Anonymous – Childhood Smuggling

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I was five years old when I first smuggled. While we were on summer vacation at the Belgian North
Sea, my father suddenly decided to take me on a week-end trip to Paris. I was excited, because my
father rarely took care of me, and I had never spent a whole day, let alone a whole week-end, with
him by myself. My mother packed my little plastic school backpack with fresh underwear and a few
pieces of chocolate for the road, dressed me in my beige old-fashioned french cap, and I hopped
into the back seat of an old grey Ford station wagon that smelled like old cigarettes and wet dog.
The car was gigantic. Sitting in the belly of such a chariot made me feel very safe. That day the soft
grey velour cushioning of the back seat was unusually hard and bumpy. I sat nevertheless and we
started driving. After an hour or so, as we were approaching the border, my father gave me one of
those thin checkered Scottish woolen blankets and told me that I should lie down with the whole
length of my body over the back seat, cover myself with the blanket, and pretend to sleep. I
complied, although I wasn’t sleepy and the blanket was itchy. We rode for a little while. I was proud
to help my father with his work. I didn’t exactly know what he was doing. Nobody really knew,
probably not even himself. But it didn’t seem like an unusual job. From what I could see, it was
quite fun. It involved going to bars, driving the chariot around, chatting with people and not being
home very often. When I was still in kindergarden, my mother trained me to answer the inevitable
“What’s your parents’ job?” question. She told me I had to respond that they were both
“entrepreneurs”. A beautiful answer, because it means nothing and everything at the same time.
Quite truthful in fact, containing no lies, just staying comfortably vague. I had myself no idea what
“entrepreneur” meant, but was really glad to have such a fancy word to answer my schoolmates and
teachers. And they seemed to be happy with it. Without me knowing it, it made me belong to the
new rising heroic class of the eighties, to market magicians and other masters of influence. After a
while of laying on this hard mattress in the back seat of my father’s car, he turned his head and said
to me “That’s it, we passed the border. Good job, son!”. We had just arrived in France, and under
my seat were hidden several dozen boxes of Russian caviar.
My parents were petty smugglers. In fact, strictly speaking, they were not even smugglers; they
were retailing illegal goods, mostly within Belgium. They only rarely passed borders with the goods
they sold. The story of my father taking me and a shipment of caviar to Paris was a one time deal.
The merchandise they sold came from abroad and was usually delivered by someone else, actual
smugglers who specialized in their transportation. My parents were one of the last links on the sale’s
chain, very close to the point of consumption. My parents’ customers were either local dealers who
would sell them to rich individuals or those individuals themselves. My parents trafficked in caviar,
art and jewelry. Luxury products. Either from Russia or from Europe.
The traffic of luxury goods is extremely safe. Although it’s illegal, it’s fully tolerated. In the last
three decades that my close family has been involved in this business, I never heard of a single
person within Europe who got in trouble with the law. There are different reasons for this
disinterest. The most obvious is that such smuggling is greatly beneficial to European countries. It
is the national wealth of a foreign country – in my family’s case, Russia – that gets stolen from its
people and hawked to the European upper-classes. In exchange for some money, for sure, but that
money goes directly into the pockets of the oligarchic mafia that controls the traffic, and will later
end up in Swiss bank accounts or spent purchasing villas on the French Côte d’Azure. Why would
Europe fight a traffic that is so beneficial? Let alone that mainly enriches those in Europe who are
already rich. Why bother our royalty with the fact that their caviar is produced by the mafia? There
is no big business lobby advocating for the legal commerce of caviar or antiques, unlike for
cigarettes and alcohol, the smuggling of which is strongly combatted both by industry and state, for
whom it represents heavy losses. Those are niches occupied by small businesses, all of them
operating at least partly illegally.
My parents never touched drugs or weapons. Besides the fact that they would have had moral issues
with it, those are the goods that can get you into trouble. For sure, because they engender a much
more visible evil. AK47 murders or heroin addictions on our cities’ streets are harder to ignore than
the impoverishment of a foreign nation or the extinction of a fish species. But also because this evil
is mostly located in the countries that receive weapons and drugs, not in the countries that produce
and export them. Russia is glad to produce machine guns for the European criminal market. The
funny thing is that luxury is a kind of drug; luxery is extremely addictive. From time to time, my
mother gets a call from some client in desperate need for his fix of caviar, ready to pay
exceptionally high amounts of money for it.. “Do you have some eggs? It’s really urgent, I promised
a box of the best caviar to the guests coming over tonight.” At this moment, wanting to show off in
front of his golf buddies with a 5.000€ starter is a serious concern for this man, causing him real
anxiety. That’s where my mother pulls her “I’m out of stock” act. The guy is shattered. The caviar is
a way to gain credit in the eyes of his peers. Risking to look like he doesn’t belong to their world,
that he in fact is not part of a certain aristocracy of wealth, that would be a disaster. My mother
knows that. “I could try to find you a box, through a contact I have, but it will have an extra cost.”
Naturally, her fridge is gorged with caviar. But, like every good dealer, she knows that you can
squeeze much more money from an addict if you make him wait, if you make it seem difficult, if,
like to a donkey with a carrot, you dangle his fix before his eyes.
Caviar is the quintessential luxury good. The only purpose of a luxury good is to create a divide, a
divide between the ones who can consume it and the ones who can’t. The intrinsic use of such goods
doesn’t matter – it is often of little use. What matters is the price. As long as it is outrageously
expensive, easily recognized as such, with no proportion between the price and the use and bought
only for those very reasons, it is luxury. One advertises one’s wealth to others as well as to oneself. I
eat caviar because in doing so I am eating money. With each spoon of caviar entering my mouth, I
know that I’m swallowing a hundred euros. In luxury’s consumption, my enjoyment comes from the
sheer affirmation of my power. Every single egg of sturgeon that lands in my stomach screams one
single thing: “You are so filthy rich, you are so powerful, you have arrived, you can eat in one
second what some people do not even make in a year, you are superior, fuck those starving losers.”
