The Interpreter

Chance Meeting with Romanian Teen Alters His Life - Forever

   BUCHAREST, Romania – I was on a seven-week reporting trip through Europe, Eastern Europe and the Middle East in summer, 1990. My mode of transportation was a bug-sized Renault I leased in Paris. The drive from there to Damascus, Syria, and back was a distance of 8,470 challenging, sometimes frightening, but never boring kilometers.

  I was returning to Paris in late July when I decided to stop in the Romanian capital of Bucharest. I wanted to report on the aftermath of the execution seven months earlier of the country’s Communist ruler of 24 years, Nicolae Ceausescu. Of all the Eastern bloc nations aligned with the U.S.S.R., Romania’s totalitarian regime was the most oppressive. Now, with Ceausescu gone, and the U.S.S.R. dissolved, Romania had a chance for a more inclusive government.

  I checked into the Hotel Lido in the heart of a downtown as bleak and depressing as Gotham. As always in countries where English is not widely spoken, my first task was to secure an interpreter. I favored university students because they were generally more enthusiastic and interesting, and they needed the money.

  Luck was on my side that day. The door to the room next to mine was open and I overheard a young man with a Romanian accent speaking English. It turned out that a British social services organization was occupying the room, where they were facilitating adoptions of Romanian orphans to UK families.

  I introduced myself to Cosmin Păun. We chatted briefly. I could see he’d be a good choice so I asked him if he could work with me for a couple of days. He said normally he would but he was busy with the agency. However, he had a friend who might be interested.

  That evening I dined in the hotel’s restaurant, thinking the food would be excellent as the Lido was rated as a five-star establishment. I looked at the menu. Most of the items were crossed off. I asked my server about my options. He said chicken and potatoes. What about something to drink? “Fanta Orange,” he said. I looked around the sparsely occupied dining room. In front of every diner, I saw three things: A plate of chicken and potatoes, and a bottle of Fanta Orange.

  The following morning, Mihai Botea met me in the hotel lobby. He told me he was 19 and about to begin studying engineering at Bucharest University. He was friendly, obviously intelligent, confident and spoke excellent English.

  We headed into the countryside in Mihai’s 4-door Dacia sedan [made in Romania].  We stopped at a farm where I interviewed the elderly widow of a farmer and toured the late Ceaușescu’s estate.

  We visited Bellu Cemetery, where the martyrs of the previous year’s revolution – more than 1,000 of them - were buried. Mothers of the young men and women resting there, dressed in black, wept as they tidied up the grave sites. Their anguish filled the cemetery with an unspeakable sadness.

  Mihai was an excellent interpreter and good company. He had a dark, negative side, not uncommon among Romanians considering the years of oppression they endured. But he also had a quick wit and a genuine laugh that was infectious. That evening, he invited me to his home for dinner.

  Mihai lived in a gray, high-rise apartment building that looked like every other apartment building in the city. An only child, he lived with his widowed father, Alexandu, an ebullient, charming man who spoke reasonable English.  His father, an engineer for a state-owned company, owned the small apartment – rare in Bucharest – so the Boteas were  better off than many Romanians.

  Still, immediate post-Ceaușescu Romania was a difficult period. Jobs were scarce, money tight and supplies limited. The new leadership – all of them former members of the Communist regime – did not inspire much hope among the citizens. As I bid farewell to the Boteas, Mihai told me he was worried about his future and wondered if I could help him find a university in the United States he could attend.

  “Keep in touch," I told him.

  “I will," he said.

  In all my years of traveling in developing countries, almost every young interpreter I hired said the same thing: “Help me come to America.”

  Only one followed up.

-PHOTO-

   BUCHAREST, Romania – I was on a seven-week reporting trip through Europe, Eastern Europe and the Middle East in summer, 1990. My mode of transportation was a bug-sized Renault I leased in Paris. The drive from there to Damascus, Syria, and back was a distance of 8,470 challenging, sometimes frightening, but never boring kilometers.

  I was returning to Paris in late July when I decided to stop in the Romanian capital of Bucharest. I wanted to report on the aftermath of the execution seven months earlier of the country’s Communist ruler of 24 years, Nicolae Ceausescu. Of all the Eastern bloc nations aligned with the U.S.S.R., Romania’s totalitarian regime was the most oppressive. Now, with Ceausescu gone, and the U.S.S.R. dissolved, Romania had a chance for a more inclusive government.

  I checked into the Hotel Lido in the heart of a downtown as bleak and depressing as Gotham. As always in countries where English is not widely spoken, my first task was to secure an interpreter. I favored university students because they were generally more enthusiastic and interesting, and they needed the money.

  Luck was on my side that day. The door to the room next to mine was open and I overheard a young man with a Romanian accent speaking English. It turned out that a British social services organization was occupying the room, where they were facilitating adoptions of Romanian orphans to UK families.

