BUCHAREST, ROMANIA -- "It was my last resort," an American tourist said in a tale of his frustrating search for a taxicab here. Car after car barreled past him down Calea Victoriei before he finally pulled it from his pocket, stopping a driver dead in his tracks.
In Romania, a pack of Kent cigarettes can work wonders.
This socialist country's unofficial currency, Kents have been used not only to grab cabs in heavy traffic, but to buy an endless range of other goods and services, including a hospital operation, a massage and a decent cut of meat.
According to Romanians, payment in American cigarettes is often preferable to money. The lei, Romania's official currency, has been so overvalued that it is "too common to use for some purchases," as a Romanian schoolteacher put it. Dollars, deutsche marks and those western currencies used for black-market trade in other Soviet bloc countries are banned from public possession in Communist-ruled Romania.
In this domain of heavy smokers, tobacco became the likely medium for trade under the counter (and sometimes over it), particularly after it was dropped from state-run stores as a cost-cutting move in the early 1970s.
No one knows how Kent became the brand preferred over Marlboro, Camel or other imported cigarettes. One theory is that it crept into the market as part of airlift packages from the United States after the disastrous 1977 earthquake in Bucharest.
"In any case, the Kent fad caught on," Adrian Ionescu, director of the official news agency Agerpress, said in a conversation here, "and everyone has become convinced that they taste better than all the others, although they don't."
Cigarettes, nowhere to be found in Romanian stores, are either brought in by tourists or purchased by diplomats and westerners in special hard-currency stores run by the government.
At current rates, a pack of Kents costing $1.40 in the West goes for 100 lei (equivalent to $10 at the official rate) on the Romanian market. The cigarettes' value fluctuates, however, apparently not so much according to gyrations of other western currencies as to the level of Romanians' craving for nicotine. In the past three years, as Romania's severe austerity drives have worn nerves thin and apparently increased smoking, the value of Kents has doubled.
Over time, the Kent craze has come to consume Romania. Even the Communist regime in Bucharest indulges in it. When the Marine guards at the U.S. Embassy here threw their annual ball in the state-run diplomatic club last year, the Romanian foreign ministry collected its rent for the evening in hundreds of Kent packs.
For other luxuries, western diplomats and Romanians have reported the following price list: A tailor-made suit: five cartons plus the fabric. An hour's massage: one pack. A 19th-century icon: 25 cartons.
"It's not really like other currencies," one young Romanian said. "I wouldn't use it to buy just anything. It's best as a payment for advice. If I needed to seek the counsel of a lawyer, I would pay him off in Kents. It would be perfect."
With recurrent shortages of meat, produce and energy throughout Romania, Kents are sometimes used to pay for these prizes. Under the counter, for instance, a carton of Kents can sometimes buy more than 20 pounds of fatty meat -- or 10 of lean.
Last winter, when draconian energy-saving measures limited Romanians to one 40-watt light bulb a night for heat and light, some Romanians cheated and paid official meter readers three or four packs of Kents to turn the meter back, sources here say.
At times, Romania's fascination with Kents has taken on ridiculous dimensions. According to an American diplomat, in the 1970s a rumor spread through the Romanian capital that the United States was sponsoring a Kent lottery, giving away cash to bearers of specially marked packs. Thousands of Romanians flooded the U.S. Embassy, querulously waving their empty packs.
In a turn that has alarmed some Romanians with little access to western cigarettes, Kents are increasingly becoming a mandatory fee for well-paid Romanian doctors, who have little need for more local currency. For some ailing Romanians, Kents can get a place at the head of a long waiting room line or buy special medical treatment.
When a western diplomat's maid needed an operation recently, she went to her employer to exchange lei for Kents to pay the doctor. In another case, a shopkeeper who caters to westerners feared his wife would die of pregnancy complications. Finally he found a doctor who pulled her through. "I had a big supply of cigarettes," he later told a customer.
With other goods now running into severe shortage, packages of coffee beans and aspirin are now creeping into the market alongside Kents.
In a pinch, Marlboro, Benson & Hedges, other western cigarettes or even Bulgarian brands can sometimes get what is needed.
But not always. "If you try to use another western cigarette brand," the Frommer's guidebook "Eastern Europe on $25 a Day" warns the innocent tourist, "you'll earn only blank stares from locals."