Tongues, Faces and Bodies: Another Way of Listening

‘Would you like to hear the talk?’ She said.

‘Yes, why not’, I nodded.

‘But you won’t understand anything’, said her friend. ‘How can you sit and listen for an hour to language that makes no sense. Surely you want a translator’.

‘Not at all’, I said. ‘I’d rather just listen and watch.

I was in Bulgaria, having completed a road trip from Sofia to the Black Sea Coast. The talk in question was about one of Bulgaria’s greatest women writers, and it was to take place at the town hall of Dobrich, a little inland from Balchik, the seaside palace of a former princess.

So what is it like to listen to a language one does not ‘understand’ in the conventional sense? Obviously, language involves so much beyond the ostensible content. Yet, so fixated are we on the content of the message that we miss all that goes on. Language training has as its aim the ability to ‘communicate’, to be understood and to understand, in written and spoken form. But it thereby misses the richness of language. Often I prefer not to be distracted so, released from the shackles of content. That way you can pay attention to all the other dimensions, such as the intonation, the type and mix of sounds, the movements of tongues, faces and bodies.

Let me give three examples. The subtle lilt of Bulgarian demands little if any movement of body and face. Eyes, nose, facial muscles remain largely still. The head barely moves and the body is kept still. Everything relies on the voice, its loudness or softness, its pauses and rushes, its consonantal conjunctions. By contrast, Russians throw their whole body into a talk. To make a point, a Russian pushes her whole body forward, projecting the words into the midst of the listeners. Her face runs through a gamut of expressions, whether defiance, disdain, charm, sensuousness, seriousness, or a lighter touch. The arms assist in the process, while not drawing attention to themselves. And the Russian sibilants, the breathed consonants, give a weighty feel to what is said – only to be lightened by the ever-present ‘y’ that precedes so many vowels.

What about the Chinese? Once, I attended a group discussion for over two hours, of younger men and women. The men embody in subtle ways the demeanour of the ancient scholar: the goatee being grown, both elbows on the table, which keep the shoulders up. The body is in constant low-level movement, and the hands, holding a pen or perhaps a page, lean over the text. Rarely do they put a hand on the face – to lean, scratch, stroke or pick (hygiene!).

The women have no such ancient model to be absorbed quietly and subconsciously over many years. Still both elbows are on the table, pages and arms move, and they too lean forward. Occasionally one leans back, but the head is held at a tilt.

A speaker is actually quite animated, although rarely does anyone look directly at the speaker. Thin-fingered hands touch, fold and unfold, hold a page, make a note, rub, straighten and curl. Now the elbows move back and lift a little. The head moves minimally and continually, tilting and turning. The eyes are quite expressive, darting about. Eyelids lift and fall, while eyebrows draw together and then part. All while the Chinese tones rush out in a fast-play musical score. As for the sounds, all one need do is rapidly move from curling the tongue slightly back, to pushing its tip up against the upper teeth, to pulling the lips back, to rounding them momentarily…  Soft gutturals emerge, myriad vowel-diphthongs, ringing syllables – all produced effortlessly. As for me, I continue to ponder the strange places my tongue would have to find to make such sounds.

Horses, Buggies and Drug Busts: On an Old Russian Train from Sofia to Kiev

‘No good!’ she said. ‘You can’t travel like that’.

With a wrinkled nose, pursed lips and a shake of her head, she had just emerged from a brief survey of my train compartment.

‘But that’s exactly what I like about old trains’, I said. ‘A comfortable seat that becomes a bed without complex rearrangements, some clean linen, wood panelling, solid brass and steel fittings and a door that locks’.

‘You haven’t seen the toilet’, she said. ‘And it’s an old Soviet train’.

I smiled. ‘That’s what I was hoping’.

‘Your problem’, she said and we hugged warmly, giving each other a light kiss.


An old, solid piece of work: it was indeed a train from the Soviet era, tough, strong and built to last. But the compartment was damned comfortable, more than I expected, although that was helped by the fact that I had indulged and reserved a whole one to myself. Slowly and steadily, it was to take me from Sofia to Kiev, running through Bulgaria, Romania, Moldova and then into the Ukraine – parts of Europe that are usually off the radar when one says ‘Europe’. Eventually, after I had alighted in Kiev, it would arrive in Moscow, comprising one link in the comprehensive rail network that welded together the former Eastern Bloc. I had heard that the Russians were only now decommissioning their reserve of steam engines, kept in case of emergencies. So I was surprised that we didn’t have one of those engines hauling us along, for it certainly felt like it.

The train did what old trains are supposed to do: it clanked, thunked, creaked, shuddered and groaned, all to the rhythm of a slow clickety-clack, clickety-clack (especially in Bulgaria, where the tracks have not yet been upgraded). No welded rails, slick electronic displays, expensive food trolleys. Or warning signs everywhere about you could and (more often) couldn’t do.

As we rattled out of Sofia, I soon found out a few further facts about our train: the toilet was a simple chute onto the tracks and was therefore locked at stations, even for long, long stops; no water flowed through its few taps; the only water available was at boiling point, from a coal-fired samovar; the old custom of being allowed to smoke at the end of the carriage was still in force; the only food available was what the conductor may have been cooking on his simple stove. Given the size of his gut and the strange smells wafting up the corridor, I did not count this as a viable form of sustenance.

So it became a journey of the basics of life: heat, sleep, reek of the unwashed, regular no-nonsense dumps on the tracks. I had come prepared for everything – food, water, dry hand-wash, ability to wash with a damp corner of a towel, plenty of reading material – except for the toilet paper. The solitary roll in our common toilet ran out on the first morning, deposited in small piles across rural Romania. So I resorted to scrounging my pockets for odds and ends of tissues that had clearly been happier in an earlier, unused life. Eventually, the conductor for our carriage rediscovered his stash of thick, brown toilet rolls and the toilet was replenished at intermittent intervals.


