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“Continental Drift: Colliding Continents, Converging Cultures” – Review by Prof. Thomas G. Gallagher

May 3rd, 2016 · Books, Diary, Diaspora, Education, Famous People, International Media, OPINION, PEOPLE, quotations, Science

Constantin Roman: “Continental Drift: Colliding Continents, Converging Cultures” Reviewed by Thomas G. Gallagher (Bradford University)

Constantin Roman: "Continental Drift, Colliding Continents, Converging Cultures"

Constantin Roman: “Continental Drift, Colliding Continents, Converging Cultures”

Constantin Roman is Romanian Honorary consul in the English university town of Cambridge where he was awarded a PhD for pioneering work in the field of geophysics in 1974. For over twenty years, he has been an independent consultant in oil exploration and his reputation as a successful oil finder has enabled him to settle down comfortably in a pleasant corner of England after many vicissitudes.
Dr Roman’s memoirs were published in 2000 by an Anglo-American scientific publisher. The title, Continental Drift suggests that plate tectonics, his field of expertise, dominates the book. In fact while frequent attention is given to his scientific ideas, how they were applied, and the collaboration with eminent scientists which resulted, the fascination of this book is to be found in its account of how the human spirit managed to triumph over considerable odds.
Roman is a determined and ingenious Romanian with a gift for striking up friendships with the eminent and the humble and also a genius for improvisation, which has extricated him from tight corners. Such survival skills, when not leavened by strong moral qualities, have produced a rather sinuous Romanian, immortalised by the playwright Caragiale, and much seen in the politics of the country for the past seventy years.
Roman ‘s ability to triumph against the odds and make a new life for himself in a land very different from the one he left, while retaining a strong moral formation and a desire never to lose touch with Romania, is a gripping and inspiring tale. It is one that young talented East Europeans contemplating an involuntary life of exile, might learn from: although the Iron Curtain may be history, the bureaucratic obstacles preventing gifted former Soviet bloc citizens from moving freely in Europe, remain formidable ones.
Roman describes in the chapter‘The DNA signature’ how his ancestors regularly found themselves on the wrong side of authority for religious and later political reasons. He was born into a middle-class Bucharest family in 1941, his father, Valeriu, being a chemical engineer working, as his son would do later, in the oil industry. Accused in 1948 of being a British collaborator, Valeriu escaped prison partly due to his popularity with the company workforce. His refusal to join the communist party was a black mark, which prevented the young Constantin training as an architect, when university entry was based on social class criteria.
With property and savings confiscated, education became a symbol of resistance to the communist system. But in the Faculty of Geology at Bucharest, which Roman joined in 1960, staff-student relations were those of master and servant. As I read about the refusal of staff to share information with students, their insistence in denying students the freedom to select a dissertation topic, and the desire of many to play God in other ways, I wondered how different Romanian academia was today. The tyrannical, miserly, and negligent professors still exist in both the state and private universities in Romania and the weakness of student associations (where they exist) in defending student rights is one of the dismal features of contemporary Romania. Perhaps this is because many of the student politicians know they are destined to be the bureaucrats and lawyers of tomorrow, ones who will in turn exploit and mistreat those who rely on their good offices.
At the age of 27, thanks to his resilience and sense of upholding an
independent family tradition, Roman would get the chance to experience a more liberal academic climate. Working as a tour guide in the summer months, he developed his language skills and made friends abroad who sent dictionaries or works of literature and history (such as Churchill’s History of the Second World War). He also received dozens of offprints of scientific publications from western universities, materials which, if in the hands of his professors, remained firmly locked in their filing cabinets.
The stratagems needed to overcome a Kafkaesque bureaucracy and obtain a passport, permission to leave the country, and a plane ticket in order to take up an invitation to attend a palaeomagnetic conference at Newcastle university, make absorbing reading. Human agency could still defeat the most opaque of bureaucracies. The Latin temperament of the Romanians may explain why Nicolae Ceausescu, the peasant shoemaker who acquired the reins of power in 1965, was determined to impose a brand of national Stalinism, in which all traces of nonconformity were erased.
Imagining what might have occurred to a free spirit like Roman if entombed in Ceausescu’s Orwellian system is a depressing thought. It is worse to contemplate that there were probably many other outspoken young Romanians who in nearly every case were crushed under the iron heel, broken or compromised by the system.
In the most entertaining part of the book, Roman describes how, as a young ingénue, he arrived on the shores of England, describing his reactions to the social customs, eating habits, and landscapes and buildings of this curious island.

Peterhouse College and Chapel (text by C. Roman)

Peterhouse College and Chapel (text by C. Roman)

He found the willingness of scientists first at Newcastle and then at Cambridge to share ideas, contacts, and funds with him totally at variance with what he had known as a student in Romania. The informal staff-student relations, the generous research facilities, and the innovative spirit had a galvanising effect on him.
Rueful accounts are provided of British insularity and bureaucratic rigidity, which qualify his enthusiasm, for English ways. But he became sufficiently attached to Britain to make his home there even though he was determined not to renounce his Romanian nationality. When studying for his PhD in the early 1970s, he managed to be a more authentic advocate for his country than its official envoys: he published translations of poetry, organized various exhibitions and festivals and mounted an exhibition devoted to the sculptor Brancusi.
Perenially short of funds and with a hostile Romanian embassy frequently breathing down his neck, Roman had to deploy all his ingenuity and will-power to progress with his research. He presented seminars on his PhD topic in various universities, a rather unusual initiative for a mere research student. One year into his PhD, he published a path-breaking article in the prestigious scientific magazine Nature on plate tectonics.

C. Roman 1970 Carpathians Plate Tectonic Model (Nature 1970)

C. Roman 1970 Carpathians Plate Tectonic Model (Nature 1970)

Months before the completion of his work, when it appeared that American researchers were about to publish identical results in the same area, he persuaded New Scientist, the prestigious UK weekly of popular science, to publish a summary of his findings, so that he would still have the chance to present his dissertation as an original piece of research.
Roman describes these academic thrills and spills with humour and irony. He admits that his single-mindedness could be trying for the university administrators and professors whose good offices he relied upon. But the indefatigable Romanian exile was not ambitious at any price. He described job interviews for posts in academia and industry where he threw away his chances by refusing to bow-the-knee to stuffy rectors and oil executives.
His greatest trouble arose from his refusal to give up his Romanian nationality. He was menaced on a number of fronts: by Securitate operatives masquerading as diplomats keen to end his flouting of socialist order and drag him back to Romania; by a prospective mother-in-law who refused to allow her daughter to marry him unless he accepted British citizenship; and by officials of the British Home Office who assumed that his desire to retain what he saw as his unalienable right of birth, his nationality, might stem from communist loyalties.
One of his innumerable visits to the Home Office coincided with the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968. He was amazed to see that that the sympathy of the British public for the young Czech liberals was not shared by immigration officials: students claiming political asylum were ordered to move on by bureaucrats who possessed ‘the callousness of Communist satraps’.

Mircea Eliade

Mircea Eliade

For five years Roman struggled to obtain permanent residency. His ultimate aim was to obtain under the Geneva Convention, stateless travel papers for ‘a citizen of uncertain nationality’.
Upon writing to the philosopher Mircea Eliade in Chicago who had been in the Boy Scout movement with his father, he was advised to contact Ion Ratiu, the London-based Romanian émigré businessman. Ratiu declined to offer him practical assistance but suggested that he should apply for political asylum. This is not the only example in the book of the reluctance of a well-placed Romanian to help out a compatriot.
To apply for political asylum might have had unwelcome consequences for his family at home. Roman quietly mentions that both his parents were dead by the time he was able to re-visit Romania in the 1990s. Instead, he used his Cambridge connections to elicit the backing of lord Goodman, a lawyer and éminence-grise of British politics before 1979 in order to intercede with the Home Office.