Among luxury goods, caviar is exceptional. It is exceptional because it can be almost endlessly
digested. It is eaten and it’s really hard to get indigestion from it. When you eat caviar, you are
literally eating money, ridiculous amounts of money. With each box consumed, thousands of euros
are transformed into shit. It’s like burning money, but with your own belly. Eating caviar, one poses
as a connoisseur of sophisticated food, but what one really does is to make a show of immolating
money with one´s own body, the staging of a public destruction of wealth by one´s own intestines.
This makes it clear for everybody that one is rich. Gold, diamonds, sport’s cars, castles, planes;
those are things that one possesses, and enjoys through using them, even if very rarely. They are
symbols of your wealth that you can surround yourself with, but their flaw is that they are still
designed to have some kind of use. In that sense, they are still plebeian, they still belong to the
world of vulgarity, where people have to work, interacting with objects that have a purpose.
You can eat boxes of caviar morning and night; it is healthy, light, and sometimes even tasty. A
hundred year old bottle of alcohol still lands on your liver. Your lungs can only take so many cigars.
Even the most expensive restaurants can fill your stomach. But caviar? If you get a dozen hungry
pals together, liquidating 500 grammes of eggs per person in a night, you quickly arrive to a
80.000€ dinner. Plus the champagne. More than five years of my own income. Several lives for
someone living in the Global South. A bill impossible to achieve if you feed your guests with other
kinds of food. For one night, you really feel like your life has meaning. Until the next day. Because
what you are really looking for when you eat caviar, is meaning. Eating caviar, you’re looking for
the meaning of life. Caviar eating, like all drug addictions, is an act of desperation. People who
cannot accept the void inside themselves, who can’t stand the tragic fact that no one is there to
deliver to us an absolute truth, and that our only hope for happiness starts with our own strength,
those people need an addiction. If you are wealthy, eating caviar, for a short while at least, can make
you believe that wealth and power will fill that tragic void, that being an aristocrat among other
aristocrats may be enough as a purpose to your life. Naturally, as soon as the caviar is digested, as
soon as it has been enjoyed and expelled as excrement, anxieties return, and you need to find
another fix. And then another. And another.
For the first ten years of my life, I ate caviar on a regular basis. My parents often had one of those
gigantic two kilos boxes in the fridge. Instead of eating bread and marmalade for breakfast, we’d
just have caviar on toasted white bread. I remember those beautiful round metal boxes, the deep
blue enamel tops picturing a large golden sturgeon in the center, surrounded by gold Russian
writing. They don’t make such big boxes anymore. The design is still the same, but smaller, and has
a maximum of 500 grammes. I’ve been surrounded by these boxes my all life. We would stack them
over the fireplace for decoration, we would offer them as gifts, we would use them as ashtrays or as
platters for food. My mother would insist on me eating a lot of caviar for breakfast, saying it was
good for growing boys. Those meals were exciting. Although we did it often, it always had some
kind of celebratory feeling to it. I liked to put those eggs on my bread and watch them melt onto the
hot toast. Having an excessive nature, especially with food, I would eat too much of it, eat until I
couldn’t stand that fish taste anymore, until the very idea of it would make me feel nauseous. We
didn’t have much money. My mother was working her ass off, sometimes making a good income,
but my father, despite the fact that he would from time to time put together a successful swindle or
execute a good deal, would immediately make the money disappear. Alcohol. Some gambling.
Craziness for sure. I spent my childhood in a house that was literally falling apart. It had never
recovered from the time it burned down. My father pretended for ten years that he was about to start
the renovations. He was quite gifted with his hands, a good builder. But naturally, he only started
the work, tearing down a wall here, removing some carpet there, but never finishing anything he
had started. For ten years we lived there. The house looked like a ruin under construction, half
decrepit because of it’s age, half made inhabitable because of the never-ending renovations. All
together, it was fully inhospitable. In retrospect, now that I’ve experienced other kinds of living
environments, I can say that it permanently placed us in a mode of survival, constantly having to
move buckets around to catch the rain going through the roof, being careful to not displace the
planks covering the holes piercing the floors, minding the mice traps or patching up the water pipes
so they don’t explode. I didn’t have a heater growing up, which made me quite resistant to the cold.
Once when I was six years old, I had the surprise to see a court bailiff standing in my living room
when I had been home alone, watching TV. I was forbidden to answer the door because of the
frequent attempts to remove our furniture or cut off our electricity. So the bailiff accompanied by a
cop and a locksmith, had broken in. In that same house, I spent my childhood eating caviar.
Later, as caviar grew more expensive and harder to get, I would only taste it, in the process of
helping my mother in the lonely business of trying to feed us. Each time we got a new supply, we
had to open and taste every single box, for quality check. So, I know caviar. It can be very good.
Some Oscietra (one of the two main kinds from the Caspian sea) can have a fine fruity taste of
hazelnut, the firm grains popping between your tongue and your palate. Beluga (the other and most
expensive kind), with its large, grey and doughier grains, has a deeper complex taste, with buttery
notes. I always enjoy when my mother has a bit of caviar for us, that she scraped from dividing a
large box into smaller ones. It’s a fine food, but it’s fineness is fully matched by a good piece of fish
or fresh mushrooms. I enjoy it mostly because it plunges me back into my childhood, to its joys and
sadness. It reminds me of the loneliness inscribed deep inside me, a loneliness I have always felt,
and of which I’ve never been able to free myself. It is the loneliness of a child trying to make sense
of his parent’s immaturity, noticing that if he is to make it, he will have to not be a child for very
long. It reminds me of my father’s megalomania, of his brilliant appearances which hid his
systematic pathological self-destruction, of the innumerable promises he made, making people
expect so much from him, looking to him as if to a genius child, only to better deceive them later
on. For my father, caviar was an ideal attribute, something that perfectly corresponded to his
aristocratic charm, fitting his picture of himself as a worldly gentleman, always having a good story
to tell, a man at ease in the world and who’s acquaintances went from royalty and millionaires to
mercenaries and street junkies. It reminds me of the moment I stopped forcing myself to believe my
father’s tricks and instead, started to nourish a murderous rage towards him. It reminds me of the
feeling of comfort I could find in my mother’s infinite love, and then of the guilt I would feel, when
her love would inevitably turn into a masochistic self-sacrificing done in the name of her children.
