We traveled all over Romania. Jim visited all forty counties, most of them more than once, and Sheilah went to some spots that Jim did not. We saw more of Romania and of Romanians—from the mines to the software labs, from the monasteries to the hospitals—than most foreigners and even many Romanians have. Because of Jim’s political experience, we conducted town meetings in villages and cities that had never seen a U.S. ambassador. We invited ordinary Romanians to our house—the Ambassador’s Residence— by the thousands. When the Romanian American Enterprise Fund (RAEF) asked us to host a dinner for its board, we upped the ante and suggested inviting all the Romanian small business owners to whom they had made loans. That night, our backyard was filled with Romanian entrepreneurs.

Working with the U.S. Consulate, we threw going-away parties for Romanian students who decided to study in the U.S.—with a pitch to come back to Romania, where we saw so much opportunity for them. And we hosted a backyard barbeque for hundreds of credit union managers from all over Romania—mostly women—who had kept the credit union system alive for working people during the Communist years and were now working with the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) to modernize their organizations. Jim loved visiting factories and hiking across farms. (Sheilah was less entranced by the chicken-rendering plants). In every town we visited, we tried to meet with all American citizens, to hear their concerns and their insights into Romania. On New Year’s Day, we threw an open house for all American citizens in Romania, partly for fun and partly to meet more of them so we could learn about their experiences. Why did we spend so much time with Americans around the country— people like Romanian-Americans who had returned to retire or to start small businesses, Peace Corps volunteers teaching high school English, or church and charitable workers helping orphans and the disabled? Weren’t we supposed to be talking with Romanians and other diplomats? We did that, of course, but Jim’s fundamental view was that he worked for Americans—they paid his salary, just as Maryland taxpayers now pay his state senate salary. They had the right to talk with the U.S. ambassador, so his policy was to see every U.S. citizen who asked for a meeting. And, more broadly, Americans living in, and even visiting, Romania were a valuable source of information and insight for the Embassy. They could help us see through the blur of living as public officials in a nice neighborhood in the nation’s capital. We tried to minimize the filter. Jim was guarded by a security detail for only about a month of his tenure. He drove himself around Bucharest and its suburbs whenever possible, much to the astonishment of Romanians and Americans alike. And Sheilah often traveled on her own, either in her own used car or by train. Nonetheless, Romanians knew who we were and that we represented the U.S. government. That didn’t always elicit the most candid conversations. Ordinary American citizens, on the other hand, lived all over Romania—in villages and small towns, as well as in Bucharest. They had no diplomatic license plates on their cars, and worked and played with Romanians as people, not as government officials. Thus, they knew and understood things about Romania that were not obvious to those of us in the capital’s diplomatic bubble. And they evaluated what they learned through their American eyes and American values.

{…} Because we traveled so much around Romania, and because we know the country is much more diverse than Bucharest, we’ve organized the book around our travels. After the three introductory chapters, Chapter 4 starts in Bucharest—”the Paris of the East,” as it was called between the wars.

Then, in Chapter 5 we move to communities around Bucharest, north to Lake Snagov and south to a Gypsy village and the Boy Scouts. We celebrate Christmas in the stunning Transylvanian Alps, which have formed the most important border in Romania’s history.

In Chapter 6, starting at Peleş Castle in the mountains, we meet King Michael, the “good king” who overthrew a fascist dictator at age twenty-two and remains involved in his country as he approaches age ninety.

On the other side of the mountains, in Chapter 7, is Transylvania, the home of Dracula, Romania’s large Hungarian minority and much more.

In Chapter 8 we head south again, to Wallachia, the historical heart of Romania south of the mountains. This includes Oltenia, where residents like to compare themselves to Texans.

Chapter 9 takes us to the northern edge of Romania—Maramureş, home of the Merry Cemetery and birthplace of Holocaust witness Elie Wiesel.

We go east in Chapter 10 to Bucovina and Moldavia, which border Ukraine and Moldova, the latter a country which used to be part of the Soviet Union and, before that, part of Romania.

Chapter 11 takes us south again to Dobrogea, to the Danube River and the Black Sea, sometimes called Romania’s only good neighbor— besides Serbia.

Chapter 12 is called “Back to Europe” because the Banat and Crişana, the regions that border Hungary and Serbia on Romania’s western edge, are the most physically, culturally, and economically integrated into Europe. Europe being Europe, isolationism is not an option for Romanians.

Chapter 13 explains what it’s like “living in the Balkans, in the shadow of the Kremlin.”

Finally, Chapter 14 pulls it all together. Just twenty years after the fall of Communism, why does Romania work? The book is a series of vignettes—what we heard, what we learned, what we thought.

Like all Americans, we were fascinated by the stories of the Communist period—what didn’t work, but also what did; why and how people left Romania during those forty-two years, and why other people stayed, even those who could have left; and how some people remember those years with horror, while others have more mixed memories.