English Lessons

A song to go with it here.

September 1981. My parents brought me to kindergarten, where I spent the entire first year not speaking any word at all. I was too busy wondering about everything and everybody in this new environment.

Every morning at a quarter to eight, one of our family took me down the street towards the market. On the left side, between two blocks of flats there was a hidden alley, which went behind them, on to a green gate and fence. Passing the gate, a garden with roses on the right and a sandbox on the left; between them, a path to a yellow house with three steps and a green door.

From the garden gate

There I met Aunt Ann, who became my grandma no.3.

I went to kindergarten every day from 8 to 12 for six days a week for five years. Aunt Ann used to have all three age groups in the same big room and she was able to keep us all busy. She’d sing with us, playing her guitar, we’d exercise together and draw and do handicrafts, while we’d all be surrounded by her beautiful British accent like in a dream.

I started talking in the second year of kindergarten, suddenly and without any warning.

This private kindergarten existed in spite of the system. It closed in 1986, the year I went to school, because dear Aunt Ann had gotten too ill to go on with it. She kept giving English lessons and I kept going to these twice a week for the next 10 years. I learnt so many things from her, also about what should but cannot be spoken about. It probably was the one of the last memories of someone teaching me stuff without trying to break me.

***

Aunt Ann was born as Annemarie Fischer in 1915. Her sister Lieselotte arrived in 1922. Their parents were of German origin; the father, an architect, had built the house in the back in 1916-18 and the house in front in the nineteen twenties. Annemarie had gone to Oxford to improve her language skills for at least a year. She had married Toni Böttcher, her colleague at Astra Romana, the oil refinery company that was part of the Royal Dutch Shell trust between 1911-1947. The couple had a daughter in 1941.

War came and Romania went in on the Axis’ side first. Toni couldn’t go to war, because his hands that once played the piano so well were now impaired after a bike accident and subsequent gangrene due to a too tight cast. 
Romania switched sides on August 23rd, 1944.
That same month former Soviet Ambassador to the UK, Ivan Michailovitch Maisky proposed the deportation and re-education of German active nazis and war criminals in work camps as a ‘post-war reparation’ to the Allied representatives in London. On September 12th, 1944, Romania signed a ceasefire, which did not stipulate reparations in workforce.
Meanwhile, Soviet troops had reached the Balkans.
October-November 1944, all German ethnics of Romania were called to submit their names on lists at the police station. They were told they could go visit their relatives in Germany if they did so. The queues were long and Annemarie and Toni got in that day, but the counter closed in front of Lieselotte, who was supposed to come back the next day. She didn’t go anymore, annoyed by the long lines.
What they didn’t know was that Stalin had allegedly asked, among other reparations, for 100’000 workforce from Romania, among other reparations. Our new ally had passed their State Defense Committee Order 7161 on December 16, 1944*.
Christmas and New Year’s Eve passed and on January 12th, 1945, the Red Army started seizing all people on the lists, one by one. In less than a month, all German ethnics of working age were snatched from their homes: men of 16-45 and women of 18-30, if they were not pregnant nor had kids less than one year old. Some tried to escape and fled to the mountains, others hurriedly married Romanian ethnics. Their families were pressed to give up on their relatives, regardless of the family situation.

Toni and Annemarie were seized in their garden – she just had time to pass her 4-year-old daughter to her sister’s arms, on that same lovely path I later walked on to kindergarten every day.
They were separated, put on livestock wagons and sent to work in the coal mines around Donetsk, were they worked for more than one year, not knowing if either was still alive or if there’d ever be a ‘back home’ one day.

The Romanian King and government protested in January: according to the armistice, Romanian civil citizens of any race and religion were supposed to be protected by the Allies. At the Conference in Yalta in February 4th -11th, 1945, the U.S. and UK raised some objections to the Soviet use of German ethnic civilian labor, arguing that the „reparations in kind“ were done in the name but without the agreement of the Allies. By then, the process was already closed; Maisky was deputy foreign minister. Churchill allegedly concluded,  „Why are we making a fuss about the Russian deportations in Romania of Saxons and others?“

The Soviets sent about 3/4 of the laborers to the Donets Basin to work in the reconstruction of heavy industry and mines, and about 11% to the Urals’ heavy industries. The workers were housed in concentration camps under armed guard. The working and living conditions were harsh and according to Soviet records about 24% of those interned died. Forced labor turned out to be inefficient and unprofitable since many of the women and older men were not able to perform heavy labor. Repatriation started as early as 1945 and almost all were released by 1950.

Some time in 1946 Annemarie was released, on the grounds that ‘there was no one else to take care of the family’. She returned home and, some time later, Toni did as well. They changed their name from Böttcher to Dogaru, which meant the same, but in Romanian: barrel maker. They had another daughter in 1947. But they never got along anymore after Donets Basin, so they separated, eventually.
Her health was shaken and she couldn’t work anymore, so she started with the kindergarten. It was the 1950es, 30 years before I walked into that garden for the first time.

