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.