Floating around on FaceBook this morning in my usual quest for news of friends, trying not to miss a thing (!!), I found a message on my wall from my friend, Mihaela. It was the most wonderful message, for it jolted me from a reverie of complacency and frustration that has invaded me these last few days. She invited me to read an extract from the sublime book Parfumeria by Silvia Kerim. I knew it of course, having read it whilst living in Bucharest. It became almost like a magical map of exploration and adventure for me. I carried it round all over the place for months, highlighting places on my bookmap of Bucharest that I couldn't possibly leave without visiting, paying tribute to the streets I could find (for names have changed) that had once housed family mansions of elegance, opulence, taste and love destroyed by the madness and megalomania of Ceausescu and mourning in front of the homes today going to wreck and ruin.
(Photo left: Silvia Kerim) Finding it again today has swelled my heart to the extent that I am rushing to share it with you, too. Impossible, after all, to keep it to myself - this beautiful extract, this witnessing of such tragedy, such heartlessness, such a scar on history - the history of individuals and that of bricks and mortar. The history of patrimony and heritage, of beauty and soul.
Please make yourself a cup of something and then settle down to read the following embrace from Parfumeria by Silvia Kerim, magnificently translated into English by the English-born editor, poet and translator of Romanian literature, Brenda Walker:
Among those who refused to be evacuated and paid dearly for this rebellion – and the list is long and tragic – was the case of Mrs. Malide.
The Malide house was across the street from the District’s Town Hall, at the top of Parfumului Street on the corner of the Labirint Street.
For the children who had lived there over the decades, the Malide house was a pleasure to see from morning till night.
It was an imposing house, probably built towards the end of the 19th century. It was white, with two windows facing the part of the street that was Labirint, while the others faced a large courtyard. The entrance to the house was like a theatre set. The front door was of wrought iron, and in place of the usual glass, it had glazed crystal on which were engraved the initials of the Malide House, in letters of transparent crystal. As you entered, you walked up two steps that were slightly blocked in summer by two small palms, set attractively in wooden tubs.
The courtyard, paved with reddish right-angled stones, was always swept “clean as a new pin”. It also had a small fountain – as large as two wheels of a carriage – from which a small spring of clean water gushed upwards.
We children especially admired the fountain – we didn’t have a fountain in the yard, only an outside tap, which in winter, when it was frosty, was left to flow continuously, so that the water wouldn’t turn to ice. Also we peered at the guests dressed as for an outing to the operetta theatre, The Alhambra, where our parents sometimes took us in order to see the very famous tenor, Ion Dacian, singing in “The Bird Seller” and “The Merry Widow”. I mean they were very elegant. In summer time the ladies wore hats with wide brims that matched their silk dresses and which went very well with the silver fox stoles that hung like luxury trophies across their white shoulders. In winter, the guests of the Malide house arrived in small black cars. The women were wrapped in fur coats with toques to match. They wore zipped black rubber boots with high heels under which they wore fine shoes made of “soft kid leather”. The men flaunted their black winter overcoats with high collars made from expensive fur, and they had hats made of the same fur, usually sable, and they had white silk scarves that fluttered around them like frightened doves as they alighted from the car. The guests entered the hall carefully wiping their feet, protected by warm black galoshes.
These guests who were so “very posh” in the eyes of the children, were actually the parents and friends of the Malide family. We knew them to be very fine people (impoverished aristocrats or middle-class people who had studied abroad). Perhaps all these details were simple words recorded in neighbours’ gossip, but to us children their life witnessed by those outside it, the house, the courtyard with its fountain, and the pavilion for drinking afternoon coffee and taking sherbet, meant a perpetual point of attraction to which we propelled ourselves on either a tricycle or a sledge, in summer and in winter.
Of course, after the “final victory of Socialism over Capitalism”, the Malide house – and the life inside it – also suffered spectacular changes.
