For five years we lived in the tower block overlooking Dâmbovița river and the beginning of Victoriei Avenue. From the balcony of the room I shared with my sister, I could see the Courthouse and the top of the buildings in Unirii Square. The old centre was a stone’s throw away, just like everything else worth seeing in Bucharest at that time.
The building itself was quite impressive, with its seventeen floors, four elevators, and a terrace overlooking the heart of the city. We knew that was a temporary stop for us. Although nothing in the apartment matched the personality of our family, from the big piano in the parents bedroom, the classic, black furniture in the living room, and the shelves with vintage volumes of musical studies, we decided it was a good place for us, close to school and in the same area we had lived before. What I did not know when we moved there, back to 1998 or 1999, I can’t remember, was that some of my best memories in Bucharest would be located in that apartment, in those years.
My parents were building a family house in the countryside, in the small town where my father had been born, less than one hour drive from the tower block. Every weekend, from Friday after work, and until Sunday evening, they would go there and take the dog with them, too. For my sister and I, who almost never wanted to join our parents, that was freedom. Home alone for two days. Two days to do whatever we felt like doing or go wherever we felt like going – no explanations.
With no less than ten apartments on each floor and with some four-story residential buildings around it, part of the same association, there was no shortage of neighbours at the tower block. When the weather was good, the benches on the generous patio in front of the block were occupied by neighbours enjoying a chat, elderly ladies and gents, or mothers with children playing around. The traffic in the area was intense, as in most places in the city, so there was nothing particularly relaxing about sitting on the patio. It was just something to do by those who had the time to do it. I was only passing there and it was rare that I sat on those benches. I did not talk to anyone. People looked at me and wondered who I was, where exactly in the building I was living. Not that I was arrogant. I was just too shy to make conversation with strangers.
My contact with the neighbours happened via my sister, who was six years my junior. She would go out every day and hang around with the other kids her age. She would talk to the elderly ladies and gents, she would talk to the woman selling drinks and cigarettes at the little kiosk by the entrance, she would talk to neighbours walking their dogs while she would be walking ours. “Oh, so that’s your sister!” people would say when seeing her talking to me. That’s how I got an identity at the tower block. Soon enough, I met my sister’s friends, and those were the people who would come to ours when parents left for the countryside in the weekend.
When the door closed and the car disappeared from the parking lot on Friday evening, the first thing I would do was to open the cast in the parents’ bedroom, get the new stereo my father kept in there, and bring it to our room. Sure, we had our own stereo, but that was a few years old, not cool anymore, and sometimes the volume would raise unexpectedly, making both my sister and I jump out of bed, and, hands on ears, desperately trying to turn it down. My sister thought it was the ghost in our room, apparently very fond of music. So in came the new stereo and its speakers, minimalistic, shiny, discreet blue lights signalling the essential buttons.
There were many music stations to choose from in post-communist Romania, but my favourite was Pro FM and sometimes Radio 21. After all, as the big sister, I was the one to set the music trends in the house. During the week, I would listen to Pro FM by Night in my earphones until the early hours of the morning, leaving for school tired and confused. There were so many great voices on the radio during that time, so many nice shows, it was addictive. I would do a lot of tape recording. When parents were gone for the weekend, the music was always on – at the new stereo.
First, Ionela would show up. She was living on the fifteenth floor and was my sister’s best friend. Together they were doing many silly things, such as squeezing love letters and drawings they had made under the door of Greek students living in the building, discreetly chasing them when they left the apartment, and coming up with a mockerish way of speaking, a silly pronunciation of words, as if a drunk old man would speak.
Talking that way, we would cook fries and eggs, make a salad of fresh tomatoes and cucumbers, grate cheese on top of everything, and move to the living room to eat while watching shows on TV. During summer, in sync with the Romanian people’s obsession to go to the seaside, the main shows would move there, broadcasting live from various resorts at the Black Sea. Indulging in our fries, we would stare at the perfect bodies of the lady presenters, their bodycon dresses and high heels. “I bet all they eat is water,” Ionela would say. “What is it like to have such a perfect body?” We couldn’t tell. Everyone I knew wanted to lose weight. That was another national obsession, in sheer contrast with yet another one, that of making barbeque all summer long.
A knock at the kitchen’s window would interrupt us. It could only be Andu, our neighbour from next door. Eight stories up in the air, above the traffic and the river, the windows of our kitchens met in a 90-degree angle. We left our plates on the table and rushed to the kitchen.
