Autumnal reverie

Strange days in Bucharest. Something in the air the last few days. The city undergoes a transformation around this time every year. University students are returning to the city to begin the new school year. The others are returning to the city from their holidays in Bulgaria or Greece. Ahh, how I already miss August and September, when the city was mostly vacant, when traffic was at an ebb, when you could always a good seat in the good cafes. Saturdays and Sundays were particularly pleasant, as those who are otherwise stuck in the city would leave for the mountains or seaside for the weekend.
But all that’s changing. My friends and I can anticipate the closing of the many wonderful terraces we’ve been frequenting since April. The evenings are getting darker and chillier, earlier and earlier. And the girls of Bucharest.. ahh, the beautiful girls of Bucharest. Still going out in those beautiful sundresses, short skirts, bare arms and necks, still tan from the seaside… as if, by their own force of nature, in all their feminine splendor, in all their summer couture, they can, for a few days more, keep autumn at bay.
Yesterday, was hot and humid. I went with friends to the opening of Anim’est, a animation film festival, at [Theatre] for an 8 pm screening. It was sweltering outside. By the time we exited the theatre two hours later, it was cold, windy, wet. Today was even colder, windier, and wetter. This afternoon I was in the back of a cab, staring rather gloomily out the window at piata Romana, contemplating this blogpost and trying to ignore the cab driver, who kept looking back at me, asking me if I have a ‘gadganca’ here (I don’t), and thinking please turn around and stop before you run this red light. Stops quickly in the middle of the crosswalk. Then screech, wham! Rear-ended. By a Mercedes, what else. Yes, autumn is here. I got out, walked home in the rain.
Alas, before too long, the Indian summer will arrive. We’ll all move back outside to soak in the last vestiges of warm weather and sunlight. The girls will take out those light, loose, sleeveless dresses one last time, and [all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well].
Bucharest rain

Bucharest rain

Strange days in Bucharest, something in the air of late. Actually, the city is returning to normal – the aberration has in fact been the last two months.

o bucureșteancă

o bucureșteancă

I already miss August and September. The city was mostly vacant then. Traffic was at an ebb and you could always find a seat at the modish and familiar cafés. Weekends were even better, as the workaday folk made haste for the mountains or the seaside. But all that’s changing. Now, recursively, college students are pouring into the city from the provinces for another academic year; others are returning from their holidays in Bulgaria or Greece. Soon will close the many wonderful terraces I’ve frequented since April. The evenings get darker and chillier, earlier and earlier. And the girls of Bucharest. Ahh, the beautiful girls of Bucharest. Still they go out in those beautiful sundresses, short skirts, bare arms and necks, still a bit tan from the seaside… as if, by their own force of nature, in all their feminine splendor and summer couture, they can, for a few days more, keep autumn at bay.

anim'est

anim'est

And just last Friday it was so hot and humid. I went with friends to the opening of Anim’est, an animation film festival, at the newly-renovated Union Cinema for an 8 pm screening. It was still sweltering outside. But by the time we exited the theatre two hours later, it was cold, windy, wet. Yesterday was even colder, windier, wetter.

Driving conditions have worsened. I can’t remember the last time it rained here, and evidently neither can anyone who drives these slick streets (pedestrians beware). Yesterday afternoon I was in the back of a cab, staring rather gloomily out the window at piața Romană, contemplating this blogpost and trying to ignore the cab driver, who kept looking back at me, “hei, domnul, ai gagică?” “Nu.” “Vrei?” “Nu.” “Ai înțeles?” “Da.” I’m thinking to myself, please turn around and stop at this red light, now! Which he just does, screechingly and in the middle of the crosswalk. Half a second later there’s another screech, followed by a wham! We’re rear-ended. It was a Mercedes (of course), which I could identify by the grill the guy was clutching in his hands as he stormed up to the cab. Fuck it. Got out, paid the cabbie (I even had the nerve to ask for the change), and walked home in the rain.

piața Revoluției

piața Revoluției

Yes, autumn is here. Alas, the Indian summer will arrive before too long (I’m holding out for Wednesday), and we’ll all move back outside to soak in the last vestiges of warm weather and sunlight. The girls will take out those light, loose, sleeveless dresses one last time… and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.

