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Montpellier, France
Writer, actor, artist, teacher, exploring the world and its levels in fiction, poetry, memoir, photography, fine arts.

Tuesday, December 31, 2019

30 years ago - Romania

It was New Years Eve, and bitterly cold in the town of Deva in western Romania, about 100 miles from the Hungarian border. I was staying at a hotel in the center of town, as a guest of the Romanian Red Cross, along with other aid workers from various contingents. I had arrived that afternoon as part of a small convoy of three vehicles bearing supplies of food, medicine, clothes and more that had passed the Doctors of the World coordination point in Szeged, in southern Hungary, where I had been volunteering for a couple of days. I had joined on as a rider to accompany the delivery truck that, with a small bus and a private car, had arrived late on the night of December 30th from Czechoslovakia, all three vehicles crammed full of donations from charities and private persons and destined for the people of Romania, who were just emerging from a violent overthrow of their decades-long dictator, Nicolai Ceausescu.

As news of the uprising, and then overthrow and execution of the Ceausescus spread, reports had also been emerging in the last week of December, 1989, of the terrible plight of the Romanian people. In that extraordinarily cold winter, people were freezing without fuel or electricity; hungry with little access to food; lacking services, paychecks, basic human needs. The political situation was still sorting itself out; reports of retaliations and violence were in the news.

From all over western Europe came an outpouring of support. At that point in the year of revolutions and changes in Europe, Romania was the last remaining outpost of tyranny, neither a Soviet bloc puppet state nor a western democracy, but a unique fortress of despotic nationalism under the increasingly unhinged leadership of the dictator Ceausescu and his cadre of military and police supporters -- his iron grip on power maintained through demagoguery, complicity, fear, surveillance, and complete control of media and information. As Europe still reeled and celebrated revolutions and changes in Germany, Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria, and the Soviet Union, many eyes, including my own, had been turned to Romania, wondering if it, too, might fall to the Zeitgeist of change. When it did, support was copious and immediate; in many countries, supplies were loaded into cars and vehicles of all kinds and driven to the borders of Romania, in hopes of it reaching the needy.

In Switzerland, at the Ecole d"Humanité where I was in my final year as a teacher, I was staying on campus as the Christmas holiday began. On December 17th the first news came of an insurrection in Timisoara, in western Romania, and a bloody response from the army and police. Then, on December 21, Ceausescu gave his fateful speech on the steps of the Central Committee Building in central Bucharest. Apparently shouted down by demonstrators, the speech was cut off. The next day, newspapers carried the memorable image of the helicopter taking off from the roof of the same building as the Ceausescus and close aides fled. They were making for the border, but events on the ground were happening swiftly. The army turned against the dictator; the helicopter landed in Romanian territory; the dictator and his much-hated wife Elena were captured and held for two days, subjected to a swift, irregular trial. On Christmas Day, 1989, the pair was executed by firing squad and their bodies shown on Romanian television.

It was at this time, and against this backdrop, that I decided to use my winter break to go to Hungary, possibly Romania, and try to join somehow in the effort to bring help. I was also motivated by my usual curiosity and desire for adventure. Having just been in Berlin a month earlier as the Berlin Wall was opened, I was still ringing with excitement and enthusiasm for the possibilities suddenly opening up in Europe. I wanted to be there, to see and take part -- but not as a bystander, a tourist. I wanted to get involved, and hearing about the inflow of aid, I thought there must be a need for people like me to help.

Before setting out, I tried to gain some information. I called the Red Cross in Switzerland, asking about opportunities to volunteer. I had driven trucks and all kinds of vehicles, and thought perhaps they would need drivers or helpers. I didn't get far; I was assured that the Red Cross had all the professional drivers they needed at that time, and that it was impossible to arrange volunteer positions at short notice in Hungary. My best course of action, they said, was to go there and contact local Red Cross or other aid groups. I left the Ecole on December 26 or 27, by train, heading into regions of Europe entirely new to me: eastern Switzerland, Austria, and then Hungary. It was a long ride, through the night, and I arrived in Budapest tired and disoriented. I had no idea where to go, but one of the first sights I saw in the center was a Hungaroton record store, where I went at once and bought some cassettes of Hungarian folkloric music. I still have them.

Next order of business was to find lodging, and eventually I was able to locate a private hostel for not too much money, and accessible by bus. Once that was settled, I did some sight-seeing around the old city of Budapest, learning that the town was once two towns -- Buda and Pest, on opposite sides of the Danube. Memorials and plaques commemorated various wars and historical figures, mostly unknown to me. I wandered up and down streets, climbed to the tops of rises, saw the bullet-pocked buildings in the high old part of the city where the final battle for Budapest in World War II played out, and wore myself out with walking and riding buses and looking for information.
Budapest on the Danube  Photo: Will Rose 1989

Budapest street scene    Photo: WillRose 1989

I found the office of the Red Cross and spoke to someone there, who told me that in Szeged, in southeast Hungary near the Romanian border, an aid organization had established a network point and was trying to organize and coordinate incoming donations. This seemed like a place I might aim for; surely with my strength and experience and language skills I would find some way to be helpful, I thought. And yet -- now that I had a destination and a relatively clear path ahead, I suddenly suffered doubts about the whole enterprise.

I wanted to be useful; I recoiled at the thought of going to Romania like a rubbernecking tourist. If I were to go, I wanted to be part of the effort, part of the lives of people. But how would that happen? How could I be sure? I had no specific information to go on; all I knew was that an aid group was in Szeged trying to coordinate incoming supplies. It wasn't much to go on, in freezing winter in an unfamiliar country, with no knowledge of the language. Getting a train ticket in those days in Hungary was an uncertain and very trying enterprise. The station was crowded with long lines of people waiting to buy a ticket or get a passport or visa; there was a lot of jumping through hoops and uncertainty in even this most basic of commercial transactions.

