In last week’s blog we discussed what I believe our foreign relations at best are on the wrong track and at worst are a literal disaster. Both Republicans and Democratic administrations, as well as Congress, have created and sustained what I think is a real mess.
On the personal front, Gabriele and I have traveled extensively, having visited over 80 countries and seen all seven continents. As part of these journeys, we’ve had some direct experience with our country’s foreign affairs by completing six assignments for USAID, the United States Agency for International Development.
The USAID projects were interesting adventures that started in the fall of 1996, when we went to Baia Mare, Romania, about 300 miles north of the capital Bucharest. It was a small city of about 150,000 people near the border with Ukraine. It had been the main supply point for the now closed mines in the nearby mountains.
Living in this transition period between the defunct communist regime and the new era with everyone struggling to get into a free market economy was difficult for all.
Under communism, everyone had a place to live—mostly stark grey concrete apartments—and a job with almost no incentive to grow or promote. The stores had little to sell and the people didn’t have much money anyway.
Now the stores had much more, but jobs and money were scarce. In general, most people weren’t sure if they weren’t better off under communism.
Our first night in Baia Mare, Nehi, our host, sponsored a dinner for us in his little café. We were served a whole fish (with the head still on). Didn’t eat much, but it was nice.
There was no milk anywhere in the city, but bananas in every small boutique grocery. We were given an apartment on the 9th floor of an office building where the elevator worked occasionally. We had a single burner hot plate for cooking and a shower that created hot water by passing through an electric arc.
It was rainy and cold during our first couple of weeks. Our only heat was an electric heater in the middle of the living room until our client finally bribed an official at the gas company to turn on our gas before the prescribed start date.
There were one or two restaurants, but only menus in Romanian and no one spoke English. After a week or so we discovered a farmer’s market on the edge of town with different produce each week.
Many people took advantage of relatives who had farms outside the city to get their milk, eggs and occasional chickens.
Our client, Nehi, who had offices in the building, had invited us to help him expand his business services activities into trade shows. However, by the time we arrived, his partner, the Chamber of Commerce, who owned the building, had decided they would produce the trade shows and wouldn’t need his involvement.
On weekends we hired a car and drove to visit nearby towns and very interesting scenic spots like the cemeteries near the border with colorful five-foot pictured wooden tombstones depicting comic portraits or scenes from the deceased’s life, as well as strikingly unique wooden churches.
We met with all of Nehi’s employees and many of the building’s tenants, at least those that spoke English.
One morning, we put the heater on in the living room. Gabriele was in the electric arc shower and I turned on the hot plate to boil water for tea and, WHAM, we blew a fuse. We didn’t know whether to laugh or cry, so we did both.
After about three weeks, we developed a report outlining several areas of activity expansion for Nehi’s actions. We recommended starting business training programs, starting a tourism promotion bureau and providing consulting services for individual businesses.
In our fourth week, we left our 30-page report with Nehi and took off for a week in Budapest, Prague and Vienna. We had a fabulous time; ate real food, saw great sights and enjoyed long hot showers.
We tried to arrange our trip through the local “travel agency” but they had no clue what we wanted or how to do it. We were finally able to do it with the Bucharest office of USAID.
Faced with this new obstacle, we set out to find new areas of activity. Nehi, our client, was a former administrative manager for the communist run mines. He and his wife ran a bakery to support an orphanage that currently had about 12 kids in residence. He spoke excellent English and was very hospitable.
He ran a small breakfast and lunch eatery in the building and charged us tourist prices until we objected and asked for the same prices as the locals. Of course, it took a week or two to figure that out.
We arrived in Romania and stayed overnight in one of the two Bucharest hotels. The next day we flew up to Baia Mare. As our plane landed, we were surrounded by a squall of machine gun soldiers who escorted us into the terminal. Never did figure out what they were protecting.
By the way, USAID required consultants like us to be married. Gabriele and I decided we had an international marriage that was consummated each time we flew overseas.
With care packages from my LA office, we got by with packaged soup and hot chocolate, as well as what we could scrape from the local groceries.
Each night we sat in our living room and felt sluggish and sleepy. We told this to someone and asked about seeing a doctor. They told us not to worry, it was just the effects of the lead smelter in the center of town; nothing to worry about!
When we returned, Nehi was glad to see us and proceeded to take us to visit some factories and the nearby mountains. We kept asking about our report and when we could discuss it with him. No response!
We figured he didn’t like our report and maybe we should just go home. Right on the verge of taking that route, Gabriele figured out he spoke good English but probably couldn’t read it too well. With that in mind, we suggested that we review the report with him.
Over the next two days we verbalized everything in the report and he was excited and enthusiastic about everything we recommended. We were now nearing our six-week commitment and he wanted us to stay longer.
We declined and hoped he and his people could implement as many of our recommendations as possible. Unfortunately, one of the problems with these projects is there is no follow-up so you don’t know what, if anything, happened.
We were in Bucharest four or more times during our stay in Romania and saw what was once, and could again be, a beautiful city. The Pizza Hut had good soft-serve ice cream and edible salads.
According to Google, Baia Mare is now down to a population of 136,000. There are now 26 hotels and it has become something of a tourist destination.
We’ll tell you more about some of other assignments next week.