The Kilt Behind the Curtain

Ronald Mackay arrived in Romania in ‘67 as part of a UK-Romania cultural exchange and as a professor of phonetics. The two years he spent in Romania were to have a huge influence on the rest of his full and fascinating life. Romania was unforgettable for Ronald but it was a very different country then to the one we know today as his wonderful photographs vividly attest to below. Here he describes his experience of Romania back then and he talks about the book he has written about those experiences “The KIlt Behind the Curtain” and how his life panned out both before and after his Romania sojourn, it’s quite a tale.  Here’s to you Ronald, as we say in Scotland – Sliante! 

1. So can you tell us about how you came to be in Romania, why, when?

I arrived in Bucharest by train (all the way from Aberdeen in Scotland via Paris, Vienna, and Budapest) in the autumn of 1967. I flew out of Otopeni Airport in June of 1969. 

In the mid-’60s. the British and Romanian Governments had negotiated a cultural exchange agreement as the forerunner to a daring joint trade agreement. As the “British Exchange Professor in Phonetics” to Bucharest University, I was told that I was at the “sharp-end” of the push to promote trade between the two countries.

2. What were your expectations, what did you know and what did you find?

The countries “behind the Iron Curtain” were not well known in the West in the ’40s, ’50s and ’60s. They had ‘vanished’ behind that Iron Curtain in 1949, so I had no clear expectations. My briefing from the British Foreign Office had focussed on the political challenges that would face me as a British visitor to a totalitarian communist country under the shadow of the USSR. The law of association discouraged Romanians from speaking to foreigners, especially from the West so I was warned to be prepared for social isolation. I’d be watched constantly by the Securitate (Secret Police) and their informers. I might be approached, even bribed or blackmailed by the Securitate into working for them.

3. What were you doing here and how was it?

My post as the British exchange professor of phonetics at Bucharest University, in the Facultatea de Limbi și Literaturi Străine on Pitar Moş. “Exchange” was a fiction as far as the exchange was concerned. Romanians coveted the post in the UK, but their enthusiasm was not reciprocated by British professors. Whereas, for a Romanian professor to spend a year at Oxford was a grand prize, no British professor from any British university then, wanted to spend time behind the Iron Curtain. So, the British Government was forced to find either a British graduate desperate for a job, or as in my case, someone drawn by this adventurous opportunity.

The Romanian professors of English language and literature at Bucharest University were as professionally qualified, well read and as scholarly as any native British professor in the UK at that time. A visiting British professor was merely an adornment, valued as a novelty since there were virtually no British people living in or even visiting Romania outside diplomats. Hence, I was a curiosity to my Romanian colleagues and especially to my students. My colleagues had to report to the communist party base any conversation they had with me; my students did not have to report on our classroom contact. So, there I was, shunned by my professorial colleagues but regarded as a prize by my students who would never otherwise come into contact with a real live native speaker of English.

I posed a dilemma for my colleagues if I went for lunch to the elegant Casa Universitarilor (the Faculty Club) on Strada Dionisie Lupu. I could sit at a table and eat alone though the dining room was overcrowded. My colleagues didn’t dare sit with me because they didn’t want to have to report the incident to their communist party ‘base’. Anything on an individual Romanian’s personal security file could be used against him or her and distorted to suit the authorities.

4. Tell us about some of your experiences here.

I walked all over the city during weekdays just to absorb the beauty of the public buildings, the old mansions, and the parks. Many times I visited sites of interest from the national art gallery to Casa Scanteii, from the Muzeul Satului to Cișmigiu Gardens.

My personal salvation was the Carpathian Mountains. I would often take the train to the Prahova Valley and walk up into the mountains on one side or the other and spend nights in one of the hostels. In Scotland, I’d been a great walker and loved the hills, but the beauty and grandeur of the Carpathians made a strong impression on me. When I was up there on the plateaus or walking through the great beech forests, any thoughts of loneliness or isolation evaporated.

Knowing I had no car, the kindly British Consul, Doris Cole, used to lend me her Ford Anglia so I was able to travel all over Romania and experience  its varied beauty first-hand.

Slowly, in Bucharest I was able to share time with those few people who, for one reason or another, were willing to befriend me. Sometimes I was befriended by an informer for the secret police, but such informants were always well-educated and interesting people and I had nothing to hide. Others became friends because, I think they felt they had already lost any chance of a career, promotion or other perk and so had no more to lose. They too were interesting conversationalists. 

5. How did Romania compare to what you were used to?

I was born during a rather austere period in the UK and grew up in post-War Scotland in the 1940s/1950s. Frugality and hardship were features of everyday life, so I wasn’t particularly upset by the shortages in Romania. In Bucharest, everything was in short supply from clothes to food. Shops just ran out of goods. Part of the problem was poor transportation. The market would have an item one day and none the next. 

Prior to arriving in Bucharest, I had spent four years as an impoverished student in Aberdeen. Prior to that, in ’60-’61 I had spent a year as a worker in the banana in the north of Tenerife and lived a hard and parsimonious life under the dictator Franco’s tyrannical regime. So, when I arrived in Romania, I knew how to cope with frugality and how to survive under state oppression.

I think those qualities were why I was chosen by the British Government for the post. I was self-contained, self-sufficient, able to handle loneliness and experienced in living under despotism.

In Bucharest I had a one-bedroom, centrally heated apartment all to myself. Central-heating was unknown in Scotland then, hence my material standard of living in Bucharest was an improvement. Bucharest University paid me a full-professor’s salary, so I had adequate local currency. The issue was there was nothing to spend it on. I preferred to cook for myself in my own apartment than to eat out, though I could have eaten out every night had I wanted to. 

