The Dutch connection or some adventures of Paul Dan Cristea in the nineties.
Herbert ten Thij
There was not so much sunshine in the office at the university, actually there never was, when I opened the letter from the Rector of the Politehnica University of Bucharest. Yes, we knew about the changes that had taken place in Eastern Europe. But it was Eastern Europe, you know, the part of the continent where James Bond encountered most of his troubles, so of course some changes were to expect there. But, good heavens, now these people wanted to come to visit me. It started to rain outside. Actually it’s raining most of the time over here, but now it had also the sound of a spell. There were a lot of formal stamps in the letter. I never saw such an official, serious official letter before in my life. So I answered that Rector immediately that it was all right that he or someone else in his place would come and see me some day.
Some day soon a visitor, a vice rector from Romania, set foot on Dutch soil for the first time of his life. Perhaps you would expect me to write that it was a dark day, but alas it was only a grey day, as usually. But the dark haired visitor smiled. As a first impression could Walter Matthau count with an 007 grin, but as I have seen other movies as well I forgot about it as we talked. We talked a lot. We talked about university life of course as it seems common all over the world. It appeared than that I was mentioned by the Poli Torino from Italy during an official visit as a person to contact. Some ideas keep to be inconceivable. We talked about science, about biology, especially evolution theory, and about history and about the events that recently had taken place in Romania, we went for dinner in a Greek restaurant because I thought this would make my guest feel somewhat at home, we talked about our family backgrounds, we talked about our families, we talked about daily life in Romania in the Ceauçescu era, we talked about literature, we talked about the future and finally we talked also about cooperation. Actually Paul Cristea was talking most of the time, because I, with an always teaching father teacher, was raised as a listener mostly and he was used to talking much anyway.
As polite people do a letter showing gratitude was sent to me, without stamps, but with also the announcement of the intention to propose a project in the brand new TEMPUS programme at that time, the early nineties, and with the request whether I as a representative of an organisation in a EU Member State would like to become the coordinator of it as was required in those early days of East-West cooperation in a project of the European Commission. Trusting that as commonly twelve out of eleven proposals would be rejected I agreed. However, early at the beginning of the next new academic year I found myself buying a visa at the airport of Bucharest surrounded by soldiers with machine guns. I thought I would never see my family back again, but there was no return and Paul was waiting in the dark airport hall to take me with his new old car over the broken roads of Bucharest to a hotel of former grandeur with just one room only with an electric light, Philips of course, probably to make me feel at home somewhat.
“Let’s buy some boulevards or main streets in this city-without-children”, I said, but all present in the Rector’s room, fine academics but suppressed for ages and cruelly prevented to do their work properly, gazed at me and thought me the ultimate fool from the West. They might have been right after all, but -still surprisingly- many years later some of them who remembered these words told me than that we should have followed my advice those days and that we would have become very, very rich. Yes, indeed, but the horizon and goal of the moment was to come back to worldwide science again and to participate at the normal, international level. As Paul Cristea prominently did. During his first visit I, not being an electrical engineer of study or profession (as some physicists are), introduced Paul to some people working in advanced fields of this discipline. When we all met about one year later again, these people told me in talks later on that it had been joyful to learn that now the questions raised by Paul where all so very to the point. As they always already were in mathematics of course. And as I have experienced right from the start when we began our cooperation.
The lady in the bank was nervous but willing. Such might be promising at an evening dance or so, but during broad day light one needs to watch out carefully then. Here were the most magnificent rector and main advisor of the Minister of Education or perhaps the Minister himself as well soon and undoubtedly the Dutch boss of the European Commission or so coming to her to open an ECU- account, something that never happened before in Romania and undoubtedly sums of strange money and of amounts beyond believe would appear on that account in time. Probably she was right about the strange money, but about these amounts only in the reverse way, especially seen the need of the day. So, after two times receiving her business card we found ourselves completed with an account in Romanian ECU’s. Virtual money the ECU’s were already in those times, but unfortunately double virtual doesn’t make anything real by logical consequence. However, after a few more laughs behind polite and friendly smiles Paul and I found ourselves back in the Calea Victoriei having created the financial portal to start our first TEMPUS project, one of the first of these projects in Romania as well.
