Bucharest, Fall, 2002:
We'd been told by visitors and guide books to expect the worst examples of corruption, scams, and bleak, crumbling apartment blocks.
It is true such sights are easy to find.
And for my tastes,
the broad flat emptiness of Piatza Unirii,
Yet after avoiding Romania's capital for years, we now wish we hadn't.
Turns out there's a vast populace of warm and welcoming strangers going about their lives as best they can.
Vasile relates a typical story: his wife died, and now his pension is worth almost nothing, but his daughter is working in Canada and helps him out. Still, he must content himself with walking the 'Writers Circle' in Cismigiu Park (Gra-dee-na Keesh-mee-geeoo) for entertainment.
We told him we thought the park reminded us of New York's Central Park. He smiled, and thanked us, and invited us to stay in his apartment whenever we might want to visit Bucharest.
Elsewhere, normal folks are struggling with their normal problems,...
administering an 'intravenous drip' to their Dacia,...
or selling lotto dreams for a quarter.
A mother and daughter shop for school supplies,...
while an artist from yesteryear puts his visions on paper,...
and the spirit of tomorrow dreams of adventures with American Indians.
Like Romania, Bucharest is a Dicksonian Tale of Two Cities. A woman without Vasile's advantage of ex-pat children makes ends meet with an upturned palm.
Meanwhile businessmen frequent the rarified halls of a high-rent consumer paradise.
Stores which cram Bucharest's streets and sell everything from clothes...
to a lack thereof are a testament to a germinating middle class.
And with this aspiration to prosperity, there is now a love affair with things American.
At the same time, lessons of capitalism are given a distinctly European twist.
Romanians are not indiscriminate in their tastes. They not only chow down American fast food and flock to Hollywood movies, but go out for a bit of Jazz, one of Romania's music passions.
This is Matt, a Fulbright adjunct (significant other to a Fulbright grantee, taking advantage of the gift of time to pursue his Jazz dreams). He's accompanied in his vocal and trumpet rhapsodies by enthusiastic locals he met stepping off his plane.
Nor is Romania neglecting its proud history.
We paid a visit to the Romanian Peasant Museum near Piatza Victoriei.
We entered into a grand collection of peasant crafts, costumes, and architecture which is so rich and well presented that the museum earned the 1996 European Museum of the Year Award.
Their country roots mingle with the modern city -- night cleaners are dressed like any peasant,
Day workers use the simplest technology possible to get their jobs done.
And the country's premier law students rely on mother nature to dry their laundry.
We visited as the President of the United States was coming to invite Romania into NATO on November 23rd, 2002. Police instructed us to park our old car out of sight of the president's motor-route. Perhaps the reasons had more to do with security than aesthetics, for university dirty laundry seems to have passed muster.
Welcome to the contradictions that are Contemporary Bucharest.
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