  I introduced myself to Cosmin Păun. We chatted briefly. I could see he’d be a good choice so I asked him if he could work with me for a couple of days. He said normally he would but he was busy with the agency. However, he had a friend who might be interested.

  That evening I dined in the hotel’s restaurant, thinking the food would be excellent as the Lido was rated as a five-star establishment. I looked at the menu. Most of the items were crossed off. I asked my server about my options. He said chicken and potatoes. What about something to drink? “Fanta Orange,” he said. I looked around the sparsely occupied dining room. In front of every diner, I saw three things: A plate of chicken and potatoes, and a bottle of Fanta Orange.

  The following morning, Mihai Botea met me in the hotel lobby. He told me he was 19 and about to begin studying engineering at Bucharest University. He was friendly, obviously intelligent, confident and spoke excellent English.

  We headed into the countryside in Mihai’s 4-door Dacia sedan [made in Romania].  We stopped at a farm where I interviewed the elderly widow of a farmer and toured the late Ceaușescu’s estate.

  We visited Bellu Cemetery, where the martyrs of the previous year’s revolution – more than 1,000 of them - were buried. Mothers of the young men and women resting there, dressed in black, wept as they tidied up the grave sites. Their anguish filled the cemetery with an unspeakable sadness.

  Mihai was an excellent interpreter and good company. He had a dark, negative side, not uncommon among Romanians considering the years of oppression they endured. But he also had a quick wit and a genuine laugh that was infectious. That evening, he invited me to his home for dinner.

  Mihai lived in a gray, high-rise apartment building that looked like every other apartment building in the city. An only child, he lived with his widowed father, Alexandu, an ebullient, charming man who spoke reasonable English.  His father, an engineer for a state-owned company, owned the small apartment – rare in Bucharest – so the Boteas were  better off than many Romanians.

  Still, immediate post-Ceaușescu Romania was a difficult period. Jobs were scarce, money tight and supplies limited. The new leadership – all of them former members of the Communist regime – did not inspire much hope among the citizens. As I bid farewell to the Boteas, Mihai told me he was worried about his future and wondered if I could help him find a university in the United States he could attend.

  “Keep in touch," I told him.

  “I will," he said.

  In all my years of traveling in developing countries, almost every young interpreter I hired said the same thing: “Help me come to America.”

  Only one followed up.

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Postscript 1: 

  The first letter from Mihai Botea arrived that fall in the newsroom of the Anniston Star, where I worked.  [The Star, a small newspaper in northeast Alabama, had an enlightened, global-minded publisher who hired me to help educate his readers about life in other countries.] A second letter arrived soon after. And a third.

  “Life has worsened in Romania," he wrote in February, 1991. “We get 40 liters of gasoline per month and there are shortages of thermal heat, cooking gas, and hot water. Prices have tripled and there are many people unemployed. It seems like the old days of Ceaușescu are back again, or even worse.”

  Mihai’s situation – and persistence – motivated me to explore opportunities for him, which were limited because of his lack of money. Amazingly, I discovered that only 20 miles away, Jacksonville State University offered 20 scholarships a year to international students under its International House program. I spoke to the program’s director, Grindley Curren, who was interested in Mihai as the program had very few Romanian students in the past and he wanted diversity in his program.

  It was too late for Mihai to apply for the 1991-1992 school year. He applied the following year and was accepted on a full scholarship. He later recalled receiving his acceptance letter from the university. Not one to overstate things, he said in a letter to me: “You can only imagine how happy I was.”

  Mihai arrived at Anniston’s Greyhound bus station on August 22, 1992. He carried a tattered vinyl suitcase, $1,000 in cash, and a gift of Romanian cloth for me and my wife, Julie. From the moment he left Bucharest, Mihai’s path was set. At least in his mind.

  “My father told me not to come home without a degree," he later admitted.

  Mihai was a determined young man, but his first few months challenged his will. New country. New culture. And he was away from his family for the first time in his life. There were also financial pressures because although he was on scholarship he had no source of income.

  A few calls led to a part-time job at a local business. The income helped,  but Mihai still struggled. A natural-born worrier, he questioned his new career path – business over engineering - and he had trouble making friends. Part of his problem, which he was reluctant to admit, stemmed from his self-confident nature. That made Mihai appear arrogant at times. As a result, he offended a few detractors in the program and his scholarship was not renewed at the end of his first year in April, 1993. Mihai was devastated.

  “What will I do? he asked.

  I told him, “You can go home or we can figure out a way to overcome it.”

  Remembering his father’s words, he chose the latter. In May, Mihai left for New York state, where he found maintenance work at a summer camp. That fall he moved to Brooklyn and took a job making sandwiches at a busy deli. He saved his money, determined to return to the university in Jacksonville and pay his own way. And return he did in August, 1994. His New York experience had matured him. And he was more focused on the task at hand.

