When we traveled through Vietnam, we swam in history. We witnessed it in the landscape, sensed it in the streets, and read it in the faces of the people. What happened there was recent, a formative piece of our national consciousness, a vivid memory from Tom’s and my childhood. Romania, a surprise destination on our itinerary, has offered us a similar experience, only here the history is almost 20 years more recent, a different piece in the same puzzle, and one no less compelling. I recall sitting in my residential college common room my senior year at Yale. The date was December 21, 1989. I had two more finals to take before heading home for the holidays and like the other students who remained on campus needed to blow off some steam in between study sessions. Over the course of the semester we had watched in awe as the Soviet Union, the archenemy of our childhoods, had imploded, the Berlin Wall had fallen, and the Eastern Block countries were left to redefine themselves. Throughout the process, Peter Jennings had been our liaison, our interpreter of the most radical changes we had witnessed in our brief lives. On this day, Peter explained that thousands of Romanians with revolution on their minds had descended on the Communist Party headquarters in Bucharest in protest against longtime dictator Nicolae Ceasescu. When the crowds retreated to a nearby square, Caesescu ordered tanks and police in to quash the rebellion with gunfire. The next day, after my finals were over, the events Peter relayed were even more shocking. After addressing an irate crowd from the building’s second story balcony, the cowardly Ceacescu escaped from the roof via helicopter and ordered his troops to fire once again on his people. Over these two days, 162 Romanians were killed, 1104 were injured, and Ceasescu sealed his own bitter fate. At the time, few of us knew much about Romania, other than it was the home of Olympic gymnast Nadia Comanici, just a few years our elder, as well as the legendary region of Transylvania. Beyond these random facts, the country’s Soviet-enforced closure to the world had obscured it from our awareness.
Four days later, Christmas 1989, I watched in shock from my parents’ couch in New York as Peter aired footage of Ceacescu’s corpse, fully clad in jacket and tie, lying in a pile of rubble. He and his wife had been discovered attempting to hide in a town outside Bucharest and summarily executed by enraged Romanians. Legend has it that he plead with his captors to think of all the good he had done for them, but they saw it another way. Prisoners in their own country, strictly limited in their choices and opportunities, and closely monitored by a brutal secret police force, most Romanians viewed Ceaceascu as a tyrant and were glad to be rid of him. As I watched this mysterious country’s future play out that Christmas night, I did not imagine that 18 years later I would be walking those same revolutionary streets and brushing shoulders with the people who liberated them. This would have seemed as unlikely to a child of the Cold War era as one day strolling the peaceful avenues of Baghdad, Tehran, or Kabul seems to a child today.
My first concern upon arriving in Romania was not history but safety. We had been warned about gypsies, pickpockets, and criminal cab drivers in Bucharest’s Gara de Nord train station. Even the shady coin salesman at the Bulgarian train station had cautioned us that all Romanians were “bandits.” (There’s little affection between the two nationalities.) We hadn’t yet decided on a place to stay and needed to find an internet connection to make phone calls and check email from potential hotels. We decided to brave the bandits and take the metro to the city center where Lonely Planet promised there would be a few internet cafes. The cafes proved elusive as we trawled Nicolae Balcescu Street, so we camped out on the curb of the swanky Intercontinental Hotel to search for an open connection. I didn’t realize it at the time, but it was from this building that the world’s journalists watched as the victims fell under a hail of bullets on University Square that cold December night. With a little determination you can still find bulletholes in the walls of the surrounding buildings and a small black cross that commemorates the spot where the first victim perished.
We eventually found our connection and called our home for the next three days, the Residence Hotel in the north of the city. As we made our way there via a succession of Metro rides and long walks, we tried to get our usual initial read on the city. Ceacescu’s legacy is that Bucharest is a tough town to love. Its buildings are ugly, fashioned in the gray, cinderblock Soviet style; its people are hardened by their years of repression and not overly eager to befriend outsiders. We bit our bottoms lips and vowed to give it a chance over the next 72 hours.
Fortunately, Bucharest did not disappoint…me at least. Tom and the boys were less impressed, but I was blown away that a place that knew so little freedom for so long could be bursting with energy and a spirit of renewal. While the city doesn’t have the architectural inheritance of Budapest or Prague, its residents seem to be making the best of what they’ve got. And though they’re not the type to rush up and befriend a traveler in need, neither are the New Yorkers I lived amongst during my high school years.
On our last day in the city, we happened upon the perfect symbol of the rejuvenation of this once grim and colorless place. Just a few meters outside the Royal Palace, which is now the National Art Museum (the good stuff is “closed for renovation”), we noticed a bizarre burst of movement and color outside a crumbling corner building. We hurried over to discover we were in the midst of a film shoot. Multiple rows of brightly clad, smiling young people were practicing dance moves and obviously enjoying themselves enormously. Even heckling from their bald, goateed, rasta-cap wearing director couldn’t hamper their fun. We watched with delight as they ran through their 1960′s Frankie and Annette type number and giggled as the turbaned women on the balconies struggled to get their timing down (they never did). We couldn’t figure out what they were shooting, perhaps a music video or a scene for a musical. Finally, their purpose was revealed when they whipped out boxes of Surf laundry detergent. No wonder they looked so squeaky clean!
20 years earlier these dancers would likely have been headed for factory jobs and washing their clothes with whatever state-rationed product the government made available. Today they’re free to audition for commercials, wear bright foreign-manufactured garments, and launder them with a variety of fresh-smelling soaps. This is a Bucharest Ceacescu never envisioned and one I’m glad we had the chance to discover.