To Bucharest And Beyond, Via Trains And Plains…
by Rosalea Barker
On the afternoon of my third day in Chisinau, I boarded the overnight train for Bucharest. The reason most people suffer the cramped and uncomfortable minibuses that are the preferred mode of transport for that trip is the very reason I chose the option that they spurn: ie, three hours into its journey, the train spends two hours at the border as each carriage is lifted off its Moldovan-gauge bogey and then lowered onto a Romanian one. With you inside, because you’re not allowed to get off the train at this immigration and customs outpost of Ungheni.
I managed to take a picture of the spring and lever system through a grimy window before being told, by one of the uniformed officials who had come on board, not to take photos. The twenty or so railway workers needed to perform the bogey boogey seemed a happy, fun-loving lot. One of them even did a dance in the air as he used his full weight to pull down the lever –he was short and of a slight build so was literally swinging on the end of the lever as it went back into its upright position. Meantime, inside my couchette—a four-berth sleeper that I had to myself—the Moldovan immigration official was rather uptight. The stamp I’d received in my passport at the airport when I arrived was almost unreadable, so she had to go away and get a laptop computer to check electronically.
Just across the border in Iasi, the Romanian immigration official took my passport away altogether and returned it with that wonder of beautiful, simple design—the stamp used by European Union countries for entry or exit at external borders. Romania became a member of the EU in 2007, but its progress toward becoming a Schengen country—which gives free right of passage to other Schengen nationals—has been repeatedly stymied. That might well change after the election of the new European Parliament this month. A handy-dandy cribsheet of information about Romania is on the government’s Schengen website here.
Beginning at about 2 minutes into this May 15 episode of an activist group’s YouTube channel Romania Explitica, you get an animated summation of the history of Romania and Moldova. It’s in Romanian, but the imagery is self-explanatory and the frontman’s delivery amusing. The group is promoting candidates who agree to actively try and implement PACT Basarab, a set of concrete measures to reunite with Moldova (which is not in the EU, but is heading that way). Of the 32 Romanian MEPs elected on May 24, only two—from the new Christian Democrat Party—had signed the pledge to implement PACT Basarab.
I arrived in Bucharest early in the morning to discover spring in the air and a group of Roma living in a hole in the ground opposite the railway station. It was an empty lot where a building had once been, and they seemed to be using the steps to the cellar to get to their hidey hole. Above ground, they lounged around sniffing solvents out of plastic bags and playing with their dogs, but didn’t beg or otherwise interact with the people waiting there for the buses leaving from that part of town.
Don’t confuse “Roma” with “Romania”. The latter is a term first used in the 16th Century to signify the three principalities of Wallachia, Transylvania, and Moldavia that were originally governed from Rome. “Roma” is a generic term for “one of us” (actually “man”) in the Romani language.
Roma are one of the largest minority groups in Europe and its most disadvantaged. A brief history of the Roma, whose origins are in North West India, is given here. According to the writer on that website, “a large number [of Roma] was forced into slavery in what is now Romania until 1864 when they were finally emancipated.” The first American novel to be published in Romanian was Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, in 1853, which was the inspiration behind the 1855 Romanian novel, Măriuca’s Cabin. (By the way, one of the reasons the Confederate Army lost the Civil War in the US is that the Southern states had all gone their own ways in terms of rail gauges, so a lot of time was lost moving equipment and supplies from one train to another. Just saying. Rail gauges aren’t trivial!)
My hotel was just two blocks from the Gara de Nord, and was a modern, business class hotel with Lorde’s “Royals” on high rotation in the lobby’s lounge area. Bucharest really seems to be a city of young people. It is one of the most densely inhabited capital cities in the world, with an eclectic mix of architecture. One of the first buildings I encountered on my walk through the narrow streets into town was Casa Radio, which has a special place in Romanian history. On 23 August, 1989, the Romanian leader Nicolae Ceausescu stood on the (since demolished) balcony of this never-to-completed museum of the Romanian Communist Party to watch the festivities marking Romania’s National Day. It turned out to be the last Communist-style parade in Romania. By the end of that year, both he and his wife were executed as the result of a revolution.