Bulgaria: its mountains and fields and villages were stunning in the fading autumn light. Full of reds and oranges and yellows, of magnificent Soviet-era stations in even the smallest towns where the station master would stand and salute as the train rolled past, of farmers hand-harvesting onto carts pulled by horses, of shepherds watching over their sheep and goats. I was reminded of the economic effects of the ‘end’ of communism: land had been reallocated to individuals who could no longer afford the machinery owned by the old collectives, let alone the fuel to run them.

The passage into Romania, crossing the Danube on a magnificent bridge at Ruse in the middle of the night, reinforced that impression. I woke to a countryside full of horses and buggies. Some were simple carts pulled by a single nag, but others were far more elaborate, with two horses, ornate bridles and newer carriages. Someone had obviously cottoned on to the idea that horses and buggies were here to stay in light of rising fuel prices (€2 a litre for people on less that €500 a month), so why not revive and renovate old crafts and skills? It made me wonder whether a poor country like Romania actually shows the way to an oil-free future.

I also realised that we were travelling through one of the breadbaskets of Eastern Europe. Fields of grain stretched in all directions, sheep and goats interspersed among them. Across Romania, Moldova and Ukraine, the crucial role of this region in the food politics of the old Eastern Bloc and USSR became clearer with each click and clack of the rails. I thought of Lenin’s texts after the October Revolution in 1917, when the ‘white’ armies – supplied with arms and military knowhow from the USA, UK, France, Germany, Japan, Canada and others – seized the crucial grain-growing areas in the west, south and east. With malnutrition and starvation forced on the new Soviet state, many of Lenin’s writings, especially the telegrams, give voice to the urgency of procuring grain. And then the rail networks had been destroyed, so even if they had grain, they were unable to transport it to areas that needed it most. It is a wonder they survived, let alone defeated this concerted effort to starve them out.


Once again, the sheer diversity of the human species struck me on this journey. The middle-aged conductor was almost a caricature of the slovenly-dressed Russian waiter from the 1990s: big gut, bald pate, crumpled shirt that was obviously hostile to soap, gruff and friendly manner, but above all a strong advocate of the school of thought according to which passengers are intelligent, self-sufficient creatures who need not a thing. On the unlikely chance they do, they can always ask. He snoozed, listened to radio, cooked on his stove, picked food out of his teeth and played cards with his assistant – who was a younger and slenderer version of his boss, even down to a shirt that shared the same attitude to soap. Actually, he did more than his boss, such as telling me that my pocket watch was no good since it was Russian made (on that score, he was wrong, since it is made in Japan).

Both were amazed that I was travelling through lands where I did not speak a word of the lingo? Russki? Neit. Deutsch? Nein. A shrug … But we managed with a makeshift sign language, or mostly. It soon came to the test at the Romanian-Moldovan border, the old border of the USSR. Here a bogey change was in order. The reason: the USSR had once upon a time deliberately rebuilt its rail network with a different gauge, ostensibly to disrupt the supply lines of any army that would dare to invade. That bogey change was to be an elaborate process, with carriages jacked up, whole bogeys removed and replacements attached. So I asked the conductors how much time I had: forty minutes and stay on this platform and don’t go over there (he pointed to the other side) – or so I divined from their rapid gesticulations. Proud of my astute ability to communicate, I disembarked and set off … only to witness the train roll away into Moldova.

Holy shit! What do I do? My pack was on the train and the border town had about three houses, with no evident places to buy food or find accommodation. Pacing up and down the small platform, I wondered how to arrange alternative transport, whether I should knock on the door of the nearest house to see if they had a spare bed, whether I should slaughter should that sheep across the tracks for dinner.

But then the train returned and parked itself in the bogey changing yard. In a moment of unspeakable relief, I ignored the ‘no pedestrians’ symbol, clambered up into carriage, prepared to smash a window if necessary to get inside. After three hours of banging, lurching and jolting, I revised my decoding of the sign language: it was four hours (not forty minutes) and the train would return and pick me up on that platform over there (so I was not forbidden to go there after all).

Conductors always have a tense relationship with border guards … as do passengers at times. The Bulgarian border guards might be women in high heels, tight pants and impassive faces; Romanian border guards might be women in high heels, tight pants, inquisitive faces and small torches to check for passport forgeries; the Moldovans might be women in high heels, tight pants, smiling faces and the most elaborate uniforms (an elaborateness that spoke of a tiny state trying to assert itself); but the Ukrainians were simply suspicious.

First one, then two, then a hundred or more. Blue uniforms, green uniforms, brown uniforms, camouflage fatigues, sniffer dogs. For hours in the middle of the night (why do trains always cross borders at around 2 am?), they clambered into every conceivable and inconceivable corner, under the train, in the ceiling, behind the panelling, even down the toilet chute. I lost count of how one guard after another checked my pack, under the bed, in the luggage shelf, even in my toilet bag.

‘Do you speak Russian? Ukrainian, Romanian?’

‘No, I speak Dutch, Danish, a little French’.

‘Wait here’.

Half an hour later, a chic woman with bleary eyes appeared, an interpreter. At 4am she had risen, dressed, done her hair, applied makeup, and been summoned to the train. All for a two-minute interview.

‘Do you know why the train is being searched?’


‘Are you carrying drugs?’


‘Have you left your cabin?’


‘Where did you board?’


‘Where are you going?’


‘Would you fill out and sign this form?’

‘Of course’.

Some gut feeling had kept me in my cabin during the whole affair, but when they were gone I wondered along the corridor, only to meet a very round Russian woman who spoke English. ‘Come in’, she said, and introduced her very thin husband. I was plied with cheese, dried sausage and vodka – ‘it is a tradition; you can’t travel on a Russian train and not drink vodka!’ I was told the border guards had ‘found’ drugs in the toilet, which had been thoroughly dismantled. And they had suspected me, but refused to accept her offer to translate. She turned out to be a teacher of English in Moscow, he a public servant. They had bought a holiday house on then Bulgarian Black Sea Coast – very cheap – and decided to take the train home. Russia, religion, politics, life – these we discussed, until at last I staggered back to my cabin for an exhausted sleep before my arrival in Kiev.


