On Sunday morning, my last day in Bucharest, my last day in Romania, my last day in Eastern Europe, I knew exactly what I wanted to do: I wanted to go to church. I wanted to go back down to the Old City, visit a few more museums, get another pretzel. But mostly I wanted to go to church. I am not particularly religious, but Bucharest is peppered with gorgeous old orthodox churches--Ceaucescu had torn some down, and he had built big ugly concrete apartment complexes surrounding others, to hide them, but this has always been a very religious country and even he knew he couldn't obliterate them from the landscape.
And I knew which one I wanted to visit: St. Nicholas Russian Orthodox church down in the Old City. Gabi and I had walked past it on Thanksgiving night, and I had peeked inside and had been blown away by all the gold and icons and extravagant, crazy, over-the-top beauty. Ha. As if I would ever find it again. Ha. Ha. Ha. Even with a map, I can hardly ever find anything. But I was determined.
The last time I'd been in a Russian church was in, well, in Russia, back in 1991, with Ruth Niskanen. I remember old women in carpet slippers and headscarves kneeling on the floor (there are no pews), crossing themselves repeatedly, and kissing every icon within reach of their lips. I remember them chatting away incessantly and coming and going freely, as though they were at a party. I remember the doors in the iconostasis opening and the priest sailing out, gorgeous in his tall hat and gown, swinging his incense shaker and followed by a plume of sweet smoke, and singing boys.
I wanted to see this again. So I packed up my camera, my last remaining 50 lei, my hotel map, and set out in what I vaguely thought might be the direction of the Old City.
Almost immediately, I heard singing.
There were two orthodox churches just a couple of blocks from my hotel. The masses are sung, and both churches had speakers mounted so that the sound carried outside, drawing me in. It was beautiful and haunting.
I went inside both. They were packed. People were coming and going, and a woman in a glassed-in booth was selling narrow brown candles, for people to light in the little shelters outside--one for the living, one for the dead.
("I understand that 'morti' means dead," I had told one of my Romanian friends. "But what does Roman Numeral Seven mean?" And he was kind enough not to laugh.)
In all, I went to four churches on Sunday. I took only one picture inside only one church. It seemed rude to photograph people while they were worshiping, so I put my camera on "no flash," and clicked, just once.
After church--I did not stay for the whole thing, which seemed to go on for hours, but did as I remembered the women in Russia doing, coming and going as I pleased--I turned and walked back up Calea Victoriei to the pretzel place. Ah. Closed on Sundays.
And then back down the street on a mission to find the Old City.
I found many beautiful things along the way.
"The bottom of the building is the remains of the former Securitate headquarters (the fearful Directia 5). The National Union of Romanian Architects has its offices on top (glass structure). There's also an underground cafe-bar of which entrance is on the right wing, where you see the petite car. It's like a symbiosis of the bad old times and the freedom of expression."
Securitate was Ceacescu's much-feared and brutal secret police. And so this building shows good springing from bad, new hope from old repression. A creative and fantastic building.
The former royal palace, now an art museum where I spent an hour or so.
I walked the cobbled streets, bought some jewelry for Christmas presents, stopped at a stand and bravely ordered food, not knowing what it would be. (A hotdog! Street food is the same the world over. Though this was actually a very spicy German-style sausage.)
And so when I got to the kurtos colac ("tunnel bread") stand, I was too full (and running out of money) to buy any. But I watched them make it: They took a long, thin hollow tube of dough, slid it onto a pole, and then rolled it up and down over hot coals.
They rolled the hot bread in crushed nuts which were spread out on a flat tin pan. Then they slid a plastic sack over the finished treat, to keep it warm and clean, I guess. I should have bought some. When will I ever have a chance again to eat Romanian tunnel bread in Romania?
Instead, I gave my last bit of money to the gypsy fortune-teller. He stood at a small red cart, which played music. Three colorful parrots bobbed and nodded on perches. I handed him five lei, and he touched one of the birds with a stick. The bird hopped down, bent its head, and plucked a piece of paper from a box of many folded papers. The man handed it to me: my fortune. (It was very long, and not very interesting.)
I raised my camera and made an inquiring face, to ask if it was ok to take a picture.
Instead, the man picked up his stick again. Two of the birds hopped onto it, and gently, so gently that I didn't realize at first what he was doing, he placed one on my head, and one on my shoulder.
And then he took my camera from me, and snapped a photo.
On my way back to my hotel, where I was meeting Cristi and Lavi and Adi and Stela for dinner, look what I found:
St. Nicholas! But now there was no need to go back inside.