As I was thinking that Germans were not as polite as I thought they were, because they kept bumping into me, someone tapped me on my shoulder:
“Sprechen zi Deutch?”
Deutch, must be German, I thought quickly, how did he know to ask me?
“English, I speak English…”
“You’re standing in the way, wrong direction… traffic! Move to the right!”
He disappeared as fast as he appeared, but I got the idea, I was in everyone’s way! I lifted my bag and moved to the side. The bumping stopped. Civilization was back and I looked around: a closed Tourist Information Desk and bank. It was early, but the coffee shop was opened. I walked closer and the smell of fresh coffee and German freshly baked goods reminded me I haven’t eaten since I left Bucharest. I remembered somewhere in my purse there were two well buttered slices of bread and between them, carefully wrapped in plastic, there was hidden a banknote of $50.00. It was illegal for Romanian citizens to have any other currency but Romanian money, “lei” when on Romanian territory. An American friend gave me before I left Romania the $50.00, as an emergency fund. The hiding of money in butter when crossing the boarder, was a known trick, but who would want to get dirty to expose such crime? Not even the Romanian custom officers! Unlike most other Romanians, who only had foreign currency thanks to relatives who already were in the free world, I was lucky: As an employee of the U.S. Embassy I was allowed to transfer a limited number of pay checks to the Embassy of the country where I traveled. To get the money I saved in German currency I had to go to the U.S Embassy in Frankfurt, but I needed money to eat, to get there..It was the weekend!
The buttered “emergency fund” certainly came in hand, as I was standing in front of the coffee shop salivating at the thought of a piece of pastry and coffee.
Now that people stopped bumping into me all my senses seem to come back. I became aware I needed to go to the bathroom … all my physiological needs were invading me at once! What should I do first?
I ran into the bathroom. First thing, first, I thought. Then, washed my hands, and looked in the mirror. Slowly, with a shaky hand I applied lipstick on my cracked lips. My face looked like a deflated balloon. I had bags under my eyes and my nose looked longer, and my dimples disappeared.
How did I age so fast, I thought, and washed off the make-up which only made me look tragic. I looked around. The rest room lounge was empty. I took out the slices of bread and extracted the buttered money. Carefully, I took out the banknote and discarded the rest.
I went straight in the coffee shop and handed the clerk the $50.00.
“Nichte dollars, Deutch marks, ” she said and pointed to a currency exchange counter across from the shop.
I looked bewildered.
“Change money,” she continued, to make sure I understood, and pointed to the exchange counter again.
At the exchange counter, the lady took my $50.00 and gave me back a lot of banknotes, German marks, and I went back to get coffee and pastries.
I sat alone, at one of the tables. I ate slowly and sipped hot coffee. I felt alive again.
Across from me I saw a middle-aged woman who dozed on- and-off. In front of her there was an empty plate. After a few minutes, the manager tapped her on the shoulder and pointed at her empty plate. She pointed at her cup of coffee which was not empty, but the manager shook his head in disagreement.
Was he telling her she had to leave because her plate was empty, I thought… body language was the same in all languages, yes, he was throwing her out!
I stood up, walked to the counter and bought her pastry. I placed it in front of her, while the manager shrugged his shoulders and left. The woman looked at the pastry and then lifted her eyes and looked at me. Her eyes were empty, tired, hopeless. I left in silence and sat back at my table. The woman starred at me with her empty, hopeless eyes and I was uncomfortable and couldn’t help thinking, was this how I was going to be some day?
I left. The Touristic Office was opened. In my haste to leave Romania before the officials changed their minds and took back my passport, I had left Bucharest without a hotel reservation. Beside, I didn’t want anyone to be able to trace me down once I was out of the country.
“No rooms, “the clerk assured me. There was an International Convention in town, and all hotels were booked.
I started to cry. People looked at me, but I didn’t care because it made no difference, I couldn’t care less what they thought of me! I collapsed in a chair inside the Tourist Office.
“There must be a room somewhere,” I said . “I’ll wait!”
One of the touristic agents made several calls, then he walked around to my chair and said:
“There are no hotel rooms, but there is a restaurant about forty minutes from here, which has two rooms upstairs, above the restaurant.”
“The price is cheap.” he assured me.
“I’ll take it!” I said without hesitation.
“How many nights? he asked routinely.
“How long?” I repeated.
How long it would take for me to do what I was supposed to do next? I thought. I knew stories of people who defected, but didn’t know the sequence of what to do next and I was too tied to think. How does one really defect? How long… he wanted me to tell him how long!
“Three nights! I need the room for three nights,” I said and thought that would give me enough time to rest, enough for my mind to not feel as foggy and tired and scarred.
The touristic agent handed me the reservation ticket and the address:
“Give the address to the driver, it’s far, you’ll have to take a cab.”
The cab ride seemed endless, as I was watching in horror the meter go up.
After about forty minutes the cab stopped in front of a grey, ugly building which looked deserted and deposited my luggage in front of the front door. The cab drove away and I knocked at the restaurant door. It was closed. I went around to the back door. I knocked. It was locked too!
It started to rain, a cold, persistent rain which penetrated my flesh, my bones and reached into my soul flooding it with desperation and fear. My whole being felt as dull and cold as the drops of rain. I sat on the step in front of the restaurant and dozed off…
“Why are you sitting on my steps? Who are you?” someone tapped me on the shoulder.
I opened my eyes. He was dark-haired and short and smelled of garlic and tabacco. He looked fortish, or older and who cared anyway…
“I rented a room from you, at the train station.”
“Oh! That’s you. Do you have cash? You’ll have to pay me cash for the three nights, I don’t trust you emigrants!”
He told me how much and I was short a few marks. I explained I was going to get money, but he said I lied, he’ll give me two nights and then I’ll have to come up with more money.
I agreed and he unlocked the door. He pushed me inside and said:
Your room is upstairs and the bathroom is on this floor. We went upstairs and he unlocked the room I rented. It looked like a hospital room, very white, with an iron bed and smelled of disinfectant.
“It’s not fancy, but it’s clean and quiet.” He said, as I was taking off my coat and and sat on the edge of the bed.
As I sat there, on the bed, he seemed to have just seen me for the first time. He looked me up and down and his eyes lingered on my breasts…
“I am tired, I need to sleep, I said.” Could you please leave now?”
“Sure, and you are from where?” He insisted not moving anywhere.
“Romania, I am just on a pleasure trip,” I explained.
His dark, unshaven face spread into a big smile:
“I was from Romania too! I am Jewish. I left twenty years ago. I hear Ceausescu is doing a number on you… I heard he sold all the Romanian toilet paper to foreigners and left none for Romanians and then had to buy some back? is that true or you still wipe your butts with newspapers?”
Oh, my luck! I thought. How did this happen that there werw no rooms in town and I got this dump owned by a Romanian! Oh, he might be a plant, a spy… he could be anybody and I am alone with him!
I smiled. He seemed to like that and smiled back.
“You know what, I’ll trust you with the third night… even if you don’t get the money you said you’ll get… we’ll find a way for you to pay me back.”
He looked me up and down again and said:
“Yeah, you do look tired and sick. you need to take a shower too… okay, I’ll go now, but we’ll talk later about how you wipe off your butts!”
Oh, he left at last and I locked the door behind him. He surely had an extra key, all landlords do!
I undressed and slipped between the cold, damp sheets. The smell of disinfectant was so strong, it reminded me of a bathroom in which the smell suggested germs were present put someone tried to kill them, or hide them…
One, two, three… I must fall asleep… my body was burning, suspended in a land of fears and uncertainty!