The first part of the journey was nothing new: the boat train from London Victoria to Dover, ferry to Calais, and train to Paris Gare du Nord. My onward train would leave from Gare de l’Est, only a short walk away – which was very welcome on a dark Friday night.
I had expected this train to take me all the way to Bucharest – but labels on the carriages indicated that it terminated in Vienna. As I peered through the windows, the train appeared full. It was early February, and the first snow had fallen in the Alps, so everyone was going skiing. I was feeling downhearted, when a young woman called to me from the door to one of the carriages: “There’s space in this compartment.”
My companion was German and was travelling to a village near Stuttgart to give skiing lessons the following morning – which meant she would miss seeing her boyfriend’s band give their first concert of Peruvian music in a nightclub in Paris. We joined a young French duo in the compartment – he was heading to Nancy, she to Munich to be reunited with her Tahitian mother and new German stepfather.
With the aid of a board to bridge the gap between two padded bench seats, we stretched out our legs and huddled together, head to toe, to sleep. Five hours later, in Kehl-am-Rhein, we were unceremoniously thrown out of the compartment by a cohort of German businessmen waving tickets with seat reservations to Munich.
It wasn’t easy getting out of the compartment – even the corridor was packed with passengers, each clad in a padded jacket and salopette, and wielding a pair of skis. Eventually I found a pull-down chair in the corridor, where I waited until the compartment became vacant in Munich.
* * *
The train terminated in Vienna on Saturday afternoon, and I had an hour before my connection to Bucharest – not enough time to explore properly, but a welcome opportunity to stretch my legs after a whole day of travelling.
On the train out of Vienna, I chose a compartment occupied by two women: one around my age and the other much older. They were both Romanian, of German descent, which made conversation easier. Like me, the older woman was bound for Bucharest – she had been visiting relatives in Austria and was returning home with presents for her family.
The younger woman would leave the train at a small village in the Carpathian mountains. She had emigrated to Germany two years earlier, but her husband wasn’t allowed to leave Romania, so she visited him every few months. On this occasion, they would be reunited for the birth of their first child.
As we talked, my companions became more friendly and helpful – suggesting places to visit in Bucharest, and giving me advice on what not to do, to avoid getting arrested.
Nevertheless, the older woman asked: “Why didn’t you stay in Vienna? You speak German – you would have been safe. Why must you go to Bucharest?”
On Saturday evening we arrived in Budapest, where the train would stop for an hour. It was too dark to venture far, so I went for a walk around the station – leaving my backpack on the train with my two companions.
Language has always fascinated me – whenever I come across a new language, I try to make sense of it. At the far end of the platform, I found a huge timetable, showing departures out of Budapest – and I noticed that our train had arrived at a different platform from the one indicated.
“No matter where you go, the timetable isn’t right,” I reflected.
As I continued my stroll – taking photographs of the station with my Olympus OM-1 camera – I noticed in my peripheral vision that a young man was following me. He didn’t look like security, but I hurried back to re-join the train just in case.
I arrived at the platform in time to see the last carriage disappear into the distance. My initial reaction was panic, but it didn’t last long – although my backpack was on the train, I still had my passport and money on me. I approached a porter and asked if he spoke German – fortunately he did.
He confirmed that the train I saw leaving was indeed heading to Bucharest. He then clarified that it was being shunted to a different platform, to join another set of carriages – which explained the discrepancy on the timetable.
I thanked him and hurried to the other platform – where the train, my companions and my backpack were waiting for me. As the train pulled out, the older woman started quizzing me again about travelling to Bucharest.
“Why didn’t you stay in Budapest?” she said. “Budapest is beautiful.”
I couldn’t easily explain to her why I wanted to travel to Bucharest – it didn’t make much sense to me either. Her warnings sounded ominous – but I knew I was resourceful, and I felt sure everything would be alright.
As the train rattled on toward the Hungary / Romania border, the older woman showed me a bar of perfumed soap she had bought to give to the border guard as a gift. She then took a warm winter coat from her luggage and asked if I would mind saying it was mine, if asked.
“I bought it for my daughter,” she said. “But I already have a coat, and we’re only allowed to bring one coat into the country. But you don’t have a coat, do you? So you could say this is yours.”
