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I stretched out on the hard back-seat of the ageing diesel Mercedes and saw … the Balkans. It is not so easy to know where the Balkans are. Ask anybody in the region if they are Balkan and the answer is, definitely not; the Balkans start in the next country. But I knew I was there. Two hours after setting out from Belgrade, the car was winding up a curving road. I could see fir trees passing by above me. Night was falling. Wolves, I felt, could not be far away. I knew from the map that this was definitely the Balkans – the mountain range carrying that name. I was in Serbia and the next stop was the Bulgarian border.

“Maybe we have small problem at frontier,” remarked my Serb taxi-driver. “Bulgarians difficult people. Animals, really.”  This was a different story from three hours ago, when I agreed to part with $600 to be driven through the night from Belgrade to Bucharest.

“Don’t worry. I take Associated Press correspondent this way during war. No problem,” he reassured me. Yes. No problem. That was what he told me back then too.

That afternoon, I had watched an airliner heading for Bucharest crawl out to the runway of Zurich airport without me on board. I was on a late connecting flight. It was June 1990 and the Iron Curtain was falling apart. Hungary had opened its borders, the Berlin Wall had fallen, and Czechoslovakia was ruled by an anti-Communist playwright. Six months before, Romania’s Communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu had been murdered in a violent coup. Western news organisations no longer needed to distribute their news through state monopolies. It was time to bring uncensored news to the liberated peoples, and go out and sell to whoever would buy. I was off prospecting for business for Reuters.

The trip to the Balkans seemed over almost before it began. My first appointment was at 10 a.m. next morning in Bucharest, the Romanian capital, and there were another five lined up. “But,” said the obliging Swissair woman, “you’re lucky. Tonight is the weekly China Airlines flight from Peking to Bucharest, and it stops over in Belgrade. You can take our flight to Belgrade and catch that.”

At the Belgrade transit desk, they confirmed the Chinese had a weekly flight to Bucharest stopping over at Belgrade. Only it was tomorrow, not tonight.

“Marcus,” said an inner voice of cussed stubbornness, “you have got this far and you are not going to give up. You’ve worked as a journalist behind the Iron Curtain. You know how to deal with situations like this.”

I was not so sure. But I blurted out, “How about a taxi to Bucharest?” The dark young Serb in front of me raised an appreciative eyebrow. I was showing the right spirit of Balkan improvisation. At the same time, he drew in his breath. 

“Yes, taxi. Why not? But be careful. They all sharks out there.”

I looked out beyond the passport control. The concourse swirled with loitering males, every one of them a shark.

“But I have friend. No problem.”

Friend turned out to be one of the most prominent sharks among the waiting taxi-drivers. After a brief financial skirmish, we were on our way to Bucharest.

First, via a dilapidated tenement block testifying to Yugoslavia’s impending economic collapse. Belgrade was then still the capital of federal Yugoslavia, soon to be torn apart by civil war. His wife, warm-hearted and slightly frayed, brought him his pullover and plied us with juicy strawberries and bars of chocolate. She correctly calculated that her husband was relieving me of the average monthly wage for a single night’s work. Take another bar. Enjoy the trip.

Everybody’s minds were working. While she did her sums, I was calculating my chances of recovering the $600 from Swissair. Also, how likely it was that I would get to Bucharest by the next morning. My taxi driver was thinking how much to tell me, and when. He did not want me to give up too soon.

“We not cross Romania at night. Too dangerous. Too many people with guns. We go via Bulgaria,” he announced. This is when instant recall of geography helps. On the map, Bucharest is more or less straight east from Belgrade. His assessment of the gun situation was convincing, but Bulgaria seemed way down south. I told him of my 10 a.m. appointment the next day.

“No problem. I get you there in time.”
At the border, my driver began shouting at the Bulgarian officials. I murmured in a conciliatory way, foreseeing a nasty incident, but nobody took any notice. It was just a softening up exercise. My driver, who had sworn in Belgrade I did not need a visa for Bulgaria, knew that I did, and it would be available for a price. He was doing his best to ensure I would not pay too much. He seemed reasonably satisfied that I parted with $35, and we were off again into the night.

