The Bucharest Bugle: Issue 21-24

Thursday, 26 Mar 98

In trying to understand Romania and Romanians, one person I spoke to suggested that the mountains in the center of the country are key. Romania is at the center of three major invasion/trade routes and with each invasion the people would retreat to the protection of the mountains. There, language and customs were preserved. Later, these survivors would expand back onto the plains from which they had retreated.

To do this requires adaptability and the Romanians have this in spades. You see it in the language where foreign terms are accepted wholesale (unlike French) and the intense interest that Romanian officials show in learning how things in the West are done. Whether it's program budgeting or debt issuance, they can't find out enough about it.

I got more insight into the Romanian antipathy to Russians: When the Russian army occupied Romania at the end of World War II, they made their impact. First were the trials and execution of 60,000 people in 1946 and 1947. Then the government the Russians has installed systematically arrested the leadership of the country, political, military, academic, and social. They were sent to build the Danube-Black Sea Canal, known as the "Canalul Mortii," and forced to wade in icy waters to dig in he winter and to brave the swarms of mosquitoes in the summer. The purpose was to exterminate all the native leaders. This even included communists who had remained in the country during the war. Stalin wanted the country ruled by "loyal" Romanian communists who had spent the war in Moscow. The canal, abandoned in 1953, cost 100,000 lives.

The Russians forced heavy indemnities on Romania and for ten years the country was plundered. The forests were clear cut, all the oil was sent to Russia, foodstuffs were exported to the Soviet Union while people at home went hungry. It became apparent that the intent was to make Romania an agricultural backwater of the Eastern Block. The Romanian communist government preferred the madness of intense industrialization so the country got the worst of both alternatives -- a policy continued for a long time.

(The People's Palace I have already described is a symbol of this mania for forced and meaningless development. It is fit only to be a gambling casino, a mega-Romanian Las Vegas hotel. Oddly, this has indeed been proposed by a Mayor of Bucharest who then lost reelection. The building is too controversial to all Romanians to allow any solution of what to do with it.)

In 1965 the Romanian communist leader died and Ceausescu came to power. Early on he seems to have been genuinely popular, if only because he blamed all the problems on his predecessor. (Why does that remind me of something American?) However, his orthodox communist economics soon resulted in the usual shortages and spectacular inefficiencies (e.g., medical doctors could earn more money driving cars, etc.).

In addition to the usual experience of state security excrescences, Ceausescu added a few twists unique to Romania, including the "Baby Police" who conducted compulsory gynecological examinations to ensure that women were not trying to avoid their patriotic duty to increase the workforce.

Ceausescu became increasing isolated from any form of reality (economic, international, etc. your choice here) and developed a system that spent most of its time lying to him. Ceausescu decided that the 10.2 billion dollars that he had borrowed to push his industrialization campaign wasn't a good idea so he decided to pay it off. Everything that could be sold abroad for hard currency was, regardless of whether people would go hungry at home of if electricity would only be available for limited times each day.

The economy collapsed (surprised?) and resentment multiplied like mold in a continuously damp room. And then there was the "revolution." But more on that later.


Friday, 27 Mar 98

When I got home I called the number for the Romanian AIDS Awareness group. They turned out to be located just a hundred meters up the street from where I live. The person who answered the phone was named Alexander and he spoke excellent English with the usual British accent. He told me that they usually have a women's night on Friday but that the women were invited by Elle for a photo shoot so there were only a few people there and if I wanted I could come by, since they would be open until 8 PM, that was fine. I got the address and realized that the office was nearby. As it turned out, it is about a half a block away.

I walked over and found the office to be an apartment with the ambience of a student whatever: too little furniture, all of what they had was ratty, posters on the wall, etc. In general, a comfortable place to be.

We chatted about life in Romania. There was the woman who spoke only limited English and two other guys. As always, everyone was very friendly. They made me feel at home.

Alexander asked me if I had time and I was tempted to say "Several decades, I hope," but suspected that there was a communication problem. "Yes," I guessed in response and he said that he was going to meet friends for a drink and would I like to join them? "Yes," I said, "that would be nice." These were the first Romanians that I met who were not somehow connected to the US presence in this country.

