‘Reader, if thou hast any good wishes towards me, I will fully repay them by wishing thee to be possessed of this sanguine disposition of mind; since, after having read much and considered long on that subject of happiness which hath employed so many great pens, I am almost inclined to fix it in the possession of this temper; which puts us, in a manner, out of reach of Fortune, and makes us happy without her assistance.’ Henry Fielding in Tom Jones (XIII.6)
For ten days we trawled through the classified sections of the local papers. One rogue after another had stood expectantly by the door as we looked round some of the dankest saddest rooms either of us had ever set eyes on. Even the most beautiful place feels different after you’ve seen it in its classified section aspect. Sibiu is an old German town in what is now Romania and had seemed just the place we wanted to be for the summer, but perhaps we should be thinking of somewhere else. It was already May.
We were taking another restless walk around the place late one night, brooding over our predicament, when all the lights abruptly went out. The actual moment of the power-cut was greeted by something ironical half-way between a cheer and a groan from the beer tables set up along the main street. This hilarity lasted only a few seconds, however, before certain realisations began to dawn. The white shirts of waiters and waitresses were faintly visible, posted at all entrances to (or, rather, exits from) their respective premises. Hitherto the ubiquitous smokers in Romania had irritated me, but in a power-cut all those lit cigarettes were beautiful - the dimly visible white-shirted staff stood guard over a thicket filled with hosts of fidgeting glow-worms. Two or three electronic alarms had gone off somewhere.
As we looked about us in fact the city now bore not the slightest resemblance to what all those heaving cafés with their scampering waitresses in tiny skirts contrive to make it seem - a tripper’s destination. Our eyes adjusted as we walked towards the old centre, and there it was - the main square with its Gothic spire and onion domes, the Renaissance and Baroque palaces, gathered there under the stars and a quarter-moon. Occasionally a car, its head-lamps on full-beam, as if on some lonely country road.
It had never seemed so beautiful, not even on the first evening we arrived. Seeing it by nothing but starlight you wondered afresh - even after the two frustrating weeks we’d had - at this place set down here under the mountains. The town-clock chimed eleven and we looked in silence at the collection of medieval and later buildings off which that sound reflected faintly. We were almost alone here - just one or two lit cigarette-ends wandering about.
The modern city of Sibiu waiting in the dark meanwhile for the fun to resume.
We’d noticed in passing that the light was on inside the German-owned Volksbank on the main street - a large Mercedes soon stood outside its doors and inside was the silhouette of somebody talking on the phone. The lights at the Continental Hotel were also still on. Ditto the main office for Greek-owned RomTelecom. Such institutions need never go without a back-up supply in our world. The Bruckenthal Museum plunged in complete darkness. It only contains Dürers, after all, and it is owned by the same trust as the old Grammar School (Gymnasium). At the most expensive restaurant on the main square a waiter stood training a torch on a table of English-speakers while one of the waitresses poured a newly ordered bottle of wine, the waiter holding a little umbrella of electric light, as if to protect these customer-kings from the universe.
There were more cars now, as the power cut went on. People were beginning to accept that the evening was over, or to worry perhaps about the safety of their homes in this thick dark. We too were on our way back to the pension when the sodium lamps came back on, feeble pink elements first, full orange glow only gradually.
But it was Sibiu in that power-cut which confirmed us in our flagging determination to find a place to live there. As if the city had shot us a strangely confiding glance, had revealed to us its older, more questioning face - glimpsed through a technical hitch in the relentless fun and games of the new(-ish) capitalism. For just a few moments RomTelecom and Volksbank and the Continental had been shown up for the flashy baubles they are in a place like that.
Back at our pension, power restored, Yehudi Menuhin was on late-night TV playing Schubert in black and white at the 1964 Bath Festival. There is a special affection for his memory in Romania because as a young musician he studied under George Enescu at a resort in the Carpathians. And he seemed another glimpse of that older face, that deeper continuity - you can’t help looking out for it in these countries - anything which survived the rampagings of the C20th.
