Don’t talk to strangers

“And what happened to those without mothers?”

     “Bam! Shot dead.”

     “Why?”

     “For mothers fight for their kids, they will do anything for them. Those with no mothers –  useless.”

The remaining kids were told to call their mothers and tell them they needed money. They got about one month to collect it.

      “You got the money, they take you on the boat to Italy. No money? Bam! Shot dead. “

Needless to say I was excited to cross borders to Romania. Until now, I hadn’t really felt as if I had crossed any borders at all. The only thing letting me know I was no longer in Germany but Czech Republic was a sign simply saying “Czech Republic”; when crossing borders to Hungary from Slovakia later on there wasn’t even a sign. No doubt, when I eventually cross borders to Iran and the Stan-countries I will curse the bureaucracy and strict, time-craving controls, but for now I just wanted to enjoy my first “real border crossing” with a proper passport control. To sense that feeling of achievement, when I was handed back my passport from the border guards, free to pass through.

I had only done about 55 km when I reached Arad, but not knowing which route to take across this rather big European country, I decided to find the cheapest accommodation in the city to give myself some time to figure out. I was googling “hostels in Arad” using McDonald’s free wifi when an adorably cute little girl spoke to me in Romanian. I tried to tell her in my softest voice possible that “I’m sorry but I don’t speak Romanian, do you speak English?” and was just about to ask for her name when a man sitting behind me turned to me: “Är du svensk? (Are you Swedish)”

“Yes, I am”, I replied, caught by surprise being spoken to in my own language, “do you speak Swedish?”

“Only a little. My grandparents are from Sweden.” It turned out he and his wife were from California in the US  – thus explaining the perfect American English. Their intention had only been to visit Romania, but they had remained there… for the past 25 years (!) teaching English and Theology. We had a chat for a while and they gave me advice regarding routes to take and what was worth seeing, and as we later told each other goodbye I curiously asked myself: “What could be so interesting about Romania it made this couple stay for 25 years?” I had to find out.

After checking in to what seemed to be the only hostel in Arad, I yet had to find myself a map and new tent pegs, since I had forgotten mine in the woods a few nights earlier. It turned out not to be the easiest task.

I got an app on my phone (no longer working though) on which you could get directions to gas stations, supermarkets, different kinds of shops etc. This time I wanted to find a sports shop, hoping that maybe they would sell tent pegs. The app led me right into an alley and a dead-end, and I stood wondering what to do next. There were two guys my age in there however, and one of them turned out to speak English really well.

“I could take you to a sports shop I know of”, he said and pointed to a bike parked in the corner, “I got my mountain bike over there.” He was one year younger than me, still in high school, and he got but one thing to say when I told him I was from Sweden: “I hate your language.” I couldn’t help but ask, “how come?”

“It just sounds so odd to me. You got the weirdest pronunciation!!” I just laughed, telling him that to me Romanian was just the same; impossible words to pronounce. I still hadn’t learnt the one word I try to learn first when I enter a new country; thank you. The sweet, kind mother of the daughter who owned the hostel I was staying at had done her best to teach me. And this guy would too repeat it to me over and over. “Mulțumesc”, and then he’d sigh, “no no, mulț-u-mesc“. In the end, I think he just gave up on me.

It turned out the sports shop had just closed for the day, and we diverged paths. He to see his girlfriend, I to have pizza with my girlfrie… err, bike. I had some good dark beer, too.

It was all dark when I headed back to the hostel, and the dogs in the garden would once again intensively bark at me as I entered. “Calm down now”, I told them, “you know me, I’m no stranger.” As far as I knew I was the only none-Romanian there and body language was all the common language there was. But then a man spoke to me in English, sitting on a lawn chair in a dusk corner of the garden. You could tell he was obviously not Romanian.

At first sight he struck me as the man I met two years ago in a region close to Milan, who had repeatedly begged me to bring him to Sweden and I had had troubles to get rid of him. “Please, please… you gotta take me with you!” He pleaded over and over.

But Dennis turned out to be quite different from that man. He was about my parents’ age, and in a sense just like any other person in their 50s.  He was born in the Caribbean, but moved to London when he was “this high” he had told me as he gestured with his hand about one meter above the ground. He spoke passionately about his garden in London in which he grew vegetables such as tomatoes and carrots, and he loved fishing in the river Thames although he’d always release the fish instead of killing it.

