Tuesday
Feb022016

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.

 

 

Saturday
Jan162016

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…

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, Lazureanu, Minotaurului and Ecoului, Meteorilor, Arionoaiei 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.’

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

21, Minotaurului © Dragos Frincu

Arionoaiei Street © Dan Perry

The Uranus Neighbourhood - Minotauturului street in the lower third - THEN...

...and NOW

Thursday
Nov122015

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

Wednesday
Sep022015

It's all gone. Palmyra

Remember the pearl in the desert. It had better been left covered by sand.

Click to read more ...

Thursday
Apr232015

Ski

The time was early 1982. My dad must’ve taken the picture. We were in Predeal for a ski cup, as you can easily recognize by the numbers on the people’s torsos.
These were his colleagues at the factory where he had landed as an oil engineer.

Times were murky. We’d go skiing as often as possible, because there was no other distraction from the routine. We’d all stay at some villa, which once had belonged to some…bourgeois, before the war. I’ll always remember the spaces as - cold and somehow strange. We’d all sleep huddled together in the same room. In the mornings, us kids would watch the grown-ups trying to fry raw cut in half eggs, which had frozen between the windows over night, on a rather improvised camper heater, attached to a smuggled gas bottle someone had brought along.

1982. People in a distant galaxy, it seems, are shaking their limbs to the sound of MJ’s Thriller. Madonna makes her debut and gets her first contract signed, while everybody’s wearing terry cloth stripes on their wrists and heads, in horrid neon colours. Shoulder pads, acid washed jeans and starry patterns rule the dance floors.
Prince William gets born to Lady Di in June– another one to follow the hairdo- and fashion sins of the moment.

By the time we’re competing in the Carpathians, Argentinian troops invade the British Falkland islands, on February 4th.

Grace Kelly drives off a cliff in Monaco, later that year, in September.
The Delorean motor company goes bankrupt.
Kohl becomes chancellor of Germany in October.
In November, Leonid Breshnev dies in Moscow. Yuri Andropov, former head of the KGB, takes his place as head of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.
Lech Walesa is released in Poland after a year in prison.

The mountains were quiet and peaceful. We’d go there on every possible occasion in winter, because Bucharest had become dark and increasingly menacing. Ceausescu and his lot had started demolishing whole neighbourhoods, in order to build a new stronghold against capitalism.
Excavators were ripping deep trenches in the mud, were once houses stood and kids played on the cobbled streets under age-old trees. The city turned more and more silent, dark and scared. Grocery stores and markets looked emptier every week, while the lines for sugar, eggs, sunflower oil and - even toilet paper - grew. People just stood in lines in front of random stores, hoping some of these products would miraculously show up in the shelves. Gas, water and power shortages contributed to the fight against the imperialist enemy.

The system was keeping everybody busy.

I remember those winters as cold and dark, at best grey. I remember my parents speaking less and looking more tired, worried.
Naturally, I remember feeling protected - a lot more than I feel today.

But…this was because I was a kid, not because times were in any way better. Adults would bear the weight of the worries.
I just used to linger in the staircase and ask ‘When are we leaving for the mountains?’ innumerable times, no matter who’d pass me by.

I might look like some kind of a princess on that pic, but my biggest worry was not loosing that leather bag - and the contest. Instead of feeling protected and surrounded by caring people, I’d compete, in my head, against anyone and everyone, except the tall guy, Gil, whom I always admired.

Dad and his mates would soon go back to working at their factory, which does not exist anymore. I’d start school that next fall - about the time Grace Kelly drove her car off that cliff.

A few years later, the Berlin wall falls and there’s major change in the air all over the world.

It’s been...33 years since then.