From the 25th of June to the 9th of July, we have put together more than 1500 kilometres travelled by train, thousands of photos, a good bunch of great friends, a few disappointments in Timisoara and some seriously good food eaten in Cluj, in other words, our welcomed Romanian holiday, which shouldn’t have happened to start with.
Starting 2014, we had other plans, which we are meticulously puzzling together. Going to Romania wasn’t in the cards. Then I found out that a friend of mine was getting married, and this was a great opportunity to be in the wedding of one of the most fascinating women I have ever known closely. And when I say this, I mean really being part of the event: we offered to do the make-up and photography for the wedding, as a gift for the bride and groom. But just about a month before our flight I’d got the news she wasn’t getting married after all, wrong decision.
Still, the whole travel turned out to be an experience we needed. We came back tired, but refreshed, more relaxed and with that feeling that life just goes on for all of us, friends and family, and there’s no room for nostalgia, but for contemplating and taking part, when possible, in what our friends and family do and experience as well. At the same time, we have taken the opportunity to work with people who modelled for us, which made our holiday this spicy mix of leisure, business and getting together as well.
First, it was Bucharest. We have landed there as our initial plan was, for a trial make-up and photo session with the bride to be, which we did not do, obviously. It was, anyhow, much more convenient regarding travel times (flights at a more reasonable hour rather than 7:00 in the morning) and cost. We stayed there for a day and a half, then took an early train (yes, 5:45 am!) to Timisoara.
How did we find Bucharest? Same old, same old, it was us who were more detached now, relieved of the everyday madness to succeed in a city without rules, where being tough, unscrupulous and knowing the right people is a must. I can’t but admire my friends who still work in the Romanian central media, such as Mugur Grosu, poet and artist (visual arts are also his field), one of the people most pleasant to listen to in the whole wide world, whatever it is he is talking about. And yes, he does talk a lot, but it’s fascinating, his speech is like a journey taking you to some awesome places, a ride on a magic invisible carpet. He has been working for 3 years now for this architecture magazine called “Zeppelin” which keeps publishing in a city where major newspapers were closed one after another and only a couple of tabloids thrive.
(Photos by Catalina George and Attila Vigh. In photos: 1. Mugur Grosu. 2. Silviu Dancu. 3. The whole group while Silviu was telling and acting a story from his travels)
We had to get together with Silviu Dancu, my most fascinating writer friend on Facebook (and in real life) who posts on a daily basis on the social media platform the best short texts on whatever draws his attention. His Facebook writing is instant literature, philosophy and journalistic reporting, all in one, like a hot coffee, a cold ice cream, a drop of alcohol, served with a discrete candle aside, burning essential oils. This guy, an old friend of Mugur’s as well (they come from the same seaside city of Constanta), apparently manages to freelance in Bucharest on cultural contracts of organising events and PR services. And he’s not the bachelor who couldn’t care if one month he’s out of money for drinks, he’s got a family, managed to buy a flat and is doing pretty well in that harsh and unforgiving city. True, he has got an impressive CV: worked in the past for the Romanian Cultural Institute under the best management it had ever had, as well as for the Polish Cultural Institute in Bucharest. I am but amazed myself at how well these people are doing in a place where, in the end, I decided I didn’t fit in anymore.
Landing in Bucharest gave us a chance to meet these great people we are still in contact with. One of them is also my former editor-in-chief Ionut Popa, from “Terra Magazin”, a monthly publication on science, history, geography and travel, and while he is the same great guy I have known for some good years now, I could see disappointment in him. It’s a sad story that, after I was made redundant, the whole team who used to make this magazine, the best and oldest Romanian publication of its sort, has been removed. While all of them did find good jobs, I guess we will all carry with us the regret of something we loved doing being snatched from us just like that, with no good reason, and turned into a pitiful thin journal with lots and photos and silly toys to make it sell better, apparently… I have seen it on a newsagent’s shelf and felt like I was looking at a brochure of a questionable taste.
On the other hand though, this guy, Ionut Popa, has no long ago published a great travel book about his journey to Lake Baikal, on the Trans-Siberian Railway, and his writing, while being based on the exactness of a scientific approach (the author is a Doctor in Geography), is also very poetically personal. It was, after all, the personal experience of a man, not only a scientist, on the long and strenuous journey to the Island of the Shamans (Okhlon Island), not through direct physical effort, but through the effort of being confined to a small space in a train compartment for days, while the wild landscapes just rolled under his eyes.
