On Visiting a Museum to the ‘Victims’ of Communism

I had come to Transylvania for the last time, for life was calling me to other realms. Part of this visit entailed a return to one of the museums nearby dedicated to the ‘victims’ of communism. I had been taken here some years before, so this was my second visit.

The museum is located in a former prison that had once been a monastery. It is laid out in white paint, with pictures, cells, sculptures, and a distinct story, concerning both the master narrative of the evils of communism and various micro-narratives that are meant to fit within the larger whole. One may spend a few minutes or a few hours perusing the neat and well-designed display. Who could not be swayed by such a depiction, of the misery experienced by those who had simply, for the sake of ‘freedom’ and ‘democracy’, opposed the communist ‘regime’ in Romania?

On the first occasion, I was somewhat confronted by it all, wondering whether such treatment of enemies of the state, aided and abetted by foreign powers, should have so. Did it not breed more resentment and resistance? Would it not have been wiser to follow a gentler, but no less firm path?

However, on the first occasion I had noticed a few anomalies in the smooth narrative. To begin with, those who had actually died in the prison were of reasonably advanced age, between their late sixties and into their eighties. Reading between the lines, one gained a sense that they had died of natural causes. And I could not help notice that there was a reasonable number of former politicians (from before 1947), military leaders and church figures. Common people, such as workers and farmers, were distinctly under-represented. How to make sense of all this?

Not until the second visit some five years later did the pieces begin to fall into place. Four features stood out in stark relief. To begin with, the museum is clearly modelled on the style of a Holocaust Museum, with portrait walls of those imprisoned, brief biographies, copies of hand-written materials, and individual cell experiences. One could stand before a touch-screen and select an individual from the picture and read very briefly about his or her experiences. One could go outside and pause for thought among the sculptures and trees of the remembrance garden. One could be brought up-to-date on the destruction of cultural artefacts (actually, only a cathedral) by the communists. Indeed, one could enter one cell and find a display of communist-era activities, such as newspapers, posters, young pioneer clothes and so on.

The intended effect was what might be called the reductio ad Hitlerum. This became clear when I overheard a discussion outside the museum. Three foreign visitors had just emerged from viewing the display, and one of them commented that it reminded him of Nazi Germany and the museums they had visited there. Another observed that they should go and see the graveyard where the victims had been executed and buried. In other words, the communist ‘regime’ was no different from the fascists.

As I stood by, I recalled the many names I had encountered inside, names of those who were released after two, three or five years. Indeed, the majority of those imprisoned had been released at some time (unless they died of age or illness). It was difficult to see how they could also have been executed and buried. Yet, this is part of the reductio ad Hitlerum, in which the fundamental difference between fascist concentration camps and communist prisons is conveniently glossed over. For the fascists, the camp was the first step to death for the majority of those who were irredeemable, whether for political (communist) or racial reasons (Jews and gypsies). For the communists, imprisonment was for the purpose of re-education and rehabilitation. No matter how much the process may have failed to live up to this motivation, it was reflected in the way many were released.

Perhaps more telling was the way fascism itself was airbrushed out of the representations and narrative. For example, the communist revolution in Romania encountered significant opposition from fascist forces, especially in the southeast near Bucharest. Romanian troops had fought with the Wehrmacht on the eastern front, many generals felt at home among the Nazis, as did politicians during the second world war. Yet all of these simply became the part of the ‘resistance’ to communism, a resistance that was recast as a desire for ‘democracy’ and ‘freedom’. After all, fascists do make the best anti-communists.

And this brings me back to the former detainees of this monastery-cum-prison. Most, although not all, were what would count as the old ruling class: ancient nobles, landlords, political leaders, generals, priests, and bourgeoisie. They would have been pointedly disgruntled at losing their assumed power under the barbarian workers and common people. Indeed, the period of communism was too short in Romania, and the communists made too many mistakes – such as prisons like this – in their attempt to overcome entrenched assumptions about class privilege. In many respects, this old ruling class is now back in power in Romania, feeling the world is once again as it should be, that Romanian society is ordered for their benefit. And they are the ones who tell the story and build museums like this one.

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The Communism of Anti-Communism

‘Look out for the pig’, she said.

