Looking for Bucharest


Bonnie Costello

Like any outsider, I came to Bucharest with preconceptions. Growing up in the Cold War, mine had been burned into memory: the scrolled-down map is blue to the west, red to the east. Ninth grade Euro-pean History. 1964. Mr. Bradley slapping the chart until we jump in our seats. His raspy voice (Normandy, shrapnel in the throat) sharpens the point: A cold war? Communism was spreading like lava, which sets and hardens, crushing all beneath it. But had it?

My first actual view of Bucharest was from the top floor balcony of the Athenee Palace Hotel, off the Executive Lounge. 21st century Romania was open for business and my husband had been invited to discuss strategy and sales. Curious about this “other” Europe, I came along. I expected to find it cowering under the brutal legacy of predatory neighbors and a maniacal Stalinist dictatorship. Instead, laid out before me were the Art Nouveau palaces and neo-classical domes of the city once known (like so many others) as “the Paris of the East.” But what is it to be “the something-of-somewhere else”?

Actually the guidebooks tended to skim over Bucharest in favor of a feudal Romania of romantic castles and pointed haystacks, gypsy tinkers and farmers in tunics. But in the few obligatory pages on the capital, its fin de siècle flavor was emphasized. Having thrown off Turkish-Ottoman domination, Romania’s new sovereigns had proudly embraced western fashions and hired the best French architects. Across the wide Calea Victoriei I could see the Royal Palace with delicate clamshell awnings, to keep the ladies sheltered from the rain as they awaited their carriages. Across the street adjacent to a sweet little park stood the architectural crown jewel, the Romanian Athenaeum, a neo-classical domed concert hall looking like a miniature of the Paris Opera. The Bucharest elite, it seems, dreamed on in this Parisian fantasy even as they were dispossessed.

On the plane I had been reading Patrick McGuinness’s novel The Last Hundred Days, set in 1989. His story includes a walk-on character known only as “La Princesse,” who, after a sojourn in Paris during the war, decides to return to her native country and is stranded there. She sustains herself on a peculiar diet of champagne, croissants and chocolates, wearing ragged haute couture gowns and moulting furs, and haunting the soirées of the similarly stranded, mixing with black market dealers and high-level party bureaucrats. There were plenty of French cafes in the neighborhood, but from the balcony the old Princesse was nowhere to be found; it was late spring and the steps of the Atheneum were being used as a background for a fashion shoot, demonstrating that the city has a glamorous Now as well as a glorious Then.

All cities are a mixture of old and new, but what I saw from the top of my hotel was more like a clash of old and new, and rival narratives for Bucharest’s renewal. One curious building was a surreal hybrid: the bottom half warm, sculpted terra cotta, the new top half a sleek stack of modernist ice cubes. This turned out, ironically, to be, the Union of Romanian Architects. Built as a mansion, then used as the Austrian Embassy, it had been the headquarters of the Securitate until it was partly destroyed during the revolution.

But it was the monuments in the center of the large plaza that really gave me the impression of hodge-podge. Looking down onto Palace Square, Revolution Square since 1989, I had a view of the massive bronze equestrian statue of King Carol I, 19th century founder of the Romanian Dynasty, which ended in 1947. From the balcony he looked like a tin soldier, but from the street, mounted on a high pedestal, he must, I imagined, be a colossus. A few days later on a “Classy Romania” tour, I learned that the monument had been commissioned in 1939, by a mayor who was rather imperious himself. Story goes, the mischievous sculptor had endowed the giant horse with out-sized genitalia. Our guide had the pictures to prove it. The affront was noticed, however, and the proportions corrected. The communists demolished the statue, but a replica was erected in 2007 in the wake of a new nationalist fervor.