And indeed the book ends with the most poetic epilogue, which has even taken me by surprise, and I know this man, I used to work next to him (literally, desk by desk), debate, laugh and rake our brains together for ideas for more than two years. What he is involved with right now is something most successful in Western countries, judging by the amount of books and magazines centred on this: travel writing publishing. A book like his “Baikal, a Deep Blue Eye” would for certain sell very successfully in a country like the UK. In Romania, he is at the moment investing effort in this uncertain field.
If I have kept you reading to this point, you are most probably asking yourselves, well, what about the city? Is this an exclusive account on my friends, who might be great people, but whom you will probably never meet, or was it meant to be a story on our recent travels through Romania?
True, I have written a few good long fragments about these people I know closely and admire, testing your patience at the same time. In a way, I had to do this. If I am telling others about my country, what can be more important than to let them see the people I know there, the way I know them? In a sea of grotesque images about Romanians, watched through a lens set to only show the ugly, the dirty, the unfit, the messy and the meager, talking about beautiful Romanians can be the missing pieces of the whole picture.
And how much it is missing still!
Landing around lunchtime on the 25th of June, we got out of the airport and on the bus to face a confirmation of one of Bucharest’s realities. On the one hour ride to Union Square (Piata Unirii), so many long sad faces around us, so many unhappy and tensed expressions, dry grey glances, bitter and doubtful, made us remember the roughness of this place. However, over our holiday this feeling not necessarily faded, but took a few steps back, allowing others to come into light.
When one visits Romania, be they one of the nationals established abroad or a foreign traveller, they will most certainly have strong feelings towards the place and its people. Some might see mainly the poverty, the misery, the struggle, and that expression of tensed resignation. Or on the contrary, they could notice Romanians chatting lively, local young women having a really nice figure, with a sensual or really provocative attitude, very feminine or very aggressive, chic or cheap imitation (yes, it is possible) of today’s pop culture kitsch. Depending on the part of the country they find themselves, they could manage to distinguish that sweet waved Transylvanian accent or the sharp cut, loud Bucharest one.
In a crowded place such as Centrul Vechi (the Old Centre) in the capital some may be tempted to try and avoid too much contact, as the streets and terraces full of people who are mainly out drinking and chatting (not so much for eating) can give you a sense of agoraphobia. In Cluj-Napoca’s big open squares, where your sight isn’t blocked by so many crammed buildings, the plan and details of the architecture are more obvious, give you the feeling of being in a very historical place, as well as time and space to explore at leisure. The hotchpotch of buildings from different periods of time in the centre of Bucharest can get the visitor dizzy and will require a sustained effort of observation to make sense of it all and to be able to see its hidden beauties.
At times… or even most of the time it can be difficult even for somebody who has lived in the Romanian capital to see these treasures. The reason does not stay only with the eyes of the beholder, unfortunately it means that the communist conspiracy against all that was built in the late 19th century, early 20th, has almost succeeded. It was in the old regime plans to cover it, hide it, even destroy it if possible. Little is known of fake buildings or architectural feints meant to keep away from the onlooker the edifices built in the 20’s and 30’s or even earlier, in times when the local monarchy was loved and their governance appreciated. Even after about 10 years in this city, my partner A. did not come to like it in too many ways and he is not a big fan of the way the place is built. On the night before the last in Bucharest, at the end of our holiday, we took a longer stroll with Mugur and Silviu on the backstreets of the central area, where most people don’t go regularly, unless they are looking for more cultural, alternative cafés and bars. Talking about the city and what makes it beautiful and worthwhile, a passionate debate started: A. was stating that its beauty is lost due to neglect, so many buildings left to decay and almost becoming a threat to safety, while Silviu explained how it is all due to the poor laws, subject to corruption, in the same time affirming his love for Bucharest. He used to hate it as well, until he fell in love with the place.
I myself tend to agree with Silviu, although A. brings good reasons into the topic: the greed, corruption and egotism of so many so-called rulers in our country tend to shadow its charm, its history and its values, cultural, human and natural. But then here we are, some of us still trying to uncover them, to remove the dirt, the refuse, the claws that cling on anything that can be sold, used, transformed in money and up to date Western luxury.
And there is still much to uncover, to clean, to polish and to bring out into the light. It takes effort, eyes to see and inquisitive minds to be able to reach the realities behind the harsh surface of daily, mediatized Romania (on all fronts).
(to be continued)