BUCHAREST, Romania –The sight of the boy shocked me. Maybe it was because of the focus of our trip. Maybe it was the hour, just 5 a.m. Or maybe it was how he smiled at me. All I knew was that just five steps into my run here, I stopped when I saw him.
He was of Roma descent; his clothes were a dull color, dulled by dust. His eyes almost shone. He couldn’t have been older than five. Nearby, a woman and a young girl were sitting on a large piece of cardboard, their bed, against a building. All were fully alert. I stood just a few feet from the boy, expecting him to beg for money. He didn’t. We just looked at each other, and he smiled. In a few seconds, I started again, and he gave me a shy wave. I waved back.
We had traveled to Bucharest partly to learn more about the Roma people, also known as gypsies. The night before we had met about 10 Roma college graduates who had received scholarships and who spoke of their great aspirations to succeed in a variety of fields – diplomacy, architecture, development, law. We left feeling very hopeful of their futures.
But the boy was another story. I turned a corner and I saw another family of Roma, and then a third, all awake, and several children moving around with great ease as if the streets of Bucharest were their livingroom, even at 5 a.m.
I turned off the narrow streets and descended down a darkened path into a park. Birds called out from the trees, frogs from the ponds. Birds always seem the noisiest just before dawn; Bucharest’s birds were deafening.
And yet, on park benches along the way, many homeless slept right through the calls of the urban wild, blankets pulled to their ears to ward off the chill, and perhaps the sound. There was other movement here, too. Every few minutes, men emerged from the shadows as I ran by, and it felt like I was in a medieval European city with the darkness hiding secrets.
In my back pocket was a map of the city, which had large areas of green, delineating the city’s numerous parks. I stopped under a light to find my location. I had gone from one park to a second, making several zig-zags, and yet I felt strangely at home. I felt confident of my way even though I had never been here before.
I ran around the Palace of the Parliament, a grand structure in neoclassical architectural style (and built with thousands of tons of marble from Transylvania) that sits atop a hill, surrounded by a park and wide boulevards. Weeds grew on the lower lawns. There wasn’t a guard in sight.
Then, I headed back to my hotel, taking solace in the parks. The birds had mostly gone quiet. The sky had started to light up. I looked up and saw a long bright pink contrail from a plane. It was a startling vision, like a dash of lipstick on the sky, and I ran on, looking up every few seconds. I was getting used to unusual sights in Bucharest.
Near my hotel, I passed the spots where I had seen the Roma families. They had left, removing all evidence of their presence, including their cardboard. I wondered about that boy. I wished I had seen him again. I’m not sure what I would have done, or why seeing him would be better than not. But it felt like a loss. Perhaps because the shock of seeing him had worn off, and I knew his future, like that of so many street kids around the world’s cities, was bleak. I returned to my room with my thoughts stilled and my mood saddened.