Brutal Bucharest

We posted a few weeks ago about Bucharest’s blocks, and about how we thought they deserved a day in the sun: after all, they are the backbone of the modern city and we would be lost (and, indeed, homeless) without them.

Anyway, not wanting to clutter up these pages with endless photos of grim blocks, we thought we should channel them off to their own space. As such, we have set up a simple new site, Brutal Bucharest, dedicated to blocks and blocks alone.

brutal-bucharest

Enjoy. Submissions to editor@bucharestlife.net.

Scumbags

We’re not going to get into the whole gay debate: too much ink has been spilt already.

What we will say, however, is this: Any parent who dresses his kid in a t-shirt featuring the face of Ion Zelea Codreanu, 1930s leader of the scumbag, death-cult Legionnaire Movement and one of the most evil Romanians of all time is – in our opinion – probably not going to win ‘father of the year’ anytime soon.

You have to feel sorry for the kid.

You have to feel sorry for the kid.

Bucharest down the pan

The most fascinating little book that you have (probably) yet to read this year is this gem from Alex Drace-Francis and Wendy Bracewell, both of whom we know – disclosure klaxon – from our days at SSEES: Where to Go in Europe.

Where-to-go-in-Europe

It’s a simple idea: an anthology of travellers’ accounts of confronting the need to find somewhere to go while on the road. It’s a universal problem, one that everyone – from pauper to prince – faces at some stage, so it’s probably not too much of a surprise to discover just how often lavish descriptions of public toilets – be they luxurious, appalling or simply baffling – appear in even the most studied and learned accounts of international travel. As the curators explain in the pun-tastic introduction (written, of course, in Krapets, Bulgaria):

Travel writing, charged with all that seems anomalous about foreign parts, often enjoys the license of discussing matters which might be considered taboo at home. This may account for the sheer quantity of information about lavatorial habits and toilet technologies (or their absence) to be found in the writings of those who have left behind the conveniences of home and have ventured out into the world.

What is less surprising perhaps is how often the simple toilet is used to confirm existing prejudices about a country or its people, or even its economic system. After all, a perennial lack of soft toilet paper (or any toilet paper at all) was often cited in the western world as all the proof we need that communism was doomed (or, as Drace-Francis puts it: ‘the scarcity of toilet paper became a metonymic byword for the socialist utopia caught short’).

The first (and perhaps most graphic) vignette in the collection is that of a 15th century pilgrim travelling Europe in search of spiritual guidance who has his faith well and truly tested by the state of the loos – or what passed for such things – along the way, particularly on a galley he takes across the English Channel. The description of trying to get to the ‘facilities’ at night will horrify and amuse in equal measure.

Yet even 600 years later travel writers still put all sorts of emphasis on the civility of the local bogs. Indeed, we were prompted to go through some of our own work and were far from shocked to find more than a passing reference to the condition of various toilets. Even in the latest issue of Bucharest In Your Pocket we include a small section on the subject. Then again, given how decent public toilets in Bucharest are few and far between it would be amiss if we did not point our readers towards those which do exist (in the Universitate Underpass and at Gara de Nord). Indeed, we devote more words to the state of the toilets at Gara de Nord (we report them as being ‘reasonably if not impeccably clean but certainly usable, the gents at least’) than we do to either the ticket or the left luggage offices.

Other than that, all Bucharest can offer by way of public toilets are either the awful, stinking portaloos which look terrible, not least when dumped somewhere with little thought or futuristic yet impractical automated toilets which are again often placed with no rationale or consideration whatsoever.

So for anyone who has ever been caught short in Bucharest it may come as a bit of an eye-opener to come across (in the book) the words of a Croatian visitor to Bucharest in the 1930s:

Drace-Francis-Exceprt

The luxurious public toilets our correspondent is referring to are – we think – those at Izvor whose entrance pergola remains even though the loos themselves have long been closed. Bucharest’s top architectural blogger Valentin Mandache wrote about them a few years ago. You can see his article and photos here.

Bucharest: the city where even the public toilets have gone down the drain.

Anyway, do buy the book: it’s a bargain £4.79 on Amazon for your Kindle – so you don’t need to be flush to buy it – and it offers a fascinating peak under Europe’s toilet seat. It reveals far more about how we see ourselves and each other than any amount of verbal diarrhea ever could. We needn’t add that the short, sharp chapters are perfect for visits to the privy.

Making Bucharest’s streets safer for children

Small steps.

