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 Building where Nicolae Ceausescu gave his last speech

For our last day of the river portion of this trip, we tie up on the northern banks of the Danube about 200 kilometers from the Black Sea.  Taking our luggage, we leave our boat and ride to Bucharest.

First impressions are not good.  Roads are littered with trash and stray dogs roam freely.  Buildings are in disrepair.  Once we get to the city, there are a few newer buildings, but most of the architecture still suffers from what I’ve come to call Soviet Pessimism.  Drab, dirty, unattractive and soul-less apartment buildings seem to speak to their inhabitants in an architectural language that says ‘lower your expectations.’  This same style can be found in Russia and its former Soviet satellites.  Like neighboring countries, many people smoke.  The Gypsie population, also known as ‘Romas’, is still here, though perhaps less evident than in previous years.  Romania still suffers from Ceausescu’s goal of a rapid increase in population, polar opposite to China’s one-child policy, and which backfired in almost every conceivable way.

LIke a Tiajuana taxi ride, our bus circles the same area several times, suggesting that the few landmarks we see are really the only notable places.  We drive by the massive Peoples House, second largest building in the world, exceeded only by the Pentagon.  This ornate and very expensive building, completed in 1989 and intended to house the Romanian government, was especially effective at angering an impoverished nation.  It is the heaviest building in the world and serves as Romania’s lasting monument to megalomaniacal waste.

We get off the bus to get a closer view of the comparatively modest Central Committee Building, and in particular the balcony that overlooks a large public plaza.  This was the place where Nicolae Ceausescu, former leader of communist Romania, spoke to some 80,000 workers on December 21, 1989.  It was his last speech.  This public appearance occurred several days after the secret police had fired upon and killed scores of protestors.  News of the shootings spread and greatly angered the public.  As is common with dictators, Ceausescu was out of touch with public opinion and the tensions within his own government.  He therefore badly underestimated the degree to which he was hated.  In retrospect he should have known better.  After all, one who forbids any form of abortion or birth control, forbids divorce and actively encourages desperately poor women to have 10 or more babies, all while spending lavishly on personal whims, should expect some backlash.

During his speech, the crowd became angry and unruly, ultimately forcing Ceausescu to flee to the roof of the building and escape by helicopter.  Four days later,  on December 25, 1989, he and his wife were captured by protestors, tried, convicted and executed on the spot.

Despite the disastrous policies of his final years, some older Romanians still remember being happier in the early days of Ceausescu’s regime than under the nascent democracy that emerged from the ruins of his reproductive mismanagement.  Most observers of this country believe it will take several generations before Romania can heal these wounds.

If you sometimes confuse Bucharest with Budapest, you are forgiven.  Michael Jackson famously made that same mistake in 1992.  The pop star traveled to Romania to perform in the newly democratic state, where he made an appearance at the Peoples House, completed by Ceausescu just a few years earlier.   While addressing the massive crowd of ardent fans, Jackson shouted into the microphone  “I LOVE BUDAPEST!”   The crowd was not amused, and Jackson was forced to make a hasty exit, also by helicopter.  He flew to his Neverland ranch, never returning to Romania.

We finish touring and enjoy a nice lunch at a restaurant that caters to people on bus tours, just minutes from the airport.  Having added Romania to our sphere of awareness, we board a Romanian Air flight and fly to our final destination of this tour: Istanbul.

 Typical apartment building in Bucharest.  Built by Soviets, I call this style ‘Socialist Pessimism’

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