Opposite old King Carol stood another huge monument. This was “The Memorial of Rebirth,” erected just last year to commemorate the thousand-plus who lost their lives in the “revolution” that supposedly brought democracy to Romania. The neo-classical equestrian statue along-side the very modern, abstract obelisk seemed to repeat the competing impulses in the Bucharest of today. But to my eye the obelisk looked contradictory in itself; a soaring white pillar skewers a black oblong shape of woven iron which young Bucharesters refer to as “the potato.” A garish red paint bleeds from the potato down the sides of the white pillar. Even from my perch in the Executive Lounge I could see that the pillar has been an unwitting lure to graffiti artists, latter day Tristan Tzaras. But the red paint, I was assured, was part of the original scheme. What does it all mean? Nobody is sure. Is the woven iron form an image of the dictatorship, which the aspiring nation (the pillar) has transcended, or of solidarity? The dripping red must symbolize sacrifice. But I couldn’t help thinking of the obelisk in Place de la Concord, and of “Vlad the Impaler,” the first ruler of Romania, famous for his method of keeping out invaders. Somebody needs to explain it.

Thirty years ago this majestic square was packed with tight rows of military tanks and crowds of peasants brought in to wave flags for Ceaușescu, “the Conducator” (“the Leader”) as he gave his final speech from the terrace of the Central Committee building, a height diagonally across from my hotel lookout. I had seen the photographs, which were just like all the other photographs of maniacal dictators rousing the masses. It was hard to square this picture with my bird’s eye view of “the Paris of the East.” Which was the real Bucharest? Was it the revived, elegant city taking its cues from la belle epoque? Or was it the agonistic city, still writhing from the unhealed wounds of its fascist and communist legacies?

I had read a few of the novels of Herta Müller with their bleak depictions of a world of social deceptions and betrayals, of people losing their humanity under an inhuman system. “The ant is carrying a dead fly three times its size. The ant can’t see the way ahead, it flips the fly around and crawls back.” Eviscerations of the private life; victim and perpetrator one Janus face. This was a nightmare vision, not a tragic vision, as Claudio Magris put it about so much modern literature of mitteleuropa. But she had left Romania in the 80s and never returned. Then there was the Romanian philosopher, Emil Cioran, one of Susan Sontag’s favorites. He had climbed “the heights of despair,” the title of one of his early books, in 1934. Unsurprisingly, he reached further dismal “heights” through the decades that followed. But then again Cioran, on further study, turned out to be a self-proclaimed “Hitlerist” aligned with the Iron Guard (Romanian fascists), who had left Romania for France in the forties. They had not seen the democratic outpouring just a year before my visit, when crowds had taken to the streets to protest government corruption. The parliament had had the gall to legalize low-level graft and fire the judges who challenged it, but the rallies had shamed them, at least for awhile. (The PSD turned hoses full force on demonstrators, injuring hundreds; but the real news, I want to believe, is that the crowds were back again the next night.)

Perhaps something else was emerging out of this mixed history, this crazy quilt behind the iron curtain, something too new to label? I was looking for a literature of sunrise. In recent visits to Prague, Budapest and Cracow I had been impressed by their old world charm and new world vitality. Surely Bucharest, too, was awakening. True, corrupt, backward looking governments were stoking old nationalist fears and hatreds, but a more open-minded, civil society was pushing back, without waiting for Brussels to act. Crowds had taken to the street not to hail the power of the state but to protest government corruption. I wanted to celebrate this rebirth, and from the heights of the Executive Lounge that wasn’t hard.

I did eventually find an animated, get-to-work Romania after ten days of looking. Bucharest is not a storybook place like Prague or Budapest or Cracow; it is not charming or glamorous; it is not tourist-ready, despite the proliferating guidebooks. It is still in recovery from the ordeals of the last century. Bucharest is dilapidated, stalled, and riddled with graft and cronyism; unsure of its direction. Yet if the body is prone, it has a quickening pulse that drew me to it. This is not the land of vampires any more; maybe it is Lazarus, still a bit ghastly, but staggering toward health. I was enthralled.