Repairs to the façade of the house were long overdue. The courtyard – once swept all day long, was widowed of many stones from its paving, broken up by the passing of time, by rain and frost, then never replaced. Due to lack of money of course. The fountain had lost its glory, for there was no water, and the pavilion for drinking coffee deteriorated and became a wood store. The entrance to the house also lots its glory. The Belgium crystal from the entrance door probably broke and so was replaced by cardboard (to keep out the cold and the dust), the ornamental palm trees probably dried up, for they disappeared, together with their wooden tubs. The drain-pipes from the corner of the house were stolen so that the rain and the sleet beat directly from the roof onto those walls, making the façade green, and over the years, those wet old bricks became very efficient blotting paper.
On the Malide property, the only living thing that thrived as prosperously as ever, was the ivy on the wrought iron fence, which had also developed gaps and had aged at an angle.
In the summer of 1987, the demolishers, according to the well-known strategy attacked the Malide house.
First of all the roof was ripped off, then the fence was reduced to nothing. The electricity was cut and the water turned off.
…In the last years the old lady, Mrs. Malide was paralyzed and could move only in a wheel chair. As for speaking – she spoke. In fact she refused to be moved. She wanted to die in her own home.
One Sunday, in front of her whole family, under an unconcerned and merry sun, not far from the ‘Home’ in Labirint Street (transformed a few days earlier into a mound of rubble), Mrs. Malide, who as always was in her wheelchair, was forced to leave her bedroom and go into the courtyard.
It was past eleven o’clock and the people had gathered before the District’s Town Hall, that was on the other side of the street to the Malide house, in order to watch in fear, this ritual which, in a short time, was to become all too familiar.
In front of the house, two trucks were parked covered with canvas. The furniture of the Malide family – as much as was possible – was crowded under this ash-grey canvas.
Meanwhile, Comrades from ICRAL ‘evacuated’ Mrs. Malide into the street under the powerful sun where she found herself near the trucks.
She sat with her head sunk onto her chest, still in the wheelchair. She was dressed in a grey dress with a white collar. Over her knees she had a thin crocheted blanket. We knew that she was rather old, but it appeared as if in the meanwhile she had aged terribly, bent, shrivelled up by the abnormal heat.
After a moment of silence, two of the ‘boys’ – a nickname for the civilian security men – dressed in ‘plain clothes’, went over to her. One of them stooped and whispered something in her ear. The old lady did not react. After another moment of silence, both the ‘boys’ dressed in beige summer suits grabbed the wheel chair, one to the left and one to the right and threw it into the back of the truck.
They did so with Mrs. Malide still in it.
Then the two trucks dashed away, carrying off the furniture of the Malide family, together with her destiny – well, as much as was left of it.
…I heard that two weeks after she had been thrown into the truck like a broken gas cooker, Mrs. Malide had died of a ‘broken heart’.
* * *
In my daily trek, I avoid passing what is left of the street still called Labirint. I avoid this because here inside the area of a few hundred metres in the summer of 1987, three old women died.
The first – not in the order of death, but in the order of the houses – was Mrs. Malide.
The second was the old owner of a yellow two-storied house with a longish balcony, a ‘bourgeois’ house which had escaped being nationalized as if by magic. The house had about sixteen rooms that harboured a large family of the old owner. There were also two large pedigree dogs in the narrow courtyard towards the façade, but it was spacious and made attractive by three or four trees at the back of the house. The dogs were very friendly for they never barked at me. I would scratch them lightly behind their ears and whisper calming words to them as they stared directly into my eyes.
The old lady who owned the house became paralyzed when she was told that all of them would be evacuated as the house was going to be demolished. She died within two days – in her own home, never living to see all the houses crashing down around her.
The family who lived in the other sixteen rooms were separated, some here – some there, hopefully taking the dogs with them.
For a time, the house waited obediently for the moment when it too would disappear, but the Revolution came about – and so it escaped, as did other houses from Labirint Street and from Parfumului Street, when December ’89 snowed upon them. My ‘Parfumeria’ is part of this group of lucky houses.
