February 16, 2011

Between Bucharest and Cairo... freedom

"Mr. Leamas! Go back, please! To your own side, Mr. Leamas!" ["The Spy Who Came In From the Cold"]
Romania, 1971
Freedom is a fundamental human yearning, and yet it is often as banal as the tyranny it displaced. Recent developments in the Middle East have stirred some old memories of travel behind the Iron Curtain.
On a visit to Romania in the early 1980s, I met our old friends Millie and Otto in their modest apartment, just as I remembered it, with starched lace doilies draped over most of the surfaces. Millie showed off the double stainless steel sink which a surreptitious plumber had installed in their kitchen. (My family had smuggled it in atop our camper some years earlier, inverted to look like an air-conditioning unit. It was transferred to the trunk of Millie & Otto's Dacia sedan in a lightning operation, behind a stand of thick evergreens on the side of a highway, while my big brother and I kept a lookout for... Big Brother.) 
Later, Millie served us classic stuffed peppers, with a special dessert of sliced pineapple. At my hotel the next morning, I feasted on pineapple juice and pineapple chunks. I figured out that a freighter must have arrived from Cuba, bearing pineapples, since Romania was still fairly isolated except for the purer Marxist-Leninist revolutions (Cuba and China yes, Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia no).
Millie took me to the Bucharest ticket center to book the rest of my trip, a ticket out which Millie and Otto could never hope for themselves. The processing seemed more involved than acquiring a driver's license (which I had accomplished a few months earlier before departing the United States). I noticed that most of the same people who completed their purchases would return a short while later with a box of chocolates or some other favor for their respective ticket clerks. Hardly a bribe by Western standards, but a decent box of chocolates was a rare luxury in those days.

Speaking of luxuries, Millie asked if I would do one thing for her. The Intercontinental Hotel (which seemed a bit smaller and seedier than when I'd first visited as a five-year-old) had a dollar store, exclusively for foreigners, and there they sold Pond's Cream, and just one jar would mean so much to Millie, who had so little in this life and had suffered as much as anyone else under Nicolae Ceausescu and his predecessors. I led her into the second-floor boutique, and as we approached the counter she recoiled in disappointment and pulled me back. She saw that the jars were priced at some ridiculous amount in lei, which translated into... one dollar. One. Dollar. 
After stepping out to the lobby, I explained that for Americans, one dollar is nothing, and my whole visit was meant to enhance Millie and Otto's existence. We could not spirit them to freedom, but I could at least provide her some Pond's Cream (along with the electric mixer I'd smuggled in the day before -- but that's another story). A sale was made, but only one jar.
On my own, I visited the U.S. Embassy, because I was approaching my 18th birthday and needed to register for the draft ("online" was not yet a word). I showed my U.S. Passport to a Romanian out front, who waved me through with a flourish (he probably would have reported me to the police had I been a Romanian coming to use the American library). 
Inside, a Marine almost as young as I was asked me my business there. When I told him, he responded: "WHAT draft??" I explained there was no longer a draft, but there was still a requirement to be registered... just in case. The confused staff found one college intern who had himself recently registered, and on one of the few electric typewriters in the Socialist Republic of Romania, my form was completed, my obligation fulfilled.
By Saturday night, I was ready to get on with my journey. While waiting for my train to leave for Bulgaria and then Greece, for a boat to Israel, I was leaning out the window alongside a local station hand. After a few nods back and forth, I was offered a stick of chewing gum. In the middle of this vestige of neo-Stalinist conformity, the brand name on the wrapper read "Broadway". Status is status. But before the train got rolling, my new friend had stepped back off into his own captive society. 
The following year, Millie got special permission to visit her cousins on Mount Carmel for one month. The only condition was that she never apply to leave again. It was great to see her basking in Israel's relative freedom, affection, and convenience. A few years after that, Millie's sister wrote to inform us that Millie and Otto had each taken ill, in separate hospitals, and each had succumbed without learning of the other's fate. 
There are so many stories to tell, and the longest I spent behind that fence was one long summer, as a little boy. Just before starting college, I had this one last chance to wade in and then step out again. Each prison and persecution may be unique, but freedom is shared and universal. The human spirit is in each of us. Those of us fortunate enough to live the dream have little business pointing fingers and judging the rights of others.

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