Breeding Like Hermits – Demographic Decline In Eastern Europe: 40 Million Missing Persons (Part Two)

The unprecedented decline of the population in Eastern Europe during the post-communist era (1990 – present) was more than just a simple rise in death rates and drop in birth rates. Many of the best and brightest from these countries were still alive and doing well, just not in their homelands. One of the most common traits of Eastern Europeans during this period has been an urge to move westward. On more occasions than I can recount, I have been told by Hungarians, Slovaks, Romanians and Latvians among others, that they are moving to central or western Europe as soon as possible. They are ready to turn a long-awaited dream into reality. Millions of Eastern Europeans have voted with their feet and fled to more prosperous places. The Romanians prefer Italy, Poles Great Britain, Hungarians Germany, Ukrainians Poland and Bulgarians almost anywhere but their own country. Millions of Eastern Europeans are now scattered across the continent.

This situation has been exacerbated by EU membership, for all but a few of these countries (Ukraine, Moldova and all the Balkan countries except for Croatia). The borders between East and West have all but dissolved in much of Europe – as their young, intelligent, upwardly mobile citizens flee to the west, draining their homelands of brain and manpower. Relatively few of them return for anything other than a visit. Better wages, abundant jobs and a comfortable lifestyle are what attracts them to western and central Europe. This trend has begun to abate over the past few years as more job opportunities have become available in the growing economies of Eastern European nations. The cost of living is also much lower. The migration westward has slowed, but not before it caused grievous harm to the economic growth prospects of Eastern Europe. For example, Slovakia has 80,000 unfilled positions due to skills and labor shortages. The people who would have taken those jobs are now living somewhere beyond the western horizon. Migration to the near abroad has sapped the region of millions of its most talented citizens. This trend has only added to the greatest regional population decline in modern history.

Downward Trend - Population Projections for Eastern Europe 2017 - 2050

Downward Trend – Population Projections for Eastern Europe 2017 – 2050

The Ever Deepening Decline – Future Uncertain
The reasons for the demographic decline in Eastern Europe cannot just be put down to mass economic migration. The problem is multifaceted. Start with the fact that economic hardship was a way of life throughout the 1990’s in every country east of the former Iron Curtain. The transition from communism to capitalism was a wild roller coaster ride at best. Living standards dropped as the state subsidized economic model vanished almost overnight. Unemployment soared as heavy industry buckled under the weight of international competition. Raising a family became increasingly difficult. Anyone that had thoughts of starting a family had to reconsider or do so under the most trying economic and social circumstances. Politics was fraught with instability and the future was uncertain. Just earning enough to live on was difficult. The societal instability caused birth rates to plummet. At the same time, economic woes and faltering health care meant death rates soared.

At the same time, many turned to alcohol and drugs for succor. Those who could migrate to other parts of Europe or far flung areas often did. Those left behind had to fend for themselves. The vast amount of state support that had sustained these societies over four decades was nowhere to be found. It was every man and woman for themselves. Many did not survive the experience. Those who did are to be commended. Since 1990, the United Nations estimates that the population of Eastern Europe dropped by 18 million. Nothing has ever been seen like this in a world predicated upon growth. And the demographic decline continues. In many of these countries the situation may get worse. If demographics are destiny then Eastern Europe is looking at a much less crowded future.

Fathomless Depths – Communism’s Last Legacy
The loss of 18 million people is hard to fathom, especially when the world population has enjoyed explosive -some might say frightening – growth. Eastern Europe’s population shows no signs of rising anytime soon. Currently, the region is home to the top ten nations with the fastest declining populations in the world. This situation looks primed to accelerate in the coming years. Keep in mind, these dire figures are based upon current trends and the aging of these societies. Bulgaria will be the hardest hit, projected to lose almost a quarter of its population by 2050. Ukraine and Poland are projected to lose over five and a half million people each. If one adds up the total projected population loss of all ten nations by the year 2050 it comes to almost 22 million. That would mean in a sixty-year period (1990 – 2050) Eastern Europe would have lost 40 million people. This figure is difficult to fathom and begs the question of what can be done to stop or at least slow the decline.

The region’s governments have tried a variety of policies. One of the most bizarre was a recent government campaign in Poland telling the populace to “breed like rabbits.” The statistics show they are still breeding like hermits. The campaign went nowhere. If a country as fervently Roman Catholic as Poland cannot stem the current trend, then it is doubtful any others can. There is a silver lining in this downward slide. Less people will mean more living space. As the rest of the world gets more overcrowded Eastern Europe is emptying out. Does it really matter if Bulgaria has 8.9 million people as they did in 1990 as compared with a projected 5.4 million in 2050? In the context of keeping a modern economy growing, it certainly does. Will there be enough workers to support pensioners? Most likely not. Some commentators have offered the suggestion of replenishing the population with migrants from the war torn Middle East as a possible solution. This is an exceedingly tough sell in countries that labored under Soviet occupation for over forty years. Resistance is bolstered by the fear engendered by population loss. If nations such as Bulgaria and Latvia, lose millions more people they could either cease to exist or be swamped by outsiders. These are issues no one wants to contemplate, let alone address. The only thing certain, is that the decline will continue. Communism in Eastern Europe may be over, but its painful legacy lives on.

Click here for: Terminal Illness – Demography & Demagoguery: The Post-Communist Population Collapse In Eastern Europe (Part One)

Terminal Illness – Demography & Demagoguery: The Post-Communist Population Collapse In Eastern Europe (Part One)

Since the collapse of communism in 1989 the quality of life in Eastern European nations has undoubtedly improved. Incomes have risen, consumer products are readily available, freedom of speech and press is now the law of the land (though there has been a great deal of backsliding on both of late) and fear of arbitrary arrest has all but disappeared. Communism was an economic, environmental and human disaster. Planned, highly centralized economies led to stagnation. Heavy industry was kept up by state subsidies. Not only was it terribly uncompetitive, but also led to environmental degradation. Human creativity was quashed. Millions were arrested and died at the hands of dictatorships purporting to represent the proletariat. Politics became an extremely narrow, toxic and often deadly business to be avoided at all costs. State sponsored corruption was endemic to the system, leading to societies where a small group of elites ruled over the masses.

Even in the countries which were ostensibly better off during this era (1948 – 1989), such as Hungary which was home to Goulash Communism and Yugoslavia where Titoism ruled with a much softer fist, the system could only be kept alive and quality of life improved (i.e. shelves with consumer products) by large loans from the western world. By the 1980’s both countries were deep in debt with economies that would have collapsed if the Iron Curtain had not first given way. And these were the supposedly successful communist countries. Yet for all this misery and the unsustainability of communism, it was also at the tail end of this era that the population of most Eastern European countries reached its greatest extent. Communism may have spread misery, but it certainly did not stop people from procreating enough to sustain the population. The same cannot be said today. While the quality of life has certainly improved, there is not nearly as much human life as there once was in these nations.

