By Simon Quysner
The centre of Bucharest is full of derelict and empty shells of buildings. The aftermath of communism writ large across far too many city streets. We chose not to buy one of those. Bucharest is also full of interwar properties in need of love and care to bring them into the 21st century. To breathe new life into their high ceilings and parquet floors, their wrought iron front doors and crystal or mirror panelled interior doors. Anyone who has been through a renovation will tell you the same story of hopes and dreams mixed in with never-ending compromise and occasional despair. Ours is no different, but we would do it again in an instant. Luckily, I’m pretty sure it won’t come to that. We are here to stay.
The villa in which our ground floor apartment sits was built around 1928, a stone’s throw from Foisorul de Foc on the eastern edge of the city centre. Seismic risk was obviously a concern, and we had an initial survey done before we bought the property, but it wasn’t until we took everything back to bare brick that we were able to confirm the condition of the walls and ceilings. Yes, there was some reconsolidation to be done but it could have been a lot worse. Considering the not inconsiderable earthquakes of 1940, 1977 and 1986 the building has stood up incredibly well. Stories of communist seizures, restitution and and shared ownership are best saved for another day.
Perhaps the biggest hurdle we faced was finding the right people to do the job. That Romania has a migration problem should not be news to anyone, but it is no overstatement to say that all the good people have gone. Even when we did find people to do specialised jobs, the going was never easy. Carpenters paid good faith advances who then did little to no work before disappearing forever. Furniture manufacturers measured twice, but then lost our measurements. They built and delivered the cupboards anyway of course, but they didn’t fit. The kitchen was promised in time for Christmas (When 12 of our family had flown over from England for the holidays), but arrived at the end of January. They were not all cowboys, but it always seemed to be “for a few dollars more”.
We found it incredibly difficult to find furniture we liked in Romania, so we shipped it from England. The sideboard and dining set came from an antique shop in Marylebone and the desk has spent most of its life in the ministry of defense on Whitehall. The armchair was in my house in Dulwich, London, when I was a little boy. We couldn’t find the lightswitches or door handles we wanted, so they came from England too. The wallpaper is based on a 19th century design from a house on the site of the old Marshalsea Prison in Southwark and we love the way the repeating pattern in different colours ties the living areas together. And that John Lewis deliver.
All told it was 14 months of riding the renovation rollercoaster. But it was worth every new grey hair, every leu, every sleepless night. Gone are the memories of dust and broken promises, replaced by the feeling of truly being at home for the first time in years. All that remains is to get some more artwork for the walls, but there’s no rush. The hard part is done and we have plenty of time.