Our Borders: The Fork in the Road (1980)

“Ladies and gentlemen, please fasten your seatbelts!”

“To this day,” Radu Codrescu said in 2006, “I have a feeling of guilt every time I cross a border. Even when I go from the US to Canada—and I have Canadian citizenship—or come back here [to Redmond, Washington], I feel guilty of something. As if I were doing something wrong, something illegal. I have this feeling every time. It never changed, it never diminished. I have the same feeling of guilt as that first time when I left Romania behind. I was happy to leave [in 1990], but I felt like I was doing something illegal.”

***

“Ladies and gentlemen, please fasten your seatbelts!”

In September 1980, the Romanian rowing delegation to the Balkan Games in Ioannina, Greece was on board a plane flying from Athens back to Bucharest, Romania. Radu, 18, sat down in his seat and gaged by the tense faces of the State Security officers who had accompanied the forty-people rowing team on that trip that something was wrong. It wasn’t that Radu had helped the delegation earlier that day find their way to the airport buses using his unsanctioned knowledge of English, the language of the capitalist West, a language that Radu had learned mostly from watching American movies. As the plane began its taxing on the tarmac, Radu and everybody else noticed that the team doctor was missing. The doctor had fled.

Radu knew his parents would be disappointed to see him return home. His father had never openly encouraged him to leave, and neither did his mother—they never knew who was listening—but Radu’s mother had prepared a gift for a friend of hers who lived in Athens, and that was signal enough for Radu that she wanted him to reach out and not return home.

“I’d been thinking of leaving since ninth grade when the State Security contacted me, asking me to help defend the country against destabilizing elements. Their offer was to help me travel outside the country as an athlete, and in return, I was to help them spy on the people around me. (…) In those times, it was well-known that you couldn’t refuse such an offer because your life would’ve been made really hard if you did. So I said: “Yes, yes, no problem, I will contact you whenever I have any relevant information.” But I never had any relevant information for them and every time they contacted me, I told them that everything was great on my side of the front. For the first time, at fourteen, I realized with horror what type of system I was living in.”

By the time he arrived in Greece for the Balkan Games of 1980, Radu Codrescu had visited other countries, mostly socialist ones, and every one of them seemed to have a better flavor of communism than the one implemented in Romania. At home, Radu’s parents dreamed of a better life for their son and they were willing to face the repercussions of his fleeing: losing their jobs, endless hours of interrogations, invasive house searches, and even worse than that, since they had never been members of the Communist Party.

“My father would’ve been affected more than my mother, because of his heart disease. But, as long as he hadn’t told me to come back when I left, I knew that he would agree with my leaving the country. He was quiet when I left, he didn’t tell me that he couldn’t wait to see me again, and for me his silence was clear.”

Radu knew that his parents wanted him to flee. While he was in Greece, he struggled to make a decision. He could’ve contacted his mother’s friend, a Romanian-born Greek who had left the country during one of the windows of opportunity when Nicolae Ceauşescu’s regime allowed ancestry-related emigrations to neighboring countries in exchange for goods and services.

In the end, Radu didn’t contact his mother’s friend.

“I was afraid of one thing: that I didn’t know anything. I didn’t know what to do if I remained there. I knew English and a bit of French and even less German, not enough to get around with. I could have managed with the language, but I didn’t know anything else about life. First, I was still a child, I was barely eighteen, and I didn’t know what life was about, not that I now know better… Second, I had no job, I had no skills to make a living. I didn’t know where to go. I didn’t know what to do. I was completely disoriented. I knew I wanted to stay. I knew I didn’t want to go back to Romania, but I didn’t know what to do next, how to do it. I was lost. I had only finished high school. I had no money and no way of making money for a living or to put myself through school. I was not ready.”

There were going to be other chances, Radu assumed. He thought about his older brother who was hopeful that things would one day change for the better. Maybe his brother was right, maybe Radu was wrong to worry that they would both waste their lives waiting for change. But Radu wanted to be the change in his own life. He was restless. Ever since his encounter with the State Security four years before, Radu’s resolve to leave Romania had only grown stronger.

“Little by little, the information made sense, what you heard and what you saw had different meanings. Once you opened your eyes, there was no turning back.”

