This is a travel story about one of my passions, international train travel. It is from the summer of 2008, written during a trip I took via train from Istanbul to Sofia, Belgrade, Sarajevo, Mostar, and back to Istanbul. It is a bit of a “throw-back” so please excuse the less than stellar writing–I just thought it would be nice to post with minimal edits. I have also interspersed links, where applicable, to some of my more recent content throughout. I hope you enjoy it!

The Balkan Express

 “You blokes into each other?” The question came in a cockney accent. It was absurd, and my friend David realized this. “No, no, not at all! We’re on a graduation trip,” I was grateful for his negative response to an insane question. Why, I wondered to myself, would we have to be into each other? Can’t two heterosexual friends take a trip to the Balkans together? Perhaps the bottle of J&B scotch, which now stood almost empty on our table, had something to do with the absurdity of the question.

We were sitting in a cramped train compartment on the Balkan Express from Istanbul to Sofia with a motley crew. It included this British traveler who had just been around Turkey, self professed to be wasting his time, a couple from Michigan who had been traveling the world on some sort of “around-the-world ticket” (I still have not completely understood it), and two South Africans on route to the EXIT music festival in  Novi Sad, Serbia. David and I had lacked the foresight to realize that the trip would be a long one, and had bought only one bottle of scotch outside Istanbul’s Sirkeci station that was now nearing its end. Our fellow travelers, for their part, had failed to realize that the 12-hour overnight train to Sofia would require some alcohol. The Brit who had originally made a bad impression on us was eager to make amends, and as such pulled a 10 Euro note out of the crotch area of his pants. Upon seeing this, I immediately thought he was not the most qualified to be questioning anyone’s sexual orientation. Later, I realized he was just wearing a valuables belt under his shirt—the hallmark of paranoid travelers the world over. How hard is it, I wondered, to keep account of your pockets?

“Here, I’ll buy the next round. The conductor has some beers in his compartment,” Apparently, when the Brit had presented his tickets the Bulgarian conductor had displayed them, eager to cynically profit from the notorious British thirst for alcohol. I took his 10 Euros and headed to the front of the car.

“Drink?” asked the conductor, motioning the international sign for throwing one back by extending his thumb and pinkie finger, bringing it to his mouth and cocking his head back. He looked crazy, a spectacled, grey haired man who had the look of a mad scientist about him, but what would it matter? He was only selling alcohol. I nodded affirmatively. After presenting him with the money, he in turn gave me five dusty beers. My fingers made marks on the glass, not due to frost but due to a caked layer of dust. Upon seeing my skeptical expression the conductor reassured me.

“Good beer. Bulgarian beer!” I nodded unsure of him, and headed back towards our crowded compartment.

 

By this point we were getting rowdy, the effects of the warm beer on top of scotch kicked in, and the conversation was flowing.  We had already been reprimanded by the conductor twice, but he wasn’t good at being stern. Every time he tried to scold us, he ended up smiling, perhaps remembering his younger days of drunken revelry. Our “good” Bulgarian beers finished all too quickly, and once again the search was on for more libations. At this point I took it on myself to find more beers. I knew we had finished the Bulgarian’s stock, but I figured that the Turkish conductor would also have beers, and as I was the only one who knew Turkish I went in search.

I got up and headed towards the next car, staggering some from the liquor, but mostly from the train’s erratic rocking as it continued along Turkey’s aging rail network, which for the most part has not been renovated since the un-timely death of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk—the founder of the modern Turkish republic—in 1938. I pried open the door separating the two cars—a cold metal sliding door which was closed with magnets, like a refrigerator. It took all my strength, and after opening it I immediately felt the chilly night air on my face, the noises of the rails now deafening, no longer buffered by the walls of the train car. Between the cars, swaying, I then negotiated the second door taking me out of the inter-car buffer and straight into the Turkish car. It was relatively quiet, again.

I immediately walked to the conductor’s room and explained, in Turkish, that I was looking for beer. He was a short and stout man, in his forties with a few grey hairs and a jet-black moustache. Unfortunately, he explained, there were none available from him but that the Romanian the next car over had some available. I told him that, while I did know Turkish, I had no knowledge of Romanian. Apparently that was not a problem, he reassured me, but he did warn me that he might be sleeping. Before I could protest that I didn’t want to wake him, I was told that it was his job, and that it wouldn’t be an issue.

I thanked him, and continued on my quest. Again I followed the same ritual, using all my strength to pry open the doors, and then struggling to stay on two feet between the cars as the train rocked and bobbed on the tracks. Inside the CFR (Romania’s state railway company) car, it felt like I was back in a 19th century royal train car. The clean carpeting and wood panels comforted me, and it reminded me of the wooden floors of the New England home I grew up in. The conductor’s room was the first one in the car, and I knocked timidly. No response. At this point, I resigned myself to the Romanian’s wrath, and knocked harder. After a few seconds the conductor emerged, with blood-shot eyes, wearing the classic “this better be worth waking me up for” look on his young face. Obviously, it wasn’t.

“Bira?” I squeaked out, using the Turkish. All I got was a paroxysm of Romanian, as he blurted out what I could only assume to be profanity—lots of it. I slowly backed away, back towards the doors of the car as he continued yelling. The sounds of the train drowned him out as the doors opened. I went back to the Turkish car defeated, my tail between my legs.

“He wouldn’t give me any beer,” I explained to the conductor, who was folding sheets.

“Alright, I’ll show that Romanian . . .” he said, as he led me back to the sight of my initial failure. My new companion opened the train doors I had struggled with easily (he was a veteran of it), and coming to the Romanian’s cabin he knocked violently, flying into a string of fluent Romanian when the door opened. I was impressed. After discussing, he turned to me and said in Turkish, “Yes, he says he has six beers available.”

