Diana and I met in Amsterdam, back to 2011. She lived in a cute place on PC Hooftstraat, worked for a Dutch bank, rode a pink bike, and loved to introduce us, the girls, to new bars, cafes, or nice places to hang out. A few years later, she decided to move back to Bucharest. Although I still miss her in Amsterdam, I am happy I have the chance to meet her here, in Bucharest, whenever I pay a visit to my hometown – our hometown. Diana and I share the same love for Bucharest and its mind-blowing beauty, the same enthusiasm and curiosity to discover it layer upon layer – and there are so many of them! – and, like everyone else away from their roots long enough, we’ve learnt to practise a similar tolerance for those harder to digest Romanian ways.
On Friday before Easter, a hot, sunny day when many Romanians were busy with the last shopping before the break, I met Diana again, in Bucharest. “Are you ready for a looong day of walking?” she messaged while waiting for me to arrive at our meeting point, Calea Moșilor bus stop. “You bet I am!” I answered while still on the bus. We had planned to meet for “A Day in the Life of… Diana” and I was really looking forward to letting her take me to her places in Bucharest, those that meant something to her, or where she simply enjoyed spending time for one reason or another.
* * *
And guess where we started! At Obor Market. This market in Tei neighbourhood is the closest one can get to Sicily in Bucharest. How else to explain the explosion of sensations we were thrown into the moment we stepped out of tram 21? The crowds, the food stalls, the smells, the intoxicating smoke from the grill where meat was being prepared, all the necessary and particularly the unnecessary items for sale. I have memories of coming here with my parents when I was just a child. We lived in nearby Pantelimon neighbourhood. Diana’s connection to this market is even stronger, as she used to live in Tei all throughout her childhood and it is in fact from here that she moved to Amsterdam. Walking through Obor Market has the same effect on us as leaving some kids in a candy shop. You just want to get everything. Check the strawberries, eat a pretzel covered in sunflower seeds, get some cheese and spring onion, smell the lilac and get a bunch of that, too. Vendors ask for their photo to be taken. “Check that lady over there,” Diana says. “The one selling potatoes. Look at her. Long eyelashes, big earrings, red lipstick. And what a hairdo. I think she’s amazing.” I take a photo of the lady selling potatoes and I now think it encapsulates the very essence of Obor market.
By the time we leave Obor Market, it is 1 pm and we are starving. We go behind the main roads flanked with blocks of flats in search of the restaurant that Diana chose for lunch. It is suddenly quiet, green, and there are now houses instead of blocks of flats. A layer has just been peeled off. “This is what Ceaușescu wanted when he erected all those Soviet-style apartment buildings,” Diana says. “To cover a significant and beautiful time in this city’s history. The time when people lived in houses. Those who don’t adventure behind main avenues, behind what seems like never-ending blocks of flats, might never get the chance to see these quaint streets and their different, non-communist architecture.” I think Diana is right. I myself was born and raised in Bucharest and lived there – in various blocks of flats – for so long, and yet it is only in recent years that I am discovering the Bucharest of the quaint, leafy street, and of the villa that everyone would like to imagine living in. “I think it has to do with the stray dogs, too,” I say. “A few years ago, I would be scared to adventure on these side streets because of dogs. Now that they are gone, these streets are exactly where I want to be.”
On one such street, we find Gedo, the Sudanese restaurant Diana wanted us to have lunch at. “I hope you don’t mind I invited some more people,” she says as we get in. “Of course not,” I say. After all, it is a day in her life and who wouldn’t want to hang out with such a sunny person like Diana? We sit outside, on the terrace, and soon Diana’s friends start to show up, one after the other: her boyfriend, Dan, her boyfriend’s friend – both on bikes – and a Brazilian couple with a pram and their child in it. The table gets full of food and sour milk, perhaps like in Sudan. We talk about languages and various expressions from Romanian and Portuguese for most of the meal. When we say goodbye and leave and it’s just me and Diana again I tell her how amazing it is to me that some Brazilian people decided to make Bucharest their home and seem so happy about it.
We are back on the main road, but not for long, because the next place Diana is taking me to is a park. The Circus Park. Luckily, the Circus is no longer running – we are in the 21st century after all and should know better than that – but I am pretty sure I was there at least once, when I was a child, perhaps with my parents, perhaps with the school. The building itself looks so familiar in its UFO-like shape, the shape not only circuses but also markets used to have in Ceaușescu’s time. I am intrigued by Diana’s choice of the park, so I ask her to tell me more. She elucidates the mystery: “This is where Dan and I like to come sometimes when the weather is good. We park our bikes and sit on the grass with a small lunch and a drink. There are turtles by the pond. We prefer this to other parks in the city because here it is never crowded. It is just a simple park, where only people from the neighbourhood come. We like that.”
We open the cold beer we previously bought from a shop and we lose track of time. We sit down, in the Circus Park, and talk about trips to Tokyo and New York. Diana seems so happy about being back to Bucharest. It is as if she has never left it to live somewhere else. And I am happy for her. I might just do the same one day. I’ll have a beer in the Circus Park when that happens.
We might have stayed there for a couple of hours. This is what a good park does. Or maybe it was the beer. When we resume our walk, it is already 5 pm, and it all seems heavier now. For this, we definitely blame the beer.
