The missed flight

Kloten airport. One of the places where I feel at home

December 31st, a few years ago, I’m about to fly back to Zürich where I was living at the time. Had booked it long in advance and was thus able to enjoy both a family Christmas in Bucharest – and a New Year’s Eve with friends there – and go skiing the morning after!

So I’m at the airport and check in 3 hours prior to the flight! Small luggage – checked. I’m sitting in the duty free area, reading and listening to the announces. The little Omega watch that once belonged to great grandma is slowly ticking the passing time away. 2,5 hours to go, 2 hours, one and a half, one hour: Nothing about Zürich or a Swiss flight. Half an hour to go, I go to the boarding area to inquire about the whereabouts of my flight.

Aaaand there it says, “GATE CLOSED”. One person is still at the counter, I rush towards them, “Hey, where is everybody?

“You are Miss Hasnas.” – Yes.

“We have just unloaded your luggage.” – What?! Please, don’t, I have to be there tonight! There’s still 30′ till flight time, how could you?!”

“We-ell, miss, there was hardly anyone on this flight, so we closed a bit early. But we announced it on the speakers several times.”
And then I see it. My watch is 8 minutes slow! The speakers in my duty free area were probably broken. The… “Please, the plane did not take off yet, I can see it from here, the door’s open – you have to get me on that plane, sir!”

“Nothing I can do now. It’s the last day of the year, ma’am.”
“But I have to be there tonight…”

I burst into tears. The ground staff kindly invites me to book another plane!! No refund for the early take off!
The flight takes off without me. Desperate to get on a plane, I call dad.

***

Dad walks with me from one counter to the next. Any combination we can use to get me to Zürich tonight?

In the end, it’s Air France, 850€, through Munich. I get there with a tremendous headache, but on time, after 14 hours on the road. Could almost have flown to Mexico in the meantime. The headache makes me skip the New Year’s Eve party. The mere thought of champagne…The next morning we leave for the mountains.

I could have flown to Mexico for that amount of money. It was the only time I flew on a plane with more crew than people on board. And I still feel ashamed when I think of it to this day.

The House


Once upon a time, I passed this house on a central street in Bucharest with my grandma. It must have been around 1986 and we were on our way to visit grandma’s friend, Olga, who lived in the old town.

The house was one-storeyed, with several rooms aligning in an L-shape on the corner of a busy street with a narrow pavement. The street windows started at a low height, as if its residents were leaning on the passersby’ shoulders from inside their rooms. A crest placed between two windows adorned the main facade.

In the back, a derelict garden with a cherry tree and some junk gathered in the corners showed that several inhabitants shared the space and that they were probably not living well together.

‘There used to be a piano in the round room once’ grandma suddenly uttered, without any introduction.

‘How would you know? You were in the house once?’

‘They used to play the piano in the room on the left, when you walked in, sometimes when they had guests. Then they danced through the rooms, through the large double doors, from one room to the next…It was a long time ago. Now different people live here.’

Then I forgot all about it. Years passed, the regime pretended to change and brought along decade long trials for recuperation and ownership. Grandma was getting old and tired, but decided to fight for the house that once belonged to her aunt who had run away and never returned.

So we got the house, but only partially. In the middle section, according to law no. 112, an old inhabitant was allowed to go on staying there, without paying any rent, occupying the bathroom and living room. In order to go from the kitchen area in the back of the house to the front rooms, one had to pass through the garden. Just before the old guy died, he brought in his daughter, an alcoholic who kept living there for a few years, still without paying rent to anyone, neither to the state, nor to us. That was not according to the law, but every trial phase she was supported by a rich investor who wanted to build a hotel over a few lots there and had planned the entrance to the parking garage on the place of our house.

By now all our funds were depleted by the trials and maintenance costs and we had but one solution for dealing with the house, besides selling it: let someone live in it for the effort of taking care of it, fixing its leaking roof and draughty windows. So, a young couple moved into the non-linked rooms. They had to cross the garden to go to the loo in the back every time, even in wintertime.

More years passed. One day, the tenants called and told us there was a strange odour coming from under the drunkard’s door. The woman had passed away days ago, without anybody checking on her.

Police came, the forensics came, the neighbours came, but nobody wanted to be the one to open the door. Mom had to do it in the end, like so many other things that nobody else wants to do.

A few days passed by and suddenly some unknown relatives of the deceased showed up and claimed the tile stoves. Dad chased them away.

By the time the couple moved out, their daughter had already started school. Their living there had saved the house from being burned down: on several occasions, especially on public holidays, someone had put fire to the house from three different sides.

Now the house looked battered, but was finally ours to use. After some more renovations, I lived and exhibited in it for a few months, and then it was rented out.

On some mornings I wake up under the impression I’m still living there, in the old house that always welcomed guests so generously. 

The Caretaker

The team, with dad on the leftThe winter of 1985/6 was one of the coldest here – much like this one. Temperatures would fall considerably below -18°C outside and quaver around 12°C inside, thanks to the state imposed austerity programme. 

