Okay, remember what I’ve said before about it ‘being all about the journey?’ Well, forget it. I just took a 25 hour train ride from hell. Well, actually it was from Krakow, Poland to a small, practically unreachable town (maybe horse and buggy would have gotten me there faster?) in Romania. Like on a few other occasions during my trip I’ve decided to return to a place where I really met some wonderful people to just enjoy their company and hospitality and get to know them better… because I’ve learned that’s really what the trip is all about.
When I bought my ticket at the train station in Krakow, I inquired about getting a couchette (compartments on the train in which the seats fold down to form narrow beds). But, I was told there were none. None? I couldn’t believe on such a long journey including an overnight stretch there were no sleeping cars. I never heard of this. I asked again. She shook her head again. No, none–only compartments with eight seats—four on each side facing each other. This can get pretty tight and in turn pretty smelly for twenty-five hours. Ugh.
The night before my dreaded day of departure, I slept restlessly and worked myself into a frenzy recalling possible truths or myths I’d heard from other travelers and on the internet regarding various thefts on overnight trains—unlucky for me the most popular routes with problems were those to and from Poland. Supposedly, unsavory characters spray some kind of gas or chloroform into your compartment knocking you out while they make off with your valuables. Of course if you could get a couchette with bunks this was much safer because you could lock the door. And even though this would be my third overnight trip in the past few weeks (none of which I had any problems—well, not unless you count sharing a car with a David-Duke-loving and Iranian-president-supporting Croatian who shared with me his beliefs that Jews were plotting to take over the world—eek), I dreamt up all kinds of things that were going to happen to me and felt like this was the one time in my trip that maybe I would not be safe… and I kind of had no choice.
The next day, I made one more attempt to make sure that there were no couchettes available and went to the travel office in town. The lady behind the glass also shook her head. No.
“Really? How can this be?” I inquired. After a couple more ‘nos.’ She actually started clacking away at her keyboard and said, “Oh yes, there are some’ but you’ll have to change cars in the morning at 8am as the train splits—one half heading towards Budapest and the other into Romania.” Why hadn’t someone explained this to me before??? Of course I could do this! So during the whole night I could sleep in an actual horizontal position and in the morning I have to move to a seat?? Big deal. What could be more normal! I was annoyed at how much I had to ask people the same question until I miraculously got the answer which I thought was right. I was excited—at least I could lie down and lock the door.
And then she said, “Sorry, no sleepers or couchettes are left. All full.” Bastards!
At 10:30pm the train pulled into Krakow’s busy main station and I headed to the last car which was labeled Bucharest so I would be sure not to be on the half of the train that split off for Budapest. Well, the good news was it was way less crowded than I imagined and a young Polish guy ducked into my reserved car as I came up behind him. I thought at first maybe I would just go take an empty compartment of my own, but after chatting with him for a few minutes I surmised he wasn’t a crazed lunatic about to embark on a murderous rampage.
Actually, he was getting his masters in Finance and was heading to a conference in Romania and was even wearing a fleece with the financial groups name printed on it. This was a good sign. I doubted he was in disguise as a finance geek and was really a train bandit. So I thought I’d be better off sharing the car with him as my own protection in case some undesirables came knocking in the wee hours of the night. Things were looking up. Except for the fact that it had become one of the coldest days in Krakow’s summer history and the heat was not turned on at all. We froze trying to sleep across the velvety seats that faced each other in our cold compartment and my toes turned a nice shade of purple.
Since I felt safe, I actually had popped a couple sleeping pills I’d gotten from an Australian friend I’d made in Krakow. And they worked like a charm—except for the fact that during the night we were awakened several times by guards as we crossed the borders into Slovakia and Hungary. When our slow-going former Soviet train finally reached the Romanian border at some ungodly hour, we stopped in a train yard for a bit to add a string of cars to our lonely and tiny 3-car train. These included some sleeper cars (like I wanted in the first place!) with fold down beds and a sink in your own compartment, plus some more regular compartments, which now made each car have its own unique style—some seats were like pleather (that lovely fake plastic-y leather), some velvety, and some old school bus green– and a pretty swanky looking dining car. Well, I guess I am using the word ‘swanky’ lightly, but in comparison to the rest of the Russian-looking, ‘stylish-less train’, it was like the Rainbow Room in New York City.
