Wednesday, 31 March 2010

Romania never misses an opportunity to miss an opportunity

Alison Mutler said I was too cautious a businessman to say anything to the press that made an eye-catching quote so I improvised: Unlike other countries further north Romania has the advantage that there is much EU sponsored infrastructure and other investment in the pipeline to coincide neatly with the crisis but after 12 years here I have learnt that Romania never misses an opportunity to miss an opportunity. A ponderous joke methinks. Everyone talks to 'Romanians' as if they were fourth formers who had to work harder if they wanted to make it to a good university. Bismarck had it right when he said that the country which copies another is lost. he was talking I imagine about Great Britain. Come to think of it it applies to Romania since she existed. Japan too and Taiwan and South Korea.

Sunday, 28 March 2010

Notes on the Old Town, Bucharest

I hate the new old town. Friends dropped in last night and we walked down Smardan and had a good meal in one of the dozens and dozens of places whose names I don't know that have opened in the last year or so in place of hardware shops and locksmiths. Yes it adds a fair bit to the sum of human happiness. Yes it was inevitable. Yes it is very convenient to me to suddenly find myself living in the midst of trendy bars and restaurants. But I hate it. These old towns come by lorry are invented somewhere else by design companies and they all look the same whether it is Belfast or Havana or Minsk. Yes Minsk has all this stuff too. The same bars the same restaurants the same old same old. You don’t even need tourists. Belfast and Bucharest don’t get many and Minsk, well. Their old towns cater for the people who live in the real town to which the old town has become a pendent.
But when I came to live in the old town eleven years ago Bucharest was the only capital city in Europe whose old town was a slum. I was fortunate to have found the street to suit the morbid taste I share with quite a number of foreigners who like Eastern Europe for squalour and broken things. The local people quite rightly do not share it. The next street even in that distant era had – something then quite outlandish in Bucharest in 2000 – a Belgian chocolate shop. And round the corner 400 yards away stod the National Bank a gleaming white battleship overshadowing the crooked and ill-slated houses. But my little street was satisfyingly riven by potholes and lined with shabby shops and tenements filled with illegal gypsies. As Bucharest changed, as malls darkened the land and nobody any more shopped in the market or the corner grocery shop the alimentar I the unmarried Englishman continued to buy my supercristal toothpaste from Vasile whose shop doubled as a bar or from the shop across the street where Radu played backgammon and drank tuica with his customers who seemed to be a kind of surrogate family. People even three years ago were asking me how I could bear to live here. One Englishman whose intelligence I respect though not his taste said the place depressed him.


The first thing to say about the old town in Bucharest is that is not very old at all. Most of it is built after 1850 and is about thirty years older than the rest of the so-called historic centre. All that is truly old in the old town are the labyrinthine street plan (after ten years living in this postage stamp I still get lost), three beautiful churches built in the 16th 17th and 18th centuries respectively, two Turkish hans from the early 19th century, two or three other Ottoman wooden buildings and the Curtea Veche, the old court. The Curtea Veche is incontrovertibly old. It is the ground floor of the palace built of terracotta brick by Vlad III himself - the Impaler ! Dracula! -in the 15th century. Fallen into disrepair and disrepute it disappeared under other buildings as the ground level rose and was brought to light when a row of shops on the site was demolished in the 1950s. It stands to this day without postcard shops or guide book stalls a puzzle of diverse busts tombstones and architraves littering the paved surface as if in a surrealist painting but passing it today I saw some tents and painted wooden wagons that spoke obscurely of history as bloodless entertainment industry. The curator who is a mine of information speaks no English which is reassuring. A downward flight of stairs into the basement level takes you into some eery tableau from Eugene Sue’s Le Juif Errant or the Phantom of the Opera, a vast brick catacomb shadowy and chilly on the hottest day. Michael Wharton once expressed the hopeless wish when a fragment of Roman road was discovered at York that it should be left enigmatic unexplained and unsignposted among the Edwardian terraced villas . Michael Wharton staunch reactionary, hater of the modern world and of progress, would have loved the old town in Bucharest until the last four year have brought in many things he loathed: worst of all, people employed to wear historical costumes,


Bucharest as Bucuresteni often remind themselves was once called the Little Paris. [Bucuresteni prefer to forget the alternative the Paris of the East, a title Bucharest shared with Budapest, Smyrna, Beirut,Antananarivo and Hanoi. Romanians do not want to think of themselves as Eastern even though they quote Raymond Poincare’s remark that in Romania ‘we are at the gates of the orient where everything happens at a slow pace’.]But two cnturies before Bucharest was the little Paris it was a little Phanar. The Phanar, meaning lighthouse, is the Greek district clustered around the little steepleless flat-roofed Patriarchal church in Constantinople where were crowned the unloved and venal Phanariot princes of Wallachia and Moldavia, Greek Christian subjects of the Sublime Porte who purchased their thrones for short uncertain reigns in which they endeavoured to make a profit on their investment before inevitably losing the favour of the Sultan. Visitors to Istanbul don’t usually make it to the Phanar. Since the 50s when most of the Greeks in the city were ‘encouraged’ to leave Turkey it has lost its Greek ambience and since the area was tidied up and much it demolished in the 70s it has lost most of what remained of its character but entering the patriarchal church one feels that one had left Istanbul and passed into Constantinople.