The king is coming. All the beautiful freshly painted eggs dry immediately by the heat of all the excitement that arises in the streets of that sunny Easter day in Bucharest. People in the Bulevardul Nicolae Bălcescu are rushing to the Piaţa Universităţii. I am staying in Bucharest together with my rector for giving lectures as a part of the project. We are looking out of the window of the Lido Hotel to the growing crowd, still with the choir music of the Easter mass in our ears. My rector is very fond of orthodox choir music, but the choral music in the church where Paul took us last night was all right as well. A new sound appears. Police cars are clearing the road to free the way for the car of the king. “The king has invited himself to visit Easter mass in his church”, Paul says when he enters the door of the hotel room, “come and let’s watch an historical event perhaps.” Minutes later we become part of the mass moving slowly but steady to the Biserica Colţei. We had visited that very church a few days before where we received the blessings of an old white bearded priest dressed in grey rags. “I do apologize, I am not a believer that much”, I said. “It will help you nevertheless” the rural city monk replied. Unfortunately I couldn’t ask him the kind of help he meant as he vanished immediately in the dusk of the church. Now the king visits the church, but I wonder whether it will help him to restore the royalty of his dynasty. In the afternoon the king appears on the balcony of the Grand Hotel Continental showing especially his grandson while the immense crowd chants his name and bearing photographs of him from the time when he was a young man. Amazing how all people grew into one whole, another new experience to me. The king waves and vanishes from the balcony, his grandson and daughter are following a few minutes later. The past tried to step into the future, but the present reigns the time. The mass knew it someway and dissolved. If not even a promise of a good or better life is made, no mass movement can be expected. The king apparently had no skilled advisors. Possibly this has been calculated well at the presidential palace at Şoseaua Cotroceni. A symbol just staying a symbol is no threat to anybody or to anything, they must have thought there and things were let to happen as they happened. So we all went back to our quarters preparing for the evening dinner. Still some further historical event had to happen. Rector Frederic, a very specialist in 1/f noise (one over f - noise), often talking with an Amsterdam accent, in Dutch but in English as well, and I decided to have a drink on a little terrace next to the Ion Mincu Institute of Architecture that was nearby our hotel. While sipping our beers a gigantic gypsy man took place next to us. He also ordered a beer and started to play with a ten dollar bill. Suddenly he asked Rector Frederic whether he had dollar bills as well in his pocket. I expected him to answer that this was not this man’s business, but to my amazing he confirmed his wealth. The man invited him to show that money. I knew it was useless to say anything to prevent the actions to come. Proudly the rector showed his money in his wallet. Immediately the gypsy giant pointed at a hundred dollar bill he saw there too and asked whether he could hold it to see it closer. Rector Frederic was very willing to do this very oriental looking man a pleasure and to give him a new experience probably as well. He took the hundred dollar bill and gave it to the man. The ten dollar bill had silently gone while the man hastily took Rector Frederic’s hundred dollar bill. He looked at it so meticulously that everybody thought he would copy it after having returned home. Than he begun to fold the bill. When it was folded into a little packet the man handed it back to the Rector and finished his beer. Rector Frederic unwrapped the bill while the gypsy giant stood up to continue his way. Half unfolded it already appeared that the bill was of ten dollars value. ”Polisie”(Police) shouted the rector very amsterdamned, “P’lisie”, but nobody took any further notice. The man had disappeared and nothing further happened. Everything was melted into ‘one over Frederic noise’. In emotions and in mathematics one can think a lot, but not changing anything in the wide world where also uninvented laws apply or even none at all. A historical truth not only for magnificent rectors or kings. Perhaps some more illusions have been lost on that Easter afternoon.
More nicely painted eggs I could admire the next year when I was in Bucharest again, but now alone, to do my tasks in that three years’ project. To my joy, I dislike hotels, I was not framed in a hotel, but lodged in an cosy apartment, but full of cockroaches as well, at the Strada C.A. Rosetti, where the baker at the corner of the block baked such delicious bread that people were queuing up for it every day. Being on myself completely now I had much more opportunities for queuing up myself in shops, for having contacts with Bucharest people around and especially with the students. Often I invited them to join me for dinner. And as some had been soldiers in those revolutionary days I learnt a lot more about what happened than. As for instance about the surprise to them when they ignored the commands of their officers to shoot, that everybody was thinking the same at that moment, but also about the fading past situation in the country. It told much as well about the circumstances at home in the previous era. And it explained a lot also how they developed their double faces in public and privately. Something that was not seen that much anymore in the next generations of students, for that matter.