“How much does he want?”

The conductor turned and in Romanian asked the questions.

“Thirty Romanian Lei for six.”

“That’s great, but I only have twenty Turkish Liras, or  twenty American dollars,” I said in Turkish as I extended the money to the Romanian. He said something in Romanian, and he conductor turned to me and said, “The bastard will only take Romanian money, such a nationalist. Don’t worry, I have a friend who should have some Lei he can exchange for your Liras. He’ll give you a good rate, don’t worry.” I mused to myself that I hadn’t thought of being cheated, until it was just brought up. I decided to follow the conductor, as I was intrigued conducting a change operation on a train in the middle of the night. Immediately, all my fantasies of being “James Bondish” popped into my head. As quickly as the thoughts popped into my head, they began to dissipate. After all, I don’t think Bond ever traveled in seersucker shorts and flip-flops, and it was the safety of the free world—not the sobriety of three fellow travelers and a friend—that was resting on his nocturnal railway operations. At least, of course to my recollection!

I followed into the next car over, still fantasizing about being in an old world Bond film when I was introduced to the conductor’s friend, who was sitting gazing out the window, looking completely apathetic to the world. Apparently everything had been explained as I was daydreaming, and I gave my twenty Turkish Liras to the complete stranger. He presented me with two plastic Lei notes, one a ten and one a twenty. Twenty to thirty, it was a good exchange rate. I was satisfied, and I examined the strange money. It was completely plastic. I remembered it from a previous trip to Bucharest, where I had tried (unsuccessfully) to rip it.

We went back to the CFR car, and I wearily gave the money to the impatient Romanian, who was waiting with his door open. He informed me at this point—through my translator—that he could only give us five beers, and not the previously promised six. My Turkish conductor was incensed that the Romanian had re-neged on our previous agreement. After a heated exchange in Romanian, the conductor turned to me and said, “He says the beers are quality—they are Stella, from Belgium, and therefore more expensive.”

I laughed at him, and told him, “Look where we are—on the Balkan Express? What kind of quality is he talking about?” It was absurd, and my conductor friend realized it too. The Romanian was visibly puzzled, as his eyes darted back and forth from my face to the conductor’s trying to understand the alien—to him—language we were speaking. I knew the Romanian was looking to keep the last one for himself. There was no changing his mind, and we gave up, satisfied to at least have gotten the five out of the stingy conductor. “What an asshole . . . “, muttered my friend.

I thanked the Turkish conductor for his assistance and realized that I didn’t know his name.

“Its Güner, don’t worry, ill be seeing you,” he said cryptically. I gave him a beer, as thanks for his trouble, and headed back to my original cabin. I found everyone packed together—six bodies—like refugees escaping a war zone. They were surprised it took so long—all I could say was, “You could never believe what I went through to get these beers. Enjoy!” We continued our drinking, each of us telling different stories from our travels. The American Terry, who was with his girlfriend, took out his passport and showed us the stamps he had collected on his journeys. Apparently he was a city planner from San Francisco, and just wanted to travel the world before going back to work.

The South Africans in turn told us about their hopes for EXIT, and asked Dave and I whether or not we were scared to go to Serbia. We told them of course not, nothing could happen during EXIT as it is the peak of Serbia’s tourist season. Their apprehension said something for Serbia’s international reputation.

As we reached the end of our Stellas the train started to slow. I looked out the window to see a platform, and quickly took twenty Liras from Dave.

“I’m going to get more beers,” I quickly told the group.

“But what if the train leaves without you?” asked one of the South Africans.

“I don’t think it will,” I responded, the liquor having given me an irrational confidence. I jumped off the train, and saw Güner on the platform.

“What’s going on?” I asked.

“Stopped for a bit, checking the train before the border. It’s going to be another hour and a half ‘till we reach it.”

“Could I get some beers?’

“Of course John—just make it quick.” He used my name, and I took it as a sign that I could trust him to not let the train leave without me. I ran into the small shop on the side of the tracks, to find four old men sitting around in a dimly lit room playing cards. The building was a classic example of shoddy workmanship; thin plaster walls put up in a day just to sell a few things on the side of the rail line. Small buildings like this were to be a common sight along the rails all the way to Belgrade as we traveled through forgotten provincial outposts.

“I need beer, quickly!” I announced as the men looked up, bleary eyed from staring at cards all night, and bored out of their minds it seemed. It was around one thirty, and no trains would have passed by for at least three hours.

“How many beers?” asked the largest of the men.

“As many as this will buy me,” I said laughing as I presented the green bill. The man nodded and headed over to a refrigerator, which was unluckily locked. As he screamed for the key, I was getting antsy. Why would the refrigerator be locked? Is someone going to come in here and steal beer from under their noses as they play cards? I didn’t want to miss the train.

“Were are we?” I asked, as the man started opening the refrigerator having received the key from his friend.

Kirklareli.” He responded, giving the name of one of Turkey’s three Thracian provinces, this one bordering Bulgaria and the Black Sea. As I began to remember a friend from Kirklareli whom I had met during a study abroad semester, I heard the sound I dreaded to here. Metal was screeching, and gears were grinding, and the train was moving. I for a moment contemplated running out, leaving the beers and the money (which was now in the man’s pocket) and catching the train. Instead, and I attribute this to the alcohol, I figured I should stay, get the beers, and run on to the train in the classic James Bond fashion by catching the back of it as it pulled out.

