travelers-tales

by Taylor Jennings

Eighteenth Annual Solas Awards Silver Winner in the Destination category

Dracula’s castle. I could just see it perched on the top of the hill. Not an ominous silhouette for a sunny day in Transylvania, where it’s known as Castle Bran, the reputed home of Vlad the Impaler, the inspiration for Bram Stocker’s classic tale.  Here I was at the beginning of the 21st Century to investigate a plan by Romania’s Ministry of Tourismto transform the medieval castle into a million-dollar Dracula theme park.

It was an irresistible story for the foreign press, including me, but Ruxandra, my Romanian friend and colleague, said it wasn’t popular with locals and has yet to be built despite repeated attempts. Ruxandra and I met in 1989 when, as fellow journalists, we covered the sensational days of a bloody revolution that ended with the televised execution of one of Europe’s most brutal dictators. Thirteen years later, I was preparing to write about a Dracula theme park.

We had arrived in the town of Brasov at the base of the Castle in Ruxandra’s battered Dacia and begun the climb to the castle when suddenly I stumbled and fell. “It doesn’t appear to be broken,” she said, manipulating my ankle without causing me to wince. Helping me up she said that if I could walk, we should go back. “You must come and stay with us at Casa Rossetti and not that awful hotel”.

I started to protest but she waved me off saying that we could return to Castle Bran when my ankle was better. I hesitated only briefly as the pain was getting worse and I had no objection to staying several days in the house named after my favorite romantic poet.  It turned out to be a lucky accident because, although I didn’t see the castle that day, I did learn the dark secret about the part of Bucharest, known as Little Paris

After a brief stop at my hotel, we wound our way across an ominous landscape with no street lighting and no sign of life apart from feral dogs.  Suddenly a vast empty lot loomed before us, paved in concrete and lit by powerful stadium lights as if for a nighttime game.

“This used to be the beating heart of Little Paris,” Ruxandra said peering over the steering wheel as we left the stadium illumination and returned to semi darkness.  She explained that old Bucharest, the area around its long, main street, the Calea Victoriei, was known as Little Paris because all things French dominated life between the wars. Visitors commented that the architecture reminded them of Paris, while the lingua franca of the bourgeoisie was French, which many spoke better than Romanian. English has altered that, but I found that the older generation loved to speak French with me.

“Beautiful villas once lined these streets, streets with ancient names like Besarabia, Romulus, Labirint,” said Ruxandra. She explained that the once elegant quarter was destroyed in the early 1980s to make way for Stalinist high-rise apartment buildings for government officials and visiting Soviet dignitaries.  After a brief period of relaxation, following the devastating earthquake of 1977, Ceausescu used the disaster as an excuse to demolish entire neighborhoods and build his gigantic Casa Poporului (the People’s House), designed along the lines of what he had admired in North Korea.

Plunging back into darkness, I could just make out a few empty mansions that had escaped this fate, many with Ionic columns, fanciful balustrades and ornate grillwork, standing forlornly on vacant lots.

“Most are now inhabited by Roma.” Ruxandra said, reading my thoughts. “No electricity, no running water, not even a roof over their heads. They make fires in the courtyards like the one we just passed to burn furniture and parquet floorboards and of course, to cook.”

We stopped in front of a rusty, iron gate and I looked out at the crumbling façade of a once beautiful turn-of-the-century building with an overgrown garden of weeds.  Ruxandra jumped out to give me her arm, looking furtively up and down in what I imagined was a reflex from the bad old days.

A tall man with wild, frizzy hair stood at the top of the steps.  It was Florian, her husband, silhouetted against a dimly lit hallway. “You are late,” he said as he embraced his wife, “I was beginning to worry.”

Ruxandra introduced us, recounting my accident as he raised my hand to his lips in the old Central European manner. “Entrez, entrez. Welcome to Casa Rossetti.”

I limped up the steps into a book-lined room where colorful throws and elaborate, fringed shawls barely disguised threadbare sofas and chairs that had seen better days.  Heavy drapes were drawn across the windows and a fine fragment of lace was carelessly tossed over a torn lampshade. The Eastern European half-watt lighting created a warm, inviting ambiance.

Ruxandra rushed into the kitchen to boil up a poultice of local herbs in which she soaked an old handkerchief to wrap around my ankle.  Florian propped my foot on a leather ottoman under the dining table from where we didn’t move for the next several hours while they told me the story of Casa Rossetti.

