This is the very real story of one family’s experience during a series of mishaps that started with a car accident in Romania. The author purchased the car, a 1969 Mercedes at the factory that same year, and when he sold it, it had 250,000 miles on it and was still going strong...
We were in northeastern Romania, just three days out of the Soviet Union. They had been three relaxing, delightful days. The Carpathian Mountain scenery was great, the food was good, premium gasoline was available once more and there were no restrictions on which roads we could drive. The people we met evidenced little of the mixture of curiosity and suspicion that had followed us for the last 2,000 miles across the USSR. They were warmly friendly, if still curious. (An American family, traveling in a Western German automobile was not something to be expected in this remote corner of Eastern Europe during the cold war days of 1969.) We were thoroughly enjoying ourselves.
Then, on the afternoon of the third day (we were still no more than 120 miles from the Soviet border) our adventure, if one can call it that, began. I wrecked the car.
An unexpectedly sharp curve, a freshly rain—slicked road, too much speed, then a sudden skid and WHAM! The right side of the car and a guard rail convened to demolish one another.
First, the good news: miraculously, no one was hurt. Even thirteen year old Bill, who had been seated beside the right rear door, a door torn completely off by the impact, was only slightly shaken. And that’s about as far as the good news went.
The car was a total mess. For the moment, at least, it couldn’t be driven. We, my wife and myself, our daughter, Lynn, then sixteen, and son, Bill, were stranded hundreds of miles inside the iron curtain with almost no idea what to do next.
But a wreck draws curious onlookers in Romania like anywhere else. Soon we were surrounded by a throng of people, other motorists, lorry drivers and neighboring farmers, all offering observations and advice — in Romanian. I was able to recruit several men armed with hammers and makeshift crowbars and after an hour or so we were able to beat the crumpled metal away from the rear wheel far enough to let it turn — with an awful scraping, grating uproar of sound, but turn nevertheless. We were mobile again — sort of.
This milestone had just been achieved and we were about to attempt to nurse the car as far as Bacau, the next town of size some thirty miles ahead, when a local policeman arrived on the scene. He had hitch-hiked out from a neighboring village (apparently neither an automobile nor even a bicycle was available to him). When he discovered that the car was drivable he immediately decided I had to go in with him to file an accident report or something. He insisted on driving.
As we crept the three or four miles to the police station, his face remained swathed in a continuous grin. He honked the horn and waved at everyone we met. The car may have been a scraping, grating, battered wreck, but it was a MERCEDES, and he wasn’t about to miss his chance to drive it — or to be seen driving it.
At the police station we found ourselves faced with a dilemma. I spoke no Romanian. The policemen, there were three of them now, spoke no English. The chief got on the phone and began dialing various learned individuals in the area (Professori so-and-so, then Maestro such-and-such). No luck. After an hour or so of trying he found no one who could speak English. What to do? What to do? I had no way of helping them out of their dilemma. Nor had I any desire to spend the night in the local slammer while waiting for someone with the proper linguistic skills to chance into town. The only contribution to the proceedings that I could think of was to begin worrying quite audibly about my poor “familia” back there at the accident scene. My histrionics may have helped, I don’t know. Eventually they just gave up.
My policeman and I got back into the car and we grated and scraped and honked and waved our way back to my family. They, in the meanwhile had been taken in by the peasant family whose front yard had been more or less the accident scene and were being thoroughly fussed over. I understand they were given tea and pastries and treated quite as honored guests. When I arrived plans were being made to provide dinner. It was obvious that a bed for the night would have been offered if need be. Their kindness and generosity to total strangers in need was both touching and humbling. They had so very little and gave of it so willingly. Without benefit of a common language, our expressions of gratitude seemed paltry.
Back in the car again, we scraped and grated our way, at twenty miles an hour, on to Bacau. It was raining hard once more and it was getting dark. We were minus one door; both the windshield and the rear window were missing. It was not a joyful thirty miles.