My father and his delusional persona was somehow the perfect match for her: one that would gladly
be a worshipped God, and at the same time, that would fulfill her need for victimization. Caviar is
what she in turn started selling when she had lost everything, having indeed become the victim of
her husband. It reminds me that I was not born as a son, but as my own parent, and even as the
parent of my own parents. I was born with children. Despite everything, I still like caviar. I still like
it because it reminds me of the child I was, and makes me feel grateful to have become the adult I
now am.
Most of the fresh caviar that is sold is either tasteless or properly disgusting. The salting has to be
right, it has to survive the contraband transport being refrigerated at all times just slightly over 0°
celsius. It’s a delicate food that can easily spoil, and with a taste and texture that always evolves,
mostly for the worst. A good part of the caviar sold in the world is improper for human
consumption. People spend thousands of dollars on old, rotten and over-salted fish eggs. My
mother’s clients love the crap she serves to most of them. Why would you bother giving your good
boxes to an old fat man who cannot distinguish the taste that is stuffed into his mouth because of all
the single malt he’s gulped down? And they love those spoiled fish eggs so much. To some of her
clients, my mother is forced to provide bad boxes: when she sold them better caviar, they came back
unsatisfied, saying it didn’t taste like anything. The funniest ones are the clients who present
themselves as “experts”; they take this knowledgeable look when they report to us about their last
purchase, speaking like specialists on the merits of this Iranian caviar we sold to them, in their eyes
much superior to the Russian caviar they had gotten from us last time, a superiority that is justified
after all, the Iranian product being much more expensive, isn’t it? What they don’t know, is that all
the Iranian caviar is Russian caviar that has been put in an Iranian box. That’s what illegal retailers
like my mother do. It’s the same for official retailers too. A large proportion of the caviar sold
legally, either as Iranian or as farmed caviar, is in fact Russian contraband caviar. You just need to
swap boxes. Royalty, politicians, industry captains, bankers; most of the caviar that these people eat
has an illegal origin. The mafia is directly inside their plate.
—————
I’ve known Emilio since I was a little boy. My memories of childhood are entangled with the sound
of his uncanny use of French, a unique mix between his mother tongue Italian and Brussels’ French-
Flemish dialect. He was often at our home, hanging around wearing a leather jacket, something that
made him look tough, like a mobster, in order to hide his soft heart. Sometimes concealed in his
pocket, was a telescopic metal truncheon, a pretty dangerous weapon, which he’d show me how to
draw to defend himself if ever attacked. He was already in his sixties at the time, but was offering
me fighting demonstrations like a ten year old. He always had something to do at our place, a
package to deliver, some merchandise to check out, some serious discussion to have, some money
to get or give. With the years, I’ve come to consider Emilio like a grandfather. I have an infinite love
for him. The reason for it is not only that he has been generous when we needed it most, offering
help naturally, as if it’s what everybody normally does. To me he is a model of authenticity. The
man is exactly as he seems; there is no second or third layer, there is no hidden thought, he is
honest. That doesn’t mean he’s never acted dishonestly, in ways that didn’t involve a little lie or
trick, but he can, more than anyone I know, recognize it, accept his sins as well as his good deeds in
the same sweeping move, and stand confident and open towards the prospect of his own death.
I’ve probably heard his life story several times. He is always talking. As a teenager, I listened to him
for countless hours. When he’d be visiting us for business, or just because he was in the
neighborhood, he’d sit on a stool in the kitchen while I made him some strong coffee, Italian style,
and he’d talk. He’s famous for his talking, a talking that overpowers his entire life, having, as a
consequence, developed the reputation for always being late, not a little bit late, at least two or three
hours, when not five or six.
He first came to us in the eighties, when he started working with my father, who was buying caviar
from him for resale. Naturally, their collaboration ended up in my father cheating him for quite a lot
of money, involving Emilio in some kind of art-swindle along with a third guy, a notorious Belgian
hustler using a supposed doctorate degree in order to impress potential preys. I can not remember
how many times my father has changed business partnerships, all of them systematically ending up
in some kind of argument where he had borrowed money without ever paying it back.
Emilio is one of the most generous people I’ve ever met. After my father had conned him out of a
large sum of money, he nevertheless materialized when my mother needed help. After she finally
got away from my father, losing her job and house in the process, Emilio proposed to school her in
the caviar business, handing her all his contacts before finally retiring. Having a kind heart doesn’t
make him a great shadow-businessman. He is constantly working, and even now, in his eighties, he
cannot help but continue working, always having a new painting to see in some part of Europe, a
client to meet in Antwerp or an art expert visiting from the US.
Emilio is not in the business for the money. He does it for the people. What he loves, are his people.
The queer ones, the people who stand out, who somehow cannot conform to society, who are unable
to bend to the law of normality. In fact, what he is looking for in human beings, it’s a kind of
animality; a sincerity that cannot be disciplined, something primal that will never quite fit into the
categories of modern life. He spent his childhood herding goats in the Italian Alps, not going to
school very much, alone every summer with his beasts, making cheese at 2000 meters elevation.
