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DESTINATION: ROMANIA : Time Out in Timisoara : An East-West mix of ordinary pleasures in the city that sent Ceausescu packing

Wes Eichenwald is an American freelance writer based in Ljubljana, Slovenia

At a silent signal, up they rise from the vast expanse of Victory Square (Piata Victoriei), a three-block-long rectangle between the Metropolitan Cathedral and the Opera House. The pigeons flutter skyward, circling once, then again, before landing in dense clusters on the facades of Hapsburg-era buildings, most of them at least passably restored to house restaurants, shops and offices. A few minutes later the show repeats itself, the birds this time plopping fussily down in and around the circular dish of a dormant fountain set in the gray-tiled plaza. Now comes a stocky older man in an ill-fitting brown suit, carrying a plastic bag full of bread crumbs. Out to impress a 3-year-old in a ski jacket, the gent holds out some crumbs to the pigeons, and one flaps up neatly onto his open palm. It is, for all its ordinariness, a remarkable sight.

Timisoara (pronounced tim-eh-SHWAR-ah) is the westernmost city in Romania, by attitude as well as compass point: It is Romania’s “first free town,” birthplace of the revolution that toppled a dictator. Those days of bloodshed, tears and passion in December 1989 live on in memory and monument as the 10th anniversary approaches. But on a pleasant afternoon last fall, when I visited, the predominant mood I sensed was the sweetness of life lived in the moment.

One of the first things the visitor notices immediately about Timisoara is the spaciousness: cavernous shop interiors, hotel rooms with cathedral ceilings, stately buildings and wide, tree-shaded boulevards. Room to spare everywhere. Still, the architecture and street layouts don’t overwhelm; the place is a gem of urban planning, a medium-size city (population 350,000) where a human dimension prevails. The green spaces are abundant; even the Bega Canal, which bisects the city, is landscaped along most of the course of its banks.

I recognized the same kind of (comparatively) laid-back, pleasure-seeking lifestyle in a provincial capital that I found in my adopted European base, Ljubljana, Slovenia. Almost by intuition I homed in on the N&Z; cafe near the opera. It was time for the main meal of the day, lunch, and locals were digging into Romanian soul food like sarmale (meat-stuffed cabbage) and mamaliga, the ubiquitous cornmeal side dish similar to Italian polenta, while salsa music blared over the sound system. (Romanians consider themselves Latin, descendants of their 2nd century conqueror, the Roman Empire of the Caesars, to set themselves apart from ethnic Slavs and Hungarians, both outside and within modern Romania’s borders. The Romanian language, too, is Latin-based, like Spanish or French.)

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The N&Z; is a friendly place with modern decor that wouldn’t be out of place in suburban America, but for one exception: smoking is allowed, although some restaurants have no-smoking sections. Romanians smoke a lot, and in warm weather cafe tables spread outdoors.

As elsewhere in Eastern Europe, modern consumer society (read: American-inspired culture and commerce) is being grafted piecemeal onto old socialist facades. Timisoara is one of the few Romanian cities outside Bucharest, the capital, to benefit from significant foreign investment.

Superficial results can be seen in such yuppie outposts as the modern Stil supermarket, which sells imported chocolates and liqueurs a few feet away from bins filled with unwrapped rounds of bread.

At the packed Jazz Club, a cafe-bar near the Bega, leather-jacketed teens with purple-tinted hair hang out over coffee or beer, either in the retro-European black-on-black interior or at an outside patio table, rap alternating with cool jazz on the stereo. And over at the huge Galeriile Art gallery space in the underground passage by the opera, black-clad folk guitarist Dan Zorila performs at his cassette-release party while the sharply dressed guests buzz among themselves.

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Nearly a decade after dumping Nicolae Ceausescu, Romania is still groping and stumbling along a dimly lighted path to the West. The goal is to be admitted to NATO.

Yet even hip Timisoara has a way to go before it starts to look like Western Europe, or even a typical city in Romania’s neighbor and rival, Hungary. Outdoor bookstalls line the main streets, large tables loaded with foreign-language dictionaries and medical textbooks (the city has a university and a medical school) along with Tarot guides and romance novels. You can find English-language bookshops, but it’s entirely possible that the woman behind the counter won’t speak English. As in the bad old days, the pharmacies are still given numbers instead of names, as in Pharmacy No. 27. The many cinemas screen first-run American movies, but outside them, hand-lettered whitewashed canvas billboards stand in place of Hollywood-issue posters.