We set off walking to the Piatza Romana, a few blocks away, and went into a building about a block off the piatza. We met some people outside and Alex introduced me. We are waiting for some more people, he said and, before long, they arrived.

We checked out the (very!!) smoky room upstairs but it was small and fully occupied and apparently there were reservations so there was no hope of a seat. This was the big karaoke joint in the city and was apparently very popular.

Much discussion ensued in Romanian. We will go to another place. And so we do. We walked along the less traveled streets, me chatting with Alexander, then with Vera, a very intense, fascinating young lady. Alex's friends were acting students and Vera was quite the expressionist. She wanted to talk to me but her English was limited (but 1,000 times better than my Romanian). Her style and flair caused the group to laugh frequently. I thought she was a lot of fun. She smoked a cigarette like Better Davis and knew she was doing it.

Above, Piatza Universities. On the left is the Hotel Intercontinental and on the right is the National Theater. The two bars referenced are on the left of the National Theater toward its back (near the center of the picture).


We went to the National Theater which has a jazz club upstairs. There was an entrance fee but we said that we (all ten of us) were looking for a friend and managed to get past the desk. (There is a lesson about Romanian's here.)

We were upstairs and, expecting to be evicted for nonpayment, I asked the fee (about $1.50 per person) and asked Alexander if I might pay it for the group. "No, it is not appropriate." [Money can't solve all problems.]

What to do? Much talk, little translation. We leave, we stay, we leave, we stay, we left.

Some people we met there joined us, two. We walked toward the main drag but one of the people we met at the jazz club started talking. We were outside and walking in one direction when the others were not waking and we walked back and more discussion ensued. Then we headed in the opposite direction and walked around the rear of the National Theater and then ended up in front of a building where the first floor was under construction, piles of concrete visible everywhere inside. A man inside comes outside and more discussion ensues. Yes, the club that used to be there is not there now.

Alex told me that there were only about 20 bars in all of Bucharest. That is up from zero under the communists. It also explains why their premises are so small: everything is adapted from some other use.

We walk on and get to the National Opera house, about 50 meters from the National Theater. There was a small cinder block room with a few people. We pulled tables together, sat down and ordered some beer. It only took about an hour, perhaps more, on a chilly night.

And I had a great time.


Saturday, 28 Mar 98

Saturday was our sixth day of work and all the Americans were in the office. Scott, our USAID contact stopped by and had a conversation with Judy. Susan, a recently returned American consultant asked John and me if we would like a spaghetti dinner. Normally, this would be a very attractive offer but I had a previous commitment that evening, so I had to decline. "That's OK," she said waving her arm dramatically, "if you have a better offer, I understand perfectly." I did and she did.

I meet Alex under the clock at Universitate -- not the one in front of the Intercontinental. It turned out to be easy to find and Alex was prompt. We waited for the others. Two fellows came along and the conversation started. It seemed that Adrian had bought a pair of black shoes the same as one of the two guys. How word gets around in this society.

More people arrived, most of whom I had met the night before. There was discussion of where to go. Adrian and some others arrive and he proudly shows off his new black shoes. Some more discussion and we walk to the same initial place as last night. This time we got chairs but, after settling in, we discover that the whole place is reserved and we had no reservations.

More discussions ensued outside. We start walking. Alex tells me we are taking the tram. When it arrives I asked Alex how do we pay? "We don't," he said. This is a charming feature of Bucharest public transportation but I don't know if it was because they knew that all the ticket checkers were not working, whether it was a calculated risk, or whether it was SOP for evening travel -- if only for students.

We arrived in about 10 minutes at Piatza Unirii and found a small but brightly lit club that was off one of the many streets that run into and out of Unirii. We got settled and ordered beer and wine. The discussion seemed to focus on the low platform at the other end of the room containing a piano, a guitar and some chairs. Suddenly we all move to a table close to the stage. Costis, one of the people that I met for the first time tonight, sits down at the piano and begins to play.

