Chapter 8: Holiday Spirits

It’s Pronounced like ‚Yash,‘ actually, chapter 8: Holiday Spirits

Sophia’s hand squeezed mine as we shoved through the crowd, breaking temporarily into an empty space where we could breathe and reorient ourselves. I felt a twinge of guilt at having chosen to cut through the packed, ever-forward-shuffling mass of people in front of the stage rather than going around, thus dragging Sophia with me into what was quickly becoming a claustrophobic trial, but at least by now we could see the other edge of the crowd. After another few stressful seconds of pushing and shoving and muttered “Scuzati, scuzati,” we were through the mob.

“Hoooo,” muttered Sophia, looking back at the wall of backs and legs we had just maneuvered through, “okay, we’re not going through there again.”

“Hell no. Sorry, I thought it would be faster.”

She shrugged, brushing the brown strands of hair out of her eyes and pointing a decisive finger forward. “It’s fine, we lived, right? Now where’s that stand?”

Right! The final purpose of our mission: we had returned to this side of the Bucharest Christmas Market on the lookout for a specific hand-wrought bracelet and ceramic goods, items of interest to each of us. The music that was the source of magnetism to the crowd poured off the stage and filled the air, mingling with the savory scents of mulled wine and sugary-sweet aromas of kürtos chimney cakes. Christmas markets around the world were places of good food, expensive but beautiful handcrafted merchandise, and unrestrained holiday spirit.

This was the fourth time I had managed to visit the holiday market since it had opened at the beginning of December, but it was only the second time I found myself having to brave such massive crowds. The opening weekend had been equally, if not even more, crowded, so I suppose it was to be expected that the closing weekend was just as packed. It was turning into a recurring motif in the theme of my frequent Bucharest trips in the month of December: more adventure than expected greeted you wherever you went.

A brief recap of my December in Bucharest:

The beginning of the month gave me the chance to see Bucharest as I was dog-sitting for a member of my Fulbright cohort while she took a trip with family. Although the Peasant Museum was closed, I had the good fortune of running into an anti-government protest; I originally mistook the gathering of people in front of the flag-covered government building as a day-late celebration of Romania’s National Day on December 1st, but the kind folks all wearing #Rezist shirts and buttons were more than happy to offer me warm fruity tea and explain that they were protesting corruption within the government and had won in a small scuffle with police in that very square earlier in the day. I left with my hopes lifted and heart warmed by these symbols of resistance worldwide.

While wandering around the city on my own that weekend, I had the time to check out the inaugural weekend of the Christmas Market, complete with live rock concert to ring in the beginning of the season (what’s Christmas without a little AC/DC, amirite?).

I would cap off my weekend of dog-walking, meandering, and sightseeing by have a bit too much tuica, the strong Romanian vodka-like alcohol, leaving me laughing an enjoying the exciting atmosphere of Bucharest’s old town. I still had a list of things to come back and see that I had missed before.

Barely a week later, I found myself back at my favorite bed and breakfast with the enormous, loving breakfasts, the Pensiunia Helvetia, for a weekend that was supposed to have been our winter Fulbright meeting. Unfortunately, the meeting itself had been cancelled by the Commission out of respect for the three national days of mourning for King Mihai, the last King of Romania, who had died at the impressive age of 96 two weeks ago.

Romanian flags across the entire country were suddenly adorned with an additional strip of black ribbon to signify mourning, and churches in every city displayed the man’s regal portrait surrounded by softly flickering candles. The line of mourners waiting to show their respect in Bucharest wrapped around blocks, and every Romanian I talked to called the King to memory by his virtue and modesty in exile and defiance of the Nazis during World War II. He died a well-remembered former King of the people, a piece of not-so-long-gone history that left his mark on Eastern Europe.

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A memorial in Iasi to King Mihai.

Nonetheless, several of us opted to keep our travel arrangements, and it was a joy to meet the group of Fulbright ladies in a dimly-lit, swanky hipster bar called Energeia for a few hours of catching up. Hearing their tales—from Monica’s dive into the archives to look at the files the communist regime had kept on her grandfather, Brooke’s research about millennials and marketing, Chealin’s trips around Romania and Italy and Bridget’s adventures in becoming a real habitant of Bucharest, it was refreshing to check my own perspective and experiences with those of the fabulous ladies in my cohort. Nothing quite dusts off the soul like a pure, uninterrupted night laughing with other proud, smart and fearless women.

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Some truly wonderful women.

With no meeting for us to be at that weekend, we would all once again leave Bucharest, but I would find myself carefully eyeballing the airport taxis again as I landed there right before Christmas.

