It was in the middle of spring and my mates and I were working on a diabolical plan to corner the Romanian instant dried mushroom export market when the phone rang - my cellular phone, which every good Romanian businessman carried with him everywhere because of the unreliability of Romtelecom the fixed-line operator.
"Is this Jordan? I have an urgent message for him, from the King."
There's no real answer to that (go ahead and try to think of one, if you can), so I just mumbled my assent, and waited.
"King Ciobu has heard many things about your company and would like to meet with you. He invited you to come tomorrow to his palace in Strehaia to discuss the possibility of a mutual business cooperation. "
Now, even today, I need to admit, we're not exactly the most well known business group in Romania. In fact, even people with a lot more money than we are, are generally very low key. In a country where the average government employee is a former member of the Communist Party, and 38% of the Parliament seats are held by a party who will drive out the dirty foreigners foreign businessmen generally keep their heads down and hope that nobody notices they're alive. Then again, the King was calling me. What can you do when the King calls you? When the King calls you, you go.
Ciobu, of course, (may he Rest In Peace - this story happened a few years ago) was the best kind of king - he had no real temporal power, but rather his strength lied in the willing devotion of his Gypsy followers, number unknown. (Estimates range from 100,000 to 3 Million gypsies living in Romania, which tells you a lot about either the tricky nature of the Gypsies, the incompetence of the Romanian census authorities, or both.) He shared - or rather contested - power with the gypsy "Emperor", Julian, of Craiova. Both of them had golden crowns, golden medallions, and Mercedes 600 SE touring cars - in other words, all the necessary trappings of modern royalty.
In Strehaia, a small town of about 40,000 people on the road from Bucharest to Belgrade, Ciobu's power was undisputed. He ran the town. He ran it during the communist era too, by all accounts. The story everybody knows is that in 1988 there was some big international Gypsy conference in Spain. Ciobu asked for an exit visa several months before hand and was told by the local police that they would contact him when they were ready. As a sort of brutal joke they called him in two days after the conference was over and told him that the visa was now ready.
"Never mind", he said, "I don't need it anymore. I've already been there and back."
The next day, I arrived by train in Strehaia and around 11 in the morning to find a typically poor Romanian town: lots of apartment blocks, each with it's own number, some dirty grocery stores with improper refrigeration selling stale old spleen sausages, and a lot of semi-employed proletariats around looking for something to do. The difference was in the Gypsy quarter. There, there was all sorts of money. Stealing cars from Germany and selling them in Bucharest, cigarette smuggling, breaking the embargo with the Serbians - all these activities had gone on under Ciobu's benevolent rule. The street where the Gypsy's lived was well paved, with large cement and brick houses, each with a wide courtyard, stretching on both sides of the road, all of them covered with an Aluminum top.
Now this might seem strange to any of you who have never been in Eastern Europe, but the second most lucrative business of the underclasses in these countries has almost always been scrap metal dealing. (The number one is prostitution). Giant state factories, developed by bureaucrats with delusions of grandeur ended their days ignomiously stripped for scrap metal and melted into ovens to make cheap ingots to be exported to the West. Strehaia happened to be near the country's largest Aluminum smelter, and therefore all the scrap Aluminum in the country passed through Ciobu's hands - or at least, the hands of his followers. As if to show off their status (Aluminum is 10 times as expensive as steel and a hundred times more expensive than wood) all of the houses were topped with cast Aluminum towers, generall with a number of spirals which probably mirrored the importance of the person in the house, starting with three (little Nicu, who just steals cars), to Ciobu himself. Here was an explosion of Aluminum turrets. The castle itself (I don't suppose there is another word for it) has about 11 seperate roofs, each with between 1 to 3 Aluminum turrets, and each of those with about 1 to 6 spires. There is absolutely no attempt to be symmetrical, or in fact to put these spires in any real order at all. The house itself was made of white brick with a wide courtyard. Parked on the grass (no one had thought to build a driveway) were about 15 different automobiles, mainly German luxury cars, with a few cheaper Romanian cars thrown in. (No doubt poorer courtiers, come to seek their fortune in the King's court). I arrived by taxi, and was immediately greeted at the doorway by King Ciobu himself.
Ciobu was a fat man. Fat and sensual. This is supposed to be a contradicition in the Occident but here was a definite example of fat oozing sensuality in the flesh. He had delicate lips, deep brown eyes, and fleshy, perfectly manicured hands smelling vaguely of perfume. He was wearing no shirt - just a number of gold chains on his hairy chest - and he came up to me, shirtless, gave me, a mere commoner (and a gage, at that) a hug, and led me into the house to meet the rest of the royals. The majority of the mansion was empty. That is, there was absolutely no furniture in any of the rooms whatsoever. Most of the furniture was concentrated in a five room suite in the center of the mansion, which seemed to be filled with about a hundred people. I was served coffee but what with the constant din of people - old people, young people, children, animals - courtiers, relatives, business associates, government officials (!!!!) and a couple of types that looked like court jesters - Ciobu suggested that we go for a ride.
We got into one of the Mercedes. Ciobu was still not wearing any shirt, and had kicked his shoes OFF as we left the house, so he was now barefoot. He got into the car and motione me into the passenger side - the car was littered with chicken bones.
We began to drive through the town. "I heard about you doing business here," he said. "I heard you're a Jew, so I called you. Jews are smart businessman."
"You haven't met my cousin Moishe," I thought, but prudently remained silent.
"You may have heard," he told me, "that we gypsies come from India. But none of us have a history, none of us have a heritage. That's why my dream is to build here, in Strehaia," a wave of his arm took in apartment blocks, turreted mansions, fields of corn, and a large, long factory manufacturing uniforms, illegaly, for the Serbian Army - "an exact copy of the Taj Mahal. A one for one copy. I perfect fit. It would be a pilgrimage ground for millions of Gypsies all over the continent to come and celebrate their Gypsy heritage. It would give them great meaning, and be good for the economy, and tourism to."
"That's very interesting," I asked, "but how I am I connected to it?"
He looked at me with the beginnings of dissapointment. "Brother, isn't it obvious? You go to your Jews in America and raise the money to build the place. And then we'd make a fortune!"
"But how exactly are we going to make money from it?"
From the look he gave me, it was clear that his disappointment was now complete. "you're the businessman," he said, "I thought you could tell me."
We continued talking for about twenty minutes, and then he ordered a flunky to drive me back to Bucharest in style, but it was clear from the expression on his saddened face, that I had returned to gage status, and, as befitting a commoner, I would never have a chance to meet Royalty again.