This post was originally written for Syracuse University’s writing course, WRT 424: Writing a Sense of Place.
It will soon be published in the class book.
We arrived in Romania on a sunny morning in late November. I was so excited – Romania sounded like such an enchanting place. My travel buddy Andrew and I were headed to the castles of the Eastern European countryside, the likes of which inspired some of the most famous novels and fairy tales out there.
We’d booked a tour to Transylvania for the next day. Does that name sound familiar? It’s the legendary home of Count Dracula himself – Vlad the Impaler. (We’ll get into how he got that name in the next post.)
But we didn’t want to miss out on Romania’s capital – Bucharest – either, so we made plans to spend that first afternoon and evening exploring the city.
We got off the plane, exchanged some currency, and grabbed a quick cup of coffee before catching an Uber to our Air BnB. Little did we know, though, that the street we were aiming for was actually a series of four streets across.
Parallel to each other.
With buildings separating the middle two and outside two, and a divider in between the middle two.
At the time, though, we had no idea about any of that. So when our Uber dropped us off at what we believed was our place, we trotted into the building to look for our host.
Instead, we found two old men sitting at a reception desk. Except it wasn’t quite big enough to be a reception desk. It was more like a guard post with some room for paperwork and a monitor.
Their stares told us that we were in the wrong building.
We weren’t exactly eager to showcase our lack of Romanian language abilities, so we decided to try to ask for directions by showing them the Air BnB listing. But before we could cross the landing…
“Private building!” one of them said.
“We know, we know. We’re sorry, could you just…” my friend said, offering the photo of the listing again.
“Private building,” the man said, “private building!”
After a few back-and-forth rounds of this, including an attempt with some Italian thrown in there, the man began to rise and point at the door. And it wasn’t the door we came through.
Pro-tip: when a guard with whom you cannot communicate is angry with you and wants you out of his building – you leave his building.
We looked around and saw that we were on a completely different street.
“Well that was something,” Andrew said.
“You can say that again.”
We looked around, finally realizing we weren’t where we’d started. Anxiety crept in as I realized that we were going to be late to our Air BnB check-in. All of the reviews of our host had been great, but after that clash with those other locals, I wasn’t exactly thrilled to be breaking any more rules.
It was a bright, sunny day, made even brighter by the uniform pale grey walls surrounding us. Cars zoomed past – Unirii seemed to be quite the busy place.
Something felt different, though, and I couldn’t put my finger on what or why.
After another 30 minutes of wandering, including a few street crossings and more than a few double-checks of the address, we arrived at what we thought was the building. We just couldn’t get in.
It was locked. We were going to be much later than I thought.
Eventually, a teenaged boy who looked like he’d just crawled out of bed (it was, after all, just past 1:00 – looks like some things don’t change culture-to-culture) took pity on us and let us in. He didn’t say a word, just stared out the building’s dirty glass door, looking like he was waiting for a friend. We showed him the listing, asking if we were in the right place. He spared us a glance and kept his eyes toward the door.
After another few minutes of figuring out that we were – yet again – in the wrong apartment building, we made contact with our host. She told us to look for a certain shop and to go through the door just down the street from that. I stayed in the building (so that we wouldn’t get locked out again) and Andrew set off to find the shop. Turns out we were finally on the right side of the street – we were just one door down past the opposite side of the shop.
Our host’s mother (our host was at work) took us into the apartment, giving us the key and showing us the Wi-Fi router and light switches. The apartment was spacious and cozy – so unlike the vibe we’d gotten from the architecture of the city itself. We were so happy to finally have made it.
Our host’s mother left almost as quickly as she’d ushered us in. Couldn’t blame her, really. By that point, we were at least an hour late.
We collapsed on the bed and laughed. Who knew we’d have such difficulty finding an Air BnB on the main road in the capital city? We were so relieved to finally have figured it out.
“Don’t you feel like Big Brother is watching you out there?” Andrew asked me.
“In a way, I guess. What do you mean?”
“Well, it’s like Stalin took a big ol’ can of spray paint to the buildings. Stalin. Was. Here, W-U-Z here,” he said, gesturing the letters in the air. “And the locals just haven’t bothered to clean it up yet.”
I laughed. Andrew had a way with words like that.
But he was right. My earlier feeling that something was “off” had just been given some context. The imposing architecture was a product of a communist government, and the attitudes of the guards we’d met were likely bi-products of some governmental oppression. I figured they were old enough that they must have experienced a little of the corrupt regime, at least.
We spent the rest of the day wandering around Bucharest’s Old Town, where it seemed most of the restaurants, shops, and businesses were. Locals were out and about, already at the bars by the time we got there (PSA – it gets dark really early at that time of the year in Romania).
We stopped for tea, ran into some street musicians with instruments I’d never even imagined could exist, and even found an old eastern European church to explore.
