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TEN



“Fortune soon tires of carrying any one long on her shoulders.”

Gracián, The Art of Worldly Wisdom, 1647



The official at the check-in desk was sympathetic and, mercifully, spoke French. I asked him whether there was another departure for Bacau that day. 


“Bien sur.”


When?


“A deux heures.”


Was there room on the flight?


“Certainement.”


And, without any fuss, he assured us that we could both join the flight provided we returned no later than one o’clock. A scruffy-looking man in a faded blue jacket with several days’ stubble on his chin offered to take our cases. Where were we going, and when? I told him, causing him great hilarity when I mispronounced Bacau. He thought it highly amusing that I should think of travelling to Baku, which I later realised was in Russia. However, he made it plain that we could leave our cases on shelving in the departure hall. No doubt I looked as doubtful as I felt, whereupon he smiled broadly, revealing one tooth. He insisted, in broken and guttural French, that there would be no problem and he would personally keep an eye on our possessions.


Leaving them with some trepidation, we emerged from the airport and found a motorist who was eager to take us into the city for a dollar, and I suggested that we might have a look round in the time available to us. It was plain, however, by the time we got past the outskirts, that my mother was not really in a fit state to go sightseeing. She was short of breath and found it difficult to walk at any pace, let alone any distance and so we found our way to what appeared to be some sort of hotel coffee bar which served just that – cups of weak instant coffee supplemented, if we chose, by a limited number of soft drinks. There did not appear to be anything to eat.


A waiter served our drinks and, realising that we were foreigners, immediately attempted to sell lei to us. To keep things sweet, I handed over five dollars for a similar size of wad that I had received on the minibus. 


“Ma,” I said, “I suggest I go for a walk round to see what’s up, while you take a rest here.” She nodded weakly, pleased enough simply to remain resting at the table while I walked out into what appeared to be one of the main thoroughfares of Bucharest.


The immediate and overwhelming impression was one of grime and deprivation. Everything, from the buildings to the traffic, and in particular the occasional heavy-goods lorry, varied only in degrees of dirt. The hardship, if not already apparent, was accentuated by the immediate attention of a series of children with their hands out, begging for money. Initially, I felt compelled to give them something, but this simply magnified their attention and, after handing out what coins I had, it was necessary to escape their approaches by following the example of other pedestrians, who simply ignored them. 


There were shop fronts of various sizes along the sides of the street I first came to, but the windows, where they were not boarded up, revealed nothing. Either the interiors of all the buildings were shrouded in darkness or there was, from time to time, an uninviting display of such unpleasant-looking goods as to put off any prospective customer from going inside. I saw a tailor’s dummy, dressed in a suit of clothes which I imagined would have been de rigeur on a Communist party platform in the 1950s. But I saw no electrical store, no café or restaurant, no convenience store, nor even a grocery store or the like, save, that is, for one, which I came across on one of the street corners. A shop with a wide, open  doorway but which initially appeared to be in darkness, revealed itself as open for business. On closer inspection, I could just ascertain, in the gloom, on a wooden table, a few upended crates of tomatoes. 


I slipped down some side streets to see if there was such a thing as a baker’s shop or a dairy. There was none.


In one square, set back from the main road, I came across what appeared to be the Opera House. What had once been a handsome and ornate building was now boarded up and looked in a very sorry state. The gardens to the front and side were overgrown and bedraggled. A notice board to the front of the building was bare except for one faded and torn poster from which it was quite impossible to make out what was being advertised or when. 


Back on another main street, I looked up at the first-floor windows and saw pockmarks and bullet holes on building after building, continuing evidence of the aftermath of scattered but substantial small-arms fire. Clearly, in the panic of revolution, adrenaline-fuelled soldiers or rebels had simply pointed their weapons at windows, loosing off hails of gunfire, assuming, probably rightly, that if only a percentage of ordnance found its way through the openings, that would be enough to either kill or maim. There was no evidence of any attempt at refurbishment.


From time to time, I came across a street hawker, selling everything from cigarettes to soap, surrounded by a dozen or so passers-by, themselves keen to get hold of provisions which were obviously not on sale in any form of retail outlet. 


It seemed, in this briefest of snapshots, that I had been transported back to my infancy, to a Europe trying to come to terms with the immediate aftermath of global conflict. Perhaps this was what citizens had to endure in their former life in East Berlin – or indeed any post-war Communist regime. The scene was utterly depressing, and a bewildering and stark contrast to the life to which I had become accustomed in England


I walked slowly back through the streets to the hotel bar and sat down opposite my mother, who did her best to be cheerful.


