The Cold Heart

Trip Start Feb 04, 2007
Trip End Mar 09, 2008

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Friday, December 21, 2007

Our visit to Bucharest, the Paris of the East, would allow us to re-establish ourselves as tourists once again.  There are so many sites to see, museums to visits, so much beautiful architecture to canvass as well as the city's recent, crazy history relating to their now dead dictator/leader Nicolae Ceaucescu.  However, the prohibitive temperature range of -18 to a high of -3 degrees ( !!! ) over the period of our stay made this a little difficult.  

I have never experienced a level of pure freezing cold that is close to comparable to that which we have experienced here.  We would walk briskly down the street wearing every single item of warm clothing we owned and would still need to take regular frostbite preventative measures in the form of electrical store stops (pretending to peruse TV sets), supermarket stops (pretending to peruse food) and outdoor adventure gear store stops (pretending to peruse hiking boots).  It didn't matter what you wore or were doing, in the shortest period of time an escape to the indoors was the only solution to avoid imminent death through freezing.

In a previous entry I mentioned that the low temperatures were all worth it for the incredibly beautiful landscapes, frosty tree branches and icicle laden gutterings.  Scrap that!  I am now ecstatic that I don't have to live in this kind of climate.  

I saw some English tourists wheeling a stroller through the main square with their pint sized baby in tow.  My first thought was just how ridiculously cruel it was to subject a small child to these kinds of weather conditions.  Then I realised that there were children who actually lived here.

Bucharest is a pretty city and there is lots to do here.  We spent our first full day visiting the heavily acclaimed Museum of the Romanian Peasant - winner of the Best Museum in Europe in 2006 and Lonely Planet's top pick of things to do during your stay: "So good you may want to hug it".  Huh?  What an oddball collection of boring claptrap.  Captioned by someone who takes collections of wooden Romanian chairs and clay bowls way too seriously.  That's about $3 we will never get back.

After walking down B-dul Unirii, Romania's intended Champs Elysee, we landed at the excessive Palace of Parliament.  This was a strip of historic land which was flattened by Ceaucescu in the 1980's as part of his communist urban planning in order to be bigger and better than everyone.  B-dul Unirii is 6 metres longer than Paris' Champs Elysee and the enormous Palace of Parliament is the world's second largest building (behind the Pentagon).  Despite this building being only 18 years old; costing an absolute fortune to construct; having an interior of marble and mahogany and oversized handmade carpets whose patterns reflect the location of the 5 ton crystal chandeliers atop - it is now completely falling apart.  Tragically, the structure is hardly used as Ceaucescu was executed when the building was 90% completed.  The tour guide was heavily promoting the fact that the conference rooms and ballrooms were currently 'available for hire' but somehow I doubt they will be getting all that Romanian taxpayer money back any time soon.

Upon arrival into Bucharest we were warned by numerous Romanian citizens to avoid the city's many dangerous inhabitants.  We were told the people were rude, bad tempered and treacherous.  "Romania:  a beautiful country.  Pity it's inhabited" was one local's view.  This is not something we have really been warned of in other places (and some other places this warning could be warranted).  Apart from the lady on our first day who screamed at me in Romanian for waiting with our bags inside a phone booth (when the alternate options all included death by frostbite) and the drunk guy today who followed us down the street (to show us his fairy lights whilst demanding euros) and then followed us onto a bus when we tried to escape - we haven't met anyone bad.  Most of the residents have acted as guides on buses pointing out significant tourist attractions or welcoming us warmly to their city in fractured English.  I am not sure where all this negative publicity is coming from?

In summary, a nice city but the brutal cold has definitely affected my enjoyment-o-meter.

