Thursday, June 12, 2014

From Bucharest to Sofia: Tales from the Train

Three Chinese boys join me in the ancient train compartment first. The lighting is bad in the compartment, the faded mint-green of the seats and the cloudy windows all seem shrouded in the aura of sketchy murder scene. They throw stock English phrases into their Mandarin-dominated banter: “Shut the fuck up, bro!” I’m think I might be glad they’re here to share the sketchiness of the train, even as I dread a long, sleepless night punctuated by swear words turned superlatives.

The train fills up—an English speaker who greets the three Chinese boys with familiarity, two American boys traveling together. Two girls visit from the other compartment, which also seems to be dominated by non-Romanians leaving Bucharest. “Ours is much more crowded,” one says.

One of the American boys hunts for something in his companion’s bag. “Where is it? Next to your Bible?” “No, it’s . . .” If I were bold, that’s when I would have started a conversation. I would have said, “You keep your whole Bible while traveling? Wow—I just tore out pages from mine and stuck them in my notebook” and invited his judgment. I didn’t, though. That same American has, like me, caught a cold. He sneezes many times, wiping his hands and face on his shirt. It is blue, without writing, but sprayed down the front with snot. I barely have enough napkins to cover my own sneezes and snot—a souvenir of nights of trains and days of walking—and for a single trip to the bathroom before arriving in Sofia in 11 hours.

A stack of passports, blue and red mostly, maybe a green, already in hand, the uniformed man asks for ours as well. When he’s added them to the stack, he leaves. I feel my anxiety mirrored in the others’ suddenly alert postures. Minutes ago we were sleeping, silent, waiting; now we wait until he comes back. “Um, okay,” he says, both authoritative and daunted by the foreign names in our passports. “Okay. Any Americans?” He reads the other boys’ names, but I am the only female. He smiles barely as he hands me back my passport. I can fall back asleep now.

This is how I woke up so many times during the night. It’s enough to long for the future warned by every science fiction novel ever when I can simply leave my wrist dangling over the seat edge and snore on while security IDs me from some bar code in my veins.

It’s 5:30 and mists are hanging over green swells of farmland. I curl back up on my checkered towel. Sleep has not waited long this entire ride.

At some point the bathroom finally becomes necessary. I steel myself, but my senses were not prepared for the stench of soured piss and the sight of it pooled on the floor. Or maybe it’s water. It’s water from the sink. Definitely. A bolder part of me—the same that might have started the conversation—wants to lean out and yell into my compartment: “Which one of you can’t aim? This is disgusting.” But there is no point. Disgusting toilets are part of it all.

It’s 7:30 and two security guards wander past. I blink awake and see them pointing angrily at my shoes, which are rested against the seat across from me. I take then down. They leave. By now the Chinese boys have left. So have the Americans. It is me, an English man, and mostly Bulgarians. I fall back asleep.

Not long after that I decide to wake up for real. I open the bottle of orange juice I bought the night before and take a swig. Revived, I set it down to reach for my torn out Bible pages. Sometimes I lose track of my elbows. The juice splatters against the glass, spraying me and the unprepared man sitting caddycorner from me, a full three feet away from the juice debacle. The bottle falls to the floor and the rest of the juice finds its way across the compartment to one of the English-speakers’ shoes. The rest pools around my suitcase. I apologize and try not to laugh at myself as I mop up what I can. I can feel the others’ amusement, perhaps derision in their nonchalant postures. No one looks at me.

“Seriously, who let the clumsy American on the train?"


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