The Paris of the East
Bucharest has a bad reputation, and the train station, roamed by ragged strays, both canine and human, under a dismal grey sky untouched by morning light, did little to allay doubts. I took a bus to the Butterfly Villa Hostel, ate some breakfast, and talked with some hostelers in the courtyard. There was one Birmy, and a far-eyed Canadian girl who had this poor South Korean by a leash since she spoke a little of his language, and then three people with whom I would later travel: an Aussie named Marty and two Brits, Alan and Jezz, from the same town, although they first met in Ukraine.
Marty lived in Sarajevo until he was twelve, all through that great siege of the Bosnian War. He could take apart and refit an AK-47 and disarm a hand grenade, and recalled this story: He and his friends were searching through an old ruined building to find steel tubes for blowguns when a cop found them out and chased them out into the street. It was one of the marked streets, visible from the occupied hills, but Marty and company ran across as the pavement erupted into dust and chips and the ricochets of sniper bullets whizzed past their heads. Such was a normal occurrence in that city at that time.
This group of three, plus the Birmy and a Colombian, had no less strange experiences in Bucharest. On their first night out, they played drunken limbo under the red-and-white striped security gate at a parking lot in the old town. Marty couldn't make it, and so slammed up the bar, which crashed back down. Thirty seconds later, two security guards ran out of the building with pistols drawn and aimed, and shouted at the tourists to get on the ground. Two civilians, maybe managers, followed the vigilantes, and they asked the prostrate group what they were doing. "A game! A game! Ha," said the man, and he demanded 5000 Lei for reparations, that much being about $1600, much higher than the standard Romanian bribe of €50 (bribes in Bulgaria are only €20, they say).
They kept arguing, the two standing, the five on their stomachs. The mute security guards examined the gate and found it functional, which defused the situation. Finally Marty, used to danger and an Aussie to boot, stood up and started asking to see badges, and finally said, "We're leaving," and started walking. When their confident pace carried them past the corner, they sprinted off down that street — and accidentally around another corner and back into the parking lot! though this setback was quickly remedied. The hardship was not over for Alan, who on his way home had to escape from two-dozen twelve-year-old boy prostitutes, who detached from their fat American like drones from a Protoss carrier to harry the poor Englander for several blocks.
Now the following night Jezz saw another scene while walking back at 5 am: six of the politia in riot helmets, brandishing nightsticks, chasing six civilians. One of the pursued tripped and fell and was beat savagely in front of the Brit, who struggled to walk fast and stay inconspicuous, and two others were captured — at least Jezz saw one get tackled, and heard the seal-like bleating of the other from around the corner. Marty was too drunk to remember anything, since the bartender had served him many of these flaming drinks where he dumped brown sugar into the flare and had the Aussie drink the hot liquor through a fast-melting straw, but he remembered yelling at a poor Kiwi who asked him to stop squirming in his creaking bunk, and demanding a fight since he wanted to punch someone.
Saturday, after hearing these tales, minus the ones which had yet to occur, I went for a wander, as the Brits say, down to the city center. Bucharest combines run-down works of reparation and brand new additions, all signaling a trickling of new wealth and affluence. The public transit is excellent, with clean buses equipped with GPS screens that upcoming stops. The main roads are clean and well organized; the parks happy European places of rowing ponds and ducks. The old town might be well in the future, but now the cobbled streets are torn up, replaced by construction pits and narrow wooden walkways. Impatient restaurants constructed platforms of wood for their outdoor tables and chairs, giving a sense of permanence to what should be a temporary measure.
Bucharest is easy to navigate partially because the Romanian language is a romance one, and therefore provides a break from Cyrillic and Slavic pronunciation out there in the east. It is supposed to be very close to Italian, and the closest living language to Roman Empire Latin, with the same old structure mixed with Slavic vocabulary. Dacia was an imperial province for less than two centuries, and that period ended over thirteen centuries ago. Why then have the Romanians not picked up the tongues of Slavic and Central Asian migrants, as Hungary, Bulgaria, Turkey, and the Western Balkans have so permanently? "The Romans made us learn Latin," said the Dacians of to-day, "and we couldn't be bothered to learn anything else."
Everywhere the capital bears the marks of its communist dictator Nicolae Ceauşescu (Ko-chess-ku), who in the style of Brother Stalin spent lavishly on self-affirming public works while his people starved. There is the Arc de Triumf, slightly smaller than its Parisian counterpart but on a self-conscious street a full six meters longer than the Champs-Élysées; and then there is his House of the People, now the Palace of the Parliament. I crossed the Cismiga Park and the Dâmboviţa River and came before the Palace, the largest building in the world after that other tyrannical building, pentagonal shaped, in Washington D.C.
I took a tour through the echoing halls and galleries, made of wood and marble with red and green carpets and crystal chandeliers. 700 architects designed it, and 20,000 workers started its construction in 1984, using all Romanian materials to highlight the nation's self-reliance. The silk curtains were embroidered by nuns with industrial gold. Much Romanian marble went to waste, as Ceauşescu ordered two grand staircases rebuilt five times, so as to allow him to maintain the perfect posture of a dictator on the ascent. Similarly, he refused any air conditioning for the building, as he feared both assassination of his person by gas and assassination of his voice by dry and sterile air.
When Ceauşescu died in 1989, only two rooms were finished; yet the Romanians continued work on his grandest project, though leaving empty the great recess designated for his portrait and the recess opposite designated either for a portrait of his wife or a mirror, and today are five percent from completion. In all the palace cost $4 billion to build, although Donald Trump offered $3 billion to buy it, with the intention of making it into the world's largest casino. Romania said No, but continues to rent out rooms for private events in the world's most expensive administrative building.