Sir Duncan Wilson (1911-1983)

Sir Duncan Wilson (1911-1983)

Sir Duncan Wilson, Master of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge and an ex-ambassador to Moscow and Belgrade, sent Roman to be grilled by Lajos Lederer, a Hungarian working for the London Observer to see if he was indeed what he said he was. Afterwards Goodman decided to champion Roman’s cause, writing to the head of the Home Office that ‘He is a man of impeccable character and he is clearly determined to belong here and make a significant contribution to our national life’.
But what is striking is the difficulties that a power-broker like Goodman encountered in persuading the Home Office to adopt a more humane attitude. They insisted that he obtain a permanent job before releasing his papers: aged 32, Roman had ‘no previous employment history, lack of industry experience, “excessive” qualifications…lack of work permit, no permission to stay in Britain, and a dubious passport/nationality from a Communist country’. In the end, David Floyd of The Daily Telegraph and the author of “Romania: Russia’s Dissident Ally”, offered him a job which broke the bureaucratic log-jam.
Upon graduation, Roman set up his own oil consultancy business when a slump in the industry meant there were few job openings. He believed he made a success of it because of ‘the convergence of two most improbable spirits the obduracy, imagination and resourcefulness of the Romanian character, grafted on the liberalism, precision and luminosity of a Cambridge mind’.
When visa restrictions in the European Union were less rigid than today, the bureaucratic small-mindedness preventing a person of talent and integrity being able to make his way in British life, makes dispiriting reading. The ‘Roman cause-célèbre’, as he puts it himself, triumphed because he had the self-confidence to seek out help in high places. One wonders how many East Europeans who could have been an asset to their adopted country have been turned away by the states to the west who were shielded by geography from the Soviet experience.
Many young Romanians, even those who take refuge in bombastic nationalism, have lost the pride in their country, which motivated Constantin Roman. The Ceausescu tyranny, which he was lucky to avoid, has seen to that. Today, as an adviser to President Emil Constantinescu it would be good to think that this Cambridge man is putting the lessons he learned, during his formative years in Britain, to good use. Reform-minded Romanians need to learn how to deal realistically with foreign companies keen to benefit from their privatisation programme and with foreign governments whose decision-making cultures they are still only dimly aware off.

 

Constantin Roman writes with candour, wit, and humility. His remarkable life story unfolds with effortless simplicity thanks to his ability to write mellifluous English influenced by Romanian cadences. It is clear that he wishes to do service for the country he never lost touch with during 25 years in exile. Perhaps one way is to motivate and instruct young people with similar talents and ambitions to the ones he possessed in the 1960s.
The need for Romanians to rediscover the characteristic of group solidarity which Roman encountered in the British university world but which disappeared in communist Romania is a pressing one. That is why his story deserves to be better-known in Romania.

 

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Poetry in Translation (CCCXCIV), ROMANIA – Flavia TEOC (b. 1971): “Pastel la Cluj ”, “Watecolour”

April 29th, 2016 · Famous People, International Media, PEOPLE, Poetry, quotations, Translations

Poetry in Translation (CCCXCIV), ROMANIA – Flavia TEOC (b. 1971): “Pastel la Cluj ”, “Watecolour”

Flavia TEOC

Flavia TEOC

Pastel la Cluj

Flavia Teoc (n. 1971)
Degetele orașului
Cenușii ca umbra stâlpilor de telegraf
Se preling pe-acoperișuri, moțuri și pălării
Înșirând semne cuneiforme,
Scriind ceva ce numai de sus se poate citi.
Iar noaptea își întinde trupul de dragoste nimicitoare
Peste turle de cretă și aur dospit
O fi fost și el odată (de-o domnișoară oraș cu ochi de vitralii și drumuri însorite) foarte îndrăgostit.

* * * * * * *

 

Watercolour

Flavia Teoc (b. 1971)

 

The city’s fingers

Grey like the shadows cast by telegraph poles

Oozing on rooftops, cap and feathers,

Like ancient hieroglyphs,

Writing something that can be read only from high up.

As the night is extending its body of destructive love

Over the cupolas of fermented gold

Maybe, once upon a time, I was in love

With a city with stained glass eyes

And sunny streets, verily indeed.

 

Rendered in English by Constantin ROMAN, London,
© 2016 Copyright Constantin ROMAN

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TEOC carte

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Poetry in Translation (CCCXCIII), ROMANIA, Adrian MUNTEANU (b. 1948, Braşov): “Nu mă aştepţi c-un zâmbet”, “With open Arms”

April 27th, 2016 · Books, Famous People, International Media, PEOPLE, Poetry, quotations, Translations

Poetry in Translation (CCCXCIII), ROMANIA, Adrian MUNTEANU (b. 1948, Braşov): “Nu mă aştepţi c-un zâmbet”, “With open Arms”

Adrian Munteanu - Poet

Adrian Munteanu – Poet

Adrian MUNTEANU (n. 1948)

NU MĂ AŞTEPŢI C-UN ZÂMBET

Nu mă aştepţi c-un zâmbet la intrare.
Între pereţi stă gârbovă tăcerea.
Ascunsă prin unghere, încăperea
A împietrit în picuri de uitare.

Nevolnic rost, împărtăşesc plăcerea
De-a mă retrage fad în aşteptare.
Rămân pustiu, un semn de întrebare
Ce-a năruit speranţa sau durerea.

Mi-ar trebui un zbor de dimineaţă,
Să născocesc poveşti cu trup fragil,
Să recompun altarele de ceaţă.

E prea târziu. În gândul meu debil,
Sleit de pofte, răvăşit de viaţă,

Aş vrea să fiu, dar nu mai sunt copil.
* * * * * *

adrian munteanu poet

Adrian Munteanu (b. 1948)

WITH OPEN ARMS

 

With open arms, don’t greet me on your threshold;

Your home is haunted by a hunchback silence,

Which hides in darkest corners, in defiance

Of frozen memories, which grip my world.

 

Being unable, now, to share all pleasure,

I will retreat onto the tallest tower.

I cannot answer, as I have no power,

My hope and body shattered beyond measure.

 

I need again the morning’s wake-up call,

To memorise this fragile tale of yore,

And raise, again, my prayer and my soul…

 

Yet it’s too late. My brain can’t keep the score,

I lost my strength that nothing can forestall…

I’d like to be, but am a child no more.

 

Rendered in English by Constantin ROMAN, London,
© 2016 Copyright Constantin ROMAN

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Adrian Munteanu @ Milan Book Fair

Adrian Munteanu @ Milan Book Fair

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Poetry in Translation (CCCXCII), ROMANIA, George TOPÂRCEANU (1886, Bucharest – 1937, Jassy): “Jealousy”, “Gelozie”

April 24th, 2016 · Books, Diaspora, Famous People, International Media, Poetry, quotations, Translations

 

Poetry in Translation (CCCXCII), ROMANIA, George TOPÂRCEANU (1886, Bucharest – 1937, Jassy): “Jealousy”, “Gelozie”

George Toparceanu

George Toparceanu

George TOPÂRCEANU (1886-1937)

Jealousy

 

Had we never met before

(Incidentally, by mistake)

You’d have loved, for Goodness’ sake,

Any lad and any bore.

 

If o’r paths had never crossed,

You’d have given, merrily,

To a stranger, verily,

All my love, at any cost.

 

Might you had a child by him,

Born an idiot, for sure,

And completely premature,

Like his father, on a whim.

 

After all, this song and dance,

Merely, was an accident,

As we took the Sacrament,

Absolutely, by sheer chance.

 

Rendered in English by Constantin ROMAN, London,
© 2016 Copyright Constantin ROMAN

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Toparceanu

Toparceanu

Gelozie

George TOPÂRCEANU

(1886-1937)

 

Dacă nu ne-am fi-ntâlnit

(Absolut din întâmplare),

Tu pe altul oarecare

Tot aşa l-ai fi iubit.

 

Dacă nu-ţi ieşeam în drum

Ai fi dat cu bucurie

Altuia străin, nu mie,

Mângâierile de-acum.

 

Ai avea şi vreun copil

Care, poate (idiotul!),

Ar fi sămănat cu totul

Cu-acel tată imbecil.

 

Dar aşa… ce lucru mare

Că’ntr-o zi ne-am întâlnit

Şi că’s foarte fericit,

Absolut din întâmplare!

 

(1928, din “Migdale amare“)

*  *  *  *  *  *

 

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Poetry in Translation (CCCXCI), SERBIA / VLACH, Vasko POPA (1922 – 1991): “In the Village of my Ancestors”, “Satul de obârşie”

April 12th, 2016 · Books, Famous People, International Media, PEOPLE, Poetry, quotations, Translations

Poetry in Translation (CCCXCI), SERBIA / VLACH, Vasko POPA (1922 – 1991): “In the Village of my Ancestors”, “Satul de obârşie”

Vasko POPA

Vasko POPA

Vasko POPA

(1922 Grebenaţ, Voivodina – Belgrade, 1991)

In The Village of My Ancestors

 

Someone embraces me
Someone looks at me with the eyes of a wolf
Someone takes off his hat
So I can see him better

Everyone asks me
Do you know how I’m related to you

Unknown old men and women
Appropriate the names
Of young men and women from my memory

I ask one of them
Tell me for God’s sake
Is George the Wolf still living

That’s me he answers
With a voice from the next world

I touch his cheek with my hand
And beg him with my eyes
To tell me if I’m living too

Vasko Popa Poems

Vasko Popa Poems

 

Vasko Popa

(1922 Grebenaţ, Voivodina – Belgrade, 1991)

Satul de obârşie

 

Cineva mă îmbrătişează

Cineva se uită la mine cu ochi de lup

Cineva îşi descoperă capul

Ca să îl văd mai bine

 

Fiecare mă întreabă

Ştii cum suntem rude

 

Bătrâne si bătrâni necunoscuţi

Poartă numele

Băieţilor şi fetelor din copilaria mea

 

Întreb pe unul dintre ei

Pentru numele lui Dimnezeu spune-mi

Lupul Gheorghe mai trăieşte

 

Sunt eu îmi răspunde

Cu o voce de pe altă lume

 

Îi mângâi obrazul cu mâna

Şi îl implor cu privirea

Să-mi spună că şi eu sunt viu.

