After three days of trekking and camping alone in the Carpathian Mountains in Romania I woke up 15 km from the nearest city tired, slightly sick and low on food and water.
I had camped in the only place I could find near a river bed that unfortunately had been trashed. I went to bed serenaded by the sounds of plastic bottles popping as they contracted and cooled off in the night after a hot summer day.
In the morning I walked to the highway to hitch a ride to the city. From speaking with others I had learned that hitchhiking in Romania was fairly common and a small payment to the driver was the norm.
Alexandru was the first to drive by and stopped to pick me up. At 28 years old, with a thick dark beard and clocking in somewhere around 6’6″, Alexandru looked like he belonged breaking bones and cracking heads in the NFL. He sported a backwards cap, a tight fitting shirt with roses on it and retro nike high tops.
To be honest, he was not the type of person I’d expect to have stopped.
We talked and I told him I was trying to get to Cluj Napoca (about 3 hours by bus from the city we were driving towards) and that I was almost out of food and water. Alexandru drove me to the bus station and walked in with me to help me find out when the next bus left which turned out to be in an hour.
Then he called his dentist and pushed back his appointment so he could take me to one of his favorite restaurants. He ordered me a deliciously reviving chicken soup (second best to his mom’s) and coffee.
He shared how when he was younger he had left university because he didn’t see a future for his education in Romania and didn’t want to waste his parents’ savings. He immigrated to the UK where he worked as a janitor sweeping floors. Over time he worked his way up through the company until he was being given international assignments building museum exhibitions and he that he was currently working on one in Saudi Arabia. He was now almost finished building his home back in Romania where he planned to return.
Despite my protests he wouldn’t allow me to pay for the meal. He then drove me back to the bus station and bought me a bus ticket to Cluj (despite more protests). He disappeared for a few minutes and came back with two giant bottles of water for the bus ride.
I thanked him and tried again to pay him for everything he had done. He wouldn’t accept and told me I was a guest in his country and sent me on my way. I was stunned as I got on the bus.
Not only did Alexandru teach me about what it means to welcome the stranger into your home as if he were family (and how many of us would actually treat our own family that well!?) but he exemplified a wonderful and inspiring counterstory to the “immigration issue.”
So often it seems we are worried about how immigration might erode our communities. This experience left me imagining what a greater, international community has the potential to be like.
If we want it to be.