Sunday, October 25, 2009

1989-2009: Visiting Ceausescu's Romania, Part II

Continued from this post.

Morning broke, revealing a gray landscape where two time periods existed side-by-side. Farmers tilled over the ground with horse-drawn plows on the outskirts of dilapidated villages that looked to have changed very little since the late 18th century. The train regularly passed the ruins of medieval keeps and, at road crossings, peasants in horse-drawn carts. But every dozen miles or so -- usually in towns or large villages -- Ceausescu had deployed an early 1950s-style complex of prefabricated concrete housing blocks and smokestack-studded industrial facilities. While these appeared in as poor shape as the surrounding peasant cottages, they were actually quite new, part of Ceausescu's plan to create a rural industrial proletariat. (Peasants themselves, the dictator and his wife distrusted cities.) I would later write in my journal that while living in Budapest felt like stepping back to the 1970s (in terms of technology, clothing, the design of everyday objects), nothing in Romania looked like it post-dated the 1950s.

I was 20 years old and, until six weeks prior, had never been outside North America. Stepping off the train in Brasov that morning made a powerful impression. I described the scene as "the most disturbing place on Earth." The central railway station of Romania's fifth largest city had no power or heat and downtrodden people shuffled through the cavernous gloom under the watchful states of submachine-gun toting guards in great coats. The station and surrounding apartment blocks were crowned with billboards praising the dictator and his "Epoch of Light." In Czechoslovakia or East Germany people might take a second glance at a foreigner; here people stopped in their tracks and stared, unblinking, as if we had dropped from the moon.

At the bus stop in front of the station, commuters formed a silent semi-circle around us, everyone staring in silence. Nobody would return greetings. Five minutes passed. Still staring. Ten minutes. Staring. Then, as if responding to a starting gun, everyone rushed inwards towards us, faces desperate, wads of decomposing currency in their hands, pleading urgently to buy most anything: food, cigarettes, candy. We gave what we had of the latter, handing chocolate bars in grasping hands, refusing pay until -- as suddenly as it began -- everyone swooped away, back into their silent semi-circle. A man walked by. People stared. The bus arrived: an electric trolley bus dragging itself painfully up the street, three of its four tires completely flat.

In Brasov's medieval center -- a gorgeous place under other circumstances -- more guards were posted in pairs on many street corners. Peasants in traditional dress wandered the streets -- for real, not for tourists -- alongside at least one middle-aged woman with a full-on beehive hairdo. Most shops looked to be closed and empty, until you ventured to peer into their gloomy interiors where, under the light of a single 40-watt bulb, people were lined up between the empty shelves and display cases to buy the only items available from the workers behind the counter: pig's feet in the case of the butcher's shop). One exception: a bookstore with window displays full of the works of one man, Nicolae Ceausescu, including his 32-volume magnum opus, Romania on the way of building up the multilaterally developed socialist society. (It's available in English and is about as gripping as it sounds.)

As the sun set, the city became shrouded in darkness on account of electricity rationing. Even my "first class" hotel had just one low-wattage bulb in each room and in each eight-bulb chandelier. The Carpathian Mountains are cold in October, but the heat came on only briefly that night. At 7 pm, power to the city was cut off altogether, plunging the hotel corridors and stairways into pitch black darkness. My traveling companions and I joined other guests creeping along behind a man with a cigarette lighter, feeling our way along the walls until reaching the moonlit streets. Everything was blacked out -- shops, homes, streetlights -- except the police checkpoints and the billboards celebrating Ceauescu's greatness.

The next day I caught a train and country bus to Bran, home of a very atmospheric castle falsely touted as having belonged to Dracula. Once in the countryside, people seemed more relaxed, acknowledging our presence with friendly nods. Apart from being confronted and stared down by a menacing six-year old in a Young Pioneer's uniform, the excursion was a pleasant intermission from what was an otherwise sinister environment. In retrospect I wonder if the security situation in Brasov was particularly extreme on account of there having been an uprising there against Ceausescu just two years earlier.

That night, we spent a couple of hours in the darkened interior of Brasov station, waiting for the train back to Budapest. It soon became clear that there was a large band of orphaned children -- five to nine years old -- wandering around the station. Some of them apparently lived there, begging a precarious subsistence from Brasov's undernourished commuters. One seven-year old boy took notice of our foreignness and struck up a conversation in Romanian, unperturbed and apparently uninterested in the fact we couldn't understand him. He had a small flashlight which he kept pointed in his own face, flicking it on and off He laughed in a sort of maniacal way from time to time for no apparent reason. Everyone else in the station was afraid to speak to us -- the invisible presence of informants was reflected in their body language -- but eventually a young man sitting beside us asked the boy a few questions and whispered a translation, while pretending to look the other way. "He is going to a school for hopeless children in Moldavia, alone. He is sick. He is actually 11 years old. Yes, he is small, because of his sickness." The man added that he could be arrested just for talking to us. "I want to leave Romania," he said, before stating the obvious. "There is no freedom here."

Seat reservations were mandatory on the train we were taking, but the station agents refused to sell us any. This meant we had to stand, sardine-like, among the hundreds of people in the corridor for the eight hours it would take to get to the Hungarian border (which was fine) and that we would have to bribe the conductor with a package of Kent cigarettes to not be kicked off the train (which was a bit more harrowing, and involved a cloak-and-dagger hand-off in the space between the wagons.) I spent much of the next seven hours conversing with a relaxed man who had to have been a securitate agent; he was the only adult in Romania who spoke with me freely and without worry. We drank a bottle of his grandfather's homegrown wine and, after an hour or so, the man -- "call me Johnny, Johnny Doe" -- lowered his voice a bit and confessed he intended to leave Romania. "I want the freedom to live," Agent Doe declared. "I love Romania: the people, the mountains -- it is the most beautiful country in Europe. But you have only one life and here is not life, only survival."

He later pointed out securitate agents on the train for me. I, already knowing the answer, asked him why he wasn't afraid to be observed speaking with me. "Because I'm half one of them," he explained, even showing me his secret police i.d. "If they come over and yell at me I can tell them: brother, you are talking too loudly." Now, however, he said was only "one of them" on paper. "When I was younger, I didn't think. Then I traveled, I saw what it was like outside, all over the Mediterranean and in the Soviet Union. Now I know better. But at least I don't have to be afraid of Them."

Doe took his leave and got off the train before we reached Hungary, giving me his postal address and an invitation to visit if things ever changed. As the train headed for the Hungarian border, I felt certain there would be no change in Romania for a very long time. I had come to entirely the wrong conclusion, of course. Ceausescu had lost the loyalty of many in his own security apparatus, and would be executed in a bloody coup staged amidst a popular uprising. I would return to Romania nine months later -- and more than a dozen of times thereafter -- but I never did look up Agent Doe. Part of me always wondered where he was and what he was doing when Romania's December Revolution broke out. Another part of me didn't want to find out.

[For more on my experiences in Eastern Europe during the 1989 revolutions, here is the complete series to date.]

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