Directly in our path a two-tone porcine, pink and brown separated by a distinct line across its solid stomach, was rooting about in the wet grass. Not in a pen, not fenced off from the world, but on the side of the narrow muddy street of a Romanian village.

‘What a beautiful animal’, she said, as it carried on oblivious to the world. She stopped to stroke its back and beckoned that I should do so as well.

We were in the village of Dănești, in the mountains of Transylvania, walking along the village street in an autumn drizzle. I had come into this entrancing part of the world via slow and bumpy trains, along tracks that had been allowed to settle into a distinctly natural state. As was my custom, I had avoided flying, but even then only one plane, a propeller-driven affair, arrived per day in the regional centre. And a car journey was a patient business, negotiating twisting and potholed roads full of horses and carts, rusty riders on equally rusty bicycles, ancient mini-buses and daredevil drivers. All of which passed through mountains bedecked with the reds and golds and mists of autumn.

My walking companion was stately woman originally from a village further in the mountains. Solid, somewhat regal, with gravitas in town, she was descended from an ancient noble family that had suffered as part of the former ruling class during the communist revolution in Romania. With the end of communism, they felt truly liberated – for a few moments. As I wrapped my coat more tightly about me as the first real chill of winter came with the wind, our con asked her about politics and life.

‘After the “revolution” happened’, she said, ‘we were asked if we would go into politics’.

‘“Revolution?”’ I asked.

‘Yes, the revolution of 1989’, she replied. ‘When we overthrew Ceausescu’.

‘Ah yes’, I said. ‘Less are alive now who witnessed the revolution of 1945’.

‘That wasn’t a revolution!’ She said. ‘Stalin imposed communism on us here in Romania. The real revolution was when we got rid of communism’.

‘Why didn’t you go into politics in ‘89?’ I said.

‘We had been asked because we were “clean”’, she replied. ‘And we thought about it for a while. But then, we saw soon enough what was happening?’

‘What do you mean?’ I said.

‘The politicians simply changed their spots’, she said. ‘They became proponents of capitalism, of the free market, and of liberal democracy. They simply became even more corrupt than before’.

‘But every place is corrupt’, I said. ‘The north-western Europeans like to characterise the southerners as lazy and corrupt – the Greeks, the Italians, the Spaniards. In their eyes, the Eastern Europeans are even worse. But they are just as corrupt, only they manage to conceal it a bit more’.

‘Yes’, she said. ‘But there are different levels of corruption. There they may siphon off money for themselves, distribute it among their cronies, but at least the roads and hospitals get built. Those things might be ridiculously expensive, but they get them. Here the roads, schools and hospitals are not built’.

‘What about communism?’ I asked.

‘It’s evil to the core’, she said. ‘It gives expression to basest parts of human beings. It is a naked exercise of power, one over another. And all for self-interest’.

‘And what about Romania joining the EU?’ I asked. ‘Has that been a blessing or a curse?’

‘Both’, she said. ‘At least there are some things the politicians must do to keep the EU happy, so that funds come in to build a few roads. But really, it’s a disaster. Wages have been pushed down, prices have gone up with new taxes, public services and welfare cut, “free” enterprise is to reign everywhere, and more and more people have to work outside Romania in other parts of the EU and send money home. The EU is interested only in cheap labour for Western European industry, or maybe branches that they occasionally establish here’.

‘But what’s the worst part of the EU?’ I asked.

‘The destruction of communal life in the villages’, she said.

I looked around the village through which we were walking. It’s main street – the only road in fact – wound between traditional farm houses, lanes occasionally meandering off to fields, chickens and dogs and the odd pig out and about, along with an old man on a bicycle or an even more ancient woman in shawl and black dress. An ox-cart passed by at its own measured pace.

‘It looks pretty traditional to me’, I said.

‘It’s actually changing rapidly’, she said. ‘There are virtually no young people here anymore, since they have to work in other countries while their parents take care of their homes. More and more of the communal networks and occasions are breaking down – the festivals, the dances, the weddings and funerals, but above all the daily life that is the lifeblood of a village. Speculators carve up the land and the only ones who seem to want to move here are foreigners who are sick of the commercialised life they lead. We can’t even find a local person to replace our 87 year-old village shepherd’.