Apart from what’s left of the architecture in Bucharest there is another remnant of the country’s C19th Francophilia, for example, which possesses the added charm of being less obvious. It is the tendency even among the young to use French words mistakenly when speaking English, as many of them now do. They are forever ‘revendicating’ or ‘interdicting’ or ‘depassing’, they ‘pretend’ when they ought to be claiming - ‘imprevisible’ they say, when they mean ‘unpredictable’ and this last I made a point of correcting until I saw the wisdom of it. ‘Wisdom’ because unpredictability is not the same everywhere. A different word is needed to cover its fuller range of meanings in some places.
It took us a week, for example, to realise that the pension in which we felt increasingly trapped was discreetly doubling as a brothel. The road outside had once been cobbled but was for the most part now of compacted earth and gravel with some stretches of tarmac. There were expensive cars with foreign license plates which sometimes parked in it, diplomatic plates among them, and neither of us was born yesterday but there are times when Eastern Europe makes you feel you must have been. That series of middle aged women who sat in the reception area downstairs, staring into space, smoking. And it was still a week before we realised. That must have been why they put us right at the top of the house.
All the more imperative, then, that we find a place of our own to rent - and in searching for somewhere we had at least quickly found our way round the town. Sibiu is the most beautiful of Transylvania’s fortified cities. The Turks must have liked it too - they laid siege to it four times. The massive defences built against them are now being scrubbed clean as part of the preparations for EU entry in 2007. E.M.Forster passed through in the Thirties and wrote a rather winsome sketch about it. These days it’s mainly tourists who like it - and as we soon found Romanians have had 15 years now to become as canny about property as anyone else in Europe.
* * *
Inchiriez apartament 2 camere, mobilat, zona centrala (langa podul Minciunilor) 90 euros, avans 3 luni and then a telephone number. These were the words which marked the end of our search through the classified sections of the local papers. It was a search which had turned up plenty of interesting if not strictly relevant material - ‘Dancers required in Canada and Japan’, or ‘Actresses required for adult films in England.’ You can travel a long way and never stop learning about your own country.
But here at last was just the advertisement we had been searching for. It sounded so perfect there must be some catch, we agreed. 2 room furnished flat to let, next to the Bridge of Lies. That would put it smack in the middle of the oldest part of the city. For the equivalent of $20 a week. The first three months rent was payable in advance, but still - we’d been cooped up in a tiny room in central Bucharest for months - this sounded unbelievable - our accommodation problem just couldn’t be solved this neatly.
We rang the number anyway and agreed to meet a ‘Mr Lazarus’ on the Bridge of Lies that evening. Mr Lazarus wore a thick moustache and a baseball cap and tinted spectacles, behind which he appeared to be slightly wall-eyed. He was in a neck-brace after a recent accident. The flat didn’t belong to him exactly, he explained. He was only acting as the agent. The owner was an actor, from another city in Transylvania, where he ran a theatre. The flat had belonged to his parents and he had inherited it. He wished to sell it now, to help with the re-furbishment of his theatre - but while it was on the market he wanted to make a little income from it. There had been a buyer - but it turned out he was from Moldova - and then there had been some rumours - he couldn’t go into what kind. Anyway, the owner could wait - and he wasn’t a greedy man, either - hence the very reasonable rent. If we liked the place and did want to let it, we would of course be notified well in advance of any viewings by prospective buyers.
We nodded as he spoke, said we were still interested, and asked which house it was exactly. He turned and pointed at a large crumbling C18th mansion which stood, exactly as per the advertisement, right next to the Bridge of Lies on which we were standing. It was a building I had often noticed on our strolls around Sibiu. The green paint on it was either flaking off or turning into all kinds of different colours. It was forest green just under the eaves, more olive green lower down, where the sun had faded it, brighter elsewhere. To judge from where it had flaked, the house had been painted yellow before the green went on. This could not be what it seemed, but what could the catch be? Our flat would be on the other side - right? - looking out into some stinking alley?
