“The nether sky opens, and Europe is disclosed as a prone and emaciated figure, the Alps shaping like a backbone, and the branching mountain-chains like ribs, the peninsular plateau of Spain forming a head. Broad and lengthy lowlands stretch from the north of France across Russia like a grey green-garment hemmed by the Ural Mountains and the glistening Arctic Ocean. The point of view then sinks downwards through space, and draws near to the surface of the perturbed countries, where the peoples, distressed by events which they did not cause, are seen writhing, crawling, heaving, and vibrating in their various cities and nationalities.”

Thomas Hardy, The Dynasts, 1840–1928

I picked up my rucksack and our two suitcases, wondering if there might be any attempt by Customs to look into our luggage, and what, if I was challenged, would be made of my various supplies – swimming pools from Argos, medical supplies from Boots the chemist, and cigarettes by Kent to name but a few – but I need not have worried. The Customs officers, in their crumpled uniforms, stood huddled together, smoking, showing only the faintest interest in what was going on at the end of the line.

My mother and I moved on to the arrivals hall without the greatest confidence, assuming that those ahead of us knew where they were going, forming a loose line with our fellow passengers. There were none of the multilingual signs that were a customary sight in most airports which I had ever visited and, more by luck than judgement, we found our way to a minibus which appeared to be doing service as some sort of airport shuttle. Our fellow travellers looked as bewildered as we must have done, but about a dozen of us who had either not been met or had not secured taxis climbed into the bus, ushered by two young men who seemed eager to take us on our way into the city, which turned out to be some sixteen or so kilometres away.

I stuttered the name of our hotel to one of them. He responded breezily, in broken English, that there was no problem, and they would be calling there on the way.

Once we got under way, the young man who was not driving took the opportunity to address his passengers, many of whom appeared to be, or at least to speak, English, seeking to persuade us all, with a mixture of charm and something uncomfortably close to begging, to exchange dollars for Romanian currency. 

“You will only get about 100 lei for your dollar,” he explained, “and I can give you a far better rate. Anyway, you are not just doing yourselves a favour but you are helping us, because we really do need foreign currency very badly indeed.”

It was difficult to resist him. I knew very well that the official exchange rate was pitifully small, since Graham Prestridge had spoken of just 50 lei to the dollar, and whereas I also knew that it was quite likely that the rate he was offering was itself not the best black-market rate, I could see no harm in exchanging a few dollars for the wedges of notes which he produced from his plastic case.

Ten US dollars produced about three thousand lei, which I had to stuff into various pockets of my jacket as we travelled through the heat of the afternoon into Bucharest. There was nothing to see from our windows and very little traffic on what appeared to be one of the few dual carriageways that we were to encounter during our visit. 

Our driver knew where he was heading, and after half an hour, he pulled up at the hotel which had been reserved for us by Friendly Travel. We were the only two passengers to disembark.

From the outside, Hotel Parc was unremarkable; a modern, square block, which seemed to be some six or so stories high, with a substantial parking area in front of it, made up primarily of a long wide drive to the front, divided by a long row of sorry-looking trees, populated in the main by a scattering of heavy-goods vehicles and some private cars. 

The architectural style appeared to be similar to the ‘modern brutalist’ style which I had first seen at the airport, resembling a sort of upended cement cube, while inside there was an overwhelming sense of vertical and horizontal lines, with little consideration given to comfort. Opposite the main entrance was a long reception desk, backed up against the rear wall, extending to the whole width of the vestibule. To my surprise, however, the young receptionist who greeted us spoke extremely good English. He introduced himself as Mircea and looked at our reservation coupons. He said they were satisfactory and that they entitled us, it seemed, to a room on the second floor.

He apologised, saying that the lift was not working, but he obviously assumed that we could take our luggage up the stairs ourselves, for there was no hint of assistance. However, the task was not beyond me, given that we had travelled from London without too much difficulty. The heaviest burden, of course, was the rucksack full of the supplies which I had brought with me but which I was able to sling over my shoulders while we mounted the stairs.

There were two stairwells, one to the side, flanking the non-functioning lift and one ahead. The side stairs were partially blocked by a ragged-looking curtain behind which I could make out a bare light bulb and a suggestion of some long-abandoned repair works. We were able to negotiate the main stairwell and found our way to the room, which appeared to have all the basic amenities – even a television set of uncertain vintage which, on being switched on, produced only one channel, with a wavering picture in black and white.

There was a bathroom, en suite, required by our travel coupon, and, I was to discover, as was commonplace in Romania, there was no plug, either in the bath or in the basin. There was a threadbare towel but no soap. But these were minor matters. We had arrived, and had what appeared to be a basically comfortable room.

