Daniel Negreanu’s Romania Now vs. My Romania Then
Daniel Negreanu played in a big poker tournament last week, which was on the Eureka Poker Tour.
Such a occurrence normally wouldn’t be anything out of the ordinary. This is especially true for Daniel — who travels all over the world playing poker and speaking out as the game’s premier ambassador. The news from Europe probably wouldn’t have caught my attention at all, except for one rather significant fact.
The poker tournament was held in Bucharest, Romania — a fascinating city where Daniel and I share some common bonds and a very different set of roots. I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to say that, in contrasting ways, Romania was and shall always be an impressionable part of our lives. To some degree, that faraway place in Eastern Europe made us into what we are today.
While Daniel was visiting Bucharest, Romania’s capital, he posted a few photos on Twitter. Those snapshots brought back some fond memories. They reminded me not just of key moments in my life, but reminded me also at some of the sites visited by Daniel, where I used to work and live, also helped to shape the modern nation of Romania as it stands now. It’s pretty amazing to me that Bucharest is hosting an international poker tournament. I’m still trying to adjust to that, given how different my experiences were in the county all those years ago.
Of course, Daniel was actually born in Canada, and is still closely associated by most of us with being from Toronto. But his parents were first-generation Romanian immigrants. I suppose Daniel really has allegiances to three different countries — Romania (his ethnic heritage), Canada (his birthplace), and now the United States (where he now lives). Daniel became an official U.S. citizen earlier this year.
Romania will also always be a special place to me. That’s because I lived and worked in Romania during 1989-1991, which included the era before, during, and after the bloody revolution, which overthrew Communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, who was shot by a firing squad on Christmas Day 1989. I’ve written in considerable detail about some of those past experiences, and still have several memories to share with readers. I’ll get to that later on.
Looking back now, many years later, that spring of 1990 was probably the happiest time of my life. During the six months right after the revolution, I watched as a new nation was born, witnessed history unfold firsthand, worked in the foreign service for the U.S. State Department, and even ended up meeting my wife — the lovely Marieta. We recently celebrated our 25th wedding anniversary. Hey, that’s what you call “running good,” not in poker, but in LIFE.
Much of Romania’s future, and my own, was shaped within a few square blocks of the city known as University Square, located in central Bucharest, which — coincidentally — is where Daniel stayed and later posted a remarkable photograph which was shot from his hotel window. Here’s his photograph:
Look at the vibrant colors! This magnificent view is certainly much different from the way I remember it during revolutionary times, and the aftermath.
Allow me to explain.
The Intercontinental Hotel has a remarkable story, which bears telling. It was constructed in 1967 at a time when Nicolae Ceausescu had just come to power after rising steadily within the PCR. Initially, he was considered by many Western observers to be the “maverick communist” of the East Bloc. He openly defied the Soviet Union. He stood with Czechoslovakia when that nation tried in vein to break away from Soviet domination. Ceausescu was also a gold reformer who initially brought Western investment to the country, which included the construction of a world-class hotel affiliated with a prestigious international chain. When it opened, the hotel instantly became the tallest building in the city.
By the time I arrived in Bucharest some three decades later, in 1989, which was my very first foreign post, the country and the political situation had deteriorated quite badly. Romania had become a hard-core Stalinist state of the worst, most oppressive kind, which a massive internal state security network, constant food shortages, and cramped apartments that were freezing in the winter and sweltering in the summer. It’s hard to convey what living among a constant state of paranoia is like. Everyone feared everyone else, because your neighbor might be a possible informer. The movements of all foreigners were tracked, including diplomats and what few business people still worked in Romania, which was falling apart and nearly bankrupt because of crushing debts to the IMF. Our conversations were recorded. We were tailed constantly. My apartment, which was supplied by the government, was bugged. Every room. The telephone was tapped. How did we live like that? You just got used to it.
The Intercontinental Hotel played an interesting role in all this madness. The entire top floor of the 27-story structure was normally a luxury promenade, with a splendid city view on every side. However, Ceausescu’s Securitate seized the top floor as its private eye in the sky and installed high-powered cameras and sound recording devices beaming down on key buildings in the city. Down below, just two blocks away was the American Embassy. The entire American compound could be observed constantly 24/7 by surveillance perched atop the Intercontinental. Sound detection devices were aimed into every window (they could hear every word, due to the tiny vibration in the glass, when voices spoken inside a closed room). Again, you just got used to it.
Everything that happened inside the hotel was also monitored by Securitate. Foreign business people and dignitaries were always put up there, always first-class. But there was a serious trade off. They were watched constantly. The rooms were all bugged. That’s just the way life was in Romania during the Ceasescu regime. It was like something out of Orwell. All that information that was gathered ended up in files somewhere, with espionage agents trying every way to wield pressure on targets, hoping to get information, or in some cases, get the contact to “turn.”
After the revolution, which happened in December 1989, the Intercontinental changed. It became a sort of triage unit and command central. With Romania’s political and economic situation pretty much in chaos, the area in and around the hotel became ground zero for protesters, diplomatic engagements, and even a few riots. The hotel suffered badly during this time. When it snowed or rained, people trampled mud right though the lobby. Everyone in Romania smoked. Even if you didn’t smoke, well — you smoked because everyone around you was puffing away. Gypsy beggars patrolled the hallways, knocking on doors, begging for hard currency. They even used crippled children. Money changers hustled anyone who looked non-Romanian, hoping to trade the local currency for dollars or pounds or francs or marks. It began to look like a refugee camp. It was a horrible place. I usually tried to avoid the Intercontinental. Even the restaurant had a feel to it that was uneasy — like you were living in some John le Carre spy novel.
