Yesterday afternoon, while I was happily minding my own business in an intelligently-hidden park at this weather-forsaken piece of land, some random excuse of an old stranger decided to crash my tea party. And not just some random stranger at that, but possibly the most absorbing and magnetic personality I have come across thus far in this city.
The park was not short of oak benches but the old stranger decided, perhaps stirred by a sense of deep-rooted cultural communal etiquette, to share my bench. Out of politeness – and habit – I glanced over and dispensed a smile and said “Hi!”
We started exchanging meaningless remarks; about the weather, who we are, what we do and so forth. Throughout this initial banter, I noted two very important things that will determine the rest of the course of this encounter: this Romanian came to the park empty handed, while I held a book in my hand; and he spoke with a stentorian subtleness in an accent that made anything uttered by this old man felt like cotton buds in my ears. Ok, maybe not.
But that’s when it dawned on me that this Ionel – his name was called – was eager to return in kind and dispense on me a glut of oral prescription. It was verbal diarrhoea unleashed, with class. And so I decided to tuck the bookmark in between the pages and put aside my book. As he revealed with nostalgic pride that he was one of the hundreds of architects who built the People’s Palace in Bucharest, I can’t help but discerned a hint of shame seeping through his porous disposition and made a mental note. “The Palace of the People is seven times the Palace of Versailles,” Ionel started.
I nodded on the outset but my mind was trying to recall if I’ve read anywhere before on the size or enormity of Versailles. My memory had none.
Ionel nudged me and continued, “And you know the Pentagon? USA? The Palace is the second largest government building in the world after Pentagon,” he declared in meek pride.
I soon learned from him that this “Palace” – which was more like a civic centre – was commissioned during a dark period in the communist past of Romania’s history between the 1970’s and 1980’s, by its former communist president. During his rule, the construction of this Palace scarred Romania deeply in terms of her people and the landscape. Forced labours were used during its construction and deaths at the construction site were a common daily occurrence. And large sections of Bucharest city was cleared – numerous churches demolished and thousands of people displaced literally overnight – to pave way for its construction. Eventually, there was a revolution and the president and his wife was executed; his communist party finally overthrown.
After listening to his story, I finally understood the hint of shame he briefly displayed earlier. My neck began to ache as my head was turned to the left – listening to him – for a very long time. I switched across to the bench opposite and said, “So it’s kind of like a modern day building of the pyramids.”
“Yes, yes. Like the pyramids,” Ionel agreed. “But the pyramids are a pride for Egyptians and a wonder to the world,” he pointed out.
“But not the Palace?” I tried to conclude.
He briefly scratched his eyebrow as if the gesture would soften the gravity of his admission. “No, not really.” I kept still and silent and allowed him to continue.
“Not to my generation. More so the younger people today. You see, they are proud of the Palace and see it as a symbol of Romania democracy today,” he said in an empathetic tone.
“But to your generation, it is a symbol and a reminder of your country’s gruesome communist past,” I stated, not asked.
“Yes, yes. Most of them won’t remember the day when the Palace was completed, it used more electricity in three hours than all the two million people in the city used in one day.”
“Wow! No way,” I was in disbelief. “That must have taxed the people a lot, especially during those days.”
“It was ridiculous! Sometimes when the president would fly over the city in his heli, streets below where he flew had to be closed and emptied of people,” he waved his hand in disgust.
And the recollections went on. He would continue to describe the terrible state of affairs in those days and how he’d secretly take pictures of what he saw; where people queued for hours in the cold of winter for meat to be cooked at communal halls, queuing up for cheese, eggs and sugar, where people scrounged for sugar coupons rationed at 1 kilogram a month, or a church literally being moved to accommodate new communist flats, or even men lining up for gas cylinders that never showed up. I got really intrigued on what he meant by “secretly” taking pictures but decided not to interrupt his trip down memory lane then.
He suddenly smiled and his eyes seemed to look right through me when he mentioned about the gas cylinders. “What were they used for? These gas cylinders,” I asked quickly.
“Used for laughing!” and as if to reinforce his statement, he guffawed.
I just smiled and chuckled lightly and waited for him to continue. “Those days, the president’s wife, she enforced LPG on buses, claiming to save fuel,” he scoffed. “They put those long cylinder tanks on top of the buses. Make it look like spaceship but they were always empty. And men had to sometimes push the buses around.”
I laughed out loudly this time to his last remark. It was unbelievable. And as the conversation went on a little further, I began to piece together that Ionel seemed to have some sort of a military background or ties. I decided to risk the question and to my amazement but not surprise, he did. And here is where it got really interesting.
Apparently, his uncle was married to the daughter of a very prominent public figure; a TV and radio producer back in those days, who was showing hints of antipathy towards the regime in his work and was slowly gathering some popular opinion from the public. He would sometimes not comply with the government in what was allowed to be aired through his station.
“My uncle who was part of the securitate, was involved in a foreign counter-intelligence operation,” Ionel elaborated.
“Securitate?” I asked about this unfamiliar term.
“The secret police,” Ionel explained sternly.
I nodded and he continued, “One day, he and his team found an information leak that led back to his wife’s father. They found out this man was actually a defector. A traitor and a fugitive from a neighbouring country.”
“So was he revealed?” I inquired.
