Of 19,5 hour-long train journeys

A bag filled with food accompanies us on our almost 20-hour long train journey from Bucharest back to Vienna. We are gonna be arriving on Anna’s birthday.

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Side note: Going to the toilet on a train is infinitely more relaxing when you can look out of the open toilet window.

During our seven days in Bucharest we have grown used to huge boulevards lined with Ceaușescu-era tall buildings, reminding us slightly of the architecture and pale colours of Arab desert cities, to cars parked everywhere, discovering public spaces of all shapes and forms in every corner of the city, large distances (well, actually we are not so sure about that), the sight of the “House of the People”, to people asking us what we’ve seen and what we’ve done yet, to busy schedules, to the vastness of Piața Victoriei. Also, we have learned to curse the ruling party, PSD, like a local.

Our opinion about Bucharest (in German and recorded in the train):

Anna:

 

Sarah:

 

We have bonded over spectacular one-of-a kind architecture, our shared admiration and fascination for this strange city and, of course, ambiguity over Gilmore Girls. Now all is left is to bring together our research results into a final paper, to produce our radio piece, edit our short film and dream of a lively Piața Victoriei.

To quote a world-famous Austrian: We’ll be back.

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Building of the day: Gada de Nord, train station in Bucharest

Insider joke of the day: “Which time are we leaving? 1 p.m. or 2 p.m.?” (It was 2 p.m.)

GIF of the day: #confusedabouttimeshift #waitingontrain

Of public space and farewells

Our last entire day in Bucharest, the city we had learned to love in these last few days, came fast. Surprised and sad about how fast the week had passed, we headed to our first appointment. Florin Badița, civic activist and initiator of ‘Corruption kills’, or in Romanian ‘Corupția ucide’ and his friend Dalia agreed to meet with us, once again, at Piața Victoriei, one of the most important squares for our project.

Both pointed out that the protest culture in Romania is strongly evolving and that people want to become more active in civic life and also think more about public space. We also learned that Romanian society is still learning to express their free speech in public space through protests.

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With our heads full we headed to the Palace of the Parliament or “House of the People”. Separated into two different groups we experienced the second biggest administrative building in the world. Huge halls, long hallways, gigantic carpets and heavy curtains accompanied our tour. From the balcony of the building we could see the whole huge Boulevardul Unirii and Piața Constituției, where a stage for a festival was just being built. It was a nice contrast to see the square empty and not crowded by cars, but surrounded by cars along a fence around the square. After the end of our tour we went through Parcul Izvor to Parcul Cișmigiu, being as lively as ever and thus, a big contrast to the huge and empty rooms we had just seen.

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Arriving at Parcul Cișmigiu we met with Oana-Valentina Suciu, assistant professor at the Department of Political Science of the University of Bucharest. Oana appeared to us to be one of the most likeable people from the start and we ended up having one of our longest meetings with her – Thank you, Oana!

From Oana we learned that with the evolving of the protest culture the culture of being kind to each other was rediscovered by the people in Bucharest too – at least during the protests. She more or less agreed to our theory about the in-between spaces and little green spots but added that the people using these spots and spaces often do not realise that they in fact are using public space.

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Finished with our conversation we said our goodbyes and went through the park to one of her recommendations, Cărturești Carusel. It turned out to be a real insider tip: the old art nouveau building was restored beautifully and houses a bookshop now. Shopping for books, postcards and ceramics, we had a realisation: this is our last night in Bucharest – we had to enjoy the atmosphere of the city once more. Getting some Asian food and having a drink at a rooftop bar seemed to us the perfect ending to a perfect field trip. We drank to everything we had experienced, to everyone we had met and vowed to visit Bucharest again.

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Building of the day: Cărturești Carusel, the bookshop

Insider joke of the day: “How about we stay another week in Bucharest?”

GIF of the day: #leaving #sad #wanttostay

Of close suburbs and distant apartment buildings

Today we tried to once again escape the city centre. Taking the tram we reached our first stop: Rahova in the south-west of Bucharest. Located just around the corner of the parliament, the district is still seen as a suburb by the people of Bucharest – even though it’s just 20 minutes away from Piața Unirii and the city centre on foot, actually starting right behind the “House of the People” and stretching to the borders of the city in the South.