  Still, Mihai lacked the one thing that often distinguishes a successful university career – a mentor. He found one that fall in Dr. Lynn Brown, a professor in the finance department. Under Brown’s tutelage, Mihai flourished, earning A’s in every class. It was Brown who secured an internship for Mihai at a nearby Merrill Lynch office. They were impressed with his computer skills. A career path in the budding field of financial software grew sharply into focus.

  Mihai’s university career culminated in his graduation in December, 1995. It was a special, emotional moment we shared together, reflecting on how it all began, by chance, five years earlier.

  “I was lucky. I couldn’t have done it without you," he said that day.

 "You did all the work," I replied.

Postscript 2: 

  Mihai returned to New York on the same Greyhound bus line he arrived in a few days after his graduation. Intending to pursue an MBA, he worked as a bartender, making good money. Ever the opportunist, he was soon hired by a financial software company, Multinational Computer Models. Mihai’s keen intelligence and computer skills made him a prized employee. His ability to speak French and Italian also enhanced his value with the global focus of his vocation.

  But there were many challenges that tested his impatient nature and impressive finagling skills. One critical issue: He did not have a green card and could be deported at any time. Mihai hired an attorney to help, but he turned out to be a crook. Somehow, some way, he overcame every obstacle.

  Through friends, Mihai met his future wife, Dorota, a lovely and soft-spoken Polish immigrant, as intelligent as him. They married in 1997. By 2001, they had saved enough money to buy their first home, outside Manhattan in New Jersey. A son, Alex – named for his father – arrived in 2005, followed by Max three years later. They bought a second home, in Englewood, NJ, and rented out the first. Mihai went from one company to another, always moving up.

  The Boteas eased into the life of American suburbanites. As the boys grew older and became involved in American soccer, Mihai found a job that allowed him to work from home so he could drive the boys to their practices. Meanwhile, Dorota commuted one hour each way to the Manhattan office of a global investment management company where she worked as a comptroller.

  In 2018, Mihai decided to take the family to Romania for the first time.

“I wanted my boys to see where I grew up," he explained.

  His father, Alexandu, still lived in the same apartment where Mihai was raised and where I dined 28 years earlier. Although life is radically different in Romania compared to New Jersey, Mihai said the boys, then 13 and 10, were too young to comprehend the significance of their father’s decision to leave Bucharest at age 20.

  But for Mihai, at 48, the visit led to a rare moment of reflection the next time we talked:

  “Initially, my father didn’t want me to leave because he didn’t want to be alone,” he said. “That made it even harder on me. But now he tells me all time I made the right decision. That is reinforced when I look at Romania today. Nothing much has changed.”

  Alexandu, 84, spends every summer at his son’s home in New Jersey, a joy he never expected and cherishes.

  In 1995, as Mihai was nearing the completion of his studies, I received a letter from Alexandu, thanking me for helping Mihai. It concluded: “I kindly ask you to be considered a member of our family.”

  I happily accepted the invitation and have remained close with the Boteas ever since. As it turned out, I ended up being the lucky one.

Postscript 3: 

  Mihai turned 50 on April 30, 10 years older than me when we met. We talked that day. It has been a difficult time for Mihai so we’ve spoken more often.

  In late September his father, in good health, suddenly contracted COVID. Bucharest hospitals were full with pandemic patients so he was sent to a small clinic in an outlying town. Only by tracking down one of the nurses attending to his father was Mihai able to get daily reports, none of which were good. Alexandu lasted a few days. October 3 was his last. Mihai, handcuffed by COVID restrictions, had been desperately trying to return to Romania. He arrived one day late.

  The ensuing week, during which he had to get his father’s body back to Bucharest and buried, brought Mihai directly into the vortex of Romania’s crippled bureaucracy.

  “You have no idea what it’s like,” he told me over and over upon his return.

  It took Mihai weeks to recover, and he still grieves. But there is comfort in the progress his sons are making.

  Alex, now 16, is already eyeing universities, where he will pursue engineering. Max, 12, the athlete, is being considered for an elite NYC-area soccer team.

  I once asked Mihai if he ever talked with his friend, Cosmin Păun, the interpreter who introduced us.

  “No,” he said. “Once he found out what happened, that I ended up in the United States, he felt like he had blown his chance to escape Romania.”

  My thoughts?

  As often happens, fate intervened in the lives of two young men.

  Still, in the end, only one person is responsible for Mihai’s success - the 19-year-old kid who walked into the lobby of the Lido Hotel 31 years ago, saw an opportunity and never let go.

________________________________________________________

Editor's note:  A verison of the first part of this story appeared in the Anniston Star on Dec. 24, 1995.