Strada Lipscani which runs through the tiny old town is Bucharest’s despised run-to-seed spiritual centre. through six centuries antedating even the Impaler it has retained its inimitable, profoundly disreputable character, despite earthquakes fires invasions bombs Marxism-Leninism but this very year all that will cease. When the glacial process of replacing the original asphalt with an ugly and sub-standard pedestrian level surface is complete and after four year businesses can return to the street they will be the new kind of ersatz business, antique shops and their ilk and it will be the end of an old song.

Achievements

Cooking in my litle kitchen, thinking: the internet, the apparent defeat of Marxism and the introduction of garlic into British cooking are the three great achievements of our time

Saturday, 27 March 2010

MAUDE PARKINSON TWENTY YEARS IN ROUMANIA (1921)

A town of one street, one church, and one idea - but what idea?

Bucarest has been described as a town of one
street, one church, and one idea. The aphorism is
to some extent justified, for the Calea Victoriei is
practically Bucarest, the Greek Church knows no
dissenters, and the prevailing idea is the spending
of money.

From Maude Parkinson's Twenty Years in Romania. Walter Starkie writing a few years later quotes the same tag but he assumed the one idea was sex. Both meanings sound spot on in contemporary Bucharest but that would mean two ideas. Although some times the two ideas are not wholly unconnected.

Romanians have bought 15 Ferraris worth EUR 200,000 each since the crisis began but this is the most unsurprising news item I read this year

An English lady in the harem at Bucharest

From: A journey through the Crimea to Constantinople in a series of letters By Elizabeth, Lady Craven (1789).

Lady Craven the friend of Johnson and Horace Walpole is remembered if at all for the accounts she wrote of her many journeys and for her scandalous private life which cries out for a post-feminist biographer. She became the morganatic wife of Alexander, Margrave of Brandenburg-Ansbach and Bayreuth and she was accorded the title of "Princess Berkeley" by the Holy Roman Emperor Francis II

LETTER LXIV.
BUCCOREST.
WHEN I landed in Wallachia I found horfes, provifions, and guards, provided for me, and I rather flew than drove along—From Karalafh, for a confiderable way, the route lay on the borders of the Danube, where cattle of all forts were feeding upon the fineft forts of clover, intermixed with various flowers—There is no road made, and I faw no carriage track, but a fine foil without ftones or ruts, made the journey very pleafant. As I came near to Buccoreft I quitted the meadows, and faw a moft beautiful country, where fmall woods of fine timber and Turkifh corn, ftanding above fix feet
high, formed a rich and varied picture Several
boyards came to meet me, and my Arnauts, or guards, were extremely alert and clever; though their ufual mode of fupplying my carriages with horfes often gave me great difpleafure; for it frequently happened, that a peafant mounted on a. good-looking horfe, with his fack of flour behind him, was difmounted in an inftant, a tired horfe left him, and his frefh horfe harnefled to my carriage—I wanted at leaft to have fome money given the man, and an explanation of the affair, but it feems the Prince of Wallachia had ordered that I fhould have no trouble or delay—and not be fuffered to pay for -any thing, fo that the little money I gave away was privately, and not without much

management could I contrive it Juft as I was
about to enter Buccoreft, I found a party of Janiflaries with a tent pitched about a mile from the town, who quarrelled with all my attendants, and made the poftillions drive back to enter the town another way as I was told, that road having been fhut by order of the Prince. My furprife increafed, when I found myfelf drove under a large gateway belonging to a Greek convent, the inner court of which was very fine and fpacious furrounded by cloifters with Gothic arches—My carriage was prefently furrounded by people of various nations, talking all languages to me—At laft I addrefled myfelf to one in a French drefs; pray, Sir, faid I, where am I?—A German fervant of mine fpoke to him in German, and I found I was driven in there to perform quarantine, for five days at leaft—The fuperior of the convent, by this time had come up to the door of the carriage: fancying by my looks, I fuppofe, that I had not the plague, he defired me to make ufe of his rooms till I had chofen my lodging for the night—The old venerable man fat by me and Mademoifelle while we dined; and I had then fent down to the town to inform the Prince of my fituation—But I afked my refpectable hoft where I fhould lodge if I ftaid—He pointed to a fmall miferable room acrofs the court, with only bare walls, and the windows of it were all broken. This room was to contain all my fuite with me; for every company I found that arrived, was kept apart from the

