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Previously in Atlantic Abroad

  • A Day at the Moscow Beach (Jeffrey Tayler, Russia, April 1, 1998).

  • On the Ground in Patagonia (William Langewiesche, Chile, March 18, 1998).

  • Dog Days in Paris (Katherine Guckenberger, France, March 4, 1998).

  • The View from Awolowo Street (Jeffrey Tayler, Nigeria, February 19, 1998).

  • The Courts of Pondicherry (Akash Kapur, India, February 4, 1998).

  • A Convent with a View (Katherine Guckenberger, France, January 22, 1998).

  • The Moscow Rave (Jeffrey Tayler, Russia, December 24, 1997).

  • Waste Not, Want Not (Ryan Nally, Poland, December 10, 1997).

  • Sikkim and Ye Shall Find (Akash Kapur, India, November 26, 1997).

  • The Magistrates of Creektown (Jeffrey Tayler, Nigeria, November 5, 1997).

  • Brando's Birds (Marshall Jon Fisher, France, October 22, 1997).

  • Dinner at the Gostilna Novljan (Chris Berdik, Slovenia, October 8, 1997).

  • The Dacha Regime (Jeffrey Tayler, Russia, September 25, 1997).

    For more, see the complete Atlantic Abroad Index.

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  • Tricks of the Trade
    April 15, 1998

    Sibiu, an ancient Saxon town in Transylvania, was freezer-cold and cheerless, even at midday; the autumn sun hung crisp and steely in the gray sky above the oaks and cast scraggly tree-branch shadows on the sidewalks of the central square. I hurried along, passing bundled-up gypsy children who were begging and raising mayhem, their noses runny, their matted hair sticking out from under their wool caps. Ahead of me was the Dumbrava department store, where my hotel clerk told me I could change money. It was Saturday and the banks were closed.

    The Dumbrava turned out to be echoing and poorly-heated, filled with saleswomen in fur hats and mittens peddling videos, household appliances, and all sorts of domestic oddments. I scouted around for awhile before I located the casa de schimb valutar, or exchange booth, and hustled over to it. Inside, behind a dirty window, a woman wearing a white fur hat was counting out Romanian currency, or lei, into little piles of crumpled bills.

    I edged up to the window but didn't speak, thinking it would be rude to interrupt the woman's concentration. She finished one pile, then started on another. After this, before I could get a word in, she grabbed yet another wad of lei and began yet another round of rhythmic counting, licking her thumb every twentieth bill or so. I shifted my weight from foot to foot. After about ten minutes of this rigamarole I had had enough, and bent over to the waist-high slot in the window. But as I was about to open my mouth she slammed a plastic sign down on her counter that read ÎNCHIS (CLOSED).

    "The day after tomorrow," she said, her voice muffled by the glass. "No more lei for sale today." Grabbing her coat, she walked out the back of the booth and locked up.

    There was a tug at my arm.

    "Change money? Change money?"

    The unshaven young man at my side glanced furtively from side to side. Exchange booths in Romania often ran out of money, and somewhere nearby there were usually black-market dealers. Thanks to a mercilessly effective secret-police apparatus, Romania during the communist era seemed to have fewer currency sharks than now.

    "Change?"

    I had a fifty-dollar bill lodged deep in my pocket. I said yes, I'd change: at 4,100 lei to the dollar (the rate marked on the booth) he would have to give me 205,000 lei. He agreed and motioned that I pull out my dollars. I told him I wanted to count the lei he was selling with my own hands before showing him anything.

    He looked right then left, as if greatly put upon, and slowly reached inside his jacket. He counted out 205,000 lei -- and then, as he was placing the wad in my palm, something took place, some slight twitch of a lesser digit. I counted, and as I neared the end, he said, "Oh, hurry up!" I didn't. Instead of 205,000 I found I was holding 195,000.

    "Ten thousand more," I said.

    He took back the bills and counted them out one by one: 205,000. He then placed them in my hand -- again with the same slight twitch of his fingers at the final nanosecond of his move. I grabbed his hand: no hidden bill. Nevertheless, when I counted I had only 195,000.

    "This is absurd!" I said. "You're going to lose this whole transaction because you want to rip me off for two dollars?" With an insufferable display of weariness, he called back to two of his buddies near the doorway and asked for 10,000 lei. One handed him a 10,000-lei note. He added it to the pile, then handed the pile to me, but as soon as I began counting he ducked, grabbed my forearm, and blurted out, "Politia!"

    I stood still and counted, this time more slowly than ever -- slowly, s-l-o-w-l-y. He stood still as well, of course; there were no police. Once again I found I had 195,000 lei in my palm.

    I made as if to hand him back the lei, but he raised his arms, saying, "A deal is a deal." At that I tossed the wad at his feet and sauntered past, as if certain he and his buddies wouldn't throttle me, grab my wallet, and run. They didn't. I breathed a deep sigh of relief when I made the square. I walked past the jostling gypsy children, through the steely sun's scraggly shadows, and on toward the boulevard.

    Rather than be cheated two dollars out of fifty, I would now wander around all of downtown Sibiu looking for an exchange booth. For some reason, I couldn't let myself be swindled, but I wasn't sure that my dogged rectitude really made fiscal sense; probably now I'd find a taxi for three dollars that would take me to a booth where the rate would be less. As illogical as this seemed, it was equally irrational, at least at first glance, that he would persist with his failing legerdemain until he lost his deal altogether. But I thought about this: unlike during the meatless Ceaucescu decades, the choice to deal was now his as much as mine, and we had both pursued our interests, each choosing to end up with nothing. A small inconvenience for me, but, probably, a minor -- and relatively newfound -- luxury for him.


    Jeffrey Tayler is a freelance writer and traveler based in Moscow. He has recently written on Greece, Moscow, Siberia, Transylvania, and Zaire for The Atlantic Monthly. He contributes regularly to Atlantic Abroad.

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    Copyright © 1998 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.

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