Day 1: back to the start

So this is Peter Schild, reporting on Romania. Strange country. Even Swiss Air goes wrong there, I can’t exactly figure out how this is possible. But flight trouble is bound to come up when flying to or from there. I flew Swiss Air to Bucharest and the return flight was announced to be having engine problems, just two hours before the scheduled take-off, when I was already at the airport in Bucharest (Jesus, what an airport!). We were supposed to wait for the next Swiss Air flight, the next day. Really disgraceful! I’d been so glad I’d fly Swiss Air again after that hell in Romania, and I could have also done some shopping for the kids in Zurich. In the end I negotiated a last-minute seat on an Air France plane to Paris, where I could get a plane to Gatwick, and Gatwick is such a pain for me to get home from.

When I’d left London I’d got to Heathrow after a terrible row with Sharon, my assistant, who’d booked my trip to Bucharest without caring to ask me if I didn’t need at least a night’s rest at home after two months in Chile. I don’t think I’ve spent more than three days put together with my kids this year, and it’s December!

I was so tired and out of sorts at the check-in, that when the guys told me the tickets were no good I couldn’t make anything of their words. They had to explain to me that Swiss Air had no flight to Bucharest, Romania for that day, and that I had to take the plane to Belgrade, which was the nearest destination they flew to, with a stopover in Paris. When I was finally able to take in what they were saying, I cursed Sharon once again to myself and asked how come I had a flight number on a ticket saying ‘Bucharest’ and how come I had a ticket at all for a plane that did not exist – but here they replied it was not the plane that did not exist, but the destination. Now this was not the first time I was flying in my life, and it was not the first time I was flying to Bucharest in particular, so I knew there was no point in asking further questions or trying to make sense of it. I just shrugged and thought of Andrew, who was supposed to wait for me at the airport in Bucharest, but it was clear I couldn’t make it that night. Then the big rush started, though now it strikes me how strange to be rushing only to get to an inexistent destination, so that when I was about to board I remembered I’d forgotten one of my bags, I turned back, alerted the customs guys, they held the plane on the ground until they brought the bag to me and then at last I found myself seated on the flight to Belgrade. We also had engine problems in Paris and spent three hours there, and then finally we reached Belgrade. I didn’t stay there for the night, which in retrospect maybe I should have done, but I took another plane to Budapest, at least Budapest’s a city and I knew I could get a decent hotel room. I managed to get a few hours’ sleep and the next morning I took the first plane to Bucharest, twenty-four hours later than I was supposed to.

Andrew was there to welcome me. An awkward word. Because what he said was indeed a pompous:

“Welcome to Romania, Mr. Schild!”, which sounded completely out of place after that twenty-four hours’ miserable adventure. He was dressed up in a stiff suit that made me feel sorry for him, as the airport was draughty and my ears were frozen. Speaking about it, that airport is incredible, swarms of people and trunks, mostly Romanians and Russians, doves and sparrows swooshing across up in the air, simply surrealistic! This is the smaller airport of Bucharest, which used to cater only for domestic flights, but now is used for low-cost airlines and as a stand-by solution for such cases as when planes can’t temporarily get the permission to land on the main airport. The main airport is quite decent except for the toilets where they still haven’t found a solution against nasty smells. It even has a so-called duty-free shopping mile, some two or three nice shops with local souvenirs where there’s not much to buy if you really want to buy something. I would have liked to get something there in the past when I was in Bucharest, the shops do look OK, but at a closer look you realise there’s nothing one can actually use. Lots of worthless trinkets. So there’s no choice but the chain duty-free shop including the usual cosmetics or sweets stuff that you can buy anywhere else for much less money. There’s in Romania somehow a perception of such ‘Western’ goods as luxury goods.