 

Rendered in Romanian by Constantin ROMAN, London,
© 2016 Copyright Constantin ROMAN

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Vasko POPA

Vasko POPA

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Poetry in Translation (CCCXC), ROMANIA, Adrian MUNTEANU (b. 1948, Braşov): “Ia-mă de mână! Mit 3”, “Take My Hand! – Myth 3”

April 5th, 2016 · International Media, PEOPLE, Poetry, quotations, Translations

Poetry in Translation (CCCXC), ROMANIA, Adrian MUNTEANU (b. 1948, Braşov): “Ia-mă de mână! Mit 3”, “Take My Hand! – Myth 3”

Discard the oar and let the doubt to perish… Give me your hand, take me afar, at last.

Discard the oar and let the doubt to perish…
Give me your hand, take me afar, at last.

Adrian Munteanu

(n. 1948, Braşov)

Ia-mă de mână! Mit 3

 

Mă poartă Adeona-n labirintul
Acelor paşi ce i-am făcut în veacuri.
Îndreaptă-mi gândul de la simple fleacuri,
Să pot gusta din cupa ta absintul.

 

Pierde-mă-n văi cu cenușii hogeacuri,
Să-ndrept în iarbă rostul şi alintul
Din care-a fost să izvodesc argintul
Tainei ce-aşează-n trup uitate leacuri.

 

De ce mă laşi acum, când caut drumul,
Să rătăcesc în valuri ce se sparg,
Abia zărind, prin abur des, albumul

 

Cu pânze vechi şi cu-n pieziş catarg?
Aruncă vâsla, risipeşte fumul,
Ia-mă de mână, scoate-mă în larg!

* * * * *

Adrian Munteanu

(b. 1948, Braşov)

Take My Hand! – Myth 3

 

As Daedalus is giving me the vigour

To find my way along the maize of tidings,

Please, take my thoughts away from simple nothings,

So that I drink, instead, your cup of liquor.

 

Do let me err along the darkest sightings,

To walk the path of truth and loving ardour,

Which made me forge the silver of the armour

And bring about all the forsaken tidings.

 

Forget me not, whilst trying to distinguish,

In vain, the image of an elusive cast,

As I can hardly see afar the blemish

 

Of distant sails and of a tilted mast…

Discard the oar and let the doubt to perish…

Give me your hand, take me afar, at last.

 

Rendered in English by Constantin ROMAN, London,
© 2016 Copyright Constantin ROMAN

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ETERNAL REST IN BUCHAREST (PART 1 OF 6)

March 28th, 2016 · Books, Diary, Genealogy, History, PEOPLE, quotations, Reviews, Short Stories & Cameos

ETERNAL REST IN BUCHAREST (PART 1 OF 6)
“En Roumanie tout est possible et rien
ne m’étonne plus!” (Emil Cioran)

Angela Livovschi Lambrino

Angela Livovschi Lambrino

1. There was a strange mixture of the macabre and the comic in the funeral proceedings which were unfolding in front of my eyes in the Chapel of Rest of the Romanian Orthodox cemetery in Bucharest, like a surreal play of the Theatre of the Absurd by Eugene Ioneco. The family burial plot was in one of the grandest and most elegant cemeteries in the country, recently declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site because of its grandiose mausoleums, decorated with bronze sculptures and statues carved in Carrara marble. These were all witness to a faded historical past. Now all these glories were almost all forgotten. This was the world of pre-War Romania during which aunt Angelica spent half of her life, the second half she lived under the communist dictatorship and this we were going to bury today. Following several generations of forebears who went to their Maker, with Angela’s demise the last vacant crypt in the family vault was going to be filled. What it meant to me, was that the vault became rather crowded and that I no longer stood a chance of joining my parents, grandparents and great grandparents: that made sense as I now belonged to another country and this was my last link which I was about to bury six feet under the ground.

My short visit as the last member of Angela’s close family, now living in the West, was prompted by a short telegram from a distant cousin in Bucharest:

“A murit Tanti Angelica. Vino acasa sa aranjezi funeraliile”
(Aunt Angela has passed away.. Come home to organise funeral)
– meaning, really, to officiate the role of “Maître de cérémonie”, well, a kind of majordomo, like in the gentlemen’s clubs of London…

My house in Sussex where I raised three children and had my Offices

My house in Sussex where I raised three children and had my Offices

What seemed strange in this odd message, which arrived out of the blue, in my London home was that I was asked to return home whilst, by that time, I lived far longer abroad than I ever lived in Romania, nearly twice longer, I should say, and far longer than I cared to keep a record of. By then my life was filled with momentous events, which charted a road of no return to Ceausescu’s dictatorship: I had a Cambridge degree, I was gainfully employed by an American Oil Company in London, I was the owner of a nice house with a manicured croquet lawn (my interpretation of being mistaken for an English gent, which I was not). I owned an estate with centuries-old trees, including a majestic sequoya, a cedar of Lebanon and a lake stocked with carp… More to the point I was married into an English family, where high breeding, an Army background and low-brow intelligence, counted for more than a University degree, be it even from Oxbridge.
In fact I never had either patience or inclination to contemplate all these distinctions, as I considered myself very much of ‘middle brow’ stock. The in-laws, or shall I call them the ‘outlaws’, were middle class too, or, at best, upper middle class, because of their associations with the British Army upper echelons and with the landed gentry.

Dungiven Castle - built by my children's maternal ancestors

Dungiven Castle – built by my children’s maternal ancestors

It amused me no end to hear them complaining about a prospective daughter-in-law being the offspring of a “mere army major!”
– ‘But excuse me, this is exactly what your own father is’, I reminded my better half, to which she corrected me:
– ‘Ah you see, the difference being, had Father not resigned his commission, as a young Major, to take up farming, he will have become, by now, a General like grandfather, great grandfather and many generations before him all the way to East India Company! Besides, father belongs to a much better regiment, ‘The King’s Own’, whilst Sue’s father comes from an obscure army regiment, whatever that may be… Not to mention the late uncle Bob who was a Colonel-in-Chief of the Cavalry regiment” and a benefactor of the Army Museum and of the Scottish Church in London’.
‘It makes sense, doesn’t it? I could not agree more! What a missed opportunity! What a field day to have had a Field Marshall as a father-in-law!’ At this sombre thought my protestations froze in my gullet.
Wife completely missed the jibe, as she pronounced the indictment of her future sister-in-law:
‘She was after the honey pot, this is what Mother said.’
‘But your Mother was bound to say that, you admitted it yourself, about all her children’s prospective matches, suspected of ‘being after their money!’
It ached me no end about my Mother-in-law trumpeting loudly to all who cared to hear it and especially to those who did not want to, that the only attraction her children ever possessed was their inheritance and nothing else! How beastly of her! But how was I to know all these subtleties, because by the time I woke up to this reality check I already had three wonderful children. They did not speak Romanian, because their mother did not and anyway I was most of the time absent from home, during the week and they were asleep as I returned home from work, in the evening. By the time they grew up enough to sense the difference, children knew precious little about Romania, in a patchy manner, from anecdotes and hearsay. Aunt Angelica was part of this rich folklore, a last link with the past and now this link was broken, with the last close member of the family gone.

Bucharest Bameasa Airport, now decommisioned

Bucharest Bameasa Airport, now decommisioned

Compared to the airport I knew when I last flew out of the country, during the “Golden Era” (Epoca de Aur, no less!) of blissful communism, Bucharest International Airport was buzzing with a new life of free enterprise, which was reminiscent of provincial country funfairs. While waiting for the arrival of my suitcase where I threw in a hurry a few personal belongings, before I left London and a second larger suitcase with a lot of presents for long-lost relations, I noticed this character who got hold of my bags ready to bundle them in an unmarked taxi – I pounced on him but would not retrieve my belongings before I paid a tip to transfer the luggage into the cousin’s old car, which was waiting for me. I recognised her instantly because of her haircut reminiscent of Ana Pauker, a kind of boyish lesbian hair cut, too short for a woman, almost masculine. But above all, it was her unmistakeable “strungareata” – the distinctive gap between her front teeth, which decorated the smile of her full-Moon face, I found her always unattractive, in a manner which betrayed her unmistakable extraneous origins, from a mining community in the Carpathian mountains of Transylvania.
She got out of the car with some difficulty, because of her outsize girth and effected an embrace: we hardly knew each other in Romania, because I was too young at the time and the age difference did count, especially that she was really only a cousin-in-law and the widow of my late father’s first cousin. We only met at family funerals, before I left Romania in a hurry, never to return. We both feigned an unbound elation on embracing each other after three long decades:

– ‘Te-ai ingrasat, arati bine!’ (You put on weight, you look good!).

