One Bar Captures the Spirit of a Bucharest Increasingly Fading

 

Just a few steps from the city center in the Rahova neighborhood, there’s a place called Family shop: La Nea Mitica/ Magazin de familie La Nea Mitica. Judging by the look of the place, you’d never believe anything ever happens there outside of trivial banter or the occasional drunken swearing competition. The bar and its clientele all seem to be part of a strange reenactment of a throwback to a lazy afternoon in a Romanian village bodega. Mentally, it exists far away from the bustling city where any notable events might occur. But nothing could be further from the truth. La Nea Mitica brings together the unlikeliest group of people. They are aided by generous quantities of cheap moonshine to create their own small-scale dramas, laugh-out-loud comedies, heated political debates, and the occasional swearing matches.

THE PLACE

The tiny shop is both a grocery store and a cheap bar. A perfect symbiosis of form and function all taking place in less than 20 square meters. A fruit and vegetable stand is neatly placed on crates outside, loud drunken people and plenty of booze inside. A massive and ancient table covered by a flowery vinyl tablecloth dominates the interior. A large and dusty couch to the side is reserved for the most prominent of guests, while some short wooden chairs provide adequate accommodations for the regulars. As expected, being outside guests, we were always invited to sit on the couch.

What strikes you immediately as you go into the bar is all the nostalgic 80s Romanian memorabilia. There is a knitted Jesus staring imploringly at the sky, short prayers printed on decaying pieces of paper, dirty plush bunnies far past their prime, dolls that look like they’ve seen some shit, and a wall carpet depicting a bucolic scene with frolicking deer. And most importantly above the dusty bar, there is the bodega’s founding constitution: “We don’t sell booze on credit: No money, No drinks!”

Rumor has it that La Nea Mitica is the local watering hole for some of Bucharest’s lower class characters, like enforcers, prostitutes, and builders. But that is only half of the story. On our many visits there, we found the bar to be a very inclusive place to hang out. Nowhere else in Bucharest will you find such a strange and eclectic mosaic of characters. A miscellaneous group of old friends conjure at the bar like a retired architect, a printing press supervisor or an ex-general. In their youth, they came to call this place their home. You will often find them reliving their glorious past over a bottle of cheap brandy. But there is also a new wave of clients, much less prominent and a lot more down on their luck. They mostly come to drink away their ever-present worries, pains, and loneliness.

As in many other bars where mutual acceptance takes hold, at Nea Mitica everybody tolerates everybody. At least until one of the clients has a glass too many and starts seeing the potential for fervent political debates everywhere. Daytime tends to be quite somber, as the alcohol has not had time to work its magic yet. It is reserved for the most pressing of issues, such as money (or lack thereof), health problems, marriage and, as always, politics. But come night, these subjects are turned on their head: politicians become laughable caricatures, the wives’ nagging turns into dirty haikus, and health problems become fuel for jokes and jabs.

And what keeps this all together? Nea Mitica, the man himself.

THE MAN

The tiny hidden bar has a rich history behind it. Its story starts 30 years ago when it was a much larger yet still inexpensive restaurant that served as a daytime refuge for students and workers in the area. As the name of the bar La Nea Mitica suggests that the place is run by Nea Mitica (Nea is used in Romania to denote something between sir and uncle. His last name remains unknown). The owner is himself 78 years old and ever since he can remember has been the main supplier of alcohol and good cheer for miles around. Nea Mitica has had this magnetic personality where people just gravitate around his charisma and hypnotic gaze. His stories are full of wit and humor that catch everyone’s attention for hours on end. With a wink and a smile, he performs his narrative acrobatics, jumping from one subject to another, rarely finishing a story, leaving you in a constant state of wonder and intense curiosity. Of all stories he has to tell and makes sure you hear them, his own is the most captivating.

