Photo Gallery: Across Europe in a Mini-Van

Foto: Thomas Grabka/ DER SPIEGEL

The Last European Romanian Driver Navigates the Soul of the EU

For the past decade, Viktor Talic has been driving a van across Europe, delivering people and goods. His 50-hour, nearly sleepless journey offers a disquieting, yet inspiring, glimpse into the Continent's soul.

The hero of this story looks older than his 34 years. He has powerful upper arms, a gentle demeanor -- and he knows what many people think when they hear "Romania."

There are countries in Europe with a bad reputation, there are those with a very bad reputation and then there is Romania. It's a country with anti-corruption department heads forced to step down amid accusations of corruption, and a prime minister who stands accused of money laundering. It ranks lowest for toothpaste consumption in the European Union, and high for alcohol consumption. Our man knows all about these things, because he is well traveled in Europe. In political-speak, one could say that he is always on the go, driving the deepening of the European Union.

In 1992, Romania still had 23 million inhabitants. Today there are 4 million fewer. Those who emigrated profit from the fact that Europe has an undeclared division of labor that goes something like this: Wherever uneducated, rather than educated, workers are needed, employers look for Romanians. Even the Germans.

If it weren't for Romanians, slaughterhouse owners would be chest-deep in pig halves. Without them, real estate developers could forget about Germany's glorious construction boom. The same goes for asparagus and potato harvests. In their view, anything is better than staying in Romania. As a result, leaving home is about the most Romanian thing a person can do -- and that's not difficult at all.

All it takes is climbing into a mini-bus and rattling westward. There are hundreds of these busses in every Romanian city. A one-way ticket to Germany costs €70 ($77); to the Netherlands, €80; Belgium, €80; France, Italy, Portugal, €120. A massive armada of small Romanian buses has been traversing Europe for years.

A European Hero

This is where our hero comes in, a hero for freedom, a hero for the market economy -- somehow, in his own way, a hero for Europe. He prefers to be called Viktor Talic. His real name, he claims, would be unwise to use -- it would put him in danger of being persecuted, as heroes so often are.

Talic is on his way to Portugal. He's more than just a bus driver, he's also a shipper, money courier, messenger and smuggler rolled into one. With eight of his compatriots in his Mercedes Sprinter, he moves people and goods from Point A (Romania) to Point B (Portugal), a route many Romanians have taken.

Several of his customers are trying their luck outside their home country for the first time, others are leaving for a short while to harvest asparagus, work on construction sites or in frozen-food plants, or do whatever else. Others were back in Romania only briefly because they needed to take care of paperwork in Bucharest. When they head to Portugal, they aren't leaving home, they're going home.

Talic's trunk is always filled with packages. Most are presents for relatives living abroad, items that are self-slaughtered, self-knitted and, especially, self-distilled. Everything he transports, whether package or person, is brought door-to-door regardless of the final destination in Portugal. There are no receipts and no paperwork, but nor are there any problems, not even when Talic is asked to deliver half of someone's yearly salary to his or her family.

It's mid-May and Talic is standing in the town center of Satu Mare, his hometown in northwestern Romania, with his bus. His customers are all punctual, showered, somewhat melancholic, and all have more than the agreed-upon single suitcase with them. There are seven of them, each with their own dreams of the West. There is a young married couple and an older one, a heavyset woman who will not utter a single word during the entire 50-hour drive and a haggard, thin man, the kind frequently cast as a terrorist sleeper agent in Hollywood. There is also a beautiful girl in a white, shiny, sequined outfit that is actually a sweat suit.

Of all the drivers in Satu Mare, Talic offers the toughest journey. From here to Portugal, his route spans about 4,000 kilometers (2,500 miles). His way may not be the most direct, but it is one he has optimized in the 10 years that he has been in business.

He avoids Italy even though it would be shorter. In the past the Carabinieri have confiscated Romanian cars for the slightest of irregularities. Drivers have supposedly received notes saying their car had been confiscated and that they needed to wait for a court hearing. But wait? For a court hearing in Italy? Talic would rather go 500 kilometers out of his way to avoid the country.

The final stop is always Portimao, on the southwestern tip of Europe, where Talic's mother has now moved. It's almost impossible to go any further west in Europe. The drive takes 50 hours, and the first Romanian word one learns during the journey is "cinci," meaning five. That's exactly how many minutes Talic takes as a break after filling up with gas. The second word is "cincisprezece," or 15, which is the length of the meal breaks. As far as sleep breaks go, only three hours are alloted for the day after tomorrow somewhere in northern Spain. The rest of the time, Talic stays awake.

"Crazy, right?" Talic asks.

Feeding a Family at 14

Fifty hours to travel 4,000 kilometers through Europe in an old green Mercedes Sprinter van with 1.2 million kilometers on the odometer. The seats are rock-hard and worn, the biaxial trailer in tow filled to the brim. And then there's the Romanian disco-pop playing at full blast and in an endless loop, so that Talic doesn't fall asleep before he reaches northern Spain.

