On a flight from Amsterdam to Bucharest, a few travelling musicians peered out the plane window to the ground below to see a familiar-looking lake – long and thin, containing memories from the previous week. I think I could even hear a distant thumping of beats reverberating from the earth around it. This summer sees five drummers return to Eastern Europe as many times as they’ll take us. Next stop: Romania.
We arrived in Bucharest’s Old Town for a vibrant street theatre festival, where we would play strenuous parades and street shows in front of cheerful, partially rain-soaked crowds for the next three days. Accompanying us throughout that time would be colourful stilt-walkers from Germany and a huge number of thundering Spanish samba drummers dressed as skeletal furry goat-men. Nothing unusual there, then.
On our first night in the city, we ventured out in search of food, through sleazy alleys and touristy haunts towards a highly-recommended and totally bizarre restaurant. As we entered the huge dining hall, we found ourselves interrupting a ballroom dance in front of the main bar. The dancing couple then invited various customers to dance, including one of our drummers, and while avoiding this invitation I turned around to find Charlie Chaplin wearing a stack of hats on his head and a real, bright-green parrot on his shoulder. It took us another half-hour to get to the bar, a circular array of gold taps with an overlooking gallery and stained glass window, and at no point before this did we get the impression any member of staff wanted us to eat there, as they abruptly rushed past us with plates of food and the entertainment – now causing a people pile-up by the entrance, a cumbersome wooden revolving door – continued. The place was busy and buzzing with families and tourists, and the waiters had no time to spare, or so it seemed. Eventually we found a table, ordered some local Romanian food, with no help from a lethargic waiter, and later tucked into stew, cheap wine and beef salad that contained neither beef nor salad. Our spirits were nonetheless high, and we enjoyed every last unpredictable bite.
In the mornings we enjoyed outdoor breakfasts on the hotel’s terrace and wandered into the Old Town – Bucharest’s beautiful, historical centre, outlined by contrasting architecture both old and new, including a number of nineteen-sixties concrete apartment blocks that make you say, ‘Why?’. In the daytime the Old Town itself was the perfect quaint European tourist spot, a thriving hub of cafes, restaurants, antique fairs, churches and museums peppering its attractive narrow streets, and the occasional busker. By night, suddenly it seemed these same buildings were all home to at least one ‘gentlemen’s club’, and the neon signs offering massages and dancing girls came to the foreground. The nightlife was clearly a hit with backpackers from every corner of Europe and beyond, and Romanian seemed to be the last language we heard spoken, making way for French, German, Italian, Hungarian and English.
It was on these streets that we met some characters we may never forget; real-life street theatre artists, if you will. First came Larry, the old Romanian English teacher, who chewed our ears off for around 30 minutes to prove his more-than-sufficient level of English, seemed surprised that we had heard of the Beatles’ White Album, and eventually asked the all important question, ‘Will you buy me a pint of beer?’. Larry had an incredible way with words that could only be admired, and he certainly had a creatively roundabout way of getting to the point, but sadly after discovering he was just another beer-fiend like the rest of us, we realised our conversation had come to an abrupt end. If he’d asked the same question after our day of work, and not at 11 o’clock in the morning, perhaps we would have ended up on a night out in Bucharest with a retired English teacher; I suppose we’ll never know.
Later that day we encountered Bucharest’s answer to Michael Jackson – still living and breathing, though perhaps only just. There he stood in the middle of a cobbled street, a tiny man in his sequinned purple hat, dark glasses and single glove, pulling a series of incredible dance moves, and a moonwalk to rival your grandpa. He didn’t speak, nor did he ask for money, and so we stared on while every other passerby pretended nothing was happening (I now understand they must have seen him before). We encountered this sparkly enigma again one night while sitting outside a bar in the same area, as he dance-battled with the drunks and whispered profanities into his jacket lapels. He was no less peculiar, but if one thing was clear, it was that he had won the battle fair and square.
Following two mad and exhausting shows – including a huge parade through the city centre – on the Saturday night, we set out away from the sleazy clubs and in completely the wrong direction in search of a good bar. After what felt like hours of walking, we eventually came across Happy Pub, and delighted at the cosy atmosphere and never-ending list of beers. We sat outside in the warm night air, listening to recordings from a Pink Floyd concert, singing and sipping our ales, until suddenly we noticed the music had changed, and all we could hear was drums. After listening for a few moments, we soon realised the recording now coming from the pub’s speakers was from one of our own shows. One drummer leapt into action, beginning the choreography in front of the bar inside, gradually encouraging the involvement of every barmaid. We stared in bafflement, until realising that simple advertising – say, a hashtag on the back of a t-shirt – really does come in handy every now and then. Soon, we were all up on the metaphorical dancefloor, and it wasn’t long before I crashed head-first into a waitress coming through the door, but was met only by laughter and continued merriment. After our final impromptu set of the night, it was time to sit down and talk, drink beer, and watch a small group of cockroaches congregate around a spilt drink on the ground: it really was a party for everyone.
The following day we went out with the sole intention of visiting the Kitsch Museum, which exceeded all of our expectations. Here, hidden in a small, unassuming building in the Old Town, we learned about vampire kitsch, religious kitsch, Communist kitsch, gypsy kitsch, art kitsch, and just about any other kind of kitsch you can imagine. There were bowls of fake fruit, garish rugs and pictures of the Virgin Mary, fake money for the specific purpose of ‘making it rain’, gold medallions, pink fishnets, glamour models, gypsy weddings, Dracula in all his guises, watermelon wallpaper, bad taxidermy and, a concept close to all of our hearts, a tribute to the Romanian kitsch tradition of clapping on aeroplanes. We had never felt more at home than in what can only be described as a mecca for the tacky and ironic.
The final night of shows was preceded by thunder and rain, and we were convinced there would be no crowd at all. Our audience that night, however, was committed, smiling and responsive, and had so many umbrellas that it seemed rude not to use them as props in just about every element of the show. The rain brings you crowds who really care, who won’t go home halfway through a performance, who will stay with you and laugh and dance right to the bitter end. They’re the last ones standing at the party, they’re the heroes of your big night out. Sunny days and warm nights are easy, but to stand in the rain for hours on end and then stay for pictures and autographs at the end is only for the hardy folk who you can guarantee will show up time and time again.
It’s been a couple of years since we were last in the picturesque town of Sibiu in central Romania, and I hadn’t forgotten how incredible a Romanian street theatre festival could be. What with this and the popularity of clapping on aeroplanes, I imagine this won’t be our last visit.
Great words and pics, as usual! it was known as the Paris of the Balkans and it’s good to know (some of) it survives. The humanity of the place seems wonderfully intact.
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