An Alarming Trend – Failure To Procreate
It is doubtful that many Hungarians would say that 1981 was a peak year in their nation’s history. At that time, Janos Kadar’s increasingly geriatric administration was in its 25th year. Hungary had attained the title of happiest barracks in the Eastern Bloc” due to a decent economy and its relative openness to the wider world. Conversely, the country was still in the grips of an ossified totalitarianism that showed no sign of abating anytime soon. It was also in that 1981 that the population of Hungary hit its highest level ever at 10.7 million. Since then the population has either declined or been stagnant for thirty-seven consecutive years. In 2011 the population of Hungary dropped below 10 million for the first time in half a century. It is unlikely to ever reach that level again, at least not in the 21st century.

Since the Iron Curtain fell in 1989, Hungary’s population has dropped by over half a million people. While this sounds dire, Hungary has plenty of company from other fellow Eastern European countries. In 1990, the year after the Ceaucescu dictatorship was overthrown in Romania, there was another reason for the nation’s citizens to celebrate. Romania’s population hit an all-time high at 23.2 million. Since that time, the population has fallen by over three and a half million. This is an alarming rate of decrease, due to many factors. The fact that communism could no longer keep Romanians hemmed into their own country meant that hundreds of thousands could immigrate abroad in search of better opportunities. Many have found just that and are unlikely to return.

Then there is the case of Bulgaria which does not offer any reason for optimism. People have been disappearing from this mid-sized Balkan nation since the year after communism’s collapse. The population of Bulgaria rose to unprecedented heights, an all-time high of 8.9 million in 1989. The very next year Bulgaria lost over 200,000 people. Perhaps they were obeying the tenant of that old wise saying of “getting out while the getting is good”. Amazingly, 1990 was not the most precipitous one year population drop of the post-communist period, worse was yet to come. In 2002 there were 280,000 less people in Bulgaria then the year before. In percentage terms Bulgaria has lost at least one out of every five citizens (other sources say one out of every four) since the rickety rule of long-time communist leader Tudor Zhivkov came to a peaceful conclusion.

Russian Cross - The black curve reflects the death rate dynamics, the red one corresponds to the birth rate

Russian Cross – The black curve reflects the death rate dynamics, the red one corresponds to the birth rate (Credit: Lihoborka)

Plummeting Population – Economic Growth, Demographic Decline
No Eastern European nation could escape the curse of a plummeting population, including ones that experienced a successful transition from communism to capitalism. For example, Poland has been one of the great success stories of the post-communist era. Economic reforms enacted in the early 1990’s have led to steady growth. When the rest of Europe went into recession following the financial crisis, Poland was the only country to sustain economic growth. One would assume that the demographic situation would also have been much better for Poland. That was not the case. The Polish population did increase for several years following the collapse of communism. Poland gained 550,000 people between 1990 and 1998 when the population peaked at 38.6 million. It has been all downhill from there. The current Polish population is now back to where it was in 1989. That trend will almost certainly continue in the years to come.

Further north and east the situation has been nothing short of alarming. Latvia has lost a quarter of its population since the Soviet Union collapsed, Estonia almost one-fifth. Russia suffered as much or more than anywhere else. The demographic decline there has been symbolically portrayed by what became known as the Russian Cross. This is where the birth and death rates are portrayed on a line graph. In 1992 – the year after the Soviet Union collapsed – the lines crossed as the death rate exceeded the birth rate. The situation stayed that way up through 2013 until the lines re-crossed. During that time span, Russia’s population dropped by 5.2 million. Put another way, Russia lost the equivalent of Norway’s entire population over a twenty-one year period. That is more than a crisis, it is a human catastrophe. Such dire examples beg the question of what exactly have been the causes of this demographic decline in post-communist Eastern Europe.

Click here for: Breeding Like Hermits – Demographic Decline In Eastern Europe: 40 Million Missing Persons (Part Two)

 

Surreal Shores – A Golden Dawn On The Bosphorus: The Orient Express By Boat (Part Four)

The passage by steamship from Varna to Constantinople was anything but romantic. For those who had traveled from the glitter and dazzle of Paris to the surreal shores of the Black Sea by train, the voyage across the water to Constantinople was a decided letdown. The passengers avoided the deck at all costs. A view of the sea was not worth chancing a confrontation with the throngs of refugees. The only thing standing between the bourgeois passengers and this primitive proletariat was a timber barrier and rope. The potential confrontation never took place as the passengers practiced the virtue of avoidance. They resigned themselves to “smoking” in their cabins. The smoking came not from cigarette or cigar smoke, but from a billowing black cloud emitted by the burning of low quality coal. Soon it had pervaded every compartment. Meanwhile the flat keeled Espero was battered and lashed by choppy waves in the tumultuous sea.

Panoramic view of Constantinople in the 1870s as seen from the Galata Tower (Wikipedia)

Panoramic view of Constantinople in the 1870s as seen from the Galata Tower (Credit: Wikipedia)

Technological Touchstone – A Question of Time
The ship had launched from the jetty in Varna at dusk. Just after the sun went down the temperature plummeted as an autumn chill gripped the air. A nice meal was prepared for the Orient Express passengers, but most of them were not in the mood for fine dining. This voyage was more about suffering than it was style. All the money in the world would not bring them greater comfort until they washed up on the shores of the Golden Horn at Constantinople the next morning. This watery journey would take a total of 14 mostly excruciating hours. The Orient Express had been a technological touchstone, but the Espero was a reminder of the way things used to be and still were for many travelers who had no choice but to travel by ship. Those who were fortunate enough to make this inaugural journey would be part of a relatively rare travel breed, a small group of people who had successfully completed the Orient Express route by train, ferry and steamship across land, river and sea. This cumbersome system using three types of transport would be the standard until 1888 when the Orient Express’ final rail links were opened in Bulgaria.

What the inaugural voyage gained in adventure by using such disparate modes of transport, it lost in time. Time was of the essence when it came to the Orient Express. The original timetable for the Paris to Constantinople trip showed that it should take 81 hours and 14 minutes. The inaugural journey ended up taking less than that, clocking in at 80 hours. Considering all the stops for ceremonies and side trips the Express had probably done much better than could be expected. Five years later, when the journey could all be done by rail the time was cut to 65 hours, saving over half a day. What made the journey by boat from Varna so ponderously slow was the weather. The open sea was an untamed wilderness of seemingly infinite space that ate away at the ship’s speed.

Dolmabache Palace as seen from the Bosphorus

Dolmabache Palace as seen from the Bosphorus

An Astonishing Sight – The Glory Of Constantinople
The Espero, was buffeted by a strong northeasterly wind that limited its average speed to just 12 knots (14 miles per hour). Thus, it is not surprising that the journey took from dusk to dawn for the ship to cover the Black Sea portion of the voyage. The passengers may not have enjoyed much of this seafaring adventure, but the final hours of it were nothing short of spectacular. The Espero entered the Bosphorus strait just as the sun rose. It was an astonishing sight. All the glories of ancient, medieval and more recent history were there for the viewing on both sides of the Bosporus. The ship passed by the rustic medieval castles on the European and Asian hillsides built to guard the entrance to the Bosphorus by the Ottomans. Both of the Sultan’s splendid palaces at Beylerbei and Dolhambache could be seen. The most marvelous sights were the domes and minarets that came into view from the city’s historic core. The ship entered the Golden Horn that morning, just as the city was coming to life.

