In October 1989 I lost my heart to an East German music journalist who told me Bryan Adams had predicted the fall of Communism. There’d been ripples of protests in the East bloc countries around us, but they hadn’t really reached us in Bucharest at the time. We were in the firm grip of Communist mania and the cult of one single reigning couple. Radio Free Europe had appalling reception in Bucharest and the walls in our block of flats were thin. No one knew which neighbours might be likely to report on you.
Yet on a magical night in late October, Thomas and I chatted freely until four in the morning, having been careful to turn the radio onto white noise to cover any subversive comments. He told me: ‘All you need is more choice.’ Bryan Adams had said that to him just six weeks before the demonstrations started in East Germany, the borders began leaking via Hungary and Erich Honecker resigned. Six weeks after he quoted Bryan Adams to me, the regime in my country, which had seemed so absurdly invincible, began to crumble too.
With the benefit of hindsight, it was very strange timing to be hosting a foreign journalist in Romania, even one from a ‘friendly’ country such as East Germany. The situation in his own country was highly volatile, was Romania not afraid of becoming contaminated by the spirit of unrest? Did Ceausescu feel so secure on his throne surrounded by bodyguards and sycophants, that he believed no one would want to topple him?
Odd though it was, there I was, acting as the interpreter for Thomas on his exchange trip to Romania. His actual host, who spoke no foreign languages at all (or so he claimed) was Chris of the Youth Spark newspaper of the Young Communists. Chris was the typical party faithful, an automaton who spouted all the nonsensical party lines without blinking. I was embarrassed to be translating that, and I caught Thomas rolling his eyes. Used though he was to these clichés from his own society, Romania in the late 1980s had taken these verbal acrobatics to unparalleled heights.
We took the train to Iasi. Moldova in autumn is a symphony of colour, mellow sunshine and honeyed wine. We visited factories and party headquarters, enthnographic museums and vineyards. We were bombarded with puff pieces about the soaring Romanian economy, when all he was interested in was talking to real people. But we also sneaked out of the hotel in the evening after we had got Chris drunk to visit the beautiful Trei Ierarhi Monastery. We didn’t get to admire much of its intricate outside sculpture work but we heard a choir of young priests in training.
It may not sound like much, but it was extremely subversive for the time. Back in Bucharest, we wandered around the ruins of the old part of town that had been destroyed to make way for Ceausescu’s new civic centre. We had spitting and stamping contests on the banks of the river Dâmbovița. We compared notes on the recent histories of our countries, on censorship and education. We managed to sneak into the Students’ Cultural Institute and played four-handed piano in an empty auditorium. Above all, we talked and talked and talked, a mix of music and politics which was utterly exhilarating. He had interviewed Bruce Springsteen, he knew the song ‘Heut Nacht’ by Spliff that no one else in Romania knew, he dedicated the song ‘Ohne Dich’ by Münchner Freiheit to me in a room full of party officials (Freiheit = Freedom, get it?).
He was 34, happily married with two children. I was 20 and in love with my boyfriend. He never tried to proposition me (unlike Chris, who then sulked like a teenager when I turned him down) but we could feel an undercurrent of danger, the euphoria and sadness of meeting a soulmate from whom we have to part very soon. It was like alighting for a moment on the brink of the clearest, most beautiful blue pool, but peering within we could see muddy depths.
All you need is more choice? To both of us, the choice was never about being selfish. This was about a lot more than a fleeting passion between two young people.
It was that breath of freedom spreading across Europe that caught us up in its magic. It was the thrill of cross-cultural understanding, of future possibilities, of finally being able to live the lives we wanted. To me, he represented my German-speaking childhood home. To him, I was the generation for whom freedom would arrive at the right time and who could go on to change the world. We dismantled the walls in each other’s mind before the destruction of the physical wall in his home town.
We only kissed once, when we parted. He got on the train to Berlin and, within a few days, was one of the thousands who thronged at the border crossing and danced on the Wall. I returned to the news blackout of Bucharest, but within a few weeks, was one of the thousands who chanted: ‘The Army’s on our side!’ in University Square. I like to think that we channeled the passion we felt for each other at a personal level into political passion.
Where have thirty years gone? And how can people want to go back to building walls in our minds and hearts?