Elena/Irena Ceausescu was a wonder in own right. Her driving force seems to have been the desire to achieve as much popularity and respect as the woman who was Romania’s Queen from 1914-1927. “And I am Marie of Romania,” my father used to say to me if I told him some imaginative tale justifying why I’d done something stupid. It was the equivalent of today’s “Yeah, right!” and derives from the last line of a Dorothy Parker poem written after Queen Marie of Romania’s spectacularly successful celebrity trip to the US in 1926.
By the time Elena was working her way up through the Romanian Communist Party, being a member of the aristocracy was no longer much of a big deal in European circles. The intelligentsia was where it was at, and the best title to have was that of “Dr.” In 1974, she leveraged what little scientific education she had (in chemistry) and her connections in the Party to be admitted to the Romanian Academy, the new equivalent of royalty. When its members wouldn’t elect her as president of the Academy, she set up “a string of new, rival academies, each devoted to a special field of study and staffed by her own nominees,” according to this fascinating website about the Ceausescus.
The photo one the left is of a traditional Romanian dessert called papanasi—“cheese donuts” slathered in plum jam and very light sour cream. Quite by accident, on my second day, I discovered that the Romanian Academy of Science members’ restaurant is open to the public. To heck with the Museum of the Romanian Peasant and the Palace of Parliament towards which I was headed. I was gonna eat like the communist queen of Romania! The Academy is housed in a French neo-classical mansion gifted to it by the industrialist Bazil Assan, who died in 1918, twenty years after being the first Romanian to make a round-the-world trip.
That evening, I headed to a round-the-world trip called the Bucharest International Film Festival. It was opening night, so before the main event there was a modicum of speechifying, most of it in English. Besides the festival director and someone from the Mayor’s office, the ambassador from the festival’s featured country—Chile—spoke. And then the Ambassador from Italy, as La Grande Bellezza ( aka The Great Beauty] was the opening film.
The Italian ambassador certainly got in the spirit of it, wearing an outfit made for him by local bespoke tailors Alex Dragan and Alex Moise (of the firm SARTO Made To Measure) who have obtained the rights to copy the outfits that the lead character Jep wears in the movie. The outfit the ambassador chose was the one Jep wears to the strip club. You can get a sense of how the well-heeled in Bucharest see themselves in this video posted on SARTO’s website of a 2013 event held in conjunction with a celebration of George Enescu, Romania’s most famous composer.
On the evening of my third day, I head past the hole-dwellers back to the train station to board an overnight train for Budapest. Their more entrepreneurial cousins seemingly have official permission to hound passengers into letting them put their baggage up on the overhead racks and then ask for a donation to a charity for sick children. Others wander through selling magazines—several to a plastic bag—and sweets and drinks. My Romanian lei isn’t going to be worth much in neighboring Hungary, where I’ll have to pay a commission to exchange it, so I accept the help and make the donation. Can’t be skeptical all the time, I figure.
I haven’t paid for a sleeper, so I’m in a normal carriage with four seats facing each other two by two. The two women sitting opposite me are young businesswoman and they read the celebrity mags they bought and snooze a bit until it gets near their stop in the middle of the night. While it’s light outside, I look out at Romania’s “Texas”—the great flat Carpathian plains—and the copious concrete channeling on the rivers as we begin to enter mountain country at Campina. Romania has many famous hiking and skiing areas, and the train’s route also goes through Sghisoara, Dracul’s birthplace, which seems to be the most popular destination. (There is a bizarre article about Michael Jackson and Ceausescu being vampires here. It is the stuff of nightmares.)
Memories of Bucharest? The huge, well-maintained public parks, most of them created by the designers of the parks in Paris. The quirky little pieces of art that hove into view unexpectedly. For, despite the way people drive and park on the footpath of the winding, narrow streets, it is a city to experience and enjoy on foot.