‘Yes, I noticed the herd of sheep and goats earlier’, I said. ‘Browns and blacks and whites, with them mingling together as though it were the most normal thing in the world. But tell me, is that herd about two-thirds sheep and one-third goats?’

‘Yes, it is’, she said. ‘Why do you ask?’

‘Ah’, I said. ‘That ratio is a very ancient and well-tried combination, going back millennia. It minimises risk from disease, since the part of the herd not affected provides resources while the affected part recovers. The animals are culled at all ages and all parts of the body are used – apart from the wool and fibre and milk they produce. They are nurtured and consumed locally rather than produced in great numbers for export. And the herding is geared to optimal use of pasturage and water, rather than maximal use for profit’.

‘Of course’, she said, looking at me bemusedly. ‘All that’s obvious. The village herd when I was a child was like that, although we didn’t need to calculate it in those terms. It was just the way it was done’.

‘So what’s the response to all that is happening’, I said.

‘We’ve bought a home here in Dănești. It’s run down and needs lots of work, but my husband is a retired priest so we live here now. Simple things take up our time. My vegetable garden is expanding, using permaculture – you know of that, since it was invented in Australia?’

‘Ah yes,’ I said, ‘It’s very common at home’.

‘And since my husband is a priest’, she said, ‘people leave the house alone. It’s bad luck for anyone, even gypsies, to help themselves to things at the house. You know, disaster might strike, an incurable disease, an accident, a misfortune may follow’.

‘But what else do you propose to do?’ I asked.

‘I want to re-establish a spinning and weaving network with the women in town. I would like to reassert the old tradition of woman being the decision-makers in the village. I hope to encourage younger people to stay and see the value of the life here. Above all, it’s the collective nature of village life that is the key’.

‘You know’, I said. ‘You are more communist than you care to think, precisely in and through your anti-communism’.

‘What do you mean?’ she said.

‘Maybe I should rephrase that’, I said. ‘You have seen the bad side of communism and now want to foster one of its better sides. It’s that old tradition of rural socialism, in which communal interaction is vital for the life of the village, of the countryside. Everyone knows everyone else, in intimate detail, for good and ill. The down side is that you have no privacy at all and it can be mean and vicious. But it also means that you don’t sink on your own, for everyone gets together to help out’.

Later, after we had ended our walk through the village and I had a moment to myself, I wondered whether even bad communism – of the sort that many in Romania saw in the last days of the communist government in Romania – enabled the preservation and confirmation of local, communal ways of life that people now find so appealing, that people feel called upon to revisit. Of course, it becomes mixed up with all sorts of rural nostalgia, with efforts to recover a disappearing way of life. But that is unavoidable to some extent.

So the question is, how does one harness the communal, socialist dimensions of ‘the way it has always been’ without seeking to destroy it all in the name of modern progress? That applies especially to unexpected elements, such as the low-level matriarchy, the proud and ancient noble families, drawing on the experience of lived communism and thereby being able to discern what is worth leaving behind and what is worth retaining about it. That is, how can what is traditional be seen nor as regressive but as forward-looking, as a source not of oppression but of human flourishing?

The Trains of Transylvania

‘Would you like some drugs?’ I expected him to ask.

Chains jangled over worn leather pants and over a black shirt. Earrings caught the wan yellow light, and a grey ponytail was gathered in a band.

Instead he showed all four of his teeth in a magnificent smile. ‘May I help you? I speak English’.

It was 3:00 am in Oradea Station, Transylvania (Romania), and I was trying to buy a bread-roll and a coffee. The heavy-lidded woman in tight pants at the café was not about to grace me with a flicker of understanding. And so my friend stepped in. Graciously, he explained that the rolls were all ham and cream cheese, which one could have in two varieties, cold or softly warm after a brief zap in an ancient microwave. The coffee in the small plastic cup was at least black, although it tasted like its main ingredient was tar.

I found a table in the corner, cleared the debris, and sat down with weary relief. Had I wanted drugs, I knew whom to ask.

My other companions in the Orient Express Café – its glorious name signalling, via inverse ratio, its utter seediness – were not necessarily fellow travellers. Or at least those who were signalled the fact by slumping asleep at their tables. The proprietor would do a regular round, shaking them awake and telling them they would need to sleep elsewhere. The rest, with their beer bottles and smokes, gave the distinct air of eternity. They had been here for some time, a time that had not yet come to an end. At least the place was warm and it had a toilet, watched over by a solid, sullen woman in her fifties.

