The Hungarian border guards said we were mad to go to Romania: “It is atrocious country”. Mind you, at that time relations between Hungary and Romania were bad. This was due to the persecution of Hungarians living in Transylvania. Eighteen months previously the border between the two countries had been closed and troops were mobilised. War looked ominously close. Fortunately, saner heads prevailed and the border was now open again.
It was Spring 1989. Andre and I had been in Budapest for five days. Out of curiosity we decided to visit neighbouring Romania, and so hopped on the Balt-Orient Express, heading east. Previously it had been very difficult to visit communist Romania as a tourist. However, the country was desperate for hard currency and things had opened-up somewhat. This was more with an eye to filling up the Black Sea resorts and Transylvanian ski slopes, than for independent travellers. But it did mean that you could now obtain a tourist visa at the border.
At 10.30pm the Balt-Orient Express pulled into the border town of Biharkeresztes, which as well as being very difficult to pronounce is also the last stop in Hungary. Just about everyone got off the train. This enabled the customs and immigration men to get through their job quickly. Although Hungary was behind the Iron Curtain it was the most laid-back of the eastern bloc countries. Its border controls were not as authoritarian as those that you’d find in Romania, where the train was held up for a couple of hours, amidst reams of barbed wire, watchtowers, searchlights and snarling dogs. Every inch of the train was searched, including underneath the carriages. The severity of the search surprised us somewhat; after all, who would want to smuggle themselves into Romania? In actual fact the border guards were looking for illegal weapons and ammunition that were being smuggled into the country.
After fifteen minutes of questions and form filling we were given our visas. It cost us £36 each for the privilege. At half past midnight the mostly empty train was allowed to continue and shortly afterwards arrived in the industrial town of Oradea. Hoards of people got on and our compartment became completely full. The Balt-Orient Express was the overnight train to Bucharest, the capital of Romania and our intended destination. In stark contrast to the Hungarians who had left the train at Biharkeresztes, our fellow passengers looked poor and undernourished. Their faces were a mix of fear, suspicion and exhaustion. It was the exhaustion that struck me most.
We were travelling through a black landscape. Very occasionally you’d see a light in the distance. The train stopped many times during the night. The stations had only a small number of dimly lit bulbs. Despite it being the wee hours of the morning at every station there were crowds of people on the platform. Most of them were not waiting to board the train. A forest of outstretched arms waved bank notes. They were trying to buy Kent cigarettes, razor blades, soap and other items that had been brought across the border from Hungary. Heart-rending cries pierced the night as they fought and jostled to get hold of the stuff that was being passed through the open windows of the train. The authorities turned a blind eye to this black market activity. Without these smuggled goods the economy of Romania could have collapsed. Kent cigarettes were the main form of currency in Romania at that time.
Andre and I tried to find the buffet car. Apart from a snack we’d not eaten anything since the previous lunchtime, in Budapest. When we got to the buffet car we were told there was nothing available to eat. We tried to soothe our rumbling stomochs with a couple of beers, then returned to the compartment, only to find that our seats had been taken. The woman and young girl in our seats were already asleep, so we left them to it and spent the rest of the journey sitting on our rucksacks out in the corridor.
By the time dawn arrived, Andre and I were both feeling very hungry. We consulted our copy of Cook’s European Timetable and decided to leave the train at Brasov, one hundred miles before Bucharest. For two hungry people, Brasov was the worst possible place to stop in search of a meal. Three years earlier there’d been riots in the city, as people protested against the regime. By way of punishment, Nicolae Ceausescu (sort of pronounced Chow-chess-koo), the despot who ruled the country, ordered the city’s food rations to be halved. The people of Brasov were now at starvation level (nearly all commodities in Romania were exported, to pay-off the country’s massive international debts. The people were left with next to nothing and everything was rationed). Nicolae Ceausescu was a bit of a card. He had a ‘Boulevard of Socialist Victory’ built, which demolished much of the old city of Bucharest. Lots of people lost their homes and businesses and were left to starve on the streets. Out of despair many of them commited suicide.
Andre and I were starting to feel a bit suicidal. Andre took one look at Brasov and said that he wanted to go home. It was bleak, even by Romanian standards. There were no shops or green spaces, just line after line of grey socialist housing blocks. It was half past eight in the morning and freezing cold. The streets were packed with hoards of tired, undernourished workers on their way to start twelve hour shifts in the factories of this heavily industrialised country. There were definitely no restuarants, so breakfast had to be put on the back burner. The only food source we could find was an old man who was selling some mouldy fruit at outrageous prices. We gave it a miss, for the moment.
