Skin Deep

I’m still not quite used to Romania being in NATO. The Romania of my memory is just out of the Ceaucescu years, more Soviet than Western. The US Embassy is in a mansion downtown, and the consulate is in another mansion around the corner from it. I live in a 1930s apartment building, in a large apartment that has 17 internal doors and a maid’s quarters. The more modern buildings are much worse, Soviet-style blocs with maybe one or two shared bathrooms per floor, poorly made and depressing. The entire front wall of one building collapsed, the rebar having been pulled out before the concrete set so that it could be reused.

The life of a diplomat in Romania in the early Nineties was one part luxury – hand-knotted carpets over parquet floors, crystal and china, ballrooms and parties – and four parts misery. The carpets were knotted by children, or made in factories where no worker had a full set of fingers left. The crystal came from the gypsy district, a rookery like 19th Century London, where chamber pots might be dumped on you from upper floors while you wound your way through leaning buildings, navigating by guess. Maps were forbidden under Ceaucescu. The ballrooms were in disrepair, holes in the ceiling letting in the rain. Pigeons roosted on decaying gold filigree, hidden in the shadows where light no longer reached, cooing in eerie echoes.

We were always sick.

Food poisoning was constant. We needed imported filters on our showers to avoid absorbing too much lead. We used bottled water to brush our teeth because tap water was an abundant bacterial ecosystem. We soaked fresh produce in iodine to avoid hepatitis and giardia. AIDS was rampant due to the Ceaucescus’ policy of giving children blood transfusions, often with blood purchased from African countries, so we all carried emergency kits that included fresh clean needles and plastic dams to be used in case of mouth-to-mouth. There were dark mutterings that if you revealed that you had a kit like this, the Romanians would steal the clean needles and use whatever used ones they had. I initially chalked that up to the usual FUD, but came to feel that any clean needles Romanian health practitioners could get would be a blessing.

Meningitis swept the community at one point, sending many of us to the Nurse Practitioner complaining of bitter headaches. The first person to get it at our embassy was one of the support staff. She didn’t have a car, and didn’t speak Romanian, but the embassy’s tiny medical unit couldn’t run the tests needed so she had to go to a Romanian clinic. I spoke Romanian, had a car, and wasn’t afraid of driving around the city, so I took her to the best clinic we knew of. There was a line, of course. There’s always a line in Communist countries. We got in it. The clinic was small and dark, in an old stucco building that was longer than it was deep. As we got closer to the front of the line for blood tests, we saw that the doctor wasn’t using a finger prick, or a hypodermic needle – he was using a scalpel to slice the end of the patient’s finger open. He’d swipe the blood onto a glass slide, sandwich it with another slide, and rinse the scalpel under tap water while the nurse wrapped gauze around the bleeding finger.

My friend and I looked at each other, and without a word relinquished our place in line and left the clinic. She ended up flying to a different country to be hospitalized.

The luxurious life of a diplomat, while leagues better than the lives of most Romanians back then, was only deep enough to be sliced with a dirty scalpel.



  1. Vivid.

    And even sadder because what you describe is so much worse than my experiences in Pakistan in the 1970s.

  2. Reads like political espionage–heartbreaking to know it’s not fiction. Thank you for sharing your experiences.

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