Radu had become aware that he lived in a rigged system that empowered a tiny elite, while everybody underneath scrambled for scraps and behaved cruelly to everybody outside their immediate tribe. It was a system designed to keep the masses busy with their survival needs and unable to protest their living conditions. People had no choice about what job to take or where to live. Shortages were manufactured so that once there was bread on the table, there was no toilet paper in the bathroom. People feared random arrests and didn’t know who to trust.

Our country’s borders were closed around us.

“There were so few, subjugating so many, with that system. And then, at lower levels, each person was his own or her own dictator. Even the woman selling you your bread ration treated you with disrespect, because she had something that you needed and you waited quietly in line for her to give it to you. Of course she was treated badly in return by her boss, or maybe they helped each other steal from the common good. The system was like a giant pyramid which grew thin very fast, as you climbed up.”

As the plane took off, it would be the last time for an entire decade that Radu crossed his country’s border without being shot at, drowning, beaten, betrayed or thrown in jail. Also, the last time he wavered.

Radu Codrescu, first on the left, rowing champion at 16

Radu Codrescu, first on the left, rowing champion at 16

Soon after Radu returned to Romania (to his parents’ disappointment), he received a letter asking him to make himself available for an interrogation at the State Security concerning the rowing team doctor who had fled in Athens.

“Being called to the State Security out of the blue is a terrible feeling. There were so many stories about that infamous State Security, stories about people going but never coming back, people being taken and returning years later, that I was very scared when I received that invitation.”

The investigators had determined that the rowing team doctor didn’t know English, and they suspected that Radu had helped him get around Athens since Radu was the only person on the team who could speak that foreign language. They kept asking Radu where the doctor went, what embassy he was planning to contact, whom he talked to. As they combed through Radu’s own file, they realized that he had never offered any relevant information on anybody until then, even though he had been an informant for years. Maybe that young man was not as dedicated to fighting destabilizing elements as he said he was.

That same year, Radu began his mandatory military service—a lighter version of it, since he was still an athlete training for international competitions. But he made the mistake of talking one day with a tourist girl from Duisburg, West Germany and not reporting it to the State Security. He fell in love with Renate Aneliese Naumann and forgot the protocol. He was taken in for questioning again. And when he had the bad luck of injuring his spine during training, Radu Codrescu was dismissed from the rowing team and was sent to do his military service for real.

“Greece had been a turning point in my life. I regretted so many times not taking the chance then, not grabbing what came to me on a plate, kicking that plate and everything on it, and choosing the worst possible life for myself for the next decade.”

Radu Codrescu spent two years in the army and almost froze to death one time, as punishment from his superior officer. He never lost his sense of humor and his determination to be in charge of his own life. In fact, the army only strengthened his resolve and toughened him up. As soon as he was discharged in 1982, Radu and a friend he knew from his rowing days decided to flee the country. They chose Orşova because they had heard that people who tried that spot never returned—and that was a good sign, they thought.

***

“Ladies and gentlemen, please fasten your seatbelts!”

Radu, his wife and sons

Radu, Alina and their two sons in 2013

On March 31, 2014, Radu Codrescu, 51, his wife, Alina, and their two young sons got on a plane and relocated to Bucharest, Romania. Radu’s ex-wife Laura and their 27-year old daughter still live in Washington State. During the last decade, Radu, together with a few of his friends, has built a successful Romanian-American business that now requires his full time and attention.

In November 2013, a couple of months after I started this blog series, I learned about Radu’s decision to move back to Romania— and I wasn’t surprised. But I asked him, why leave everything he has built in America behind? What pulled him back: his business, his family, his comfort with the language and the customs back home?

“My business,” Radu said. “And the place itself. I always loved the Romanian countryside, the smell of hay and cow manure, sheep and cheese, the dew in the grass, all of it together. Nothing is better and cleaner than that—at least not for me.”

NextAgeless Youth and Deathless Life (An Epilogue)

Previous: The Last Voyage (1993 CE)

Note: I met Radu Codrescu (name changed for privacy reasons) in 2001 in Redmond, Washington. In 2002, we sat down for a series of interviews about his past, and we continued our conversations in 2006 and in 2013. The series Our Borders is based on those interviews and on my own experience of growing up in Romania during the ’80s and the ’90s.

2 thoughts on “Our Borders: The Fork in the Road (1980)

    • And that’s exactly what my epilogue is about, the immigrant’s hard task to find a home anywhere else in the world. I’m so glad you pointed out this different angle to the story, Beth.

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