There he learned to talk to animals. The big regret of his life is to have had to leave those
mountains, to have to migrate, to go to work in cities, to become a trader, a man of things and not a
man of beings. A mourning for his lost mountains brought him to search the city for beasts, a
universe made of Polish smugglers, ex-bank robbery convicts, gipsy lion tanners, megalomaniac
con men, backdoor stolen object receivers, Ukrainian diamond traffickers, Georgian middlemen, big
hearted prostitutes, soviet sailors, millionaire industrialists, welfare-surviving city dwellers, art
swindlers, Russian mafia fellows, distinguished university professors, catholic monks. Those
people, sometimes kind, sometimes not, often take advantage of Emilio, but he doesn’t care. He
knows wild beasts are dangerous, and that sometimes you get bitten.
Emilio is born in the land of contraband, in the southern Alps, right on the border zone between
Italy and Switzerland, where smuggling has always provided jobs for the locals who knew the paths
through the mountains. On both sides of the border, the only alternative to crass poverty for the
village folks was either immigration or smuggling – many like Emilio did both. Immediately after
the war, in the mid-forties, many forms of new smuggling schemes developed. Italy, having been
defeated during the war, had difficulties being supplied in all kind of products. Partly because the
defeat had increased poverty while destroying the local industrial infrastructure, partly because of
punitive diplomatic measures on imports – everybody in Europe had been impoverished by the war,
the losers would get less than the winners. Gasoline for example was scarce in Italy, costing twice
the price as in Switzerland. For a few years, huge quantities of gasoline had been smuggled through
the border by local cab drivers. They would customize their cars with gigantic gas tanks, increasing
their capacity from 40 to 150 liters, and pass the border with a family member on the back seat,
pretending to be driving a customer to the other side. Doing the trip two or three times a day, being
careful to always drive by different frontier posts (there was, back then, six points of crossing from
Swiss Ticino to Italian Lombardia), they would make a comfortable profit. It quickly even became a
topic of jokes; within a few years, in the remote Swiss border town of Chiasso, the number of
registered cabs went from 30 to 70.
A much more lucrative smuggling scheme that developed in the direct aftermath of the war
involved gold. For some reason, around 1948, likely because the war had filled the Swiss banks
with the wealth of war profiteers while seeing precious metals fleeing from their Italian
counterparts, for a few weeks, gold was much cheaper in Switzerland than in Italy. Gold smuggling
was operated by the extremely wealthy, Swiss and Italian citizens who had profited from the war,
often people connected to the financial world, who could afford buying several kilos of gold at once
and pay corrupt embassy personnel to smuggle it through the border inside their inviolable
diplomatic luggage. The profit was considerable. At the time, rumor had it that it was an “almost
official” kind of traffic, supposedly happening from bank to bank, the Italian banks needing to refill
their safes. Interestingly, gold smuggling from Switzerland has never stopped, and today police still
frequently finds gold ingots concealed inside cars attempting to pass the border, mostly for money
laundering purposes. The origin of gold is absolutely untraceable, and has therefore always been a
perfect way to render invisible the criminal origins of wealth.
Although Emilio witnessed gold trafficking around him, he himself stuck to less risky activities,
specializing, already back in the forties, in luxury food products. From the late forties to the mid
fifties, Emilio was himself smuggling Russian caviar, French foie gras and Scandinavian smoked
salmon from Ticino to Italy. The reason for the existence of such traffic was that Italy having sided
with the axis and then lost the war, had had interruptions of most of its diplomatic relationships,
having such foreign luxury products being directly delivered had become much more difficult, if
not impossible. The delivery of caviar from communist Russia to formerly fascist Italy came to a
halt. Switzerland, on the other side, truthful to its long standing policy of neutrality, serving as a
perfect wartime bank for belligerents from all sides, had signed an agreement with the USSR,
selling them Swiss watches in exchange for caviar. The wealthy northern Italians, who had not
suffered much from the war, often collaborating with the fascist regime, would have Emilio deliver
their expensive food to them. He was the supplier of many of the most prestigious hotels,
restaurants and night clubs in northern Italy, down to Milan and Genoa. Among others, he was
providing to the Villa d’Este on the Como lake, a palace serving as an extremely high end hotel
where all celebrities and royalty spent their vacations.
Already in those days, the traffic of luxury food was not combatted by police. Emilio would simply
stuff the products in his trunk, being careful of never carrying too much at once, and on the one or
two occasions his car got searched, he simply pretended that the food was for a family wedding he
was going to. He would as well be mindful to always have a pack of cigarettes at hand next to the
wheel, that he would give to the often southern Italian border control agent, who in turn let him
through customs. In fact, custom officials were often themselves smugglers, spending their days off
passing things over the border with their cars, knowing that their colleagues at the border would not
control them. Emilio was himself selling goods to a higher ranking border control official who was
a smuggler in his spare time.
The other form of smuggling Emilio participated in, was the smuggling of Knorr bouillon cubes.
Knorr, at the time a small Swiss-German company, after the war had developed a new kind of
recipe for its meat flavored cube broths, thanks to a new type of grease product imported from the
US. Italians very quickly got addicted to the new taste, and the production of the little Knorr factory
couldn’t keep up with the demand. Emilio who had good connections among Swiss grocers who
were long-standing clients of Knorr, and therefore prioritized over the new foreign retailers, would
buy from them as many boxes of cube bouillon as he could find, and then sell them for a small
profit to smugglers who would pass them through the border. This smuggling of cube bouillon may
seem petty, but in fact engendered massive profit for the smugglers, with a margin of up to 200
percent. Emilio would pay 28 cents per bouillon in Bern and then sell it for 30 or 31 cents to
smugglers in Ticino, the smugglers reselling them at 60 cents in Milan or even up to 90 cents in
Genoa. Sometimes, dozens of boxes would be sold every week, each box containing 500 cubes. At
the time, this represented a lot of money.