I wasn’t hungry, but sat down in the dining car’s bar area just for a change of scenery and change of butt cushion (this makes a big difference after twenty hours). The windows were large and the flat golden plains of Western Romanian gave way to misty mountains way in the distance.
The tall, skinny leathery-faced (or perhaps ‘pleathery-faced’) man with a mustache and friendly smile that worked behind the counter came and sat down next to me. He spoke a smattering of English with a healthy dollop of Romanian and of course, his native tongue, Hungarian. When I told him I was from Chicago he beamed at me, jumped up and grabbed his address book. He paged through the scribbled contacts and pointed to someone that lived in Chicago—actually probably five minutes from where I lived right near Wrigley Field. It was a Hungarian friend of his who’d moved there some time ago.
He then said, ‘Baptist.’ I thought maybe I misunderstood him and cupped my ear making the ‘I didn’t quite hear you’ gesture. He repeated “Baptist.” “She’s Baptist?” I repeated wondering why this was an interesting thing to share with me. He nodded and pointed to me as if to ask what my religious background was. This was an odd line of questioning to just start getting to know each other but I answered ‘Jewish’ never knowing what reactions might await me—especially in Eastern Europe where it is no secret that there is still some strong Anti-Semitic sentiment floating around. He then stroked my hair, and said ‘ah, beautiful.’ Ooooookay….
I sat back down at a table and he offered me some coffee, but I explained I had brought no money with me (which was true–even so true as that I had no money really until I got off the train and to an ATM). My remaining three Polish Zloty ($1) would do me no good now anyway. I’ve gotten quite adept at spending just the right amount of cash my last few days in a country and using my credit card to even out the rest. Of course, after traveling this long, it has become a kind of game that I enjoy playing with myself. ‘Dining-car man’ had become persistent in giving me a complimentary cappuccino which I finally accepted with a smile. Perhaps this was a mistake.
I thanked him and to be gracious, introduced myself and shook his hand. He shook mine and then, as you guessed, held onto it for an uncomfortably long amount of time before he reached his thin slimy lips down and kissed it and repeated to tell me I was beautiful. Ok… check please! Time for me to make my escape back to the second class carriages. Now, he wanted to know if I could visit him in Budapest. Aw, too bad for me (and him), I’d already been there. I explained that I had to go watch my bags, shook his hand again and got away back to my chilly cabin and good looking, but much less flirtations compartment partner.
To continue my amazing lucky streak of meeting helpful and friendly people, as soon as cute yet boring finance guy left—and even though the train was still quite empty–a sweet Romanian girl joined me in my compartment. We chatted a bit and then it was finally time for me to get off and change trains. Hallelujah! I was in the homestretch.
Well, I thought I was. After about 18 hours on the first train, little did I know the shorter ride in the second train would be more hellacious than the first. After waiting about two hours in the tiny station in the middle of ‘nowhereville’ Romania, I boarded the train to my final destination.
It appeared to be an even clunkier vessel from Communist times and was old and creaky and reeked of urine. Mmmm. It was bursting at the seams with country folk who were smoking and chattering. This four-hour journey seemed nearly as long or longer than the first ride. There was really no where to walk around so I was glued to my grotty plastic seat in an uncomfortably full compartment of friendly, non-English speaking Gypsies. But, once again, they were sweet to me and when at last I reached my stop, they helped me off the train with my suitcase and bid me a fond farewell.
Twenty-five hours after I’d left Krakow, my dreaded longest travel day was over and besides needing a good ass massage, it actually wasn’t so bad after all. And instead of being robbed or beaten by lunatics, I encountered only friendly, albeit a bit smelly, people every step of the way. And as I stepped off the train waving goodbye to my new friends, thankfully there was Mihai, Mona’s brother, standing on the other side of the tracks with a big smile on his face. I was home.