Olari Street runs up to the little park, separating the boulevards Carol and Ferdinand. In the last weeks, nearby, I met with Matilda, a woman so tall you couldn’t help but notice.
I don’t know if you remember, but in this area of Bucharest the trees are still golden even in December. Sometimes the branches would cover the façades of the old houses, as was the case with Matilda’s attic. Still, the round window, like a mammoth’s eye, was so visible from Olari and the boulevard that it would have been impossible to miss.
Matilda is the last of her line, which has survived 200 years. Surely you’ll tell me this is normal, though there are so many people who’ve lost, not the bloodline necessarily, but the history of their previous generations. If you ask someone what they know about their grandmother, you’ll see they know enough, sometimes even the birth year. However, if you ask about their great grandmother, in most cases, they know nothing, though it’s not been so long since their grandmother turned 10, under the happy eyes of her beautiful and young parents, still having memories of their own parents.
And yet, few know their ancestors outside a century. One hundred years before I was born, my great grandfather was young and did not even dream of me, and there is only the blue smoke of oblivion before him.
On the other hand, Matilda knows what her bloodline was doing 200 years back!
She managed to touch the robe of history at 1711. Does anyone else know what their bloodline was doing in 1711? Matilda knows.
During the summer that year, when Bucharest was still a marshy area, swarming with busy mosquitos, in this very place, where Olari Street is now, there lived a man who was unusually tall. Perhaps the tallest in the whole town. His name was Iancu. But a name is something ephemeral, easily dissipated in a generation or two if not reinforced by persistent survivors and, even more so, by the goodwill of some contemporaries. And in Iancu’s case, there was something even more than that: a general sympathy and a common ideal.
I do not know why people like to be tall. They rarely seek to be discreet, for example. Instead, I’ve met few people who did not wish to be tall. But Iancu was the tallest. When he arrived at the Obor Fair, people raised their chins to him, one after another, producing such a movement of their jaws, which gradually transformed into a uniform noise, as an unseen army coming to a halt.
Everyone gawked at the tall man; women and men left their pots, bags, and baskets only to enjoy the stretched-out figure of a man who never even looked at them. Iancu passed by, smiling, looking over the heads of his fellow-townspeople and, as the years passed, he was so pleased with their admiration that he could take up any kind of work, for he had everyone’s support. Who would be so vile to refuse a man so well-known?! For indeed, everyone in Bucharest knew Iancu. He was the Colossus, the Pillar, the Giant, the Pole, and eventually he became, simply, Gigiancu of the Olari slums.
He didn’t live long. His deeds were not memorable. But his long and limber figure was readily kept in mind.
Gigiancu’s children never got as tall as their father, but were still proud to be the sons of the tallest man in Bucharest. “These are Gigiancu’s boys” someone said, and tens of laypersons would crowd around and estimate how many inches shorter the two boys were compared with the father.
And the followers were noticeable. Everyone still had memories of Gigiancu, and the family continued to dedicate considerable interest in him.
“Our grandfather was someone”, they said. “Who here has not heard of Gigiancu of Olari! Not because he was a tall man, but because he was so respected for his deeds, that there is no Bucharestean who has not heard of him.”
And the last part was really true. For even Gigiancu’s house was known. No one passed the slum without always being reminded that the tallest man in town had lived there.
Vines wrapping around the latticed cornices and the porch gradually became a boxy, little house, adorned with plaster garlands, and then became an imposing house, such that can still be seen today on Olari Street. Matilda lives in the attic there.
Meanwhile, Bucharesteans have forgotten Gigiancu, and the neighbors are too new to know that a man so admired by many people lived here. Still, Matilda knows that the tall man was of her bloodline, whose height she inherited. Her life was not exceptional, with little to boast, and the foremost is the portrait of her great-grandfather Gigiancu. In the beautiful house on Olari Street, a piece of wood was reverently preserved, on which an iconographer painted the towering figure of a man. He is a man with a robe raised so high, that it hung over the heads of some dwarfed craftsmen. Church spires can be seen in the background and the year was transcribed below: 1720.
Obviously, the painter’s name does not appear. No one, not even the painter would have thought this of anyone’s interest. And still, such a tall man really deserved to go down in history.
Andrew K. Davidson, tr.