At first, Emilio would deliver them to a lady in the little mountain village of Bruzella, in a valley
next to the border, where smugglers would carry those boxes by night, on their backs, to the other
side of the mountains in Italy. But quickly, Emilio figured an easier scheme for the transport of the
cubes. One day, a guy came to Emilio saying he would come once a week and take all the cubes that
could be found. The guy was a Calabrian pimp living in Milan, where a few girls worked for him
around the train station. His business wasn’t doing very well, and he thought of the then booming
Knorr-cubes smuggling to supplement his income. Emilio would meet him at the train station of
Lugano, in Switzerland, every week, with at least 5000 cubes, wrapped into small paper packages
of 250 pieces each. The Calabrian, who always came along with one of his prostitutes, would then
pay Emilio and receive his packages onto the train just before departure. In the darkness of the
tunnel right after Lugano, with the girl on look-out, the pimp would pull out a little folding stool,
and use it to hide his merchandise on a hidden shelf concealed over the hallway connecting two
wagons. The job quickly done, before the train would have gotten out of the tunnel, the pimp and
his girl would sit down inside a compartment, where, in Chiasso, the border control agent would
find them with no luggage and nothing to declare. Once in Milan, he would load his packages on a
little three-wheeled delivery moped, and drive to his clients. That pimp made a small fortune with
the Knorr bouillons, much more than with his prostitutes. The Knorr episode only lasted two years,
from 1954 to 1956, when the company could finally augment its production.
It is only in the late 70’s that Emilio got involved with smuggled goods again. In the mid-fifties, he
had to migrate, and he spent 25 years running a fully legal business. But in the 70’s, his business
collapsed, and with young children to feed, he had to find a new source of income. He found a
position at a former competitor’s, but he quickly grew bored, and started thinking about rebounding
his fortune with the activities of his youth. At first, he thought of starting an official caviar business,
but that didn’t work; legal goods were pricy, he didn’t have a clientele of millionaires yet, the profit
margin was too small. He had to search for contraband caviar providers. That’s how he started
frequenting Antwerp’s Falconplein, for a supply.
Those were communist times, and smuggling had to adapt to that political system. Caviar, but as
well icons or vodka would arrive in small quantities, at random times. Large scale smuggling was
strictly fought by the Soviet authorities, simply for the reason that the Soviet Empire desperately
needed foreign hard currencies in order to survive: Russia could not even feed itself anymore, and it
was only through buying American wheat that the Russian people could be nourished. A sustainable
husbanding of high value export goods like caviar was therefore compulsory, and most of the
smuggling had to be hindered, if the basic needs of the Russian population had to be met, and
therefore a popular uprising avoided. Smuggling would still naturally happen, but in very small
proportions compared to what happened in the 90’s. At the time it was mostly the act of isolated
individuals making a few dollars for themselves.
In Belgium, the main place for getting an emergency delivery of caviar was the infamous
“Falconplein” in Antwerp, Europe’s second biggest port and one of the world’s largest. The
Falconplein was a market where every kind of illegal, smuggled, stolen or forged good could be
found for sale. At the time, it was tolerated by the Belgian police, who seemed to prefer being able
to watch and therefore control traffic, rather than having it happen out of sight. Later on, with a
change of policy, the square would be closed down, and the deals happened behind closed doors. At
the time, the sailors of the soviet bloc would always smuggle a little something along with them out
of the country, to be sold during their stopovers in the West. Naturally, the state controlled merchant
navy had created rules to avoid such petty commerce: a sailor could only go ashore if accompanied
by an officer. Sailor and officer, supposedly hating each other because they belonged to antagonist
social classes, would then automatically surveil each other. But naturally, the system could be
overturned, either by buying off the officer or by evading his attention. On the Falconplein, one
could meet such Russian sailors, who, in exchange for a petty banknote slipped into his hand, would
discretely hand off a paper-wrapped package from under his jacket. The content of such packages
was sometimes disappointing – what was supposed to be caviar being rotten sand. Other times it
was a good surprise, the package revealing an old and beautiful miniature orthodox icon of great
value
Better was having contact with some of the Falconplein’s permanent merchants, most of them being
Georgians or Eastern block Jews. Those merchants, speaking Russian and always being around the
harbor, had good contacts with sailors smuggling various objects out of the Soviet Union. Steady
networks of smuggling had been set up. Surprisingly, those networks were largely based on trust.
People in Russia, often Jews needing dollars in order to buy their right to migrate out of Russia
where they were always under threat of persecutions, would find caviar or icons, and give them to
trusted sailors, embarking from the ports of Leningrad or Riga. On a stopover in Antwerp, those
sailors would then go to a known merchant of the Falconplein, a contact of someone back in Russia.
For caviar, they would collect the money right away, but for art and icons, they would would only
do it on their return trip to Russia, if the merchant had managed to sell the piece, and if not, take it
back to Russia. Despite the iron curtain, despite the absence of a legally binding contract, mutual
confidence was the only thing that insured that the sailor or the merchant wouldn’t run away with
the money.