Resigned to catching the train “James Bond style”, I just told the man, “Faster, faster!” as he quickly put the beers in the bag, grabbing them from the very front of the refrigerator, his hands fling in a fury of motion. Having put the eight beers in the bag, he handed it off to me as is if in a relay race, my eager hands pulling the bag away too fast, as the handles got caught in his hands. ‘Dammit,’ I thought, ‘now I’m really going to miss this train.’ Every second counted for me, as I thanked him running out. What I saw, however, was a scene I had not expected. The train was sitting on the tracks, stationary, with Güner standing in front of the stairs.

“I told you we wouldn’t leave without you,” he said, laughing at how worried I was. I felt relieved, and as I stepped past Güner onto the train he signaled with his hand to the engine, climbing back on as the wheels started moving.

Back in our crowded cabin everyone eagerly anticipated my arrival. The Brit had a bottle opener and swiftly opened the beers, passing them around the cabin. Terry’s girlfriend and one of the South Africans decided to join us in drinking (the other choosing sleep), and they stole sips from our beers—Terry giving some to his girlfriend, and Dave to the South African. As we labored through the warm beers—the refrigerator at the market had not been working—we all forged a common bond, the bond of travelers. We were all brought together by fate, connected my time and space, for this one train ride to Sofia; once we arrived we would all go our separate ways. Tonight though, we all looked out for one another and knew that, for the duration of this trip, we were not alone—not only physically, but also emotionally. It’s an interesting feeling—one that is central to the experience of train travel.

We kept drinking over the course of the next two hours (Güner’s prediction had been off) as we sped towards the international border. Dave tired and chose to retire to the cabin, telling me to wake him at the border. The South African went to join her friend in their sleeping compartment, while the Brit reluctantly went to his cabin. He was scared because apparently there were two “Czechoslovakian men” in his compartment. Clearly he had not been keeping up with the changes in European geopolitics—Czechoslovakia was now forever consigned to history.

Terry and I stayed up as he smoked cigarettes, now ignoring the  “No Smoking” signs all throughout the train. Initially he had been scared to smoke, cautiously lighting up in the back of the wagon. Now though, after Guner had joined us for a beer—sipping it between drags—Terry had been assured that smoking was allowed. He told me about his job as an urban planner, and I explained to him how rewarding I thought traveling with a girlfriend was (having done it before). He agreed, explaining that he was going to have sex that night. I had already assumed as such, and wondered why he felt it necessary to explain it to me—I figured it must have been due to the medley of alcohols we had consumed that night.

 

The train came screeching to a jolting halt, as the grind of metal on metal pierced through the silence of the Thracian summer night. We stepped out into the cold, silence slowly taking over again. Even though it was the middle of the July, at three in the morning it was biting cold. We stood shivering next to our now stationary train. It hissed as its engine cooled, the only sound in the silent night that blanketed our surroundings. We were at Kapikule, the land border between Bulgaria and Turkey listed as one of the busiest borders in the world after the famous San Ysidro crossing between San Diego and Tijuana. Outside the train I shook as the cold chilled me to the bone, waiting with Terry and Dave (who had woken of his own accord) with the rest of the travelers.

Once everyone had disembarked the train (we waited for one another, in our unspoken solidarity), we headed to an underpass that stank of festering urine, passing under the rail tracks and to the main platform where the passport control office was. There was a long line, as we were waiting for a train coming from Bucharest bound for Istanbul (the Bosphorus Express) to clear customs.

“Why is there this line?” I heard from the crowd.

“Because we aren’t on schedule—we’re late.” Was the response. I realized that we were supposed to have come before this train—I hoped it wasn’t due to my holding up the train in Kirklareli.

Dave was drunk, and audaciously kept trying to hit on Terry’s girlfriend. Her dark eyes darted away from Dave’s, as she nestled into the arms of her boyfriend.

“Girl, with such beautiful eyes and tanned skin you don’t even need to get your passport stamped—they should let you right on through!” he said, slurring his words in his Texan accent and rocking back and forth.

“Should I . . .” I stammered, embarrassed at my friend’s behavior.

“Don’t worry,” said Terry, “We have a relaxed relationship—this kind of stuff happens all the time. Do you want to get some more whiskey? I owe you guys, you have gotten everything so far!” We left Dave hitting on his girlfriend—I still don’t get their relationship to this day, but it seemed to make them happy so I wasn’t too concerned.

We headed away from the customs building and towards the duty free stand. It was a far cry from the posh duty free shops at international airports, with colorful lights and the latest styles from Milan and Paris. Instead, this was a small shop that skipped amenities like colognes and fragrances—here were the basic necessities, alcohol and cigarettes. Train travel wasn’t—evidently—for the faint of heart. The tall shopkeeper was visibly tired, sleep oozing from his bespectacled eyes. Because the international rail lines passed through Kapikule in the dead of night, this man most likely stayed up only for this, to sell tobacco and booze to travelers who aimed to escape the high prices put on them due to taxes within Turkey. Terry picked out a bottle of J&B scotch as we came full circle.

“Its best not to mix anymore,” he advised. I concurred, as my stomach was already hurting. Terry handed his passport over, a necessity when purchasing from duty free.

As the shopkeeper took down Terry’s passport number I asked if he had any cola. The shopkeeper shook his head.

“Nothing to mix with, at all?” I now sounded desperate. It was three in the morning, and my idea of fun was not drinking warm scotch in the dead of night.

“You don’t need anything to mix with. Drink it sek (straight) you guys are men!” said the shopkeeper laughing. I laughed too, realizing that Turkish machismo was part of the “rough around the edges” ethos of train travel.

