Mr. Smith Goes to Bucharest..

a visit to Caesescu's Romania!

1986 was a great year.  Remember the telex machine, the tool which export types used before the fax machine—before the e-mail. 

The fun thing about telex machine was that about half of the telex’s you would receive were  incorrectly routed.  Enter the office in the morning and see desperate telexes concerning someone’s load of frozen shrimp on the dock in Malaysia--an English trader threatening an Indian spice supplier… 

Well--one day, I received a message from the real “John Smith” of Bucharest Romania.  Yes, that is his name.  I answered, I hopped on the plane and was soon in Vienna, Austria boarding a Tarom airline plane bound for Bucharest.

Folks in Vienna who had no idea what they were talking about gave me lots of advice:  Some told me it was the so called Paris of the Balkans until the mad man Caesescu destroyed the place.  A Syrian cab driver warned me that Romanian women were prostitutes hired by the government to extract information from western business men.  My Austrian host told me the water was drugged and that they would extract information from me in my sleep.

Well, I was off to see John Smith In Bucharest, and the Tarom Airlines plane was waiting on the runway and there was no turning back!

Tarom is undoubtedly the worst airline in the world..  Even now.  Back then the planes were the rejects of the Russian fleet, the Tupalevs, the Aleyushuians.  My plane still had a Syrian flag on the tail, meaning the plane was probably  part of some barter deal with the other friendly COMECON countries.

The plane was old, as well as the stewardesses.  As we walked up the aisle the carpets slipped, and slipped like a hamster wheel.  I sat in the middle seat of course, next to a seven foot tall Cuban diplomat.  He had a shaved head, was blue-black, and carried a glow-in-the dark diplomatic pouch.  He knew I was a Westerner, probably from my shoes.  Americans and Western  Europeans are the only ones in the world with nice shoes.  On the other side was a Italian gentleman who sold shoes from Italy and he was on his way to make a deal in Romania.  Although we never spoke, I could tell the Cuban absolutely hated me.  He sneered, he did everything but elbow me.  Even worse, he wore a tank top shirt and had terrible BO from his long flight from Havana via Gander, Newfoundland.  Every now and then he would lift his arm like skunk sprays.  I got the message and moved as far as possible on the edge of the seat.

No problem with the BO, as the plane lifted out of Vienna, the lavatory in the front of the plane overflowed, and spewed a stream of brown lava like liquid down the aisle.  When the plane banked, the lava spewed a different direction.  The Cuban took a direct hit.  The Vietnamese in the seat in front were savvy and lifted their legs.  Luckily, the plane hit cruising altitude and banked at just the right moment to spare myself and my Western shoes the onslaught of the stream of liquid crap!

In the old days, the short tip from Vienna to Bucharest, was not that short a trip.  Romania was a renegade state and was at war with just about all of its neighbors.  On the Translvanian border, they had a dispute with the Hungarians.  They also had bad relations with the Bulgarians in the south.  Yugoslavia was also off limits as they were  western liberal type of place.  The flight needed to proceed south over the Adriatic Sea and wind a path far out of the way to the Black Sea and over the port of Constanza and up the river to Bucharest.

Bucharest Airport is actually a military strip.  You see military aircraft, radar installations.  We were instructed not to take any photos and had to roll up the window curtains.

Upon landing, you learn that the Worker’s Paradise of the Balkans is not the socialist utopia.

John Smith met me at the gate and handed me a pack of American cigs, and welcomed me.  Of course this was far in the restricted area of the airport and this red-haired young man of about 25 had two military officers on each side to greet me.  We proceeded around the customs line-- or I should I say customs mob.  Went right around the Diplomatic cue to  an empty lane with a sign which said “VIP protocol.”  At this step, and a few packs of cigarettes, we were through. Customs opened my bags and took a pack of Camels and we were through.  Outside the terminal, John Smith’s Mercedes was parked on the sidewalk, partially clocking the road, with two military officers standing watch!  They also were smoking Camels!   In most countries this car would have been towed long ago, but the officers seemed to relish the association with the Camel car.

John at that time was the country representative for RJ Reynolds Tobacco company.  Yes the same folks who produce Camel Cigarettes.  This is the currency of Pre-Caesescsu Romania, and his position placed him right up there with the Orthodox Bishop and Cabinet Members, or Military generals-- or as they say in Romania, “Nomenclatura!”   (Influentials)  This Untouchable class which is still in power even after the purge of Communism

John Smith and his entourage, included what I learned was later a military General, who was also his best distributor of cigarettes. 

