On Being a Bum

Last week the kids and I walked to the train station in Timisoara to reserve seats for our trip to Budapest. The Timisoara train station–it’s called Garu Nord–is a sparse, cold, Communist-era affair. It doesn’t, in other words, say “Come on in!”

We found what we thought was the correct ticket window and waited in line for 20 minutes, hoping that this was the line to reserve our tickets. When it was our turn, we approached the counter.

These are always interesting moments because they can break either way; that is, the person behind the Plexiglas can be super nice and helpful, or he or she can be, well, the opposite of super nice.

I looked at the middle-aged woman on the other side of the glass and conjured up the most charming smile I could. “English okay?” I asked, but I was only met with a scowl. I proceeded in my best broken English, “Reserve. Train. Budapest. 5 November?”

She turned to her computer and began punching numbers into the keyboard. I looked down at the kids and we all just smiled. At least we found the correct ticket window, I thought.

When the woman finished with the computer she turned back toward me and, this time, she looked over the counter and noticed the children with me. Her gaze fell to Eleanor, and her whole demeanor changed. She smiled and for a moment I could see in her face that she was a mother and a grandmother–she knew children and she knew how to instinctively be kind to them.

Eleanor smiled back and the the woman brought her open palm to her lips and blew Eleanor a kiss.

The rest of the transaction proceeded apace and within five minutes, we were walking back out of Nord, Budapest tickets in hand.

I found this to be a curious moment. Why was the woman so scowly with me and why did she melt when she saw Eleanor? Eleanor is very cute and she has a smile that could make the coldest heart smile back at her, so I get that, but I’m no Voldemort either. This wasn’t the first time something like this has happened, and it got me wondering why.

Later that day, we joined up with Sujata and we all headed over to Vinilotecta to see Emile. As we were sipping his son’s homebrew, a delicious floral IPA they call “Bereta/Citra,” I asked Emile about our earlier adventure at the train station. “Emile,” I asked, “Why do I always get the attitude?”

“Citra” is ironic: it’s the name of a (bad) soda from the Communist era.

Emile looked at me and without a moment’s hesitation said, “Because you look like a bum. Like me.”

This was news to me. I know that I don’t dress like an attorney in a white-shoe law firm, but . . . a bum?


It’s not that I was bothered by Emile’s analysis. I like Emile a lot–he’s a friend–and I was proud and happy that he linked us together around our sartorial choices.

Of course there was no end to the teasing I received from Sujata and the kids after they heard what Emile said. For the rest of the week I was pretty constantly reminded that I was little more than a bum. Fair enough. It was a mantle I was willing and happy to take up.

That said, I didn’t think too much more about it until yesterday. Friday is my teaching day and my classes don’t begin until 4 pm so I generally prepare for class in the morning and then when I’m done I walk to the University to print my lecture and then if I have extra time I go to the library and go over my notes and re-read the texts I’ve asked the students to read.  The library at West University is, well, pretty much exactly opposite from the Timisoara train station. It’s new, modern, filled with light, there are clean rest rooms with full soap dispensers and there are lots of comfortable places to sit.

I scrambled up the steps, walked through the doors and then toward the elevator and just as I was about to press the elevator button I heard a very loud voice behind me. “Wow, I thought, someone is in trouble!”

I looked around and saw a middle-aged woman (what do they have against me?!”) approaching quickly and speaking Romanian. She came up to my side and put her her hand on my backpack and them my jacket.

I had absolutely no idea what was going on so I just smiled and gave her my line, “English?” She paused and yelled, “No backpacks or jackets in the library. You must put them in a locker over there.”

I was taken aback by this, but I kept smiling and asked said, “Oh, okay, you know, I’m going to study and my books are in here, is that okay?” “NO! No jackets or backpacks!”

I’m pretty sure that I’d worn a jacket the last few times I was in the library and I know I had my backpack. Was this a new rule? Anyway, I was not about to take off my jacket or take all my books out of my backpack and then carry them upstairs so I kindly thanked the woman, left the library and started walking over to Viniloteca.

Emile was there chatting with some of his friends and they all greeted me with buna zuias and hellos and handshakes. I sat down, Emile brought me a Bereta and I told them what just happened to me at the library. Emile fixed his eyes on me, smiled, shook his head and muttered, “You see, I told you, you are just a bum.”

Emile’s son, Adrian, came in a bit later. We regaled him with the story of my adventure in the library. Adrian had a different theory. He thought maybe the library had gone vegan and they were sequestering leather jackets in the lockers as a result. (I thought that was !@#$%^ hilarious.)

I wondered if my students had any experiences like I had at the library so at the beginning of class, I started telling them the story and as I proceeded, their jaws gradually loosened to the point that by the time I was done, they were on their desks. “Really?” They asked. “This has never happened to any of us.”  I think they thought I was teasing them, but of course, I wasn’t,  and they were collectively horrified.

So, given all that, I think it’s safe to say that Emile is correct. To most middle-aged Romanian women, I look like a bum. Okay, I’m glad I figured that out.

Upon Arrival: Keleti Train Station, Budapest

2 thoughts on “On Being a Bum

  1. Eric– Jim and I are still knocking around Morocco and southern Spain, our version of being on the loose. I’m still watching and listening to you carefully and with great profit. More when I return. David

    Sent from my iPhone


  2. This is a good reminder to dress up a little in Europe. I think they judge more on looks and appearance there than we do. You could be a millionaire here and wear a track suit, but that just doesn’t happen as much in Europe. I will be sure to change out of my pj’s before I get off the plane!!!

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