International train services in places like Brasov are not very frequent. Cook’s European Timetable told us that the next train heading west was at one o’clock that afternoon. We had four and a half hours to wait. The waiting room at Brasov station is a large, hall-like place with row upon row of uncomfortable wooden benches. The benches were filled with sad, tired people. There was no heating of any kind and it was very cold in there. Andre immediately christened it ‘the waiting room of the damned’.
Those four and a half hours felt more like eight. Finally our train arrived. It was called the Pannonia Express and plied between Bucharest and Berlin via Hungary. The train was crowded yet we managed to get a compartment to ourselves. The carriage was unheated, which didn’t help our hunger. The first part of this escape from Romania took us through the Transylvanian Alps. The beautiful scenary lifted our spirits. Then the Pannonia Express came down out of the mountains and we began to see the industrial devastation of the country. Factories were everywhere, belching out smoke and fumes. In a lot of the towns and villages we passed through the land was blackened for miles around from the pollution. Romania used to be the bread bowl of this part of Europe. Mr Ceausescu wrecked this with his idea of a socialist agro-industrial economy.
We planned to return to Budapest. However, as we neared the Hungarian border we suddenly realised that we didn’t have a visa. The Hungarians didn’t issue visas at the border, they had to be applied for beforehand. We had single entry and exit visas. We’d entered Hungary via Austria and exited via Romania, and when we left Hungary the visa forms were taken from our passports. The awful realisation struck home that we could not get out of Romania. It even made us forget about our hunger, as we imagined what it would be like to have to join those sad, tired people on the 12 hour factory shifts.
Think man, think! We could go to the Hungarian embassy in Bucharest and apply for a visa. Or we could take a flight from Bucharest to any country in western Europe which didn’t require a visa, which was just about all of them. That was it, a country that didn’t require a visa! Yugoslavia adjoined south west Romania, and British passport holders didn’t need a visa to enter Yugoslavia. Evening was approaching and a look at Cook’s Timetable told us that we would not be able to leave until the following morning. We were not on the mainline that led to Yugoslavia, and it was now too late to make the necessary connections. Andre groaned. We were going to have to spend a night in Romania.
We chose to leave the Pannonia Express at Arad, a large town on the Mures River, close to the border with Hungary. From here, the following morning we could get a train down to Timisoara, which was on the line to Yugoslavia. We stood outside Arad station and were overcome with waves of despair. It was almost as bad as Brasov.
The question came from a short young man with a beard and glasses. He looked like a bit of an intellectual. We told him we were British tourists and were stuck in Romania for the night. The young man switched to quite good English and introduced himself as Sandy. We chatted for quite a while before Sandy asked us if we wanted to change money. It was the usual thing in the eastern bloc: everyone wanted hard currency and you could get four or five times the official rate by doing a black market deal with someone in the street. In return for your Dollars or Deutsche Marks or whatever you’d get a bucket load of Zlotys or East German Marks or Forints, or, in this case, Lei. It often made you a millionaire in the local currency. Sounds good, but most times there wasn’t much to spend your money on except food, booze and sex. Well, that doesn’t sound too bad, does it.
Sandy said that we’d do the money exchange later, and in the meantime he’d take us to a hotel. We immediately liked and trusted Sandy. He later said that he felt the same way about us. In those days in Romania you needed to be a good judge of character if you wanted to stay alive. If caught, illegal currency transactions meant at least five years in prison, and a high chance of being beaten-up and tortured by the Securitate (secret police).
Our taxi bumped along a cobbled road. There wasn’t much traffic about and within minutes we pulled up in front of a cheap hotel. We followed Sandy into a dimly lit lobby. He explained that we would have to change up money officially in order to pay for the room. This was in case we were stopped by the police, and asked how we had paid for the hotel. Sandy also said that this was not a tourist hotel, and strictly speaking we were not allowed to stay there. However, if we gave the manager a small gift he would be able to smooth things over. The middle-aged manager behind the reception desk looked grave, and gave us an official receipt as we exchanged money to pay for a night’s stay. Everything in Romania was always done in a sort of hushed way, always looking over your shoulder, and of course it was always dimly lit. Everything was also done by pen and paper, because unless you were part of officialdom the ownership and use of a typewriter was punishable by death.