reft Clofe to the door of this room I faw a
wretched creature alone, with death in his countenance—And pray, fays I, what is that miferable figure?—A man fufpe&ed to have the plague, who was put away as far from the others as poffible, with
a little clean ftraw to lie upon I confefs I was
heartily glad when the Imperial agent came from the town, to inform me the Prince was very forry for the miftake—that it never was his intention I ihould be fent to the convent 1 thanked my old father for his civilities, and haftened to the town where I had been but a few moments, before a gold coach, made I believe in the year one, came to the door, with a fet of brown-bay ftone-horfes, that feemed to fpurn the earth—There was a Turkifh groom that held the bridle of each horfe—A kind of chamberlain, with a gold robe on, and a long white ftick in his hand, and the Prince's private fecretary came to fetch me. The whole town, I believe, by this time was got round the equipage, and we proceeded very flowly to the firft court of the palace, in which I went through a double row of guards, fome of them Janiflaries, and the others Arnauts and Albanians In the fecond court was another
double row of guards, and thefe extended up a large flight of fteps that conducted us to the great audience-chamber, in the corner of which, a fpace was divided off with cufhions, upon which fat the Prince, dreffed and attended a la Turque-, over his head were ranged the horfes tails, the great helmet and feather, the magnificent fabre, and other arms which I had feen parade before him in the ftreets of Conftantinople He afked me by the interpreter, how Monf.de Choifeul did—and if I would not make fome ftay in Wallachia Coffee and
fweetmeats were ferved, and when I rofe to take my leave, one of his chamberlains told me in a whifper to fit down again, when my ears were aflailed by the moft diabolical noife I ever heard; upon which with a very grave loud voice the fecretary faid, c'efl pour vous Madame—c'eft la mufique du Prince-, and the Prince defired me to look out into the court—There I faw trumpets of all kinds, brafs plates ftriking together, and drums of all fizes— fome of which, not larger than breakfaft-cups, were ranged on the ground, and the ftrikers of them fquatted on the ground to beat them—Each mufician was endeavouring to drown the noife of his neighbour, by making a louder if poffible; and I do not know that my nerves ever were fo tried before—for my companion, who faw the difficulty I had to refrain from laughing, was faying, for God's
fake do not laugh
Mr. de Choifeul's excellent German muficians came into my head too at that moment, and the contraft of his mufic to the noife I heard, added to the abfurdity of the thing, fo that I fuffered extremely—however this fcene did last long, I was called to have an audience of the Princefs—
But here I muft leave you for the prefent. Before I fet out I will finifh my account of this reception.
Adieu,
E. C