Once, in the 80’s, when Emilio was visiting one of these Georgian merchants of the Falconplein,
buying three or four crates containing each 140 glass canisters of 95 gram jars of preserved caviar,
he met a man who would become a life-long friend, a student and a long time provider. Having
tasted a few boxes, payed for the crates and chatted with the Georgian, Emilio proceeded to carry
his purchase to the trunk of his car. Because the crates were heavy, each weighing more than 20
kilos, the Georgian summoned Micha, his all purpose handyman, to carry them. Once they found
themselves alone loading the crates into Emilio’s car, Micha, handing him a piece of paper with his
number on it, whispered that he could easily find him fresh caviar for a cheaper price. At the time,
fresh caviar was much harder to find than preserved one. It was much harder to smuggle, because it
had to constantly be refrigerated, and was therefore much more expensive. Micha was a Polish man
in his mid-thirties. Back in Poland, he had been a national running champion, having won the gold
medal of 800 and 1500 meters racing. The communist state had provided him a salary as long as his
sports career lasted, but after retirement, he found himself doing odd jobs because he didn’t have a
university degree, finally deciding to clandestinely migrate to the West. But Belgium was not as
welcoming as he had hoped, and he found himself sharing a damp room with four other Poles,
making little money as an errand boy for the Georgians of the Falconplein. But he was smart, and
quickly figured that he could himself enter the business of smuggling, being from the Eastern block.
Emilio was the first client he had attempted to approach. When Emilio called, he invited him to the
shack he was living in, and proceeded to show him the few boxes of fresh caviar he had scouted.
The caviar was horrific; rotten, full of sand, salty. But Emilio liked the man, and having himself
been a struggling migrant some thirty years prior, he decided to help him. A few weeks later, Emilio
came back to Micha with different types of caviar, each with its own unique taste and quality. He
made him eat all of them, while explaining to him what the product should be like. Soon after,
Micha was able to find good cavier, and became Emilio’s main supplier. Micha ended up quite
prominent in the business, marrying and going back to Poland a few years later, where he grew to
be one of the main people organizing both the legal and illegal export of caviar from Russia.
It is through Micha that Emilio met Janusz. Micha and Janusz were friends back in Poland, very
close friends. Janusz spent a year in communist jails. It’s not very clear why, but possibly for petty
traffic, maybe for something bigger. Once he got out of jail, none of his former friends wanted to
hear anything from him anymore. At the time, being friends with a former convict who got into
trouble with the regime was a dangerous thing. But Micha was there for Janusz. He helped him
come to Belgium, and brought him into his new caviar smuggling business. They lived together,
they worked together. It was often Janusz that Emilio was in contact with for the deliveries. Emilio
liked him as well, and he proceeded to school him the same way he had schooled Micha. Later,
when Micha went back to Poland, Janusz became the delivery person taking care of exports within
Europe.
Janusz is a mysterious short Polish man, always wearing a grey suit. He looks like just another petty
traveling salesman, anonymous, insipid. His face is often inexpressive. He is not someone who
speaks, he is someone who observes. Spending time with him, you catch his eyes noticing every
detail, deeply attentive to his environment, as if he’s taking notes for later, without ever expressing
an emotional reaction. He makes me think of a man under threat, never completely switching off of
survival mode. When Emilio retired, after he schooled my mother in the trade and left her his
clients and contacts, Janusz became our friend as well. He was often coming by our place, usually
late at night, after having travelled a lot. With my mother, we would open and check the quality of
the boxes he was bringing. I would make him coffee and he would tell me stories of his traveling, of
his business troubles, of his fatherly pride for his children, of his fighting with his ex-wife. He was
mostly talking to me, since I served as an interpreter between him and my mother. Although I’m not
as close to him as to Emilio, I’ve known Janusz for fifteen years, and consider him a friend. But I do
not know much about him. Or rather, I only know certain things, I only know one of the man’s
numerous faces, the face that he wants to show. And even as I attempted to question him directly, I
couldn’t really extract much. He is a secretive man, with much to hide, so secretive that he even
manages to hide the fact that he is full of secrets. Emilio himself believes he knows Janusz, when he
in fact ignores much of the man’s shady life.
When I went to visit Janusz in his Polish hometown, I managed to get a glimpse of his universe. It
is surprising. It is sickening. I cannot tell his full story here for different reasons, the first being that
he himself refused to tell it all to me. But I can tell a few things. Janusz started his career as an
officer in the Polish army. He got involved with the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan as well as
with discreet supervision of the communist Vietnamese troops. He did some trafficking, some
spying, ended up in jail, got out of the eastern block, worked in Asia and Africa as a private
contractor – that is to say as some kind of mercenary – for large western multinational companies
extracting natural resources. It is not clear to me if he was directly the one holding the gun or if he
was responsible for the people holding it, he refused to tell me much about his most ignominious
past, but he has blood on the hands, possibly a lot of blood. When I was interviewing him, I noticed
that he actually wanted to tell me those stories, but that he physically couldn’t. Those stories that he
has always concealed from everybody he knows, have to stay buried very deep because they could
eat him alive. Telling those stories to me would have meant letting himself be devoured. Recently,
having made enough money in his life to live off of it until his death, he tried to retire. Impossible.
To stop working constantly meant he couldn’t sleep at night anymore, the stories coming back to
haunt him. Lately, desperate to find an occupation, he has been working as a waiter in a friend’s
restaurant. He’ll do anything to avoid being alone with his thoughts.
Janusz started selling caviar because he couldn’t continue committing crimes on a daily basis. So he
became a business man. That is why he is so grateful to Micha and Emilio to have taught him
caviar. Without them even knowing it, they saved his life. Smuggling is very quiet work for Janusz,
some kind of pre-retirement after having been a warrior. And he is extremely good at it.
Janusz came to the business at one of its turning points, a radical game changer for smuggling in
Europe, especially from the former eastern block: the conjuncture of communism’s fall and
European integration would result in a free pass to all kinds of smuggling within Europe, especially
coming from Russia. After the Berlin Wall fell, with the opening of Russia to the West, caviar was
cheaper than ever on the black market. The strict Soviet control over exports – and the much needed
US dollars for the decaying Russian economy – was over. From now on, the interest of the elites
wasn’t as much in the survival of the state as the pouring of American dollars directly into their
private offshore accounts. The ruling few went from being state, army and secret services
apparatchiks to mafiosi and capitalistic oligarchs. This meant that smuggling from Russia to Europe
would be greatly eased, if not encouraged by the corrupt Russian officials. The tremendous
impoverishment of the Russian population happened in parallel to the plunder of the country by a
few, literally selling off the national wealth. For caviar, this meant that smuggling was greatly
eased, but as well, that illegal fishing, which always overfished, became the norm. As a result,
Caspian Sea sturgeons quickly became endangered, being progressively wiped out from the area.
