Letter From Bucharest

By Myrna Kostash | November 2, 2001

For the umpteenth time I have wept at the tragic death of the consumptive courtesan, Violetta, that self-sacrificing woman on the altar of the patriarchy and inheritance property rights. In other words, I have been to the opera, "La Traviata," in the rotunda-style opera house here in Bucharest, an intimate hall, lovely in white marble and gold velvet. I treated myself to the most expensive ticket(Can$3.50) which gave me a seat in a Loge with a perfect view – and made me wish I had a lorgnette with which to flirt, as in costume dramas….The chorus and costumes and orchestra were all just fine, if a little flouncy, Papa Germond was a stand-out (brought the house down), Violetta eventually got her vocal cords all working at the same register, and Alfredo, if you listened to him with your eyes shut, had a strong, high-toned tenor that was very romantic. But to look upon him, as Violetta had to, and to swoon, was a stretch. In his black evening outfit for the first scene, he really did look like a penguin, and waddled like a penguin, and when he sprawled out on Violetta’s chaise lounge obviously meaning to look seductive, I had to giggle. (Imagine my chagrin when I realized that the tall, dark, handsome, broad-shouldered guy with all the hair in the front of the chorus in the opening scene was not going to be Alfredo but some throwaway baritone.)

Now I’m in the Internet-cafe-with-no-name just a couple of blocks down the boulevard from the Opera and from the University Guest House where I’ve been installed since Oct 28. I can tell from some of the architectural details of this "cafe" – imposing mirror flanked by plaster Doric columns, long tumble of guazy fabric from the very high ceiling across the tall windows – that this used to be part of something imposing. Now it’s merely serviceable with a very pleasant staff and a non-stop tv set (somebody’s watching a Dudley Moore flick). This is not unlike a lot of the city, i.e. so much of it used to be something else and you try to discern what that must have been before it (1) fell into wrack and ruin or(2)was divided up into cubicles or (3) was renovated by some smart-ass architectural/engineering firm from Amsterdam or (4) was torched by the revolutionaries of1989.**I’ve actually grown quite fond of this city, at least the parts of it I’ve come to know simply by walking around (never having mastered the Metro or the bus ticket system and not trusting taxi cab drivers quite[see my Istanbul report]). It’s still Indian Summer, as it has been since I landed in Istanbul Oct 2, and I have watched the enormous chestnut tree outside my windows slowly change colour this week – although the one right next to it is still in the throes of being green – and for the first time on this trip, as I was walking through one of the delightful parks this morning, some yellow leaves came drifting down through the air. I’ve found a good place for take-away sandwiches and a couple of places for rather formal dinners; what I haven’t been able to find is a taverna or bistro style eatery. There’s every kind of place to have espresso – from battered stand-up counters practically in the middle of traffic to park benches tucked away in courtyards to Internet cafes to hoity-toity hotel bars – except sidewalk cafes, which I find strange, given the pride Bucharesters take in their "Latinity."

The other night the full moon rode high in the sky over the National Theatre, itself fully illuminated like a backdrop for the thundering Romanian rock band that was set up on a stage at the main intersection of the city. The occasion? I thought perhaps Hallowe’en. Yes, I know: we have Hallowe’en, Romanians have Vlad the Impaler, but I had seen a couple of witches and black-masked devils in the McDonald’s I walked past earlier in the evening.

But, no, the occasion was far more prosaic: Microsoft was launching the new version of Windows.

There was a respectable number of young people milling about, and cops, and balloon sellers, but not a mob.(Just as, last Sept 14, according to a magazine story here, in spite of the day having been proclaimed an official day of mourning in Romania with flags at half-mast and church bells tolling, only 1500 people showed up in that same square.) (I’m told by people here that the official approval of the war on Afghanistan hasn’t got so much to do with its popularity as with the government’s eagerness to be ready, aye ready, when the accession call from the European Union eventually comes.)