And I had work to do. My first task was to make my way to the British embassy and so I suggested to my mother, who looked ready for a lie-down, that I should go there, and hopefully get back in time for tea – although quite what ‘tea’ would turn out to be remained an open question. 

Anyway, free of our luggage, and happy to stretch my legs, I secured a small map of the immediate area from Mircea – in reality, little more than a sketch plan on the back of our little room voucher – and set off for the centre. 


This was the first part of my planned itinerary. I remembered that Ian Marriott had directed me, “On arrival in Bucharest, go to the British embassy,” and I walked straight ahead, obeying the little map in my hand, following something of a major thoroughfare which effectively bisected the city. Where I had set out, there seemed to be a substantial park area, Parcul Nerastrau, with a smaller park, Teneretului, at the other end of the city, and between the two, my route took me from Piata  Scinteii through Piata Victoriei and then on to Bul Magheru, part way along this obviously main tributary. 

The walk to the city centre began pleasantly enough. Passing from one large square at the head of a wide avenue, ‘Kiseleff’, which I imagined to be of German derivation, I came by some sort of triumphal arch, then on to another avenue, Ipatescu, which was plainly Romanian. I walked on for what I guessed to be three or four miles before it became clear that I was approaching the centre of the city.

I noticed, as I walked, that a good number of pedestrians would stand in the road, attempting to flag down cars. Initially, I wondered what on earth they were doing, but it soon became apparent that any car, particularly if there was an unaccompanied driver, would happily act as taxi, presumably on payment, giving lifts to and from the centre. There were taxis, to be sure, but not many, and none of them had what could be described as a distinctive livery, other than the presentation of a rickety ‘taxi’ sign clipped to the roof over the driver’s door. Simply standing partially in the road and waving down a car seemed to be entirely acceptable, if slightly dangerous, given that, from my limited experience of Romanian traffic, I had detected a limited degree of road skills. 

The closer I got to the city centre, the busier the traffic, although it never became dense. But I could taste, in my mouth, the pollution in the air. There was a gritty, salty, taste to the atmosphere, and I could feel grit in my eyes. There was an overwhelming sense of dirt, whether covering the ground, on the buildings, or hanging in the air. I reflected that one part of the supplies that I was bringing was Pholcodine linctus, and that Mary Gibson had spoken of the children suffering constant upper respiratory tract infections. Now I thought I knew why. 

I walked on, deeper into the city, until, on my left, I came to an otherwise unremarkable narrow road, Strada Jules Michelet, one of many names which I was to come across with a  French derivation, and which I knew was the address of the British embassy. I turned into the road and, after less than a hundred yards, saw the entrance on the right-hand side. Standing at the pedestrian gate next to a comparatively run-down sentry box was an overweight perspiring policeman, fending off the attentions of a dozen or so supplicants who were attempting to gain access. I walked straight up to him, and flashed my British passport, and he jerked his head towards the building, allowing me past.

No sooner had I passed through the gates than the scene changed abruptly from one of noise, dust and grime to the cool of landscaped gardens which could have been transported straight from Kensington Palace. Manicured lawns, well-ordered and beautifully maintained flower beds and even, I imagined, a strutting peacock greeted my eye. I thought I heard rather than saw the trickle of water from a fountain.

I walked round the side of the building, following the signs to the consulate, and found myself in what appeared to be a wooden side extension. The mirage of calm and tranquillity was immediately shattered. I was in a long, narrow, room, with, at the end, a counter, shielded from the public by glass partitions. There appeared to be two clerks at the counter, while on my side, men and women seethed in some sort of disorganised scrum, attempting to push their way to the counter through people already present and equally determined to stand their ground.

It was starting to become clear that there was no such thing in Romania as a queue. It seemed that the noisier and more physically aggressive one could be, the more likely it would be that the destination would be reached earlier. 

It was pretty obvious that everyone in the room was there for one purpose – to obtain a visa or some sort of entry permit into the United Kingdom. On each wall were notices in English and Romanian making it perfectly plain that a visa would not be granted unless the applicant was sponsored – that is, that they could identify a United Kingdom resident who was prepared to confirm that money would be available to the applicant to ensure his or her support while in the United Kingdom and a speedy return at the end of the stay, without recourse to welfare benefits.

Given that any idea of queuing was out of the question, it dawned on me that it was pointless waiting at the back of the room, and so, by a series of deft manoeuvres, adopting the Romanian system of pushing, shoving and squeezing, and given that I was on my own rather than, as it seemed, one of a couple or trio or even more members of a family, I managed to worm my way to the counter after some 15 minutes of endeavour.

