Tales From No Man's Land


In those days they could watch Serbian TV using an antenna someone had hoisted on top of a grain silo in Jimbolia.

            The image was crystal clear.

            Every time Timofte traveled to Timișoara, he would brag to his relatives that in Jimbolia you could watch the Serbs without any static.

            During the Revolution, Timofte was watching a marathon of ”Dallas” episodes, running on Serbian TV. Image quality like in the Neckermann catalogue. He switched, during a commercial break, to the Romanian State Television.

            They had just shot Ceaușeșcu and the Savant.

            The image was a washed-out shit-brown full of static. You couldn’t even see the execution clearly. Lots of static, a hell of a lot of noise and two crumpled silhouettes being gobbled up in sickly puffs of smoke. Timofte got bored before yawning, switching back to the Serbs.

            After the whole situation with the Executed One, an event which Timofte processed in passing, because on the one hand he was working hard as a mechanic for the Romanian Railroad, and on the other hand he really could care less about politics, lifein Jimbolia came back to normal – train lines, the plain of the Banat, the border and Serbian TV.

            Back then the Deutschmark was in power.

            Greenhorns talked about dollars, connaisseurs conversed in Deutschmarks. Small border smuggling was going on, in a much more relaxed rhytm now, and everyone was happy. It was quiet. On the Romanian, as well on the Serbian side.

            That peace and quiet started pulling apart for the Serbs, like a sweater out of which someone starts pulling a loose thread at the edge of sleeve, until there’s nothing left. Then the quiet shattered into a million pieces, like a porcelain bowl one drops on the floor. Broken up like a plate.

            It started from a football match. Dinamo Zagreb versus Red Star Belgrade on Maksimir Stadium.

            13th May 1990.

            Timofte couldn’t believe his eyes.

            He was just sitting there, staring like an ass with a filtered Bucegi cigarette dangling from his lower lip, while on TV, on screen, in crystal quality image, he was looking without understanding at how those people were beating each other up like men possessed. Croatian ultras from the Bad Blue Boys against the Serbians from Delije led by the one who later would become Arkan.

            It started in the stands. They started throwing seats. Then stones. Some started taking out blades. The cops jumped in to try separating and calming them down. They calmed them down using batons and canisters of tear gas. The ultras invaded the pitch. The players of the two teams were just sitting there, watching the mayhem, scratching their heads, unable to understand what was going on. Then Boban hit a policeman. The police jumped Boban, the players jumped the police. Then the players were going at it amongst themselves. Then they ran for the locker-rooms. The police jumped on the supporters. Madness.

            In Timofte’s house there was someone else with him, glued to the screen – metaphorically with his head beyond it – Boba, a Serb from Jimbolia. Boba’s grandfather had come from Montenegro, from Titograd, to Jimbolia in the ’30s.

            ”What are these fools up to?! Timofte asked Boba after he had come to, amazed still by the quality of the transmission.

            ”It’s bad”, Boba told him, getting up slowly, putting his Marlboro pack back into the pocket of his denim vest and heading for the door. ”There will be war”, he concluded, after which he slammed the door shut, disappearing into the night.

            Time passed. Time in which Timofte saw to his affairs – the Romanian Railroad, backgammon at the watering hole with the boys, zero politics and a lot of movies on TV.

            All of a sudden, about a year later, around June 1991, he remembered Boba. He was in the mood of talking to him, trying to speak some Serbian, have a couple of glasses of rakia, see how he is, what he’s up to. Because they were buddies and because Timofte had rotated all acquaintances in the meantime, being a social animal, realizing that he hadn’t caught up with friend Boba for a drink and a talk for quite some time.

            Timfote looked for him at his workplace, but Boba was not to be found. Nobody knew anything about him anymore. He tried the bar where the Serbs met for talking, but the bar was empty. Nothing but wind. The owner kept muttering that he would soon have to close the joint. Timofte ordered a beer before continuing on his search, being aware of the fact that struggling local businesses need the community’s support.

            He tried a friend, then the neighbors. Still nothing. Then he visited the home of Bata, Boba’s grandfather with roots in Titograd.

            ”Where’s he at?” asked Timofte.

            ”Gone to hell,” old man Bata replied going back inside. His TV was blaring. Neckermann quality imagery. In the images were tanks, armored cars and soldiers. Slobodan Miloșevici and war.

            Timofte didn’t ask himself too many questions, looking for something else to do and generally seeing to his own life.

            Again, not bothering too much with politics, Timofte went back to his own business until he found himself wound up in a delicate situation. The situation being that he ended up owing money – a small sum – but because he was the type of guy that couldn’t take a joke on occasion, he owed the small sum in hard currency. In Deutschmarks. 500 to be more exact.