In France, he avoids the highways -- they're too expensive -- which means that Europe's largest country by area is crossed via country roads. A 10-hour break in Portugal is all Talic allows himself before turning around and heading home. That makes for 8,000 kilometers of driving, 100 hours at the wheel in a bit more than five days. Is this crazy, suicidal or just business as usual?

Talic is a pleasant man who has not been put off by the million kilometers he has spent behind the wheel. He understands people's criticisms of his lifestyle, and explains that he wasn't always a bus driver.

He says he was a decent student who was good at math. But one day, when his father was sawing a tree, an oak branch fell on the back of his head, knocking both of his eyes out of their sockets. He toppled forward onto his still-running chainsaw, a red, Soviet-made Drujba that cut his heart into shreds. Talic was 14 years old at the time. He left school a week after his father died in the forest, using the heavy Drujba to feed his family for four years. After that, he went to Portugal and worked in construction.

Talic tells the story warmly. He isn't one to exaggerate, and his mother, with tears in her eyes, confirms the entire story 50 hours later at the southwestern tip of Europe. For someone who, as a child, used a chainsaw to feed his family, 4,000-kilometer journeys through Europe don't seem so crazy. In fact, it's a rather pleasant job.

Talic starts the bus. The overloaded Mercedes creaks and jerks, but it drives. "The water in the back, in the cargo space," says Talic. "I don't think that's normal." Stowed under a dozen packages there are 50 bottles of Romanian mineral water. Some guy in Lisbon orders them every month. The man doesn't drink Portuguese water, Talic says, he has the Romanian water brought to him. "Every kilogram that I transport costs 2 euros. That's pretty expensive water."

We soon reach Hungary.

Special Cover Charge for Romanians

Nothing moves at the border. A dozen Mercedes Sprinters are lined up behind one another, most of them with trailers -- Romanian import-export businesses. It's a hot day and the Hungarian border guards are sweating in their blue uniforms and demonstrating how slowly a person can leaf through a passport. Talic's boss, the owner of the Mercedes van, is one car ahead in the line, waiting in a VW Passat. He always comes along to the border, because he knows the customs people best. He and Talic had words as they were leaving, the boss complaining about the ever-present extra luggage. "Three fucking suitcases per person," he bickered.

Instead of asking for money in exchange for the extra weight, Talic pressed two cartons of cigarettes into each passenger's hands, as many as a person can carry customs-free in the EU. Now they are, so to speak, legally smuggling cigarettes. In Romania, a pack costs €2, in the Ukraine where his boss bought them, they cost a bit over €1. Somewhere in Southern France, Talic will give them to a man at a highway rest stop -- the 16 legal cartons being carried by him and his passengers, as well as the approximately 20 illegal ones hidden somewhere in the cargo space. In France, a pack of cigarettes costs between 6 and 7 euros, a nice by-catch.

When Talic doesn't get any further at the Hungarian tollgate, his boss gets out in front and greets one of the customs officials. They hug. They know each other. A short chat, a quick look in the passport. There is something between its pages, which the official takes with practiced fingers. Two minutes later Talic can leave the line, and as he drives by, the Hungarian in the uniform cheerfully wishes the Romanians in the Mercedes a good trip.

How much was that? "A bit more than we need to give the one here," says Talic. The next highwayman is about one kilometer after the border. This time it's a fat traffic cop in a red safety vest. He stands at the edge of the road and reaches out his hand. Every small bus loaded up with Romanians needs to stop here in order to pass. The drivers roll down their windows and press some money into the hand of the man in the police uniform. Nobody speaks, the communication occurs wordlessly. It's a kind of cover charge that only Romanians pay.

And what if you don't pay? "Packages are opened and placed on the road," says Talic. "The interior lining is stripped and the engine space is examined. Three hours at least." Talic turns towards the back. "Which one of you has Palinka?" Palinka is the name of the self-distilled fruit schnapps. Everyone knows it is illegal to bring it along. All of them raise their arms. "Then 10,000 Forint it is." Ten thousand Forint, equivalent to €30, is what the police officer pocketed.

Talic bends forward and turns up the music. He's attached a USB stick with hundreds of hours of Romanian folk-pop to the radio. To Western ears, they are hundreds of hours of the exact same song. Talic seems to like it, the others stare contentedly at the monotonous Hungarian Pannonian steppe. It's a calm journey. A Hungarian police car stops the bus shortly before Budapest, and once again demands €200, but Talic doesn't want to get worked up about it. He actually likes Hungary. He knows that most people here can't stand Romanians, but at least they're up front about it.

The German Dream

And then we enter Austria.

