Category Archives: Essay

Bucharest 2006

In lieu of money my cat sitter suggested that I bring him back a t-shirt from Romania, preferably a university t-shirt, as these were the kind he collected.  And during my stay in Bucharest, in the fall of 2006, I scoured many a souvenir shop and other tourist traps, places I would normally avoid, to procure for him what would no doubt have been an exotic addition to his collection.  I had in my head something akin to what you would find in the US, healthy square footage in the university bookstore devoted to all kinds of over-priced apparel and paraphernalia with the university insignia or mascot and in university colors – t-shirts, sweatshirts, caps, jackets, shorts, backpacks, undergarments, notebooks, keychains, what-have-you.  Alas, it seemed capitalism had not yet penetrated the hallowed halls of academia; for the time being the University of Bucharest was bereft of the blessings of rampant commerce.  Not satisfied to settle for one of the I [heart] Romania t-shirts or one with a picture of Vlad Ţepeş looking less like scary impaler and more effeminate aesthete, I hit on the idea of getting my sitter a t-shirt with the logo of one of the national soccer teams – Rapid Bucureşti.  I had never watched a professional soccer game in my life, not even on TV, but after a few brief but enthusiastic conversations with the gatekeeper at the Palatul Mogoşoaia, a loyal Rapid fan, I was completely willing to shout “Hai, Rapidu!” at the slightest instigation.  The gatekeeper assured me that if I went to the Giuleşti Stadium I could get a team t-shirt.  So on an overcast day in late November I took the metro train to that part of the city.  There are many architecturally interesting and attractive buildings in Bucharest, especially in the more well-to-do neighborhoods, but what caught my attention and became one of the backdrops of my Romanian sojourn were the blocuri – the grey communist era apartment buildings.  This word I had first encountered in Mircea Cătărescu’s poem “Zâmbesc” and which, in that poem, I translated as “block housing.”  And that’s what they seemed to me to be; “housing,” denominating the function of the buildings and no more, “block” descriptive of its monotonous shape with no ornamentation.  But of course time had added its patina, and no one had been there to efface it, to make it new! (as is the reflex in, say, America).  And so I could see what the years had wrought.  Above all the blocuri expressed a weariness…   but I did not see weariness in the people, except perhaps the old folks who stood or sat quietly on street corners waiting for a kindly donation to supplement their miniscule pensions.  The Romanians I met – chauffers, waiters, chambermaids, writers, fishermen, store clerks, cleaning women, gypsies, policemen, university students, professors, security guards, school kids – if I had to find some commonality among them, it would have to be their intensity. Regardless of whether outwardly they were placid or animated, I felt a high concentration of energy in their presence. Nowhere did I find bloated complacency.  And from them this intensity radiated into every part of the city and somehow transformed what would otherwise have been scores of bleak and derelict cityscapes.  In a sentimental mood, I might have said the energy was fierce hope.  I don’t know if I was thinking of any of this as I made my way to the stadium, crossing rather quiet streets lined by blocuri, traversing a short tunnel, going up and down large ramps, walking across a concrete bridge that overlooked railroad tracks littered with unmoving train cars.  Coming down one large spiraling ramp I saw a couple of young guys sitting on the hood of a broken-down car.  Like a good tourist I took out my camera to photograph this native tableau, surreptitiously, which got their attention.  One of them, he could not have been more than twenty, came over and looked up at me standing above him.  He had on dirty workman’s bright blue overalls and his face was smudged with paint.  He asked me to take his photograph and gave me a charming grin.  I dutifully took the picture.  He asked if I wanted to go out for a şuc (juice) or coffee and somewhat reluctantly, I declined. I wondered if young Romanian men always asked out girls that they had just met, as this had happened on two other occasions (even when the girl was twice their age and wearing thick glasses!), as a kind of gallantry.  Or was it just bravado, an excess of life?  Not long after I found the stadium or rather what looked like the stadium walls, but couldn’t locate the t-shirt shop.  I went into a building nearby to ask for directions.  In a large hall that appeared to be some kind of lobby a group of men were standing around smoking and talking.  They did not seemed to be doing anything in particular, just hanging around.  Naturally, they were quite curious to see me there and asked me where I was from.  And when I cried “Hai, Rapidul!” one of them spontaneously planted a kiss on my forehead with great gusto and another got out his cellphone to take a picture.  For the t-shirt they directed me back to the building I had just passed, but when I got there the store, which was inside the building, was closed.  A man was sitting at a small table right outside the entrance to the store.  It wasn’t clear to me what he was doing there as the entire place seemed deserted.  He said sometimes the store was closed and sometimes open so I should try again another day.  I listened to him carefully and after several halting attempts at close questioning about the hours, I concluded that it was impossible to know exactly when the store would next be open.  And then there was nothing else to do but gaze longingly, with my hands pressed against the glass, at the many Rapidul t-shirts and jerseys displayed inside the store.

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