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Rahova is a residential district that had been described to us as a sort of  low-income neighbourhood – not as bad as Ferentari, which some of our interview partners had called “the ghetto of Bucharest” – but still quite different from the city centre. On our way into the area, looking out the tram window, we noticed huge apartment buildings lining the main street of the area. Getting off the tram close to the border of the city, we were greeted by many little shops, men watching the streets, and single family houses. We decided to get coffee and explore the area.

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The neighbourhood offers both pretty houses and neglected buildings but due to caring people who are gardening and running their businesses Rahova leaves a good impression on us. After strolling around for a while, we were getting closer to the big apartment blocks around the main street. Once again we noticed some in-between spaces crowded with cars and fenced green spots, most, if not all of them unused because of the fences and because they were full of trash.

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Arriving at the other side of the district, the part which is closest to the ‘House of the People’ we stopped by ‘The Ark’ for lunch, a building that was supposed to be a hub for cultural industries and attract the middle class but didn’t quite take off. Right vis-à-vis is a famous flower market that is an interesting contrast to this hipster-ish building: On this side of the street there were many people on the streets, having barbecues, cutting flowers, selling handcrafts, and someone, all of a sudden, threw a bottle out of a window of a run-down building.

On our way to our next stop we passed by the construction site of the Romanian People’s Salvation Cathedral, blocking our way to the metro and planned to be even bigger than Ceaușescu’s “House of the People” next to it.

This was also the moment we realised that the “House of the People” acts as an enormous barrier to the city centre because when we tried to reach the next metro stop, Parcul Izvor, to get to our second district of the day, we had to go all around it and the construction site of the cathedral to get there.

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Finally arriving at the beautiful metro station of Titan, we discovered the district of the same name. Huge apartment buildings, benches that people were using, green spaces and life on the streets leave a good impression on us, even better than in Rahova. This neighbourhood, to us, seemed different from the others, we had the impression that people were really using public space. Unfortunately we did not have that much time to go deeper into the district, because we had an appointment with Vlad Odobescu, an investigative journalist.

We arrived at Piața Victoriei right when it was getting dark, so we decided to go to a nearby café in the Museum of the Romanian Peasant. Quickly we got into a conversation about protests, public space and parks. After getting some dinner we called it a day and, being quite tired from a long day, headed back to the hostel.

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“Building” of the day: Building in the back of the parliament

Insider joke of the day: Us: ”Ohhh there’s a sweet doggy” Dog: “Bark, bark, bark, grrrrr”

GIF of the day: #neighbourhood #lifeonthestreets #titan

Of headaches and protests

Today was spent mostly by dedicating time to our shiny blog and recovering from a night out partying with people we had met Friday evening in the park. We reflected on our theories and talked a lot about our experiences with the city since we arrived.

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Florin Badita, our planned interview partner for Monday recommended us a protest in the evening, so we headed to Piața Victoriei around 7 pm to join the event: Gust de libertate / A taste for freedom. The event was a piano concert for freedom and justice in the middle of Piața Victoriei. It had already started when we arrived, people crowded in a circle around the piano in the middle of the square. They were equipped with Romanian flags, funny signs and face masks in anticipation of tear gas from the police as it had happened at the recent protest on August 10th.

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During the concert the atmosphere of the square was magic: heavy clouds covered the sky, it was windy and getting cold and sort of gave the feeling of an apocalypse approaching. But the concert and the people listening to the music, talking to each other, using their smartphones to film, lightened up the vibe and thus transmitted a feeling of unity. People brought their children, crayons for their children to draw on the pavement, bicycles and dogs, and even chairs and parasols.

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We really enjoyed the concert, unfortunately it was interrupted for a few minutes when it started raining heavily. But after the rain had passed there were still people on the square, less but still. We stayed a while but then decided to head home, because we were wet and felt cold from the rain – we are such bad protesters, sorry to disappoint – so we took the bus back to our hostel and got back to blogging.

PS: Turns out it’s quite dangerous to have Netflix in your hostel room because you might end up re-watching Gilmore Girls until late at night.