No, it was a front-facing apartment - it was Apartment Number One, no less - looking out over the ‘Piatsa Mica / Kleiner Ring’. The ‘Piatsa Mica’, the ‘small square’, is an old, odd, kidney-shaped public space, less symmetrical and less formal than the main square nearby, to which it is connected. It is lime trees and uneven cobbles patched with tarmac and parking spaces watched over by the city’s medieval clock tower. Services at the large Jesuit church on it are held in Romanian, Hungarian and German. There are long irregular rows of sturdy merchants houses built over a covered walkway running round the square, such as you will find in any old German or Bohemian market town.
The Queen of Luxemburg had recently purchased the other large mansion on the square apart from ‘our own’ - that’s why it was in the process of being completely restored. When Mr Lazarus informed us with a perfectly straight face that it would in due course house a ‘Luxembourgian Cultural Centre’ it seemed no stranger than anything else we had seen or heard since we answered that advertisement.
There was never any serious doubt about it. One of the cupboards contained a stack of well-thumbed pornographic magazines, which Mr Lazarus calmly tucked under his arm and took away with him, glad we liked the place. That was when I noticed the chunky gold bracelet he was wearing. Anyway the rooms, the kitchen and bathroom were luxurious compared with what we’d been putting up with in Bucharest. We left the pension as soon as we could. The large bed-stead, it was true, collapsed the moment one of us tried to sit on it, so we dismantled that, hauling the pieces up into the giant attic where each flat had its own storage space, then dusted everywhere, washed the parquet floors and arranged the mattresses on the bedroom floor.
We wrote in the mornings, and wrote well, now that we had so little to worry about otherwise. The house had a fine atmosphere. The courtyard our home opened onto at the back stared straight up at the town’s soaring Gothic spire - the old Lutheran church. And it was only the mansion’s facade that was C18th, as we learnt from an afternoon in the city archives. It had originally been the home of a C16th nobleman. Its internal courtyard was gloriously ramshackle - three levels of rotting wooden walkways, one for each floor, connected by a stone stairwell in one corner. The housewives beat large threadbare carpets and left them to hang over the railings of the walkways. The dust from them floated down into a yard mainly taken up by a lean-to for cars with a large asbestos roof on it. A child two floors above us amused herself throwing toys onto its roof so that they would have to be retrieved with long poles.
The place was impossibly romantic - literally impossibly. We all know better now than to be taken in by old Europe and its treacherous charms. An enormous and utterly mysterious telephone bill arrived, addressed to us, charging us for several months of long-distance calls. There was a sharp exchange with Mr Lazarus and nothing more was heard of the telephone bill.
The owner-actor himself appeared one afternoon, ‘to see how we were getting along’. A rotund, complacent young man, with greased hair and a gold crucifix worn outside his sleeveless T-shirt. A little beard and a photogenic smile. He did not seem particularly attached to a house he had known since childhood but I asked him anyway, out of curiosity, if he knew anything of the building’s past. The mansion had been owned by a Jewish family before the war, that was all he knew. Their descendants lived in France now. He preferred to talk of other things.
It wasn’t necessary to say anything more - indeed my girlfriend marvelled he had said even that much. She translated as soon as he was gone. It meant the whole building would be the object of a restitution claim. If the current occupants have bought their flats then the government is obliged to recompense the former owners with the market-value of the property. But the laws are labyrinthine and the process can drag on for years. Presumably he just wanted to make some money out of the place while he knew for sure he still could.
Further imprevisibilities awaited us. The ‘Bridge of Lies’ spans the main road into the old town from the south. The road runs up from the lower town between high brick embankments to emerge in the middle of the Piatsa Mica. We had been in the flat about a month when two men with clip-boards appeared one afternoon outside our front window and began discussing our bit of dusty garden. They were from the council, it turned out. Just undertaking a little informal survey. When pressed it emerged that the whole of the brick embankment was due to be replaced in the course of that summer. The work would begin from the far end. But unless we were ‘abnormally sensitive’ the noise of pneumatic drills wouldn’t affect us for several weeks, they re-assured us. It was all part of the mayor’s preparations for EU accession. Beautiful Sibiu, founded by German settlers in the C11th, show-case for the new westward-looking Romania.
