It was an odd little car, very small, rather like a Smart car but without the style. Maybe it was a Russian version, or Indian. But what I was sure about was that the car was registered in Bulgaria (the ”BG” sticker was a dead giveaway).These thoughts flashed through my mind as I weaved through the traffic on Bucharest”s 1st of May Boulevard, glancing at a car that looked at bit out of place. Cycling through Bucharest’s infernal traffic is always a pleasure as the cars are invariably stuck and one can easily be the fastest thing on the road. And there is a certain sadistic pleasure to be had from zooming past all those well dressed drivers moving across town at a snail’s pace (but one has to be constantly aware that they can kill you in an instant).
Suddenly the column of traffic started to move, and I was in the worst place to be – the middle of the road. I had to get to the right hand side, and fast, so I signalled to the nearest car and swerved in. Unfortunately the driver to whom I had signalled was the aforementioned Bulgarian in the odd little car and he ignored my signal, and maneuver, and sharply pulled in — as if he intended to knock me off my bike (perhaps because of some personal stake in the ancient vendetta between Bulgaria and Romania).
In reality, the Bulgarian driver was probably a harmless and charming intellectual en route to an EU funded conference, not a ruthless killer with a taste for cyclists, and I easily avoided his swerve by reacting fast and turning right before he could knock me off.
Cycling in Bucharest is safe – as long as you follow some basic rules. Although the drivers are frustrated (with their own dysfunctional country as much as with the traffic), Romanians in general are a good natured lot and have nothing against cyclists, mainly because there are so few of them.
The first rule of survival for cycling in Bucharest is to be seen. If the driver sees you he will avoid running you over, if only to avoid the life sentence that the judge would be obliged to give him should you not wake up from the coma. The second rule is to have your eyes and ears open at all times (including the eye at the back of your head, the one that Romanian Mothers in Law are said to possess). And the third rule is to react fast. By employing the second and third rules I was able to avoid an incident and carry on my merry way, jumping a red light for good measure.
A hundred yards up the road a Romanian motorcycle cop stood imposingly at the side of the road. He was talking to a driver, hopefully about to punish him for reckless driving. But then I noticed he was looking at me and as I approached he signalled for me to pull over.
”This is it”, I thought, ”Retribution for all those red light I’ve jumped over the years. I will admit my guilt and accept my punishment. I might even get a bit of peace and quiet in the prison”
Romanian policemen, and public servants in general, can be quite pleasant and amusing if you approach them in the right way. But first you have to get past the grim and officious persona they adopt when dealing with the public (Romanian waiters and shop assistants tend to behave in the same way). The way to do this is to show respect (and remorse for your illegal behaviour) and patiently listen to the lecture you will invariably get.
The effect can be remarkable. Within minutes their hard and unfriendly exterior melts away and a warm hearted, fun loving (and deeply cynical) Latin wit is revealed. My case was slightly different as I was being pulled over for a highly unusual reason: a civilized discussion.
“This gentleman told me” the policeman said, pointing to a flustered looking chap in the car (the one I had assumed had been pulled over for a traffic violation),
“That someone tried to knock you off your bike”.
“Not at all”, said I, “someone did indeed swerve in front of me but I managed to avoid a collision. You have to keep on your toes in this traffic. The car was Bulgarian you know?”
By mentioning Bulgaria I was hoping to pick up a cheap jibe about the criminal tendencies of Romania’s southern neighbours or its notorious traffic police, which is far more blatantly corrupt than Romania’s. But my policeman friend didn’t take the bait, he said:
“Maybe he wasn’t a Bulgarian. There are plenty of Romanians who drive around with Bulgarian number plates”
“What keeps me alive on these roads”, I said, “is the fact that I’m an experienced driver and that I can anticipate and understand the behaviour of the other drivers”
I saw that he had time to talk, so I continued: “it’s a bit like with the police. You need to understand the criminals”
I stopped here because I could feel that I was on thin ice. I knew where the logic of this point was going – that Romania’s police force was indistinguishable from its criminal fraternity.
But the policeman was on good form and he picked up the point:
“Sometimes it seems that we are more criminal than the criminals”
I countered by saying “I didn’t say that”, and realized this was a good time to make my exit. So I got on my bike, said “larevedere” to the policeman and the driver, who was still sitting there (perhaps he didn’t want to go home?), and I proceeded in a northerly direction.