ETERNAL REST IN BUCHAREST (PART 2 OF 6)
“En Roumanie tout est possible
et rien ne m’étonne plus!”(Emil Cioran)
– 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.
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.
– 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!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 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.
(end of PART TWO OF SIX)