The Pharmacy

‘Sag mir, wo die Blumen sind’

Long time ago, before the World Wars, there were two German pharmacies in Bucharest. One was Thüringer’s, on 43, Elisabeta blvd. the other one was ‚La Ochiul lui Dumnezeu’ (‚At God’s Eye’), opposite to Stirbei Palace, on Calea Victoriei 138.

In 1939, on the occasion of the latter’s centennial anniversary at that location, a collection of ancient pharmaceutical devices was exhibited in the windows of the corner house: jars, tin pots and delicate scales, graters, mortar and pestle sets of various materials, to grind powders from which lozenges and ointments were made.

Behind the house, in a herb garden, various plants were cultivated for their specific uses:
thyme, for cough drops, sage, for disinfecting tinctures, several species of mint, for the stomach troubles, valerian, for treating insomnia, marjoram and lavender, against pain and unrest, rosemary, against migraines and blood pressure, dill and fennel for tummy teas, chervil for the eye bath.
Celandine (rostopasca), said to cure infections and even tumors. Centaury and artichoke thistle, as antioxidants, for liver, rein and blood problems. Horsetail, hemostatic and similar in effect with today’s aspirine. Yarrow (‚soldier’s woundwort’, or ‚coada soricelului’), that would stop bleedings.

This phial contains a few age-old grains of juniper, called ‘Wachholder’ in German. It was probably taken to the household for the kitchen cupboard and thus escaped the pharmacy’s fate.

Mr. Carl Schuster, the owner, had come from Transylvania in 1829 and opened a pharmacy in Bucharest. His brother Gerhard had also opened one in Vienna, on 18, Währinger Strasse, under the name of ‘Zum Auge Gottes’ (which means the same in German).

Gerhard and his sons all died in the First World War. Today the Viennese pharmacy moved to 79, Nussdorferstrasse.

Carl Schuster married in 1840 in Brasov and brought his wife to live with him in Bucharest. Their granddaughter Friederike married in 1920. Her husband, Albert Prall, was a 2m-tall officer freshly out of the Theresian Military Academy in Vienna. He left the army to study and become a pharmacist as well, in order to be able take over ‘God’s Eye’ one day. His story here.
When the Second World War started, Martin Schuster, Carl’s son, was already too old to be enrolled. He spent most of his time at the pharmacy, trying to offer help to whomever needed it.

The tides had turned: Romania switched from neutral at first, to the side of the Axis Powers after the Soviet invasion in Bessarabia and Bucovina. On the 23rd of August 1944, King Michael I removed marshal Ion Antonescu and Romania joined the Allied Forces.
In a tempestuous withdrawal, during three days, the Luftwaffe covered Bucharest with a carpet of bombs.  (This, after the Allies had severely bombed the city on Easter that year.)

On August 25th an infantry platoon in company of two tank destroyers rounded up Legatia Germana at 174, Calea Victoriei (opened in 1880, became later Cazino Victoria). Not accepting the defeat, German Embassador Manfred von Killinger shot his secretary first – and then killed himself.

When the sirens started howling again the following night, Mr. Schuster refused to go to take shelter in the Stirbei Palace cellars, claiming that he had to be at the pharmacy, in case somebody would have needed help.
In an attempt to hit the 52.5m high building of the Telephone Palace, the National Theatre on Calea Victoriei was put to ashes. The whole neighbourhood was set ablaze, as the bombs also hit the gas pipes on the main streets.

Eventually, as people from the palace returned and insisted again, Martin Schuster joined them, but left the pharmacy unlocked: he pulled the door shut by its handle, saying that someone might still need bandages, disinfectant or pain killers.

One of the last bombs fell into the pharmacy’s ventilation shaft that night. It landed in the basement and detonated the building together with its herb garden.

Coming out of the shelter the next day, he found the door handle on the pavement.
That – and a bundle of papers that had been locked in a safe – were the only remains of ‘God’s Eye’.

