The Foreign Service Journal, January-February 2022
96 JANUARY-FEBRUARY 2022 | THE FOREIGN SERVICE JOURNAL Retired Senior Foreign Service Officer Jonathan B. Rickert spent the majority of his 35-year career in or dealing with Central and Eastern Europe. His final two overseas posts were as deputy chief of mission in Sofia and then Bucharest. C ountry desk officers get involved in all sorts of weird stuff, and one of my more unusual experi- ences in that role took place while I was on the Romania desk. In early September 1983, a staffer for Senator Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), Mark Barnes, called for assistance. He explained that the state of Alaska had offered two orphaned Alaskan brown bear cubs to Romania for the Bucharest zoo. A Romanian official would be arriv- ing in the U.S. shortly to accompany the cubs back to his country. Mark was scheduled to escort the gentleman in question, who spoke only Romanian, to Anchorage, where there would be a program for him. While assisting Mark with arrangements for the visit, I learned that no provision had been made for an interpreter and asked how the hosts in Alaska planned to com- municate with their guest. Mark appar- ently had not thought about that. After checking with my supervisor for travel permission and funding approval, I told Mark that while I was by no means a professional interpreter, I did speak Romanian and was a lot better than what they had, i.e., nothing. He welcomed the Bear Cubs for Romania BY JONATHAN R I CKERT offer, and soon I was off for my first visit to “Seward’s Icebox.” Upon arriving in Anchorage, I met up with Mark and the Romanian, named Aurelian Neacsu. According to his calling card, he held a high position in Romania’s hunting bureaucracy, which should have been a tip-off. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game was, effectively, the host for the visit, and its representatives did a fine job. Program highlights included a trip by small plane over the wilderness to track about a dozen bears wearing radio collars. The Fish and Game officials plot- ted the bears’ movements as we gazed down from above, an awesome sight. Another was a trip by “float plane” to a cabin on Cook Inlet, southwest of Anchorage, where we went duck hunting. The Alaskans and Mr. Neacsu all proved their skills, shooting several ducks, while I only frightened a couple. As a confirmed duck lover, I was just as happy with that outcome. The program also included some sightseeing on Mount McKinley (Denali) and a glacier, plus some pleasant social gatherings. Between scheduled events, Mr. Neacsu and I had opportunities to chat on various subjects, with mixed success. (Through my efforts to facilitate con- versations on unfamiliar topics I gained much greater appreciation for the work of “real” interpreters.) Though Mr. Neacsu seemed some- what taciturn, he had no one else with whom to converse and appeared to welcome the opportunity to talk, espe- cially since I steered clear of Romania’s internal politics. The conversation I remember best dealt with Libyan leader Muammar Gad- dafi. Recalling that Gaddafi had been to Romania in 1981 for hunting, I asked Mr. Neacsu about that visit. He immediately became animated, expressing scorn for the whole Libyan entourage. He said that they were terrible hunters, unskilled in handling weapons, and spent much of their time guzzling scotch and chasing skirts. In short, he held them in contempt. From embassy reporting, I was aware of rumors that one of Gaddafi’s group members had been killed or injured in a hunting accident near Sinaia during the visit. When I asked Mr. Neacsu for some details on the incident, he was surprised I knew about it and inquired about my source. Trying to appear omniscient, I replied that it was our business to know everything that happened in Romania. He then related what (he said) had REFLECTIONS While I was by no means a professional interpreter, I did speak Romanian and was a lot better than what they had, i.e., nothing.