William McPherson

William McPherson

A weeklong electronic journal.
May 22 1997 3:30 AM

William McPherson

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       Ciuguid de Jos, December 1990. One year after the bloody revolution that overthrew the Communist regime, I met an old peasant woman in this remote mountain village without a single telephone. I was the first American--probably the first foreigner--she had ever seen. "For 50 years I have been waiting for the Americans to come," she said, "and now you have come." Then she wanted to try on my sunglasses.
       The woman was swathed in sheepskins next to the stove in her kitchen, lying on her deathbed. I was, in a word, flabbergasted--it seemed a heavy burden to bear, and faintly absurd as well--but it was a refrain I and other Americans in Eastern Europe heard many times in the months following the fall of communism.
       The Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Bucharest, 1997. I heard a variation of that theme today, not from a peasant in the rugged mountains of Transylvania but from the highly capable and sophisticated spokesperson for the ministry, Gilda Lazar.
       "For 50 years, all Romanians have been expecting the Americans to come," she said this afternoon. "If they do not come now, it will be terrible for us." Abandoned by the West and consigned to the Soviets by the Yalta accords at the end of World War II, Romania is determined not to be abandoned again. It is hard to overestimate the importance of this for the 23 million people who live here. "For us, the West is America, and we see our future linked with the United States." That means NATO.
       It is also hard to overestimate what a can of worms the United States has opened with the strategy of NATO enlargement, if, as seems likely, that enlargement ends with the three countries of the Northern tier. The strategy was defined recently by one State Department official in this way: "The strategy of enlargement is enlargement." Makes a lot of sense.

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       Asking directions in Romania is straightforward, like anywhere else. What follows is not. It often seems as if nobody knows but everybody says. It's almost embarrassing to admit that you don't know the location of Tiab, for example, which is a shop I was looking for the other day. It's not really very hard to find. In fact, I had an excellent map. There was really no need for directions at all.
       But I was reckoning without the two Romanians I was with, and I was also in the back seat, which prevented me from seizing the steering wheel. Romanians always ask directions. It makes for conversation, and it's interesting to argue the merits of right or left, the advantages of turning back as opposed to plowing ahead, and the dialogue ending in an exchange of politeness that will include, if the conversation is with a woman, "Sarut mana"-- a courtly expression meaning "kiss your hand." In other words, goodbye. And not a moment too soon.
       "What's the name again?"
       "Tiab, domnule. Tiab. A new store, I think."
       "Yes, Tiab. I think it is new."
       "Do you know where it is?"
       He scratches his head. Finally he is forced to admit that, no, he does not know where it is. But he gave it the old college try.
       I do, though. I am looking at my map. "I think it's back there," I say as we speed ahead to ask the next pedestrian on his way home from the market. "I am looking at the map! I know it is back there." This is greeted with absolute indifference. Perhaps they didn't hear me. In fact, we have now turned off the boulevard where, if the map is correct (and it has never let me down yet), we want to be, and instead are heading out to the eastern edge of Bucharest. That's when I did seize the wheel. I found the Tiab store, too. I smiled a secret little prideful smile.

William McPherson is a novelist and Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who has spent much of the past seven years exploring and writing about Romania.