With one week left of our vacation here, I needed to recharge my public transportation card before going off to the National Library (my quiet, clean, smoke-free escape in this country).
(RATB is the company that runs public transportation. It stands for Regia Autonoma de Transport Bucuresti.)
Now, last year at this juncture, we had a bit of an issue. I had needed to recharge my transportation card for one week. I had first purchased a month after my arrival. Then we were traveling outside Bucharest for some days. And I needed one more week. I went up to the little booth and told the woman I'd like one week on this card, please.
I gave the woman my card through the tiny window in your high security booth. And then she tole me a number about four times larger than I expected. I looked at the prices and she had just said the amount for a month.
"Sorry, I only wanted a week."
"Too late," she says. "I put a month on it."
"Um, delete that please and give me a week?"
"Can't do that, you owe me for the month."
I'm realizing that I am probably at this point the victim of an attempted scam. I'm leaving in a week, I repeat. I don't need a month. I'm not paying for a month.
"Then you don't get this card back," she says.
And then I just lost it. I was screaming at this woman through the little window that I am leaving here and I am going to report what just happened here. And I stormed back to our apartment to tell my wife, a native speaker, that I would be needing her help to deal with this situation. She and I go back there, I am primarily just planning to get whatever information I need to make my formal complaint. The second the woman sees me and my wife approach the window, she says quickly, "Oh, I figured out how to remove the month. I've added a week. Here's the card."
We paid for one week and left.
It was obvious that the woman had come to sense that she could probably get in some trouble over the way it all went down and just wanted me to leave quietly.
Okay, all that was context for the fact that this morning I again needed to put a week on my RATB card. And I was resolved to make sure that nothing even close to last year's scandal happen again. I approach the booth. I stop and think through what I am and am not going to do. What I am not going to do is release my card through that little window until I am confident that one week and only one week is going on that card.
I walk close enough to see the price guide. I find my magic number. One week will cast 17 lei. That is the amount of money I need to hear that woman acknowledge will the price of the transaction before I am willing to let my card go into the corruption-laden abyss of an RATB ticket booth.
I'm holding my card in sight of the woman. Good morning, I say. I'd like to recharge this card for one week, please.
"Give me the card, please," she says.
Nota bene, this is exactly how things started last year. They will not continue the same way.
"Um, let me just explain that I want one week only," I said. "It costs 17 lei, right?"
"Give me the card, please," she says again.
I shake my head. "I need to hear how many days you're going to put on."
At this point she's screaming. "I need your card to see if I can even charge it or not!"
I'm thinking, this is a card charging station. If charging these things is frequently hit or miss, you've got a problem in this country.
It is entirely possible that I was, today, the first person in her card charging career who, when asked to hand it over, did not immediately comply. And she was at a loss to understand how to deal with this crisis.
I say calmly, "Ma'am, I'm not angry. Please don't be angry. I asked last year for a week and they put a month on this card. And then they wouldn't give it back to me unless I paid for a month. I'm not giving you this card until I hear you tell me you understand that I want a week and only a week."
She sat back, looking at me. "You want a week. I understand."
I told her, "That's 17 lei, I already know. Here's my card." I also passed a 50 lei note.
She pressed some buttons. And then she gave me back my card and 33 lei.
Now let me be clear. I do not believe this woman was going to attempt to scam me the way last year's worker tried. But I had approached the situation with the plan that I was going to make my order clear. And in so doing, I clearly had struck against a nerve of how this bureaucracy works still. These orders are supposed to happen with me making an order and then hoping it happens as requested. And any attempt to confirm it is certainly not welcome because it is off script for them.