Terry took the bottle and headed back to the group while I searched around, in vain, for any sort of vending machine on the forlorn platform. Less than twenty years ago, in my lifetime, this had been the last stop before the Iron Curtain—now it was the last stop before the European Union. ‘How things could change with one arbitrary line on a map,’ I thought to myself, before rejoining the group to find them filing through into the customs building, where a couple weary Turkish police officers were stamping passports. I handed both my passports to one of them, telling him to stamp the American one. With one swift hand motion, he slammed his stamp onto the middle of the page. The “BAM” echoed in the small room, before falling into the night.

 

Soon we were back aboard the train, sitting in the station at Kapitan Andreevo across the Bulgarian frontier. Named after a Bulgarian general this was the first station in Bulgaria on the way to Sofia. Terry and I drank our scotch—his straight, mine with a pinch of coke left over from Istanbul—on the platform under the early morning sun, which rose over the border we had just crossed. Bulgarian engineers were looking under the train, hitting pieces of metal with large mallets. I offered some scotch to one of them, which was declined with a laugh. I figured it was too early.

Eventually Güner came up to us, to ask how we were doing. I offered him some scotch, which he too took straight. He told me it’s the only way he likes it. I laughed uncomfortably, realizing I was the only one mixing it. Terry and I continued drinking as he talked about his experiences in graduate school and his hopes to marry his girlfriend. I told him it would happen, despite not knowing his girlfriend at all. I figured it was what any of us would want to hear—even if the border between married and unmarried life was getting more and more arbitrary with each passing day. After finishing what must have been a second—or was it third?—glass of scotch (these latter ones straight) Terry told me he was going to sleep. I knew what that meant. I wished him a pleasant night and went to Güner’s cabin to drink some Turkish tea he had been warming on a hot plate. We sat there on his bed, drinking tea and conversing as the sun shone through the windows, golden in the early morning.

“I had a woman in here earlier—don’t misunderstand, I’m married—I was giving her a massage. Her shoulders were so stiff, from carrying bags. She lives in Istanbul, but comes back to Bulgaria often to see her family—an immigrant. Life is hard, you know?”

“I know, I know,” I said, even if it seemed I didn’t. He understood.

Nine Hours in Sofia

I awoke to an unexpectedly loud knock, the sound of metal on my door. I opened the door to find Güner, proudly proclaiming that we would pull into Sofia station in five minutes. He had used a piece of lead to knock, and the loud clang of it meeting our metal door was startling. I thanked him for waking us, and got dressed quickly as I wanted to look out the window as we pulled into the city. It was five minutes of watching the Sofia cityscape slide by me, as if in a flipbook—small one story decrepit buildings gradually gave way to Soviet-style high-rises—before we finally came to a stop, the metal wheels screeching. As Dave and I gathered our bags, Güner came up to me.

“This train leaves for Belgrade tonight, at 9:30. If you would like to continue on, just find me, I’ll be in this car on the tracks. Walk around Sofia for nine hours, and come back. I’ll arrange everything. Just get the cheapest ticket you can in the station,” he advised. As our original plan had been to continue onto Belgrade, I thought it would be a good idea, and Dave agreed.

“But first the jersey, right?” he said.

“Of course!” I replied, and we headed out onto the streets of Sofia, looking for the CSKA Sofia Stadium.

 “Why You Go Beograd?”

Five hours later, we found ourselves back on the Balkan express, Güner having arranged a sleeping cabin for us on the way to Belgrade—despite, of course, the fact that we had purchased a seating berth for twenty dollars—sleepers weren’t available according to the woman at the counter. Little did she know we had friends in high places. As we settled in with the train gathering speed towards Serbia, Güner offered me a cup of Raki, the anise flavored Turkish national drink similar to the Greek ouzo and Lebanese Arak. The fact that it was made in Bulgaria made no difference, it was still as sharp as ever, fifty percent alcohol as it is. Immediately after pouring the drink into a plastic cup, Guner told me to get back to my cabin—we would soon be nearing Serbian customs, and he had to make final preparations.

 

We sat in the cabin, Dave and myself along with one of the South Africans whom we had originally met on this train after departing Istanbul, stopped in the border town of Dimitrovgrad (apparently, according to Güner this was not to be confused with the better Dimitrovgrad in Bulgaria). The Serbian customs official entered, a tall blonde lady who had a commanding presence in her official navy blue customs uniform, pants tucked in neatly to her combat boots.

“Why you go Beograd?” was her curt query.

“Jerseys,” I replied, while Dave simply told her, “Party!”

She accepted our responses, no doubt used to American college students traveling through her country. She stamped our passports and quickly passed them back to us, moving on through the train. No one checked our bags.

 

Once we were through customs and safely sailing through the Serbian countryside, we delved into a conversation about the intricacies of South African politics, as our new friend told us about the difficulties ahead for her traumatized country that was still reeling from the divisive policies of apartheid. She wasn’t optimistic about the future, telling us that the blacks were growing in power and influence, resenting the power of whites that had still not waned despite the end of apartheid. You can guess what color her skin was.

Güner also joined us and zealously explained (through my translations) the legacy of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of modern Turkey. Remembering Nelson Mandela’s criticism of Mustafa Kemal (I wasn’t aware of this), he told her of his ability to unite a country that had been scarred by an allied occupation post World War One, and was forged out of the ashes of the Ottoman Empire. He explained that he was an Atatürkist through and through, and he eagerly imparted the fact that as a government employee he was indebted to Atatürk. (The Turkish Republic State Railways, TCDD in Turkish, is one of the few government assets to have avoided coming under foreign ownership during the current government’s push towards privatization). He didn’t think Mandela had the right to judge.

After a couple more minutes Guner led me outside the cabin to talk, partially due to his frustrations at not being able to communicate without a translator, and partially due to his increased drunkenness. I also figured it was because the South African supported Mandela, voicing her reservations by asking “but wasn’t he [Atatürk] somewhat of a dictator?”

