Last month, Romania’s parliament passed a bill banning schools and universities from teaching the idea that ‘biological sex is different from gender.’ The response was quick. A petition asking President Klaus Iohannis not to ratify the bill gathered more than 30,000 signatures in less than 24 hours. Forty universities and eighty civil society organisations across the country denounced the bill as an attempt to limit academic freedom. A students’ union asked the government not to ‘go back to the Middle Ages’. Dozens of people protested in front of the Presidential Palace in Bucharest, with signs saying ‘education prevents gender violence’ and ‘trans rights are human rights’. The bill still lies on Iohannis’s desk.
In winter, the Black Sea earns its name. The waters churn and it’s easy to imagine how the Evangelia ran aground in October 1968, leaving its rusting carcass to become a tourist attraction off the Romanian coastline, a few hundred metres from the Costinești shore. The resort was still under development then – the Romanian Communist Party intended it to be a summer camp – and in winter a dull gloom dims the colourful buildings. It’s empty much of the year; a problem that was noted at the time of construction. The first wave of Communist-era resorts were built in the late 1950s and 1960s without concern for expense, but in 1967 Ceaușescu demanded building costs be halved: ‘We must take into account that these hotels are not being built in Bucharest, Brașov, or other parts, but at the seaside, where they remain unused for eight months of the year.’
One day in 1982 I got home from school to the phone ringing in the kitchen. It was my mother calling from work. ‘The neighbours called. Your grandfather’s in the tree tied to a rope.’ I ran to the back garden. He was six feet up the old oak, a fifty-footer, twice the height of our 1950s suburban ranch house. The tree was infested with oakworm, and my grandfather had been monitoring its lean towards the house. But every time he mentioned cutting it down himself, my mother would dissuade him. She didn’t point out that he was 76 years old with angina, high blood pressure and arthritis, but bemoaned the American legal system’s permit and insurance requirements.
I visited Romania for the first time with my mother in the summer of 1975. I was five years old. At Bucharest airport a passport official whisked us behind a limp curtain. My mother hadn’t been back since she and my father escaped ten years earlier. As the curtain closed, she squeezed my hand. She’d told me before we left New York not to look anyone in uniform in the eyes. This was tricky during the pat-down. The official was so close I could feel her breath on my face. Trying to avoid her nose, I met her eyes. I thought she might make me stay at the airport without my mother or return me to Jamaica, Queens. Instead, she smiled.