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Hiatus…

border post, Limanu

border post, Limanu

Apologies for not posting anything this past week. I’ve been on hiatus at the Black Sea, with friends. I did, however, explore the area around the Limanu commune (comuna Limanu, județul Constanța) – in particular, I biked to a long-lost Tartar village, called Hagieni. I’ll soon post something on this and the area, which is connected to some new research I’m undertaking on the colonization/homogenization of Dobruja during the interwar and wartime periods, roughly 1920–45. Perhaps I’ll do this on a new page or else start a separate thread of posts labeled “not Bucharest” or simply “outposts.”

Otherwise, my time at the seaside was spent catching the summer’s last rays and fattening up for the winter on some down-home, Romanian grandmotherly cooking… mămăligă (polenta), ardei umpluți (stuffed peppers), salată de vinete (eggplant salad), and zacuscă (uhhmm?)… vine-ripened tomatoes along with apples, pears, plums, quince, apricots, red grapes, and melons from local gardens and orchards, and the Dobrujan specialty, placintă dobrogeană (warm cheese pies) [insert drooling Homer Simpson emoticon here]. All washed down with copious amounts of plum pălincă/pálinka (double-distilled fruit brandy) and bottomless bottles of riesling and cold Timișoreana beer.

Yes, I’ve really come to love Bucharest, but it ain’t got this:

the beach at Doi Mai, on the Romanian Black Sea coast

the beach at Doi Mai, on the Romanian Black Sea coast

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“Too Young”

Cristian and Cristina

Cristian and Cristina

Just posted on the NYT Lens Blog, images from the oncology wing of Marie Curie Children’s Hospital, Bucharest. These pics were taken by Bucharest-based photojournalist, Cristian Movila (his gallery is also linked under Friendly sites, next column). There is a bittersweet tenderness in the pic above – all the more tragic as Cristina (the child on the right, I believe) died aged four.

Anyway, by chance I happened to meet Cristian in Starbucks (yes, Starbucks) the other day in Bucharest. Really nice guy, outstanding work.

Cristian also shot the pics for this recent NYT article on the revitalization of the Lipscani district, the ramshackle district that passes for a historic, old town center in Bucharest. Things there have indeed picked up, but there’s still a long way to go. (By the way, don’t eat at Caru’ Cu Bere. If you want better Romanian food at a fraction of the price – and for my taste, better atmosphere – go down the street (str. Lipscani 38) to the subterranean brasserie, Gara Lipscani.)

God, some of the images on this blog are depressing. My aim was to highlight what I love about the city, not feed its negative image. I’ll work on this…

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Why we love Bucharest / De ce iubim Bucurestiul

Dacă vrei tihnă sufletească mută-te la Cluj. Eu mai stau în Bucureşti

Nicolae Grigorescu's Nude (1891–5)

Nicolae Grigorescu's Nude (1891–5)

Linked above is an article I wrote for Cotidianul on 14 July 2009. My thanks to Oli and Cristiana for publishing and translating the article.

Here’s the English original:

Few people like Bucharest on their first visit. By the second visit, they usually hate it. But move here and stay four seasons or longer, and things change. You change. The little things that once annoyed me I’ve now grown quite fond of – that gypsy lady wailing down my street at 7 a.m. every morning, “fiiiaaaree vechifiiiaaaree vechi cuuuumpaar.” Bucharest is a city of discontinuities, a palimpsest of times and places – visibly nineteenth century, interbellum, socialist, capitalist kitsch. Dirty. Swank. Ramshackle. Expensive. Cheap. It’s a city best recounted through impressions, rambling down its many winding streets.

A pleasant day in Bucharest might begin down str. Eminescu, en route to the Delicateria Traiteur for chocolate, olives, and decent French cheese, next to the Portugese shop for tinned sardines and anchovies… a brief respite in Parcul Ioanid, where songbirds and children’s laughter suppress the noise of city traffic. Head south along Caragiale (or is it Calderon?) in search of that hole-in-the-wall shop for baklava and cataif. Down to the backside of the National Theater, up the lift to the rooftop at La Motoare (is a crocheting lift operator in that straight-backed wooden chair really necessary?). Stand in line half and hour for flat beer that doesn’t measure up to 40cl line on the plastic cup… vulture for benches. Ah, but the open air and cool breeze atop an otherwise sweltering city. Perhaps another round over at Green Hours. Meet Sorin or Razvan to wax history and culture… or just get drunk with Vali and Călin and Diana in a dank student pub with cheap beer and decent grub… banter over Dobrudschadeutsche or Moți in a haze of cigarette smoke at Red Lion or maybe Gara Lipscan in the old town. Eventually we’ll be told to leave and I’ll be stuffed in a cab… I’ll ogle at the hookers before stumbling into my bloc.