            He didn’t use to gamble, but on that particular night the ţuica had gone well with beer and he failed to notice that he had started playing backgammon with some smugglers from Comloșu Mare that didn’t much care for humor, only gambling.

            500 Marks wasn’t much in the way catastrophes go. But on his salary, that in the wonderful Perestroika Iliescu had fathered, administered by the aptly nicknamed Vodkaroiu, said remuneration handed out by the state towards citizen Timofte evaporated quicker than a bottle of Stolychnaia at lunchtime in a certain cabinet of the Ministry of Finance, or at the Deputy Chamber buffet, after the obligatory tripe soup (and what would have been the issue, in the end, if said bottle was consumed for breakfast on an empty stomach, or at the Intercontinental Hotel before going to bed?!); said remuneration losing value multiple times in the same year, until 500 Deutschmarks meant more than the pay of even the most honest and poor citizen on several budgetary trimesters. That’s not even mentioning Timofte, who, being a State employee, woke up in a inflationist economy all of a sudden, whatever that should of meant.

            Therefore, Timofte had a problem. But as he was a man of his word who paid his debts, he was more than committed to paying, and we were going to find a way to do it. Especially since the backgammon players from Comloșu Mare weren’t the most light hearted, well-meaning and indulgent border underworld types.

            He didn’t need to look for a solution for long. A friend helped him with some advice.

            There was a war on in Serbia. So it didn’t take long for there to be shortages. Then a word got launched into the aether that citizen Timofte caught on the fly – em-bar-go.

            After a quick beer followed by half a pack of smokes and three glasses of ţuică chasers, a well meaning citizen explained to friend Timofte what deal was with geopolitics, civil wars, supply, demand and the holy Deutschmark.

            War+embargo= shortage. Shortage= demand. Demand= money. Money= Deutschmarks. Deutschmarks= the erasing of debts. It was all very simple, especially when they were sitting in Jimbolia train station at 5 AM, after a night of light bingeing, waiting to start their shift.

            What was the demand in Serbia because of the shortages? Everyting, in a nutshell.

            Upon further inquiry, among other things, there was a lack of cigarettes. Cigarettes gave off a good pay-off. A pack of smokes went for 2 Deutschmarks. After a somewhat easy calculation, while he was sobering up with a second serving o ciorba inside the locomotive workshop, scribbling with a chemical pencil on wrapping paper, Timofte finally broke the arithmetic code, correctly calculating that he had to sell 500 pack of Marlboro Reds to earn enough money in order to pay his debt. It cost 1 Deutsche Mark a pack bought from someone in Timișoara (on loan), for a price of 2 to be sold to the Serbians.

            So, in order for him to have a profit of 500 Deutschmarks and extinguish his debt, he had to sell 1000 Marks worth. His head was spinning a little, but the calculations were accurate. The fact that the gasoline would eat at his profits a little was acceptable. As for the possibility of there being a risk of having the borderguards confiscate the merchandise, or if he managed to get through, that the buyer would refuse to pay, Timofte flat out refused from the get go to take such aspects into consideration.

            He wasn’t a fool, but for some reason the sort of luck stuck to his person that is mostly encountered with idiots and beginners.

            To keep it short, it turned out well.

            He managed to pay his debt and end up with a business plan.

            The lads in Comloșu Mare, although a serious bunch, not particularly magnanimous when it came to big (or complicated) words or gestures of public affection, did show appreciation for Timofte. On the one hand, after the most talkative of the lads explained, because he had paid the owed amount before the deadline, and on the other hand, because he had done it the way he did, passing the border like a hot knife through butter, without any connections, out of pure luck, driven by a recklessness that bordered on stupidity.

            Anyhow, the lads quickly figured out that Timofte had potential. He emanated the kind of innocence and serenity associated with saints. He had an honest and hard-working looking face, and his beat up Trabant passed unnoticed past even the most experienced border guard – be it a Romanian or a Serb – although the car could easily carry 1000 packs of Marlboro Reds across the border of a country that was slowly decomposing.

            Without being aware of it, Timofte was the perfect smuggler, the sort of smuggler that, without ever being able to admit it, the lads of Comloșu Mare wished they could be, knowing that they would never reach such peaks of excellence.

            He had become a sort of mascot. And had managed to add to his earnings in a period that, citizen Timofte would learn several months later from TV, ended up being named as ”transition”.

            Again, Timofte didn’t ask any questions about said ”transition”, because he didn’t quite understand the direction from what the transition was being made, and to where, but then again he didn’t really understand politics; even if he used to transit the border quite often, preferably from Lunga towards Nakovo, where the border guards were half-sleeping in their dishevelled post, hacked at by the wind in the plain.

