In early April 1990, I arrived in Bucharest to write an environmental story for a magazine based in Paris, where I was living at the time. A catastrophe had been unfolding in the eastern part of Romania at the Delta of the Danube River where, after running its 1,700-mile course through Europe, the great river empties into the Black Sea. One of the most important wetlands in the Eastern Hemisphere, much of the Delta and its pristine wildlife habitat had been dammed, drained, plowed over, agro-industrialized, and otherwise gutted during the 24-year dictator-ship of Nicolae Ceaușescu.
Only months before, the last remaining Stalinist-style ruler in Europe and his wife had been overthrown and tried by the National Salvation Front—the FSN—a political party made up mostly of former Communist Party officials, who had assumed control of the government. On Christmas Day 1989, Ceaușescu and his wife, Elena, were executed by firing squad at a barracks outside of the city. Members of the Army, who had turned against the hardline regime, had carried out the killing. The next day, footage of the Ceaușescus’ slumped and bullet-ridden bodies was broadcast on state television.
Just weeks after the wall came down with the blows of a thousand hammers, I traveled to Berlin and throughout the German Democratic Republic, also known as East Germany. Over the winter, I had been in Moscow, and back and forth to Prague to cover the Velvet Revolution. But I was drawn to Romania’s sinister overtones and the byzantine way in which the coup had transpired. Its revolution was the most violent of all the uprisings that roiled the continent that year.
From Paris, I sniffed about for a feature story I could reasonably explore. Given the uncertainties of the political situation in Bucharest and the tangled agendas that would be impossible to unravel so early in the game, I was on the lookout for leads on something with a less grisly narrative. By then, the bloodshed had ended, or at least seemed to pause. More than one thousand people had died since December, from the early days of unrest in the Transylvanian city of Timisoara through the removal of Ceaușescu and the FSN’s consolidation of power. The violence had come from all conceivable quarters: troops loyal to Ceaușescu; rogue members of Romania’s own armed forces and secret police—the Securitate—acting on behalf of the revolutionaries ousting the dictator; and dissident groups, some of whom had possibly been armed and trained by foreign intelligence services. Members of all three groups were presumably underground, in the wind, or walking the streets of Bucharest.
I came across a story in Le Monde about the ecological situation Ceaușescu had unleashed in the delta, and the immediate plans—no matter who would eventually end up in power after the late-April elections—to remedy it. The article led me to Bucharest.
There, I began meeting with contacts and sources, and each of them mentioned the name of the one person I needed to know: an environmentalist, writer, and scholar named Andrei, whom I soon met up with at a café in town. The connection was fruitful. Within a day, he introduced me to ornithologists, botanists, heads of institutes, hydrologists—dozens of brilliant bespectacled men in worn Soviet suits. Most of their voices had been stifled for forty years and still bore that burden of weariness, despite the wave of positivity about the delta—its plants, animals, and even villagers that were being rescued by revolution. Romania had been free—relatively speaking—for only a few months, and the information network was scattershot, making for a complex narrative of disparate threads. I was confident that, once I began to write, I would patch together a coherent account of ecological restitution.
Andrei arranged for more interviews in Tulcea, the gateway city to the delta. Not only would he drive me the 180 miles there, but he would skipper me himself along the waters of the Danube for my research trip.
Together with his girlfriend, Dara, we rented a small boat with an improvised cabin for sleeping, and the three of us loaded it up with apples, bread, coffee, several liters of tuica—Romanian plum brandy—and wild boar meat to last the week. Out on the river, Andrei caught fish and, once, a pair of geese to roast with potatoes and boil into soup over a campfire on shore. The birds were small enough to resemble ducks. At a chopping board in the galley, he deftly plucked the geese and, with a carving knife, fileted the fish, discarding the bones, scales, and feathers back into the water. Dara was accustomed to her role as sous-chef, and I helped where I could, rinsing glasses, wiping down forks. She was my age exactly, about ten years younger than Andrei, and I liked her immediately. She regarded her boyfriend’s loquaciousness and high state of cheer with slight amusement.