A more dramatic entrance to one of the world’s greatest cities could not have been planned. All the troubles of the steamship voyage had been worth it. In a few more years, travelers on the Express  would not be able to have the same incredible experience. At the quayside, passengers were greeted by the Belgian Ambassador and some Turkish officials. The Belgian ambassador was there because the brainchild of the Orient Express was Georges Nagelmackers, the son of a Belgian banker. Nagelmackers had traveled with the Express on this inaugural journey. He must have felt an incredible satisfaction when he saw his dream of speedy and reliable transport with first class service connecting western Europe to the near east finally come to fruition.  The passengers had to be just as satisfied. In the process of this journey they had become part of history. Thousands of trips would take place on the Orient Express over the next one hundred plus years, but only one would ever be the first.

View of the Golden Horn from the late 19th century

View of the Golden Horn from the late 19th century (Credit: Tristram Ellis)

A Palace Of Transport – Many Happy Returns
The Orient Express passengers were transported by fiacre to the Pera Palace Hotel in Constantinople. They would relax in luxury. It is doubtful that the Pera’s refinement could best that of the Express. The Compagnie des Wagons-Lits which provided the cars and staff had set a high standard for service that was soon to become legendary. The Orient Express would become forever synonymous  with glamorous travel. The passengers who had just made the inaugural journey could certainly vouch for the focus on high quality customer service. They would get the same treatment on their return trip. The journey would seem shorter since there were no kings or queens to meet, no ceremonial welcoming committees, no officials to press the flesh and no side journeys to state of the art exhibitions. The return journey was more in line with what the Express would become, a palace of transport gliding along the steel rails of western, central and eastern Europe on its way to the mysterious Orient.

Click here for: The Orient Express By River, Land & Sea – Contemptuous Cargo: A Bulgarian Brush With Anarchy (Part Three)

The Orient Express By River, Land & Sea – Contemptuous Cargo: A Bulgarian Brush With Anarchy (Part Three)

The adventures for those taking the inaugural Orient Express continued late into the night at Bucharest. They were taken by fiacre to dine in the city. This came at the tail end of their longest side journey. A journey that had already resulted in a 300 kilometer round trip train ride into the foothills of the Transylvanian Alps, a walk through a torrential downpour on a muddy road in boot deep mud to a bizarre reception where they met King Carol and Queen Elisabeth of Romania. The passengers had gotten much more than they had bargained for since arriving in Bucharest early that morning. And their eventful day was not yet finished. When they got back to the city, a very late dinner was in order. They were now at a point beyond exhaustion. It was after midnight when the train pulled out of the Gara De Nord. Bucharest was soon to become an afterthought as they fell into sleep. The Express was now headed southward toward the Danube, on the other side of which was Bulgaria.

The first Orient Express brochure from 1887

The first Orient Express brochure from 1887

Heightened Suspicions – A Cold Greeting
The final stop in Romania would be Giurgiu set on the north side of the Danube. The town had been held by two empires (Ottoman and Russian) and one nation (Romania) at separate times over the past half-century. It looked the worse for wear as none of its occupiers had seen fit to repair the extensive war damage. In Giurgiu the passengers would exit the Express so they could be ferried by steamship across what the French journalist Georges Boyer called “the yellow waters”  of the lower Danube.  In later years the Orient Express would go by land all the way to Constantinople, but in 1883 the construction of a railway link through Serbia and Bulgaria was still being negotiated. This route would not be possible until 1888. That meant the latter part of the Orient Express journey would take place first across a spur line in northern Bulgaria and then via steamship from the Black Sea port of Varna to Constantinople.

Romania was exotic and rough around the edges, but Bulgaria would turn out to be downright wild. Bulgaria was a land of danger, tension and political intrigue. Only five years before, it had gained independence from the Ottoman yoke after the nasty violence of the Russo-Turkish War. The newly formed nation had yet to recover. It was ruled by an elite clique of Russian officers whose main duty was to keep it under the ostensible control of the Tsar.  The city of Ruse stood opposite Giurgiu on the south bank of the Danube. It still bore many scars from the fighting and was unappealing. The passengers were given a formal, but cold greeting at the station. The Russians were suspicious of the Orient Express’ intent, since it provided a strategic link between Bulgaria and western Europe. Tsarist officials saw this as a threat to the Russian sphere of influence. The upshot was that the Orient Express clientele was given an indifferent welcome before boarding another train that would deliver them to Varna.

The First Orient Express from the French publication L'Illustration

The First Orient Express from the French publication L’Illustration

A Brush With Anarchy – The Bulgarian Countryside
The passengers were glad to see Ruse fade into the distance as the train began to head eastwards. Soon a new fear came to occupy their imaginations, the threat of banditry. The train was now crossing a hard-bitten, dusty landscape. Instead of houses, there were hovels. Mud rather than stone or brick was the main building material. It was mixed with timber to produce homes that had not advanced in construction since the Middle Ages. The only markers of civilization were solitary mosques with minarets piercing the autumn sky. This was a society stuck in a medieval level of development. The peasants were not far removed from serfdom as they tried to scratch a subsistence living out of the earth.  In such a quasi-primitive state, crime had the potential to pay much more than hard work. This was not lost on the passengers, several of whom brandished firearms ready to fend off any attempt at robbery. Stories were told of how bandits captured stations along the route, robbed officials and attempted to burn them alive inside the structures.

The Orient was turning out to be much more anarchic than anyone could have possibly imagined. There would be no problems, at least not on this train, but the tension would not subside, even when they arrived on the shores of the Black Sea.  The only stop between Ruse and Varna was the depressingly ramshackle town of Sheytandjik. It lived down to the Turkish meaning of its name, “Little Devil”. Alone and exposed out on the poverty stricken frontier, it suffered from the lawless chaos that plagued the Bulgarian countryside. Sheytandjik was a strange place to stop for lunch, but it was on the schedule. The partridge served up to them was nearly indestructible due to its rubbery consistency. This was not so much lunch, as it was an endurance contest to see who could finish any part of it. A delicious repast of Turkish desserts did go some way in ameliorating memories of the main dish.

Roundabout - The first route of the Orient Express in 1883 is shown on this map

Roundabout – The first route of the Orient Express in 1883 is shown on this map

A Seething Mass – Into The Black Sea
At Varna the rail journey came to a rather depressing end. Beggars and officials were the only one there to greet those travelers from the Orient Express. They would now board a steamship, the Espero. It was run by the Austrian Lloyd-Triestino Shipping Company and had sailed from the port of Trieste in Austria-Hungary several weeks earlier. The final stretch of the journey would be to Constantinople by way of the Black Sea and through the Bosphorus Strait, a distance of almost 300 kilometers. The seagoing voyage would be fraught with tension. This was due to some extra passengers who had been sold tickets allowing them to travel on the ship’s deck. These were Turks who had lost their homes and property due to the Bulgarization of the countryside. They had been living in subhuman conditions for quite some time, as was apparent from the body odor which wafted over the timber barrier which kept this seething mass of refugees from coming into contact with passengers of the Orient Express. The Turkish men looked at the wealthy foreign travelers with undisguised hatred. The passengers recoiled in horror. This was bound to make for a memorable voyage to Constantinople.