LETTER LXV.
iHE Princefs was fitting a la Turque, with three of her daughters by her, they were about nine, ten, and eleven years old—The Princefs might be about thirty, a very handfome face, fomething like the Duchefs of Gordon, only her features and countenance had more foftnefs, and her fldn and hair were fairer—Her perfon was rather fat, and me was above fix months advanced in her eighth pregnancy—She took my hand and feated me by her— The, Prince, to fhew me an extraordinary degree
of refpect, had fuffered Mr. V to come into
the Harem, and he fat down by him. There were near twenty women in the room, one of whom, inftead of a turban, had a high cap of fable put behind her hair, that was combed up ftraight over a kind of roll—This head-drefs was far from being ugly or unbecoming—The Princefs told me it was a lady of Wallachia, and that the cap was the drefs
of the country After the Princefs had afked me
all the fimple queftions generally afked by the Eaftern females—fhe afked me if I was drefled in the French fafhion; and told me fhe mould be happy to know any thing fhe could do to detain me in Wallachia a whole year—The Prince feemed to defire it as much as fhe did—But I affured them I mould not ftay four-and-twenty hours in Buccoreft. They then defired me to fup with them, which I confented to, but defired I might return to my lodgings to write to Conftantinople, as I had promifed immediately upon my arrival to this place— I was conducted back to my coach, and through the courts with the fame ceremony as I came—And being feated, the fecretary told me he was ordered to mew me a fine Englifh garden belonging to an old boyard, which we went to. A country curate's kitchen-garden in England and that were the fame—But the mafter of it was a venerable figure with a beard as white as fnow, dreffed in a long muflin robe, fupported by his fervants, as he walked with difficulty—He prefently ordered all the fruit in his garden to be prefented to me; and when I was going out of the garden, I met the very lady, with her fur cap, I had feen in the palace—She fhewed fuch tranfports of joy upon finding me at her father's houfe, that it was with difficulty I could get from her; me had taken me in her arms, and almoft fmothered me with kifles
The refpectable father's name is Bano Dedefcolo, and one of the principal noblemen in Wallachia; however I got to my lodgings at laft, and fcarcely had finimed a letter to Mr. de Choifeul, when two of the Prince's people with the fecretary came in, followed by many more of his houfehold. The fecretary defired me to go and look over a gallery that furrounded the back court of the houfe, I did fo; and I faw a beautiful Arabian horfe, in the midft
of a great mob; two Turks held his bridle The
fecretary told me the Prince hearing that I was fond of horfes defired me to accept that, which a Pacha of three Tails had given him a few days before—and he hoped I mould accept of it with the regard with which it was prefented—I gave him as civil an anfwer as I could imagine, and very handfome prefents in money to the grooms that brought him, and to the whole fet of ftable people— The fupper was ferved in a more European manner than I mould have imagined; a table upon legs, and chairs to fit on were things I did not expeci. The Prince fat at the end of the table, his wife on one fide, and I on the other. Mr. V was likewife invited, and fat at my left—Several women fat down to flipper with us. The Princefs had nine females behind her chair to wait upon her—feveral filver things, evidently the produce of England, were fet upon the table, fuch as falt-fellers, cruets, etc. etc. but there were four candlefticks that feemed to be made of alabafter, fet with flowers compofed of fmall rubies and emeralds, that were very beautiful Deteftable Turkifti mufic was played
during the whole fupper—but relieved now and then by Bohemians, whofe tunes were quite delightful, and might have made the heavieft clod of earth defire to dance. The Prince faw the impreffion this mufic made upon me, and defired they might play oftener than the Turks—It feems thefe Bohemians are born flaves, the property of the reigning Prince of Wallachia, while his power lafts—There are, as he told me, five thoufand of them left, formerly
there were five-and-twenty thoufand After the
fupper was over we fat fome time in the large room the Princefs firft received me in, but the Prince
and Mr. V fat on one fide, and the Princefs,
myfelf, and the other women on the other
The Princefs, I believe, thought I gave myfelf the liberties of a traveller, when I told her the ladies
with us learned to dance and write—with fome other things which fhe doubted of, likewife — —
Her hufband fmoaked his pipe, and I was forry fhe did not too, for I faw that it was her civility to a twelvemonth with her, which me faid would be a great amufement to her, as my prefence was full
tt it
a ftranger that prevented her -The Prince afked
me if I knew the Emperor and Prince Kaunitz— and upon my anfwering in the affirmative, he afked me—" Should I fee them?"—" Probably"—" Why then (faid he) do you tell the Prince I am devoted to his commands—-and tell the Emperor, I hope " now we are fo near one another, we mall be good " friends"—The oddnefs of thefe meffages was very near making me laugh—but I gravely aflured, him I mould deliver them faithfully, if I had an opportunity About half paft eleven I rofe to take my
leave, and received from the Princefs fome very beautiful embroidered handkerchiefs, and was obliged again to excufe myfelf from ftaying only
of graces 1 retired with all the attendants I had
before, only with the addition of I believe a hundred flambeaux, and all the Turkifh and Bohemian mufic playing by the fide of the large gold coach—The horrid difcord and comical proceffion got the better of all my gravity; arid though the fecretary was there, I laughed all the way to the French Conful's houfe, where I now write, the civil man
and wife infifting upon giving me a bed. Mr. V- 's
ideas of good-breeding were fo difcompofed, by my laughing, that he affured the fecretary the perfection of my ear for mufic was fuch, that the leaft difcord in it made me laugh—and he repeated this in all the
ways he could turn it I faid, oh! oui, c'e/i bien
vrai', but between whiles I faid in Englifh, what would you have me do, I feel like Punch parading through the ftreets, with all thefe trumpets and this mob about me—However, the fecretary and Mr.
V at laft caught the infection, and we arrived
laughing all three at the houfe, where the Conful's wife had prepared me a comfortable bed, and I got rid of my mufic by giving them a handful of money.
S s

It is fo hot that I cannot fleep, and I am writing
to you, dear Sir This is no inconfiderable town,
the fituation of it is very beautiful—indeed, in this country it would be difficult to find an ugly fcite— Wallachia pays to the Porte a tribute of four hundred purfes * yearly, exclufive of grain, wool, and many thoufand fheep—Shepherds pay an annual tribute befide, of eighty thoufand fkins of the cattle, with butter, cheefe, and tallow
If the grain fails from Egypt, this country is obliged to fupply the deficiency at Conftantinople— Still I affirm that upon earth, Sir, all things fuperior in their nature, either animate or inanimate, are taxed cruelly—This beautiful country, the foil and climate of which makes every produce luxuriant, is by the hand of fate under a power which extorts unmercifully from the natives, through the neceffities of the Porte, if not by the rapine of the Princes, and prefles plenty from her fource, driving often the wretched Wallaques to fly into the mountains, where, at leaft for a time, they avoid the cruelties they find from a tyrannical government, which punifhes them for the deficiencies the extortions of that very government have occafionedt


I fet out early to-morrow, and fhall write from Hermanftadt, the firft imperial town I fhall reach— I have a very clever addition to my fuite here, a kind of trader and interpreter, who fpeaks the Wallachian language perfectly, and is going to Hermanftadt

Tuesday, 23 March 2010

Horea's revolt covered sympathetically by the Times in 1785

http://www.ziarulfaclia.ro/Ziarul-The-Times-la-31-ianuarie-1785-despre-Horea-Un-desperado-%C3%AEndr%C4%83zne%C5%A3+37134

Romanian tourism in a British newsreel, 1964

http://www.britishpathe.com/record.php?id=1798

A visitor's guide to Bucharest, Romania

http://www.helium.com/items/1454003-bucharest-tourism

Bucharest pretty innocent of tourism for so long is now alas a tourist destination. This article seemed very flattering to me but annoyed a patriotic friend of mine by mentioning a Morrocan restaurant and describing Bucharest as formerly considered crime-ridden which it never was. I told an American a couple of years ago that I lived in the most, perhaps only, interesting country in Europe and she guessed I meant Romania. But hypermarkets, mortgages and celebrity magazines may change that.