We were the entertainment. Michaela, who I first met last night, sang and sang superlatively. She began with her invocation of the "Roma national anthem" (as Alex described it to me. I don't know any of the words but the sound was like an Irish ballad, a very sad one. There were long notes that her voice grew louder and louder on and soft moments. She carried the song with skill and talent and I was impressed.

Alex told that there are two Roma organizations in Romania. Last night I met the head of the cultural organization and tonight the piano player, Costis, was a member of the political organization. Costis is young, around 21, has high cheek bones, and a handsome face. He is slightly below average in height and has a winning smile. On the way there we had talked about his organization's DP needs and I volunteered to recommend some minimum specs for a new PC they were buying. He has great personal charm and weak English skills.

Alex told me the bar was a college hangout for the part of the university that was nearby (the University does not seem to have a campus in our sense of the word, just building here and there).

Ciao for now.


Sunday, 29 Mar 98

Today was a dull day, gray and chilly. Quite a turn off after yesterday with its sun and balmy breezes. So I decided to be nice to myself and I stayed in, ate bacon, read papers, went out for papers -- in short I did nothing worth reporting.

From discussions with Romanians it is impossible not to come back to the impact that Nicolae Ceausescu had on this country. The stories are endless. In the seventies, Ceausescu contracted nearly ten billion dollars in loans with the West to build big industrial projects (more on how the money was spent in a minute) and then decided to pay back the loans very quickly. He did this by depriving citizens of the country of every last thing they could be deprived of -- including food -- and exported it all to earn hard currency which he used to repay the loans.

Things when downhill steadily. EVERYTHING was in short supply. One Romanian told me that you would go out of the house in the morning walk a distance and see a line that curved around a corner. Without even asking what the line was for, you would stand in it because you needed EVERYTHING. Another Romanian told me how as a child he got up at 5 AM and his parent took him to a line and he would stand in it until 7:30 when his mother came to replace him so he could go to school. At noon his father would spell his mother so that she could prepare lunch. This was endless and effected everyone who was not a well-connected apparatchik.

Romania had regular electrical black outs while electricity was sold to the what ever foreign country would by if for hard money, agricultural produce sent to Soviet Union, and on and on.

But what of that investment in heavy industry that the loans were for? One example was given to me. It the story of the shale oil electricity generation plant. Ceausescu decided that since Romania had a significant amount of shale oil, it should build a shale-oil-to-electricity plant and he put the plant right in the middle of the country on a high plateau near the shale. Thirty thousand workers were forcibly relocated to the new city built to provide workers for the plant. Lengthy roads were built to handle the heavy traffic.

The US has huge shale oil deposits but neither Romania nor the US has every figured out how to extract the oil efficiently enough to make the process viable. Ceausescu wanted to visit the plant. They couldn't show him a plant with no fires burning so they constructed a natural gas pipeline hundreds of kilometers to bring fuel to the plant so he could be impressed with his own genius. Steadily he grew more and more isolated from any form of reality. The people closest to him were afraid to tell the truth.

Another story I heard is about Ceausescu's visit to a farm. There was a big sow there and looked at it and said, "This sow will give birth to many pigs. Tell me how many." After a troubled birth the sow gave birth to one piglet. The local boss new this and reported that the sow had five piglets. His boss pondered the number and reported ten piglets to his boss. When Ceausescu heard the story, it had become 15 piglets. "Wonderful!" he said, "fourteen for export and one for the people!"

Since the press was completely controlled it could disseminate the biggest lies imaginable. Once during the height of the scarcity, Ceausescu wanted to do a photo op in a food market. No one dared to let him know how little food there was so the event was stage managed. Food was sent to the market shortly before he arrived and it was piled in the stalls. He was videoed for the nightly news and left and then the food was taken away.

It is possible to understand how intensely he and Elena were hated. It is said that when Elena Ceausescu was put before the firing squad she told them, as they prepared to shoot her, "I was your Mother!" and a soldier shouted back, "No, you killed our mothers!"

Elena Ceausescu set woman's lib back 100 years in this country.


A Virtual Tour of Romania
© 1998-99 Joe Kelley