As I stood in front of the glass, I was still buffeted from side to side by the human throng behind me, but I stood my ground and tried to make myself heard through the partition. I put my passport on the counter.

“I am English and have just arrived in Bucharest. I am seeking to adopt a child from an orphanage and I gather that I should report into the embassy to make sure that I am following the correct procedure.”

The clerk looked at me blankly. In heavily accented English, she said, “We close at 5pm.”

I looked at the clock. It showed 4:45pm. I was a little unclear as to how that was supposed to answer my question. So I changed tack. I remembered the name which Ian Marriott had given me.

“I am told that I should ask to see Kirsty Rowe, the vice consul. May I please have a word with her?”

The clerk turned to her companion and said something which I could not catch, given the cacophony behind me, and a moment later she pointed to one side of the room, close to the counter, and told me to wait.

Ten minutes later, a side door opened, and a woman gestured me inside and into an office which turned out to be that of the vice consul. 

“What can I do for you?” she said.

I explained that I was following what I took to be the appropriate procedure, given that I and my mother had come to Bucharest in the hope of adopting a child. I understood that I had to present myself to the embassy at the outset.

Without a hint of either approval or disapproval, she said, “It is complicated. The law here is unclear and may well change. Her Majesty’s government is doing its best to keep up with developments in this country, but at the same time, there are very strict procedures which you have to follow.”

“I’m aware of that, and I know that the embassy has to liaise with both the Home Office and the Department of Health in London before I can hope to have a child enter the UK. But I think I have been following the requirements so far and indeed I have already had a home study report undertaken which has been positive and that has been forwarded to the Department of Health in London by my local authority.”

For some reason, Miss Rowe did not seem to take particularly kindly to this information or the steps which I had already taken. However, I ignored her marked lack of enthusiasm, and ploughed on. “My next step, as I understand it, is to identify a child or children, and that is what I propose to do. When I have done that, I will come back and arrange an appointment so that the necessary formalities can be pursued.”

She looked at me coolly. “You’ll not be able to take any child out of the country and into the United Kingdom without entry clearance.”

I knew that, having read the guidance issued by the Department of Health from cover to cover. Indeed, a letter to that effect was part of my dossier, but I was slightly taken aback by the tone of her voice. There was the faintest suggestion that to get entry clearance would be highly unlikely, or, at best, would be something of a struggle.

I had hoped that she would at least appear to be taking some sort of written note of our conversation and that she might give a word either of encouragement or of advice, but she did not give any hint at all of support, and seemed to express no interest at all in what I was about. She brought an end to our conversation immediately.

She rose from her seat behind the desk. “You can arrange an appointment through the office or by telephone,” she said and gave me a card with the embassy number on it.

So that was that. I had registered my interest and my presence. I didn’t know quite what I expected, and I sensed a certain antipathy in the embassy response, but putting it down to my imagination, I left the fragrant gardens behind, and emerged once more into the dusty city streets of Bucharest. Perhaps, over optimistically, I had thought that the embassy would be not simply sympathetic to but somehow naturally supportive of efforts to rescue the children from the orphanages, but I had a horribly empty feeling that perhaps the embassy was not, as it were, on our side at all. 

It was just after 5pm, and, true to its word, the consular office had shut and the clamour had ended when I left the vice consul’s office. It was time to return to the hotel, make sure that my mother was alright, and then move on to my next step, which was to find the translator, Lily.


I retraced my steps out of the city, remarking to myself that there didn’t seem to be such a thing as a ‘rush hour’, since the volume of traffic had, if anything, reduced. It was still stiflingly hot, and by the time I returned to the hotel, my T-shirt was wet through with perspiration. The good news, however, was that my mother was rested and we both decided that we would establish whether or not there was any likelihood of a meal being available, and we returned to reception. Mircea directed us to the hotel dining room without great enthusiasm, and I soon discovered why. It was totally incongruous, bearing in mind the size of the hotel and its design, and comprised nothing more than a small room made out in some curious faux Baroque style, with only about twenty tables. Apart from the two of us, the room was completely empty.

We sat down and waited. Eventually, a waitress appeared who was unable to communicate with us in either French or English and who was utterly bewildered by the suggestion that there might be a menu. The only food available, it appeared, was that which we had experienced on the flight – some cold ham and perhaps some tomatoes. We could have water to drink. And sure enough, some pretty unappetising boiled ham was placed before us with a small dish of tomatoes and a jug of water. My mother ate virtually nothing. For my part, perhaps fortunately, I like tomatoes, and I was reasonably content with the ham once I had removed its generous coating of fat;   my exertions that afternoon had given me a substantial appetite, so I set to, ignoring the modest nature of our meal.