Nea Mitica came to Bucharest from a poor arid village in Oltenia when he was no older than 11. As we were able to piece together, he left home after his mother’s untimely death and his father no longer want to keep him. As a small child whose whole universe had been limited to his rural surroundings, he landed in the capital. At first, he was taken in by an aunt who needed work around the bar she owned. He was a bar-hand, mostly helping with washing the dishes, many of which he ended up smashing by mistake. He quickly grew tired of his menial job and decided to start selling ice bags to fancy restaurants around Bucharest. Creative by nature, he soon saw an opportunity to also sell a stranger commodity to the same restaurants when he became a frog salesman.

At this point, Nea Mitica realized he had a knack for commerce, so he moved on to become a vendor in one of Bucharest’s most prominent markets. Traveling the country far and wide in search of goods to bring back to the capital, Nea Mitica got to know the country and its people well. Asked whether he ever felt lonely, he would tell you with a wink and a chuckle that his bed was rarely cold. Hungarian women are to die for, according to him.

After a few years of selling and traveling, he decided that it was time to settle down, so he became the headwaiter at one of the most famous dining spaces, Capsa Hotel Restaurant. Waiting on the capital’s crème-de-la-crème, Nea Mitica developed a sort of mobster elegance and a set of highly refined manners that he kept to this day, despite his little bar having none of the pomp of old Capsa.

THE CLIENTS

Nea Cornel is around 50 years old and a friend of Nea Mitica for as long as he can remember. A large, loud man with a shrewd smile, he comes to the bar nearly every evening for his daily dose of heated political debates. Some clients refer to him as “the communist”, as he often brags about his past as an ex-officer working in Securitate. The Securitate was Romania’s answer to the KGB during communism. Strangely, this story often blends together with a less infamous chapter of his past, when he worked in a state-run print shop. There he helped publish many of the Communist institutions’ books and propaganda pieces. Whether his ties to the Securitate were as an officer or as merely a collaborator, no one knows for sure.

Nea Cornel, proud of his status as an old-time patron of the bar, often clashes with a much newer and humbler figure. George is a 45 year old construction worker. A polar opposite to Nea Cornel, he’s thin, soft-spoken and shy. He comes to the bar every evening after work to have some wine, which he mostly enjoys in silence. But after some glasses, he gathers enough courage to get involved in the others’ arguments, only to be quickly silenced by Nea Cornel, who makes sure George never forgets his place at the bottom of the bar’s food chain.

But underneath his meek appearance, George is a strong character, toughened by a long string of unfortunate events. This year, his wife left him and moved out with their children, leaving him all alone. However, George will tell you that his biggest achievement is that after the break-up, he managed to quit gambling, restrain from alcohol, and scrounge up enough money to pay a monthly allowance to his family.

Above all else, George loves to talk about bricks and mortar and how buildings are constructed. He is very proud of his work and by the fact that he makes an honest living. But as with all conversations in bars, there’s a very thin line separating the basics of siliceous cementing materials from international subjects such as “Merkel”, “Trump”, “Putin” and “Dragnea” (leader of Social Democrat Party now in power in Romania). When conversations turn to politics, all local and global leaders are praised and thrashed in an avalanche of arguments that mix newsroom accounts with nonsensical fantasies.

As the talk on politics heats up, like clockwork, George and Nea Cornel end up fighting again. Enter here Nea Victor, the level-headed barman, absolute arbiter, and second-in-command after Nea Mitica. With a short and slender frame, Nea Victor is usually a calm and serious man. A sort of father-like figure, he took upon himself the tough job of keeping the bar a respectable place in an otherwise rough area. Visibly irritated by all the ruckus caused in the bar, he quickly puts an end to all conflicts, sometimes by putting George on time-out, sometimes by yelling at Nea Cornel and calling him a communist. He never takes any sides and whenever someone is out of line, he explodes with a righteous fury that seems to always take people by surprise. After which, he returns to once again serenely tending to the bar. All patrons seem to respect Nea Victor, and nobody dares contradict him. Say one inappropriate word in his presence and you are out. You are cast to drink your glass on the other side of the door, cut-out from all the important conversations where the world-order is often decided.

