William McPherson

William McPherson

A weeklong electronic journal.
May 21 1997 3:30 AM

William McPherson

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       Arriving in Bucharest to a green and sunlit afternoon, as I did yesterday, with the magnificent chestnut trees just beginning to bloom along the grand avenue known simply as the Kiseleff, soon to be followed by the powerful scent of the linden trees from whose blossoms a calming tea is made, makes me think for the moment more of the love side of my love-hate relationship with this country in which I have spent the better part of seven years.
       The chestnuts--castani--and the linden trees--tei--in blossom are two of the glories of Bucharest, and its system of parks and the splendid Kiseleff itself are two more. This aristocratic avenue has nothing to do with the classless society, everything to do with its opposite. Of course, the Communist society pretended to be classless only in some dim, far-off future. Judging from the Kiseleff, the farther off, the better. The American ambassador's residence with its vast urban park faces the Russians' mansion on the other side of the street. The American residence was once the home of Ana Pauker, the first Communist foreign minister of Romania. They say she added the swimming pool. The communist manifesto--"From each according to his ability, to each according to his need"--was clearly not intended to apply to the people who ran things, unless a swimming pool and a great private park could be considered necessities.
       The city looks better than I remembered it from my last visit seven months ago. Maybe it's the weather, which is warm but neither hot nor humid. A gentle wind stirs the air. It was not gentle last night, however. At dinner in the Restaurant Shorley--a haphazard collection of outdoor terraces and indoor rooms over two or three floors near the university campus that was once a restaurant that students could afford--a furious storm blew up. The sky turned the color of gunmetal, and the waiters had to scurry to prevent the Marlboro, L&M, and Coca-Cola umbrellas from being blown off the terraces.
       The Restaurant Shorley is one of the better, and still certainly cheaper, restaurants in Bucharest. Luxe it is not, although they've papered the bare walls since I was last there with the kind of shiny stuff much admired here. The steps of metal and in some places concrete remain; treading them is hazardous. It must have been especially hazardous for the waiters last night, who, to keep the food dry, had to run up the stairs from the kitchen with the plates while other waiters ran alongside them, carrying the huge umbrellas from the terrace to shield them from the rain. Anyone who thinks Romanians don't work hard should look at the waiters at Shorley. But the service is pleasant, the food is simple and good, and the prices are reasonable--incredibly reasonable by foreign standards. Dinner for three cost 95,000 lei--about $14--and that included a very generous tip. We had enough food left over for a fourth who joined us later, and there was still bread for breakfast this morning. Nonetheless, at an average monthly salary of 504,000 lei ($72), the average Romanian isn't dining here very often.
       Today I went to the Piata Veteranilor, an open market where ordinary workers shop, what in the United States is called a farmer's market but to everybody else in the world is simply a market. It is filled with the most glorious-looking food, beautifully displayed--tomatoes from Turkey and Spain, green onions, cabbages, cauliflower, lettuce, bananas, oranges, all at prices that make the ordinary person think before buying. A kilogram--2.2 pounds--of pork chops costs $3, the same weight of chicken more than $2, and various sausages between $2 and $3. A kilogram of Brazilian coffee costs 41,000 lei, about $6 and cheap by American prices. An egg costs almost 10 cents, which is about the same price as in the United States. And a loaf of bread costs about 12 cents. This may seem more than reasonable until you remember the average monthly wage.
       And there, on the other side of the market, are the old people selling used tools, rusty nuts and bolts and screws, all sorts of old stuff. With the money they get from selling the contents of their closets, if they are lucky, they can walk across the market to buy a kilo of potatoes for 12 cents. The median pension is less than $30 a month. It is no surprise to learn that the labor unions began demonstrating last week and promise to continue until their economic situation improves.

William McPherson is a novelist and Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who has spent much of the past seven years exploring and writing about Romania.