The city of charming Danube
Braila is a beautiful city located on the shore of the river-maritime Danube. This meant, especially a while ago, that ships which went to sea could enter the Danube at Sulina, where it runs into the sea, and sail up to Braila; and it made the city an important trading center for the whole South-Eastern Europe, as the goods loaded there 500 years ago went to Istanbul, farther into the Ottoman Empire, or, why not, to Venice or to Vienna – to the latest, on the Danube itself. A city full of history and legends, and having a so mixed population and an unique architecture – what is not to love about it?
The streets are drawing half a circle, leaving from the Danube, rounding the city and arriving back to the Danube on the opposite side. The old buildings reflect their former owners – rich merchants of Turkish, Jewish, Greek, Armenian, Russian or German origins – and a part of the city’s history. There is blue and green everywhere – little parks, the big Public garden, another big garden, Monument, to the outskirts… Outskirts where a Salt Lake is still pouring his spa-blessings to all people in pain all round the year…
My words are not enough to describe its beauty – but for the present visitor, this beauty can be seen a bit less. It is there, under the dust, in the historical houses which the wolf from the three piglets story can blow down at the third breath, because their ownership is discussed in courts or because neither the mayor, nor the present owner have money to invest in their rehabilitation. However, several writers have immortalized it in their prose and verses – Panait Istrati being the most known for the prose. He enchanted my early teen years, and given that I had the opportunity to spend enough summer holidays there, with my cousins, I started discovering the city step by step, with its beauty and legends.
The bandits had hidden in the swamps and on the corners of the Danube where we were bathing and eating roasted corn. The ship crews were still competing on Saint Mary’s feast, having as prizes ducklings and a piglet. The songs, Romanian, Greek, Lipovan, sometimes Turkish, were resounding here and there, a sign of the multi-culturalism of the city. We were discovering with delight each place which had been written about before.
Meanwhile, years have passed. The Great Island opposite the city became an important agro-industrial center, getting cultivated with corn and vegetables, some swamps had been drained and given back to agriculture, and the legendary charm is starting to fade away. The city has changed too, and the shadows of my youth can be seldom found in the old neighbourhoods or on the falaise… It’s just a shadow of what once had been, taking with it the tumultuous life of a joyful, multicoloured city with an unique personality, nicknamed once “a leg of Paris”.
Where is the hustle and bustle and the boiling joy of the holidays of the cosmopolitan city of a while ago, sung by the writers ? Where are the Greek and Lipovan songs – but where is the city’s life? The words have died, the teen age and the souls together with them. None of the characters I loved in Panait Istrati’s and Theodor Constantin’s books could recognize anymore the places they had lived in – not because of the new buildings, but because the soul of the city doesn’t exist anymore; neither the Danube seem to be the same…
The doors of history are shut, and I try to open them every time I visit the town of my youthful dreams, with songs and memories. Why it’s only me, out of the little crew of a while ago, who gather pieces of life, not lived or even rejected by those around me, in order to bring them alive again in my heart and in my stories, with dances and songs, with the memories of my ancestors? Who can understand the thirst of far away distances which is burning me for a long time, bridging fraternity with Panait Istrati and his heroes, the insatiable desire of other horizons? No matter how changed, I still love the city of charming Danube-related legends, my Braila of an eternal teen age…
My friend and my cousin were born in Braila. My cousin was part of the youthful crew exploring the city with me during our summer holidays, my friend wasn’t, but their stories are the same. Living there, feeling the prison of the dying city, which has lost its traditional attraction. For them, it is the prison of their lives: first the industry declined, the big factories closing one by one. They don’t see the beauty of the old city, they see the challenges of the new one: first, pollution, while the factories were still working; now that they aren’t anymore working, the Danube comes black anyway from oil leaks from the ships or from a shipyard, once the fame of the city, now working barely at half volume.
Happy it’s still working, as the big paper mill factory and the big chemical processing plant which gave nylon fibers and other things to all the country aren’t anymore. The big machine tool plant isn’t working anymore. One of the biggest clothing factory, famous abroad too, is slowly shutting down section by section. Even the spa at the outskirts of the city, built on a healing salt lake, is diminishing its activity. Hotels are closing, letting people unemployed, and those who could benefit of a better health, now are deprived of this spa.
Braila is the city of poverty shadows. My friend and my cousin had studied to have a career on a certain path – this was no longer possible, a few years after they graduated the vocational high-schools qualifying them in that field. Then, they went on the path of professional reconversion – but with this flimsy economy, this hasn’t helped much either. Lives get wasted, hopes get wasted, poverty reigns.
The bandits of the legends have reincarnated now in futureless youth, full of violence against the whole society, and choosing to let it out in neighbourhood gangs. Some places, including in the neighbourhood where I spent my teen years, are no longer safe, as I heard. The unemployed men are drowning their sorrows in liquor, which makes them poorer and more violent. Who could, among the younger generations, went away to work in other countries. What to do in a dying city? My cousin’s husband is working in Spain, after having tried other countries as well; my friend’s ex husband is working in Italy, while she, having four or five different qualifications, has lost her latest job, and nobody is hiring. How to raise a high-school child in these conditions? And there are people in worse situation than them…
My friend and my cousin are looking towards the capital with envious eyes, seeing that we managed better. It’s the fear of surviving day by day, it’s the despair of losing another job, it’s the long, strangling hand of poverty which makes them hate the dying city they have been born in.
– THE END –