100 Danish Kroner – a story from Behind the Iron Curtain

100 Danish Kroner

“Jeg kan ikke tale dansk”

Early 1980’s Eforie Nord, a Black Sea shore resort

The Europa restaurant is as spacious as a wedding hall, brimming with foreign tourists, the tables covered with white table cloth and boasting the colours, aromas and textures of the finest Romanian cuisine.

I am a tourist guide for the summer, a Commerce student at the Academy of Economic Studies, doing my practicum and having the time of my life. I am twenty years old, and the summer spent on the seashore, living in a hotel room and eating in restaurants is a dream. I have trained the whole year for this job, each Thursday – the Army day. The only women recruited to do the obligatory military service were university students – the young men had served before university, right after high school. Thursdays were assigned as women’s Army Day, and I had managed to get a medical excuse from the army, not having one bone in my body as a soldier. I did have to wear the khaki uniform for a few weeks before that, and learned to salute all officers I’d meet on the street, bringing my hand to the hat and saying: “Sa traiti tovarase (gradul)!” – May you live, comrade (rank), to which the answer would most often come as: “Sarut-manusitele, Domnisoara” – kiss your little hands, Missie”. Once my Thursdays were freed up, I signed up for the Tourism Guid course, which promised a summer of fun and legal contact with foreigners, a treat for any citizen behind the Iron Curtain who wanted to hear stories of life on the other side, the West.

I am assigned to work with Danish tourists, and part of my job is to welcome them at the airport, bring them to the coach that takes them to their hotel, get each tourist a room, then accompany them during meals and supervise the restaurant’s service, and take any sick tourist to the doctor. I share a hotel room with another guide, and eat my meals at the restaurant – a different menu than the tourists, a lesser quality and portion – unless I charm the waiter, which I do, to sneak a better morsel to my plate.

The Romanian seashore is a dream for Westerners on a budget: it has miles of wide, fine sand beaches, great entertainment with lively discotheques and bars, and the hotels and restaurants cost close to nothing due to currency exchange. The Romanian leu is worth a tiny fraction of the US Dollar, or Deutsche Mark, and the seaside attracts both retirees and the younger folks, some of them travelling on their unemployment assistance income. My current life’s purpose is to pack as much fun into my life as possible, and wearing trendy clothes and a permed hair, I hang out with the young tourists and speak only English in order to pass for a foreigner and sneak into the Dollar-only discotheques to dance the night away. Romanian law forbids Romanian citizens from owning foreign currency, and implicitly from entering the exclusive discos where entrance fee is charged in foreign money only.  The only place I do not dare enter is the Dollar Stores – no, not the North American style cheap stores where everything costs a dollar. These are exclusive stores that operate on foreign currency alone and are reserved for foreign citizens, stores where all the goods are imported treats and small luxuries from French perfumes, fragrant deodorants and soaps to trendy sunglasses, makeup, Swiss Toblerone chocolates, Danish Tuborg beer, Wrigley’s chewing gum and Mentos to fancy alcohol and – the mark of the time-, high-end cigarettes showcasing the Kent brand, a local grey market currency and bribe. None of those treats and luxuries are anywhere to be found on the local market for Romanians, and as citizens, we are banned from entering since we’re banned to own foreign money, but staring at the shop’s window and drooling over the goodies is not regulated by law, so I do quite a bit of that.

This sunny summer mid-day meal is busy, and I walk among the restaurant tables, greeting my tourists, and asking them how they are doing, if they are happy with their meal. All of the young ones speak English, but less so of the older folk, so we communicate relying mostly on facial expressions and gestures. It’s summer vacation, the atmosphere is light, fun is in the air, there’s laughter and a care-free time and place. This group of older Danish women seem to be happy with my presence, in spite of the language barrier, and one of them reaches into her purse and offers me a 100 kroner bill as a tip – worth about 18 US dollars.

I panic.

If she pointed a gun at me, I wouldn’t be as afraid as I am of the crisp paper bill that this woman waves at me. The restaurant is crowded and the paranoia kicks in: somewhere in the crowd there must be at least one Securitate officer who watches me like a hawk, waiting for me to touch foreign money so he can quickly send me to prison.

I refuse the money and say no, but I lack the vocabulary to say why not. All I can say in Danish is “Jeg kan ikke tale dansk” – I can’t speak Danish, which only makes things worse, because I apparently say that with such an impeccable accent that it sounds like I’m lying.

The tourist wins, the Danish money bill is in my hand, and it burns me like fire. I hide it in a pocket and run to see Berit.

Berit is my new Swedish friend and confidant, a fun-loving woman and the only summer friend I get to keep throughout the years. I knock at her door flustered, and hand her the 100 kroner bill: “Here, take that!”

“Why?” Berit asks, puzzled.

“I can’t be seen or found with this money on me!” I exclaim. I can’t hide the money in my room -rumours have it that the hotel staff work in collaboration with the Securitate, and while they clean the rooms, they also go through suitcases and drawers.

“What do you want me to do with this money?” Berit asks.

“Go to the Dollar store and buy me some things with it” I whisper.

“Let’s go together so you can choose what you want” she suggests.

“No!” I exclaim in panic. “I can’t set foot in there”.

Berit goes to the store and brings me a shiny, colourful plastic bag (in itself a small luxury for that time and place) filled with chocolate, Mentos, soap and deodorant. I sneak my illegal treasure into my room, and place it on the lap of the first person who travels to Bucharest, to send it to my parents. I keep the mentos and chocolate and get rid of the evidence in no time.

Nobody wants to go to jail for being caught in the possession of Mentos.

And Berit returns to Sweden after her holiday, and mails me a care package with colourful Swedish socks and a cornucopia of goodies. I die and go to heaven.