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“Building” of the day: Ruin at Piața Victoriei

Insider joke of the day: Muie PSD! (People shouted during the protest/concert)

GIF of the day:  #gilmoregirls #applauseforus #wearerockingourproject

Of humble Communist palaces and in-between spaces

Our day began with an early appointment with Cristi Borcan from studioBASAR, an architecture office and public space practice based in Bucharest. We met with him in front of the parliament and walked with him through the city all the way to Piața Universității. Cristi showed us the spaces behind Boulevardul Unirii in the back of Piața Constituției, the in-between spaces, as he called them. Those spaces are mainly being used as parking lots and pedestrian walks in between the tall buildings on the wide boulevards, that in turn house governmental departments, and the smaller houses, that got left over from the old city or that have been built after 1989.

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These in-between spaces were not created on purpose, they are rather a side effect of the creation of the spaces of power and propaganda and their buildings. In a way, the former spaces of power and propaganda still function as just that, especially Piața Constituției.

The in-between spaces in the back however are the complete opposite: they are not expressions of power and propaganda and could thus evolve in an uncontrolled and somewhat wild manner. But that’s not enough: the back side even offers some glimpses into the remains of the old city centre and all those layers are overlapping spectacularly.

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During our stroll around we discovered many little green spots, surrounded by heavy unnecessary fences. Cristi assumed that those fences are there for two reasons: Firstly, because the fences made were good for the economy.

Secondly, because they are a reaction to the fall of Communism. During the Communist era everything was in public hands, people should not own any private property. After the fall of the regime it seemed just natural that people wanted to get their hands on some private property or to get their once socialised properties back. Turbo-capitalism descended on the country and even small green spaces in front of residential buildings were seen as private spaces. That’s why, in order to protect their property and at the same time show who it belonged to, people fenced in everything, even the smallest green spots. That does not mean though that these green areas are being used and well-kept, most of them are neglected and covered in trash. Due to the fences we experienced these green spots as negative spaces.

Arriving at Piața Universității, Cristi pointed out once again the importance of this square and its public space when it comes to protests. During the Revolution in December 1989, the people, listening to Ceaușescu’s last speech at Piața Revoluției, ran to Piața Universității when the situation escalated because the square is an important transportation hub and surrounded by international hotels that are hosting journalists.

This is why Piața Universității was always an important space for protests, also because it is located directly in the middle of the city and at the crossing of two major boulevards. As most powerful gesture in public space blocking these boulevards is a handy tool for protesters and also for the use of public space. Many people overthink their understanding and use of public space, once there have been part of protests right in the middle of the street, where usually cars run by.

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After we had said goodbye to Cristi and had had lunch, we spontaneously snatched a place at a guided tour at the former palace of Ceaușescu, which he hid for 28 years from the Romanian population, to learn all about Communist humility. As our guide, who reminded us of Dracula, always used to say in the funniest and, at the same time, weirdest way: “A very humble palace”. Out of 150 rooms we managed to see 50 in just over an hour, including the swimming pool, the private cinema and the wine tasting cellar – most of it barely ever used due to Ceaușescu’s paranoia so that he wouldn’t invite people to the house.

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Later on we went to Parcul Herăstrău, a park in the north of Bucharest. Caterina Preda had recommended the park and its public life to us yesterday. The park was well alive with people. Along the paths through the park are little shops, selling popcorn, ice cream or cotton candy, small cafés, crowded with people, playgrounds, where kids and their parents played, skateparks, populated by teenagers, and boat rentals at the big lake in the middle of the park. All this liveliness confirmed the statement of a lot of our interview partners, that public life is often lived out in parks.

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We decided to stay in the park, take a break from the city centre and let the relaxing atmosphere sink in. Finally an attractive, multi-faceted and accessible public space with a huge lake where we could dangle our feet in the water!

After a while we stumbled upon the the largest beer hall in Europe, called Berăria H, situated with a lovely view of the lake. Coincidentally there was even a wine festival on the terrace in front of the beer hall complete with wine tasting. So we decided to forget about our tiredness and stopped to have some wine.

 

At the wine tasting we ran into three girls from Germany and Romania who invited us to go dancing with them in the evening. We joyfully agreed and met with them in the city centre. As we went to the old town to go to a club, we were surprised how much the old town had changed during a few hours. Where we had just a couple of hours earlier sat to have lunch on a quiet street, the party was going on loudly. The street was crowded with people, being loud, drinking, dancing and very funny to watch. In front of the clubs music was blasting through the open windows onto the street. All of a sudden the city centre had completely changed its face: almost every house in this part of the city is either a club, bar or a fast food restaurant, everything seemed like one big club. This is why we were wondering: is this also a kind of public space? What do our readers think?

