PressOne Founder Voicu Bojan likes to take the road less traveled by. Showing up at the train station without a destination, he buys a ticket to the same location as the person in front of him in line. His plan is to not plan.
“You don’t choose, you let yourself be chosen. You don’t control the story, you allow it to unfold in whatever way it desires. You become an active witness of your own life, losing yourself in a place that you know nothing about, hoping this chaotic ride will give birth to a personal and unique story.”
These words are written on the train: Do you want to travel like lightning? Choose TFC. Since this train has only one route – Cluj-Oradea – my destiny is as clear as the puddles between the railroad tracks.
Seated comfortably on the train – with my back in the direction we’re headed so I can study the passengers more closely – I wonder again what kind of crazy endeavor I’ve ventured out on.
I start to recollect my childhood memory of Oradea. I remember walking down the pretty white path from Uncle Paul’s home to my favorite swimming hole on the shore of the Criș River. The deep pool, equipped with a diving platform and trampoline, was so satisfying; I wouldn’t eat all day long.
Uncle Paul, just a friend of my parents, became my hero during one magical summer when he not only caught a two-pound carp, but he also hit a rooster with his Fiat 850 on the way home. The poor rooster was eaten the next day – a la Transylvanian – following the traditional recipe of chicken soup with matzo balls.
Uncle Paul was tall, tanned and adorned with a shiny, bald head that exuded dignity. He taught me how to cut melons with the help of a large knife. He gave me the foam from his beer and laughed hard when I choked on a sip of plum brandy. He was the perfect hero, because he didn’t seem to give a hoot for education.
The problem with childhood memories is that everything is turned upside down when you revisit those magical places and forgotten heroes. From great and glorious, they become small and insignificant. My mind drifts back to the train ride.
Like the cuckoo birds that pop out of old grandfather clocks, the ruddy-faced train dispatchers pop out of their little warm nests and huddle in the dark grey train stations in Ciucea, Bratca, Șuncuiuș or Vadu Crișului.
Wanting to make good use of my time, I sent a message to everyone I know who might provide me with some information about Oradea. I receive one disappointing message after another: “I don’t have an ounce of inspiration”, “I’m at work”, “I don’t know anything special to tell you”, or “I’m in Suceava.”
Like every peasant who arrives in the city, I start walking towards the City Center.
It’s drizzling, chilly and the wind is beginning to pick up. The large bridge over the Criș River – the one that runs right by Town Hall – is blocked due to construction. Not too far away, the newly renovated State Theatre and “The Beer Barrel” garden are closed. On the riverbank, a lone fisherman decked out in a yellow raincoat seems to be a statue of enduring patience.
Everything lacks promise until I cross over the river and arrive in Piata Unirii. There, I stepped into a new, open, luminous and truly spectacular world. Wherever I turn my head, I find something significant and deserving of attention.
Workers are carting around sand in the park belonging to the Zion Synagogue, restored with European funding. Across the street, two women are making pastries on the ground floor of a coffee-colored building, peppered with yellow and green terracotta pots.
The Black Hawk Palace Arcade is one of the most impressive examples of Viennese architecture I’ve ever seen. Tears well up when I think of the dilapidated state of the Urania Arcade in Cluj, another model of extraordinary Viennese architecture, located just two blocks from my home.
From the outside, the Black Hawk Palace Arcade is freshly restored while on the stained-glass covered interior, renovations are well on their way.
It doesn’t matter to me that the contractors are sweeping layers of dust into my face from their scaffolds. With my peasant’s hat on backwards and my mouth hanging open in awe, I try to imagine how spectacular it will look when it’s ready.
Across the Square are ordinary streets that form the perimeter
of the former Jewish Ghetto. This neighborhood was home to 26,260 of the 161,639 people from North Transylvania who were deported during May and June of 1944. Among them was a 13 year old girl named Eva Heyman.
A little bit further, across the street from the spectacular Greek-Catholic palace, built in renaissance style, I discover the famous Moon Church.
The building itself is a typical Christian Orthodox church from the 18th century. What makes it unique is the sphere above the entrance. Half black, half golden, displaying the moon’s rotation on a daily basis, this mechanism is the work of a master clockmaker named Georg Rueppe.
Off to Felix
One of the most amusing things about the Oradeans is the way that they brag about how rarely they visit Băile Felix, the popular thermal spa resort, located only a few kilometers away from the city. In light of the depressing weather, I decide to see what uplifting experience the hot springs resort might offer.
I head straight for Apollo, the classic thermal bath of Felix. It has been renovated, but still has the same logo. It looks like lettuce with eyes, imitating a water lily. Despite the renovations, the style is tired.