But what was I doing in Oradea at 3:00 am in the Orient Express Café? It all began innocently enough, with a missed connection in Budapest.

I had come through from Frankfurt, via sleeper then morning train to Budapest. I was to step off one train and onto another, which would take me across the border and into Romania – except that the connecting train was scheduled to leave a few minutes before I arrived. Which it did. Not quite sure what to make of this esoteric timetabling wisdom, I rebooked for a later departure, thought nothing more of it and settled into the peace of a favoured corner, the Etterem Barossa. Apart from breathing the glory of the long-faded Austro-Hungarian Empire, this restaurant also boasts the grandest toilets I have ever had the pleasure to visit.

Eventually my train departed, with an hour to Oradea on the other side of the border, where I was to be picked up and taken to Baia Mare – a beautiful spot in the mountains of Maramureš in the heart of Transylvania. But first we had to cross the Hungarian-Romanian border, where border guards ply you with questions, take your passport and then call some mysterious number with which an animated conversation ensues. An accomplice to take down details for a forgery? A security check to find out if I am who I say I am? A call home to ask whether the beer is ready? I would never know, but crossing that border has made me nervous for some years. And with good reason.

Red Hot Poker

A few years earlier a red faced, screaming border guard had thrown me off the train in the middle of the night.

I had set off in quest of the romance of the Transylvanian mountains and then the challenges of Bucharest. And the only thing that stood in my way was ranks of border guards and petty officials. They had all spent, I was to learn, 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 my quest. 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!’

I and my companion were escorted and watched by four guards from the train. Out in the cold autumn night I pondered our fortune … and then another train appeared, returning to Budapest and undergoing the same treatment.

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 1.00 am. 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, so 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’.

‘Tourist?’

‘Yes’.

‘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 for Romania’, I said.

‘Express’ to Baia Mare

Six years later I finally made it inside Romania, landing by international flight in Bucharest. Too little time did I spend in the city, for I was to board the ‘express’ train to Baia Mare – ‘express’ not so much because it sped along in a sleek blur but that it stopped at every second station along the way. Its speed was much more a leisurely trundle, enabling long perusal indeed of the passing landscape. Often I had to look hard to ensure that the landscape was indeed passing and not simply stationary.

We rolled by vast fields recently harvested, towering mountains capped by snow, villages with their chickens and pigs, carts (both old and new) pulled by horses and even oxen, strange haystacks with sticks poking out of the top, and factory ruins in country towns. Intrigued by the ruins, I asked a fellow-traveller for a time, an engineer. Romania used to be the major producer of machine and tractor parts for Eastern Europe, he told me. But after 1989, the factories were swiftly purchased by companies in Western Europe and then closed down. Suddenly, factory workers were without jobs, the plant equipment was sold or simply left to rust, and the buildings fell into ruin. But what did the people do who had worked in the factories? Some went to work outside Romania, providing cheap labour to drive down wages and conditions in Western Europe. Others went back to the villages and farms of their parents, in a process of re-agriculturalisation. Life may have become simpler, with fewer of life’s luxuries, but food was always available, as was warmth and shelter.

The engineer left the train at Brasov, just as we entered Transylvania. Others joined and left – a man who sneezed a large gob of snot on his shoulder, a middle-aged woman who promptly fell asleep, gypsies hitching a ride for a while. But what struck me was how many do actually travel on trains in Romania, no matter how much people may criticise the railways. At all stops, no matter how small, people would disembark, pushing their way through a crowd waiting to board.

And I was intrigued again but the custom, or perhaps obligation, of stationmasters throughout the journey. No matter how humble the station might be – a chair and a small table in a white building, usually beneath a towering tree – the stationmaster would to attention out the front of the station as the train passed. He would wave a small, circular disk, or at night a light, perhaps to give clearance to the train for the track ahead, or perhaps to indicate that he was indeed on duty. I couldn’t help wonder about the sleep patterns stationmasters would need to develop.

