Police, Passports, and Panic

Robbie Burns had it right when he wrote about the best-laid plans. Oh, did he ever!

Yesterday I got up, had a leisurely breakfast at the Griff Hotel in Budapest because my train to Deva, Romania, didn’t leave until 9:10. Unfortunately, I thought it left from the same station I arrived at. Noooo. Got to the station with 20 minutes to spare but couldn’t find my train number on the board. Finally approached a station employee (they’re ubiquitous) and showed him my itinerary on the Rail Planner app on my phone, shrugged and raised my eyebrows, the universal sign for confusion.

“Metro,” he said, gesturing toward the down escalator. When I started to speak, he made shooing gestures. So down I went.

Found another employee who said, “Wrong station. Take metro to Budapest-Keleti,” and shooed me toward a metro train that was loading. Eight fifty-four and I’m assuring myself that I’ll make my train in time. Nooooooo. Missed it by three minutes.

Now my choices were to sit in the station for 11 hours, take the night train (with three changes) and arrive sometime before sunup–or to go to Plan B. Yeah. I’m so good at waiting. LOL.

Plan B involved a fold-out map bigger than Denver, squinting and wishing I had a magnifying glass, and deciding to go to Cluj Napoca, which BTW is spelled about five different ways, depending on the map, the station scroll, and whoever says it. Cluj Napoca it was. Found the platform, found a young woman who spoke English, and finally the right train pulled in. Found a compartment with 8 seats and settled in. Then a 40-something man joined me, a chatty type–as long as we chatted in German, the second language of many Balkan inhabitants (they must have thought Hitler would win WWII).  I’d forgotten I knew so many words auf Deutsch. My grammar wasn’t the best but he didn’t laugh or sneer, and when he left, he said, “Goodbye. Have a nice day.” Probably some of the few English phrases he knew.

So where, you’re asking, do the police and the other P’s come in? About mid-afternoon, we arrived at a village only a few miles from the Romanian border that starts with B, like a lot of Hungarian towns on this route, and since we had a 20-minute layover, I went to the station to use the toilet. Then I strolled up the narrow concrete median that ran between the rail lines, and when I turned around, two police officers had me cut off.

The one in the lead, barely old enough to shave, said, “Your passport, please.” He took it to his compatriot,who scanned it in a handheld device about twice the size of the scanners grocery people use for inventorying shelves. He handed it back. “Next time, stay on the train.”

Okey-dokey, then. And on we rolled.

Ten minutes later we stopped again. This time the Romanian border police were checking documents. I tell you, the border police over here are hot! (If I were forty years younger and forty pounds lighter, I would have tripped him and beaten him to the floor.) And they speak English. “Your passport,” he said (must have left his smile in his other jacket). He examined it for a long minute, then said, “Why have you come to Romania? Where are you going? How long are you going to be there?”

Oh, crap. “I’m on vacation. Cluj Napoca for one night. Sighisoara for two nights.”

“I’ll be back.” Even Schwartzenegger didn’t make my heart go into overtime the way this guy did when he said it.

Minutes ticked past. A lot of minutes. The heart kicked into high gear. What if they threw me out?  Put me in jail? Confiscated my passport??? What had I ever done to him? Forcing myself to stay seated and pretend to read didn’t help, but I knew that following to find out what the hell would be the exactly wrong thing to do. Finally I told my guardian angels, “You guys take care of it.”

And the cop came back and handed me my passport.  “Thank you.” My angels should get overtime pay.

The train rolled through vast flatlands, then up into the Carpathians, more rolling hills than mountains, then back to the flats, and up again. Finally we reached Clug Napoca just before dark, under a lowering sky threatening rain. The only hotel in sight was right across from the station,and I think the second star on the door was a sympathy star. By that point even a flophouse would look good. But her credit card machine was broken and I was without any local currency. Without cash I couldn’t hire a taxi to take me to a hotel, even if I’d known which one I wanted to go to. Note: Euros are not useful in Romania.

Going back to the station, I decided to pee. Only, it turns out, I had to pay for the privilege, a Romanian leu worth about 26 cents. Which I didn’t have. And without which I would have to embarrass us all. Two young men were just leaving. I said, “I don’t speak Romanian. I’m American.”

The taller man pulled out a wad of bills and handed one to the gatekeeper. “Is fine. Don’t worry.” They smiled, I bowed with hands in prayer position and was able to go on looking for a place to lay my head.

By this time it was full dark. It wouldn’t be the first time I’d slept in a train station but I sure didn’t need another close encounter of the policey type. The clerk at the hotel had pointed to a dark street and said, “There is rooms in private house down there,” but I wasn’t wild about walking into someone’s home and asking if they’d let me stay. But I was kinda out of options.

Dark street, rainy night, abandoned buildings. A real walk on the wild side. I resorted to the street to stay as far as I could from hollow concrete shells and looming dark doorways. A bright light a couple of blocks farther on promised at least a few minutes’ respite from the night.

OMG! The Pensiune Junior is elegance surrounded by atrophy. And for only $38 a night worth twice the price. Hot shower, clean duvet, and time to decompress. Heaven on a back street.

Today is Easter Sunday, and I feel like I’ve risen from the tomb of despair. I decided to stay another night (until the banks open and I can change some euros for lei (the plural form). Took a long walk and up hundreds of steps to a park that overlooks the city. What seemed to be so fearsome last night turned out to be only slightly scary today. Everywhere renovation and remodeling are going on, turning cracks and peeling paint into classical elegance. Middle-class neighborhoods thrive along those of lower income, and the city has a feeling of rejuvenation. It’s moving on, just as I’ll move on tomorrow.

And so the adventure continues.

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