Grimy, tired, hungover and busting for a shower, I tumbled onto the platform at Kiev. Surely Yuri, who was to meet me there, would have a shower at his place. Alas, Yuri’s place was a long, long way from the city centre, so I now had the wonderful sensation of freezing in my grime. It was the first seriously cold day of the winter, so after a few sights – cathedrals, university, look-out over the river – we retreated to a restaurant for warmth and food. While Yuri downed shot after shot of vodka – ‘to warm me up’ – we delved into economics.

The horses and buggies, hand-harvesting, shepherds, state of the tracks in Bulgaria and Romania – these and more raised obvious questions. Had two decades of capitalism benefitted Eastern Europe? Was it an improvement over communism? Yuri really wished it were so, but was deeply disappointed. Just when the economic chaos of the 1990s had passed and just when it seemed as though the economies of these countries had taken off in the 2000s, the crash of 2008 happened. The boom turned out to be a bubble, the high-flying currencies collapsed, people who had borrowed in Euros now faced ballooning debts. In the meantime it became clear that the fire-sale of state assets in the 1990s – land, hospitals, power stations, water supply, sewerage, public transport, let alone state-owned companies and so on – these assets had been ‘acquired’ by criminals and thugs (who are usually called ‘business people’ in the West). Now, state funds, whether gathered from taxes or foreign aid, never make their way to the designated projects.

Above all, across the region it was a rare country that had achieved the GDP of 1989. So now, in the midst of the deepest capitalist crisis since the Great Depression, unemployment was as high as 25%. No wonder that the majority of those surveyed across Eastern Europe have become thoroughly sceptical of capitalism and state machines. No wonder they increasingly feel that life was better under communism: you had a job, your children attended school at no cost, healthcare was universal, and holidays were cheap and supplemented by the government.

That discussion stayed with me for the final leg of my journey, for in the evening I boarded a Ukrainian train, bound for Simferopol. The train was of the same vintage and make as the one I had enjoyed from Sofia, except that now it was staffed by young women in impeccable uniforms and had been well maintained indeed. After all, why throw something out, in the name of the incessant need for ‘progress’, when it does the job perfectly well, if not better, than what we have today?

Travel Wash

Unless you are one of the millions of people throughout history who have had only two washes in their lives (at birth and at death), the issue of how to wash while travelling will eventually come up. So what are your favourite ways of washing on the road? The easiest is of course not to wash at all. As the old Dutch saying puts it: where it smells, it is warm. Leaving that aside, my own preferences boil down to three: in the sea, while in motion, and with barely a trickle.

The Sea

At the end of a long day on the bicycle, with sweat flowing in streams on a stinker of a day, with road dirt stuck to greasy skin, with a brain threatening to explode from an overheated climb or two, with the caked on grime from setting up camp and lighting a cooking fire, I relish a beach to myself. A naked dip in the ocean, washing away the dirt and sweat and grime and soot, and then drying by the fire afterwards – the pleasure is almost indescribable. As is the feeling of drying salt in my hair and on my skin.

In Motion

Apart from bicycles, my preferred modes of travel are ships and trains. For some perverse reason, I always seek out the places to wash whether on the rails or at sea. Ships usually have a shower, although that applies only to some trains in their sleeper carriages. Here is a veritable world of difference to explore – given that the more interesting experiences on train journeys are not outside, through the windows, but inside.

It may be the small shower cubicle in a long-distance Amtrak train in the USA. The shower is usually at the back of a storage area stacked high with bags of cups, garbage, linen or whatever. Having waded through these bulging bags, you find an under-used cubicle. A pile of small soaps, perhaps a towel, a button to press – again and again, for it gives you one minute of hot water on each thump. A lurch of the speeding train on a corner, a sudden slosh of gathered water to one side of the cubicle and you suddenly realise why so many handholds festoon the mouldy walls.

Or on an Australian long-haul train you find an amazing invention: the fold-out stainless steel toilet-washbasin-shower – all in a space in which it is well-nigh impossible to turn without risking a dislocated shoulder or cracked knee-cap. Still you find surprises: the toilet-roll holder tucked away in a corner, the fold-out mini-bin, the waterproof drawer for dry storage and then the shower curtain across the door to cover your hanging clothes and towel.

A piss on your toes and the floor to frighten off any tinea that may be lurking and the shower is under way. The train may rock and shake, tip and rattle; the whistle may blow to remind you exactly where you are having a shower; someone may knock in that strangely urgent way that signals an ageing bladder. But I always feel a curious satisfaction at finishing the shower a good distance from where I began.

The Trickle

Yet not all trains have one of these seven wonders of the world. Older trains in China and Eastern Europe may have a samovar and a lever-toilet, opening out onto the rails, and, if one is lucky, a trickle of water in the toilet cubicle. Many would despair and be content to wallow in travel grime. But I prefer to fill a bottle from the coal-fired samovar, let it cool for a while and then slip into the toilet cubicle with a bar of soap. Or, if a trickle still flows from the toilet tap, I set myself for a thrilling experience.

Mind you, the cubicle is a wonder to behold. Ice may be forming blocks in the toilet chute if one is travelling through Siberia in winter; the drain on the floor may be clogged by hair, toilet paper, ice or unidentifiable substances; that bucket of hot water thrown into the room in the morning, by way of cleaning, may have blended with whatever else is on the floor. My only defence is a pair of thongs (aka flip-flops or jandals), which valiantly try to keep my feet out of the swill.