The architecture is a nightmarish combination of rustic Austrian with elitist accents, daring communist cubism and post-revolutionary thermo pane windows. Other than that, the Apollo basin is cute, clean, and fairly empty. The main pool, appropriate for swimming and bathing, has a pleasant temperature. However, the pool in the back is about 35-38 degrees Celsius, depending how far away you are from the river source.
I lay around the pool for two hours, floating about like a rubber duck in a bathtub, eavesdropping on various conversations about the science of thermal springs and the psychology of rheumatoid arthritis.
Many Apollo guests are Romanians returned home for the holidays. I identify the German-Romanian, the Spanish-Romanian and the Irish-Romanian. Their favorite theme is the outrageous price of apartments and rent around Europe.
Further away, a salesperson posing as a natural medicine specialist is sipping from a 2 liter bottle of healing potion containing water, lemon, ginger, garlic and honey, which is guaranteed to work miracles. The listeners are mesmerized by all the diseases that can be healed by this natural remedy.
Back to Oradea
When I begin to feel that I’m starting to catch all the diseases mentioned by the salesperson, I abandon the hot springs.
At the streetcar ticket booth located on the edge of the city, there is a sign: “Eating is strictly forbidden, maintain silence.” Eating would’ve ensured silence, I tell myself.
I retire for the evening in an aparthotel that is named after the legendary island featured in King Arthur’s fables: Avalon Rooms.
Thanks to a code sent by text, I manage to get in, sleep in an elegant bed, receive a bill and leave the next morning without laying eyes on a single soul. I just left money on the mini bar to settle the bill. I feel invigorated by the trust and hopeful for the human race.
Today it is sunny, fresh and promising. I cross the Central Park, heading towards the Oradea Fortress, newly restored and open to the public.
This was the residence of the Roman-Catholic Chancellery for about 400 years and a military residence for another 300 years.
The fortress, which has been attacked by Tatars, Turks, Transylvanians and Austrians, is now a cultural center, sheltering art pieces and important books, connecting the Eastern world to Western civilization.
It’s strange that the backdrop for this venerable 900 year old architectural wonder is a string of communist buildings.
I head to Tapta where I order a breakfast of champions: two quail eggs, tomatoes drizzled with olive oil and an impeccable latte macchiato. An unexpected piece of news arrives over breakfast. The mayor of Oradea, Ilie Bolojan, is expecting me at 11:00 AM sharp.
Meeting Mayor Bolojan
The meeting unfolds like a boxing match, in which the two adversaries declare their intentions without being stingy about the punches they throw. Afterwards, they rest for a while, giving the impression that they’re hugging tenderly.
Mayor Ilie Bolojan is not an easy conversationalist, but he’s not hesitant either. I have seldom come across a man as firm on his stance as he. Although the dialogue takes the form of a monologue, it is full of content.
The subjects of conversation are plentiful: the parking problem, renovation of the facades, new central heating systems, moving electrical cables underground, pedestrian walkways, the destiny of synagogues and the new aqua park. I’ll selectively reiterate the ideas that I enjoyed most.
“When I first ran for office, it was still considered an honor to be mayor. That is no longer the case. When 25 out of the 47 city halls have numerous corruption allegations against them, all of us feel the burn. Nowadays, political figures run away from responsibility and concentrate on their image.
This is a general illness affecting Romanian politicians. The focus is on press releases and uploading images to Facebook pages. The reality is that very little happens, because doing things is risky. We lose our popularity, our votes, and we can be kicked out.
Napoleon Bonaparte once said something like this: ‘If you wish to be someone, be assured that you’ll cause some upheaval. But if you don’t disturb anyone, you’ll have disturbed everyone by your lack of action.’
I live my life according to this principle. When I’m convinced of the benefit of a project, I see it through to the end. A courageous project, such as paving a new road through a suburb involves demolition and expropriation. As a result, you’re called a communist, dictator and robber.
No matter what you pay people for their property, they end up telling you what a woman told me when I received her for a meeting: ‘you can’t redeem my memories, you bastard.’
We’ve been a construction zone for the last four years. Now, we have to step up to a superior level of development, based on two fundamental ideas: our architectural patrimony, consisting of hundreds of historical buildings; and the natural, geo-thermal springs. Next, we’ll consider cultural and gastronomic events.
There’s no point in having sister cities in New Zealand, we need to have Cluj and Timisoara as sister cities, so we can create something together and borrow positive energy from one another. Together, as a 3-in-1 package, we might be able to compete with Europe’s larger cities. Otherwise, working alone, it’s much harder.”
At the end of our discussion, I asked him to look out the window together and describe the view a little bit.
“Do you see the synagogue? Starting on the 15th of the month, it will have a visitation program. Two more synagogues will be transformed into a museum and cultural center. We have a klezmer music group that plays traditional Jewish music and we are preparing a series of cultural events as well as concerts every so often.