6. Where are you from and what had you been doing prior to coming to Romania?

I was born in 1942 in the small village of Coupar Angus in Perthshire and later attended the Morgan Academy in Dundee.

On leaving school, I applied to study agriculture at Aberdeen university but was turned down because I’d had to re-sit maths. University programmes were highly selective in those days. I was so disappointed I decided to work my way to Argentina to trace my grandfather’s family. He had emigrated there in the 1890s to build railroads. I hitchhiked as far as Cadiz in Spain and was looked to work my passage on a boat to Buenos Aires. However, I reached Tenerife, ran out of money, and so found a job in a banana plantation. I learned the language and lived there for a year in the tiny village of Buenavista del Norte.

Two years later, I was admitted to Aberdeen University to study for an MA in general arts. I had a small local authority grant and worked as a labourer in a hydro-tunnel in Scotland and on building sites in London to make the extra I needed.

I also joined the 3rd Battalion Gordon Highlanders – the Territorials – because they paid twelve shillings and sixpence a week. So, I learned how the military was organized, the value of discipline and conscientiousness, and became skilled in the use of all infantry weapons.

These experiences gave me confidence in my ability to handle any situation.

7. Now with some distance, hindsight, what are your abiding memories of Romania?

I fell in love with Romania. The beauty and grandeur of the countryside, the mountains, and the Medieval towns. I had never before lived in such a grand and architecturally beautiful city as Bucharest. The grandeur of the architecture was enhanced in a mysterious way by the beauty of the Orthodox churches.

Of course, the atmosphere of fear in the city was oppressive. People kept to themselves and their family groups for fear they might be denounced as anti-revolutionaries. Word was that the Securitate employed countless informants who were out to report on anything and anybody. 

The countryside was different. Peasants were less afraid, but people in the small towns were just as up-tight as in Bucharest. The fact that Romania was home to so many ethnic minorities exacerbated the fear and the suspicion. The history of Central Europe was such that countries could split up along or across ethnic lines at the drop of a hat. These divisions served Ceaușescu and the Romanian Communist Party well. 

In the ’60s, suspicion and fear were everywhere. Ceaușescu purposely promoted uncertainty to discourage Romanians from thinking that they might be able to change things or challenge his domination of the country. It was impossible for my Romanian colleagues to develop a relaxed friendly relationship with me under such corrosive circumstances. I look back on that and feel sorrow for how crushed they were as individuals and as a nation. But they bore that yoke with great stoicism and often with a wicked sense of humour.

One of my colleagues at Bucharest University, Professor Harald Mesch, befriended me in 1968. His home was in Sibiu. I have wonderful memories of accompanying Harald to the medieval towns and villages of Transylvania, surely one of the most picturesque regions in the world.

Some of the finest and most educated people I have ever met were those I got to know throughout Romania at that time.

8. You say that your experiences here were “life-changing” – in what ways? Did you ever consider returning/did you ever return?

Romania was life-changing for me in the sense that I learned that life could, sometimes had to be lived on several levels at the same time and that these levels could be kept sealed off from one another. That’s not necessarily a good thing – indeed perhaps it is a very bad thing – but such a realisation makes you more aware of yourself, other people, the context, and the different ways and depths at which you can interact. I learned the ‘safe’ thing to do in all sorts of different situations. I learned to observe and listen; never to draw conclusions about anybody or any event without collecting sufficient evidence to be sure.

These lessons have been useful to me in my peripatetic life as an evaluator of international development programmes throughout the world. I’ve felt comfortable or at least known how to survive and even thrive under the most awkward of conditions.

I thought briefly of returning to Romania in 1989, but I was striving in a university career at the time. I had on-going research, research assistants to pay, teaching responsibilities to fulfil.

My work has taken me continuously to one part of the world after another but, alas, never back to Romania. However, all is not over, there’s still time and the will! 

9 Tell us about your book.

My experience of writing three previous books has made me realistic about just how modest book sales can be. Fortunately, eBooks are a fraction of the price of a paperback and so sell relatively well.

I haven’t thought of returning physically to Romania to promote the book though I would very much enjoy returning even just to visit the places I loved so much. Also to do what I never did — travel by boat through the Danube Delta to Sulinas.

I originally wrote about my experiences in Romania in 2016 while I was in Peru. The day I finished writing, I sent the manuscript to my good friend Dino Sandulescu (Dr C. G. Sandulescu, ex-professor, Bucharest University) who was living in Monaco at the time. He called me and asked if I might permit the Online Press of Bucharest University (Contemporary Literature Press) to publish it. It appeared literally shortly after.

Friends kept asking me if there was a paperback version. So this spring, I sat down and reduced the original manuscript to 2/3rds of its original length. John East, my wise, literary brother-in-law, read it and suggested the new title. Thus, The Kilt Behind the Curtain was born. It will be released on 14th October.

10. How did your life progress post-Romania, where are you now, what have you been doing and what do you do now?

After those two years in Romania, I studied for a graduate degree that allowed me to address how our proficiency in our native or in a second language helps or hinders us to learn, to work, to resolve problems and to accomplish complex projects. I wrote my doctorate in the evaluation of programmes and projects. I have worked to facilitate communication and learning on educational development issues in the Canadian Arctic, to accomplish goals in multilingual and multi-cultural teams in projects varying from the use of sugar cane in beef-cattle diets to the resurgence of the high-protein Andean grains quinoa and amaranth. My Peruvian wife and I have enjoyed small-scale excursions into farming – grapes and olives in Argentina, alfalfa in Canada, avocadoes in Chile. 

I retired in 2012. We built a small house on Rice Lake, Ontario. Viviana still teaches using the Internet and I write plays and stories as well as memoirs. Then there’s our flower-garden, vegetables, home maintenance, keeping up with family and friends…

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