Monday, April 16, 2007

Romania III: Bucharest

Bucharest, for me, was a city full of jaw-dropping juxtapositions, a city where the past weighs heavy on every corner but which is sometimes pushed violently aside by a very modern, very urban, present. Vlad’s family owns several apartments in Bucharest, and on Thursday, after stopping at the airport to pick up three new additions to our group, we headed into the city to the apartments where we’d be staying, past many drab Soviet-era apartment blocks as well as many beautiful buildings with elaborate stone molding, and several lovely churches—Eastern Orthodox, some with a large painted eye above the entrance.

In the center of the city is Piaţa Revoluţiei (Revolution Square), flanked by the former Communist party headquarters; it was from the balcony of this building that party leader Nicolae Ceauşescu faced an angry crowd demanding his resignation in 1989—it was the moment he realized his regime had come to an end. He was executed four days later, but violent fighting continued for several weeks. Romania’s overthrow of Communism was marked by more violence than that in any other country in Eastern Europe.

Just steps away from the square, however, is Calea Victoriei, a wide avenue lined with luxury shops—Hugo Boss, La Perla; Pizza Hut and McDonald’s make appearances, to be followed by Starbucks in another month or so. Above the swanky stores are drab-looking apartment windows, crumbling building facades. All of these things—the remnants of Romania’s bleak history, the wealth and aspiration that characterize its present—are intertwined everywhere in Bucharest.

Vlad planned well for our eating and drinking. Our first night, we went to La Mama, a popular restaurant serving traditional food; later, we went to a club called The Office, so plush and expensive that it wouldn’t have been out of place in New York. The next day, we had coffee at the Cişmigiu Gardens, which had leafy, bench-lined walkways, lots of lovely flowers in bloom, and a pretty lake—like a Romanian Central Park. What followed this nice breakfast was go-karting, which is where the travel preferences of the group and the kind of travels I prefer began to diverge (and it became clearer than ever that our group was seven men, two women). The go-karters seemed to be having a great time; but I was itching to get into the city center. First, though, lunch, at a lakeside restaurant at Herăstrău Park.

Andrew and I and another friend then diverged from the group to go to the Museum of the Romanian Peasant, which was full of lovely handmade crafts including many ornately dyed eggs, painted pottery, and traditional costumes. There was even a wooden house—in its entirety—inside the museum, as well as a wooden windmill and a water mill. It was all very interesting, but some of the English translations of the wall tags distracted from the art they identified: a tag describing a somewhat odd little room full of an eclectic mixture of pottery, textiles, and paintings said “No one is ignorant of the charms of Grandma’s kitchen. But no one talks about what happens when Grandma is dead.” The room was intended—I think—to be a kind of memory space, where the things representing “Grandma” are housed; but the effect was a bit creepy and confusing.

That night, Vlad took us to one of the nicest restaurants in Bucharest (though inexpensive by U.S. or Spain standards)—an Italian place called Cucina, inside the Marriott Grand Hotel. Then we went to the Krystal Glam Club, to hear David Moralis—apparently a famous DJ. It’s hard not to feel old and dowdy in Bucharest’s clubs; not only is everyone extremely young, but the girls are extremely beautiful, and they are extremely dressed up. In their super-high stilettos, they tower over the men, who seem almost aggressively underdressed in comparison—jeans, sneakers, baseball caps. The fancy-restaurant-and-club scene isn’t normally one I seek out when I travel; but this trendy opulence—and showiness—is part of Bucharest too, a kind of sight in and of itself.

Saturday—our last day—Andrew and I got up early and stole some time for sight-seeing. We went to the Amzei Market, small but full of delicious-looking strawberries and lots of lovely flowers, including fat bunches of grape hyacinths. We stopped at a hole-in-the-wall patisserie for coffee and a pastry—each the equivalent of around 30 cents. We spent a couple of hours in the National Art Museum, surprised to find it so beautiful inside—immense, with high ceilings and marble floors; almost Met-like. And the art was wonderful—mostly Romanian, artists we’d never heard of before. We bought a museum catalogue so we could remember the ones we liked.

We were supposed to meet the group for lunch; but we decided instead to visit the Palace of Parliament, Ceauşescu’s megalomaniac project, the second-largest administrative building in the world after the Pentagon. It’s enormous—indescribably big, with over 1,000 rooms; everything is of over-the-top proportions, like the chandeliers, one of which weighs 5 tons. Construction for the building, which began in early 1980s, was happening while Romanians were starving; the satisfying irony, however, is that Ceauşescu was executed before the building was finished. He never got to use it.

From there, we walked to the old town and explored its narrow, cobblestone side streets. Here, perhaps more than anywhere, the promise of Bucharest was clear; many buildings along the main pedestrian thoroughfare, Calea Lipscani, were crumbling, but there were also some new-looking bars and cafes, and we had the very strong sense that in five years this area will be unrecognizable. It’s exciting to have seen the city at this point, before it becomes a touristy destination—I couldn’t even find a postcard—and while it’s still hovering somewhat awkwardly between what it was and what it will be. We had lunch at a nice café, eating sandwiches and drinking café lattes, across the street from a bulbously-spired Russian church. We rejoined the group for dinner (a shaurma from the popular Killer Chicken kebab stand) and drinks and dancing.

We saw a lot of Bucharest; but there was much we didn’t have time to do, and there is definitely reason to go back—not only to Bucharest but to other parts of Romania, to see more of the stunning countryside. I’d like to visit again in a few years, to see how far this very interesting country has come; and see the other Eastern European countries as well, to observe the changes and struggles as Eva Hoffman did in the book that accompanied me on this trip, Exit Into History. Our time for frequent traveling is coming swiftly to an end, however. And though Andrew and I were both quite happy to be home after our two-week travel bonanza, I wonder how I’ll feel four months from now, six, when we’re back in the U.S. and hopping off for a weekend or week away is no longer so easy to do.

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