“A true friend is the most precious of all possessions and the one we take least thought about acquiring.”

La Rochefoucauld, Maxims, 1665

Without breaking stride, Bogdan got in the car, talking as he did so.

“The government requires all citizens to carry identification with them at all times – so we all have identity cards. Without the card, we can do nothing, go nowhere. And children don’t have cards, so they rely on their birth certificates. And we now have this kid’s identity. Without it, the orphanage and that horrible woman can’t move him around, so at least we know that he is staying put.”

I was lost in admiration for his quick thinking. But what about the mother?

“She works at a tractor factory in Stanesti, about a hundred miles from here, and that’s where we’re going now.”

I was both astonished and humbled by his unconditional acceptance of the challenge which, in his view, now faced us both.

“We will be brothers in this,” he smiled mischievously. “We have a saying in Romania. ‘Come in through the door. If you can’t get in that way, then try the window’.”

Well, however ungainly the image, I understood what he meant. I had an ally – and what an ally he would turn out to be.

While Bogdan drove through the outskirts of Bucharest, I examined the birth certificate. There was the birthday – 11 May 1988. So, little Petre George was not ‘almost two’ at all. He was approaching two and a half. Time was marching on. 

We followed the dusty main road out of Bucharest, squeezing past filthy lorries belching smoke, which Bogdan told me were probably on their way to and from Bulgaria, although carrying what was anyone’s guess. There was an occasional, usually empty, flat-bed farm wagon, on car tyres, pulled by an emaciated-looking horse, driven on by depressed-looking individuals sometimes alone, sometimes in huddled family groups. From time to time, he had to brake hard, swerving around jagged ravines where the tarmac had long since disappeared. Through the utterly depressing countryside we passed overgrown fields without any sign of either crops or livestock. 

“You know, when I flew in, the countryside was just like this. Nothing seemed to be growing and the whole area seemed to be devoid of life.”

“It is a tragedy,” said Bogdan. “The people don’t have enough money to pay for food and the farmers don’t have the money to invest in the production of food. It’s a downward cycle. You know, Romania used to be such a productive country but since the Communists took over, because of the state of the country, they took the view that economies of scale would rescue the agricultural industry, and so vast co-operatives were set up. And the problem with co-operatives is that the Communists would set a quota, and the labourers would aim for that quota and nothing more. Once it was reached, they would perhaps take a little more for themselves or their families, but the remaining crops would simply be put to the torch or left to rot . The quotas were stupidly low, but no one complained.”

We contemplated this depressing scenario for a moment.

“And do you know that before the war, the staple price of wheat for the whole of Europe was actually set in the bourse in Bucharest.”

We shared a further silence until I broke the mood. “You don’t say.”

We both laughed.

“We have had more than our share of bad luck,” he continued after some time. “The Germans wanted our oilfields at the outset of war, and we weren’t in any position to resist, so we aligned ourselves with the Axis powers. 

“Then, as Germany faced defeat and the Allies advanced from the west, the Russians took the opportunity to sweep us up with the rest of Eastern Europe, and we were thrown from the frying pan into the fire.” Bogdan was clearly pleased with his use of English. 

Yes, I thought. Wrong place at the wrong time. From what little I knew about geo-political ebbing and flowing, Romania had been in a position of enormous potential at the crossroads of the trade routes between Europe and Byzantium, a position which had terrible consequences when the Third Reich sought to dominate the continent.

As we drove, I noticed that if there were any other cars on the road, they only appeared to be of two types – the Dacia, the make that Bogdan was driving, and the Trabant, which I recognised as the ‘little stinker’, which had been the main, if not the only, means of private transport throughout East Germany, deriving its name from the smelly exhaust fumes produced by its two-stroke engine.

“That’s right,” said Bogdan. “We have no car industry of our own to speak of. You’ve probably noticed that the car is in fact the old French Renault. Private citizens get to drive either white or light-blue Dacias. The secret police get to drive black ones. Good camouflage, eh?” He laughed. “But look at the state of it. It’s a new car that has done very few miles but there are problems with it already. You can see that here and there the interior is starting to fall to bits.”

He was right. The cheap plastic mouldings which had been inexpertly applied to the doors and the fascia now appeared to be about to fall off. The minimal upholstery was stark and uncomfortable. The bodywork had certainly lost whatever showroom shine it might have had when it was bought. I recognised the salty taste in my mouth and knew that it contained sulphur, and that the rain would dilute and combine with the polluted air to form a mild but deadly acid which would simply eat away at the body surface, leaving a dull and almost sandpapery feel to it. 

Still, by good fortune, I had obviously secured the help of a willing interpreter and guide, if not friend, and we were mobile. 


We motored on through the afternoon until we reached Stanesti, an unremarkable town which seemed, like so many areas of Romania that I had seen so far, to have closed in on itself. Bogdan found a lone pedestrian, who pointed out where the factory was.

We parked outside the factory gates. It appeared wholly lifeless. There was a gatehouse, but the red-and-white pole which would normally require traffic entering or leaving to stop and identify itself was, it seemed, permanently in the vertical, and I couldn’t see any gatekeeper. If there was any activity at all, it was well away from the road, and whereas I had assumed that we might hear some signs of industry, there was utter silence.

“Don’t worry,” said Bogdan. “I know what to do and I will find out who to ask.” And off he went. I sat in the car. It was stiflingly hot, so I wound down the windows and attempted to sleep. 

The minutes stretched into an hour. Finally, Bogdan returned and got into the car.

“We’ve been – how do you say – led a dance,” he said. “She’s not there, and she hasn’t been there for two years.” Then quickly, no doubt seeing the look of despair on my face, he continued, “But don’t worry, I got hold of some sort of personnel official, and he has given me her address. And believe it or not, if it is right, she is living in Bucharest.”

Wonderful! We had been sent on a wild goose chase of rather more than 200 miles. 

But Bogdan appeared not to be fazed at all. I insisted on giving him enough money so that he could fill up with petrol, and without any reduction in his cheerfulness we retraced our steps. The afternoon was wearing on and it was pointless our attempting to find her whereabouts that day and so Bogdan decided that he would take me back to Hotel Parc, and pick me up the next day. There was nothing much more we could do. 


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