Standing on the same balcony from which Michael Jackson greeted a crowd of fans with an emphatic Hello Budapest!, we looked out over Bucharest. Bucharest, not Budapest. The locals were not happy with his greeting and, today, we were not happy with what we saw ahead of us.
The balcony is the second floor balcony of the People's Parliament Building in south central Bucharest. Ahead of lay the shamble of city planning that is modern Bucharest, the legacy of that mad dictator Ceaucescu who following a trip to North Korea in the '60s, inspired by their awe-inspiring central planning scheme, decided to try some of the same in Romania.
Ceaucescu's vision of Bucharest never materialized. The fountains lining the avenue ahead of us as far as the eye could see are dry, wild dogs roam the streets, and the economy is not what it should be. Bringing his country to this, it is no wonder the people had him executed on Christmas Day of all days.
This could all have a lot to do with this People's Parliament that we had just had a tour through. Recognized as the second largest building in the world, the building of this immense structure virtually bankrupted the nation. When I asked the tour guide to give us an idea of the construction and material costs she responded that it is impossible to say, because since Ceacescu didn't understand architectural sketches, he insisted that something actually be built before he could give it his 'yes' or 'no'. Invariably, this led to an incredible and unaccounted for amount of wasted materials, time, and constant building, demolishing and rebuilding of every single element of this Parliament.
The end result, though, is something incredible. The Parliament is one of the more ostentatious palaces that we've seen anywhere in Europe. Plenty of white marble, red carpets, and golden chandeliers give every room a truly Communist ambiance.
Later on, we stood on another balcony, looking out at another endless row of Communist era buildings stretching into the distance. This balcony was the fourth floor balcony of Jeremy's apartment in eastern Bucharest, and our home for over a week. The string of Communist buildings this time was not the grandiose marble structures we had seen from Ceacescu's balcony, but a more dismal and grey row of mid-height apartment blocks. Lucky for us, Jeremy's apartment, just across the street from these eyesores, was a pre-Communist apartment block oozing with character inside largely due to it's caught-in-time 40's decor and the fact that the entire apartment seems to be a mini-shrine to one of Romania's more important writer's of that era. The apartment owner is somehow familialy linked to this writer and his ancient, dusty typewriter sits on the desk by the balcony, awaiting the next great Romanian writer to begin tapping on its keys.
Jeremy, another old friend from Winnipeg who has graciously opened their new home in Europe to us, has been in Bucharest for one year. During our days there, he showed us why he has come to love this city. For us, it begins with the food. In Bucharest we have found the first big European city in which we can not only afford a restaurant meal, but afford a very classy restaurant meal. Our very first evening in Bucharest we sat at an outdoor 'gaming theme' restaurant while a small quartet played by our table, sometimes getting a little too close even. On the menu, any type of wild game one could imagine, large and small. Following a few hours of fine, hearty portions, great music, and wine we paid our $4 bill. Needless to say, we ate out when we could while in Bucharest.
And when we weren't eating, we were lazing around in Jeremy's apartment, watching movies. When we had the energy, we would wander off into the streets for a few hours, hit the local gypsy market and browse through one of the local museums.
Just another week spent renewing that domestic feeling that we lack and miss while on the road. Great times and great memories with Jeremy.