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A Moldovan Walks Into A Cafe In Tripoli...

Nicolai Odobescu

Nicolai Odobescu

TRIPOLI -- When Nicolai Odobescu was asked by his company to relocate from Chisinau, Moldova to war-torn Libya, his response was, "Yeah, why not?"

The 34-year-old Odobescu had been working as a service manager at the Leogrand Hotel, the largest in the former Soviet republic. But last month, the Turkish company for which he works, Summa, told him that they wanted him to move to Tripoli, where they had just purchased a new hotel.

On August 20, just three weeks into his job as the manager of the Oya! Cafe at the Al-Mahary Radisson Blu and nearly half a year into the ongong struggle between loyalists of the regime of Muammar al-Qaddafi and his opponents, Odobescu had to move again, when the hotel was forced to close due to the armed uprising in Tripoli. The hotel emptied its rooms of guests, shut its doors, and the staff quickly traveled to a secure villa about 10 kilometers outside Tripoli.

"We stayed in a civilian region where there is no, any shooting," he says. "But anyway there was bombing, nearly."

When things quieted down several days later, the Radisson reopened, only to be met with hundreds of international journalists who had poured into the Libyan capital to cover Qaddafi's fall. With only two hotels open in the capital, the Radisson quickly filled up, and its managers had to make a waiting list for desperate journalists looking for a place to stay.

For the hundreds of guests at the Radisson, Odobescu has been a reassuring presence, making endless cups of coffee and dispensing with pastries. As food is in short supply, his café has become a hub of activity. The day before I interviewed him, he had worked nonstop for 18 hours.

Though the journalists can at times be demanding, he says that they are far easier to service than the hotel’s previous guests -- families of regime figures who had relocated to the Radisson for fear that their homes would be attacked by rebels. All told, Odobescu says, the government paid for 100 rooms.

"Now it’s more better customers," he says. "More cultural. More 21st-century people."

When I ask Odobescu if he expected to be caught in the middle of the civil war, he replied, "I know very well where I am going." All this leads me to assume that his company offered him a significant pay raise to relocate from sleepy Moldova to bomb and bullet-strewn Libya. But his answer surprises me.

"For the moment I didn’t discuss with my bosses. But I will. I will."