European Seating: Stockholm–Timisoara in 48 hours


STOCKHOLM–TIMISOARA

There is a regular flow of traffic between the Romanian countryside and the towns around Sweden.

At least five coach operators specialise in coach trips between Romania and Sweden.

Construction workers, cleaners, beggars and prostitutes are packed into the coaches. Next to the driver is a thick bundle of envelopes, filled with cash.

The Citygross supermarket has switched off its lights. Statoil and Sibylla’s staff have all gone home. Only the lights of a waiting red Audi are on.

It has been seven hours since the long-haul coach left Stockholm. It has slowly meandered south, through Sweden, and it is 3.48 am by the time we pull into the coach stop outside Ljungby. No one is getting on or off here.

Throughout the two-day journey, Loredana, 8, remains awake while everyone else is asleep. She is on her way to Sweden to visit other family members who are working in Gothenburg for the summer. Photo: Johanna Karlsson

Dorin, 25, leans against the Audi.

"Salut!" he says when the coach doors open.

In his right hand is an envelope. The three drivers, who take it in turns to sleep and drive in shifts, note down the details. The envelope is going to Iuliana, who will be standing outside the Selfgros store in Timisoara, a 30-hour drive away.

The coach pulls out onto the E4 motorway again. Only an eight-year-old is awake, and the drivers refuse to stop playing Abba.

We have to sit here for more than two days. Stopping all over the place on Swedish soil, stopping all over the place on Romanian soil, but everything in between – basically no stops. The passengers can take unlimited luggage with them and travel directly between the various towns they live in.

Every European city with a vibrant employment market is kept alive by work carried out by Romanians.

The Ukraine, Romania and Moldavia are the European countries whose expat workers contribute most to the GDP by sending money home. The money is either sent home bit by bit, or is saved and taken with them for investing later.

Every European city with a vibrant employment market is kept alive by work carried out by Romanians. You can see that by looking at the transportation routes through Europe.

Take a normal Monday evening in Malmö, for example. You have a Brianna Tour coach departing from the old Shell petrol station on Ramels väg in Rosengård at 8.30 pm, another – Comati PSG – leaving Svävarterminalen six hours later, and a third – Eurolines – from the same place, just after sunrise.

We have to sit here for more than two days – stopping all over the place in Sweden and all over the place in Romania, but basically with no stops in between. Passengers can take unlimited luggage with them. Photo: Lisa Mattisson

Despite the fact that a flight costs just a few hundred kronor, the coaches are filled with returnee workers, Roma families who have been begging in Sweden, young prostitutes and expats’ family members.

The coaches are loaded up, an extra trailer is added, and those small envelopes go to the drivers. For 3% of the amount, you can send money directly via Brianna Tour, which is far cheaper than the average cost of a bank transfer which, according to the World Bank, is 8%. The lowest commission a Brianna Tour driver will drive for is SEK 150.

"He'll harass you, he'll take your money, your cigarettes."

I am on Comati’s Stockholm - Bucharest route, which leaves three times a week. A one-way ticket costs €100. As we depart, all of the passengers are young women except one. A few are travelling with children, and are used to the coach. They say that they have already seen the action films being shown on the screen next to the driver. The seats gradually fill up with men and families, at the various stops throughout southern Sweden.

The men are all talkative, whereas the women say that they definitely do not want to be in the newspaper. Only my 29-year-old seat-neighbour, eyelash extension beautician Cristina, is prepared to talk. But mostly to warn me about Aurel, 39.

“He’ll harass you, he’ll take your money, your cigarettes,” she warns, when she sees me make eye contact with Aurel.

Aurel is the only male passenger travelling all the way from Stockholm. He is travelling with a 22-year-old woman, who is crying. Everyone on the coach has left her alone, lying across a few seats, where she is staring into a Samsung phone. Aurel cannot really explain what sort of relationship it is they have, other than that they are from the same town. But he is clearly involved in her life.

“The boyfriend said, ‘go back Romania,’” explains Aurel.

He was actually involved in the girl’s matchmaking with the Romanian man in Stockholm. A lot of people in their neighbourhood in Craiova thought the relationship would work, but now she is sitting here on the coach, crying.

