Down with Formalism! Up with Values!


As I pulled up at the Moravita Crossing on the Yugoslav-Romanian border in late summer of 1979, a chubby customs guard in a mustard-colored uniform sat in a folding chair eating seeds from a gigantic sunflower. He looked remarkably like Ernest Borgnine, with the same famous gap in his teeth and a smile that could only be called menacing. I cranked down the window of the fifteen-year-old BMW 2002 I had bought in Frankfurt to hand him our passports. He got up and gave them a cursory look. Then he asked me to get out of the car and “take a walk” with him.

“In a moment I am going to ask you to open the trunk,” he said. “So you are going to tell me now if you have any drugs with you, or any guns. If you tell me yes, I will let you get back in the car and drive back to Yugoslavia, good luck, bye bye. If you tell me no, and I find them in your car, you will belong to me. Understand?”

Although I had neither drugs nor weapons in my possession, I felt my legs getting a little weak, not for the last time when confronted by Romanian authorities. Later in Bucharest I would be routinely stopped by Securitate patrols and shoved against a wall while one man held a Kalishnikov AK-47 to my throat and the other held out his hand and growled, “Documents!” I would point with my chin to my shirt pocket, he would extract my American passport, and the tone would change. Usually the encounter would end with a warning to be careful, this is a bad neighborhood, or something to that effect.

The reign of Nicolae and Elena Ceausescu was in full sway. Days after reporting to the American Embassy and being shown to an appalling flat in a nest of “modern” high-rises, out along Boulevard Dimitri Cantemir, I learned that my predecessor at the University of Bucharest had been beaten almost to death in the street by goons after making objectionable remarks in his classroom. He had lost an eye.

“Why was I not informed of this at my briefing in Washington, before deciding to bring my family here?” I wondered aloud.

“We were afraid you might not have come if you had known,” replied the Cultural Attache, one Hank Zivitz, a former school superintendent.

“Suppose I just go home,” I said.

“You’re free to do that … at your own expense. After, of course, you reimburse the U.S. government for all of its investment on your behalf,” he smiled.

“You know I can’t do that. You’re telling me I’m a fucking hostage. My kids …”

“You can look at it that way if you want to,” shrugged Zivitz.

Later he would visit one of my classes and offer a critique: he thought I should take greater advantage of the opportunity to “promote American values.” “I’m not here to promote anything,” I protested.

The hostage analogy turned out to be more literal than figurative. The Romanians had stamped my passport with a visa allowing unlimited exit/entry. My children, however, had been issued stamps reading “bearer of this visa may not leave the Socialist Republic of Romania.”

I tried without success to interest the American Embassy in fixing my problem. They didn’t want to “spend their political capital” on the issue. Had it not been for the intervention of Andre Michel, a senior diplomat at the French embassy and a Faulkner scholar, my kids might still be in Bucharest.

It was Michel who asked me if I thought it strange that the U.S. had imported a contingent of Marines to serve as honor guards at the embassy. “What’s the first question a sensible person would ask before sending eight Marines to live in an Eastern Bloc country?” When I couldn’t guess the answer to his riddle, he told me in an accent of rare elegance: “Who are they going to fuck?”

He was already aware, through sources of his own, that the Marines had quickly acquired Romanian “maids” and “girlfriends” who reported their every move. The Marines (nice guys all of them by the way) were not unique. The entire embassy was staffed by Romanian support personnel. I assume all of them were spies. I walked in unannounced one afternoon to find Zivitz out and his secretary photocopying a book called “Security Manual for American Installations Abroad” or something like that. I mentioned it to another attache but got a shrug; he was more concerned with the fact that the lock on the embassy’s “safe room” had been broken for months.

A Romanian attendant offered to shine the ambassador’s shoes every night, and did so, availing himself of the opportunity to un-tack the heel and install a microphone. This I learned over grilled cheese sandwiches in the embassy cafe.