It’s this artlessness, along with the people’s friendliness, that so easily charms Western visitors.

In 1998 I traveled to Romania twice from my home base in Slovenia. The first time was for an Outward Bound hiking trip. It was largely a college-age group, and I was a 39-year-old, mostly sedentary writer wanting “an experience.” More than once I wondered what I was doing with these kids as we wound our way up and down the stunning Ceahlau mountain range, rappelled down a wall, crossed a river using pulleys and a rope and did “trust falls.” But I didn’t want to be talked about as the American who quit, so I hung in and survived. Some of the kids dropped out.

On that trip I’d seen a slice of rural central Romania, a world of haystacks, stone long houses, wooden barns, peasants walking through fields with scythes, Roma (Gypsy) caravans and entire families riding on horse-drawn wagons atop sky-high piles of hay. It was a vision of a centuries-old Europe, but very much alive and going about its daily business in a near-forgotten corner of the world.

For some time I’d been curious about Timisoara’s reputation for openness and as an incubator of Romanian modernism. So in October I returned to Romania, which meant a journey on Slovenian Railways from Ljubljana, across Slovenia and Croatia to Budapest, then by Hungarian train to Szeged, a local to Bekescsaba, then across the Romanian border to Arad (where a bridge was out--it still is--and we were put on a shuttle bus) and from there a local bus to Timisoara.

Timisoara is only about 40 miles from both the Hungarian and Yugoslavian borders, ensuring its destiny as a cultural crossroads, trading center and Romanian window on the West. “Timisoara is a place for ethnic diversity,” writes a Romanian expat with the nom de Internet of CyberTim, in a Web site devoted to this, his hometown. “Along [with] Romanians (65% to 70%) there are Germans, Hungarians, Serbs, Slovaks and a Jewish community. And contrary to trends in other parts of Eastern Europe, they do get along remarkably well.”

Perhaps one-third of today’s Romania has passed back and forth to Hungarian control, and ethnic tensions have erupted into violence in recent years--but not in Timisoara. Here “people were accustomed to meet the stranger,” explained the Rev. Constantin Jinga, a young priest at the Metropolitan Romanian Orthodox Cathedral.

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I encountered Jinga when I entered the cathedral and asked if I could view its celebrated icon collection. As we strolled among the centuries-old artworks in the cathedral’s basement, Jinga, who speaks fluent English, told me about growing up on a street with Romanian, German, Serbian and Jewish neighbors.

Many of Timisoara’s Jews were hidden by neighbors during World War II, Jinga said. Today 200 to 400 Jewish families remain, which may not seem like a huge number, but it makes Timisoara’s Jewish population Romania’s largest after Bucharest.

Although I’m not particularly religious, as the son of a German Jew who spent much of the war years in hiding in the Netherlands--and also as someone who has been living in Central Europe himself since 1996--I like to seek out evidence of a living Jewish presence on the old continent whenever I travel to new places, especially those that Americans consider remote. Thus, when Jinga mentioned that there was an active Jewish community in Timisoara, and even a kosher cafeteria called the Cantina, I set off to find them.

After much frustration, I located the Cantina, extremely well hidden in an inner courtyard near the padlocked Great Synagogue. Actually, the Cantina is a full-service Jewish community center; unfortunately, its kitchen was closed that day.

I was warmly welcomed and given a yarmulke (skullcap) fashioned from cardboard matzo-box panels stapled together. A lively group of teenagers there for religious instruction engaged me in conversation (in English).

The Great Synagogue itself is closed because of a collapsing ceiling and no funds for repair; its congregation, however, is obviously thriving. (There is one other Jewish house of worship in Timisoara, the curiously named Synagogue in Fabric.)

The most photographed site in Timisoara is the many-spired, brick Metropolitan Cathedral, which dominates the city skyline. Architecturally, it blends Byzantine and Moldavian elements, but it isn’t nearly as old as it looks; it was built--remarkable but true--in the war years, between 1935 and 1946.