“I’m not hungry,” she protested an answer to my concern. “Let’s get back to the airport and make sure that we don’t miss this flight!”


And so, for another dollar, we returned to the airport and I found a vending trolley which enabled me to buy her a drink and a curious-looking biscuit. We had been away for some four hours, and our possessions were intact and so I sat by them, gloomily considering our next step.


***


According to my plan, I had now to find my way to Doctor Sadovici and, hopefully, the English nurse whose name and address I had on my itinerary. I had the name of the hotel into which we had been booked, and it was now just a question of waiting for the flight.


As the hour or so to our departure passed, my spirits lightened. I find travel almost as exciting as my mother, and I am always engaged by the sight of departure boards which speak of exotic-sounding destinations and which, by their names alone, carry a sense of mystery. I once spent an entire evening in the Train Blue restaurant in the Gare de Lyon in Paris dreamily looking down at the departure boards at the tete de station, while my bouillabaisse turned cold, watching passengers embarking for Madrid, Berne, Rome, Nice, Marseilles and other gloriously mysterious cities whose names so excited my imagination. For now, of course, I was in a domestic airport, handling only internal flights, but I immediately recognised one of the destinations – Timisuara – the town which, from news reports, had proved itself to be one of the powder kegs of the revolution.


Eventually, and, of course, bang on time, our flight was called. Each passenger handed over the boarding cards which had been given out at the check-in desk. Every single one of them had been used many times before and were dog-eared and, seemingly, from a host of different airlines. Mine, for reasons which I simply could not guess at, bore the PanAm logo.


We found our way on to a monoplane with an enormous engine and propeller at the front. The aircraft must have been decades old, but as I realised more and more during my odyssey, one particular skill which Romanians had had to learn was to mend and adapt, conserving, repairing, and making the best of that which was available. The plane may well have been very old, but it was serviceable, if rather uncomfortable, and, whatever its age, it was clearly being maintained very carefully. We clambered up the steps under the fixed overhead wing and found our way to our seats and buckled ourselves in. We were followed by an air hostess whose presence remained a mystery throughout the flight, since there was no form of in-flight catering, and what appeared to be three pilots. Two climbed into the pilot and co-pilot seats and the third leaned on his stomach, almost spread-eagled between the two of them, on the raised cowling which appeared to accommodate what I assumed were the aircraft controls, the cables, connections, and links to that enormous engine.


***


For all the antiquity of the aeroplane, the flight was both uneventful and comparatively smooth. The pilots left their communicating door wide open, presumably to improve the air quality in their cramped cabin, while the engine set up such a racket that it was impossible to hear oneself think. However, for all its apparent antiquity and design, the crew treated the machine almost lovingly and the pilot completed the softest of landings on the grass strip which served Bacau and taxied across to the ‘terminal’, a small wooden building which appeared to pass muster as an office and waiting room. There were only some dozen or so passengers on the flight, and I guessed that we were all expected to cram ourselves into a waiting minibus. I showed the driver my hotel reservation coupon and he nodded, gesturing us both inside. 


The minibus jolted into life and off we set, out of the grassed area, onto the paved roads of Bacau, and into the town centre. The town appeared to be of a comparatively modest size, with one main thoroughfare of some length. When the time came for us to disembark, we found ourselves at one end, opposite our destination hotel, the Moldova, whose name was partially obscured by a large Russian tourist bus. 


I knew that we were close to the border with Moldavia and, by definition, what was left of the Iron Curtain. That didn’t alarm me – if anything, it added a sense of mystery to my expedition.


The heat of the afternoon was almost overpowering, certainly for my mother, but I managed to get her and our luggage across the street into the entrance of the hotel, where I deposited her. I stood up and looked around me. Stretching back from the entrance was what appeared to be a wide, low hall of some length, in semi-darkness but with some illumination at the far end. That, as far as I could make out, was the reception area to which I made my way. There, I found a receptionist engaged in lively conversation with, given my limited knowledge of the accent and phraseology, a man who I assumed to be a Russian tourist.


I stood, patiently, while the two of them talked for some time, until finally the receptionist looked across at me without the faintest sense of welcome.


“Do you speak English?” 


“Nu.”


“Parlez-vous Français?”


“Oui.”


Well, that was something. 


“J’ai une réservation—”


He interrupted. “Non. Vous n’avez pas une réservation.”


I was struck by his immediate hostility which I simply could not fathom. He had no idea, I assumed, who I was, and he had not even seen my reservation coupon which I now dug out of my pocket and pushed towards him. 


He ignored it. “Encore,” he said. “Vous n’avez pas une réservation.”