I learnt so many things from her, also about what should be spoken about. It probably was the one of my last memories of someone teaching me stuff without trying to break me.

that ‘instructed to intern all able-bodied Germans of ages 17–45 (men) and 18-30 (women) residing within the territories of Romania (67,332 persons), Hungary (31,920 persons), Yugoslavia (12,579 persons), which were under the control of the Red Army. Consequently, 111,831 (61,375 men and 50,456 women) able bodied adult ethnic Germans from Romania, Yugoslavia, and Hungary were deported for forced labor to the USSR.’

The Tree

The Tree in 1936

The Ahnenpass (Ancestor Passport) states that somewhere around 1860 a Catholic Prall came from Bavaria to Transylvania, which was then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. In 1876 Major Prall, K. u. k Hauptmann a. D., got engaged to his love, Lisi. But, as a military cadre, he could only marry after he made enough money to be able to sustain a household, which meant that he had to stay engaged to his fiancée for 10 years. They finally got married in 1896 and lived in Hermannstadt/Sibiu for a while, where her brother Toni and sister Resi had a furniture store. One year after the wedding, in 1897, their son Albert Prall is born, and baptized a Protestant, like the rest of Lisi’s family. They’re listed at Schwimmschulgasse 2, or Str. Scoala de Inot, 2 (today replaced by a block of flats).

Lisi dies in 1903, when her son is only 6 years old. Little Albert stays with his family in Hermannstadt for a while and gets spoiled by the aunts, while his father goes on with his military career. Bertl, as they called him, regularly skips school and wants to run away with the circus 2 years later – to become a clown.
One day his father meets the school director in the street, who enquires about the boy’s health. So the Hauptmann finds out about Bertl’s absenteeism and decides to send him to school in Targul Mures, then later on to the K. u. K. Kadettenschule – Wiener Neustadt/ Military School in Vienna. The First World War breaks out in 1914. Albert’s is among the first ones to be sent to France directly from Vienna, as an Austrian officer of the garrison of Sibiu. 

The Romanians in Austria-Hungary entered the war from the very beginning, with hundreds of thousands of Transylvanian and Bukovinian Romanians being mobilized throughout the war. Romanian troops fought on all European fronts of the Dual Monarchy, (…). In total, up to 150,000 Romanians were killed in action while fighting as part of the Austro-Hungarian Army.

He returns on foot in 1919, a 22 year old crippled with severe rheumatism from the trenches of Verdun, that will pain him for the rest of his life. 2m tall, he’s bound to a wheelchair and cannot walk for months.

The young women from the Höhere Töchterschule in Bucharest come to read to the veterans. One of them is Rieke Schuster, whom he had met before the war: she used to spend her holidays in Sibiu, who, like other Germans from ‘the kingdom’, had a ‘Dauernder Pass’ (permanent pass) to cross the Transylvanian border at Predeal or Bran, in order to visit their relatives.
Rieke’s parents have a pharmacy on Calea Victoriei in Bucharest, (story here).

They want to get married, but her father, the farmacist, tells Albert ‘No job? What good is a soldier in times of peace? I need a son-in-law who’d take over the pharmacy’

Transylvania is now part of the Romanian kingdom since December 1st 1918. Albert leaves Sibiu and comes to study pharmacy in the capital. He gets married to Rieke and they have two kids, a boy in ’21 and a girl five years later. Together with the in-laws, they build a house on a wasteland at the northern outskirts of the town, where they move in together in 1930. Albert plants a linden tree in the back yard and says, ‘One day I’ll sit in the shade of its huge crown, you’ll see’. Erna is ten, we’re in 1936, the world looks like spring again.

There’s yet no sign of the blows to hit soon from now, the 1940 earthquake, the heavy years of war or the 1944 epidemics of dysentery that will kill Rieke or the communist regime to come.

The world is still ok in 1936 and the linden tree is just a sapling now.

 

Powerlessness

One mild autumn day I was running through the streets that managed to escape the massive demolitions for the civic center in the 80es. These streets once flowed from northwest towards southeast and are all suddenly cut off at weird angles by an axis that was once supposed to become a new Champs Elysees – just longer and, well – national style.
Some fabulous houses are hiding behind the curtains of blocks built on both sides of the axis. I’m trying to run a pattern that follows the old streets and interferes with the curtain of blocks as little as possible.

