Inside the hospital, the narrow, dimly lit hallway is packed with the young, the old, the tired. I sniff my way in by the scent of starch and antiseptic. There are no official rules in a public Romanian hospital – you just need to look tough. A fleeting trail of trepidation crosses my British friend’s face. A life of courtesy and virtue hasn’t prepared him for this.
We sit down. Across the room, a crack on the wall. 20 years ago I focused my mind on it, crafting my escape from the coming needles, the aloofness of the doctor, the sour nurse smell. Was my friend anxious?
Earlier, driving through the stacks of parked cars while dodging potholes, I felt knots in my stomach grow as we approached the socialist hospital. Sitting quietly on his seat, my friend awaited the injection. Just a scratch, he thought, but it’s best to be safe. That dog came out of nowhere. We arrived and he made a joke about uncanny tourist destinations.
How could he have faced the system without a native’s help? My dance is effortless, yet so strange to him: I lock eyes with the guard, softly smiling as my hand holds out the 5 Ron bill; the guard deftly takes it, barely letting it touch the palm of his hand before pocketing it: Spaga. A move exercised hundreds of times before. Spaga has kept the medical system going in and out of communism. My friend turns his head.
Back in the hallway. The rabies shot expired a month ago, he says, awkwardly discounting the synchrony of eyes staring. How come there are so many stray dogs in Bucharest? Another reason to return to the UK. I have no answer – it’s just what it is.
Years later, strolling through Churchill’s birthplace, he seems as English as the countryside. My sense of suffocation in such quaint scenery is as far removed from him as the memory of the old nurse from that gray Bucharest day. I make a passing remark about it and he smiles – that same baffled childish look he gave the nurse as she raised the needle and mumbled comfort words in an alien language.