In another sense however, he was that kind of person in their 50s who smoked pot every now and then -“although not as much as in my youth” – and traveled all over the world. In the Bulgarian countryside, the kids had run up to him and asked him for a photo since they had never seen a black man in real life before. In Turkey just a few months ago, he’d been to the Syrian border trying to get across it. “It wasn’t my idea, but my travel companion’s!” He’d defensively explained when I asked him why he wanted to enter Syria. “He even brought that stray dog he’d adopted!” The dog had been called Alexander the Great and his travel companion had smuggled it into every hotel. “We failed crossing the border though”, he continued, in a relieved tone.

When I hesitated to share a bottle of wine with him there at the hostel’s backyard he’d just laughed. “You’re reluctant to drink wine with me but… you are willingly staying with these… people?” I don’t think he quite meant to put it that way – but according to him, this hostel was “obviously nothing but a place for the authorities to put homeless people.”

“So I grew up on a really small island where everybody knew everybody”, Dennis told me, “which meant you simply had to behave. If you didn’t, your parents would know within just a minute. Also the other adults had the right to discipline you.” Despite this I had a hard time believing Dennis really had been a behaved kid, but maybe I just got him all wrong – who knows.

He spoke with a British accent and when he didn’t agree with me he’d say “well I beg to differ”. When I asked him to give me the ice tea he’d correct me; “could you please hand me the ice tea” and I cursed his British manners in my head. He on the other hand, cursed my constant joking. I let him try my bike but not without blocking the way out from the yard “in case you’d try to steal it”. I let him type his email-address on my phone but not without setting myself into a running position “in case you’d try to run away with it.”

When we met in the corridor the next morning, he put his hands to his head as if I were giving him a real headache; “Please, it’s morning. You can’t just keep making jokes like that. Be serious for once… God, I need coffee.” Have you watched Brother Bear? Well imagine then, that I was Koda constantly chattering on and on and he was Kenai frequently making that oh-would-you-just-shut-up-face.

He seemed quite amazed although nevertheless concerned by the trip I was making, “but please, please don’t go to the middle east” he pleaded. I wasn’t sure what he’d count as the middle east, but the country he spoke of next was not included in my route. “One of my friends moved to Saudi Arabia. Whenever she enters a shop, they ask her: ‘How much? How much?’ And in the beginning she looked back at them saying ‘I’m the one who should ask you how much’ (for the groceries). ‘No no. How much. How much for your body.'” Every time, any time… all the time. I forgot to ask Dennis why on earth his friend and her husband would move to Saudi Arabia in the first place, but I guess I’ll just save that question for later, if our path ever crosses again.

There was one sentence spoken by Dennis that I liked more than the others; “We are nothing but little pieces of information to each other.”  On one hand, it might sound like such a cold, objectifying statement about the humankind. On the other hand, it’s indeed a beautiful and truthful fact – that really is all we are. And what I liked about Dennis was, that he’d share a lot of stories with me.

Such as when he told me about the kidnapped Somali kids.

Dennis was protesting loudly when I dived onto the ground; “no please, we can’t just sit in the dirt like that!” and he grabbed two chairs for us instead. Now, it wasn’t his story he was to tell me next. His co-worker, from Somalia, had told him and it had really stuck to him. He simply shared the story on.

“Somalia is pretty much two countries. There is Somaliland, where terrorism doesn’t exist and it’s all peaceful. And there is the north – that’s where the terrorists are. We don’t want our kids to go to Europe. But all our young hear is the success stories… they think of Europe as the paradise.

When they make it to Libya many will be kidnapped. They will be told to come up with a certain amount of money, and if they make it – they get on the boat to Italy. If they don’t…. they will be killed. They got about a month to get the money.”

‘And what happens to them during this month?’

‘They will be raped. – Oh, not just the girls. The boys too. All of them.

We’re telling our kids not to go to Europe. It’s just not worth it.”

A few hours later I knocked on Dennis’ door to tell him I was leaving. He got to try my bike once again – this time fully loaded. And this time, I didn’t make myself ready to run after in case he’d try to run off with it.

I knew he would not.

“So… Don’t talk to any weird strangers, ok?” He begged me.

I found those last goodbye words from Dennis quite amusing, and as I headed off on my bike, it brought back memories from Italy particularly. When I bike toured there two years ago, everybody would take so much care of me. They’d greet and talk to me, give me fresh fruit and water from their farms – some even invited me to their homes.

And they would all tell me the very same thing.

“Don’t talk to strangers.”

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