The Russian state soon forbade all legal fishing, but by that time, no fishing was happening legally
anyway, thanks to the collaboration of corrupt law enforcement. Illegal fishing is extremely
dangerous for the fishermen. They do it for survival, making a few dollars on every box that will be
sold for thousands in the West. On small decrepit old boats, they have to discreetly go to sea either
at night or when the weather is bad, for fear of being caught and having to pay bribes or being
thrown in jail. Often sailors who dared navigate the difficult waters never come back to their wives.
Illegal caviar is always stained with blood. In the nineties, illegal fishing meant that huge amounts
of extremely cheap contraband caviar was flooding the market. My parents and myself directly
benefited from that looting of a natural resource and destruction of Russia’s bio diversity by
receiving dozens of kilos of caviar at cheaper and cheaper rates. At the same time Russian churches
were emptied of their artistic treasures. Religious paintings that had been the center of a family’s
home shrine for centuries were sold for pennies by desperate people trying to survive. Sacred icons,
sometimes five centuries old, were arriving in our living room. That is the time when I was eating
caviar for breakfast. Emilio was bringing us so many boxes, for so little money, that my parents
couldn’t even find enough clients for them. We ate it instead of seeing it spoil.
In the West, post-communist times coincided with Europe’s so-called integration, meaning the
progressive implementation of the free circulation of people and goods within its borders. Europe
was to become a nation through the free market. The Schengen Agreement, in the mid-eighties, had
largely softened border controls, which allowed vehicles to cross the borders without stopping while
maintaining something called a “reduced speed vehicle check.” Soon after, in 1990, all fixed border
controls would be stopped. For my parents, and even more for their colleagues, the smugglers, the
opening of Europe’s internal borders had been great news. Overnight, it had become a gigantic
playground for selling and smuggling “hot” merchandise.. Originally you needed a special scheme
for passing every single border within Europe, often with a separate smuggler for crossing each
border, each encountering a new risk of being caught by border controls and extra time for passing
those controls, all of it representing supplementary costs. After Shengen you would just need one
person picking up the merchandise somewhere close to Europe’s external borders or at some airport,
stuff it into the trunk of a nice looking rental car, and have this person drive wherever you want
within Europe. Just make sure your driver is wearing a nice suit, and looks like a business man
traveling for work. One rarely stops business men in Europe, what one is searching for are
undocumented migrants from the Global South.
Arriving to the business during such favorable geopolitical circumstances, Micha and Janusz
developed their own smuggling routes, establishing an impressive network of contraband. Borders
having more or less disappeared within Europe, the main problem was to cross the Russian border
with the caviar. Although it was pretty permeable, being caught meant jail time for the transporter,
and nobody wants to spend a few years inside a Russian jail. Especially since Vladimir Putin took
power in 2000, criminality had to take a slightly more orderly form in Russia, and the border wasn’t
as easy to cross as it once had been. Exceptional sentences would occasionaly be pronounced. So
Janusz had to establish safe routes for his merchandise. When Russian caviar was still flooding
Europe, he simply hired a diplomatic car. Or rather, a diplomatic truck. Police cannot search or
control cars bearing diplomatic license plates. So, these employees from an African embassy based
in Moscow, instead of getting an expensive German car that ambassadors usually fancy, had simply
bought a van, and registered it with diplomatic plates. They would stuff the van with caviar boxes
and drive from Moscow to Warsaw. But the services of diplomatic personnel was expensive, so
when the supplies grew thinner, with Caspian Sea sturgeons on the verge of extinction, Janusz had
to find a new route, for smaller quantities. At the time, a Russian train was still running between
Moscow and Brussels. Janusz had told us to go to the station, and wait for the train to arrive. It was
an old Soviet train, grey-brown in color, rusty, with a huge green locomotive in the front. A monster
from ancient times. The train was quite long, but we would at the most see two or three passengers
getting out. Our instruction was to board the train and find an attendant. Inside, nothing had
changed for the last twenty years. The train attendants were large middle-aged women, dressed in a
very proper kind of blue suit, the kind that remind you of a police officer’s uniform, looking more
like battlefield nurses than catering personnel. We had to give them a password. It was a strange
French sentence, as if from a 1950’s french class: “Êtes-vous Mademoiselle Jeanne?” – “Are you
Miss Jeanne?”. “Ah, Janna!” answered the strong lady with her heavy accent. With a gesture, the
bulldozer of a woman would then immediately lead us to another wagon, where she would hand us
a paper-wrapped package, repeating “Janna!”. “Mademoiselle Jeanne” was not the attendant, it was
the package itself. Sometimes the package was cold, having been refrigerated in the attendants’
fridge. Once they pulled it from under a seat, just next to the heater, and when opening the box at
home, we discovered some kind of warm and stinky fish puree. After the train line was finally
terminated, having run so many years without any passengers on board, Janusz convinced some
airplane pilots to work for him. They would smuggle a few boxes in their personal belongings,
having ways to avoid border controls at Moscow’s airport, and just keep it with them in the pilot’s
cabin for the few hours of the flight. Janusz would then recuperate the boxes at the Brussels airport,
having sometimes travelled as a passenger on the same plane. We would pick him up at the airport
as if coming to get a friend, drive out of the airport to the first gas station. There, we would stop and
do the exchange. He’d give us the boxes and count the money. Those things are better done away
from prying eyes and omnipresent surveillance cameras. We would then drop him back off at the
airport, where he would disappear again into the mysterious whirlwind of his life. Lately, as
business has grown even slower, Janusz somehow lost his vista as an international smuggler. He
still does the traveling, but by himself, either in small rental cars or on the train, always taking with
him a few pieces of luggage filled with caviar boxes. He doesn’t even need the money anymore. He
does it to keep himself busy. It feels like the end of an era. The fish are dead so we can’t eat their
offspring anymore. Caviar smugglers have killed their own source of income. Like the fish they
preyed upon, they too have became an endangered species.