Invariably, end of January the winter games between the state-owned enterprises would begin. The ski cups were initiated in 1952 and are still held today: ‘Cupa IPA’, ‘Drumarilor’ (Road Workers’ Cup), ‘Proiectantul’ (the Draftsman), ‘ALFA’.
Participating as a team on behalf of their factory, IMUC, the Chemical Equipment Installation Plant of Bucharest*, dad and his colleagues would get accommodation in Predeal and where exempt from work for the duration of the cups. So they’d take their kids and spouses along and we’d pack the cars full with everything necessary, from complete ski gear and food to sleeping bags, pans and gas burners. Unlike today, back then there was absolutely no guarantee that you could find a restaurant with food in the winter sport area – nor anywhere else, actually.

There wasn’t even a guarantee that you’d get where you wanted to, as Militia de circulatie would close the main roads in districts ‘affected by snow’ more or less randomly, cutting people off in the middle of their voyage on a Sunday (the only free day, as there was a 6 days workweek) and leaving them to wait for hours, sometimes days, in some valley (the Prahova Valley, usually), with no particular regards to the state of the roads or the weather forecast.

This time we had made it to Predeal rather easily: dad said it had probably been too cold for the militieni to come out.
The first evening, after getting a sandwich and brushing our teeth, us kids huddled together in a big bed under layers of sleeping bags that smelled like home and remotely of mothballs, while the parents tried to insulate windows and doors with some holey blankets they found in the villa.

The food we had brought along was placed between the windows: some bread and ham and raw eggs. Then the grownups gathered in the hall for a chat, a drink and cigarettes. While waxing the skis!

I think I was about 5 years old and the boy was 3 or 4. My parents had already said goodnight to me and now this lady would tell her kid a bedtime story. But he wouldn’t fall asleep, he wanted to play and maybe have another sandwich. His mom finished her story and tried lulling him to sleep – it just didn’t work.

After a while she lost her patience and I heard her say in a menacing tone:

‘Daca nu esti cuminte, sa stii ca te dau la administrator.’ – ‘If you don’t behave, I’ll give you to the caretaker.’ The boy whimpered and shut his eyes tightly.

Suddenly alarmed, I had to know: ‘What caretaker is that?’

‘Shht, it’s bedtime now. The one from our block.’

‘And he takes kids away? Where does he take them to?’

The boy winced again, pressing his eyes shut even tighter.

‘Yes, he takes kids away if they don’t behave. Now shush and go to sleep.’

‘But… but my parents never told my there was such a person as the caretaker. Where does he come from?’

‘Yes, there is. He lives downstairs in our block. He’ll take my son if he won’t behave. And you as well. He’ll take any kids who misbehave. Every block has one.‘

The kid pulled the blanket over his head whimpering ‘…the caretaker’.

 ‘… where does he takes kids to? For how long? And why would you let him do it? Would you open the door?
You don’t have a latch, is there nothing you could do?’

‘…Nobody knows’ where he takes them to, but they never return.’          

‘Does he take adults as well? Like my terrible teacher who hates kids? and the neighbour lady who swears all the time and her mean husband who drinks and yells every day?’

‘Go to sleep now!’

I just could not believe her. Agreed, I was not raised in a block of flats, maybe they have strange habits there, but still…
‘Look…I don’t think so. If there was any such man, my parents would have told me so. I mean, maybe there is, but he wouldn’t follow us to the mountains. How would he know where we are? I think nobody’s coming for us.’

There’s rustling under the blanket. Some hope: ‘No caretaker?…’

The lady gets up and walks away. Hisses from the door ‘Now, look what you’ve done, he was almost asleep! He needs his sleep; he’s smaller than you. You see how you get to sleep all by yourselves now. I won’t hear another sound of you!’ Door slams shut. Silence.

‘Hey, psst.’ – Whimpering.

‘Look, I don’t think there’s a caretaker who takes kids away. I tell you, all the afternoon naps I didn’t take and all the evenings I would not fall sleep – nobody came for me; I think we’re quite safe.’

Silence.
‘Even if there was – I don’t think he’d follow us ‘til here… He’d get lost. And it’s way too cold; they must’ve shut down the traffic anyway. Come out.’

Muffled hopeful sound.
’Hey, c’mon, come out and let’s play.
She’s can’t be right, I’m telling you. My parents know better, believe me. There’s no such man as the caretaker.’’

Half a face comes out from under the blanket. ‘But she’s my mum. She knows stuff.’

‘Maybe, but she sure doesn’t know this one. ‘

In the morning a thermometer outside showed -26°C.

The eggs were cut in halves with an axe and placed face down in a pan on the burner in the hall.
We all gathered around to warm our hands and watch the orange rings in the yolk flow out of the shell, as it melted directly into the pan.
It was the funniest omelet I ever had.

___

The ski cups are still being held. The kid got married last year.
And I now know what a caretaker of a block of flats does. He does not take little kids away – but your precious time. Lots of it.
In return, he gives you frustration.

___

*IMUC/later TMUCB was established in 1960 and broken into pieces in the 90es. Some pieces survived till 2011. It mainly produced chemical and petrochemical machinery.

In his position as a design engineer there, dad drafted parts of refineries, a heavy water- and other plants, but also parts of a soap factory, and an over dimensioned rooster for a playground.

 

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.

 

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

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.