Europe's last leper colony is in the Danube Delta

http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/europe/1639335.stm

Wonderful colour film of Bucharest during the Second World War

This clip is considerably too kind to Marshal Antonescu who should not be judged lightly even though he had a very poor hand to play. He continued the war against the Russians beyond the Dniester (cf. Mannerheim of Finland which escaped being a Soviet satellite after the war) and was responsible for the deaths of many Jews and other civilians in Bessarabia.


http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=05N-AM0cZ-o

King Carol II of Romania & Prince Michael in the UK 1938

King Carol II of Romania & Prince Michael in the UK 1938

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ob4M0yMzldQ

The Romanian and Russian royal families in Constanza in 1914

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ob4M0yMzldQ

John Reed in Romania

John Reed the extreme left-wing American journalist who wrote 'Ten Days that Shook the World' an inaccurate and admiring account of the October Revolution did not like Bucharest where he spent two months:
"The Rumanian... speaks a Latin language strongly impregnated with Slavic and Asiatic roots -- an inflexible tongue to use, and harsh and unmusical to the ear.
And he has Latin traits: excitability, candour, wit, and a talent for hysterical argument in critical situations. He is lazy and proud, like a Spaniard, but without a Spaniard's flavour; sceptical and libertine, like a Frenchman, but without a Frenchman's taste; melodramatic and emotional, like an Italian, without Italian charm. One good observer has called Rumanians 'bad Frenchmen' and another 'Italianized gypsies'."
"Shopkeepers and cabmen and waiters in restaurants are thieving and ungracious; if they can't cheat you they fly into an ugly rage and scream like angry monkeys. How many times have Rumanian friends said to me: don't go to so-and-so's shop, he's Rumanian and will cheat you. Find a French or a German place...
"There is nothing original about [Bucharest], nothing individual. Everything is borrowed. A dinky little German King lives in a dinky little palace that looks like a French Prefecture, surrounded by a pompous little court. The government is modelled on that of Belgium... Frenchified little policemen bully the market-bound peasants, who dare to drive across the Callea Victoria and interrupt the procession of kept women. Cabarets and music-halls are like the less amusing places on Montmartre; you can see Revues based on dull French ones... A surface coating of French frivolity covers everything -- without meaning and without charm."

Sunday, 21 March 2010

Romanians liked expensive cars in 1818

The Reverend Robert Walsh accompanied the British Ambassador on his journey to present his credentials to the Sublime Porte and wrote a Narrative of a Journey from Constantinople to England, London, 1828. The whole book is here.


Contrasts and parallels between then and now abound.



“…Formerly, it was the practice for the Boyars, like their ancestors the Scythians, to ride on horseback, from which they seldom were seen dismounted in the streets. It was only about thirty years ago that they adopted the more effeminate habit of riding in carriages; and this practice is congenial to their vain and indolent disposition, that now they would not cross to the opposite side of a street without entering into them. But the circumstance which most distinguishes Bucharest is melancholic dissoluteness of manners among all classes. The town abounds with wine-houses; and, to attract customers, a number of women are kept in each house, who are ready at a call to dance and sing for the guests. To these houses the Boyars repair from their own families and pass their evenings among the most shameless class of females that ever disgraced the sex. In this way it is that Bucharest is rendered infamous for profligacy beyond any other city in Europe. The number of this unfortunate class is so great, that it was proposed to lay a capitation tax to them, as the most profitable source of revenue that could be resorted to and it is expected that the proposal will be carried into effect.

…The first thing that struck me in the streets was the number of brilliant carriages rolling in all directions or standing at the doors.…It is the favorite vanity of the boyars to display these machines, on which they expend large sums of money; as they are made merely for show – falling to pieces in a year or two, and requiring a constant expense to supply new ones. In one of these gaudy vehicles a fat Boyar sits, wrapped in a rich pelisse with an enormous calpac, or cap of curious shape, consisting of two large lobes swelling out one above the other and covered with green or scarlet velvet. In the front is generally a tall, dirty fellow, in a shabby, ragged, grey great-coat; his head covered with a large, slouched, foxy felt hat, tied with cord, from which his hair hangs loose and matted about his face and shoulders. This barbarous mixture of finery and rags the Wallachians seem to have derived from the Russians.”

