Correspondence

What Civilization Remains

We once had a book about Eastern Europe at home, in between the encyclopedias and Robinson Crusoe.  I do not remember its title nor the author’s name, but it contained highly atmospheric black and white photographs of Rumanian scenes.  There were baroque chateaux, sturgeons, eagles, wolves, bears, wild boar, bends in the Danube, flowered meads in Moldova, towering mountains and wayside shrines, farmworkers dancing in village squares or pushing horse-drawn plows; and an exuberantly mustachioed princeling, elegantly cross-legged in a chunkily carved wooden chair and smiling with supreme confidence at the camera, magnificent in spurred boots, breeches, saber, a frogged military tunic, and a fur hat.  Reading those place names—Wallachia, Oltenia, Moldavia, Muntenia, Maramures, Bukovina, the Banat, Turnu-Severin, the Iron Gates, and Transylvania—my eight-year-old mind was entranced.  The book was pulled to pieces, but its images have always remained with me—a romantic repository, a reminder that Europe could still be wild.  So it is really quite surprising that I did not get to Rumania until 2007.

The tarmac shimmered with heat as we took a taxi into Bucharest.  In the far south, animals were dropping dead in the fields, crops were withering, and rivers were drying up.  It was suitably extreme weather for a place that I had populated with folk-dancing, sausage-eating,...

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