As I sunk into one of the sterile individual seats that lined our Swiss train car, I could not help but think back and laugh about the train I’d taken in eastern Europe.
There had been plenty of time for observation during the ride. Babe Ruth was faster than this express train. It took nine hours to cover the 330 km between the capitals of Bulgaria and Serbia – three times longer than it takes Amtrak to cover the same distance between DC and NYC.
It seemed that the whole twenty-car vehicle was being used to reenact a ‘60s phone booth-stuffing competition. Our six-person compartment was brimming with nine passengers and eleven bags. More people, backpacks, tarp-covered packages and solid 1930’s-era luggage toppled over each other in layers in the slim hallways. I spotted two compressed, resigned-looking mutts in the mix. Rain was flooding the mud and brush outside the window.
“What if this is Noah’s Arc Deuce?” I wondered.
Chaos facilitated bribery, which was going down left and right. When a conductor squeezed his head into the crowd, several dinar, euro and lev passed between palms in lieu of pricier tickets. Women giggled as they flashed drivers licenses and flirtatious winks at Border Control in lieu of passports. I know how to wink too and I felt over prepared with my ticket and documentation.
Bulgarian families filtered out at the border crossing and four Serbian women sauntered into our compartment. They were all easily over six feet tall and their shorts barely glanced the bottom of their butt cheeks. As you can imagine, there was no shortage leg as these Amazons jumped on the seats to store their luggage overhead, and then sprawled across the car.
Dan looked like he was going to enjoy Serbia.
Then English lessons began. The girls passed around a Hungarian-English phrasebook and periodically tried out phrases such as,
“I am a member of the British Soviet party,”
“The radiator is leaking,” and
We all learned something. Including the boy who had edged in to stare curiously at Dan and me. When I offered him my seat, he misunderstood (perhaps) and climbed comfortably into my lap. He’s lucky he’s cute. He slid away after a bit; he spoke only Hungarian and we were at a loss for conversation.
Now, on the Swiss train from Geneva to Zürich, Sarah and I munch gourmet cheese and gaze at snow-capped peaks and swan-capped lakes. Passengers around us, dressed in pressed polo shirts and white tennis shoes, politely conduct weekend business on iPhones and Macs.
To each country its own, but at this stage in my life I prefer the grungy show that is the Trans-Balkan Express.