Comment: Handbags and straw beggars: an urban legend of Bucharest

My next door neighbour, Mitică, told me about something that happened to him recently. And I can assure you that Mitică swears his story is completely true. Every word!

Last Saturday morning, he and his wife, Maria, decided to go shopping at Piaţă Norilor, one of Bucharest’s many fresh fruit and vegetable markets. As they walked past the abandoned, derelict hospital on Calea Serban Voda, his wife casually mentioned that she needed a new handbag.

“Another handbag?” said Mitică, probably trying to sound calm.

I should explain that Maria has a different handbag for every day of the week, her birthday, name day, Easter, Christmas, weddings, funerals, christenings, rainy days, sunny days…… and now she ‘needed’ another one. In fact, as Mitică often says, handbags are to Maria what shoes are to Imelda Marcos.

“Why?” asked Mitică, suppressing a rising wave of panic.

“Just in case ……..” she said, sweetly.

With that glib, impenetrable female logic, it was checkmate, he said. I nodded sympathetically.

To reach Piaţă Norilor, everyone usually takes the route past a small, white-washed Church, dwarfed by ugly, concrete blocks behind it. The Church is also ‘home’ to various beggars and pushy flower sellers. Everyone knows their faces. But there was a sprinkling of new faces that day, he said. He wondered where they had come from. Teachers who had punished a pupil and lost their job? Amateur Forex losers who had lost everything gambling on spot-fixed currency exchange rates? All you need is a computer connected to the Internet, a Visa card and a lemming’s suicidal instinct. Perhaps ‘start up’ failures who had naively placed too much trust in government predictions of an economic upswing? Or, overtaxed citizens who had heard about new government tax hikes and had decided to sell everything and take their chances on the streets?

Signs of the crumbling economy were all around. At the junction of Bulevardul Dimitrie Cantemir, the main road you have to cross on the way to Piaţă Norilor, Mitică mentioned that he had noticed girls hanging around at the traffic lights, handing out colorful tickets to male drivers with an invitation to visit a ‘massage parlor’. They were kids, not much older than the schoolgirls who attended the Lycee next to the traffic lights. He shook his head in disbelief.

“Self-respect for sale is a sure sign that the economy is on the ropes,” I said.

Then, he said, his eye caught sight of a straw man dressed in old jeans, a T-shirt and a checked jacket propped against the wall of the Church. The figure looked like a scarecrow, he said. Someone had sketched eyes, nose and a mouth on his cardboard face. And as a final touch, had drawn a tear in blue ink, trickling from one eye. On his lap was a sign, ‘No job. Wife and kids to feed.’ Apparently, there were a few coins in a collection bowl beside the straw figure on the pavement!

“That’s enough to buy a Shopping Mall now,” I interrupted. “I read that one has been sold for around 5 Lei, a sure sign of a crazy economic situation.”

Anyway, he nudged Maria and nodded in the direction of this oddity. She paused for a moment, then said ‘Haide’ – ‘C’mon.’ They continued to the market.

But now that the subject of the handbag had been introduced, Maria’s suggestion to take the metro to Unirii to look for a suitable bag before heading home sounded reasonable. Mitică reluctantly agreed. But at the back of his mind, he said, he considered the purchase as a solution to buying a Christmas present, the festive holiday being only a few weeks away.

After paying for the metro ticket, another item on the government’s list for price increases, they waited for the train. With the sound of wind rushing through the dark tunnel and headlights shining on the tiled wall, the train arrived. However, as they got on, they saw a straw figure seated in the carriage. It was dressed much like the first one and also had a face made of cardboard. The sign around its neck said: ‘Tax hikes! Give generously.’ There was a cap on the straw figure’s lap, empty.

“Do you think there are others?” Maria said.

“Might be.”

I can just imagine Mitică shrugging and looking around, curiously.

Sure enough, just as the escalator reached street level at Unirii, there was another straw man propped against the window of Unirii Shopping Center, he said. Hung around his neck was a notice,’Petrol price hike! I’m broke’ In fact, as they looked around, they saw more and more straw figures with signs like, ‘Can’t afford medicines,’ and ‘Loan sharks to repay. Deep in debt.’ Not only that, they noticed large flags on roof tops as far as the eye could see. The flags were red with a large, yellow star in the top left hand corner, and four smaller stars in a semi-circle around it.

“Whose flag is that?” asked Mitică, puzzled. “They’re everywhere. Look!”

“Didn’t you see ‘Enter the Dragon’ with Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan?” said Maria, in a superior tone.

“What’s that got to do with the flags?” countered Mitică.

“It’s the Chinese flag, tâmpitule!”

Poor Mitică. Checkmated again.

Mitică sighed a downtrodden husband’s sigh and paused for a moment. So, I prompted him. “Well, did Maria find a bag?”

“Yes, but you’ll never believe this, but I swear it’s true,” he said. “I swear to God it’s true.”

“OK, try me,” I said.

He said that they went into the big store at Unirii Shopping Center and found a shop selling expensive bags. One bag, he said, was made of crocodile skin and cost a fortune. It was on display, high up on a glass shelf. Mitică said he was praying that Maria wouldn’t see it. But, of course, she headed straight towards it like a guided shopping missile, pointing.

The assistant stood on a chair and took the bag. It seemed strangely heavy, because she struggled to hold on to it as she got down from the chair. She handed it to Maria, who clearly loved it. Mitică said he was getting ready to fork out an obscene amount of cash when Maria opened the bag’s silver clasp to look inside. And that’s when something unbelievable happened.

As she opened the bag, the mummified fingers of a hand and then a fore-arm appeared. Maria shrieked and dropped the bag. The fore-arm rolled onto the shop floor. Mitică said that as God is his witness, it was a man’s fore-arm, still with pieces of ripped and bloodied shirt sticking to it. The assistant fainted. Then the manager appeared. Mitică said that the manager was desperate to prevent a scandal and urged them to take the bag for nothing. However, he made them solemnly promise they would never mention the incident to anyone.

They left the shop in a hurry, and as Mitică glanced back, he saw the manager dragging the unconscious assistant to a chair while calling for a glass of water. The fore-arm still lay on the floor.

Well, call me a fool if you like, but I’m not as gullible as you might think. Perhaps the fore-arm belonged to someone the crocodile had eaten. Maybe it belonged to the crocodile hunter who had lost the limb in a titanic struggle to kill the dangerous reptile. It’s possible. All of that I can accept! But I’ll never believe the nonsense about straw beggars with warning signs about the economy and dozens of Chinese flags appearing on the roof tops of buildings across Bucharest. Never in a million years.

That would be asking way too much!

By Angus McFarlane, guest writer

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