TRAVELLING AROUND South America in 1997 I received a letter unexpectedly from one of my best friends saying she was going to live in Romania. I barely knew where Romania was, let alone what it was like. I had filed it away in my mind as an obscure Eastern bloc country - the name Ceausescu bobbing around in the back of my memory, conjuring up images of revolution and bloody execution.
Now, though, it obviously deserved closer scrutiny. Scouring through the Romania section of Stanford's bookshop, I came across Looking for George, Love and Death in Romania by Helena Drysdale, and Romania suddenly changed from a drab Communist state, grey and uninspiring, to an intriguing destination. So many travel books seem forced or contrived, but Looking for George is neither. More mystery than travelogue it is compelling reading - one of those classic "unputdownables".
It's a true story. Helena Drysdale spent the summer of 1979 - as a naive student - motoring through Eastern Europe in a clapped out car with a couple of friends. Along the way they befriended George, an intense young ex-monk who had recently been thrown out of the community for a relationship he'd formed with a woman. Together, they careered through Romania, unaware of the implications of their actions.
The poetic - and pretty troubled - George fell in love with Helena and tried to escape across the border with the group, before sinister experiences with the authorities ended their carefree jaunt. Returning to Cambridge the young Brits left George to his fate, not realising how reckless his friendship with them had been (Romanians at the time were not allowed uncensored communication with foreigners).
George wrote to Helena, asking her to marry him and to bring him to her country but, young and inexperienced, she didn't take him seriously. The later letters indicated threats to his life by the Securitate - and then the letters stopped.
Twelve years later, married and expecting her first child, Drysdale went back to Romania to try to find George. The "so-called revolution" two years previously had opened the country up to the West. Her search took her from Bucharest to the far north of the country and back to the monasteries of southern Bucovina. Recounting the individual histories of the people she meets along the way - and her ever increasing understanding of the realities of life under a repressive regime - Looking for George becomes an absorbing historical expose as it reaches its disturbing climax.
My ensuing trip to Romania was coloured in part by my reading of Drysdale's experiences and in part by my friends' decadent ex-pat stories and the glossy brochures of Transylvannia I'd received from the Romanian Travel Centre.
Arriving in Bucharest, en route to southern Bucovina, I remembered Drysdale's impressions of the capital. The city seemed full of wild dogs and gypsies selling flowers, and bullet holes were still evident in many of the buildings. But, there were Dunkin Donut shops on almost every street corner, and Bucharest was obviously eagerly embracing Western influences.
Flying up to Suceava, a depressing town of grey concrete and seedy bars, the people seemed guarded and suspicious. The westernisation, so obvious in Bucharest, had not penetrated so far north.
Driving out into the surrounding countryside many of the roads were still little more than dirt tracks and all the houses along the way had wells in their gardens as they still had no running water.
Drysdale had stayed with George's family in a tiny rural community during her quest, sharing his mother's bed in their simple cottage - with an outside toilet and no bathroom.
Many things did not seem to have changed in the 10 years since the revolution. We hardly passed any cars along our way - transport for the majority seemed still to be the traditional horse and cart. And, in the fields, the farmers were using ancient equipment, turning over the earth with hand-held ploughs.
Further on, though, my driver proudly pointed out a row of recently constructed villas, decorated with ornately carved gateways and wells. These were the result of money flooding back into the country from people who were now permitted to work abroad - a thing unheard of in George's time.
And tourism was definitely on the up, bringing an increase of revenue to the area. I was staying in one of the luxurious B&Bs that had been set up to cater for the summer visitors who flock to Southern Bucovina in bus loads.
In November though I was alone. Wandering around the grounds, bleak and beautiful, with their frescoed walls, it was impossible not to be struck by the workmanship that has survived almost five hundred years - but also by more recent historical events and the image of a young ex-monk pitting himself against the system.
`Looking for George, Love and Death in Romania' by Helena Drysdale is published by Picador (pounds 6.99)Reuse content