At dinner this week I had the good luck to meet the20-something Valentin Bottez (son of Monica Bottez, the organizer of the regional Canadian Studies conference that was held here Oct 26-28 and at which I gave a Plenary speech cum rant about the Next Canada -I always try to get in something about the War of 1812…but I digress). Valentin is studying history and, although he started out keen on Russian history he has now switched to a passion for archaeology of the Late Roman world, thanks to a summer job working on a dig on the Black Sea coast of a 4th century church. (In September he was working on a dig at the site of a Roman gold mine; he tells me that a Canadian mining company has the same idea – to dig for gold -right there where the archaeologists are racing to uncover as much as they can before the cowboys get to work.)

Valentin is also something of a city guide, enamoured as he is of his home town, so he offered to walk around central Bucharest with me, pointing out its architectural features. It was an eye-opener. There are blocks and blocks of massive villas, mansions and palaces, all of them having belonged to one or another bourgeois family, some as far back as Ottoman times when (as I understand it) Greeks from Constantinople were given huge land grants, or to merchant and banking families or to industrialists and men with interests in the lucrative petroleum sector. (Not allthese mansions are derelict, some are beautifully restored and some, having been restored, have been reclaimed by their original owners. The Goethe Institut, for example, now pays rent to the private owner of its splendid rockpile.)

(This past summer Parliament passed Law 10 which provides for the retrocession of property, nationalized during the Communist period, to its previous owners. You can iamgine the difficulties. Many of these properties, for all their illegal confiscation, have since become "symbols of the city," such as museums, hotels, theatres and cinemas. Those that are public buildings will not be restored to private ownership, but the compensation awards involved will put severe strains on a national budget already in crisis. Nevertheless I have talked to no one who isn’t in sympathy with the Bill. "When the Communists came in, they literally dragged people out of their homes leaving them with nothing but the clothes on their backs, so they could put in their own bosses.")

So I gaped at these gorgeous mansions, and at the neo-Classical banks and Art Deco apartments and Romanian-style villas (a style I think of as Orientalized Bukovino-Transylvanian), at the loggios and Corinthian columns and stained glass, at the renovated Athenee Palace Hotel (now the Hilton butonce upon a time the hotel where a lot of Olivia Manning’s The Balkan Trilogy takes place and in the Communist period the hotel known as The Microphone because of bugs in the ashtrays, bugs in the cushion seats, bugs in the ice cubes I suppose), at 17th and18th century Orthodox churches, at the 18th century facades of tumbledown buildings on narrow cobblestoned streets, opening into evil-smelling courtyards, and where citizens are bravely trying to have a street life of cafes and second-hand bookstalls in spite of the cars that park all over the sidewalks). Valentin couldn’t understand why I was so impressed, given the splendour of buildings I must have seen in England and Europe. And I had to tell him that it had simply never occurred to me that the grim, even sinister, foggy and frigid, fear-ridden and hungry city I visited in 1982could once have been, well, European. (I had not realized, for example – or so Valentin claims – that with their occupation of Romania the Soviets were able to remove, lock stock and barrel, including the security guards, entire industrial plants to their own territory.)

And I felt rather ashamed that I had taken the Soviet-style city for the real thing….For there are remarkably few structures in downtown Bucharest that look like the Stalinist Imperialist behemoths of the Soviet Union or the Brutalist Titoist lumps of concrete in Yugoslav cities. There is of course the colossus of Ceaucescu’s folly – the presidential palace that he tore down 100s of old homes and churches to clear a space for not long before his murder in 1989 – and there are the usual blocks of dreary apartments thrown up for the proletariat that were painted once and never again. And now there are the billboards and banners and in-your-face window displays of the New Economic Order (The Colors of Benetton and The Body Shop and Pizza Hut and Audi dealerships…and the Coca-Cola umbrellas shading the tables that so offend Valentin in the vast courtyard of the superbly-restored 17th century inn we wandered into). But there are also the bullet holes in the church walls left over from the Revolution/Coup of1989, and the famous balcony on the now-Senate Building where Ceausescu and wife stood and were booed, the moment that came to mark the beginning of their end, and the odds and ends of public art commemorating the Revolution, and the burned-out brick building that was once a HQ for the Securitate – and the truly staggering numbers of stray dogs, the descendants of the animals abandoned by their owners when Ceausescu tore down thousands of single-family dwellings with their gardens to herd people into cramped flats.

