Marcin Konkel

Asta e! (Bucharest)


"That's the way it is" goes Romanian adage "Asta e!". It seems directly and indirectly ubiquitous around the city and mentally in it's inhabitants. Indirectly, starting with the cables going everywhere in massive amounts through to the way people drive not caring much about others (whether pedestrians or drivers) to people sitting on the streets on their chairs and just looking here and there not doing much. "Asta e!" refers to the acceptance of what is in a rather passive, non-agressive way. It is not related to the chill and humour of Australians, nor to British stoicism. It's something different and it has it's story..

BUCHAREST / Flower seller.

When landing on Henri Coandă International Airport there is nothing that lets you know about the forthcoming experience. An ordinary airport that later presents itself as one of the most expensive ones for consumer shopping (starting with ordinary water) when compared to local average salary (around 1800 RON / 404 EUR a month). When you enter the city though you notice something different..

That Bucharest is a city of contrasts. Same as Moscow although a bit differently. The latter has an ubiqious communist vibe whereas the former distinguishes itself with a historical longing for being the second Paris. When visiting you will see a mix of Eastern Europe with Pyongyang, Novosibirsk with a sprinkle of Paris. This can't be right you might think. Yes, it can't but.. Yes, it is. Bucharest can be pretty and in some parts it really is. You can find the Western European vibe mixing with brutalism of concrete and derelict Austro-Hungarian tenement houses. Some concepts have been taken directly from North Korea's capital which was Ceaușescu's inspiration for the People's House and the whole concept of systematization.

A book.

The story behind Nicolae Ceaușescu is, of course, longer and does not end on People's House (today Palace of the Parliament). Nowadays it is the second largest administrative building in the world right after Pentagon. Nicolae, who symphatized with North Korean leader and his ideology, has done some things that could only come straight from a mad man's dream. He was finally shot by his people after many years of reforms that seemed not take into account the real needs of people. The building though is one of the, still, visible symbols of his time. Apart from it some other things remain in Romania as the aftermath.

Few years back stray dogs where a massive problem in the city. Forming packs and going through the streets posed a threat to humans. Many people got bitten and some really badly or even fatally. Ceaușescu had a tendency to create things anew, his own way. Not taking into consideration the historical value of certain sights. People sarcastically called these actions "Ceaușimas". The probably most significant one was the demolition of Uranus district. It included many historical buildings which were teared down to the ground. The hill on which the buildings were set was levelled. Before the demolition took place the inhabitants were resettled to much smaller apartments and scattered around the city.

"The urban systematization conducted by the communist regime has destroyed 29 traditional towns to 85-90% and also has heavily mutilated other 37 cities, including Bucharest." - Dinu C. Giurescu, Romanian historian

The neighbour next door was not your neighbour anymore and many people could not afford keeping all their belongings with them, unfortunately, which included animals. Considerable number of former inhabitants decided to abandon their animals (mostly dogs) somewhere in the city. Thus the packs started forming. Myself, spending only few days in the city centre I could not notice this issue. Probably due to the efforts that the administration has put in place to mitigate this problem.

BUCHAREST / A girl on scales.
BUCHAREST / Passage.

Ok, so where does it lead us? Romanian people seem to have seen it all - communism, nazism, dictatorship, their country being torn apart, rebuilt and torn apart again (and still is in some way). Somewhere there is also this element of search and journey of their own culture. Transilvania being originally Romanian is the apple of the eye of the people. Still, though, kitsch is mixed with beauty but together they create a form that at first sight might astonish but passes after few minutes of observation. This effect spreads across the central part of the country as well. It is a bit like someone tried to copy something but did not had the chance to fully experience and feel it. "Asta e, ce să faci?" (en. "that's the way it is, what do you want to do?") a Romanian might respond. It seems as the country needs a firm figure to relate to show them the way to a country they were always imagining yet might have never achieved.

"Marksist, patriot-nationalist, consequent and incorrupt. Professional politician." - Andreia Ujic on Ceaușescu, author of documentary on Nicolae Ceaușescu.

In terms of Ceaușescu, there are also some tougher subjects as abortions or tapping and whistle blowing which I won't cover here. I invite you to read Małgorzata Rejmer's book titled "Bucharest: Blood and Dust" (pl. "Bukareszt: Kurz i Krew", wyd. Czarne) which accompanied me across my travels through Romania and is a great read combining reportage, history and anthropology. Few of the things described in this piece I learned from the book. It changes the way you look at the city so remember to question some things or read it afterwards if you wish. Kudos go to Szymon for recommending it to me.

A bench.

Bucharest is very interesting and at the same time annoying in a way. Natalia has quite nicely summarised it as poverty covered in Western European blanket. The life is at times lived in illusion of greatness and achievement. A certain anxiety can be felt in the air. When walking through the streets, at times, you don't know what to expect while otherwise you exactly know what you're going to get. "Asta e.."

Friends.Ceaușescu after demolishing a considerable area of the city centre has created long alleyways leading to People’s House that were abandoned for years. Today, they are not overcrowded but people from surrounding buildings and visitors started using them. Nevertheless they seem to lead to nowhere.

See full gallery from Bucharest.