The man was one of the Roma, known to Romanians as "Gypsies". He spoke incessantly in an unintelligible language, and was carrying a blue cloth shopping bag stuffed full of unidentifiable stuff. Though he spoke rapidly and strangely, he made it clear first that he wanted me to take him to a hospital in a town somewhere ahead, that he needed money (the sign for which, the rubbing together of the thumb and first two fingers, is seemingly universal), and that he wanted me to buy something that sounded like “pita” from his bag. We were entering the uphill switchbacks of one of the mountain ranges along this route. I was trying to drive, and trying to ignore this man’s constant poking at my right shoulder, to make me look at him as I heard his endless pleading.
After a few miles, I tried Spanish. He seemed to know some Spanish, and asked if I had niños. I told him I had six kids. He replied “Yo, cinco.” Now he asked me to give him something for his kids, whose mother, he said, had died in a machine (which I took to mean a car wreck, as a car in Romania is a “maşina,” ), and pulled up his shirt to show me a nasty scar that looked very much like a healed gunshot wound, though maybe it was his scar from that car accident. I was damned if I was going to part with the 200 Lei that I had withdrawn that morning, and needed for the trip, so I just stalled and kept talking with the man. Then he spotted the two little boxes of Belgian chocolates that I had in the console, bought as little gifts for Nancy and Kate. “Chocolata por mi niños?" he begged. I picked them up and handed them to him. “Okay,” I said, “Por sus niños”. He immediately began crossing himself, and praising Jesus, though I hardly think he was nominating me for sainthood.
I soon realized I had made a mistake. Now that he knew I could be talked into giving in to his pleas, they became even more intense. We were descending westward, and I really had to pay attention to the road. I decided to let Klaus help me out of my pickle. I sped up. I took the curves like a Romanian in a new Audi. (Anyone here in Romania will know what that means.) The Gypsy shut up. As we reached the next village (a mining town with no blue “H” signs in sight), my “friend” started pointing to the side of the road, saying “Aqui, aqui!” I stopped to let him out. Then I said, “Momento.” I reached into my bag in the back seat and gave him my sack of three beautiful apples and a large orange, acquired that morning at the farmer’s market at Piaţa Mihai Viteazul. “Por sus niños,” I said.
To his credit, the man stole nothing from me, and offered no threats. I think I’d met a professional beggar. But, if there was any truth to the man’s story, I couldn’t just give the kids candy, could I?