Click her for: The Orient Express Enters The Orient – Romania: Strangely Familiar & Totally Foreign (Part Two)

The Orient Express Enters The Orient – Romania: Strangely Familiar & Totally Foreign (Part Two)

The inaugural journey of the Orient Express took a decided turn towards the east once it crossed into Romania. This was where western Christianity gave way to eastern Orthodoxy. It was a land with deep historical connection to the west going all the way back to when the Romans conquered and colonized what then known as Dacia in the early 2nd century AD. By the latter part of the 19th century Romania was viewed as a dark and mysterious hinterland of Europe. Some called it part of the Balkans, others said it was just an appendage. The people spoke a Romance language akin to Italian and French, but they were ruled by a German who had been forced on them by the Great Powers. Romania was an odd country, surrounded by Bulgars, Slavs and Magyars, it did not fit in with any of its neighbors any more than the Magyars did with theirs. It did have the saving grace of a language which looked and sounded intelligible. As the furthest eastern outpost of Latin Europe, Romania was strangely familiar and totally foreign all at once.

At the Iron Gate

At the Iron Gate (Credit: Lazlo Mednyanszky)

Passing Through – Porta Orientalis
The Express would cross the border just beyond Orsova, a town whose history over the prior three centuries had been a proving ground for various empires. It had been the plaything of Ottomans, Habsburgs and Hungarians, with a fate formulated in treaties decided far from it in places with such scintillating names as Passarowitz and Sistova. A border town that was always on the wrong side of something, Orsova in 1883 was squeezed between Austria-Hungary and Romania. Considering the numerous times that it had been passed back and forth by interlopers, the town’s current geopolitical situation likely meant little to its inhabitants who somehow managed to outlast invaders. The newest one was not Turkish or Tatar, but technological. The Orient Express had much in common with all its former conquerors, in that it was also just passing through.

The final stopping point to be crossed on the Austro-Hungarian frontier was appropriately named Porta Orientalis. The passengers on board the Express had little idea what lay beyond. The moment of crossing into Romania must have been as fascinating as it was historic. The Express had brought them to this stretch of frontier by way of a valley with low, thickly forested mountains on either side. It was a strangely beautiful preparation to enter the great beyond. It was here that the Orient Express had finally arrived in the Orient. No one onboard knew what was in store for them. Twilight would soon descend upon the Express, as it in turn descended upon the Iron Gates. The passengers were allowed a fleeting glimpse of this natural wonder just before sunset.

Peles Castle in autumn

Peles Castle in autumn (Credit: TiberiuSahlean)

Through The Iron Gates – Above & Beyond Bucharest
The Iron Gates, an evocative and forbidding term of description, was where the Danube took revenge upon those foolish enough to test its tempestuous waters and surrounding boulder strewn landscape. Skirting this chasm of wildness was an undertaking that frayed even the steeliest of nerves. Making this transit was best done after dark. That way the passengers would not see the frightening aspect of a terrifying fate flashing before their eyes. It was here that nature raged at its wildest. Eddies, whirlpools and boulders threatened to swallow or impede the unwary. Fortunately, the Express’ locomotive driver proceeded with caution, slowing the pace of travel to a crawl. In this fairy tale dreamscape, full of menacing beauty, one side was bordered by the southern edge of the Carpathians, the other by the beginning of the Balkan Mountains.

The Express, like the river, slithered through the Iron Gates. A couple of hours before dawn, the Orient Express entered Bucharest where it was met by representatives of the Romanian State Railways. No state officials or royalty was there to meet its arrival. This unceremonious welcome obscured what was to come. The passengers were slated to meet King Carol and Queen Elisabeth (who preferred to be called her literary name of Carmen Sylva), but not in Bucharest. Instead the meeting was to take place 120 kilometers to the north amid the magnificent Bucegi Mountains, at the newly constructed Peles Castle.

The Orient Express was shunted onto a sidetrack, then began to steam northward. It traveled through an incredibly diverse array of landscapes in a comparatively short amount of time. After leaving the cityscape of Bucharest it entered rolling farmland. This was followed by the growing city of Ploesti, its surroundings pockmarked with wooden derricks from one of the world’s largest oil fields. Then there was a climb into ever deepening forest along the Prahova River valley, before the Express pulled into the small station at Sinaia. The King and Queen were not at the station or anywhere in the town at that time. They were sequestered high above in their palace. No one knew what the plan was for meeting them. In the meantime, the passengers enjoyed a large lunch on the veranda of the just completed Grand Hotel Noles. Finally, an officer of the palace guard showed up to tell everyone that the royal couple would receive the passengers at the palace.

Queen Elisabeth of Romania and Carol I of Romania

Queen Elisabeth of Romania and Carol I of Romania

Talentless Amateurs – Meeting The Royals
There were no carriages for transport to the palace, thus the passengers were forced to make their way up a muddy road. They were soon inundated by a torrential downpour. One journalist who made the trek stated that the road to the palace was better for mountain goats than people. By the time they arrived, the passengers were muddy and drenched. The palace was an architectural atrocity of grotesque faux grandeur. It had taken separate efforts by an Austrian, a German and finally a Czech architect to achieve such a state of dissymmetry. While its considerable cost had exacerbated the already dire state of Romania’s finances. In the Hall of Honor, the royal couple (both minor German nobles imposed upon Romania) who could barely stand to be around one another, greeted the passengers. The King and Queen were dressed in ridiculous outfits. The former in a general’s dress uniform, while the latter was in a flowing Romanian costume which served to accentuate her expanding waistline.

Personality wise they were no better than their dress. The King was his usual aloof self, only interested in forestry and botany. He was bored by the entire ceremony. Meanwhile, the queen who styled herself a literary genius, recited reams of inane verse to the French journalist Edmond About, who she desperately wanted to impress. The passengers were shunted through several despicably ornate rooms. At one point they were confronted by King Carol’s art collection which was nothing more than a series of works by the Old Masters reproduced by the hands of talentless amateurs. When this depressing visit had run its course, the passengers were escorted out the wrong way, mistaken for laborers and treated with rudeness. It would not be until ten in the evening before the train arrived back in Bucharest. Thus, went the horrifically memorable visit of the Express’ first passengers to an Oriental leader. It had been a day of decadence and decided lack of taste.

