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.

1 Comment

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One response to “Why we love Bucharest / De ce iubim Bucurestiul

  1. Justin

    Very nice piece Chris, paints a better picture of Bucharest than indeed I’ve heard. Skopje’s no heaven though, so I wonder how the two contrast…I reckon a visit is in order! Maybe in December when I’m traveling for work in Bulgaria for a couple weeks? Peace–Justin

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