This article originally appeared in the Travel section of the Boston Sunday Globe in the fall of 1988. The trip described took place in July1988, before the fall of the Communist regime. I understand that conditions have changed a lot since then. But this piece is still of historical interest.
When our son Bobby was invited to represent the U.S. in the World Under 14 Chess Championship, we thought this would be an extraordinary travel opportunity -- two weeks in Romania. The mention of Romania conjured up images of quaint medieval villages, untouched by twentieth century civilization, and of Dracula's castle, perched high in the Carpathian Mountains.
But brochures from the national tourist bureau in New York rambled on about health spas and a local drug intended to revitalize the aging. And travel books noted that Romania was suffering from severe food and energy shortages. The shortages were articificially created by the government, which exports everything edible to pay off its foreign debt and leaves garbage for its citizens.
We were advised by recent emigres not to drink tap water and not to eat the meat (for fear of hepatitis as well as stomach disorders). They told us to bring along canned meat, chocolate and coffee. They said we would not be able to get milk anywhere in the country. So we packed like we were going on a camping trip -- and those precautions proved very important.
The tournament was held in Timisoara, an industrial city of 300,000 in southwestern Romania, near Yugoslavia and Hungary.
Arriving by plane from Frankfurt, the land looks flat and fertile -- large fields of corn and wheat are interspersed with stretches of forest. On the ground it looks like Indiana.
Social life in Timisoara is built around the factories, each of which has its own recreational facilities (including a swimming pool) and teams and social clubs for the families of workers.
Electromotor of Timisoara made and programmed the personal computers on display at the site for the chess tournaments, and trophies won by that factory's chess team were proudly displayed in a local bookstore.
In Germany, it seems that every city and town has a medieval center, where a colorful past sits side-by-side with the prosperous present. But in Romania, all we could see was a gray and brown assemblage of timeless, non-descript buildings. It was like stepping into an abstract, science fiction realm.
The nearby villages all looked the same -- rectangular, brownish single-family huts, with interconnecting walls. And these will soon all be destroyed, to be replaced with high-rise apartments.
A couple blocks from the hotel, stood an old fort and remnants of the old city wall, dating from the nineteenth century, when this territory was ruled by the Turks. But they blended in with the non-descript buildings around, so you would hardly notice unless someone pointed them out.
The Greek Orthodox cathedral at the center of town stands out from its surroundings. (Nearly everything else seems built of concrete and cinderblock.) The stone walls, the stained-glass windows, the icons and the oil paintings on the walls are all darkened by soot. At first glance, it looks like a relic from the Renaissance. But it was built 1933-45.
As we were told by a Romanian, the government is constantly tearing down old sound buildings and replacing them with newer, shoddy ones. History is not to be seen on the streets, but rather is preserved and buried in the collections of the town museum, along with relics from the days when the Roman Empire extended this far.
Normally, the few tourists who venture to Romania are required to exchange into Romanian lei a minimum of $10 per day per person. Fortunately, since we had been officially invited for the tournament, we were exempted from that requirement.
It turns out that for almost everything that is worth buying, you need dollars, not lei. The hotel bill had to be paid in dollars.
And the shops in the hotel, that sold Romanian-bottled Pepsi Cola (with a strange bitter-sweet taste), bottled water, and Romanian wine, only accepted western currency. And on the flourishing black market, a dollar was worth 80-90 lei, in contrast to the official 8-9 lei exchange rate. The risks of a foreigner running into trouble with the law are great, and hardly worth the risk; but, under the sheltered circumstances of the tournament, some people got into wheeling and dealing with dollars, cigarettes, and even blank videotapes.
Because of the underground economy and the relative uselessness of the local currency, Kent cigarettes have become an unofficial medium of exchange. A package of Kents makes an excellent tip for a maid at a hotel or a waitress in a restaurant.
Outside the hotel, there was very little to be purchased. The department store next door had unappealing, machine-made goods, displayed on dark shelves. Because of a perpetual shortage of electricity, there were no lights on, and the escalators had not operated for years.
On a rare ride into the surrounding countryside, we bought a few hand-sewn articles from elderly ladies whose wares were blowing wildly in the wind, attached to clothes lines near the main road.
And some other Americans succeeded in buying some oriental rugs at a bargain rate. But it was difficult to find even small souvenirs and postcards.
In the city itself, we saw bakeries with idle sales people and no baked goods -- not even bread -- for sale. Fruit and vegetable stores had nothing but cabbage for sale. A milk store had nothing but cobwebs on its shelves. A nearby meat store was usually empty; but a couple times we saw lines stretching outside and around the block.
We were surprised (since this is a "socialist" country) to see many beggars on the street, mostly invalids. The Romanians explained that those weren't really beggars -- they were gypsies, and therefore didn't count (as if gypsies were a different lifeform).
At every other street corner, someone would huddle up against the wall and open up a canvas bag, and passersby would swarm to buy black market merchandise -- typically cigarettes or foreign goods.
In a fertile land, next to Yugoslavia which is now bursting with ripe grapes, plums, and watermelons, fruit was very hard to find in Romania. We were surprised that there were no street vendors in the parks, and the stores had no fruit. One day at the hotel, we were served a few apricots at lunch; and for several meals toward the end we were served apples. But that was all. Despite all the ripe corn in the fields around, not once during our stay were we served corn, nor did we ever see it for sale.
For the first week in Timisoara, we did not see a single dog or cat. In the second week, we spotted ten dogs and one cat. In a country with little food, and especially short on meat, pets are an expensive luxury.
A Romanian informed us that at one time the communist government proudly proclaimed that horses were a thing of the past, that in the future socialist state, machines would do all the work. To emphasize this point, they ordered the slaughter of all horses.