Yet behind this mask of confusion and the faces of desperation was a beautiful place fostered by a proud people who deserved much better and were determined to begin anew. Accordingly, the front of the Intercontinental became Bucharest’s town hall in a fragile but emerging democracy.
Here’s Daniel walking into the newly-renovated Intercontinental Hotel in Bucharest, sometime last week. It certainly looks much cleaner and nicer than how I remember it 26 years ago.
What follows are several photographs, all taken in the Spring of 1990. Many were taken in the area right out in front of the Intercontinental Hotel. Unfortunately, time has not been good to all the photos, some of which faded over the years. Each photo tells a story, and I’ll do my best to convey what I can remember.
Below is probably the most memorable photo I have ever taken. Here’s the backstory: Keep in mind that prior to the revolution, the Romanian Army were considered (by those of us working for the United States) to be the enemy. They were on the opposite side of the Cold War, alongside regimes like the Soviet Union and East Germany.
Of course, the longer I lived in Romania, I came to realize the people there are just like us, even the military personnel. In fact, I became friends with quite a few Army personnel, against American Embassy policy.
Just a few days after the revolution, after the war in the streets had ended and thousands had died, I was walking through the square and snapped this photo. Just a few weeks earlier, this never would have happened. We were not even allowed to film or photograph anything to do with the military, and had I done so my camera would have been confiscated.
Now, the Romanian Army officer is beaming with a smile. This was the first sign I had that Romania post 1990 would not be like it was before.
That same day, I went up to some Romanian Army personnel and got to tour a tank. When they heard I was American, they all wanted to hang out. They most common question I was asked was — could I get good liquor and what kind of music did I have? As someone who was 27 at the time, and hanging out with people my own age, we just developed an instant bond.
Here’s a shot of me with troops in the Romanian Army, right after the revolution. Unfortunately, the photo has deteriorated over the years, but the magic is still there in our faces.
Back to the Intercontinental Hotel in Bucharest. This is how it looked sometime before the Romanian Revolution. Note the top floor which is completely sealed off from the public. That’s where Securitate cameras recorded our every move.
Sometime in March 1990, the daily political protests started (which turned violent in June of that year). During the peaceful period I shot this photo of a local Romanian boy, who was there to watch and observe. To think — he’s probably in his 30’s now. The imposing Intercontinental is there in the background. I love this picture. That’s a face full of hope.
By the way, for long stretches of time, we couldn’t buy color film in Romania. This was before digital cameras and smartphones were around. Back then, you had to load film into a camera, and you had perhaps 24 or 36 shots (many of which wouldn’t turn out very well). So, many of my photos are either of poor quality or they were in black and white, because that was the only film sold on the market, and I still had to get it off the Black Market, since film wasn’t sold in stores.
Recall the photo above of Daniel Negreanu pulling his suitcase into the front entrance to the Intercontinental. It looked quite different 26 years ago. Here’s the front area in the midst of protests.
By the way, that’s Marieta Dalla in the photo, right after I met her. We had been dating perhaps a month when this photo was taken. She’s with a Romanian friend of ours, named Ion. I love this photograph, too.
As I said, Marieta and I met in Bucharest. We had a mist unusual courtship phase. We didn’t date all that much in a conventional sense. Instead, each day at about 4 pm we agreed to meet at University Square, right in front of the Intercontinental Hotel. Our dates consisted of going to the local protests and hanging out with the crowd. It was a sort of Eastern European version of Woodstock, which lasted for nearly three months.
So now, perhaps you can see why this place has so many wonderful memories for both me and Marieta.
The photo that was taken where Daniel was looking out his hotel window includes an older Parisian-style building off to the right, which is part of the university. From that picture, you can see what it looks like today. Here it is back in 1990. Note the speakers would come out to the balcony and speak to the crowd. Every kind of speaker you can imagine got up there at one point. There were some real crazies that took to the balcony. At times, it was like a circus. You never knew what the next act would be.
The crowds were always huge. They numbered several thousand every single afternoon. The crowds got so big that at one point, thousands of brutish coal miners were trucked in from the Carpathians, dispatched to the scene, and bolted violently though the crowd with baseball bats, swinging away while cracking skulls. Some even whirled stick with nails in the end, hoping to inflict maximum pain and disfigurement. The protests turned tragically violent by the summertime, which was entirely the fault of the provisional government, who had to call upon a bunch of Neanderthal coal miners who were duped into killing off the only progressive voices in Romanian society. This was a travesty.
The protests were always peaceful. If there was such a thing as the Summer of Love, this was Romania’s “Spring of Love.” In Romania, this period was known as the GOLANIAD, which took its name from criticism by the transitional government, who called the protesters (including me, I suppose) “hoodlums.” Golan means “hoodlum” in Romanian.
Another snapshot of the crowd I took, just days before the peaceful protests were ruthlessly crushed, and ended.
About a 10-minute walk due north from the Intercontinental Hotel is the site where the Romanian Revolution was ignited (aside from the preceding events in Timisoara), when dictator Nicolae Ceausescu made his final ill-advised (some might say suicidal) speech from the grand balcony there in the rear behind me, in December 1989.
I’ve written about the astounding scene that took place in that eventful day, when the massive crowd gathered in the square was so fed up they stormed the Communist Party Central Committee Building (shown here), which caused Ceausescu to flee the capital in a helicopter that lifted off from the roof and nearly crashed because it was overloaded, as the masses were swarming the front of the castle.
It was a storybook revolution. Unfortunately, the next six months would ultimately reveal that Romania still had a long way to go to shed its oppressive history.
Note: Thanks to Daniel Negreanu for posting his photos and allowing me to use them, which allowed me to reminisce about the past.