Behind the Iron Curtain: Scotsman recounts his experiences in Ceaușescu’s Romania
Scotsman Ronald Mackay has lived and worked all over the world, from Eastern Europe to Latin America and Canada. In 1967, he arrived in Bucharest as a visiting professor, teaching at the Foreign Languages Faculty of the University of Bucharest. For two years, until 1969, he lived in the city, a time he recalls in his book “The Kilt behind the Curtain: A Scotsman in Ceaușescu’s Romania.”
In an email interview ahead of the book’s release, he told Romania-Insider about his experience at a time of pervasive suspicion and an ever-present secret police, his trips to the country, and one of his favorite ways of exploring Bucharest.
How did the idea of writing a book about your experience in Romania come about?
When I occasionally told people in the West of this or that experience I’d had in Romania in the ‘60s, they would just look at me in silence. I had no adequate way of explaining to them what it was like to live in such a repressive regime, and they, understandably, didn’t have the experience or the imagination to fully comprehend.
My wife suggested I should write about what I’ve experienced in the places I’ve worked around the world. I sat down to write a chapter about each of the many countries and decided to begin with Romania since it, of all places, has left such a profound impression on me. I wrote solidly for three months – but everything I wrote was about Romania, nowhere else. The memories just kept tumbling out. I was so immersed in the experiences of the ‘60s that if I left my desk for an hour to walk outside, I found myself expecting to see the streets of Bucharest or Herăstrău Park, or the building in Pitar Mos where I taught, or the villages in the Prahova Valley where I spent so much of my time. In the most profound way, I was literally back in Bucharest, reliving those days hour by hour.
Never having had anybody who could listen and understand that place and that time, I think I had locked away that part of my life. So when I began writing, it just tumbled out. It was most satisfying to put it all onto paper.
Since I left Romania in 1969, I’ve worked all over the world and had neither the time nor the opportunity to talk about living in Bucharest and traveling all over Romania during a period that left an enormous impression on me.
Did you rely on notes or a diary to write it?
My mother kept some of the letters that I used to write to her every week from Bucharest –about incidents in my daily life in the city, my teaching at the university, and my hiking trips into the Carpathians. These letters helped sharpen some of my memories. But the truth is that these two years in Romania were so intense and so bizarre that they are indelibly imprinted in my mind and have stayed there intact and almost untouched. I had nobody to talk to about these experiences, and so they were filed away like a time capsule.
When I began to write, a torrent of memories was unleashed and I discovered that I was able to remember people and names, places and experiences, and even detailed conversations with individuals. I can visualize in my mind’s eye exactly how Bucharest was then, along with another dozen towns and cities and regions all over.
Why do you think you were chosen over the other candidates for the post in Romania?
To my puzzlement, the selection committee when I was interviewed in London quizzed me about my capacity for living in semi-isolation with just myself for company. They probed into my past, looking for self-reliance and self-sufficiency. Finally, they explained that there was a regulation that discouraged Romanians from associating with foreigners, especially those few who visited from the West. A Romanian who associated with a Westerner was obliged to report the details of the circumstances and the conversation to their Communist Party “base.” That meant a permanent record on their personal security file. The average Romanian tried to avoid having anything detrimental on their security file, anything that could be used against them in any way or harm their career.
The committee discovered that I was highly self-sufficient. In 1960 when I was 18 years old, I had found myself penniless and alone on the island of Tenerife during an attempt to work my way by boat to Argentina. So, undaunted, I took a room in a tiny village inn, found a job working in a banana plantation, learned the language, and became an honorary member of the village.
I believe the selection committee wanted to ensure that their candidate would not disintegrate at the first hardship.
What did you know about Romania before coming here? What were some of the things you did not expect to find ‘behind the Iron Curtain’?
I knew little about Romania before arriving. The satellite countries around the USSR were not much in the news. Of course, at school, we’d covered the economic, political, and physical geography of the whole of Europe, but it treated the Central and Eastern European countries in a cursory fashion. At that time, they were simply not part of the consciousness of Western Europe. I knew that it was governed by the Communist Party, that it had oil and a much-valued agricultural production, and that the Carpathian Mountains rolled through much of the country; that it had been a part of the Roman Empire and much later of the Ottoman Empire.
In another book, A Scotsman Abroad: A Book of Memoirs 1967-1969, you mention a Romanian law forbidding any association with Westerners, and being avoided or not approached (on trips, at work). How did you deal with that situation?
