the commuter's eye

on ‘modernizing’ bucharest

Posted in cityscapes, likes and dislikes, romania is my country by martzipan on May 7, 2011

how to destroy (national) identity with a new bridge and two wider streets

about a month ago, thanks to my phd internship supervisor at the sorbonne, mrs. nativel, and my bright colleague, alexander, i’ve had the privilege to travel to netherlands for one of the richest study trips i’ve ever taken. what stroke me the most was the fact that the city centre of amsterdam – where impressive reconstruction and restoration works are currently undergoing – looks exactly as it did more than four hundred years ago. its beautiful city hall is now hidden by scaffoldings, the narrow facades of the old houses preserve their subtle alignment, while the dam square is yet packed with pretty much the same colorful crowd, as you can see below.

presently, my home city is undertaking an apparently similar construction frenzy. still, instead of preserving a beautiful heritage, the process goes in the opposite direction when compared to amsterdam. what was once ‘my city’ (or at least as i remember its streets and buildings) slowly vanishes – actually it crumbles under the merciless appetite for destruction of bulldozers. that is to make way for some architectural and urbanistic aberrations, which kill any perspective – the case of the so-called ‘unleveled passage’ at basarab –, or demolish an entire history – the widening of berzei and buzesti streets. judging by the contrasts that these two endeavors produce, it is hard for me to believe that this has anything to do with norberg-schulz’s genius loci (if there was one whatsoever).

the old houses and buildings that not so long ago populated (at least a part of) bucharest pertained to an inventory of physical and, most important, symbolical goods. one of their many purposes was to instill the sentiment of continuity and the conscience of belonging in urban, stylistic, cultural and ideological terms. there is no doubt that they were the result of an (external) influence, as the surname of the romanian capital at that time – ‘little paris’ – suggests it. still, these buildings and the program behind also played a significant role in the establishment of a (local) cultural identity, through the identification with a set of values that architects, builders and propriety owners openly embraced and promoted. ultimately, this process led to the edification of an autochthon style, relatively hybrid and paradoxically perceived as both national and cosmopolite. or, in terms of eric hobsbawm, to an “invented tradition”.

surely, it all started with some individual changes perceived as architectural innovations – which later led to some sort of ‘new fashion’ – that upper bourgeoisie and local aristocracy brought from the western countries. the meaning was probably first and foremost related to the significant changes that were undergoing, but should also be linked with a more subtle aim, which is the forging of the nation-state. in this respect, probably one of the best examples is to be found in the project of the royal palace (today the national museum of art). from a house with about 25 rooms, around 1830, that served as a ‘ceremonial palace’ (if one can call it that way) it turned into a real palace in less than a decade. however, the same dramatic changes occurred in less impressive buildings and the subsequent development of the city testifies about the same trend that eventually turned into a particular local or ‘nationalized’ style.

i believe that the aforementioned buildings construct through their ‘nationalized’ style an internal coherence within a (more or less empty or stylistically irregular, but not eclectic) space, which is modeled in accordance with an urbanistic program. in this case, the term ‘nationalized’ should be understood in a broader context, as derived from the discourse of ‘cultural nationalism’, as understood by john hutchinson: „for cultural nationalism, i suggest, is a response to the erosion of traditional identities and status orders by the modernization process as mediated through a reforming state”.

what it is even more striking is the fact that, as hutchinson emphasizes, the purpose of cultural nationalists is “rather the moral regeneration of the historic community, or, in other words, the re-creation of their distinctive national civilization”. if we consider the urbanistic program as a part of a broader ideology, i believe that we can distinguish in the ‘new’ or ‘modern’ style (that at least part of the house owners of the late 19th century bucharest embraced) the same integrative approach. on one hand, they sought to break with a static and rigid tradition and, on the other hand, they attempted to cope with the large-scale changes that the end of the 1880’s announced, by preserving “the sense of unique identity” and showing their (future) nation “as a progressive culture in active contact with other societies.”

even more remarkable is the fact that these buildings were somewhat equally owned by (some of) the secular intellectuals (as formulators of the ideology) and by the intelligentsia (who provided the state’s political organizers), which looked both towards the modern countries but also in their own yard in order to construct romania. but in our case, cultural nationalism hasn’t adopted “state-oriented strategies by which to institutionalize its ideals in the social order”, as they didn’t actually exist by that time (that happened only after, during the communist regime, when cultural nationalism turned into pure isolationist nationalism). it was rather the other way around, by articulating, in effect, something that was later called “the national interest”, which rose and materialized in the dawn of the next century.

in other words, to put it bluntly, these houses – recently sent to the oblivion – were also the ingenious and extremely subtle expression of the same ideology that “regenerated the national community” and, to some extent, shaped the modern nation-state. honestly, i don’t think that the inhabitants of amsterdam are more conservative than those who live in bucharest. on the contrary. in my humble opinion, this lack of stylistic cohesion and coherence which is more and more manifest in romanian’s capital translates, in effect, not only by a simple instrumental confusion or by a non-consensus in urban vision (if any). it brutally states and endorses the absence of a program, or at a higher level, of any ideology to draw from.