Eventually, with the help of his son in law, he put together a new pharmacy, which was nationalized in 1948. While returning from work one night in March of 1952, Albert Prall was killed by drunken soldiers, together with his Turkish colleague, whom he was trying to protect from being bullied in the street.

But this is a different story.
Albert Prall’s daughter is my grandma.
My mother was born in 1948.

Update on 2017-01-12 12:23 by Doro

Today I helped grandma out with the Christmas tree. I climbed up the ladder and got the box with the decorations down from the top shelf. The box!… one more piece that survived from the pharmacy!

May you have a peaceful and happy Christmas with your loved ones! May we never know hardship and duress.

The Counter

The Counter at Grand Central Terminal, 1929

Once I had this dream. I don’t even remember if I was actually sleeping – or just slipping away.

I dreamt I was so worn down by my life as I knew it. So exhausted by all the painful memories that were blurring all the positive ones.
Roaming around every day and trying new stuff, but it wouldn’t work.
Thinking, what doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger.
Realising, after a while, that the stronger you get, you only get lonelier.

After a while, I got so weary, I couldn’t learn how to enjoy whatever was going to come anymore. I’d only see the lousy sides of everything and would draw miserable conclusions, so life would increasingly become a spiral, with little variation.

I kept searching for a way to change it.
After a while, I learned there was a counter somewhere, where you could go to and give up your life, as a package, and ask for another one in return.
But you wouldn’t know what was in the new package, before you traded the old one in. No way of choosing.

Eventually, I found the building. It looked like a station, allthough you could walk around it. It had only one large double door.
I went to watch it, time and again, wondering if now was the right time to ask for the exchange.

I’d sneak around the impressive thing, observing the people who went in and out. They were not showing any major change in mood. But they’d come out with a different look on their faces. As someone else.

Every time I’d go there, I would toy around with the idea. And wonder.
Maybe the time’s not ready yet- imagine, you’ll give up all your memories, entirely.

All of them.
You wouldn’t know your loved ones anymore.
You wouldn’t remember how you discovered sunshine, in a plastic fishbowl, one morning.
Or your grandma’s generous smile. Sour cherries on mown grass.
The taste of freshly ground pepper on tomatoes, that grandfather made you eat one day, because ‚you can’t say you dislike something, without even having tried it.’

You’d never remember that day dad held you on his knees, while you were crying over your first bleeding knee or lip, and how he told you that it was going to be ok.
That way the streets smelled after a hot summer storm, when mom would come home with a sunflower from ‘patriotic work’ in a nearby field. Exhausted, but smiling.

You wouldn’t know your favourite perfume anymore. Or your first kiss.

Or your first trip abroad, when you discovered ‚the other world’, Switzerland! the land the old ones had told so many stories about. The wonderful house on the hill, where your godmother lived!

That amazed way in which someone, who had really mattered back then, had looked at you one morning.
Your first flight, alone! The travels!
…Those warm hugs with friends, when you came back, after all these years – it took them a couple of years to believe that you were going to stay, this time.

That crazy chase in the streets, one short happy night.

All of these were linked to painful memories, that would seep through, just when you were recalling the good ones!
The loved ones had judged you and had turned against you so many times, for no big reason,
the fish bowl had mysteriously disappeared one day.
Grandma died years ago – and nobody smiles like that anymore. Most cherries had had worms in them – and she used to eat them!
Someone too close had told you, furious, one day, “You are as reckless as your grandfather used to be.” He had died when you were six and you don’t even remember him that well anymore…

You always had bleeding knees in summer back then, because you were invariably veering too close to the corner of the house with your bike. The lip was from your first humiliating fight at school.
After that, things had gotten worse for years: you remember having been involved in more fights, than the others would remember afternoons of holding hands and kissing behind the school as teens.
Mom’s face looks ashen with exhaustion almost every day now, but she still keeps trying to save the world,
and there’s always so much more to be saved than is humanly possible.

