THE BLOG
10/18/2014 03:53 pm ET Updated Dec 18, 2014

Romania: A Sad Country Full of Humor

Constanta, the Romanian city on the Black Sea coast, is perhaps best known for being the place of Ovid's exile in the first century AD when it was known as the Roman port of Tomis. The poet, having fallen afoul of Emperor Augustus for some mysterious offense, found himself at age 50 on the edge of the Roman Empire in a place where no one spoke Latin. This was no doubt a sad country for Ovid, a poet of sly good humor judging from his famous Art of Love. When I visited Constanta last year, I paid my respects to Ovid's statue, which stands outside the history and archaeology museum in a square full of rubble from construction projects in various stages of non-completion.

Also in front of Ovid's statue, I met up with Mircea Tuglea, a writer, translator, literary critic, and teacher who lives with his family in Constanta. We spent a good part of the day together, as he discoursed on various sad topics but always with a joke or ironic aside thrown in to lighten things up. At the end of our conversation, he quoted the Romanian poet George Bacovia's apercu that Romania is a sad country, but one full of humor. Anyone who has seen an Ionesco play or the film 12:08 East of Bucharest can testify to the truth of Bacovia's insight.

Tuglea was 15-years-old when the revolution broke out in 1989. His father, an officer in the army, warned him not to go outside and certainly not to travel to Bucharest. But he was a teenager. He went outside. And with several of his friends, he traveled from his hometown in eastern Romania to Bucharest.

"We heard and saw on television about Ceausescu's escape and about the revolution," he told me over lunch at a dockside seafood restaurant in Constanta. "Well, we were very excited, in a kind of stupid way, so together with a group of my friends we went by train and in a few hours we were in Bucharest to 'defend' the revolution and 'help' the Army. But, of course, we had no weapons to 'defend' anything. Many other people got weapons and started to shoot each other. There were probably a lot of collateral casualties as a result of this situation of fully loaded weapons in the hands of very young people, without military training, who tried to 'help' the Army and to defend our 'revolution.' Fortunately, we weren't killed, and we didn't kill anybody."

His experience of 1989 and its aftermath led him to conclude that the revolution was really a non-revolution. "December 1989 was a big set-up," he said in response to my questions about all the enduring mysteries of that period. "That's why nobody is really interested in clearing up the mysteries. This set-up was in fact a coup d'état in order to get rid of Ceausescu and install a new power, a neo-Communist one. And that's why nobody can tell, 20 years after, what really happened."

We talked about his work on two of the most well known Romanian writers: Paul Celan and Emil Cioran. He provided me a brief tour of contemporary Romanian cultural figures like Herta Muller and Paul Goma. He explained why Romania didn't experience an explosion of suppressed samizdat literature after 1989.

But in the end, as we turned to eat our ciorba, the Romanian soup we'd ordered, the talk returned to politics. "Most people are tired of waiting, tired of elections," he said. "We have lower and lower rates of participation in elections because the general feeling is that all the politicians are the same. Liberals, Social Democrats, mixed together, are the same. They're all in the same ciorba, as we say in Romanian: the same soup."

"But can the soup be changed?" I asked.

"The obvious answer is that ciorba can be changed only by eating it," he concluded. "That means it can be changed only when this generation has grown up. But what we will put in its place? With the ever lower states of consciousness about ourselves and about life, culture and civilization, it's most likely that the new generation will not be able to put in place anything besides our traditionally known humor."

The Interview

Tell me why you went to Bucharest in December 1989 when you were only 15-years-old.

I was living at that time in a small town, Tecuci, in the eastern part of Romania. We heard and saw on television about Ceausescu's escape and about the revolution. Well, we were very excited, in a kind of stupid way, so together with a group of my friends we went by train and in a few hours we were in Bucharest to "defend" the revolution and "help" the Army. But, of course, we had no weapons to "defend" anything. Many other people got weapons and started to shoot each other. There were probably a lot of collateral casualties as a result of this situation of fully loaded weapons in the hands of very young people, without military training, who tried to "help" the Army and to defend our "revolution." Fortunately, we weren't killed, and we didn't kill anybody.

Fortunately you didn't get any weapons.

Yes. But we were feeling very frightened. And enthusiastic -- like I said, probably in a very stupid way. Those were the feelings for the first days and weeks after December 1989. Then it was a very big disappointment once this enthusiasm was gone. Once all the conflicts began, we were very far from the enthusiasm of the first days.

When you first arrived in Bucharest with your group of friends, where did you go?

We went by foot because the streets in Bucharest were full of people, and we followed one of the groups to the Piata Romana. And then to University Square. We spent one night there: in Piata Romana and in University Square: a night without sleeping, eating very little, and drinking water given to us by people on the street.. It was a very mild winter, with no snow and the temperature above zero.. The weather was with us, the Army was with us, the gods were with us: everything was with us. In fact, nobody was with us, as we learned later.

Did you see anything when you were there that was surprising to you?

Many people were actually drunk. One of them was with us in our group on the train. He followed us to Piata Romana. He had a big bottle of wine. We drank a little, but he was drunk already, and continued to drink all night. At a certain moment he became very sad and started to cry. He told us he was going to the other side of the square to shoot at the terrorists. But, of course, like all of us, he had no weapons. He went to the other side together with his bottle and then we didn't see him again. He didn't come back. He probably fell asleep somewhere.

There were also many street poets. They composed a lot of political slogans. The only one I remember is "Ceausescu and Lenuta: your boat has sunk: Ceausescu si Lenuta / vi s-a rasturnat barcuta." Lenuta was the diminutive for Elena, the wife of Ceausescu. It rhymes in Romanian. At the very end, there was a very sympathetic understanding between the Army and the people on the street. The army said they were with us, and everyone tried to help the soldiers by giving them bread, cigarettes, water, and so on. And the Army soldiers said: "Yeah, now we're gonna kill some terrorists..." Of course they didn't kill any...

What I didn't like in those days was the so-called "trial" of the dictator, of Ceausescu. It was not a trial, but simply a murder. And it was all done on Christmas Day, a day that's too symbolic to be chosen for a trial day. The whole trial was completed in a single day, along with the execution. Even at that moment, it was clear to me that it wasn't right. It couldn't be right. And it was clear to many people that the trial was done in a hurry without respecting any juridical principles. During the trial, the prosecutor said that 60,000 people were killed in December 1989. But in fact, during those days only a little more than 1,000 people were killed. There's a huge difference between these numbers. Of course, it wasn't a question of numbers to determine that it was a mass murder, but for a fair trial it's always a question of numbers.

Another thing that was annoying during the trial: we couldn't see the whole thing on television. It was simply cut. Only a few days later, some people from French television got the whole tape and broadcast it. So the whole trial was first seen on French television, not on Romanian television. And that says a lot about the freedom of expression and liberty here at the beginning of the so-called Romanian democracy.

When you were in Bucharest did you see any violence? Was there any shooting while you were there?

To read the rest of the interview, click here.