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Published: June 10th 2017
Geo: 44.4479, 26.0979
One week after finishing up this year's frequently hectic teaching schedule, I left Boston on Friday evening, June 17, losing seven hours in flights, through DeGaulle to Bucharest, Romania, my first stop in Eastern Europe. We arrived around 2PM Bucharest time, and I quickly removed layers of clothing and socks -- necessary for the freezing airplanes -- to greet the 93F temps outside the chilly airport. Gorgeous weather, beautiful city! As soon as I could drop my luggage off and change into cooler clothing I went out exploring the area, even though we were staying in a hotel several miles outside the city center, braving the heat and walking down to one of the largest parks in Europe, Herastrau Park. Lovely Herastrau Lake was busy with pleasure boats; I saw many people enjoying their weekend hours by spending time here with their families.
The effects of communism on Romania can still be felt and seen, even though it's been 26 1/2 years since they've become a democratic country. The old and the new intermingle in Bucharest. Wide, tree-lined streets, many large parks, blooming roses, and city buses greet you everywhere; parts of the city look similar to many other Western European cities, but here there are many buildings from the communist era that have not been restored, and, legally, will never be reclaimed, as a reminder to the people of what can -- and did-- happen not so very long ago. Thus, there are blocks of buildings in various stages of deconstruction alternating with modern buildings, the old nestled next to and among the new. It is an interesting historical juxtaposition. I was surprised by the dour faces, the stern expressions, the challenging coldness in people's eyes; all belie the freedoms that the Romanian population now enjoys: the freedom to be warm and well-fed, the freedom to gather in groups larger than five people (this was very difficult for large families before as they were split up into smaller groups of five persons or fewer), the freedom to get passports and travel to other countries, the freedom to find jobs outside of Romania. This country suffered under the dictator Nicolae Ceausescu; it is hard to recover from basically being inmates in an open prison. Even today if you smile at people they do not return your smile; they are suspicious. Why are you smiling? What is your reason for smiling? Young women do wear jeans, but they also wear the kind of old-fashioned blouses I remember grown-up ladies wearing in the 1950s. Older women still wear all black, plus shawls or babushkas. They can look old at 40, or even 30. Many people smoke (as do many Western Europeans), taking their pleasure where they can find it. This is a beautiful country, but there's still a very long way to go to reach a full recovery from their decades living under communism.
On Sunday, a man named Egmond spoke with us, telling of his experiences in December, 1989. He was 15 years old at the time; he is one of the young people at the top of the iconic photo of Bucharest being taken back by the people, overthrowing Ceausescu and his iron-fisted reign on December 21, 1989. Egmond told us of how many bullets the communists had stockpiled, almost one per person, for killing each and every man, woman, and child. He told us of the privations the people suffered, the lack of heat for houses in winter, the tiny rooms they were alloted, the lack of food; plus he spoke of how they used spent bullet shell casings as whistles to round up the others in their gangs, to meet up and storm against Ceausescu and his government. Egmond showed us a Romanian flag with a hole cut in the center, the communist part of the flag excised, cut out that day. He showed us where he was injured by a flying bullet, and told us of his best friend's being killed, shot to death standing right beside Egmond. We walked around Revolution Square, seeing the bullet holes in the buildings and church, left as reminders for the next generations. I wondered at the rather strange monument that commemorates this painful birth of democracy, and then we moved on, mirroring what history always does. Nothing stands still.
I would have liked to have stayed longer in lovely Bucharest, to meet and talk with more of the people, to learn how they feel about their country now, what they think about life in their freedom in the 21st century. But we were moving on to see other parts of Romania, travelling east through hours and acres of productive agricultural expanses, to Constanta, on the lip of the Black Sea.
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