Standing at the centre of the roundabout, I was dizzied.
The roundabout was so huge that it made my eyes roll, my head twirl, and then I would twist, a body in need of orientation, before the luggage handle jerked protestingly in my hand. It wriggled on the poorly paved ground, knocking against the slabs here and there like grumpy footsteps. Surrounding me was the unremitting swishing of the cars, a constant feature in the soundtrack of the city. It was stirring up another cacophony in Bucharest. When there it came the irregular squeaking, jarring my eardrums, I would turn again, just to see two or three cars being tangled up somewhere, disrupting the giddying circle of cars they had been a part of.
An unassuming-looking tram slowly passed by. The hue and cry of the roundabout was cut clean by the tramline. The tram slid on, carrying the passengers so smoothly and quietly from Unirii Square to the south while they watched, expressionless, the cyclic commotion in my direction, or maybe, they were looking at me. Me and my luggage.
It’s a fifteen-minutes’ walk from Unirii Square to the hostel, the confirmation letter said. That’s the only thing I knew about the place where I was going to stay for twelve days or so, I wasn’t sure. Maybe sometimes I just took time too easily, too playfully. I never ruminated on time and its gravitas. Fifteen minutes isn’t long, the length of three songs, I thought, it’s a distance that you can deal with simply by walking around, or asking a few people, and then you bump into it as if it’s an encounter. But everything in Bucharest was much huger than I had expected – the bizarrely massive roundabouts, the fountain on Unirii Boulevard as large as an outdoor swimming pool. Water surged out of the ground, so abundantly and full of life. It looked like the city was bleeding, in a dramatic and dark humour way, from this fresh and colossal wound. I craned my neck, squinting my eyes. Rising at the end of the avenue was the largest parliament building in the world, the People’s House, as Nicolae Ceaușescu had named it.
‘Time is magical,’ said Cosmin, the manager of the hostel, where it took more than one hour to find as I had been wandering about near the square, trying to circle round every wonder I saw. ‘When I was ten years old,’ he continued, ‘there was nothing in the racks in the mini markets but bottles of water. People were suffering, starving. But once Bucharest was called the Paris of the East…’ the hoarse voice broke off, his cigarette still burning, its smoke interlaced with the gloomy, dusty air of the summer evening. Silence had fallen upon us, only we were still waiting for the night to cool everything off.
But Bucharest was busy all the while. There were no shortcuts to the Old Town. On that first night, I crossed two roundabouts towards the area bustling with bars. My thirst for a pint of beer grew as I got dizzy with the city. There it came again the vrooming of the cars. The cars, circling round and rushing with headlights, cooperated on the illusion that the roundabout was spinning by itself. The cars were fast, the spinning slow.
Maybe this is intentional, I thought, that people are made to meander around and get diverted here and there in this city. After all, we simply cannot be like the trams, sliding by as smoothly and quietly as time. Time goes and slips away without your notice, but walking in Bucharest, you will feel everything – things that are dilapidated but still alive, and things that are alive and will be dilapidated.
Then, the roundabout kept spinning.