The Museum of the Romanian Peasant, formerly the Museum of Communism
We had Friday morning free, and I knew exactly where I wanted to go: the Museum of the Romanian Peasant. I checked my hotel map, checked it again, triple-checked the little tiny Google on my little tiny iPod Touch screen, wrote down the address, figured I couldn't get lost.
I set out along Calea Victoriei (and wondered why they had named a street after Queen Victoria--surely her reach didn't extend all the way to Eastern Europe?) (No, I was told later; it's Victory Street, commemorating Romania's war of independence in 1878.)
A block from my hotel, I saw a dog swing out of one of the weedy abandoned yards and trot purposefully up the street ahead of me. This was not entirely alarming; I had seen dogs trotting here and there all over Paris, all over Irish towns. Loose dogs here in St. Paul aren't uncommon.
But the Bucharest dogs are a little different; most of them belong to no one; they are feral.
This is not to say they are necessarily dangerous or wolf-like or are about to take you down; the ones I saw looked like ordinary dogs, though scruffy and skittish. But they are still a problem. Sometimes they gather in packs. (In my four days there I saw one pack of about eight, and it looked quite intimidating.) Sometimes they bite people (about 75 a year). And sometimes, though rarely, they do worse: two people in the last five years have been killed. A woman was mauled, and a Japanese tourist was bitten in the leg. The teeth pierced his femoral artery, and he bled to death.
As a country still emerging from communism, Romania faces challenges. The dogs are one challenge. Another is the unclaimed property--gorgeous old houses, commercial buildings, empty lots, all of which were nationalized and seized from their owners. Now that communism has fallen, nobody knows who owns many of the buildings--there is no documentation, no paperwork. Entrepreneurs are afraid to leap in and start refurbishing them, lest the original owners wait until the work is done and then step forward to claim the buildings.
And so a sort of paralysis has seized the city. "Bucharest feels like it's on the verge of coming alive," I had told one of my new Romanian friends. "Yes," she said. "It has felt that way for 10 years."
Feral dog along Kiseleff Boulevard
The dog and I continued up the street. We reached Victory Square, which felt more like a circle--like a giant roundabout, where six major thoroughfares came together in a continuous ballet of traffic and stoplights and crosswalks. I needed to cross over to Kiseleff Boulevard to continue my journey to the museum, and the dog seemed to be heading the same direction. I watched while he joined the throng of people waiting for the light; he waited, too, and then crossed when everyone else crossed. This is how you survive in an unfamiliar environment, whether you are a dog or a human--you watch the natives, and do as they do. (This is how I later got my pretzel.)
This dog had a sore on its stomach and a yellow tag on its ear. I cannot explain the sore, which was almost perfectly round--it looked almost like a burn from a very large cigarette--but the yellow tag I knew: it meant that the dog had been spayed or neutered.
Your correspondent at Victory Square
There have been all kinds of programs to deal with the dog problem, which began when Ceausescu started nationalizing those buildings for his massive projects: people were evicted from their homes and, with nowhere to go, let their pets loose. The abandoned animals bred, and bred again, and now there are an estimated 50,000 feral dogs in Bucharest, and more out in the countryside. I saw them sleeping in doorways, rummaging through garbage, heard them every night fighting outside my hotel.
Some are cared for, in small ways. On my last day in Bucharest I saw a big brown furry dog lounging near a piece of cardboard--his bed?--in the doorway of a jewelry store. A bowl of water and one of food were on the sidewalk nearby. As I raised my camera to take its picture, I saw someone inside the jewelry store also raise a camera. We waved at each other. The much-photographed dog did not move; he must have felt safe there.
Others are not so lucky; that same day I saw two dogs rummaging through garbage down in the Old City. A worker picked up a cobblestone and threw it, and the dogs ran off.
But all of that was still three days away; for now, I was trotting down the wide sidewalk after a skittish yellow dog. I could see the French influence as I walked--the wide sidewalks, the ornate and baroque design on many of the old buildings, and, once I reached the end of Kiseleff Boulevard, oh my gosh, the Arc de Triomphe!
It was built of wood in 1922 and rebuilt of granite in the 1930s and it commemorates the Romanian soldiers who fought in World War I. It is rather adorable, so much like the one in Paris, but only about half the size.
By now the dog had disappeared, and I had passed the museum. I turned back, walked through a park where bundled-up children played and stout women in fur hats sat on benches, reading in the frosty air.
At the museum, I paid my 10 lei admittance and asked about photographs. Sixty lei to take pictures, she said. Sixty lei! That seemed like a lot of money. (It's about $20.) No thanks, I said.
Photograph in the museum of a provincial tree.
I walked into the first room, which was filled with elaborate crosses and gilt icons and a tree covered in painted wooden crosses.
In the next room was a small wooden hut that had been brought in from the countryside.
The hut, the signage told me, was a troita, which means "protector of the road."
"The troita was offered to us by the peasants in Burlu village," it went on to say. "And in its place the museum had a new one built. The people gave it to us with all their heart. The only one who regretted the gift was the village shepherd, who used to find shelter from rain under its roof.
"You will find many troite displayed in the museum, just as if you were to go to the villages; you would find them everywhere, at the crossroads, at border lines, next to houses and fences. We could have placed an electric bulb inside the troita of Burlusi, in order to throw light on the cross, which is a very fine piece of work. Instead, we chose, visitor, to put your patience on trial. Take it as invitation to imagine what it would be like if you entered a village at nightfall. You would set eyes on a troita. Light would be faint. You would have to wait until the eye adapts and begins to 'see.' "
I could see that I was going to love this museum.
I hustled back to the foyer, hauled out my purse. I could think of no better way to spend 60 lei.