We leave Tei neighbourhood, walking South, toward the centre. There are still some places Diana would like to share with me for the day. We soon found ourselves in an abundance of that Bucharest layer we both like so much – the quaint streets with beautiful, old houses. We are just passing by, but we stop to take some photos because everything looks so nice. Besides, it is the golden hour by now, the shadows grow longer and the light gets that special tint I have been waiting for the entire day. We take one turn and we are suddenly drawn by a wonderful fragrance. Luxuriant wisteria bunches are hanging over our heads and we cannot get enough of it. After a long pause to smell the flowers, we continue along Alexandru Philippide Street, and Diana points toward a house. The name Păun (“Peacock”) is written on a mailbox in front of it. The house is old and gorgeous, with floral and animal details carved on its facade. No one seems to live there anymore and, even more intriguing, there is a car cemetery in its courtyard. “I think the owner must live somewhere abroad now,” Diana says. “He might not have any family left. Maybe he died there and never had the chance to come back. So his house and cars are now left to the mercy of time.” We might never find out the real story. We’ll call this the mystery on Alexandru Philippide Street.
Before we know it, we reach Dacia Boulevard, the boulevard of beautiful, between-the-war houses, such as the one where the French Institute is located. Diana takes me there, in the courtyard, to show me Elvire Popesco cinema, where she comes to see movies with her boyfriend. The whole premises of the institute look like a classy French piece in the heart of Bucharest.
Close to the French Institute and surrounded by equally gorgeous buildings are two small parks, Ioanid Romulus and Grădina Icoanei. On one such evening, before the movie started at Elvire Popesco cinema, Diana and her boyfriend sat on a bench in Ioanid park. Diana was slightly annoyed because she had forgotten her ring at home. “Really?” said the boyfriend. “Yes, really,” she replied. “I always wear it, yet somehow today I forgot to put it on.” “Well,” said the boyfriend, “then you might want to try this one.” A few tears of joy later and a short phone call to announce the parents, Diana and her soon-to-be-husband went to see the movie. With a new ring on.
Exhausted after a day of walking in the sun, we jump into an Uber to the last destination on Diana’s list. I am beyond happy she chose the National Museum of Contemporary Art for one last drink up on the terrace. In recent years, more rooftop terraces opened in Bucharest, with panoramic views over the city. Ten years ago, however, MNAC terrace was the only such place. Both of us have nice memories up here, of drinks in the sun or parties held on past Museum Nights. The place remains special. There is something about it being harder to reach, up on a hill, in the centre of the city yet in the middle of nowhere, with weeds and broken asphalt leading to the grandiose entrance, and, besides, developed in a wing of the Romanian Parliament building (formerly known as People’s House, built at Ceaușescu’s order to serve as his palace.)
Diana and I have a beer, our feet up on a chair, too tired to speak, but happy to share that moment. In front of us, a group of French tourists lounging on Fatboys are taking photos of each other. A few more people at the tables around. Nothing like the crowded rooftop terraces in the old centre. Then, one by one, Diana’s friends start to show up, just like earlier in the day: Dan and his friend, whom we’ve met for lunch, Diana’s cousin, a friend living in Germany who is now visiting Bucharest with her German boyfriend. “You’re so popular,” I say to her jokingly. “Oh, no. It’s not always like this, I swear. Most of the times it’s just me and Dan.”
After a glorious day, we are only hoping for a glorious sunset. It’s not the case. “It’s the Sahara dust,” someone says. “It has been blown away by the wind and, from the desert, it reached all the way to Europe. It was in the news.”
“Such a beautiful day,” Diana says in a message later that night.
“Yes, it was super nice,” I say. “I feel like a child after a day of playing outside.”
“Exactly like that. And, like a child, I am super tired now.”
I am in Bucharest for a few weeks. I am spending time rediscovering my hometown, meeting friends, and, when the weather gets grey and rainy, I just stay at home reading. I came with no plans other than to be here.
Just like in Amsterdam, I practice solitary walks quite often and I have no problem with that. One thing is different here though: even when I am alone, in Bucharest I don’t feel lonely. It is not because my mother is waiting for me at home with a warm plate of food or because I know I have coffee with a friend the following day. It is the strangers on the street that make me feel present. As in alive, as in visible. I buy a bunch of narcissi from a street vendor on Calea Victoriei, and the woman selling tulips at Unirii Square asks me, as I pass by, if next time I’ll buy flowers from her instead.
Sometimes there is no need for words at all. I walk in the old center, recollecting things that happened on those exact streets, and I see someone having coffee at a terrace, looking at me. Perhaps I lit a spark of curiosity in that person. Why am I smiling when I take a photo of that particular building? Does it mean something to me? Why do I keep on lowering my nose into those flowers I carry in my hand? Do they smell nice?
Wherever I am and whatever I do, in Bucharest people are looking at me. Not that there is anything particularly interesting or eye-catching about me. People are looking because I am there and so are they. Because to look at a fellow human being is as natural a gesture as breathing. For this, I do not – I cannot – feel alone in this city.
I am going to leave you now with two diary entries I wrote since I came here. The first one, The Student from Focșani and the Madam from the Netherlands, is about just that, people talking to other people, even when they are total strangers. The other, The Guys from the Tower Block, is about the joy of meeting old friends after 15 years. Everything with Bucharest as background.
* * *
April 6th, 2019, Bucharest
The Student from Focșani and the Madam from the Netherlands.
“Can I find oatmilk in Bucharest?” I asked my sister the day before I arrived. “Not sure,” she said. Then, not sure became a no.
I didn’t want to believe this, so on my first day back to my hometown I went to Carrefour, the big one at Unirii. Not only did I find oatmilk, I found everything I was looking for and feared I might not find. I went to the register to pay. I placed the products on the belt and I didn’t even have to put the basket back because the guy waiting in the line did it for me. I said thanks.
Everything good and beautiful, except that now I could not find the exit. I was on the second floor of the supermarket and although I knew where I came from, an employee had just told me I could not exit that way. “You need to go straight ahead,” said the woman, “into the car park, then left. You’ll see the elevator and the stairs.” “But I didn’t come by car,” I said. “It’s the only way.”