We had to hand over our passports and fill in forms. Sandy asked if he could see the passports. He held them in his hands and stared wistfully. The West. Freedom. We then gave the manager his gift, which was about ten quid’s worth of Lei, and Sandy took us up to the first floor. Our room was small and reasonably clean. There was the usual incredibly low wattage bulb and a cracked sink with no hot water. The shared toilet lay further along the landing and was indescribable. We asked Sandy if we could do the money exchange now. Stomochs were rumbling. He quickly put his finger to his lips and mouthed ‘out in the street’. As we got ourselves ready to leave, Sandy stood there silently. Ok. So the room was bugged.
It was now getting dark. The street didn’t have much lighting. There was hardly any illumination from the surrounding buildings, which of course were grey in colour. The three of us were making for a restaurant further down the street. Sandy explained that there might not be any food available because of shortages. The restaurant looked like some kind of take-away and smelt rather unpleasant. They were about to close for the evening but they did have a small piece of meat left on the counter. I asked Sandy what kind of meat it was.
And talking of dogs, Margaret Thatcher and many other western leaders feted Nicolae Ceausescu. The Queen even gave him a Knighthood. This was because although Romania was a communist country, Ceausescu hated the Soviet Union and so became a favourite of the West. One British politician, David Steel, gave a black labrador puppy to Ceausescu as a gift. Ceausescu named the puppy Corbu and loved it so much that he made it a colonel in the Romanian Army. The dog could often be seen being driven around Bucharest in its own limousine, complete with motorcade. Corbu lacked for nothing. The Romanian ambassador in London was tasked to go to Sainsburys every week to buy Corbu’s favourite brand of dog biscuits, which were then flown back to Romania in the diplomatic bag.
Andre and I had not had a proper meal for more than 24 hours, but baulked at the thought of boiled dog. During the taxi ride I noticed a large international hotel, so I asked Sandy if we could go there for something to eat. Sandy was very reluctant to take us to the hotel. After much cajoling he finally agreed. However, he said he wouldn’t exchange money with us until afterwards. In the meantime we would have to change money at the official rate and pay for the meal with that. At the time this annoyed me somewhat, because usually in the eastern bloc you’d change up your dosh on the black market, then with bucketfuls of the local currency you’d find the best restaurant possible, order the most expensive menu, and wash it down with Russian champagne. You didn’t need to go looking for women; they came to you. Looking back on it though, this was Romania, and the police could stop you at any time and ask you to account for your money. You needed to be able to show them an official exchange receipt. That international hotel would be crawling with the Securitate. Sandy was taking a big risk just by walking in there with two foreigners, let alone two foreigners he had just illegally exchanged money with.
The hotel was quite luxurious; surprising in a place like this. We did the business at the Bureau de change and then went into the restaurant, which was quite plush yet had the air of having seen better days. A four piece band aped the Beatles:
Ceausescu yeah, yeah, yeah
Ceausescu yeah, yeah, yeah
The menu was extensive and looked very interesting. We asked Sandy to translate. He didn’t get very far before the waiter interrupted and pointed at an item on the menu. There was only one dish coming out of the kitchen that evening. We also ordered a bottle of white wine. The food arrived after about 15 minutes. It was some kind of pork chop with chips and salad, and had been cooked in some kind of watery oil that had a disgusting taste. Sandy woofed his down in seconds; I’ve never seen anyone eat so fast. Andre and I weren’t far behind him. That was it on the food front; there was no dessert available. The bottle of wine was not going to last long between the three of us, and we’d been told that only one bottle was allowed per table. Beer? Sandy called the waiter over and a heated conversation ensued in Romanian. The waiter then scuttled off. He reappeared some moments later from the side of the stage. He looked furtive and carried two beers on a silver tray. The beers were placed in front of us and the waiter hurried off again.
Sandy told us what it was like to live in Romania: grim. He was obviously unused to alcohol and began to talk freely. He was particularly vehement when talking about Nicolae Ceausescu, whom he called a madman. The tables in the restaurant were spaced widely apart, so there didn’t seem much danger of being overheard. But our table might be bugged! Caught-up in the atmosphere of terror I told Sandy to keep quiet.
The Romanian Beatles had finished their set and were putting away the instruments. I noticed that people kept checking their watches. Many of the diners were leaving the restaurant. Two soldiers with machine guns slung over their shoulders were standing by the doorway. Sandy explained that there was a curfew. Everything had to close at 9pm, and the streets had to be cleared by 10pm. To be out after this time was dangerous, as you ran the risk of being picked-up by the Securitate. Many people who were picked-up by the Securitate were never seen again.