Transylvania by Long Night

But that trundling journey across the length of Romania had merely whetted my appetite. So on that occasion I planned to leave early – somewhere around 4.00 am – for my departure from Baia Mare. My hosts pondered this suggestion with that look reserved for the naughty or the slightly mad: why would any sane person want to travel on night trains through Romania? They promptly drove me to the border and put me on a train to Budapest.

Denied that wish, my subconscious was to kick in at an unexpected moment a year later, the journey on which I ended up at the Orient Express Café. This time I had managed to cross the border without mishap – or almost. Relaxing in the comfort of a cubicle to myself on the train out of Budapest, I read, snoozed, wrote a little, but spent most of my time mesmerised by the twisting mountain tracks in autumn.

After the border crossing, the conductor came to check my ticket (once again). He clipped it, looked again, and raised his eyebrows.

‘Oradea!’ He said. ‘Oradea back – five minutes’.

‘Oh shit!’ I said. That was supposed to be my stop.

What had happened? How had I missed? I pulled out my pocket watch. It said ‘22:00’.

He shook his head, pointed to his watch – ‘23:00’. My stop had been at 22:50.

In the haze of jetlag and travel weariness, I had forgotten to set my watch an hour forward at the border. Add to that the fact that I had been lulled into the pseudo-security of Chinese and Western European trains, on which the next stop is announced myriad times before arrival, on which passengers are warned of time changes, on which stations blare their names with omnipresent signage. In Romania one needs to ascertain all such matters for oneself. I had neglected to do so. I was mortified at the thought of my friends waiting at the station or me. They were to wait a little longer, give up and return home.

The real journey had begun.

What to do? Much sign language later and consulting of timetables with two nervous conductors led to them pushing me off the train at the next stop, Cluj: Why nervous? I had no ticket for that leg of the journey and no local currency (lei) to buy a ticket on board. And railway staff had just endured a prolonged probe for corruption. They were not about to be caught with an unticketted foreigner after they had scraped through such a probe.

The outcome was the long route to my destination: three ageing trains, three country railway stations, fourteen hours of coming to know very well indeed the Romanian rail network, country stations and their edgy subculture. All at night.

And so I stumbled around the station at Cluj, managed to buy a ticket in my weary haze and staggered onto the platform to await the next leg of my journey. Now all my attention was focused on checking the next train, its destination, its platform. I obsessively studied each station we passed to ensure that it was indeed my stop. I allowed myself a catnap on the train, fearing a full sleep in case I missed that stop.

The denizens of Oradea greeted me next – the homeless stretched out on plastic seats, shady characters clustered in dark corners, the beer-and-cigarette ambiance of the Orient Express Café, with the leather clad and bejewelled dealer, the lukewarm ham and cheese rolls, the tar in plastic coffee cups.

By Satu Mare, achieved by a rail motor one would find in a vintage collection elsewhere, I was beyond weariness. Here gypsies streamed along the platform while I stayed awake by means of hunger and cold, for the mountain wind cut through me and chilled me to my core. A man walked repeatedly past me, muttering menacingly; women in shawls stood in clusters; solid, unshaven men asked me incomprehensible questions; conductors incessantly clipped my ticket.

The last leg, on the Baia Mare express from Satu Mare, covered 60 kilometres in two hours. Another ‘express’ – there seem to be plenty of these in this wonderful country. Once again, I had plenty of time to peruse the chickens, dogs, cows, and even an ox-drawn cart of the villages through which we passed – for they were all moving faster than my mode of transport.

Even the taxi – a rare indulgence – from the railway station at the end of my journey seemed a fitting close. As we sped off to my lodgings, the warning sign came on: ‘Fuel low – ABS brake system malfunction – electrical fault – engine service required’.

Washing off the grime of trave, I realised that at some point during the journey I had become rather fond of Transylvania, its mists, its mountains in the golden colours of autumn, its people. But above all its trains. Of course, I left the way I came.

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.

Train

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.

Land

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.

People

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?’

‘No’.

‘Are you carrying drugs?’

‘No’.

‘Have you left your cabin?’

‘No’.

‘Where did you board?’

‘Sofia’.

‘Where are you going?’

‘Yalta’.

‘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.

Economics

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’.

‘Tourist?’

‘Yes’.

‘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.