My Drunken Party With Romanian Army Officers
Writer’s Note: Today marks the 26th anniversary of the Romanian Revolution. Continuing with a series of articles from my time spent stationed at the United States Embassy in Bucharest, Romania from 1989-1900, what follows is a post-revolution story which occurred a few months after the fall of dictator Nicolea Ceausescu and the end of Communism in Eastern Europe. READ PREVIOUS EXCERPTS HERE
I’m not proud of what happened on the frigid night of February 25th, 1990.
My story’s embarrassing. Humiliating, even.
But looking back, any regrets I now have would seem spurious Only fond memories remain. Come to think of it, I wouldn’t change a thing.
That winter night was spent drinking Russian vodka, telling endless and often pointless stories, laughing our asses off, and listening to Metallica cassettes cranked to an ear-splitting volume powerful enough to pulsate the window panes. The unplanned social gathering that just kinda’ morphed from a couple of bored friends hanging out on a snowy night with nothing to else do proved a harbinger of something bigger, and for those who were there, far more meaningful in our lives. A drunken party — yes. An unforeseen ambassadorial exercise in diplomatic relations that changed perceptions and helped to thaw out a small piece of the Cold War — absolutely.
Diplomacy is a contradiction of nuances. Nations might not see eye to eye, but out on the streets and face to face, people typically transcend the artificial boundaries of borders and partisan prejudices of ideology.
Romania’s violent revolution leaving thousands dead and calls for mass retribution had ended just two months earlier. Still, the country was in a worse mess than before, under the Communists. It’s currency, the leu had collapsed. The government had essentially disbanded. Hardliners from the old Ceausescu regime clashed with pro-democracy demonstrators insisting on reforms. Labor in many parts of the country, including miners critical to the nation’s energy supply and keeping warm in the winter, went on strike. Caught in the middle was the Romanian Army — leaderless and confused.
The Army was everywhere. Presumably kept out in the public eye to maintain order and prevent chaos, soldiers paraded up and down the streets. Tanks were stationed out in front of government buildings. Bucharest, Romania’s capitol, wasn’t just an armed camp. It was virtual police state.
During the Ceausescu regime (1966-1989), all American Embassy personnel (including myself) were confined to a strict official policy handed down by the United States Government called “non-fraternization.”
We weren’t permitted to fraternize with normal Romanian citizens. This meant no friendships away from work. No social engagements were allowed. And certainly, dating was absolutely forbidden. This created a fishbowl existence among the members of the Western diplomatic corps. Everyone at various embassies in and around the capitol got to know each other very quickly, and quite well indeed, given those were the limitations of our social interaction.
However, once the revolution blew up the old ways of doing things, some of us began openly questioning U.S. State Department policy. It seemed only a short matter of time until the Bureau of Diplomatic Security would come to its senses, recognize the world was a rapidly changing place, and the archaic Cold War restrictions of “non-fraternization” would be lifted once and for all.
Fuck, was I wrong.
Main State preached constantly to us that “nothing had changed.” That commandment still echoes in my ears. I can’t even begin to count the number of lackeys at the embassy who not only followed the rules to the letter (which was understandable — as career diplomats), but really believed restrictions were still necessary. All across Eastern Europe walls had toppled down. Citizens had stormed the castles. Reforms were happening daily. And here was the State Department still stuck in the McCarthy-era mindset of the mid-1950’s, failing to recognize the changes within our midst.
One immediately senses some of the roots of my anti-authoritarianism and non-conformity stem from these frustrations of 26 years ago. By the way, it took two more years to finally lift the U.S. Government’s “non-fraternization” policy. Two years!
But before the policy changed, I decided to do things my own way, and take what I’d call a more “pragmatic” course of action.
I’m proud that I did.
I’m glad that I did.
Bucharest wasn’t a big diplomatic post — not like London, or Paris, or Moscow. By European standards, it was small. This was at least in part due to Bucharest being one of the least desirable places to be stationed abroad, since daily life was far harsher here, especially during Ceausescu’s rule.
As foreign diplomats we were monitored constantly. Our homes and phones were bugged. Everything we did was watched, heard, and recorded. Trust me, those are some freaky conditions to live under, day-to-day. You might think constant surveillance bothers you. But strangely, after a while, it’s just something we all got used to. One figures the spiritless civil servants listening to everything that went on inside our apartments were just as bored with it all as we were.
The situation would improve somewhat after the revolution. However, the diplomats sill operated under severe limitations, mostly imposed by our own governments. As for fun things to do around the city, well, Bucharest didn’t have much of anything right immediately the revolution — except for a few restaurants and bars scattered around town which were hit and miss. Even the finest restaurants were prone to shortages of just about everything. Menus were pretty much non-existent. You just asked the waiter what they had that night, and ordered it. I dropped 30 pounds while living in Romania.
It’s hard to imagine the bizarre scene I’m about to describe. But it was the typical night in Bucharest, a city of more than 2 million people during the winter of 1990:
There were two television stations, which were virtually unwatchable. Both networks had been state-operated instruments of pure propaganda (much of it hilarious, if you were a foreigner). It also went to a test pattern around midnight. So, television was out so far as entertainment goes.
Movie cinemas were surprisingly common, and often packed inside. Trouble was, everyone smoked, so you could barely see the movie screen. Tickets cost the equivalent of 35 cents to get in. All the movies were at least a decade old, sometimes even from the 1950’s and 1960’s. The 1969 American film “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” played as the feature movie for several weeks straight at the biggest theater in town, on Buluvardul Magheru. I think I saw it three times. French films were also popular, and I saw them all (with Romanian subtitles). So were Italian movies (which almost didn’t need Romanian subtitles, since the languages are close cousins). I think my deep love for foreign movies blossomed in Romania, and still sticks with me to this day.
Bucharest had a remarkably vibrant art and culture scene, especially given the challenging circumstances. Plays were plentiful on a variety of different subjects (always in Romanian, of course). I saw a number of top-notch plays by extraordinary actors, and I always sat in the best seat in the house, one of he perks of having western currency in a society where dollars were widely coveted. But my language capabilities weren’t proficient enough to always understand what was going on upon the stage. Again, one of the things I learned in Romania was a profound sense of appreciation for people (particularly immigrants) who struggle with a language not their own. I sat in many dark Bucharest theaters, desperately trying to make sense of what was going on. It wasn’t easy. In fact, at times, it was very frustrating.
Empathy is sometimes taught in the strangest of ways.
Note: The long setup wasn’t intentional. I promised everyone a story about getting drunk with Romanian Army officers late one night. That will have to wait until Part 2, coming up tomorrow.