Click here for: The Orient Express In Austria-Hungary – Romancing The East: An Initial Journey Into Exoticism (Part One)

Click here for: The Orient Express By River, Land & Sea – Contemptuous Cargo: A Bulgarian Brush With Anarchy (Part Three)

From The Orient Express With Love – Secret Agent Man: Following In James Bond’s Footsteps

My initial interest in the Orient Express in Eastern Europe did not come from Agatha Christie’s famous mystery, Murder on the Orient Express or Graham Greene’s thrilling novel Stamboul Train. These outstanding literary thrillers were not to my liking as a teenager. Instead my fascination with the train and its route came to me through the movies. As a teenager I fell in love with the early James Bond films. They offered a powerful sense of place to viewers. One of my favorites quickly became From Russia With Love. The locations showcased or spoken of in the film brought into my consciousness for the first time the European side of Istanbul, the heart of Yugoslavia as well as an Italian border city by the name of Trieste. The coup de grace came with Venice, where the final scenes were filmed. These cities and the train trip to or through them was enough to send my imagination soaring. I never forgot them or the film that first brought them to my attention.

Later in life, I would have the opportunity to visit each city shown in the film, sometimes going to the exact same locations where the movie was made. This was either entirely accidental or the fulfillment of a subconscious yearning, all done in the service of feeding an interest in exoticism. I did not know do this in a single trip, but across several. Piecing together a From Russia With Love city setlist. I only realized it was complete a couple of years after my last visit. In a sense I was a spy, keeping a private watch on these highly personal places. I might never travel the old Orient Express in its entirety or become a secret agent, but the places were still there. It was an astonishing feeling, to look back after multiple trips realizing what I had inadvertently accomplished. I had visited these venerable and famous stations where the Orient Express was never to return.

Simplon Orient Express poster

Simplon Orient Express poster

Murder, Mystery & Mystique – Danger On A Train
From Russia With Love can be viewed as an homage to the Orient Express. This was not what the filmmakers intended, but the train ended up just as much a character in the film as any of those played by the actors. The Express and several stations where it stops play a large role in the film’s latter half. Bond travels on the train with a beautiful Russian cipher clerk, Tatiana Romanova, as they attempt to make their way west to safety with a Lektor cryptographic device. All the while they are pursued by a death dealing operative of the international criminal organization, SPECTRE. The train scenes are replete with romance, drama and adventure. The compartment and restaurant cars are lavish while the setting is full of mystery and intrigue, nowhere more so than the train stations at Istanbul, Belgrade and Zagreb.

At the train station in Istanbul, Bond and Romanova make their getaway while pursued by a Russian agent. In Belgrade’s station, Bond tells the son of a Turkish colleague that his father died under conflicting circumstances. Then at the Zagreb station, Bond is due to meet a fellow 00 operative on the platform. Instead he is met by the Spectre agent sent to murder him. From Russia With Love’s compelling storyline is dramatically enhanced by the Orient Express and the stations encountered along the route. I would only later learn that the route was not that of the original Orient Express, but an offshoot. The first run of the Orient Express occurred in the autumn of 1883. Necessity, popularity and geopolitics eventually led to the creation of other routes in the years between the World Wars. The most popular of these was the Simplon Orient Express which began in 1919.

Route of the Orient Express Trains from 1921 to 1939

Route of the Orient Express Trains from 1921 to 1939 (Credit: Wikipedia)

The Path To Progress – Into The Balkans & Beyond
It was the Simplon Orient Express route which Bond and Romanova travel during From Russia With Love, this time going from east to west. The Simplon was also the route famously followed in Christie’s murder mystery. The name Simplon was taken from a rail tunnel that was opened in 1906 below the Simplon Pass on the Swiss-Italian border. This tunnel made a new railway route to Europe’s eastern frontiers feasible.  In 1912, the Simplon route which already ran from Paris to Lausanne, through Milan and then to Venice, was extended to Trieste, Austria-Hungary. This service might have been called the less than Orient Express.

Fighting in World War I, along the Italian Front led to the closure of rail service to Trieste, as battle lines encroached on the route. The Simplon would be reopened and greatly expanded in the years after the war ended. The expansion was a result of the postwar peace process. The western powers needed a rail route to Eastern Europe that avoided Germany and what had formerly been the lands of Austria-Hungary, which were now two separate nations struggling with economic chaos and political upheaval. Thus, the Simplon would continue eastward from Trieste (now an Italian city) into the heart of the Balkans, going through Zagreb, Vinkovci and Subotica towards its final stop at Bucharest. Another spur headed from Vinkovci to Belgrade, where it divided again, going either to Athens or Constantinople (the city’s name was officially changed to Istanbul after the Republic of Turkey was formed). It was in Istanbul that Bond and Romanova made their initial getaway, boarding at Sirkeci Station. Romance and danger awaited them.

Logo of the Compagnie Internationale Des Wagons-Lits which ran the Orient Express

Symbol of Quality – Logo of the Compagnie Internationale Des Wagons-Lits which ran the Orient Express (Credit: Murdockcrc)

Into & Out Of Trouble – Route Of Least Resistance
The Simplon Orient Express was the preferred travel route for the wealthy, politically connected, intellectually refined and haute bourgeoise during its heyday. Agatha Christie traveled it many times with her second husband, an archeologist. It would not have been uncommon for high ranking diplomats or spies to be found onboard as well. This was especially true during the Cold War. Intrigue and danger were an exception though. One that proved the Simplon was a vital lifeline for businessmen, politicians and tourists during decades of east-west tensions. It may not have been the “original” Orient Express, but it was just as worthy. The fact that spurs of the Simplon led to Venice and Athens only added to the fascination with it. James Bond knew this was the easiest route back to safety. It was the path of least resistance for him, as well as for generations of Europeans. The Simplon may not have been the original Orient Express, but it just might have been better.

Going Off Course – The Trabant: End Of The East German Road (Part Two)

In East Germany the tortoise won the race, not the hare. For 28 years, from 1961 until 1989, countless attempts were made by people trying to flee from the communist regime of the German Democratic Republic (GDR) by illicitly crossing the Berlin Wall. Few made it to West Berlin safely. It was a much different story in 1989. As the wall crumbled, East Germans from all over the GDR made their way west. Many of those who did not live close to the wall were reduced to traveling in the GDR’s own unique version of tortoises, the Trabant. East Germany’s one and only automobile brought them beyond the Iron Curtain or at least as far as their four wheeled smoke stacks could carry them. The Trabant soon took on iconic status, becoming forever associated with those heady days when communism collapsed. In a splendid irony, one of the more formidable political barriers in history could not stop a car that had a top speed of 62 miles per hour, was often prone to mechanical failure and the subject of ridicule from its owners. The Trabant crawled its way into a revolution, then somehow managed to end up on the winning side of a race to freedom.

