Walking the World: Bucharest
A city of the grandiose, filled with the humble
Sitting in the middle of Bucharest is a building so large, so ugly, so useless, it, as they say, has to be seen to be believed. Which is why I was in the middle of Bucharest on a cold Saturday night, dreary eyed and jet jagged, surrounded by Romanian teenagers. They were tailgating, drinking, and dancing to bad American pop music pumping from their cars, while I was starring up at Ceaușescu’s absurd monstrosity.
The building (now named the Palace of the Parliament) despite being across a wide boulevard, behind a high wall, and set in the middle of sprawling grounds atop a hill, still filled the sky, looming over everything.
It is really hard to look at it and not see it as a physical manifestation of all that was wrong with Communism. A parable of man’s capacity for brutality, and the corruption that comes with unchecked power.
A cruel dictator of a poor country, jealous of what he sees while visiting an even crueler dictator of an even poorer country, decides to build the world’s largest building. An opulent palace to show the world his might. To do so, he first levels three square miles in the capital’s center, destroying buildings, moving people, and flattening a hill. Then he commands one of every ten citizens to begin building this monolith.
For five years it slowly grows, replacing the old hill of dirt, with a gigantic shining palace of marble, bronze, steel, walnut, sycamore, crystal, silver, and gold, while the rest of the country, sapped of energy, food, and workers, sinks further into cold, darkness, and hunger.
Never does he say why the building needs to be built. Never does he justify the massive opulence in a country so drab and poor, beyond the doublespeak of a People’s House, despite it being closed to everyone but him and his friends.
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This particular parable though comes with an ending that at face value could be called happy, although tinged with black humor and the absurd.
In Romania, the tired and hungry citizens finally turned on Ceaușescu, after decades of rule, shooting him and his wife dead on Christmas 1989. It was an act they filmed and replayed on TV over and over and over. The salt in the wound of his death was denying Ceaușescu his lifelong dream of speaking to his adoring citizens from its balcony. That honor would go, three years later, to Michael Jackson.
Thirty-two years later, the building, finished, lighted, and rebranded as the Palace of the Parliament, dominates Bucharest in a way few buildings can. Mostly that is simply from the space it occupies, at the center of the three square mile bureaucratic dead zone leveled to build the Palace. That neighborhood, called Uranus, is of little use to normies, beyond housing empty buildings to tag with graffiti, and a parking lot to party in on weekend nights.
But partly it comes from being the largest, most central, and most obvious reminder of Romania’s past of brutality, cruelty, and ugliness. Not that it is easy to find explicit information on Ceaușescu’s reign in Bucharest. That, not surprisingly, isn’t something the city wants to highlight. Lining the walls around Uranus, attempting to make it less dead, is a project called “1000 years of Romanian Culture and Civilization,” which is comprised of hundreds of historical panels, none mentioning Ceaușescu.
Yet it is impossible to erase something so dark. You see the remains of the Communist period everywhere you walk in Bucharest. Everything in Bucharest, at the built level, is massive and huge, but only the Palace of the Parliament is ornate. Most every other building is flat, brutal, and solid, with no attempt to elevate above the functional.
For two weeks I walked Bucharest, beginning in the center, across from the Palace of the Parliament, working my way towards the edges of town. I quickly saw the city was roughly divided into a wealthier, more modern, more American influenced northern half, and a poorer southern half, so I focused on the south, because wealthy neighborhoods, no matter the country, are pretty much the same.
They are all variations on the same privileged theme. All have upscale shops and malls filled with the same stuff. All have bespoke restaurants serving the same food. And all are filled with residents who are careerists who happen to be where they are because that is where they have the biggest edge, by birth. They are best at making money in Romania since they grew up there, but if they ever get the chance to go elsewhere to make more money, they would happily do so.
So my walks after starting at the Palace of the Parliament, drifted south and west to the edges, where the trams that fill Bucharest end their run.
First I have to pass through the dead zone of Uranus, the neighborhood that surrounds the Palace of the Parliament. There isn’t much here, beyond a few massive abandoned buildings adjacent to massive government buildings adjacent to empty lots of stray cats, garbage, and ruins covered in graffiti.
Towards the end of the neighborhood is line of stores selling flowers, and bouquets shaped either like tear drops, or vaginas, depending on your mood. It is a constantly busy section adjacent to a boarded-up old casino of an otherwise empty area, of idling cars haggling with hawkers. It smells like a mix of rose perfume, piss, and exhaust.
After the flower section, for the next twelve miles, are wave after wave of housing complexes, each a mix of five to twelve story rectangular concrete buildings. Some line busy avenues, others are set back in planned communities, the rectangular buildings set at various angles to each other, all around playgrounds, parking lots, and school complexes.
Each building comes stamped with a letter and each entrance a number. A35, or B12. There are shops in a few of them, but most are simply for people to live in. Massive drab rectangular buildings with no architectural flair.
The flair is provided by the residents. The massive buildings are dotted with draped laundry, the small space in front of each building filled with gardens, dotted with tiny individual greenhouses made from water bottles, planters made from old tires, and gardening sculptures made from repurposed tires and metal. The windows and balconies are chock full of Xmas decorations, flags, flowers, drying clothes, posters, chairs, candles, and other knick knacks of life.
Beyond graffiti, they are remarkably clean. The sidewalks, parks, and playgrounds are free of litter, and there is absolutely no sign of drugs, beyond empty beer bottles.
As you head further away from the center of the city, the housing complexes become more infrequent, replaced by single homes behind walls of various styles. Almost all have small yards covered in grape vines, and a few are jarringly ostentatious. Massive mansions that look like they were built by a kid dreaming with Lego.
These two neighborhoods, about eight miles southwest of downtown, are called Rohova and Ferentari, and they are where I ended up walking the most. They are also, I was told after walking in them, supposed to be Bucharest’s worst. Or even, according to some media, in the top ten of Europe’s worst neighborhoods.
What they are referring to is the small clusters of Ceaușescu-era housing complexes here. They are similar to the ones closer to the city center, but much poorer, and much more run down. Some of the buildings’ stairwell windows are gone, the graffiti is thicker, there are piles of garbage scattered about (though far less than one might expect), and the parking lots jotted with broken down cars.
In one of the complexes, the otherwise rectangular block buildings are dotted with box balconies of wood and steel attached. Clearly improvisation to add a room, of questionable stability and safety. Especially in a place that has big earthquakes.
There is still just as much residential flair here (gardens, play sets, little shops) although it is more improvised and less upscale.
When I was told this was considered one of Europe’s worst and least safe neighborhoods, I literally laughed out loud. Poor sure, but dangerous? The most danger in my two weeks walking around was some kids tossing fireworks into a pile of empty cement blocks and giggling.
What there was, like in any poor community, is people living their life dramas out in public. All at the same time, creating a sense of chaos, that tipped into the surreal. Like the cat stuck in a tree branch being squawked at by crows while its owner stands below yelling and tossing rocks at the birds, next to a dog owner, dressed in a bathrobe, loudly demanding their dog get out from under a car jacked up on bricks, while a group of drunks, dressed in traditional Romanian garb including two in full bear outfits, parade around blasting Xmas music and banging on drums, asking for money, while a young man, dressed like he was in the Bronx, helps his older mother, dressed like she was in a Romanian folk tale, into a tiny idling cab that is holding up a young man in a fully tinted BMW who, frustrated, holds down his horn, leans out the window, and yells, which gets the young man guiding his seemingly deaf mom to yell at him, which gets the kid tossing rocks at the bird to stop and watch and yell over to his friends to come watch what looks like it is going to turn into fight, all of which does nothing from stopping the Xmas parade guys dancing right through the whole yelling honking scene, including the very drunk guy dressed as a bear who stops to pick up a rock to also toss at the crow, while the cat continues to howl. Meanwhile, a few yards away, a mother, dressed in leather pants, knee-high boots, and with bleach blond hair, oblivious to it all, supervises her kids, dressed in knock-off Disney snow outfits despite there being no snow, playing on an immaculately clean and neon bright playground set, while texting on a gigantic phone. All punctuated by the constant sound of the kids tossing fireworks into the cement blocks.
Dangerous no. Chaotic, sure.
I end most of my walks around sunset, at the Anghel Nutu Tram stop, on the far outreaches of the Southwestern part of town. I ride it to my favorite Italian restaurant, then my favorite bar, where I spend the remaining night before Covid curfew (10pm), before riding another tram back to where I began.
Each walk I learned a little more, thought a little more, but the question that kept nagging at me was, “why did this all work?” And Bucharest did work. It is a remarkably functional and pleasant city, despite having all the structural beauty of a parking garage, despite suffering from fifty years of central planning by megalomaniacs suffering from deep insecurity.
It especially works, relative to what I expected, in the poorer housing projects. So much of my work is about how community can flourish despite overwhelming odds, and here in Bucharest those overwhelming odds came in an awful past, poverty (certainly by US standards), and a dehumanizing soulless brutal architecture. So I wasn’t surprised to find people making the best of what they had. But I was surprised at the lack of crime, the lack of garbage, and an overall mood of contentment.
Sure there were ugly moments. But nothing like you find in richer, but also disenfranchised, communities in the US.
The answer, or at least what I think is partly the answer, came to me on one of my last nights in that parking lot across from the Palace of the Parliament, where I began and ended each walk. Sitting watching the entire scene of partying teenagers, and couples taking selfies with the building in the background.
The answer was nationalism. Not in the “lets go attack other countries who are not us” nationalism, but in a “we have shared a lot of experiences together, from the small (we watch the same TV shows), to the large (we endured and overcame an abusive dictatorship)” nationalism.
That nationalism, that shared experience, gives people, no matter their station in Romania, a sense of place, meaning, and pride. Being Romanian really means something. It binds you to everyone else. We are all in this together.
So Ceausescu did create a monument to the power and might of Romania, but not in the way he intended.
What his absurdly large building represents is a shared Romanian experience, in this case the Romanian people’s power to endure and overcome him.
When I go to a new city, I end up becoming a short term regular in a few places, repeatedly going to them. I don’t do lots of work in choosing places, they choose me. None are fancy, but I like them because they are not fancy. Just normal places that, at least to me, define a city. Here are some of the places I liked in Bucharest.
Happy Cinema (Strada Progresului 151-171)
This is really just a little middling mall, the Liberty Center Mall, just next to the flower district, and near a bunch of tram stops. On the top floor is a food court around an amusement center, including a movie theater, Happy Cinema. While I didn’t go to a movie, the name alone made me smile.
I used this mall as a walking break, to use the bathroom, and sit and watch people being people. There is something about not too busy food courts that attract me. Public spaces that are relaxing without being boring.
Trattori Roma (Drumul Taberei 26)
An amazing Italian restaurant in middle class neighborhood filled with apartment complexes. The food was some of the best Italian food I have had, and it was cheap. My only wish is that they didn’t continually blast cloying Romanian knockoff versions of US Xmas music. No matter how great the pasta is, I don’t wanna ever hear “Here comes Santa Claus” in a thick eastern European accent backed up by a synthesizer and drum machine again.
So, go unless it is December.
Vasily Bar (Strada Sibiu 4)
The official name of the bar was Pardon Cafe, but Vasily was the name of one of the cats inside it. Or the name of the drunk regular holding the cat when I asked, “name?” and pointed at the cat. Either way, the cat became Vasily to me and the bar, Vasily bar. It really is everything I could want in a bar, short of the draft beer working (nobody seems to have draft in these Covid-y times). It had cats (Vasily, and Vasily 2), played soft good unoffensive music (mostly jazz), had inexpensive very good beer (Ursus, a Romanian brand), soft lights, and regulars who spent their time drunk enough to be entertaining and not so drunk as to be annoying.
Some shawarma place in Ferentari (???)
Can’t find the place on the map, and the food wasn’t special, but the guy working there was an Albanian who had grown up in Detroit. He was as surprised to find an American in Ferentari (“It is too dangerous here for tourists!”) as I was to find him.
I always find it funny when people go to a place like Romania and then go out of their way to eat what is labeled as traditional Romanian food. So they go to some fancy place in the tourist district that serves expensive dishes nobody eats anymore. Meanwhile, most Romanians, as far as I can tell, rarely eat out, and when they do it is American fast food, or pizza slices, or various stuffed (cheese and meat) bread-y dough-y things from bakery places behind plexiglass, or shawarma from a place like this one. The one I can’t tell you the address of.
Which brings me to my last place.
Some Patiserie Covrigarie shop (A small place near the Cimitirul Evreiesc tram stop in Ferentari that once again isn’t listed on the map but does exist)
These little places produce a steady stream of baked goods, including pretzels that come hot out of conveyor belt ovens dropping them into big piles. They are behind a wall of glass, displaying their goods, with a little window to buy what you want. They are all over Bucharest, great, and very inexpensive. They make various Covrigis (basically stuffed pretzels that are very good), croissants, strudels, pizzas (topped with awful looking stuff) sold by the slice (not good), and then stuffed pizza shaped dough-y things called Placentas (some good, some not good).
Anyways. I always ended my long walk at this one, and treated myself to a chocolate pretzel. It was amazingly good, and eating only one was damn hard. So I started eating two. Then I bumped that up to three. Then I left town before it hit four, which it would have.
My rough daily walk
Various Logistical Walking Stuff
Bucharest isn’t exactly a pedestrian friendly place. Everyone seems to have a car, and parks it on the sidewalk, or drives to their parking place on the sidewalk. There are crosswalks everywhere, that drivers have to stop at, but while it is the law they stop, and they mostly do, it isn’t always a bet I was willing to take.
The public transportation system is one of the best I have ever used. Consisting of trams, trolley buses, buses, and a metro, it goes almost everywhere. It is also inexpensive. A one-week pass that works on everything is like $10. I myself stuck to the trams. They are absolutely wonderful things. Quick, extensive, and great for watching the city go by. After two days, the trams are all I used.
PS: There is an express bus from the airport to downtown that costs like $1. Much better than a taxi.
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