The Maramures August 2005

The Last Peasants
First published in Vivid in October 2005, republished in The Times
"The country is holding its breath today," read The Times. “Tension and nerves will be felt by millions who know that the bombers have chosen Thursday as a day of atrocity.”
The world has been rewritten by the writers of cheap thrillers. And not necessarily present day thrillers. We feel as if we are in the neurotic pre-1914 landscape of William Le Queux or early Edgar Wallace.
While Londoners were waiting pensively in the tube I was in another kind of pre-1914 landscape, driving through villages in the Maramures, the northern edge of Transylvania bordering on Ukraine. Here life hasn’t changed very much in centuries but it will soon change utterly. Here in the most conservative part of Romania, Europe’s least modern country, peasants have not completely given up traditional costumes, for example. Such tractors as were to be found here under Communism were long ago sold off and horse-drawn ploughs are universal. Old women in black scatter seed in the fields. This is subsistence farming of a kind which had disappeared elsewhere and must soon disappear here too.
It took me fifteen years to get to Maramures. In 1990 when everyone in the Transylvanian countryside wore traditional costume to Mass and cars were scarcely seen, I asked my Romanian companion, ‘Is this the poorest part of Romania?’ It was my first day here. ‘No, it’s the richest. Can’t you tell?” A disconcerting reply. ‘If you want to see somewhere poor and old fashioned you should go to Maramures. In Maramures they’re still living in the Stone Age.’
In those fifteen years Maramures has changed like the rest of Romania. Gloucestershire has been bought up by stockbrokers wanting weekend cottages and Maramures I had read was full of villas built by customs officers and police colonels. And there are plenty of big new houses around. A lot fewer people wear costume every day than did when I missed my first chance to visit. Tourism is bigger business now than it was then and there is a steady stream of foreign visitors but the area still feels pretty undiscovered, well protected by its inaccessibility. You can’t get there easily from anywhere by car, train or plane.
In Maramures villages men in hats and women with scarves, aged from thirty upwards, spend a lot of time sitting on roadside benches. They look attentively at each car or pedestrian that passes and conversation languishes. Tranquil is I suppose the word. The bomb explosions in London seemed unreal to Londoners but less real in Maramures.
Agrotourism, putting up with peasants, is the joy of travelling in Romania. This is tourism on a human scale, bespoke. You are a lodger but treated as a friend. Catch it before its innocence has been lost and before Romania enters the E.U. in 2007. Your hosts who are subsistence farmers provide milk for your coffee fresh from the cow at the end of the garden. How much will be lost when EU health regulations bring all this to an end.
The priest’s wife in the village of Botiza, Mrs Victoria Berdecaru, has revived the carpet making industry in the village, organised a very neat crafts museum and organises accommodation for visitors. I stayed with Vasile the handsome 40 year-old local carpenter and handyman who built the museum and who told me ‘I do everything except dig graves. I won’t dig graves.’
I came on a chance impulse to see the 38th edition of the Hora La Prislop festival. Horas are traditional Romanian dances and every village has its dances. Hora La Prislop is held on a mountainside and participants from villages throughout the Maramures compete for prizes. It attracts a big well-mannered audience who sit on the grass watching the stage neither eating, drinking nor talking. I also noticed three or four foreigners, one bestrewn with two large and expensive cameras. The festival is great fun on a sunny Sunday afternoon if you repress the adage about trying everything once except incest or Morris dancing.
The date of the first festival, 1968, is telling. Nicolae Ceausescu was just beginning to wrap himself in the flag and emphasise the traditions of the Romanian peasantry, twenty years before he began to knock down villages to make way for agro-industrial complexes. We were back in the 1970s and you expected to see local party dignitaries in crimplene suits make speeches praising agricultural output.
This was the eve of Assumption Day. In Romania as in much of Southern Europe the Assumption of the Virgin is one of the most important days of the year. It is treated in the countryside as an unofficial holiday. The roads were full of processions, adults in full costume, and angelic girls in white as for a first Holy Communion.
People from all over the area and the two biggest processions converged on the Monastery of Moisei where Mass in the open lasted from early evening till midday. Until 1989 these processions were forbidden by the police and had to be held under cover of night but today every ex-Communist politician wants to be photographed on the Assumption at some famous monastery. Moisei was crowded with visitors and stalls selling refreshments. Long before the first procession was near the narrow road to the monastery was blocked and impassible by car.
Wooden churches are what Maramures is renowned for, with spires, steep roofs and wall paintings. I attended Mass the next morning in a Greek Catholic church in Iaud or rather in the graveyard amid hollyhocks and brightly painted crucifixes with most of the congregation. The women stood together in the front, the men together at the rear. Most of the women wore scarves and traditional blouses and skirts but there were a few in blue jeans and loose hair. Each year the numbers of the latter increase.
The priest at the close read out the names and size of the contributions made by parishioners to the cost of building the new church. (“€100 on the part of Mrs Ionela Ghica, €100 on the part of Vlad Dumitriu…”) Everywhere you go in Maramures new churches have been or are being built alongside the houses of incomers. A few miles away an impressive Orthodox monastery complex has been built on the site of one suppressed in the eighteenth century.
Iaud is a village where half the population is Greek Catholic. The Greek Catholic rite resembles that of the Orthodox but the Greek Catholics, also known as ‘Uniates’, recognise the authority of Rome. Iaud boasts several fine wooden churches and a reputation for large families. It seems that the inhabitants observe the Church’s teaching better than in richer parts of Europe. According to Vasile: ‘If you have three children here people think you’re impotent.’
Sighet, a pleasant Austro-Hungarian town a mile from the Ukrainian border, houses the infamous prison where after the Communist takeover the leading politicians and opinion-formers were incarcerated, tortured and in many cases killed. Today the prison is a well-designed museum that explains the Stalin era. When I visited the museum had plenty of customers. Children ran around noisily. I got a slight sense in the exercise yard of the horrors of the recent past, I stood in the little cell in which democrat Iuliu Maniu had died and I went out. I was pleased that President Ion Iliescu, a leading member of the Communist Party’s youth wing during the years when the prison was busiest, had not been to see it.
Vasile told me that the secret of a happy life is preserving tradition. ‘You have to change but you should keep the traditions.’ I thought of life in London where traditions have been dissolved by affluence, technology, pop culture and multiculturalism. In the Maramures past and present are seamless, the existence of God is assumed rather like the sun rising each morning, neighbours know everything about each other and no man is an island.
But the numbers of cars we saw everywhere with Italian driving licenses testify to the exodus of Moreseni to work abroad. In the locality where I was staying everyone went to Northern Italy, where the discipline of Italian life was irksome but the money was very good. In other parts of the Maramures I am told everyone goes to Spain. Maramures is beautiful but desperately poor and an economic impossibility. As Vasile said to me ‘When you say agriculture you say poverty.’ Europe no longer has room for subsistence farmers and even if people like Vasile would never swap their lives for anyone else’s, his three daughters will go to college and not return to live their mother’s way of life. Vasile has no regrets. ‘They must fulfill their destiny. I hope they will return here when they are old.’
© Paul Wood 2005

