My Fulbright Year in communist Romania began almost two years before I arrived in Bucharest in 1987. My former professor and mentor from Gonzaga University, Dr. Fran Polek, was himself a Fulbright alumnus who had served in Timisoara, Romania, during the 1984-85 academic year. In late 1985, I told Fran about my dreams of working and living in Europe and seeing more of daily life than a tourist. “Have I got a place for you,” Fran quickly said. At the time I knew next to nothing about Romania or its history and language. I became fascinated by Fran’s idea of teaching in Romania and his vivid, almost poetic descriptions of the people and the land itself. “The old Europe is still there—I’m telling you,” he said. With Fran as a reference, I applied in August 1986 for a Fulbright lectureship to Romania in American Language and Literature.
After waiting six months to be confirmed as a candidate, I was funded for language study, and during the summer of 1987 I attended the East European Language Institute where I studied Romanian for 8 weeks at UCLA. But even after completing my studies by mid-August, I was not assured a post in Romania. All postings were on hold—again. No official word from the Communist officials was forthcoming even though our Fulbright staffers diplomatically reminded the Romanians, weekly, that American scholars needed to plan their careers a year in advance.
I came to learn that this delay gambit was a common tactic from the communist Romanian Ministry of Education: delaying notices of official approval was just another cynical ploy and part of the larger ideological battle of the Cold War. In short, the tactic was meant to discourage American lecturers who needed jobs, after all. I held to my own plan to remain ready to go at a moment’s notice. As an unmarried scholar, I had the ability to return to my genteel poverty as a doctoral student in American Literature, so I reasoned that I could afford to wait them out. Finally, on the last day of September, I received the official approval phone call from CIES, and I was authorized to buy my tickets for Bucharest. My great journey to the Eastern Bloc had begun.
I arrived in Bucharest on October 10, 1987, and my first thought exiting the Pan Am flight from Frankfurt was that the airport was experiencing a power outage. Otopeni airport was a dismal, dark place that evening, but of course there was no power problem–just extreme rationing of electricity. I was greeted by an American embassy official from the cultural section who was fluent in Romanian and whisked me through the official inspections to a downtown hotel at last.
I had left Seattle 22 hours earlier but I was too exhausted and excited to sleep, so I decided to walk a bit even though it was almost 9 pm. Again I was greeted by gloom out on the Bucharest streets, and I had to adjust to walking in a city with almost no street lights. I found my way to the bright lights of the Intercontinental Hotel, a beacon of expensive electricity-consuming bright lights, and I entered that communist-run symbolic bastion of western opulence full of wonder at my new home. The bartender at the plush but almost empty Dollar Bar (so-called because it accepted only “valuta” or foreign currency and was therefore officially off-limits to Romanian citizens) told me I needed valuta, and so I took out one of my few American dollars and had a bottle of Carlsberg.
“I am here to teach American literature,” I announced to my new friend the bartender. “I came all the way from Seattle today, so I have the valuta I need.” He smiled back at me, of course. Obviously he had beard that line before.
During my tenure as a Fulbright lecturer in Romania, I taught American literature and English composition at Alexandru Ioan Cuza University in Iasi from October 1987 through to June 1988. In that time I had what anyone would consider a life-changing experience. The changes still affect me to this very day since Romania has become my second home which I have visited continually since my original stay almost 33 years ago. After my first semester in Romania, I met my wife Mirela, and we began a protracted courtship lengthened by the rules governing Romanian citizens during the days of the communist system which restricted travel abroad. We were finally engaged in 1989, but were not able to marry until March 1990, and only after the Christmas revolution of December 1989 changed everything.
After our wedding, Mirela and I lived in New Mexico for a time and then moved to New York City where we have made careers in education and raised our two sons. We have seen the development of Romania during these last 30 plus years, and we have grown with it and seen how the political and economic strife have complicated the success of Romanians and their active diaspora. It has not been easy since the fall of the communist state in Romania, but it has, in my estimation, been worth all the effort establishing a more open society in Romania.
As I reflected on what to share with you in this Fulbright Association profile, I considered what a curious newly-minted scholar might want to read about my experience. So please ponder this: wherever in the world your Fulbright year takes you, rest assured that although it may not alter your life-world as thoroughly as my service in communist-era Romania changed my life, you and your new-found colleagues will grow in a shared appreciation and understanding of life as it is lived every day, Monday through to Sunday—with all the best bits left in. Oh, and please always remember to be a good, kind, and respectful guest.
-David Hadaller, Ph.D.
Fulbright Lecturer in American Language and Literature to Alexandru Ioan Cuza University in Iasi, 1987-88