Under the prickly spring heat, we weaved past reed beds, sandbanks, and clusters of willow, stopping at ancient fishing villages where there was no electricity. We seemed a universe removed from Romania’s tumultuous winter and even from Romania itself. Parts of the delta had been settled centuries ago by schismatics from the Russian Orthodox Church, and their descendants still spoke their ancestral language. Elsewhere, the country simmered with the unfinished business of political upheaval, and later events would prove that the unrest was far from over. But out in the delta, putt-putting in an old river barge, the country’s wounds were obscured by yellower-than-butter spring sunshine and our complete immersion in the wilds.
With Andrei as skipper, guide, and general encyclopedia on wildlife, local customs, and, most of all, the horrific environmental crimes of the fallen regime, we drifted through stands of water lilies and stretches of water both brackish and clear. We hiked through fields of yellow iris, and in the Letea, a primordial forest surrounded by desert that is the heart of the Delta, we crossed paths with falcons and wild horses, meadow vipers and little egrets. “This place must be saved!” Andrei enthused, time and again. He wanted me to love it, and I did. He had such enthusiasm for the riverine landscape and starry twilights, and so visibly relished a simple bite of perfectly-seasoned game, that I wondered how he had managed his preternatural joy under the stifling dictatorship. “I am Romanian,” he said with a theatrical shrug and apologetic grin. There were many benefits to being on the road with an idealist, and such a positive, informed man, but above all, Andrei was the most protective of shepherds. Trust is not rational, but it is immediate, and for a journalist traveling alone on a story, it is fundamental. I trusted Andrei enough to disappear with him for a week into the outback of Romania. Yet, I knew nothing about him.
Crisp with sunburn, we returned to Bucharest, and I checked into the fanciest place in town, the Inter-Continental, right in the center of the city. It was a model of that special Warsaw Pact gaudiness: ubiquitous crimson velvet curtains, chandeliers as big as refrigerators. In the lobby, a fat, grayish man inhabited a chair across from the concierge desk. From his observation perch, he offered, with an oily, close-to-British accent, tidbits to anyone that passed. They all seemed to know him. A woman in thick pancake makeup and minidress walked through the lobby and the man tapped her derrière with the bottom of his cane. She flicked it away with an admonishing grin.
Up in my room, I peeled off my filthy clothes. I had not had a proper bath for days. My trusty leather coat and woolen shawl that swaddled me all over Eastern Europe were saturated with campfire residue. After a long shower, I toppled from exhaustion onto the pleasant mattress. After six nights on a houseboat, my body still rocked from the up-down swells of river current. I awoke to a phone call from Andrei, who was waiting at the reception desk. He was there to collect me for dinner—the last of the fresh goose—at his and Dara’s apartment.
He was in a jocular mood, and he resumed his affectionate teasing. “Now, you look like a proper American journalist,” he said, when I appeared in a clean skirt, sandals, and pricey Parisian lipstick. By now, Andrei had been my companion for almost two weeks, in
the service of the Delta, whose story he wanted to be told. As often happens in the uneven power balance between journalist and source, he gave and gave and gave. All I could offer in return was an article. He refused my dollars to pay for food, the boat rental, even gas.
The next morning, I saw large crowds of people filing purposefully past the hotel, clearly on their way somewhere.
“What’s going on?” I asked the concierge.
“Manif,” he said, using French slang for manifestation, a march. “On Piața Universității, University Square. But a peaceful one,” he clarified.
This was fortuitous. The environmental story I was in Romania to write was on a parallel track to the other story, the one that was outpacing me daily: the precarious and fast-changing political realities three months into the country’s revolution. I was engrossed in the subject, but I was still reporting a feature rather than a breaking news story. But I was still a journalist, always on the qui vive for news events. A real-time demonstration on a Sunday morning might be useful for my story, but more than that, I could finally witness something of the revolution up close.
The breakfast dining room had filled up with men wearing suits and too much aftershave. “Happy spring,” an American man remarked as he passed my table and stopped. “Care to join me?”