From one day to another, houses standing in the way of the axis  and their people had fallen victims to the ruthlessness of a system whose shadows are hanging heavier today than anyone ever thought was possible. Sometimes I’m running behind a massive continuous curtain of blocks of flats and looking the other way, where the houses are still standing, like stunned. Falling into decay more and more with every passing season, it seems they escaped earthquakes, wars and the razing of the Uranus neighbourhood, but will hardly survive the ‘eternal transition’ that followed in the next decades.

Cars are parked diagonally along the blocks, the streets looks deserted, it’s Saturday, people must be at home, cooking, or at the movies, at the mall… On a street, three guys are trying to get open the back door of a car with a metal ruler and a stick. I pass them closely. One is drinking some energy drink from a can; they look rather miserable in their attempt to get the door open. I’m sure one of them is the owner and the others are helping him.

At the corner, I wonder – it’s broad daylight, we’re on an otherwise busy street, so what are the chances… I run back in a spiral around the guys and smile at them, ‘So, it doesn’t seem to be working, does it? D’you manage?’

One turns a ruddy primitive face towards me ‘We’re stealing here, stealing, see?’
No shame, no menace…nothing.

I run away completely dumbfounded, wondering what to do. Around the next corner is a guard’s house, the parking lot guard…it’s empty. Should I stop and take a picture? – I could’ve, if I hadn’t pushed my luck earlier, unknowingly. I run to the next crossroad, past an old couple and a drunkard. Past a guy who’s throwing me a flirty glance, while menacing someone on the phone. No police at the crossroad, I’m almost home, they’ve probably broken in by now and I’m scared.

I’ll be home soon, in a safe place that’s not going away anywhere soon. I don’t even have a car anymore, where they could break into. A cab driver fell asleep and crashed it to smithereens one month ago. This is a menacing place for me, I realize.

Lost Bucharest – from the book „Bucureştiul dispărut” by Gheorghe Leahu

Palataki, Island of Thassos, 40°37’28″N 24°34’46″E

Message for visitors

Hello, I am your first stop on your journey to the “Metallurgic factory area of Limenaria, Thassos”. I would like to tell you about my story and also to share my concerns, because all along these years I’ve been wondering who really knows me and who cares about me.

©oryktosploutos.net, because I was too amazed to shoot a good pic.

First, let me introduce myself. People call me “Palataki” (Small Palace) because of my grand design. I was born in 1900 and my designer was the Italian architect Pietro Arigoni. You can consider me the most impressive of all the administration buildings of the Aegean islands, one of the most important industrial monuments in the Mediterranean! My first owner was Speidel, owner of the homonymous German mining company, which came to Thassos to inaugurate the modern period of mining activity on the island. I’ve been residence to the owners, also company offices and I’ve gone through such glorious times. Since then I’ve been watching the village, Limenaria, from up here, growing year after year. I changed many owners and uses, following the controversial history of the region and contributing to its development. Hosting daily events and important celebrations, I’ve accompanied and challenged the imagination of children, listened to love stories, sorrows, struggles and joys of adults.

But in the late ’60, the end of mining came…and activity began to decline. As the years went by, I was looking from above, generations following one after the other, the world changing faster and becoming more and more crazy. I was sad and looking for a little attention, wishing for a little life back inside of me. In 1982, after numerous studies and ministerial decisions, I’ve been declared a national monument. And there even were a attempts to have me repaired! I felt such joy and relief! I dreamed that I would live the glamour and bustle of the past again.

Soon this relief stopped along with my dreams. My disappointment for the people grew up. I felt more alone than ever. With so many plans and titles, I felt like a retired general, who was conferred honorary medals, while they’re just waiting for me to die, to fall apart. And vandals come to plunder, destroying my decorations. The end seems now to happen; against the international, European and National authorities governing the Greek art and architectural sites, I’ve been cut off from the rest of the national monuments, being another victim of the economic measures imposed in Greece. 

Still I stand here wounded, restless but proud. And you who have just read these few words of mine, please think that you have the power to protect me and my history. My time is over…so please hurry! Feel the value of what I represent to you and to future generations. As my only weapon in this battle I used my unique tale, my artistic value, hoping you would lift your head one day and look at me and not to feel regret, but pride, your eyes filled with my ancient beauty”.

After: Aegean Sea Metallurgy – industrial antiquities of Greece – Melissa, Athens, 2009. IGMR Institute of Geological and Metallurgic Research, translation: Dimitris Papaioannou. www.mmoth.gr

Dating back from 20’000 BC, the oldest European underground mine with horizontal excavation was discovered in Tzines on Thassos. Ancient historians Herodot and Strabon both mention the mining activity on the island: lead, iron, copper, silver and marble from the 7th century on.

Early 20th century, the German company Speidel Pforzheim obtained mining rights from the Ottoman administration for exploiting zinc, lead and silver ores here.

Palataki was built over the bay of Limenaria between 1903-1904 to house the administration of the mining company. A rectangular symmetrical building in the industrial style of the period, it was two stories high, had a basement and two little towers on its back facade.