So it begins. A cup or three slowly, filled under the trickle the temperature of snow melt-water, are tossed over body and hair. Goose bumps form and shivers begin as my body suddenly focuses of keeping its core constituents warm. A rapid soap lather, all over, in order to reach the point of no return. And then the patient filling of the cup and careful discharging of its contents over each part of my body in order to rinse off the soap (careful attention to the crotch). Now for my feet: one at a time I place one in the washbasin, washing it under the trickle, while I balance delicately and desperately on the other one. Finally my hair and face, the easy parts, while what is left of my body temperature tries to dry the moisture on my skin.

Triumphantly I emerge, a piece of clothing over my crotch, in order to make my way back to my cabin. Nothing is more refreshing and satisfying than having completed such a travel wash.

Through Uncivilised Europe: Copenhagen to Sofia by Train

Angry border guards who throw you off trains, alcohol smugglers, war-torn villages, bombed-out taxis – Europe may claim to be the origin of ‘civilised’ society, but it is often far from it. But it also has the sensuous Copenhagen, the obsessively organised Germans, the faded Austro-Hungarian glory of Budapest, the sheer energy and desire of Belgrade, and the impenetrability of Sofia. I was in Copenhagen and wanted to get to Sofia in Bulgaria, from north-western to Eastern Europe. What better way than by train? Unless one wants to sell an organ or three and take the infrequent Orient Express – a luxury option for the obscenely and obnoxiously well-to-do – the best way is to break the journey into a series of local trains.

Six days it took, although the actual travel time is about 48 hours. Why so slow? I wanted to stop for a while, taste, smell and touch a city like Budapest and Belgrade on the way. I was also newly in love with a woman from half a world away in Copenhagen. We wanted to celebrate the discovery and passion with a journey that few in Europe have actually taken in its entirety. Across the heart of Europe, in sleek first class seats with tea and coffee on a tray, rattling sleepers that lulled one to sleep with the familiar rock and creak of a train, and in broken-down carriages that boasted mythical dining cars we journeyed, marvelled, laughed and were sobered by the sheer variety.

Smoking, Smuggling Danes

Out of Copenhagen it is a short journey to Hamburg, across the straight to Germany. Denmark is, apart from Jutland, a bunch of islands huddling in the Baltic. So before you can settle into the massive easy chairs that pass for seats in first class (yes, I hate to admit it, but at little extra cost I love to take this option), finish a cup of tea, make your gums sing from a sweet pastry, or clear your mouth with an apple – all provided by the conductor – the train arrives at Rødby (pronounced roughly like roerthboo), a scrappy town whose main claim to fame is the ferry crossing to Puttgarden in Germany. (Speaking Danish is a little like a wedgie: more than half of the spoken word usually disappears into some unspoken place and thereby bears little relation to what is written on the page.) Astonishingly, at least for someone used to trains crossing thousands of kilometres of desert over days on end, the train simply hopped on the ferry. Obviously it wasn’t a long train, but the first time it stopped, waited a moment and crept onto the boat, I thought it was the oddest thing in the world. Especially when you need to get off during the crossing: you simply step out of the train into the ship’s cargo hold, walking amongst the trucks and cars and buses which have joined the train.

Up the stairs to the passenger decks I was looking forward to a grand crossing to the mainland, one full of history in which Danish kings sent ships full of soldiers to fight over Schleswig-Holstein, or in which smugglers would try to make the run in the cover of darkness, or impoverished peasants seeking the supposedly better conditions on the other side.

Not quite.

Passengers regarded the whole business as a necessary evil, a reminder that Denmark really is a tiny country and that the Danish Empire barely a memory. For some childlike reason I love to walk about a ship (or a train), exploring its corners, stairs and alleys. So I made my way out on deck. Instead of a grand view of the sound, looking out to the Baltic states and even Russia, all I could see were the backs and overhanging bellies of other passengers with the grey looks of nicotine addicts. I was standing shoulder to shoulder with a crowd of smokers. They seemed to have some unwritten pact that they would produce – collectively – more smoke than the engine’s smoke-stack around which they huddled. Al least the floor was soft underfoot, I thought, rather than the usual hard iron of most ships. Until I looked down and realised it was a carpet of cigarette butts.

Back inside I soon saw that the one or two best seats had been fought over and won by passengers in the know. I left them guarding their prizes and meandered past the café, took one look at the food – greasy blobs of deep fried somethings that were all brown and shiny – and kept walking. Duty free maybe? The shop was busier than Christmas Eve back home. Did it have the usual trinkets of duty-free shops the world over? Cameras, watches, mobile phones, perfume, souvenirs? In one small corner a few such faded items hung, but it was really a grog shop. Whiskeys, rums, wines, cognacs, snaps, and beer … above all beer piled so high in trolleys that I could barely see the purchasers. And in the corners of the ferry people stacked their loot, waiting for the crane to lower the grog to their cars and trucks below. The trick was to convince the customs people on the other side that all those concealed crates were really fluffy toys for the neighbours kids, or perhaps parts for the backyard pool one could use two days a year in chilly Denmark.

No wonder my partner wanted to snooze in the train below decks. ‘I hate that crossing’, she said, ‘it’s so depressing and reminds me of the worst side of Danes’.

Retentive Germans

We were eager for Budapest and Eastern Europe, wanting to get out of the overdeveloped and numbing feel of Western Europe. So the passage through the bustling hub of Hamburg was business-like and quick. A nachtzug train with its immaculate sleeper compartment – 6 bars of soap, floors from which you could eat, that slightly burnt smell from sterilised sheets, a firm if slightly ascetic mattress – awaited us on the next platform. I always find the distinctive rhythms of a train deeply comforting, so soon I fell asleep. By the next morning we were in Munich, so I lay awake pondering the massive blob of Germany in the middle of Europe (whose unification, it has recently come out, was opposed by the other countries in Europe in 1989).