We entered the city in the dark, quite lost. By that time all we really wanted was a place for the night. We’d worry about tomorrow tomorrow. We paused at the curb once to see if someone could direct us. A passerby, a man obviously well in his cups, noticed the inviting absence of the rear door. Smiling cheerfully, he climbed in, edged Bill over and sat down. He was not exactly the sort of guide we were hoping for. We persuaded him to leave, which he did, as cheerfully as he had entered.
At that moment, a boy of about fourteen, approached and, in halting schoolboy English, asked if he could help us. You bet he could! He got in with us and lead us to both the O.N.T. (tourist office) and a hotel.
The hotel, one of three functional but uninspired multi-story buildings framing a central square, had rooms for us. It also had a cluster of fifty or so young people surrounding the entrance. We were told that an Italian rock singer was in town for a concert that evening and the crowd had gathered in hopes of seeing him leave the hotel. When our poor, battered automobile pulled up to the nearby curb the crowd promptly left the hotel entrance and re-formed around us. Perhaps the appearance of Italian rock stars was the more common event.
We assembled our luggage and other possessions, carefully locked all three doors and slogged through the rainy night to the sanctuary of our hotel.
One small girl in the crowd of onlookers, touched by the plight of our two bedraggled youngsters, shyly and a bit timidly put something in our daughter’s hand. It was a postage stamp and a coin, probably the only things of value she had with her that she thought might provide solace.
The next morning I went to the O.N.T. and found a lifeline. Maria Popovic was a wonderfully helpful woman who spoke good English. With her help I began the painful process of validating my insurance so that something could be done about the car — and us. It was Saturday. The insurance office in far off Stuttgart was closed for the weekend.
Friday night’s rain had turned into a full fledged storm by Saturday, effectively confining us to our rooms for a desultory weekend of reading, playing cards and pacing the floor. The storm broke Sunday evening and allowed us to explore the town a little. None of us was in a great mood for sightseeing. Bacau seemed dreary, dull and rather featureless. The highlight of the evening was a visit to a gallery opening. The artist, a sculptor, ushered us around and explained each piece at length in precisely enunciated French. I nodded and smiled and pretended to understand far more than I actually did. The crowd followed us around, intrigued far more by us than by his work.
Somehow Monday finally arrived. Bright and early I attached myself to Maria and began the frustrating, seemingly endless process of figuring out what to do and how to do it. It was agreed at my first faint and nearly unintelligible telephone contact with Stuttgart that the car must be shipped to Belgrade for repairs. The local garage would have dearly loved the opportunity to begin pounding on it, but there was, of course, no Mercedes dealership or parts supply anywhere in Romania. How to get it to Belgrade became the problem.
The local officials, everyone, did their very best to be helpful. But ours was a problem beyond their experience. They knew little more about what to do than we did. Many heads were scratched. Many potential solutions were put forth.
The railroad seemed a realistic answer. Consequently, I paid a deposit on a rail car which dutifully appeared on a siding near the garage where the car was now stored. We had the car nearly loaded when someone chanced to wonder what would happen when it got to the Yugoslav border. The car had been noted on my visa. It wouldn’t be permitted to cross without my visa. What to do? Someone suggested that I ride with the car on the freight train. Fine; how long will it take a slow moving freight to reach the border? An eloquent shrug; who knows: two days, three days, four days. The car was off-loaded and returned to the garage.
Next we tried a trucking company. No problem - except their trucks were not licensed to cross the border. There it would have to be off-loaded and we would have to arrange further shipment with a Yugoslav trucking firm.
Late Tuesday afternoon my common sense, which had apparently lain dormant since the accident, began to reemerge. I phoned the American Embassy in Bucharest. They would get back to me in the morning. They did, promptly and courteously. I was provided with the name of an international trucking firm that was licensed in both countries; one that was thoroughly familiar with the border crossing formalities. My indispensable Maria called them for me. Yes, they believed they could have a lorry in Bacau sometime tomorrow (Thursday) morning.
