Catching the draft: understanding Bucharest through its communist past
DON'T CATCH THE DRAFT
In Romania, there’s a common warning amongst locals; an old wives tale passed down through family lines and whispered from concerned mother to child: Te trage curentul. Don’t catch the draft. Here, the curent (breeze) is the cause of nearly all medical ailments. Headache? It was the breeze from an open window. Sore back, common cold, upset stomach? A fan must have whirred an unfettered breeze in your direction. Put simply, to catch the draft in Romania places your very existence in mortal peril.
The irony of stumbling across this little fact on a warm and breezy May afternoon when most Bucharesters seem to be out enjoying the sun certainly isn’t lost on us. Apparently, the breeze incurred during the Bucharest half marathon (which happens to be running today) doesn’t count, nor does a bike ride or gentle Sunday walk with one’s family.
It would be easy to pass the curent off as little more than a funny myth, a quirk of a country long associated with vampires and known for its deep love of superstitions. But when our Walk + Shoot tour guide Alex points out that “te trage curentul is also a way of teaching the very young to keep doors and windows fastened to avoid ‘evil’ coming in”, it’s hard not notice the deeper symbolism: a lesson in protecting oneself from the external world in a country still recovering from over 40 years of communist dictatorship rule that came to an abrupt and violent end in 1989.
ROMANIA, MORE THAN DRACULA?
If we’re honest, Romania hadn’t really ever factored into our travel plans. It’s not that we didn’t want to visit, it’s more that our ignorance kept it lower on our list of travel ‘must-sees’ in Europe. We probably knew about as much as the average person. The ring of Carpathian Mountains to the north, the Danube Valley to the south. Bran Castle and the Dracula legend. The capital, Bucharest (not to be confused with Budapest), and a chequered Communist past. In fact, it was this former communist past that probably lead us to file it in the category of ‘grey, poor, former Soviet bloc countries likely ill equipped for tourists’.
Then the Experience Bucharest campaign came along, and we found ourselves en route to Bucharest to discover the real city for ourselves. The best part of travel is having your perceptions constantly blown wide open, and we’re happy to report that our week in Bucharest turned out to be far more wonderful and intriguing than we could have imagined.
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BUCHAREST, A CITY OF CONTRASTS
‘City of contrasts’ has become one of those travel clichés used to describe every city from Paris to Cape Town, and yet, when you’re wandering the gritty tangle of Bucharest’s streets it seems there’s no better fitting phrase. At the turn of the 19th century, this city was one of Europe’s golden metropolises. Nicknamed ‘Little Paris’ and ‘Paris of the East’, its wide boulevards were lined with grand Parisian Belle Époque style buildings.
In 1856 it became the first city in the world to be illuminated by oil lamps, while another Romanian city, Timişoara became the first city in Europe to switch on electric streetlamps in 1889. But this golden age of progress was brutally maimed at the manic hands of Nicolae Ceaușescu, Romania’s communist dictator between 1965 and 1989.
Ceaușescu had grand plans to transform Romania’s physical blueprint well beyond culture and politics. Rural towns seen as ‘non-viable’ were systematically removed from the map, small cramped apartments were subdivided in overcrowded workers neighbourhoods, and in major cities, large central squares were laid down with balconies from which he could address his ‘adoring’ fans.
But it was in Bucharest, his gleaming communist capital, that his ‘Civic Centrul Urban Renewal’ plan would be his ultimate enduring legacy. Over 5 square kilometres of the city’s historic old centre were condemned to demolition: 16th century neighbourhoods, monasteries, churches, a hospital, and a renowned art deco style sports stadium all ripped from the historic heart of the city to make way for a grandiose Socialist Victory Boulevard and the towering white stone House of the People (now Palace of the Parliament). It’s the second-largest administrative building in the world, and standing beside it you can feel the monstrousness bearing down oppressively upon you.
Wandering the vast, echoing (and admittedly, impressive) corridors, our tour guide, Alina, ticks stats off on her fingers;
1 // This is the heaviest building in the world (4,098,500,000 kg)
2 // Every square inch was designed, sewn, produced, painted, crafted, and manufactured in Romania, by Romanians, to Romanian standards
3 // The carpets are so large they had to be woven inside the building
4 // An estimated 20,000 builders worked 24 hours, seven days a week to build it over 10 years
5 // The heating and electric lighting costs are as large as a medium-sized city (exceeding $6 million per year)
Ceaușescu never even got to enjoy his grand palatial dream. The bloody 1989 revolution ended his regime (and life), but today the megalith still towers defiantly over the heart of the city; a symbol of its mutilation. It’s a confusing building; one minute we’re in awe of its grandeur – plush carpets, marble staircases, an opulence that wouldn’t be out of place in Versailles – and the next we’re struck by the unimaginable megalomania this project must have involved.
Even the locals are in two minds; a recent survey by Romania’s School for Political Studies saw residents rank the building equally as “the most beautiful” but also “the ugliest” in the city. Mihai, former army general turned Uber driver, scoffs in contempt as we roll past later in his Opel Astra. “It was called the ‘house of the people’ in communist times, but what house? What people?” He laughs wryly, adding “I don’t like it at all. It’s too big, and only parliament is in there now. What’s its use?!” Most locals refer to the area now as ‘Ceaușescima', a play on the dictator’s name and the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima.
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STARTING TO THRIVE
This scarring history has left the whole of Bucharest in a strange state. On each street there are glimpses of this grand former life, grand and ornate Parisian style buildings left to ruin after decades of abandonment, that fight to be seen amongst the depressing Soviet style cement. Then there are the green shoots of a budding creative hipster scene; bold street art flourishes on corners, underground bars are breathing new life into abandoned buildings, and an epic coffee culture is starting to thrive. It’s the kind of city where a few days wandering without a map still wouldn’t satisfy our intrigue.
Generally, Romania seems to have an air of optimism about the future, though some questionable moves by the government have led to a general wariness. We’re even surprised, on a couple of occasions, to hear a more moderate take on the Communist era, one Uber driver even going as far as suggesting Ceaușescu “wasn’t a bad man. He never did anything for himself, only ever for his people. Today’s government, well, it’s very different”.
These are the complications of a fledgling democracy. Some struggle to reconcile the nostalgia of days when a house and job were given by the government against the harsh memories of ration queues that stretched for days into empty grocery stores. “People have had to educate themselves on what was required for the new Romania. They had to get up and fight, to work for their benefit”, shares one tour guide.
Yet the Romanians we encounter are so hardworking, friendly, and progressive, it’s hard to imagine that the country only shook off the irons of communism 28 years ago. Particularly in Bucharest, the promise of an exciting future and positive change can be felt all around; floating on the breeze.
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A big thank you to the Experience Bucharest team for hosting us during our stay. As always, all views are our own.