Our eating habits, let alone our appetites, were going to have to change pretty rapidly.

We didn’t stay long in our dining room and, in any event, we both knew that we had to move on the next day to Bacau, so my mother decided on an early night. I asked the receptionist about directions to the domestic airport which I knew we had to find for the next leg of our trip.

“You want to go to Baneasa Airport,” he said. “It’s closer than Otopenei – and in fact you will probably hear aeroplanes landing and engines warming up from your room. But you’ll need a taxi to get there, and I must warn you, if there is anything that works to time in Romania, it is the domestic airport, which makes sure that all planes leave and arrive exactly in accordance with the timetable.”

“Can you arrange a taxi for us to get there?”

He pursed his lips. “Of course, I can try. But remember what I said. The plane will leave on time.”


Meanwhile, I had more work to do. An immediate task was to find Lily, the translator who, Ian had assured me, could translate my home study report in short order. I had telephoned her from England, and she had assured me that she would be at home and I could drop my documents round to her on the evening of my arrival. So, leaving my mother to get some rest, I set off once more, and mimicking the custom which I had seen earlier in the day, I managed to flag down a car masquerading as a taxi which took me to the housing estate where the interpreter’s flat could be found.

Carrying an anonymous-looking carrier bag with my home study report and my dossier inside it, I found my way to the third floor of what seemed to be the right block and rang the bell. Sure enough, Lily was waiting for me, although in the most extraordinary state of undress. I had to make allowances for the oppressive temperature of this summer’s evening, but I was still surprised to see that she was wearing little more than a blouse and some sort of panties, and seemed quite unconcerned that everything else was bare.

Nonetheless, her language skills were evident, and she invited me into her flat and had me sit in her living room while she looked over my paperwork.

“I can translate all this,” she said, “and it will be ready for you by the end of the week.” I should collect them, she said, from the office where she worked, in central Bucharest, in the office of ‘the Notary’. 

I handed over the agreed fee, in dollars, which she stuffed into a purse.

That seemed to be that. How, then, was I to find my way back to the hotel, given that I was now out in the suburbs? 

“You can get a bus or a tram,” she said. “If you walk out of the estate and towards the main road you will see a bus line which you can catch into the town centre.”

I pointed out that it was by now night-time, and I had completely lost my sense of direction. 

“Oh, there’s no problem,” she said. “You will see a bus or a tram from the end of the road leading here, and that will take you back to the centre.”

Was there a route number? Lily gave me a number but of course the same number would also be travelling in the opposite direction. She insisted, however, that it would be obvious when the right bus came along. I was not particularly keen on climbing onto a Romanian bus without the faintest idea of either the route I should be following or the destination I should choose, but I decided to hide my trepidation, thanked Lily, and made my way downstairs.

In fact, by now it was not only completely dark, but there was virtually no street lighting of any sort. I would learn, much later, that such was the cost of fuel for the country’s power stations, every effort was made to conserve energy, and street lighting was considered not to be essential. Such illumination as there was came from the windows of the flats and houses around me, and when I found my way onto the surrounding streets, I soon found that I was walking in pitch blackness. With no street lighting that I could make out, there was no reflecting glow from the sky, and without any moonlight to speak of, I was close to blind.

Nonetheless, I struck out as confidently as possible, knowing, from what I’d seen as we had driven to the estate earlier, that there were virtually no other pedestrians around and so it was highly unlikely that I would actually bump into anyone. At one stage, I came across a large roundabout which boasted a dim street light and saw a couple of bus passengers waiting in a shelter. I went across and spoke to them, using just the one word which I imagined would pass muster

“Centru?” I said, pointing in the direction which I was following.

They both nodded, smiling, giving me, at least, the confidence to carry on. And so I walked on, in darkness which was punctuated from time to time by the dim light of a house window and, less frequently, by vestiges of moonlight which revealed itself through brief breaks in the clouds overhead.

Then, suddenly, I felt compelled to stop. I had no idea why, but something urged me not to take one step further. I could vaguely make out on my right-hand side that there was a high wall which I must have been following for a good number of yards. To my left, I knew, was the street. 

I have often read of the hairs on the back of the neck transmitting some sort of alert, a sensation which I confess I have never experienced, mainly because my neck is devoid of hair. But certainly, I had encountered something which compelled me to stop, and as I struggled to get my bearings and work out quite what had alerted me, down the road from behind me came an ancient tram, scattering showers of sparks as it lost and then renewed connection with the overhead wires.

