As the school year was starting back up in early fall 2009, my wife and I were in bed one night, paralyzed with fatigue, one of those “we need a break” moments. We started free-associating weekend getaways. We checked our calendars and early November was the first time we were both without commitments. Leonard Cohen’s miraculous career resurrection Live In London was playing and Kris said we should see if he was still on tour. So I checked his schedule and sure enough the Cohen tour was still pacing itself around the world, arriving in Bucharest on November 9. Never been there, seemed like the right thing to do at the time. We impulsively said yes to this, made plans for the trip, tacked on a couple of extra days to visit Sighisoara in Transylvania afterwards (hometown of Vlad Tepes, AKA Dracula), and purchased tickets for the Cohen show on what seemed like a legit Romanian Ticketmaster knockoff but which required us to pick up our tickets once we got there.
And as usual with these reckless decisions, we soon wondered what we had gotten ourselves into. We arrived the day before the show, had trouble getting through security, and the car we arranged to pick us up no-showed. We had heard about gypsy cabdrivers so we selected carefully, and the old fella who drove us into Bucharest was pleasant enough. But the ride in was through some run-down parts of the city, and by the time that we got to our somewhat outdated hotel daylight was fading. We grabbed dinner at a corner restaurant where we had to navigate around a lot of rustic red meat choices, then crashed. Not an auspicious first day of vacation.
The next morning, we had late breakfast in the hotel and then set about to collect the tickets for the show that evening. We showed the pickup address at the hotel front desk, and no one recognized the street name. Maps and phone books were procured. Phone calls were made. The idea that we had been conned loomed. Finally, the desk clerk found a road matching the address we had, but she seemed unconfident that we would find any concert tickets there. We hailed a cab with the directions we had and proceeded.
We drove around for a while, seemingly randomly, and ended up in an industrial park. The taxi driver let us out in front of a plain grey building with no signage. We walked into a small office and the first thing that we noticed was a pool in the middle of the floor that contained two turtles. A blank-looking woman behind a desk was talking on a cell phone in Romanian. We waited, certain that we had been ripped off.
Finally, after too long, she clicked off her phone. We told her we were there to pick up Leonard Cohen tickets and I waved the receipt we had printed out from the internet. Blank lady’s eyes lit up and she held up one finger. She made another quick call and when she got off the phone she pointed to two porter’s chairs on either side of the entrance. So we sat down facing the turtle pool. Blank lady disappeared and returned with two bottles of beer. It was about 11AM by now, so that seemed appropriate. We drank our Silvas and after about ten minutes a guy on a motorcycle showed up, handed us an envelope, and then took off again. Inside the envelope were two tickets that, sure enough, had Leonard Cohen’s name on them.
Phew. But now we had to get back to our hotel. We showed blank lady our room keys, and suddenly she spoke English: “You can walk. It’s not too far. A couple of kilometers.” Finding a taxi around there didn’t seem possible, but she walked out with us and led us in the direction opposite from where we came in and there was a well-trafficked avenue. She told us to stay on this and it would lead us straight to the hotel.
We were again dubious but we didn’t have any alternatives, so we tried it out. It was a glorious walk. The weather was temperate, the sun was out full force. For the first time we were seeing the alternating classic and eclectic architecture of old Bucharest, the churches, the coffee shops. We meandered, window-shopped, saw flyers for the concert we now had tickets to, took pictures, and eventually ended up precisely at our hotel.
With our tickets now in hand, we made plans for a taxi ride to the show, which began at 6PM. The desk clerk pointed us to the adjacent Cismigiu Gardens and, it being such a lovely day, we spent the rest of the afternoon in an embedded open-air pub watching swans traverse a lily-covered pond.
We cleaned up, napped, and headed out to the show. The Stadionul Iolanda Balas Soter is a rugby field that is regularly converted into an outdoor music theater. Still daylight when we arrived, we stood in line but the ticket taker refused us and pointed us to a young man in a uniform. It immediately occurred to me that we’d bought counterfeit tickets; the silent uniform man escorted us to the front of the venue where, lo and behold, he deposited us in seats fourth row center stage. And a beautiful young woman brought us two glasses of champagne. Somehow, we’d been VIP’ed.
As I suspect would have been true for all shows on that tour, we had a fantastic time. As the sun set, a full moon rose to illuminate Cohen playing two sets plus three encores totaling 27 songs. Everything about these shows that needs to be said probably already has been, so let me add the personal note: My wife and I agree that it’s the best concert we’ve ever seen together.
We took the train to Transylvania to finish off our stay, but sandwiched in between we had one more day to explore Bucharest. Domes and columns abound in the parts of town not destroyed by brutally repressive dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, who was overthrown and executed in 1989. After a slow start, the city began to reemerge and by 2009 it was a bona fide fashionable European city. Especially Lipscani, part of the historic old town that has been coopted by hip shops and open-air cafes.
And getting you to Lipscani is where this whole story is headed, because that’s where I found my favorite band name of all time. The offensive sobriquet started with the Sex Pistols, I guess, and the Dead Kennedys created both notoriety and a trend that turned turgid (e.g., Millions of Dead Cops) and eventually became lampooned (the Dead Milkmen). But here in Bucharest in November of 2009 I found a flyer for the day-long Summer of Punk II festival that had already come and gone by the time we were there. Name of the headlining act: The Dead Ceausescus. The idea of this banner flying in the city and country that the namesake almost destroyed and completely corrupted was just too rich.
I never heard them, although they seem to be still in operation (they have a Facebook page!). There are a couple of YouTube videos (a lame version of “Part Time Punks” and a re-write of the Dead Kennedys’ “Holiday in Cambodia” called “Holiday in Oltenia”) which suggest they are basically just a punk cover band. But even the worst band in the world can have the best name, and for me that band is the Dead Ceausescus.