* * *

Its great to be back in a city with history - a history I should know, but one that I don't recall as more than a one line memory. So much happened in 1989, seemingly everywhere. What on earth was I doing?
Bucharest was, and through many tangible legacies still visibly is, Nicolae Ceaucescu's capital. In a salutary lesson in the short distance that spans rooster to feather duster status, he went from brutal dictator to tried and executed corpse in less than a week. If only media commentators here could have known the phrase 'a week is a long time in politics' they would have had a field day.
That week was Christmas week, so by coincidence we are here for the anniversaries of the events... the commemorative memorials and downtown crosses all thick with flowers from an event less than 20 years ago. 
Our first day in Bucharest - a continuation of our head-ever-souther plan to get warmer temperatures - was the coldest day yet (thankfully not soul destroyingly windy like Poland though). I got confused looking at the weather reports online (surely its colder?) until I figured that the minus three figure was the daily high at noon. Minus six to minus ten was the ballpark, and a delightful minus twenty overnight, which I got to experience firsthand by falling asleep in front of the TV, not being bothered to make dinner, then deciding to wander out for a kebab. There not being much open on a Sunday night about 10pm I had to walk quite a fair way. Kebab duly purchased, a gourdian knot like dilemma was upon me: returning to the hostel would mean a cold kebab, but eating it here would mean removing my gloves for the duration.
Gloves off, I tucked in. It was not long before I regretted supersizing this meal to the largest available. Three bites and my hands had become burningly painful to bend. Five bites and I discovered tears in my eyes, although this is possibly due to the local tendency to put gherkins in a kebab along with a too sweet and too weird sauce. But it was dinner, so one must persevere.
The next day I was relieved to regain the ability to bend my fingers.
The weather also dictated that we shelved our first day's major sightseeing in favour of a (blessedly indoor) museum. We were in luck, Bucharest being home to the world renowned, guidebook fawned upon, EU Award Winning, Museum of the Romanian Peasant.
We never thought to question how you make a museum about peasant life so engaging. We just took it on faith. In retrospect its obvious: it is physically impossible to make a museum on this topic interesting.
In fairness, it is my estimation the museum was only recently renamed from the less marketable Museum of 5000 Crap Jesus Paintings You Could Do Yourself. At first they seemed OK, and we thought, hey not bad for 12th or 13th century peasants living in huts. But most of them are twentieth century. Late twentieth century. Two dimensional and out of proportion drawn by a six year old and yet displayed with pride because we are all collectively insane twentieth century.
It got better though, much better.
We should have been clued in by the $3 admission/ $25 camera ticket that they had stuff in there of which they wanted no one to have pictorial evidence: to wit, the chair exhibit. Oh how they gloated, 'Romanians have long been proud of their love of chairs, unlike their backward cousins to the east who still sit on the ground. This museum has the region's finest chair collection.' It was too good to pass up, so Claude played decoy and I fired off some nice photos by having my camera inside the beanie in my hands. For those concerned about our defrauding a needy museum of a poorer country of their $25 let me remind you we also got our student discount as well.
The following day the blue sky reemerged and we headed down to the massive Palace of Parliament. Commissioned by the dictator in 1984 it is the world's second largest building after the Pentagon. It should be much visited by conspiracy theorists, as despite only being externally completed in 1989 (and still not quite done today), of the two buildings mentioned it looks much more like the one recently hit by a 747. You'd think if you had an ideology built around a love of concrete monoliths you could at least find some way to actually make good concrete. No need to master al the intricate consumer and capital goods, just get concrete right.. just a basic first step. But no. There are huge cracks in numerous external blocks. Amazingly, even in the (rarely used) marble hallways, the marble tiles are cracked and have large hunks missing. It was like he ordered the Meriton Dictator package and didn't read the contract closely enough.
The stilted Engish tour was pretty good, taking us to some amazingly opulent rooms. There's even a nice Australian touch: guests are reminded that with the corpses still warm our very own Rupert Murdoch offered a billion euros for the place to turn it into a hotel and casino. He was turned down, the city fathers seemingly taking the decision to turn every other building in the city into a casino instead. We were seeing the Palace with 25y.o. Ryan from Oregon, who had been in Spain on business and had extended a few weeks in order to see some of eastern Europe. He made the solid observation "Look at all the rubbish Murdoch's paid a billion dollars for, like MySpace. You'd absolutely rather have this than MySpace". A fair point. (I was already jealous that he had got the full Romanian experience by having three consecutive bands of musical gypsies take up residence in his sleeper cabin on his train here, an experience we regret missing, but wouldn't if it had actually occurred firsthand.) 
The palace does work as a vehicle to impress the visitor. It has a main ballroom with a retractable glass roof that you can land a helicopter in, should the mood take you, and in so doing earned a landmark place in MTV's Pimp My Socialist Republic. It has matching broad expanses of marble staircases flanking ceremonial entrances so Mr and Mrs Dictator could come down as a matching pair, singing all Rupert Holmes' 1970's classics. The largest one was rebuilt three times as the Ceaucescu's were just wee folks, and the stairs had to be made plenty shallow so it didn't look like they were too small for their grand digs.
The Palace stares down the Boulevard Unirii: designed to be just like the Champs Elysee (but just a bit longer of course). Standing atop the balcony that Ceaucescu never lived to orate from, it is definitely an awe-inspiring sight. Paris-of-the-east it may not be, but it is an equally long way from being the Parramatta-Road-of-the-east as well.
The monuments to commemorate those who stood against the regime are well created and effective. Plinthes of white marble stand out against the standard issue socialist uniform grey of their surrounds. The lists of names wrapped around you in a broad semicircle in the square make clear that this was far from a bloodless demonstration. An odd parallel with so many other places (Sarajevo for one) is that it all took place under the known to be watching eye of dozens of western journalists, in this case ensconced with a ringside seat at the Hotel Intercontinental. Claude was the first to note that you always feel that PJ O'Rourke is looking down at you when you visit a historic site with a five star hotel next to it.
After many plans to spend Christmas somewhere on the Orthodox calendar (who have Christmas in January), we actually spent our Christmas Day in Bucharest. Having executed their leader on Christmas Day 18 years ago, we figured its a place that doesn't shutdown for Christmas entirely. A good assumption, although I do wish I'd requested some Christmas pudding and cream in a PostPak a month ago.
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