One official embassy driver, whenever he was off-duty, liked to travel at extremely high speeds down cobblestone alleys and side streets, honking the horn of his big white station wagon and making pedestrians dive for cover as the enormous vehicle with American flags on its fenders careened by. Fortunately he also liked to swap huge jars of Beluga caviar from the ambassador’s fridge for cartons of Kent Golden Light cigarettes.

It didn’t take long to conclude that “going native” made more sense than hanging around the embassy and shopping at the diplomatic store. I had been in Romania a little over two months when some seventy Americans were taken hostage in Iran. A short while later the French embassy in Libya was burned to the ground. Things were tense. They did not get any better when Tito died in Yugoslavia, and rumors swirled that the Soviets were going to roll right through Romania on their way to Belgrade. Twice the U.S. embassy staff abandoned all of us and fled the country without warning because of security threats, leaving Fulbright and IREX scholars and assorted exchange students to fend for themselves. At one point the streets around the French embassy were closed off and guards sat behind piles of sandbags.

I attended a Halloween costume party in the diplomatic quarter. A cleverly decked-out commercial attache triggered a mini-crisis when a patrol down on the corner thought they saw the Ayatollah Khomeini emerge from a limousine and enter the house. A swat team crashed the party within minutes and insisted on peeking under all our costumes. They seemed particularly intrigued by the large dead bird stuffed and mounted on the shoulder of my Moldavian peasant’s outfit.

My apartment was of course bugged. As luck would have it, the Securitate operative assigned to monitor me spoke no English but didn’t want to give up the inside job and be put back on the pavement, so he simply invented six months of conversations, taking pains to make them interesting enough to convince his superiors that I was someone of real interest. I was told all this much later, over coffee with a Colonel in a kind of “exit interview.” To prove his story true, he related intimate details of household conversations.

“So what did you really learn about me, after going to all that trouble?” I asked.

“Either you are not a spy after all, or you are a remarkably good spy,” he said.

The Romanians tolerated the presence of exchange scholars as part of the price to be paid for their Most Favored Nation trade status. They did not tolerate for very long, however, the smiling Baptist visage of President Jimmy Carter, which someone from the embassy had mounted on the wall in my office at the University of Bucharest; it was swiftly replaced with a portrait of Ceaucescu, who now looked over my shoulder at any student who might come for a conference with me, a pointed reminder that it was illegal to be alone in the presence of a foreigner without special permission.

My colleagues in the department took this law most seriously. Anyone sitting alone in the Common room when I entered would leave immediately, to avoid wasting time under interrogation if for no other reason. In a year of teaching at the university I found almost no one willing to fraternize with me.

In the stairwell leading up to my office were two posters, lettered in bright red. One said (in Romanian, of course), “Long live our heroic working class under the leadership of Comrade President Nicolae Ceausescu.” The other: “We will not rest until we have stamped out the last vestiges of formalism and superficiality.” I was all for that one, I supposed.

Underground channels were not so dry. I quickly connected with people who had friends in the Prague Seven and other dissident groups “behind the Curtain,” though some of these new pals were understandably leery of me: I went in and out of the American Embassy several times a week. Even if I were who I said I was, I might naively reveal facts about their existence, or even their identities, which would inspire a diplomat to pick up the phone, call his Romanian counterpart, and say, “I have something to trade.”

I put this possibility as a hypothetical over canapes with a military attache, who told me that it was “not unrealistic of me” to assume that precisely such a thing would have happened, that the world was “far more complex” than most people assumed.

During the year I toured and performed extensively, appeared at the Sibiu Jazz Festival (televised live in ten countries), became the first American to record an album in Romania (“Heart Full of Rock and Roll” on the Electrecord label), and shot what may have been the first rock video in Eastern Europe. All this with no help whatever from the embassy. In fact, they had told me it was all “impossible” to arrange. I also had a mad affair with a Romanian ballerina, who stared down the Securitate colonel who attempted to interrogate her about it, telling him, “You may be a colonel in your profession, but I am a general in mine.”

After the Sibiu concert, something horrible happened. I was with a group of musicians walking from the auditorium to a party at a hotel. The performance had been a fabulous success, with almost endless curtain calls and rhythmic applause from an audience of around 8,000. This outpouring was not so much for me or for any of us as it was for the very idea of American music. Even to listen to jazz, much less to perform it, was an act of more or less open rebellion for Romanians in those days. Their welcome for me had been warm and generous.