So the immediate future for our beloved Piatsa Mica was noise. And we were not very consoled that this well illustrated an important feature of life at that moment in Romania. This was only 2003 but there was already no escaping the obsession with 2007 and EU accession. Hungary had backed Romania’s entry as part of the answer to the problematic status of its large minority in Transylvania. It was thought that once Romania joined Hungary would probably try to promote a ‘Europe of the Regions’ in which some measure of autonomy was offered to its minority there. As we finally arrived at something like a full picture of why our flat had been such a bargain, we began to see that even road works in this part of Europe were part of a debate about the future.
But if one grows tired of geo-political chit-chat, there are alternatives - there always are if we use our eyes. There was a Gypsy with long greasy grey hair under his embroidered cap, for example, out among the cafés most mornings. He carried with him a green budgerigar - at each step the bird swayed on its perch above a kind of wooden tray, packed tight with little squares of paper. He was a fortune-teller.
You paid this Gypsy roughly the price of a newspaper, certainly not less, and he nudged his bird to pick out a paper from the section where he had futures suitable for a man or a woman, a young one or an old one, depending on the client. While the bird made its ‘choice’ its owner mumbled a spell. The bird, having picked out a piece of paper in its beak - or generally two or three in fact - passed it/them to the Gypsy, who handed one to you and tucked the others away again. The bird bit anyone foolish enough try and stroke him, while the man set his jaw very hard indeed if he didn’t feel you had offered enough for his clairvoyant services. Most mornings these two could be seen going about their unsentimental rounds together, in search of tourists. We let them tell our fortunes once. If I remember rightly she was going to find herself a rich husband and I was going to have a beautiful young wife and lots of children. She’s only given me one so far.
As the drilling in the street outside came closer, much as we are both optimistic about EU expansion in general, we began to feel that in our particular case we were paying a very high price for it. We started exploring the countryside roundabout - went several times to the lakes left by flooded medieval salt mines outside the city, which function as its public swimming baths in summer. There was the mountain village where the philosopher Emil Cioran was born, there were the other old cities around Transylvania, and there were ten days in the Danube Delta.
It was on our return from one of these trips that we found our flat had been broken into. Nothing had been taken - but then there was very little to take. We put a new lock on the door and went on living there, with a new touch of something defiant in us now. We went on dodging the noise as best we could. There is a French Cultural Centre in Sibiu, financed by the city of Rennes, where we went to watch New Wave films. Queuing one lunch-time for a sandwich we met some students from the city’s large Orthodox seminary who invited us to their services and helped me through the complex liturgy, providing a translation and explaining the music too as we went. We got to know the Bruckenthal Museum right down to its Nuremburg Bible dated 1488, its Van Dyck portrait of Charles I and Henrietta Maria and C18th Complete Works of Voltaire. It had a Titian and another Dürer too, and Jan van Eyck’s Man in a Blue Turban before the Second World War, when these were removed to the National Gallery in Bucharest - a gesture which is still the occasion for feature-length mutterings in the local German-language rag. [2007: The mutterings must have paid off: van Eyck's Man in a Blue Turban has recently been restored to Sibiu, to mark its year as European City of Culture.]
The drilling would stop in the evenings at least. As our illusions fell away they left us still renting a little flat from a minor scoundrel in a small town, but it wasn’t all bad. Having no television set I finally read Tom Jones all the way through. We read novels out loud together. A Farewell To Arms and Slaughterhouse 5 and The Dean’s December, and it was only after we’d started the last that we realised we had been reading one novel for each of the twentieth century’s wars - the First, the Second and the Cold - and wondered what that might signify.
The city seemed, in the strange restless static of East Central Europe, to have attracted to itself, both over the centuries and over the last fifteen years, all the components of the European riddle. With its beauty and intricate history, its mixed population and internecine cultural snobberies, Transylvania certainly has about it something of the current European project in miniature - but what exactly? Did the imprevisibility of our own experiences really connect up with anything larger? The programme of public works being carried out by the city’s (ethnically German and recently re-elected) mayor was perhaps not just a nuisance for its visitors. Was it not also, in its way, the future happening?
