I largely disliked Bucharest upon moving there from Hălmagiu. It was mostly because of my grandparents. He loved nature so much that he would go stroll in the cemetery just to be able to dig a bit of dirt, weed some flowers, water others. She, on the other side, by selling the Transylvanian house had lost her forefathers home. Probably both nourished the idea that the city is a place for perdition as opposed to the cleanliness of the provincial town.
I disliked it also because of the blocks of flats. My mother was particularly proud that our block was made in 1932 by a famous architect. I didn’t see much in that block. Straight angles, gray façade, straight lines, not much for me. And for the first years there was also the big problem of 4 people in a single room.
Our apartment had two, one extremely large, but this large one was rented and we had no legal means to break the rent contract. When my parents got married my grandparents bought the apartment together with the rental contract not realizing how hard it would be to cancel it . No matter that you were the owner of a home you couldn’t force a tenant out unless you found him a different place to stay and he would accept moving. It took years of persuasion and three offers of allocation to have that room in our usage.
The big advantage for me was that mom didn’t have to travel across the whole country to see me. She was mine every evening and we could walk together every evening across the downtown, look around, laugh, maybe have dinner at some restaurant, see movies and cartoons together. That was precious.
You may call it manipulation but when we strolled together in town mom always told me the owners of the houses we passed by. This one was the home of a very rich pharmacist, the other one was the house of a noble family, the other one there belonged to the family of a celebrated 19th century writer. A lot of times she had a story about each of these. I doubt her intention was persuasion. I doubt any of my family ever conceived I could after all become a communist myself.
The target was on one hand to share with me her own world, a world she only seldom could share with others than older people, and on the other hand to send forth their truth, that little house with an elegant tower wasn’t always left untended and wasn’t always the headquarters of the Pioneers association, the other one mockingly painted in dark blue, and with the windows grotesquely distorted used to be a piece of art and wasn’t always a police station, the mansion there, the one with those thin columns, wasn’t always Iraq embassy, there was a doctor who worked hard for his money at the beginning of the century who built it, and so on.
Being the kid of a single mother pays off in some respect. I don’t think the offspring of success couples are so much talked to, there simply isn’t enough physical time for that. Mom took hours long walks with me and she tried to explain whatever we would notice around us, from the story of the painter Stefan Luchian to that of George Cantacuzino, whose statues were in one of the parks we crossed all the time to get to our favorite picture theater. From the big lighted sign of ACR (sort of AAA in Romania) to pink candies a gipsy was selling in a corner. From the building of the Agriculture Ministry (that I thought for years to be Cinderella’s palace) to the one of Postal Services Palace (actually the National History Museum) still wearing the marks of bullets on its walls dating from the “Legionary” rebellion in 1941.
One of our favorite destinations was the Children emporium as we called it (in reality it was called the Children Rom-arts a make up word very in line with the current wooden tongue). That was a magical shop for me. It was a rather ugly dark gray building but its basement and ground floor were exclusively toys and children apparel store. I cannot remember the actual toys but the white-crimson stairs that led to the basement are present in my mind even today. They were made of marble and each step had a smooth depression in the middle resulted from years of usage.
To get to the Children’s Emporium we had to walk through a narrow street. To our left there was a tall building that hosted a large stationer’s shop, to our right, just a block away, there was one of the most famous and expensive restaurants in Bucharest. You know what caryatides are, mom mentioned at some point. Certainly I did, I was extremely proud to know all details about ancient history, to draw charts of the evolution of different empires, to distinguish between different types of capitals, caryatids seemed same familiar as our apartment. Here, she pointed out, there was a row of caryatids. I lifted my eyes and realized above us to the left there was indeed a row of apparently pointless marble stubs creating a girdle separating the first from the second level. They considered them pornographic because they had a breast uncovered, the morons. And they cut them all out. Human body if it’s used in art as beauty not to tickle basic instincts, is not shameful. God created us as beautiful beings.
What I did like about Bucharest immediately after school, were the old houses. The curved alley leading an imaginary carriage to enter the yard and stop underneath the canopy for the guests to get down. Those wrought iron canopies, eclectic or art nouveau, covered in satinised or embossed glass that somehow resisted the decades of neglect, brought to me a whole world of people moving, talking, a politeness that wasn’t that of my time, a music that my grandmother vaguely remembered but belonged to her mother’s generation.
The phantasms I was imagining around these houses weren’t my grandparents’ age, they seemed to belong in a further past, half fairy tale, half history of the city. The grass was slowly covering their edges changing the elegant curve to the nature’s own angles. Except for some mansions that became now restaurants or clubs the curved alleys weren’t in use anymore, they weren’t fit for cars and there were no more carriages to bring people to parties.
We walked for most destinations or we would have to wait for hours in the stations and, when the crippled bus appeared, people would dangle in bunches out of its doors since the vehicle was already full. I had quite a surprise when years later I made a friend who had a personal car. The benefit was not having a vehicle per se, but what a miracle of personal dignity could be to not be forced to dress in heavy, bulky clothes or arrive at your destination sweated, humiliated, infuriated, feeling your hands dirty.
Then there were the towers, a lot of these houses had one, tiny ones, but imposing for the small structures and often heavily decorated. There was the front tower with pointed tin roof, greened now by time. Their contour was delicately decorated in small tin items, flower or geometric little figures added to carry forth the outline like a cloth lace. Then there was the corner tower, often circular, with girdles in same color paint wearing the tears trace of the rusty gutters which had lost their downspouts long ago.
On the frontispiece you could still see the year when they moved in, when they were happy and proud of building the nest of their dreams. 1890, 1878, 1908, 1912… years that had a secret and bright meaning for someone, not for history but for a certain family. Maybe there was some immigrated Greek wine seller or a Jew doctor, maybe there was a Transylvanian teacher, or a Moldavian lawyer whose business flourished, maybe there was a Romanian Southerner (Oltean) who managed to finally become “somebody” as a skilled tanner or eiderdown maker.
They must have watched closely when the town authorities plotted and sold new terrains fighting to buy a good one, at good price. They had wives who ordered these ornaments, who argued fiercely with the constructors, where to place the building, have a bigger or smaller garden in front. What about the backyard? Who wanted this French model, or this particular Spanish one. The streets around our home were almost entirely composed of such structures. Now they seemed deserted.
Some had become state institutions, dispensaries, dental small clinics, others where inhabited by shy people not showing anything to the street, some of them blocked their windows with objects while others went straight to close them with bricks. A large numbers of these small houses had been brought past recognition.
You went to have your tooth filled, on the outside you saw a gray parallelepiped with a sign board, you took a step in and the world all of a sudden goes back one century. The ceiling painted rococo or cased in dark wood, waving staircases to the first floor, creamy, cast iron radiators or massive ceramic stoves raising their milky body over the entire height of the room, under the ragged office carpets you could peek at the hundred years old mosaic parquetry and under the dirty blue or green state oil painting you could still see traces of the original creamy colors. Under the dental chair countless stories were lurking, underneath the teller window of the dispensary there were the hopes of whole families, fragments of childhood of countless people who were now wandering who knows where.
By the end of August the light in Bucharest changes its substance, it becomes a warm yellow that gives all these buildings a calm glow no matter what they had been employed for. In the unreal silence of Sundays afternoons the glow is even more palpable. A month or so one could walk slowly on these streets and fill himself with their stories of beauty and life. By the time October starts raining bringing about the gray air of the winter well before the first snow would fall, the houses hide again in their own aloofness.