Postcards from the Beach 1

Once Hălmagiu wasn’t ours anymore, mom – undoubtedly under the influence of her colleagues – decided that “the kid needs sun” which actually meant we were going to spend some of the holiday at the sea side. Now the Black Sea is a two hours’ drive from Bucharest, then it meant about three hours by train. However we didn’t go from Bucharest. After our stay at Văratec  Monastery, we normally took a train from Piatra Neamț  to Bacău and from there a night express to Constanta. Between the two trains we had some hours of wait which we employed in exploring the city.

We knew Piatra Neamt very well. Every time we lacked something like oil or coffee we would go there to buy. After my grandmother’s death we even stayed in town for some weeks trying to make my grandfather think of something else.  It was one of the first rebuilt cities in the country after the war and it looked nice. Some architect must have had the freedom to decide what to demolish and what not and how to mix the new blocks to the old villas. I loved the market place full of hundreds of scents from the sauerkraut kegs brought from Suceava to the apples freshly picked on the nearby hills, from the white, round, dripping, gauze balls filled with sweet cheese to the smoked meats. I’ve never seen anywhere else such huge green beans. Everywhere I went people are eating either dried beans or green pods, these were green beans without the pods, with a buttery texture, gorgeous in a sauce of garlic and sour cream. However the market and the town were two clearly different places.

Bacău felt like a market in its whole. Small streets everywhere and yellow hot dust in the summer light. One store plain houses whose only particularity was that they seemed to have had each a shop at the front. Some of the shops were still functional but most were now closed and the front window was stuffed with anything from bricks to dusty curtains. As to redeem the closed stores at each corner you could find soda or snacks, patisserie or pies, or what we enjoyed most, warm pretzels.  When the interval between the Piatra Neamt train and the one for the sea side was smaller we would only go quick to buy a bunch or those pretzels. There were so many people around us that the air seemed to carry a constant buzz . As you got closer to the center the architecture changed a little, the buildings grew taller, some with interesting balconies supporting the roof by thin colonnades but all still had the traces of shops at the ground level. For hundreds of years the city was a customs place between two or three kingdoms and it showed. Around 1975 we stopped again in Bacau and couldn’t recognize anything anymore. All the old buildings were completely or partially demolished. Even the center of the town wasn’t there anymore. Tall blocks of flats of tiny apartments in white-gray finish looked apathetically to us. The crowd dissipated, only the yellow dust still lingered here and there. Years later I’ve heard that even the train station was demolished and rebuilt. Some communist boss ambition. But by that time we were not taking the train from Bacău anymore, we were flying a plane from Suceava.

These early years the train from Bacău would reach Constanta around 5 am. It was too early to go anywhere. We were lodging in the apartment of some relatives of a childhood friend of my grand mother, in Tomis V, the name of a new neighborhood of Constanta. Like any post war urban area it consisted of blocks of flats disposed on a labyrinth of thin alleys. Their architect’s only merit was he envisioned a finish made of fake bricks that gave the blocks some color but most of all it defended them from the horrible dirty aspect most of the new buildings had. The reality was that either the Romanian finish paints was bad quality or that the way they designed water drainage of the roofs was careless or maybe both. At any rate all the new blocks looked fine for a year; after the first autumn they shared the same degraded aspect, not old, but desolate, neglected, filthy. These red bricks covered blocks resisted much better over time.

However it was early and we didn’t want to wake up anyone so we would take a taxi to the old Casino and walk the seafront in Constanta for some hours. In the torpor coming after the long travelling night and the early wake I somehow lost my mother. She was there on the seafront with me, no doubt, but my memory cannot get a hold of her. Was she next to me watching the waves foaming the big stones under our feet or was she behind me watching silently the sun rise? I have no idea, I was talking to the sea who felt deeply male to me. There are languages who treat the sun as a he and language who treat him as a she, there are cultures who see the moon as a lady, and cultures who see it as a prince, in Romanian the sea, like in French is feminine, in my personal 10-12 years inner culture it was male, a powerful, dark, restraint lord. And I was talking to him, over and over, challenging him to send his waves up on the platform where we were standing, making promises, a mystic and secret force. I could stand there for hours mesmerized in front of the waves and talking silently to my imagination.

The Casino at that time was a restaurant with one side right over the cliff watching the waves. Originally it was meant as an Art Nouveau building dedicated to a real Casino and some entertainment rooms. It was known as not such a good place to eat, maybe that wasn’t true, I can’t remember any occasion we tested that. Around 7 we would take our luggage and go visit my grandmother’s friends who lived not far from there. They were the family of a pediatrician quite well known in Constanta (I realized that after some years when he recommended me to a hospital with a minor eye infection, his name was quite respected), they were extremely friendly and nice to us, still somehow we didn’t create deeper connections. Maybe it was our rush to already be on the sand, to feel the salted water more than chit chatting with people.