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Building of the day: Ceausescu’s house

Insider joke of the day: “We may visit the humble tea room now” (phrase our guide at the Ceausescu house use)

GIF of the day: #traffic #cars #nosidewalks

Of dead batteries and powerful parks

Another day, another two interviews. We still couldn’t let go of Piața Victoriei so that when we met up with our first interview partner of the day it was one of the topics we talked about. Caterina Preda, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Bucharest, gave us some really interesting insights into the connections between the protests, street art and public space.

For instance she told us about how the protests since the 2012 Roșia Montană protests have truly been places for socialising with friends and acquaintances and at the recent protests since winter 2017 people have even been bringing food and hot tea for the protesters so they could stay longer in the cold. She talked about this as Bucharest’s very own culture of protesting.

When the protests against the government started in the winter of 2017 people started bringing funny messages to Piața Victoriei. Every night people – including Caterina – would go to see what people had come up with.

Halfway into the interview, the battery of the camera died, so we had to improvise a bit. It was a very valuable lesson as to why it can come in really handy to have two batteries because when your camera display is telling you that you have still got 70% battery left, it is obviously lying to you.

Caterina also gave us a lot of recommendations on what we should see in the city, so we have been contemplating staying another week because there is sooo much to see here!

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Upon her recommendation we walked through Parcul Cișmigiu on our way to our meeting with Stefan, still thinking about our realization that small green spaces and also parks, as we have heard from some people, might be the true public spaces of Bucharest. We told both Stefan and Caterina about this theory. Stefan had a somewhat different view on the issue, Caterina, however, somewhat agreed. After thinking about it she came to the conclusion that the only public spaces she uses are the parks in her neighbourhood.

Stefan however stressed his point about shopping centres, being clean and big, and other private spaces like apartments as the spaces people really use for meeting friends and hanging out. The use of apartments for meeting friends and hanging out seem to be a continuity from Communist times when people felt safer in their own private spaces, the only spaces that were their own, that weren’t monitored.

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We met with Stefan at beans & dots, a cafè located in a multi-functional hipster building, including many co-working spaces, cafès and a theatre in the basement. After our meeting with him we called it a day and walked back to our hostel, once again enjoying the architecture and spirit of the city.

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Building of the day: House at Calea Victoriei 32-34

Insider joke of the day: Has the battery died?

GIF of the day:  #camera #interview #deadbattery

Of drippy air conditions and potatos on a stick

Still impressed by our visit of Piața Victoriei, we tried once more to understand the square, its rules and dimensions today. For this we met with Iuliana Dumitru from Tranzit in front of the natural history museum, that is also located at Piața Victoriei, at the famous giraffe.

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This giraffe is a really important landmark for the people in Bucharest and their protest culture. During protests, when the phones aren’t working, it serves as a meeting point and therefore became a major identity sign for protesters over the years. With this setting we started our conversation about protests, public space, monuments and their connections.

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Our guide Iuliana led us on the Calea Victoriei to Piața Revoluției. On our way we stopped by Autoservire Amzei for lunch – this is a real insider tipp, it was so good and cheap – thank you, Iuliana! We discovered small streets and green spots hidden behind old palaces at the Calea Victoriei. And we once again made the acquaintance of dripping air conditions and their lose cables, often reeled like artworks in the air.

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When we arrived at Piața Revoluției we were greeted by a big parking lot (surprise surprise!) and a statue park, including an artwork, that is being called “potato on a stick” by the people in Bucharest. The square has many things in common with Piața Victoriei, like the big parking lots and a lot of traffic, but we also discovered some major differences: Especially around the statues a kind of public space has evolved that is actually being used by, for example, skateboarders and people who are sitting on the benches. Close to the statues we ended our tour and Iuliana invited us to come to an event at Tranzit in the evening – an offer we gladly accepted.

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Athena (left) and Iuliana (right) at Tranzit

Tranzit, a multi-country-network for contemporary art – a huge garden, oh, and there’s also an office, in a residential neighbourhood just behind the parliament. On our way there Iuliana reminds us that this is one of the neighbourhoods that narrowly escaped Ceaușescu’s destruction of the city centre. 