The Athenee Palace hotel, anyway, was definitely keeping up its belle epoque veneer. Here at least was that elegant world of yesterday that drew people to Europe. Designed by a French architect in 1914, it was Wes Anderson’s Hotel Budapest and Amor Towles’ Hotel Metropol in Moscow. The Athenee Palace featured a receding hall of massive floating chandeliers hung over plump settees with delicate legs and feet, and brocade wall coverings; a grand ballroom, now for conferences and weddings, and an “English bar” with antique polo prints, where you could enjoy brandy and fine cigars. The hotel had been updated several times over the century of its existence, which had seen fires, bombs, communist “modernizations,” earthquakes and revolutions, but retained (or recovered) versions of its original features, toned down to fit Hilton house-style. The lobby exhibited vintage photographs on freestanding plaques showing the hotel in its early days when the flotsam and jetsam of empire, with their thick mustaches, epaulets, and bustled satin skirts, drifted onto the overstuffed furniture. Now the guests were more often exhausted Danube cruisers from Michigan, in shorts and sun visors, or nervous young men in business casual, smoking on a break from the meeting in the ballroom. Whoever turned up, the lobby was a great place for people watching—and for spying—then and now.

I had left Herta Müller at home and brought along instead the much more entertaining Fortunes of War: The Balkan Trilogy by the British novelist Olivia Manning, set in Bucharest, 1939. The McGuiness novel is pretty clearly an updating of this work at a later point of crisis. Both books follow an earnest young British expat, a university English teacher trying to make sense of Bucharest as it faces (or ignores) tumultuous pulls between east and west, past and future, nationalism and cosmopolitanism. In both, the Athenee Palace hotel is a frequent setting, depicted as a nest of conspirators, with infiltrators and double agents lurking in its recesses, corrupt officials mixing with international nomads, exploitable Romanian officials, self-preserving aristocrats, black market speculators, anxious Jews, Turkish opportunists, “countesses” of easy virtue—all in a subtle dance of intrigue. Ceaușescu had followed tradition in bugging the rooms when he came to power in the sixties. All this history gave a distinctively noir feel to my stay. Who was that middle-aged woman who had been staring at me in the lobby, where I sat reading Manning, for the past 15 minutes? Probably just another businessman’s wife, like me, waiting out a convention, but her gaze was unsettling. Was that Manning’s Prince Yasimov sipping “truca” in the bar? Or McGuiness’s Cilea, free-spirited daughter of a shady high official, taking the light from him? In Bucharest everybody smokes, making it even more the ideal setting for a forties flick. In the Executive Lounge I had listened in on the polyphony of global English accents—plotting real estate deals, not insurrections, but the low voices and jostle of ice cubes suggested conspiracy.

But enough of this high-class hotel voyeurism. It was time to step out and find the actual city in all its rich history and gritty complexity. Outside the lobby I found dense, sluggish commuter traffic, with cars of all brands parked on sidewalks or cattycorner, cabs waiting to fleece the tourists (I would learn the hard way), bikes weaving in and out, and toppled motorcycles. No one is enforcing the rules and most people seem to be fine with that.

I made my way across the traffic to the Royal Palace, now the National Museum of Art of Romania, starred in the guidebook. “There are no pictures in Bucharest,” complained Manning’s heroine, Harriet Pringle. I found this to be mostly true and left after an hour. But on the sidewalk, installed near the museum was a one story barracks of Plexiglas modules sheltering the headquarters of “Design Week.” While the museums were forgotten, there were plenty of young people gathered at this pop up gallery. These design nomads were hopping on the lime green bicycles provided for their adventure and taking off, site maps in hand, past the stalled traffic, in quest of art installations, fashion previews, displays of folding furniture, impromptu performances, set up around town. And inside the makeshift galleries, too, I could see Bucharest’s millennials huddled intently around work of their peers. As I looked at the exhibitions myself I was struck by how spontaneous, how ephemeral, and even how frivolous, this stuff was—doodles and gadgets, experiments with ideas and impulses more than carefully executed, staid objets d’art or even functional ware. They had grown up with decay and entropy all around them, battered beaux arts mansions and grim, featureless apartment buildings from the Ceaușescu urban “renewal,” and their unrelenting drive was to create and to consume what they created in the moment, leaving no trace. The city ruins were for them the ideal spaces for ad hoc bookstores and cafes, jazz happenings and video screenings. There was nothing Parisian about it except maybe a creative, cosmopolitan spirit reminiscent of 1913. And there was nothing particularly Romanian either. Their parents had been denied the right to travel, and they were on the move. It was the messy vitality of global blending, popping up all over the city like mushrooms after the rain.

