WE DID NOT start out with the intention of disrupting the economy of a Communist country. We never wanted to be smugglers. But strange things happen on the Venice-Belgrade Express.
We had to get from Switzerland, where we knew people to impose on, to Athens, where our friend Taki offered unlimited opportunities for freeloading. The problem was, we didn't know anyone between Venice and Athens. Facing this awful dilemma, and rationalizing that we'd already saved so much money by our mooching, we instructed our travel agent to book us on "a luxury train, with all the extras."
Thus we found ourselves boarding the train in Venice at 5 o'clock on a sultry afternoon, with great expectations of an Orient Express flavor. These did not last long.
Our conductor--and we use the word lightly--was a phlegmatic Yugoslav gentleman of gamy aroma who spoke one word of English. The word was: "No."
There is no point in describing our "luxury" sleeping accomodations. Luxury is relative, after all. For a Yugoslav train, our cell--compartment, rather--was indeed luxurious.
It is much simpler to describe the dining car. It was nonexistent. We discovered this after embarking on the 40-hour trip without our own supply of food.
Shortly after the train left Venice we met another passenger, a Yugoslav of ample proportions and a singular scar running the length of his face. When he ascertained we were Americans, he beamed, held up his index finger and bellowed:
"Chon Kennedy Number One!"
We smiled politely. He lifted another finger.
"Robert Kennedy Number Two!"
He continued bellowing something about Tito and John Kennedy being "like father and son" and began plying us with vodka that tasted like scented paint thinner. Once he judged us sufficiently pickled, he asked us to smuggle four kilos of Italian coffee into Yugoslavia for him. It would be, he assured us, "No problem." For some reason we agreed. We spent the next three hours wondering what was in the bag along with the coffee, and about conditions in Yugoslav jails.
We met a few other Yugoslav passengers before we reached the border, and they all asked the same question: "Why are you on this train?" We couldn't think of a good answer. They gave us to understand that the only people who took the train were Yugoslavs who smuggle blue jeans and coffee into the country. The ration for coffee had recently dropped to half a pound per person per month in Yugoslavia, a nation of avid coffee drinkers, so space on the Venice-Belgrade "Expresso" was at a premium. At each station Yugoslavs carrying garbage bags full of coffee desperately ran along the platform where they hopped on the train before it even stopped. By the time we reached the border at Sezana, the typical second-class compartment had its six seats filled with nine persons and 100 kilos of coffee, and our Yugoslav friend with the scar had pulled out a key and locked the doors of the first-class car to keep out the mob.
Men with red stars on their caps and pistols and handcuffs on their belts swarmed aboard at the border. They herded all the second-class passengers off the train, emptying knapsacks into passageways, and searching under bunks for contraband coffee. They found ours right away but said nothing -- perhaps because we had confined ourselves to a mere four kilos. It was during this three-hour shakedown that--after a year and a half without cigarettes -- we both started smoking again.
Customs ended with a scene out of "Dr. Zhivago": hundreds and hundreds of second-class passengers lined up on the platform, held in place by a barrier of police, then suddenly released to race down the platform to the cars. Several old ladies were practically trampled in the stampede for seats.
The next morning, and many "nos" later from our conductor, we pulled into Belgrade. Here we had to change trains to go on to Athens. "No problem," our fellow passengers assured us.
We hefted our valises off the train and spent 20 minutes frantically trying to find our reserved seats on the train to Athens. Whenever we showed our ticket to a conductor, we were met with bored shrugs and the traditional Yugoslov greeting, "No." The more we looked at the packed cars, the more apparent it became that there were only two classes of accommodation on this train, Purgatory and Hell. So it was perhaps just as well that Tierney finally learned there was, in fact, no space for us; he also managed to fight his way through the crowd and jump off the train as it was chugging out of the station. We were left on the platform, with our bags, without visas, in Belgrade at 8 o'clock Sunday morning.
Just then a man appeared alongside us, desiring to sell us plastic silver busts of Tito.
How we got out of Belgrade is a long story, and mostly an unpleasant one. We can, however, offer one essential bit of advice for anyone in a similar predicament: Bring American dollars. The people selling busts of Tito appreciated them, and eventually guided us through the many steps required to reach the airport, Athens, freedom and, best of all, Taki.
Were it not for the fact that he actually works -- writing regular columns for Esquire, The Spectator in London, and The American Spectator -- Taki would be in the running for the title of Great Playboy of the Western World. He meets every other qualification. He is rich (thanks to his Greek family's shipping company), handsome, compulsively romantic and perpetually randy. His collection of gossip column clippings shows him romantically linked with Brigitte Bardot when he was 23. He says his love life has only improved in the ensuing two decades. He divides his time among his two yachts in Greece, houses in Manhattan, London and Athens and estates in the English countryside, Long Island and a Greek isle. (His ski place in Gstaad, Switzerland, is only rented.) He knows everyone.
