8 August 2012

I went to Romania once, children, way back in the twentieth century. This was in the 1970s, when the Ceausescu regime was very much in power and still had a good few years left of its stranglehold. How did this happen? I’m really not sure. I was about fourteen, I think, a spotty, bookish youth, when somehow there was an announcement at school that a trip to Romania was being organised and anyone who might be interested should collect a leaflet. I did, and pestered my long-suffering parents to let me join the trip.
It was fascinating and bizarre, and after all these years there are tantalising snapshots of memory of what happened. For a fourteen-year-old, I was probably more aware than most of the politics and the internecine post-war history of Eastern Europe. I had read Dracula, The Good Soldier Svejk and The Gulag Archipelago, which qualified me as a serious boffin (they were called ‘keenies’ back then) in the eyes of my classmates.

 OK, it's not a picture from Romania, as I don't have any within reach and I'm not going to nick other people's. But this one will have to do as it at least shows the Romanian flag floating in the breeze above the embassy in Prague

 So what are those memories? I saw my first cockroach. Waking up in a hotel in Bucharest, I looked up and wondered what that thing sitting on the curtain was. I didn’t know it was a cockroach then and it was years before I saw another one.
There were grey buildings, crowded trams everywhere, a language that sounded soft, romantic and vaguely familiar while still being incomprehensible. It’s not a surprise, as Romanian is an isolated outpost of the romance languages, related to French, Italian and Spanish, surrounded by a sea of Slavic languages.
One boy had his wallet snatched by a scruffy urchin who took to his heels with his victim in hot pursuit, the better-nourished victim gaining quickly until the urchin let fall a few notes that the lad stopped to gather while his wallet vanished around a corner. In the lobby of the hotel a grinning and laughing group of sinister gold-toothed Africans heard the story and insisted on making up the lad’s loss from thick wads of lei that their pockets seemed to be stuffed with.
We saw bleak shops staffed by unsmiling women where there was nothing to buy, even though these were the special shops for the party faithful that ordinary Romanians could never see the inside of.
Undoubtedly we were watched the whole time by the regime’s people. Anything else would have been inconceivable. My schoolmates soon got tired of me pointing out the spies I was sure were tailing our every move, and although there uniforms everywhere, it’s unlikely that they had been posted to watch us.
After a few days in Bucharest we were bussed to mountains to play in the Carpathian snow for an hour or two, got to see Dracula’s castle (supposedly) in the city of Brasov where we tried out on the patient hotel doorman the few words of Romanian we had picked up from the guide who had been assigned to us. He was a young guy who spoke excellent colloquial English, claimed to be a gypsy and to have émigré friends in London, and although he was careful what he said to us youngsters, he may well have been reporting back to the Securitate. Who knows?
People didn’t really want to speak to us, although they eyed us carefully. The young people we saw on our few opportunities to walk around unchaperoned looked hungrily at the girls in our group, although it may have been just the bright western plumage they lusted after. Our gawky teenage girls looked like colourful fashion models compared to the locals in their grey and blue clothes, and it’s understandable that nobody wanted to stand out from the crowd.
It was a fascinating trip, not that we saw a great deal of Romania beyond the greyness of Ceausescu’s Bucharest and the bucolic countryside that we was carefully rolled out for us. Somewhere in a dusty box in the vaults of Gráskeggur Towers there must be a little case of dusty Kodachromes that I took with the family camera when I remembered I had it with me.
A dozen or more years later it all came flooding back as the revolution gathered place after Timisoara sparked the rebellion, the loathsome Ceausescus were summarily gunned down and television beamed back almost live footage of running gunfights in the streets of Bucharest.

So where is all this going? I’ve hardly even thought of Romania in the intervening years. Books, ah, yes. Somehow a slew of Romanian books has crossed my path. Bodgan Hrib and George Arion’s books are crime stories. George Arion’s Attack in the Library was written under Communism and it’s not easy to see how he got away with publishing this under such a suspicious, repressive regime that didn’t appreciate independent thought.




Bogdan Hrib’s Kill the General is set in the present, twisting and turning with its roots in the Ceausescu era, and both books present fascinating windows on a mad world. 







There’s a third one from the same publisher on my Kindle waiting for attention. Anatomical Clues by Oana Stoica-Mujea is reputedly a sensational read by one of the cleverest women in Romania, or so the blurbs say. I’ll reserve judgement until I’ve read it, but if it matches up to the other two, then it’ll be worth a read.




Then there’s A Luminous Future by Teodor Flonta, a Romanian émigré who now living in Tasmania. It’s a beautifully written but heartbreaking memoir of the brutal tribulations his family suffered under the regime. A Luminous Future is told in an unsentimental, matter-of-fact style that makes it a highly readable account of young Flonta’s childhood and schooldays in an area of Transylvania that should have been a rural backwater, but made into a hell-hole by the attentions of the authorities.

Undoubtedly everything has changed since a bunch of schoolkids from middle-class southern England were allowed by the Securitate to see a few selected parts of Romania. It would be interesting to see the place again now that the country is open to visitors and not the locked tight dictatorship it was. But check out the books if you’ve an interest in what a madhouse Romania must have been back then. It’s deeply sobering reading, even though there are a few laughs in there as well.

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