“No thanks, it’s a work day,” I said, stirring milk into my coffee.
“It’s Sunday!” He had wide vowels and an unsparing smile— the kind a witless dad wore in a commercial for cereal or minivans. “And not just any Sunday but Eastern Orthodox Palm Sunday.”
The man failed to read my face for its clear preference for solitude and sat down across from me. “Waiter,” he said. “Can you move my plate over here and bring me more coffee?”
He looked at the notebook I had been writing in, and then at me. “You must be a journalist.”
“I am,” I said.
“For whom?” he asked.
“Europ,” I said.
“Writing about the ol’ revolution-o-rama?”
It was hard to explain the magazine that employed me. Even to me, it sounded shady. The prior year, I had applied for and won a press fellowship from the Fondation Journalistes en Europe, a group that was funded in large part by the European Economic Community—EEC—the precursor to today’s European Union. The writing staff rotated every year, with thirty or so journalists from thirty different countries, who were awarded a stipend to live in Paris and contribute to the magazine the foundation published. Back home in the United States, I was a television news producer, so the year was a sabbatical of sorts, and the editors gave us free reign to explore any topic that interested us. The fact that the Berlin Wall fell a few weeks into our tenure was pure dumb luck.
I was too curious not to ask about him.
“I’m with the embassy. U.S., obviously.” His cup clattered against the saucer and he saw that I noticed his shaky hands. “The whiskey is too cheap here,” he said with a shrug. “Wild place, Bucharest.” He pronounced it the local way: Boo-coo-RÉSHT.
“I can imagine.”
“Have you had a chance to look at the tens of millions of bullet holes on every building within a 100-yard radius from here?” he asked. “I’ll show you around to see all the beautiful sights, and we can have dinner tonight.”
“Thanks,” I said, “I have plans. In fact, I actually have to leave now for a meeting. I’m already late.”
Excited by the prospect of a demonstration so close to the hotel, I made my move to the front door.
In the lobby, the fat man was in the exact same spot as he had been the night before. “Chumming around with the embassy, I see.” His words oozed in my direction. “All the Christmastime festivities,” he said, referring, I understood, to the revolution in December. “They lit the match, walked away, and let it burn.” The last word was breathy and elongated, like a line in a poorly acted Shakespeare play. Buuhhnn.
“Well…” I said, not knowing how to respond. I wanted to know more about this strange human fixture in the lobby. “And you are?”
“Here eleven years,” he answered, “just observing.” With a clack of stilettos, the woman from the evening before passed by again. “Heavy perfume for Palm Sunday, Cata.” The woman seemed unbothered. “She’s been here as long as I have,” he offered.
He braced his cane on the floor. “Happy holy day, American girl. Hallelujah. The Lord is risen.”
I walked toward Piața Universității in the direction of the march, past the ammunition-scarred parliament buildings, and merged with the crowd on Balcescu Boulevard. The smell of lilacs mixed with the urban draft of diesel and tobacco. Rebirth was in the wind.
On Eastern Orthodox Palm Sunday, churches hand out willow branches instead of palm fronds at the start of Holy Week, and the newly free citizens waved them gently over their heads, keeping time to the patriotic hymn bellowed by the throng. For now, even the non-faithful celebrated the end of religious persecution that the dictatorship’s collapse had delivered. The country had been unshackled and would have its first open Easter Sunday in decades.
According to a young man walking near me, the march was in support of the FSN, and the first gathering in the capital since the seven-ton statue of Lenin in Piața Scinteia was demolished a month prior. I had spent enough time in the Soviet bloc to assume the presence of spies and double agents circulating in the daylight or lurking in the shadows—especially with elections only weeks away. There were probably a few of them walking near me that morning.
I felt a rough tap on my shoulder, and my head jolted to see the American diplomat from breakfast. He brandished a rolled-up copy of the International Herald Tribune, as if to indicate what he had deployed to ambush me.
“Hello again.” His face was a slick of sweat.