I was briefed on that regulation by the British Foreign Office before I left the UK. The main concern of the officer who briefed me was that I not either wittingly or unwittingly get a Romanian into trouble with the Romanian authorities or the Communist Party. So, for the first year, I tended to be careful not to take the initiative in any meeting or encounter with Romanians. Only a few of my colleagues in the University would approach me with more than a “Bună ziua!”. I assumed that these were colleagues who had been cleared by the authorities and perhaps designated to report on me. I spent a lot of time walking in the Carpathians. If fellow-walkers talked to me in the cabanele, I would converse, but they tended to stick to their partners or their small groups, and I was usually so tired I went to bed early or read.
I changed my strategy during my second year. I decided that the secret police network of informants was too complicated for a foreigner like me to figure out. Romanians, on the other hand, had lived with the secret police and informants since the end of the War. So I let the Romanians be careful and decide how far they wanted to associate with me. I had to trust they knew what they were doing. Nevertheless, I never initiated a conversation, a contact, or a friendship. I simply responded openly to what came along and let the Romanian take the initiative. They either knew how far they were willing to make contact with me, or they were perhaps informants. Either way, the initiative, and the responsibility were theirs.
What was the foreign community in Bucharest at the time?
As far as I could see, the largest ex-pat community staffed the embassies. They could not socialize with Romanians except at official functions. I was often invited to official parties and functions by both the British and American cultural attaches. I accepted a relatively small fraction of such invitations.
There was the occasional British businessman. Feelers were being put out by Western Europe to see what opportunities there were. I occasionally went to the “pub-night” in the British Embassy to socialize with these visiting British businessmen, especially as I’d been told by the Foreign Office that my role as a language and cultural ambassador was the “sharp-end” of Britain’s attempt to engage in commerce with the East. I made a small number of very good friends among these businessmen, but they visited irregularly and for short periods.
There was the occasional “exchange student” and, of course, the American exchange professors. I remember only one, Jim Augerot. He was cut from a different cloth compared to the other Americans. He had learned Romanian well, was outgoing. Things were made easier for him because he was married to a vivacious woman and had two young daughters. Children can be the best ice-breakers in difficult situations.
There were visiting intellectuals who were sponsored through the bilateral cultural agreement to come and give lectures for a week or two.
Finally, there was the occasional “fellow-traveler” – the odd Brit who was known to sympathize with communism and visited for unclear reasons associated with their political party. I was given a warning in advance of their arrival and encouraged to give them a wide berth – which I did.
What did you miss of Scotland while in Romania?
To be honest, I was so enamored by the elegance of Bucharest’s architecture and the beauty of its countryside and mountains that I missed nothing of Scotland. I found life challenging but fascinating and even exciting. I was only 25, and nothing daunted me. I respected my fellow university professors as scholars and admired my students for their industriousness and their seriousness. I enjoyed the few friends that I made. I truly enjoyed being in Romania with all the challenges and opportunities it gave me to explore and experience a world I hadn’t dreamed of.
You mention that your previous experiences in countries such as France, Spain, Morocco, or United States were of little or no use in Romania. What made the country at the time so challenging?
The major difference was the control exerted over the population by the secret police. Everybody I met was ultra-careful not just with me but even with their fellow-citizens.
The book covers several trips in the country. Did some spots impress you more than others?
My first experience of the Romanian countryside was the Prahova Valley and the Bucegi Plateau. The villages were neat and tidy, the trails up to the plateau wound through the most beautiful forests I’ve seen anywhere in the world. To this day, I remember coming down from the plateau through Valea Cerbului and walking into an extensive and glorious beech forest. I’d seen individual beech trees in Scotland but never an entire forest of these magnificent trees. I can still see their grey barks and light-green leaves and smell the carpet of leaf-mold.
There were so many beautiful places in Romania, and I was fortunate to visit some of them more than once– the comfortable ancient towns of Transylvania, the painted monasteries of Bukovina, and the great evergreen forests and mountains of Maramureș.
My reception by the Mother Superior and her nuns at Horezu Monastery was memorable, as was the service I attended there.
My desire was to travel into the Danube Delta, but, alas, I never did. I was always just on the edge of it. One day I still would like to travel through the channels as far as Sulina.
What were your first impressions of Bucharest? What were your favorite ways of exploring the city?