We stood looking out the window of the train at the darkened Serbian countryside, the wind whipping through my long hair, biting at my face. I decided to ask him about his history and how he knew Romanian and Bulgarian, and how he liked working on the train. He looked lost in thought as he chewed over the years of his past in his mind and began to explain. He had been working on the Istanbul-Sofia-Belgrade line for over twenty years, and had apparently seen the transformation of Turkey’s neighbors from totalitarian communist states to proud EU members. He told me about arriving in Bulgaria in the late 1980s when the windows of the train were blacked out, and no one was allowed out during the customs checks at the border. On the platform were armed soldiers; ready to shoot anyone who was unfortunate enough—or stupid enough I thought—to leave the train at the border. Slowly things changed though and now Bulgaria was a free country with a seat at the top table of Europe as the borders kept shifting—from Eastern Bloc to European Union.

Güner was born in the seven hilled city of Plovdiv, the Byzantine city of Philippopoulis named after Philip the second of Macedon, who conquered it.  Apparently, he had knocked on our door when we passed through it on the way to Sofia but I had been fast asleep. I told him I had been there a year and a half ago, and that I thought it was beautiful. I was serious (even if it now only had six hills, one having been bulldozed by the communist government). He had emigrated to Turkey at age eight and learned Turkish to supplement the Bulgarian language he had grown up with. Now, with his language skills, he was a staple on Turkey’s train routes through the Balkans.

After hearing of David and my travel plans, he advised us to go to Bosnia, and to not stay in Serbia longer than necessary—just get the jersey and go, he said. In Serbia they had an antipathy for Americans, as well as Turks—two strikes against me. He said it wouldn’t be safe and plus, he explained, Bosnians love Turks; and Mostar, the city whose destroyed bridge was the defining image of the Balkan war, was beautiful and relaxing—much better than the ugly metropolis of Belgrade. After we had finished a glass of vodka, which we had quickly moved onto after having finished the raki, he invited me to his cabin for some Nescafe—he needed to sober up, as he was, after all, the conductor of the train. “You never know when someone might need something,” he explained.

As we drank the Nescafe, Güner sat with his cigarette dangling out of the corner of his mouth, ash falling in my lap as he leaned over talking to me. He was clearly drunk, and had the need to vent. He told me how hard it was to support his family on the sate regulated salary afforded to railway workers. He had two sons, one of whom was in university in Turkish Thrace, and another who was in high school hoping to get accepted to a university this summer. I wished him luck, knowing how hard it was to get into a university in Turkey. With so many prospective students acceptance to a university is based on one test only, where that score is all that ranks students. It makes the senior year of high school in the United States seem like Club Med in comparison. After finishing my coffee, I told Güner that I was planning to go to sleep, but that my friend Dave needed some chips. “We’ll stop in Nis in a little bit, I’ll see what I can do there.” I thanked him, and headed to our cabin.

In twenty minutes, there was a knock on the door. I opened it, and there was Güner. “Here are the chips,” he said, handing me some paprika flavored Serbian potato chips. “We’ll arrive in Belgrade in four hours, at six o’clock in the morning. Get your rest.” He closed the door, I handed the chips to Dave, and looked out the window. There was a lonely platform, the entry to Nis—a town famous for its macabre landmark, a tower of skulls built by the Turks as a warning against any would be Serbian revolutionaries during Ottoman rule. I lay down, thinking of the scars left by Turkish rule and the all too real possibility that we could encounter hostility in Belgrade. I let these thoughts slip out of my mind, as I was lulled to sleep by the rhythmic sounds of metal on metal as our aging train headed towards its destination.

Return to Istanbul

Dave and I sat on the train in our cabin reading, hoping that we would be able to get off at Doboj and connect to the Belgrade line. I found the conductor, who was busy pacing through the cars of the train, and asked him about Doboj. “Doboj? Beograd?” I asked, motioning with my hands so as to explain a connection. He responded, “Doboj, off!”, and then he grabbed my Lonely Planet, immediately opening up to a page bearing the words, in bold lettering, “Train Theft Warning”. “No sleep, Doboj!” He warned, and stepped out. My mind immediately went to the Beastie Boys song, “No Sleep ‘Till Brooklyn”, but I thought the warning should be taken seriously all the same, after all he knew exactly where the theft warning was written. Keeping this cryptic warning in mind, I continued reading, occasionally gazing out the window into the dark of the Bosnian night.

A British woman with horrible teeth and a horse-like face entered our cabin, interrupting my thoughts.

“Mind if I join you guys? There are some men in my cabin playing instruments, they are too loud and I can’t read,” She said.

“Of course, we’re reading too,” I explained. The three of us sat reading in silence, as I occasionally stared out the window. At one stop, I saw the men she was talking about disembark, carrying instruments on their back. No doubt they were a band, going to a gig. I didn’t tell her that her cabin was now empty—sometimes, all travelers need to relax and read in peace.

At Doboj we disembarked to find a group of twenty or so backpackers milling around, all waiting for the Belgrade connection. It was much more obvious than I had expected, and we even found a group of three fellow Americans with whom we had spent the previous night in Sarajevo. We all decided to sit in the same cabin, so as to limit the chances of any thievery. When the train arrived, we filed in, looking for a cabin with five empty seats. Most of the cabins were filled, so we settled into one whose only occupant was a lone old man. He didn’t know any English, and was sitting in the corner next to the window sipping on some Serbian beer. He seemed old, his silver hair hanging over his face, etched with deep wrinkles. His ears were a forest of grey hairs. I took the seat next to him, and felt like I was in a scene from the movie Eurotrip. The man kept edging closer to me, touching my arm as he consumed more and more beer. He was getting progressively drunker, and eventually handed me the beer, encouraging me to drink. He didn’t have to ask twice, as the train ride was a long one.  As I sipped his beer, he looked at me and said “Srpski”—Serbian, and putting his fingers together he tried to explain how good it was—I didn’t necessarily agree.