At the end of the tour we came out onto a presidential balcony. Below stretched a six-lane boulevard broken in the center by a line of thirty fountains, with a towering monstrosity of choreographed waterworks in the distance, the fulcrum of a roundabout in a great square ringed by white communist buildings. The tour guide pointed to a flag with a compass, next to the flags of Romania and the European Union, which someone identified as the NATO insignia.
"Some American was here a few weeks ago and thought it was the flag for Seattle baseball," said the guide. I said they were probably big Mariner's fans, but some German woman interrupted me: "Americans! They do not know where anything is in the world." She complained more when the guide told us how Michael Jackson had called out to Budapest while in Bucharest, and how George W. Bush made the opposite mistake in the Hungarian capital. Well fuck you Frau Hitler, because I know you don't know the difference between St. Louis and St. Paul.
That night I went out to a restaurant with a thick-bearded American named James, who was a Peace Corps volunteer in Bulgaria, and with the same Kiwi mentioned earlier in Marty's story, an opera student and cocaine addict named Henry. James said his students all play Counter-Strike, and they come to class and say, "Mr. K——, Oh My Fucking God."
Then the next morning, I asked James why he had so many Frisbees, and he said he was taking them back to Bulgaria, where they had none, to plant as seeds of the sport. He had bought a few in Romania, and his two friends, met while studying Russian in Siberian Irkutsk, had brought a few more with them, so he had half a dozen. The three of them were on their way to an Ultimate Frisbee tournament in Kiev, for the sport is popular in Ukraine and Russia, as well as in Sweden and at American colleges.
Marty, Alan, and Jezz proposed that we all rent a car and drive up over the mountain, on a winding series of switchbacks we had seen on the desktop wallpaper of the hostel computer, and then to Brasov. I agreed, and we rented a Romanian-made Dacia Logan for €40 a day, although we could not get it until that night, postponing our migration until the next morning. This was fine with me, since I wanted to visit the Village Museum, where the Romanians display nearly one hundred of their traditional homes, from thatched-roof cottages to old road-side inns, transported bodily to the capital.
At 8 we received our car and went for a drive, looking for food and the Arc de Triumf. There was some confusion, as Britain and Australia use the wrong side of the road. The others would claim shotgun and go for the driver's seat. They also called the trunk the boot, which I did not understand. The Brits are aware of all our terms for things, but we know none of theirs.
That night I proved adept at navigation, and so earned the passenger seat and the map when we left the next morning. We went first to Maracineni, just north of Potesti, where the Khazakstani scenes for Borat were filmed, in a village called Glod, which means Mud. Though most people in that rural town spoke English, nobody knew where Glod was, or feigned ignorance before we stupid tourists. We did see the river where Borat liked to sunbathe, and many cows.
From there we went on a winding road to Curtea de Arges, and then north into the Carpathians. The road wound up around crags with castles at the top, and across the roof of a dam to loop around its lake. We joined long cavalcades of other Dacia Logans, Romania's the most popular car, used for taxis and cop cars, and drove up into the craggy highlands, stopping regularly to take photos, although none of our limited frames could take in the magnitute of those mountains.
At the top, on the other side of a tunnel that crossed those upper reaches, we parked at an inn, under the terrible blades of the highest slate peaks, and ate at a tent that served grilled meat, roasted potatoes, and beer. A rainstorm hit while we sat, lightning followed. If that old method of one-second-to-one-mile still works, it was half a mile away, and close enough to blow out the speaker propped up in the frame of the tent with a spectacular flash. We waited out the storm, and then proceeded down more of those eternal switchbacks to the feet of the hills. Jezz liked the swerving roads, which resembled something in an Aston-Martin commercial, and said, "I want to come back here in a nice car without passengers."
"So you die alone?" asked Marty.
We passed a populous camp site along a river there in the first miles of Transylvania, and after some debate, decided to join them. We got some beer from a nearby town, pitched Marty's tent (and I exhibited the great Tautline Hitch, my favorite knot), and collected some wood. Lighting a fire proved easy, as Alan had worked in a pub with a hearth, and Marty was something of a piro. As any Aussie, he was savage yet easy-going, and infinitely fun to be around. He was touring Europe to see four different festivals, most of them for Dance and Trance music.
The proposition of a tent excited Jezz, who asked if I wouldn't mind yielding my spot under the nylon for one cramped in the car. Now, I knew from experience that sleeping on the hard ground is no easy thing. It is not so much that raw earth is uncomfortable as that a lack of insular cushion puts nothing but thin clothing between warm flesh and a cold planet, a vacuum that sucks greedily at any heat. I'd rather have a foam pad than a blanket on any cold night, and here on the wrong side of the Carpathians would be a cold night for sure. I cruelly told Jezz none of this — to be fair, he wore two shirts, a hoodie, long pants, and socks, while I had only my shorts, a plaid shirt, and bare legs below the knees — but politely yielded the cold, cold ground for the Dacia's back seat.
Anyway, we didn't have much wood and went looking over the well-picked ground. A neighboring band of a half-dozen Romanians offered some of their stores and also a plastic bag of grilled and salted fish, which was delicious. So we sat around the fire feeling very fine. Fish consumed, beer half-gone, Radiohead inexhaustible so long as the batteries held up, we held a classical Symposium on Love, lacking only flute girls and Alcibiades. Jezz was idealistic Agathon; Marty, shouting from his tent, Socrates; and I was Aristophanes, obscenely correct. Alan slept in the car, in the passenger's seat, and later I curled into a fetal position in the back.
Comfortable and drunk as I was, I slept poorly and dreamed wild things, and in the morning I woke first and kicked the others out of their own poor parodies of sleep. We collapsed the tent and threw its dewy bulk in the "boot." In the cool Transylvanian light of sunrise, we took off down the highway toward Brasov.