Set up on the hill, it adapted in colours to the environment, with blue/green windows to match the sea and the pine trees around it, and yellow walls to blend in with the colours of the rocks and cliffs around it.

 

On the backside, the slope where the old rusty ore-enrichment installations lie ends in a beautiful beach: the Metalia. The only installations preserved here are the kilns (furnaces), part of the ore process from the early 1900s.

In 1913 the mining activity was interrupted due to the Balkan wars. At the end of the first World War, Thassos became Greek territory and another company won the mining rights at an international bidding:Vieille Montagne from Belgium founded the ‘Société Hellénique Métallurgique et Minière’ here, which modernized and enlarged the exploitation with rotating ovens.

The 1930s recession resulted in the fall of the metal prices, so the ore processing was stopped. From then on, the mines worked under the joint venture “Apostolu AE-SCHMIDT-KRUPP”, which started surface mining and producing iron ore at larger scale, and the great furnace-ramp was used only for the haulage of unprocessed ore to barges.
Loading and shipping in Limenaria, all products would go directly to German company Krupp. From 1962 the mining exploitation on Thassos stopped altogether, due to the discovery of richer and cheaper iron ore sources in Africa and South America.
Deserted in 1963, Palataki was supposed to be repaired in order to host a new cultural center. The floors and walls were left naked, since all metal parts and machinery have been looted and sold as scrap.

The Kilns

The Offices

A few days ago, on September 10th, 2016, Thassos was hit by a dry storm. Dozens of lightning strikes hit the island in 4 different corners and set fire to the pinewoods where it hadn’t rained for 3 months. The fire blazed for 3 days and was the worst after 1989.
The island is now safe again: please keep it in mind when planing your 2017 holidays!
Thassos and the Palataki are looking forward to seeing you around.

 

Reichesdorf, 46° 5′ N, 24° 29′ W

There are many risks in hanging around the borders of great empires, such as constantly getting in the way of some kind of battle. But there are benefits as well: populations on the border are being spoiled with rich cultural influence from all sides, no matter if it’s philosophical, culinary or in the field of construction. Words migrate from one language to another and carry new meanings that were never imagined before.

For those benefits, other people often come and settle for a while. In the case of the place we now call Transylvania, Saxons arrived in the 12th century within their eastward migration, Ostsiedlung.

Until the 16th century they built over 150 fortified churches along their way, in order to protect Christendom from the Ottomans. The early ones were Romanic, the later ones were built in different Gothic styles, seven of them being considered UNESCO world heritage.

One of these German settlements, Birthälm/Biertan includes the village with the same name, then Richiș and Copșa Mica. All three villages have fortified churches; Biertan’s dates back to 1524 and was listed UNESCO-heritage site in 1993.

People in this area used to be mainly winegrowers since they can recount. They finished building the church in Richiș in 1451.

 One of the main attractions of the church is the sacristy door with wooden inlays representing the eternal city of Jerusalem in seven shapes, which was added in 1516. On the upper side of the door there’s the coat of arms of Reichesdorf: a heron (‘Reiher’ in German, which probably gave the village its initial name).

The door has an intricate lock system with several bolts. Only the door in Biertan, made by the same craftsman one year earlier, has a more intricate mechanism, which was presented at the Paris Exposition Universelle of 1900!

It was silver coated later; unfortunately someone stole its key, so now it’s locked open forever.

Johannes Honterus, a renaissance humanist from Brasov, introduced Protestantism to the Transylvanian Saxons after having studied in Vienna, Regensburg and Krakow and after having met Martin Luther in Wittenberg. In order to spread the word, Honterus founded a school, a library and put up the first printing press, where he printed a collection of maps, the Rudimenta Cosmographica. It appeared in 39 editions until 1602 and is considered to be the first European manual.

Therefore, by 1530 Reformation was passed in Transylvania without blood spilling. Unlike in other parts of the world, no major Bildersturm –  iconoclastic riots – took place here; a few figures were removed from the Romanic and Gothic capitals with hammer and chisel – and that was that.


In 1775, the church in Richiș got a new altar, crafted and painted by the renowned master Johann Folbarth in Rokoko sytle. Unlike in some Catholic churches, here the sides of the altar are adorned by John the Baptist and John the Evangelist, not St. Peter and St. Paul. The wooden statue of St. John the Baptist was originally represented as dressed with only a camel fur; this brought major disarray to the community of Reichesdorf.

The organ from 1788As is the custom, Protestants walk around the altar on important church days. While passing it, young girls would slow down and peek under St. John’s camel skin, which angered the old ladies of the village up to the point where they asked for the statue to be removed.

