How to Remember a King

How to Remember a King
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The book sat on the table under the light of a sunny December morning. Called ‘The Country’ and authored by Marie, Queen of Romania, its pages were darkened by time, and by the years spent tucked away in a dark corner of the shelves. Those courageous enough to keep it at all had risked running afoul of the Communist regime’s censorship of Romania’s royal past. Seen now in the second decade of the 21st century, it had the look of a survivor.

The chapters were published during the First World War so that Romanian soldiers could read about the country they were fighting for, seen through the eyes of their English queen. The book was published in 1925 in London, and copies reached Bucharest. But on December 30, 1947, the Communists forced Michael, Marie’s nephew and the last king of Romania, to abdicate. Everything good about the country’s royal past had to be erased from the people’s memory, and silence fell on Queen Marie’s book, which would not be published again in Romania until 2016. 

But even whispered words cut sharp against bad times.

On the first page stood a short message written calligraphically in Romanian: “To you, one of my dearest books.” There was a beautiful signature and the date, 1937. I asked my grandmother whether that was the author’s signature. Seeing her smile, I sat down, knowing she was going to tell me a story that would only be shared with a whisper. And she did: The custom in the old days was that you give away a book you have read and care about with a note. You would only write something to good friends. And you would sign, never including your full name and the date. To state the level of respect and affection, you’d use the best pen you have. “Because a book you read is a part of you already, and that means that you are actually giving away a part of your soul. You can’t do that just for anyone.” She then looked through the icy window, and explained that nothing else can be treasured more than those books bearing “the signatures of souls.” 

 I liked when my grandmother told me about old customs and whispered stories about the royal family. From her, I learned that Romania once had been ruled by King Ferdinand, who was married to Queen Marie. There was something extraordinary about them. First, they had ruled Romania in times of war, when Romanians fought for Transylvania. Second, King Ferdinand had been the name of our village, located 15 kilometers south of downtown Bucharest. That was before the Communists changed the village’s name to 30 Decembrie — December 30. I had never been told why it was called that way, but I knew it was not right that it had its name changed. I also knew, at the time of Communist rule, not to mention to anyone outside our home of the whispered stories of my grandma. 

The stories were beautiful – they spoke of when the queen had a house near our church, and of times when the royal automobiles would come driving down the main road. There were also those fun stories about small airplanes landing on the far bank of the river and about my grandma, in her happy childhood days, running and shouting at the planes as they took off again. She would also tell me that I had to study and learn to speak foreign languages. Her biggest regret was that she never managed to go to college – for that, too, the Communists were blamed. Because her father didn’t want to give his land to the Communists (and I had no idea why the Communists wanted this land in the first place), she was forced to stop studying and come back home from Bucharest. She used to tell me about walks through the parks of Bucharest, about the theatres I had to visit when I grew up. She never forgot to add that Romania had been noble, that there had been a royal family just like in Europe, which, back then, I took for a country. She always ended her stories with a different, sharper smile, concluding that she was a peasant, but she has had a lovely life…and with that sending me on about my own business.

That was before the crying years. In 1984 Ceausescu decided that Bucharest, and eventually Romania, had to adopt the North Korean style of architecture, which had enchanted him when he paid state visits to Pyongyang. Whole areas of the capital were demolished. In 1988, my family knew that my grandparents’ house was to be demolished soon. It was said that Romania’s dictator had passed by and with a gesture ordered that new blocks of flats be built on the sides of the main road linking Bucharest to Giurgiu. That news was bad to me – not because our house had to be demolished, as others already had been demolished elsewhere in Bucharest. I didn’t truly understand at the time what the word “demolish” meant. It was bad because my grandmother was no longer able to smile – all she did, while she was not working, was cry. Sometimes, when she would walk with me to my violin classes, she would cry in complete silence. Since that time, I have always hated crying. So I hated the Communists too.

My grandmother would still tell me how to behave, how to address elders, how not to ask inappropriate questions when visiting someone’s house, how to excuse myself when leaving the room, the small things I would make her tell me by misbehaving – partly because I didn’t know the rules but also because, knowing the rules, I wanted her to tell me more about why I should behave in a certain manner. I wanted to hear those stories about the royal family, about her childhood years, about how my grandfather would ride white horses, and the family had a sleigh and carriage to ride out onto our land. Even if I had no idea what that even meant: “our land.” I didn’t like that I had to respect the rules of those times yet be deprived of their stories.

In 1990, after the Romanian revolution brought down the Communists that I so despised, my grandparents started talking openly about King Michael. The name of the village was soon changed into 1 Decembrie, and they were upset that it was not renamed, in accordance with the old days, to “Regele Ferdinand,” King Ferdinand. But they were fine with the new date – after all, they said, King Ferdinand had made of December 1 the key date in Romania’s history, the date when Transylvania became part of Romania.  He and his wife, Queen Marie, the author of that forgotten book in the library. Our house was safe from demolishing — in fact, it was renovated instead. It was to become white, after a family meeting where my parents and my grandparents debated all sorts of things related to its modernization. My grandma was happy again and only cried when she heard on the radio that the king was not allowed to come into the country, on his first attempt, on Dec. 25, 1990. She was happy when he visited again in 1992 – he was then no longer considered such a big threat to the new government installed in Bucharest and was allowed to visit on the condition that he return to Switzerland after a few days. Well, there was something about the king for sure. But I wasn’t much interested and went on about my business.

In a roundabout way not totally surprising, considering the stories I liked when I was a child, my business became geopolitics. So, I learned about who King Michael was. I learned why Dec. 30 was a bad day – in 1947, that day was when the king had to leave Romania. I learned about the meaning of Aug. 23 and why it should have been a date Romanians remember with pride, as hundreds of thousands of lives were saved when King Michael of Romania decided to change sides and join the Allies. I learned about tactics and strategy, and I learned all about war. I write about the balance of power in the world. I write about the politics of the region. I try to stay objective and judge the larger picture. I look at Europe every day and consider how stable it is. And I have definitions for what influence and power are. I ponder the future, read about the present, and study history.

On Dec. 16, 1989, Romanian rage against Communism erupted in Timisoara. By the end of the year, my grandmother was smiling again. There was hope that we would keep our house, and there was hope I’d get “an education.” 

On Dec. 16, 2017, Romania’s last king was buried, and he was buried at home. Thousands of people were in the streets of Bucharest, more still in the railway stations that the train carrying his remains passed through, and millions were watching the procession. Media criticized the outbursts of applause. Some academics and political commentators said the population was clueless about protocol. They said Romanians are not educated enough to know how to behave for such a funeral. 

And so we were. 

We were not educated to know who our king was, nor to find out. That was one among many things we were not educated to understand. But we were and still are able to feel. To feel what is not right. To distinguish the good from the bad. We were probably not much educated in December 1989 and did not know what to do when fired upon. We had no clue what was going to follow. But in the chaos of the moment, the population understood what sacrifice looks like – and many sacrificed for freedom without being educated enough to know what freedom was. I like to think that in looking back at the king’s life, those who were uneducated enough to bid their farewell with applause understood that a big part of his life was also marked by sacrifice for Romania.

Many of them discovered a model that they had heard whispered about in their childhood. Many never even knew he was really there. Many will go looking to find out who he was. But to them all, it was “the bad” in the society we live in today that created the relevance of “the good” in the king’s life. It is what they perceive to be the lack of political leadership and morale of today’s ruling elite that had Romanians applauding the king’s abundance of both. December 16, 2017, was a day for serious childhood. A sad fairytale’s end – and a whisper for the future.

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