Then he unwrapped a grilled animal carcass and began picking off stringy meat. He beckoned us to join the meal. When one of my companions asked him what it was, he just put two fingers on either side of his head and moved them around, indicating what I assumed to be rabbit. So as not to be rude, I hesitantly took a piece and threw it into my mouth, without looking. He watched me chew, eager for my reaction. I faked a smile as I chewed on the hard meat for what I felt was five minutes, trying to get it soft enough so as to swallow.

Soon, bread was added to the feast. It was edible and we asked where it was from. For this, our game of charades continued as the man took his hands and made mounds on his chest, indicating that his well-endowed wife had baked it for him—I immediately thought of a similarly proportioned girlfriend I had at the time. We all indulged in the bread, trying to partake in as little of the meat as we could. Soon after, the man took out a coke bottle with a faded label containing a clear liquid. He opened it, and without sipping from it gave it to me. I asked what it was, and he just motioned for me to throw it back. I sniffed it and my nostrils burned, as the scent of fiery plumb brandy flew into my nose, startling me. It took my mind back to an early summer morning in Bucharest a year earlier, where I wandered around nauseous after a night of indulging into too much of the Romanian Tuica, their version of the brandy.

I took a long gulp and felt my insides burning as I passed the bottle to my friend on the left. I tried to keep a straight face and the man sat up straight, indicating that I should take it like a man—machismo knows no borders.

“Rakija!” he said. Once again, we all asked where his liquor came from, and he proudly pointed to himself. Later, on the train back to Istanbul I learned from some Marijuana smoking Serbian kids that it was common practice all over the countryside of the former Yugoslavia for people to distill their own brandy. Apparently there were many flavors—plumb, apple, and cherry to name a few. I wished this had been something other than plumb, as the sweetness was a warning of the headache to follow in the morning. After having turned the bottle around many more times, the man started gesturing his displeasure at the current state of Serbia. He kept slamming his fist into his palm, mocking the stamping motion of customs officials. He threw up his hands occasionally, seemingly longing for the days when Yugoslavia was one entity, and the simple trip from Sarajevo to Belgrade didn’t include stopping for customs four times through three countries.

At the Croatian border, we took out our American passports and the old man took out his Republika Srpska identity card—he was a Serb caught on the wrong end of the Dayton Accords, essentially a foreigner in his own country now. It became clear to me why he was such a fan of Serbian beer, even though it wasn’t the most palatable of libations—he was slightly biased. After we were stamped, he looked at my passport. I took his identity card and saw the birth date: 1963. I was astonished—he was only 45. He had seemed ancient, but I supposed living through years of war would age a man prematurely. I handed the card back to him, receiving my passport in return. Eventually, we all tired from the drinking and the language barrier became too much to handle. We dozed off, as the brandy coursed through our veins.

 

We awoke as the train coasted into Belgrade, the old man gazing out the open window. He pointed at one of the bland communist-era housing blocks, and looked at me rubbing his thumb and middle and index fingers together, conveying the international sign of money. I knew though that our views of wealth were completely different. Coming out of the West, I couldn’t imagine anyone being happy confined in one of those housing blocks. I wished I could have told him that although it might be a better quality of living, he would be unable to hunt rabbits or distill brandy there. I wondered if that would have changed his mind? As we headed in different directions on the platform in Belgrade, I thought of what an experience we had just had. While most of my friends like to tease me for preferring Eastern Europe to Western Europe, I couldn’t have imagined an experience like that in France or Germany. What sad travel lives my friends in Western Europe must be living I mused, as Dave and I went to get tickets for the return trip to Istanbul.

A Balkan High

Belgrade’s train station was crowded and the commotion belied the fact that it was only six in the morning. We waited in line at the international ticket booth as a man in a Northern Irish soccer jersey drank beer in front of us.

“Is he drinking?” asked Dave.

“I think so.”

“Wow. He is my hero,” said Dave. After the Rakija the past night, drinking was the last thing on our minds. After a fifteen-minute wait, our turn finally came. Clearly, Serbian railways were polite (sense the sarcasm), as the overweight blonde in the window kept conversing with the man behind her, oblivious to our presence. When she finally tore herself away from her riveting conversation I said, “Two tickets to Istanbul, couchette.”

“No couchette,” I was astonished—how was that possible. How would we get home? She continued, “Only seating, third class.” I turned to Dave—it would mean sitting on hard wooden benches, six to a berth, for the twenty-six hours back to Istanbul.

“We don’t have a choice, do we?” asked Dave, and I agreed. We had to get back.

“Fine, two please,” I said, irritated, and handed over my credit card. At forty dollars each, it was too much. Yes, it was less than half price of the sleeper, but it was not going to be comfortable. Dejected, we headed outside to sit on the platform, waiting at Peron 1 for the Balkan express to reappear. I was nervous, contemplating how I was going to handle the long train ride back. It was going to be tedious, monotonous, and above all uncomfortable. I wasn’t looking forward to it.

I had to go for a walk to calm down, and I went outside the station to find a bakery. There I bought some pastries, sausages wrapped in Filo dough, and apple juice. I figured I might as well not be both hungry and uncomfortable. Arriving back at the platform to find Dave sitting alone dejectedly, we resigned ourselves to our fates. After an hour or so the train pulled in, the familiar star and crescent on the red, white, and blue Turkish State Railways car.

