Men can sometimes act a bit weird when I offer to shake their hands here in Romania, just kind of freeze a bit before they go ahead with it. I’ve realised that it’s not really a thing for women. I’m not sure how, as a woman, I’m supposed to indicate my thanks for something, or that I respect that person and wish to make a gesture that honours that connection. Perhaps I should merely bob my head, or clasp my hands together and look tearful, maybe wave a handkerchief.
There was a guy in Cardiff, back in the early years of my first relationship, one of the large group of boys my boyfriend had grown up with. He was a fighty type, ran with other groups that were more dangerous than this one, dabbled in the movement of drugs and stolen goods most likely. I remember we once paid him 50 quid for a hacked mobile phone that, whenever you turned it off and back on again, would reload with 20 pounds worth of credit. It was a gamble as to whether you’d get your money’s worth before the phone company discovered it and blocked the sim card. He’d go and watch Cardiff City every weekend, the hardcore fighty football boys who counted loyalty to a team and to their mates above all else. Those hooligan days of 20 years ago when masculinity was measured in pints and obliteration, no room for weakness.
He would get drunk way beyond everyone else, and at some point in the evening it would become incredibly important for him to do a round of the room and shake everyone’s hand. It was the kind of ritual that couldn’t be avoided or disrespected, he was the kind of man who could so easily fly into violent, chair swinging rage, the one who would punch a wall to show a woman how emotional he was.
It would be a prolonged handshake, a thing of respect, a binder between him and the recipient, a symbol of the link between them. He would shake the hand of the person, looking at them and mumbling things in Cardiff slang that I can no longer remember, about how they were a good man, how he’d always known it, how they’d always have each other’s backs. I wouldn’t hear exactly what he said, he never held my hand, or that of the women he’d grown up with, it was something only for men, this team spirit, this death and glory.
I’m reminded of that guy as I watch groups of men in cafes in Romania, not in his violence but in the importance of a handshake. There are bars which are meeting places, where retired men come to spend a few hours, where working men pop in for a few shots over lunch, where unemployed men spend all day. Apart from the barmaid, it’s not really very usual for a woman to be in there; I get looked at, both furtively and blatantly. Fortunately I can avoid categorisation as a woman of loose morals by the huge rucksack which marks me as a tourist.
Some bars are small and smoky, rows of gambling machines against the walls. Some are brighter and lighter, nice tablecloths woven through with metallic thread and tables set for eating. Regardless, they are always full of groups of men, in this area of Romania many of them wear a particular furry hat made of lambswool, tall, black and square topped. Whenever someone new comes in there is a round of handshakes. If there’s someone alone, you can tell whether he’s respected or not by how swiftly other men move to shake his hand when they see him. It’s a symbol here still, the handshake between men, a way to show respect.