I wasn’t quite ready to forge my own path on a lime bicycle, so I set out along the yellow line marked on the guidebook map, to visit what is left of the Centru Vechi, the Old Town, which dates from medieval and Renaissance times. I was looking for the story of Bucharest. Here was the fifteenth century fortress of Vlad Dracula, known as Vlad the Impaler, viovode of Wallachia. Not much to see: it was still essentially an excavation site. Here was Lipscani, which had been a vibrant trading center in the 18th century. A large Armenian inn and stable with a distinctive wooden roof and sidewalk dating from this period, has been turned into a restaurant booking tour groups. This area had been abandoned to squatters until recently, and even now only one in three of its old buildings looked habitable. But entrepreneurs from Amsterdam had restored a few dilapidated buildings and established boutique hotels named “the Rembrandt” and “the Van Gogh”; these were attracting younger, hipper visitors. Mixed in with official historic sites were the usual souvenir shops, except that these specialized in Dracula teeth and wigs, and elaborately painted Easter eggs, a traditional Romanian folk art now mass-produced for the souvenir market. There are not many foreign visitors in Bucharest, but there are lots of Romanians, finally finding enough money and opportunity to explore their own country. There are even Communist Heritage tours, appealing to a mix of contempt and nostalgia. In the Old Town there were also more than the customary number of nightclubs and massage parlors, it seemed to me, luring the passersby with curvy neon signs, and these gave a sleazy feel to the whole area. It was pleasing to see so much activity in this once desolate neighborhood, but after an hour in the sun with the tawdry souvenirs, the trashy alleys, the vampire window displays, parades of squinting sightseers and carousers spilling out into the street, I had had enough.

I spied a patch of green on the map, and headed in that direction for relief from the rush hour chaos. At first I encountered a kind of terrain vague, a grim, weedy concrete ramp with a broken bench and graffiti covered walls. Graffiti seems to be the primary decorative signature in contemporary Bucharest, an anarchic release, perhaps, after communist repression. This entrance, which turned out to be the back entrance, a rather more ceremonial entrance at Calea Elizabeta, made me a bit anxious, frankly—thieves, drug addicts, rabid dogs might be lurking. But I could see that there was something down beyond this dismal gate, so I continued. And yes, just around the corner, a lovely system of canals, ponds and fountains revealed itself, and a boathouse, a gingerbread kiosk, a colorful garden, all looking a bit unkempt and even melancholy—weeds in the flower beds, moss on the wooden bridges, peeling paint and loose tiles on the kiosk—but cheerful nonetheless. It was certainly not contemporary—the park would have appealed to Joseph Cornell. Nor was it grand—French-formal in design, but not Versailles or even the Tuileries Gardens.

