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CAB DRIVER UNDISMAYED AFTER 50 YEARS OF BOOM AND BUST FORTUNES

Back on the starting line

TEN years ago, an Israeli businessman and former customer of taxi driver Jozef Balogh asked him to fetch Sir Evelyn de Rothschild from the Bratislava airport. After driving the head of one of the world's oldest banking families around Slovakia for several days, Balogh was surprised to find an important file that Rothschild had left on the car's back seat.
Hurrying to return the documents before Rothschild's meeting at the Slovak Government Office, Balogh was stopped from entering the building by government security. Insisting that he would not release the file to anyone but Rothschild, Balogh eventually managed to get the guards to call Rothschild's secretary. The latter, impressed by the driver's act of kindness, asked Balogh how he could repay him.


TAXI driver Jozef Balogh remains fatalistic about life changes that have left him unemployed.
photo: Ján Svreek

TEN years ago, an Israeli businessman and former customer of taxi driver Jozef Balogh asked him to fetch Sir Evelyn de Rothschild from the Bratislava airport. After driving the head of one of the world's oldest banking families around Slovakia for several days, Balogh was surprised to find an important file that Rothschild had left on the car's back seat.

Hurrying to return the documents before Rothschild's meeting at the Slovak Government Office, Balogh was stopped from entering the building by government security. Insisting that he would not release the file to anyone but Rothschild, Balogh eventually managed to get the guards to call Rothschild's secretary. The latter, impressed by the driver's act of kindness, asked Balogh how he could repay him.

"Just ask Sir Rothschild to sign my business card," replied Balogh, now 54.

The incident was typical of Balogh, a native of Hungary, who after half a century of mixed fortunes finds himself once again without a job - but with no regrets for what might have been.

A machine engineer by training but a long-time taxi driver by profession, Balogh was born in Hungary, his mother Hungarian and his father a native Slovak.

His blood lines, he acknowledges, are complex, even for ethnically diverse Slovakia - one of his grandfathers was Jewish, while one of his grandmothers was a Roma.


NEW car, fresh hope.
photo: Ján Svreek

"I am who I am - a mix of two quarterbreeds injected into a Hungarian base," he laughs. "My home is wherever my family is."

One of eight children, Balogh lived in communist Hungary until the age of 10, when his parents decided to emigrate to Canada.

"My father was a freedom-loving person and he wanted to take us to a free, open country where we could get a good education and have no fear of speaking our feelings and thoughts openly. So we packed our belongings and crossed the Czechoslovak border. That's where we got stopped," he says of the first trip he remembers taking in his life.

In Czechoslovakia, Balogh's father was jailed and the children placed in institutions across the country. Luckily, thanks to the father's Bratislava origins, his relatives managed to reunite the Balogh family and help them to start a new life in Czechoslovakia.

When released from prison, Balogh's father put the children in Slovak schools, despite the fact they spoke no Slovak.

"I was in fifth grade and I had to chew through not only Slovak but also Russian, where I couldn't even understand the script."

Challenged by the new languages Balogh did poorly at school, resulting in his being sent to a machine engineering technical high school rather than an academic high school, as he had wanted.

After doing his army service and marrying a Slovak, Balogh found a job with the railways, where he fell in love with the diesel engines that were just appearing on the market. However, when a serious eye injury in 1977 put paid to his dreams of becoming a train driver, Balogh left the railways to take a technician's job in a printing house.

An ironic fate continued to pursue him, however: growing increasingly frustrated with the communist regime he emigrated in July 1989, only to watch the government overthrown four months later.

"I had to escape. We were constantly monitored by the secret service, as were other families at the time whose family members had illegally fled the country. Then there were problems with work, schools... Basically, I could not live the schizophrenic life that was demanded of all of us - to speak one way and think another," says the father of four.

Crossing the Slovak-Hungarian border by car, he travelled to Maribor in today's Slovenia. Abandoning the car at the Yugoslav border, the family, carrying an 18-month-old baby, managed to break through the forest to the Austrian side.

On arriving in Paris they hooked up with Balogh's brother, a designer who had fled Czechoslovakia in 1968 when Warsaw Pact troops invaded the country. He helped them find work and submit a request for asylum in France. Four months later, when dramatic political changes took place at home, Balogh's family had to return to Bratislava.

"My brother suggested I start a taxi business at home since I understood cars. Realising the problems I would have returning to my previous jobs, and given the uncertainty as to what the future would bring, I took the idea and ran with it," says Balogh.

The business got its start when Yugoslav customs officers, to Balogh's great surprise, returned the Škoda car he had abandoned on the border. The vehicle became the family's means of earning the living, allowing Balogh and his two older sons to launch a non-stop taxi business.

One day in the early 1990s, Balogh's sons brought an Israeli businessman who spoke Hungarian but no Slovak to their father. The man wanted to map out the country prior to enlarging his business activities in Czechoslovakia; Balogh became his personal driver, and later the businessman's representative in the country. But as Czechoslovakia separated in 1993, that business too fell apart.

One day in 1995, a group of Americans working at the Citibank branch in Slovakia happened to step into Balogh's car. Pleased with his services, they offered him a stable job as Citibank Slovakia's principal driver.

"I was very pleased with Joseph," remembers David Francis, former director of the bank branch, whom Balogh drove on official engagements from 1995 to 1999.

"He always drove well and safely. He was very punctual, reliable and responsible. He was always very good-humoured and discrete. Our visitors from abroad were always very complimentary about his service."

However, after organisational changes at the bank, Balogh finds himself without a job after seven years. For him, the change is just another bend on his life path.

"I'm once again on the starting line, as I have been many times before," says the blue-eyed Balogh, his bold blue shirt matching the hue of his new Peugeot.

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