The sudden crackling in my neural pathways signaled an encroaching threat. Until this moment, I had not felt the slightest twinge of unease in Romania.
“Did you follow me?” I asked.
“I hope you weren’t late for your meeting.”
I broke from the crowd, and he began to walk beside me. He was visibly overheating in the searing sun. A brief story began to emerge. He was from Indianapolis, and his wife was settling in a country in West Africa, his next State Department posting. He had come to Bucharest in November, less than six months earlier.
“I had a front row seat to the big show,” he said.
The revolution? I wondered, and then, with horror: the execution?
A makeshift memorial consisting of crosses, photos, and bunches of flowers spread across the circle of grass in the center of an intersection. A steady stream of people arrived to scatter red tulips and white carnations on a growing pile.
“Why did you come to Romania to write about pollution?” he asked as we turned onto Calea Victoriei.
“I’ve already been to Prague,” I said. “Also Berlin. Moscow of course. I was looking for something optimistic to write about. There’s no blood in river ecology.”
“Tell me again about your magazine?” He pronounced the word with sarcasm, as if putting air quotes around it, as if it were something I made up. “I’ve never heard of it.”
“Every office in every department in every ministry in the EEC has it,” I said. “Whether or not anyone reads it, I have no idea.”
We veered into a park, where a blanket of daffodils shifted in the breeze, and pink magnolia blossoms surged across the landscape. A woman traveling alone, even in the most innocuous circumstances, reads deeply into each interaction with men. Self preservation, like breathing, is instinctive. I was engaged to my boyfriend Mark, but I was twenty-nine, and understood the laws of attraction. But in this case, there was not a whisper of a flirt, not the merest tug of sexual tension.
“Where did you get your Tribune, by the way?” I asked. He handed me his copy of the newspaper. It was several days old, but I had not read any news in two weeks.
“Keep it,” he said. I stuck it in my purse.
Linden trees formed neat colonnades, and at one end stood a great ornate clock. “This is a Monet painting,” I said.
“Cișmigiu Gardens,” he said. “Courtesy of the Krauts, from the 1800s.”
Toddlers skipped, lovers held hands, grandmothers chatted. It was a classic scene of a Sunday morning in a European city, with the fresh rush of nature and the clatter of voices. People paddled row- boats across a lake and down a canal, where a couple of black swans glided past a cascade of wisteria and under the arch of a bridge.
“Who is your expert here on the Danube Delta?” he asked. His questions were unnerving me. I was there for two weeks; I’d met everyone. I told the diplomat so, trying to temper the edge in my voice. I was eager to break from him, his prying, and the pinch of discomfort his presence induced. Plus, I needed to pack and prepare for my last night in Bucharest.
We walked back to the Inter-Continental in silence. The fat man was in his armchair, jabbering his usual madness. “You could find anyone here in December,” he said, “CIA, KGB, Stasi, Mossad. It was charming.” He waved his hand around the lobby and then pointed it toward the diplomat. “I must say that you were completely useless. Offense intended.”
“None taken, actually,” the diplomat said.
I veered toward the elevator.
“Dinner at 8?” the diplomat said. “I know, I know, you have plans.”
Upstairs, I napped, packed and jotted some notes in my diary. The eeriness of this day will always be marked on my brain.
After my shower, I took the elevator downstairs to the lobby. The door opened to the jarring sight of the diplomat and Andrei, chatting and laughing at some shared amusement. The creepy man was at his station too, in conversation with two sparsely dressed women.
“There she is,” Andrei said with a big smile.
“You are both joining me for dinner,” said the diplomat. “I already asked Andrei here.”
Andrei, my protector. A dark, tanned Dacian Santa Claus, all bonhomie and mirth, with visible good intentions and genuine concern for the well-being of me, his new friend, all alone in Bucharest. But while he might have been delighted by the idea of not one but two Americans dining with him, I dreaded it. Disappointment reverberated through me, followed by disquiet. The diplomat, in his blue blazer and with a glass of Scotch in hand, was unsettling company. He was tipsy, his moist face a blot of red. I viscerally disliked him.