This was Cismigiu Park, a Turkish name for the spring, honoring the Turkish engineer who had built the dreamy canals in 1847. Here in 1939 Olivia Manning’s Harriet Pringle had wandered with various minor characters, confident that she would not be overheard. The park had once hosted a French restaurant. Like the museums of Bucharest, the park was now mostly empty, even of security guards. I bought lemonade and wandered further into the labyrinth, entering the “Romanian Rotunda,” a pantheon of 19th century Romanian writers I had never heard of. There was also an allegorical war monument, commemorating the French soldiers who had died in the horrendous Romanian campaign in WWI. The statues were full of movement– a lovely allegorical figure of a mother grieving over her daughter, pouring bronze water from a pitcher, and another of a soldier falling backwards into a woman’s arms. How had this little oasis of memory, grace and leisure with its serpentine canals and discrete fountains (mostly dry now) managed to escape the wholesale demolition of old Bucharest under Ceaușescu’s grand scheme?

But privately, it turned out, Ceaușescu was as susceptible as anyone to old Europe’s elegance. Those styles, from Renaissance to Rococo, were certainly on view at the Conducator’s home, a sumptuous 40-room villa in the posh embassy neighborhood. While he was blasting old domiciles, theaters and monasteries, and razing a whole neighborhood to build his four million square foot Party fortress, the People’s Palace, he was also setting himself up in bourgeois luxury in his private residence, the Primaverii Palace, where he and his wife Elena lived until their execution by firing squad. I took the tour there a few days later, conducted by a young guide who looked eerily like Peter Sellers, in thick black glasses and neat clothes. After dispensing blue hospital sheaths for our shoes, he walked us through these splendors as though they were just exquisite objects, not the spoils of a monstrous ruling couple that had brought little but misery and starvation to the nation. The Ceaușescus, who came from peasant families, had imports and Romanian imitations of French wallpaper, French furniture, French porcelain, French crystal, French sculpture and painting, French landscaping. Without irony or emotion our guide showed us the private screening room, the gold fixtures in the bathroom, the closet full of furs and gowns, the indoor pool walled in lavish mosaic, a suite for each family member, pointing out architectural features and offering lifestyle anecdotes (they had a black lab named Corbu, they enjoyed American detective shows, especially Kojak, etc.). At first I found this young man’s avoidance of politics bizarre—it was a massive elephant in the room. But on the other hand, he couldn’t have been more than 25; he was born well after the execution of the dictator, and this was a nice job that he was doing well, showing off the fineries, now proud state possessions. Why dwell on the shameful past when he had no part in it?

Blessedly, the dictator left Cismigiu Park intact when he “modernized” downtown Bucharest. But did he know that he had thus left open a little corner of the public sphere, a place where people could meet without permission? Since the park is really a network of concealed piazzas, per-haps he missed the one I stepped into next. On the other side of a privet wall in this seemingly vacant park I suddenly came across several dozen people, young and old, ordinary people in everyday clothes, mostly men, playing chess, checkers, bocce, other games with which I was not familiar, as if they had been playing them throughout time, as if they lived in this little plaza and nowhere else, telling each other anecdotes of what is past and passing and to come.

But if this remnant of the old city was an eternal spring, it was a place of retreat and not, I knew, the heart of Bucharest of today. Much as I might have liked to loll around here drinking lemonade and taking out a rowboat on the little canals, this was not what I had come to see. I was more likely to find the pulse of the city in its markets. No markets were mentioned in the guidebook, but on the map provided by the hotel there was something called Piața Matache indicated with a market symbol, so I headed that way, north up Calea Grivitei, in the opposite direction from the Lipscani district. The market would be the best place to witness the resurgence of free enterprise.

But then I came across a freshly painted, prim Lutheran church with a tidy rose garden, and a trendy coffee shop with a hip young couple sitting at the sidewalk table, chatting and smoking; those who sat alone were not loitering but intent on their computers. Further down the street, near the Military Museum, were shoddy postwar apartment buildings looking like filing cabinets. But on the next block was the National University of the Arts, a homely, dilapidated building with a convex façade covered in graffiti, but lively at its threshold where small groups of students shuffled in and out, carrying big black portfolios. And across from it, an art supply store, ProfiArt Bucaresti, was a cornucopia of new materials. I inquired inside for directions to the old market—one of the young clerks spoke English—but she had never heard of Matache. When I extended the map she acknowledged the location was only a few blocks away. Perhaps the map was out of date.