“Istanbul, Istanbul!” called the conductor, as passengers quickly gathered their bags.

“Istanbul?” asked the conductor.

“Yes, but unfortunately not in your car. No sleepers available.” I told him in Turkish.

“Wait—don’t I recognize you from somewhere?” He said, staring at me. Then he got it, “You came with Güner!” He exclaimed. Yes! I remembered, it was the conductor who had given me Romanian Lei for my Turkish Liras.

“I knew I remembered you, my name is Faik. Get on board, I’ll find you guys a sleeping cabin,” he boasted.

“Are you sure, the lady said none where available,” I asked anxiously.

“She doesn’t know anything, get on board and I’ll give you a cabin and blankets. You can lie down and go all the way to Istanbul in comfort.” I was overjoyed at our good fortune—we had, it seemed, come full circle. We went in and put down our bags, extending our legs on the soft beds. Soon more and more passengers got on. I worried that we would be kicked off for taking someone’s spot.

“John, John,” I heard, “Come translate for me, my English is not very good and I cant understand what’s going on”. I stepped out of the cabin, eager to help Faik and repay my debt. Apparently, a girl was promised a cabin all to herself, but due to the overcrowding of the train—no doubt due in part to our taking a cabin we hadn’t paid for—she could not be alone. Faik was trying to explain that he would let her be alone for as long as he could, but in the event of more passengers coming on he would only put female passengers with her, and no males. I explained it to the girl and her father. They were Americans living in Geneva, and the father was working in Belgrade. I reassured them that I would look after her, and that if she had any trouble she could come into my cabin with Dave. The father seemed assured, and thanked me. I answered that it was not a problem—isn’t one of the essences of travel assisting complete strangers? Faik too thanked me, and I was pleased that I had, albeit in a small way, started to pay Faik back for his assistance. I walked back to the cabin, pulled out my book and reclined. We would be in Sofia in twelve hours, at eight o’clock at night. After stopping there we would continue on to Istanbul, arriving at nine in the morning. It would be twenty-four hours. I drifted off to sleep, grateful that I had somewhere to lie down.

 

In Sofia, we got an influx of passengers from the second and third classes. Apparently, only one car—our car—was going to Istanbul. The others were either staying in Sofia or continuing to Bucharest in Romania. No one had been told about this in Belgrade however, and Faik was forced to find room. Into our room came three Serbian kids, all our age. One was huge, tall and wide with dark hair and a nasty rash on his neck. The other two were skinny, one blonde with a pockmarked face and the other with darker hair and childish face. Dave and I had been drinking vodka we had purchased in the station at Sofia, and didn’t know what the Serbians would think of us as Americans. Dave and I introduced ourselves to our new travel companions, and settled in for the journey to Istanbul. They were continuing to Thailand, having bought a cheap flight from Istanbul that was increasingly becoming a hub for world travel. They had never been to Istanbul, and I told them it was beautiful, describing a few bars they should check out. We offered them vodka. Two of them said they were giving up drinking, while the smaller one with darker hair gladly accepted.

Apparently, two of them—the ones not drinking—had escaped from the Bosnian wars and settled in Novi Sad—the site of the EXIT music festival. That also was the reason they were not drinking.

EXIT, too much,” said the larger one, laughing. Dave and I could imagine the debauchery during the festival, and didn’t blame them. The blonde with the pockmarked face told us how he had been uprooted from his home in Tuzla because of the wars—Dave and I wondered if the marks on his face had something to do with war—either the Bosnian war or the war that is adolescence.

After we all became comfortable with one another, the bigger one—Nikola—asked if we minded if they smoked. Obviously, we didn’t. Then again, we didn’t know what they would be smoking. The blonde motioned for Dave to close the curtains, then got up to get something from his bag. Opening it, he took out a sandwich. After carefully peeling the cellophane wrapping away, he took off the top piece of bread to reveal a small plastic bag of Marijuana.

“Weed—if the dogs smell anything, I just tell them it’s my dinner,” he said grinning. He then emptied the contents onto a piece of notebook paper and began rolling a joint.

“We heard that they are strict on drugs in Turkey, is that true?” asked Nikola.

“Yes, its very dangerous,” I told him, remembering that Turkish law stipulates that possession of any sort of drug can lead to life imprisonment, this due to the fact that much of Europe’s opium is illegally transported from the poppy fields of Afghanistan through Turkey and on to European centers such as Berlin and Amsterdam. I was strangely relieved that Nikola wasn’t aware though. Every American knew that drug trafficking through Turkey was dangerous from the xenophobic film Midnight Express, which had singlehandedly destroyed the Turkish tourism industry during the 1980s. So much so in fact that screenwriter Oliver Stone apologized to the Turkish people in 2004.

That was the least of anyone’s concerns at this point however, as the Serbians lit up and the marijuana smoke flowed out the half-open window of the train as we headed towards Turkey. They offered and I declined, explaining that alcohol was enough for me. They passed it around the car, each taking in long puffs, coughing intermittently. After the joint was spent and the vodka was finished we decided to go to sleep, as we would have to have our wits about us—again in the middle of the night—upon our return into Turkey.

 

I woke up, startled. One of the Serbians was shaking me. “Passport, passport!”

Apparently the Bulgarian officials were on the train, and had been trying to wake me for five minutes. I was groggy, but sprang awake, taking my passport out of my pocket to hand to the customs official. I half-wondered if I had been slipped something as I wasn’t so tired that I couldn’t wake up through all the commotion. The dark-haired Serbian who had been drinking vodka with us laughed at my inability to wake up. I was embarrassed to say the least. My passport was run through the portable machine hanging around the officer’s neck, and he handed it back to me, stamping the exit next to the entry on an over-crowded page.