Therefore, the mature wives of the community decided to end the story in a different way and draped the saint in a blue garment, which was kept until today.

The lively Mr. Schaas, 84, the last Saxon in Richis, told us many stories about the times when the village was a strong winemaker community of 900 souls.

In 1990, when everybody else left for Germany, upon leaving, the priest gave him the keys and told him to take care of everything. As he began walking through the church everyday, Mr. Schaas started wondering about a sculpted face he saw in the capital of a column: a wild man, with branches sprouting out of his mouth and his eyes.

The more he kept studying the leafy capitals, the more faces appeared to him every time. Among other wild ones he also found the Benedictine monk’s, founder of the church. He didn’t know what to make of this and called them ‘my friendly little devils’ – until one day, when a Swiss lady told him about the green man and its appearance under the Bamberg Horseman from 1225.

A pagan figure, it is said to be the counterpart of the mother earth figure – someone like Pan in Greek Myths. The craftsman must have been thoroughly schooled, probably in a part of the world where Celtic influence could be found.

If you should ever go to Richiș, find Mr. Schaas and listen to his stories. If you speak Romanian, he’ll tell them in Romanian. If you master German, you’ll get even more stories. But you’ll robably get the most out of him if you’re a Saxon speaker.

It is said that you can only imagine things you have words for. With every language you master, you become richer: new words bring new meanings and new feelings along with them.

More info here: http://kirchenburgen.org/kirchenburgen/

Visit:
Get the keys from Mr. Johann Schaas
Tel: +40/269/258 429
House Nr. 87

Sleep in Reichesdorf:
Rooms at the old vicarrage at La Curtea Richivini: 10 beds, call: Gerrit Timmerman, Tel: +40/269/258 475.
Rooms at Casa Noah: 11 beds, Call: Paul Eugen, Tel: +40/269/258 500, Email: casa_noah@slowlyplanet.com.

A beautiful language tree © Minna Sundberg. Please visit her site by clicking on the image.

 

The Kitten

Last November, Tilly was found in the ghastly basement of my block of flats with a badly healed broken front paw and some other sorts of illnesses and parasites. He became part of my love’s stray cat saving project. All the other kittens got adopted rather soon but Tilly was already a big 7 months cat by then. And people prefer small blue-eyed fur balls. 

So Tilly got his little heart broken when the last fur ball got adopted. (Luckily, Sonja & siblings have found great families)

Lucky as this kitten is, my love moved in with him to my seventh floor flat with the great long balcony. He grew even bigger, while spending the Xmas holidays observing guests and rearranging the aerial roots of Franz-the-Houseplant, turned into an X-Mas-tree.

Because we keep taking stray cats to the vet and then get them adopted, people in my building believe we’re drowning them in the Dambovitza river across the road – but that’s another story. Spring came and Tilly became a beautiful adult feline, almost jumping through the balcony railing every time a bird passes at this flight level without proper ATC clearance. 

Summer came and we took him along with us on our diving project. He even got a passport for this voyage. His belongings filled half of the back seat of our car, as he likes to be driven around in proper conditions. 

Tilly turned out to be twice the size of local cats, which came to pay their respects at the window every day. 

He watched over his saviour for two weeks, when this one got bitten and badly infected from saving yet another stray cat. As a modest sacrifice to the mighty gods, for this recovery, Tilly decapitated his favourite Teddy in just one afternoon.

Then he got on the ferry with us, all the way back, for a home visit. Freshly arrived at my parents’ place, we humans all got a bad food poisoning – even the dogs got poisoned somehow. While we were running around last night, taking turns for the loo, Tilly considered it was the perfect moment for a roof dive! 
So here I am, at one am, staring out of the attic window into an open rain gutter, where kitten sits puzzled, realizing there’s no way back. The best of all men passes by, moaning, ‘Call the ambulance – or the firefighters – or both!’
Kitten sat in the gutter, musing, while I threw a blanket on the roof and spent half an hour trying to get him to climb on it. The favourite toy, the cooing, the adrenaline, something must have worked – so Tilly got back through the window with a majestic jump, without the intervention of a small crane vehicle – or further drama. 

After a brief fight with the official matron house cat of my folks, which is on a diet and crept into our budoir at 6am in the attempt to steal some food, now a wiser cat, he looks back at the spot where he almost spent the night. 

As I’m writing this, Tilly started copiously throwing up on the floor next to me. I just hope it’s not food poisoning.

***Special thanks to YourVetsBucharest for their care and Georgina Wechsler for her wonderful support!
***Please, get your pets neutered! More than half of those stray kittens and doggies will have very short and miserable lives and will most likely end up as roadkill. You can make a change. Read more here, if you care.

