How to Pull Off a Bribe the English Way, and a Stroll on Friendship Bridge

5 Sep

Every burp brought with it a harsh reminder of the previous night’s festivities, in the form of a tiny but potent shot of stomach acid mixed with Ţuică, Romania’s version of the generic homemade plum schnapps produced in old men’s sheds all over Eastern Europe and regurgitated by every westerner to visit the home of anyone living on the eastern side of what we once knew as the Iron Curtain. I could smell on my breath the subtle odour of burning intestines. A throbbing pain in the back of my head brought to my mind the vivid image of a drip, drip, dripping tap. I was in bad nick as I followed Adriana up the stairs from the underground platform of Eroii Revoluţiei metro station in Bucharest, emerging into the late-winter sunshine and crisp cold air of this early afternoon. Despite the shape my body was in, I couldn’t have asked for better external conditions for beginning a 460-mile non-stop hitchhiking mission from Romania’s capital to the mystical meeting point of East and West, Turkey’s Istanbul. The distance was almost identical to that which lay between my home town of Brighton down on England’s south coast and Glasgow up in Scotland, but culturally the journey seemed like much more massive an undertaking; like crossing a much bigger divide. Turkey, in my mind at least, was a totally different land to the safe and orderly European one which I would be leaving behind.

I fumbled around in my pocket and pulled out in one swoop half a packet of chewing gum, some bluey-purple fluff, two loose cigarette filters and 10 Romanian Lei (just short of £2), my very last bit of Romanian currency. The money brought happiness in the shape of a donut, a meat filled pasty and a slice of cold pizza, bought from a round-faced and plump old lady with a moustache and a broad smile offset by gaps.

“How you remain such a skinny bitch is one of the great mysteries of mankind,” Adriana commented. “I put on weight just watching you eat the amount of shit that you do.”

Since meeting five years earlier, when she had put me – a wet behind the ears couch surfer backpacking his way around Europe for the first time – up in her flat above a Bucharest cigarette shop, Adriana and I had been most things to each other at one time or another – best friend, travel buddy, counsellor, lover, advisor, confidant, antagonist, educator, to name but a few – but for the past couple of years we had been strictly mates. We shared a special bond; an ease; a complete comfort with one another. We also fought worse than any two siblings ever did. Each of us could annoy the other without effort. Infuriate, even. We saw each other once or twice a year for two to three weeks at a time, and we spoke regularly online. We had completed small bouts of travel together in the past, our last trip taking us around Bosnia and Serbia, but nothing close to the epic goal we had set ourselves this time around: A 3000-mile hitchhiking jaunt around the Black Sea, beginning and ending in Bucharest, focusing predominantly on Turkey, but also taking in Georgia, Armenia, Ukraine and Moldova. Both of us were in no denial that the biggest challenge would not be logistical; it would be remaining friends throughout such an intense period of time spent in each other’s pockets. Whatever happened, this would be our last chance to spend some quality time together for the foreseeable future, as Adriana, who had just completed her master’s degree in architecture, would be moving to China once our trip was completed, to pursue her career. This would be our final jaunt; our goodbye.

The 3000-mile path we planned to tread

The 3000-mile path we planned to tread

With a tent in one hand, food so greasy that it turned its containing paper see-through in the other, and a heavy backpack on my back, I followed Adriana along the dusty road until we reached the tram stop. Neither of us had any local currency. Adriana had changed all of her money into Euros for the trip, whilst instructing me earlier that morning to not bother exchanging any more of my British Pounds for Lei, as within a few hours we would be out of the country. We jumped on the tram, ticketless but full of hope. Hope that we would complete the eight mile ride to the end of the line without being accosted by any controlori, the plain clothed ticket inspectors that were no more than thugs whose bullying was given legitimacy by the badge they each carried.

We were just two minutes from our destination when four of them, all clad in black bomber jackets and baseball caps and coming from Romania’s gypsy population, jumped on board; two at the back, two at the front. There were only a couple of other passengers on board, both of whom had validated tickets. Two of the controlori began arguing loudly in Romanian with Adriana. I couldn’t understand a word, but it wasn’t difficult to work out the gist. Our tram pulled into the wasteland that constituted the final stop, but we weren’t getting off. By now all four of these fat beasts had circled around us, each spitting abuse at Adriana, while she argued back. She then turned to me and, knowing they wouldn’t understand English, said, “They’re pissed off because they make their money from bribes. Usually they would shout like this until we both just handed them some cash to avoid having a fine written out. They don’t believe that between us we have no money at all.”