Dinner was just the three of us, as Dara stayed home. He wondered about the guy in the lobby. “A journalist?” the diplomat asked. “British? Usually, we register such suspicious characters.”
“He’s been here eleven years,” I said. “Not sure how you missed him, since he never moves.”
“Andrei, you must know,” he said.
“He’s a fixture, like the chandeliers,” Andre said.
We were drunk after several bottles of wine, and the waiter kept delivering new dishes. Smoked ham soup. Fried cheese. Roasted eggplant. Long, thin spicy sausages. Our tiny crystal glasses were filled multiple times with tuica. Finally, a loud, drunken gangster type in a tough black leather jacket came over to us and gripped Andrei’s shoulder.
“I love you. I’ve read all your articles, my friend. You are a friend of the Romanian people.” He was blubbering, and Andrei seemed amused. The man made a grand gesture to buy us a bottle of champagne. We declined but the man sent one over anyway. Andrei rose to thank him at his table, and to say hello to the mobster’s wife, whom he had once met.
Our waiter, also drunk by now, leaned over and spoke lugubriously and low, an inch from my face. “Be careful.” He murmured a warning to me and the diplomat, pointing to the gangster. “He’s dangerous. He hid Nicu Ceaușescu.” The dictator’s youngest son, Nicu, was a flamboyant and cruel playboy and a Communist party chief who had been arrested around the time of his parents’ execution. “Your friend should not be seen with him. He is putting you in danger.”
The diplomat’s whole demeanor changed. He froze, falling silent as his face transformed into a blanched expression of fear. I felt a rippling twang of adrenaline as Andrei and the mobster roared with laughter on their way back to our table.
“Did you like the champagne?” the mobster effused.
“Very much,” I said, “thank you. But I’m afraid we need to get some air. Romanian wine is powerful.”
Outside, I told Andrei what the waiter had said about the mobster, and he laughed, swatting his hand. “He’s a petty crook. A nobody.”
The three of us strolled under a brilliant full moon that cast a spotlight on the scarred buildings in central Bucharest. The diplomat walked behind us, tense. It was hard to enjoy the still beauty of the spring night. “He must be very drunk,” Andrei whispered to me.
“Why did the waiter say that man was dangerous? And maybe you too?” I whispered.
I had just asked my friend, whom I trusted on a houseboat, who had dropped everything in his life for two weeks to usher me through a complicated story in a complicated nation, whether I could trust him.
His expression became weary. “The whole of Romania lost the ability to trust over the last decades. It is true, I’m afraid.”
“What is true?” I asked.
“The entire world—Moscow, America, Hungary, all of Europe, has something to gain with wherever Romania ends up,” he said. “And when this book is written and we see who is still standing, whenever that might be, and I hope it is soon, we have to believe that some people helped the winner to win. But most of us, like me, will simply continue doing our work, regardless.”
“And the gangster guy at the hotel?”
Andrei sighed. “He was showing off for you. He wanted to show you that Romanians are generous, so he bought you champagne. A simple moment of vanity.”
We returned to the hotel, and I embraced him gratefully and apologetically. Journalists put so much faith in trusted sources, and Andrei had become my ally and advocate. I could discern his disappointment.
In my room, I unfurled the newspaper and glanced at the headlines. All the news concerned Eastern Europe. Germany prepares for reunification. A meeting between Secretary of State James Baker and the Soviet Foreign Minister Edward Shevardnadze. Lithuania declares independence from the USSR. Returning it later that night was my excuse for one last conversation with the diplomat. And where I might not ever be inclined to knock on a strange man’s hotel-room door, I was lured to this one because I was eager for an explanation, even a drunken one, as to why he mistrusted my only friend in Romania. It was a necessary coda to a disturbing day.
When he came to the door, his aspect frightened me. He was damp with sweat, his face putty gray, tie askew and loosened as if from a tantrum. The grilling began and his words spun fitfully.
“How do you know him?” he asked.