But today, because of the fuel shortage, horse-drawn vehicles are commonly seen on the streets of the city. We often saw brown-uniformed soldiers riding bicycles and driving horse-drawn wagons that were taking the place of trucks.
We also heard that the shortage of fuel is doubly ironic.
Romania is an oil-producing country. Not only do they export most of what they produce, but also their main customer is not the Warsaw Pact, but rather NATO -- for western currency.
Despite the shortages, we saw no evident discontent, no signs of imminent rebellion. We saw armed guards at the airport, but nowhere else. This was simply a different way of life that people were used to.
In fact, the shortages, the rationing, and the black market that they give rise to are part of the system of government. For instance, each family is rationed just 30 liters of gasoline per month (not enough to fill the tank once) -- the only way to get enough to meet ordinary needs is to resort to the black market.
The same is true for many other essential commodities. There is no milk, so to help their children grow properly and stay healthy, parents have to obtain calcium pills on the black market. So everybody uses the black market, and everyone knows the secret police are everywhere, watching everything -- taking notes and keeping files, but only prosecuting when it suits their purpose, always having enough evidence to put anyone in jail or to intimidate and manipulate whomever they wish.
Machiavelli would have admired this system of government by corruption -- it seems to be very effective. It seems to perpetuate itself and to require only a modicum of central direction and control.
In a nation where everyone feels compromised, guilty and at risk, it must be difficult to generate righteous indignation against the powers that be. Abstract notions of justice and human rights ring false here. An Oliver North might learn to cope here, but a Robespierre would be totally out of place. The survivors are those who can work with and around the bureaucracy, who know when and how to bend the rules and how to get around them.
We saw many examples of bureaucracy, from the moment we arrived at the airport and, even with the help of translators assigned to speed the international chess players through, we had to wait a couple hours to go through all the paperwork and to get our luggage.
A few days after we arrived, we heard that having paid for a return airline ticket was not enough. To insure that we would actually be able to leave the country, we had to go in person to the offices of the airline, wait in line, show our passports and our exit permits and our tickets, and have our names inscribed in a handwritten log of passengers for that particular flight. With the help of one of the translators to take me to the front of the line, that process still took over an hour.
We were particularly concerned about our tickets because the only plane from Timisoara out of the country leaves just once every two weeks, and the roundtrip tickets from Boston had cost us $1400 a piece. It's not an easy place to get to. Some of the other Americans who came for concurrent chess tournaments (world championships for boys and girls under 16, under 14, under 12, and under 10) found other less expensive, more roundabout routes.
One family flew to Belgrade and got a $110 taxi ride from there.
Another group flew from New York City to Bucharest (in eastern Rumania) and waited there in hotels for two days until they could make connections to Timisoara. (One had his wallet stolen on a trolley in Bucharest). Someone else had a 27-hour train ride from Munich, starting on the Orient Express and changing twice. (He had a hard time getting back because of difficulties in making train reservations in Timisoara). Another family rented a car in Belgrade, and stocked up on food in Yugoslavia. They seem to have been very fortunate -- despite a questionable clutch and the difficulties in finding gas stations that had gas. Others flew to Bucharest and took a train from there, (and had their return plane tickets lost or stolen in the hotel. They had to buy new tickets and file a lost ticket claim).
Unfortunately, we got a glimpse of the Romanian medical system while we were there. Bobby had two severe attacks of asthma and had to be rushed to the local children's hospital. As a result, we came to better appreciate the friendliness and competence of the Romanian people, struggling to survive and to do what is right under very difficult circumstances.
The ambulance had Bobby to the hospital within five minutes; and, almost immediately, he was surrounded by a team of doctors. They examined him and determined what needed to be done before even asking his name. They gave him hydrocortisone injections and later provided him with all the medicine he needed, despite the fact that medicine was evidently in short supply.
The buildings that house the children's hospital must date back to before 1900. Constructed of stone, in need of a new coat of whitewash, it looked like an old monastery complex. Inside, white paint and plaster was peeling from the walls. Even the upper stories had the look of a basement. To conserve electricity, there were almost no lights in the halls. Typical of such an old building, cockroaches scampered in and out of drawers in the emergency room.
The syringes were not disposable. They appeared to be made of glass and had been used many times. The needle was inserted into the patient's arm and then the glass container with the medicine was screwed onto it.
The doctors could not have been more attentive. They succeeded in taking care of Bobby's problem very quickly. But it was frightening, sitting there in the half-light, staring at the whitewash and glancing at the bugs, at 4 A.M. in Timisoara, Romania, while strangers tried to help my son to breathe.
Chess-wise, the tournaments were great, with the very best young players from over 50 countries. Bobby placed 15th in a very strong field, and played some of his best chess when he was weak, tired, and very determined. Then, finally, we could go home.
We got up very early that last morning to be as sure as we could that we wouldn't miss that once-every-two-weeks flight because of some unexpected bureaucratic snag or delay.
At the airport, the few dozen passengers for this one and only international flight were surrounded by half a dozen guards with machine guns at the ready. One passenger took a camera out of his carry-on luggage to check the film, and the guards rushed forward, pointing their guns at him until he put the camera away.
What did we miss the most when we were in Romania? Ice, meat, milk, coffee, baseball scores, and news of the world. At our stopover in Frankfurt, we stuffed ourselves on steak at a restaurant -- our first real meal in two weeks.
What do we now think of Romania? Every morning, walking to the
playing site to check tournament results from the day before and
that day's pairings, I saw groups of old men and women tending to
the rosebushes and other flowers in the official gardens that
lined that street. All around, white and blue wildflowers sprouted
-- even appearing in the midst of the rose bushes and flower beds
-- unwanted weeds, but far more beautiful than the cultivated
flowers. I can't help but think of the Queen of Hearts in Alice in
Wonderland and those who tried to survive in her premeditated,
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