One of the men motioned for me to stand up, and asked to see my passport to prove that I wasn’t a Romanian trying to pull a fast one. He looked at it, flicked through the pages and threw it back at me. He then took out the book in which he wrote out fines, and started copying details from Adriana’s identity card.

“He is going to write me out a fine for double the amount, to cover both of us, as you don’t have a Romanian address,” she told me.

“How much is the fine?” I asked.

“It’s not little.”

Just a glance at the fat man’s book revealed that it had very rarely been used. These guys were not used to writing out fines. There was nothing in it for them if things were done officially, and the disappointment of this showed in their faces. I felt around in my pocket, the one that held my English currency. I knew I had £20 notes and £10 notes, but I now hoped that I also had a £5 note. It felt like I did, and I delicately liberated the small note, being very careful not to reveal any larger denominations at the same time. I pulled out the fiver as if it were a winning lottery ticket; or a piece of the Turin Shroud. The eyes of all four men were pulled to the magical piece of paper. A visible aura surrounded it. It was as if the clouds had opened and God’s hand had reached down to enter this piece of legal tender into the mix. From somewhere – I can only guess Heaven – that celestial sound that accompanies miracles in biblical films filled the air. ♪aaaaaaaaaaaah ♪

I am of course exaggerating. But not overly. I waved away the writing of the fine with one hand, whilst raising the fiver to the sky in the other. One of the men reached out for it, apprehensively. I pulled it away quickly.

“I think you will find this takes care of any fine,” I said, quite enjoying playing the role of sugar daddy to these lowlifes.

Adriana translated. The man took the note and said something to Adriana.

“He says that he will only fine me now and not add on the charge for you,” she told me.

“No, no no,” I said calmly. “I think you will find this will take care of both of us.”

The men looked confusedly to Adriana for a translation. She obliged. They each took turns to inspect the note. They clearly had absolutely no idea how much it was worth in relation to their own currency, or should I say how little, meaning that my act had thrown upon it a perceived value severely higher than its actual worth. Inside I was giggling, but I kept a serious demeanour and slowly took Adriana’s ID card from the man’s hand and passed it back to her, keeping eye contact the whole time with the man in question. He gently folded the fiver and put it in his top pocket, before saying in English to the pair of us, “Go!”

We casually strolled down the steps and off of the tram, before walking briskly away from the depot and out of sight. It probably wouldn’t take these excited men too long to realise that between them they had each just made the grand sum of £1.25.

“I can’t believe that just worked!” Adriana said, laughing. “Idiots! The fine for the two of us would have been around £50. But I hate that you even gave them that, as these guys only ever pick on Romanians. They never fine or even take bribes from other gypsies. They are bullies. Criminals.”

I didn’t care to get into a political discussion on a topic I knew nothing about. Instead I just smiled contentedly in the knowledge that I had just pulled off my first ever Romanian bribe.

* To demonstrate how rife bribe culture is in Romania, here is an example: In just one sample month, October 2012, 40 Romanian Railways ticket inspectors were arrested on suspicion of allowing passengers to ride the railways without a ticket, in exchange for a small bribe, part of which was passed ‘upstairs’. 40 arrests in just one month! And this is only the ones that were stupid enough to get caught.

The tram had taken us out of Bucharest, to the southern Romanian village of Jilava, 32 miles from our next target destination, the town of Giurgiu on the border with Bulgaria. We had no plans to stay in Bulgaria, but we did have to pass through it to get to Turkey. The time was about 3pm and we hoped to be in Romania’s southern neighbour before dark. Jilava wasn’t a place you would come to for any sightseeing. It consisted of a road and a depressing looking grey prison. I know prisons aren’t meant to look like happy places, I mean I wasn’t expecting a bouncy castle with Ronald McDonald as a security guard on the door, but even by prison standards this place looked grim.

The magical fairytale castle that is Jilava Prison

The magical fairytale castle that is Jilava Prison

Our tried and tested technique for getting picked up by drivers was for Adriana to stand in the road, chest slightly pushed out, wide smile spread across her face, while I lingered somewhere in the background, smoking a cigarette, almost out of sight until the moment the driver pulled over and opened his passenger door, at which point I would climb into the seat next to him with an outstretched arm of greeting, while Adriana climbed in the back. But today this wasn’t working. Some 45 minutes had passed and not a single car had as much as slowed down, let alone pulled over.

