In the late 1980s, I was between careers. I had an itch to visit the Soviet satellite republics—especially Romania, Czechoslovakia and Poland. Political upheaval was threatening to change the borders and alliances of Eastern Europe. It was shortly before the fall of the Berlin Wall.
I had not yet met the woman that I would marry, and so I trekked through Europe with Sam, a former college buddy. We were seasoned independent travelers. No need for a tour package, hotel reservations or even an itinerary! The tools of conventional tourists were antithetical to our nature. We backpacked across the continent by train and by foot, moving freely between big cities, small hamlets and farms.
We talked our way into schools, homes and offices, gaining a perspective of communist life before the collapse of the USSR. We stayed at hostels or with Gypsies. On one occasion, we stayed overnight at a refugee camp. We chuckled at commentary in Foder’s and Fromer’s travel guides, because their view of political and cultural affairs was laughably distorted. But, we gained respect for The Lonely Planet. That series confirmed our observations and conclusions.
Romania was our last destination; near the end of a 3 month trip. After an eye-opening visit to Transylvania, we made our way to Bucharest to prepare for our separate flights home.
Sam picked up a travel companion along the way, a Canadian woman almost twice our age. She was completing her medical degree in Romania. Realizing that we had backpacked across Eastern Europe, and that we had rarely stayed in a full service hotel with reliable electricity and hot water, she suggested that we visit the US Embassy with her for our last evening on the continent. She explained that the US Embassy welcomed both US and Canadian citizens and that they had American fast food, ATM machines affiliated with our own banks, reliable phone service, and even showers and a disco.
After 3 months of dust and twisted ankles (we spent New Year’s Eve hiking across the frontier from Svidnik Slovakia to Tylawa Poland), and after getting into an altercation with a police officer in the Bucharest city square (he pulled the film from our cameras, because we snapped photos of a bread line), the idea of a Burger King Whopper, clean showers, and a Bank ATM appealed to us. Don’t get me wrong—In each country, we ate and moved about like locals. But in just one more day, we would be greeted in Chicago by my mom’s business partner. I had no desire to greet her in threadbare shorts and unkempt hair!
Back in the day, the US maintained a palatial embassy in Bucharest—practically a city block along each side. But this was the cold war era. Relations with Nicolae Ceaușescu were awkward and tense. And so, the Romanian government cordoned off a city sector for an additional block in all directions. The area, including the US embassy, was 9 square blocks, and was restricted to foreigners with embassy business and locals who worked at the embassy or directly supported the embassy (suppliers, landscapers, maintenance vendors, restaurants, dry cleaners, etc).
Entering the embassy district required visitors to pass two checkpoints: At the perimeter, a Romanian police sought to prevent petitions for asylum, while at the embassy itself, a US Marine guard, verified citizenship, identity and intent. Even though our visit was in the cold war era, this was before 9/11. There was no threat of violence against Americans. And so, I was only mildly amused that a Canadian citizen could access the US embassy for the purpose of dining, banking and recreation. So be it.
Sam and I were flagged as we passed through the outer perimeter. A Romanian policeman in a snappy uniform waved us to a booth that was situated right in middle of traffic. “Passports please?”. We complied without any words. He looked at our female companion. “You are Canadian. Are you here to dance, eat or shower?” referring to the discotheque, restaurant and changing rooms within the embassy. “All of the above” she responded.
“O.K. my friends. You may pass. Do not talk or trade with Romanians between this checkpoint and the embassy.” We had heard this type of request from hotel proprietors and store keepers, but I was surprised to hear it from an official person with defacto boarder authority. I wondered what difference is there in talking to Romanians inside or outside of the US embassy sector?
Making our way through a working class neighborhood, we spied a circle of children playing hacky sack. They weren’t just playing, they were talking—and in English!
In Western Europe, seeing a group of preteens talk in English wouldn’t merit a second glance. Everyone learns English in school and more recently, the Internet spreads English like dandelion seeds in a windstorm. But in the 1980s, Romania had no Internet and few children spoke English. Sam and I looked quizzically at each other. Sensing a mystery, we crossed the street to get a better read on these boys. We weren’t planning to engage them…we just wanted to know what they were talking about.
Still a half minute away from the boys, were could here one boy bark questions with command excitement. Apparently, he was the leader. One by one, the other children responded:
- “Who won the 1963 World Series?” “The Dodgers” “Correct!”
- “What is Elvis Presley’s middle name?” “Aaron” “Correct!”
- “Who was Richard Nixon’s vice president?” “Agnew”
“Full name please …” “Spiro T. Agnew” “Correct!”
Sam and I were flummoxed. What game requires detailed answers on issues of US cultural minutiae? Momentarily forgetting our instructions to refrain from engaging locals, I addressed the tallest boy. He was about 12. “What is the purpose of this game?”
He stared at me blankly. At first, I thought that he might not be permitted to talk with a foreigner or perhaps he perceived a threat because I was a stranger. But then, in very broken English, he struggled to respond: “Sorry…No speak Ainglish. No understand”. The other boys were even less helpful. They didn’t speak a lick of English, not even the one who posed the questions and responded with the word “Correct!”
Of course, this presented an even bigger puzzle. These boys were playing a word game, and they didn’t even understand the words. Even more bizarre, they responded to each question with a correct answer.
Unable to communicate and with onlookers beginning to take notice, we moved on. During the remainder of our walk, Sam and I speculated on the nature of their play and dreamt up possible explanations—each more bizarre than the other. In truth, we had no idea from where they heard these questions or how they knew the answers.
Eventually, we made our way to the US Embassy. A marine guard snapped to attention and greeted us with military discipline. “Passports please.”
After a few seconds of comparing our photos with our faces, he looked each of us from head to toe. Referring to Sam’s friend, but staring directly at us, he said: “I know this woman. She has visited before. But what about you? What is your business with the Embassy?”
I offered the only explanation that I could think of: “We’re at the end of our trip. We are looking for a transition—something familiar and western. We heard that you allow unofficial visits from tourists.”
“That’s correct. And your Canadian friend is welcome too. But, you know, boys—it’s not difficult for some Romanians to acquire an altered or forged passport. I see them frequently, and some are difficult to detect.” Then he asked where each of us was born.
I sympathized with the task of an embassy gate keeper and I was prepared for a delay. I imagined that he would check our airline tickets, verify identities against a computer database, or even call our personal references back in America. “…And so, boys, I’d like to ask you a few questions. Just a little quiz to help me confirm citizenship…”
“Who won the 1963 World Series?”
This set my mind alight…I knew the answer! After all, I heard this question 15 minutes ago. What a coincidence! “I think that it was the LA Dodgers, but I have to confess…”
The marine guard cut me off, mid sentence. “Do I look like a priest? I didn’t ask for a confession or commentary Just answer the questions, please.
Now then: What was Elvis Presley’s middle name?”
“Aaron—But wait. I just…”
“No talking! I am asking the questions. Who was Richard Nixon’s vice president?”
“That one I know — It’s Agnew!”
“Full name please …”
“Now hold on a second!”
The marine wouldn’t permit any interruption. Even if I could tell him about the boys and the game in the alley, I suspect that he wouldn’t care. He had protocol and procedures and was sticking to these methods with military discipline and precision.
Fortunately, Sam and I recalled every question and answer that the hacky sack youths had exchanged. Eventually, we were admitted. We had a fun evening with the embassy staff and a few other tourists. The food wasn’t free, but it was terrific!
This was all before 9/11 and before the Benghazi bombing and a other anti-American incidents at embassy’s around the world. More than twenty-five years have passed. I wonder if the embassy in Bucharest still uses the Trivial Pursuit quiz. I wonder if the locals still rehearse all the answers — and just how many of them enjoy the disco inside the embassy!