And there were other options beckoning. I was very curious about Czechoslovakia, where the Velvet Revolution a month earlier had toppled the socialist government and brought the dissident playwright and philosopher Vaclav Havel to the pinnacle of power. I knew almost nothing about Prague or Czechoslovakia; my only experience of it had been a year or so earlier with a German acquaintance I had met through some sort of connections at the Ecole, with whom I had traveled to his hometown of Deggendorf for a weekend. He drove me across the countryside northeast of there into the Bayerische Wald Park where we stopped at a gate blocking the lane that led deeper into a forest on the other side, indicating the nearby Czech border. I had already hesitated somewhat about whether to go there rather than to Romania; in the end, altruism had won out. Now, suddenly, with such uncertain prospects ahead of me and my vacation time dwindling, I was racked with doubt.
View from Buda    Photo: Will Rose 1989

After wrestling again and again with the decision, I chose what seemed to me the safer, more fun route: I would hitchhike up to Prague. New Years Eve there, I thought, would be wild and memorable as people celebrated their newfound liberty. I left the train station with its masses of dispirited would-be travelers, and found my way to the the road I needed in order to start my adventure in Prague -- first, of course, the adventure of getting there.

And then, as has happened to me before, doubts rose up again. Was I betraying my calling? Hadn't I set out to do some good in the world? Why was I giving up so easily? What was the right thing to do? Torn and confused, I sat on a bench overlooking a little canal, and tried to figure out what to do. It was hopeless. Back and forth I went, imaging one scenario or the other ahead. Several times I thought the decision was made, only to then annul it and find myself in the same state of increasingly desperate uncertainty.

Then something clicked. I'd experienced similar states of indecision in the past. I remembered the value of silence when confronted with dueling inner voices. I remembered my experiences with meditation, and finding insight and answers when I allowed my crazy-busy mind to stop battling itself. I remembered the silence of Quaker Meetings I had attended in Seattle, New York and Switzerland: that place where I would sink into deep quiet. I said to myself: "Just listen!"

I closed my eyes and slowed my breath and put my feet on the ground and tightened my jacket and scarf and cap against the biting cold air, and sat, silencing my head, opening my heart, or some other organ of sense or intuition that I was now suddenly remembering as if returning from a long absence. A familiar state settled over me: sinking inward, a physical sensation of dropping like a stone into a deeper part of myself. It didn't take long for an answer to come. The answer was "trust." Trust that you came on this journey for a purpose; trust the source of the intuition or impulse that started you on this path; trust that God (I thought more in terms of God in those days than I do in these years of my life) sent you this idea and brought you this far and will continue to take you to the right place. Just don't lose faith in the calling you experienced!
Archway on Buda Hill   Photo: Will Rose 1989

It was suddenly easy. I was reconnected to a greater part of myself that wanted to trust and wanted to believe in the possibilities that might unfold if I persevered and relinquished needing to know how it would all work out. I went back to the train station and was eventually able to get a ticket for a train to Szeged leaving that evening. I stoked up on some food supplies and other things I felt I might need, including a Romanian language "Assimil" method book that I located in a bookstore -- in French -- so that I could study a little on the train and maybe learn a few phrases before.... whatever happened.

It was after dark when the train pulled out of the Budapest station, and much later when it pulled into Szeged. It might have been around 8:00pm or so. The station was virtually deserted. Thick fog hung in the air, the station lights shrouded and colorless. The air was frigid. Leaving the train, I wore my small backpack like a space-suit -- my one connection to life or hope.

In front of the station, a couple of idling taxi cabs emitted rising exhaust clouds. I approached the first one; the driver rolled his window halfway down and spoke to me in Hungarian. "Sprechen Sie deutsch?" I asked. It seemed a surer bet than English or French. But no, he shook his head. No French or English either; he grinned as I tried each one to no avail. How could I possibly explain what I was looking for, when I had so little idea myself? Then an idea hit me; I pulled my journal out of my bag and with my pen drew a square cross on a sheet of paper, held it up for him to see. His eyes lit up with understanding. "Ahhhh!" He jumped out, opened the door for me and I got into the welcome, tobacco-laden warmth of the interior. He drove me through downtown streets of which only hazy memories of wide boulevards lined with trees remain in my mind, and pulled up in front of a row of apartment buildings, and ushered me inside and up a flight of stairs. A heavy wooden door gave the name of the occupant, and underneath, on a small plaque, was the sign of the Red Cross and the words "International Committee of the Red Cross." The driver rang the bell.

He swiftly explained things to the older, kind-looking gentleman who answered the door. The man spoke either English or French; I was able to explain that I was looking for an aid organization that was helping to organize aid shipments to Romania. He knew exactly what I was talking about, and after a little more conversation and some good wishes, he gave the driver directions and we went back to the cab. I was driven across a bridge and out into an open, dreary-looking industrial area, lit by tall, dim lamps, up to a complex of warehouses and smaller buildings, and stopped in front of a small half-wide temporary structure with a generator and other equipment and vehicles around it. I had found my way: it was an outpost of Doctors of the World, an aid organization somewhat smaller and lesser known than Doctors without Borders; a rival organization, one might say. The driver dropped me off with what were clearly expressions of good will, and refused to take any money for the long trip he had given me. As I said, there was a spirit in the air at that time of solidarity with the people of Romania. For all I knew, the driver had family there, or Romanian ancestry; or was simply happy, as I was, in some small way to be part of the movement toward a better world that seemed at that time so palpable.

To be continued...

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