So, whatever happened to the Revolution? The government has issued a directive that allows policemen to sell their services to private companies and to private persons, so long as these services "do not harm either the honour or the dignity of the policeman." The parliamentary opposition is not impressed; apparently they have seen this privatization as a "way of legalizing corruption within an institution in which dozens of high commanders were lately under suspicion of being on the payroll of organized crime leaders. "…The charming, if sleepy and economically-depressed, medieval Transylvanian town of Sighisoara is going to be the site of a "Dracula Land" theme park, developed by a German company that operates a "Wild West in America" park in Germany. I’m told there have been local protests, even though the project is supposed to create 300 jobs (and a golf course)….Franco Zeffirelli has been shooting a film about Maria Callas here, starring Jeremy Irons (as who? surely not as a Greek shipping magnate with big sunglasses), Joan Plowright and Fanny Ardant….Night life in Bucharest: a gazillion casinos, escort services ("Sexy, Elegant, Discreet Students," "Paradise New Erotic Massage") and clubs ("Club Chic: Best girls in town, table dance, full-contact, maximum security") which are the black holes into which women from Russia, Ukraine and Belorus disappear in the international sex slave trade(as reported here by an undercover journalist)….Visas are granted to foreigners in possession of valid documents (and US$33), a law" which hides, in fact, an attempt to stop the flow of citizens coming from the East or the Far East. "….CONNEX, a mobile phone company in which there is substantial Canadian investment, has been prevailed upon to pony up money for a festival of black humour, called Connex Humorr or Festival. Its director, Mircea Dinescu, is known as a non-conformist poet. He publishes a soft sexy-humoristic magazine whose name is a pun on the word Playboy, I’m told.

But some things seem eternal here. The way that lace curtains still hang in the neighbourhood post offices. Gardeners still burn piles of dead leaves, its musky odour a kind of incense throughout the neighbourhoods. Shoppers still carry hand-made cloth bags, for all the plastic that’s available. On my way to the Museum of the Romanian Peasant I got waylaid by the real thing -a farmers’ market – and never did get to the Museum. Instead I lingered in this labyrinth of alleyways and stalls not far from the Gara de Nord train station, overwhelmed by the familiarity – I’m not sure whether from these people’s past or my own – of the old men and women in boots and thick sweaters standing with their string of garlic for sale, their two fistfulls of carrots, of the smell of sour cabbage as someone lifts the lid off the wooden barrel of sauerkraut, of the sight of green cabbages stuffed into the back seat of a car, of a woman’s last garden flowers, purple and bronze and yellow asters, offered for sale in sad little bunches in plastic buckets, the farm women in their white smocks and kerchiefs lined up behind their blocks of sheep’s cheese, the one-legged man in the astrakhan cap, the matron in several skirts with some bottles of homemade hooch, the Roma family in their rude cart pulled by a suffering nag…and all of their faces a kind of collective cartography of half a century of trouble and grief we in the west have scarcely given a moment’s thought to.

I was reminded forcefully of some of it the night I had dinner with the Bottez family. Mr. Bottez, at the age of 17 in 1947, was arrested for distributing pamphlets of the pre-war Liberal party and sent to the Romanian gulag for 15 years, a series of cells, isolators and a lead mine. Romanians were arrested in waves of categories: non-Communist political activists, doctors, engineers. Those who were active guerrillas in the mountains right into the 1950s were simply shot. For the next generation, there was the years of Ceausescu, the winters of no gas and sometimes no electricity, children raised without fresh vegetables (produce was being exported for hard currency), students doing their lessons with hands blue with cold (Valentin remembered it was "fun" to get to sleep with the whole family in one bed, trying to stay warm in mittens and fur hats under the covers), the enforced pregnancies (and abandoned children) during the campaign to increase the birthrate by outlawing birth control and abortion….But now they speak with bittersweet Romanian pride of their survival in a country that has no borders with western Europe, of their "Latinity," of their poets who I’ve never read, of the fact that they were never Christianized, in the sense that by the time the Romanians as an "ethnos" emerged from old Romans and Dacians, they were already Christians. I have no idea if any of this would pass muster with current scholarship (young Valentin, for example, rejects the propaganda effort the Communist Party put into promoting Dacian/Roman identity) but I was impressed by the serenity of its expression.

