ay, 14 Mar 98
Tonight I attended a St. Pats Day dinner at the Hilton, the city's only
five star hotel. The attendees were one-half Romanian; while that is fine,
they were too reserved. No one got drunk, not even me. On the other hand
the food was quite good and it was NOT corned beef and cabbage.
Out table had an interesting, if very depressing discussion of street
children. I had seen them already: young, about ten years old, dirty,
and begging. You want to say, "Why aren't you in school?" but
they don't understand English. The great difficulty is about what to do.
Some people at the table said that sometimes a child is begging apparently
for himself but must give the proceeds to an older child or an adult.
They can be beaten severely if they try to keep anything. The boy beggars
(shades of Oliver Twist) are big into sniffing glue. I have seen as many
as five of them sitting on a park bench. They were all between eight and
eleven. They all had plastic bags in their hands and an older boy was
pouring a clear liquid into a bag held by a younger boy. Tragic.
I was told that many of them live in the nineteenth century storm sewers
perhaps because there are no working sewers due to collapses from lack
of maintenance. Others told stories of children begging for money but
rejecting food when it was offered instead of money. There seems to be
some sort of philosophic fatalism about the problem, perhaps brought on
by the difficulty of imagining a solution.
I am told another story of people who bought a coat for a girl who regularly
begged at a certain spot. Later, she was begging again (in the winter)
without the coat. Is she a plant? Was the coat sold and adult benefited
from the sale? Whatever the facts, the situation is extremely depressing.
The question of "papers." You can't go to school without "papers."
If you are born to someone outside the system, you can't get "papers,"
you can't go to school, and you can't get inside the system. It's Catch
22 Romanian style. The principle of universal free education is not part
of the system here.
I have seen a fifteen year old boy lingering in the hallway of our office
building. It turns out his name is Adi and he was brutally abused by his
mother who has since died. He lives for affection from Judy, my boss.
He waits for her every day and walks her home. He is completely illiterate
and there is no hope for him. Judy, with all her connections -- and this
woman has connections -- could not get him papers.
Poverty is the great crime in this country and it is so severe that it
affects groups that are the most needy: the very young. Poverty breeds
manipulation of children, it drives begging and it is the source of endless
Well, this is the second email in a row to focus on the negative. I don't
want you to get the wrong impression about the bigger picture: the upside
potential of this country and its people is very great. Unfortunately
the current conditions are rather more like London in 1840 than we would
like to be the case. Things will get better.
Sunday, 15 Mar 98
A very sunny but rather cold day; not nearly as balmy as a week ago. I
walked to the Romanian Opera hall, the home of the national opera and
ballet companies. The structure was built in the 1950s as a socialist
expression of support for the arts. It functions well in a practical sense
but, in design and construction, it seems to be an imitation of older
facilities that can be found in other cities. Apparently socialism had
nothing to add to the arts of opera or ballet.
Across the adjacent Strade Stirbe is a huge structure that was intended
by Ceausescu to be a museum of museums; every national museum was to be
relocated to this enormous building but, like so many of Ceausescu's grand
and crazed plans, this structure was not completed. Its windows are broken,
the roof incomplete. Several construction cranes tower over the building,
slowly rusting. There is no money and less desire to complete his acts
of megalomania. The visible waste of resources is hard to grasp. Ceausescu
clearly suffered from an "Edifice Complex" of the first magnitude.
Above, a fare card good for
ten rides on Bucharest's Metro system. There is no free transfer
to surface transportation.
The Metro, Bucharest's underground train system, has clean stations,
clean, wide cars, runs frequently, and features a magnetic card fare system.
It also has children begging. One nine year old boy sang rather badly
and then accepted donations. A twelve year old boy played the accordion
while his eight year old sister(?) held out a knit hat for donations.
On another trip I saw a five year old boy carrying a two year old baby
almost half his size onto the car. He leaned against the center pole and
knelt on the floor while reciting something he seemed to have memorized.
Everyone looked on without any expression of surprise. He stood up again
and walked the length of the car. Finally placing the baby on a seat,
he sat beside it until the next stop when he picked up the baby, left
our car and entered the next on the train. At that same stop a man with
one leg slide himself across the full length of the car. The sound of
the fabric of his pants scrapping along the floor is in my ears as I write.
On one platform and eight or nine year old dirty faced street urchin was
playing with a Bic lighter. He would turn it on high and light it and
hold it up in the air. Then he would put his hand over the flame. Then
he took a corner of his oversized shirt and set it on fire just to see
it burn. A nearby woman gently chided him but he paid no attention and
eventually ran down the platform.