            Timofte had no lofty ambitions, but because he could suddenly earn an honorable sum of money, the man started thinking of the future. He got down to work, praying that the war would last as much as possible.

            As a friend had told him – a drinking buddy, who knew his way around politics – Timofte found out that from the viewpoint of world politics, the civil war that had erupted in what is now called (unofficially) the Former Yugoslav Republic, would last for quite some time.

            ”An adequate amount of time”, Timofte’s drinking buddy said, smiling and shrugging, ordering another round.

            He worked his ass off. During the week he was pulling shifts at the Romanian Railroad, and from Friday night to Sunday morning he was doing the embargo. A year in he had moved out of his parents’ yard, buying a house. It was small but it had a big garden, a thing his wife liked very much.

            The border guards liked him and let him pass because he was friendly and always brought them a thermos of hot tea and sometimes gave them a carton or two of Marlboro Reds.

            The smugglers from Comloșu Mare, Comloșu Mic and other parts of the border with Serbia, that were just starting out, came to Timofte’s house like it was Mecca, asking for advice, asking him questions or just dropping in to see him, sitting there quietly and waiting to touch him, like he was a holy relic, shaking his hand in the hope that the simple act of contact with the beatific locomotive mechanic turned smuggler would bless them with the same profit bringing luck.

            The bigger smugglers looked upon him with admiration and treated him with deference, seized with an almost extrasensorial sense that had to do with Timofte’s position in the Universe, moved with a sense of piety that unwittingly bordered on fear. If Timofte would have asked them for a favor, no matter how outlandish, how impossible or dangerous to be fulfilled, the big smugglers would have gone head over heels in order to please him. But Timofte wouldn’t have done such a thing, he was not the type. He was content, happy and peaceful. The world was beautiful and everything was running smoothly.

            Then someone asked him to become godfather to a married couple.

            Maybe if he would have refused, things would have turned out differently. But Timofte wasn’t the type of person who could say no.

            It went down like this: he need to make 5000 Deutschmarks fast. If we would have smuggled cigarettes, it would have taken him for about a month. He didn’t have a month. He had two week, because again, he had said ”yes” after a night of speed-drinking followed by an obstacle course race to the fast-food joint in the railroad station. It wasn’t just about his fersh duties as godfather – pay the priest and the psalm reader, presents for the married couple, buying back the bride etc. There was also his wife to take into account who was to be godmother for the first time in her life. The hairdresser but especially the godmother equipment, which was a costly affair, needed to be paid for as well. And fast.

            Timofte, being the kind of chap who never say die, being a natural optimist, asked around, the bigger and more savvy (who, again, would have done anyting for the man) what gave a big pay-off across the border.

            It didn’t take long for the sought-after answer to appear:

            ”Pots and pans made out of stainless steel or cast iron” the answer came. ”The most sought after are Tefal pans.”

            Timofte had heard of this brand of pans, even more, one of his relatives in Timișoara commercialized them. After a whole day of arithmetic, lots of small breaks that ensured big successes and many liters of coffee that helped rid him of his hangover and oiled his thinking sprockets well, Timofte finally had the winning formula, preparing to take the merchandise across the border, merchandise that would have provided him with the capital that would have allowed him to become the best godfather out of the variants of godfathers that he could be.

            He wanted to get everything done in one shipment, so he rented a small wheeled tow that he filled to the brim with Tefal brand frying pans, covering them with a canvas tied with string across the metallic structure of the tow.

            It was a cold Friday night in the year 1993 when Timofte crossed the Serbian border with his Traban towing half a tonne of contraband, Tefal frying-pans that were worth 10000 Deutsche Marks on the Serbian black marked, an amount worth several billion Dinars (because of the phenomenon, which Timofte had heard about but never really understood, called the devaluation of currency). A small fortune.

            He had to pass Kikinda and take a country road.

            It was a moonless and starless night. Pitch black everywhere.

            The houses, the streets and the world were steeped in darkness. The people were keeping to the curfew. Timofte, for the first time in so many trips, suddenly understood that this is what a country looks like. A country engulfed in darkness.

            The Serbs had shut down the streetlights or maybe the power had been cut again, or maybe forever, after the Americans had bombed again (how many times has it been?) the power station in Novi Sad.

            Timofte felt shivers passing through him and he turned off his head-lights for fear of bombers. It was stupid, what business had supersonic bombers with a beated down Trabant?!

            Timofte settled down while slowly driving along a country road to the rendez-vous point.

            He stopped at the cross-roads, figuring he was close. He got out of the car to stretch his legs that were stiff from the cold and fatigue.