The older married couple has dozed off, the younger couple is holding hands, the gaunt man is trying to start a conversation with the pretty girl in white. Talic is racking up the kilometers.

The beats from the radio blend with the wind that is streaming through the open window. The passengers' back muscles long ago gave up their resistance to the much-too-hard seats.

Talic's cell phones are on the dashboard, eight of them: two Romanian ones, one German one, one French one, one Spanish one and three Portuguese ones. If a customer would like to have a package dropped off in Portugal, he or she calls Talic. The same applies if Talic is already on his way. Then he takes a small detour. The conversations are never brief. Romanians like to chat, possibly even more than the Italians do.

For many Romanians, Talic is one of the few connections they still have with home. Sure, there's Facebook, WhatsApp and flat-rate plans for mobile phones, but they don't eliminate the homesickness -- they simply exascerbate it. Among Talic's customers are migrant laborers who might work in a field in Alentejo, Portugal, for 15 hours a day, seven days a week. Sometimes they give him packages to deliver just to be able to speak Romanian with him for a bit and feel a tie to their home country.

After Austria comes Germany.

"Why does everybody actually start their drive on Fridays?" the pretty girl wonders out loud. It's her third journey. She has already worked in Germany, in the south, in a cannery. She can say exactly four words in German, the ones for pickle, red beet and business license.

Back then, the young woman made €8.50 per hour on the production line, and was not officially on staff. But she had to spend €400 of her wages on a tiny room in a residential trailer next to the factory. She always had to share her 10-square-meter room with another Romanian. She learned than an €8.50 minimum wage doesn't mean that you earn €8.50. It just means that some companies make more hassle, and still only pay you €6.

The Romanian small-bus armada prepares for Germany, or more specifically, its police officers. Unlike in Hungary, the Germans can't be bribed. Of course, there are fines, €50, rarely more. The problem is the upstanding officials. Only in Germany does a police officer go to the effort of stopping a transporter van filled with Romanians on the highway to check if the car or the trailer is overloaded. In hardly any country will the police officer want to see latex gloves in a Romanian first-aid box designed to protect against HIV infections.

Talic doesn't think the Germans are particularly mean. Or that they want to cause trouble. They are simply, he says, correct. Correct and annoying. The French, Spanish and Portuguese are, for the most part, simply happy when they don't have anything to do with the Romanians and don't have to do any work because of them. For them, every small bus is a mountain of paperwork, because of course something always isn't quite right. Too many cigarettes, too little tread on the tires, illegal spirits, no road-worthiness certification for the vehicle.

Their Land, Their Rules

That explains the Friday thing, the calculation is simple: A driver needs about 10 hours to drive the 900 kilometers from the Hungarian border to Passau. If you leave Romania early on a Friday afternoon, you reach Germany just after the sun sets. A Romanian license plate is harder to recognize at night, and the German officials are partly on their weekend, the beautiful German highway is empty, the likelihood of not being stopped is high. And by Saturday morning, before the sun goes up, the Romanians have passed. If all goes well, no person has noticed that they've gone through Germany in the night.

Talic thinks it's right, what the Germans are doing, even if he himself is breaking all of their rules. His bus turns into a rolling deadly weapon by sun-up on Saturday mornings -- despite the pounding pop music, he is extremely tired. It doesn't change things that the Germans are right, Talic says, in principle. But he needs to break those laws in order to make things halfway worth it.

Their land, their rules, he says about the Germans, nothing wrong with that, but he counters: "my life, my risks." He sees it as a sport. He would like his daughter in Romania to grow up well, so that she can go to college later and live in a nice house. If he obeyed the German rules that wouldn't be possible. So he does what he must. And Germany does what it must. And Europe too. It's actually very simple.

One will, so to speak, meet few people who are as passionate Europeans as Viktor Talic. For him, the European Union is not a monster that lives in Brussels, it is a sea of possibilities. Nothing is given, he says, of course not, but if you make an effort, you are rewarded.

Many people who have ridden with him might come back to Romania a couple of years later with a big car and move into a big house that they never would have been able to afford if they had not left the country. They may have lots of back pain, and ruptured disks, and scratched-up fingers, but the car, the house, nobody can take that away. So who says that the European dream doesn't work?

Talic says he doesn't understand what is currently going on in Europe, not at all. This hostility, this Greece problem, the discussions about austerity policies or not, about national debts, are all beside the point, he argues. For him, Europe means that a person can work and make an okay living from it. So where is the problem?

An Impossible Life in Romania

Of course, he says there are differences but they don't have anything to do with injustice. Germany, for example, is a great country. In Germany, Talic says, nobody needs to work hard. Working is enough, and that is the main difference between Romania and Germany. In Romania, working isn't enough, not even working hard. The actual minimum wage is €217.50. Doctors work for €450. And where do most of the foreign doctors in Germany come from? Romania, of course.