When I finally arrived at the spot, I saw nothing but a raw open-ing like a shallow strip mine, and a few fancy, but battered 18th century houses staring down at the void of the street. Wide avenues were obviously being cut through the neighborhood, but there was no evidence of ongoing work in this construction area. My gaze was drawn upward by a blue glass business tower in international style, completely aloof from its base. This could be Kuala Lumpur for all the difference it made from the 21st floor. Apparently it had arrived before completion of the avenue that would be its address. Had the investment brought the avenue, or the avenue the investment? It was difficult to tell. But somebody from another 21st floor was betting big on Bucharest, not as it was but as it might be in the world of global commerce.

I had almost given up the market as a phantom limb when I saw an old sign in tin lettering atop an arch: “ Matache,” and made my way across unfinished tram tracks. (I was near “Gare du Nord.”) Beyond the arch was a cluster of makeshift aluminum utility buildings with dirty plastic windows, surrounded by some weedy gravel paths. A dog slept in front of one of the modules while a wrinkled peddler half-heartedly proffered her little pile of embroidered shirts. On the other side, a man had set up a display of shoes and nylons on some plastic chairs. I had noticed apathy in the older Bucharest population when it came to promotion of any kind. The museum staff didn’t seem to care if you visited or not; salespeople were phlegmatic toward the customers. I took it as another legacy of communism; when there is little to sell and everyone has their assigned place, why exert yourself? And here there were no customers; someone should tell the few merchants parked outside the building that the market was gone.

There are photographs of the beautiful old Matache Hala, one of the treasures of prewar Bucharest, surrounded by an elegant hotel and stately residences. It had been damaged by the 1970 earthquake and left to rot until it would have to be pulled down. But Matache, it seems, is a frontline battle for the soul of Bucharest. This was now the Bezei-Buzesti Uranus Boulevard, part of a Haussmanization that would give Bucharest its own Étoile. As the Matache demolition began in 2013 it recalled for many the brutal erasures of the totalitarian state. There had been protests and demonstrations—many a Romanian Jane Jacobs had spoken up: “By what right?” What was the future of this city to be and what is its relation to the past? The demolition was filmed, a documentary made, with talking heads on both sides. Social workers worried about the fates of kids in the area—photos showed them kicking the rubble and wandering in the desert of asphalt and concrete where a neighborhood had been. Okay, said the authorities, to placate the preservationists more than the social workers, the market would be moved rather than simply bulldozed; it would be rebuilt elsewhere as an upscale mall, using some of the disassembled parts. But like so many wars, this one was neither won nor lost; it lingered in stalemate. I was fed up too—I walked all this way for this wasteland?

But around the corner I noticed a line of people—a bakery truck! Doing a robust midmorning business in tarts and croissants. And beyond I saw a door opening into the drab warehouse, and entered, to find a great hall of tables heaped with strawberries, blueberries, cherries, artichokes, apricots, broccoli, spinach–a rainbow gallery. At another booth, eggs, cheese, sausages, meat pies, “placintas” (honeyed pastry). And behind each table stood an aproned attendant, mostly women, busy with customers doing their morning’s shopping. The transactions were brisk, and the supply seemed endless. These venders would have been teenagers in 1989. Maybe in those days their parents ran the black markets, so they were ready to do business when the time came, when the farm goods shipped in rather than out of Romania. There was nothing tourist-worthy about this hall and its wares—no glass atrium, no specialty olive oil, no cappuccinos, and no place to sit. But it was flourishing. I bought a quart of strawberries and watched everyday commerce carrying on organically, while city planners, preservationists, politicians, social workers, international investors, bickered about what the new Bucharest should look like and whose interests it should serve.