Two incidents from the short reign of Constantin Hangerli

R.W Seton-Watson, A History of the Roumanians (1934)

So exorbitant was this demand as virtually to amount to all the herds of Wallachia. The collectors were ordered to levy the increased tax within the brief space of ten days, and employed very severe measures, not stopping short of torture. When at last despairing protests were made before the palace - in itself a most unusual event - the prince [Hangerli] appeared at a window and called out angrily, 'Pay the taxes and you won't be killed'.



An emissary was sent from the Porte to Bucarest, accompanied by a tall negro executioner. Forcing his way into the palace and into the very presence of the hospodar, he produced a firman of the sultan and ordered the negro to strangle the wretched Hangerli then and there, before the eyes of his terrified guards (1 March 1799).When some of the boiars rushed in, they found the prince's head had been hacked off, and the room was deluged with blood.

Meanwhile in Hampshire Jane Austen was completing Northanger Abbey, George Washington was dying at Mount Vernon, Napoleon's troops were slaughtering Albanian prisoners of war at Jaffa.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Constantine_Hangerli

Donald Dunham on 18th century Bucharest architecture

In the first half of the XVIIth century, there appeared a new combination of imported styles which has been characterized as the first Wallachian manifestation. The prototype of this style is the village church of Gherghiţa in Prahova county. A later example of this style is to be found in the Biserica Doamnei [Church of the Lady] in Bucharest. The floor plan is rectangular and there is an open portico surrounded with pillars supporting an arcade which later included a bracket-type and clover-type design above the columns. The ante-nave, which was previously separated from the nave by a wall, in this church runs into the nave with only pillars and arcades between. There is one tower over the nave and one over the ante-nave or over the portico, which later tower houses the church bell. For the first time the staircase to the bell becomes an integral part of the building on the north wall. There is no corresponding structure on the south wall so the building loses its symmetry.
In the second half of the same century this partial amalgamation was modified. The structure was elevated and the effect is of more graceful outline. For the first time, the pillars and arcades of the open portico and the door and window frames are heavily painted or sculptured. Lace-like sculpture is found on the altar screen as well as on the pulpit and chairs. This style of church became generalized as “Romanian” during this period and today examples are to be found throughout the country.
The same architectural basis was followed in the late XVIIth century at Fundenii Doamnei Church outside Bucharest, which was built by a member of a family of Greek origin, Mihail Cantacuzino. However, the subsidiary elements became increasingly incongruous. The exterior sculpture is delightful even if sections of it would seem more suitable in Persia. It is said that a Persian sculptor was imported to do the decoration; certain Persian motives are used and a delicacy of workmanship characteristic of that nationality is present. The pavilion on the exterior is Persian and is flanked by cypress trees. The stylized peacocks at a fountain with swimming fish, the vases with flowers, the lemon trees and the pears and pomegranates are typical. The sculpture over the door is less fortunate: Professor Oprescu refers to it as “Italian Baroque under pressure of Byzantine eastern influences.”
The first part of the XVIIIth century saw the construction of the Văcăreşti Monastery [demolished by Ceauşescu in the 1980s] by the Mavrocordato family in the same tradition as the earlier family of Greek origin, the Cantacuzinos, and as the Brâncoveanu family. This structure includes even more lavish embellishments but the style is practically unchanged. It is one of the last evidences of church architecture in this tradition; from the second half of the XVIIIth century interest in architecture and sculpture waned and the accent was placed on painting.

