Monday, December 3, 2007

Human spirit lives on in Romania

Published December 2, 2007

CONSTANTA, Romania — Villagers whispered rumors that the secret police were on their way to arrest their priest.

He had, after all, preached against the Communist dictator Nicolai Ceausescu, who did not tolerate dissent in the 1967-89 years he held this impoverished country in his iron control.

Villageers ran; gathering one by one, holding hands in a circle around their beloved priest’s home — defiantly remaining as the secret police arrived and began firing on them.

Some villagers ran to the factories where they toiled, grabbing guns kept there, and firing back at the police, who soon retreated without the outspoken cleric.

In the next days, that small 1989 uprising encouraged the downtrodden population to overthrow Ceausescu.

After a two-hour trial on Christmas day, 1989, the oafish peasant who turned on his own people was executed by firing squad, as was his wife, Elena.

Our charming 25- year old guide, Christian, saved that electrifying history for our two-hour bus ride back from Bucharest, the capital, where we spent the day before returning to the coastal city of Constanta.

We are touring Balkan countries with ports on the Black Sea. Our ship, the Nautica, is part of Oceania Cruises.

The quality of a guide is everything. A competent guide makes any trip — and Christian was the best.

A crime punishable by death was the mere act of listening to the Voice of America on the radio.

“We listened anyway. That is the only way we knew what was going on in the rest of the world,” Christian said.

“VOA gave us hope.” When he said that, I felt even more proud of America.

A network of informers working for the secret police, turning countryman against countryman, chipped away the societal structure, because no one knew who, if anyone, to trust.

“I never really, really understood what it was like to live under Communism, until I heard Christian,” one of our shipmates said, shaking his head in disbelief.

Christian told us of sporadic electricity only two to three hours a day, near-starvation subsistence with less than a kilo of meat allotted per person per month, no heat in winter — while watching a lavish parliament building constructed for, some say, $1 billion as Ceausescu’s showpiece.

The ultimate irony, since Ceausescu was not any parliament, ran Romania.

Bucharest, once called the “Paris of the East” is a shadow of its former self, because everything is very run down.

But real class never fades, and despite everything, the Communists couldn’t entirely obliterate the elegance and charm that once was.

For me, the highlight was the Patriarchal Church, with arches of darkly painted murals.

“In the end, our clergy were the only ones we trusted,” Christian said.

We were treated to folk dancing while lunching in a local restaurant. Musicians play an instrument much like a bagpipe.

We also toured the Village Museum in Herastrau Park, a collection of 300 buildings moved from regions throughout Romania to exemplify rural architecture.

Rolling past acres of yellow sunflowers, amid tiny well-kept homes, I thought how Romania, like many countries that survived dictatorships, is a testament to the indestructability of the human spirit.

That truth, crushed to earth, will rise again.

Have a travel question? Contact Janice.Law(at)

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