I am in Bucharest for a few weeks. I am spending time rediscovering my hometown, meeting friends, and, when the weather gets grey and rainy, I just stay at home reading. I came with no plans other than to be here.
Just like in Amsterdam, I practice solitary walks quite often and I have no problem with that. One thing is different here though: even when I am alone, in Bucharest I don’t feel lonely. It is not because my mother is waiting for me at home with a warm plate of food or because I know I have coffee with a friend the following day. It is the strangers on the street that make me feel present. As in alive, as in visible. I buy a bunch of narcissi from a street vendor on Calea Victoriei, and the woman selling tulips at Unirii Square asks me, as I pass by, if next time I’ll buy flowers from her instead.
Sometimes there is no need for words at all. I walk in the old center, recollecting things that happened on those exact streets, and I see someone having coffee at a terrace, looking at me. Perhaps I lit a spark of curiosity in that person. Why am I smiling when I take a photo of that particular building? Does it mean something to me? Why do I keep on lowering my nose into those flowers I carry in my hand? Do they smell nice?
Wherever I am and whatever I do, in Bucharest people are looking at me. Not that there is anything particularly interesting or eye-catching about me. People are looking because I am there and so are they. Because to look at a fellow human being is as natural a gesture as breathing. For this, I do not – I cannot – feel alone in this city.
I am going to leave you now with two diary entries I wrote since I came here. The first one, The Student from Focșani and the Madam from the Netherlands, is about just that, people talking to other people, even when they are total strangers. The other, The Guys from the Tower Block, is about the joy of meeting old friends after 15 years. Everything with Bucharest as background.
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April 6th, 2019, Bucharest
The Student from Focșani and the Madam from the Netherlands.
“Can I find oatmilk in Bucharest?” I asked my sister the day before I arrived. “Not sure,” she said. Then, not sure became a no.
I didn’t want to believe this, so on my first day back to my hometown I went to Carrefour, the big one at Unirii. Not only did I find oatmilk, I found everything I was looking for and feared I might not find. I went to the register to pay. I placed the products on the belt and I didn’t even have to put the basket back because the guy waiting in the line did it for me. I said thanks.
Everything good and beautiful, except that now I could not find the exit. I was on the second floor of the supermarket and although I knew where I came from, an employee had just told me I could not exit that way. “You need to go straight ahead,” said the woman, “into the car park, then left. You’ll see the elevator and the stairs.” “But I didn’t come by car,” I said. “It’s the only way.”
So there I was, in the car park, looking for the way out. All I could see was cars. It was also quite dark and creepy, as dark and creepy as it might get for someone who is almost never in a car park. No stairs and no way I was going to take that elevator. What if I got stuck? There would be no one there to hear me. I turned right back, ready to confront the woman. For sure there was another way out. I was not there for the first time, and never before did I have to exit through the car park. What the hell!
That’s when I saw the guy who helped me with the shopping basket. “Excuse me, do you know where the exit is?” I asked. “I don’t know, I’m from Focșani,” he said. “Well, I’m from Bucharest, and I still don’t know.” We laughed. “I live in the Netherlands, now I’m here on holiday.” “So that’s why your Romanian sounds so different,” he said. I have never thought I speak my native language with a foreign accent. We agreed to go back and ask the woman again. “Madam,” the guy said to the employee, “I am from Focșani and the lady is from the Netherlands. Where did you say that exit was?” “Straight ahead, into the car park, then left,” the woman repeated. My bags were heavy and I was losing patience. “But I’ve never had to go through the car park before!” I said, looking her right in the eyes. Then, pointing to where I entered the shop: “I came that way, and I remember I could exit that way, too. I’ve done it before. Why do you keep sending us to the car park? It doesn’t make any sense.” “OK,” the guy said. “Let’s try again!”
I followed him back to the car park. “Bucharest doesn’t cease to amaze me,” he said. “Just earlier, on the street, I had this guy selling me a <original> perfume for almost nothing. No, thanks.” We were looking for the stairs, but just as before, no stairs in sight. “These are the kind of things that make me miss Bucharest when I’m away,” I said. “But when I’m here, this is driving me insane.” We laughed. We then saw the elevator. “Shall we try?” the guy said. “We’re two now.” “OK,” I said, “but I hate elevators. Especially dodgy elevators, like this one.”
And we were out, in the sunshine, walking toward the main road. “So, what brings you to Bucharest?” I asked. “I’m a student, first year at Theology.” “Oh, that’s interesting!” I said. Theology? Really? Tight jeans, black leather jacket, and a haircut reminding me of Crimer, the guy singing Brotherlove – in fact, his entire face reminded me of that singer – this guy surely did not look like someone who was studying to become a priest. Oh well. “I am on a diet now,” he said, lifting his shopping bag, as if to show me what was inside. “And where the hell to find diet food in this city?” The hell? Better watch your language, young man. “So I came here,” he concluded. “I was looking for special food here, too,” I said. “I saw that. Avocado, prunes…” “And oatmilk,” I said, laughing. “Don’t forget the oatmilk! That’s what I really came here for.” We chatted for a few more seconds, then, as soon as we reached the road, we parted ways. “Madam, I wish you a nice day,” he said. “Thanks, same to you. Bye!”
This caught me totally off guard. I forgot that in Bucharest people talk to strangers. And that most men, young as they might be, still practice good manners and have an easiness of speaking to women.
Later, at home, I laughed with my mother when I told her about it. About the student from Focșani and the madam from the Netherlands. About the first time a guy has ever madam-ed me. Damn it!
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April 13th, 2019, Bucharest
The Guys from the Tower Block
Bucharest is a museum of memories to me. The more time passes, the more alluring the past. And nowhere in the city are the memories of my life here more vivid than at the tower block.
Throughout the years, my family changed residences many times. We lived in Pantelimon neighbourhood, we lived on Unirii Boulevard, we now live not far from Unirii Square. But there is one residence that captivated me the most, most probably because it overlapped with my adolescence – the tower block at United Nations Square. I wrote about it before, and I’ll most certainly write about it again.
“Do you remember when you used to carry books in your bag, just so that it was not empty?”
“Do you remember when I stopped you in front of the block and asked what music you were listening to in your headphones? I liked you and wanted to approach you. The guys said not to bother cause you were weird, but I liked you anyway. And so I asked, and you said Limp Bizkit.”
These are the kind of things you hear from people you haven’t met in fifteen years. The guys from the tower block. In theory, you can no longer call these people friends, because so much time has passed without any interference of life among you. And yet, you feel that nothing has changed, there is the same sense of freedom that allows you to talk about everything in the world with no reservations, and the same warm, fuzzy feeling of togetherness. And if this is not friendship, then I don’t know what it is.
A lot of time has passed, but all the time in the world stays still now that you meet again.
The first seconds are weird. You feel nervous. Shall I hug? Shall I kiss on the cheek? You kiss on the cheek. Then, you count the years since the last time you met. You talk about work and where you live now. You talk about other people you all know. You talk about plans for the future. You wonder why on earth you haven’t met more often. And then you open the memory box and that is when the magic happens, when you leave the present and surrender to nostalgia. Towards the end, you take some photos to maybe look at in fifteen more years.
And once you are out on the street, at night, walking together side by side, you could swear it is the tower block you are heading to. Where else?