Beyond Dracula and Nadia: The (Personal) Political Introduction to Romania of an American (1985-1986)
Posted by romanianrevolutionofdecember1989 on October 31, 2014
A child of detente and the Cold War, my first introduction to Romania was probably typical of many children of the time in North America:
in 1976-1977, gymnast Nadia Comaneci at the 1976 Summer Olympics in Montreal, Canada, and Dracula, courtesy of Leonard Nimoy (Spock from Star Trek)’s In Search Of.
I analyzed the issue of media frames and images of Romanians in the North American popular consciousness, here, for those who might be interested in the topic:
John M. Goshko, “Shultz to Warn Romanians on Human Rights,” Washington Post, 5 December 1985, p. A32. (Like the “four alarm fire” meme in Airplane II http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0083530/quotes , wow! look folks a Mattress sale, as in 1985, so in 2014!)
Between 1977 and 1984, I am not quite sure what I knew or heard about Romania, politically. It was probably, for most of the period, the idea of Nicolae Ceausescu’s Romania as a “Latin island in a sea of Slavs” and as a “maverick,” a perpetual thorn in the side of Brezhnev’s Soviet Union.
Politically-speaking, I only remember my introduction to Romania as an 18 year old, first year student at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville (I was an in-state student having gone to high school at W.T. Woodson in Fairfax, VA). Originally a chemistry major, I quickly sought refuge as an English major in the fall of 1984. In early 1985, I remember trekking to the Earth Sciences building early on frosty mornings: I would take in the giant printouts of the latest weather maps and study them. Unfortunately, I soon realized being interested in meteorology meant having at the very least a certain tolerance and capacity for…physics…that I clearly did not possess. I ended up going “pre-Comm,” taking courses to enter the Commerce School at the end of my first two years–ironic since my (first generation immigrant) credit card salesman father had told me not to go into business…even though he thought that in order to have any chance of getting a job, I should…go business.
Anyway, in January 1985 I remember being bored out of my skull with my then courses and reading, for whatever reason (probably the Irish connection), a lot of Leon Uris. Somehow this led me to being interested in Hungary and the 1956 Revolution. In the stacks of old Alderman Library–where the graffiti at the time read “Reuben Kincaid (of Partridge Family fame) for (Virginia) Lieutenant Governor” and “nothing is as overrated as a bad f*** and nothing is as underrated as a good sh**”) and where you enter on fourth floor (a source of endless confusion)–I somehow stumbled upon books on the 1956 Hungarian Revolution. Romania was mentioned, almost universally in a pejorative fashion. I vividly remember the novelist James A. Michener’s Bridge at the Andau in which he recalled, if I remember correctly, a Hungarian college roommate or acquaintance who spoke about Transylvania and Romanians in terms that, today, could only be termed racist.
Alan Freeman, “When is a Renault Not a Renault? When It’s a Dacia,” Wall Street Journal, 14 March 1986.
Fast forward to late May 1985, my first trip to the “Eastern bloc” to “Eastern Europe,” i.e. Budapest. On a hot afternoon, waiting in line at the Ibusz tourist office at Keleti pu., having arrived by train from Vienna via Hegyeshalom, I met a Brazilian named Daniel and a Scot named Leslie. We agreed to share a triple in the way young people do in that universal fraternity of young backpackers. I remember at one point on the second day we were in the City Park, Leslie had stepped away, and Daniel said sheepishly something about not understanding everything Leslie said. I laughed and said join the club: between my degraded hearing and Leslie’s remote Scottish accent, I was no more sure of what he said than someone whose first language was not English. Nevertheless, I understood enough from Leslie that he was planning on traveling onward to Romania (I was returning to Vienna) and he regaled us with tales about a place which today would likely qualify as “adventure tourism.” He talked about the daily minimum ten dollar exchange (more money then) and the international train that somehow would cross into Romania from Hungary and not enter Bulgaria until at least 20 and possibly 30 dollars had been squeezed from the tourist who never had a real opportunity to get off the train. He spoke of privation and shortages and the seemingly ubiquitous “secret police” (known as the Securitate).
When I came back to the U.S. I started paying more attention to Romania in the news. What a fascinating place I thought. Hungary was comparatively easier to travel to and more “at ease” for the foreign tourist, but Romania was no doubt intriguing. What I learned, if I remember correctly, was about the ubiquitous personality cult of Nicolae Ceausescu, and, increasingly, his wife Elena Ceausescu, and their determination to pay off Western debts they had accumulated, in a painful fashion for the population–they and their appetite for kitschy luxury, by contrast, would not be affected. In fall 1985, my second year, I took Rhetoric and Communication as a prerequisite to enter the Commerce School at the end of the year. The name of my professor escapes me, but I vividly remember how I chose to speak about Romania for a particular presentation and how, he questioned my contention (understandably perhaps given his role as teacher) about Romania’s comparative independence from the Soviet Union and invoked the famous Gerald Ford gaffe of the 1976 campaign when he alleged that Poland was “independent” and “not dominated by the Soviet Union”:
Meanwhile, Romania’s once stellar media image of the detente period–predicated primarily on Romania’s foreign policy, and turning something of a blind eye to its domestic policy–continued to deteriorate as time passed, as the following articles suggest (I realize the xeroxes are truncated; if you wish a full rendering of a particular article, please feel free to contact me and I can attempt to scan in again, thank you).
Manuela Hoelterhoff, “Romanian Holiday: Think Not, Want Not,” Wall Street Journal, 28 August 1986.
Jackson Diehl, “Romania Criticized Over Treatment of Minorities,” Washington Post, 25 October 1986, p. A20.