Crashing Through - A Trabant on the Berlin Wall

Crashing Through – A Trabant on the Berlin Wall (Credit: Dave Nicholson)

The Long Goodbye – Taken For A Ride
The Trabant was a symbol of backwardness and the subject of countless jokes before it became an ironic symbol of East German’s flight to freedom. The fact that Trabants were THE car of East Germany was a tribute to just how little choice there was in the GDR. Think of the countless iterations of Volkswagens and Opels and Mercedes and BMW’s that plied the autobahns of West Germany between 1957 and 1991. Now consider that during a thirty-four year period only four basic models of Trabant were produced. Volkswagen produced more models in the 1960’s alone. The Trabant was reflective of East Germany, static, rigid, shoddy and anti-consumer. Strangely enough, such drawbacks could sometimes be a strength. The lack of any alternatives meant that even if Trabants were not exactly built to last, they had to be made to by their owners. The most “popular” model was the 601. Though it was supposed to be replaced after just four years, the model stuck around for twenty-seven. That shelf life was extended because East Germany lacked the resources – not to mention the imagination – to create anything better.

It may have had all the power of a John Deere riding lawn mower, but somehow the 601 kept going and going and going. If the Berlin Wall had not crumbled, just how many more years or decades would the 601 have stuck around? Communism for cars meant a long goodbye. Due to the difficulty of becoming an owner of a Trabant, East Germans were hesitant to voice their displeasure with the vehicle. They certainly did not do so to anyone who had the power to deny them such a hard-won privilege. After all, getting to own a Trabant was years or even decades in the making. Being disagreeable would have meant the loss of a Trabant and quite possibly the owner’s freedom. Besides, there was no other alternative available. The insidious intent of communism was at work in such cases. If there was only one choice, then the choice was made for you. As with leaders, so too with cars. In other words, the Trabant was number one, because it was the only one.

The good old days - A family washes their Trabant

The good old days – A family washes their Trabant (Credit: fortepan.hu)

Winning The Lottery – Out From Behind The Iron Curtain
After waiting an interminable and indefinite amount of time, it must have been an amazing feeling for an East German citizen to be suddenly contacted by the authorities, not for arrest or questioning, but to go select a suitable Trabant. This was an Iron Curtain version of winning the lottery. Cars have always been a symbol of prestige. This turned out to be as true in communist societies, as it was in capitalist ones. A Trabant was the Eastern Bloc equivalent of a Mercedes. It meant the owner was a person of importance. They had arrived so to speak, though if they were traveling in a Trabant there was always the chance they would not make it. Of course, the owners were aware of the vehicle’s many deficiencies. This might even be the topic of private conversations or inside jokes. In a closed society, the Trabant was the ultimate inside joke.

Displeasure with “Der Trabi” as GDR-ites termed the car, was most often expressed in the form of sarcastic or cynical jokes that contained strong doses of brutal honesty. “How do you double the value of a Trabant? Fill up the tank.” One of the more popular jokes referred to a built in, anti-speeding mechanism in the Trabant. Allowing it to be driven at top speed without exceeding any posted limits. This was not altogether correct because if a Trabant had been driven on a West German autobahn it would have been ticketed, for slowness. That most popular and longest lasting model of Trabants, the 601, came in for the lion’s share of mockery. The 601 turned out to be more than a number, it was also a joke.  “What does 601 stand for?” “600 people ordered cars, and only one has had it delivered. “Such jokes were a way of venting the inevitable frustration with a car that was so user unfriendly that early models of it did not even have a gas gauge.

Freedom Rider - Abandoned Trabant in Leipzig

Freedom Rider – Abandoned Trabant in Leipzig (Credit: Harold Kirschner)

Rough Road To Freedom – A Trail Littered With Trabis
For all it faults, the Trabant managed to come through when most needed. In 1989, thousands of Germans made their way to freedom packed inside their Trabis. It was a sight to behold, the little stinker belching out black fumes as it chugged westward. This road to freedom was termed the “Trabi Trail” as it was littered with Trabants that had been abandoned by their owners due to mechanical failure. Thus, an endearing symbol of freedom was born. The image as at odds with less flattering characterizations of the Trabant as a byword for East German backwardness. More than anything else, the Trabant reflected the country that had created it, poorly developed and ossified, but somehow still functioning right up until the moment it suddenly expired.

Click here for: Communism For Car Lovers: The Trabant: Engineering The East German Way (Part One)

Communism For Car Lovers: The Trabant: Engineering The East German Way (Part One)

In 1988 I bought my first car, a Volkswagen Diesel Rabbit that I purchased for $750 from a family friend. It had a four-speed transmission with a sixty-horsepower engine with 160,000 miles on the odometer. The Rabbit was not exactly rapid, especially during the winter when it took quite an effort just to get it started. It could do zero to 60 miles per hour in less than 20 seconds when going downhill. The tailpipe expunged sooty fumes, leaving a charcoal like residue floating in its wake. Despite such drawbacks, I loved that Rabbit, but not enough to take care of it properly. I was sixteen years old, without a thought on how to properly maintain an automobile. As the years have passed, my fondness for it has grown. It might not have been much, but it was my first car. Like first loves, first cars stay with us forever. It was a statement of who I was or more to the point who I wanted to be.

I was the proud owner of a car made possible by German engineering. The Rabbit made me feel connected to that proud legacy. It may not have been anyone’s idea of a first-class automobile, but considering its German lineage, I could have done much worse. Particularly if I had not been living in the western world. If a citizen of East Germany had been able to own my Volkswagen Rabbit, they would have felt a gratitude that I lacked at the time. A comparison of the Rabbit with the only car East Germans could own at the time would have been an unfair comparison. I did not know how much better I had it, until I learned what people in East Germany were forced to drive. On the wrong side of the Iron Curtain, another subcompact German designed car was sputtering down the rutted roadways of East Germany and a few other unlucky countries. This was the Trabant. I first learned about this abomination of an automobile after the Berlin Wall fell. Now beloved as a symbol of communist kitsch and failed industrial policy, from 1957 – 1991, East Germans, Hungarians and a few other unlucky Eastern Europeans satisfied themselves with these less than stellar specimens of Marxist materialism.

Ready for action - Trabant 601 was the most popular model

Ready for action – Trabant 601 was the most popular model (Credit: fortepan.hu)

Spark Plug With A Roof  – Wonderfully Bizarre, Truly Awful
The first time I saw a Trabant was in the city where they were made most famous, Berlin. I was waiting at a crosswalk in a section of the city that two decades earlier had been part of communist East Berlin. At the time, I was touring the city by foot and public transport. There were other options such as paying an exorbitant fee to take a Trabant out for a spin around the city. I was glad to have declined that option after I saw a young lady trying to navigate an intersection while doing her best to keep the Trabant from stalling out.  The engine sounded like a cross between a weed eater, an old tractor and my Diesel Volkswagen Rabbit. The woman trying to drive the Trabant looked terrified. I stood on the sidewalk with a rather bemused look on my face, wondering why anyone would pay to drive such a contraption. It must have been an unforgettable experience for her. Maybe it was worth the bother, but certainly not the price.