The house with sixteen rooms is still the same, still painted in yellow and ochre as it was at the time the old lady lived there, except that in recent times, on the façade, there is a right-angled brass plate of a firm, on which there are all kinds of consonants with dots among them. However there is no trace of a pedigree dog. In exchange, we have a pack of friendly mongrels who bring life to the deserted places, or to the cemented-over courtyards, with small blades of green grass and sickly trees. Most of these more or less prosperous buildings have now become business premises.
Towards the end of the eighties, especially in the terrifying summer of ’87, the houses in the ‘area’ were condemned to death. The old owners or respective tenants had already started to be evacuated – especially from the houses that were large and beautiful. These had been nationalised in the fifties, so some of them belonged to the state, others to their rightful owners. Anyway, nobody bought them and nobody wanted to buy them as long as their destinies were well-known. So the State installed the ‘workers’ in these mansions which belonged to rich merchants. Houses with ‘Meissen’ stoves, with crystal wall dividers, with hand-painted doors and interior gardens – small, green spaces lit from roofs of thick transparent green glass. Houses with oak ceilings, with interior staircases beautifully spiralled, with glossy treads that descended from the bedrooms to the ballroom or to the huge dining-room. Such houses – which in Paris or in any other European metropolis would have been preserved and restored with holy reverence – these jewels of Romanian or non-Romanian architecture were vandalised by gipsy and non-gipsy people alike, because they had been deserted by their owners, who meanwhile had left the country or died in prisons as ‘enemies of the Communist regime’. In those half-ruined houses, many workers were obliged to live. They were supposed to rebuild the demolished area, poor men torn from their families, from their wives and children, from provincial towns, from their modest homes, but which at least were theirs. They were forced to survive, summer and winter, in houses which used to be comfortable, but had become ruins, survive in temporary unhealthy ‘harbours’, with defective or destroyed electrical installations, and with just a trickle of water from the improvised pipes in the large courtyard invaded by weeds. Unused because of the shortage of firewood, the ‘Meissen’ stoves also took on a look of decay. The houses had started to crack like bad teeth, the stove doors, expensive doors, doors that were gilded with nickel, with small square windows of mica plates – were you could see the fire burning or the dying embers – were torn out and thrown onto rubbish or scrap metal tips. The oak floors were chopped up with axes, used for a ‘camp fire’ made by the workers in the middle of the room. For this way they could cook cheap sausages and home-made smoked pork rind, especially in the freezing evenings. The interior doors, together with their paintings suffered the same fate as the precious wooden floors… They were torn out, made into wood chips and burnt, one after another in the middle of the once luxurious house.
After the Revolution, during 1990, I filmed all this with a team from the Romanian Television. The images spoke for themselves and were accompanied by an on-the-spot-commentary by Răzvan Theodorescu, who at that time was General Director of the Romanian Television. This broadcast helped to more or less save a few of the houses. People with ideas and money, who at the beginning, perhaps had only ideas and good will, having seen the houses ‘done for’, took over these ruins, renting them out or even buying them up. They have done repairs and now to the joy of my eyes the houses look – well almost all of them – just as they were in their time of glory. Except that then they were ‘dwelling places’. Now they are offices. Therefore, on Saturday and Sunday, these houses, apparently prosperous, have a strange feel about them. They are deserted. The only beings who breathe in the neighbourhood are the firms’ hired watchmen and the many dogs who have set themselves up around the walls and fences as efficient, diligent and voluntary guards.
(Photo: Mihaela Mihaila) One cold February morning of 1990, I filmed in one of these buildings on Romulus Street, Number 55, near the house where Ionel Teodoreanu* (see below text) lived. Built in 1892, the house was a pathetic ruin. That winter, a poor man from Târgu Jiu – a rather small Romanian town where the famous Romanian sculptor Brâcuşi was born – had found shelter there. He was an electrician who had come to Bucharest to find work. The man had a wife, a little girl and a cockerel. The cockerel was tied by a leg with a string and hooked to the fold of the high, wide door that was still hand-painted in pastel colours. The painting showed pink angels hanging on a blue, but faded sky…
I had started to love this houses from the moment its noble face was marked by the first signs of violence. It happened in 1987, a short time after it was known that the whole district had been condemned.
