Objects, like people…
May 2, 2012
They’d been burning off the winter grass along the banks of the Mureș River. I walked through a stubble of scorched black stalks, pushing my way through pollarded willow that whipped across my face and arms, giving me charcoal stripes. The sun was hot, and I got coated in sweat, dust and ash. I arrived in the village of Căpâlnaș looking like I’d escaped from a fire.
The big house loomed down an avenue of trees. The building was a great white block half hidden by overgrown bushes, fronted by a statue of a stag with upraised antlers protruding from the greenery between two curved, sweeping flights of stairs, no longer used. Dogs slumbered in the sun. Dressing-gowned figures wandered vaguely between trees. I approached with some trepidation – which, perhaps, is only natural when strolling up the drive of a psychiatric hospital in a foreign country. This was actually the third psychiatric hospital I’d visited so far on my walk – the first was in Slovakia, the second also in Romania – but it was the first one I’d been invited to stay the night in.
A stocky, powerful-looking man in late middle age was walking in the garden. He was wearing what looked like a walkie-talkie, and from his authoritative bearing I took him for some kind of attendant. It was only after he’d seized me by the hand, firmly linked arms and marched me to the house that I realised he was one of the patients – the walkie-talkie was actually a blaring radio. Weirdly, he looked a lot like Jack Nicholson.
‘Ion,’ he said, introducing himself. ‘Like the singer, Elton Ion.’
‘My name’s Nick. Nicholas,’ I said.
‘Sarkozy?’ he cried, then slapped himself resoundingly on the forehead and erupted with laughter. ‘Vive la France!’ Then suddenly he seized me by the head – a slightly alarming turn of events – and landed a rough, stubbly kiss on each of my cheeks.
A curious circle of other patients gathered around, shaking hands and smiling – men and women, old and young, in plastic slippers and dressing-gowns, tracksuit bottoms and woolly hats, all of them chain-smoking. One young man with a shaved head and white socks pulled up to his knees approached me with an expression of rapture. Ion impatiently shooed him away, circling his finger in the air and giving me a meaningful look.
‘Crazy,’ he explained.
Enormous double doors of polished wood led to a dim, tiled hallway. A marble staircase laid with dirty rugs led to the upper floor, where an ornate wrought iron gallery looked down on the glass-panelled ceiling of the room below, which used to be a famous library, the centre-point of the house. Now it’s used as a recreation room, scattered with old sofas. What used to be the dining room is now a dormitory, where daylight from the French windows spills onto hospital beds piled with slumbering forms, disordered heaps of pyjamas and legs, men in various stages of exhaustion or depression. The other two hospitals I’d visited had been gutted and sanitised, walls painted institutional green, the corridors lit by florescent strip-lights. This was a place of mildewed hallways and mysterious half-open doors, dimly lit by flickering chandeliers, where patients shuffled in semi-darkness in a dense fug of tobacco. An old woman in a shawl peered suspiciously round a doorframe. The upstairs bathroom seemed to be occupied by fierce stray dogs.
By any standards, it was a creepy place.
This was one of the string of country houses in which Paddy stayed in 1934 – the guest of the amusing, generous, erudite and intellectual Count Jenö Teleki, whose family lived here until Communism tore their world apart. A significant chapter of Paddy’s book is devoted to the weeks he spent here, living a charmed and blissful life of picnics, parties and conversations that ranged from butterfly collecting – the Count was an eminent lepidopterist – to history, politics, art and literature. This is now a vanished culture, a bubble long since burst. Like most of these properties, the house was nationalised in 1948, the family driven out and persecuted, humiliated as state policy, some imprisoned and tortured, forbidden to set foot on the estate even to lay flowers on Count Teleki’s grave. Their descendants won the property back in a court case in the 2000s, and continue to rent it to the state for use as a hospital. A couple of months into my walk, I was contacted by a girl called Ileana who offered to help me track down some of the places Paddy had stayed. It was only when we’d met the day before, further down the Mureș Valley, that she’d revealed the reason for her interest – Ileana is Count Teleki’s great-granddaughter.
She arrived soon afterwards, as I sat in the sun with Ion, and led me up to the room we’d be sharing – three adjustable beds with hospital sheets and a great ceramic wood-burning stove the colour of a glazed pie dish. I was brought vegetable soup and boot polish. It was an odd place to find myself, but most of the patients, like Ion, turned out to very sweet and friendly people – one lady even kept telling me she loved me – and apart from nerve-wracking visits to the bathroom, the creepiness wore off. The night was cold, so we summoned someone to light the wood-burning stove in our room. ‘Excuse me – one fire!’ the assistant yelled, charging through the bedroom with a flaming log balanced on a shovel. As soon as he thrust it into the stove the room filled with thick smoke, flowing through cracks in the tile walls and pouring out into the corridor, where patients gathered anxiously, wondering if they should evacuate. We doused the flames with bottles of water. Luckily, there were no smoke detectors in the hospital.
Ileana was great company. Over the next couple of days she told me the story of her family – the story of a social class and culture caught on the wrong side of history, victims of a brutal change that left nothing of the old world intact. It’s a narrative repeated in countless permutations across Eastern Europe. Together we explored the grounds, the overgrown gardens reverted to nature, the half-collapsed outhouses, the attic of the house, the roof, the labyrinthine cellars. We visited Count Teleki’s grave in the woods, vaulted with trees, as she pointed out, like a green cathedral. The atmosphere of melancholy, of dereliction and decline, was palpable everywhere. But despite the ruination and neglect, it was still a beautiful place, and I could see why she has grown to love it.
The house, like its current inhabitants, sits outside society now. Both are in recovery from some form of trauma, refugees from the modern world. Ileana told me of something Ion said, when she’d been talking to him of the difficulty of renovating the building, restoring it to the way it was.
‘Why renovate?’ he’d replied. ‘Objects, like people, get morally damaged.’
A damaged house full of damaged people. It seemed appropriate, somehow.
On the night before I left we sat on our hospital beds and shared a bottle of red wine. Dogs howled in the garden, and patients griped in the corridor outside. The lights intermittently brightened and dimmed as if controlled by an unseen pulse from the staggering, overworked heart of the building. As I tiptoed to the dripping bathroom, hoping the dogs were no longer on guard, I heard the quiet rumbling of patients snoring in their beds.
I left on a grey, overcast day, the birds singing as if before rain. Ion shook me firmly by the hand and planted two last stubbly, tobacco-smelling kisses on my face. He was standing at the gate to say goodbye, his hand raised in salute. ‘Long live the Kingdom of Great Britain!’ he roared as I went by. Then the greenery closed over the house, and Căpâlnaș was gone.
For Ileana’s account of our meeting, read the article she wrote on the blog for moNUmenteUITATE, which documents and helps preserve Romania’s forgotten (and not so forgotten) old houses and monuments… scroll down for the English version.
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