The Bucharest Bugle: Issue 19-20

Sunday, 22 Mar 98

Above, the Parliamentary Palace, sometimes called the People's Palace. It is as large as the pyramid of Cheops and only slightly smaller than the Pentagon.

Today I visited the building that Nicolae Ceausescu had decided to make his masterpiece, the People's Palace. It is difficult to describe because it is so gargantuan. A guide told me that the square area of the eleven floors is second only to the Pentagon and the volume it contains is two percent bigger than the Pyramid of Cheops. It rises in three tiers from a raised base directly in middle of Boulevard Unirii. Some say that there are as many as 12 floors below ground and that the site was "hardened" to withstand a direct nuclear hit. Others say that it contains an airplane hanger. All I can say is that it is big enough all this and a lot more.

It took 700 architects directing 22,000 workers, laboring in three shifts every day from 1984 to 1989, to construct its 1,100 rooms ranging from 30 giant halls to 440 meeting rooms, the rest offices of the government. The building is constructed of the best materials and craftsmanship that Romania could provide. In fact, export of marble, crystal, and wood (all of it hand carved and cut) was forbidden since everything that could be produced was needed for monument to Ceausescu's madness. One portion of a balustrade that made a tight turn on a marble staircase had to be recut seven times to meet Ceausescu's exacting, if varying, specifications.

Marble decorations in the People's Place.
One of the giant crystal chandeliers in many of the 1100 rooms of the Palace.

How many people died in the construction of the People's Palace? Ceausescu would visit and see a room and say, "Put gold leaf everywhere," and everyone would rush to do it right away and the next week, Elena Ceausescu, the loathed and even more feared wife, would visit the room and say, "This is disgusting. Make this room white. Who made this room like this." You could get yourself executed.

At the time of the revolution in December of 1989, it was 86 percent finished. People here loathe this building with a passion. Many wanted to tear it down but too much had been put into it and it stands as a symbol of the suffering of the Romanian people. It is now used for national and international conferences and for meetings of the Romanian equivalent of the House of Representatives.

The People's Palace has broad hallways, rugs that were woven in the rooms they occupy because they were too big to be moved, round tables with room for 60 stuffed chairs and plenty of extra space too. The guide showed me one of these rooms and said its name was the "Room of the Human Rights." Then, leaning toward me confidentially, she explained that "It was named this AFTER the revolution."

I walked around the site of this monument to something (that took an hour alone!), I walked into it through a door workers were using to and wandered. A security guard took me in tow very politely and lead me to the visitor's entrance where I got a brief but personal tour. "The Romanian specialists . . ." was one of the guide's favorite expressions since everything and everybody in and about the building and its brief history are Romanian. The rooms I saw had ceilings that were at least 30 feet tall.

The vast area around the site is a leveled section of old Bucharest and one of the best liked sections of the city. It was all leveled, thousands of acres of it, every square foot, all to make room for this megalomaniacal vision. Small wonder that Romanians loathe it. Unblinded by the passion, I believe that in future years -- not soon -- Romanians will see this as a monument to their ability to survive adversity. It will be a sad monument, but a great one. Great was their suffering but at least they have something to show for it even if it is about the last thing they needed.


Tuesday, Mar 24 98

More on Old Nick and His Favorite Building

Ceausescu decided to build in monument in a part of Bucharest that had survived a major earthquake unscathed. He pointed at a map and said, "Here is where I will build my center of government." Thousands of acres of the oldest part of Bucharest were leveled. And not just homes. The site was formerly a hill on which a historic battle against the Turks had been fought. The hill was leveled too.

Constructing the People's Palace consumed so much of the countries resources that Romanian artisans were drafted into the army and made to work on the building for less than the miserable pay than they got in the "private" economy. There were no voluntary enlistments.

The completion of the project was frustrated by Ceausescu's frequent and fickle changes in taste. In one instance there was a tunnel connecting an underground parking garage to the main part of the building and plans called for it to be tiled blue by Ceausescu's visit the next day. Working all day and all night, workmen got it done. When Ceausescu saw it he said "I don't like it. I want green tile. I want it fixed by tomorrow."

Jack hammers had to be used to remove the tile. Green tiles had to be found and applied. All in 24 hours. When he returned he looked at the tile and said, "Your were right about the color. Blue is better. Fix it." And on and on it went.