Inside Bulgaria, the only signposts not in Cyrillic letters said “Istanbul.” That did not seem right, but the driver churned on through the darkness, albeit with some muttering about where the turn-off was. “Ah!” he exclaimed and plunged off towards a Cyrillic expression. 

After an hour or two of fitful sleep, he woke me. “I not take you as far as Bucharest. I hand you over to Bulgarian taxi-driver in Ruse. He take you to Bucharest.” Somehow, he had omitted to tell me the previous evening that he needed a special permit to enter Romania, and did not have it.

“Don’t worry. I take Associated Press correspondent this way during war. He get there OK.”

Confronting Ruse with a befuddled 5 a.m. mind is daunting. First of all: where on earth is it? I wished I had paid more attention to geography at school. In fact, it is situated strategically on the Bulgarian shore of the Danube, overlooking one of the last crossings on this most majestic of rivers.

It nevertheless has a certain ramshackle anonymity. I wondered how many taxis would be plying for hire at 5 a.m. My driver knew better. Sure enough, outside the monumental grey railway station looking like a Habsburg palace buzzed a swarm of tin pot Russian-built pseudo-Fiats, ready to bear me on to my destination.

The Serb radiated ethnic superiority. He pushed a fistful of Yugoslav dinars of doubtful value towards the candidate he had chosen for the run-in to Bucharest, and transacted with a disdainful flourish. A rip-off? Well, I still felt the $600 was a fair go if I was going to get to Bucharest. The Bulgarian looked pleased to have a fare for a 60-kilometre journey. We were both eager. I asked for a receipt, and Swissair later refunded it (this airline has since gone out of business). 

The comfort of the tin pot pseudo-Fiat left something to be desired compared with the 25-year-old Mercedes. We bounced and clattered along the road at a fair lick until we came to the queue. Half the downtrodden races of the world seemed to have gathered there, with their belongings piled high, preparing to make what must be a truly epic crossing. They stretched as far as could be seen, patiently awaiting their turn to move from one run-down country to another. What motivated these huge crowds to travel through this part of Europe was a mystery. Suffice it to say that they felt the urge to assemble in their thousands, numbly undergoing yet another obstacle to their meagre hopes for a better life.

My Bulgarian driver slowed. What now? I was in a typically Balkan dilemma. I had three courses of action and they were all wrong. I could join the queue or turn back home, but in both cases my trip would be useless and I would be letting my employers down. Or I could jump the queue, which gave me an unfair advantage over the others. Whatever I chose, I was going to be morally compromised. If you are going to get on in the Balkans, it is best to get used to this. I took a deep breath, and said, “Drive to the front of the queue.” He knew what the answer was going to be; everybody else in the queue knew too. Nobody batted an eyelid. It was as if they had known me for a long time. They knew I was a creature from another world, one who went ahead. 

At the frontier, the driver busied himself with the passports. In the fresh morning air, a young man in a black leather jacket was standing beside me.  “Do you have any magazines?” he asked. I abruptly denied that I had any Western news material with me. Let’s not get caught smuggling propaganda. “If I were you,” he said, “I would look a bit more carefully.” He sauntered off.

Wake up, Marcus. You’ve given the wrong answer. The secret police have their people here. You’ve been spotted, and they are glad to see you. Black leather jacket will decide how soon you continue your journey, and he wants something to read. I leaned back into the car and pulled out Newsweek and the Economist. He personally retrieved our passports, and three minutes later, we were heading for the Danube. It was becoming a nice morning.

A vast bridge rose in an arch ahead. We drove and drove, with the endless stretch of water spreading beneath us, until, just over the hump of bridge, we ran into a mighty gush of water spurting into the air. Pipes ran across the bridge, and that morning one of them was badly in need of a plumber.

“Romania. Terrible country. Look at all this. Everything falling part. They’re like animals,” confided my Bulgarian driver.

Back on terra firma, we came upon the other half of the world’s downtrodden races waiting to be processed by the Romanians. This was the queue the first half eventually wished to join after their few days with the Bulgarians. The Bulgarian driver, cocky with his newfound sense of ethnic supremacy, scarcely slowed before accelerating onwards at the wave of my hand.

Two kilometres further on, a row of khaki-dressed army officers sat at a wooden trestle table by the side of the road. This was the frontier post. Time was marching on. I remembered the name of the Romanian state news agency.

