Shortly after midnight at the train station of Cluj in Romania. The night train to Targu Mures has been canceled without any information about the underlying reason, let alone a replacement train or even a bus. With my broken Romanian, I fail to obtain any further information because the counter for “international information” only calls itself such because it sells tickets to Budapest and Vienna, not for the linguistic abilities of its staff. Sometimes I understand why in a whole year in Romania, I never heard one positive statement about the state-owned railway CFR.
The next train will leave at 5:30, so it’s not worth the hassle to look for a room for the night. After having gotten bored from walking up and down the large railway station building several times, I step outside onto the platform. It’s cold there, but at least that keeps me from falling asleep.
There is not much going on here at this time of the night. The usual suspects, whom you see loitering at train stations after midnight all around the world.
After a while, the expected happens. One of the prowlers asks me for a cigarette, quite politely though. Unfortunately, I cannot help him with that. He notices my limited Romanian and asks me if I’d rather continue the conversation in English. I affirm, and I am in for a surprise. Because Sebastian, as he introduces himself, speaks a very good and flawless English.
“Where did you learn to speak English so well?” I inquire, expecting a story about a previous job in England or a stint at a university in the US.
“From watching movies. I like action films.” He is full of praise for the Transporter series. I find this hard to believe because his English goes well beyond these stupid movies. Maybe he secretly watches C-SPAN, but has internalized the anti-intellectual mood which briefly flared up in Romania in June 1990 and is therefore too afraid to admit it, for fear of marauding miners.
After I have told a little bit about myself, custom dictates that I ask about his personal life, too. Thus I learn that he is indeed homeless. An accident damaged both his legs, making it hard for him to find work. He receives a small pension, around 50 $ per month. He spent two years in prison after stealing food items from a supermarket. They were worth 10 $. “But if you steal a couple of millions, nothing will happen to you.” This is not only the relativization of a convict, but consensus in corruption-riddled Romania. A few hours ago, I had dinner with a criminal defense attorney, now I am discussing the proportionality of penal law with an ex-prisoner. At least the night will pass quickly like that.
“And where do you sleep?” I ask, half sheepishly, half caringly. I don’t have much experience in small talk with homeless people. He sleeps at the train station. That’s actually not permitted, he explains, “but they make an exception for me because I never cause any problems. I don’t drink alcohol, I am not loud, and I am gone by early morning.” The canceled night train however means that the warm waiting hall is now occupied by travelers and that he won’t get any sleep tonight. During the day, he walks around town, through the parks, and when his brother’s flatmate is not at home, he can sometimes go to that apartment to wash himself.
I readily believe that the station staff tolerate him, for although he does look poor and battered, he doesn’t appear scruffy at all. And he is exceptionally polite. From time to time he asks passers-by for a cigarette, but so unintrusively and with a low voice that some of them don’t even hear him and most others are happy to help.
The ladies working in the station café also know Sebastian. When they step out onto the platform to break for a smoke, they listen to our conversation for a while and then ask him in disbelief: “You speak English?” He smiles shyly, “yes, of course.” “No! You must be pretending. You are fooling us.” The coffee and sandwich sellers cannot believe that the poor man whom they grant shelter, and hopefully a piece of cake, every night is a polyglot. Their mouths are open with awe, so wide that the Orient Express could drive through. One of them decides to ask me: “Is that true? He really speaks English?” “Oh yes, very well, actually,” I remove all doubts with the authority of the stranger. “Incredibil, incredibil” they keep murmuring, throwing a stealthy glance at us from time to time. Once, when the eyes of the more attractive of the two ladies and the homeless man meet, she shakes her head appreciatively and still in disbelief, but smiles at him, as if she wants to ask “what other surprises do you have in store?” and he cannot completely hide his pride anymore.
But I really cannot believe that Jason Statham movies are the source of his English when some birds fly by and he not only knows their names in English, but explains which of them are nocturnal and which are diurnal. I have to ask to learn that these are the technical terms for animals active at night or during the day.
Unfortunately, Sebastian then asks how old I am. This part of the conversation is equally depressing in all such situations. “I am 40,” upon which he predictably responds “You look much younger. Maybe like 30.” I say nothing, for I want to put an end to this subject. He, without being prompted: “I am 29.” Sadly, I cannot return the compliment because marked by poverty, illness, prison, homelessness and possible further blows of fate with which he doesn’t want to bother a stranger at their first meeting, he does indeed look older than 40. These are the moments when I realize how much luck I have had in life.
“Do you want a coffee?” he suddenly asks, adding right away: “I will pay for you.” Moved and filled with indignation, I refuse. Instead, I offer to buy him something to eat. “Oh, that’s not necessary, thank you. I have already eaten today.”
When the train arrives, we bid farewell cordially, each of us thankful for the company provided. “Andreas,” he calls after me as I make my way to the wagon, “watch your bag on the train. There are a lot of thieves.”
- Another memorable encounter, this one with a young girl in Peru.
- More articles about Romania.
- Zur deutschen Fassung dieser Geschichte.
- This story was also published on Medium.
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I still have tears in my eyes when I remember that moment when a poor, broken homeless man offered to invite me to a coffee.
That is indeed amazing.
Nice morning coffee reading. Good job !
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What an incredible story. And, like you, now I wonder how this guy picked up his English. I traveled behind the iron curtain in the days when I lived in (then West) Germany, and found that people in really bad circumstances will talk very openly about some things to foreigners.
That must have been quite an experience!
I grew up in West Germany, but I had never been in Eastern Europe (except one holiday in Yugoslavia) before the Iron Curtain fell. Then, I first visited Prague in 1990 or so and it’s astonishing how much it has changed since.
But even now, I still find Eastern Europe more exotic.
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Thank you for pointing me to this post.
I can relate. When I was 20 I lived in my car. I could’ve moved back to my mother’s home, but there was a reason I moved out after graduation and that reason remained.
I had a very good job but it was part time. I would rent a hotel room every few days to be able to stretch out to sleep and to wash my hair. I cleaned up in public restrooms other times.
My part time job, paid weekly, meant I was never hungry, but I never could save enough for deposit and 1st month rent for an apartment.
It’s important to remember that all homeless people aren’t mentally ill or addicts. Sometimes bad luck happens. My roommate left and I couldn’t find a new one, and I couldn’t afford rent in my own… thats how I wound up living in my car.
Wow. Thank you very much for telling that very personal story!
It’s really shocking how quickly that can happen. At least in a country without a social safety net. I can’t even imagine what would have happened, had you not had a car and a job. (And there are plenty of people who have neither.)
I sometimes wonder if part of people’s fear/resentment of homeless or poor people (in Spanish, there is a word “aporofobia”, literally “fear of the poor”) is based on that subconscious knowledge that it could happen to them, too. And they prefer not to think about it.