So there I was, in the car park, looking for the way out. All I could see was cars. It was also quite dark and creepy, as dark and creepy as it might get for someone who is almost never in a car park. No stairs and no way I was going to take that elevator. What if I got stuck? There would be no one there to hear me. I turned right back, ready to confront the woman. For sure there was another way out. I was not there for the first time, and never before did I have to exit through the car park. What the hell!
That’s when I saw the guy who helped me with the shopping basket. “Excuse me, do you know where the exit is?” I asked. “I don’t know, I’m from Focșani,” he said. “Well, I’m from Bucharest, and I still don’t know.” We laughed. “I live in the Netherlands, now I’m here on holiday.” “So that’s why your Romanian sounds so different,” he said. I have never thought I speak my native language with a foreign accent. We agreed to go back and ask the woman again. “Madam,” the guy said to the employee, “I am from Focșani and the lady is from the Netherlands. Where did you say that exit was?” “Straight ahead, into the car park, then left,” the woman repeated. My bags were heavy and I was losing patience. “But I’ve never had to go through the car park before!” I said, looking her right in the eyes. Then, pointing to where I entered the shop: “I came that way, and I remember I could exit that way, too. I’ve done it before. Why do you keep sending us to the car park? It doesn’t make any sense.” “OK,” the guy said. “Let’s try again!”
I followed him back to the car park. “Bucharest doesn’t cease to amaze me,” he said. “Just earlier, on the street, I had this guy selling me a <original> perfume for almost nothing. No, thanks.” We were looking for the stairs, but just as before, no stairs in sight. “These are the kind of things that make me miss Bucharest when I’m away,” I said. “But when I’m here, this is driving me insane.” We laughed. We then saw the elevator. “Shall we try?” the guy said. “We’re two now.” “OK,” I said, “but I hate elevators. Especially dodgy elevators, like this one.”
And we were out, in the sunshine, walking toward the main road. “So, what brings you to Bucharest?” I asked. “I’m a student, first year at Theology.” “Oh, that’s interesting!” I said. Theology? Really? Tight jeans, black leather jacket, and a haircut reminding me of Crimer, the guy singing Brotherlove – in fact, his entire face reminded me of that singer – this guy surely did not look like someone who was studying to become a priest. Oh well. “I am on a diet now,” he said, lifting his shopping bag, as if to show me what was inside. “And where the hell to find diet food in this city?” The hell? Better watch your language, young man. “So I came here,” he concluded. “I was looking for special food here, too,” I said. “I saw that. Avocado, prunes…” “And oatmilk,” I said, laughing. “Don’t forget the oatmilk! That’s what I really came here for.” We chatted for a few more seconds, then, as soon as we reached the road, we parted ways. “Madam, I wish you a nice day,” he said. “Thanks, same to you. Bye!”
This caught me totally off guard. I forgot that in Bucharest people talk to strangers. And that most men, young as they might be, still practice good manners and have an easiness of speaking to women.
Later, at home, I laughed with my mother when I told her about it. About the student from Focșani and the madam from the Netherlands. About the first time a guy has ever madam-ed me. Damn it!
* * *
April 13th, 2019, Bucharest
The Guys from the Tower Block
Bucharest is a museum of memories to me. The more time passes, the more alluring the past. And nowhere in the city are the memories of my life here more vivid than at the tower block.
Throughout the years, my family changed residences many times. We lived in Pantelimon neighbourhood, we lived on Unirii Boulevard, we now live not far from Unirii Square. But there is one residence that captivated me the most, most probably because it overlapped with my adolescence – the tower block at United Nations Square. I wrote about it before, and I’ll most certainly write about it again.
“Do you remember when you used to carry books in your bag, just so that it was not empty?”
“Do you remember when I stopped you in front of the block and asked what music you were listening to in your headphones? I liked you and wanted to approach you. The guys said not to bother cause you were weird, but I liked you anyway. And so I asked, and you said Limp Bizkit.”
These are the kind of things you hear from people you haven’t met in fifteen years. The guys from the tower block. In theory, you can no longer call these people friends, because so much time has passed without any interference of life among you. And yet, you feel that nothing has changed, there is the same sense of freedom that allows you to talk about everything in the world with no reservations, and the same warm, fuzzy feeling of togetherness. And if this is not friendship, then I don’t know what it is.
A lot of time has passed, but all the time in the world stays still now that you meet again.
The first seconds are weird. You feel nervous. Shall I hug? Shall I kiss on the cheek? You kiss on the cheek. Then, you count the years since the last time you met. You talk about work and where you live now. You talk about other people you all know. You talk about plans for the future. You wonder why on earth you haven’t met more often. And then you open the memory box and that is when the magic happens, when you leave the present and surrender to nostalgia. Towards the end, you take some photos to maybe look at in fifteen more years.
And once you are out on the street, at night, walking together side by side, you could swear it is the tower block you are heading to. Where else?
I might have just found my happy place in Amsterdam! Whether it is called Jardin des Tulipes or not (I have just come up with this name), this little garden near the Rijksmuseum is the closest you can come to Paris in Amsterdam. Bring coffee, books, a pair of sunglasses for some shameless people watching, and lay back on a chair. You’ll instantly feel as if you are in Jardin de Luxembourg or perhaps in Jardin des Tuileries. Magical!
Some things we remember better than others. And things happen in places. Amsterdam has been the background – at times, even the foreground – of my life for the past nine years. No wonder I have grown a lot of memories here, in a lot of places throughout the city. Whether good or bad, I cherish them all, so I decided to put them together in one place, to make sure they stay vivid. Here is my Amsterdam nostalgia map – the West edition to start with – and the reasons why each of these places belongs on it. I posed with them the same way tourists pose with landmarks because to me this is exactly what they are.