In this mishmash of personalities, two characters stand out, both veterans. One is a veteran of the 1989 Revolution, the other a veteran of day-to-day life: Nea Dumitru and Nea Petrica. The first one lives his life in the heavy shadow of his glorious past, losing himself in it whenever he visits La Nea Mitica. All of his conversations inevitably lead back to when he fought in the anti-communist Revolution and to the time he was shot in the leg while protesting in Bucharest. Of all the hopes and dreams of a better post-communist future, all he has left is the glory of a page-five article written about him, as he now drowns in poverty. As the participant to a major historical event, he is convinced that he understands history itself better than anyone else, as little solace that this may bring.

Nea Petrica, on the other hand, has lived his whole life as an architect in the back-then prominent Rahova neighborhood that has now fallen into disrepair. In his youth, he would regularly come to Nea Mitica to eat lunch and drink the occasional beer. Although the bar, Rahova, and Bucharest itself have changed, his habits have not. Even though he is now an old man fighting cancer, he is able to find enjoyment in the little things. Highly educated and passionate about his past profession, he spends hours talking to the construction workers who come here for a drink, holding debates about reinforced concrete, bricks, and mortar.

One of the more dual of the bar’s regular clients is Taner, a Turkish gypsy from Dobrogea. His story begins in the 90’s, when he worked as a poacher and would sell fish to Nea Mitica. They became good friends, brought together by their easy-going attitudes towards life and their common practice of poking light fun at everyone’s expense. A jokester and a sage, Taner will just as easily give you kind advice as mock your every blunder. Taner is a very complicated character, with many layers to peel before you get to understand him. He is a proud and devout Muslim, fiercely dedicated to protecting his family, and a hard worker. At the same time, he drinks heavily and if you catch him inebriated enough, he will tell you about the time he killed a man in anger and did heavy time in prison for it. But above all, Taner seems to be the only client that is at peace with himself and his condition in life.

Last but not least, the women: Nina and Tanti Irina.

Tanti Irina is about 60 years old, ever-present yet always quiet. She seldom talks about herself, yet always supports others with advice. One of her protégées is Nina, a 33 years old woman that lived her entire life in the ill-famed Rahova neighborhood. Nina spent half of her childhood working in construction, doing heavy lifting, often times better than her male counterparts.

Nowadays Nina doesn’t seem to be any better off. She works odd jobs, her most uncommon one being that of embalmer. She tends to the neighborhood’s deceased, making sure they are beautiful and ready to be buried. Her first experience with this job was when she had to bury each member of her family. Nina’s mother, brother, and husband all died young. They died not because of any incurable illnesses, but mainly because they were unable to pay for their medical bills. That is probably the reason why stability seems to always evade Nina. Forever single, she tends to hop from one painful romance to another. In this entire chaotic context, the bar seems to have provided Nina with some solace. She can share a drink with other people, who mostly seem to understand and protect her. La Nea Mitica is a place where no one judges her, where she can laugh and cry, and most importantly where she can be herself.

These are only a few of the many clients frequenting La Nea Mitica. Life hasn’t been easy for any of them and many have turned to alcohol, conspiracy theories, fantasies or memories of a glorious youth long past. The bar, however, offers them a break from life’s hardships. It is a small space to remind each other that they are not alone and they can be a member of a community despite their obvious differences.

This idea of community is increasingly under threat in a European Union-era Romania. With greater neoliberalization, materialism and individualism dominates in Bucharest. Places like La Nea Mitica and other similar bars come from a past era of when people conjured with other strangers for no other reason than they did not want to be alone. Even in the working class neighborhood that La Nea Mitica resides in, gentrification is making it no longer possible for establishments like it to exist. Cheap booze and bizarre yet warm friendships no longer stand a chance in a growing Bucharest. In many ways, La Nea Mitica is just the last ember of a bygone era; but that does not diminish its magic.

Words by Augustin Ladar
Photos by Ina Alice Dănilă