Translator Florin Bican shares his experience of being investigated by Romania’s Securitate for the dangerous practice of vegetarianism.
When, back in the ’80s, my boss summoned me to her office in order to inform me that Ceausescu’s secret police were after me, I had no idea what my transgression might have been. It was even more confusing to find out I’d offended by being a vegetarian. That might not sound like much of a felony at a time when meat was so hard to come by that people would queue for a whole night in the hope of getting a pound of gristle in the morning. Actually, that was the line of defense my boss had adopted in order to save my butt. “So what’s problem?”—she asked the secret police—“You’ve got one less guy queuing for meat.” “Sure,” they retorted “but what’s this guy doing when he’s not queuing?”
Had they asked me, I could have easily told them I was cooking whatever vegetables I could get at the market without queuing. But, of course, they wouldn’t ask me, since the Securitate preferred to obtain their information obliquely. It must have been through such oblique information that they’d got wind of my unorthodox diet in the first place, as I was not in the habit of advertising it. But even so, I couldn’t for the life of me figure out why the Communist secret police were concerned with my vegetarian persuasion. Apparently, my boss was equally intrigued. So she pressed them for clarifications (as a Communist party member she could afford to). Their explanation was even more confusing: “You never know with these guys. They start by not eating meat and end up lighting candles at midnight.” It had taken my boss a long time to unravel the conundrum on her own. I have to confess I would have never cracked it without her help.
“You never know with these guys. They start by not eating meat and end up lighting candles at midnight.”
The reference to lighting candles at midnight as a consequence of not eating meat was a (very) oblique one—to the Transcendental Meditation scandal they had themselves orchestrated a couple of years before. People had been officially encouraged to attend TM sessions only to be rounded up as enemies of the people a few weeks later, when TM was outlawed. As it happened, quite a few TM-followers were vegetarians and they did light, well, not exactly candles, but incense sticks, at their meetings. Not necessarily at midnight, but for the secret police, apparently all sedition had to occur at the witching hour . . .
Indeed, had they decided to keep an eye on me, they’d have caught me red-handed. Back then, power cuts were the order of the day after 10:00 p.m. Had I wanted, say, to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night, I would have, sure enough, lit a candle (flashlight batteries were just as hard to come by as meat).
Luckily enough, the defenders of the state eventually decided not to pursue the matter any further, and as far as they were concerned, I was left to my own vegetarian devices. This, however, did not exempt me from suspicion. For, back then, being a vegetarian in Romania was associated with an alarming degree of weirdness. Even my mother suspected me of trying to commit suicide by abstaining for meat. She believed that not eating meat was akin to holding one’s breath beyond the point of no return, and so my inexplicable vegetarianism was, consequently, the source of some panic.
I always wondered why Romanians were such great believers in the irreplaceability of meat in man’s diet. The occasional scraps they’d get had to go a long way, yet never would they contemplate renouncing their next fix, however distant in time. By meat, most of them meant pork, though beef, mutton, and venison also seemed to qualify. Not that the difference really mattered.
I remember a most puzzling scene in a dismal Romanian restaurant in the ’80s, with a waitress proffering a plate of meatlike substance to a confused customer with the words: “You’ve ordered beef, haven’t you?” “Actually, I’ve ordered pork,” the customer countered, defensively. Undaunted by his reply, the waitress dumped the plate on his table, remarking suavely: “Pork it is, then.”
Back then, being a vegetarian in Romania was associated with an alarming degree of weirdness.
Still, that customer fared better than me. I used to incur the waiters’ hostility as a matter of course whenever I ordered “something without meat.” “You sick?” was their first comment. “No, I just do not eat meat,” I’d apologize. “What about some chicken?” they’d volunteer. “No, thank you,” I’d persist in declining, quite mortified by my own fastidiousness, “I don’t eat chicken either.” “OK, I’ll bring you some fish then,” the exasperated waiter would concede, before giving up on me entirely when I claimed that fish was also meat. Fortunately, seafood was almost unheard of in the type of restaurants I would patronize in those days.
To be fair, Germans seem equally funny when defining the category of meat. Whenever I’d decline a sausage sandwich on account of eating no meat, they were quick to put me right: “That’s not meat, it is Wurst!” Bacon seemed to enjoy the same nonmeat status, since it figured liberally in a dish the menu insisted on listing as “Vegetarischer Salat.” But even in Germany things changed by the end of the nineties, and most restaurants now serve unadulterated vegetarian dishes.
In recent years, Romanian restaurants have also taken a leap of faith into vegetarian cuisine, and the new secret police no longer seem to care about vegetarian suspects. Things have truly changed here. So very much so, that a few years ago, hiking in the remote Western Carpathians, I came across a small village restaurant whose improbable menu was the size of a telephone directory, offering dishes from all over the world—France, Italy, Spain, China, you name it. Even British cuisine was lavishly represented with such delicacies as Welsh rarebit, kedgeree, bubble and squeak, and, yes, steak and kidney pie.
Not for a minute did I believe the offer was for real, though a French family I kept finding there at all times should have put me wise. In the end, I mustered the courage to ask the waitress: “Do you have all the items on the menu?” “Well,” she admitted, blushing in guilty embarrassment, “you know what it’s like, living in these godforsaken mountains—on and off, we do run out of octopus . . .”
We’ve certainly come a long way from Pork it is, then and underground vegetarians.
Read Florin Bican’s translation of Răzvan Petrescu’s “The Ditch”