Westerpark is my favourite park in the city. It’s where I come to celebrate the first warm weather of the year, to see the cherry blossoms, and to do some train-spotting. The first time I came here was in November 2010, at the invitation of Adriana, my classmate from the Dutch course and my first friend in Amsterdam.
~PRINS & HEIDA WESTERPARK ~
This was the location of my Dutch school. Between November 2010 and July 2011, I would come here two times per week. I would initially attend the morning classes and, once I found a job in May 2011, I joined the evening ones. This is where I met my first friends in the Netherlands: Adriana from Slovakia and Gabi from Hungary. I was quite a good student, slightly on the nerdy side. Too shy to interact with anyone, I would spend my breaks in front of the computer, solving exercises, when all the students would go on the terrace for a sandwich and a cup of coffee. It was on one of those breaks that Adriana first approached me: “Oh, come on, Andra, take a break! Let’s go for a coffee!” That is how we became friends. I gave up the classes shortly before the final exam because of personal circumstances (in short, I was a mess after breaking up with my ex.) The school must have moved somewhere else because nowadays the building looks deserted and in a very poor condition. A paper on the window says this will be turned into student housing.
~BUS STOP FREDERIK HENDRIKPLANSOEN~
This is the stop where bus 18 would drop me off before my Dutch classes and pick me up afterwards. I sat on that bench many times, my emotions ranging from very high (when I started the course, when I made friends) to very low (feeling heartbroken and lost.) It’s just a bus stop, and yet to me it is a lot more.
I almost lived here. In November 2012, when I was looking for an apartment to move in with my now boyfriend, I came here to view one and brought Gabi with me. The place was alright and I really liked the street. After the viewing, when I still did not make up my mind about the place, Gabi made it easier for me: “I just don’t see you living in that apartment.” Seven years later and I still think this could have been my street, although I am more than happy with the choice I made instead.
~DE NIEUWE ANITA~
Gabi introduced me to this indie cinema at Hugo de Grootplein sometimes in the winter of 2010. On Monday evenings they showed movies with English subtitles – a rare thing in Amsterdam at that time – for only 2,50 Euro, popcorn included. The ambience was that of a vintage living room, artsy and low-key. A very fond memory is when we got out of the cinema one night to find the city covered in snow. It was magic. I just hoped my bus still ran. (It did.)
~FREDERIK HENDRIKSTRAAT 126~
The house with the bush of roses. This is where I experienced some sort of epiphany. It was May 2011 and I had just started my first job in Amsterdam. I was heading to the Dutch course one day after work. The weather was gorgeous, the roses were in bloom, so I decided to walk instead of taking public transportation. Things were finally starting to work out for me. I had the relationship I wanted, I now had a nice, well-paid job, my Dutch was getting better, and the summer holiday was just around the corner. How generous Amsterdam had been to me! That very moment my life seemed amazing. I could not believe just how good everything was. Frederik Hendrikstraat 126. I will never forget that moment, the thoughts in my head, and the happiness in my heart as I walked by. It must have been one of the happiest moments of my life.
~BILDERDIJKSTRAAT CORNER KINKERSTRAAT~
I must have crossed here hundreds, perhaps even thousands of times. If I were to choose one place in Amsterdam representative for me, Kinkerstraat corner Bilderdijkstraat would be it. Not far from where I used to live in my first years in the city, this is where I came for shopping. Blokker, Hema, Kruidvat, Primera, Holland & Barrett (still called De Tuinen), Albert Heijn, Ten Katemarkt, the Turkish spice shop – they were all here, not one hip place in sight yet. I might have moved out of the West in November 2012, but the West has never really moved out of me. So I still find myself walking these streets every now and then, always nostalgic for my beginnings in Amsterdam.
~BAGELS & BEANS KINKERSTRAAT, NOW COFFEE ROOM ~
On Saturday mornings, after stocking on fruits and vegetables from the nearby Ten Katemarkt, my ex and I would go to this Bagels & Beans for cappuccinos and muffins. After the break-up, I kept the tradition alive. Each Saturday, the visit to the market would be followed by a stop at Bagels & Beans, this time on my own.
~THE BRIDGE ACROSS FROM COFFEE ROOM~
There are many bridges in Amsterdam but this is a special one to me. It was December 2010 and the Christmas was just around the corner. On Saturday morning, as usual, my ex and I went to the market. Our friend, Dragoș, joined us. By the time we finished at Ten Katemarkt and the nearby Albert Heijn, the weather got really bad. Or really good. It was snowing. Not the peaceful kind of snow, with big, fluffy flakes, but more like a snow storm. Kinkerstraat was unrecognizable: all covered in white, the trams coming to a halt, the people on bikes really struggling. I was delighted! It was my first winter and my first snow in Amsterdam. The tree of us were standing on this bridge, jumping, and taking photos of each other in the snow. It almost felt like a Romanian winter. Afterwards, we crossed the street and found shelter at Bagels & Beans. To be continued.
~FLOWER SHOP ON POSTJESWEG CORNER WITTE DE WITSTRAAT~
This is a continuation of the caption above. On the way home that day, (we had to walk as the trams were still not working), we stopped at the florist on Postjesweg, from where we bought a small, potted Christmas tree – my first Christmas tree in Amsterdam. Dragoș got one, too. I was busy taking photos when I saw Dragoș rushing out of the flower shop, his tote bag in flames. He had accidentally placed it on an electric heater while paying for the tree. He immediately threw it in the snow, saving the remaining of his groceries. Later that day, over dinner, when we looked at the photos that very well captured his desperation, we could not stop laughing.