When I commented on how lovely their home appeared to me after what Ruxandra had related, Florian gave a wry smile. “We decided that the trick would be to allow the exterior of Casa Rossetti to deteriorate so as not to attract the notice of envious neighbors or the Securitate, all the while improving the interior. Since I had been removed from my job at the university, it gave me something to do,”

“Does that mean there are other homes like Casa Rossetti here in Bucharest, also hidden behind closed doors?” I asked.

“Possibly, but who knows?”  Ruxandra answered. “You see, we don’t have many friends anymore and lost the habit of inviting anyone to our home.  For all those years no one trusted anyone, and no one wanted others to see how they lived and perhaps become envious and denounce them.”

“I carried bags of debris across the city in the dead of night so the neighbors wouldn’t get suspicious,” said Florian.  “We thought we had succeeded.”  A look flashed between them.

Then one unforgettable day Ruxandra received a notice in the mail announcing that her family’s two-story villa was scheduled for demolition in 1989.

“First, they send you an official notice of the scheduled demolition and if you fail to vacate, they cut off your water and electricity.” Ruxandra drew hard on her cigarette.  “If this didn’t force you out, a huge claw-like crane would appear one day, without warning, to tear down the front gate and rip off the roof, baring the house to the elements.  If it was summer perhaps you could camp out for a few months but in winter, with snow and sub-zero temperatures, it was impossible”.

“Remember old Septimiu?”  She turned to her husband who nodded slowly without looking up.  “He refused to leave his home,” he said, turning to me. “They found him in his bed, frozen to death.”

I listened in stunned silence while Ruxandra talked and Florian stared at his empty plate.

“Some people only got a 24-hour warning, others a couple of months, as in our case, which gave us time to agonize and imagine what the future would be like in the collective Stalinist tenement we would be assigned to somewhere in the suburbs”. With a shaky hand she paused to light another cigarette.

“Casa Rossetti was scheduled for demolition in December 1989.”  Florian said with a huge sigh. looking up at the ceiling.

I was incredulous. “You mean it was saved by the Revolution?”

“At the eleventh hour.” Florian and Ruxandra beamed at each other, and she jumped up from the table.

“Come. We’d like to show you the work we did during those terrible days.”

By then we had drunk more than a few glasses of potent tuica which had eased the pain in my ankle but I was grateful when Florian took my elbow as we negotiated the stairs. Ruxandra threw open the door of a large unused room.

“You must stay in my mother’s old room until your ankle heals’” Ruxandra swept her arm across the room, after flipping a light switch, which didn’t shed much illumination.  “This is what the house was like in her day. We’ve kept the room as it was in memory of her and of better times. You are the first non-family member to see it.”

In the dim light, I saw several large gilt-framed paintings hanging on damask covered walls and threadbare oriental carpets on the polished parquet.

“We like to have guests, especially those from abroad,” Florian said gesturing toward a wall lined from floor to ceiling with books. ”As you see, we are good armchair travelers. Before, it was forbidden to travel and now we can’t afford it. I want to hear about the cities you know: London, Paris, New York”.

My eyes wandered over some author names: Bruce Chatwin, Patrick Le Fermor, Laurence Durrell, André Gide, Freya Stark, John Steinbeck.  Many were in French or English, others in languages I couldn’t read: Romanian, Greek, German and Russian.

“Well, that’s settled then,” said Ruxandra not waiting for my response and tossed an eiderdown, encased in a crisp white coverlet, onto the bed.  Thrusting some towels into my arms, she led me to a large bathroom where a finely painted pastoral frieze in faded green flowed across the tiles.

With an intake of breath, I said I would love to spend time in that room and could I have a long bath the next day?

“Of course,” Ruxandra said, smiling with her eyes.

“Do you know why Florian and I so want you to stay?” she added.

I shook my head.

“Because no one in our generation has friends anymore.  That’s Ceausescu’s real legacy.  We don’t trust each other and can only be friends with foreigners.”

I thought we had probably had too much to drink.  But she went on. “That old woman next door, you may have noticed peering out when we arrived?”

I shook my head. I hadn’t noticed.

“She used to be my mother’s best friend.  I played with her children.  Sometime in the mid ‘80s Florin and I discovered that one of her sons was a Securitate agent.  Either she or her son denounced us for trying to improve our house; for daring to better our neighbors!”

I was aghast. “You mean, Casa Rossetti was scheduled for demolition because of your neighbors?”

“It’s not an unusual story in Romania,” Ruxandra said bitterly. “Neighbors denounced neighbors every day while friends and even families also denounced each other.  It would have happened anyway.”

“And that won’t change,” Florian interjected, “until everyone of our generation is dead and in their grave.

 

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Taylor Jennings is a journalist who has lived and worked in Europe (east and west) for more than 30 years.