Smith Goes to Bucharest...
visit to Caesescu's Romania!
was a great year.
Remember the telex machine,
the tool which export types used
before the fax machine—before the
fun thing about telex machine was
that about half of the telex’s you
would receive were
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
day, I received a message from the
real “John Smith” of Bucharest
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.
in Vienna who had no idea what they
were talking about gave me lots of
Some told me it was the so
called Paris of the Balkans until
the mad man Caesescu destroyed the
A Syrian cab driver warned me
that Romanian women were prostitutes
hired by the government to extract
information from western business
My Austrian host told me the
water was drugged and that they
would extract information from me in
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!
is undoubtedly the worst airline in
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
part of some barter deal with
the other friendly COMECON
plane was old, as well as the
As we walked up the aisle the
carpets slipped, and slipped like a
I sat in the middle seat of
course, next to a seven foot tall
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
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
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
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
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
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!
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
They also had bad relations
with the Bulgarians in the south.
Yugoslavia was also off
limits as they were
western liberal type of
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
Airport is actually a military
You see military aircraft,
We were instructed not to
take any photos and had to roll up
the window curtains.
landing, you learn that the
Worker’s Paradise of the Balkans
is not the socialist utopia.
Smith met me at the gate and handed
me a pack of American cigs, and
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
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
They also were smoking
In most countries this car
would have been towed long ago, but
the officers seemed to relish the
association with the Camel car.
at that time was the country
representative for RJ Reynolds
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!”
This Untouchable class which
is still in power even after the
purge of Communism
Smith and his entourage, included
what I learned was later a military
General, who was also his best
distributor of cigarettes.
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
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
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
Later I would stay at the
family residence but opted back tot
Each night the Police station
tortured and beat gypsy crime
I woke one night with a rat
on my neck.
And, this was a first class
top of the line compound!
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
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.
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!
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
Not only did the protocol
officers receive cigs, but the
protocol required a bottle of
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.
Building s all include elevators and
non e of them work, throughout the
visit I never stepped in one
and walked miles of steps.
collected samples of horrible goods
for companies wanting to export.
Chocolate without cocoa,
orange drink without orange, cheese
with some stuff I could not
Later on the chocolate would
almost extend my trip.
in the former times the military of
Romania were the biggest business.
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
The officers were all happily
puffing on Camels.
on during the Christmas revolution
of 1990, the Officers club would be
a focal point armed activity in the
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
Generals in the Romanian
military do just about anything they
want, and always survive!
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
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
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.
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
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.
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
He really looked like Elvis
with dark black sideburns and long
He liked to be called Elvis
and even posed for me with a Russian
Kalishnakov machine gun in an Elvis
Elvis directed his Gypsy
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.
visited nightclubs, watched circus
variety acts, like contortionists,
singes from the East Germany,
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
thing I never did was talk to a real
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
One day a person slipped me a
note and told me to meet him at the
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
I noticed him the night
before with a table of Romanian
First of all nobody would
risk a daring act like this in
At that time it was estimated
that one of three residents of
Bucarest were members of the
Sucuritat, the feared super-Secret
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
Of course, no one really knew
who any of these Securitat were for
After the “change of
government, many became market
researchers and advertising agency
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
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
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.
John Smith was not in control of
It seemed more difficulty
leaving than arriving.
I received a stack of papers
in Romanian, and received multiple
Mr. VIP left for a call and
returned with a big smile on his
face and the remark that there had
been a misunderstanding.
a few well placed Camels I
was on the way to the tarmac.
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
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
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.”
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
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
As we lifted off the strip,
in conspicuous absence: The Colossus
Marlboro Man was missing!
was removed by the
Army—deemed a hazard to aviation.
bye to the real “John Smith”
unofficial king of the