Food shopping here continues to be an experience. I asked Ken, Judy's
husband, how I could buy heavy cream here (mostly for coffee). I think
my request may require an explanation. Flash back to my childhood. At
meals when I was young my mother drank tea, my father coffee and my brothers
and sisters and I drank milk.
Somehow I never started drinking coffee until my late teens when I used
to go to the parish lottery drawing on the third Thursday of the month.
There they had free donuts and free coffee but no free soda (or milk).
I didn't like coffee so I would fill a coffee cup with cream and drink
it. Various wags suggested, "Why don't you have some coffee with
your cream?" Being immune to sarcasm, I took this advice to heart
and gingerly added small amounts of coffee to my cream. Eventually I made
up to about 50 percent. Later, following the great American dictum that
"if some is good, more is better, I switched from ordinary cream
to heavy cream. Yummmm. Delicious!
Flash forward to Bucharest. Ken told me that he didn't think that heavy
cream existed here but that regular cream could be found from time to
time and from place to place depending on unknown factors. In other words,
there is no way to systematically get it. I told him that in a market
I had seen a carton of something that had a design of a dollop of whipped
cream on its side.
"You just can't tell," he said. "What you have to do is
go into the store and buy what you think is cream and walk outside with
it; open it and have a taste. If it isn't cream then throw it away and
go back inside and buy something else. When all else fails, you go to
the next store and repeat the process." So the fun begins.
Monday, 16 Mar 98
Some one asked me if it is true that French is the second language of
Romania. He had heard that Romania is a bastion of Francophone culture
in Eastern Europe and that this historically goes back to Romania being
a major outpost for Latin culture during the Roman Empire. He also read
that this is the reason that French President Chirac pushed so hard (albeit
unsuccessfully) for Romania to be added to the short-list of initial entrants
from Central and Eastern Europe into the European Union.
I inquired into the above and some knowledgeable locals tell me that before
WW2 (the big one), French was indeed the preferred language of the upper
classes (only). The wealthy looked to France and Paris for fashion and
style. French is relatively easy for a Romanian to learn and France and
its language were very popular here.
After the war, the second language became Russian for obvious reasons.
In (I think) 1956 Russian was no longer required in universities and English
swiftly became the language of choice.
More About Food: I usually pick up a filled croissant on the way to work.
The pastries here are completely first class but they show a broader range
than you would find in an ordinary French Patisserie for the Turkish influence
is evident in the layered cakes(?) that have creamy fillings and other
goodies in them but are sold as single servings. These can be found all
over the region that the Turks ruled for hundreds of years.
The Coffee: Since I don't drink the coffee here I asked some Romanians
that I work with "What kind of coffee is popular here?" and
they stared at me since they don't think of their coffee in terms of popularity.
After some discussion they told me that Romanians like strong coffee in
smaller cups that Americans use but the Romanian version is not as strong
and in a larger cup than the Turks (and Greeks) like. Then I said, "Is
French coffee popular here?" and they stared at me with non comprehension
never having heard of such a thing. "cafe au lait," I said.
They shook their heads no and said, "Yes. With children. That is
how you serve it to them."
International Cuisines in Bucharest: There are some Turkish restaurants
but apparently not many. There are a number of Lebanese/Syrian restaurants
and the food is worth a visit, a few Chinese restaurants but Judy didn't
like any that she had been to and some pretty good Italian and French
restaurants. I will probably gradually sample all of the above and let
you know how good they are.
I found a new restaurant near the office today. I am not sure how to describe
the cuisine since the menu was in Romanian only and I had to guess that
Gordon [sic] Bleu Pui was Chicken Cordon Bleu, which it was, which I ordered
and which was good. The waiter hinted that I might want to order something
else and he pointed at a list of kartofel which I decided must be potatoes
(since Kartofeln is potato in German) but I couldn't get any of the other
words that distinguished one kind from the other. So I said "French
Fries?" and he nodded.
By the way, I am told it is nearly impossible to get a baked potato here.
People have given detailed descriptions of how to prepare them and the
Romanians can't believe that anyone would do that to a nice potato. Maybe
this incomprehension is related to the relative absence of dairy products.
Also on the menu was "Gordon Bleu Porc." Since my Chicken Cordon
Bleu was stuffed with cheese and ham, I decided to forego this double
pork treat -- at least for now.
On the way back from the restaurant, I passed a small butcher shop today
which proudly announced on a sign outside the door that it "specialized"
in "porc." You can go hog wild in this country.