In central Bucharest, near the University, I eat a pizza and drink a beer, and watch a discovery channel documentary that explains how canoe paddles are made, and then how globes are made (from cardboard, in quite an interesting process). I walk up North, past the national theatre, past the Radisson hotel – turn down a 10 Lei (2 Pounds) 'sex massage' and go back to my hotel room. From watching TV, I learn the word for dandruff, but no others.
I wonder whether my reason for being here is a little disingenuous, whether really the Bucharest I am interested in is long gone, dead as Ceauşescu himself (the communist dictator deposed and executed in 1989). Part of me wants it to be a little more difficult to get in to the country; for my Western passport to raise eyebrows, but the fact is that I came on a Wizzair flight – gateway to 'New Europe'.
The next day I go to the Zoo and make some videos of the wolves and tigers. The zoo is pretty good, if overgrown to the point of obscuring the already reticent animals. Some enclosures are very long rectangles, so that the visitor is at one narrow end, the subject at the other – some include huge glass panels which would allow clear viewing, but for the plumes of condensation seeping in through damaged seals. This kind of obstructive disrepair becomes a leitmotif in the city. As I leave, I video some of the (ubiquitous) stray dogs outside.
I quickly tire of the stupid pidgin English I hear my self speaking to people I know don't speak any at all, and yet sometimes turn out to be totally fluent. Several times I retreat to dark cinema screens showing American blockbusters. People's manner suggests not so much my foreignness, as my complete superfluity.
The city is one of incomplete plans – in the early twentieth century, Romania's first and only King, Carol the First, remodeled large parts of Bucharest in a Parisian style, under the communist regime, much of the city was destroyed and rebuilt in imposing vaguely neo-classical concrete. Now, since the revolution, malls and LED billboards crowd into the main squares of Bucharest. In the last two years or so, the gentrification of central Bucharest has slowed – Hugo Boss adverts now look a little hubristic as the new Romanian middle class tightens its belt.
What originally drew me to Bucharest was the world's second largest building, Ceauşescu's Parliament Palace – also called 'The House of the People', 'The House of Ceauşescu' and, more recently, the 'International Conference Centre' (this multiple naming of buildings and institutions seems to be a leftover symptom of the communist regime – another building, now the 'House of the Free Press', was originally called in public the 'House of Sparks'; in private the 'House of Lies'). The palace is a gross monument to the dictator's megalomania and at the time of his overthrow, was too near completion and had cost too much already to demolish. Finished in 1994, it is now used as a government building and tourist attraction. A fellow English tourist, when informed of public ambivalence towards plans to keep the building after the revolution said glibly "Well, its your history isn't it, yeah…cool…"
Outside the Palace, a young woman approached me and in heavily accented English explained that she is from Bessarabia and has been robbed and can't be helped by her embassy and needs 20 Lei to reach her parents, and she has been sick and in hospital. I said sorry, I don't have any cash, and she, half sobbing, says "Everywhere, people are the same". Walking away, I knew I didn't believe her, but my sense of Western wealth-related guilt is easily provoked.
In an exhibition about Vlad Tepes, the medieval inspiration for Bam Stoker's Dracula, a wall text points out that vampirism and the Dracula myth are western inventions, designed to portray the Eastern Europeans and Slavs as uncivilized barbarians. I worry that my interest in Bucharest diminishes it somehow, that is to do with 'kitsch'. If we apply Milan Kundera's definition of totalitarian kitsch as 'the denial of shit', the my curiousity is the inverse of this, the seeking out of 'shit' and a disinterest what is positive and vital about the city; 'dark tourism' - pursuing a history well within living memory that the nation would rather put well behind them. It is tempting to caricature the place and its people (an impulse exacerbated in me by reading Red Horizons, the sensationalist memoirs of a defected Romanian spy chief, Ion Pacepa). A cursory sketch would include a gruff, half-scowling manner, oppressive city-heat, bewilderingly haphazard road works everywhere, heavy, over-salted food and a seemingly proud history battered by and half buried under blunt totalitarianism. The place has a tiredness to it, as if the layers of overlapping plans were weighing it down. Romania's frequent political sea changes seem, when looked at a little more closely, to have more often been re-brands. When the communist regime fell, telephone exchanges closed up their clandestine line-tapping rooms. Reformed communists filled the power vacuum, and the tapping rooms were quietly re-opened.
This is the second time I have been in Bucharest this summer, I returned partly to work out the nature of my interest in the city. After spending more time here, I am just as confused. However, by the time I'm leaving, I'm detecting slight smirks of amusement under the scowls at my attempts at Romanian pronunciation ('Cefea filtru…one…please?') and make the realisation that in summer, most Bucharestans abandon the city proper, which I've been traipsing around, and relax in the enormous parks on the edge. The dark 'kitsch' I find in Bucharest is for the most part one I brought with me, and eventually becomes distant to the real place, of now.