So many other women are wearing your perfume. The guy who gave you that first kiss told you, two days later, that he had only kissed you out of ‚duty’ and you should forget about it, because he knew you had been fancying him for two years now…

You had never encountered the Switzerland of their stories – it was probably gone long before you were born – and the new one you had found instead had, in time, turned a very cold face at you.

That someone with the rapt look on his face had cheated on you in a terrible, unexpected way.
You had flown so many miles alone, wishing there was someone waiting for you at the airport, that the mere memory of those flights would turn your stomach.
So much about the friends.

And the chase that night? He had been drunk and exuberant and you were probably the only one to remember it that lovely way.
He had misleaded you – and you had gratefully accepted that lead.
Or maybe it wasn’t even that clear.
It wasn’t clear anyway. But it was gutless and sad…

So, now we’re here, you think. Have it, all of it, the whole package, with all its memories, let someone else delight themselves with its content, may they enjoy having your enthusiasm, your wits, your courage and your smile. Your skills, your love of so-many-things-in-this world, books and horses and languages and everything. Let someone else have it! …Maybe they’ll handle it better.

What if there are other, much more terrible lives, that people come to trade in? Are you feeling you’re there, now?
Would you trade your whole life in, for that?
he said, frowning.
Only desperate souls would come to trade their lives in at this counter, anyway.

Smart ones, not the trite ones, I know those happy simple souls! those wouldn’t find the counter anyway.
Would you switch with them,
is your misery so much sadder than theirs?

I never found the counter. And, I must say, I don’t think of it often.

But I now think that “in the battle between you and the world, bet on the world”, as the saying goes.

I wish I’d learn how to enjoy this world, instead of trying to battle it.

I guess that, for some things, I’m a slow learner.

The fig tree

In the garden of the house I grew up in, there’s this fig tree. Maybe young grandma planted it, in the late 30es, shortly after the house was built.

Winters here are often cold: there’s -18°C outside now. So, every once in a while, the fig tree doesn’t make it to spring. Every time I see the withered branches, I think to myself ‚So, this time it’s over.’

Somehow, we never even liked eating its fruit: they take so long to ripen, looking indecent all summer, in their shrivelled green skins.

Every time the tree withers, after a few weeks, an amazing little sprout shows up in the ground, just a few inches away from the old stem. It takes 3-4 years to grow back to the size you can see in the picture. By that time, next winter will be a cold one…

I never understood the fig tree parable in the bible. It seemed like a stub: some crucial information must have been left out, so the story makes no sense to me. Why curse the fig tree for not bearing fruit, if it wasn’t the season for figs anyway?

Once I read about Sylvia Plath’s fig tree.

“I saw my life branching out before me like the green fig tree in the story. From the tip of every branch, like a fat purple fig, a wonderful future beckoned and winked. One fig was a husband and a happy home and children, and another fig was a famous poet and another fig was a brilliant professor, and another fig was Ee Gee, the amazing editor, and another fig was Europe and Africa and South America, and another fig was Constantin and Socrates and Attila and a pack of other lovers with queer names and offbeat professions, and another fig was an Olympic lady crew champion, and beyond and above these figs were many more figs I couldn’t quite make out. I saw myself sitting in the crotch of this fig tree, starving to death, just because I couldn’t make up my mind which of the figs I would choose. I wanted each and every one of them, but choosing one meant losing all the rest, and, as I sat there, unable to decide, the figs began to wrinkle and go black, and, one by one, they plopped to the ground at my feet.” – from The Bell Jar, 1963

For such a long time I felt just like this. There were so many attractive options and – I was scared that choosing one meant, I’d decide against all the other ones.
Fortunately, I do not feel like that anymore.

The fig tree is not old, because it always starts anew. There were times when it came out again about 4 meters away from where it once stood. But it did – and it’s the same, somehow: it never forgets about spring and never looses the wonderful shape of its leaves.

It taught me this wonderful thing: it doesn’t really matter what you choose, as long as you keep on doing stuff. You’ll find your way. All in good time, it said.