This kid will not take no for an answer. I’ve been trying to shake him for blocks now, but in his thuggish persistence he’s latched onto me like a burr and won’t let go – not until I cough up “uno leu.”
He’s small, clean, well-dressed, with designer sneakers and a tricked-out baseball cap. His dark eyes contain more than a hint of malice which he tries to cover up with upturned eyebrows and a begging pout.
“Per favore” he begs, pressing his palms together in supplication. “Uno leu, uno leu!”
He’s mysteriously Italian, which makes me wonder if there’s a pocket of expats somewhere in the city cooking up something slightly more edible than the unlucky slop I’ve encountered thus far in the old town of Bucharest.
“No money” I say again, smiling at him. I should really stop smiling, because he seems to take that as a sign of encouragement.
It is 7am on a Saturday morning and all the shop doors are closed. The streets become increasingly empty as we walk north toward Herăstrău Park.
Something about this kid scares me, and my awareness of the deserted streets stokes a growing flame of fear. He can’t be more than ten years old, but he’s tough, hardened by some sort of evil upbringing.
“Where is your mother?” I ask in English.
“Mia madre è morta” he replies in Italian, then immediately regrets it.
He’s just slipped and revealed that he understands every word I say.
“Ah ha!” I say, pointing at him, grinning.
I’m slightly terrified that a) he’s packing, and b) he has a group of 10 hoodlums waiting around the corner to mug me and beat me with their tiny fists, but I like him just the same.
We seem to have an understanding – I understand that he has to beg me and follow me, he understands that I have to say no.
That is, until I bust out the banana.
This has gone on way too long, we’re too far from the safety of my hotel, and there’s not a soul around to hear me if I scream. Self-protective mode kicks in to overdrive.
I face him and step back several feet so that I can reach into my bag without the risk of him trying to do the same.
I fish around with my hand, keeping my eyes on him the entire time.
“I’m not going to give you any money” I repeat for the umpteenth time, “but if you’re hungry, you can have my breakfast.”
I pull out the banana I’d grabbed from the hotel.
He looks at it, looks at me, and his eyes roll back in his head like some sort of Italian-Romanian demon only found in ancient folklore.
Wanting desperately to appease the devil, I thrust the banana toward his hand, which has gathered into a trembling fist.
“Here, take it.”
He does. And then proceeds to raise it above his head, rear back, and throw the banana at me with all the force and magnitude of a 7th inning pitcher.
The banana splatters at my feet, fibrous strands and mush flying everywhere, and I’m backing away, sputtering, as if I’ve just been shot.
He backs away too like a lightning-fast crab, scuttling back towards the hotel.
And then, to add insult to injury, my little friend, the one I understand, the one with whom I have a connection, the one whose soul concerns me greatly, issues the following curse in absolutely perfect, accent-free English:
He holds out his middle finger for good measure, and continues to scream, with a bellowing force, “FUCK YOU! FUCK YOU! FUCK YOU!”
Over and over again he screams, until my heart is ready to crack my ribcage wide open. I command my legs to move, move!, to create as much distance between us as fast as I possibly can.
I glance back over my shoulder, terrified he’s right behind me with a weapon, with his brother, with his pimp.
But he’s dwarfed by the distance, growing ever-smaller as I break into a full-out run.
There is no one to hear the pounding of my steps on the pavement, no one to see the tears streaming down my face.
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1. Just because someone's a sweet-looking kid doesn't mean they won't throw at a banana at you.
2. If someone is following you, walk TOWARD the crowds of other people, not away from them.
3. Be extra careful when opening your bag or purse in the presence of a stranger - especially a stranger who has asked you for money.
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