I’ve been thinking about Romania lately. Almost thirty years ago now, I lived there for an academic year with the man who’s now my husband; Don had a Fulbright fellowship to teach American Literature at the University of Bucharest. I’d lived abroad once before, in England, but I was unprepared for the hardship and disorder in that recently liberated country. Only a year and a half before, the Romanian people had overthrown their monomaniacal, brutal dictator, Nicolae Ceauşescu. He had impoverished the country, destroyed the livelihood of or imprisoned or poisoned or killed anyone he saw as an enemy, shredded the social fabric of the culture by sowing mistrust and disinformation. He demolished a large part of old Bucharest and starved and froze the population to build his massive, gaudy “People’s House,” a testament to his narcissism.
After the revolution, when we arrived, the country was struggling to regroup and to form something like a democracy. Without access to the embassy commissary, we bought groceries where everyone else did, and I remember how, because of so many shortages, people would stop you on the street if you were carrying home toilet paper, or oranges, or fresh fish. Where did you buy it? How long ago? Lines would form as people rushed to get whatever they could, based on word of mouth. Only a week after we got there, we heard that miners from the Jiu Valley with a history of violence were coming to the city to air their grievances as part of a strike. We stood beneath large trees in the dark and watched as government tanks rolled down the broad pedestrian avenue of Tineretului Park, near our apartment block, staging in preparation for the miners’ arrival. The next day, the Embassy contacted all the Fulbrighters and told us to stay inside until further notice.
The parallels to this moment are not exact. The history of Romania even in the one year we were there is so very much more complicated than I’ve outlined above. But in the last weeks I’ve had flashbacks to that time, as we dash here and there and make endless phone calls to an overwhelmed state hotline and send emails to whoever we can think of in the hopes of getting an elusive vaccine shot, as we watch the nation’s capital and all state capitals prepare for violence on Inauguration Day from those who are hostile toward anyone who smacks of being an intellectual or a liberal or an elite, as we await the departure of a would-be dictator who cares only for himself and the monuments to his grandiose sense of self.
In Bucharest, I had the comfort of a credit card with a $1500 limit, enough to buy a one-way airplane ticket home if things got too bad. Secure in my late-twentieth-century smugness and early thirties optimism, I thought that in the U.S.A. civilization was ascendant, civil rights were solved, and I’d never see shortages, riots, or aspirational fascists in my country. I see now that I was naïve, that just as Bucharest, once known as “the Paris of the East,” could be so diminished, so could we, if we don’t open our eyes and face the discordant music of this time.
As I’ve worked on writing this, the momentum of rhetoric keeps trying to take me to a statement of political uplift and a call to action. But for this poet, at this moment, that feels premature. What feels true is what I know about writers and artists: that we are the noticers, the trained observers. We are able to see the one telling detail that will make something come alive for others, to convey a human truth. Artists and writers open themselves to everything, serving as a kind of filtration system for society, often feeling more than is comfortable and thinking more than is easy. We stand for beauty when things are ugly, and for meaning when so much seems meaningless. Whatever else you may choose to do in these strange times, I am sure of this: if you create something, then you are part of the ongoing remaking of the world, a bulwark against destructive forces, and that matters.
|With Don and some of his students 1991-92 school year, Bucharest. |
(I now regret the frumpiness of that mint-green dress, but I had never packed for Romania before and thought it would be versatile and washable.)
|The view from our apartment in December.|
|Parcul Tineretului, Bucharest|