can hear just too often and this is in a cage match with ‘Bolero’ to be at the top of my list. Sad. I would have loved to have heard the rest. In the morning there was not a vestige left of the stage, just the sort of drifting couples being circled by picturesque litter that you might expect in a film. The satisfaction of a social petit mort.

The next day was athletic. Brasov is built into the side of Mt Tampa and there are 100 ways to get to its 900m. peak, the most popular being via the cable car. I think we took the ‘Snake’s Staircase’, a gently graded series of zig-zags, had some chicken, chips and Chook (‘Ciuc’ really, the local beer) at the top and came down the rather more serious ridge route finding new Brasov, Ceausescu’s Brasov, on the other side.

At Tampa’s foot was a lovely promenade with, although it doesn’t look like it in this photo, hundreds of Brasovians out for a stroll. I looked at this, smelling something very deliciously bakery-ish coming from over the wall, and thought — civilisation.

We followed with a swim — no drama, no story, no photos. But then we attended, for free, the grand final of men’s singles, Brasov Challenger, with seats on the net thanks to Neil and Ros. Local hero Adrian Ungur was playing the wicked Austrian Andreas Haider-Maurer (who I think I have seen in the past at the Australian Open; believed to be coming back from injury). The crowd, which over the course of the game grew to be substantial, barracked: hard and positively for Ungur, and never missed even the slightest of H-M’s errors. Ungur won the first set quite nicely, got to 5-2, 40-love up in the second and then produced a choke to rival Jana Novotna’s. Two sets to one down. And I was barracking for him too. Brasov. Fabulous.

On. On. On. We left at dawn, the train snaking round the foot of the Carpathians and then finding a way through via Predeal, a ski resort. As usual I fell asleep and woke up somewhere near the Gara du Nord Bucaresti. If I could have stayed in Brasov for several more days, and I certainly could have, I would have liked another week in Bucharest. This happens. You can’t do everything.

From the station we boarded a subway train completely covered in graffiti. We were no longer in Brasov. A walk to our hotel, a walk down the street and I was faint, faint I tell you, with hunger. By an extraordinary stroke of good fortune we got our instructions standing on a corner outside a Maccas (cnr. Bulevardul Regina Elisabeta (again! She’s everywhere) and Calea Victoriei (gets a good run too) for those already salivating). We had to wait until Marta had gone of course, this was an Intrepid tour after all, before descending like locusts on the Quarter-pounders. As I used to say in my school visiting days: Maccas. You know what you’re going to get; and the toilets will be clean. A golden-arched empire has been built on those two fine principles. Half a k. down the road we found excellent ice cream and coffee and I was again in good order.

The rest of the afternoon was to be devoted to a visit to Ceausescu’s Folly, the Palace of Parliament, ‘the second largest building in the world in the world’ [after the Pentagon]. I can confirm that it is big, in fact supersized, High and Mighty, an XXXXXL. But there are shopping malls in Jakarta which would inhale it without noticing and blow it out one of their delivery docks. On checking the fine print, I note it is the ‘second biggest government building in the world’ and yes I can well believe it. For the record the two longest parallel corridors in its rectangle are 180m. long and more than a cricket pitch wide. The doors and windows are gargantuan, you could march an army up its staircases and nobody is precisely sure of the number of rooms but it is more than 1,100. It is said, and was by an extraneous member of our tour group who was a useful source for accounts of infamy, that there is as much below ground as above, that car races have been held in the basement, and that the many secret subterranean floors have been the site of unspeakable acts. 10 years, 500 architects, 15,000 workers (whose workmanship is exquisite; look at the way the grain in the marble is matched here) but still significantly unfinished — that sort of thing.

Did I mention that Ceausescu (tshow-sheskoo) was short?