 

On the Turkish side of the border, we all cleared out and filed in line at the customs building, as we had leaving the country. In line, Güner found me.

“John! How was Bosnia?”

“It was great—thanks for the good advice!” I said smiling a groggy smile.

“Here is fifteen euros—please buy me some whiskey—Johnny Walker, J&B, it doesn’t matter. I wouldn’t normally ask a favor, but it’s illegal for me because I work on the railway. I’ll find you after we leave the station, you can give it to me then,” he said slipping me the cash. I consented—no skin off my back. After getting my return stamped into my passport, the Serbian with the pock marked face came up to me.

“I can’t buy cigarettes, they say I need to be a Turkish citizen. Could you please buy me a carton of Marlboro reds?” he said giving me twenty Euros. I couldn’t understand why they wouldn’t let him buy cigarettes, after all it was international duty free. I didn’t care though, I could do it just as easily. I told him of course and headed over to the shop, buying what I was told to as well as a bottle of Jack Daniels as a present for a friend back in Istanbul. I headed back to the train, throwing the cigarettes on the Serbian’s bed and sat down. I would have to wait for the train to leave the station in order to give Güner his whiskey.

I stood up and looked outside, watching Faik wash his feet and arms in a small fountain. He had been on trains for the last forty-eight hours, Istanbul-Belgrade-Istanbul. I thought soon he’d be home—soon we’d be home—and it comforted me. I couldn’t imagine how he could spend his time on trains, bathing in water fountains. Then again, as Güner had told me earlier, life is hard, and you have to make a living somehow. I saw Faik walk back to the train, and I figured it wouldn’t be long until we pulled out. Fifteen minutes later I heard the familiar sounds of gears switching, and the slow acceleration of the train—slow at first then a gradual steady acceleration as if moving towards a climax. I sat down, waiting to go to Güner’s room.
After some minutes I stood up, whiskey in hand and walked through the cars towards Güner’s cabin. I looked inside and saw two railway officials. I quickly turned away and headed towards our car, not wanting to reveal that Güner had illegally purchased the alcohol.

“John, John, where are you going?” I heard him call. I headed back.

“Güner, I saw people with you and figured-“

“Don’t worry, these are customs officials, they are my friends. They don’t care if I get alcohol. Here, let me open it, we’ll drink together” he said, taking the bottle and pouring it into four cups. The customs men introduced themselves; one was bald with glasses, resembling George Costanza of Seinfeld fame, while the other was tall with a crew cut, like an Air Force pilot out of Top Gun. They asked what I had been doing, and I told them about my trip, and my Turkish mother and American father.

“Your Turkish is good, and you were educated in America. You should work in Turkey,” said George. I told him that I’d love to, but that I could not know what the future held.

Güner interrupted my negative thoughts with a toast to our safe arrival. We put our cups together—myself the traveler, Güner the railway worker, and the two government officials. We drank, the scotch burning my throat all the way down. Soon, our minds wet with the liquor, conversation inevitably turned to politics. The tall one looked at me, and said, “You studied international relations, what do we do with the road our country is headed on? How can we save ourselves?” Before I could answer, George interjected,

“We must first get out of Cyprus—we had to go in, the Greeks were slaughtering Turks. But now, it’s just a drain on us-“

“A parasite on our back!” added his co-worker.

“Look at the situation—the Greeks got their side in the EU, our side is nothing! And we haven’t even gotten ourselves into the EU, let alone Cyprus! We have to get out, no other choice. The money can be better spent elsewhere,” finished George. I nodded, taking in his position.

“Look, we all know that it can’t change. The government will never get out, it will make us look weak, as if we were giving in,” Güner weighed in on the subject. I had a feeling he would support the Cyprus cause. Being brought up as a minority Turk (he was, after all, part Bulgarian) has the strange effect of making one a more strident nationalist. I knew it from my own experiences. In the end though, we all knew that we were never going to fix any country at four in the morning in the middle of Thrace. The taller customs agent got up, he would be getting off at the next stop while the other would continue onto Istanbul.

“Are we going to sleep together?” the officer who would be staying joked to Güner.

“We can sleep together, why not?” jibed Güner back as he warmed some tea.

We sat together, all drinking before I got up to go to my cabin and finally to sleep. We would be getting into Istanbul at nine in the morning, and Dave and I had a long day ahead of us.

 

In the morning, everyone in the cabin was up, staring out the window as the train wound around the Sea of Marmara and the Bosphorus came into view. The breathtaking beauty of Istanbul was not lost on anyone. A Persian family in the compartment next to us was up, as was the missionary girl who complained to me about her cabin mate, a young Bulgarian girl who couldn’t stop talking about her boyfriend. I told her it was probably just her first love. What I didn’t tell her was that, as a missionary, she wouldn’t understand. The calmness of the city on the water was comforting, after the places we had been. The skyline was like that of any other major city in southern Europe, tall glass skyscrapers, red clay rooftops, and brown government buildings, except here the addition of minarets—piercing the blue sky—added a special aura to the city which had been the seat of Islamic power for over four hundred years.

As we pulled into the station a bust of Ataturk greeted us with the inscription “Ne Mutlu Türküm Diyene”—How happy one is to call oneself a Turk. I was happy to be home. As we landed on the platform, I thanked Faik for his help. Güner came over and gave me his number, telling me, “If you’re ever free, we should catch up. You’re a good kid John, a good kid. Don’t worry, things will work out for you.” I thanked him, and with Dave headed out of the station into the early morning sunlight onto the street, horns honking all around us, welcoming us back into the chaos that is Istanbul.

 

 

 

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