Bucharest: Rugged and Real

Swans at Cișmigiu Gardens

I have been in Bucharest, Romania for almost a month and haven’t written about the city until now. I think I wanted to get as accustomed as I could to Bucharest before I tried to assess it and make comments about it.

Quite simply, I love this city! In fact, I find it to be one of the most interesting cities I have travelled to in Europe (in my books, it’s up there with Lisbon, Portugal).

I arrived in Bucharest directly from Prague, and I saw differences immediately between the two places. The only way I can explain it from a Canadian perspective is that Bucharest is to Prague what Montreal is to Toronto. Bucharest is less polished than Prague. A lot of its architecture is grand, too, but it hasn’t been spruced up like Prague, and, as well, a lot of its architecture was damaged during the wars. But there is a down-to-earth feel about this place—something kind of rugged and real and that makes me want to stay.

View from New Writing Space, Bucharest

The other thing that struck me is that there is a lot more green space in Bucharest than there is in Prague. This probably jumped out to me right away because I am situated near Cișmigiu Gardens, a beautiful park which provided one of my first introductions to Bucharest. I wandered through the gardens the morning after my arrival and immediately discovered a writing haven—a café with a terrace from where one can see a pond or little lake where people boat and from where one can hear the sounds of many different birds. It is here, too, that I saw black swans for the first time. Cișmigiu Gardens are a welcome respite from the heat of the day (yesterday, it was 42 degrees) with abundant trees and shady walkways. There is only one thing that troubled me here and that was the caged peacocks. Having grown up in British Columbia where peacocks wander freely at such parks as Beacon Hill, Victoria, it seemed strange to me that one would cage such a bird. In any event, there are a number of parks around Bucharest, such as the city’s largest one, Herăstrău Park, which is slightly over 100 hectares. If one wants green, it is easy to find here.

View from the Palace of Parliament

The city itself is perhaps a bit of an anomaly. While the historic centre of the town is quaint and charming in much the same way as many downtown areas of old European cities are, Bucharest is also characterized by transparent ravages of time—the damage inflicted by world wars and, also, the chaos that must have ensued with the reign of the communist dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu.

Vacant and damaged apartments are to be contrasted with The Palace of the Parliament, which was, under Ceaușescu’s reign, known as The House of the Republic. I took a one-hour guided group tour there where we walked approximately two kilometres throughout the first floor to view different halls and rooms and take in the opulent fixtures, such as the massive chandeliers that decorate the palace (the largest weighs five tonnes, the second largest 3.5 tonnes). It would take weeks to see the entire place. The Palace of Parliament has more than 3000 rooms and is approximately 330,000 square metres. It is the second largest administrative building in the world after the Pentagon.


Chandelier, Palace of Parliament

Most notably, The Palace of Parliament underscores the inequity of a system and man who took from his people to feed his ego and aspirations. The guide mentioned that 20,000 people (more than the total population of Corner Brook, Newfoundland, where I live!) worked twenty-four hours a day in two shifts between 1983 and 1989 to build the palace; other sources estimate that there were even more workers than this, a significant number of whom died during the project. To erect such a monument to his government, Ceaușescu, as the guide also mentioned, displaced thousands of people from their houses and lands (upon which the palace now sits), and, while his people were starving, lived in luxury.

I have talked to a number of people here who lived under communist rule. Of course, they always mention Ceaușescu, but it is the culture of fear and paranoia which is also often described. Friends recounted to me the grave reality of censorship and the one television station that would play propaganda. They spoke of the fear of speaking out against anything that had to do with the government and how they had learned to adopt a seemingly emotionless and expressionless façade that wouldn’t allow others to know what they were thinking. They spoke of lack of food and heat.

Vacant Shop, Bucharest

Walking around Bucharest, it is hard not to think of or to try and imagine those times. I snapped a couple of photos which I thought were funny for no other reason than they made me giggle, such as a closed business/vacant shop named “Crystal Meth.” I have no idea of the origin of this place. For some odd reason it shares a name with a deadly drug, and someone has painted “sold here” beside the name of the now-closed business. I also took a photo of a model on an advertisement and the blood drops someone painted beneath one of her eyes. I thought of these photos at the time I took them as just little jokes I would delete from my camera, but, then, reconsidered after I had heard more of the days of censorship in Romania. I decided to post them here because, no matter how silly they are, they are indicative of a certain kind of freedom that did not exist in times past. It is sometimes the littlest things that can make one reflect. I am not pretending to understand how Bucharest (and Romania overall) must have been under the leadership of a depraved Ceaușescu, but I can attempt to understand how the absence of freedom of expression must have pricked at the soul. Things that I take for granted on a daily basis—such as the ability to buy books—are luxuries for those who live in repressed regimes, and I hope that exposure to this reality makes me more thankful for the fact that I can speak my mind and learn.

Jackson Monument, Bucharest

I also thought of these things when I saw a monument in Herăstrău Park which is dedicated to Michael Jackson. A little bit of googling indicates that Jackson performed in Bucharest in 1992 (four years after the end of communism), and the guide during the tour of The Palace of Parliament also recounted an anecdote about Jackson (which must have derived from this same visit) noting that Jackson greeted a large crowd from the balcony of The Palace of Parliament by shouting “hello Budapest!”

Maybe, in a symbolic sense, Michael Jackson, for Romania, is comparable to what the Rolling Stones are for the Czech Republic. It was in 1990, after more than twenty years of Soviet rule, that the Stones performed the largest rock concert in Czech history—a stop during their Urban Jungle Tour.

I could say a lot more about Bucharest and probably will in future blogs. The city has got me thinking. It’s got me reflecting, and it makes me feel as if I’m learning something. It’s like this: though I grew to love and appreciate Toronto, where I lived for about six years, I could never quite get back the feeling that I had in Montreal, where I lived previously for about two years. That was in the 1990s when grunge was the thing and where there was this gritty feel (in the best possible sense of the word). Montreal made me feel like I might always be capable of transforming myself and growing because the city hadn’t buckled to the more mass appreciations of other places: it had kept its own unique kind of identity, and it made me want to do the same thing when I lived there. That’s the kind of feeling I get here in Bucharest.

And though I couldn’t hope to assess the nature of the people here with full understanding, what I can say after my brief time here is that people are as real as the city. There is no gregariousness. There is some reserve. And the people are friendly and kind. That’s the general impression that I’m left with. I could live here—very easily.

Amended Model, Bucharest