A young woman, the daughter of a television crew member, decided to come along to the party. I had innocently invited her. As we entered the hotel lobby, two uniformed Securitate officers grabbed her and began roughing her up. Seems the hotel was off-limits to her. When I tried to intervene, two of the musicians stepped in front of me and whispered, “We will pay.”

“Pay what? What are you talking about? They’re beating her up.”

“If you do something. We will pay. Think!”

I had been in country long enough to know what they were talking about. I was a foreigner, I had an American passport, nothing would happen to me. For any “trouble” I caused, someone else would be punished. I was to hear this warning often, the last time at another one of my “exit interviews,” when a high-ranking official at the university asked me whether I intended to write about my experiences in Romania.

“I’m sure I will,” I told him.

“Good, ” he said, “that is wonderful. We hope you can find something favorable to say about us. You have made many friends here. They will be waiting most anxiously to know whether what you write about us is positive or … negative.”

His meaning was clear enough.

So I said nothing when they dragged that young woman away. Not that I could have stopped them. “Believe me, it is better for her,” I was told. I didn’t go to the party after all, and I didn’t sleep that night. “Now you know something you didn’t know,” said my bass player, sitting across the aisle from me, on the train back to Bucharest the next day.

A week or so later Zivitz asked me again if I were “promoting American values.” Then he told me of a Romanian who had threatened to set himself on fire in the cultural attache’s office if the U.S. didn’t somehow get him out of Romania. “Go ahead, be my guest,” Zivitz had told him, “but I’m going to lunch.”

At one point the Charlie Byrd Trio was flown in from London, ostensibly to present some American culture to Romanians but actually to entertain the ambassador on his birthday at a concert virtually closed to the locals. I picked up Charlie and his boys at their hotel and gave them a whirlwind tour of Bucharest, then watched as they tried to keep their faces straight while the ambassador, who may have had a few drinks, slumped in the front row and snored through the concert.

God knows what the agent monitoring the broadcast from the microphone in the ambassador’s shoe made of all that.

In the spring of 1980 I toured Bosnia as part of an international poetry festival, a last-minute replacement for Mark Strand, one of the most amazing — and harrowing — experiences of my life. I flew out of Bucharest on a Tarom flight aboard a noisy old Russian Anatov-25. The flight attendant lumbered once down the aisle in gray smock and rubber boots, slamming a piece of hard candy down on my tray-table. “Is in-flight service. Eat!” she commanded.

We landed in Belgrade. I stepped off the plane and walked into a hornet’s nest nothing could have prepared me for.

DAVID VEST writes the Rebel Angel column for CounterPunch. He and his band, The Willing Victims, have just released a scorching new CD, Serve Me Right to Shuffle. His essay on Tammy Wynette is featured in CounterPunch’s new collection on art, music and sex, Serpents in the Garden.

He can be reached at: davidvest AT springmail DOT com

Visit his website at














We published an article entitled “A Saudiless Arabia” by Wayne Madsen dated October 22, 2002 (the “Article”), on the website of the Institute for the Advancement of Journalistic Clarity, CounterPunch, (the “Website”).

Although it was not our intention, counsel for Mohammed Hussein Al Amoudi has advised us the Article suggests, or could be read as suggesting, that Mr Al Amoudi has funded, supported, or is in some way associated with, the terrorist activities of Osama bin Laden and the Al Qaeda terrorist network.

We do not have any evidence connecting Mr Al Amoudi with terrorism.

As a result of an exchange of communications with Mr Al Amoudi’s lawyers, we have removed the Article from the Website.

We are pleased to clarify the position.

August 17, 2005


DAVID VEST writes the Rebel Angel column for CounterPunch. He and his band, The Willing Victims, have just released a scorching new CD, Serve Me Right to Shuffle. His essay on Tammy Wynette is featured in CounterPunch’s new collection on art, music and sex, Serpents in the Garden.