The rocket attack alarm sounds while a friend and I are having coffee and smokes at this outdoor French-style cafe on the boardwalk. A blaring siren wails, and then the grim pronouncement, “Rok-it, at-tack. Rok-it, at-tack.” The voice that accompanies the siren is female–dry, accent-neutral, and a little robotic–like the tinny voice prompts you hear on automated answering services. The standard operating procedure (SOP) for rocket attacks is to get small and seek cover, or find the nearest bunker and stay there until the All Clear is sounded. When a rocket hits, it explodes and shrapnel fly out, so you need to expose as little of yourself as possible.
In seconds, all of us cafe patrons grab coffees, sandwiches, cigarettes, and other stuff, then duck sheepishly under our tables. The first thing I notice is that all the Romanian troopers remain seated comfortably on their benches, unmindful of everyone else doing the sudden dry dive. I look inquiringly over at my friend Tata Su, and he says, “Ignore them, they are used to it.” We exchange grins.
I feel cramped and self-conscious under the table, mainly because crouching that low wasn’t very comfortable and I see that up close, the floor is very dirty. I question the wisdom of having only the thin wooden slats of the table for protection against rockets, and my friend says it is better than nothing. I don’t quite agree with that, but don’t really feel like arguing the finer points of rocket attack etiquette while bent in such an unladylike position. We puff away and make more morbid jokes for a few minutes.
An ambulance siren wails, loud enough for us to know that one is speeding nearby. Silently, I reassure myself that the ambulance is just ISAF being hyper-prepared, and not an actual necessity. It is much too nice an afternoon to contemplate the need for ambulances.
An uneasy little silence follows, as though everyone just ceased talking at the same exact moment. Not even five seconds later, as if on cue, we all stand up and go back to our seats, even though the All Clear siren has not sounded yet. The two heavily mascaraed women next to our table pounce on their sandwiches; the men in dust-streaked blazers across from us resume their cross-legged poses and take small sips from their coffee cups. The Romanians, still wondrously unperturbed, converse even louder in their guttural, hard-rolling consonants.
My friend and I place our props back on the table: cellphones, coffee cups, stirrers, and the shared Marlboro reds pack. We light up and resume sipping our cafe Americanos, behaving as the others do, in casual (not even brave) denial of this brief dalliance with death.