On the way into town,. I noticed the wonderful rows of homes which were formerly the residences of the Foreigners and embassies.  Also in the horizon there were rows of apartments with seven floors.   Lots of workers standing around, lots of ditches being dug.  Lots of potholes and of course lots of billboards for foreign goods could not be avoided.  As we left the airport zone, John became greatly disturbed when he saw a huge billboard of the Marlboro Man on a building.  He yelled at the general in a harsh tone and then they chuckled.  Later I learned what the joke was about.. 

In the former days, there was one hotel that foreigners could stay and we headed for the Intercontinental.  John Smith lived at the family complex, which included the city’s only Armenian restaurant, potato chip factory, appliance store and Lego Toy Land.  A great location, right next to the former Jewish Synagogue and a police station.  Later I would stay at the family residence but opted back tot he Intercontinental   Each night the Police station tortured and beat gypsy crime suspects.  I woke one night with a rat on my neck.   And, this was a first class top of the line compound!

Back at the Intercontinental, we were back in the European world.  Real Romanians walked by and gawked at the visitors in the coffee shop and restaurant.  No eye contact, no entry.  But they could look.  Inside was a collection of Syrians, Iraqi, and Chinese and one lone American.  I did not need to check in, they just showed me to my room and did all but carry me there. I was however a bit disturbed by the bullet hole in the door.  When I asked John Smith, he nonchalantly said, “don’t worry, it was just a French Journalist!”  I did not probe further.

I later learned the entire hotel was wired for sound.  The control center was behind the bar and special foreign visitors like me had the prime rooms with audio and video, in and out!

In Romania of old business was easy.  In the food business there were just a bunch of state companies who divided up the business.  We barged through a whole slate of meetings.  Government building and factories were built by Military workers and included wine bottles in the construction materials.  At each company there was a Protocol officer, who was the most important person in the company.  He spoke some English, and was in charge of making all arrangements.  Not only did the protocol officers receive cigs, but the protocol required a bottle of American Whiskey.  The best type were the ones with the Tax stamps, and I was briefed in advance on this.  Although liqueur and cigarettes were smuggled into t he country in great quantities, probably by the Smith Family, the Romanians like s the government seals which made them special! With a full bag of American booze and cigs, I could go virtually anywhere and meet with anyone.

Romanian Building s all include elevators and non e of them work, throughout the visit I never stepped in one  and walked miles of steps.

I collected samples of horrible goods for companies wanting to export.  Chocolate without cocoa, orange drink without orange, cheese with some stuff I could not identify.  Later on the chocolate would almost extend my trip.

Back in the former times the military of Romania were the biggest business. 

So, of course where better to do business than at the officer’s club in downtown Bucharest.  The lavish facility was right in the middle of town in a circular building on the square.  On the veranda, was an outside dining area.  Of course it all included camel shades, the waiters, all were docking yellow glow in the dark camel shirts.  The officers were all happily puffing on Camels. 

Later on during the Christmas revolution of 1990, the Officers club would be a focal point armed activity in the town.  Although the troops sided with the people, they took the opportunity to pop rounds of 50 mm rifles on the Camel veranda onto many of the competitive companies in the square.  Generals in the Romanian military do just about anything they want, and always survive!

We dined with one of the top generals of the Romanian Army.  His outfit was called fittingly enough “Vultures.”  I am not sure if this is a Romanian slang for an eagle or something but this was a fitting term.  The general sat at the dinner table dining on Sturgeon and caviar, with a phone in one rear directing tank activity on the front with Moldavia, another hot spot which they call North Romania and the Russians called Moldavia.  Although he border confrontations were not going well for the Romanians, at least the cigarette trade was booming!  John Smith had it all.  He had the Romanian Army distributing his goods throughout the country.  I made the mistake of showing interest in the government-owned wineries, and the next morning was met by a helicopter in the square in front of the Intercontinental and whisked off to Transylvania to drink fine Romanian wines, served with friend pig brains.  The Army folks turned out to also be my best friends and best business contacts in Romania. 

Several years later, I read a New York Times article in the marketing section which detailed the fact that the Romanian Army had Yellow Camel emblems on their sides of their armed tanks.  The article further reported that all yellow traffic lights in Bucharest had stenciled camels which illuminated whenever the lights turned yellow Business as usual in the New Romania. 