I am not sure if others felt like us, I am not sure it was a normal feeling for families in vacation but Constanta had something of a promised land. Apart from the seafront you could see big buildings, statues, narrow streets, nothing unusual but your nostrils knew the sea wasn’t far now. It was that heavy, very slightly salted wind clinging onto your skin and leaving it vaguely moist, the caws of the seagulls and a certain stringency of the rising sun light  that made you know the sea was there even when not hearing or seeing it, and urged your entire being to search for it, discover it, run for it, follow this or that narrow street until at the end of one of them you saw the dark blue separating from the sky in a distance.

The next years we would have stopped in the center right behind the ancient Latin poet who, exiled, died  in those once remote places, and have one of their gorgeous salted pastry cheese pies with fresh yogurt then follow the streets Eastwards, not to the fancy Casino, until we could have a glimpse to the waves, wait there for a better hour then take a trolley directly to our hosts. They had a small apartment in a new block of flats and, what few people had at the time, a guest room. Both of them were young and agreeable and most of the time absent. I think Lucica was some kind of accountant and her husband an engineer or technician in the port. Apart from hotels, that was the first place I’ve lived to be furnished with post war furniture. Made of particle boards instead of solid wood like ours it didn’t look bad after all, but had this particularity that nothing would ever fit perfectly. The wardrobe doors never closed completely and the extensible table would either collapse or remain in the weirdest unstable position.  We had the bad idea of trying to extend that table then worked for a whole morning laughing hysterically while trying to make it stand again on its 4 legs. Still the house had a special freshness of new, the carpets were new, the furniture was new, and all installations in the kitchen and bathroom breathed the same unmistakable new scent. There were also countless totally unknown gadgets I have never seen on the normal market: a glass bowl with oil, inside of which it would snow if shaken, jade figurines, porcelains, toys. Whether we liked them or not, it was obvious that having a job in a port changed something in the daily Romanian life.

Not far from our new base of operations was the bus station.  We would take a bus every morning and go deep into the next sea side town that had a better beach: Mamaia. Constanta had the city center, the museums, the Casino, but the real thing was Mamaia, an oblong spit of land separating the sea from the Suitgol Lake. For families with kids it was the best place. I am sure some children found the means to get drowned even in Mamaia, but they must have worked very hard for it. The water was as low as my ankles and as an adult you could walk offshore maybe a kilometer to find some water deep enough to swim. The land consisted of beach, a row of hotels, the promenade, another row of hotels and a driveway. Beyond the driveways, the salted lake.  In the morning hundreds of Constanta people were migrating to Mamaia too. The buses were crowded with people summarily clothed or straight in their swimming suits and we had quite a long way to endure because, after several failed tests, we decided the “International” beach was our favorite.

“International” was the new communist name of the old “Rex” hotel which was the first ever hotel built in Mamaia. It was a massive calcio vecchio dark gray building with impressive halls. It consisted of a main parallelepiped sitting on the largest side while facing the sea with another large side. It was flanked by other two smaller parallelepipeds rotated as to see the beach from their smallest side. The lateral wings felt like the towers of a much older building The middle of the main body was marked by yet another such “tower” this time not real but suggested by the roof and the arched windows. One of our family friends had donated the then new hotel a large tapestry made by herself which was still preserved there, mom always went to see it. The ground floor was surrounded by a row of arches connected to the building by wooden dark beams covered in trumpet vines with small orange explosions here and there. At times I would pick one of the flowers and bite the bottom of the tube to feel the sweet fragrant honey.

Beyond the arches in the shadow there were the shops: foreign visitors dedicated boutiques selling on hard currency only. They had colorful deodorants, and coffee, and soaps and cigarettes, things we could only admire through the windows. We didn’t have dollars, actually it was legally forbidden to have as a Romanian citizen. Years later when mom’s cousins were sending us money, the bank would give us a sort of money order, not the money itself, which we used to buy stuff from such special shops. After a visit to his brothers in the US my father brought me a silver dollar to transform in some jewelry I think. But so many people went to jail for owning foreign currency that mom decided it would be safer to throw it away.

On the other side of the hotel there were the showers, the cabins and a small brasserie selling mainly beer and snacks. We would take a cabin and an umbrella, change to swimming suits and finally go to the beach. Digging the umbrella deep enough in the sand that the wind didn’t overthrow it was in itself a little amusing adventure. The object was made by heavy iron and it took the both of us to manage sticking it in the ground. Not once the whole work was in vain and the umbrella took off under some stronger or just ironical gust of wind. We would run after it while roaring with laughter. Now don’t ask me what can be so funny about an umbrella taken away by the wind. We were vacationing, we were on the beach, we were decided to not let anything blow up our good time, so yeah, working some 30 minutes to stick a rusty umbrella in the sand just to see it flying away 10 minutes later was amusing. We didn’t do this only at the subconscious level. We even had a word for it, an expression we repeated each other almost every time we found ourselves up in the train for some vacation destination: “the nerves will stay at home”. Which meant we would both work with dedication to forget any worry and to deliberately treat anything happening as amusing. We might have been programmatically happy or ritually happy but it worked. I can’t think of a happier time we two spent together ever.