Fast forward five years, to summer 2015. It was my birthday, I took the day off. I was no longer living in the West but came here to have a coffee at Lot Sixty One. Before that, I stopped at the same flower shop to treat myself with a birthday bouquet. I decided to make my own: white peonies and some blue wildflowers. The florist loved it. In the evening, as I was receiving guests at home for my birthday party, in came Dragoș. We had recently become friends again, after not having spoken to each other since the separation from my ex, in 2011. He gave me a flower bouquet that left me speechless. White peonies and blue wildflowers.
“Where did you get this?” I asked, utterly confused.
“From that flower shop on Postjesweg, you know, near Witte de Witstraat. I asked the florist to make a special bouquet for me. Why? You don’t like it?”
“I love it!” I said. “I have an identical one on my table.” A long, warm hug followed.
Do I need to say more? I have already mentioned this street a few times since the beginning of this post. Kinkerstraat, unaesthetic as it might be, is my happy place in Amsterdam. This is where I come when I don’t know where else to go. This is where I feel the reassuring kind of comfort that some call belonging. This is where I feel the pulse of Amsterdam. Wherever I might live in the city, Kinkerstraat will always be home to me. I love this street. No further explanation needed.
~MUNICIPALITY OFFICE NEAR POSTJESWEG~
This is where I became an Amsterdammer in autumn 2010. This is where I applied for Dutch classes. This is where my ex and I registered as partners. This is where my ex and I cancelled our partnership. This is where it all started.
~THE LOFT ON ANTILLENSTRAAT / MY FIRST HOME IN AMSTERDAM~
Here I will insert a fragment from my Amsterdam memoir:
“Welcome to Antillenstraat!” said the old Dutch lady living on the first floor, as we were carrying the boxes into the loft. Dragoș explained he was moving out and Alex and I were moving in. She then disappeared inside her place, closing the nicotine stained door behind her.
After all the boxes were in the loft, we jumped into the rental van, direction Ikea. Dragoș was driving. We were all sitting in the front row, one after the other, me in the middle.
“Just look at us!” Dragoș said out of the blue. “Three Romanians in a van in Amsterdam.” We burst into hysterical laughter.
After Ikea, we went back to the loft. Dragoș had cooled a bottle of champagne and was now getting it out of the fridge. Alex played some music on his laptop. I burnt some incense and washed three wine glasses from those we had just bought. We poured champagne and raised the glasses.
“To new beginnings!” Dragoș said.
“To new beginnings!” Alex and I repeated. It was August 1st, 2010, and we had just moved into the loft on Antillenstraat, exactly one year since we had seen each other for the first time. A dream had just come true.
I am not a big fan of Rembrandtpark, but it was just a few steps from the loft. So this is where my ex and I came to jog and, more importantly, this is where I made my first attempts to ride a bike. For the latter, we came to the park at night, as I was too embarrassed for others to see me. We still bumped into our neighbour from the third floor one night, a Spanish guy whom I used to call Gazpacho. (His actual name was Guillermo and I was an ignorant.) What he saw must have been hilarious: me on the Oma fiets, my ex holding the back of the bike for some extra balance, while running behind, trying to keep up with me. After all, it was a failed attempt. I am still not riding a bike.
Surinameplein. How many times haven’t I heard this announcement in the tram? This is the stop where I waited for the tram to take me to the centre. Tram 1 if I needed to go to Leidseplein, tram 17 if Rozengracht or Dam Square was where I wanted to go. I would take the same trams in the opposite direction, for just two stops, to go to Lelylaan, my train station on the way to the office. “Please remember to check out with your OV chipcard.”
This was the first stop after Surinameplein when in tram 1 direction Central Station. This is where my first gym was and also some entertainment close to home, such as cafes or shops. It was where the Overtoom started (or ended) and the Vondelpark was just behind the building pictured above. Overtoomsesluis was my stomping ground.
Just by the bridge at Overtoomsesluis, Oslo is where I used to come for drinks, first with my ex, then with friends or by myself. It was an unpretentious neighourhood place and I was quite shocked to hear it burnt to the ground one night at the beginning of 2018. They are still busy repairing the damage caused by the fire.
~CAFE TER BRUGGE, NOW BAR KOSTA~
Across the street from Oslo was Ter Brugge, another neighbourhood cafe where I used to go perhaps even more often than to Oslo. Sometimes, my ex would meet me there after his work (at the time when I was unemployed and bored), for a drink and some bites. Nothing like an old, bruin cafe, on a cold, rainy day. On warmer days, the sunny terrace was where everyone in the neighbourhood wanted to be. When I was single, I used to stop there for a glass of wine after work. To make up for the missing companion, I would just bring a book. Ter Brugge is now gone and I have not yet been to its successor, Bar Kosta.
Like Kinkerstraat and Bilderdijkstraat, Overtoom is another street name with resonance for my Amsterdam nostalgia. Here, too, I walked more times than I could count, even if to simply stare at the beautiful apartment buildings flanking the street on both sides. The most prevailing memory I have on Overtoom is coming back home one day with a bunch of ruby red gladiola flowers in my hands from one of the florists on nearby Jan Pieter Heijestraat. It was soon after I moved to Amsterdam and I had just discovered the Dutch habit of always having fresh flowers in the house, something I gladly assimilated.
~GOLDEN BROWN BAR~
The bar with the floor on the ceiling. This is how I remember the Golden Brown Bar. (The ceiling is covered in floorboards.) I am happy this place survived the gentrification that took over Jan Pieter Heijestraat in the more recent years. A few things happened at the Golden Brown Bar. This is where I came with my ex and Dragoș for a drink one day. I had just got my first salary and was happy to finally being able to treat them with a glass of wine. Less than a year later, this is where I had drinks with my now boyfriend. How things change!
