A Volunteer's Life in Romania

    by Andy Trincia (Romania 2002– 04)

    One-Way to Bucharest
    A Homecoming with Gypsies

    THE BUS DRIVER BARKED ANSWERS to my questions: “The bus will leave on time. You have a seat.”
         As is often the case in Romania, the bus was oversold and standing-room-only. I held a hand-scribbled ticket noting a “reserved” seat number but that doesn’t always stop a stander from taking your seat and refusing to move. I did the visual math as the crowd gathered in no sort of line — the door was not open yet — and was dreading the journey and the boarding itself, always an adventure of pushing and flying elbows. Not to mention this would be another longer-than-it-should-be trip — six hours for 175 miles — because of typically potholed, two-lane Romanian roads.
         “Are you English?” came the question from behind me. I turned around to see a young Romanian man who had obviously overheard my accented Romanian as I spoke with the stern-faced driver.
         “No, I’m American.”
         “American? Whoa. I speak some English. Don’t worry, I’ll make sure you get your seat.”
         Pleasantly surprised, I thanked him and boarded the packed bus, which was enough to give anybody claustrophobia. Romanian pop music blared, I mean blared, from the speakers. Indeed, the young man ordered somebody out of my seat and switched seats to be next to me. The bus was barely out of town, heading eastward so I could visit other Volunteers, when he asked if we could practice English conversation. “I don’t speak so well, but I like to. I don’t get chances to practice. Would you mind?”
         His name is Sorin (pronounced Sor-een) and he’s from clear across Romania, some 15 hours away and he’ll be on three buses this day. I asked him what he was doing in this neck of the woods. That’s a story, he says, and we have some time.
         Sorin, an amicable guy in his 20s, has worked a variety of jobs to make ends meet. Technology is his passion and, in his view, a ticket to success. With pirated software and a friend’s computer, and hours spent in Internet cafes, he honed his skills and now considers himself pretty talented. Sadly but understandably, and like many, many Romanians of his age, Sorin wishes to leave Romania because of low salaries and limited opportunities. While some want to go away forever, others, like him, want to make money elsewhere and return home to be near family. It’s easier said than done, as Romanians have visa restrictions in many countries and must prove they have several months’ salary in cash before leaving. Also, an unsavory reputation abroad, especially in Western Europe, isn’t helping. It doesn’t matter that there are respected Romanian writers, scientists, musicians and others here and abroad, but unfortunately, the rap always goes back to the Romanian thieves, beggars, prostitutes and smugglers — not all of whom are “Gypsies” as is often believed — who are frequently busted in Western Europe.
         The bus rambles, bumps and swerves along and finally stops for a 10-minute break. I go and buy two beers for us for the rest of the ride. Sorin told me that part of the story involved him and the law, so I was curious to hear the rest. On this day’s trip, he is returning from Romania’s border with Hungary, where he was denied entrance to the more developed neighbor that is next to Austria and the rest of the European Union. “I was lucky they just turned me away and nothing else happened,” he says.
         He goes on to tell me the real story, talking over the loud music. “Well, you see, I tried once before, with a fake Italian passport,” he begins. “My dream has always been to go to England.”
         Romanians are a Latin people, despite their Slavic geographical location, and many could pass for Italians, at least at first glance. And with both languages in the same family, Romanians understand Italian pretty well without studying it, though speaking is more difficult.
         So on this previous attempt, sly Sorin traveled from his town to Bucharest, boarded a bus headed west, cleared border checkpoints in several countries and made it all the way to Belgium and then into France. He was at a French port about to board a ferry to England, so close he could taste it. Bangers and mash with a pint of bitter? Or at least a good job.
         Suddenly, a snag. The French customs officer does a double take at him and calls over an Italian-speaking colleague. She starts firing off questions and it is obvious that he is not Italian.
         He spends the night in a jail cell and is awakened the next morning and driven to the Belgian border. He doesn’t know what’s going on. The French authorities, passing the buck and blaming their neighbors, hand him over to the Belgians. After questioning and another night in jail, he’s told he is going back to Bucharest. The police car arrives at an airport and he is escorted to a plane. He can’t believe his eyes.
         “I’d never been on a plane before,” he says. “It was beautiful, a private jet, you know, like famous people have. I asked the policeman if I had to pay for the trip. He said, ‘No, you can just thank the Belgium government. Now go back to Romania!’”
         But there was something else — his fellow passengers were also trespassers held in police custody.
         “You know what? When I got on the plane, I couldn’t believe it. It was bunch of Gypsies from Romania and me. Gypsies!” Sorin, seemingly unfazed by his own law breaking, displayed a common prejudice in Romania against the Roma people (generally called Gypsies and other, more pejorative names), who represent the largest minority in Romania, supposedly 10 percent but nobody seems to know for sure. Though they are Romanians, their ancestry is traced to India and other points east and many Romanians don’t want to claim them and flat-out despise them.
          “That was the worse part,” he continued. “When the plane landed in Bucharest, there were TV cameras and reporters. I covered my face. I didn’t want my mother to see me like that, with all those Gypsies.”
         As I was about to get off at my destination, I wished Sorin a good journey — Drum Bun! — and asked him if he would try to leave again, perhaps even legally. “Don’t worry, I’ll get to England!” He asked for my card and, in fact, called me once to say hello. He was still in Romania, but very restless.
         Perhaps by now, he’s sitting in a cubicle somewhere in London or Manchester, pecking on a keyboard. For sure, he’s at least thinking about it.