Those three great novels about the Twentieth Century - Hemingway’s, Vonnegut’s and Bellow’s - all found in Central and Eastern Europe their natural setting. Might it not then be in places like Sibiu that a crucial story about our new century is unfolding? That’s more than I can say, not having the right spells or any magical budgerigars at my disposal. All I can say is that two young writers, one English one Romanian, found in Sibiu a place to work on their novels and read American masterpieces together.
But we had by no means exhausted the city’s imprevisibilty. It turned out that our ‘burglar’ had been none other than Mr Lazarus himself, as he haltingly explained to us one evening when he happened to be passing and thought he’d drop in for an informal chat. He had broken into the flat, he explained, on its owner’s instructions, to show it to a couple who had then made an offer on it. So we had to leave now. In a week.
What contract? It was true actually. The actor-owner had said he’d put it in the post and hadn’t and we’d been foolish enough to imagine this was an oversight. (The actor-owner lived far away, in another town, Mr Lazarus re-iterated. He couldn’t come here to give us our money back. Busy man. Or instruct anyone else to.)
The pneumatic drills were in any case drawing ever nearer so we went onto the offensive. Romanians don’t settle this sort of thing by the English method of cold-shouldering plus solicitors. It was with chilling threats that we finally succeeded in extracting our money from Mr Lazarus and his actor-owner friend. Extract it we eventually did and left the city but it’s quite another image that sticks in my mind now from the evening of Mr Lazarus’ visit.
Exasperated, determined now to leave this city just as soon as we could retrieve our money and plotting how best to effect this, we wandered Sibiu, unable to settle to anything. All our high-mindedness was worse than no use now. At dusk we stood together on the Bridge of Lies, hesitating, neither of us wanting to go indoors yet. We looked at the dark windows of our flat and felt trapped, again. It was a cool clear evening in late August. Being quite unable to appreciate it only added to our wretchedness.
We’d been stood there for some minutes in fact, blind with fury, before I noticed. There were three storks on our house, standing quite still, one on each chimney, so comically-solemn and perfectly symmetrical one on each chimney, paying us and our squalid troubles no attention as they settled down for the night with heads and necks tucked in. As if the house had suddenly sprouted a row of giant black and white tulips with long orange stems. How could we have missed them? How foolish it made us feel, too, not to have noticed them all this while.
Looking about us more carefully now they were everywhere - seven along the roof of the Lutheran church’s north transept - and others were perched on steeply pitched roofs and chimneys all around the Piatsa Mica, right along the street leading down to the market, on the tower of the old hospital’s chapel. The breeding season must be over and the family groups gathering before their departure south. An old book I had with me said that in Romanian folk tales the stork is the only bird that can reach the fountains of both life and death. However that may be they had certainly effected a final reconciliation with the Piatsa Mica, for all its pneumatic drills and crooked landlords. The enchantment was, briefly, restored. If a May night had asked in what spirit such a city had been built, here was an August evening’s answer.
We went out into the chill of dawn next morning to see if they were still there - there were even more in fact - several more on the church and the three on our house had been joined by a fourth, perched on somebody’s TV aerial. We walked down to the market so early that even the fruit- and vegetable- and cheese- and honey-sellers were still asleep, wrapped in blankets and lying on their stalls, or just beginning to stir, eying us suspiciously in the half-light. The bread hadn’t arrived yet so watched them set out their wares as we waited.
The storks had all gone by the time we returned home with our loaf. The roof-line of the old town seemed strangely deserted without them. It had been touched by the beyond again, as it had been by starlight more than three months ago. Our time here was over - we were leaving and we were angry. But ultimately the crooks and the pimps who do their best everywhere to blight whatever they can had proved unequal to the spirit of this place. The same spirit which during that power cut had shown us its older questioning face, had finally turned to us a younger one, as if to send us on our way with the fragile beginnings of an answer.
„Our House by the Bridge of Lies“
Reflections on a summer in Sibiu
Author: Horatio Morpurgo
See also this artistic contribution to…