“The Streets Were Ours?”


During the winter of 1947 or 1948 Gurian (1950: 87) heard the cries of children sledding through the window of her apartment. This sound brought her a sort of peace and substitute for the joy of life. She could barely endure the tightening forceps of Stalinism and intended to leave Romania. The note about the children’s playful screaming also appeared as an illustration of Gurian’s own state of mind. Although the sounds of children sledding were – presumably – only in the background of the adults’ experiences, they signaled the existence of a parallel world in which public and home spaces had different meanings and were subject to different rigors. “The streets were ours” recalled historian Boia (born 1942) in regard to his childhood, an account that clashes with the memories of the adults. He describes the gathering of children from neighboring courtyards in groups to play together, especially during the extremely snowy winters of the 1950s, giving endless possibilities of sledding (Boia 2018: 69, 94). On the other hand, art historian Victor I. Stoichiţă (born 1949), recalling a family reunion in 1956, describes the domestic rigors according to which children were tolerated “on the condition that they would not run, shout, ask stupid questions, or preferably not to say anything, if possible” (Stoichiţă 2014: 299). 


The diaries and memories usually express a very limited amount of information about the sound space, usually less than about the visual sphere. One can also claim that the record of the sound space is filtered exceptionally strongly through emotions and moods as well as the writing strategies of the authors of these sources. They are intellectuals with elite social aspirations, sophisticated musical tastes, and specific expectations about sociability. The political and social reality of Stalinism meant that these expectations could hardly be realized in public, which is why an intimate space or a nook arranged for the visits of a small group of friends, such as the “teas,” was of key importance. In the public space, sumptuous and classic concerts might be considered as the equivalent of these modest home parties. These concerts were free from both experimental music (considered as decadent by the authorities) and, often, from propaganda works. They met the need for the old type of social life to some extent, although Voinescu noted that on such occasions the audience was “completely or almost foreign” or “unknown” (Voinescu 2013: 180, 358). Sunday radio broadcasts of concerts by the Bucharest Philharmonic could save her from such social disappointment. They were listened to, remembers Bentoiu, “like masses” (Bentoiu 2006: 330). Voinescu argued, after listening to a public concert, that “we all listened to them as if in an Orthodox church” (Voinescu 2013: 354).


Such religious allusions seem significant, given the importance of song in the Orthodox liturgy and its traditional presence in the public space of Bucharest. Notably, these allusions do not appear directly in the testimonies, although their authors participated in masses and other religious ceremonies. The years in question were marked by repression against the church and a huge decline in public religious life. It is also possible that the emotions associated with church music were difficult to convey. “I consoled myself in the church, I found myself as a free man,” stated Voinescu (2013: 356) in 1956. Such descriptions seem to demonstrate a certain strengthening of the religious experience, which merged with the concept of maintaining a limited sense of “freedom.”


There was another sphere of city life that did not appear, at least directly, in the sources: the world of street and pub music of Bucharest, described by Sitwell before World War II. One might gain the impression that the phenomenon had completely died out. In reality, it was one of the key battlegrounds of the ideological war that the authorities unleashed over music. Jazz and foreign orchestral music, understood especially as an American influence, became a political battleground and led to – through stigmatization and resistance – the phenomenon of the “malagambist” subculture, consisting of jazz fans and named after the famous head of the Orchestra București, Sergiu Malagamba.[7] After the distribution of Western magazines, books, and films was banned, music became the main form of Western cultural presence, especially American, in Romania. Music in restaurants was muted as early as 1946 when high copyright rates were introduced and owners gave up on orchestras and live performances. Subsequently, the premises even fell victim to the tax system and nationalization. The music programs of those that survived were controlled. However, there were still many music gardens, now run by cooperatives, and some of them still played jazz. In the fall of 1952, Malagamba himself played in the 21 Decembrie cooperative. However, singing in English was not tolerated (Barbu 2006: 291-293; Bîtfoi 2012: 327).


This information is not reflected in the testimonies; it is extremely difficult to find traces of this urban culture in the diaries, most likely due to the fate of their authors who struggled with material shortcomings and, as described above, generally treated the urban space as hostile. None of them would have said “the streets are ours.” As a result, there is a relative scarcity of observations about the everyday life of the city. It is significant that the ones I have found are associated with the experience of forced relocation. Stolojan, constrained to move from the center to the outskirts of Bucharest, remembered not only the loud megaphone outside her window but also the hustle and bustle of the local market where peasants used to visit. The “powerful and cheerful sound” of their voices was memorable (Stolojan 2009: 45).


The passing of decades lived by the authors of the memoirs, another change, means that other kinds of sounds emerge in their writings. Characteristically, these sounds are recalled generally by the generation that lived through childhood or early adolescence in the 1950s. The exhortations of yogurt sellers and other door-to-door traders are evoked by Sanda Golopenţia (born in 1940); they were the sounds of the city that formed the background of a family drama – the arrest and death of her father (Golopenţia 2009: 33). In the memories of coffee trader Gheorghe Florescu (born 1944), who spent his childhood in an ethnically mixed neighborhood, the sounds of commerce and traces of the capital’s cultural diversity come alive. As Florescu recalls, the children spoke to their Romanian peers in their quarrels in “peasant” (ţărane), “sheeny” (jidane) to Jewish, and “gypsy” (ţigane) to Roma (Florescu 2008: 23).[8] Bucharest during the Stalinist period appears in his testimonies as a city with still-preserved, old, pre-war differentiations and of cultural continuation rather than the brutal changes found in the notes and testimonies of the former elites. Issues of social affiliation and age were undoubtedly important here. These divisions and different experiences determined very individual biographical landscapes as well as soundscapes.