First, the glass of the windows was broken with bits of brick or stones. After a time, the same vandals, most of them gypsies, tore away the gate, which they discovered was too heavy to steal, so they just left it lying on the ground. Then their children made a martyr of the cherry tree, a tall and young tree that was at the back of the large courtyard. All because of some small cherries, still green and sour, which, one cold spring day during a game, were torn from almost every branch or this cherry tree before my helpless eyes. Only the trunk was left and the children ran off screaming victoriously, waving their freshly broken branches like the bloody flags of a victorious battle.
Under the uncaring and tired looks of the passers-by and within earshot, all the ‘Meissen’ stoves were broken up with axes, just like the oak parquet. Part of this activity still went on into the winter of 89-90 after the Revolution! The window in the roof was broken, probably from above, so that the rain and snow fell inside the house, and the tall and wide doors painted with rosy angels were all burned – right there in the centre of the house.
…I know all this because each day, against the advice of my friends, I would go over to the devastated houses.
With the strange instinct which some musically gifted people have, the gypsies from the area (who hated this house more than all the other houses put together, I don’t know why), felt that I was an ally of the deserted ruin.
For a punishment, one day they attacked me by throwing shards of glass from the opposite pavement. Glass which had already been scattered all over the ground. These shards passed within a few centimetres of my temple. I never told anybody about it, not even my friends or my brother, knowing very well that my affection for the deserted house, suffering martyrdom – had something unhealthy about it. And that at the same time, it was very dangerous. The gypsies attacked the house every day in one way or another. They never seemed to have satiated their desire to torture it and I passed there every day in order to ‘inspect’ the result of the attack that was so visible on its noble face and its interior.
Now after so many years, I think that I understand why I did it.
In my eyes, some people from the district represented the aggressive, cynical, violent, ignorant and remorseless force which attacked the essence of all that was good, beautiful and traditional. In my heart, it was symbolised at a ‘local’ level by some old and helpless heritage houses. By visiting the scene at Number 55, Romulus Street each day, I was performing a secret ritual. It was the only way – naïve, of course, and with no risk – of coming face to face with blind evil aggression. It was as if I had wanted the house to know that I cared about it, and that in this way I was trying to help it endure.
Now that the house has an owner (or maybe a tenant?) – a very large, nice Texan from Dallas – the territory of J.R. – I find that my attitude towards the house has changed. I still love it very much, but now I haunt it only in my thoughts. I don’t whisper to it and I no longer cross myself as I go past – because it has been saved by God, who sent it a careful landlord.
Only the cherry tree still greets me. Cherry trees never forget you when you defend them. It is tall and proud, with its branches re-grown. The American boasted that he picked his own cherries, which are big and red and sweet – ‘the like you’ll never find in the States’. Once he gave me a handful (we know each other, for somebody told him how I filmed the house when it was derelict, and how in the past, I inspected it daily). Yes, the cherries are wonderful, except that the cherry tree is not his. It is mine.
Recently, the cherry tree has dried up, and because of this it was cut down and now it lies in a well-behaved pile near a rusted drain pipe. I wonder when it will become firewood or else be thrown away as garbage.
…The third violent death also happened in Labirint Street, soon after the Malide house was demolished. It happened in a modest house erected between the District’s Town Hall and a splendid white L-shaped building that still dominates the corner between Romulus Street and Labirint Street. This L-shaped house still suffers today. It is a heritage house, ornamented with wonderful mascheroni and taken over after the Revolution by the administration of some kind of church, some institution that did not love or protect the house, indeed quite the contrary. They treated it badly, partly modifying its structure, leaving it prey to the wind and the rain, summer and winter, without drain-pipes and with broken windows. The ‘clercks’ – the tenants – killed the courtyard, once filled with flowers which grew at the foot of the walls. Wild roses, that climbed over the entrance columns giving the house a kind of leafy diadem, fragrant and tremulous. The new ‘tenants’ violently axed the only tree in the courtyard, a huge one with a trunk you could not get your arms around. These so-called ‘Seventh Day Adventists’ have covered everywhere with thick cement in an attempt to stop the appearance of a single blade of grass.