But a different city revealed itself to me the next day, not stately and elegant, not pop up and profane, but ancient and sacred, and decidedly of the East. This day was Pentecost, a national holiday in Romania, and all the museums were closed. I had walked by a number of Orthodox churches and monasteries during the week, crisp white stucco buildings, or brick, some with interesting ornamentation and frescoes on their facades, some with columns, transepts and courtyards. Many dated from centuries before Romania was a state, but most were not of great historical significance. They were diminutive in size compared to the lofty cathedrals and abbeys of the west, which dominate the landscape. Their modest exteriors did not call out to me at first, so, a lifelong atheist, I had passed them by. I knew nothing about eastern orthodox religion, though there are several small domes in my own very diverse neighborhood in Boston, where Greek, Albanian, Syrian and Serbian immigrants have settled.

But on this holy day in Bucharest, wandering down the mostly empty streets, and everything closed, I was looking for relief from the late spring glare. Here was a church—not one of the guidebook ones. I opened the door, found all the people, and entered Byzantium. What struck me immediately was the light, which of course is what the church architecture intends. Almost sculptural, the light beamed down into this narrow, vertical space from two invisible windows in the dome base. It gave radiance without disturbing the coolness of the dark space. I held back, in the narthex, the first passage between the worldly and the sacred, out of respect for the tight gathering of worshipers in front, within the nave. Men on the right, head-scarved women on the left; all were standing. The church was lit by sconces, oil lamps, and hanging candelabras that made a kind of second ceiling below the high dome. This division made the space at once intimate and mysterious, communal and otherworldly, close in yet infinite. I had seen lots of Romanian orthodox icons in books and museums. But religious icons are presences, not pictures, I realized. The candle-lit holy faces, saints and apostles, looked out from the eternal; they were manifest, yet not quite conversant with the parishioners. The light gave movement to these motionless forms; the eye hovered like a butterfly from one incandescent face to another around the walls of the nartex and into the nave. The candlelight shimmered on shining brass sconces and a silver relief of the Virgin set in a frame ornamented with rubies, sapphires and emeralds—or perhaps they were glass. Either way they were treasures. The iconic figures spoke of a state beyond the changes of time, beyond the invasions of Turks, the ambitions of dynasties, the promises of Enlightenment, the betrayals of the state. God was coming inside, not a big blazing phenomenon, as in the baroque churches of western Europe, but at once internal and communal. Every corner of this place seemed sanctified. I was entranced, but I felt awkward in my worldliness. In front of the nave stood a man in layman’s clothes, singing out from a huge silver hymnal that was resting on a pedestal in the front of the nave; his voice had an eloquent, nasal pitch as he led the congregation to responsive phrases, words heard in the East since the days of Constantine.

But where was the altar? The Eastern Orthodox Church, I saw, is a series of thresholds. Only the priest is allowed full entrance into the sanctuary. Everyone else stands behind the wide horizontal screen of the iconostasis, its gate flanked with apostles. I sensed a continuum, stages of holiness, rather than hierarchy in this arrangement. There was no elevated pulpit. Returning on Tuesday I saw the priest sitting between the sanctuary and the nave, as parishioners lined up for a few minutes of counsel, or with a prayer written out for him to read. As they left, they took votive candles and set them in a sand table—one table for the living, another for the dead. Orthodox worship is not a passive or cerebral affair. It involves not just all five senses, but the whole body. On ordinary days, when there is no sermon going on, the supplicant makes her own ritual; she rubs, kisses, even fondles the icons, kneels, bows before them, mov-ing around the room, crossing herself and touching the holy ground in a dance of devotion. I was spellbound. Outside, the profane glare of 21st century Bucharest, covered in graffiti, cars parked helter-skelter, beggars proffering sheaths of wheat.

