I was glad to be on the move again and was looking forward to spending a whole day wandering round Budapest with my camera. On reflection, the old woman – who I shared a compartment with on the way to Bucharest – was probably right. Spending more time in Vienna or Budapest would have been a much more relaxing experience.
The compartment containing my reserved bench seat was already occupied by a man and two women – all Romanian – who kept very much to themselves. The man spoke a little German, but it was difficult for me to understand what he said, as most of his front teeth were missing, so the words sounded garbled.
I felt exhausted after a rather stressful day in Bucharest, and I soon fell asleep – only to be awakened at one of the stations in the mountains by a newcomer, who was moving my backpack to make space for his own luggage on the rack above my head. I was in a bad mood, having both my sleep and my belongings disturbed – so I jumped up and replaced my backpack in its original place, much to his surprise. He muttered something in Romanian to the other passengers – which I assumed was a comment about my lack of manners – while I turned over and dozed off again.
By the time we reached the border, I was fast asleep, and I had difficulty waking up when the numerous officials invaded the compartment. My throat was sore and slightly swollen, and I had a headache – all, no doubt, as a result of fatigue. The newcomer, who also spoke German, asked if I was ill – but I assured him it was just tiredness.
He seemed surprisingly concerned, and despite our earlier disagreement, he took it upon himself to make sure I was kept warm and well-fed: wrapping his ski jacket around me, tying his scarf round my neck and covering my feet with his jumper; and offering me sustenance from his backpack, which was laden with cooked meats and bread, and enough apples to fill a barrel.
We were due to arrive in Budapest early on Monday, and I had an 8 hour visit planned. When I awoke in the morning, however, the train had ground to a halt, due to a mountain of snow on the tracks ahead of us – and we had no idea how long it would take to get moving again. It was the perfect setting for a spy film such as “The Lady Vanishes” or the Agatha Christie novel “Murder on the Orient Express” – only without the murder.
People had started moving from one compartment to another – presumably trying to find out what was going on, with no success. The newcomer had relocated to a neighbouring compartment, with some other passengers, and invited me to join them. He turned out to be friendly after all. Once we were all settled in the new compartment, we introduced ourselves.
We were a motley crew: an elderly Hungarian couple; a Dutch woman and a Swedish woman; a young Romanian woman (let’s call her YRW); and “the newcomer” (henceforth referred to as RTB) who was a representative from the Romanian Tourist Board, travelling to Spain to promote Romania as a tourist destination. The Swedish woman also spoke English, but no German. The Romanians, Hungarians and the Dutch woman all understood German – but RTB refused to speak German any more, so YRW acted as interpreter.
I don’t recall the finer details of what we talked about during the next few hours – I just remember it being a jolly affair with much laughter. Most of the conversation was between myself and RTB – with RTB asking me questions in Romanian, YRW translating from Romanian into German, and me answering in German. Looking back, I realise it was a rare and unique opportunity for “ordinary” citizens from both sides of the “Iron Curtain” to meet in safety – in a kind of temporary No-Man’s Land – and to find out more about each other’s daily lives.
I was sat in the middle of one bench; YRW was sitting on my left, next to the window; RTB was perched high on the bench opposite her, also by the window; the two Hungarians sat to his left, directly opposite me; and next to them was the Dutch woman. There was no room on the opposite bench for the Swedish woman to sit, so she stood in the corridor, leaning in to the compartment to listen to the conversation.
She could have sat next to me – there was enough space – but it almost seemed that my fellow travellers had formed an audience in front of me and were hanging on my every word. As though what I said was important. I had never experienced that feeling before. This was the first time – but it wasn’t the last.
After a couple of hours, RTB suggested getting some fresh air. I felt rather nervous, stepping off the train – but it clearly wasn’t going anywhere. Even if the engine had sprung to life, we could easily have climbed aboard before it disappeared out of reach. RTB took a photograph of me standing next to the train, in the snow – as if to prove I had been there – before we returned to the compartment, shivering with the cold.
Apart from the food supplies in RTBs backpack, he also produced a bottle of home-made Schnapps, which livened the party up a bit and made the conversation flow more easily – and after several hours of round-robin interpretation between Romanian and German, a strange thing happened. Although I don’t speak a word of Romanian, I started to understand what RTB was saying – and I began replying to his questions before YRW had a chance to translate.
I can only imagine that the relaxed atmosphere had lowered my inhibitions and dismantled my beliefs about not being able to understand Romanian. All I remember is that the conversation between RTB and myself continued without any assistance.
“Soon you’ll be speaking Romanian more fluently than German,” RTB said, in Romanian.
“I don’t think so,” I replied in German.
* * *
We arrived in Budapest around 9 hours behind schedule – and discovered that we had been stranded, all that time, only a mile outside the station. It might just as well have been 100 miles, though.
My plan to spend the day wandering around the centre of Budapest had been shot to ribbons – and 36 years later, I still haven’t been back, although I would love to visit both Budapest and Bucharest, to see how things have changed. I had also missed my connection to Bonn, where I was going to stay with M and her husband for a couple of days.
Fortunately, I had a copy of the Thomas Cook International Passenger Timetable with me, in case of just such an emergency – and I discovered a fast train to Amsterdam, which would arrive in Bonn half an hour earlier than the stopping train I had intended to take.
This is an excellent illustration of why I never worry about the destination. Instead, I focus on enjoying the journey (the “present moment”) and trust that things will work out in the end – which they generally do, when I simply go with the flow and allow Life to unfold, rather than planning and trying to control the outcome.
Had I been fretting about arriving in Budapest late and missing my connection to Bonn, I might never have experienced the friendship that was extended to me on the train – and I would have missed a magical connection with a fascinating and diverse group of people.