…The Atlassib bus became fully-packed by the time we reached Thessaloniki…It is not a tourist bus, filled with chatty sun-tanned people recollecting their recent memories, but tired faces heading home after long years spent working abroad…Most of them left to Greece after the Wall came down, learnt to speak the language and go home once a year for a couple of days or weeks, if they are lucky…The emerging stereotype is the same. Somewhere from the North Eastern side of Romania, life was harsh, he/she left, but the promised life meant heavy hours of work for not enough money. Tired faces, clothes that follow a random workers’ fashion and stories of how they got there years ago….
…We slowly reached the Bulgarian border and a massive, mountain of a man, in his late thirties came to the back of the bus where I took my sit and managed to have a spare one so I could stretch my legs. His face prematurely aged, the physique showing the signs of past sport practices, turned into a typical working class belly. He set down next to me for a couple of minutes, to talk to his wife and son, as he couldn’t find a seat next to them. I decided, hidden away in my semi-MP3 player ignorance, to offer him my spare seat. After all, I wouldn’t like to be separated from my family, while sitting on the same bus…As we crossed the border, the bus stopped for some minutes in Bulgaria to refuel. The newly found travel companion came up some minutes later with a plastic bag. He pulled out two Bulgarian beers and a small bottle of Alexandrion from it. He looked at me and gave me a plastic cup, poured me a good shot of Greek distilled and handed me a beer. “Cheers mate! And thanks for the seat. Drink up!” – he said. I hesitantly took the shot and eased the strength of it with some beer. “What’s up laddy? You don’t like it?” – he asked me with his simple humor. “I do” – I added – “but, I am not used to drinking on a bus”. In the meantime the wife started bickering with him, about how he shouldn’t drink on the bus, but he didn’t give too much attention to her. “Look at the bright side” – he said. “You might end up sleeping or at least you can have a chat with me”.
I do believe everyone has a story, as MZ used to ask me some years ago. “Ei, ma’brada’. What’s ya story?” And as the minutes passed, the Alexandrion lessened and the beer eased it, so did his tongue become alive and started telling his story.
“I am from Dorohoi my friend, Botosani county. You know, up there close to the Ukrainian border. And you know what we are famous for? We are the poorest region in the country.” – and he sighed. I knew this as I follow the news, it is not the first time I travelled with people from that region and it is definitely not a region that is on my “must visit” list. “So why and when did your leave?” – I asked him. “Why? You are funny my friend. There is nothing there my friend. Hunger! That’s all there is. I left 15 years ago, somewhere in 1996. You know, I studied chemistry and biology in high-school and wanted to become a doctor, but ehh…who had the money, eh?” – and he sipped again from his beer. “So why Greece man? Why not Germany or Austria?” – I asked him with increasing curiosity. “Well, simple. It was easier to get there.” – “You mean, easier to get a Visa back then?” – I asked. He looked at me and saw that I was younger than him and less experienced in how the workforce left the country in the mid 90s. “Visa, my ass. Who gave you a Visa back then? You see those mountains there?” – and he pointed to a high mountain range somewhere in Southern Bulgaria. “Well I managed to cross intoBulgaria, somehow, but the Bulgarian and Greek borders were better patrolled. I ended up staying 3 days up in those mountains, surviving on fruits and berries while I waited for an opportunity to jump the border.” – “Why didn’t you have a guide to help you through?” – I interrupted him. –“Who had the money? They asked several thousand dollars per person. We took a chance. During the day you couldn’t move as the guards would spot you. During the night you couldn’t see properly and wild animals lurked all around us…Remember the river we crossed? Well, when we somehow came down the mountain, we swam through the river but the Bulgarian guards caught us and beat us up… Then they deported us, just in order to find us back there after two weeks. They caught us again, and then we decided to make our third attempt by passing through Yugoslavia and then Macedonia. The third one worked for us…” – The bus stopped again. I looked up and wondered as it had just stopped 20 minutes earlier. The driver looked back and yelled “Okei guys, a 10 minute short break. Buy as many as you can fit on the bus.” – I got down and saw people rushing into a small roadside store. The Bulgarian owner was yelling the prices in Romanian. “9 euros, for 5 liters. Good quality. Good quality!” People were buying olives, olive oil and truffles in massive quantities. My travel companion as well. “You know” – he said – “You can sell it back home for a better price”. Half the bus got filled up with cans of olives and olive oil. Even the drivers did so….
…He pours me another shot. Half an hour has passed since the olive incident and he got back into his chatty mood. His eyes turned a bit red and I could see that the Alexandrion and beer mix hit his bloodstream and affected his speech. He was getting drunk. “So what did you do after you crossed into Greece? You know, I mean where did you sleep, where did you find work?” – I asked him with a slight feeling of approaching tipsiness. “Well, I got to Thessaloniki, but couldn’t find a place to stay, neither did I have much money left. So I stayed in the woods for some days and came across some Aromanian (Vlach) villages. I understood some of the language as it is a distant dialect of Romanian. And so I found some people who took me in and paid me, while I worked on their farms. Wealthy people I have to say…Even the Greeks envy them for their wealth, but they are stingy and cheap my friend. They would give you food as much as you wanted but if you asked 2 euros more for your salary, they would say no…That’s where I learnt to speak a bit of Aromanian, some Greek and gathered some money…Now I have my own business inThessaloniki. My child goes there to school…It is not easy doing business inGreecefor a foreigner, but I somehow managed. I learnt their language and their ways. Now, I am going home after 11 years. I haven’t seen my hometown since 2000.” – he continued with a slight anxiousness. “Are you scared of what you’ll find?” - I asked him. “Anxious my friend, anxious. My mother would come and visit me each year. You know, if Mohammed doesn’t go to the mountain, the mountain comes to Mohammed. I used to go back once a year in my first years, but then I got married, and you know, your family keeps you in your new country…”.
In the meantime dusk turned into night and in the background the old bus TV-set churned up the air. People started snoring in the crammed bus. My legs became numb and couldn’t fall asleep, thinking of another story I managed to come across… The face of the realRomania, of the people who left the country years ago and passed many perils to get into a better one. The crisis has been here for more than Western people know, but then again who talks about it.
Somewhere in Southern Bulgaria, 2011, early September