"YOU," SHOUTS THE RUSSIAN--BARE-CHESTED and reeking of wine--to the Romanian truck driver in battered overalls. "You are undisciplined and stupid. Your truck blocks all the traffic."
"You drunken sod," the Romanian shouts back, his hands flailing about in search of a screwdriver. "I'll cut your stuffing out, for how you robbed my country for 40 years."
We're on a congested highway by a lifted drawbridge across the Siret River. Other bare-chested Russians jump out of their tourist bus. A crowd of Romanians forms, grabbing sticks, pipes, crank handles. "You bled our country dry!" their shout swells. A pipe catches a Russian smack across the shoulder blades, drawing blood. In the midst of the buffeting crowd, my Californian wife and I are taking photographs. She is scared, while I feel an ancestral, frightening upsurge of self-righteous anger--against the Russians, any Russians, even these tipsy vacationers who should know better than to act arrogant in a former Soviet colony. I wonder how I can feel this after 18 years of absence, after becoming, for all practical purposes, an acculturated American.
The two sides are ready to kill each other. Luckily, someone in the crowd figures out that my wife and I are Americans, creating a diversion that cools off both sides. Romanians surround us, spewing stories about what Russians are doing to Romanians on the other side of the border, in Moldova. The Russians flash photogenic V signs and climb back into their bus. The rural police finally appear just as the bridge is lowered at last and opened to traffic.
In the car, as we drive off, my wife is still shaking. I passionately take the Romanians' side and watch her eyes darken: Am I like these people--vindictive, self-righteous and ready to go off like an unpinned grenade? Well, I am and I'm not. I was raised in Romania. I absorbed a tradition of distrust and hate bred by countless Russian occupations. Now, with communism gone, nationalism is spreading like a brush fire. If economic conditions don't improve, all of Eastern Europe, from Zagreb to Kiev, might become a giant Northern Ireland.
The thought grips my heart. I'm proud of everyone's will to be themselves, yet appalled by their need to hate. Suddenly, I don't know whether to defend these people or condemn them. I wish I could be one of them by enjoying their art and heritage, without having to share their pain and shame. But that is impossible.
Such has been the zigzag of my emotions during the first three days of my visit. I left Romania in 1974, a defector, an enemy of the people, a traitor. Today, I am received like a prodigal son, praised for my writing achievement in America, urged to be a spokesman for a forsaken homeland. Since the minute I returned, I've been torn between pain and joy, pride and embarrassment.
WE ARE ON OUR WAY to Nicoresti, to a hospital with an infantile neuropsychiatry section for "irrecoverable" orphans, the rejects of the Nicolae Ceausescu era. By banning abortions in 1968 to build up Romania's population, the late dictator forced generations of women into coat-hanger abortions, causing some mothers to die and others to abandon children they could not support. Many infants survived, crippled or brain-damaged. The survivors, about 125,000 altogether, were shut away in orphanages for irrecoverables. Forgotten and starved, they slept four to a bed and were looked after by untrained peasant women who filled in as nurses. My wife and I are active in a U.S.-based charity that raises money for the orphans (the Free Romania Foundation, started in Massachusetts in 1989 by architect Ion Berindei), which is why we are en route to Nicoresti.
We travel past lushly green countryside. Men in undershirts drive horse carts with cows tied behind them; garbage burns in fields separating six-story apartment buildings topped with peasant-style shingled roofs. These are the model villages erected by Ceausescu for peasants uprooted from real villages, sometimes centuries old, that have been razed for his freeways and factories. On the shoulders of those freeways, peasants walk barefoot. The sense of isolation is overpowering. And yet, as we just witnessed, these boondocks have learned of the world. They're not going to be ignored by the world--not this time.