Sitting between the City Hall and the L-shaped building was a long coach-like house where rooms adjoin other rooms one after another. At that time, this particular house had a rich garden, shadowed by apricot and sour cherry trees. The house – also derelict, unheated for ages and having damp walls – was condemned to death like all the rest, like all the other houses and gardens on Labirint Street. Yet, nevertheless, willy-nilly, it was a home for some modest families and an old woman, forgotten by God and by her relatives, almost bent double and very, very poor. She lived on almost nothing. She sewed a little or else swept the large yard and pavement in front of the house, for just a few coins.
One day, a young woman came, a comrade from I.C.R.A.L. – a kind of tomboy with short, oily and dirty hair, dressed in a washed-out blouse with red and green squares on it, wearing cotton slacks, man-like and tied at the waist with a thick paint-stained rope. She was unwashed and had metal fillings in her teeth and gold earrings – a comrade of the new type, for whom these houses represented nothing more than a load of old rubbish from the past, some miserable ‘wreck of a house’ deserving to be despised – her ideal being of course, the grey apartment blocks and ‘life in a block’. She barged in on the old woman and screamed out so that the neighbours all around could hear:
“Listen here, you silly old cow. Pack up your rubbish because next Sunday we are coming to evacuate you! The demolition’s starting! That’ll be the end of your wreck!”
…That was on a Thursday. On the Sunday, at ten in the morning, when the trucks came to evacuate the people, the old woman did not appear with her belongings – few as they were. After a while, the neighbours started to knock at her door. No answer. Then two men forced down the door and barged in.
There in her room, the old lady was waiting obediently for the arrival of the trucks, with the Singer sewing machine and the Butane gas cylinder – her only ‘wealth’. She had collected all her belongings.
But she had died. Probably from a broken heart.
* * *
All these unexpected deaths, that happened not only in this part of the City, but also on the other side of the river Dâmboviţa, at the Court of Justice, in the Uranus district, on Cazărmii Street, on Apolodor Street – or near the old Operetta Theatre – all these terrible deaths – failed to awake us from our paralysis provoked by Fear. Neither did the explosions open our mouths, explosions which tore apart the spring nights, throwing the churches of the City towards the sky. We didn’t protest, we didn’t scream, didn’t howl, didn’t go out into the streets. We kept quiet, myself and others, at night listening in secret to Radio Free Europe, the only form of revolt left to the majority. We were silent, I and the others, hoping that Ceauşescu would die in pain or would be assassinated. Hoping that in one way or another, ‘She’ would also die at the same time. We never uttered a word, even when the workers in Braşov revolted in November 1987. Nor – ten years earlier – when the miners from Valea Jiului rebelled. We never uttered a word... We pretended that they had nothing to do with us... And when the destruction of so many Romanian villages started, we did not scream out to make the sky hear.
We knew only how to cry and pray. Some of us tried to ‘run away’. Others, who could no longer stand the terror, jumped from the rooftops of their own houses when they were attacked by the demolition team. While some jumped from the ninth floor of their block of flats that were about to be demolished. Some took the road to the Bălăceanca Asylum, or were carried off to Hospital Number 9 for Psychiatric patients. And others – very few – hung on to hope. And others – fewer still – risked, protested, and rotted away in dark and chilly prisons. We, well most of us, wrapped up our despair in the ash-grey shroud of silence, while imploring for a belated miracle.
*Romanian Writer (1897-1954)
The tragedy, the despair, the indifference of others.... and yet as long as there are some who care, then the battle can never be over.
My thanks to Mihaela for sending me this wonderful extract and immersing me once again, taking me back to the country of my heart where, despite rage at injustice, fury at such cruelty and inhumanity, beauty still remains - that God-made beauty, I mean, that gives me hope and a warmth that radiates across my chest and down to my toes I think will be with me always.