“No, no. Too sensitive. At that time, the politics and economy was very stressed. The party would not risk it. So the securitate was instructed to handle it differently. First, they confirmed his identity from Bulgaria. When they got the governmental communique through, this man was gas.”
“So the Bulgarian communique obviously came through? Did it do the job then?”
“Totally, yes. He was condemned as a defector of the state and was accused of treason in the strongest terms.”
“Did that finished him?” I asked.
“It weakened his public status very much. There were few people who accepted his stories of the party now. Yes, he was revealed as a liar. And even worse, yes, he was caught at it.”
“Caught at it, yes,” I said thoughtfully and mimicked his affirmative response unconsciously. “So merely to be sneaky is to be sly and that may be commendable, while to be caught is to be stupid and that is never commendable.”
“Then he was no longer a problem?”
“The securitate could never be too sure of that one. At that time, they thought he may recover. He still had his station and his supporters. History shows us examples of men who have come back after disasters even such as this one.”
I suddenly lit up to his simple but often taken for granted dose of wisdom there. “So they didn’t try to execute him?”
Ionel shook his head. “That would be bad policy. They did not want to create a martyr or to make themselves appear to be dictator.” At that, Ionel made a mocking laugh and I joined in.
I smiled approvingly. “But you would think that since the president is already a dictator, he would just proceed to execute him anyway on grounds that leaders in the past before him would have taken forceful action anyway and were admired as a result and considered to be of strong and decisive character.”
“True, yes. But we lived in troubled times back then. Execution was not needed. The party wanted to achieve their purpose in a way that will still make them seem tolerant and reasonable.”
I briefly shuffled my feet uneasily at the thought of those words. At this point, I couldn’t be sure if Ionel was actually proud of what they tried to do or resented what they had achieved. Maybe it was both; the unconscious doublespeak employed by Ionel wasn’t exactly lost on me – as I realised later when I did my own finding – from the strong Soviet ties the communist regime had at that time.
Ionel raved on oblivious to my thoughts. “If we executed the man, the people would see it like revenge. And maybe they would think it was dishonourable. But the securitate was ordered to always create a show for the people that the president has a kind – even fatherly kind – of reputation to the people. No favouritism.”
“So what action was taken then? What are you trying to say?” I asked with credulity.
“What I’m saying is that this man offended the sensibilities of Bulgaria and as the president, he was shocked at his crimes against the state. So what better can he do but to hand this traitor back to the Bulgarians and let them deal with him? Like this, the president would be commended on his proper management of foreign relations and keeping the state of peace in that region.”
“I see. So did the Bulgarians execute him?”
“They would, yes. Treason was capital punishment then I think, so yes. Or at best he will be in prison for life.”
“This president was quite smart. He got the credit for tolerance and mercy and Bulgaria got to do the dirty work for him,” I quipped with eagerness.
“That would be the case, yes, if he was handed over to them. But you still don’t see, no?” he jibed at me.
“What do you mean? He wasn’t?” I furrowed and creased my brow intently with confusion.
“If he was handed over to them, they will still create a martyr of the man.”
“Now you confused me. So what actually happened then?”
“I heard the securitate gave him a choice. They told him that the president’s concern for the welfare of his men and his people pushed him to hand the traitor over to Bulgaria for trial but his humanity was afraid that his – the traitor’s – government may be too severe.”
I suddenly understood the psychological underhand that was being played here and cut in, “Like pleading to his compassionate side, his gratitude?”
“Gratitude, yes,” Ionel nodded. “So the president offered him a different way out; exile to a different place where he claimed to have come from – not Bulgaria – to live there forever in confinement, low-profile and peace. And he ordered securitate forces to keep him under house arrest.”
“And he really took exile?”
“Yes. If he didn’t, he would be committing suicide by going back to Bulgaria. And my uncle told me this man wasn’t the suicide type. He would choose exile as the only logical way out, although maybe not so heroic. Because he will become like refugee, and a refugee could not lead any movement against the party. His followers will become lost and disenfranchised.”
“Why would that happen?”
“Because people would follow a martyr like fanatics. But people won’t follow a coward. Very difficult,” he explained with a grin.
“All those people knew what they were doing. It’s a very, very good story,” I said. And now that finally his story was over, I still couldn’t shake off the splinter of thought in my head regarding his earlier comment of how he “secretly” took pictures in the street at that time.
“Ionel, I have something to ask. You said earlier that you secretly took photos of what was happening at that time. How were you allowed to do it? Wouldn’t a communist state ban such an open act of freedom and expression?” I asked.
He laughed, and briefly scratched his eyebrow again. “Easy, boy. I was doing part-time photography for sports news. So I had permit to carry my camera.”
“Wow! No wonder. You were committing your very own crimes against the state under their very noses,” I exclaimed. “But that was just the means – a very good one – of how you achieved it. But how did you bring yourself to do it? Wasn’t it risky and dangerous?”
“Just understand the policemen’s psychology. Their mind, very strange,” he joked. “If you were scared, they will know. And they will be aggressive. I was not afraid, did not show it. And they were not aggressive with me. Confidence. Don’t hide if you don’t want to get caught.”
I laughed vehemently with agreement and said, “A lie that isn’t ashamed of itself could only possibly hope to succeed.” He shook my hand at that.
I mentally thanked George Orwell as I wrapped up my conversation and walked away from another very interesting encounter. Definitely a better story by far than the book I was reading.