I turn to wikipedia: ‘The building is constructed almost entirely of materials of Romanian origin. Estimates of the materials used include one million cubic meters of marble from Transylvania; 3,500 tonnes of crystal — 480 chandeliers, 1,409 ceiling lights and mirrors were manufactured; 700,000 tonnes of steel and bronze for monumental doors and windows, chandeliers and capitals; 900,000 m3 of wood; 200,000 m2of woollen carpets of various dimensions, the largest of which were woven on-site by machines moved into the building; velvet and brocade curtains adorned with embroideries and tassels in silver and gold.’ Ah my. Meanwhile the population was starving.

These beautiful raw materials didn’t stop Ceausescu covering the walls with his taste in art which appears to run to about B+ Year 12 work.

To build this monster a great swathe of old Bucharest was razed: 19 Orthodox churches, six synagogues, three Protestant churches (with eight others relocated) and 30,000 residences.

However, besides being white, it is an elephant. Most of it is never used. Parliament sits there and it does house parliamentary offices. It hosts occasional conferences and balls (yes, balls; anything to turn a buck), but most of that lovely work and that huge sacrifice just gathers dust. The grouting in the huge terraces is shot and already you can see how damp has swollen and fractured the exterior cladding.

What do you say? An excellent metaphor for Ceausescu’s 22-year reign? A crumbling shambles? The over-arching impression as we retrieved our passports from the guards was emptiness.

This is the view from the terrace. And that looks nothing like Bucharest. Tucked in behind the buildings on the left is fun, the active part of the old city where we had a simply great meal, a Turkish degustation at which I appear to have ordered the entire mezze menu in error and eight of us knocked it back. In this neck of the woods you could feel what Bucharest might have been not so long ago and may become again, ‘Little Paris’, one of Europe’s really zippy cities, the place which comes so alive in Olivia Manning’s Balkan Trilogy.

Which makes me think, after having let this lie — right there — for a month or so, how odd it is to have spent so much time on the Palace when there was so much else to be interested in about Bucharest. (Here I would like to pump up our walking tour guide, Mihai, who was simply fabulous. When you’re next in Bucharest hook up with him hereMihai. This is a poor photo of  a very handsome young man holding a photo that he has dug out to show us what Calea Victoriei looked like in its heyday.)

A word about guides. I have days when I think I’d like to be guide even though I’m not young enough, educated about the wrong things and almost certainly too impatient. Our guides were people who had excellent educations (all of them) but in areas where you’re relying on the sensibility and largesse of the government to employ you: an anthropologist (Mihai here), an archeologist (Onur in Turkey), a marine biologist (Dylan in Plovdiv). Nicolae (northern Romania) was an trained engineer but not placed to use his skills. However, Claudia MBA at Brasov will be a business woman. They also had strong and mostly well informed opinions about how things were and wanted to talk about them. I suppose fierce introversion is not the first prerequisite for a career in guiding, but I was taken by these very bright young (comparatively) things. And what do they do next? What do they parlay their training into?

It’s a reminder about how the surplus capacity in a phenomenally wealthy country like the USA of the ’60s (or Florence of the 1500s or London of the 1870s or …) can provide patronage for activities that otherwise wither on the vine, in a public sense anyway; and, I suppose, how such activities can be kept alive for a while at least through education which maintains a spirit of generosity about its non-instrumental purposes. I think almost every course I took at university would now be under threat of closure or already gone. But there’s an issue. Even if Romania doesn’t need anthropologists it certainly needs people like Mihai.

We’re not even at the Danube yet. We’ll never get to Istanbul. Three pics with some commentary and then we’ll move on.

FlightFirst, the building in Revolutionary Square from which Ceausescu fled by helicopter.

You can’t talk about contemporary Romania without reference to Ceausescu, head of state for 22 years from 1967 to 1989. Short, delusional, possibly even well intentioned at least originally, he aligned his country not with Russia and its brand of Communism but, when aligned anywhere, it was more likely to be with North Korea or China. (He recognised Pol Pot early and maintained the relationship.) He was a maverick — a patriot of sorts and a brutal despot and the author of one of history’s great and most vicious personality cults.