Inside, massive salmon-colored marble pillars stand out in the dim light. The day I visited, some worshipers stood near the altar as if frozen in place; others took turns kneeling for long minutes in intense, almost trance-like prayer by the reliquary of St. Joseph the New.

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There is a wealth of icons on view in the church; those that Jinga showed me in the basement collection were painted on wood in the 16th through 19th centuries, and some were in sore need of restoration.

My four days in Timisoara allowed for a long excursion to the sprawling outdoor market, a place of pure, old-fashioned local color.

But my attention was drawn to a vine-covered alcove off to the side, marking the place where 23-year-old Radian Belici fell on Dec. 17, 1989. Inset in a stone plaque is a photo of the dark-haired young man, dressed in jacket and tie, and words that translate as: “hero” and “shot by base cowards in the December revolution.”

You encounter such shrines everywhere in Timisoara, but the one that unites them all is an ordinary brick building just off Boulevard 16 December that houses the Tokes Reformed Church. On the facade, two plaques tell passersby that the reign of the megalomaniac dictator Ceausescu began its end here on Dec. 15, 1989.

On that day, a Friday, the Rev. Laszlo Tokes preached a sermon to his ethnic Hungarian congregation denouncing the despot. Police came to arrest Tokes, and crowds of ethnic Hungarians, joined by Romanians, took to the streets in protest. Then the tanks rolled.

On Dec. 17, the security police and regular army troops fired into the huge crowd gathered in Victory Square and elsewhere, even on the cathedral steps. By Dec. 20 the army had revolted, and demonstrations were spreading to Bucharest and other Romanian cities. On Dec. 25, Ceausescu and his wife and partner in crime, the equally despised Elena, were executed.

About 100 people were killed in Timisoara that week; no one knows the exact number.

It’s now generally accepted that Ceausescu’s demise was more of a coup d’etat by other communists, rather than a true revolution; although the spark that lighted the fuse in Timisoara was genuine, it merely sped up the plotters’ timetable. It took until 1996 for the Romanians to elect a true reformer, Emil Constantinescu, as president.

On a Sunday morning in late October, the vast Unity Square (Piata Unirii), surrounded by regal, massive Baroque buildings, is almost deserted except for a few 60-ish men in leather jackets (tightly closed with buttons, not zippers) and dark berets, and a few kids kicking around a soccer ball. A man hurries past with a loaf of unwrapped bread pressed beneath his arm. Bicyclists fly by. Nearby, a teenage girl lights a cigarette.

Apart from the monuments and shrines of Timisoara, this is another type of memorial to the fallen, and maybe the best one: ordinary people on a quiet Sunday morning, getting the chance to live normal lives, with, just perhaps, cause for optimism.

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GUIDEBOOK

Transitions in Timisoara

Getting there: Budapest, in neighboring Hungary, would be the likely starting point for a trip to Timisoara.

All flights to Budapest from Los Angeles involve a change of planes. Round-trip fares start at $850 on Air France, British Airways, Swissair, KLM and Lufthansa.

Rail/bus travel is advised only for adventurers or Hungarian-speakers. By car, it’s 175 miles; figure four to five hours’ drive plus an hour at the truck-congested border.

Where to stay: The Hotel Banatul, 5 Blvd. Republicii, telephone 011-40-56-191-903, looks grim, but it’s cozy and clean, and singles start at $10 per night. The Hotel Central, just off Piata Victoriei, at 6 St. Lenau, tel. 011-40-56-190-091, fax 011-40-56-190-096, has more of a business hotel atmosphere but is comfortable by local standards. Rooms start at $15.

Prices reflect the Romanian lei exchange rate at the end of August: 15,000 to the dollar.

One caution: This is not quite the First World yet; bring your own toilet paper.

For more information: Romanian National Tourist Office, 14 E. 38th St., 12th Floor, New York, NY 10016; tel. (212) 545- 8484, fax (212) 251-0429, Internet https://www.rezq.com/ronto.

Also on Internet: https://www .info.polymtl.ca/zuse/tavi/www/ Romania.html.


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