Getting off a plane late at night at Bucharest's deserted international airport, arriving travelers are screened by a metal detector, frisked and ordered at two separate points to hand over baggage for painstaking inspection. A sullen guard fingers a copy of the International Herald Tribune and "Gorky Park" before stuffing them back in a suitcase. Dozens of soldiers and police, some of them toting carbines, watch warily.
It is the side of Eastern Europe that jibes with the stereotype of life behind the Iron Curtain--the one a commentator once called "socialism with a fascist face."
But it only takes a swing down the country roads far from international airports and capital cities to find a part of Eastern Europe that seems to resist, year after year, the pressure for conformity and obedience to an unloved ideology.
TURNING OFF AN expressway in northwest Hungary, my interpreter and I crossed the Vienna-Budapest railroad tracks and bumped along past the headquarters of a state farm, past a corral where handsome horses were paddocked, past rows of sturdy brick-and-mortar houses and finally reached the village of Goni.
Goni is a small place of a few thousand people, just across the Danube River from Czechoslovakia, in the center of a rich agricultural basin where the Catholic Church owned vast lands before the Communists took over.
In Goni the state and party seem to exercise their mighty authority with a light hand. The president of the local governing council was said to be away studying at the technical university in nearby Gzur.
So at the small town office we asked to see the chief magistrate.
"We don't have one."
Well, what about the police chief.
"None of him, either."
We settled for the principal of the local elementary school, a middle-aged man, with strong workman's hands and a warm open manner.
Goni, he said, was his family's home. His father was a Danube riverman and he chose his profession so he could spend more time with his family.
Yes, he said, there have been changes in Hungary. People with jobs at the big farm machinery enterprise, Raba, he explained, have come out from Gzur and built dozens of weekend homes. They have begun to give the village a different character, one that ties it more closely to urban life.
But perhaps things haven't changed so much.
Even in the new workers' state, there is still a tendency to "follow in your father's footsteps," the principal acknowledged.
Of the 30 children graduating each year from the school's eighth grade only one or two is likely to go on to the university. He said that most will end up taking jobs alongside their parents at the local state farms or in the cooperatives that support them, such as the sawmill next door that is turning out wooden crates for shipping live poultry.
He is, he admitted, an old fashioned kind of principal.
"Do they respect you?"
"They have to," he said with a warm smile.
A HALF HOUR'S DRIVE from Bucharest an unmarked dirt road curves around a lake where geese swim and ends up in a prosperous little settlement called Orastes.
On a recent Sunday morning, women with colorful shawls and tanned faces gossiped in front of their homes while children played. There were few men around, and we were told that many of them went into Bucharest to watch a boxing match and had not returned.
The settlement was not on any planned tour, so it cannot be a Potemkin Village set up to impress visitors. But it is very prosperous. The brick houses look new and solid. Many of them have tin roofs. Chickens peck around backyards, and small tractors were parked next to some of the houses.
A woman explained to my interpreter that the houses belong to members of an agricultural cooperative of which she is a member. They grow grain on pooled land, raise chickens in the backyard plots and sell surplus produce at a farmers' market in Bucharest.
In the co-op, people are left alone and life is pretty much the way it always was on the Romanian land, the woman said. The only restriction is a prohibition against the villagers raising hogs. That is the prerogative of the state farm, which sells them at a fixed price.
Building homes has been a cooperative venture. Members of the co-op contribute time and labor. The woman's husband is a roofer and helped others put up their tin roofs.
We were invited into her home to eat some chicken and freshly baked bread. Another woman turned on the radio and started to laugh and dance when the music came up. We were offered a glass of zuika, the clear local drink, but declined because of the drive home.
"You should come back here and choose a wife," said one of the women, before dissolving into gales of laughter.
Certainly this little Romanian settlement has its politics, which I know I will never learn from my brief visit. What controversies the prohibition against raising hogs must provoke! What deals has the headman cut with the local functionaries to procure the bricks, cement and tin for the new homes?
But somehow in Orastes--as in rural settlements around the world--life seems less touched by governments and bureaucrats and goes on much as it always has. Even in Romania's police state.
THE TRAIN FROM Bucharest to Belgrade, which had been bumping along comfortably, suddenly stopped. The train had cleared customs and passport controls at the border so I figured we were somewhere near Vrsac, Yugoslavia. It was morning and, after putting off the moment too long, I swung out of my upper berth and raised the curtain to see where we were.
It was as if the train was becalmed in a great, brown sea.
The flat plain of freshly ploughed fields stretched in all directions to the horizon. Kansas must look like this in March. But can Kansas be so silent?
In the far distance a farmer was burning off some of last year's corn stubble. A tiny solitary tree, leafless and skeletal, was silhouetted against a gray horizon. Some birds rose from the brown ripples and flew away.
Silence, except for the muffled sounds of conversations coming from the sleeping compartments.
Then, unexpectedly, there was singing. Homecoming Yugoslavs were raising their voices in a song that pays tribute not just to the homeland, not just to Serbia, but to something even more basic: the village.
"Tamo, daleko," they sang.
The song is familiar.
"There, far away, far away in Serbia, is my village. There is my village, there is my love."
We jolted forward again, toward Belgrade, toward modern Yugoslavia.