From Inside the Palace of the Parliament, Bucharest

By Rachel Brown, B.A. student.

Insight from Bucharest, Romania.

It’s hot. It’s so hot I can’t breathe and I wish this taxi had air-conditioning. I never wish for air-conditioning but all four windows are wide open and I still feel like I am suffocating. It is so bright outside that the industrial buildings stretching from the airport to Bucharest city are white-washed, bleached as if my eyes are a camera, set on over-expose. The driver is smoking and talking on his phone and looking over his shoulder at me at the same time. He has the bluest eyes I’ve ever seen. Walking through the airport I was struck over and over again by blue, blue eyes and dark, dark skin. Later at my hotel I will Google “blue eyes Romania.” I end up in a rabbit hole of stories about blue-eyed Arabs, and dating sites for men to meet hot young Romanian women, conspiracy theorists talking about blue-eyes sometimes being a dominant gene instead of a recessive one, and a Wikipedia article about how Estonia’s population is 99% blue eyed.  I scour the television stations to catch sight of these blue eyes again. But the airport is the only place I see them.

I am in Bucharest, Romania for two weeks to work for the secretariat of an international environmental treaty on wetlands, biodiversity and climate change–the Ramsar Convention. It is their triennial COP, or Conference of the Parties, where delegates from about 153 different countries come together to negotiate environmental policy, which they will then take home with them and implement.

In the taxi I remind myself that the areas around airports are always ugly–that what I am seeing is not going to be indicative of what the city or the rest of Romania will be like. I’m right. As we drive down the Bulevardul Regina Elisabeta I see towering old buildings; buildings that rival places I have seen in Paris. Except these buildings are crumbling and covered in graffiti–colorful spray paint and ancient gold rooftops. The taxi driver is giving me the scenic tour. I have a feeling that this is going to cost me, but I am just glad I didn’t have to take the bus.  At the airport the idea of figuring out public transport in this heat seemed staggering.

The taxi driver decides I need a tour guide. I speak English, Afrikaans, and very basic French and Persian. He speaks French, Italian, broken English and Romanian. He keeps trying to tell me about the buildings we see in Italian. I just shake my head and smile. Parks and crumbling megaliths pass by me. The heat is unbearable but it begins to feel good to my heat starved skin. I’m surprised that no one honks at us. This man drives with a cigarette and a cellphone and rarely has a hand on the steering wheel. I keep smiling. I wonder who he is talking to.  I can’t tell if it’s me, or the person I can hear on the phone. It doesn’t seem to matter to him.  He keeps talking, mentioning the Pentagon, wildly, waving his hands and veering into oncoming traffic.

At the hotel I pay the taxi driver 150 Ron, three times what my ride should have cost. I sleep all afternoon and straight through the night. The next day I sit at the registration desk in the Palace of the Parliament, where we are holding this summer’s COP. The secretariat staff is small, and at the conference is expected to take on many different jobs and roles. It is the host country’s responsibility to pay for the meeting, and to supply extra volunteers.  One of the Romanian volunteers, a man of 20 has been smiling at me all morning. Finally he works up the courage to sit down next to me. He asks me where I am from and what I’m doing here. We talk about school. He is studying law at the University of Bucharest. He had to pull strings to get an invitation to work at the COP. He wants to work for the government. I soon learn from the volunteers that everyone in Romania wants to work for the government. It could just be that I have a biased sample, but it reminds me of an article I read at home about Morocco and how the children of the country’s elite all have government jobs waiting for them when they graduate. I think of growing up in South Africa. There is something about the chaos and bizarre dichotomy between rich and poor, first world Lamborghinis and third world poverty, I see here that I recognize. I feel oddly at home.

The volunteer is trying to tell me about Romania. I ask him about the people and he tells me about the gypsies. He says they are awful. They are an embarrassment to Romania. They are “welfare suckers.” I try to keep smiling and ask him what he means. I want to know what he thinks. Gypsies in my mind seem romantic. To Romanians they aren’t. I wonder if they are blue eyed. I ask him about the blue-eyed people. He says, “Oh no, those are fine.”

I have been having my ideas of ethnicity, national identity and race challenged constantly since leaving South Africa, where there were only two races, black and white.  I left South Africa and came to an America that perceived race in places I had never been asked to look, and now, here, to a country that defines race amongst people I can’t tell apart. Nobody in the government building has blue eyes. I am at a loss for how to ask about this.

I become uncomfortable talking to him.  Our conversation slowly fizzles out. He moves on to more interesting targets. He walks like an old man, and has the hunched back and the flat-pooched belly and the hands of an old man. He is the type of twenty year old that looks and behaves like he should be 80; his ideas about people and government are just as dated. I wonder about what will happen when he becomes a government official.

For the first few days of the conference the Romanian staff is running around us wheeling plants and flower pots, rolling out carpets and putting up signs. The bulk of the volunteers don’t arrive till three days in.

The secretariat staff is from all over the world. I am working next to an American woman who is in her 50’s and stands like a flamingo on one leg. She becomes our daily news broadcaster. We spend most of the duration of the conference talking about this building with its enormous foyers and vast wings of empty unused rooms. And its ghosts.

On the evening of the first night over drinks a co-worker tells me that the Palace of the Parliament, the grand, ornate building we are working in was only built 40 years ago. That it is the second largest building in the world, second only to the Pentagon. Suddenly I understand what the taxi driver had been trying to tell me.

