After an alcohol-soaked stag weekend in Budapest, I was driven to the airport by the happiest taxi driver in Europe. Until that point, most Hungarian taxi drivers I had met had been sour, glum-faced fellows with a phenomenal ability to falsify fare charges, but this final driver was a gem. We chatted to and fro as the city whistled past, and he explained that he was only so happy and talkative because he was a Romanian gypsy.
“We all so happys”, he smiled. “In Romania, there is so much happys. Not like here”. With an exaggerated frown, he gestured to the wide streets with their bland, cinderblock apartment buildings as they buzzed past the open window. There was clearly some animosity between Romania and Hungary. As if to prove his point, he slapped his thigh and laughed.
“So what you do as work” he said, wiping a giggled tear from his eye.
“I am interested in birds – I write about birds” I replied, realising with a sinking feeling that I had teed him up for a classic pun – “yes, I like birds too – blondes, brunettes etc” – I prepared to groan as he replied with a sudden note of gravity “yes, I like birds also. In Romania, we have many birds, all beautiful”.
We had ten more minutes to go before Ferenc Liszt airport, and through my hangover, he had seized my interest.
“What birds do you have in Romania?” This was a silly question, since his taxi-driver English vocabulary was groaning ominously beneath the breadth of our conversation, and my Romanian is non-existent. He listed off a few names, but they were meaningless to me. At a set of traffic lights, he tried to use his mobile phone to translate bird names into English, but when the lights went green, he almost ran over an old woman with a shopping trolley. “It’s ok”, he laughed – “she just Hungarian gypsy. Romania gypsy much better”.
It occurred to me that language was going to be a barrier, but that birds are often better known by their sounds than their names. Having read something of Balkan bird life, I started to call like a corncrake and was met with a whoop of delight. “Yes!” he shouted, slapping the steering wheel and laughing.
For a few seconds, we both called like corncrakes to one another, and he explained that the Romanian name for these birds is cristei de câmp (I had to look up the spelling when I got back) – “There are many of them in the fields”, he said. “As child, we cannot sleep, so many”. For a strange moment, we were united by our shared interest in small, rather unremarkable-looking bird.
I stepped out into the evening sunlight as clouds of house martins swirled over the terminal building, and I left my new friend to his next fare. As he drove off down the taxi rank with his windows open, I was sure I could hear him calling like a corncrake again.