In the face of this unpleasantness, I struggled to produce the most erudite response from my crumbling French vocabulary. “Regardez mon billet,” I stumbled.


 “Ça n’est pas une réservation,” he replied, before making a great show of returning to the conversation with the Russian. Clearly, any dialogue with me was now at an end.


I was completely nonplussed and for a moment had no idea what to do, and turned back towards the hotel entrance. As I did so, a figure detached itself from the wall in one of the darker corners of the hallway and came across to me. It turned out to be a young man whom I had not seen when I first entered the reception area but who was now taking something of an interest in my predicament.


“On vous aide, Monsieur?” he said, as he sidled up to me. Given that I was completely confused by what had just happened, my defences were down and I replied that yes, he might be able to help.


I explained that I and my mother had arrived from England and that we had a reservation at this hotel and the receptionist had made it plain, somehow, that we did not and that at that moment I was at something of a loss as to the next step.


His French was probably no better than mine, but we were able to make ourselves understood reasonably well and he made it plain that he knew of another hotel in Bacau where he was certain we could find accommodation. For my part, I had absolutely no idea what he was talking about but, given that I had no other option, I allowed him to lead on and show me where it was thought that my mother and I would find rooms. 


I paused at the entrance and told my mother in very brief terms that there appeared to have been some sort of mix-up but that I and this young man would be seeking a way to resolve it. For her part, she was obviously so fed up that she did not think to ask how it was that this complete stranger could somehow sort out our problem. Leaving her with our luggage at the entrance of the Hotel Moldova, I struck out after the young man, who led me back up the main street almost to the very end, where he pointed to a rather more modern-looking building, announcing itself as Hotel President. He beckoned me inside and we found our way to the main reception desk. An elegant-looking woman behind the desk had the grace to smile at me, which was a good start. When I introduced myself as a traveller from England and explained that there appeared to have been some mix-up with our hotel reservation she asked my name.


“But of course,” she exclaimed in French, “we have your reservation here.”


She looked over my reservation coupon with obvious approval while I stood perplexed but relieved, wondering what more oddities were to surface. I explained that I would have to go and get my mother and my luggage, while the receptionist, eager to please and continue the welcome, told me that there was no hurry and she would be pleased to see me as soon as I returned.


So, I and this curious but as yet anonymous young man turned on our heels and returned to the street.


I felt I had to at least show some gratitude for his help, and I offered him one of the packs of Kent, which he eagerly accepted. What, he asked, was I doing in Romania? Was it a holiday or business?


Taken somewhat off my guard, I told him exactly why I and my mother were in Romania and, as my story unfolded, he became more and more interested in my endeavour.


“I can find you a child,” he said, as I finished. “In fact, I am sure that I can find you two.”


I was immediately on my guard. How did he think he could find a child? Indeed, who was he? That he should have been hanging round the other hotel, and should have then led me to this one, to which my reservation had been moved, seemed like a coincidence too far.


“Don’t worry,” he said, seeing my immediate hesitation. “I know of mothers who cannot afford to keep their children and who wish to have them adopted by good people like you.”


I confess that I didn’t care for this at all, and that my unease was growing. I explained that I already had a plan, which involved seeing someone in Bacau and possibly visiting an orphanage. 


He seemed disappointed that I did not jump at his suggestion, but he said that if I did need further help I should contact him, and he gave me a card with his telephone number. Then he simply melted away.


I put him out of my mind and, back at Hotel Moldova, I told my mother that our hotel had changed, but we did have rooms after all, and that if she could walk with me back up the street, we would find somewhere to rest very shortly.


Without much enthusiasm, she got to her feet and, as we were about to leave, a harassed-looking man whom I took to be the hotel manager approached. Thankfully,  he spoke English. “Can I help you? Is there a problem?” he asked.


I told them that I had had a reservation at his hotel, just as the coupon, which I showed him, confirmed, but that his receptionist had dismissed me out of hand. I explained that I felt that the treatment had been, at the very least, impolite.


The manager was profuse in his apologies. “That is unforgivable,” he said. “Come with me and I am sure that we can sort it out for you.”


I was almost in two minds, but I decided that, having received at least what appeared to be a cordial welcome from Hotel President, and since, for reasons which I simply could not comprehend, they appeared to have my reservation, I should stay, now, in that hotel, so I thanked the manager for his concern and told him not to worry further.


He was disappointed, he said, and backed away, clearly upset that I had been treated poorly, but I detected a sense of relief that I was not going to create a scene. Instead, I hoisted my rucksack on my shoulders again, took our other two cases, and led my mother back up the main street.

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