16 July 2004

A Romanian Exile Returns to Bucharest, 1989

Andrei Codrescu, in The Hole in the Flag (Avon Books, 1991) describes his return to Bucharest days after the fall of Ceausescu.
The Inter-Continental Hotel in Bucharest is the modern-day equivalent of Dracula's castle on the Arges River, a fortress built to resist cannon. It can be seen from almost anywhere, just like Ceausescu's palace. Its facade was scarred by fresh bullet holes from top to bottom. It looked like a giant with measles. The older buildings on University Square all around it were also pockmarked every few inches as if someone had been firing precision rounds in a kind of mad game. Hundreds of windows were broken; parts of roofs were seared. University Square was a solid sheet of uneven, thick ice, blackened here and there by the grime of cars trying desperately to cross. There was an overpowering smell of wax in the air from the hundreds of candles burning at makeshift shrines under small Christmas trees.

The entrance to the lobby of the Inter-Con was a madhouse of reporters, cameramen, doormen, men in suits, and swarms of Gypsy children with paper flowers on sticks who all but put their quick little hands in your pockets. Their lively faces, caroling and begging, gave a festive air to the whole place.... I felt as if I were at a crossroads. I was tempted to leave my suitcases and walk away. I imagined renting a room somewhere in Bucharest with a view of Cismigiu Lake. I had enough American dollars to live modestly for the rest of my life. I could change my name once more and tell nosy neighbors that I was a provincial literature teacher from a remote Transylvania burg who had come to the capital for "culture." I would establish a new life, consisting of regular visits to a small cafe and long evening walks by the lake. I would dress in an old-fashioned coat and tails from the last century and die a few years hence, a figure of mystery. I'd had this fantasy in many forms before--becoming a gas station attendant in a small town in Utah, for instance--but here it nearly became real. I wasn't sure, though, whether such a change of identity was yet possible in Romania. But the revolution would prove itself only if it succeeded in reestablishing the possibility of anonymity for its citizens, a great gift in a country where sticking one's nose in others' business had been the order of day and night. In spite of the cold, there was an indefinite familiar smell to the street, not the diesel smell of Budapest, but something older: crushed linden flowers and smoke. Under the ice and snow were the idle footsteps of my old walks, the fallen leaves of adolescent autumns, the shadows of complicated Byzantine porticoes.... I had the momentary illusion that all I had to do was to start walking, that my footsteps would find the shadow of my old footsteps, and that if I followed my old path, I would somehow cancel time and be nineteen years old again. Suppose that there is a moment in the midst of a revolution when it is possible to transcend time. There is something in the Romanian psyche that keeps searching for that moment. There is a man in a story by Mircea Eliade, the great Romanian religious scholar and novelist, who leaves an enchanted garden only to discover that thirty years have passed. Conversely, leaving the garden of my exile, I might discover that thirty years had not passed. Exiles--and Eliade was most consciously an exile--do not believe in chronological time. We hold the places of our youth unchanged in our minds and stay secretly young that way. On the other hand, what if age catches up with us when we return? What if death, a patient creature that never strays far from one's birthplace, waits for us just behind the old pantry door? I felt my hair beginning to turn white, my back begin to bend under the question mark of old age ... and in Bucharest today the possibility of death was not at all remote.

Alas, I was also a foreigner and soon had proof of it. Porters, doormen, and bellboys, unmindful of my reveries, swarmed all over me.
I well remember the landmark Inter-Con during our 1983-84 year in Ceausescu's Romania--it was very near both the university and the U.S. embassy--but I don't remember going in there very often. The last time I entered the premises, it was to meet another foreigner in the coffee shop and change money under the table, buying about 4500 lei for US$100 that my wife had earned teaching at the American School. (The official rate was less than 10 lei to US$1.) My own stipend of 4500 lei per month (plus free rent) was quite adequate for our needs and allowed us enough to take a train trip to another city about one weekend a month. The only reason we had to buy more lei was for a longer springtime trip to Maramures.

I would collect my stipend at the foreign liaison office at the law school. Foreign dormitory students in front of me in line might collect 2000 lei, then have to repay various charges amounting to several hundred lei. The largest denomination was 100 lei (to make smuggling less efficient), and we were enjoined to count our money on the spot to keep the clerks honest. I always felt a bit guilty holding up the line while counting my 45 bills, then stuffing them into my least-pickable front pockets for the long walk back to our apartment bloc on Bulevardul Pionerilor ('of the [Young] Pioneers', now Tineretului 'of the Youth')--between the crematorium and the abattoir, across from the Park of Youth.

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