Is there a connection between this intense spirituality and the squalor outside? Is the church perpetuating the famous fatalism of the Romanians? Our business host, Karoly, founder of a highly successful electrical equipment company, feels that, on balance, religion’s hold on the Romanian imagination is a good thing. It teaches moral rectitude and thus offers a counterforce to the widespread theft and bribery that are a lingering effect of the communist disregard for property. But Karoly is ethnically Hungarian and was raised in the minority Lutheran church. As for the Orthodox churches, some of those who are not fondling the icons are cursing them. Another new business acquaintance, the TED-talking Radu (an ancient Romanian name as common as John), does think there is a link between Romania’s failures and its faith. Over dinner at a modish restaurant near the Ceaușescu mansion he observed that the most economically backward of the eastern European countries are those with a strong orthodox presence. Radu has started a consulting business based on the novel concept that “virtue” is good business. The church inculcates fatalism, not virtue, he says. He worships in the house of “Mindfulness.”

Some of Romania’s contemporary poets are similarly unequivocal about the paralyzing effect of the church. Angela Marinescu, for instance, laments:

these things around
still won’t end
i won’t tell myself
anything anymore
i remain still
like an
with holy bread
in my mouth
by a priest who is no longer
a priest
but a pot-bellied roach
with thick hair
i withdraw into the black fog
the church
until no one
sees me anymore

My enchantment with the church was further discouraged by Tiberieu. He is a computer programmer by day, a poet and translator by night. When I suggest that religion may have sustained people in the darkest times of the war and dictatorship, he enlightens me: “Those guys were informing on everybody. That’s how the church survived.” Furthermore, he says, the church patriarchs are aligned with the current corrupt government, enforcing a national identity based on religion and fear of their neighbors. But how, I wondered, could such piety and quiet transport as I had seen in the Pentecostal worship, be a tool of domination? Weren’t clerics imprisoned, and congregations meeting in the middle of the night, in the communist times? So the next day he took me to see what the patriarchs of the Romanian Orthodox Church are erecting: a colossal “People’s Salvation Cathedral,” which was blessed, though unfinished, just a few months after my visit. Sky-bound cranes guard the site on all sides.

The church is taller than Ceaușescu’s pentagon-sized People’s Palace, and right next door to it. Heavily subsidized by the state, it will be the largest Orthodox Church in the world. It has a worshipper capacity of 125,000 and will include two hotels, parking for 500, and a restaurant. The soup kitchen in the basement can seat 1,000. I was horrified more than awed by this edifice, which was of course Tiberieu’s intention. Bucharest’s infrastructure was broken, its housing stock in a shambles, its hospitals under stocked, its historic buildings deteriorating, while this lavish “God mall” was rising to dominate the skyline.

But somehow this monolith did not cancel my regard for the intimate rituals I had witnessed, the sense of a light in the moral darkness. This construction seemed to be about power, not about faith. There would of course be a big rush, from all over the orthodox realm, to see the splendor when the doors opened. But it seemed to me very likely that within a few years this vast shrine will be as empty and underutilized as Ceaușescu’s “house of the people,” next door, while I had the feeling that in the old orthodox churches, tucked in everywhere around the city, small groups, perhaps diminished, would be gathering around cantors, and gazing at the saints, forever.

And as for power, I had seen less monolithic, though equally powerful forces, moving this place toward a cosmopolitan future. How would this modern dynamic coexist with the ancient spirituality that still seemed to me an essential part of Bucharest? Whatever emerges, it won’t resemble Paris, or any other place on earth. A nascent network of creators, entrepreneurs and dreamers, going on their nerve, is building art installations, fruit markets, electrical parts factories, mindfulness workshops, mobile phone games, publishing companies, travel services, linkedin networks, jazz clubs and coffee shops, new laws and independent schools. Radu and Karoly and Raina and Tiberieu and Danil and Carmen, and Alexandra and Angela, the optimistic, resolute men and women we met, some pious believers, others atheists, were young enough in 1989 to imagine, and to bring about, a more amenable world than the one they were born into. I knew I would be back to see the world they were making.