One of our goals during our very brief visit to Bucharest in January was to see how much things had changed in the neighborhood we used to live in during 1983–84. The first change we noticed was that we could get there on the M2 north–south metro line, getting on at Aviatorilor and getting off five stops later at Tineretului. In 1984, the metro line (now M1) only ran in a broad northeast-to-west arc from (I think) Republica to Semănătoarea (lit. ‘the inseminator’), apparently designed to serve the huge housing blocs in the most populous new suburbs. So the Bucharest Metro has improved a lot since 1984.
We lived at Bulevardul Pionierilor 25, Blocul Z7. Note that Romanian place names look a lot like those in other Romance languages, except that the definite articles are suffixed, as in the masculine singular bloc, blocul ‘bloc, the bloc’, and feminine singular semănătoare, semănătoarea ‘planting machine, the planting machine’. (The masculine semănător, semănătorul indicates a human planter.) There are a few wrinkles. On masculine nouns that end in -e, like câine ‘dog’, the singular article is -le, as in câinele ‘the dog’. On feminine nouns that end in stressed -a, like the Turkish borrowing cafea ‘coffee’, the singular definite article is -ua, as in cafeaua [kafjáwa]. And on the huge majority of feminine nouns that end in unstressed -ă (schwa), like casă ‘house’, the singular article -a replaces the schwa, as in casa ‘the house’.
Like quite a few other streets in Romania, Bulevardul Pionierilor changed its name after the “Revolution” (or lovitură de stat ‘coup d’état’) in 1989. The Young Pioneers were so discredited under Communist rule that the boulevard is now named after the neighboring Parcul Tineretului ‘the Park of the Young’ (in the sense of tinerime ‘collective offspring’). Compare the adjective ‘young’, tânăr/tineri for masc. sg./pl., and tânără/tinere for fem. sg./pl., each stressed on the first syllable; and the noun ‘youth’, tinereţe/tinereţi fem. sg./pl., stressed on the penultimate syllable. Compare also the masc. sg. vs. pl. genitive forms, tineretului ‘of the young’ vs. pionierilor ‘of the pioneers’; and the fem. sg. vs. pl. genitive forms in fântâna tinereţii ‘the fountain of youth’ vs. poluarea apelor ‘the pollution of the waters (= bodies of water)’.
These genitive nouns are used as place names in their own right, as in other Bucharest Metro stops like Eroilor ‘of the Heroes’ or Industriilor ‘of the Industries’. The first things that caught our eyes when we came out of the metro at Tineretelui were the large video panel and billboard advertisements at the corner of the park. Big, ugly commercial billboards hide a lot of distinctive architecture and scenery in Bucharest these days. There’s a lot more traffic, too, than there was in 1984.
Some things were still the same, though: treacherous winter sidewalks with layers of uncleared snow and ice, litter discarded in public spaces, and the odd open manhole cover. One dark night in 1984, we almost stepped in an open manhole while walking down a street with no lights except those of a passing tram. This year, we noticed that someone had thoughtfully stuffed a Christmas tree into an open manhole on Strada Trestiana, right in our path. We were lucky it was daytime.
Our bloc at Pionierilor 25 contained several other flats housing Fulbright and IREX scholars from the U.S. (and apparently still did in 1995). We were a long way from the nicer northern neighborhoods cluttered with foreign embassies. I remember that, as Halloween approached in 1983, someone in the American, British, or Canadian embassy arranged for the diplomats to borrow costumes from the National Opera for an embassy costume party. We were a little worried that some embassy kids might come trick-or-treating at our doors. We had nothing that would pass muster for treats, but I prepared to shock the kids by offering them the boiled heads and feet of four whole chickens we had managed to find at the local market (rationed at two per customer). The chicken with lots of fresh garlic made a tasty broth, but no one came trick-or-treating that Halloween, so we discarded the heads and feet.
We did not eat too well that winter. Fresh food was hard to find. You had to supply your own containers, but eggs and (unpasteurized) milk, yogurt, sour cream, cream cheese, stale bread, wheat flour, and corn meal were usually available at local shops. Oil and sugar were rationed. However, in order to find fresh meat, hard cheeses, fresh fruit, or toilet paper, we had to keep an eye out for people queueing up at storefronts on our way to and from the city center, then get in line to find out what they were waiting for. At one point, we managed to obtain a big chunk of fresh pork through one of my Chinese classmates in Romanian language class.
On our open balcony, we stored apples, onions, and potatoes in cardboard boxes insulated with newspaper. They were usually available throughout the winter in the central open markets, along with sour cabbage and its broth (used to make ciorbă). The common wisdom for canned goods was not to buy anything that had been produced toward the end of each month, when factories were rushing to fill their quotas. (Each label carried the production date.) We ate a lot of bean soups and stewed apples that winter.
Well, a lot has changed on the food front. Now there is a small but convenient Mega Image supermarket (with signs on the doors saying, “Now hiring“) across from the entrance to the park. We walked in to have a look around and, after a little hesitation, I couldn’t resist photographing the shelves of goods, none of which would have been remarkable had we not longed for such a local market when we lived there 24 years ago. The bread, meat and deli shelves were not in danger of going bare. They even had Romanian-made vegetarian products like tofu in natural, cumin, dill, and pimiento flavors.
However, the prices did not seem very cheap. The average Romanian monthly wage is about 1400 RON (new lei), which works out to about US$600 at current exchange rates, or about $1000 in purchasing power parity. Nevertheless, the Romanian economy has been growing at a feverish pace since 2000. Bucharest, in particular, seems in 2008 to be a bit of a boomtown, much less dreary and downbeat than it was in 1984. But the countryside seems to be lagging behind.