Oh, here we are, the famous Romanian adage, whereby telling somebody that he put on weight was a compliment, inferring a life of plenty and of professional achievement: ‘esti gras si bine’ literally meaning ‘you are fat and well’, always said in envy, as a hang over from the atavistic memory of centuries-old famine, when only fat people survived. What was absolutely sure, even for Romanian women, was that ‘plump’ was better than spindly and if you had the girth, the size of an inflatable mattress, you stood a better chance of getting married, then say if you were a lanky beauty, fit only for the cat walk. Even the popular ditties reflected this philosophy:

Sărut mâna pentru masă
C-a fost bună şi gustoasă
Şi bucătăreasa grasă.

Which, in the English vernacular translation, would more or less sound like:

Kiss your hand, Ma’am, for the pastry,
And the meal, which was so tasty,
For the coffee and all that,
As the cook was nice and fat’.

Not a good start, the story of the suitcase, followed by the reminder that I was overweight. With adrenaline still pumping, after this inauspicious preamble, I woke up to this reality check: I really felt that I was out of touch with Romania and my self-defense short of appropriate interjections. This was the country, which was hoping to become some day a member of the EU… Did not Tony Blair referred to it as being “on the threshold of Europe”?… Of course, when the Romanians heard all this, thinking of themselves as Europeans of the best type, they got in a funk: how wrong Blair could have been! To me, after three decades of absence this country looked more like the worst corner of the Middle East!

Trabant

Trabant

Before I could erase from my mind this first impression it only got reinforced by the dilapidated state of my cousin’s car, a twenty-year old vintage “Dacia” (a kind of Communist “Trabant”, Romanian-style) rattling in an alarming manner, as if it was going to fall to pieces, when negotiating the potholes on the road. Of course, the oncoming traffic trying to avoid exactly the same potholes would often bring us to near-collision course. The ensuing exchanges of the most colourful, if imaginative, vernacular were typical of Bucharest and raised the winter temperature by several degrees. I tried to reduce the tension by bringing some good cheer for the driver, when I ventured tentatively the news:
– I brought you a few presents from London, for all your trouble!
She looked at me in disbelief because she had bigger and better ideas of her own, as I was going to find out instantly:
– As you see, what I really need is a new car!
– I can see that, I added, not knowing what to make of this
– Well, why don’t you send me one from England?
– Why should I? I answered, as such direct, no-frills question deserved a fittingly blunt retort.
– Because till the end of the year we do not pay VAT on imported second-hand cars
– Aha, how very interesting, but what will you be doing with an English car which has the stirring wheel on the right: in England we drive on the left side of the road – you know?
She did not think of this unexpected inconvenience and fearing that she might ask me to send her a car from France, or Germany, indeed from anywhere, I added cautiously;
potholes– Besides you will have problems with spare parts and these are expensive, you know? Not to mention the service!
– In England you have to do things differently from everybody else, she retorted, merely to counteract the unexpected show-down
– Yes we do and I thank God for it – for starters we do not have potholes on the roads!
As I barely finished my sentence a new near-collision brought mercifully this awkward conversation to a halt and before long we arrived “home”….

Well, in fact I no longer had a “home” by that time because my parents died only months before Ceausescu’s overthrow. This prompted some dutiful cousins to make sure that parents’ flat was sold and all chattels with it so that they could buy themselves a more spacious apartment. For them I was conveniently out of the way, I simply did not exist, as I lived on the other side of the barbed wire of Romania’s prison-state, beyond the Iron Curtain. They knew that they could act as they pleased, with impunity: they gave evidence that parents had ‘no surviving children’ and so they declared themselves ‘sole heirs’, oh, yes!! Now in the town of my childhood I had no longer an anchor other than the family graves and I felt rudderless. All my personal memories were carefully erased, if not by Ceausescu’s bulldozers and expropriations, then by the rapacity and opportunism of surviving relations, whose life exertions under Communism taught them the harsh reality of survival of the fittest: in such environment all compromises and all blows below the belt were permitted, provided that it secured a minimum of advantage. Why should I blame them? I certainly had no right to! I was lucky to be out of this game.

 Cemetery Chapel

Cemetery Chapel

– Where is Angela, I asked tentatively, trying to show some decorum for the event for which I was summoned to perform the offices of ‘High Priest’, as the closest and eldest relation of the deceased.
– She is in the ‘Chapel of Rest’: you can bring her some flowers tomorrow and we shall have to pay for the wreath and bring it with us at the same time.
– Isn’t it a little too early before the funeral to put her in this Chapel, on everybody’s view, instead of keeping her refrigerated in the municipal Central Mortuary? What if she started to smell?
– Don’t you worry, this is the custom. We did it all according to custom, as you were not here. She was gutted out and was filled with formaldehyde.
– What do you mean ‘she was gutted’? It sounds like a salmon at a fishmonger’s. Was she filleted as well? I AM gutted to hear all these details!
– Are you squeamish? This is the Law of the Land and we have to bury the dead within three days. Besides, the Chapel is not heated.

Oh yes, I did indeed remember the glacial Chapel during the harsh winter of Bucharest when attending Grandfather’s funeral service, which lasted shy of two hours. The mourners nearly all froze, standing around the open coffin, with the two Orthodox priests in richly embroidered vestments, wafting clouds of incense from their silver incense burners, during unending Byzantine chants and prayers for the absolution of the sins of the dearly departed and closing the performance with the ‘Vesnica Pomenire’ (Eternal Remembrance)
– Would grandfather have committed so many earthly sins as to require such an extended service? I asked Father
– Don’t you mind all this and be quiet, my son: this is the custom. Grandfather being issued from a long lineage of clerics he deserved a fully-fledged service.

My thoughts quickly brought me back to Aunt Angela’s funeral:

Intercontinental Bucharest

Intercontinental Bucharest

– Well, I said, if such is the case I better make my way to the hotel, as I had a long journey starting in the middle of the English countryside, before I went to Heathrow and finally made it to Bucharest.
– You mean to say you booked a room at the hotel, rather than stay with us? But this is madness – it will cost you a lot of money. I prepared a bed for you here.
– I know, thank you, my dear, you are very kind as usual. I reflected for a minute thinking of the nightmare of living with my cousin at such close quarters: she would have finished me off – the sodding, unhappy bastard! I felt as if I had to buttress my refusal with a new line:
– It is no good, dear. I am a very bad guest; I snore and fart in my sleep and I wake up at least twice, if not three times in the middle of the night to have a pee… you know? old men’s bladders do not function properly anymore. I will be a nuisance and in the dark I am likely to stumble over your cat!
– But we are used to all this: we fart too, you know? What is different in all that? You mean to imply that your English farts smell differently?
– Most certainly, my dear: they are stinking bombs, truly lethal!
– But think that your hotel is extortionately expensive, it must be: I bet you booked at the Hilton, knowing you! we could have done with this money ourselves, we have so many needs!
– No, as a matter of fact I booked at the Continental. I will call you in the morning.

What was nice about this direct language to which I was no longer used and nearly forgotten was the sheer unadulterated verb: why beat about the bush when you can go straight to the point? Quite! Memories came flooding back, again and again, in droves and far from being shocked, or ruffled, I found it endearing and mildly amusing in a detached sort of way: it was a manner of insulating oneself from such verbal aggression, short of putting on an armoured protective outfit and pretend that I was both aloof and insensitive to my relations’ plea.
For a split second, seeing her crumpled face dissolve in utter distress, I felt a pang of remorse, so I added
– I know dear, don’t you worry, I thought of all that. Look this other suitcase is full of presents, most of them for you and only a few trinkets for the other cousins. You will get all the expenses refunded and a lot more for all your trouble to have looked after Angela through her difficult times. Now I must go as I am truly exhausted.

