“But you were going to tell me something about your involvement with the green NGO”, I prompted her.
Her face lit up again, as if relieved that the talking hadn’t got stuck.
“Yesss… it’s like this, someone I know, who’s just graduated this year was very busy with this NGO, and would always tell how great it is to be working there. I liked the fact that of all of my friends she really was doing something with her time and with herself, other than you know… just the typical hanging out. I found it cool for her to be able to say that she’s active, that she’s trying to change something. One of our university professors told us once maternally that one simply has to accept certain things as long as one can do their profession, just look at us, she said, you can now read everything you wish, you can travel to conferences, get teaching jobs anywhere in the world, you can write and get published… after all that’s what matters most. Well, I didn’t see it that way. So this friend of mine was doing the opposite, and I liked her all the more for that. So that one day I simply decided to go over to her office and see what it’s like there. And yes, I liked it so much that I said I wanted to stay there. All young people like us, no fancy dress code, no airs, no one trying to show off or to prove anything, all of us just committed to a belief. A bit like the hippies if you ask me, but that’s cool. My friend, who in the meantime got to be in charge of resource exploitation projects, was recently invited to a TV talk show, everyone else sitting there was the usual type of either bourgeois or gloomy idiot – or both – and right in the middle sat my friend, a bright face with quick eyes and lively voice. She was wearing a T-shirt with a slogan saying No to one of the government’s big business deals with great damage, environmental and social, for Romanians. We watched the show holding our breath to see her and how her T-shirt looked, but can you imagine, what pains a cameraman can go to, only to leave a T-shirt out of the picture… We told her afterwards, next time she should wear a cap, ha ha!”
I laughed too.
“And would it be possible for me to meet your friend too, and to get to see your place there?”
“Well of course, that would be fantastic, how come it wasn’t MY idea? When would you like to set this up?”
“Well, that’s at the moment up to you and your friends, right now it looks like it’s the first thing I’ve got on the agenda.”
It was giving me a very good feeling: that was the kind of experience that I’d decided to go for – the sort that simply crops up. I was quite confident that it didn’t take more digging than the mere letting it happen, the one-thing-leading-to-another approach. The place looked like it was oozing with such potential stories to unpack.
She made a short phone call, giggling and laughing between articulations and ejaculations in a language that was not transparent to me, and at the end, passing all that excitement and smile on to me, announced me succinctly:
“When?”, I asked.
“Anytime. Now. Later…?”
“Now’s fine. Let’s go then. Could you please call a taxi?” and I showed her the phone on the bedside table.
“We don’t really need a taxi. It’s more or less round the corner”, she replied.
It turned out to be round several corners, but I realised that a taxi trip would have taken ages, crawling through the horrible traffic. Besides, the office was in the middle of one of those city meshes of narrow, crammed streets, where a car has to squeeze itself a hair off the others parked on the sides. Bucharest’s mesh of this kind is really nice, with houses or blocks of flats in the art-deco style of the 30s. My well-informed friends there tell me that Bucharest was quite experimental back then, with a modernist style that was bolder than in the rest of Europe. It was a young city, with a bourgeoisie that was willing to assert themselves and turn Bucharest into an attraction of the East, which they did too. With the exponential traffic growth in the past two decades, however, many of the once cosy lanes are now simply impassable – if on foot you have to walk on the roadway, while cars take up most of the pavement, lined up in endless, gapless rows. Some of these streets are one-way, but others are theoretically still two-way, so you don’t want to come face-to-face with an opposite car mid-way down such streets. The buildings themselves are very nice, provided you look up; in the daily hassle one is too busy hurrying on to afford an eye for the beautiful shapes. Besides, so many of these once classy buildings are apparently run-down, large pieces of plaster coming off, and in want of paint. There’s even a red-dot sign nailed up on some facades, indicating a high earthquake risk, a nice way for the authorities to wash their hands and say “we warned you”.
And in front of one such block of flats, squeezed like a tooth-filling between two similar cubes, yet with small and rounded balconies, no more than four or five stories high, we stopped, Mona and me, before going in to the NGO.