It strikes me now how different things look when you remember them and tell about them. I can’t recall all the details of my arrival in Bucharest, only bits and pieces that speak for it: I can see Andrew again, patiently waiting behind the bar, with his brown leather wallet hanging around his neck, his glasses glistening and his little mouse’s face shaped into a vague, self-satisfied smile – and this I call my getting back to Bucharest, the third time this year, and when I call it so I remember how dead tired I was too. All these scraps of vision before my mind’s eyes are somehow blurry at the edges and have become a bit of something else than what they were at that time, I mean they were indeed only insignificant bits and suddenly, I said above I call this ‘my getting back to Bucharest’, they now stand for a whole episode of the story. Which makes me think back of the computer images I played with a few months ago in Florida. I could see on the screen the image of the room where I was sitting, or better said I could see its design, its lines and angles, for it was not a real room, and I’d put on a special glove connected to the computer and moved my hand slowly to see the effects. Amid that drawing of a room, on the screen, there was the image of a hand moving with my hand, and I found it so weird to see how lifelike it all looked, three-D and all, and yet no one could be deceived to believe it was real. There was a sort of ‘let’s pretend it’s real although we all know it’s not’. A certain artificial quality about the whole image, but you still felt like diving into the screen.

So it occurs to me now that remembering and telling are a bit like diving into a screen. Maybe that’s why everything seems to have acquired a more implicit significance to me, as the glove on the screen is different from the glove in reality; the Romania I’m telling about here is no longer the Romania I experienced in the past few days, as it may well be that the Romania on the European map is not the Romania I travelled through. Just as I couldn’t forget, watching the hand moving on the screen, that that’s not the real hand, the same way you shouldn’t take everything literally in this report: when I write Andrew it might mean his continual precious formulas, like dear gentleman and gracious lady, or when I write Bucharest it might simply mean my depressed mood or any other thing I associate the place with. The scariest thing is, as a matter of fact, that this substitution is not just on paper as I write, but in my mind too. Whatever Romania is, or whatever it was to me when I experienced it for real, is now stored in my mind under various labels, or tags.

But now to get back to that afternoon, Andrew led me away from the crowds streaming out and asked me to wait while he was paying for the parking. I looked at him in blank confusion and then he explained, taking a slight satisfaction in being a bit sarcastic, that payment was manpowered, in other words there were no machines, and that there was only one cashier, out of the building. I watched him going out and heading for the outdoor car park just opposite the exit. He stopped midway on a platform and it was then I noticed some dozen people, freezing to death in the open windy place, queuing in front of a funny shanty-like ticket counter. It took about ten minutes for Andrew to be through and then we started for Bucharest.

The road went straight ahead for miles, along diverse and somehow queer views of buildings of the most various styles, ages, or purposes. There were the miniatural (for Romania) versions of blocks of flats from the eighties with sad attempts at ornament, where the local rural population had been forced to move after their houses had been pulled down. Then the newly built blocks of concrete painted in fancy colours, with large windows and pompous commercial signs yelling advertising slogans in English, offering exclusive services or products in a country where the airport toilets were still at least three decades old. And here and there the surprise of some old cottage, forgotten in the several urban redesign waves since the seventies, some cottage in the Romanian style of the last century, only one storey, two or three rooms at the very most, with a tidy patio between the street gate and the house. Right next to it, either the blank massive wall of a start-up dubious company, or a vacant plot of land, covered with rampant bushes and littered with all the possible rubbish a street can see: plastic bottles, cans, shopping bags and what not. Such pretty little houses, crushed by aggressive ugliness, looked like a pitiful attempt to shut away, with its nice roses bravely defying the December frost , the decay next door, or the drift-off of any working system in Romania.

Soon, I noticed that we were driving through a misty darkness. Shortest daylight of the year, December, which meant that at four thirty pm, under a heavy leaden sky, electricity was required. There was no light in the houses, while the street lamps were either broken by handy stone-flingers, or simply out of order. I tried to make the best of it and doze off, but Andrew kept chattering about the places we were passing by and about what was new in Romania. As I said, it was my third trip there this year and I’d got somewhat familiar with their sense of ‘news’, which was mostly political gossip rather than real developments. To me nothing basic had changed, I knew it from the uncanny darkness around us through which we seemed to be swimming or pedalling hard on some kind of fantasy vehicle. When we reached the outskirts of Bucharest, however, there was more light on the road than if Andrew had turned his car lamp on, as we were passing by the newly-developed areas of the city, with huge shopping centres including Ikea, Metro, or Carrefour, cinemas and lots of eateries in one place. A residential district was being built too, exclusive design ‘la dolce vita’ as the banners said, presumably meant for foreign expats living in Bucharest. I  knew too well how local people lived.

I still remembered the old times when I first came to Bucharest and it was grey and dismal. I used to call Romania ‘the country of ten thousand shades of grey’ back then. Everyone was poorly dressed and wearing poor quality shoes, soles thin and worn out desolatingly soaked in the sleet, the roads populated by uniform meagre Romanian cars looking a bit like Flintstone’s rumbling wagons, no real shops, only a depressing sham of polish, some miserable attempt at ‘comfort’ or ‘cosiness’ or ‘Western quality’. Streets were awfully dirty and everyone looked hunted and haunted. Now Bucharest has become quite chic if you mind where your steps are taking you. Reasonably clean for a large city. The number of cars is ten times higher than in the early nineties and the Romanian car is now a remake under the Renault label. I don’t think I’ve seen a higher percentage of luxury cars anywhere, except maybe for Nice: Masserati, Porsche, Lamborghini. Or just Volvo four-on-four, for example. Not luxury but not the car for everyone either, one would expect. Especially in Romania, where the average salary is just about two hundred euro. And then a huge choice of pubs, restaurants, cafes and nightlife.

People, too. Lots of them swarming about downtown. What struck me again, as every time I’m in Bucharest, was the incredible percentage of people dressed smartly, mostly attractive women, stylish figures scurrying across a pedestrian crossing. London is packed with a huge populace too, but you need to sit still in one place for minutes on end until you spot someone who’s dressed smartly, plus or minus taste. Romanians, or at least these Bucharest people, are so concerned about what they put on and how they look! Many of the young women do look a bit provocative, true, there’s a popular fashion style attempting to knock you out it seems, like knee-high boots, high-heeled shoes with mini-skirts, low-cut body-tight shirts and all the rest. But there are many others that you can see spend real money on clothing and take the pains of matching colours or style of the individual pieces and accessories they are wearing. Paris looks shabby, I can tell you. I can’t help recalling again the bleak Bucharest of the early nineties, when the human element was part of the pervading grey, faces sunk in a sort of gloom that was making them all look alike, as clones of one and the same species of distressed individuals.

I’m not saying Romanians are happy now. They have become tense, nervous, fidgety, even aggressive if I think of the continual honking. There’s a joke going around asking What is a nanosecond? The time between the traffic lights going green and the drivers behind you hooting their horn. But what I’m saying is that Romanians have become very distinct as a crowd. In fact they are not a crowd, they are a mass of individuals. So that when we finally reached the University Square, the heart of things, I knew precisely where I was and that this was Bucharest, Romania, a place where I knew so many people yet so little of how things really worked. But now it strikes me maybe this is it, there is nothing else to be known there, if you’re in Romania, it’s about people.

And Andrew himself, when I turned to him, was so familiar, that I gave a smile hearing again his endless chatter and knew for sure he was going to kill me with his dear gentleman and his precious style right over again. He came with me upstairs to my room, head ducked between shoulders like a good schoolboy and eyes set on the ground, as if brooding. We had to plan things for the next day. I briefed him on what I was supposed to do this time in Bucharest and he listened carefully, nodding at each of my sentences and assuring me he would assist me to the best of his abilities. I kept the worst for last: I also needed an interpreter this time, I was sure I couldn’t cope with him all through the day, I needed someone who should be easy to work with (I didn’t tell him that!). He took the news quite solemnly, a bit stiffly, but he assured me again he would get someone to my assistance, and in fact he already had someone in mind. I thanked him as gracefully as I was able to and then he realised I was going to take a shower and ignore him, so he left.

I lay in bed scheming for a long time before I could sleep. I gave a lot of thought to the question of what it would be this time – some big strike or demonstration, shocking testimonies in an interview? I had been sent to take the pulse on the spot and report on whatever was worth reporting in this country which is still so much of a terra incognita to the rest of Europe. We simply don’t understand Romania. We don’t understand why they are not making the progress other Eastern Europeans have been making, we don’t understand their politics, the passivity of the civil society, and we don’t understand what they are doing in the European Union at all. I was a bit worried about having no particular brief this time. My report here would be used for a longer documentary analysis of the country, which gave me more scope than if it had been a conventional news report. But then it was clear, Romania had become some sort of no-news place, like a black hole that was giving nothing out. Things had stopped burning in Romania. The great times of the early nineties!… So here’s already a first link right below.

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