The web page of the Albion Beatnik Bookstore in Oxford, now closed (as usual) for business: muses and misspills on books, jazz, poetry, stuff like false flags and smoke screen: was randomly decrepit and proven to be more than neo-bankrupt: it was so analogue it was anal and now deceased.
Not only has Romania moved tectonically since my childhood days (it never used to be next to the Ukraine in my school atlas), its spelling has changed: we used to spell it with a U but now with an O (am flommuxed). As I grew up, I knew it for Dinu Lipatti, the elegant Radu Lupu, Ilie Nastasie’s tomfoolery and the unfurling Nadia Comăneci. It was nasty with communism (so I was taught) and therefore flooded with concrete (so I presumed). Now when I go there I see it as lovely and varied brickwork from the ground and as a coloured patchwork from the sky (especially if you land at Cluj), an agricultural landscape still with a fabulous and feudal aspect and deep pockets of yellow cornmeal – the Romanian diet is polenta. And palincă it seems, melons the size of Goliath’s testicles, cheese like the stuff glaziers use to tighten window frames (and so much nicer than the pasteurized plastic in our Tesco). It had a leader, last but one, who was more honourable than not, it has poetry that excites, bookshops that flourish, and buildings that hang a thousand different types of door and window frame. Romania is beautiful.
E-numbers were absent in Romanian table fare before the overthrow of Ceaușescu and there was no fast food. Today food preservative litters their streets like voting slips in a polling booth: KFC and McDonald are the democrat’s culinary gendarmerie, an antidote to dictatorship. I recall JFK’s misquoted words after the Berlin Wall had been erected, when he sided with democracy against Communism: “Ich bin ein Burgerkinger.”
My recent trip to Bucharest started with an epiphany. A levels, two foreign languages (also one moribund), a university degree, over thirty years negotiation of mortgages, shop leases and Tax Office forms, the sidestepping of both Oxford’s hippy community and its starched High Table crinoline antidote for the past decade; that I can tie my own shoelace or walk without falling over, spell kedgeree (though not eat it), forgive my mother for not washing my car when I park it outside her house; that I can eat twelve packets of crisps in one sitting (any flavour) or recite Shakespeare with gusto or the entire script of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid when drunk. These accolades count for nothing when faced with left or right on the M1, finding the entrance to the multi-story car park at fucking Luton airport, going down a lift when up will do, not losing my passport (trying to look calm, in a queue, is in my hand all along), playing pedestrian skittles with ‘other’ people dressed like ants beewaxed by Rentokil and Wizzair. Pret a Manger’s vegan bap (“lovingly handmade” in its kitchen, my arse) with its slurry trained to catapult to my pristine (apart from the paint splosh, the biro marks and the engine oil) white t-shirt, does just that. The helter skelter that is anything beyond 1935, my end of time date.
My airport venture has me alarmed that the avocado, once etched on the side of every food delivery van, a logo of health, radiance and integrity, has been replaced in the public imagination by kale. Everywhere I go I see kale offered (but as a vegetable of easy virtue). Faff. Kale tastes like the aisle rug of an easyJet plane and services malnutrition, malevolence and cheap air fare; its leaf, curled like Fagin’s forefinger, is nasty, brutish and short, bitter as well, grown in places like Scotland, dank and dismal (am sure it’s now cultivated in the bilgewater of cargo ships or the sewerage hold of passenger planes, all 240 passengers on my flight to Bucharest pissed at least once each upon Wizzair’s current crop). The avocado is exotic and curvaceous, its guacamole derivative like nutritional sex, rampant with fats, vitamins, all else, its pip the largest known to the English greengrocer. We’ve seen it all before. The NHS starts as a state funded democratic sanatorium of intent, ends up selling convalescent beds as though beach huts; the Edwardian firstborn were sent to minor public schools, now the well-heeled London Diaspora to the grammar schooled Home Counties (private tuition to master the 11+ exam is cheaper than fees to Winchester); the ’60s craze for rabbit food (or muesli) defaults to supermarket own brand corn flake. The middle class are a despicable lot, treacherous, its aspiration diluted always by the care of its financial footprint, its moral responsibility bent by cash.