If you get to the National Museum of Art at opening and you can pretty much have the place to yourself. Straight to the gallery of modern Romanian art… gaze at Grigorescu‘s Portretul Mariei Nacu… next, his languid nude with bright pink nipples… then over to the dark and rather suggestive Țiganca de la Ghergani… arrested by Tonitza‘s Coadă la pâine. Do see these if you haven’t. Alongside the works of Segal and Popp, they are as superlative examples of modern European painting as I’ve seen anywhere. Walk down the hill, and out of nostalgia, maybe a quick coffee la Capsa. Men can still get a shave at the frizerie just round the corner on Elizabeta. On weekends, Targul Țăranului for soda bread, local honey, and those meats suspended in gelatinous goo. Szilva pálinka brought from Zalău, and ciorba. The sights and smells of the flower market on Rahovei, where I once witnessed the untimely beheading-by-kitchen-knife of a chicken right there on the sidewalk (though I’m told I’m orientalizing this)… a picnic and nap with friends and a Russian misanthrope over at Parcul Carol. Even better, a stroll on strada Mântuleasa with a beautiful Romanian girl, conjuring the urbanity of Eliade and now Cărtărescu… a perfect day. Later, a walk down tranquil str. Plantelor, and maybe tea in the garden at Green Tea (since when do we need a reservation for teatime in Bucharest?). On the south side of town, get lost again with Claudiu and Caroline in search of a speakeasy… stop and smell the flowers in the gardens of those beautiful homes down that intrarea I’ll never find again. Attacked by dogs, big ones. Beers and whiskey back at that one place I can rarely find, which is hidden behind a concrete wall and an unmarked wooden door, with the cozy terrace and low lights, hammock high above, the ice machine and ping pong inside. At dawn, go for kebabs (extra spicy) at Foișorul de Foc with Claudiu.

What else? More sober days are spent researching in Romanian archives and libraries. There you get a material sense of how centralized Romania is — and just how much of its recent history is yet untold. But across Arhive Naționale, in Cișmigiu, the present beckons. Amorous young couples on park benches, no doubt escaping the confines of living with their parents (who can afford their own flat in Bucharest these days?). Even more romantic – if also a dispiriting visual commentary on fidelity these days – are the elderly couples perambulating, arm-in-arm, together after all these years… I particularly admire the men of a bygone era who appear stuck in the here and now, defiant in their perfectly askew fedoras, Windsor-knotted ties, handkerchiefs, and polished shoes. Others are playing chess on prefabricated concrete tables. It’s amusing to watch them slam down the their pieces, as if the drama of plastic smacking the concrete reveals the genius of every move. Exit Cișmigiu and head for parcul Luigi Cazzavillan… again, respite. Str. Popa Tatu to Hasdeu, which turns into Sfinții Voievozi… Dinner. Find that nondescript white house with green trim, the quasi-Hungarian cafe called Papa la Șoni, with hand-written menus and massive bowls of soup and mugs of Ciuc beer. The gulyas is rather bland, I’m told, because the Moldovans in the kitchen prefer it that way. Or perhaps head to Idomemoș, the Turkish place off Buzești, at Iacob Felix and A.I. Cuza, where most Bucureșteni Turks eat. Choose from a range of skewered meats underneath the big glass case, and help myself to tea and flatbread.

Home at my gazda with Rada and Dara… time now to do some writing… all’s quiet on the urban front. And just when I begin to think this city is more serene than I give it credit for, I feel the ass end of an earthquake from Vrancea. If you want serenity and peace of mind, move to Cluj. I’m staying in Bucharest another year.

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Welcome to “Bucharest Babylon”

Ce faci ma București?!

Okay, I’ve started this blog – Bucharest Babylon – on my life, loves, and times in Bucharest, Romania. It’ll be awhile till this thing gets up and running.

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