“So… what is happening with Glasgow Rangers?”
I laughed. Partly it was out of surprise that this Bucharest taxi driver was aware of the collapse of one half of the Old Firm. Partly, though, what I also found amusing was the tone of resigned bewilderment, making it sound like the sort of small-talk opening gambit you’d easily get from a taxi driver back home too.
His English really was patchy and I couldn’t keep up with the full facts of the Rangers story myself, so the simplest way of explaining it was by saying that the club had spent money it did not have.
But he was not the only person with a good basic knowledge of Scottish football.
“I’m from Inverness,” I told another taxi driver that week, when he found out I was Scottish and asked the obvious supplementary.
“Yes, Marius Niculae played there,” he said. Of course, I had forgotten that. Not long after their promotion to the SPL, some considerable money had been spent on the Romanian internationalist. His time at Inverness Caledonian Thistle was, however, notable for the wrong reasons. His mediocre performances on the field were overshadowed by the huge legal dispute off it, as a disagreement about payments ended up in the courts and, if I remember rightly, was resolved in favour of the club. I didn’t raise this fact, though, in case it reopened any lingering hurts that Romanian football fans may have against Inverness.
It was impressive, though, that on these couple of occasions Romanians had showed they knew more than a little about Scottish football. I rather let my ignorance show, however, when I told a Romanian I knew a few of his country’s footballers’ names and, when asked to name them, my mind went blank and I could only think of Hagi. I hadn’t even remembered Niculae at that moment.
I was further impressed by awareness of Scotland on a couple more occasions, with people asking me about the forthcoming referendum on independence. Whatever your preferred outcome, it is interesting to note that the world will be watching us over the next couple of years.
“Are you British?”
“Scottish,” I replied. The man who had spoken to me seemed in late middle age with a smiling face, swarthy complexion and slightly unkempt clothes. Knowing this was the tourist heart of the city, I was instantly suspicious. But he seemed friendly enough, so I allowed him to engage me in conversation, all the while remaining vigilant about my surroundings and valuables.
“Ah, a great country,” said the man in very fluent but heavily accented English. “I love Scotland. Glasgow? Edinburgh?”
“Inverness,” I replied.
“Marius Niculae used to play there!” he responded.
The man talked more about his love for Scotland, which far from being a bit of mere tourist banter seemed quite genuine. He’d read all the great Scottish writers. He loved Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe, which I shamefully confessed to never having read.
“Romania suffered a great deal under Communism, you see,” the man explained, all the while leaning against the wall behind him. “People could not travel, so they had to travel in the mind. I did, at least, and read a great deal of British writers. I have read a lot in French and Italian too.”
Conversation moved on to other aspects of Scotland, such as the Gaelic language, and of course he knew about the independence referendum. He asked for my view on it.
“I’m all in favour. Europe is full of many small countries, and Scotland is a very rich nation that could easily prosper.”
Mention of wealth was clearly the trigger for the line I had been half-expecting all along.
“And would a rich Scotsman have a few lei for a poor Romanian?” Strangely his tone or manner didn’t change. This wasn’t banter that had now moved on to the main business; this was just another natural line in his conversation.
“I’m afraid not,” I said. “I fly home tomorrow and I have spent all my lei”. I was indeed flying home tomorrow, and though while I did still have some lei in my wallet, there was not too much left and I needed it for the rest of the day. He seemed unoffended and relaxed by my response, and I in turn remained convinced I was in no danger despite his request for money. He was, after all, a pleasant and educated man.
I decided, then, to test him. I kept him talking about various things – Scotland, Romania, the books he’d read, the languages he spoke – because I wanted to see how long he would hang around now that he knew I was not a source of money for him.
It was barely a minute longer. He shook my hand, wished me well, and ambled off down the street. I wondered whether he would bump into any other tourists, and he if would be an expert in their countries too.