By noon we would drag our umbrella back to the keeper, give it back then take an annoying cold shower and dress in our best dresses, we were about to go to lunch, and not any lunch, a lunch upstairs at “International” hotel. The restaurant wasn’t for just anybody. You couldn’t go in your swim suit, not even in thongs.  The maître d’hôtel eyes would sweep you from head to toe and you could feel a decision forming instantly. You would be invited to a table or kindly asked to go down to the brasserie since all the tables were reserved upstairs.  We were invited and, after some years, they would all know us already. I guess tips also mattered.

There was a Brasov team of waiters serving like in a 5 stars Western restaurant by all measure. Some 10 years after I visited the place again, this time with my husband. The Brasov team wasn’t there anymore. I asked about them and the waiter’s face darkened. “Everybody is asking us about them. Trust me we are making every effort to serve people with class but customers still regret them.” The restaurant was a rectangle half covered by the building floor and  half in the open air. The outdoor part had colorful umbrellas. Inside there was a pianist who knew perfectly well what a good music for digestion meant, not too loud as to make your stomach tremble, not too low as to not be heard on the background of people’s conversations. The tables were covered in white satin dresses and each seat had its own cloth napkin. It’s the place where I learnt most of my table manners. It’s not that I didn’t have them from just imitating my grandmother at home, but here I realized the rules in an explicit manner. Mother had a way to explain them as it was a fairytale. How to keep your elbows tight next to your body. “You don’t want to fly when eating, do you?” How to set the napkin on your lap, not around your neck and certainly not next to you on the table which meant the waiter can come and clean since you finished eating. How to gently wipe your lips before touching a glass of juice “You don’t want a greasy, slimy glass in front of you” . How to use a toothpick, not show to everyone around what precise part of your food got stuck between precisely these two teeth but not hiding yourself under the table to do it either. And so on.

Most of the tables were really reserved to the hotel customers. There were generally foreigners, but not just your usual Northern countries huge blonde groups, you could see known businessmen from Eastern Germany and even France, and some also known surgeons  from Bucharest. Not many communist bosses liked the place but I guess it wasn’t meant to make them feel comfortable. Besides Ceausescu’s villa was in Neptun, another sea resort, more to the South.  They were flocking around it.

After lunch we would start a long walk through the water. We weren’t in any mood to take the crowded bus after the “International” treat and walking, running, laughing all along Mamaia beach was much more fun. We would have two almost ritual breaks during this long walk: Mamaia’s Casino and Perla (the Pearl). The first used to be a real casino before the end of the war, now the Casino building was a pretty dirty building lodging the offices of the ONT. ONT (the National Tourism Office) was the only tourism institution. Normally people would go and buy tickets for their vacations at ONT then present themselves at their local office and get allocated to a certain hotel. The ONT was also distributing lunch tickets to use within the general price of a holiday . We stopped there not for the ONT but for the market. Across the promenade, in front of the Casino, there were tens of stands and stalls with peasants selling their handiwork. Clay figurines violently varnished in strong colours, toys, especially the kind that produce a lot of noise, shawls, carpets, classic kitsch paintings most depicting the sun raise over the sea, little wooden snakes who would jump of their tiny boxes, pan flutes for children, wooden chess sets, they all mingled and mixed in the evening weaken light while crowds of people dressed to extremely various degrees were slowly advancing, commenting, haggling and buying.  Most of these sellers were peasants from Harghita county, Hungarians who for some reason specialized in making all these souvenirs. Maybe it was just an intelligent way of financing one’s holiday, not sure. In a corner there were always some Tartar or Turkish women selling conch shells which they also used to foretell your future and tiny shells necklaces and bracelets. I cannot say we didn’t have money. As an engineer mom was relatively well paid and for the vacation she had always used the reciprocal lending system that worked in offices in those days. But I have never had enough money for those shells. I could have bought them all just to have them and look at them. Not only the way they were combined was beautiful but you couldn’t find such shells on the beach normally. Most of them were collected during the autumn or winter I presume when large storms would throw on the beach more creatures of the depths.

The next stop was the Perla hotel, a landmark for all who ever visited Mamaia. It was a tall hotel marking the end of the resort.   Built around 1960 it already looked old and the rooms inside were not thought after. At that time you  didn’t even have a proper shower in the room, you were supposed to shower on top of the sewer mouth in the middle of the bathroom using a hose in place of a shower. But the plaza around it was perfect for the thousands of tourists. There was a railway agency where you could buy your tickets (provided you woke up early enough and take the queue), several stands with vegetables and fruits, a bank, another memorabilia marketplace like at the Mamaia Casino, and a large post office. The last one interested us most. Mom would go to the counter and pay for a call to Bucharest. Then we would wait in the humid warmth until some of the employees would call our name and a number. We would go then to the cabin with the said number and have our call through. It feels tedious, and imagining that room devoid of any air conditioning after a full sun day doesn’t sound appealing at all. Still for me it felt like exotic and adventurous. After all until recently we only had telegrams and postcards to communicate with.