For dinner, we found a nice little place in the Old Town.
When neither of our meal selections included any meat, our waitress was a little more than perplexed.
Andrew and I spoke more about the various remnants of communism we could see in the city on the way back to our Air BnB. He knew a little bit about what might have taken place in Bucharest, but I had gone in completely blind.
We arrived and took a few minutes to thaw (it gets cold in Romania in November!) then turned to Google for some answers.
What we found was a history of corruption that ran far deeper than I’d expected.
Members of Romania’s government were up to suspicious business dating all the way back to the middle ages, but I’ll spare you that history lesson and instead give you the one on more modern times.
Romania was occupied by Soviet troops following WWII up until the Romanian Communist Party began its rise to power. Eventually the communist party drove out the Soviet troops (1958), earning them a good deal of trust and popularity among the people.
Then came the notorious reign of dictator Nicholae Ceausescu.
He was the semi-charismatic leader of the communist party, and eventually became president after the suspicious death of his predecessor, Gheorghe Gheorghiu-Dej. In his 15 years as president, Ceausescu was responsible for the imprisonment, torture, and murder of countless Romanians.
His propaganda infiltrated every media – from restricting television to just one channel that played for two hours a day to newspapers only being allowed to report stories that glorified Ceausescu and his government. Books were banned unless they praised communism, and only certain types of music (following the same rules as the rest of the media) could be played at home or on the radio.
Portraits of Ceausescu and his wife, Elena, hung on public buildings, and schoolchildren were taught to sing songs praising him and his works.
In an effort to increase Romania’s declining population, Ceausescu implemented a strict natalist policy. Both abortions and contraception were outlawed, and secret police were commissioned to conduct periodic pregnancy tests on all women of child-bearing age. The population did skyrocket, but over 9,000 women (or more, since those things are never quite accurately reported) died from botched illegal abortions. Orphanages quickly became overcrowded and many children were forced to live on the streets.
Food was rationed to the point of starvation for many. There are many reports of people having to wait up to two hours in the early morning to buy just milk. Any goods that were available to the people were rejects from the Romanian factories, and anything marketable was exported. Electricity, heat, and gas would frequently be turned off to save money for the government.
Getting caught breaking any of the rules – including simply speaking ill about the government among family members – would result in the imprisonment, torture and death that Ceausescu’s government soon became famous for. Reports hold that at least one in every four citizens was working for the Securitate (secret police) in one way or another. Husbands and wives were expected to report on each other, parents and children too. No one could truly trust even their closest friends. Telephone calls, mail, and public conversation were all monitored by the government – making no place safe.
Ceausescu also earned himself a reputation for completely disregarding the country’s history. In addition to banning Romania’s real history from being taught in schools, he was responsible for ordering the destruction of more than 2000 buildings – many of which were in fine condition and dated back to the 1600s. In their places, he constructed apartment buildings, government buildings, and the Palace of the Parliament – the second-largest administrative building in the world.
The Romanian people eventually grew tired of Ceausescu and his strict totalitarian laws. After a series of historic rebellions that cost the lives of many, Ceausescu and his wife were captured, tried for genocide and stealing from the Romanian people and shot by a firing squad on Christmas day, 1989.
Since the execution of the Ceauscesus, Romania’s political governance hasn’t exactly been smooth – and many Romanians still today report that they might have been better off living under Ceausceuian rule.
Just goes to show how deep the marks of corruption run, and how long they take to heal. Our visit to Bucharest was just 17 days after the American 2016 election, and I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t worried.
Discovering Romania’s political history gave a whole new meaning to the interactions Andrew and I had experienced earlier that day, too. All of the people we’d encountered had likely lived through the worst years of the dictatorship, and who knows what their roles were.
The old men that greeted us in that first apartment building could have been members of the Securitate, or political prisoners themselves. None of the perpetrators of the crimes against humanity undertaken during those years were ever even questioned.
The waitress, so taken aback when we didn’t order meat, could probably recall the strict rations on meat and that her parents would have had to divide among her family.
We’d felt like we were being watched all day, and had it been just a few years prior, we would have been. There would have been cameras following our every move.
I recognize that this was not the most corrupt government in the world, and isn’t even the most recent case of detrimental governmental corruption. There are plenty of countries still today suffering under oppressive, morally twisted, totalitarian regimes. But it was the closest I’d ever come to seeing the scars of corruption, and it was enough to leave an impression.
But when I fell asleep that night, I fell asleep in a freer Romania than the Romania of the past. The people had overcome the seemingly impossible obstacle in the way of their liberty. Their spirit had persevered, they’d done what they needed to do to fight for what they believed in.
And though the road afterwards wasn’t exactly what they’d hoped it would be, my democratically-raised mind believes that good is still growing in Romania.
I hope that it can continue to grow in America, too.
Despite the obstacles we must soon, and even currently, have to overcome.