“He runs the group investigating Ceaușescu’s destruction of the Danube Delta.”
“Do you know who his friends are?” he asked.
“Why the hell do you care?” I asked.
“Where have you gone with him? Who was with you? Whom did you visit?”
“Stop,” I said. “I’m writing a story for a tiny European magazine. He caught fish for my dinner.”
He thought Andrei was a spy. He thought I was a spy. I thought he was a spy. Andrei was spying on me, on him, we were spying on each other, and the strange oracle in the lobby was spying on us all. We might all have been suspected double agents or plants gathering intelligence. As for his diplomatic credentials, it now seemed to be a transparent cover. It was difficult to know, how- ever, who wanted what from whom, or who compromised whom, who was using whom, or what potential damage was even being done. I was quite certain that here, in the crucible of revolution, I could offer nothing to anyone and that my value was almost nil. In my notebook was a fairly solid story on the plans for rehabilitating the Danube Delta, and if any classified information slipped between the lines, or if any of my contacts marked me as an enemy asset, it was by accident. It was a harrowing mind game.
Waves of popping nerves, and all that brandy, incited in me a swerve of nausea. The diplomat was silent and visibly panicked. I looked at his desk. The Scotch bottle was almost empty, which must have exacerbated his tailspin. His hair was matted with perspiration, and underarm circles darkened all the way through his blazer.
Foolish woman, I thought, so naïve. I continued to defend Andrei, even as my own doubts swirled. I told him everything. He was a banned writer, brilliant, well-connected, who made a few mistakes, such as joining the party decades ago because he had to in order to survive in Stalinist Romania. “But I am sound in life and limb thanks to the care he showed me and my situation in the Danube Delta. Something the embassy should be thankful for. I would do anything for Andrei—he wants a U.S. Army sleeping bag and I’m going to send him one.” All of that was true, but I could not speak about what I did not know. Shame flowed through me as my trust in Andrei wavered.
“What flight are you on tomorrow?” he asked.
My stomach flipped. “Are you saying you don’t know?” I asked and turned to leave.
When Andrei arrived at the hotel to take me to the airport, his reassuring confidence and usual ribbing were a balm. In daylight, I had no reservations about him or his loyalties. Kind, generous Andrei wanted to help me because as a writer, he knew what a journalist needed, and he wanted the story of the Danube Delta to be documented, printed, and read in Europe and elsewhere. It scarcely mattered if the truth was otherwise. I had little to offer besides my interest and commitment to his story. Perhaps that actually meant something in the obscurity of the shadows, but I will never know.
“Your diplomat must have a big headache,” he said, heaving with laughter.
“Me too,” I said.
“You will forget about me when you get back to Paris,” he said as he deposited me at the airport. Andrei had shared his country, his food, his time, and his knowledge with unwavering generosity. It had happened all winter, in small towns in East Germany, in Prague living rooms. People giving their all to an American journalist, expecting—and receiving—almost nothing in return.
“I will have to write to Mark to remind him to remind you about the sleeping bag!”
At the airport, he ringed his great arms around me, as we both said “goodbye.”
It had been two weeks since I arrived in Romania, and I was eager to get home to Paris, to my apartment, to Mark, to my office filled with friends. But as I waited at the gate area, I was shocked to see the odd man, the British cipher of the Inter-Continental lobby, wobble in on his cane. I paused to ask myself what, exactly, I feared about him. Gripped by paranoia, I fixed my eyes down- ward to my knees and pretended not to see him.
I saw him climb onto a Swissair loading bus and was relieved as he disappeared. Soon I boarded another bus for my Lufthansa flight to Paris through Frankfurt. But when I entered the plane, there he was, seated in the row—the seat—directly behind me.
“Going back to England?” I asked. My voice quavered and I felt utterly unglued.
“Frankfurt,” he said. “Sometimes God or Muhammad or whoever, calls me away. Did you get a good story, American journalist?” he asked. “Your new friends will miss you. Andrei and the State Department buffoon.” He chuckled.
