Poitiers <Pwah-[tee-yay]/diphthong> is only a three hour trip from Paris, but it feels like seven hours because that’s how much time has passed, and it’s mostly this strange Romanian guy’s fault driving the truck. I’ve never met him before, and a half hour into the ride he won’t look at me — whenever he talks he fixes his eyes unflinchingly (kind of faux-respectfully in a way that both the intent and the motive are equally clear) on the girl I’m with. She’s pretty and Australian, but his eyes are smashing into her like he’s going to die if he doesn’t fuck her. I’m starting to think he’s crazy.
One isn’t choosy for rides when one is stranded in the hail and the rain in a busy roundabout. You take what you can get, and you can cry about it later because no one’s going to see it now, your face is all wet. This dark-skinned guy with patchy facial hair and a sagging face pulls over his big white delivery van and lets us in.
“Orléans?” I ask.
“Si, si!” he says. He’s not fat, but round. Shaped like middle-aged.
This seemingly normal guy is on a delivery route to Orléans. Ish. Actually, it’s east of Orléans. Actually, it’s in Marseille, the southern tip of France. Actually, no, yeah, it’s in Orléans. Or east of it. Every five minutes he takes a call — “Maximo!” — and gets rerouted. What the hell kind of business is this?
The entire ride, Maximo is courteous. He did pick us up, after all, and he hasn’t killed us yet. But he does take us about an hour off the autoroute into hellhole French countryside where nothing but grass exists. He mixes Spanish with broken English to make small talk — he lives in Barcelona, he’s an independent deliveryman, etc. — while he eats the girl’s face with his eyes. Finally we pull into an industrial parking lot in Nowhereville, and we have to wait a half an hour for the owner to come back from lunch. While the Australian girl sits in the trailer I stand by the one open door and watch him clean the cabin.
Maximo tells us his double-sided history. As a youth he was a loan shark in Romania. He had it all then. There was not-super-legal cash falling from his ears, tens of thousands of dollars, he says. Lived like a king. Women, Power, Cars. “It was a fast life.” Fast and wealthy and smooth, until the second he found his wife cheating on him with his best friend, sending him into a cataclysmic spiral of gambling, paid women and hotel rooms. He went crazy, he says, until he had nothing left. “You have to be very careful with a woman.” And then mounting pressure from customs police forced him to flee his country due to Romania’s increasing status in the EU.
After escaping Romania, Maximo slowed down. His days of illegal money trafficking have long since ceased. He married, settled in Barcelona, and had a kid. That’s where he is now. He works honest work and makes honest pay. Cross-continental delivery is a demanding job, too, requiring him to leave his family four four days a week, driving all day. “There’s no time for yourself,” he says. You drive, you eat, you sleep, you don’t even have time to clean yourself, because A your route is timed and B you want to get home to your wife and child. It’s nowhere near the opulence of his glory days, but it’s safe and responsible. He loves his wife, and as he’s driving he pulls up a picture of his three-year-old, Mario, and shows him off.
Sometimes Maximo does get to return to Romania in secret while he’s en route in the Balkans. He takes a day off or so and pays someone to convince his wife he’s in “Germany or something.” And for those hours he lives like the old days again. He drinks, has girlfriends. “I told a Romanian girlfriend we would go to Paris, right before I left. Then I told her, ‘Ahhh, noooo, my job is taking me away. So sorry,” and he grins at me and cups fake breasts.
The Australian girl is trying to sleep.
“Romania is changing,” Maximo says, suddenly wistful. I can see the nostalgia creeping in. There was a time when you could pay off the police for any crime, if you had the money. There was real freedom. Real living. Now with the influence of the EU you can only pay off petty crimes. The large ones get noticed. With a grin, he adds, “Moldova is the place to go now.” Maximo travels constantly for deliveries, so he’s got the insider information on which Balkan countries you can fuck around in and which police are for sale. But still he misses the homeland; he can’t really return until his lawyer says the heat is off. “You can have anything you want (in Romania). Anything. Luxury hotel, with two women. Your woman cause a problem, get a new one. If my woman gives me problem in Romania, I…(makes whacking motion)…ten times. In Barca, I (whack) one time, and the police are on my doorstep.”
On the way back from his delivery, he gets another call as he slips through a toll station by tailgating a French car. (“Spanish numbers on my truck. They can’t read it.”) One of his friends, a fellow delivery truck driver, has gotten in an accident. Maximo has work to get done, but a friend is a friend. “He’s like me,” he says, turning to me. “He’s a good man. I need to help him.” He finally drops us off by Orléans and reroutes his GPS to where his friend crashed; he’s going to finish his friend’s delivery for him so he doesn’t get in trouble. You screw up one route in the delivery game, and you can be fired. Maximo can empathize.
“I have lived life very rich and I have lived life very poor,” he says. He knows how difficult it can be to be honest.
I ask him which life is better. He pauses for a moment. “Right now it is better with no money, because I have a family,” he says. Pauses again. Smiles. “But if you have all the money, and the family, that is better.”