It is as hot inside the building as it is outside. We are told over and over again that there is no air-conditioning in the building. We ask about the huge vents we see everywhere, and we apologize to the delegates that start to arrive en-sweating masse. The women I work with and I sit and gossip with an intimacy that is forged by close living and working quarters.  Between registering 800 delegates and observer parties, we fan ourselves desperately with pamphlets meant for delegates, we fight over rationed pens that keep going missing. Languages snake past me at lightning speed. The convention works in three languages so as a rule most of the staff speak two and often three. But the delegates speak thousands, and all day snippets of conversation drift by me. The staff alters their language according to whom they are speaking to, and I sit and listen to stories in French and Spanish. I blink every time someone speaks to me in Romanian. It takes us a few seconds to realize I don’t understand what they are saying.

One of the French women working with me tells me she hates this building. She talks about the 80’s and watching the video of Elena and Nicolae Ceaușescu’s execution, which was aired on national television. She is upset at having to work in a building that is so symbolically linked to them. The American woman tells me about how a friend had to escape Romania during the 1980’s, leaving her family behind  never to be seen again.

Most of Bucharest’s architecture is made up of buildings built during the Communist era and the Palace of the Parliament, in all its ornate marbled splendor, is no exception. Nicolae Ceaușescu demolished huge portions of the historic center of Bucharest in order to construct it. He literally razed the previously historic sections of the city and built his Paris of the East from scratch in his project of systemization.

I now understand what the taxi driver had been pointing at, during my very expensive and unsolicited guided tour. Tens of thousands of houses had been destroyed. Later that night, walking to a supermarket in search of snacks a co-worker explained that in the 1980’s 40,000 people were evicted with only a day’s notice as he razed an 8 square kilometer area, as part of his redevelopment scheme. Back when the world was divided in three. Back when I was born. A whole twenty-six years ago. His ghost is still here, in this building,  in this city, and amongst us, people from far away places and distant time.

As the days and the heat blur together and conversations snippet in and out around me, I feel like time starts to resemble a stop animation film, and I am constantly trying to puzzle this place together. Slowly, like drip filtration I become aware that there is something else happening in this building. There are parts we aren’t allowed to access, that contain the seat of government. On the second day, the American woman announces that there is going to be a coup. That the current president Traian Basescu is being ousted by Prime Minister Victor Ponta over allegations he had abused his powers. We suddenly find we are unwitting participants in this drama, by simple accident. Every now and then a lost politician comes in the wrong door and walks past us, at one point Basescu and Ponta are standing in front of me shaking hands. Angela Merkel walks by me.

Everything starts to get very exciting. In between long days of work, and the political dramas in the convention itself, we are riveted by what is happening in the building around us.

Information comes to us in bits and pieces, some of it is nonsense, and some of it is accurate. It takes time to sort out which is which. It’s impossible to find English news in Romania. You can watch Xena the Warrior Princess on repeat and Chuck Norris movies and old American television. There is CNN Europe, but everything is happening so fast that it seems like the rest of the world hasn’t caught on yet. Locked in the building all day working we don’t really now what’s happening outside, there are reports of burning buildings which turn out to be standard house fires, student uprisings, which turn out to be small and talk of a coup d’etat keeps resurfacing.

Being a part of what happens and trying to understand it at the same time is very difficult. The only source of information we have is an opinion piece by Paul Krugman in the New York Times.  I think about a class I took with Ellis Goldberg on the Arab Spring and realize this is what he was talking about when he described being in Cairo at the start of the Egyptian uprising.

The next day we learn that it is not a coup after all, but that the parliament has voted to impeach President Traian Basescu.

On my final day I have some free time. The volunteer, who first told me about gypsies also told me that the video of the Ceaușescu’s execution was available on YouTube if I was interested. I had politely declined. But, I go see their graves though in a final bid to my morbid curiosity. I want to say goodbye to this person who’s building I have been hosted in, who’s streets I have walked in and who has left such a strange legacy behind.

The final evening is hot. We wonder the old town district and seek tables in the vast oceans of outdoor seating, between thick clouds of smoke and faces of all ages and expensive cars and taxis and gypsies and beautiful, beautiful Romanian women. There are Gypsies everywhere. I think about South Africa again in relation to this new democracy also still dealing with the vapors of its past. A lot of it is very similar and then a lot of it is not

It will take time for me after leaving to put all this information into perspective and I will finally relent and watch the video. It is sad and hollow, and leaves me feeling intense grief, for both the atrocities committed by Nicolae and Elena, but also for the horrific way in which they died. The narrator uses a quote by Karl Marx at the end of the video, and it seems fitting; “Men make their own history but they do not make it as they choose.”


Rachel Brown is a Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations major and Editor for the Jackson School Journal of International Studies.  She is also the Assistant Director for the Odegaard Writing and Research Center. In her spare time she is a certified mediator working in Washington state.

Rachel has worked with the Ramsar Convention for the last two Conference of the Parties, in South Korea and in Romania. The next one will be in Uruguay. Rachel grew up in South Africa and moved to the US in 2008. She will graduate from UW in 2014 and intends to spend her senior year at the Sciences Po in France studying Arabic and French and completing her thesis.