Prophetically, the rain had ended sometime Tuesday night and Wednesday had dawned bright and sunny. The sun translated to us as a beacon of light at the end of a tunnel.
We spent most of the day strolling the streets and admiring the limited sights of the city. It seemed that, by now, nearly everyone we met on the street knew who we were and we were greeted with smiles and handshakes at every turn. Our sudden, and unexpected, celebrity was almost unnerving. Everyone knew us and we knew no one.
Wednesday was July 16, 1969. That afternoon the hotel management set up a large black and white TV set in the lobby. The lobby was filled with folding chairs and we were invited to sit in the front row. Along with fifty to a hundred others, both in the lobby and on the sidewalk outside, we watched Apollo XI lift off, live, from the Kennedy Space Center on its way to the first moon landing. The event was cheered here, a thousand miles behind the Iron Curtain and when we rose to leave WE were applauded.
The next morning a big Skoda lorry arrived. The car was quickly and efficiently loaded, our bags were stowed and the four of us climbed into the front seat with the driver. Bystanders smiled and waved and called farewells as we lumbered our way out of Bacau.
It was a long, warm, cramped six—hour ride from Bacau to Bucharest. Still, we had no complaints. We were moving again and, best of all, we only had to pay for transporting the car —the driver tossed us in gratis. He was pleasant enough but of course he spoke no English so it wasn’t exactly a guided tour.
We left Bacau late in the morning and hadn’t had the presence of mind to ask the hotel restaurant to prepare us a lunch. We made one stop, in the fringe of some small town, so the driver could visit his mother! When he returned after a half hour or so it was clear that he’d also had lunch. We hadn’t.
In Bucharest at last, he drove us first to the National Tourist Office where we were provided with a hotel booking. It turned out to be a first class hotel, quite elegant actually. As our lorry lumbered up to the main entrance and disgorged four rumpled, travel weary and ravenous guests, I’m sure the concierge must have rolled his eyes and muttered the Romanian equivalent of, “Well, there goes the neighborhood.”
The big lorry returned to the front door again around nine o’clock the next morning to pick me up so I could tend to the legal rigamarole required for shipping the car out of the country.
First things first though. The trucking company had to be paid and weren’t about to wait for my insurance to do it for me. They wanted the Romanian equivalent of $400 up front before anything more could happen. And no, they couldn’t accept traveler’s checks.
So, it was back to the big Skoda and we lumbered off to a bank. Three hours later I was back at the trucking company’s office with the equivalent of a cashiers check and, with the papers prepared by the trucking people, we were ready to tackle the customs office.
We were ushered into a large, barren office where an important looking man in uniform sat behind a desk. Besides the desk and the officer the room contained nothing but a couple of chairs, a small filing cabinet and, against the far wall, a huge safe about the size of a large refrigerator, nothing else, no carpet, no pictures on the walls, nothing. Even his desk seemed to be bare of any papers or anything. Of course he spoke no English.
We handed him the shipping papers and my passport, each of which he studied carefully. Then we went outside and he inspected the car nestled snugly in its lorry. The lorry was closed and sealed and the three of us trooped back to his office.
At last, the moment of truth. The official walked to his monumental safe, fiddled a moment and I held my breath while he swung open the massive door. Inside (I swear this is true) was a little tray holding several rubber stamps, a stamp pad - and a roll of toilet paper. Nothing else. The papers were thumped with one or more of the stamps and our poor, battered car was free to go to Yugoslavia. He never once smiled.
With the car on its way I now had to figure out how to get the four of us launched for Belgrade. It was now three-thirty in the afternoon. The business with the car had taken so much time that we could no longer catch the day’s only flight, but there was an overnight train. So it was off to the railway ticket office.
