Ask the average American about Romania, and the response would probably involve orphans, Olympic gymnasts or Dracula.
Dispelling these common yet one-dimensional views of the country was, in large part, the inspiration for "Dracula is Dead," a new travel literature book by Sheilah Kast and James C. Rosapepe. The book, which will be released Monday, is a thoroughly researched yet conversational tour through the often-overlooked Eastern European country.
"We had the opportunity to live there for three years and travel all over the country," Rosapepe said. "There's a Romania Americans don't know. We wrote the book to help more Americans know it."
From 1998 to 2001, Rosapepe served as the U.S. ambassador to Romania, a post that gave him virtually unlimited access to high-ranking Romanian officials. (He now serves as a state senator representing Anne Arundel and Prince George's counties.) Kast, the host of "Maryland Morning" on 88.1-FM WYPR, has a background in news reporting here and abroad. Through interviews and accounts of their experiences living there, the husband-and-wife team reveals a country with a checkered past but a bright future.
Before the fall of communism in 1989, Romania suffered the same fate as many other Soviet satellite states: an economy geared toward heavy industry that led eventually to widespread poverty. In an effort to expand the work force, Communist leader Nicolae Ceausescu outlawed contraception and abortion and required Romanian wives to have five children each. Unable to support their large families, many abandoned children in orphanages.
Today, Romania is populated with technological entrepreneurs, hard-working young people and plenty of art, music and culture, Rosapepe and Kast said.
"Americans who visited Romania got entranced with the place," Rosapepe said. "They speak English, they're pro-American, they're nice people. It's a very interesting culture and history."
Perhaps Romania's most persistent myth revolves around Vlad Dracul, the basis for Bram Stoker's "Dracula." Also known as Vlad the Impaler, the Transylvanian prince is revered by Romanians several centuries after his death, Kast and Rosapepe write. Though Vlad's preferred punishment was impaling his victims, the legend of him being a blood-sucking demon helps boost Transylvania's tourism trade.
One of the more intriguing figures interviewed for "Dracula is Dead" was King Michael, Kast said. He assumed the throne as a small child, was temporarily deposed by his father and reinstated in his teens. During World War II, King Michael staged a coup that broke Romania's Nazi ties and brought them to the Allies' side. Then, facing communist rule, the king was forced to give up the throne again - all before his 30th birthday.
Kast and Rosapepe devote portions of "Dracula is Dead" to lesser-known political and social subjects, such as how religious belief persisted through communism. And Romania's history of training Olympic gymnasts? "Dracula is Dead" gets to the bottom of it in a sentence: "They practice a lot."