And the people back home are also going to be disappointed about the failed match.

Aurel lives in Tumba. But he spends most of his time on the Skarpnäck - T-centralen route, playing various musical instruments. Any another route is out of the question, he knows which musicians are where. For him, it has always been the green line. Now he is on his way to visit one of his children, who still lives in Craiova. His mobile phone wallpaper is a photo of his child, together with a smiling wife.

Aurel has money with him, but he has already sent some over. Not via any of Romania’s 6,900 Western Unions, they are too expensive in his opinion. Instead it is better find someone who will courier it for him. Rather a passenger than a Comati driver. Aurel prefers not to pay, even if its only a few hundred kronor. And banks are out of the question.

“No, no. Look at Greece,” he says briefly, with the face of a cautionary parent.

Instead the trustee should be someone who is well-known in their Craiova network. So a betrayal would be socially impossible.

She is right. Here on the coach, no one asks me for help either.

Cristina takes the Comati coach regularly and has never seen a Swedish woman here, so she wants to watch over me. She is going home to her son in Timisoara and then returning to the Swedish beauty salon as soon as possible.

I quickly understand that Cristina’s warning system is based upon it being okay when I talk to the workers, but not with people who make money in other ways. She says that I might not know who the beggars are, but that she does. Here on the coach, they do not act the same way they do on the street.

She is right. Here on the coach, no one asks me for help either. But when it really sinks in for Aurel that I am 100% Swedish, something changes in his eyes and he remembers that he forgot to ask for money for cigarettes. And the four rotating drivers change the way they look at me too. Since my second journey with Comati, they now know my name, I get a discount and am referred to as a regular.

He looks after the mink, feeds them, plays with them and posts Instagram pictures of them, before the rest of the farm takes over for the dirty work.

For some reason, a lot of the passengers always board in Växjö, on each of the four trips I have taken with Comati’s coaches. A group of friends who say they have worked at a warehouse for storage products. A woman who has worked as a cleaner and her teenage daughter. They say that only the mother cleaned, but are not entirely convincing.

Keeping much to themselves are young women around the age of 20, who do not want to socialise with either the worker groups or the beggars. I note that they are not Cristina-approved either.

In Helsingborg, a 22-year-old joins us. He caught the ferry from Denmark, where he works at a mink farm. He looks after the mink, feeds them, plays with them and posts Instagram pictures of them, before the rest of the farm takes over for the dirty work.

In Helsingborg, the coaches from Stockholm connect with a smaller coach that has picked up passengers from along the Uddevalla-Göteborg-Varberg-Halmstad stretch.

Among the people who board in Helsingborg is Alex, who is on his way home after a month’s work for a Romanian building contractor in Skåne. At first they drew up a fake contract for SEK 26,000 – clean, taxable money – a month, then Alex received SEK 9,000 cash in hand.

Constantine, 40, is a lorry driver and a resident of Arlöv. He takes the coach to Brasov to collect suitcases of food from his wife, who lives there. Photo: Johanna Karlsson

When Bela, a 26-year-old who switches between mobiles from several different countries and speaks four major southern European languages fluently, hears what Alex says from his seat further back in the coach, he laughs and interrupts. He and his mates earned as much as €3,000 a month, cash in hand – approx. SEK 27,600 – as temporary workers on several construction sites outside Stockholm. Everyone in his crew is going back as soon as they have been home to hug their families. Alex is annoyed. What kind of Stockholm opportunity did he miss out on by wasting his summer in Skåne?

Every time a discussion starts about pay, it is as if several rows of seats come to life. Constantine, 40 years old and a lorry driver, talks fatherly to the younger passengers about how they must try out several different contacts before they find the person they can earn the most for. He points to a chain around his neck. A horseshoe and a number 13 on a thin gold chain, a present from his wife that brought him luck with work in Scandinavia, he says.

Although Constantine is a resident of Arlöv, just outside Malmö, he is never there. He works all over the place, wherever the hauliers in western Sweden and Denmark send him to drive. His family have remained in Romania the whole time, while Constantine has worked abroad for the past six years. He mainly takes the coach trips to Brasov to collect suitcases of food from his wife.