There has been no other car comparable to the Trabant in the American experience. The closest to it was the Yugo, a vehicle synonymous for its notoriously bad engineering and lack of style. It was the lone Eastern European automobile to make it onto American soil for sale. The Yugo was consistently rated as a terrible car by Consumer Reports, but it was a Rolls-Royce when compared to the Trabant. There are bad cars and then there was the Trabant. It is hard for anyone in a car centric culture such as the United States to conceive just how wonderfully bizarre and truly awful the Trabant was from an engineering standpoint. The most popular version of the car had a 26-horsepower engine. The first Trabant< manufactured back in the late 1950’s, had a tepid engine only half that powerful. Put another way, the Trabant’s engine had the same amount of horsepower as many lawnmowers. Its reputation was no better than its engine, giving rise to such nicknames for the Trabant as a “spark plug with a roof”.

Power outage - The Trabant's two-stroke engine

Power outage – The Trabant’s two-stroke engine (Credit: Asterion)

Instant Climate Change – The Little Stinker
Despite its engine’s limited output or perhaps because of it, the Trabant was a world class polluter. By one measurement, it produced pollution equal to thirty Mercedes. Germans are usually known for their thrift and ingenuity, communism turned that upside down. The Trabant became a byword for all the worst excesses of communist manufacturing and industry. It was the environmental equivalent of a smoke stack on four wheels, leading to another descriptive nickname, “the little stinker.” The Trabant would not have stood a chance in the west, among its more obvious faults was the poisonous fumes it belched out poisonous fumes with frightening consistency. It did not come close to meeting West German emissions standards and managed to exceed the average European standard at the time by a factor of four. That hardly mattered until after the Berlin Wall fell.

The Trabant was the best car East Germany could manufacture.  One area where it did excel was in fuel efficiency (40 kpg, 24 mpg). The car ran on an oil and gas mixture, akin to what motorcycles use. The fuel was available at stations in Eastern Bloc countries. This mixture was a novel and dangerous idea. The Trabant had neither a fuel or oil pump. The upshot was that the fuel tank had to be placed above the motor.  The fuel would then be fed by gravity to the motor. In the event of a crash involving the front hood area, its design could lead to explosive consequences. Fortunately for Trabant owners, there was little chance of getting involved in fender benders, since owning a car was a rare privilege for most.

On the road - A Trabant on the road in western Hungary

On the road – A Trabant on the road in western Hungary (Credit fortepan.hu)

Marxist Materialism – Worth The Bother
One would think that East Germans would have avoided the Trabant at all costs. On the contrary these cars were highly coveted. A status symbol for what might be called the middle or upper classes of East Germany. It took an average wait of 18 years to get one. Those who lived near East Berlin had better chances of being selected to own a Trabant because this was the epicenter of power in East Germany. Communism was never known for choice or catering to consumers. The Trabant lived down to this low standard. Prospective owners had one model and three lackluster colors to choose from. No one dare complain, lest their rights to a Trabant be taken away. Trabant owners were just glad to have an opportunity to own one.

Click here for: Going Off Course – The Trabant: End Of The East German Road (Part Two)

High Maintenance– The Yugo Story: A Few Last Laughs

I was sitting in a movie theater in Bozeman, Montana in 1999 watching the Steve Martin/Eddie Murphy comedy Bowfinger. Bozeman was about the last place I would have expected to be reminded of the former nation of Yugoslavia. The only tangential connection was the nearby town of Belgrade, which had been so named as a 19th century shout out to Serbian investors in the Northern Pacific Railroad. That was all in the distant past. In 1999, an American led NATO campaign was dropping bombs on Serbia, which at that point was the last vestige of Yugoslavia. And what might you ask did the movie Bowfinger have to do with Yugoslavia? In his role as Bobby Bowfinger, Martin played a down on his luck, colossally inept director trying to get back in the movie business.

On the wall of his study hung a framed movie poster from one of his minor hits. The poster showed a car cresting a hill with a beautiful sunset in the background. The movie’s title, The Yugo Story, was printed in large letters across the bottom. Every time the poster appeared in the background I began to howl in laughter. It got to the point that I became self-conscious of disturbing the people sitting around me. The poster sent me into guffaws because the Yugo had been an automotive embarrassment of legendary proportions. A vehicle that had inadvertently become a symbol of communist craftsmanship.  As much as I enjoyed watching Bowfinger, there was a part of me that wished The Yugo Story had been an actual film. It was a story worth telling, if for no other reason than a few good laughs.

Quality control - Yugo in a museum

Quality control – Yugo in a museum (Credit: dave_7)

Paying For Problems – Taking The Bait
Growing up in a single parent home of limited means in western North Carolina, cars always represented an unavoidable financial obstacle. We could only afford one, so that meant it had to be mechanically reliable with cost effective maintenance. Unfortunately, we bought a Ford Escort station wagon. It was purchased in the first year of their manufacture. The vehicle turned out to be a lemon, ending up in the junkyard after five years in which it drained the family finances. Such problems led me, a young and impressionable teenager, to start dreaming of short cuts to automotive stability. This was during the same time when the Yugo was first marketed in the United States. The spare, austere hatchback, looked like a savior with two doors and four wheels. Most importantly, the price was right.

Today the Yugo is the subject of ridicule, making it easy to forget the car’s popularity after it first arrived in America. Much of this had to do with the cost. A new Yugo GV (the GV stood for good value) with standard features – which included carpet! – was only $3,990 dollars in 1986. When calculated for inflation that figure comes out to $9,200 in today’s terms. That makes it the cheapest new car in American automotive history. Such a small amount of money for a new car shook up the American auto market. Suddenly a new car was affordable for millions of Americans. Tens of thousands took the bargain price bait. I recall seeing Yugos on the road in western North Carolina, a region where American cars reigned supreme at the time. The Yugos always looked cheaply produced, but what was one to expect at such a low price. Besides when compared to such American clunkers as the Chevrolet Chevette or Ford Escort, the Yugo seemed like it might be as good a bargain as advertised.

Yugo engine - Notice that the spare tire in the background is larger

Yugo engine – Notice that the spare tire in the background is larger (Credit: Sixthstar)

Cheating Death – An Owner’s Manual
In 1986, its first full year on the American market, nearly 36,000 Yugos were sold. This figure made it the top selling first year European import in American history. In 1987 the number sold increased to 48,000, which ended up being the peak for Yugo sales. Yugo dealerships began to sprout across the country, topping out at 300. It was a sort of miracle on four wheels that the Yugo sold as many models as it did. Many of the reviews were less than stellar. Consumer Reports said that Americans would be better off using their hard-earned cash on a good used car. Though promoted as a simple car, the Yugo required a great deal of attention. Owners were upset to find that the vehicle required regular maintenance. Those who ignored this fact would come to regret it. Failure to perform regular oil changes and have the timing belt changed every 40,000 miles often led to disastrous consequences. The Yugo was supposed to be a low maintenance, dependable automobile. Instead it was a high maintenance headache, that proved exceedingly temperamental if the owner’s manual was not followed to the letter. And even when it was, the Yugo was still prone to mechanical problems.

