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March 27th, 2016 · No Comments · History, PEOPLE, quotations, Reviews, Short Stories & Cameos


“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.

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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