I got annoyed in a hotel this morning. My final breakfast in Romania and I tried to give the waiter some of the coins and small notes in my purse, in order to receive a large note as change. He refused to accept the coins, saying he had no use for them. He pulled the 50 note from my hand, saying he’d only accept that and then, worse, gave me a handful of 5s and 1s as change.
I was angry with the waiter because he’d left me with a bundle of unchangeable currency, the money change booths wouldn’t accept a Romanian note smaller than a 10 and now I had about 35 leu in 5s and 1s, worth almost 7 quid. I could buy two days food with that money, or at least I could if I diverted a mile back towards the town centre and searched for a shop. But I didn’t want to do that, I am always walking forward, never back on myself, it doesn’t feel right; and besides, I needed the time today to spend looking for maps in the Bulgarian city across the river, not scratching about spending a few final quid on unwanted food weight.
I’d stayed at the hotel on the edge of town, closest to the bridge that crossed the Danube. Lorries had rumbled past my window all night as I slept fitfully. I’d walked 8 days in a row to get there, 125 miles, and my body was too tense to sleep properly, in need of a day off to relax my muscles. This is a major transit route for lorries from Turkey, they turn north through Bulgaria and then west once they’ve crossed into Romania, all to avoid Serbia as they take their consignments to richer EU countries like Germany and UK.
I walked towards the bridge that spanned the Danube, across the crumbling concrete wasteland that was obviously an older frontier post. Feral dogs made their flurries of barking at me and I shouted back at them, obviously still angry about the rude waiter, his sitting and smoking in the passageway between restaurant and kitchen.
It was a long way to the bridge and I tried to think about what happened, why I was annoyed, besides his rudeness, besides the unjust refusal to accept coins of his own currency. I grew up in an attitude of scarcity; wasting money scares me, I have never had enough to be profligate. But money comes constantly into my life, gifts from strangers are plentiful. I should be more relaxed about the loss of £7, it’s a matter of perception. I could have paid £7 extra for my hotel room last night without much more than a sigh, £18 to £25 is not a horrifying increase.
As I paced the long straight road towards the bridge, frontier police regularly checking my passport, smiling, wishing me “drum bun” “go well”, I saw three figures in high vis jackets sweeping the side of the road.
They were Roma women and they called out to me, smiling widely, wanting to know what I was doing. We had a short conversation about the usual subjects; where I’d slept and whether was I scared to travel alone, before I pulled my purse out and offered them my remaining money, saying I was finished with Romania and had no further use for it. I have no idea how much it meant to them, a days wages or pocket change. Some information I’ve found say that the Romanian minimum wage is £450 a month, someone else told me it was £250. One thing is for certain, the standard of what constitutes poverty in Romania is far below what we call poor in the UK. In the UK I am poor, always have been, with an income falling below minimum wage for several years now, and yet here I am, able to take two years to challenge myself to walk across Europe.
I felt good as I left the woman, it had been a conversation in passable Romanian, not awkward to pass the money over and I’d managed to turn my negativity into generosity.
My side of the road was clear, heading towards Bulgaria, but a long line of lorries queued to get into Romania. The drivers stood in groups on the central divider, chatting and either staring at me or ignoring me. Further on, around a bend, a man called to me from his lorry. “Hey, do you want some food?” I waved him off at first, confused by this random offer. But then turned and asked why. I didn’t understand the answer but here he was, this guy climbing down from the cab in the usual driver uniform of t-shirt, tracksuit bottoms, slip on sandals and socks, waving a tin at me, cold from his on-board fridge. I accepted it; “my final present from Romania” I told him, and packed it into my rucksack, nestling it down alongside the jar of homemade cherry jam that I’d bought at a roadside stall the previous day, the thick fingers of the seller there reminding me of gardening friends back home.
I didn’t want a tin of cheap pork pate but here it was, this unexpected cadeau and I accepted its obvious symbolism, of opening myself to the flow of gifts in and gifts out.
The line of lorries started to rumble and move away and the man jogged back to climb into his cab, shouting a goodbye. I turned towards the pillars that marked the beginning of the bridge with rising excitement, goodbye Romania, here was the Danube, my beloved river; here was the beginning of Bulgaria.