I was bowled over by the elegance of Bucharest’s architecture. Although many of the old buildings had suffered war-damage, they gave me a feeling that they had been built for the delight of human beings, not merely for their utility. I’d never seen Orthodox churches before, and I took delight in visiting many and entering the open ones to see how beautifully decorated they were inside. Our Scottish Churches had stained-glass windows and a single, plain wooden cross on the wall. The orthodox churches were decorated with artwork.
The parks were fascinating the Cişmigiu Gardens and Herăstrău Park. I would often walk there. I especially liked to watch the older men play chess or swap colorful postage stamps in Cişmigiu Gardens. I never got tired of visiting the Muzeul Satului with its charming wooden building drawn from every corner of Romania.
Being a great walker, I tended to explore the city on foot. However, I would often just board a tram or a trolley-bus and ride it to the terminus just to see new parts of the city. I covered virtually every inch of Bucharest, either walking or on public transport.
What were the best moments of your time spent here? What about the most unexpected or frightening experiences?
Some of my best moments in Romania were hiking the trails in the Carpathians. Standing up on the edge of the Bucegi Plateau looking down into the Prahova Valley below.
The most unexpected and frightening experience I had in Romania (and I had several) was running into a group of camouflaged tanks in battle formation near the Soviet border not far from Siret. I knew I should not have been there, but I was showing off to a friend visiting from the UK, and I wanted to get him as close to the border as we could to look into the Soviet Union. I’d served in the British military as an infantryman and accompanied tanks on operations, and I knew exactly what I was seeing. That’s the only time in Romania I thought faster than a Romanian. I managed to talk my way out of the situation without harming the two Romanian women who were accompanying us. The full story is told in the book.
After your time teaching here, did you return to the country on other occasions?
Alas, I have never had the opportunity of going back to Romania. I would love to return one day. In the ‘70s was fortunate to have been able to work in Poland and Czechoslovakia.
Is there something you miss about Romania? Do you still get surprised reactions when mentioning that you taught here in the 1960s?
What I miss most about Romania is the Romanian characteristic of spontaneity. Everywhere else I’ve lived, everything is scheduled, and there’s little room for the unplanned and the impromptu. Romanians seemed to thrive on the unexpected pleasure.
For so many years, I was used to people looking at me blankly when I said I’d worked in Romania. However, since the Romanian revolution, Romania is better known, at least in Europe. Here, where I live in Canada, Central, and Eastern Europe is still a mystery.
The Kilt behind the Curtain: A Scotsman in Ceaușescu’s Romania is available here.
Bio: As a boy in Scotland in the ‘50s, Ronald Mackay delivered medicines, worked on farms and in forests, and hitchhiked from Dundee to Morocco and back when he was 17. After leaving the Morgan Academy in 1960, he found work in banana plantations on Tenerife in the Canary Islands. Later, to cover expenses at Aberdeen University, he delivered mail and graded skins for the Hudson’s Bay Company in London, fished cod off the Buchan coast, and was employed in the tunnel-excavation of Ben Cruachan to create the pumped-storage hydroelectric power station in Argyle.
Behind the Iron Curtain from ‘67 to ‘69 he was Britain’s visiting professor at Bucharest University and, later, traveled throughout Eastern Europe. From a post in Mexico, D.F in the ‘70s, he explored both Mexico and Guatemala. While teaching project design, management, and evaluation at Concordia University, Montreal, he worked from Newfoundland to Vancouver Island as well as all over Canada’s Arctic; held posts in Toronto, Edinburgh, and Singapore; and ran a working farm in South Monaghan.
Later, as a development project specialist, he helped improve the application of agricultural research technologies in Bangladesh, India, the Philippines, Tanzania, the Middle East, and throughout Latin America while developing a vineyard in Argentina with his Peruvian wife, Viviana.
Since 2012, Viviana and he have lived near Keene on Rice Lake, Ontario, in a house they built themselves.
He writes plays and short stories, gives public talks, and has published three previous memoirs: A Scotsman Abroad: A Book of Memoirs 1967-1969 (Contemporary Literature Press, Bucharest University, 2016); and Fortunate Isle, A Memoir of Tenerife 1960-’61 and A Tenerife con Cariño, (PlashMill Press, 2017 and 2019 respectively).
(All photos courtesy of Ronald MacKay; In the slideshow below: snapshots taken during the author's trips in the country)