“So I open the door and I see these two guys standing there with–”
“–With like a big bottle?” correctly guessed my companion.
I was recounting to a Romanian acquaintance a somewhat odd episode that had occurred just a couple of weeks earlier. We were sitting in a tiny room of a Bucharest café/bar which the acquaintance said she had used to frequent in her “student years.” Located just off the Bulevardul Nicolae Bălcescu (a major avenue), it would have nevertheless been impossible to find without a local, as it was hidden behind two dingy archways, an unmarked door that I would have thought opened to a dumpster room, and then a badly lit stairwell. My companion's face was barely visible behind the thick smoke filling the room.
“Yes! How did you know?” Of course, as soon as I asked the question, I knew the answer myself: She knew because it was one of the oldest scams in the book. In Bucharest, as well as everywhere else. For a moment, I felt the shameful sting of my stupidity more acutely, even though nothing much had really happened in that particular case, as you will soon hear (nothing that I could detect, anyway). But allow me recount the whole episode.
One sunny afternoon, when I should have been outside but wasn’t, my rented apartment’s doorbell rang with an annoying quacking sound. It was not the first time I heard this quack: A day or two before, an electric company representative stopped by – not once but twice – to read the meter (somehow the first reading didn’t make sense to him). Half-expecting it to be another visit from the electricity utility, I opened the door.
On the landing, instead of the meter guy, I saw two dudes wearing lab coats. One of them was holding a contraption that vaguely resembled a beer keg. The other started speaking in Romanian. I immediately had to protest with a “nu vorbesc româneşte.” Switching to broken-to-non-existent English, the visitors explained they are doing pest control. (“No toxic!”)
I had had a similar visit in Montreal not long before. In that case, the building’s management had put a notice under every door advising when the pest control company would make a visit. But that was Canada and this was Romania. Maybe they didn’t do notices here. Maybe what they did was send out representatives with beer kegs to ring quacking door buzzers and handle the pest issue that way.
I stepped back and the lab technicians walked in. One immediately scurried to the bathroom and in a moment could be heard moving things around there. The other baffled me by demanding a plastic bottle. He pointed to a big bottle of mineral water I had just bought (and frankly, intended to drink). I was confused.
Since we did not speak each other’s language, it was hard for me to understand the rationale for wanting to use my water bottle. It was to mix something in it, he explained with gestures. A much-delayed red flag went up. If these were exterminators, they were quite terrible at what they did and definitely not equipped to do the job. But once again, I thought: I was in Romania. Who knows how they do things around here?
Just in case, though, I decided to keep a close eye on the second guy, who had just emerged from the bathroom and was already running around the apartment, heartily spraying the baseboard straight from the keg. Keeping track of him was easy enough: the apartment was relatively small and had an open layout. Meanwhile, his colleague performed the mysterious mixing-something-in-a-bottle trick (I had reluctantly ceded the bottle after pouring myself a couple of glasses to drink later). It was necessary for the follow-up treatment, he explained, referring to the resulting mixture.
“You do again, after two days,” he said. He stressed this point. It was obviously very important.
“Bullshit,” I thought with an ever-increasing certainty.
Having finished his routine, the bottle-mixing guy sat down at the dining table and took out a pad. We were about to get to the interesting part. Up until now, the professionalism of the exterminators notwithstanding, I played along on the assumption that it was the building (a very modest but centrally located condo) that was overseeing the matter. Not so, explained the water-mixer-cum-invoicing-specialist. His wanted my name on the invoice. I politely inquired about the person paying the cost of this wonderful service. Quite naturally, this person turned out to be me. It seemed like a good moment to get a third party involved.
“Excuse me for just one second,”– I said and took out my phone. My landlady is Romanian and her husband is from Sicily. Surely they’d know how to handle this. After a few rings, the landlady picked up the phone.
“Sorry to bother you,” I said. “But there are two gentlemen here doing pest control and I am having a bit of trouble communicating with them. Do you mind speaking to one of them for just a second?”
She didn’t mind. In fact, as I was giving my explanations, I felt that her immediate reaction was something along the lines of “oh boy!… okay, sure….” I handed the phone over to the dude who was half-way through completing an “invoice.” He took the call, having quickly glanced at the name on the screen (a bit nervously, it seemed to me).
I have no idea what she said to him (I only heard his mono-syllabic responses and understood nothing), but the conversation didn’t last long and once it was over, the exterminators wrapped up all the pest control activities with mind-boggling speed. I don’t know (and didn’t notice) how exactly they did it, but they even managed to pour out the very bottle of the “follow-up treatment” they had just so lovingly prepared for my future use.
“Bye!” said the dispirited exterminators.
“Bye, guys!” I said to them.
The door slammed. A few minutes later, the Sicilian husband, a burly man that matched all the right stereotypes, came in almost running (and visibly annoyed).
“Where are those guys?” he wanted to know.
Suddenly, it seemed like a prudent move on their part.
I showed him the now-empty mixing bottle. It smelled like a regular cleaning solution. I remembered the “no toxic” part. At least they were right about that.
“Better not open the door to anyone,” gave his advice the Sicilian. He didn’t want to explain anything, but by then I had no further questions.