Bucharest is a habit which is hard to shake

Bucharest is a habit which has survived. The Communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu intended to demolish the entire city and rebuild it inspired by his state visit to Pyongyang. (Ion Iliescu who accompanied Ceausescu was dismayed by Kim Il-sung’s dreary statlet but Ceausescu had seen the future.) It would have made more sense to have built a new capital on green fields as the Kazakh dictator has since done, a Communist New Delhi or Islamabad. But like Strada Lipscani Bucharest’s despised spiritual centre, Bucharest continues despite wars, fires, earthquakes and changes of regime from Christian t Muslim, from fascist to Communist to democratic, always to preserve its very specific and not very high-minded character.

This is no country for old men

Travel books are like all literary genres from another age, when abroad had another meaning . When John Paget wrote almost no-one among his readers, all people who paid income tax and a tiny fraction of the English population had been to Hungary or heard of Transylvania. For a long time travel was expensive and difficult and travel writing was information for the curious and a story with the writer as protagonist. And funny foreigners. All foreigners for the most liberal Englishmen were very faintly comic until some moment some time after we joined what was then called the Common Market. Now they are something to help us choose where to go on holiday, to prepare for holidays and to compare notes afterwards. And writers create the country they write about. Arabia is about Wilfred Thesiger. Delhi is now about Sam Miller and William Dalrymple a literary construct. And countries are an idea which is changing. And the word foreign is changing too. Will Romania be a country in fifty years time or a part of a big non-country called Europe? Countries are about traditions and therefore anachronistic. And about excluding foreigners which seems xenophobic and discriminatory. And about violence in the past the future sometimes in the present. And about languages but languages are being subverted by English. Countries are a difficult concept in the post-modern post-Marxist world.

Sex and travel

If as Malcolm Muggeridge said sex is the mysticism of materialism, then this can also be true of travel too. And not particularly the beach holiday kind of travel so much as the more adventurous travel. Travel agents sell dreams. Only books and travel have the qualities of dreams and for the young only dreams are real. Reality is a terribly dull thing. When one gets older life acquires a texture and begins at last to one’s surprise to feel real, which means like a novel. About the same time novels seem less interesting. (For some people perhaps travel does too?)

Abroad is bloody - King George VI

The heart is the undiscovered country. You travel to a foreign country to discover your unconscious mind.

Laurence Durrell said you have two birthplaces. The place where you are born and the place where you learn about life. For me an adolescent of 36 my second birthplace was Bucharest.

For some people who do not put their feet on the ground and take part in life there can be a transparent sheath between themselves and life. They are tourists all the time, in their home town or when they are travelling. Perhaps I am one of these people. I felt throughout my four years at Cambridge that I was a tourist there. In London where my contemporaries were pursuing paths to money and love I walked around with an acute overwhelmingly passion for the city which you can only feel if you grew up in Southend-on-Sea. As Philip Guedalla said of Micheael Arlen’s characters they walk down Jermyn St with such an acute sense of its being Jermyn St that one almost suspects them of being in London for the day. and perhaps this is how I have lived in Bucharest in the last twelve years. Perhaps this is why I like being a foreigner here rather than feeling a foreigner in my own country. How awful to feel at home somewhere. Does anyone feel at home anywhere? Does anyone interesting? Perhaps grown-ups do. Perhaps that is one definition of being grown-up.

Selling newspapers

Mihai Florescu from whom I buy my morning paper in University Square came to Bucharest and started as a paper-boy when he was thirteen and fresh from the country. When he arrived in town he was wearing peasant costume for that was in 1935. The newspapers he has sold have born headlines about the Munich crisis, the abdication of King Carol II and the death of Stalin, about Ion Tiriac and Nadia Comaneci and, more regularly than anyone else, about Nicolae Ceausescu. This week they proclaim that Romania has entered NATO. In those 68 years Tudor has never read a newspaper. I don’t think he can read. The events recorded in the papers he sold didn’t impinge a lot on his existence, with the notable exceptions I suppose of the earthquakes of 1940 and 1977. Even the war touched him relatively little despite the German wartime bombing raids and the Soviet troops marching down the Calea Victoriei. And one day in December 1989 a friend warned him to keep away from his pitch because they were shooting people in University Square. Tudor stayed in the basement room that he shared with a widow for a week until it was safe to ply his trade once more.