Tranzit doesn’t just work on interesting projects but also dabbles in making pickled vegetables, liqueur and schnaps – all of it from vegetables and fruits from their amazing garden (and we’ve tasted everything, so trust us, it’s all amazing). We also met Athena, who is responsible for all the good jam and marmalade and four adorable adopted kittens roaming the garden.

Listening to a weird techno-flute-performance later that day, the evening event at Tranzit, we suddenly came to a realization that we want to share with you:

All day we have been encountering small green spaces with benches in between or in the back of the tall, sometimes monumental apartment buildings. Those small green spaces somehow have their own quality to them.

This is a city that is dotted with small, publicly accessible, sort of cosy-looking green spaces with benches or even playgrounds. So maybe these small spaces are the real public spaces of Bucharest because these are the places that are actually being used, and maybe people are even better off using the huge squares as parking lots and not as public space?

At the moment, the small spaces still seem to be enough but what is going to happen when the demand for public space grows, as several people have already suggested to us? Maybe then Bucharesters are going to question why they cannot use certain spaces, why most of the big squares are mostly being used as parking lots, and are maybe even going to start claiming and appropriating those squares for themselves – even without the protests.

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Building of the day: The house and garden of Tranzit

Insider joke of the day: “We love techno” #sarcasm

GIF of the day: #romania #airconditions #loosecable

 

Of arriving at the end of the world

We started our day as planned with a Free Walking Tour. Our tour guide Șerban led us through the city centre. It was perfect to get a first impression of the old town and a short reminder of the history of Bucharest. We saw the last caravanserai in Bucharest, Hanul Manuc, where the peace treaty between the Russian and the Ottoman Empire was famously negotiated in the 19th century. Interestingly, it serves as a fancy restaurant today, which goes to show that the commercialization of history is rampant.

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Walking through ‘the little Paris of the East’, as Bucharest was called before the Communist era, we stopped at Calea Victoriei, Bucharest’s most famous street, at an old church, saved from Ceaușescus mega-city-project by getting slided a few meters out of the demolition zone, and we also walked by the Czech Centre, where they remembered the anniversary of the Prague spring in 1968.

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Ending our tour at Piața Universității, we got in a conversation with Șerban about protests and public space and he turned out to be our first spontaneous interview partner. Talking about his friends and their use of public space, he pointed out that the need for public space in Bucharest is developing. He also told us that he doesn’t like to go to protests anymore, because lately politicians have been trying to instrumentalize the protests to their advantage.

Next up was Piața Victoriei, but see for yourself:

We were so shocked, overwhelmed and speechless upon seeing and experiencing this space. This is why we decided to meet with our first contact in this exact space the next day to try and get her take on it.

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After we gave up on trying to understand Piața Victoriei, we stopped by Parcul Izvor, right next to the parliament. The park was very animated and underlined Serbans statement about the need for public space. Children played at the playground, teenagers met at the benches, people were taking their dogs out for walks.

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The parliament, or former House of the People, as Ceaușescu called it, seems like the end of the world to us due to its sheer dimensions and because it conceals completely the city that is behind it.

Piața Constituției, which is facing the parliament, is a perfect example of a large square that could – mostly for its size – be a public space but isn’t, for a couple of reasons. Firstly, it was of course never envisioned as a public space by Ceaușescu. Instead it was supposed to be another one of those spaces for people to gather and listen to the regime’s speeches. Today it functions mostly as a huge parking lot and we’ve also heard from our interview partners that it is being used for concerts, car exhibitions and similarly flashy events. Secondly, the parliament looms right before it – probably not the prettiest sight for the people of Bucharest and still very much connected to Ceaușescu. What’s more, there is no public and social infrastructure – the metro doesn’t stop there, neither do busses or trams -, there are only very narrow strips of grass that function as dividing lines between the big space in the middle that is being used as a parking lot by everyone, and the tall buildings that serves as government ministries today.

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What makes the space even less inviting is the fact that there is absolutely no pedestrian crossing connecting the sidewalk in front of the parliament and the Piața, and the very busy traffic that makes it very difficult to cross.

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We briefly thought of ways to turn this huge square into a real, accessible and attractive public space – by using the obvious tools for activating this huge space: rolling out grass, bringing benches, maybe even housing a small café and using it for small cultural events.

But then we dismissed this idea because we came to the realization that for all the reasons listed above and because there are so many other spaces that have much more potential, Piața Constituției just isn’t working as a public space. It would need a much deeper transformation – not just of the square itself but of its surroundings.