The infamous orphanages are the result of policies designed to increase the Romanian population: making abortion illegal, introducing significant incentives for women to have children (those with ten or more were declared ‘heroine mothers’), and making divorce very difficult, thus regrettably swelling the number of children abandoned and for whom no reasonable provision was made. (It makes me think of self-harming behaviour. ‘You’re so awful look what you’ve made me do.’ How else can you explain the void that existed where the love and affection that young children need should have existed?)

The mysterious state of the country’s alignment during the Cold War attracted the West which offered Ceausescu huge loans. He borrowed more than $13 billion to finance economic development programs. But as he discovered, they were loans not gifts and required repayment. This became an obsession. He squeezed the last drop of juice out of the country’s agricultural and industrial production and exported it. Food became scarce and utilities (water, gas, power) failed for days at a time. During the 1980s, there was a steady decrease in the population’s standard of living to the point where the bulk of the population in this fertile and well-endowed country was in severe distress. Every effort was made to disguise this reality from Ceausescu including a famous case where he was gulled by bank on bank of plastic fruit and vegetables. Unimaginable the whole experience. Yes it was him, but if you look at the next clip below you’ll see a doddery old man. What pegs were jamming him upright? The Departamentul Securității Statului (Secret Police) no doubt, the army till things turned sour for them, and that might be all you need when aided and abetted by the slough of despond.

He was near his end when he suddenly realised people in this plaza listening to him speak were actually jeering him. The dramatic change of expression on his face  (at 1.32) is an historical moment: he hadn’t done what he thought he had and, in fact, he wasn’t who he thought he was. A small pile of fireworks went off in the Timisoara (close to the Hungarian border) and a revolutionary mood took hold supported by members of the army who thought, possibly mistakenly, they had been betrayed by Ceausescu. In this truly extraordinary age, you may if you wish see the seminal aspects of his trial and death, including an interview with the man who guarded and then shot him right here.

The seated person, broken and reassembled, in the statuary is a version of Iuliu Maniu, anti-communist Prime Minister from 1928 to 1933. The dead tree has its own significance. This is a country which has been terribly punished. And by its own. What degree of complicity would we feel if we were Romanian I wonder?

ArmaniSecond, I took this as one representation of post-communist eastern Europe, an Armani store at the bottom of a standard tower block of flats (along with Neil’s very fine Antipodean hat at bottom right). There are thousands of tower blocks in eastern Europe that are just like this one; never much good, dead ugly on the day it was finished, if indeed it ever was. Time has not been kind to it.

But there is a shoot of something, however incongruous, growing there. I didn’t have a look in the shop — I have all the Armanis I need (a full range inc. apresblog sportswear) but it’s staying open because some people at least can afford to shop there. The discrepancies in wealth here are not as visible as they might have been in the 18th and 19th centuries, but they are substantial. But there’s motion. The renewal of the Old Town is one of Bucharest’s brightest aspects even if you do have to watch for falling masonry.

RomulusLast, the levitating dog. Visual artists are wary of ‘rabbit’s ears’, that is something unintended that turns up in a painting (or a sculpture) which the artist can’t see but everyone else can. It catches your eye and definitively undercuts any efforts to take the work seriously. This sculpture recently installed outside Bucharest’s National History Museum of Trajan with highly prominent genitalia (partly hidden here for your viewing comfort) and the nurturing Roman wolf with Thracian scarf is a collection of rabbit’s ears. ‘A wolf with a pitbull’s head, a lizard’s tail and a tumor on its neck, carried by a guy who is visibly embarrassed by his nudity’ (actually looking rather smug from this angle) is how it was described in one local newspaper by a passerby.

And yet somehow so Romanian. Ilie Nastase was Romanian; so was Ionescu. In descriptions of Romanians that I have read fecklessness is a dominant theme. Quick to anger, quick to forget (anything), quick to fall in love, quick to fall in love again. We will dig up the road to put the gas pipe in; we won’t (quite) fill up the trench. I asked Mihai to tell me what he thought the essence of Romanian culture was, and he said, the language. ‘That is what makes us distinct as a people. That is what we must preserve.’ Anything else? ‘No that is all.’

So finally …

Bulgarian border