Кэрнэцэи, мититеи, печень на гратаре, 266, 271, 274

Кэрнэцэи, мититеи, печень на гратаре, 266, 271, 274

– But I arranged dinner for us and a few relations.
– Not to worry dear, you will explain all that, and tell that we shall have a good wake together after the funeral, when we can keep each other’s company and say all we want to reminisce about. Besides, I believe that you and I will see more of each other to sort out Angela’s studio. It must be full of old furniture, papers and stuff and it will all have to be sorted out before I go.
– We already started to sift through, you know? we could not wait till you came in the last minute. She never threw out a hairpin, you know? junk which survived the war and the earthquakes, some of it going back to 1900.
– Very well, so I see: Angela’s dining room and paintings are already here in your flat, I can see that! They belonged to grandfather, you know? I remember them vividly since I was a child… And those paintings were painted by grandmother at the Fine Arts school in Paris, at the ‘Academie Julliard’and later on with Sava Hentia in Bucharest.
– Angela gave all these to me before she died.
– I should think so, dear: you were very good to her, I know. I will make an offer which you cannot refuse, for these paintings, so that you will not feel hard done, I assure you. The furniture you can keep. Oh look, how nice, these were my mother’s porcelain flowers: my children gave these to her when she visited us in England before she died.
– Oh your mother gave me these ages ago, do you mind?
– Look, I am no good at commercial transactions after a long haul: I shall see you tomorrow. When should we meet?
– Early morning we shall have still formalities to sort out at the cemetery and then the lawyers.
– Well couldn’t they wait until after the funeral?
– The cemetery can’t: we need a signature from you before she could be buried
– Ok, not to worry. My driver is here, dear.
– You mean you have a driver?
– A colleague at the Geological Institute lent me their driver, so that we do not use your time and petrol. Let me take my luggage downstairs.
– You can leave the suitcase with presents here so that you don’t carry it all the way and back again…
– That’s right: I have not thought that far, I shall. We’ll speak on the phone tomorrow.

Antique-Suitcase-
– (end of PART ONE OF SIX)

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ETERNAL REST IN BUCHAREST (PART 2 OF 6)

March 28th, 2016 · Books, Diary, Diaspora, International Media, PEOPLE, quotations, Short Stories & Cameos

ETERNAL REST IN BUCHAREST (PART 2 OF 6)

“En Roumanie tout est possible
et rien ne m’étonne plus!”(Emil Cioran)

Angela Livovschi Lambrino

Angela Livovschi Lambrino

2. The driver of the Institute who arrived promptly to haul me and my luggage from the clutches of my domineering cousin-in-law, ready to snuffle me out with her ‘disinterested’ cousinly love, knew his line. Without being obsequious he addressed me as a matter of fact with all the arrays of titles the Romanians were so good to recite on such occasions, almost in a baroque, if not feudal sort of way:

– Buna ziua Domnule Profesor Doctor Inginer – Good afternoon Mr Professor Doctor Engineer Sir; I hope you had a pleasant journey!

Oh God, I forgot abut all my titles, especially in England, where all taxi drivers, builders and even waiters in good restaurants call you “Mate” and say “Cheers” instead of “Thank you, Sir”. Yes, indeed, we used academic titles mostly in provincial university towns and in academic departments, but never ever outside these microcosms. By contrast, in Romania titles did matter a lot, as the majority of the inhabitants of modern Romania were mostly of rural stock and so the emerging middle classes clung to their academic titles, under communism. Even the wives of graduates were addressed by their husband’s academic titles. Surely this was the practice since the 1860s, but Romania must have moved on since then – well, it had not! The term of “inginer” (Engineer) was really a Master’s degree in Applied Science; but in England it never sounded right – on the Continent, especially in France, Germany or Austria and the whole of Central Europe being an “Ingénieur” implied a degree from an elite University!
I looked the driver in the eye and feigned a smile:
– Yes, I had a good journey, thank you and from the airport too, I added a sting in the tale. He understood the hint – he had the agile eye and nose of a consummate gun dog.
– The traffic was bad, it always is, but there are the secondary roads, only they have potholes…
– You mean to say more potholes than on the main road into town?
Ah he did not think of it… living with this sorry state of the roads on a daily basis has become a second nature to the natives, to the point that they even stopped complaining on this theme. Doubtless if the roads are ever resurfaced they will demand that new potholes should be provided for them, to exercise their alertness.
– Here we are: we have arrived at your destination, Mr Professor, doctor…
– I tell you what, I cut him short, forget all these titles, you can just call me Domnule, plain Mister
– But I can’t I am not allowed to. I will loose my job!
– Ok, then you can just call me Prof, or Professor, what ever you wish
– All right Mr Professor, Sir
– Just Prof
– All right Mr. Prof’
I gave up, exhausted.
– I will see you tomorrow morning downstairs at 10AM we shall first have to collect a wreath for the cemetery…
– My respectful condolences Mr Prof!
– Thank you. See you tomorrow at 10 and mind the potholes, I added
His head sank between his shoulders as he looked down: he did not like the jibe – it was part of the national folklore, like a treasured heritage and one was expected not to poke fun at such sacred cows. After a thirty-years absence, I forgot all about the Romanian sense of humour … and the pride, oh, my God, the pride, I thought, bigger and deeper than the potholes.
– Oh, just an afterthought: please remind me of your name
– Popescu Vlad Mr. Prof’
In Romania in schools like in the military and all official documents the surname always came first
– Vlad what a nice name, with historical associations…
I gave this hint to see how he reacted: he did not, just harboured a smile, not enough to bare his teeth… It was not before the next day that Vlad was going to display his fangs, rather unexpectedly. I thought to myself, I don’t know why, but I have the gift of bringing the worse in people and with these thoughts, I checked at the hotel desk and looked forward to a good night’s sleep.

Hotel Continental, Bucharest

Hotel Continental, Bucharest

3. Mr. Roman, Mr. Roman…. The receptionist looked in his booking sheet… we have no booking in this name.
The hotel was particularly quiet, not exactly overwhelmed with the buzz of visitors and I found a certain discomfort at these news. I chose it because it was a smallish historic building from the time of the Belle Epoque, when Romanians were emulating the French and calling the city “Petit Paris”. The hotel had a lot of charm and it was recently restored. It had no more than four storeys on a street junction of the fashionable Calea Victoriei, with a nice first-floor balcony commanding views over the two streets and it was this very suite that I booked.
H.M. King Michael of Romania

H.M. King Michael of Romania

– It can’t be I specifically asked for this first-floor suite, with the view over the Calea Victoriei and the girl at the desk reassured me that she booked it for me. I asked for her name and I must have it here. I shuffled and searched for the piece of paper where I scribbled her name but could not find it.
The receptionist was bored and uninterested. He looked at me and challenged me:
– Are you sure it is Continental and not Intercontinental?
– Well, I know how to make the difference between the two: I do not like the Intercontinental I chose this place because it is an oldie-worldly hotel and I specifically asked for the corner suite on the first floor, the one which has a balcony
– Ah in this case it is absolutely clear it is the Intercontinental
– Why that?
– Because nobody would have given you this suite it is already booked for the King
– The King? What King? I thought you were a republic and just shot one president to replace him with another, I said tartly
– This is His Majesty the King of Romania. He is the guest of His Beatitude the Archbishop of Argesh and is coming to visit the royal graves at the monastery in the Carpathians. The King and his family were specifically assigned these rooms and the hotel will be full with the Press from abroad and dignitaries.
The King of Romania! How very odd – he was turned away before by the new Communist President and marched off all the way to the airport under military escort to have him expelled from the country: only the year before! The old commies were still afraid that he might command some unwelcome popular support and overthrow the rascals who usurped the power after Ceausescu. Now they had a new deal, as they were anxious to score some democratic credentials and pretend that they were “liberal”… The good old King… I was seven-years old when he abdicated, at gun point, when the Russian armies were occupying the country and I remembered vividly the events… Now, nearly fifty years later the old man was allowed back in. I was glad that he had this suite and the rest of the hotel was most likely going to be jammed-packed with secret service agent masquerading as photographers and journalists.

There was no point arguing – it was useless and I thought typical Balkan incompetence, if not spite. The man looked at my face and added
– The Intercontinental is not far and it has plenty of rooms
– I know I said, contemplating my suitcase – I tried to avoid this, now I learnt the lesson, it is never too soon. My driver had left I will have to go on foot.

I grabbed my suitcase and took it down the few steps to the street, which I knew so well since my student days in Bucharest. The same old grey buildings, rather more dilapidated with sidewalks in utter disrepair, except that now the pedestrians were running the risk of falling in some gaping sewer, as the heavy cast iron lids covering these manholes were mysteriously removed. To mark the danger to the pedestrians, tree branches were stuck in those holes (some three-foot in diameter holes), like a grotesque addition to city landscape. My little enquiry elicited the information that there was a flourishing little trade in scrap metal and that the gypsies were running it. Welcome to Europe!