“You won’t see any of the usual kind of offices, mind you!” smiled Mona pointedly. I raised my eyebrows confused,
“What do you mean, usual kind of offices? You should come and see my own office”, I added jokingly. “If a Saint Bernard for some reason got lost in there, you wouldn’t be able to find it, poor soul! So don’t worry, I can take anything.”
We took a sort of ancient, mini-elevator with a sliding iron railing that one had to pull to, and then two lanky twin doors closing in the middle with a click. If you took care to click them right, on pressing the button for your desired floor the elevator would effectively start with a smooth jolt. If not, there came something like an “error, try again” pang. That’s exactly what happened on Mona’s first attempt. She gave an irritated “tz” sound and tried again, rolling her eyes and sighing.
“I never seem to be able to get it started right away. I’ve been coming here for several months and it still takes a while standing here inside and playing with the doors. Sometimes I need to open them altogether and check if the railing is properly shut, that can be a problem too, but I only realise that after two or three failures with these inside doors. So… up to the top floor!”
We started ascending, slowly, with a faint whirring sound. It was pretty crammed in there, and the walls read funny things to us that were scribbled in various sizes. “To the moon and back – if you’re lucky” was one of them. Mona found it quite humorous,
“Gliding upwards to the top floor and while your eyes casually discover this inscription you do get a feeling of being beamed to a weird place, don’t you”, and she winked at me. “Spooky Romania, huh?”
“Yeah”, I replied smiling.
The ascent took longer than I’d expected, as the building was only four or five stories high, as I said before. We must have been lumbering up at quite a leisurely speed. Funny, now it crosses my mind, using such an elevator day after day you could use the time for reflection, or just catching your breath. You stand in there, nothing to watch, nothing to do, and especially no way you can speed things up, so there’s not much else to do but simply switch off and just compose yourself for what awaits you when the doors open.
When the elevator stopped with a gentle hiccup, Mona opened the doors with dexterous and efficient movements and we stepped out. Complete darkness. I thought for a second that we’d mislanded so to speak, as this was obviously the garret, and it looked as if we’d gone past the top floor by mistake. But Mona knew better and she scurried ahead to switch on a sort of rudimentary lamp on the wall that gave the place the air of a mine shaft. A joking question flashed through my mind, is this the top, or the bottom floor after all, but Mona broke in to reassure me,
“Don’t worry, this isn’t the moon, it’s just a very quiet place where nobody bothers us. We can be very easily ignored here by the crowd that has better things to do, or so they think” and she winked at me again.
“Does this mean your quarters are illegal here, in fact?”
Mona glanced at me in the dim light in a way that prompted me to add quickly,
“Illegal, well, I mean is this some sort of a squatters commune?”
“It could be called whatever one likes. We don’t really sleep here, if that’s what you mean, but then sleeping is just another activity. We do work here around the clock, and some might think this makes the place a commune after all.”
With these words she pushed a blind door open and we were immediately blinded by what I afterwards made out to be a huge torch hanging from a long nail on the wall opposite the door.
“Don’t worry”, Mona reassured me again, “it gets better in a second, we do have electricity here and everything else you can wish for.”
“Everything, really?” I laughed.
“Yes, wireless internet, coffee and tea, microwave, sandwich-maker, and above all daylight!” and she smiled.
From the crammed room where we’d got in Mona led me through a narrow passage at the end of which there was some light indeed. Voices too, and a faint sound of a radio.
“There we are”, Mona turned to me when we had come to the bright spot. I had to blink one or two seconds but I could see a few young people watching laptop screens sitting around desks improvised from large cardboard boxes.
One of the girls sprang up and welcomed us.
“This is my friend Monica – this is Peter”, Mona said almost out of breath.
Monica gave me a firm handshake, and it felt good, after the eerie last couple of minutes of fumbling in the dark. She had a bright face, a straight, open look and a big smile. She showed us to a corner where one could sit on several big cushions and pouffes obviously brought over from home. The other two or three guys kept doing their own thing at the computers after waving to me during the introductions.