Rozengracht is more Center than West but it was relatively close to where I lived. To me, it was the gateway to Jordaan. I found myself walking there many times, and yet there is one particular memory that puts the others in shade. It was late autumn 2011, the most horrible time of my life (or so I thought back then.) I was still broken-hearted and confused and being home alone in the loft did not help. So I was trying to stay out as much as possible. I did not always feel like meeting friends and bore them with my drama, which means I was spending a lot of time on my own. I was walking along the Rozengracht one such evening, the sun low in the sky, blinding my eyes. The pavement looked golden. It was freezing cold, but the sun changed everything. That moment I thought to myself that this scenario of me walking alone and at random along the streets of Amsterdam, just me and the cold sun, had become a ritual, one that I very much cherished because, in spite of the loneliness I felt, I also felt the sweet healing that came with it.
Back in 2010, Mercatorplein was not exactly a nice place to hang out. And then, Zurich cafe opened right in the square. It was the beginning of the hip in the area. At Zurich, with a cold beer in front of me, I went to celebrate my first interview ever in the Netherlands. It was also there that I had drinks with my ex and Dragoș while making plans for our summer holiday together in Romania. Little did I know that, at the end of that very holiday, I was about to lose both of them. But on that particular evening in May, on the terrace at Mercatorplein, life was still good.
Toussaint is what I call a hidden gem in Amsterdam. I was introduced to it by Dragoș, one evening in early 2015, for our first reconciling drink. Hard to forget. We met in front of the Marqt on Overtoom, then walked along the beautiful residential streets of the Helmersbuurt. There was place inside, but we decided to stay out, on the bench. We had our winter coats and it was not so cold after all. I can’t remember all the things we talked about, not even half. In fact, I can barely remember anything. For all I knew, I had just got my friend back. On the bench at Toussaint we drank red wine, we smoked, we laughed, and the candles in the window behind us melted by the time we left.
And there would be more to add to the list. Such as:
The terrace of Vondelparkpaviljoen (former location of the Film Museum) where I used to sit with a book and a glass of wine on the weekends, sometime in the summer of 2011, when being at home with my ex became unbearable.
Korsakoff, the defunct night club at the Lijnbaansgraacht 161, where I went to some extraordinary parties thrown by my ex, Dragoș, and their other DJ friends, sometimes in 2010-2011. On the outside, it looked like the classic Amsterdam house by the canal which used to serve as a warehouse in the old days. On the inside, three floors of alternative paradise, packed with people, music, and smoke. No wonder it “had” to be closed.
The bus stop at Postjesweg corner Hoofdweg where my ex told me he didn’t know if he loved me anymore. This, too, has been closed and removed.
The piece of ground at Baarsjesweg, right across the water from nowadays Bar Kosta, where I once sat crying.
Overtoom 423, where I met my now boyfriend, at the home party of some friends.
I guess this is what happens when you live in the same place for too long and you have a good memory. In future posts, I will share the Centre and the East editions of my Amsterdam nostalgia map.
In order to create anything, I have to be in a higher, almost sensual state of mind. Anything that is common is killing my imagination. I cannot write if I feel grounded, if the mood is too mundane because what I like to write about has nothing to do with that. In writing, just like in love, I am looking for elevation. I am looking for something else. It is this difference from the mundane that inspires me and nourishes my soul. I find it in a state similar to drunkenness, an intoxication of the senses and the mind. In that state, I am the happiest. In that state, I am the most creative. In that state, I feel like I am being myself. The state I am talking about is not always at hand but it’s not like I have to fight for it either. Some days it comes by itself – a sunny room, the right song, the right words in a book – some days I need to burn a candle, go for a walk, have a glass of wine, rub some perfumed oil on my wrists. Once I’m there, I hate to be interrupted and brought back. Once I’m there, I want to stay. If that’s not real, then what is it? It is, in fact, an enhanced state of reality. Only that what makes my reality has nothing to do with the mundane. But there is more to reality than the mundane. It is more than the news, the weather forecast, the train schedule, the food we have for dinner, the bill we need to pay by the end of the month. There has to be more. It is more. We just need to allow ourselves to see it. We need to allow ourselves to feel it. That’s what I’m talking about. That’s where I want to be. That’s where I’d like some others to be – with me. Most of the times I found myself there alone. But I know I am not that special. I know there must be other people out there feeling the same way, wanting the same things. They, too, are pondering upon their glass of wine and cigarette, in their city and country of residence. We just haven’t met yet. That’s why we write, take photos, express ourselves. That’s why we make noise and leave traces. Because we want to let each other know we exist, we want to let the world know we exist, we want to not be alone.
We start winter wishing for snow and we end it dreaming of sunshine. A couple of weeks ago, snow happened (again) in Amsterdam, so I went out for a walk with my camera and the enthusiasm of a six-year-old. Now I wish for spring and am really looking forward to leaving these cold months behind.
The sunshine called for a walk today. Brouwersgracht, Prinsengracht, Noordermarkt, Negen Straatjes… Streets full of people, some brave enough to have a drink outside, on the terrace, others grocery shopping at the market.
This Saturday afternoon reminded me of the times when we would be those people. Not today though. Today all I care about was the sunshine. No shopping at the market, no stop for coffee or tart, no fresh flowers, no books or magazines. Just sunshine.
Browsing through the photos I have taken and the texts I have written throughout the year, it is easy to remember the best moments of 2018. Apart from travels, literary and artistic revelations (books, movies,) some of my favourite recollections are simple moments with my friends, the dialogues we’ve had, the laughter we shared.
I made a list. Each title is a link to the story, the words in italics a fragment from it.
I regret not knowing about David Wojnarowicz earlier in my life. For those times when nothing else seemed to work, I could have turned to his words and let them talk for me. Like I do now. Little do we have in common in terms of, among others, background and lifestyle, and so I might fail to understand him thoroughly, and yet his words speak to me like no others I have ever heard.
