I have been hooked on Robert Kaplan’s reporting on the Balkans ever since I knew I was going to Bosnia in the late 1990s on a reporting assignment with AUSA. Before I go to a place where I have never been — even in the United States, I read about its history, geography, culture, and maybe a little on its economics. For that trip before leaving, I read his Balkan Ghosts and Rebecca West’s Black Lamb and Grey Falcon. On the flight over, while there at night, and the way back, I read David Rohde’s and Tim Judah’s books on Srebrenica.
It was in the Balkans that the Roman church, the Orthodox church and the Islam of the Ottomans [pick a verb] met, collided, fought or your choice. Probably, there are few places better to see that “coming together” than in the Old City of Constantsa in Romania. From a hillside park with its towering monument to the Communist triumph over Fascism in World War II, you also can see the minarets of two mosques [ironically built by a Christian king in the 20th century], a plaza dedicated to the smart-alecky Roman poet Ovid, an impressive monument [but smaller than the WWII one] to the Emperor Trajan for subduing those pesky Dacians who lived there, and nearby a wooden Orthodox Church.
All the directional signs used Western lettering; a few menus used side-by-side Cyrillic. Romania is the only Balkan nation with Latinate based language.
The winding streets lead to a modern containerized cargo port to the right and much farther to the right sandy beaches and a row of casinos and high-rise resorts. To the left on the waterfront, there are several miles of seven to 10-story glass and steel Black Sea pricey apartments or condos, blocking almost all waterfront views for residents and workers in the Old City.
I just finished Kaplan’s In Europe’s Shadow: Two Cold Wars and a Thirty-Year Journey through Romania and Beyond [New York, Random House, 2016]. It is a wonderful work.
The book brought back a flood of memories I had from my two trips to Romania on reporting assignments in 2007. No, I didn’t go into the Carpathians in search of Vlad the Dragon [aka Impaler], though I did fly the turboprops of Carpatair, a Romanian regional airline based out of Timisoara, three times.
My time was spent along the coast, out of Constantsa — about 320 miles from Istanbul in one direction and about the same to Odessa going the other way. Both times I was with an American artillery battalion from a kaserne that was closing in Germany and a Romanian light infantry battalion a few months after it had returned from Iraq.
The longtime dictator couple, the Ceausecus, had been dead for eighteen years. Bucharest was really out of the Warsaw Pact and in NATO; Orthodox priests with their full beards had replaced the clean-shaven political officers in each battalion. The European Union was proving a mixed blessing for it and neighboring Bulgaria in the lands of Jason and the Golden Fleece.
The first thing I remember about the training range close to the passes where the Danube flows into the Black Sea was how this rolling brown landscape looked so much like Sonoma County, California — except for a huge stone tower [between 70 and 100 feet high was the guess I and others made] on the highest rise. Don’t remember seeing any of those on the hills above San Pablo Bay. The watch-standers in the tower’s job was to alert whoever ruled this land at the moment that someone [probably not a friend] was on the waters nearby then push them back into the sea if they dared try to land. Seemed properly fitting to be firing heavy weapons in that direction.
The second and most memorable part of those trips came on the trip back from that range. We were returning to the almost abandoned air base with packs of wild dogs running loose day and night on one side of a long runway. On the other side, there was a crammed to the gills commercial airport with packs of wild gamblers and loose sunbathers on their way to and from sand beaches and casinos.
It was late October, so it was dark at 6:30 when soldiers were being assigned to the 50 or so Humvees, trucks, Romanian fighting vehicles for the return trip. The low fog was thick enough that you couldn’t see the row of vehicles parked behind you or the one in front of you. You could hear the truck and fighting vehicles engines rumbling. The field kitchen had been trundled up into a waiting truck the night before, and breakfast was Meals Ready to Eat washed down by bottled water in the vehicle as you waited for the convoy to actually move.
Three days before with a late morning start, it had taken us in only three Humvees about 90 minutes to get to the range. This trip was going to take at least twice as long.
Because this was to simulate a movement in wartime, none of the vehicles were using headlights. Glow-sticks were hanging from Humvee and fighting vehicle antennas and truck tailgates. Top speed was 30 klicks per hour on the miles of graded dirt that wound past abandoned collective farms. Fifty klicks when we reached the paved divided highway.
I was riding in the back driver’s side. With all the gear stowed, there was no wiggle room.
At least twice, the long convoy was broken up at a crossroads. First to go were the fighting vehicles. They were put in the lead and quickly lost in the fog. The wait was 20 minutes. Then after a few more miles and at another crossroads, the trucks also disappeared into the thick murk. The wait was again 20 minutes.
If anything the fog seemed thicker because the countryside was between battleship gray and dull black, a pearl-like murk.
We were the lead Humvee. The vehicle commander, a staff sergeant and the driver, spotted something blinking every so often in front of us, but when they asked if we in the back could identify it, we were of no help. The driver slowed to a crawl. There was the dim light, once more, then again, swaying and gone. We couldn’t all be imaging this. The commander radio-checked with all the other Humvees. They were all there. But the responders at the end sounded irritated, wanting to know what had brought us to a crawl and how long were we intending to creep along. There was the light again. It appeared to be way too low for either an antenna or even a military truck tailgate glow-stick.
The driver plodded forward even more slowly, foot off the accelerator.
“It’s a hay wagon,” the vehicle commander finally shouted.
But it wasn’t. In the next few seconds, we could make out the shapes of kids, maybe five or six, piled along the sides and back of a leiterwagen. I saw a child reach up and touch something. Then there was light. You could just make out that it was coming from a cellphone hung on a back post. From this distance, maybe 30 feet behind the wagon, we could see a man on a bench front seat holding reins. He had pulled the horse as far over as he could safely to let us pass.
The commander, sounding very relieved, radioed back. “It’s a wagon full of kids” on their way to school.C
They were waving at us. We waved back.