Romania is almost devoid of marketing nous. All billboards are identical. In a land where, attractively, the caretaker’s niece designs the company logo (so long as she can find her felt tip pens) and most of its advertising copy is shaped by a fluorescent version of photoshop, it’s impossible to say from its outside if a restaurant serves E-numbered bilge or organic food, there’s so little nuance or finesse. Is quite surprising then that this vagrant busker knows his marketing segment from his USP: if pedalling pentatonic piffle, place a pigeon on your pate. As if to prove the point about marketing nous, here is a shop frontage from a main thoroughfare in Bucharest. An English publican graduate of this direct marketing school might come up with:
Get Pissed Here
I visited Cantacuzino Palace, the George Enescu Museum, with its art nouveau entrance. In fact Enescu lived for a year only in the small house behind the palace with his wife, Maruca; the staid museum notes give no hint of their half-century turbulent and unfaithful love story. Enescu, a contemporary of Bartok and Vaughan Williams – though his use of his nation’s folk music was different – was an awe inspiring musician. He had encyclopedic memory, was a feted violinist (Menuhin, who worshiped Enescu, was one of his star pupils), pianist, conductor and a vibrant composer, so proudly Romanian. The museum’s staff were like pouting pythons looking to strangle all touristic pleasure, but I have abiding memories – his manuscripts with their delicate, pointillist notation, the collection of sketches (and casts) of his hands (the musician’s temporal soul), his death mask, his various pianos, above all else, the spirit of carefree simplicity and beauty, captured so well in this recording of Handel from 1929.
I’ve been to Bucharest several times before, but this was my first visit to Dinu Lipatti’s childhood house: pilgrimage. Lipatti was my teenage idol, a pianist who died at the tragically early age of 33. Today we are left with fragments of his life, musical snapshots in time with only dots to be joined together by our imagination. Perhaps even now, other than to the cognoscenti, Lipatti is not as well known in his own country as he ought to be. He moved early to Paris, returned to Romania but exiled himself from Communism in 1946, when settled in Switzerland. He died in Switzerland in 1950. His exile made him a doubtful figure to the state, where his brother, Valentin, remarkably, was a prominent member of the Romanian secret police. So no plaque, the desecration of a huge advertising hoarding in the front garden, and under threat of demolition (to which, thankfully, there has been local resistance). When Lipatti was near his death in Switzerland, his mother had great difficulty escaping Romania to visit her dying son; the border guards even confiscated her jewellery, which she had taken to support herself abroad, as Lipatti was unable to support her financially. I was not surprised to read that when Enescu (Lipatti’s godfather and early musical mentor) died in Paris, Romanian diplomats made attempts to have his body flown back to Romania; his wife battled them and Enescu was buried in Paris.
Carturesti, a national bookshop chain with five stores in Bucharest. Grandiose and, of necessity (to feed its borrowings, the classic retail scenario), ambitious. Its origins are in the confusing early post-Communist concussion, importing humdrum luxury: tea, chocolate (both still bohemian in aspect here and, unlike wine or art, affordable at their luxurious best), also books. Verona, its flagship store, is photographed below: twenty rooms plus, a mazed and spacious cornucopia of retail heaven. The breathless ergonomic detail makes sense of its merchandise, which is displayed at times haphazardly but always creatively; its architectural playground – staircase, mezzanine, joists interrupting your procession, vaulted ceiling, cutaway and cellar – teases you with its flow and digression. There is no created space like this in England that I know of, and very few shops that can equal its ethos: M&S a hatchet job, Boswells in Oxford a fallen angel, perhaps only John Lewis and the LRB Bookshop have brands strong enough to convince you that their stock choice is best and always appropriate. Carturesti is holistic, sells as a side dish (or main course?) a welter of book-related product: food (you are likely to find ‘Catcher In The Rye’ alongside Portuguese sardines – “coz of its arty packaging” is what I was told, withdrawn because they didn’t sell a single can!), wine (in its own crafted cellar), stationery, teapots galore (never seen so many naff ones in one space), CDs and vinyl, even clothing since I visited last; it has space dedicated to loose leaf tea, has two tearooms, a huge restaurant in its expansive and shaded garden (the accidental result of buying the freehold of one of the two former domestic properties it occupies) which does vegan real well, surprising given the carnivorous environment here, though today my guess is it has flown in the pasta from Verona, taken the long haul route and is further delayed at customs, goodness, how many hours can a hungry man wait for his kale!? It has its own publishing arm – Alain de Botton, William Dalrymple, Naomi Klein in its stable – organizes events (500+ each year in 21 stores), art shows, it dabbles seriously in what it can. Carturesti offers a remarkable one-stop cultural destination, a cavalier adventure you don’t see in roundhead England. At the same time, as a business it is frail and exposed, open to all commercial hostility. The whimsy of its two principal owners is still at the helm, but now, it seems, supported by a serious team effort of computer-fed polishing – I wonder at the sheen its jewel must have radiated without clipboards! Its alternative, the more bookish Carousel flagship store, also in Bucharest, is majestic also: clean architectural lines with a warren of stairwell, as stately and exhilarating as an ocean liner.
If you go to a supermarket, the vegetables are scarce and scabby. But raw food in Romania is wonderful, and its vegetables, fruit, meat and cheese are best bought at one of the many markets.
Bucharest is obsessed by Health & Safety: