|By Pete Fox |
From Boulder, co
Jan 11, 2011
Let's see how this formats. I pulled this from Florian's website Sapientus. This is quite a story.
I am a native of Romania, born in the largest city of the country, Bucharest, but the origin of my family lies in Transylvania, that legendary “Land beyond the Forest” which has inspired so many gothic novels.
My family had deep roots in the history of the land, with the early ancestors living there as far back as the 14th century. Sometime in the 15th century, perhaps during the reign of the most notorious character of Medieval Europe, Vlad Basarab (known in history as Vlad the Impaler and in literature as Dracula), they moved into the mountains separating Transylvania from Wallachia and established a couple of villages on the southern slopes, not far from where the story in my novels begins. Now in saying that, I don't mean to imply that the family was of noble blood or of any historical importance, but they were very prosperous merchants of a potent moonshine, known to the locals as tuica and palinka, a plum brandy which helped those living in Transylvania and Wallachia keep an optimistic outlook throughout their calamitous history.
Like the decade in which I was born (the one that inspired George Orwell to write ‘1984’,) my childhood was unfortunate and harsh, shattered by a dark family betrayal. But at times it was sprinkled with happier moments, sunny summers spent with my grandparents in their modest forest cottage up in the same mountains where the ruins of Dracula’s Castle exists to this day. Those were the “golden days” of my life.
There are those who believe that there is a continuum between generations, and the powerful thoughts of your ancestors sometimes resonate in your consciousness. Maybe due to my lineage, from early childhood I developed an avid enthrallment with the Medieval Era, a fascination no doubt stirred by the wonderful illustrations in the book my father used to teach me how to read and write at the age of five. The fateful book was The Knights of the Cross, a historical novel written by Polish writer and Nobel laureate Henryk Sienkiewicz, best known for the classic novel Quo Vadis. By the age of six, I mastered reading and beginning to understand the story, I devoured it. Then I read it for a second time, and when thru yet again. But my insatiable thirst demanded more. Since I couldn’t find any books on the subject, each Sunday, I would take my best friend, a boy two years younger living next door, skip the movies and spend all day in the museum of Military History. It didn’t take long to become well-known to the staff and gain the privilege to spend hours in the small medieval collection of weapons and armour. Later, I became a regular visitor of the rare-book shops in downtown Bucharest, and thus discovered the literary classic works of Sir Walter Scott. I even read Cervantes’ Don Quixote, and swallowed his satirization of chivalry because the book had very good illustrations.
In hindsight, the luck of books on the subjects, and having to read over and over again the same novels in a futile attempt to quench my thirst, stimulated my imagination and turned me into creating my own little stories. I also began illustrating and modeling small statuettes of warriors. I remember spending hours and hours imagining how it would be to live in those times and travel across the wilderness under the threat of being attacked by bandits or mercenaries, what kind of weapons and supplies I would take along, how I would build my own armour and train my own horse. Being a youth determined to live his dreams, I secretly observed and learned my mother talent of creating patterns for the dresses she made for her clientele, and built for myself, piece by piece, a complete suit of armor out of cardboard.
Throughout the high school, my fascination with the Medieval Era evolved into a real passion for history in general. By the age of nineteen, I had read most of the classics, the only books available in the state-controlled bookstores untouched by the Communist propaganda, as well as books of philosophy and natural science, which the regime tolerated. Inspired by Herbert George Wells, the illustrious visionary writer, Jack London, the great storyteller, Ion Luca Caragiale, the brilliant satiric playwright, and the eminent poet Mihail Eminescu, I decided to become a writer. But the stories brewing in my head at the time could not have been told in a country where freedom of speech was non-existent. Writing would have to wait until I could escape to the West.
It is fascinating how easy it is to make crucial life decisions when you are only nineteen and to be certain that they would come true in spite of all odds. As if wasn’t crazy enough to announce to my parents my intent to go to America rather than to take the admission exams for university, when they asked what would keep me from starving over there, I astonished them by replying that I would become a writer. Immediately, the statement earned from my mother a contemptuous “incorrigible dreamer”; the epithet she used each time I spoke of my aspirations, which in all fairness to her were always of the wildest imagination and daring to an extreme. From my father, I received a stern look and the advice to drop the foolish thoughts immediately and get serious about becoming an engineer. My heart was crushed but my soul became resolute. That was the last time I ever spoke with them or anyone else about my dream of becoming an American writer.
1968 was the year when a wind of freedom was in the air, a feeling of trust and hope inspired by Alexander Dubcek’s Socialism with a human face. But it was short-lived. When news of the invasion of Czechoslovakia by the armies of the Warsaw Pact, in which the Romanian government declined to participate, reached Bucharest, many students took to the streets and demonstrate in front of the Soviet Embassy. I was one of them and I was arrested.
Marked as a subversive element by the Securitate, the state secret police, what followed was the bleakest period of my life, which I would later describe as my “struggle years.” It would take too long to recount here all the interrogations, the threats, and the occasional beatings, but I will mention one thing: speaking my mind in front of the interrogators about what history was teaching us thus far and what the historians would say about Communist Justice did not score any points with the authorities. What had started as a dream to become an American writer, had turned into a battle of wills with the Communist State, a struggle for basic freedom, a test of my self-respect as a human being and a matter of pure survival. Everyone I knew, relatives, friends, even climbing partners distanced themselves from me for in their eyes I was a doomed man. And, as if I was not in enough trouble, I became a father and married.
Dark thoughts took me and I despaired, but my basic optimistic nature kept me from giving in to fear and abandon my fight, in spite of having as many chances of obtaining an exit visa for me and my wife and daughter as to be the first Romanians to go to the moon. Much happened, but I will mention here just two desperate acts, the ones I think made all the difference in the end.
By that time, the dreaded nightly arrests of the Stalinist Era were over, and most of those who dared to challenge the authority disappeared by a simple postal card invitation, which summoned them to appear at such date in such place. Unexpectedly I was summoned to the Central location of the Secret Police. Once inside, I was taken to a room where I was stripped of most of my clothes and then left to wait, a typical prelude to beatings. I remember wondering if I would ever see my daughter again and I almost wept. After several hours of anxiety, a colonel appeared and, after placing his gun on the desk, he said that either I change my mind about demanding an exit visa or he will execute me on the spot as a traitor of the country. I don’t know what happened but something snapped inside of me and suddenly the fear vanished and was replaced by a complete state of serenity and liberation. I told him that would not be necessary for him to get his hands dirty, for if I would have a choice I would do it myself rather than spend another moment in the same world with likes of him. I think I even smiled when I said that. He left the room without a word and I was released, to my astonishment.
It was on a dreary day in late November when I decided to take a letter that I had written to President Jimmy Carter to the American Embassy. Passing through the security surrounding the embassy of the “Greatest Bane of Communism” had a probability of success close to nil, but then again I was the same incorrigible dreamer I always was. For three months, I carefully developed my plan with the same meticulous care with which I prepared for solo winter alpine ascents. I had the letter to President Jimmy Carter translated into English at great risk. I colored my hair slightly to look more like one of the rare foreigners from the West visiting Bucharest. I sewed myself a nice overcoat, which gave me a prosperous and important appearance, and hid the letter in its lining. In my mind, I rehearsed hundreds of times how I would approach the embassy, ignoring the dark-coated men from the secret police just as a foreigner would, and pass through the gate as if the armed guards were not even there. If anyone would try to stop me, I would bluff my way through by speaking French with dignifying contempt.
As I am writing these lines, I relive the intense emotions I felt as I approached the three dark-coated men blocking the sidewalk. I stared past them as if they were not even there and forced them to step aside. Whatever was on their minds I will never know, but everything worked like a dream. I even got a salute from the guard at the gate.
Sitting on a chair in a waiting room inside the embassy, it took me a few minutes to calmed down and stop my heart from racing. Then, overtaken by the nice smell inside, I remembered a joke, which was quite popular at the time in Romania. It went like this: a Ford Mustang belonging to an American diplomat was parked in front of Ceausescu’s residency. During the night, the guards capture a man who apparently was letting the air out from one of its tires. Throughout the interrogation, he was asked if he committed the crime because the car belonged to a capitalistic pig, but instead the man answered that he just wanted to smell the air of freedom. Taking in the ambiance, I smiled and hoped the waiting would never end. But none to soon I was shocked into reality when I realized that the secretary who was screening the visitors was also a secret police officer working inside the embassy, a fact which I later learned was known to the American staff. She smelled trouble immediately and tried to make me leave but my arguing attracted a consul who fortunately spoke Romanian. I tore the lining of my overcoat and gave him the letter. After he read it at length, he told me he would send it forward and wished me good luck.
A year later almost to the date, I was once again summoned unexpectedly to the Secret Police, this time to one of its anonymous locations in downtown Bucharest. In a curious turn of fate, it was not the first time that I was inside that building. A few years earlier, the Institute of Urban Planning, where I was working, sent me to this beautiful mansion, which before the war had belonged to a rich family. I was part of a small team of surveyors sent there to measure the entire building for some renovations. We knew it belonged to the Secret Police the minute our IDs were taken at the gate. To our horror, we discovered that the basement of the building was a jail with barred cells and a torture chamber. It was that part of the building that they wanted to expand.
Now I found myself in the central room of the mansion, standing in the middle of a crowd of people, mostly men, packed like sardines under one dim, solitary light bulb hanging from the ceiling. There must have been at least three hundred souls in the room, and every one was facing a wall which had a small window in the middle covered by a wooden panel. Nobody uttered a word while we waited for three hours. A Kafkaesque mood pervaded the room. Precisely at 7:30 pm, the panel slid aside and an officer began calling names. With each answer from the crowd, he would yell back a “NO”, and the one called would leave the room through the only door that led outside. Hours later when the room was almost empty I finally heard my name and my heart began to race. Certain of the verdict, I remember wondering if I would be arrested afterwards or allowed to go home. But when I got in front of the window, the officer looked to his side and then handed me a stack of papers, the forms entitling me to an exit visa. My blood ran from my face and I became light-headed, but somehow I managed to walk straight out of that room. It was a bitter cold night and it was snowing lightly, but I could not bare the thought of being confined in the bus for the forty-five minutes ride. Instead, I walked home taking in the wintry air in deep gulps and soaring at the thought of being a free man at last.
After a ten-year hard-fought battle, in spite of all odds, my dream came true and the repressive Communist regime of Ceausescu allowed me and my wife and daughter to leave the country. When I returned to the Embassy to obtain an entry visa into the United States of America, this time I was detained twice, once in my way in and once in my way out. I guess that time I was careless, but in my heart I cherished the occasion to show to the “men in dark coats” my passport, which made me a proud Stateless Citizen of the World with the right to leave at my will. I was prepared to plead hard with the consul for a visa but during the interview, he produced my old letter, which had attached several papers covered with stamps and signatures. It was a simple formality, he assured me, because the political refugee status and the permit to settle into U.S.A. were granted a year before.
After an eight months stay in Italy, the three of us arrived in New York in April of 1979. In 1984, we became U.S. Citizens, in a sworn ceremony in Seattle. On that occasion, as a great admirer of H. G Wells, I adopted his name. Some say the account as a survivor of the Cold War Era, as wells as the stories of discovering America would make an extraordinary subject for a book or two.
Much has come to pass since those days of struggle. The world saw the fall of Soviet Union and the tumble of its puppet Communist regimes in all countries under their sphere of control. Yet, it was not that the West won the Cold War but that East lost it by loosing the trust of the people, which decades ago they enthused with false promises. In Romania in particular, the discontent of people turned violent and Ceausescu and his wife, who was hated even more than he was, were assassinated by none other than a squad of those who served them obediently for decades.
On a personal level, much has happened, mostly good things but not everything turned the way I had hoped. Even the most unyielding spirits can be persuaded by what it seams to be at the time genuine affection. But more often than not, that fickle human treat in which we placed our love and trust will wither and set us adrift into the sea of sorrow. But perhaps it must be so, perhaps is an ultimate price an incorrigible dreamer must pay before learns to devote completely to a daring aspiration. Although I never spoke about my dream to anyone since I was nineteen, my dream never died. When our age turned into a new millennium, the time for me began at last to start writing.
Those who are committed to teach history often cite the importance of understanding the past in order to develop the realistic perspective essential to comprehend the issues we are facing in the modern world. That being said, the primary challenge of an historian who hopes to open the past to the modern mind is to find a way to make a dramatically different era so compelling as to stir the reader’s interest to learn. A word of caution to all those who fancy themselves storytellers: the task can be extremely daunting. In revealing to the modern mind it’s past, the highest degree of craftsmanship and patience is required, else the desire to learn would not be awaken, and the efforts of the chronicler would go to waste.
I chose the historical period of 15th century in my series Merchants of Time, of which The Sword and the Shield of the Realm is the first novel, because it is the era of utmost significance in the intricate tapestry of human history. It was then when in the midst of the geo-political maelstrom of Eastern Europe, momentous events changed the course of the history and moved the European center of prominence and power from the central and southeastern regions to the west, thus precipitating the rise to dominance of the Occident in the world. I also want to dispel many of the myths persisting in our consciousness with regard to the Medieval Era, myths created by the Romanticism of late 18th century and the nationalistic fervor of 19th and 20th centuries, and introduce the possibility that even back then there were some who, endowed with a broader understanding of the world, sought in the interest of humanity to counteract any power attempting to absolutely predominate the world.
We often forget that the world of today, with all its benefits and tribulations, is but a product of the historical continuum. Through war, trade, and the will to dominate, humans have created it as it is. Often we are tempted to say that history repeats itself, but we do well to remember that this is a truism only as long as our motivations remain unchanged. Today more than anytime in our history we must learn our true heritage if we want to free ourselves once it for all from the nemeses of the past. Bigotry, fanaticism, nationalism, and the will to dominate, which almost brought to an extinction our ability to aspire to the greater good of humanity besides out personal fulfillment, must give away to the understanding that we all share in a common destiny on this “Spaceship called Earth”.
From the French Revolution to World War II, we have seen what nationalism and competing interests can do to our world. Do any of us today still believe that nations, which for better or for worse share a common destiny on this planet, can continue to benefit from acting independently rather than collectively?
Just like nationalism, the general characteristic of fanaticism, that particular strand of government by divine guidance, is an assertion of the primacy of religious identity over the claims of humanity and its universalism. Just like nationalism, which binds people to a particular territory, language, and culture, so fanaticism binds them exclusively to a particular path toward salvation, leaving no alternatives. Most fanatics, blinded by their own righteousness hold no tolerance for competing religions elsewhere. It is in this that they are ideologically and morally wrong.
At the beginning of 21st century, the world's population reached well in exes of 6 billion souls. By 2050, that number is expected to exceed over 9 billion. Does anyone think that the world will continue to exist, just like always? Can those who still think so be persuaded to find a way to tolerance and learn to live and let live? It may take another five hundred years to reach that glorious era, or it might never come. In the meantime, we have the inherited duty to explore different ways to move forward if we are to believe that even in these dark hours a ray of hope still exists. After all, if we are what we believe to be true, we now know that Earth is but a drop of water and dirt, not at the center of universe but instead at the edge of a whirlpool of stars at least 200 billion strong, which from afar are but a humble glint drifting between the countless specks of light of the space-time continuum.