“Finally,” Lore says, giving Ana a big hug.
She sits down at the table where Ana has been waiting for the last half an hour or so. It’s a nice café at Unirii, in an old building that used to be an inn – Hanu’ lui Manuc – in the early days of the city.
“What happened?” Ana says, trying to sound as if nothing actually happened.
Lore makes a sign to the waiter, who then makes a sign to her.
“Oh, well, you know how it is,” Lore says. “I was about to leave the office when you called, then something came up at the last moment. An e-mail from a client. So much work to do, you, Ana.”
Lore’s way of speaking makes Ana smile. Even when she is mad at Lore, Ana is still very fond of her friend. Besides, Lore would never accept Ana to be upset on her in the first place.
“What’s like to be back home?” Lore says. “You missed Bucharest, right?”
Ana knows what a big fan of Bucharest Lore is. Unlike Ana, who was born and lived in Bucharest for all her life, her friend has only been living here for a few years. Before that, Lore lived in Cluj, a beautiful, yet smaller city in Transylvania. When her mother moved to the capital for work, Lore followed her.
“I missed you!” Ana says, stressing on the last word.
“Mno, I always loved coming back home from the US,” Lore says.
As a student, Lore used to spend her summers in the United States, working and traveling. Ana has never traveled anywhere farther than Europe.
The waiter shows up, ready to take the order.
“What would you like to drink, miss?” he says to Lore. Ana still has her lemonade.
Lore takes the menu from the table, and opens it for the first time. She is pondering on the selection of drinks.
“Uhm… A cappuccino? Or maybe an espresso?”
The waiter is waiting.
“I’m quite hungry as well,” Lore says. “Do we eat?” She looks at Ana.
“I promised mum I’d eat at home. But get something if you’re hungry.”
The waiter looks at Lore, waiting for the conclusion.
“Mno, I’m not eating alone. You know what? Why don’t we have a beer instead?”
Ana is happy with her lemonade, but, whatever.
“Ok,” Ana says. And then, looking at the waiter: “Two Stella, please!” It’s Lore’s first choice when it comes to beer.
“Let’s try something different,” Lore says. “We always have Stella.”
The waiter moves his weight from one feet to the other.
“What beers do you have?” Lore asks him.
“They’re all on the menu, miss.” He points to the respective page: “Right there.”
“I know they are on the menu. I was rather waiting for you to recommend something.”
Ana feels the tension in Lore’s voice. She feels like evaporating from the scene. She is sympathising with the waiter, yet she knows that choices do matter to Lore. And she will take her time to make the right choice.
The guy is mumbling something, but it’s too late. Lore has made up her mind.
“I think I have a headache. Just bring me a cappuccino,” Lore says, and drops the menu on the table.
She looks at Ana. The waiter is looking at Ana, too.
“I am fine,” Ana says, and takes a sip from the lemonade.
The waiter takes the order, then disappears.
“Did you see that?” Lore is rolling her eyes.
“Maybe he doesn’t like beer.”
Ana tells Lore about her trip to Amsterdam, how she saw Vlad again – Lore and Vlad have never met, yet they both know of each other from Ana’s stories – and she briefly mentions Cristi. Lore listens carefully, without asking many questions. She doesn’t need to. Ana is always sharing everything with her.
When they finish their drinks, they decide to go for a little walk, before heading back home. The paved streets in the old center are one of their favourite places in the city.
“Did you know that Strada Franceza is the oldest street in Bucharest?” Lore says, as they are walking down the street with this name.
“Mhm,” Ana says.
Why would they call the first street in Bucharest the French Street?
“You, Ana, look at these buildings! Aren’t they amazing?”
Ana turns her head to look at the buildings Lore is pointing at. With few exceptions, all she sees are dilapidated old houses, with broken windows, and crumbling façades.
A little boy comes out of one of the houses, and starts walking behind them.
“Miss,” the boy says, reaching out an open hand. He is barefoot, and wears just a pair of shorts. “Give me some money, God bless you!”
“Such architectural mix!” Lore goes on, as if nothing happened.
Ana looks at the buildings once more, and rushes her steps. The boy is annoyed that he doesn’t get any money. He starts cursing instead. Quite a rich vocabulary for his young age.
“Maybe we should leave,” Ana says, grabbing Lore’s arm.
“Oh, you, Ana!” Lore stops in the middle of the street.
Ana is waiting for her friend to say the magical words.
“It’s just the Balkan spirit!”
There you go. This is how Lore would shut Ana’s mouth up, time and time again. There is absolutely nothing wrong with Bucharest. It’s just the Balkan spirit.
When they look behind, the boy is no longer there. He is now following other people.
They resume walking.
“Everything all right with you and Mircea?” Lore says.
Ana realises she has barely mentioned her boyfriend tonight.
“Yeah, all good. We’ve been to Malu in the weekend.”
“You, Ana! How come you never take me to Malu?”
Lore stops again, and looks at her friend.
“Would you actually like to come?”
“Of course!” Lore says. “I want to go to Malu, I want to go at your grandmother in Teleorman, and I want to go to the Danube Delta with you.”
Lore has a point. Ana told her many stories about these places in Romania, that mean a lot to her, yet she has never taken her friend to any of them. That needs to change.
“You’re right,” Ana says. “I need to take you there.” Then, arriving at Unirii’s bus stop, “That’s 104. Shall we take it?”
“Can’t we just walk? You know I don’t like coaches. Besides, it’s just one stop anyway.”
“You mean buses.” Ana is amused how coaches and buses mean one and the same for Lore. Same for shoes and slippers. “And it’s two stops for me, by the way.”
“All right, all right.” Lore gives in.
In the bus, she is holding on to Ana’s arms, who is holding on to the bars.
“Oh,” Ana says. “I forgot I brought you something from Amsterdam.”
Lore’s eyes get bigger, as if she were a little girl who has just bumped into Santa.
“A present for Lori? What is it, what is it?”
Lore can be quite loud when she is excited, and that becomes particularly noticeable now, in the bus. Ana has to hold her tight, as Lore almost loses her balance when the bus turns left, towards Unirii boulevard. She then reaches for her bag, and gets out a little metal box, decorated with tulips, wind mills and wooden clogs, all white and blue.
Lore takes the box and tries to open it. She is losing her balance again, when the bus stops.
“You’d better open it at home,” Ana says “You need to get off now.”
Lore jumps out of the bus, and waves happily at Ana.
She knows Lore will like the present. It’s sand and shells from the North Sea. Ana picked them herself on the beach in Scheveningen.