The curfew, which was enforced right across Romania, was on the orders of Nicolae Ceausescu. It was supposed to ensure that people went to bed early, so that they would be fresh for their 12 hour shift the following day. It also, no doubt, had something to do with Ceausescu’s radical plan to expand the population. This campaign to build a stronger socialist Romania began in 1966, with the decree “The fetus is the property of the entire society. Anyone who avoids having children is a deserter who abandons the laws of national continuity.” Abortion, divorce and birth control were banned. Every few months women under the age of 45 were rounded-up at their workplace and taken to clinics, where they were examined for signs of pregnancy. This was done in the presence of government agents who were dubbed the ‘menstrual police’. A pregnant woman who failed to “produce” a baby at the proper time could expect to be summoned for questioning. Those who miscarried were suspected of arranging an abortion. Women who did not have children, including those who could not have children for medical reasons, were made to pay a ‘celibacy tax’ of up to 10% of their monthly salaries.
Within a short time the population of Romania nearly doubled. Problem was, the country didn’t have the infrastructure to cope with it. Many babies died for lack of food and proper medical care. Many women died during childbirth. Also, lots of families were too poor to feed the extra mouths. Some women abandoned the children they were forced to have. By the 1980s Romanian orphanages were filled to bursting.
In the dark street, on the way back to our hotel, we did the money exchange. Sandy had been buying hard currency for years. He told us that hard currency was the only way of obtaining the essentials needed to survive. In another year or so he would have hoarded enough to make his bid to escape to the West, probably by swimming across the Danube to Yugoslavia, and then attempting to cross the more porous stretches of the Iron Curtain into either Austria or Italy or Greece. We told Sandy to keep the bundle of Lei he had exchanged for our Pound notes, after all, there wasn’t much we could do with it, and we were leaving Romania the following morning; but he insisted that we keep the money.
We reached the hotel and made our goodbyes. Sandy was a really nice guy, and he had helped us at great risk to himself. I doubt if ‘Sandy’ was his real name, and I’ll never forget his whispered parting words before he hurried off into the terror of the night:
One day we shall meet in freedom
The next morning we were up at 4am. The train to Timisoara left at five. Down in the hotel lobby it was so badly lit that it took a few moments for us to notice the two soldiers. They carried the inevitable machine guns and were chatting with the manager. I went into a cold sweat when I realised that we were carrying a large sum of Lei, for which we didn’t have an official receipt. Why hadn’t we chucked the money away, or given it to a beggar, or something? The soldiers eyed us curiously but took no further action as we checked out and were given back our passports.
There appeared to be a blackout in Arad. This, and the curfew, gave the impression of a country at war. This country, though, was at war with itself. The station wasn’t far from the hotel, but in the pitch black we got lost. It was so dark that if you walked too fast you could have easily gone into a lampost. A shape came out of the gloom and metamorphosed into an old man. French is the second language in Romania: “Où est la gare?” He gave us directions. I flicked my cigarette lighter. It was five minutes to five. We were cutting it fine.
Risking collision we stepped-up our pace. Soon many other shapes joined us. We were all going in the same direction. The Romanian rush hour. We were in the ticket hall almost before we’d noticed the station building. A quick glance at the departure board told us where to go. The train began leaving just moments after we boarded it. It was a double-decker workers train, and it was packed. We made our way to the top deck and managed to find a seat. Naturally enough there was no heating in the carriage and it was freezing cold. I looked around at the poor bastards who were off to do their 12 hour shifts. I thought of Sandy. We never did find out what he did for a living.
The journey took one and a half hours and dawn was breaking as we arrived in Timisoara. The train to Yugoslavia was due in at 7.15. We had an hour to wait. Needless to say it was an uncomfortable experience. When the Beograd Express arrived we managed to find a compartment to ourselves, and, bliss, it was heated. The Yugoslav border was only an hour away. Our exit from Romania took even longer than our entrance: the train sat there for nearly 3 hours while it was scrutinised by the apparatus of a police state. Eventually the Beograd Express was allowed to continue on into Yugoslavia, where there was Spring sunshine.
Nine months later, in December, what became known as the Christmas Revolution started in Timisoara. Riots soon spread across the country. The army began to join the people. After ten days of bloody fighting, in which thousands were killed and injured, the revolution succeeded. Nicolae Ceausescu and his wife Elena were arrested as they attempted to flee the country. They were given a short trial and were sentenced to death. On Christmas Day they were executed by firing squad.
A weather forecaster commented on television that day: On December 25th in Romania there is Spring.
From When I Went Out One Summer’s Morn, Rob Godfrey’s memoir of 20 years of travels, available as both an ebook and a paperback from Amazon or Smashwords – note: Smashwords offers a wide range of ebook formats, including Kindle and PDF.