Going off the rails on the crazy Trans-Balkan Express

Cover of an album dedicated to the train

By Perrin

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.

View from our window reminds me of the dreaded Misty Mountains in Lord of the Rings. YUP I’m a huge dork – but come on, that’s pretty dismal.

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

“Easy, tiger.”

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.

A boxer puppy named Crazy (I kid you not) was so glad to exit the train that he wouldn’t hold still for a picture. I felt the same.

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.

When there is space, stretch out and take it!


About sistersbailey

We are Perrin and Sarah Bailey, collectively known as “The Sisters Bailey”. The moniker was born out of a crazy weekend at the 2009 New Orleans Jazz Fest and it was the first time we had ever been referred to as one unit. We grew up in Alexandria, VA together and then separated for college - Perrin to The University of Pennsylvania and Sarah to Northwestern University – and somehow landed together in New York after graduation. It was in the midst of the hustle of Manhattan that we became friends for the first time in years. Somehow we landed jobs in the same industry - Sarah worked in marketing at HBO and Perrin managed creative digital promotions for her media agency’s main client, Disney - just three blocks from one another. One day we decided to leave our jobs, sell our belongings and travel abroad with a backpack and a collective savings of $10K. The stories of our continuing adventures and those of other fearless travelers are here to inspire you.
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