Finally, in a city that seems not to be selling postcards or tourist maps and brochures or foreign newspapers except in the big hotels (but does have currency exchange mini-shops every 20 metres), I fell upon a recent issue of The Guardian in the Hilton newsstand. A powerful column by novelist Jeanette Winterton brought me back into the rest of the world, i.e. the world of the war n Afghanistan. She writes: "Everywhere I look, men are talking about nuclear capacity, about germ warfare, about dedicating50 years to wipe out terrorism. The Bush administration is delighted not to have to worry about tedious environmentalists and Kyoto protocols and world trade protesters. This is a war – and the "big trousers" are back in charge.

"’Yes, I am the centre of the universe’ reads the sign over Stephen Hawkings’ desk.

"I had begun to hope that gender was becoming less important. Men and women have better social and work relationships than they used to – they can now befriends. The hard lines of the sex war had softened. But now we’re in a different kind of war, and testosterone is back

"Germ warfare or gender warfare? Can somebody tell the guys what planet we’re on?"

Next Day:

Well, Indian Summer is over. It left overnight with the chill rain that came pouring down and today people are wearing ski jackets and gloves. I have put several layers of clothing on and ventured out to kill several hours before I board the overnight train to Belgrade (in a First Class Wagon-Lit).

After the intensity of Looking For Byzantium in Istanbul and Thessaloniki, I took a breather here in Bucharest, where I have interviewed nobody. The reason I am here at all is that I was invited to be the Plenary Speaker at the 2nd International Conference of Central European Canadianists (of whom there seem to be a couple of hundred, amazingly; I asked one of them: Why do you want to study Canada and not the US or Britain? "Because you are a peaceful country.") Romania’s own interest goes back to 1991 when a "protocol" was signed between the Universite de Quebec in Montreal and the U of Bucharest’s Faculty of Journalism and Faculty of Sociology.

I told my hosts how much I appreciate the fact that in this country Canadian Studies has always been understood to be more, much more, than literary studies, and indeed there were a couple of sessions at this conference about political science and media. But the notion of Canadian Studies still is overwhelmingly tilted toward Can Lit, so there were (concurrent) sessions on "Canadian and American Traits in Leonard Cohen’s Beautiful Losers" (a session I missed, alas, in order to hear a Bulgarian friend’s presentation on a Syllabus for Canadian Studies) and "Metaphor, Meme and MacLennan’s Two Solitudes," which was actually a fascinating statistical survey of the use of the phrase "solitudes" in Canadian media (The Real Two Solitudes, The New Two Solitudes; "regional/western/cultural/economic/creative/research/legal/fractured/hockey" solitudes; A Short Tale of Two Solitudes, 100 Years of Critical Solitudes, A Blurring of Two Solitudes… from all of which the presenter concluded that "variations can be introduced because everyone knows the core feature of ‘solitudes.’" Eight papers on M. Atwood [someone should declare a moratorium]. Quite a few on Canadian multiculturalism, a very few on literary theory, a refreshing look at Thomas King, a paper on "Balkanisation et mondialisation," a contribution concerning websites on the nature of Canadian English speech in which the presenter seemed disapproving of using the Internet to "fuel national feeling by emphasizing linguistic difference." My friend Ana Olos from the Romanian University of Baia Mare presented a paper on "Intertextuality and Interdisciplinarity in McLuhan’s Media Books," and another old friend, Nancy Burke, who has been waving the flag for at least a decade at the U of Warsaw (a real pioneer) made the very nice point about Canadian readers that, "because there are so many communities now in Canada it is not difficult for the reader to move among different semiotic systems." We are not all Americans now; we are all post moderns!

I still stand amazed at the keen interest these scholars and their students have in us, all the more since I know how hard it has been and continues to be, in this part of Europe, to get hold of books, technology, and even office space, not to mention the funds to travel to Canada and have a look.

Given the intellectual resources needed by Romania itself, the effort their intellectuals spend on us Canucks is a gift they give us. Romanian Studies anyone?

3313 w. November 3, 2001


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