            For some reason he could not explain, he felt something in the pit of his stomach. It hadn’t happened to him before.

            He got scared all of a sudden.

            Lighting a cigarette, he could hear bootheels grinding the dust of the road, somewhere in the darkness.

            ”Ko ide tamo?” came a raspy voice towards Timofte’s ear, scratching his thoughts and freezing him to the spot. He thoughthe heard the ”clink-clank” of a Serbian Sastava bolt. He had been in the army, and even if he did his term with an AKM in his hands, the sound of a round in the chamber was the same, irrespective of the Kalashnikov variant used.

            Timofte instinctively raised both arms above his head.

            ”Rumunski švercer”, muttered Timofte, barely able to keep the teeth in his mouth from chattering, feeling the cold barrel of the Zastava pushing against his back, between his shoulders.

            ”Lopov! Sjebaćemo te!” came the answer, followed by a jack-boot to his back that floored Timofte, making him hit his face against the dusty road. The barrel of the Zastava was now resting against one of his temples. He could feel the taste of blood in his mouth.

            ”Tefal tepsije, tefal tepsije” he managed to whimper, pointing towards the tow that was latched to the Trabant.

            ”Oooo! Tefal!” blurted one of the soldiers that smelled of sweat, cigarettes and gun oil.

            Someone dug the point of their jack-boot into Timofte’s belly, pushing hard and turning him face up. The poor man was squirming on his back like a tortoise, and found it impossible to get back up. Three dirty faces with glittering eyes were watching him under the beam of a flashlight a fourth person, still out of sight, had turned on. The fourth person was just a voice in the night.

            ”Are you the one with the frying-pans?” came the voice from the darkness, like a salvation.

            Timofte thought he could recognize the voice, but he was unable to reply, the words getting stuck somewhere in his through, frozen shut by fear. He managed to nod in order to confirm.

            The man holding the flashlight, who spoke in Romanian, gave out a long whistle. A big heavy motor could be heardgrumbling in the night, two head-ligths cutting away at the darkness a couple of hundred meters away, and the military truck was coming towards them now, snaking like a monster, headin ‘for the cross-roads.

            Someone threw a fat envelope on Timofte’s chest, and the soldiers started unloading the tow and loading the truck with the Tefal frying pans.

            Timofte was still groggy, lying on his back, paralized with fear, while the others were seeing to their business, ignoring him now.

            ”Don’t be mad at them,” the voice said. ”It’s just their sense of humor. They’re sick of so much war.” The unknown man sighed and Timofte could hear him bending down towards him.

            All of a sudden he saw Boba’s face hovering over him. Boba seemed not to recognize him. Timofte could barely recognize Boba – his face had become thin and sharp. His eyes were empty and looking into them, Timofte had the impression he was gazing into bottomless pits. His former buddy had a weird smell to him. Timofte’s hair stood on end. 

            ”Want a smoke?” asked Boba.

            Timofte blinked and Boba stuck a cigarette between his lips, lighting it. Timofte dragged on it, choking on the smoke and getting up.

            ”How are you?” Timofte asked.

            Boba gave no reply, watching his eyes and shrugging, something like a groan coming out of his dilated nostrils together with the bluish smoke of the cigarette.

            They smoked in silence until the soldiers were done loading up the frying pans. The truck turned around in the cross-roads, ready to go towards Novi Sad. Boba got on.

            Unable to keep silent, Timofte asked:

            ”What are you doing with all these frying pans?”

            Boba looked at him and spit out the answer:

            ”We melt them down to make bullets and grenades out of them.”

            ”Listen Boba?” Timofte ventured.

            ”Boba died at Prijedor, shooting little children in the head for the glory of the Serbian people. I am his ghost”, he said, letting out a hollow laugh while the truck started with a road, the Tefal pans clink-clonking in the back of the enormous truck covered by a tarpaulin, setting off on the country road and disappearing into the night.

            Timofte took the envelope, got into his car and went home where he couldn’t sleep for a week and didn’t talk for a month.

            Then, after he had thoroughly bombarded his liver with the worst sort of alcohol, like a torture endured by a saint fallen into sin, followed by the worst three-day hangover, Timofte decided to not give a damn about embargoes, transitions, politics and life anymore. He sold the house and his car, gave all his money to the poor and left for Germany. Without telling anyone anything. He didn’t even tell his wife who wound up in the street, husbandless but with godmother equipment that had cost 1000 Deutschmarks. And a hair-due that lasted three months after the event.

            Nobody knows anything about Timofte anymore.

            The embargo has been forgotten.

            All that’s left is the border and the wind howling and rambling through the plain.

This story was initially published in the MOVING FIREPLACES. 2019 book.

Photo credit: Diana Bilec