“I consider myself lucky. Not like the people who made it through an entire war, where any minute a bullet could’ve ended their life—but lucky. I went through terrible things in my life, I saw terrible things, I heard of terrible things, but I didn’t change much. I became wiser, a tiny bit wiser, not a lot. But I didn’t become a monster and I still have compassion for all the people around me.”
– Radu Codrescu, 2006 (translated from Romanian).
When I first met Radu Codrescu (name changed for privacy reasons) in 2001 in Redmond, Washington, he was an accomplished software developer at Microsoft and a competitive rower with the US Rowing team. A friend of mine told me that Radu had been in jail, back in Romania, for trying to flee the country during Nicolae Ceauşescu’s dictatorship. That he had risked his life, again and again, trying to break through the closed borders of our native country.
I didn’t start interviewing Radu because I wanted to document the crimes of the communist regime in Romania. No. I wanted to hear Radu’s story because it’s a real thriller of a story, packed with all the great storytelling elements—thresholds, allies, enemies, ordeals, failure and success—a story that had really happened to the man sitting opposite me in his living room in Redmond, a microphone clipped to his shirt, a glass of red wine on the table in front of him.
After I began writing Radu’s story for this blog last year, I realized that his struggles wouldn’t mean much to a global reader without a picture of what he was struggling against. I didn’t want to rehash decades of documented injustice in Romania and Eastern Europe. So I tried to remember my childhood during those years, but my memories are out-of-focus pictures of good times, when I didn’t comprehend how hard life was for the grownups around me, who had no real choice about their life. I was a child and children make the best out of everything. Using my own past as background for Radu’s harrowing adventures changed the way I now think about memory and perspective. Working on this series changed the way I now think about history and storytelling.
I’m grateful to Radu for letting me learn from him what life could be like, and for allowing me to take his history and fashion it into story.
As for you, the reader, I hope that reading on will be worth your time.
The forest there reached close to the waterline and the river was wide, but smooth as a lake. Scores of people had crossed through there—the story went—and the lack of news thereafter was good news. That meant that they had made it to the free world and wouldn’t contact their relatives back in the country in order to protect them from Romanian authorities… [Read More]
They were afraid of being heard, being seen or spotted on the radars. They waited in the dark and figured out the moving patterns of the vessels. The boats covered long distances, always in pairs, moving toward each other and passing each other. They waited and slipped through right after the boats moved away from each other. The dolphins followed… [Read More]
They didn’t know where they were, no shore, no light to guide them. The brine was cold, but not too cold on that August night, and it kept them afloat even though they had no lifejackets. Their muscles were weak from not standing up for days, their sense of direction gone inside the rollercoaster of that storm… [Read More]
On the third day, the Romanian and the Bulgarian authorities reached a compromise: they were going to meet at the border, in Vama Veche, and make the exchange. A major and a lieutenant from the Romanian border patrol forces in Mangalia were waiting for them… [Read More]
During the day, a handful of officers came to see the prisoners to their beds. They came close, checking their wounds, touching their swollen bodies. They asked the prisoners how they felt, but the men couldn’t answer. Their mouths were swollen shut, their throats crushed, their lungs barely took in air. The officers looked worried… [Read More]
When Radu Codrescu (name changed for privacy reasons), the protagonist of Our Borders, told me what he had seen at Orşova in 1982, he was a little concerned that people would not believe his story. Michael Domnitei, who himself had done time for trying to flee Romania in the ‘80s, and who managed to cross the border in 1984, has kept all these years a newspaper clip… [Read More]
There were problems with that escape plan. One was that, if caught, they would’ve added another five years to their sentences. Another was that they didn’t have extra clothes to wear after they jumped out of the mixers. In fact, the matter of clean clothes became a huge problem even besides their jailbreak ideas… [Read More]
The forced labor there wasn’t mixing cement or building vegetable boxes, but cutting reed in the marshes along the Danube. Harvesting reed required making platforms out of intertwined stems to step on. If someone took a wrong step and fell through, the reed stems reshuffled and closed over his head in a matter of seconds… [Read More]
I remember the ground vibrating as the plate of hot metal advanced on the conveyor belt. I remember the red sparks dancing high up in the air, I remember the jets of water hissing and cooling the metal down as the steel was squeezed between two huge pressing rolls and thinned. I remember the gigantic roll of steel moving up and away. And everything was big. And everything was loud… [Read More]
If they succeeded, they were going to head to Austria. The Hungarians didn’t guard their frontier with Austria the same way they did with their Romanian side. They focused on checkpoints, and they didn’t shoot at people, the way the Romanians did… [Read More]
Yesterday, the protagonist of my series Our Borders asked me to change his name on this website, for privacy reasons. It seemed like an easy thing to do, just Replace All in each of the ten blog posts I have written so far (including the comments), and I’d be done. An hour’s worth of work on my website—tops… [Read More]
That afternoon, Vali found me on the field and showed me what he was holding in his gloved hand. It was a small brown mouse, its head trapped between Vali’s thumb and index finger. The poor thing was shaking and squirming. Vali held his hand up to me, and squeezed until the mouse became still… [Read More]
That book showed me a new (old?) history that bore little resemblance to what I had known about the past. It was a beautiful book though, with pictures in oval frames of kings and queens and ministers and industrialists—all good people who used to be bad people in the old History textbook… [Read More]
But by 1992, the German people had had enough with the immigrants and the asylum seekers. The whole country was dealing with a schism between the eastern and western regions that was deeper and harder to bridge than anybody had thought before. Tensions were high, scapegoating easy… [Read More]
They followed the guard to a container that transported four bulletproof military vehicles, two on top of the other two, to Edmonton, Canada. After the guard locked the door and sealed it, the three Romanians settled into that big, cold steel room. They had everything they needed… [Read More]
Up on the deck, at the end of the boarding plank, a crew member guarded the only way to get on board that ship. Around him, contractors with walkie-talkies coordinated the cranes that lifted and stacked the containers, while workers secured the cargo in place with wire rope… [Read More]
The average January temperature for Montréal is 16ºF (-9ºC) and the weather forecast usually mentions the wind chill factor (what it feels like to the unprotected skin due to the cold wind) and how many minutes it is safe to be outside before unprotected skin starts freezing. Temperatures drop even more at night… [Read More]
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… [Read More]
“We’ve made it here,” the horse said, “but we have one more trial before the end of our journey. Beyond this field, there stands the palace of ageless youth and deathless life. But the palace is surrounded by a large forest, tall and thick, where savage beasts dwell. They never sleep at night and they never tire of watching the palace. There’s no way of defeating them, so we won’t even try.”… [Read More]
“Most of my dreams at night are not about being in jail or about trying to flee. They are about rowing. They are neither good nor bad dreams—more like images. I dream a lot about a certain corner on the Herăstrău Lake [in Bucharest, Romania]. It’s not a more beautiful corner of the park or of the lake, or more interesting than others, but I dream about that part of the lake again and again. I don’t know why.”
– Radu Codrescu, 2006 (translated from Romanian).