John Smith  also had his own army of Gypsies who distributed in the rough and tumble ethnic areas which were considered no-mans lands by most of the respectable Romanian population.  His Gypsy General, was a character who he nicknamed “Elvis.”  He really looked like Elvis with dark black sideburns and long chin.  He liked to be called Elvis and even posed for me with a Russian Kalishnakov machine gun in an Elvis guitar pose.  Elvis directed his Gypsy “sales force.”  A few times he had to go to war with rival clans and of course the evil Marlboro mob.  Elvis had been in a lot of battles and had as much scar tissue as a hockey player.  He stood guard outside of the family compound, and placed a symbolic gypsy alter of crossed knives to show that the place was protected by the gypsy king.  Years later when striking coal miners from the countryside invaded Bucharest, the family compound was one of the few buildings in the area not attacked. 

We visited nightclubs, watched circus variety acts, like contortionists, singes from the East Germany,  and  even the trademark dancing bears from Russia.  We ate Moldavian stew and Falafel at Lebanese restaurants and threw Camels off the roof of the Intercontinental almost inciting a riot. 

One thing I never did was talk to a real Romanian.  The closest I got was a day at a Macedonian Sheep herders villa in the suburbs.  The well connected Macedonian constructed a villa out of white marble—coincidentally the same type of white marble used in the construction of the Ceaescu palace which was never really completed due to a lack of building supplies and white marble.  One day a person slipped me a note and told me to meet him at the French Bank.  I did and walked and chatted just a bit.  Not that much said except that this person had seen us at the club and needed to send a letter out of Romania.  I noticed him the night before with a table of Romanian prostitutes.   First of all nobody would risk a daring act like this in Caescescu’s Romania.  At that time it was estimated that one of three residents of Bucarest were members of the Sucuritat, the feared super-Secret police.  It is said that Casecu took Romanian orphans and trained them at this craft from the cradle.  Their loyalty to the “Mother and Father” of Romania Nicolai and Helena were unquestionable.  Of course, no one really knew who any of these Securitat were for sure.  After the “change of government, many became market researchers and advertising agency executives.

On my the last day of my week in Bucharest, I got a call from the Protocol director at the horrible Chocolate factory and was told it was very important to drop by to pick up my samples.  I obliged, and soon after leaving gave them to the driver for his kids. 

Upon arriving at he airport, the customs folks went wild trying to figure out where “my samples were.”   They tore apart my bags, called in important men in uniforms and even a gentleman rushed out from behind a red apoulstered  door which had a large sign “VIP Room.”  Stranger yet, none were the least bit interested in the Camel Cigarettes I left in the bags which were normally the ticket to the express lane out of the country.

Even John Smith was not in control of Caesecue’s Securitat!  It seemed more difficulty leaving than arriving.  I received a stack of papers in Romanian, and received multiple stamps.  Mr. VIP left for a call and returned with a big smile on his face and the remark that there had been a misunderstanding.  After  a few well placed Camels I was on the way to the tarmac. 

The waiting lounge was under construction, and welders on a beam sprayed sparks on the packed crowd before, who seemed indifferent and pleased as they were on the way out.  A group of guest workers from some place in the Indian ocean husked coconuts in the corner and apparently had been in transit for three days.  Romanians in business suits two huge Cuban Diplomats with even larger glow in the dark pouches, lounged in luxury in another room with the same apolstered red door and the sign “ Protocol.” Everyone understood what this meant and no one tried to sneak into the protocol room!

A young man with an enterage bullied his way through the crowd with a puppy dog barking in his hand bag.  I later learned this was a famous soccer star for the country who played in Western Europe and who made big bucks.  He could come and go anytime into the country and did not need any “protocol assistance.”

 The same faded out Tarom Aleyushin waited on the tarmac for its “non stop express” to Havana via  Vienna, and Gander Newfoundland. The pilots carried a net bag of wine bottles. The lovely stewardesses marched onto the plane careful not to make eye contact with any of the passengers.  The door opened, the mob piled onto the plane and we were off.

As the plane wove around the military jets on the tarmac, I noticed guards with their machine guns and camels, Yes, there was even a Camel stenciled onto an official looking  helicopter.  As we lifted off the strip, in conspicuous absence: The Colossus Marlboro Man was missing!   It  was removed by the Army—deemed a hazard to aviation. 

Good bye to the real “John Smith”  unofficial king of the  Vultures!!





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Last modified: July 12, 2007