Monday, October 12, 2009

20 Years Ago: Visiting Ceausescu's Romania

Twenty years ago this evening two friends and I boarded an overnight train to the Transylvanian city of Brasov. It was to be a dark, cold, and scary trip.

Just about everyone in Budapest had warned us not to go, many of them with wearing the grave expression of the villagers in those old Dracula movies when the main character asks for directions to the Count's castle. Be careful, we were told. Bring food. Don't take anything of value. Dress warmly.

It wasn't vampires they were worried about, it was Romanian President Nicolae Ceausescu, whose dictatorial rule had degenerated into madness. Ceausescu had built a cult of personality modeled on that of North Korea's Kim Il Sung backed by the securitate, a secret police force believed to have Orwellian omnipresence. Some securitate officers were said to have been recruited as children from Romania's massive population of abandoned children, itself a direct product of Ceausescu's rule. Possessed with the notion that Romania's national greatness would grow in direct proportion with its population size, he had banned abortion, banned the import or sale of birth control, slapped taxes on couples with few children, and instituted surprise examinations to detect illegal terminations of pregnancy. the result was a flood of unwanted babies, many of whom wound up in horrifying conditions in overtaxed, under-supplied state orphanages.

Meanwhile, having spent millions razing much of historic Bucharest to build his Stalinist palace, Ceausescu had become fixated on the need to immediately pay off appreciable his foreign debt. His solution: import nothing and export everything without regard to domestic needs. By 1989 the situation had become dire, with severe rationing of even the most basic foodstuffs. Buildings were heated for only a few hours each day, elevators and many electric appliances were banned, and inspectors arrived at homes unannounced to ensure that no more than one room was lit at a time, using a bulb of 40 watts or less.

As we prepared to visit, Ceausescu was making bellicose noises about the reformist government in Hungary and cutting back on the issuance of foreign visas. We got our visas by chance: one of the coordinators of our exchange program at Karl Marx University was related to Budapest's Romanian Orthodox bishop and had friendly contacts at the embassy. We packed our bags with food for ourselves, chocolates to give as gifts, and cartons of Kent cigarettes, which had become Romania's unofficial currency-of-graft. Then we boarded the old Orient Express bound to the East.

At midnight the train screeched to a halt at the border. The heaters in the compartment shut off. Romanian border guards marched through the wagon, throwing open doors, yelling at passengers, tearing into bags and dismantling the seat cushions. Outside someone was cackling into the public address system, his mad laughter echoing through Curtici's railyard. The other passengers just stared down at the floor in silence, as if awaiting their fate. A guard screamed threats at one couple - the wife was apparently ethnic Hungarian -- but eventually lost interest and stormed off to terrorize the next compartment.

Then two customs officers stepped into the compartment: a slim, pale-faced, raven-haired women with Natasha Fatale's demeanor, and her male colleague, who was portly, drunk, and loud. She confirmed we had no subversive materials (Hungarian newspapers, bibles) and collected $30 for each day we would spend in the country. In exchange I was given a wad of greasy rags: greasy and smelling of dirty socks. On closer examination this proved to be Romanian currency -- $30 worth at the absurdly optimistic official exchange rate -- although the notes were in such terrible condition their denominations could only be identified with considerable effort. The national mint had apparently stopped functioning in the late 1960s. The aging notes, like most things in the country, were falling apart. "Have a nice time in Romania," Agent Natasha said ominously before sliding the compartment door closed.

An hour later the train jolted into motion, pulling us further into Ceausescu's nightmare.

Continued here.

1 comment:

  1. WOW!!
    Friendlies and others must have been hard for them to differeniate (sic?) back then.
    Reminds me of my own experience crossing from W Berlin into E Berlin for their Commy May Day parade during the Spring of 1986. Well before the wall came down.
    Us friendly/harmless Canadians and all. (snicker)

    I'll never forget taking that train/subway from the 'west' to the 'east'. Past 4 stations at full speed with nothing but German Shepard guard dogs and men with machine guns. No passengers at those stations.

    Understand, we were 11th graders on a field trip from Canada.

    The 'bull-dyke' guards on the train, even though we had been previously vetted, (we were never able to determine their gender so...) wore these weird briefcases around their necks and the only English they apparently spoke was "Passport Visa!", shouted this at each passenger directly.

    Luckily we had both.

    Who knows what would have happened otherwise.

    Once across and 'cleared' we did our 'structured tour'. There was no freelance experience during this episode.

    I will never forget the all around 'glumness' (is that even a word?). Being a veteran foodservice person now, I look back on it as a 'appear happy or die' type of situation.

    I have never seen more gray in my life..both color and personality. It was truly surreal. Being from the great city of Toronto, it was strange to see no outward happiness in the streets. We had spent the previous week in Paris. One can only imagine the stark contrast as we walked around East Berlin.

    That whole entire day, there was no question our moves were being watched...every step. Strickly guided and strickly if us 40 students were a threat to anything!...LOL!

    However, we did feel lucky that we were able to experience the May Day parade in a Communist Country at the time.

    Little did we know, just 3 or 4 years later, that wall would come crashing down in the most peaceful of fashions.

    Also, little did we know that the same week before, Chernobyl had melted down, which was why our hair was falling out in unusual quantities...but that's another story.

    Two regrets from that trip...not taking chunks from the graffity ridden wall home...(who'd have known at the time?)...and not picking up all the East German Marks on the floor (which were worthless currency at the time outside of East Germany) as souviniers...

    Who'da thunk?