Word soon spread of the drawbacks to owning a Yugo. I distinctly remember people discussing safety concerns, making it sound like a Yugoslavian deathtrap. The vehicle was cheaply made and the odds of surviving an accident in it were said to be frighteningly low. Whether this was true or not, the Yugo suffered a loss of reputation that would never be recovered. Every time I saw a Yugo coming, I figured the people inside it must be either the bravest or stupidest people on earth. I started to believe that driving a Yugo was an attempt to cheat death. One wrong turn and the passengers could be goners. Soon the Yugo began to disappear from roads. An unscientific yet revealing measure of just how good a car is can be surmised by how many of a certain make or model can be seen on a road many years later. By that standard, the Yugo was AWOL from American highways. Little did I know that its disappearance had as much to do with geopolitics as it did mechanical problems.

Running down a dream - Yugo police car in Croatia

Running down a dream – Yugo police car in Croatia (Credit: Ishmael ZG)

A Dead End – Stalled Out
The Yugo Story in America ended tragically, a victim of the breakup of Yugoslavia.  Sanctions imposed by the United Nations after the country began to disintegrate led to imports of new Yugos being halted. Spare parts also became difficult to acquire. The one thing existing Yugo owners always needed was a good supply of spare parts. Soon the Yugo quickly faded from the American automotive scene. Multiple magazines deemed it one of the worst cars ever. Was it that bad? By American standards probably so, but in nations such as Croatia and Serbia, Yugos were a viable option until they finally hit a dead end with the last one manufactured in 2008. The Yugo Story was finished, except for a few last laughs.

 

A Lifetime Of Wandering – King Zog & Queen Geraldine: Unrestored Royalty (Part Two)

King Zog and Queen Geraldine of Albania were forced into exile after the Italian invasion of Albania in the spring of 1939. There must have been a sense of déjà vu for the queen. Her childhood had been spent nation hopping around central and western Europe. Now as the one and only Queen of Albania she was sent on what was to become a lifelong odyssey. The royal couple’s first port of call was Greece, where they arrived with 115 members of the royal retinue in tow. Before long they were off to Turkey then Romania, Poland, the Baltic republics, Sweden, Belgium and France before landing in London. The latter city was where Zog, always a sucker for extravagant spending, rented an entire floor of the Ritz Carlton Hotel. He funded the family’s ostentatious lifestyle from funds he had stolen from Albania’s gold reserve. Even with an immense personal fortune, Zog’s spendthrift ways jeopardized the lavish lifestyle he and the queen felt was rightfully theirs. Something eventually had to give and one of the first things to go bad were the couple’s finances. They eventually settled on a manor house in the English countryside. The plan was to wait for the Italians, then later the Germans, to be thrown out of Albania so that Zog could regain the throne.

Queen Geraldine and King Zog in exile

Queen Geraldine and King Zog in exile

Beyond Control – Citizens of Everywhere & Nowhere
King Zog was never allowed the opportunity to return to Albania. The nation was captured by a totalitarian communist government led by a crazier than usual Stalinist dictator by the name of Enver Hoxha. Like Zog, Hoxha rose to power and then kept it by eliminating his enemies. Unlike Zog, Hoxha was much cannier at managing Albania’s foreign alliances. When the Yugoslavs grew too influential, Hoxha aligned Albania with the Soviet Union. When the Soviets wanted to build a naval base on Albania’s Adriatic coast, Hoxha threw in his lot with Maoist China. He was able to consolidate his control over the country by having his opponents murdered. This was exactly the same thing Zog had done when he was in power. The names and ideologies may have changed, but for Albania the turmoil continued. All the while, King Zog, Queen Geraldine and Crown Prince Leka languished in exile. The British were not about to involve themselves in the affairs of Albania, a distant, impoverished country with an odd sounding name. Zog did manage to impress at least one British politician during his stay in Great Britain. Conservative MP Julian Amery stated that Zog was the cleverest man he ever met. Compliments were nice, but they would do nothing to restore the royalty of Albania.

Zog and Geraldine moved to Egypt after the Second World War ended. The Egyptian royal family had its origins in Albania. Thus they were happy to host their distant kin. This arrangement lasted into the early 1950’s, when King Farouk was thrown out of power. After the coup, Zog and Geraldine visited the United States where they decided to purchase a sixty room mansion in Nassau County, New York. They then made the rather strange decision of choosing not to live there. What Geraldine thought of the royal family’s rootless existence is anyone’s guess. They were becoming world citizens rather than ruling family. Geraldine had lived in over a dozen countries. The rootlessness must have seemed  somewhat normal to her by this point in her life. As for Zog he longed to regain his throne. Such a prospect became more and more distant as the years passed. Finally, the couple settled on a long term residence in France.

Royal Family Without A Country - King Zog, Queen Geraldine, and Crown Prince Leka in exile

Royal Family Without A Country – King Zog, Queen Geraldine, and Crown Prince Leka in exile

The King Is Dead – Long Live The Queen
King Zog spent his final years with his wife and son in France. It was nothing short of a miracle that a man who had lived one of the most unhealthy lifestyles possible – smoking like a chimney and staying up all hours of the night – lived to the age of sixty-five. The cause of his death was not disclosed, but could have been summed up as too much hard living. At the time of his death, Albania was completely closed off to the outside world. There was no hope of returning his remains to the hermit nation he had once ruled over with absolute authority. He was laid to rest in a cemetery close to Paris. His death was not the end of the story for Albanian royalty. Geraldine kept hope alive by insisting that she be referred to as “Queen Mother of Albania” and that Crown Prince Leka was now the rightful heir to the throne. In a hotel room in Paris he was formally anointed King of Albania. Such actions made them little more than a footnote in world affairs at the time.

Nothing would change unless Albania came under a new form of government. In the meantime, the Queen and her son continued their movements abroad, relocating to South Africa. They never gave up the dream of returning to Albania, but the prospects of it happening looked bleaker than ever. That was until the Iron Curtain fell and a couple of years later communism in Albania collapsed. Leka tried going back to Albania in 1993 to reclaim the throne and was promptly tossed out of the country. He had better luck four years later when Queen Geraldine accompanied him. It was the first time she had been back since fleeing a couple of days after Leka’s birth in April 1939. A referendum was held at the time to see whether the monarchy should be restored to power.

A lifetime of wanderings - Queen Geraldine

A lifetime of wanderings – Queen Geraldine

Back To The Beginning – The End Of A Long & Twisted Tale
Despite the wretched governance and venal corruption shown by Albania’s post-Communist governments, monarchical rule was an anachronism to most Albanians. The majority of whom had not even been born when King Zog last ruled the country. Only 30% voted in favor of a restoration. This finally put an end to the long and twisted tale of the Albanian monarchy. That was except for Queen Geraldine. Once again, she took up residence in the country. She lived out the final years of her life in a modest home in the capital city of Tirana. She would die there in 2002.  A lifetime of wandering had finally come to an end for her.  The surreal fairy tale died out right where it began.

Click here for: A Twisted Fairy Tale – King Zog & Queen Geraldine: An Albanian Love Affair (Part One)