One of the great values of war is that it clears the ground in preparation for a complete rebuilding. So it is with Germany. Hitler may have done some unconscionable things with which Germany, Europe and the rest of the Christian world are still coming to terms, but at least he managed to provide Germany with a clean slate. This is really what people mean when they say that Hitler enabled Germany’s late arrival into the modern bourgeois world. Hitler attracted so many planes with so many bombs, which did a marvellous of job of obliterating what was there before. Which is why Germany has such an extraordinary railway system: they were able to start largely from scratch and build a comprehensive and efficient network. To be sure, I miss quirky little railway stations in odd corners (there are still a few of those) and the monstrous steel structures of Hamburg, Munich and Berlin don’t quite have any ambience to speak of, but name a place and time and you can get there by train, bus, metro or tram.

What they do not have are smiling, rotund, Danglish-speaking conductors with trays overflowing with free pastries, fruit and jugs of tea and coffee. No, every item on the food and drink trolley on German trains costs you a part of your reproductive system. But then you can pick up a pile of ryebread, fresh fruit and decent pretzels at the railway station, as well as fill up your water bottles, so there is little to complain about.

At least that’s true about the food at the stations. The conductors on the trains are another story. I once had the misfortune to have a bicycle with me, a fold-variety that would take up no more room than a medium suitcase. Alas, I had neglected to bring its cover, so I snuck it in and tried to conceal it. Along comes Colonel Schultz, takes one look at the bike, another at me, and begins to bark commands at me. I figured out that I needed the bike covered and that I had to get off the train, schnell! But I made out that I had no idea what he was talking about, asked him if he spoke Dutch or Danish or French – repeatedly. Eventually he stormed off, threatening the plagues of the Apocalypse as he went. By the time he came back the train was already underway. He stopped when he saw me still there, scowling. I smiled sweetly back, so he threw the detailed timetable you only get on German trains on my lap.

Those timetables are one of the great wonders of the world. Each station, half station, unscheduled stop, smoko, piss break and branch line is listed. It has the time of arrival and departure down to the minute. You can tell exactly where you are at any time, especially since the screens on the end of the carriage announce it in large red letters. None of the announcements over the PA to which I’ve become accustomed elsewhere: ‘Ladies and Gentlemen, the Intercapital Daylight is running about an hour behind schedule’, or ‘well … yes, I think we’ll be there today’, or ‘fuck me dead, this is the wrong line’.

But it did make me think about the conditions for fascism. When I was in Italy (another story) and asked about Mussolini – as one does in Italy – older people would respond: ‘Mussolini might have done some bad things, but at least he drained the Tuscan marshes and made the trains run on time’. Like most people, I had heard this before, told to me by school teachers or mentioned in a book, but I didn’t imagine for a moment that Italians would actually say it themselves. Of all that Mussolini did, and of all the studies and history books written on him and fascist Italy, it came down to marshes and trains. But perhaps this common saying reveals a deeper insight, some stronger connection between trains and fascism: it’s not that fascism made the trains run on time, but that if they do run on time it means one of two things. Either we’d better be damn careful, since fascism may be just around the corner, or it’s already here, since the trains are already on time. I’m far happier in a place where one disregards the timetable altogether and turns up at the railway station, assuming that a train will arrive … soonish.

Faded Imperial Glory

From Munich it was a day train to Budapest Keleti station. (This took some getting used to, I must admit: cities with more than one major railway station. St Petersburg is the most elaborate, with something like half a dozen, depending on your direction and destination. In Budapest there were two, Nyugati and Keleti.) But the station really captured much about Budapest: an extraordinary construction, elaborate, majestic, imperial even, but it was a little worn and dusty. Pigeons nested busily in the waiting room ceiling, a shop in the basement sold marijuana biscuits, and not all the signals were working properly. I gained the impression not of a lost era of communism but of the faded glory of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

Toilets are always good indicators of how a people feel about themselves and the toilet at the Central Café, where we spent more time than we had planned, was as good a sign as any. Should you need to relieve yourself, you would descend a grand, marble staircase to a couple of doors. The men’s door, accessed by a coin to the careful guard, opened up to a palace of mirrors, washbasins, urinals and cubicles. A little cracked and worn, perhaps, but it was clean and there was toilet paper. This extraordinary toilet – no, it was really a celebration of the act of evacuation – simply said: we used to be an empire once.

Perhaps one of the best ways to see Budapest if you have little time is take up one of the offers from the taxi drivers who jump on you at the railway station. ‘Taxi’ they say, offering to help you with your bags as you get off the train. ‘Taxi’ they say, in groups of six or seven. My usual practice is to wave them off and find a real taxi that isn’t parked up on the steps. But every now and then it’s worth taking a ride with one of them. The ‘taxis’ are easy to pick – beaten up Trabants with home-made taxi lights on the roof, which are whipped out when you get in to make it all look official. Then you might find that the driver is extremely keen to get you to ‘Hotel Carmen’.

‘It’s cheap’, he points out, ‘just over here. Why don’t you come and have a look?’

‘No thanks,’ one of us replies. ‘We have a reservation at Hotel Erzabet’.

‘Erzabet!’ he cries. ‘Too expensive! 200 Euro! Carmen is much cheaper!’

We insist, but not before he has driven us a few times around Budapest hoping we would agree to see the fabled Carmen.

But you are lucky when you get a quiet, rotund taxi driver with a soft voice like a Walt Disney animal, rattly throat from too many smokes, and a tour around the city. The story of Pest and Buda comes up, the hot springs, the Pest Hill, the Jewish Quarter, and of course the Danube, at which point his eyes begin to swim. After a ride like that you don’t mind that he has just charged you Yom Kippur or Christmas Day rates (they are still way cheaper than any taxi I’ve travelled on).