It was true – I just had a waterproof kagoul, which I kept folded up inside my backpack. I felt nervous about the prospect of lying, especially to an official – but the older woman had shown me kindness in her concern for my safety, so I agreed. Perhaps I realised how fortunate I was, to take luxuries such as a warm coat or perfumed soap for granted.
During the night, we were awakened several times by various officials. On the Hungarian side, there were three passport controls – one to check my passport and visa application, one to stamp an entry visa and one to stamp an exit visa; a customs check, which included a search for contraband in the cavity underneath the wooden bench I had been sleeping on; and finally the ticket collector.
The Romanian checks were less exhaustive, but nonetheless intimidating. A young woman in a drab uniform entered the compartment, to check my passport. I was issued with a one-day visa and had to purchase $10 worth of Lei – the local currency. The guard cautiously accepted the soap from the older woman, glanced at the coat beside me but said nothing, then left us to continue sleeping.
* * *
In the morning I was woken by the older woman. “Isn’t it beautiful,” she said.
Through a frosty window I glimpsed bright sunshine reflecting off the snow-clad Carpathian mountains. Despite their beauty, her enthusiasm surprised me – until now she had continually discouraged me from visiting Romania.
As the train approached the outskirts of Bucharest, she gave me some coins, in case I needed bus fare, and offered me some tins of sardines. I thanked her and accepted the coins, but said I didn’t need the fish – I would be leaving Bucharest the same evening.
She also wrote me a note, in Romanian, requesting a seat reservation on the train back to Budapest – explaining that, without a reservation, I wouldn’t be allowed to board the train.
As the train pulled in to Bucharest station, suitcases were hurled onto the platform from every door and window. My companion asked me to fetch a luggage trolley for her, knowing there were none. When I returned to the train, I spotted her hurriedly leaving with her son – I later realised that she was probably afraid to be seen talking to a foreigner.
Although I only had five hours to explore Bucharest, the most important thing was to reserve my seat on the return train that evening. At the information desk, I handed over the note my companion had written – but I didn’t understand the reply. A young Syrian medical student, who spoke both English and Romanian, translated for me – I would have to wait until half an hour before departure, to book my seat reservation. Talk about cutting things fine.
He offered to escort me around Bucharest city centre – so we queued for a bus which took us over potholed cobbled streets to the university. The newer architecture was brutal, but I took photographs anyway, to the surprise of my guide. He then showed me the bar of the Hotel Intercontinental, which was off-limits to locals. After two days on the train, I relished a cold drink – but I was eager to see more of the city.
Bucharest was probably not looking its best – it was a snowy Sunday, and the shops were closed, so there weren’t many people around. My guide soon ran out of places to show me, and offered to take me to a friend’s house for coffee. I explained that I had travelled for two days to reach Bucharest and wanted to see more of it – and that residential roads, cars and trams were as interesting to me as monuments. I thanked him and continued on my way, with the help of a map.
* * *
It was already twilight when I returned to the station to reserve my seat – over an hour before the train was due to depart. The high vaulted ceiling in the ticket hall was sparsely lit by two fluorescent tubes, and I felt unnerved by the hordes of confused passengers milling around in semi-obscurity.
I eventually joined a queue at one of the ticket desks, not knowing whether it was the right one, until a young Romanian confirmed it furtively in French. He was also travelling to Budapest, but on a later train, and had been told to come back later. After a lot of pushing and shoving, I thrust my handwritten note under the ticket desk window, handed over 20 Lei, and ultimately emerged triumphantly holding a seat reservation ticket.
The young Romanian kept me company while I waited for my train, bought me an orange juice, and even offered to write to me, if I would give him my address. I was touched by his kindness but declined nevertheless – after only one day in Bucharest, paranoia had set in.
As the train pulled away, I felt both exhausted and relieved that I had managed to escape from Bucharest. Delighted to discover a restaurant car where I would be able to spend the rest of my Lei, I tucked into the only meal on the menu – before retiring to the discomfort of my reserved wooden bench seat and the prospect of another round of border officials and interrupted sleep.