Earthquake

My great grandma had come to Romania from Switzerland in 1927.
She was born on the side of the Bodensee in 1904 and had seen Zeppelins flying over the lake; she grew up during the First World War. She was in Bucharest in the 1940 earthquake and during the Second World War.
Communism and the 1977 earthquake found her in a room of the house that I later grew up in.
Witnessing changes and hardship had turned her into a mine of stories.

She’d wake up at 6am every day; take a cold shower and an aspirin, ‘to keep the blood clot-free’, then rush out and sweep the pavement, to the utter amazement of all our neighbours.

Sometimes, they’d greet her with: ‘The crazy German lady is out sweeping again. How’s it, missus?’
‘I am NOT German. Please.’
‘But you speak German.’
‘I am Swiss.
‘Swiss, Austrian, German – all Germans who speak German’, the answer would come back.
‘If you had any idea what fierce resistance the Swiss brought up against the Germans in history, you’d NEVER mistake one for another.’
Then she’d retreat to the garden, muttering ‘Ignorants!’ 

After sweeping the dust, leaves or snow, depending on the season, she’d come inside, change her shoes and put the battered kettle on, make filter coffee and also give me a cup, with milk and sugar.

Then she’d go to the market, every day, even in the dark eighties, when it had become just social behaviour, as there was hardly anything to be bought from the pale faced peasants after 1984, neither on the stalls – nor from underneath them. She’d make gratins from half a celery, an egg, some old bread and diary product.

She taught me all about gardening, keeping alive a neat garden with flowers more typical to her birth climate, than to the extreme one in Bucharest. Big-leafed bergenia, wild flowers from the woods and hydrangea bushes, they all needed constant maintenance and watering here. Even the roses were of foreign sorts. When we’d go on a visit to one of her friends, she’d bring along a rose from the garden, a gesture I came to appreciate but decades later, after having searched hard for a perfumed garden rose in all markets of the countries I lived in.

While gardening or taking care of the household, she’d tell me stories of places she’d seen and people she’d met along the way. All rather pedagogical, now I come to think of it.

But she was at her storytelling best during lunch. We’d sit in front of her dark bookshelves, just the two of us. She’d serve the gratin and start telling the goriest stories.

About how she came from poor and starving Switzerland, just to find people here throwing food away…even bread! And how she’d tell them that one day they were going to regret wasting food. About how the war came and the people starved and had no shoes. How they had to sell their belongings at the flea market, the beautiful painted teacups and the paintings and the cutlery. ‘Did you have to sell your things, Omama?’ She wouldn’t answer and go on to the next story.

Of the couple that was having a fight during the earthquake. They were in bed and the rattling started. The husband jumped under the doorframe and begged his wife to join him. But she was cross and told him she’d rather die in bed than join him. So the doorframe collapsed and he was crushed and she survived it, in bed!

When my parents came home that night, I asked them why they had told me to shelter under the doorframe in case of an earthquake, if it wasn’t safe anyway.

‘Who told you that, sweetie, ‘course you’re supposed to run for shelter under the doorframe! Not outside and not the staircase, love. It’s the Doorframe.’
‘But Omama said that the husband in the story got crushed there, so it’s not safe. I’ll go and hide in the cupboard or under the bed.’
‘Omama told you – what?’

Next day, great grandma got instructed to stop telling the kid ‘terrible stories, understood? She’s a kid, she’s not to be exposed to horror, got that?’, dad had said.
She told me a few stories about great personalities instead, showing me pictures from one of my favourite book ‘Menschen, die die Welt veränderten’ (People who changed the world), the Westermann edition. My favourites were Homer, Alexander the Great, Aristotle, Henri Dunnant, Mohammed the prophet – lovely Persian miniatures where he’s depicted without a face and with flames around the head, riding horses in the sky. Then, Marie Curie, Farraday, Koch, Tesla. Gandhi.

After a while I knew these people’s stories by heart – and wanted MORE STORIES.

So we got back to gore.
‘So, one of the people who survived the great earthquake was this lady in a bathtub. She fell out of the 3rd floor while showering, you know, and – got away.’
‘She fell…into the street?’
‘Yes, dearie. In March, 4th, 1977. Terrible earthquake.’
‘Oh. In her bathtub’.
I went to play in a corner and…digest this new piece of information.
I couldn’t ask the mighty dad, because I knew meanwhile that he didn’t take earthquake stories well. And mom would cut this short, probably. So I turned the story over in my head for a few days. But it started keeping me up, what happened after she fell, once she survived?