All of which could be expected to produce an insufferable human being. Yet Taki has managed to remain hilariously unpretentious. His chief delight in life, next to chasing women, is telling embarrassing stories about himself and being ejected from parties for insulting a particularly pompous Beautiful Person. When Bianca Jagger, an old acquaintance of his, went to Washington to discourse about the situation in El Savador, Taki got so upset at the idea of a Studio 54 regular testifying in Congress that he had to be physically restrained when he ran into her in the Fairfax Hotel.(Their meeting began with him shouting obstreperous curses at her across the lobby and degenerated from there.) His other current pet peeves are Princess Margaret and Halston.
"One of the happiest moments of my life," Taki told us, "came at a ball in London when Halston was greeting people at the door. He offered his hand to an old English gentleman and said imperiously, 'I am Halston.' The man handed him his coat, said, 'Thank you, Halston,' and walked away wondering why the butler had bothered to introduce himself."
Another of Taki's admirable qualities is generosity. He refused to let us pay for anything during our brief 10-day stay, and eventually even such confirmed moochers as we became embarrassed. At one restaurant Tierney went so far as to sneak away during dessert to pay the check. Then Taki disappeared. Soon a waiter arrived, returning our money, followed by Taki.
"I have a rule," he said. "The strongest fights, the prettiest goes to bed, the richest pays."
We tried to repay his generosity by helping plot strategy for an upcoming battle, his appearance on the Phil Donahue Show. He was invited to discuss an article of his titled, "American Women Are Lousy Lovers." We disagreed with the premise--both of us have American girlfriends -- but were alarmed at the prospect of his being mauled by 100 irate women of the Chicago studio audience. The only surefire ploy, we concluded, was to begin the show by looking the host in the eye and saying, "My dear Donahue, I don't believe a word I wrote. I only wrote it to get on your show." Taki, however, was in favor of a more direct approach -- challenging any woman in the studio audience to personally prove him wrong. It would have been in keeping with his tradition of outgageousness. He once tried to persuade his father to name the family's newest oil tanker the G. Gordon Liddy.
Taki took us sailing around the islands and kept apologizing for the hardships he was inflicting on us: no women on board ("If you could have gotten here two weeks ago, you could have had your choice") and cramped accommodations("When people see this boat they ask me where the other half is"). When we tried to explain that a 45-foot yacht was quite acceptable, particularly after the Yugoslav train, he insisted on showing us how a truly rich Greek sails.
We went to the private island of the Niarchos family, the wealthy Greek shipowners, where we saw a small ocean liner called the Atlantis II. It is the world's largest private yacht (the British royal family's Britannia is slightly bigger), 385 feet long, manned by a crew of 30, equipped with a swimming pool, sauna, gym, helicopter pad and 15 staterooms decorated with paintings by the likes of Dali. It seemed appropriate to name it after a continent.
"I'm a pauper compared to your father," Taki said to Niarchos' son, Phillip. "I always say that he can't read or write, but he can count to 2 billion."
Phillip did not disagree. But he did make a confession. "You'd be surprised about the boat. When you go cruising with 15 guests, you actually start feeling claustrophobic."
We learned a new word in Greece; philoxenia, the love of foreigners, a crucial addition to any moocher's vocabulary. Taki said it was a national trait and used it to explain the remarkable hospitality we encountered everywhere. Our first night in Athens we went to dinner at the house of a stranger who insisted we spend night there, even though Taki already had put us up in a free room at his family's enormous hotel. Later we went to another stranger's home who not only invited us for the night, he left the house to make room for us.
It was at this point that we realized Greece was more than the Cradle of Civilization. It was Moochers' Mecca. There was no point in searching further. We could now go home.
On one of our last nights in Athens, Taki took us to see the finale of the European Games, the marathon race, in the stadium where the first modern Olympic games were held in the 1890s. It was a beautiful evening. We could see the Acropolis in the distance, set against a fiery orange sky. The crowd roared as each runner entered the stadium to finish the race, and we found ourselves musing about our journey -- a little more comfortable than theirs, admittedly -- and its approaching end.
We did not regret going home. Two months is a long time, and in most ways we were looking forward to seeing Washington again. What we did regret, though, was the idea that it was over. A Grand Tour could happen only once. Each time we met and remembered the trip, it would flicker brightly for us, then fade, a bit further each time, into the irretrievable past, until what remained in the end would yield mostly sadness at the thought it would never the same again. We would soon turn 30. Adult responsibilities lurked somewhere up ahead -- marriage, houses, children, along with many, many bills to pay.