“My arm’s starting to ache. It’s your turn,” Adriana complained, handing me the cardboard sign on which we had written in bold letters, ‘Giurgiu’.

I took it and stepped into the road.

“Smile! And put that cigarette out! Nobody’s going to stop for a miserable bastard,” were my on-the-job instructions. I did as I was told.

I would definitely stop and pick this charming looking guy up

I would definitely stop and pick this charming looking guy up

Almost instantly a red Renault Clio pulled over. I peered in through the window to see a friendly looking young woman smiling back at me. I piled Adriana into the back seat along with our backpacks, and then climbed into the front passenger seat, shaking hands with the driver, who I now noticed was very attractive. Gabi was 24 years old and spoke perfect English; a requirement of her job, working in the international department of a large and well known mobile telecommunications company. She was heading home to Giurgiu after an early finish at work in the city, and she told us that she often picked up hitchhikers on this stretch of road. She had lived in Giurgiu her whole life. Her father had spent his life employed as a border guard, checking passengers as they passed from one country to the other by train, but since January 2007 the customs checks had ceased, meaning he had been forced into early retirement.

“I will take you all the way to the Romanian edge of the border, if you like,” Gabi told us. “I would take you over, but there is a toll.”

By ‘over’ she meant over the Danube Bridge, which links Romania to Bulgaria, crossing over the natural border between the two countries, the Danube River. Gabi dropped us off in a bit of open land, just before the start of the bridge. The wind was blowing up, and we had to protect our eyes from the dust that was whirling around in the air. There were no pedestrians in sight, but every couple of minutes a large lorry would fly past us. Just before entering the bridge, a Romanian man in a uniform took a quick glance at our passports, before wishing us a safe journey and waving us off. We were now in no-man’s land. Below us, a railway line. Below that, the cold water of the Danube. In front of us, almost one and a half miles of bridge. And then Bulgaria.

The Danube Bridge was opened in 1954 as the Friendship Bridge, a cute little name it got from the Soviet Union, whose engineers had designed it; and is one of only two bridges connecting Romania with Bulgaria. Its name was changed to the more aloof sounding Danube Bridge after the fall of the communist regimes in both countries in the early 1990s. The majority of the walk across it was on an eyesore of steelwork that made you feel smaller and less significant than an ant. It was definitely not designed for pedestrians, as the narrow strip of pavement that ran down its side wasn’t wide enough for one average-sized American to walk down, let alone us two slim European friends. Single file was obligatory. Each time a lorry whizzed past, we had to hold on to the sides to keep from being blown over the side and down into the murky depths below.

On the steel monstrosity that is the Danube Bridge

On the steel monstrosity that is the Danube Bridge

After about 20 minutes of walking, and seemingly with no end in sight, the bridge had crossed the widest part of the river and then became what was more deserving of the warm name, Friendship Bridge. The pavement remained as narrow and unwelcoming, but we were no longer captive inside the cage-like monstrosity. We were open to the elements again, and as the sun was slowly setting to our left, and the air was rapidly becoming ice cold, the view of the leafless brown trees that lined the great river below us seemed beautiful. I was reminded why it is that I love Europe, particularly Eastern Europe, and particularly in the winter time, so much.

Adriana, shuffling her way towards Bulgaria, leading the way across what I now was happy to call the Friendship Bridge

Adriana, shuffling her way towards Bulgaria, leading the way across what I now was happy to call the Friendship Bridge

After another 10 or 15 minutes of pleasant strolling, we reached the end of the bridge and the entrance to Bulgaria; the city of Ruse to be precise. Ruse is an industrial city, and its skyline, at least on the city’s edge, is decorated with the smoking chimneys of factories, not to mention the Ruse Iztok Power Plant. It is Bulgaria’s fifth largest city. It was a city that failed to interest us in the slightest, though, and we planned to be out of it and on the road towards the country’s Black Sea coastline as quickly as possible. Darkness was quickly falling and the temperature had dropped to freezing.

We had no time to stop and take a breather. We still had 350 miles to cover before we would reach Istanbul. Only then would we rest.

* To be continued……

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