A few days later, I had reached the conclusion that this was, although an ‘earthquake story’, one with a happy ending. So, there was a chance to ask dad.
In the evening, dad came to say goodnight and I tried to bring up the matter. ‘Dad, soo…you know, the lady who survived the earthquake?’
‘…’
‘The lady who survived the earthquake in her bathtub?’
‘Here we go again! Horror stories from – let me guess, Omama?!’
‘But…but this one SURVIVED! I was wondering…’
‘No, please stop thinking about the earthquake, sweetie.’
‘But I can’t sleep without knowing the end of the story!
‘Go to bed. Please. It’s late.’
‘But…it’s been 3 nights I’m wondering what happened after that.’
‘After what?!’
‘After she fell. And survived. Please tell me, dad.’
‘Tell you what? She survived. Go to bed. Now’
‘But…what happened next? She fell out, in her bathtub – aaand?’
‘Survived. Great. Sleep now.’
‘But she fell into the street, on the crossroads! From the 3rd floor!’
‘Goodnight’ Dad was already at the door.
‘Please tell me how the story eeends, dad please! I can’t sleep. She was naked or was she taking a shower with her clothes on??’
‘…’
‘I have to know! It was in March, it was cold outside!! Were the people staring? She was naked in the middle of the crossroad? In her bathtub? Please tell me what happened.’
Long sigh. Best dad in the world turns around and comes back from the door. ‘Sweetie. Somebody probably gave her a coat. Now PLEASE go to sleep.’

I finally slept well that night. And the next day I promised Omama I’d never tell dad about the gory stories again.
I often wondered how the guy who had his face hit by a brick got recognized by his relatives – or how the lady whose silk robe caught fire…

But I never asked dad again.
You can see a picture below of the above mentioned Omama and my great grandpa listening to Radio Beromünster in 1946.
He never came home from work at the Pharmacy one night, in 1952. But that’s another story.

***

Listening to Radio Beromünster in 1946

Next Thursday, on March 4th there’ll be 39 years since that terrible earthquake, which struck Bucharest with 7.4° on Richter’s scale and killed more than 1’500 people. 

Among them was our best comedian of all times, Toma Caragiu. 
11’300 people were wounded. 32’900 buildings were damaged or destroyed. The material damage was estimated at 2 billion dollars. 
Ceausescu was on a visit in Nigeria at the time and, on returning, used the damages as an excuse to start a demolition program that erased a quarter of the old town center and destroyed the homes of more people than the earthquake itself.

Let’s hope the next big one spares Bucharest, as we all know that houses don’t mend themselves and this city did nothing to enforce its structures and protect its inhabitants since the last one.

A song to go with it here. 

Oil

 

When I was about six, I learnt about oil. Oil was in the layers of the earth, it made cars work and it gave heat; also, all plastic came from it – so, if you found it, your troubles were history.

Romania had been the first country to put up a commercial oil probe in Bacau and build the first refinery in Ploiesti, constructed in 1857 with preordered German equipment. Bucharest had become the first city to be equipped with gas lighting, as of April 1st 1857, with one thousand lamps to take the darkness away.

And grandfather was said to have been a natural talent with finding oil, he had even been invited to Chile for that, somewhere between the world wars. 

Dad was and ‘oil and gas engineer’, from what I gathered. Like grandfather, who had died that year.
So dad comes home from work one evening to find that his little girl had dug up most of what had once been our beautiful garden, behind the house. Rose bushes and tulip beds and hydrangeas were holding their roots out in plain view, like the flower ladies would huddle their multilayered dresses, when a ‘control’ came.

I had just started working on the big linden tree roots.

‘What are you doing here?!’ he gasped.

I proudly showed him the extent of the disaster. ‘Dad, I’m looking for oil under our garden!’

Dad was tired and it was the year 1984. He just winked me away. ‘Great job… if you find any, the state will come and take away our house and garden both.’

‘Who’s this state?! How can they take our house away?! Doesn’t it belong to us?’

Dad sighed. ‘State is…look, they can, if you should find oil. You’ll get to know this state one day. Just clean up the mess and stop digging, please.’ He walked into the house.

I kept wondering about this state person over the next days, keeping an eye out, maybe it was lurking around a corner, waiting for me to find the oil, prepared to take something away – oil, house, toys – or even grandma! Who knows! And how was I to fight this state, if even dad felt powerless against it…

A few days later, it had rained a lot, the garden was revived and all flowers were back in their initial positions.

Dad came home one afternoon to find me flattening the garden with a shovel. No more holes! Not even earthworms were spared – when I saw one, I pulled it out, threw it over the fence into the neighbor’s yard and flattened its construction immediately.

Dad stopped at the door. ‘What in heaven’s name are you doing here?’

‘Psst, dad, I’m removing all the holes! So that the oil can never get out and the state doesn’t come to take our home!’

Dad sighed and sat me down for a talk – about more drilling details, brave firefighters, of how oil appears in nature. He reassured me that it was VERY improbable to find oil under the house. After all, grandfather hadn’t found it there.

***

My next project was an oil platform in international waters, at least 12 Nm away from the coastline, where no state could take it away. Still working on it, this one seems complicated.