It's not true that everything is considerably cheaper in Romania -- groceries or rents. So how does a person support a family with only one wage?

"Not at all," says Talic.

The van rolls into France.

The radio unit comes on. A truck driver is offering Talic a tank of diesel. Before, Talic took these kinds of offers more frequently. Truck drivers earn some extra money by selling diesel on their way to Romania. But these days, this is more closely monitored by the shipping companies. And Talic just filled up with cheap gas near Montlucon, in the Auvergne region. Instead of showering, he went into the drugstore department of a supermarket and sprayed perfume onto his upper arms. Unfortunately, the other passengers did the same. Now the bus smells like a perfume outlet store at the height of summer.

Talic has never had problems in France. If he has believably reassured the police officers that he is only traveling through and will be in Spain in a few hours, they let him pass. He has only had difficulties once. "That was with the pigs."

Word had spread about the kinds of things that Talic transports. Two euros per kilogram, that was the only rule. Last year, around this time, he received a phone call from a Romanian working in a slaughter business near Lisbon. The boss there was refusing to pay the wages of the Romanian workers and saying they should take him to court. The Romanians had another idea -- they decided to steal his pigs.

They built a very large wooden crate, put 14 living pigs in, and gave everything to Talic, who lashed the stolen goods to the trailer. Since all of the people involved decided that the 4,000 kilometers from Portugal to Romania were pretty far for the pigs to travel, they decided to send the pigs to an acquaintance in Paris.

Talic and the pigs were caught up in a police inspection. A gendarme stopped them and asked for veterinary documents. Talic, who had understood him, showed him the vehicle license and explained that the delivery was going to Paris. Who knows what the police officer was thinking, perhaps he didn't like Paris, or maybe he didn't want to wait for the department veterinarian. He shook his head and allowed Talic to keep driving with his pigs.

"They all survived," says Talic. At least the trip. " Don't ask me what they did with them. They lived in a high rise, in the city."

And thus we enter Spain.

Arrival in Portugal

After the 35th hour, time goes by in thick clumps. Bilbao, Valladolid, Salamanca, the cities pass by. At least now the bus is driving on the highway again. Nobody looks at the time, nobody seems to care if the drive will ever end. The flat land in northwestern Madrid, formerly Castalia, is made up of spacious steppe, which doesn't make things easier. Talic slept for exactly three hours near Burgos, and afterwards he looked more tired than before. He says that he's feeling well, but the right-hand tires frequently rumble over the road markings, and the sound of the grooves scares everyone every few minutes.

Talic says that he can only actually remember one accident. A friend of his, who was driving a Sprinter to France, drifted out of his lane near Rastatt and ran into a truck. A passenger was immediately dead. Ten minutes after the accident, a helicopter landed on the A5, and now the friend has a plate-sized piece of metal in his head, and works near Milan. Talic says, the man would have been dead in any other country. Since that story, German police officers can ask about the AIDS gloves as often as they want. Talic won't say anything bad about them, about Germany.

Spain is the worst part of the journey. The passengers lay on their seats as if sedated. Conversation topics have been used up since Basel at the latest. It's the moment in which people asks themselves why they would subject themselves to this for €120. A flight would have cost only double that. But presumably a person has to earn two to four euros per hour to be able to answer that question. Never has it felt nicer to arrive in Portugal. The madness begins.

From this point onwards, none of Talic's eight cell phones stays quiet. Everybody knows that he arrives in Portugal on Sunday afternoon. Everybody wants to discuss when their package, their relative, their boyfriend will arrive. At moments, Talic speaks with three people simultaneously on the phone. If he doesn't answer, people get worried and call even more frequently.

After he has dropped off the older married couple and the gaunt man in a village near Lisbon, Talic drives into the Portuguese capital. There, at a traffic circle, several of his customers are waiting with their cars to pick up packages. Thirty, 40 Romanians besiege Talic's Mercedes. He distributes package after package and picks up new ones. To passersby it looks like one big fight, but Talic claims it is all in order.

Romanian is a Job

The fatigue is gone. The phone is ringing every minute. Talic drives to small villages, collects packages, jumps out briefly somewhere with an envelope filled with money, drops of the rest of the passengers at their front door. The last hours pass quickly.

Early on Sunday evening, the drive ends at Portimao, a tourist spot near the Algarve, which the Portuguese construction boom has gifted with a pair of very ugly high-rise buildings. Talic's mother lives in one of them. His sister and step-brother live below her.

The mother cleans a hotel for €5 per hour. The new construction in which she lives isn't finished yet, but she doesn't want to return to Romania no matter what, she is that happy here.

Talic sits next to her at her kitchen table and is too tired to talk. Tomorrow at eight he goes back to Romania. He says that he just remembered something. To the question, what it's like to be a Romanian in Europe. He has the answer. Being Romanian in Europe is no nationality at all. Being Romanian is a job.

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