Having witnessed – for the umpteenth time – yet another near miss involving a dickhead driver and small children, the amazing Mrs. Bucharest Life yesterday decided to try and make one tiny part of Bucharest safer for children. As such, she has started a campaign to have traffic lights installed at the intersection of Bulevardul Marasesti and Strada Cuza Voda. This intersection:

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intersection-2

The dickhead driver of the orange jeep thought it would be nice to provide the children of School 79 with another obstacle

The dickhead driver of the orange jeep thought it would be nice to provide the children of School 79 with another obstacle

Currently, children going to or coming from School 79 on Strada Cuza Voda have to use a simple, poorly marked pedestrian crossing, which – as anyone who has tried to use a pedestrian crossing in Bucharest will know – is not easy. Drivers – usually coming at great speed from the Bulevardul Dimitrie Cantemir/Marasesti intesection 300 metres or so away (itself the scene of the most accidents in the whole of Sector 4, we understand) rarely stop at the pedestrian crossing: even if there are children waiting to cross. (And when they do stop, they usually stop on the crossing). Worse, many impatient drivers pull out from behind cars which have stopped in order to overtake on the crossing, not giving any thought to the fact that the car in front might have stopped because, erm, there are children crossing. This is when accidents happen. Given that the delightful drivers of Bucharest are not likely to change their habits, the only way to prevent further incidents is to install traffic lights at the intersection so that cars are forced to stop. That is what we are now trying to achieve.

The first thing we did was to contact the local police: Sectia 14 is right next to School 79. Though they said they did not deal with such things, they did say who does – the Brigada Rutiera Bucuresti (Bucharest Traffic Police) – and provided the telephone number.

When we contacted the Brigada Rutiera they were polite and helpful, and explained the procedure. Firstly, we need to prepare a formal application stating our motives. This we will do, backed up with a petition including the signatures of as many parents at the school as possible. The application will be presented to the Brigada Rutiera and the Administratia Drumirilor, before being passed on to the local council, who will have to approve it. Once approved, a tender is held and the work carried out. All very easy in theory: we will see how it pans out, and keep you posted. It is worth noting however that the Brigada Rutiera were reassuring in their assertion that there is no reason it cannot be done, although they were just as keen to point out that it may take a while.

As with anything in this city we will believe it when we see it, but we are going to try our utmost to make it happen.

Meantime, if you know the intersection in question and want to sign our petition or help us out in any other way, do get in touch.

Great bookshops do not look like great bookshops

After an early dinner at the rather wonderful Marin Grill on Strada Gabroveni (do go: you can feast for next to nothing on fresh sardines, sea bass, octopus and mussels – all grilled on a hotplate to order) Mrs. Bucharest Life wanted to go and have a look at the much talked about and much photographed Carturesti Carusel bookshop on Strada Lipscani.

When it opened a few months ago it was very much the cat’s whiskers and generated hundreds, if not thousands of articles and blog posts – both inside and outside of Romania – heralding the place as the most amazing bookshop ever to open in Bucharest. This one is particularly hilarious:

“The Carousel of Light”, as it is known, thoroughly deserves it sobriquet: sunrays stream through the high windows and glass ceiling and fill the hollow middle of the building before bouncing off white pillars, balconies, walls and staircases. Four separate mezzanine levels encircle the hollow, rippling Gaudi-esque balcony railings on one side… (goes on for quite some time).

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Design-wise of course, although the language is over the top, they were absolutely right. The place is indeed a triumph, a loving and gorgeous renovation of a Lipscani building originally built in the 19th century, used for some time as a department store but neglected for decades. Inside and out the building looks terrific; there are books and gifts on three floors, an exhibition space and a bistro on the upper level. It’s hip, it’s trendy and it’s successful. It’s also what Lipscani needs and is indeed getting: shops. Strada Lipscani itself is now home to more shops than bars and restaurants, and the area’s mix is becoming more that of a regular high street. As we wrote a month or so ago Old Town suffered from too many pubs, bars and restaurants opening in too short a space of time, all thinking that the location alone would guarantee success. As the less successful ones close, it is shops which are increasingly taking their place. Lipscani was for centuries a commercial area, it is good to see it becoming one again.

Anyway, back to Carturesti Carusel, which is not all it’s cracked up to be. For if you put the design aspect to one side for a moment and focus solely on its merits as a bookshop, it comes up short. Way short. Look at the photos: the vast majority of the shop is just empty space. The actual number of books on sale is in fact rather modest; you will find a selection no bigger than that on offer in many other bookshops in Bucharest. We looked for two books we were interested in buying: Lucian Boia’s latest, and a children’s book our youngest wanted. They had neither. Mrs. Bucharest Life found a few books however, so it wasn’t a totally wasted trip. The shop is also a nice place to spend half an hour, we’re not disputing that.

Yet in our experience (which, when it comes to bookshops, is vast: it’s one area we can speak on with a decent amount of authority) great bookshops do not look like great bookshops. They are usually a total mess. Think of Foyles: it takes an hour to find what you are looking for, but find it you will. Any of the bookshops on the Charing Cross Road (there are still a few left) are the same: creaky floors, rickety staircases down to dusty basements, books all over the place and nary enough space to move. Even a bog-standard branch of Waterstones will have piles of books on the floor, the stairs and just about anywhere they can find a square-yard of space for them.

Indeed, in our opinion Carturesti’s other central Bucharest store on Magheru is far better than Carusel: it looks and feels a lot more like a proper bookshop. In fact, so does the one at the AFI Palace Cotroceni. Carusel looks lovely – we are happy to admit that, and fair play to them for allowing people to take photos: unique amongst all shops in Romania! – but as a bookstore we think it’s only average.