by Elizabeth C. Hanink in January – February 2010 edition

Herta Müller notwithstanding, most Americans think very little about Romania. They know even less. Nadia Comaneci, the gypsies, and Count Dracula comprise the extent of most Americans’ familiarity. Yet there is so much more, and former Ambassador Jim Rosapepe and his wife, journalist Sheilah Kast, have gathered a collection of anecdotes to help explain Romania to us just as they once explained the U.S. to Romanians.

More than a travelogue but less than a full memoir, their book helps us understand a people who suffered terribly under a cruel family tyranny but who have resiliently emerged with hope for a better future. Historically, Romania has often been at the center of clashing empires: Roman, Greek, Austrian, Ottoman, Russian, and German. A popular proverb accounts for its survival: “The bent neck avoids the sword.”

Rosapepe, a Clinton appointee, served as U.S. ambassador to Romania from 1998 to 2001 — years that included the conflict in nearby Kosovo. This timeframe provides some of the best stories in the book. In the most recent Balkan dispute, despite being a longtime ally of the Serbs, Romania sided with NATO. As Prime Minister Emil Constantinescu said, “I saw the opportunity to fight this curse and to create a basis for a new type of behavior — that of decisions being taken in the first moment and consistently….” He later canceled the Russian use of Romanian airspace. When that nation acceded to Romanian wishes, it marked the first time Russia had observed her neigh­bor’s sovereignty. “I realized,” said Constantinescu, “how important it was to earn their respect. I learned that whenever you affirm your position, everybody will respect you.”

Rosapepe tells how, during the same interval, he fielded awkward questions from the press about NATO’s bombing of Yugoslavia and illustrates how reporters everywhere “play gotcha” when diplomats spin their stories. The truth gets caught somewhere in the middle.

Not all of the ambassador’s duties involved high political stakes. Much of the time, showing the flag sufficed, and the Romanian people made it easy to do so. Indeed, their hospitality is legendary. Travel, moreover, revealed a country dotted with historical reminders of changing borders, broken treaties, and invading armies. Count Dracula was the creation of an Irishman, Bram Stoker; but he based his character on a real-life prince, Vlad Tepes of Transylvania (since World War I, a part of Romania). Even the non-Slavic language, with its Latin roots, is a reminder of the Roman Empire.

One group with which the authors had friendly exchanges was the Orthodox clergy. The elaborate Easter rituals of the Eastern Church captured their Western imagination, though they noted that the Lenten fasts did not appear to be as strenuous as reported, at least not when the ambassador visited.

The ambassadorial couple, both Catholics, had a keen interest in church/state relations. During the communist era, a lamentable coziness existed between the two. Now, there is less quid pro quo. Still, even today, the state pays clergy salaries and for building maintenance; the Or­thodox Church is a national church, and it accepts the notion of the state’s higher authority.

The conflict between the Romanian Orthodox and Greek Catholics (Uniate) lingers. The memory of property confiscated by the Orthodox is hard to erase from the minds of Catholics, whose Church endured forty-odd years of totalitarian rule. Some rapprochement occurred during Rosapepe’s tenure, at the Vat­ican’s urging. In 1999, and after much diplomatic wrangling, Pope John Paul II even visited Bucharest, bypassing Transylvania where the Greek Catholic Church is centered. Today, Protestant congregations are increasing — mostly Baptist and Mennonite.

Romania has many minority groups; but to outsiders, at least, the nation lives in harmony. Hungarians are the largest minority; yet despite a separate language, they share fully in national life. Political disputes remain peaceful enough, and holdovers from the communist era must run for election like everyone else. There are few Jews, a grim reminder of the treacheries of World War II. At the time of Rosapepe’s stay, some 700 Jewish cemeteries remained in Romanian towns without a single Jew.

No book about Romania can overlook the legacy of its orphanages, and the ambassadorial couple realize this, if grudgingly. Orphanages did abound, and they were dismal places — places in which AIDS was widespread. The authors focus on the international help, which has lessened the suffering, and remind us that the general standard of living under dictator Nicolae Ceausescu was abysmal. In fact, many children of the orphanages were not without parents. Rather, their parents simply could not care for them. Yet in one of the oddest assertions of the book, the authors hold Ceausescu responsible for the full orphanages because he denied access to contraception and abortion. How this squares with the profound religious belief these same authors insist most Romanians possess remains, at best, problematic. Surely, Orthodoxy means more than sumptuous liturgies and painted monasteries.

For Rosapepe and Kast, the orphanages highlight a characteristic of the Romanian people that the authors found to be true: the old bent neck — that is, a profound passivity in the face of state oppression. Still, that explanation provides another likely answer to the question of how Romania “survived” communism — namely, some of her people did and some did not.

One role the ambassador relished was paving the way for international exchanges and alliances. Now that Ceausescu’s mad industrialization has ended, Dracula is once more dead. The nightmare over, Romania is growing into a technological pow­er. Its investment in education (always widespread) is paying off. The country’s turn toward democracy, albeit imperfect, has earned it a place in the European Union. All this is a delight to Rosapepe and Kast, and hence their book. They want you to enjoy the country too, and perhaps you can. Understand, though, that there is much more to the story.