At the Nicoresti hospital, the orphans' section has 90 beds for 130 patients, one doctor and four nurses per shift. Dr. Nicolae Preda has been here for 36 years. He is aided by six volunteers from Ireland, and there are American volunteers en route. "You don't know what this place was a year ago," Preda tells us. But the volunteers accuse him of being one of the old ones , not corrupt but incompetent, letting medicines from the West outlast their expiration dates in the storage room (we looked at the labels ourselves). We had been told that the orphans--starved for food, toys and love--might act hostile, might hit us or spit on us. In fact, they hugged us desperately, drooled all over us, fought each other for a caress or a piece of candy. New to crayons and drawing paper, they destroyed half of those we brought before being shown how to use them. Our visit was their fairy tale, to draw upon for months, until other visitors showed up.
We were accompanied by Dana Nistor, a coordinator for the Free Romania Foundation and a respected figure of the Romanian bar. She told us that the foundation encounters immense difficulties. "Ceausescu wanted these kids to die. We saved them, but now it is incredibly hard to align the attitudes of the Romanians here with the ones abroad, though both want to help. For instance, our official license to operate in Romania as a U.S. foundation should have been signed by the Romanian government months ago. Whether it's bureaucracy or suspicion, it still hasn't been signed."
"And yet," says Kevin, a 21-year-old Irishman hugging a little boy with a clubfoot, "it's getting better. I'm here for three months, then I have to go back to Dublin. But I'll return soon, for a whole year."
What makes him want to return? The village offers no entertainment; the food is coarse and unvaried; the shower facilities are archaic. What draws him back is that his presence makes a big difference. Back in Los Angeles, we had met Christine Nelson, another coordinator for the foundation, who puts in hour after hour of volunteer work while holding down a regular job. Her motivation was the same: "\o7 Any \f7 little gesture makes a difference. Which can be uniquely uplifting."
Two days after visiting Nicoresti, we raised the question of the unsigned license with Romanian's prime minister, Petre Roman (who resigned a month later, when miners and hooligans dressed as miners protested his free-market policies). Roman promised his cooperation and made a chilling point: "Have you seen the village kids, across the street from the hospital? The healthy ones? They look as deprived, malnourished, slowed down in their development as those clubfooted, cross-eyed little orphans."
IN BUCHAREST, WE FOUND the scars of the revolution still being repaired. When I left, it was a relatively clean and orderly metropolis of 3 million in a darkly dignified dictatorship. But during his last 10 years, Ceausescu spent almost nothing on retooling and refurbishing the country while he wasted billions on Pharaonic projects such as his Casa Poporului (the People's House), an administrative tower with more office space than the Pentagon. The People's House is hideous, confused, vaguely neoclassic; unoccupied, it faces an unfinished boulevard broader and longer than the Champs Elysees.
North of the city, like a bluish wave frozen by a magician's touch, loom the Carpathians. When the sun sets, a romantic glow transfigures the countryside, surrounding the city with memories of heroes, leaders who fought the Turks, patriot writers whose example I was supposed to follow. I left all that at the height of success, the most popular young novelist in Romania, roasted in the party press for a book called "Burial of the Vine." In it, I had described the case of a young man, expelled from the party, who found haven and a part-time job in a Jewish cemetery, where a philosophical old body washer taught him about the transitory nature of politics. For that extravagant vision, official reviewers accused me in print of blaspheming the party and privately of "making the Jews better than us"--a major gaffe for a non-Jewish writer. "Burial of the Vine" came after three other novels, each of which attempted to break a taboo. I was translated into Czech and Polish, German and Swedish, interviewed at an early age by Look magazine, and read avidly, especially by the young. Yet every book of mine was published with 50-odd pages missing, the result of long fights with the censors.
So I defected, leaving my language, my audience, my self, to write, in almost physical pain, books in English.