So we took his advice, walked along the Danube and its famous bridges, climbed the Pest Hill with its grottos and trees and ancient paths, pondered the city from a vertigo-inducing cathedral tower, and even slipped into an Orthodox church service. These churches are wonderful, since you can drop in for a few moments, pay your respects and move on without offending anyone. All perfectly normal: people come and go, meet for a coffee at the door, puff on a cigarette and return to the worship service. And the Erzabet Hotel was not expensive at all.

Border guards

We were to return to Budapest unexpectedly, courtesy of the Romanian border guards. It began, I think, with the dogshit. I had stepped outside the magnificent Keleti Station to take a photograph late in the evening, and as I concentrated on the shot managed to collect a massive load. Much of which conveniently attached itself to the hallway and floor of our tiny cabin. I scraped it out of the deep grooves of my walking boots with matchsticks, she sniffed the floor and wiped it up with ginger ale on a paper towel. The smell lingered …

Finally, after doing our best to pretend that the only smell in our compartment was of freshly-baked bread and coffee (no mean feat of imagination), we drifted off to sleep … only to be woken by the first of a series of border guards and petty officials. They had all spent many years practising the finely-tuned skill of knowing precisely when you had drifted off to sleep before knocking. One after another they came – ticket collectors, Hungarian border guards, Romanian border guards. On each occasion we had an advance warning, then a friendly guy who explains things, then the puffed-up boss with four or five muscle men crowding around.

It was the Romanians who put an end to our quest for Bucharest. We had imagined a journey through the Transylvanian mountains, the glorious hills and fields and then the challenges of Bucharest before going on to Sofia. Not in the opinion of the Romanians border guards. We had blearily negotiated three levels of these guards, from advance party through junior guard to boss. All had the same message: ‘You need a visa to come into Romania’. I questioned the boss insistently but to no avail, for all I managed to do was make him furious. It was as though I had stuck a red hot poker up his bum: ‘No!’ he yelled in Romanian English. ‘No visa, no entry: Australia, New Zealand the same. You must go back’. We were escorted by four guards from the train. Fortunately another train was returning to Budapest, undergoing the same treatment but in reverse.

The carriage back was a Romanian special – it had seen better days and closer relations with cleaners in the past. Yet we laughed, in disbelief maybe, at the extraordinary experience of being thrown off a train at the Romanian border at about 3.00 am, and at whatever small country station. The serious guard placed at our door was less than impressed, but there was little he could do except scowl.

Six hours later we were back in Budapest, enjoying the services of yet more taxi drivers and central cafes. I decided to call the Romanian Embassy.

‘But of course I speak English’ said smooth voice on the phone, almost as though he’d been watching old Hollywood movies of the Iron Curtain.

‘What do I need for a Romanian visa?’ I asked the smooth voice.

‘What is your purpose?’

‘I’m travelling through’.



‘You will need to send me’, the voice said, ‘your train ticket through to Sofia, your hotel reservation, a recent statement from your bank, two colour passport photographs and forty Euros’.

‘When would the visa be ready?’

‘If you bring them by twelve o’clock today I will have the visa ready tomorrow’.

‘So much Romania’, I said.

It was 10.15 am. So we returned to Keleti station, boarded a brand new German train bound south for Beograd. At least the Serbs didn’t need a visa.

Glorious Belgrade

I have never travelled through a country in which the scars of war were so fresh. The newness of the track, freshly laid after it had been blown to smithereens a few years before, the newness of the train in a country with few of its own, the bombed out houses in village after village, slowly being rebuilt as people had the time, found the tools and managed to reuse the rubble from other buildings. Here too were shepherds and goatherds with their flocks. People were out hand-harvesting their corn, since they could no longer afford machines with the end of communism. Now that every one proudly claimed their farms as private property, they couldn’t afford the machinery that the collectives once provided. And a sure sign of recent war was the last bridge over the Danube; or rather, the absence of the bridge. In war of course, the first thing you do is blow up your enemy’s bridges so they can’t move troops around. So it was with the bridge over the Danube just outside Novi Sad.

It was a simple ride into Belgrade by bus. Or at least it was if: a) you can read Cyrillic: b) you can talk Serbian or German; c) you can find the ‘international’ ticket office open and with someone who speaks more than Serbian; d) you can find other travellers who won’t snub you. With none of these options in our favour, we somehow managed to get a scrap of paper that looked like a ticket, boarded a bus that said Београд and hoped for the best.

Beneath the ‘no smoking’ sign sat a grey bus driver with a cigarette hanging on his lip. He managed to belt along as fast as the bus would allow, belching smoke while riding the shoulder in an unofficial second lane to the road. Staggering off a wheezing and spluttering bus we thankfully spied a taxi. The catch was that it too seemed to have been a car-bomb during the war, with vital parts missing. It did have fours wheels and an engine, although the driver insisted in using the engine as a brake – I thought for a moment that it had no brakes at all.

At last, at long, long last on what must have been one of the longest days of our lives, we landed at Hotel Moskva. And what a glorious place it was: a penthouse for next to nothing, the air of old party operatives with the intercom from room to room, a magnificent bath, windows in cubbyholes that opened (no air-conditioning) onto the square. As we savoured the chairs, the view, the bed and each other, I imagined communist officials using it in the past on state business. If there’s one thing the communists did well, it was to build grand hotels and charge next to nothing for the rooms.

And Belgrade turned out to be one the great cities in the world. One would have expected that the capital of a country that had only just come out of a horrific war, with an economy on the rocks, and with the EU keeping a watchful eye on its every move – you would have expected it to be down on its luck, with a sullen mood of resentment and loss at what had been. Belgrade was nothing of the sort. It kept some of the bombed out buildings as a memorial to the NATO attacks, gloried in its energy and unaccountable optimism. It simply felt wonderful (and safe) to be there, to walk the streets at midnight, to sit and watch the people go by, to enjoy the food and the people. Belgrade has been destroyed so many times in its history, since it is at the confluence between east and west, a battleground for army after army from even before the Romans.

