Tuesday
Aug222017

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. 


Tuesday
Jan102017

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.

 

Wednesday
Dec282016

Oranges

How I learned to tell oranges apart in the year 2000.

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Saturday
Dec032016

English Lessons

1981 I went to kindergarten. Aunt Ann, who ran this kindergarten, had survived forced labour in a coal mine.

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Saturday
Nov122016

The Tree

In 1936, a linden tree was planted in a Bucharest garden in 1936; it still lives on. The grandfather of the guy who planted it came to Romania in 1860.

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