I climb the steps of the Greyhound bus in New York, destination Denver. The driver smiles and checks my ticket. It unfolds like a paper concertina, tumbling to my knees. “Wow,” he says, “Colorado? Long ride, son. I’ll take you as far as Pittsburgh. You’re English? Sit up front, best view.”
I follow his advice and sit gawping at America through the big window. It’s like TV, but real. I’m feeling pleased with myself. I’m 18 years old, travelling to a summer job on a construction site in the Rockies. Americans are friendly, no airs and graces.
“First visit?” says the driver.
I smile and tell him yup, like a cowboy in the movies. He smiles back.
Halfway to Pittsburgh, we stop at Philadelphia. The city looks cold and the bus station seems to attract the wrong sort of people – beggars and bums - or so my driver tells me. By now we’re buddies and he asks for a favour. He’s short of cash, needs a 6-pack of Coors for later, but he has to see his supervisor before we drive on. “Could you buy it for me, and I’ll settle up when you get back onboard? You’ll see a store one block up. We’ve got 20 minutes, plenty of time.”
“Sure,” I say, and hop off the bus.
The owner of the liquor store seems too impressed with my accent to check my age. I buy the beer and stroll around the block, stretching my legs, looking at the traffic, the people, the ads. It’s quite different to the UK.
When I climb back on the bus, there’s a different guy in the driver’s seat. He sees the beer and says: “You can’t bring that on a Greyhound.”
“It’s for the driver,” I tell him.
“He’s all done for the day,” he says, “I’m your driver now and I leave in three minutes. If you want to ride in my bus, dump the booze.”
“But the other driver told me he would pay me back.”
“And you believed him,” says the new driver.
I spend the next two minutes standing outside the bus, with the 6-pack at my feet, waiting for my friendly driver, but he doesn’t come to settle his debt. He comes for his beer, of course, and picks it up from the sidewalk. But by that time, I’m watching from the back of the bus, heading for Colorado. He waves and grins, as if to say: “Have a good day, sucker.”
I sit and curse my stupidity. I must be the biggest dope in the world. Not clever like him. My guard was down. It won’t happen again.
We stop in Chicago at 7 am and two passengers get off our bus for a walk. They return, 30 minutes later, looking like something the cat dragged in, dazed and dishevelled. They got mugged. So, I guess I’m lucky.
All this happened many years ago, when America was more dangerous than now, especially in big cities like Chicago, and like New York, where Mayor Rudi Giuliani and his ‘zero tolerance’ campaign had yet to take effect.
Fast forward to Bucharest, 15 years later. I’m older, wiser and new in town. I’m teaching journalism. Romanians remind me of people in my hometown Liverpool – they’re sharp, sentimental, they’ll give you the shirt off their back if you need it. I love them. I want to stay as long as I can.
One night, I’m out drinking with my trainees. They teach me to say HIGH-SAH-NEM-BAHTAM. I have no idea what it means but the beer keeps coming. Soon our table is full of empty bottles and I learn my next phrase: LOO-ATTZ-MORTZI-VAH-ROG. This time, the bottles are whisked away.
The handsome young dude sitting next to me is the brother of one of my best trainees. He’s quite camp, he’s been giving me the eye all evening and swapping places until he’s up close and personal. I think he might be gay. “Hi, Mike,” he says, “I’m Lucian.”
“Hello Lucian, I’m drunk.”
Lucian sounds intelligent, more intelligent than me right now. He’s a young businessman. He sells antiques, home and abroad. Romania, you see, is full of beautiful old furniture that sells well in Bucharest, Paris and London.
“I never knew that, Lucian.”
Lucian sips orange juice and says: “There’s probably lots you don’t know about Romania.”
By the end of the night, I’ve agreed to lend Lucian $200 to buy a rare cupboard from Sibiu. I can afford it. He will sell it in Milan for $2000, and I’ll get $400. We go back to my bloc, I give him the cash and he vanishes.
Next day, in the seminar room, I tell his sister Doina. Her mouth drops open. “You did what?” she says. She tells me Lucian is a fantasist, a conman. That’s when I remember the frayed cuffs on his shirt. I did wonder. It takes Doina 2 months to get my $200 back.
By the way, last night, I got an email from this cool guy in Nigeria….