As a result, different ethnic groups have met, fought, mixed and settled. They are a mongrel people in a mongrel city. But mongrels are always healthier, stronger and more energetic. This mongrel city was a great example, since the people I met and saw are some of the most beautiful on the planet. Well-proportioned, athletic, energetic, they carry their bodies in such a sensual way that you are left in a constant state of arousal, wanting to spend all day, every day in bed with every single one of them. Well, not quite, but they are simply stunning. Then again, maybe … since in survey after survey Serbs seem to come out on top in the frequency and pleasure of sex – even if one takes into to account the inherent tendency for people to embellish such data.

The Sofia run

Eventually Belgrade had to give way to Sofia, but to get there we needed to catch one more train. And what a train it was, the day train to Sofia. According to the timetable it was supposed to take eight hours from Belgrade. Either the driver was reading a different timetable or he didn’t care, since it took twelve hours (the standard time, I was later told). The two hour stop at the border, with guards crawling in the ceiling and hammering underneath, for smugglers maybe, or fugitives, or for their lost sandwich, didn’t help matters. And the train was listed as having a dining car, or at least somewhere to get something to eat. Maybe that’s what the border guards were looking for, since the dining car was either the stuff of myth or it had been quietly decoupled from the train en route and put into some other, less reputable service. We had (just in case) bought a couple of loaves of bread and a large bottle of water before leaving Belgrade. By the end of the journey the drying chunks seemed like a scrumptious meal, washed down with tepid water that tasted like it came from a fresh mountain stream.

I must admit it was refreshing to see no pretence about smoking. Since even children seem to smoke in Bulgaria, it would have been a futile exercise to ban it on trains. People puffed away merrily in the corridors, fumigated compartments with steady clouds of smoke and generally enjoyed themselves. Far better than a train full of edgy, hungry travellers. But I did have to scrape the nicotine off the window to see the fields, farms, mountains and trees of the stunning Bulgarian landscape.

Towards the end of a long railway journey I put aside everything, full of a mix of anticipation and melancholy, looking forward to what awaits and aware that the journey itself is coming to an end. In this case the prospect of a shower, decent feed and fresh water added to the anticipation. And so we rolled past the peeling cement rendering on the outskirt apartments of Sofia, the gypsy carts and the stray dogs, to arrive in the vast cement central station that was new in the 1970s. The communists, I was told, had kept the city tidy and functioning, which is a full time job. Let it go for a bit, as happened after 1989, and a city soon looks dilapidated. Getting things back in order means you have work overtime, which Sofia is certainly doing. Down escalators that had stopped working a decade ago and out into the night, we found a helpful taxi driver who took us from hotel to hotel until we found a cosy spot close into the city and the magnificent Nevski Cathedral. We were to meet some friends in a day or two, but before then we explored the length and breadth of Sofia, wobbling on rough cobbles, dodging falling bricks, fending off money changers and the imploring eyes of gypsy children, wondering at the millennium old icons in the basement of the Cathedral, finding an old brick church that dated from before the conversion of Constantine in the 4th century (he came from hereabouts), and – the crown of the whole trip – a bust of Lenin at the flea market by the Cathedral.

But as we booked our return journey I did look longingly at the line to Istanbul.

Thrown in Bulgaria

Not many things to mind when Bulgaria is mentioned. Someone might know that Julia Kristeva originally came from Bulgaria, or that in the 2000 Olympics the whole Australian weightlifting team spoke Bulgarian (they had emigrated en masse). And it is not always clear to people exactly where Bulgaria is – somewhere in Europe, perhaps in the eastern part. I must admit that I was one of these people, largely ignorant of what, who and where Bulgaria is.

So we came to Sofia by train from Belgrade, a slow ride in an ancient rattler that took far longer than the listed time of six hours. It boasted a mythical dining car that was nowhere to be found and nicotine that could be scraped off the windows. The train had a tendency to hurtle down hills and crawl up them. It stopped for an eternity at the border, with men in uniform peering at my passport, hammering underneath and crawling through the roof looking for smugglers. First impressions of Sofia? A massive railway station at night, a couple of stray dogs, a friendly and helpful taxi driver who gave us a tour of the city while looking for a small hotel, and a bustling city that was a full of traffic, peeling cement rendering, a teetering brick or two that might literally fall on one’s head, much renovation, a Professor of French from Romania with whom I shared my accommodation and with whom I spoke French.

But I was not after these things – I could have found them anywhere. There was a deeper forgotten history that I slowly started to uncover: the recent and mixed legacy of stringent Marxism; an unknown classical past; the role of religion after communism; and the beautiful women.


Let me begin with the austere topic of Marxism. Part of my work as a writer and a critic is to explore the intersections between Marxism and the Bible. How deeply do some of Marxism’s greatest thinkers rely on the Bible and theology? And what are the possibilities for Marxist interpretations of the Bible? So coming to a ‘post-communist’ country, especially one in which the communism in question was of a very orthodox kind, I knew I was going to come face to face with the legacy of what has been called ironically ‘actually existing communism’.

But I had no romantic illusions, no nostalgia for some mythical Golden Age that had been destroyed by those devious and mean capitalists. What I found was a range of feelings. In endless discussions – over the ubiquitous coffee and cigarette – what came through time and again was the memory of the excitement of 1989, the profound sense – for a brief period – that anything was possible. Some felt ‘good riddance’ to communism, that communism was merely a screen for the brutal exercise of power by some human beings. Others felt that for all its flaws it was better than capitalism, and others saw the ambiguities, the gains and losses of the present. The question I kept asking – ‘but when the changes took place in ’89, did you imagine it would turn out like this?’ – was answered in as many ways as the reader can imagine, although the overwhelming sense was that the present (2005) didn’t live up to the hopes of that time when everything seemed possible.