One such shower burst close to where I was standing, illuminating the path ahead. Where there was no path at all. I had stopped right on the edge of the pavement by a sunken entry to what appeared to be a factory gate on my right. The sunken entry was in fact a steep decline down which delivery lorries would no doubt negotiate their passage into the factory itself. The incline appeared to be extremely steep – from initially the same level as the roadway, it seemed to descend to a depth of 6 feet or more across the width of the pavement. Since I was walking along the middle of the pavement, I would have walked, without any warning, into a drop of at least 3 feet and I would very probably have been significantly injured.

No doubt, during daylight hours, there was some sort of warning of this chasm. And it appeared that at night-time, pedestrians obviously chose not to frequent the streets of Bucharest, given the lack of illumination. For my part, I was pretty shaken up but also incredibly fortunate, and while I cannot pretend to have a sixth sense, something had alerted me and protected me from what could have been an early catastrophe. Coincidence? Radar? Goodness knows, but I was a very lucky man.

I decided to skirt around the entrance way and continue my journey walking in the street. When I had completed another mile or so, I came across what appeared to be a rather larger square, with at least some faint lighting, and obviously much closer to the centre. I again copied the actions of those wanting lifts and flagged down a car for a ride into the city.

As I had observed already, most drivers appeared perfectly willing to offer a lift to passers-by, and the one who stopped for me was even more eager when I indicated that I was prepared to give him a dollar to take me to Hotel Parc. Of course, at the black-market rate of exchange, I was giving him the equivalent of several hundred lei – an unheard-of amount for a relatively short trip across town, but it satisfied us both for our separate reasons. He spoke neither English nor French, but with my little hotel map I was able to make my destination clear enough just as he was able to explain by means of sign language, shrugs and a stab at the petrol gauge ten minutes later, that he had run out of petrol. Feeling sorry for him, and buoyed up by my recent experience with the factory gate, I gave him another dollar, assuming that that would help him fill the tank, and I happily waited in his car while he walked off with a petrol can, equipment which I assumed was pretty important in a time of shortages.

Ultimately, and rather later than I had planned, I arrived back at Hotel Parc, close to midnight. The one thing that our bathroom did boast was a shower, and though the water was tepid and the flow only just above a trickle, it was bliss to wash the dirt of the day off me, wash my hair, and emerge relatively refreshed for my night’s sleep. 

Back in our room, I told my mother about my experiences and I also warned her about the need to be punctual for the flight the next day. She was still looking a bit the worse for wear. 

“Our flight leaves at eight o’clock in the morning, and the receptionist insists that it will leave on time. So I have asked for a taxi at seven and we must be up and ready to catch it.”

“Of course,” said my mother, making something of an obvious effort not to be tetchy. “I’ll be up and ready.”

Which in fact turned out to be something of an optimistic overstatement. For my part, I could not sleep at all through the night, and so I was wide awake, though tired, at six o’clock, bustling about, getting things ready for departure. I repacked my case and checked the rucksack and by 6.30 I was ready.

Not so my mother, who appeared to be struggling. 

“I’m sorry, Ma, but we really must get on. We have a plane to catch.”

Eventually, she struggled out of bed, gathered her things together and followed me downstairs to reception. Thankfully, she only had one case and, since she appeared not to be in any state to carry it, I made myself cope with that and, to her obvious relief, I took hold of mine while shouldering my rucksack without too much difficulty. But where was our taxi? It was nowhere to be seen. 

I was beginning to realise that if there was any form of regulation of taxis, it was probably ignored, given that I now had experience of most car owners moonlighting their services, particularly to foreigners who would be prepared to pay in dollars. 

I went across to the reception desk and asked whether any taxi had been ordered for us. I realised, as I spoke, that I was making an assumption that there was such a thing as a radio taxi network, which, on reflection, was absurd, but I still harboured a hope that somehow, although I knew not how, a taxi might have been found to take us across to the airport.

I half expected the answer. There was no taxi, but perhaps one could be found within a few minutes. Another receptionist, who had not been on duty the night before, came out onto the front steps and looked vaguely towards the main road. It seemed that that was the best that he, and indeed we, could do. The quest was hopeless. Finally, I realised that there was nothing for it: we should look for a car with a single driver, flag him down, and simply ask whether or not he would be prepared to act as a taxi for us.

And that, eventually, is how we managed to get a ride to the airport. And perhaps it also explains how it is that we got there too late to catch our flight, which, as I had been alerted the night before, left at exactly eight o’clock.


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