 

The Street

One afternoon late last summer, this lady walks into the Ark building. She’s middle-aged and speaks Romanian with the accent of someone who’s lived abroad for longer than she can remember. Timeless chic, scarf, lively black eyes under a fringe, beret cocked to the side, she’s somewhat enraptured by the place.
I show her around and tell her about how the new owners had saved this big old ship from falling into nothingness ten years ago.
The former Commodities Trade Building is one of the few survivors of the Uranus neighbourhood, which had been razed to the ground by Ceausescu in 1982-84, nothing being built on the wasteland instead.

She’s fascinated, the building was renovated so carefully; memories come back. She’s dreamy, but not very talkative.

In the end she says goodbye, delighted about our little chat and walks away – then she stops at the door and turns around with a frown. 
‘Actually, maybe you could help me find this street I’m looking for.’ 
Sure, what street? 
‘It’s strada Minotaurului. It must be somewhere around here, but I can’t find it.’ 
Lady, there must be a mistake; I guess you mean some other name. Are you sure?
She looks at me, shaking her head, and then takes out a map and points sullenly at the street shown on it. 
‘It should be near by, around the corner somewhere.’ The map is new and shiny, the street’s there all right, M-i-n-o-t-a-u-r-u-l-u-i it says, I can see it, but it’s…

 

 

Gheorghe Panu str. – Schitul Maicilor str. Photo from Mihai Isacescu

21, Minotaurului © Dragos Frincu

Arionoaiei Street © Dan Perry

Strada Minotaurului was demolished in 1984, along with all its houses and trees and gardens, to make way for the new civic centre. 
Its people were thrown out and scattered all over town, distributed to the new anonymous concrete blocks of flats. 

Although…for a moment I’m hesitating. I feel like running out to see it with my own eyes. Maybe I’m mistaken and she’s right and the street is still there. Opposite of our building, a bit further down the road, with its trees and cobblestones and people and tiled roofs. The diggers were just a nightmare.

Somebody opened their gate on Lazureanu this morning and left for work, walking down the sloped sidewalk. They’ll be home in the evening, passing the stores and the Cosbuc cinema on that rattling tram from Unirii Square. On the steps on Ecoului, kids are still playing. At Meteorilor, a few older ones are skipping school and hiding with their cigarettes behind an old iron fence. A couple are clinging on to one another as if it was their last day on earth, in the shadow of the old chestnut tree on Arionoaia. Somebody is loading his furniture off a truck on Uranus. A nun scurries out of the Schitul Maicilor monastery, busy as nuns always seem to be. It smells of freshly ground coffee from a house, were the old lady awaits her nephew to return from the military. Cazarmii, Salvatorului. Someone else just finished roasting the joint, opened a window and is calling down ‘Lunch’s ready, boys, wash your hands and come up – now!’

If I run out right now, I will see them all! 

The lady is still looking at me, waiting for an answer. 
‘It was there, if you walk out, left hand side. But now it’s…gone.’ 
She smiles, ‘No, madam, there must be a mistake. Minotaurului is still there, look at the map.’ 
I can see the Parliament’s Palace is there on the map, easy to spot, enourmous as it is. The nightmare is as real. But – the academy building is missing; all the old streets are in their places, LazureanuMinotaurului and EcouluiMeteorilorArionoaiei and Salvatorului, with Ion Taranu crossing them. For a moment, the children are still hanging on the corner, the couple is snogging, and mom’s calling her boys from the window, lunch’s ready, and the tram rattles around the corner.

But it can’t be. I had walked up that hill 2 weeks before, over the wasteland in front of the unfinished academy building. There’s only shrubbery there now, hundreds of hectares of weeds and thorny bushes cover the hill where these houses stood in which these people lived. If you dig in the dirt with your shoe, you can still find some bits of a cobbled street under the bushes.

She hands me the map and points at the little street. The map is brand new. 
I ask her, ‘Lady, where did you get this map from?’ 
‘At the Romanian stand at a tourism fair, back home in the States, last year.’ 
She folds it carefully and walks back to the door, smiling at me.
‘Don’t you worry; I’m sure I’m going to find it. Thanks for your kindness.’

A wonderful superposing of pictures from different times.

Watch a movie from demolishing times, 1984, here.

The Uranus Neighbourhood – Minotauturului street in the lower third – THEN…

…and NOW

Reason to Believe

An ordinary Wednesday in downtown Bucharest.
2 streets are blocked by a long line of relic-worshippers.
An adjacent street is blocked by flower-vendors.
Gendarmerie, paid from our taxes, guards the line.
I wish our taxes were used to pay for education.

A song to go with it: Ugress, Reason to Believe.

Not so long ago, in the 80s, people would queue for food. Author unknown