I noticed the donkeys and carts in the country and was told that with the privatisation of land after the end of communism, many farmers could not afford machinery and had therefore gone back to hand harvesting and animal power. In the cities they were allowed again and the gypsies used them. I constantly negotiated the broken footpaths and barking dogs and was told that the communists had maintained the cities and kept the dogs off the streets; all of this had happened since the end of communism. It takes only a few years for a city to look run down.

One person excused the enthusiastic embracing the worst of US capitalism by saying that Bulgarians were not yet very good at being capitalist, but another pointed out that they are exceedingly good – they know how to be very ‘creative’ with the money of other people. Often it seemed to me that there was a rapid imposition of an ill-fitting capitalism over a much older layer that was in some way not comfortable with it. In fact, it seemed to me that Bulgarians are so deeply socialist in their assumptions and beliefs that they are not even aware of it. The assumptions of how a society should work with a widespread ‘safety network’ as it is called – medicine, adequate holidays, maternity leave, condition of employment, schools and universities without fees and so on – are anathema to the market economists having their way in the USA, Australia and other places. And if they have their way, all these and many other things will disappear too in Bulgaria.

In other cases, however, nothing much had changed. In the amazing town of Plovdiv, where I stood by a Thracian Wall, we walked through the old central square – the one where the party headquarters were and the parades were held and so on. The old red flags of the communist era had gone… only to be replaced by the red propaganda and umbrellas of Coca-Cola.

Classical Bulgaria

So much for this more recent past that everyone (in the West at least) would rather forget as an anomaly of history. But there was a far deeper and older past of Bulgaria that is well and truly forgotten. I had studied Classics at university, focussing of course on the languages and cultures of Greece and Rome and India – an agenda set long ago in the universities of Western Europe. That study of Classics had both an unquestioned time-line and an unquestioned geography. The time-line ran from ancient Greece through Rome to Western Europe, especially the German tribes and the development of Medieval Europe. On the way this artificial time-line conveniently forgot what we know now as the Balkans and Eastern Europe.

There was also a certain geography to that study that just did not include what became Bulgaria. For some reason or other Greece, the fount of European culture and philosophy, always was assumed to be a ‘Western’ country. Yet, if you glance at the map you can see that it is a Balkan country, smack bang in the middle of what is the ‘East’ as far as Europe is concerned. In other words, what hit me with flabbergasting force in Bulgaria is that this was the seat of the classical world. Macedonia is just across the border to the south, speaking what is really a dialect of Bulgarian. This is where Philip of Macedon and Alexander the Great hailed from. Bulgaria and Romania to the north were old stamping grounds of the Romans, so much so that a string of later emperors came from this area.

I should not, therefore, have been surprised to stand by the ancient defensive wall of Plovdiv and find layers that ran back through the Romans, Greeks and Macedonians to the Thracians. But I was surprised. I was embarrassed – I should have known. But I didn’t. Plovdiv was the ancient Roman city of Trimontium, a glittering city that stunned all who travelled there. One merely has to walk around the old centre of Plovdiv to see its past everywhere. Around one corner is a Roman amphitheatre, around another the columns of a temple or a collection of statues that have not yet found a home.

What remains with me above all is the small red-brick church within the Presidential Palace back in Sofia, the capital. Its origins are a little obscure, with claims that it was built in the second or third centuries CE, depending on what I read. What struck me was that it was built before the conversion of Constantine the Great in CE 314, before the first Christian Roman Emperor. In other words, it was built before Christianity became the religion of the Roman Empire. That meant that this little red-brick church was built during a period of uncertainty, when Christians were still persecuted as a weird and dangerous sect, a cult that many believed brainwashed its members and did strange things in secret. As I stood within this church, I wondered. Did the enigmatic Constantine visit this tiny church before he became emperor? After all, he came from this area. What of the centuries of Muslim worship? It had been converted into a mosque for a long time, its original Christian mosaics covered over. What is its status now in a post-communist, secular Bulgaria? This little church also made me realise that many of the issues with which Western Europe and its outposts such as Australia and the USA struggle, such as living with Islam and a thoroughly secular appreciation of religion, are struggles of the past in Bulgaria. Or rather, there is a sense in which Bulgaria is far in advance of the West in these matters.


That small red church in the middle of Sofia reminds me of the other great forgotten part of Bulgaria. Before I arrived I wondered whether there would be evidence of a great religious revival after communism. Had the overthrow of communism unleashed a covert love of religion among the people? If we were to believe the reports of the Western media, then with religious ‘freedom’ people were flocking to the churches.

What I found was a recovery of the role of religion in Bulgaria’s history. For instance, the carefully preserved icons from the 11th century in the basement of the Nevsky Cathedral are astonishing. Rila Monastery, which I visited with my hosts, is a stunning place, set in the hills with the colours of autumn delicately balanced by the stones of the building. Yet there was no religious revival to speak of, unless one means the occasional wandering ecstatic prophet who promises instant salvation to those who come to hear him. All that I noticed about the Orthodox Church was that it did seem to have a lot of money from somewhere: the theological college in Sofia was undergoing expensive renovations and was freshly painted. And Rila Monastery was in rather good condition, with further renovation work going on there as well.

By and large, however, Bulgaria turned out to be a thoroughly secular country. Forty-four years of an official atheistic policy have left their marks on a generation or two, although there is no militant atheism – rather, a secure secularism. It is an approach to religion that leaves the West still in the dark ages, with an increasingly fundamentalist Christianity battling it out with an increasingly fundamentalist Islam. Perhaps because of its tumultuous history, it seems to me that these forgotten parts of Bulgaria have something to offer, especially on the matter of religion. The secure secularism of Bulgaria came home to me in the smoky chapel at Rila Monastery. With the walls stained by centuries of burning oil candles, so much so that the paintings and icons on the walls had all become blurry and smudged, people with no overt religious belief still bought a candle or two, placed them at various points in the chapel and paused for a thought.