“Good morning. I’m from Reuters. I have a meeting with Rompres in Bucharest at 10 a.m. May I go through please?” My thumb pressed a burgundy-coloured British passport meaningfully on to the wooden table.

“Rompres … Reuters! Welcome to Romania,” exclaimed the commanding officer with rhetorical gusto. Stamps banged across the passport. “Enjoy your stay in our country, Mr Ferrar!”

“And my Bulgarian driver?”  With a barely perceptible gesture of dumb insolence, the chauffeur pushed over a passport of a different colour. “Bulgarian driver?” The Romanians’ faces darkened. I was close to going too far, to abusing the hospitality so generously offered. But since I could not move without the cheeky Bulgarian, stamps clattered once more over the table, and we hit highway E85. 

Twenty kilometres on, we swerved erratically round a bend and found three quarters of the road blocked by a jack-knifed lorry with a collapsed axle. There was a small space through which we could squeeze. A truck coming the other way had the same idea. The Bulgarian spurted ahead, drawing the last resources of speed out of the tin pot pseudo-Fiat to beat the oncoming juggernaut to the gap. So did the truck.

No problem… As we approached the outskirts of Bucharest, the road deteriorated into a mess of broken cobbles. Sixteen years earlier, I had visited a relaxed and relatively well-off Bucharest with the encouragement of a Romanian regime courting Western journalists. The Ceausescu swagger had turned into a nightmare of Byzantine oppression, condemning his people to poverty and humiliation. Tractors with trailers gathered listless, ill-shod groups of villagers waiting at the roadside to go to work. Packed trams swayed and bumped their way gingerly over crooked and broken rails, rusty doors scarcely hanging to their hinges.

The Bulgarian’s knowledge of Bucharest was vague. Neither he nor I had a clue where the Intercontinental Hotel was. With a flash of inspiration, I urged him to drive to the tallest building.

As we approached, a young man poked his head into the car window, and politely said: “Good morning. Welcome to hooligan land. I’m afraid you can’t go any further.”

I grabbed my bag and walked around rubble over the remaining 150 yards to the hotel. The door was stuck. I pushed and it gave way. It was 9.15 a.m. I was exactly on time. Thirty minutes later, I had checked in, showered with cold water, and was waiting in the lobby to meet my first contact.

Hooligan land? Protesting students were occupying the street outside the hotel, and the president had accused them of being hooligans. There was a stand-off, with miners said to be moving on Bucharest to beat up the students. The hotel was packed with journalists. My colleagues of Reuters, hale and hearty young lads, were working vigorously to inform the world, aided by a bevy of beautiful young female interpreters. They seemed to find it a good assignment.

Business took me to the state television on the outskirts, where some of the fiercest fighting took place six months earlier. Decades of neglect had seriously weakened the lift’s resolve. It wobbled slowly higher, and every now and then went back down a few floors, before finally delivering me on the 11th floor. The Director greeted me courteously in his wood- panelled office riddled with bullet holes. We agreed on a contract and I moved on, to a weed-infested Stalinist palace of culture. Another promise of a contract. After two days, I had done what I could to bring free news to the people of Romania.

I had also learned a little respect for the Balkan way of doing things. To a Westerner, this may seem a tale of reckless adventure, chaos and deceit. But when a Swiss airline made a wrong booking, a Serb “shark” proposed a last-minute alternative. His plan to travel south through Bulgaria and hand me over to a Bulgarian driver turned out perfectly viable. When he said, “You will be there on time,” his word proved to be his bond. Both the Bulgarian secret service and the Romanian military had done their bit to speed me on my way. Extraordinary and improvised thought it all was, this is how Balkans get through life every day. Without them, I would have got nowhere.

At Bucharest airport, I settled into a German airliner to return home. The sun blazed down but nothing happened. A sheepish pilot informed passengers he could not start the engines. The afternoon drew on, and then there was a black spot on the edge of the airfield. As it came nearer, it turned into a farm tractor, and behind the tractor was the airport generator. The engines came to life.

Balkan improvisation had outperformed the sophisticated technology of Europe’s strongest economy. How embarrassing.

But no problem.

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