Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Travel Tips from Ramona of Romania the Stark Contrasts of Life between Eastern and Western Europe Teach A

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Travel Tips from Ramona of Romania the Stark Contrasts of Life between Eastern and Western Europe Teach A

Article excerpt

The girl was unremarkably pretty, but pretty nonetheless. I decided to enter her cabin not out of any romantic ambitions, but because her appearance was much less intimidating than the Eastern European scowls I had encountered while looking for a seat on the train that night.

Plus, in my short time in the region, I had learned that the younger generation was a safer bet to speak English.

I was on an overnight train from Prague, capital of the Czech Republic to Budapest, Hungary, and desperate for conversation. I gave a greeting in shaky Czech. Gratefully, she answered in seamless English.

Her name was Ramona. She was from Romania, studying in Slovakia and on her way back to Bratislava, the capital. She had short brown hair, a friendly smile, and clear, fair skin on a face with no makeup. She had just returned from four fruitless days at the Romanian Embassy in Prague, where she had tried to gain a visa to the United States. A shy yet fiercely intelligent person, her dream was to continue studying in Washington. But she had been denied repeatedly.

"It's because they think we are all Romanies {Gypsies}," she said. "I am not. I have nothing against Romanies. But it is impossible to live anywhere outside of Romania with this," she said as she lifted her red Romanian passport.

As if on cue, a pair of Slovak customs agents entered our cabin. They gave a quick, cursory glance at my US passport, then proceeded to question Ramona suspiciously. Where was she from? What was she doing? Where? Why? For how long?

When they finally left, she smiled and looked down at my passport longingly. "It must be nice to have one of those," she said. "It's like magic."

I looked at the passport, bent and dogeared from long nights stuffed in a back pocket, and stared at the eagle and the inscription - United States of America, as if seeing it for the first time.

It was the first of many encounters as a journalist traveling through this region that would point to the power held in that small blue book. …

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