And then the movie starts. The setting, the two, the encounter. The heart beating faster, the nights sleepless with desire. And desire. And desire. When your eyes are focused on the desired one and everything else is blurry. Finally, love happens. It is uncontrollable, it is like magic, it is the most beautiful thing that has ever happened to you. Your lover becomes you and you become your lover. “Call me by your name!” You kiss, you make love, you kiss, you make love. You talk on repeat about the delicious first moments when he said… or he did…, and you said… or you did…, and none of you knew what the other one thought and would have given anything to find out. You watch him sleeping. You cannot believe how happy you two are. When he is away, you wear his shirt – his skin against yours. With love comes the fear of loss, and eventually, loss. When you realize it is over for good, pain becomes the only way you can cope with life. The loss of the loved one. The realization that never again you two will touch, kiss or make love. And there is no consolation for that. All you can do is cry and remember. “I remember everything.” And when you smile again it is because you realize just how lucky you were to have found love – even if in the past tense.
Among other things, Alina loves to be a host. She would effortlessly throw something in the oven, get some drinks on the table, put on a nice dress and some lipstick, and wait for the guests to arrive. Food, conversation, and pretty clothes – three of her favourite things into one activity.
It started there. The first sunshine of the year. The laid-back visitors lounging on the monument at Largo de São Paulo, while Nico and I sipped on lemonades at the terrace in the square – stone, people, birds, and sun. Ships floating on silver waters. Pastel coloured neighbourhoods looking down from the top of the hills. Under the skin, I felt my blood getting warmer, boiling and circulating these sensations all throughout my body. A feeling so familiar, like falling in love. I took it home with me. It was the closest to myself I had been in a long time. It has stayed with me ever since.
Today, enjoying the sun on Jharda‘s rooftop in the 9 Streets, a cold drink at hand, I realized I no longer had a problem with routine. Routine is no longer an obstacle between myself and my creative realization because the creative ideas have left me or at least they are on hold. Then the idea to go to Westerpark and see the trees in bloom came. We sat on the grass underneath a tree and looked at the children playing happily in the park. I felt happy, too, for no particular reason. “Whoops! A cherry flower hit me,” said Jharda, and I burst into laughter almost immediately, repeating her words and imitating her voice. It was raining with cherry flowers and sunshine.
It’s a matter of resonance. I finally understand why I feel so much for Berlin – not only the city, its people as well. I like Berliners. I watch them with curiosity and admiration. Young people, families, children… The best place to watch them is the U-Bahn. I like how they talk in a low voice. I like that they read. I like the way they dress, out of synch with trends, in sync with themselves. I like how couples hold hands and lean on each other’s shoulders. It’s beautiful. It’s refreshing. It’s inspiring. So this might be it, I concluded. It’s about resonance. I resonate with Berlin and, most importantly, with its people. I am next to them and I know our thoughts are similar. This makes me feel good. It connects me with them and, in a broader sense, with their city. We are edgy, yet we are kind. We are considerate of the other while enjoying our own freedom in the city that allows us to be ourselves. We make eye contact. We like to wear black. We like to hold hands. We like the U-Bahn. We love Berlin.
It is only now, as I am sitting at this table in our beautiful baroque house in Modica Alta, a cup of tea at hand and a crystal chandelier hanging from the high, vaulted ceiling above my head, that I am finally starting to feel I am in Sicily. Through the window, the amber coloured façades are glowing in the dark. It is hard to put into words the atmosphere of this house and this majestic old town. Walking back home after a late dinner, I felt as if in the Middle Ages, passing beneath stone arches and historical street lights, step after step, up the hill. There is hardly anyone on the streets and we cannot understand why. We don’t know. We don’t care. We love it here.
How exactly to put into words the joy of being in Palermo for the first time? The sea and the shipyard on one side, the misty mountains on the other, the people’s laughter, the scooters, the music flooding out on the streets from bars and restaurants, the wooden shutters and the geraniums on our balcony – so much life and so much beauty to take in.
“Smell this jasmine,” I told her trying to come up with some sort of composition.
“Like this?” she said, burying her nose into the plant.
“That’s too much, I cannot see your face.”
“Damn it!” She stepped back. “Better?”
Some people have special powers. With them, even the most common scenes of life – going for a walk, having a drink in a cafe, sharing a pizza in a city square – become cinematic, movie-like. These people can make magic happen. Better than in the movies, better than in the books, because this magic is for real. And I can’t imagine life without it.
Ana is one of my muses. It is absolutely effortless to take good photos of her. I went to her place Tuesday after work. She waited for me with dinner, then we had coffee and chocolate on her sunny balcony in Amsterdam West. On the sounds of fado from her mother country, we moved from one room to the other, taking photos of her in what she referred to as homey circumstances.
And then I met Dragoș for a drink. We haven’t been together in Bucharest in a long time. Just like when we first met, in 2004, I waited for him in front of Unirii metro stop. We walked up to Universitate, on the same route we had taken back then. We did not go to La Motoare this time because La Motoare no longer exists. Instead, we stopped for a drink in the garden at Dianei 4. He looked handsome. He was going on a date afterwards. With him, I felt as if coming back to myself. Everything suddenly felt better, as if feels when people open up to me and I open up to them. When we hugged goodbye in front of the National Theatre – a long, warm hug – I felt drunk. It was not the alcohol – I only had one beer. It was happiness. The city itself seemed to open up to me again, and walking down to Unirii with music in my ears, I felt connected to everything and everyone around me. I thought of Dragoș, ready to love someone new. I thought of me, so different than the old, Bucharest version of myself.