It proved to be a smallish room with a counter behind which were two or three clerks. The only problem was there was a mob of about fifty sweaty bodies jammed into the room trying to buy tickets for God-knows-where. There were no lines, just the mob shoving, elbowing, shouting — anything to get the attention of one of the clerks. I eventually squirmed and rammed my way up to the counter. When the clerk I was more or less facing discovered I couldn’t speak Romanian he wanted nothing more to do with me and focused his attention on other clamoring customers. Finally a fellow customer recognized my plight and loudly demanded I be waited on. I emerged from the crush with tickets for a second class sleeping compartment for the four of us. The entire transaction took a little more than two hours, but without the aid of the kind gentleman jammed up next to me I might still be there.
Our train compartment turned out to be quite comfortable. Its only shortcoming was the lack of air conditioning. No great hardship except the weather had turned hot and muggy. It did have windows that opened though so we sailed along with a pleasant breeze to keep us comfortable. Some time around three a.m. we crossed the Yugoslav border and customs officers came through the car and woke us to examine our passports and apply visa stamps. That’s when we discovered that the train must have gone through some tunnels during the night. Everything, our clothes, our luggage, ourselves, everything, was coated with oily soot. I’m afraid we felt rather stupid as well as filthy.
The train didn’t go into the center of Belgrade as I somehow expected. It deposited us, instead, at a rinky-dink little station on the fringe of the city. I managed to remember the name of one downtown hotel, the Slavja and we took a taxi in. Even that simple venture took some doing. The Romanian money I had left was worthless here. Not being a free market currency, it couldn’t be exchanged (except on the black market I suppose). No one would even look at my travelers checks. The old ace in the hole, U.S. greenbacks, did the trick. I always carry a few dollars tucked away. I don’t know what sort of exchange rate the cab driver gave me. I didn’t care; I’d had all the frustrations I wanted for the time being.
We chose the Slavja Hotel for the simple reason that it was the only name I could dredge out of my memory. It turned out to be a slick, relatively new, high rise building, a carbon copy of a thousand international chain hotels everywhere — the kind we always avoided like the plague. Just then, though, it was a real oasis. Sparkling clean rooms, fresh crisp sheets on the beds, lots of towels and SHOWERS in each room. Heaven. It also had a great dining terrace with excellent food and service. We wallowed in it for two or three days before moving to a hostel — nowhere near so glamorous or as centrally located but a lot cheaper and a lot more fun.
We arrived in Belgrade on June 19th. The next day, as we were having dinner on the beautiful terrace, the service began getting noticeably erratic with our waiter disappearing for extended periods, then reappearing briefly to deliver something to our table only to rush away once more. Finally, realizing we were Americans, he told us that back in the kitchen somewhere was a television set and they were watching the first moon landing — live. No, sorry, they couldn’t permit us to join them. But our dessert was delivered with a huge smile and the announcement that he had just seen man set foot on the moon for the first time. Witnessing his excitement almost cancelled the disappointment of not having seen it ourselves.
Belgrade is an interesting city to visit — for about two days. We were there for nine interminable, frustrating days. Days spent waiting for the wheels to turn: waiting for the car to arrive; waiting to clear customs so it could be unloaded; waiting for damage take-off s and repair estimates; waiting for insurance authorization; deciding, at last, that the car should be shipped to Stuttgart for repairs; waiting for insurance clearance to do that; arranging for shipment; arranging customs clearances for the various international boundaries on the way. Whew.
Finally, nineteen days after the accident, the car was on its way and we headed for Sarajevo and then the Dalmation Coast in a rental car. Nearly three weeks of frustration, worry and uncertainty... but so much more. Three weeks of learning how kind and helpful total strangers can be when they recognize someone in need. Three weeks of experiencing, close up and personal, some relatively obscure corners of Europe. Three weeks of testing our own resourcefulness and patience. Three weeks of adventure that, in retrospect, I wouldn’t trade for anything.