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Building of the day: Empty building on Calea Victoriei

Insider joke of the day: Fun Fact! (The phrase Șerban, our guide, always uses when he talks about Vlad the Impaler and impaling)

GIF of the day: #caravan #seeightseeingtour #caravanserai

Of breakfast dreams and advertisement heaven

Our train to Bucharest gives the impression as if it had travelled to us straight from the last century: a blue Romanian train, complete with hectic Romanian train conductors speaking only Romanian and a few English phrases – our first encounter with the country we are going to spend the next week in. The sign on the train announces a journey from Wien Westbahnhof to Bucuresti Nord – another reminder of the not too distant past.

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The wooden interior of our train coach reminds us of a boat’s interior, meanwhile the train conductor wants to sell us a two-person-compartment for 40€ extra. Neither him nor his offer seem particularly trustworthy to us, so we decline and have some wine to toast our journey. But not enough, our imagination of travelling luxuriously in a sleeping car, waking up to an included breakfast in the morning, is destroyed brutally with his impolite “No breakfast. Pay for breakfast in restaurant”. Before and after passing the Hungarian-Romanian border at around 3 am at night we dream of breakfast and arriving well-rested in the city we have chosen to research. After a 20 hour journey we have finally arrived in Bucharest.

Our neighbourhood lies south to the infamous Boulevard Unirii and greets us with a space that functions as a sidewalk for pedestrians, path for cyclists, parking space and a sort of public space with colourful benches – existing side by side.

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Bucharest greets us with turbo capitalism – the various billboards on top of the buildings are blinking and shining colourfully. The different companies are trying to outshine each other with their advertisements – there is even a huge can of pepsi on one of the enormous buildings built in the Ceausescu era in the former historic centre of Bucharest that had to be razed to the ground for his new city centre.

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Shopping centers, orthodox churches, many of which have been rebuilt after 1989, wide boulevards and the omnipresent flow of cars dominate the city centre. Above all this looms the huge former House of the People, now in use as the Romanian parliament, one of the largest buildings of the world.  

For tomorrow we have a walking tour planned, so stay tuned for more on huge buildings, impressive traffic and public space!

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Building of the day: Făgăraș, train-station, midway between the Hungarian-Romanian border and Bucharest

Insider joke of the day: dreaming of the promised breakfast

GIF of the day: #vampire #Romania #Transylvania 

Bucharest: Public life in protest

We are Anna and Sarah, urban planning and architecture students, looking forward to our journey to Bucharest in September 2018. Our research focus is on the romanian capital, its public space and protest culture.

What we are interested in are the connections between public space and protests, demonstrations, marches etc. as one of the main uses of public space in Bucharest – if not the main, predominant one. We have already heard from Stefan Ghenciulescu that public life takes place mostly at home or in what we have started calling ‘privatised public spaces‘ like shopping malls. That was sort of the starting point for our research interest.

Our research pointed out that there are some spots in the city, where public space isn’t used on a daily basis. We think that these public spaces are often too big, monumental and politically charged to be adopted by individuals and small groups. We want to explore the meaning of those largely unused public spaces, focusing specifically on what we call spaces of power and propaganda. From what we‘ve read and again, from what Stefan has told us, we are wondering whether there‘s a continuity regarding those spaces: Once a space of power and propaganda, always a space of power and propaganda?

We know by now that many of those public spaces have been built in the Ceausescu era, with the very specific purpose to show the power of the party, but especially Ceausescu‘s power over the people and to have spaces to be able to address and control them. So this is why we have formulated the hypothesis/assumption that those spaces might not only be too big in their dimensions and too unflexible but also a reminder of the past and this is why people might be hesitant to use them. Protests, demonstrations and marches might be the only possible ways to use and (re-)appropriate those spaces due to the large number of people involved.

Another reason for the lack of use of these politically charged public spaces could also be that people have become used to living their public lives at home, at other people’s homes or in shopping malls, so that they don’t even consider using actual public spaces in the city. But why is there this vacuum of use of public space?

This is what we want to investigate – with a focus on the role and function of protests in public spaces.

Looking forward to seeing and reading you soon on our blog!

Anna & Sarah

image source: Vlad Petri – http://www.vladpetri.ro/portfolios/proteste/