—————
As a middle class European, I never see myself as a criminal. Of course, I am a criminal. In my
name, colossal amounts of evil are committed. I sit on top of a pyramid of suffering, a gigantic
machine that deals violence and oppression to it’s bottom in order to offer wealth and comfort to its
top. The system steals from the poor in order to give to me, the rich. And yet, I do not see myself as
a thief. I do not feel guilty because our system of oppression obscures responsibilities: between me,
a European, and the innumerable slaves around the world who work for sustaining my livelihood,
there are legions of intermediaries. Those middlemen force the people at the bottom into believing
they have no alternative, that their only choice is to sell their workforce for close to nothing and that
if they are in such situation, it’s probably their fault. When I buy a T-shirt for twenty euros, I never
have to face the people who have produced it for a few cents, and they can never direct their anger
at me. Between us are borders, police, armies, corporations, subcontractors. Nothing between our
two world transpires, and I can live my life with an untroubled conscience.
Unlike my experience as a middle class Belgian, as the son of traffickers, as someone who has lived
from the extinction of a fish species, from the impoverishment of a people, from the enrichment of a
criminal oligarchy, I feel guilty. A strange phenomenon, knowing that most of the time the nature of
legal markets is not different from the one of illegal markets. Isn’t buying a cell phone containing
coltan extracted in central Africa through utter violence as criminal as buying caviar from the
Russian mob? The proximity to shadow economies helps cure naivety. Delinquents are often very
aware that our legal institutions, like our states, our elections, our tribunals, our armies, our police
forces or our markets, are disguised criminal organizations. Surprisingly, they do not see their own
activities as being opposed to these institutions, but rather, as their continuation, a continuation of
their logic. My own mother, Emilio or Janusz never pretend that what they do is right. They just say
that what judges and politicians do, what police and financiers do, what industrialists and civil
servants do, is just as immoral. At least, the traffickers do not blind themselves through pretending
to be working for the common good. At least, in their wrong doings, they aren´t hypocrites.
When I was opening caviar boxes with my mother, knowing that those may be the last ones,
because who knows if there will still be sturgeons to be fished next spring, or wondering how many
poor devils died at sea precariously fishing so I can sell those eggs, I sometimes thought: if I wasn’t
doing it, someone else would. Or I would think that we needed the money to live, that we ourselves
were suffering, that we had no choice. I may have been correct. Or not. I’ve never been able to
answer this question. But, maybe because what I was doing wasn’t granted legal authorization, at
least I was asking this question. Having grown up in an environment where it was clear to everyone
that one’s work was at least partly shameful, I could never take seriously the distinction between
legality and illegality. I never believed in the higher moral ground of institutionalized power. Power,
wealth or privilege never presuppose truth or ethics, on the contrary, I don’t think there is any
substantial difference between a Belgian schoolboy and a Russian mobster.
It has been years now that I’ve wanted to write down some of those childhood memories. If I hadn’t
done it yet, it is because recalling them brings up wounds that have not yet healed. Usually, when I
tell stories of my family, most of which I didn’t even touch upon here, people are fascinated, telling
me it would make a great movie. But for me, the telling resonates with pain, and resuscitates what
had long been buried.
Caviar can be seen as the symbol of my parents’ tragedy, having somehow followed every stage of
the transformation of their love and happiness into mental illness, hatred and violence. My father
got involved with caviar because, progressively falling into madness, he needed himself to believe
he was living a fantasy, a life of quixotic proportions, when in fact it was mostly sad, if not sordid.
When my father’s delusional progression reached it’s peak, my mother had started selling caviar as a
full time job in order to survive, because escaping my father meant abandoning everything she had
built over the last twenty years and starting over very late in her life. Having written this text, I
notice that caviar trafficking can be seen as the thread running through my childhood, the thread of
my parent’s confusing inheritance. The confusion comes from the fact that in this trafficking legacy,
love is always entangled with pain. I love caviar and I hate it, just like I hate my father and can’t
help to somehow love him, for he is an indissociable part of my own self.
Telling you these stories, recalling the facts, interviewing the people, this all has been washed in
pain and love, anger and compassion. Until now, I had always tried to keep emotions away from my
writing, making it a theoretical exercise, an act of disembodied thought, resulting in a perpetual
discontentment towards my work. It is hard to think from the rawness of my very self, but much
truer.
Somehow, having to write this text anonymously has been an unforeseen blessing. Anonymity was
compulsory. Although law enforcement doesn’t give a damn about the kind of trafficking I’m
relating here, it stays illegal, and could theoretically bring trouble to my friends and family. The
names I use are pseudonyms, and personal information has stayed purposefully vague, and
sometimes altered. Unexpectedly, such necessity happened to be liberating for my writing.
Becoming “Anonymous”, dissolving my own self for a short while, creating an interruption into the
structure of my habits and internal blocks, getting over the censorship of my fearful intellect, this all
allowed emotions to emerge and mingle into the realm of speech. Avoiding the scrutiny of the laws
of society, I avoided as well my inner judge, a cruel lord of mastery and certainty, allowing myself
to open up a little. Refusing to be known, I could allow my voice to come forth. As if, in order to be
able to accept myself, I had to smuggle myself over the borders of my own control.


eulogo “With the support of the Culture Programme of the European Union”

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