Where you see the construction site: that’s going to be made into a parking lot with 400 parking spaces. You know the saying: No parking, no business.
Do you see the bridge? I call the contractor when I see workers aren’t doing anything. Get them to work. The best way to work on our image is by working hard on our projects.”
He’s a respected, efficient and pragmatic man who pushed the city into action more than any of the former mayors, particularly because he knew how and when to access European funds.
As soon as I exit City Hall, I go directly to the Zion Synagogue thanks to the information I’ve just obtained. There is a green carpet on the floor, with tracings of a soccer field and even two small nets. A handful of players made out of cardboard emulate a soccer game.
The scene is absurd, in utter contrast with all that is a sacred space. But this is only until you look closely and realize that that this is an exhibition to pay homage to the Jewish-Hungarian trainers and players from elite soccer.
Time seems to stand still as I walk through the players. It’s quiet and the blue dome is magnetic. I leave as discretely as I entered.
In the square, I meet Mr. Alexandru Tolvai. He’s 88-years-old and in the mood for storytelling.
He recounts what the square was like before, the way he cried when his Jewish friends were deported, how he signed up for the Hungarian military police and wore a rooster’s feather, and the 8 months he spent in a Russian concentration camp.
Even though the sun is timidly shining, I suddenly get chills and wrap my clothes around me. Time suddenly stops and things connect in a bizarre way. The present moment and history become one. Beside me, so close that I can touch him, is a man who was a military police officer in 1944, wearing a rooster’s feather on his black helmet.
It’s a known fact that there was an armed branch of the repressive Hungarian regime. Their zeal awed even the SS officers. I do not need anymore information from Mr. Tolvai.
I turn my head to follow the direction Mr. Tolvai’s cane is pointing. I see the Jewish ghetto, which was the home of the Transylvanian Anne Frank, Eva Heyman.
On February 13, 1944, the 13 year old Eva Heyman began to record her memories in a journal. Her text personifies “the interwoven hope and despair, that strange union of the oppressor’s arrogance with the victim’s humiliation, of the presentiment of death mingled with a desire to live, all of these governed by fear, anxiety and panic,” as affirmed by Oliver Lustig in the preface of the book.
The destiny of her friend Marta who was deported and shot to death in 1941 begins to obsess Eva. Marta, the friend she went on long bicycle rides with and shared snacks of strawberries and whipped cream. Somehow, Eva knows she’ll join in Marta’s destiny, yet with every journal entry she clings to life and the desire to live.
“My little Diary, everyone is saying that they’ll send us to Hungary, that all the Jews are being gathered somewhere near Balaton where we’ll all have to work, but I don’t believe it. It must be horrendous in that train; and now everyone is saying that they’ll deport us rather than take us there. I’ve never heard the word deport before.
I don’t want to die, I lived so little! And she (Marta) was only a child but still, the Germans killed her. But I don’t want that, I don’t want to be killed. I want to become a photojournalist and when I turn 24, I want to get married…”
After she was deported, the journal remained in the care of the family’s chef. In the concentration camp, Eva did everything she could do to remain unobserved – until that fatal day on October 17 when Doctor Mengele himself selected her for the gas chambers. In 1948, her journal was published in Budapest. Immediately after, Eva’s mother Agi, who was freed by the allies from the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, committed suicide.
As I walk through the streets, I reminisce about Eva’s tragic story. I have great admiration for the 30 Oradea citizens, who cycled 500 kilometers to Auschwitz, to ensure that this remarkable young lady will not be forgotten.
Before heading into the train station, I wander into a florist named Marius Sabău. He has a chic little pavilion made out of wood, right on the shores of the Criș River, where the first boardwalk of the city used to be.
That’s where he and his wife create beautiful bouquets while classical music plays in the background. Marius is what would be considered a normal man. He’s a man at peace with his work, he loves his city and knows its history.
Since my journey is about to come to an end, I decide to cross another few things off my list. A friend drives me to the Mushroom, the go-to place for young couples in love, now completely revamped.
With a newly groomed terrace, the hill looks fairly avant-garde, scattered with wooden benches, lookout points and even a restaurant at the top where a salata de vinete (the Romanian babaganoush) is surprisingly tasty.
Towards the Hungarian-Romanian border, the once old industrial zone is being replaced by a new bicycle lane connecting to the one in Hungary, which goes to Vienna and beyond.
21.20. About an hour after the train has departed from Oradea and I am nodding off with a book on my chest, a little elderly woman appears out of nowhere like in a fairytale. Armed with a Bible, she says to me: “Look here, in John 17, it says something important: ‘And this is Eternal Life: that they might know Thee, the One True God’…”