It was also in these days that Paul and I were invited to the headquarters of the newly founded Black Sea University – BSU with strangely two jumping dolphins in its logo. We went to that former presidential palace in the spring quarter to admire the beautiful magnolia tree that was flowering in the little square before the building and the peacocks in the well-kept garden that surrounded the villa. We wondered whether the Latin word for peafowl: ‘pavo’ was as well an onomatopoeia as the Dutch word ‘pauw’ seemed to me when we heard these birds screaming. We joked about so many symbols of immortality all together in this place, but shortly after that we found ourselves invited to give a course at the summer school later that year in merry Costineşti in the region of the city where once that famous author of the sad letters lived.
Paul waited again at the airport where we stepped from the sharp and lazy shadows into the sun that meant to shine for infinity, most certainly that summer baking the Bucharest mosquitoes to true Dracula sizes. Family fathers or other adventurers would think of holidays for this kind of weather, but we poor servants of science and education we prepared for giving courses to students with heads and hearts full of summer, sea and sand and sun. So, after a sticky vaporous Bucharest night with much insect fight in Cotroceni at the border of the Dâmboviţa River we got up early to bridge some two hundred and seventy kilometres or a few more by car to reach the voice of the sea. Later we came to learn that this was not so much the gentle sound of Neptune’s organ, but the sky filling music of five discotheques surrounding our hotel in Costineşti and beginning at night at the very moment we went to bed. This all was still unknown to us when we got into the car to start our journey to the Black Sea.
Already the sun was burning in the streets putting the market merchants in slow motions and making the jumping car windows mirror lightning flashes on the buildings, but we reached the outskirts of Bucharest shaken but not stirred. Of course Paul was telling about all the remarkable places we passed by. About the secret physics laboratories everybody knew about and that it was a shame that I didn’t play bridge, about the winery we undoubtedly would visit in Murfatlar, but mostly about a lot of things that were just fresh history or from a further past. People we passed on the road, people busy to get things done before the afternoon heat. An old man with a slow cow on a rope we passed, a farmer’s family with a long whip on a chariot with a skinny horse as well, women in the villages sitting in front of the house either just counting the cars passing by or trying to sell some fruit or perhaps just happy to enjoy the morning sun. Over a small bridge over a small summer river we crawled and within the river bend nearby a few horses were grazing with their fowls and at a distance petrified trees stood reflecting silently themselves in a stream that almost had forgotten already how to move. But we talked, we drunk some lemonade on a terrace of an old inn along the road and we talked. Paul stopped to buy a big melon and told everything a decent man needs to know about melons and how tasty they are when one eats them on a summer evening. And so we talked even more and even more about history when we stopped nearby Adamclisi to see the Tropaeum Traiani, the rebuilt monument commemorating also that the Romanian language of today is a Latin language of origin. Paul then always said that Romanians and Italians could easily understand each other’s language. “Si?”, I then always asked, “Da”, he usually answered hastily. But to make a vivid touch with the Antiques we lifted a tortoise (‘Testudo hermanii’, whispered the herpetologist of younger years in me) that had the firm and stiff intention to push us aside. When we put the ever crawling animal back on the ground we looked at the new old stones again as if something moved there. Probably it was the dancing of the light in the heat of the day that was forging our brotherhood. When we looked back around the ‘old’ creature had gone already and was not to be found anymore. It is the habit of the ancient gods, on earth they come and go.
So back on the road there was again a lot to talk about. We wondered about the tortoise why it did not hide in its shell when we lifted it. This should be its natural defence behaviour. Not seldom however bleached skeletons of tortoises were found clinched between the rocks witnessing the determination of the animals to follow a once chosen way even when returning would have saved their life. That must be an example of linear thinking come what may. As was this specimen an example of such prehistorical robotic behaviour perhaps. Still more there was also to tell about the monument and about the times it was erected and re-erected. Once beginning to talk a lot more subjects arose, as always. Time flew by. We passed trees perhaps and some villages may be, in the corner of the eye they did look all the same. And when we were aware again of linear thinking and of our surrounding world it appeared that we had not arrived at the Black Sea, but in Bulgaria.
We had missed a junction perhaps. So we had to take a ferry to bring us back over a border river to Romania. We arrived late in Costineşti, but still in time to meet our students. In the evenings after lectures we developed from some initial formal sentences of a Belgian mathematician a nice piece of software showing evolution lines of flowers. Also we indeed visited Murfatlar and the Arabic horses in Mangalia and we had a swim near Două Mai at night in the fluorescent sea under the millions of galaxies and stars and many more happened during our stay, but by now our friendship was already sealed forever.