SCENE TEN: MINERS
My husband was born in Romania and passed his early years in Bucharest, a city known before the War as the “Paris of the East.” He remembered going to the park with his Nanny and playing soccer with friends while the Germans were occupying his world. Miraculously, he was left unharmed; he was even able to attend a private French Lycée for several years despite Fascist laws. His classmates experienced the same superficial safety.
But the war continued to rage and even the wonderful Lycée couldn’t explain to their students why teachers and friends disappeared and didn’t return to school the next day.
My husband, as a little boy dressed in shorts and knee socks, would then go to his bedroom terrace when he was alone and look out at the town square, worrying the same could happen to him.
My husband’s years as a young boy consisted of many fears. The Fascists in Romania set the groundwork for the Communists after the War and the Leftists didn’t allow any private school to exist at all. My husband’s beloved Lycée was closed and he and his friends were dispersed to other schools where they had to learn Russian.
Years later came escape to Paris and my husband was able to speak his beloved French. But not for long. English became another tool to survive and New York had to become home.
After his living 26 years in the new world, the iron curtain of 24 years was finally knocked down. That’s when I asked my husband if he’d like to visit Romania and show me the playground where he played soccer as a boy. I wanted so much to see the school where he learned to love Molière and Feydeau.
In the Spring of 1990, several months after Ceausescu was executed, my husband returned to Romania and shared with me a part of his life that he had kept secret even to his own self.
Luck was not with us when we arrived in Bucharest; my husband had a virus and high fever. He went to bed and translated for me how to say honey and tea in Romanian to the hotel’s telephone operator. As I was talking on the phone, I heard explosions and gun shots. I went to our window overlooking Calea Victorei, Bucharest’s Fifth Avenue, and saw hundreds of men marching six-abreast through the avenue. Their faces were smeared black with soot; they wore miners’ helmets and carried long sticks and heavy chains. They marched in synchronized lines, taking over the avenue, smashing store windows, knocking down anyone who came in their way. They even took pleasure urinating on street lamps and buildings.
“Let’s go outside and see this,” I yelled, excited.
“I’m sick,” my husband responded. “And this is not a game.”
“What an opportunity. I’ve never experienced a revolution.” I felt one day it would take its place in my memory chest and I would write about it.
We went outside into the night. It was pandemonium. The miners were yelling and screaming, swinging their chains at anyone who dared come too near. There was something about their primordial behavior that made me think of cavemen. I wanted to see more but smoke bombs cut our gait. We noticed there was a cement barrier on the other side of the street and several people were sitting on top of it. They were using it as a shield, sliding down to the safe side when smoke bombs came too near. An interesting strategy I thought. But to cross the avenue to join them was high risk. We took the chance and ran.
Sharing our protective shield were two Romanian students who were delighted to practice their English with us. My husband didn’t dare tell them he spoke Romanian.
He thought it best to avoid complicated explanations. The students were happy to interpret the revolutionary scene unfolding before us, and theorized that President Iliescu had staged the miners so he could stop them as easily as he had started them, and bring a calm to the city. He wanted to prove his governing skills. The Romanians have a flare for the theater. And the newly elected President was using the street for his stage. (Unknown at that time, Iliescu never envisioned that years later, he’d be tried in Romania’s criminal court for his theatrics.)
But the chains, gun shots and smoke bombs were not make-believe props. And not all the spectators were privy to the information our students were narrating to us like a Greek chorus. Yet, we were not sure if we could trust their analysis. In Romania, the truth is not always accurate and a lie is not necessarily an un-truth.
Whatever the staging was, the panic around us was real. Danger was everywhere – gun shots, smoke bombs, fire flares, windows smashed, blood on the streets. After a couple of hours of being in the middle of an uprising, we realized we had seen enough and we should leave. In addition, we were hungry. But it was after midnight and there were no restaurants opened. We returned to our hotel to find something to eat.
As we entered the barely lit dining room, Gypsy music resonated from the walls; emotions could be sensed in a loud roar. People were peeking out the window, standing and drinking, talking in languages from dozens of countries. Cameras and tape recorders were placed on tables next to bottles of wine and scotch. Cigarette smoke turned the room to a fog of war.
My husband asked for a table and before he could be refused, folded several dollar bills into the palm of the Maitre’d. We were rewarded in a second with a nod of the head, a whistle to a waiter, and a table placed on the stage next to Gypsy violinists.
As the crowd drank, the music became louder and louder. The violins seemed to synchronize with the gunshots and explosions until everyone inside our dining room didn’t know anymore where they were or what the morning would bring. Everyone was drunk so as not to think, and the Gypsy musicians played louder so no one would hear the screams in the street. Everyone felt this could be their last supper. They ate and drank as the musicians played louder and louder.
Seated next to the Gypsy musicians, I sensed in the room of foreign journalists, a collective fear masked by arrogance, a nervous excitement shrouded by risk. I wondered, do we dare stay? Should we return alone to our room or remain in a group, despite the unknown?
The good news is that by the end of the evening, my husband’s fever disappeared and I was able to put safely into my memory’s treasure chest the miners’ revolution as they smashed Lenin to pieces. I shared this scene with Mica as she escaped the miners at night, riding her beloved bike.