“What do you want?” my sister said.
Andu was just as cute as he was naughty. With his father a policeman and his mother the administrator of the block, perhaps he felt entitled.
“What did you girls cook?” he said, nothing but honey in his voice.
“What do you care?” Ionela said. “Don’t you have your own food?” Andu and Ionela were in a perpetual disagreement.
“Come on, give me some fries! I know you cooked fries. They smell so good.”
“Make your own fries! Or ask mommy to make them for you.” The girls laughed, then closed the window.
We returned to our plates in the living-room. But Andu was not one to give up easily. The doorbell rang. We opened the door, Andu got in.
“Oh, I see you girls have a little party going on in here. Are your parents away again?” he said while closing the door behind.
That’s how it started most of the time. Then Mirel would come, from one of the four-story buildings around our block. Then Radu, from the other apartment next door. We would listen to music, the guys would make jokes, sometimes Mirel would fix our computer, which was always slow. On Saturday evenings, the same team would come to pick me up from the theatre where I worked for some time during university, then walk down Victoriei Avenue together. Sometimes Andu would bring the key to the rooftop terrace, and we would all follow him there, gazing at the view, taking photos, then lying in the sun between antennas. It was not comfortable, but it was forbidden.
One of my favourite memories from the tower block is listening to music in my room, the balcony doors wide open, me lying on the floor and looking at the stars. Or the summer mornings when the air was still chill and I could look down from the same balcony to see the small shops along the river opening for the day, water thrown on the pavement to freshen up the air. Or the winter days when snow covered everything in white – the river, the street, the rooftops – and even the traffic could barely be heard in that dreamy, soundproof environment.
I met my first boyfriend while living in the tower block, a friend of Andu. Other boyfriends followed. They, too, loved my parents had a house in the countryside. Or that we could walk to the clubs in the old town. They did not like my furniture, but neither did I.
I studied for my end of the high-school exam while at the tower block. I was admitted to the university while living there. I graduated from the university and we still lived in the tower-block. I got my first real job. And soon after that, we moved, this time to an owned apartment, just a few bus stops away.
The memories of living at the tower block have never left me, although I have lost contact with most of my friends back there. Like me, most of them no longer live in the building either. Sometimes, especially when I happen to pass by, I wonder who lives in our apartment, in my room, who looks out of that balcony to see what I once saw. I bet they switched to Ikea furniture.
One night, while our parents were sleeping, my sister felt like doing something rebellious, such as throwing an apple core out of the kitchen’s window. I was there with her when she launched it, lights off not to awake the parents. She had no skills for that apparently, because the apple core landed on our neighbours’ windowsill, into the soup pot. Tragedy! We had to get it out, or Andu’s family would get mad. We reached for a palette in the drawer, trying to make no noise and trying our best not to burst into laughter. And so, with that palette, we attempted to fish the piece of apple out of our neighbours’ soup. Our kitchen windows proved not to be so close after all. Besides, the metal wire preventing the pots from falling off the sill was also preventing us from reaching the apple.
We almost froze when we heard a door opening. We thought we had woken up the neighbours. What were they going to say if they saw us messing with their food?
The sound was, in fact, coming from our apartment. Father walked into the kitchen, the dog playfully shaking its tail at his feet.
“What’s going on?” he said. “The dog jumped off the bed and started to scratch at the door.” He was looking for the switch to turn on the light.
“No!” my sister and I said in one voice, covering our mouths immediately after. There was light enough to see father raising his eyebrows. He was in need of an explanation. And so was the dog.
“We have an issue,” my sister said. “We threw something out of the window and by mistake, it landed there, in the soup.” She pointed to the pot. We lowered the heads trying to look innocent. At the same time, we could barely refrain from laughing.
“Pssssst,” my father said and took the palette from her hands. He bent over the sill, reaching for the soup. There he was, in his summer nightgown, a traditional Romanian one he had got from our grandmother in the countryside, white and made of linen, the palette in his hand, searching for the apple in the soup. That was it. We could no longer hold it. My sister and I gave in and laughed until our bellies hurt. My father was focused on the pot.
“You got it!” we said when father turned around victorious, the apple core on the palette. He threw it in the trash bin, put the palette in the sink, then looked at us, shaking his head. We could see he, too, was amused by the whole thing.
“And now, to bed,” he said. “Come on, Lucky, we go back to sleep, too.” He disappeared into his room with the dog following. We got back to ours, in no mood for sleep whatsoever.