Posted in romania is my country, socioholicalishism by martzipan on April 28, 2011

kill the people,  save the monkeys

the media warmly cheered the capital’s zoo for acquiring two pairs of lemurs included in the lists of threatened or endangered species (and some meerkats, although they don’t count, as they aren’t actually on the verge of any soon extinction). it’s funny though how a nation that systematically shuts down hospitals one after another with an astonishing ease (the motivation is the lack of resources and the “acceleration of the process of reform” – whatever that means) endangering itself has no problem in sheltering lemurs.

don’t get me wrong, i’m a fan of “madagascar”, but i guess that even for king julien this is a bit waaaay to cynical 😀

coming back home (i)

Posted in customs, borders and other habits, peripeteia, romania is my country, trips by martzipan on April 25, 2011

andante – on the substantial identity

friday (very) morning, before easter. the 16th arrondissement is mostly asleep, except me and the vis-à-vis neighbor, whose window is constantly lit during night, although i’am unable to tell if he’s actually awake or not. i can never sleep when i have to travel long distances, whether it involves planes, trains, cars or any other more conventional transportation means, usually because i’m delaying until the last minute the packing of the entire small paraphernalia, such pens and ink pens, usb sticks, data transfers, notes and notebooks and other similar minuscule non-senses. as i’ve finished packing around 2 or 3 am, it doesn’t make to much sense to put myself in bed, unless i really wanna miss the plane that takes me back in my home country, in this case. so, instead of counting minutes, i prefer reading something and surfing the net.

the moment of departure arrives. while i’m getting dressed, i try to figure out a way to get downstairs my humongous suitcase. six floors, no elevator. the solution was to pull it down the stairs, literally, with me in front of it as a ‘counterweight’, one stair at the time. lifting it was out of the question as it weighted almost three quarters of my weight (27 kilos, to be more precise, as i found out at the airport). mr. picard, our friendly ‘gardien’ – who is generally awake very early a.m. – bickered something involving people, sleep, noise, etc. because it was a case of ‘force majeure’, i hope he eventually understood.

at 6 a.m., paris – or at least my neighborhood – is unexpectedly dormant. but not the buses, which runs with the precision of a swiss watch. half an hour later, i get to the porte maillot, and – thanks to the shuttle driver who was kind enough to stop – the other two guys heading to the same airport and i hoped in (i spare you of the tragic-comic details about the loading of that heavy bag).

although a state of the art vehicle, with a/c and all the comfort, as it was winding through the sloppy entrances and exits of the highway, it somehow reminded me of our old commuter buses and i’ve suddenly got the feeling that we were some high school kids going to a camp or something like that during the not-so-long-gone ‘golden era’. no matter how unbelievable this sounds, i don’t have a (decent) mp3 player to carry with me. therefore i eavesdropped to the exuberant and captivating conversation about construction materials that two folks were having few rows behind until i fell asleep. instead of beauvais, i woke up in beaumont, but it turned out that our bus made a small detour to get some fuel.

eventually, we’ve got to the airport, where it was all fun and games, until i’ve realized two things: one, that i have no lighter, and second, that i don’t have enough change to buy a decent drink (i.e. cola).

meanwhile, i checked in my luggage and got a sparkling yellowish no-name thing to drink for my sole one euro coin. luckily, in front of the airport, there were enough people smoking so i manage to light my cigarette. funny thing, though, as the only planes taking off were heading towards bucharest and the place was crowded with romanian folks, when asking them for a lighter they were all constantly replying me in french. and so did the funky-blingalicious bunch of minority co-nationals when, at his turn, one of them, with a ginormous pair of sunglasses (although it was heavily overcast), has approached me for the same issue. i told the guy in plain-vanilla romanian that i don’t have any lighter or matches, but i can gladly borrow him my cigarette. he understood me perfectly and said thanks in french, scrutinizing me from head to toes. he turned back to the other folks, said something in romani, then turned to me and this time asked me in romanian where was i from. i answered him: bucharest. ‘where from, more exactly?’ ‘north train station (gara de nord)’ they’ve all laughed – ‘hear this (in romanian), “gare de nord” (in french)’. at this moment, another happy fellow asks me if, per chance, i’m not interested in buying a ‘highly performant’ video-camera (actually stolen), for which he’s ready to cut me a great deal. yeah, right! ‘sorry folks, i spent my last euro on this yellow-sparkling thing to drink. but who knows, maybe next time’. the sunglasses measured me again – head to toes – and threw out the verdict: ‘give the kid a break, bro, he’s one of ours’. and they left, as i was exhaling my last smoke and putting out my cigarette.

p.s.: the plane flew smoothly all the way to bucharest or i slept so deep that i didn’t feel any bumps (which is hardly unlikely, judging by the slick way we landed, three hours later). it followed the ordeal of custom check – one foreign kid in front of me was detained because he had no visa, after the border officers spent more than fifteen minutes carefully examining his documents with a philatelic magnifying glass and other state-of-the-art technology, such as an uv lighter and their fingers (which obstinately scrubbed every page of the passport). finally my luggage arrives (with no damage at all), i grab it and i hurry to the exit. i’m home. my ‘home’ home.