Union Hotel Bucharest

Union Hotel Bucharest

I passed the corner of the old “Union Hotel”, a building from the Art Deco period which once knew some glorious days. Alas, no more! Memories flooded in as I remembered as a student being interrogated here by an undercover secret service agent, who wanted to find out more about my contacts with foreigner viitors. A cloud of sadness invaded my face as I made a valiant effort to airbrush this nightmare out of my memory. Soon past the photographer’s shop where I used to have my films developed… and the dingy 19th century building where a pal from the University confided in me that he had sex. with a consummate tart:
– And how was it? I asked him, in disbelief, because I knew the trade to have been snuffled out by the regime, on the pretext of “running counter to the proletarian morals”… Extramarital sex was forbidden by law and prostitution was illegal. Anybody caught in the act could be prosecuted for “dereliction of morals” worse still, being indicted of “harbouring degrading bourgeois morals”…
– Did you do much? I asked my pal, about the prostitute.
I was still a virgin at nineteen and I was curious about such graphic details, which would stay engraved on my brain to retrieve them during moments of solitary joy.
– How was it, tell me? What position did you try?
– What do you mean, ‘what position’? There is only one: the missionary position!
– …and?
– And nothing: she was eating a tuna sandwich with mayonnaise, all dripping on her face, whilst she was expecting me to do the deed and she kept repeating with the mouth full: ‘go on, boy, go on’… but there was no ‘going on’ because I was put off and couldn’t perform… I walked out, quite humiliated…

I smiled, as I remembered this dialogue, of thirty years past, as I was dragging my suitcase behind me and then a sadness invaded my face because, Theodorescu, this was my pal’s name, suddenly died of an infarct when he was thirty-something. Maybe that’s why he could not perform – he had a systolic heartbeat and he did not know it.
Poor old Theo, always so funny and an unbeatable raconteur.

Sistolic heart

(end of PART TWO OF SIX)

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ETERNAL REST IN BUCHAREST (part 3 OF 6)

March 27th, 2016 · History, PEOPLE, quotations, Reviews, Short Stories & Cameos

ETERNAL REST IN BUCHAREST (part 3 OF 6)

“En Roumanie tout est possible et
rien ne m’étonne plus!” (Emil Cioran)

Bucharest School of architecture

Bucharest School of architecture

Now, I found myself reaching the main boulevard which intersected the city from North to South and I was trying to cross it but the road works made it a hazardous venture, so I turned right, passed the old “Dunarea” restaurant: another lair of secret agents, as it was next door to the “KLM” ticket office, the first foreign air company, other than the Russky “Aeroflot”, which opened under Ceausescu. A few yards past it, on the right hand side, set back from the boulevard, was a junction where the School of Architecture was – another place of dreams, mixed with sad memories, as I sat twice the admission exams, on two subsequent years, only to be
Bucharest Exam Test - School of Achitecture

Bucharest Exam Test – School of Achitecture

rejected automatically by the official positive discrimination: I was branded as belonging to the “bourgeois”, although we were mere middle-class professionals. I was then eighteen and dremt of becoming an architect ever since I was a five-years-old kid. There were only sixty places nation-wide for admission to the School of Architecture in Bucharest, in the “People’s Republic” (later the Socialist Republic) of Romania, a country of some 20 million inhabitants. Each year the number of applicants was in the upper hundreds, an average of 10 to 15 candidates for each place. The exams were structured in two groups: a first tier the “technical drawing test” as applicants were given five hours to enlarge by 150% a picture showing a classical order and to draw it to scale, in ink. The second test involved also a classical drawing, this time from a plaster cast and it had to be drawn in pencil on a large piece of paper some 20 inches by 30 inches. Those who would pass the first two tests were admitted to the second tier of exams, which involved both written and oral Maths and Physics.
However, to the above tests there was yet another quantum, based on social and political, positive discrimination, in favor of the children of peasant and working class stock. These included children whose parents were part of the Communist Party higher echelons. Given such criteria, my chances of admission were very slim indeed, not to say non-existent.
Furthermore if for instance one had a close relation in some political prison, or exiled in the West, or if your family had their house, land or business nationalized, or expropriated, than you might just as well not have a hope in hell to become an architect in Romania and had to kiss the profession goodbye!

Mind you, in secondary schools the national curriculum was not geared to the level required for admission to the School of Architecture in Bucharest, so parents had to pay “blood money” for private tuition, in order to improve their children’s chances at passing the disqualifying tests. Private tuition was nearly unaffordable in a communist society, where wages were at the survival level (except for the communist fat cats) and it was the privilege of a restricted circle of academics from the School of Architecture to profit financially from such a corrupt system by preparing the candidates for the exams!

The chances of any child whose parents were from the professional middle classes and were not communist party cardholders to be admitted at the school were absolutely NIL.
Finally, the privileged few who were admitted to the school, selected on positive discrimination criteria, had later on, during their professional life, the opportunity, at best, to build chicken coops and silos for state farms, concrete tenements in the cities for the under dogs and especially the task of razing to the ground historical monuments, churches, city centres and villages, in order to make room for the dictator’s pharaoh ideas of planning architecture, during the dark ages of the 1970s and 1980s.

My thoughts were suddenly brought to a halt, as I was about to engage on the pedestrian crossing a BMW screeched round the corner. I was surprised to rediscover my atavistic survival reaction come to the fore as I pulled the bag forward to avoid reducing it to a pancake. Yes, pedestrians had no priority on Romanian road crossings, as the drivers displayed a sadistic pleasure in accelerating at such points. The practice was particularly well rehearsed among drivers of official cars of ministers or senators’ wives. The Courts always found in favor of the reckless driver turning the victim into a criminal drunk. Families of victims were bribed into silence… one could not be too careful in the streets of Bucharest, as I was warned in a practical way during my first short walk in my childhood city, after an absence of over three decades. When I left Bucharest this was a quiet city with barely a car in sight. Only buses and the odd official limo – Russian Zils, with dark windows AND white curtains at the back! Enough to regret the good old times of Ceausescu: many people did. They regretted those times when the few private cars had carefully choreographed circulation – the cars with an even number plate were licensed to drive on alternate days from the uneven car plate numbers… what a bliss!
Ceausescu motorcade Now I was faced with a real strategic decision: how should I cross the boulevard to reach the Intercontinental, which was daring me from the other side of the busy thoroughfare: here reckless drivers were risking their lives as if they were running a Formula One race in Monte Carlo! Should I take a taxi to cover the three hundred yards, which separated me from the Intercontinental? The taxi driver will take me for an endless sightseeing tour all the way to the airport and back for some astronomical fee in dollars. Strange how the green notes became God in this Godless country. People dreamt, swore and lived by the American dollar and spent days on end watching “Dallas” and thinking that this was real life.
I dismissed the solution of the taxi ride as absurd and ridiculous. Now I thought I should play the idiot and ask a young passerby how I should cross the road. She pointed out to me an underground passage in the nearby University Square.
– And are there any escalators? I enquired cautiously, thinking of my suitcase.
She looked at me in disbelief:
– Of course there are, but they never work!
– Did they ever work?
– I was too young to remember, but my father told me that they worked under Ceausescu
– And now this is the price you pay for Democracy, I added!
– Yes, it is a small price. Now at least we can have a passport to travel abroad.
– I can assure you escalators do work abroad
She looked at me with a twinkle in her eye:
– Not always in the London underground
– Oh, yes? But this is the oldest tube in the world and it needs constant repair
– It works in Paris.
She looked at me demurely seeking an answer, which was slow to come, so she added:
– Have a nice time in Romania – it is a lovely place to be!

The girl left me gob-smacked. She was a very attractive and trendy thing, poised, without being arrogant – the kind of girl that would feel at home in any European capital. What was so endearing about her, like of most Romanians, is that she was ignoring all this misery around her and was too proud of her country to admit its glaring shortcomings. Doubtless she expected me to do the same and found it disingenuous of me to be critical.

Linden tree Soon I was imbibed in this velvety and warm air, which was typical of Bucharest and which remained deeply ingrained in my ophtalmic memory: impossible to define, but distinct, particularly in springtime, with that mixture of dust from the Danube Plains, the scent of linden tree flowers and gently spiced by the smell of decay, typical of Mediterranean countries… This scent of Bucharest, remained associated in my mind with the years of a puberty in turmoil and finally with the first season when I lost my virginity to a woman older than me.

2. The Intercontinental hotel, right in the heart of Bucharest, at the cross roads of two main arteries, cutting the city in four separate ventricles, like an immense urban heart, was still the tallest building in town and the first evidence of its economic and political rapprochement which Ceausescu started with the West. It was built under contract by a foreign construction company – the International Continental Hotels chain, being intended to bring to Bucharet the kind of Western comfort foreign businessmen were used to. Still, during the dictatorship years the Continental was no more than a gilded cage for tourists, a kind of ghetto, where all foreign visitors were huddled together, as they were easier to keep in check. A hub of Securitate operatives and professional prostitutes were at hand. A mall of hard-currency shops, where luxury goods could be bought only with dollars, were completing the landscape. Dollars were at the time a currency, which native Romanians were not allowed to obtain: if found out, or denounced, they could spend years in prison.
3.