Suneta, 41, has commuted back and forth to Stockholm for four years with her extended family. Here she is sitting with Expressen's Johanna Karlsson.
  • Suneta, 41, has commuted back and forth to Stockholm for four years with her extended family. Here she is sitting with Expressen's Johanna Karlsson.
  • Comati PSG specialises in trips between Romania and Scandinavia, and most of the operator's destinations are in Sweden.
  • The Schengen ends after Hungary. Two different sets of police go through everyone's passport and travel documents, the coach's cargo and storage areas, and they ask us to disembark and re-board.
  • The coaches are loaded up, an extra trailer is added, and those small envelopes go to the drivers. For 3% of the amount, you can send money directly.

The European route from Sweden to Romania takes about 48 hours, depending on your destination.

Whereas budget airlines take you straight into several major cities for half the price of a coach ticket. For Suneta, 41, the choice is about her fear of flying. Ever since she was little, she has travelled by car and minibus, here and there every month. Coaches are everyday, planes are not.

Over the past four expensive years, she has commuted back and forth to Stockholm with her extended family, where they beg for a living together and are pleased with the result. Suneta comes from Alba lulia in Transylvania, but has tried again and again to register her residency at Odenplan, where a friend of hers has a flat. She is irritated that the Swedish Tax Agency patiently responds that you cannot relocate without a residence permit.

When Suneta hears that I am Swedish – she asks me three times, as if it has never happened on the coach before – straight away she goes and gets the letter in a Tax Agency envelope, which she wants me to comment about. She laughs loudest when I am instead impressed by the central address.

“Yes, yes, it’s Odenplan. But there’s ten people sharing,” she smiles.

Comati PSG is strictly aimed at Scandinavia and they clear out coach stops in Nyköping, Jönköping, Varberg, Landskrona, Halmstad, here and there. After that: no coach stops, no food stops, no sleep stops, no chance of any real bathroom breaks. 

“Only for small things,” the drivers carefully instruct passengers, when showing them the onboard toilet.

Petrol stations get cheaper and cheaper the further south we get.  Same products, new prices. At the northerly petrol stations, Aurel is looking for that Swedish woman, to see if she might be able to buy a packet of cigarettes. After Prague, he gives up and buys them himself. Germans and Czechs insist on demanding 50 cents or 10 Czech kronor for a bathroom visit, but Comati’s passengers jump irritably over the barrier and ignore it.

The Schengen Area ends after Hungary. Two different sets of police go through everyone’s passport and travel documents, the coach’s cargo and storage areas, and they ask us to disembark and re-board.

“Stop coruptiei la frontiera,” screams a large sign on both the Hungarian and Romanian sides, followed by a corruption hotline number. There is a huge ongoing offensive to put an end to bribery at the Romanian Hungarian border, an age-old tradition.

When we drive into the beautiful town of Timisoara, I try to work out what there are more of, Romanian or EU flags. But no. What there is probably most of is in fact ‘stop corruption’ signs. Every shop and every restaurant must have an official poster explaining what a receipt is, with who to call if you did not receive one.

"You are Swedish? Was the coach okay for you? No beggar musicians who tried to take your money or cigarettes?"

In Timisora, Iuliana is standing in the car park outside the Selfgros discount store, just as agreed. She gets her money from Ljungby. Two Swedish SEK 500 notes, half the average monthly salary in Romania. The store’s bureau de change advertises all of the Scandinavian currencies. They are their best-sellers, after the euro, dollar and Romanian forint.

The coach route forks off into different directions, to pass through all of the small Romanian villages. One coach continues north towards Iasi at the Moldavian border, another southeast towards Bucharest. Onward passengers want to change their money first. There are fewer bureau de change shops with good exchange rates after Timisoara. Everyone in the queue has relatively few banknotes in their hands. Three, four hundred Swedish kronor.  A relatively large number of returning workers have also been paid in euros, despite the fact that they work on Swedish soil.

Cristina from the beauty salon is met by her husband, who immediately turns to me.

“You are Swedish? Was the coach okay for you? No beggar musicians who tried to take your money or cigarettes?”

He nodded his head towards Aurel, who had scuttled off.

“Swedish people don’t care,” interrupted Cristina.

Translator: Laura Åkerblom