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I unwittingly put my pen pal at risk when I visited him in Soviet-era Romania

Recently, I learned that my trip in the 1970s was considered a “stain” on the file Romanian authorities kept on my friend and his family.

This note from 1965 began the writer's pen pal connection with a boy in Romania.From Phil Primack

Eager to escape the summer swarm of other young Americans also backpacking through Europe in 1970, I bypassed Italy’s greatest hits in favor of the long train ride east into what was then the Soviet bloc, to Bucharest, Romania. I wanted to meet my high school pen pal.

Vasile Manda and I had been regular correspondents back when that meant ink, paper, envelopes, and lots of stamps. Initially, we wrote about pop culture. “The Woodstock magazine you sent was just fab!” he wrote after that iconic 1969 mudfest, scrawling one of his cartoons onto the page. Valle encouraged me to visit. Naive college kid me didn’t realize that I would be putting him and his family at risk.

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Writer Phil Primack (bottom) with his pen pal Valle (top left) and Valle's parents in Bucharest in 1970.From Phil Primack

After a few days with him and his parents in Bucharest, I joined Valle and his friends on a trek through the Cozia mountains, where we got completely lost. Summer over, we returned to our grown-up lives. I began my reporting career in Appalachia. Valle became a teacher. Our stream of letters slowed, ending after an earthquake devastated Bucharest in 1977. Maybe the family moved to a new address, I thought. Or maybe our pen-pal friendship had just run its course.

The decades pass — it’s 2017. I enter Valle’s full name and “Romania” into a LinkedIn search and message the one result that seems plausible.

“You cannot imagine the surprise I had reading your message,” he responds. “After all, it’s been more than 40 years.”

We recounted lost decades. Fluent in several languages, Valle had left teaching for positions in foreign trade. He’d become a father the same month as the earthquake, but neither reason was why his letters stopped, he told me. Romania remained an authoritarian state through the 1980s “and contacts with the dangers of capitalism were not seen with good eyes by the authorities.” He went on to explain that my visit to him in the ‘70s “was considered a stain on what had to be an immaculate file” kept on him by the government: “That is why I had to stop any contacts with the many pen pals I had in my young years, especially after I got married and I had a son.”

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What for me had been just a carefree visit tainted his “file.” Nor did I comprehend the reality of his family’s past — I just saw his parents as kind and friendly hosts. Valle’s father had been taken prisoner by the Russians shortly before the Battle of Stalingrad; he remained in a Soviet camp for four years. He was imprisoned again later based on false accusations. Because Valle refused to join the Communist Party that had so maltreated his father, he also came “up against the walls erected by a regime that would not allow anyone to get out of line.”

Life improved somewhat after the 1989 revolution that overthrew the Communist Ceausescu regime. Now retired, Valle focuses on his family. He misses the trips, ended by the pandemic and his wife’s illness, that he used to make to Bulgaria and other nearby countries.

As years pass ever more quickly, at least we are again in touch. Instead of the Beatles and blue jeans, we e-mail of vaccine deniers and Ukraine and how the authoritarianism that so disrupted his life is embraced not just by Russian President Vladimir Putin but by many in today’s America.

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We hope to someday reunite in Romania. For now, we are e-mail pals. “We will not wait on our letters for weeks, as in the old times. The internet makes it much easier, so we will talk about us, about everything we are interested in,” Valle e-mailed. “We will chat as two (not very) old boys whose friendship was started many, many years ago by some stamped envelopes from a distant country.”


Phil Primack is a writer in Medford. His book, “ ‘Put It Down in Writing’: The Words and Life of Mary Folsom Blair — A Fifty-Year Search” will be published in July by Loom Press, and was the subject of a previous Connections essay. Send comments to magazine@globe.com. Tell your story. Email your 650-word essay on a relationship to connections@globe.com. Please note: We do not respond to submissions we won’t pursue.