The World’s Oldest Profession
It took resolve to return to Bucharest — not an avoidance of Romania’s capitol of grand boulevards and cosmopolitan thinking — rather a reorienting of ourselves to city after so much country. Mike and I were accustomed to traveling at our own leisurely speed. Entering the outskirts of Romania’s capital, we threaded our compact rental car through the noon rush of too many vehicles — delivery vans, transport trucks, passenger busses. The stop-and-go traffic did nothing to help our mindset.
I had booked a room in a historic building in the university district. The Booking.com photos suggested it held a place on the charming-and-lovely end of the hotel spectrum. We dragged ourselves, our two bags, and a handful of not-packed, odd-shaped items out of the car at Rosetti Square. The two policemen on the street in front of Hotel B. ignored us as we wound our way through the jumble of cars parked in typical European fashion on the sidewalk.
In the lobby, the private guard blocked our way to the front desk with his feet, which he’d extended as he lounged in one of the two un-matched easy chairs. He focused on an electronic games magazine.
The desk clerk found our reservation but didn’t offer to show us our room as other staff at other hotels had offered. Without thinking, I nodded when she said she’d put the charge through immediately. “The room key’s in the door,” she told us curtly.
The elevator, one of those types seen in a 1940s Paris-noire movie, was just large enough for Mike and our two soft-sided cases. Once he wedged himself in and slid with a bang the metal cage door, the lift didn’t budge regardless of any buttons or levers he pushed or raised. Using the stairs that encircled it, I scurried up to the fifth floor and pushed the button, determined to will it upward. Unsuccessful, I ran back down to the first and engaged a housekeeper who unloaded and re-loaded Mike and the luggage while speaking to him in Romanian. A certain look in his eye told me he was reaching a limit we shouldn’t approach. I felt relief when his body and bags finally rocketed upwards.
Together we walked into Room 501. Yes, the white sheets were clean and pressed, Yes, the maid’s vacuum, just a few feet outside of the door, hummed with activity. No, the toilet with the broken seat and porcelain base smelling of urine did not convince me this room deserved its three and one-half-star status. The photos I’d perused on the website had suggested nothing of lingering cigarette smoke or carpet grime in the corners, forever missed by housecleaners.
Mike surprisingly said nothing. We were tired. We were hungry. We agreed to go downstairs for lunch. There we would rethink our choice of hotels.
We sat in the cafe on the street and ordered pizza from a waiter, a university graduate who spoke English well. While he and Mike discussed Russian authors, I listened to half a phone conversation that took place at the table next to us. Also speaking English, this time with a German accent, the man confirmed he would meet her, here, at this hotel. He would wait at the cafe. He then ordered a beer while he concentrated on the screen of his smart phone. While he rolled up the sleeves on his business shirt, the waiter delivered his Sikaru Stout.
Underneath the shade of the plane trees of Rosetti Square, the two policemen continued to patrol, one sitting on his cycle, while the other stood nearby. The hotel security guard drove off in his Rav 4. The waiter delivered our pizza as the smartphone man greeted a taxi that dropped off his friend. She was dressed in a sherbet-green dress, reminiscent of a bridesmaid’s, and turquoise four-inch platform heels. The shift’s low back did nothing to camouflage her black bra. He paid the drink bill and escorted her inside the hotel.
A late-model Audi drove into the security guard’s now-empty parking spot. A handsome, young Richard-Gere-type went round the car and helped out a blonde, her short skirt rose higher to reveal more thin and lengthy legs. I looked at her and she towards me, but her glazed eyes did not focus. She seemed unsure of her step and leaned on the Gere-type to guide her into Hotel B.
The waiter delivered our pizzas, and Mike, mincing no words, asked, “Are they running a prostitution ring at the hotel?” The waiter didn’t look at him directly, but said as he cleared off our empty drink glasses, “I don’t know. I hear there are pimps on the other side of the square.”
Mike and I looked at one another. I spent the rest of the lunch tapping into the Wifi of the café to search on my iPad an alternate hotel. We checked out of Hotel B., not sure if we would get back the payment for the room, and walked past the two policemen. We stuffed our luggage back into our rental car and headed for Hotel D., whose website classified it as a four and one-half-star establishment.
Hotel D. was different from Hotel B: in a residential district rather then near the university, architecturally contemporary instead of from the early 1900s, and away from any sidewalk cafes. It was also white-glove clean, sleekly plush, and without a security guard in the lobby or policemen on the street in front.
The well-groomed desk clerk, who introduced herself as Christina, rode the comfortably sized elevator with us to the third floor to show us our room. She adjusted slightly the classic chignon pinned neatly at the nape of her neck. “Pay at the end of your stay,” she suggested, as she booked us for two nights and handed Mike a brass key attached to a polished wooden tag.
In our new room, Mike took an afternoon nap while I headed to the lobby to use my iPad. I took the steps passing a woman in an elegant business suit entering a second-floor room and the mezzanine where an ample breakfast would be served from seven to eleven each morning.
At the front desk, as Christina provided me the wifi passwords, I thanked her again for her help. “We went through a horrible time at another hotel this afternoon, where there were prostitutes….” My words trailed off thinking I shouldn’t re-live that time with our new desk clerk. “We’re glad to be here.”
There was the uneven blink of Christina’s left eye. “We’re happy to have you,” she responded.
While Mike took the hour to rest, I sat in the lobby checking Facebook, responding to emails, retrieving the Lonely Planet’s guide to Bucharest.
Down the stairs from the second floor came the woman I’d seen earlier, now, with a man wearing a business shirt and tie, carrying his suit jacket. He placed the room key on the front desk and thanked Christina. They exited out the front door.
Both Christina and I watched the couple and, then, looked at one another. Resigned, I smiled.
She smiled back and turned her gaze to the paperwork on the front desk.