Bucharest - 1977 earthquake

Bucharest – 1977 earthquake

Amazingly, the Intercontinental survived the destructive earthquake of 1977 one of those tremors which shook Bucharest at roughly four decades intervals: measuring 7.2 on the Richter scale. It left the hotel marked from top to bottom by a web of cracks, sometimes showing a quarter of an inch gap, although in places the management tried to paper over the structural damage. Not very reassuring, I thought: at the next earthquake it will tumble down, like a pyramid of champagne glasses.
At the hotel reception, which had not changed in thirty years since I left Bucharest, the same four clocks were indicating the time in Beijing, Moscow, Paris and New York – this performed the double act of demonstrating the city’s position in a network of world capitals, as much as to pretend, pathetically, their “independent” politics vis-à-vis Moscow…. Such fiction was as risible as it was absurd, because normal citizens were denied a passport to travel to the West. The sight of these dated time-pieces brought a smile to my face, as I addressed the receptionist:
– Have you got a room available? The Continental sent me here, as I booked a room with them but they said that it must be a mistake.
– Your passport please, barked the stone-faced receptionist. It is amazing how such terse lapidary words could mean so much to a native, as it signals a continuous unchanged attitude of surly employee, conscious of his power as an under-cover agent; surely they all have gone to ground or changed in the guise of prosperous businessmen, rather than stick it here, in this dull job? May be I was just paranoiac and over suspicious, when in fact the grey-haired man just lacked proper pay and training. Still, no welcoming remark to the client, just a bored sullen face, grimaced by the occasional bark of an old dog. The handing over of one’s passport was another hang over from the old dictatorship practice of tight control of the foreigners, as much as a means of conveying the visitor a sense of insecurity, for the loss of one’s identity.
The tune changed all of a sudden as he read my name:
– Ah, you are Professor Doctor Engineer Roman?
– My titles are not marked in my passport, I corrected him, implying that he should not have known, not from me, anyway.
– True, but we received several messages for you already.
– How could you, when you did not even expect me and I was not booked in?
– Well, the callers were directed here by the Continental hotel, who said that you were staying here.
– At least they did something decent, for a change, as I was supposed to stay there.
– Well, it is our sister hotel
– I know it is not – just a confusing name. What room will you give me? I would prefer one not too far up so that I could run into the street in the event of an earthquake.
The man looked at me incredulously, eliciting an explanation, then he retorted
– We have not had an earthquake here for the last thirty years
– Precisely, I answered knowingly. But there is nothing that you and I can do about it.
The receptionist handed me the key and the messages, whilst I declined the services of a bell boy.
– No problem I could find my room.
hookerI darted for the lift and just before the doors shut a hyper blonde, insinuated herself in the lift, scanning me with an expert eye, full of a curiosity, which dissolved in languid smiles. The dutiful household hooker, I decided, so I asked:
– Which floor for you, Madam?
– Yours, she answered, harbouring an even broader smile.
– Well, tonight you will be disappointed: I am sleeping alone!
– In that case for me will be the top floor. You will find me at the bar, in case you changed your mind.
I decided not to give her any false expectations, just displayed a poker face, to discourage any further hopes on her part and was relieved, as the lift stopped at my floor.
I turned the key in the lock and entered the bedroom: rather staid, but correct, with a huge crack crossing diagonally the wall behind my bed – the result of the 1977 earthquake… A kitch reproduction picture could not disguise the crack in the wall. Inspected the bathroom – no soap and towels, but worse – no hot water. I tried ringing the Reception, but the telephone was dead! So I left my suitcase in and returned to the reception downstairs:
– Ah, we shall have to reconnect the room telephone. He took a reading. Ok, we shall ask the maid to bring you towels and soap. Hot water, you must let the tap run for five minutes, before you get hot water.
– So there is some, I said in disbelief.
– Of course, we are an International hotel chain!
– I can see that, I answered tartly!
He did not understand the innuendo, it was useless, like water on a duck’s back.
Never mind, they will learn, in the end, the hard way! Or, will they?
images I took the lift back and on this occasion, there was a very young dude squeezing in, at the last minute…. Same scenario as before… This time he was fixing his eyes firmly at my crutch and smiling broadly. He was well built, with a pleasant face which, betrayed his rustic origins, doubtless rooted deep in the Carpathian fold: maybe, as a child, he must have looked after the family geese, or sheep, but now he smelled of cheap aftershave and sported some very tight white cotton trousers, which suggested to his advantage his muscles and more: an irresistible joint – but inconceivable to get involved with the hotel trade. I told him by the way of an excuse:
– Apparently there is a bar on the top floor, where you will find all the fun you can get – everybody must be there. I for one I am stopping here! Larevedere!
And no sooner that I said it I darted out of the lift cage, quite put off by the hotel ploy of trying to fix me one way or another! I, for one, I was not taking the bait: I was soon to find out that they will not give up hope: they were as stubborn as they were insensitive to my negative reaction. In Romania, one simply did not take ‘no’ for granted and the ensuing cross wires become rather tedious.

– (end of PART THREE OF SIX)

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ETERNAL REST IN BUCHAREST (PART 4 OF 6)

March 26th, 2016 · Books, Genealogy, Genealogy, History, PEOPLE, Short Stories & Cameos

ETERNAL REST IN BUCHAREST (PART 4 OF 6)

“En Roumanie tout est possible et rien
ne m’étonne plus!” (Emil Cioran)

Intercontinental Bucharest

Intercontinental Bucharest

4. Went back to the room to find the soap, shower gel and a set of towels already there. I turned the hot water tap in anticipation of having a shower. The gurgle and vibrations were such to compete with a brass and percussion band, but I was still hoping for the best. A first spurt of rusty water splashed in the shower tray. Never mind, I was used to this from staying in Victorian houses in the English shires, so in a way it was like home from home – I had to stay an optimist, or else I will go nuts!
Telephone rang! Ah it works, good. But who knows that I am here? Of course they know – they already sent me all those messages, which I forgot to read!
– Oh good, you are there, said the funeral cousin. I thought something happened to you, that you might have been bitten by a stray dog or that you might have fallen in a canal sewer!
– -No such luck, my dear, I am still of this world, but it took ages to sort myself out until I got in.
– I told you, you were much better off staying with me…
– I know, I know: I was not running away from you, but did not want to abuse your kindness. You have, as it is, enough on your plate organizing the funeral.
– We must meet at the cemetery tomorrow morning at 9AM – there is a lot of paperwork to do and you must collect the wreath.
– Ok, don’t worry I will be meeting you at the Administration office by the main gate.
– Oh, you remember that?
– Of course I do. I know it ever since I was a school boy and had to queue there with my poor Mother for grandparents funerals. Such a troth. People were behaving very badly, as if you owed them a living, rather than the other way round.
– They still do the same: the only difference now is that you must bribe them in dollars, I hope you have some on you.
– I have no dollars, I have only sterling with me – I had no time to change and at the hotel the rates are absurd. They have always been.
– Not to worry I will lend you some
– Thanks I will see you tomorrow

Barely put the receiver down and telephone rang again. At this rate I will never have a shower. I should be damned if I answered this. I marched instead in a determined way to the bathroom but the water was reduced to a trickle and it was still cold and rusty. I attempted to increase the flow. I went to the phone lifted the receiver and immediately cut it off. Rang the room service instead:
– Room 797 hot water is not working
– How long have you had it run, Mr Professor Doctor Engineer Sir?
– About fifteen minutes, I should say and it is still cold, still red and now it only trickles.
– Ah, that it means Mr Professor that your next door neighbour is having a bath, Sir. You must be patient. You will get your water as soon as he finishes. You will know as the flow will be back to normal, I promise you.
– Good, this is real science! I will remember it, thank you!
I slammed the receiver down only to hear the telephone ring again:
– Yes? Who is it? Vlad who? Ah, Vlad the driver, not Vlad the Impaler! Of course. You found me!
– Mr Professor Sir what time will you want me to come tomorrow?
– We shall have to be at the cemetery at nine AM, so make sure you are here at 8-30. What? it’s no good? Why shouldn’t not be any good? What? One needs at best 45 minutes to get there? Why, because of the pot holes, or what? Because of the traffic jams? Well but there are only two miles!
Aha! the cars are bumper to bumper! Can you drive a ‘copter? No? I mean a helicopter! Still no? Well then eight o’clock downstairs. Very clever of you to have found me! See you tomorrow at eight!
Telephone rang as soon as I put the receiver down.
– Oh not again! I should be damned if I answer this one!. Nobody else knows I am here. I shall not speak to anybody before I got my shower!
I took the offending phone and muffled it under the pillows and the bed cover.
I finally took the shower as the water regained a decent flow and transparent appearance and better still, it was hot: what an improvement since Ceuasescu’s days, when tepid water was running for a few minutes a day and the gas supply was rationed. Things had moved on! This is real democracy, I exclaimed on an upbeat note!