This time, Sophia was watching Brooke’s hound dog, and we seemed to be the only Fulbrighters without Christmas travel plans. So, with Brooke’s blessing, we both bunked down in her Bucharest apartment for a tame holiday week of watching movies, drinking tea, sleeping in, and still making sure to check off one must-see of Bucharest: the Palace of Culture.

You know the ballroom scene from Disney’s Beauty and the Beast? With the grandiose, stunning marble and gold ballroom made even more perfect by the wide sweeping staircases and massive glittering chandelier? Yeah, picture that, except picture every room and hallway within Nicolae Ceaușescu’s sprawling architectural brainchild looking just like that. The tour through up and down through the never-ending marble corridors and rooms reeking of pompous wealth left Sophia and I lost for words. The former dictator (executed on Christmas after his people had had enough of him) had planned for this government building to be the biggest (now the second-biggest) in the world, a crown jewel of Romania, a shocking display of flamboyant style. No matter that he had bulldozed houses and churches to build it, of course—they shiny gold-flaked molding made up for that.

(As if the man’s personal palace, his home, hadn’t been gaudy and expensive enough).

First set of pictures: the Palace of Parliament

Second set of pictures: from Nicky C’s house (peronal mosiaced pool, greenroom, y’know, normal).

Our tour guide gave voice to our disbelief at the grotesque waste of peoples’ funds by explaining with perfect deadpan sarcasm why the majority of the lights were off as we finished gawping at all of the biggest rooms: “We can’t turn them all on all of the time, you see, it would be too expensive. I haven’t looked at the cost to power the whole building because I don’t want to have a heart attack, but it’s estimated that powering this palace for a week would consume the same amount of electricity of a village of 50,000 people.”

“What a guy,” I muttered. “Nicky C, a true hero of the people, taking everything they gave him to build a George Orwell palace.”

“The man did like his marble,” sighed Sophia. We both made a face, thanked the tour guide, and left. We had managed to jump into the last tours of the season, since the palace would be closed for the last week of the year over Christmas. Shame, I thought to myself as we left the cold, troubled splendor of the building behind us, They could do a special tour for the anniversary of his execution.

Marble may not go out of style, but dictatorial rulers all do eventually.

The Christmas holiday came and went, and after leaving Sophia in Bucharest, I spent the countdown to the New Year in Iasi.

Alone.

…well, alone until New Year’s Eve, anyway.

It had been my own decision to come back to Iasi although I knew that few people I knew would be around or available. Truthfully, the several days spent by myself wore on my extrovert soul and left me feeling somewhat sad and empty, but the hour I spent at the free-for-all NYE celebration did wonders to alleviate my gloom.

I left my apartment at approximately 11:15 pm, bundled up and walking briskly down the long university hill and into the center of town. The nearer I got to the Palatul Culturii, the more people appeared around me: what was originally a trickle of people walking in twos and threes down from Piata Unirii turned into a stream of bigger groups, until, suddenly, I was faced with a wall of people akin to that in the Bucharest Christmas market. Grinning from ear to ear and armed with a cup of hot wine and a warm placinte, a pastry full of savory mushrooms, I squeezed my way through the cracks in the crowd and edged forward. I found a spot with sufficient arm room just as the concert that I could hear but not see came to an end, the pair of announcers wished the crowd a happy new year, and one voice rose up from the people around me to start counting down.

Zece! Noua! Opt! Sapte! Sase! Cinc ! Patru ! 

Trei !

Doi !

Un—

La mult aaaaani ! “

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Bang, zoom, whizz went the fireworks! Music pumped from unseen massive loudspeakers, some compilation put together to match the lights display firing up the sky. I cheered with everyone else, catching what I could of the pyrotechnics on film and laughing as the Game of Thrones theme played as part of the soundtrack. The chaos of people leaving the scene and the continued popping of fireworks was only added to by the appearance of a troupe of men dressed in bear skins, twirling and whooping and dancing and rhythmically banging on drums. I added coins to the hat that was passed around, transmitting the happy buzz that filled my body into wish for goodness in the new year.

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A blurry shot of dancing bear-men and musicians.

I would get home that night buzzed, refilled, and happy. The first full morning of 2018 would see me wandering around the university hill, admiring the sleepy empty streets, and soaking in what sun I could in Copou Park with coffee from the only stand that was open cupped between my hands.

Maybe not the most eventful holiday season of my life, I contemplated with my final sip of coffee in the desk of the park, but certainly one I won’t forget.

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Everything was closed on January 1st, but at least these views were free.

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