One of the things I’m most looking forward to about my Fulbright experience is the opportunity to immerse myself in the history and culture of Romania, a place I’ve never been and never really expected to visit.
I grew up during the Cold War: I was born on the day the Marines began the American offensive in Vietnam and I graduated from college the year the Berlin Wall fell and of the Romanian Revolution that ended with the execution of the Romanian dictator, Nicolae Ceausescu and his wife, Elena.
Traveling to Romania in my youth and then in the bleak post-Communist years, wasn’t something that came up at all in my mind.
This weekend, though, I started the process of getting to know Romania. The first thing I did was purchase a book on the language (it’s in the mail) as well as a recently-published book by Robert Kaplan called In Europe’s Shadow:Two Cold Wars and a Thirty-Year Journey Through Romania and Beyond (Random House, 2016). It was delivered on my doorstep today at around 3 pm and now, at 10 pm, I’m nearly halfway finished. I’ve gobbled it up, so to speak. I doubt the book covers much new historical ground, but as a popular history of Romania, I don’t think I could have found a better place to start. Kaplan is a travel writer who has immersed himself in history and intellectual history. He’ll quote from Isaiah Berlin and Hannah Arendt in one paragraph and then in the next tell a riveting story about meeting the nephew of Ceausescu. I knew enough about the horrors of communism in the Eastern bloc, but Kaplan puts Romania’s post WW2 history together in a concise and interesting way so that I got a deeper appreciation for the Romanian people and what they went through during the Cold War (which, of course, wasn’t cold for them).
Kaplan is also very good at excavating Romania history from the first century AD up to the present; that is, he’s not just focused on the Cold War, which he reminds us is just a blip on the historical radar of Romania. The upshot there, of course, is that much of Romania’s troubles (and Kaplan has some great maps that demonstrate the massive fluctuations in political boundaries in that part of the world over the course of the last 2000 years) were geographical in nature. That is, situated in the northeast corner of the Byzantium and then Ottoman Empires and then just east of the Hapsburg, this land area and the people who have lived there truly existed at the crossroads of civilizations, conflicts and power struggles. I did not realize, until I read Kaplan, the strong influence that the Ottomans (who are basically cultural and political descendants of the Greco-Roman world) has had in Romania. I told this to my son, a great lover of Greek civilization and myth, further whetting his appetite for our adventure.
And I’m only halfway finished with the book. More later.