Hotel Breakfast

Hotel Breakfast

5. Alo, buna ziua Domnule Profesor Doctor Inginer. It is seven o clock and this is your early morning call, said the operator after I answered the phone, not remembering where I was and thinking that it was in a dingy hotel in Coventry. I went to the bathroom and run the hot water tap before the next-door neighbour might deprive me of my ablutions and was just immersed as I heard the knock at the door. Room service.
– Come in, do let yourself in!
I was not going to get out of the bath. I could hear the rattle of the trolley. The bathroom door was open. To my surprise the man asked:
– Would you like me to bring the coffee to your bathroom, Domnule Profesor?
– What a good idea, you read my mind!
When I looked up from my bathtub I thought I recognized the face:
– We have met before?
– Yes, we met yesterday, in the lift on the way up, said my shepherd boy
– You look good in your uniform, is this a part-time job?
– Yesterday was my day off.
He scanned my body persistently with his beady eyes. I took his coffee off him and added:
– I am afraid there is no joy for you, today either, but you can bring me the bathrobe, if you want to, as I get out of the bath.
He came back, helped me put it on and insisted that he should tie the belt for me: I thought his trousers were bursting, or it was just my imagination.
– Sorry I haven’t got any change for your services, but if you are on duty tomorrow I will give you a tip.
I was not certain that the disappointment I could detect in his face had to do with his imagined missed opportunity, rather than with the missed tip.

Bucharest traffic

Bucharest traffic

I got ready hurriedly as the driver was due at eight. I could hear in my room the muffled roar of the traffic outside – Vlad was certainly right to warn me about the circulation problems in Bucharest after the revolution. I remember the office hours started early, on or before eight o’clock, which meant that people woke up at six or earlier to reach their place of work, in crowded public transport moving slowly in the dark and often dense fog of winter. The advantage was that they would finish work before 3PM and could take a late family lunch, practically enjoying half day home, or with friends.
Sure Vlad was already downstairs.
– Good morning, Vlad, how is the traffic problem this morning?
– Buna ziua Domnule professor. No better than any other day.
– Which way to the cemetery? Any idea of how to avoid the snarl-up?
– There is only one way – along the main north-south artery, the DN-1.
From the recesses of my memory I suddenly recalled that “DN” stood for “drumul national” (National Road).
– No chance, then to avoid that?
– Not really, it’s the same.
We engaged in the main boulevard and within half a mile, no sooner that we passed the Piata Unirii The cars thinned to a trickle. I looked at Vlad but did not ask the obvious question – surely in the morning the majority of cars headed from the southern dormitory suburbs of Giurgiului and Oltenitei into the centre where the offices were, rather than the opposite, which was our destination. I could not complain but could not help remarking to Vlad:
– You were a little pessimistic – we will be there in half the time.
– Or less.
And no sooner he said it, he pressed his foot on the accelerator, driving mercilessly over the potholes and ignoring junctions and traffic lights as if he was demented.
I looked at Vlad but he had a glacial face staring ahead of him. I thought quickly: as I am heading for the cemetery I will soon meet my Maker. There was precious little I could do and to argue would have been counter productive and even made things worse, so I put on an impassive expression waiting for Vlad to calm down. When he did, after five minutes of agony, which felt like ages of a merry-hell, I enquired:
– Was it really necessary to risk your life and mine? Why did you do that? We had all the time in the world to arrive early.
– Mr Professor Sir, you are English, aren’t you? But you are also a little bit Romanian!
– No, I am British – I am not English, because I was not born in England and I am naturalised British. What’s all about?
That baffled Vlad, like most Continentals could not make the difference between English and British, so I enquired:
– But why are you asking this all of a sudden?
– Because, Mr Professor Sir, you are also a little Romanian and you criticise too much all these things, the potholes in the road and everything.
Now I got the gist: I offended Vlad’s national pride and he was going to teach me a lesson: he was going to give me a fright by the way of retribution.
– But, I protested, you got something wrong: I am born here so I AM Romanian like yourself – nobody took my nationality away from me all these years and I have not renounced it, although I happen to be also a British national. So, as a Romanian I have as much right as you do to criticise things Romanian. After all you did not make a revolution for nothing; you now have free speech, you have the right to complain loudly without the fear of being put in jail.
I scrutinised his face but he did not appear satisfied with my answer: Vlad still considered me a foreigner and as such I was not expected to ill-speak of Romania, no matter how miserable it may have been. It reminded me of my erstwhile English wife who objected to my criticising things English to the point of despair, so I retorted:
– In Romania we could criticise to our heart’s content whatever we liked, so long as we kept it in the family circle, but not in the street. Here, in England it seems to be the other war round!

Bellu Orthodox Cemetery

Bellu Orthodox Cemetery

Vlad was still in a serious sulk and there was no point in continuing this dialogue as we arrived at the blessed Bellu Orthodox cemetery. It was called “Bellu Orthodox” to distinguish it from the Bellu Roman Catholic, Bellu Protestant and Bellu Military , all on the same side of the road, next to each other. Opposite there was the Bellu Jewish cemetery of Hispanic Rite (Cimitirul Evreiesc de rit Spaniol). This was the Sephardic cemetery, to differentiate it from the Jewish Ashkenazy cemetery, which was elsewhere in town. The Spanish Sephardic diaspora settled in the Romanian Principalities at the time when they were expelled from Spain and they were granted trade privileges by the ruling princes of Wallachia and Moldavia.

I gave Vlad some money to pay the florist opposite the Cemetery’s main gate for the wreath we have ordered for Aunt Angelica’s funeral and told him to come with it to the Chapel of Rest, which was situated at the end of the main alleyway, facing the Gate.
Before I passed through the gate, which had a kind of belfry similar to those of Romanian monasteries, I could see the nine-foot long pole holding a black banner with Angelica’s surname on it “Lambrino” and her dates of birth and death. This was the custom indicating to the families which funerals were scheduled for the day. Lambrino was not Angelica’s maiden name but her former husband’s, which she kept after the divorce.

 Cemetery Chapel

Cemetery Chapel

The chapel was in neoclassic style, surmounted by a central dome. It had an array of smaller semicircular side chapels, intended for all the other coffins ,which were waiting their turn for the funeral service. The coffin on the raised podium in the centre of the chapel was the first in the queue. Once the service was finished and the coffin and mourners left the chapel the next coffin would take its place, usually at hourly intervals, or longer. I looked with a sentiment of unease for Angelica’s coffin. All the coffin lids were open, so that one could pay one’s respects to the deceased, looking at his face with a sense of grief and compassion – often not a pretty sight, but such were the tenets of the Orthodox faith, with traditions steeped in millennial traditions.
By the time I could pay my respects to Angelica, I could hear high-heel footsteps trotting on the marble slabs, with the cousin bedecked in suitable mourning gear, rushing towards me:
– Here you are, I found you – I told you to wait for me at the cemetery office for the signatures. You are here instead!. You forgot to bring the wreath!
– I have not – the driver is doing it. He should be with us any minute – I do not know why he is late, he should not be!
– Maybe the wreath is not ready
– Have you placed a copper coin in Angelica’s hand, as it is the custom?
– Yes we did, of course we did, everything according to book!
– Good!
The Scream

The Scream

This was the ancient custom, going back two thousand years to the Roman times, when the deceased had to pay the boatman money to cross the river Styx and this custom was adopted by the Christians, a tradition which survived to this day. I looked at Angelica’s face, instead of being serene, as dead bodies faces are, her mouth was widely open, expressing a sentiment of horror and despair like in the ‘Scream’ canvass of Edward Munch: simply could not understand as I knew, and everybody in Romania knew it, that no sooner that a person died one had to tie a scarf around its chin and head to make sure that the mouth staid firmly shut, until the body cooled and the muscles were gripped by rigor mortis to keep it in this position. I looked in dismay as Angelica had no teeth either, by this I mean her denture, because she was 91 years of age.
– Poor old aunt Angelica, the cousin said, patting the corpse’s hand
– She looks horrid; why didn’t you tie a scarf round her chin?
– Because she died in the middle of the night
– What do you mean, in the middle of the night? I paid for a woman to live in and look after her 24 hours out of 24. I sent you all these monies from England! You mean to say that the carer was not there when Angelica died?
– She had a husband and family to look after: she had from time to time to go and cook for them!
– And I was paying her all this time, look at the result!
My imagination ran wild with visions of Angelica being left to starve, alone in her bed!

Wreath Bellu My anger was staved off only by the arrival of Vlad with his wreath of fresh carnations.
– It looks good! Why did it take you so long?
– Because, imagine, Mr Professor Sir, when I arrived the carnations were all wilted in a deplorable state.
– I know, the cousin chipped in, this is exactly what the gypsies do: they recycle the flowers. They steal them from other wreaths in the cemetery and reuse them for new wreaths. Remind me to tell you what happened at poor Costi’s funearal
– And, I asked Vlad, what did you do?
– I told the gypsy, sir, that you were the nephew of the Bucharest Police Chief Commissioner and that you will have none of it; I told him to put fresh flowers and nothing else. He plucked out the wilted flowers and replaced them with fresh ones. He was not best pleased!
– I bet he wasn’t!

– (end of PART FOUR OF SIX)

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