During the 80s I worked in Italy with a company that hired Bulgarian artists to work in nightclubs. My job was to travel to Sofia, the capital of Bulgaria, and engage singers, dancers, jugglers and other performers and arrange the necessary papers with the Bulgarian government so they could come and work in Italy on yearly contracts. Life was very hard for Bulgarians then. Their government wouldn't allow artists to leave the country without putting a garnishee on their salaries. Couples were only allowed to leave for work if they had family in Bulgaria to guarantee they would return. Grigor and Ivana were acrobats I'd discovered a couple of years ago and their graceful and daring performances were very popular on the Italian nightclub circuit. They were earning very good money and loved their newfound freedom. The only problem was Nikolina, their 5-year-old daughter, who had to remain in Sofia with her grandmother. Ivana wanted Grigor to find another partner so that she could return to Sofia, but it was impossible and would also halve their earnings. They longed to remain in Italy and start a new life but knew their government would never allow them to bring Nikolina out of Bulgaria for that very reason. One evening, after a particularly upsetting discussion, Ivana told Grigor she was not prepared to continue living without her daughter. I felt I had to help them and a few days later told them of my plan. I would drive to Bulgaria and meet Nikolina and her grandmother in a town near the border with Yugoslavia and bring the little girl back to Italy with me. Before reaching the border crossings I would give her a drink with medication to put her to sleep, and then hide her in a specially prepared space under the back seat of my Mercedes. As I had travelled to Bulgaria every few month for years, I was known by the guards at the borders and they would never suspect my hidden cargo. At first they were adamant that I could not take such a risk, saying that if I was caught I would go to a Bulgarian prison and never be heard of again, but eventually I managed to convince them. A few months later everything had been organised and I was on my way to Bulgaria. The trip was uneventful as always and I was friendly and chatty with the guards at both borders. I completed my business in Sofia then drove to a small town close to the border where I met up with Nikolina and her grandmother. Nikolina was very excited to see me and happy to be going, as she thought, on a visit to see her parents. We set off in the evening and stopped the car just before the border to have some hot chocolate and a rest. The medication from my doctor worked quickly and Nikolina was soon fast asleep. I carefully placed her in the hollowed out space with ventilation under the back seat, with a pillow and blanket and replaced the seat. I drove up to the booth at the Yugoslav border and was relieved to see one of the guards I knew smiling at me. He stamped my passport and had a cursory look inside the boot, then shut it and started chatting. Luckily a few cars drove up behind me, so he said goodbye and let me through. About four kilometres down the road I stopped and put the back seat on the floor, leaving Nikolina in her makeshift cot fast asleep. I drove through the night till I reached a friend's place in Zagreb, where we slept till midday and then headed off for our last leg to Italy. Once again it was night when we arrived at the border and Nikolina was sleeping peacefully in her hiding spot. When I reached the control point, the guard was a new face I didn't know. I hid my nervousness and smiled but was unable to engage him in conversation. I suspect he was new and being very diligent. My heart skipped a beat when he asked me to pull into the parking bay to inspect my car. He removed my suitcase and inspected the contents and asked why I travelled so frequently to Bulgaria. I explained it was for work and showed him a document from the Bulgarian government. To my horror, he then opened the back door of the car and leaned in. He turned, shaking his head and waved Nikolina's teddy bear at me. "Your passenger has fallen off the seat!" he said laughing at his own joke. Still laughing, he gave me back my documents. I thanked him and drove off breathing deeply to steady my nerves. We'd made it! We were finally in Italy and I started to laugh uncontrollably. I put Nikolina, still asleep, on the back seat and headed for Trieste where Ivana and Grigor were waiting for us. This was my first and last act of smuggling and even though I know I broke the law in three countries, when I see those three happy faces, I have no regrets.
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Australian Women's WeeklyJul 29, 2021