Heart hammering, I sat and closed my eyes. He hummed a nondescript melody. The bottom portion of his cane appeared beside me on my armrest.
Encoded with meaning, obliquely mysterious, or simply absurd, his ravings sounded to me like nonsense laced with threat. He may have been a lunatic, or he may have been a world-class spymaster. But whoever he was—a spook for the Kremlin, an asset for Great Britain, one of our own, just an ordinary eccentric—he was surely wise enough to know that his words and his presence had by now unraveled me, and that pleased him. When we landed, he vanished into the folds of the Frankfurt airport, and there was no sign of him when I went on to Paris.
In mid-April, violence began again in Bucharest, through elections in May and the landslide victory of the FSN. More protests lasted through the summer. Hundreds more perished in the violence. In June, hunger strikers protesting the former Communists now in government sought refuge in the Inter-Continental.
I wrote my story about the Delta, Xeroxed it, and mailed a copy to Andrei, along with a letter promising the sleeping bag when I next went home to the States. I sent one that summer in a parcel, along with a copy of The Joy of Cooking.
He continued to send newsy letters written on smooth blue vellum, ripe with his wry humor. At first, he rehashed the highights of our adventure, needling me about my fear of snakes—the slithering kind we had seen when hiking in the Delta. He tempted me with details of dinners he was cooking up for Dara in Bucharest, especially when the wild boar he roasted gave plenty of crispy skin of the sort I had devoured on the boat. He inquired about Mark, my family, my work and life in Paris, and he updated me on the situation in Tulcea. He expressed his deep affection for me, his one American friend, and wrote of plans to come to Paris. Maybe he would come on foot like the great Romanian artist Constantin Brancusi, he joked.
And then his tone became more pleading, seeking assurances that I would remember him and Dara, my dear friends in Bucharest, and the wild place in eastern Romania he adored so fervently. In 1991, he announced in a letter, “SUCCESS!! THE DANUBE DELTA HAS BEEN PRESERVED!!” He included a newspaper clipping. The headline in Romanian was close enough to French for me to understand: The Danube Delta was named a Biosphere Reserve under UNESCO and a Wetland of International Importance. It was excellent news, and Andrei gave me credit that I did not deserve.
But he was right. I stopped writing back, and I did forget him. I moved on to other places, and other sources who, with complete faith in me, gave tirelessly in hopes that I might also recount their stories.
Years later, I mentioned his name to a classmate from graduate school, also a Romanian activist, and learned that Andrei had become a celebrated television chef, and had passed away three years earlier.
The story of the December revolution and the fall of the dictator Ceaușescu is still being told and disputed, and declassified CIA documents have revealed only a few gritty details. Like most revolutions, it is unlikely that the one in Romania transpired without the covert intervention of one or several foreign powers. The Soviet Union wanted Ceaușescu gone. The United States, too, wanted to get rid of Washington’s only palatable Stalinist, whose stepped-up repression in the face of Eastern European reforms that year would prove untenable for the rapidly changing continent.
When I’d landed in Bucharest in 1990, the regime had been felled and the old order shattered, making way for a new one that was tentative and rife with complexity. The dissidents and clandestines, assets and sympathizers, plotters and planners, mercenaries and carpetbaggers were not necessarily sitting back to watch fate take its course. And a young American journalist on assignment for a magazine that no one had heard of, on a story that few cared about, might have seemed, for some, too innocent to be true. But Andrei simply wanted me to love the Delta as he did, to tell the story, and help it—if possible—recover and rise again in glory.
That’s what I believed then and that’s what I believe now. Most of the time.
Excerpted from A Hard Place to Leave, published by Traveler’s Tales, May 3, 2022.
Marcia DeSanctis is a journalist, essayist, and author of 100 Places in France Every Woman Should Go, a New York Times travel bestseller. She has won five Lowell Thomas Awards from the Society of American Travel Writers and is the recipient of two Grand Prize Solas Awards including the 2021 Gold Award for Travel Story of the Year. Before becoming a writer, she was a television news producer for ABC, NBC and CBS News.