Not only were export of crystal, wood, etc. forbidden, the People's Palace consumed so much that many things were not even available within the country. The "natural" shortages of the Communist system were amplified by the need to feed this glutinous monster of a structure. It was as if starving people were forced to contribute essential food so that it could be thrown into the maw of a gigantic, ravenous beast.

The air conditioning system was bought from East Germany but was not delivered on time. To cover up the problem, they put stone over the places where the ducts would eventually go so that nothing would appear missing. When the air conditioning did arrive, they had to drill through the stone and in so doing they introduced a lot of dust in the vents and now the dust is recirculated throughout the building. Perhaps this is a metaphor for the leveling effects of communism.

The air conditioning system produces more than some very Bucharest-like dust: it produces enough noise to compete with speeches of government ministers, it drowns out, or at least seriously competes with, whole orchestras. So much for its use as an arts center.

Beyond emotion, but ultimately contributing to the fury surrounding this publicly financed excrescence, the People's Palace is out of tune with the Romanian spirit. In size, placement, design, history and philosophy, this structure is opposed to what Romanian's think about themselves. Modestly adapt to circumstances; survive by sensitive awareness of the possible.

The People's Palace is basically unusable. Except, perhaps, as a tourist venue. Americans would come here in droves. The stories the guides tell would have to be dramatized for tourist consumption. Right now they talk about "the Romanian specialists" and point out the quality marble from around the country. Better they concoct tales about dungeons in the basement filled with noble political prisoners scratching out great plays on their toilet paper, airplane hangers readied for swift escape, and political intrigue that kills all the wrong people.

The real life James Bond should have a role in this, although his name should be Jimmy O'Brien and he should work for the CIA. There is a market here for a modern day political Dracula (Nicolae), his blood sucking wife (Elena). The People's Palace would be an up-to-date Bran Castle, with electricity.

The principle victim, of course, would be the Romanian people.


Wednesday, 25 Mar 98

Matt, one of my readers, emailed me about the negative tone of my recent emails. He put his finger on a tough issue. Can/should I take the Chamber of Commerce "all is beautiful" PR position? Or should I attempt a "more balanced" presentation that would include the societal downsides (street people, inadequate medical systems, etc.) of a conversion to a market economy?

I have wrestled with this since I arrived. Criticism what I see would be easy. Putting down the local system by saying that "In the states we do it much better . . ." blah, blah, blah, would be "true" in one sense but it would be the easy way out. Much more difficult is the recognition of the horrors that the Romanian people have suffered and the difficulty they have in finding their way to a better future.

One of my jobs is to help Romanian local government officials understand that they should hold meetings for the public to comment on the municipal budget. You, as an American, probably know that you could go to a city council hearing and talk about the budget and be heard. These people find this idea revolutionary! They don't know how to conduct a public meeting, whether there will be a riot, and how they should respond to what is said.

They do know that they don't like the way they were taught to do things and they seek new solutions. We do this all the time but fail to realize that in much of the world devising new solutions is not the rule. To the Romanians, we are the keepers of th Holy Grail. Their respect and fascination with everything that an American says is a bit frightening. We know that we don't have all the solutions but I am not sure they know that.

My job is to tell them that we are not high priests of a special knowledge but that there are processes that can be learned and applied here and that they can make democracy work in their country in THEIR way. We tell them they have to adapt our experience to their country but the very experience of new experiences is novel to them. However from what I can see they will eventually adapt to their situation and adopt what makes sense and discard the remainder.

But what started this thread? Negativism. Yes, your observation is correct. There is much here that is negative (children begging on the street, etc.). My problem is how to present a realistic portrait of a wonderful city. A beauty with golden hair and facial warts.

How do I convey that every city has warts? That every loved object has imperfections that do not make the loved one less lovable though their absence would make the loved one even more lovable?

One sees the nice things first and thus, my early emails had a certain positive ease. As I settle in and become a regular walker along the streets, I notice in a personal way the many problems this country faces -- my job makes me focus on the many economic issues that drive the personal problems that I see (begging, unemployment, etc.).

I guess the bottom line is that I have a liking for this country and its people but I can't pretend that everything is perfect. This country has survived a brutal dictatorship that lasted for decades and many of the current negative aspects of what I see can be traced to that one fact alone.

So I guess it's a mixed bag. Hope for the future tempered by past failures.


A Virtual Tour of Romania
© 1998-99 Joe Kelley