This summer, I experienced my first sunrise in Vama Veche. I put the alarm clock at 05:40. The beach was full of people and they did not wake up with the alarm clock. They were there since the night before, dancing and drinking. The music was still on because the music never stops in Vama Veche. “Here comes the sun!” the crowds cheered when the pink horizon produced a bright pearl right above the waterline. Some jumped into the water throwing their clothes on the shore. Others were just watching. I was happy to be there and share the moment with all those strangers, who suddenly did not seem so strange anymore. After sunrise, when most people went to sleep, I walked to a beach bar to get myself some coffee. I could hear bits of conversations around me: “What do you mean you go to the room to take a pee?” a guy asked his friend, almost in shock. “Go pee in the sea, like everyone else!”
Elizabeth and I spent the last hot day of this summer in Amsterdam together. We met at her place for lunch and coffee, then walked along the city streets for hours on end, chatting, taking photos, losing our way a few times. “This was supposed to be a day in my life, something I do regularly, and here I am, going the wrong way.” We laughed about it and repositioned ourselves. There was no wrong way, we just kept on forgetting we were on a mission.
It’s my day off and I took the tram to go to the only appointment in the calendar. I wish I stayed home instead. It has been raining since morning, the kind of rain you know is not going to stop any time soon. Today reminds me of what the coming months are going to look like and I am not enthusiastic about it. With nothing else to do and in no mood to go back home yet, I walked. I took photos of the rain. I smelled the last flowers of this summer. And I realized I was there for real. For a whole hour, I did not miss anything.
Commercials were over and the movie started. The black and white, slow-motion images of the dirty dancers, sensually invading each other’s personal space, arching backs and lifting legs. The song, sending me back to high-school, when I first saw the movie, on videotape: “The night we met I knew I needed you so / And if I had the chance I’d never let you go.” Jharda and I could not refrain from making some exaltation sounds, like groupies, covering our eyes to avoid more embarrassment. Dirty Dancing. We were seeing Dirty Dancing. Sometimes during the movie, I realized Cinecenter had become my living room, and Jharda my companion for this favourite activity of mine, in this favourite cinema.
“Why do we always come to see this kind of movies together?” I asked her during the hot, “Cry To Me” scene. Jharda shook her head and laughed.
The street lights were still on as we walked into the Red Light District minutes before sunrise. The trash, the vacant windows, the hungry birds, they all reminded of the night that had just passed, its presence still tangible, sticking to the skin, sleazy in the morning air. At 8 am sharp the church bells sang their century-old melody. No one on the street, except for a few suspect characters: a man with a cello, some young people with cameras, two guys on a bench throwing bread crumbs to the birds. Did they just come, like us, or were they about to leave and finally get some sleep?
New York – the city of superlatives in the country of superlatives… Expectations were high when I arrived, four days ago. Only New York could put me on a plane for eight hours. I could not get my head around the fact that I was finally here. As I lay in the hotel bed soon after arrival, gazing at skyscrapers through the window, I thought the city was a blank page to me. I had absolutely no history and no memories here. How strange. David Wojnarowicz is the reason I came to New York. I wanted to be in his city. I wanted to walk the streets he once walked. I wanted to be closer. Ever since I discovered his art and especially since I read his books – memoirs, journals, biography – something has changed for me. There was a connection. There was inspiration. What I feel for David Wojnarowicz could be classified as love, I suppose. I feel for him. His words bring tears to my eyes. I miss him. I never met him.
How much should we reveal? How much of ourselves should we show to the world when there is such a thin line between acceptance and rejection? How much of what we think or feel can we say and still be accepted? This conflict between the reality of one’s inner life and the expression of it into the outside world is a source of constant unrest. “To make the private public is an act of courage,” said American artist and writer David Wojnarowicz. He, too, was afraid that exposing the truth about himself might have a negative impact in the way his work would be received.
The need for hiding or revealing personal truths and feelings is not reserved for artists and writers only. There are everyday situations, for everyday people, when we need to think twice or ten times before an action – verbal or otherwise. Whether it’s about work, family, friends, or lovers, the question remains the same: how much should we reveal? How much of ourselves are we allowed to show and to what extent is this beneficial for us?
I will remember 2018 as the year of crushes. I know at least half a dozen friends who have experienced a crush this year, each story more beautiful and heart-wrenching than the other. The enthusiasm, the heart that starts beating again, the obsessive checking of the phone, the sleepless nights, the desire, the imagination running wild, the over-interpretation of the smallest of gesture, the despair, the search for meaning where meaning does not seem to exist, the unbearable need for expression. Without warning, we have these emotions and physical torments and we don’t know what to do with them. How much should we reveal? Our whole existence depends on whether our crush – a total stranger until recently – responds to our infatuation for them or not. We die to express our feelings for them, but we don’t know how and we don’t know if this is the right thing to do, especially when it becomes obvious that our crush does not have a crush on us, too. Once the machine is put in motion, however, it is impossible to stop. We’ll just be hopelessly and secretly adrift for a while. We have our friends or journals to tell all the details, the crush does not even need to know.
Because: Would they reciprocate? Would they understand? Would they at least be flattered? Or would they rather condescend, or worse, remain silent? Ah, the mystery and coolness of the person at the other end of the feeling. Should we even bother with these questions in the case of an impossible crush, when revealing makes no sense at all? And it has nothing to do with becoming vulnerable or making a fool of ourselves – some of us do not even care about this so much. It is just about sparing the world of one more nonsense.
“The last radical gesture for freedom is the imagination,” said same David Wojnarowicz. Imagination is indeed such a relief. In our mind, we can think the impossible. In our heart, we can feel the impossible, too. There might be silence at the other end of the feeling, but getting a reaction should not be the purpose. The purpose is to feel. And how much should we reveal? As much as we want, of course. It is up for us to decide if a positive reaction from others is more vital than personal expression. I believe there is grace in telling the truth. I believe there is grace in defeat.