by Jonathan Rickert
In Esprit de Corps, Lawrence Durrell’s classic satirical riff on diplomatic life in Belgrade during the 1950s, he writes that “it was a slack period diplomatically and as always happened during slack periods the Corps busied itself trying to see which Mission could give the most original parties.” Life in general and diplomatic life in particular in the Bucharest of the 1970s and in 1950s Belgrade, of course, were not identical. Nevertheless, there were certain similarities, both being the capitals of “Balkan” communist states and hosting a capable but sometimes underemployed resident diplomatic corps.
Aside from the diplomatic club, a relic from pre-communist times that featured a golf course, six tennis courts, an outdoor swimming pool, and a clubhouse restaurant, Bucharest provided relatively few social outlets for local diplomats. Contacts with Romanians for most embassies in the early 1970s were perforce limited, and tended to be stiff and formal when they did occur. In order to accept an invitation from a foreign (non-communist) mission or diplomat, most Romanians first had to obtain permission from the appropriate authorities. Such permission often was delayed or denied, except to the favored, and reliable, few.
Consequently, frequent, and at times imaginative, parties and other social events characterized diplomatic life among the embassies in Bucharest. The younger staff members of the Western missions, and those of a few other friendly countries such as Japan, Israel, Turkey, and Brazil, were in many cases lively, intelligent, and creative. They were not content to sit quietly at home when they could arrange or attend a good party or other diversion. Far from it!
Though not all were Durrellian in their level of creativity, the corps did produce a number of imaginative parties and other social events. Informal diplomatic gatherings during those years included a Dracula-themed party, a citywide evening scavenger hunt (which drew a rebuke from the Securitate, Romania’s secret police, presumably for complicating their surveillance activities), a “Last Tango in Bucharest” bash, a long hike followed by an overnight stay in a Carpathian Mountains cabana north of town, and, reportedly, a nighttime skinny-dipping romp at nearby Lake Snagov. There also were more mundane dinner dances, film nights, wine and cheese parties, and the like. Many were linked to the arrival or departure of diplomatic colleagues, and virtually all were enjoyable.
However, the best of the lot, from my not unbiased perspective at least, was a party that my wife Gerd and I hosted with two other couples on November 16, 1973, for our fellow diplomats to mark the transfer home of two popular British Embassy colleagues, Anthony and Jane Rowell. Our co-hosts were Henrik and Catarina Amneus, Swedish Embassy, and Patrick and Ellen Berron, French Embassy.
We called the event “La Grande Bouffe,” or “The Big Feast,” after a 1973 movie with the same name. The concept was simple –- an evening at a Romanian restaurant for about 60 guests. The execution, however, was more complex. First, we needed to clear a large space in the Amneus living room, where we set up borrowed tables and chairs. Someone managed to get hold of genuine Romanian restaurant china, cutlery, and glassware, along with real, multi-paged local restaurant menus. I made up some posters, advising patrons to drink with discretion and not to spit on the floor. Copious quantities of traditional local food, including mamaliga (Romanian polenta) and sarmale (cabbage rolls), had to be procured and prepared, the latter done by several Romanian maids. All of us pitched in to ensure that everything was ready to go when needed.
As the guests arrived at the appointed hour, 8:30 p.m., the six co-hosts, dressed as waiters and waitresses, greeted and escorted them to their tables. Each was given a menu and invited to order. We diligently wrote down their requests. However, the plates we brought in from the kitchen all featured exactly the same food, regardless of what had been ordered. The maids in the kitchen entered into the spirit of the event and seemed especially pleased to see their employers filling their usual serving roles. As the guests enjoyed their repast, a particularly obsequious Gypsy violinist strolled among the tables, frequently interrupting conversations with his vigorous playing. At our request, he paid special and annoying attention to the guests of honor. In short, the food was delicious, the wine copious, and everyone seemed to revel in the meal, company, and untraditional setup.
The Berrons occupied an identical flat directly below that of the Amneuses. Once the meal had concluded, we all repaired to that apartment for a lively evening of dancing. The music and dancing were spirited, so much so that we finally shut down at 5 a.m.! It was a thoroughly successful evening of American-French-Swedish cooperation in communist Romania, and one that was the talk of the local diplomatic community for weeks thereafter. It is also one of my happiest memories from our initial three years at the embassy in Bucharest.
Retired Senior Foreign Service officer Jonathan B. Rickert spent over 35 years of his career in London, Moscow, Vienna, Port of Spain, Sofia, and Bucharest (twice), as well as in Washington. His last two overseas assignments were as deputy chief of mission in Bulgaria and Romania. Mr. Rickert holds a B.A. degree in history from Princeton University and an M.A. in international relations from the George Washington University.