The women on our couchette looked straight out of Halloween Eve … long, eggplant dyed hair, small beady eyes, long hairs sprouting from her upper lip next to a large mole with more hair protruding, and on her chin, whiskers spreading down towards her neck. She was dressed in a long black dress and from time to time, would lower her voice to a whisper to chat with the other older ladies sitting in the seats next to me.
She was the perfect Halloween witch.
I had boarded the train from Sophia to Belgrade early, at least what I thought was early, but by the time I arrived to my couchette, there was only one seat remaining, excluding my faded green window seat.
I sat down and surveyed the scene.
Two French guys who later told me they had an inter-rail pass and were exploring the continent, and two older women, the witch and another, more regular looking woman.
The two ladies spoke in hushed tones, occasionally closing the door to our car, trapping in the smoke-filled air of our non-smoking room, to talk about something they clearly did not want anyone else to hear.
This was going to be a long trip from Sophia to Belgrade.
I could feel it.
That, and the nice Serbian gent in the couchette next to me told me.
“These trains run two hours late. Always. I don’t know why you would choose to take a train in Eastern Europe. They are shit.”
I looked around. Windows covered in spray paint. Fake wooden paneling. My couchette’s light didn’t even function. And the toilets … I don’t think they had been flushed since the 70s.
But, it was my place of rest for the night.
If I could do that.
I was concerned at first by the lack of air con (naturally), but as soon as the train started from Sophia, causing sparks to fly from the wires above, I was struck with the late summer breeze catching my face.
I’m no stranger to overnight trains. I often take them since it is more cost-effective than taking a day train and then sleeping in a hostel. I had taken one from Budapest to Brasov, from Cluj to Prague, from Prague to Berlin. I hadn’t slept beautifully, but I had slept.
This train might be a different story.
Instead of just sitting in the car, I decided to get out … even in the dark, the Bulgarian countryside seemed peaceful, serene.
I crossed the narrow corridor to the open window and stuck my head out, getting whipped in the face with the cool wind.
In front of me, homes whizzed by. Small dirt roads holding cars came and went next to the tracks. Lights from the little train-track towns twinkled. I could just make out mountains behind a slightly glowing dark night with only a crescent moon to illuminate the scenery.
At passport control, I was first greeted by Bulgarian immigration, asking me how long I was in Bulgaria. One officer directed his flash light towards my backpack, stowed above the witch lady’s head.
“Do you have anything to declare?”
I almost laughed.
Sure, a bunch of clothes, a tiny bottle of absinthe I always forget I have that I have been carting around since May when I stopped in Prague …
“No,” I said.
Then, it was time for Serbian customs.
Again, they directed a light towards my belongings, this time my bag containing my laptop.
“Who’s is this?” Another uniformed officer asked.
Please don’t make me take it down and open it.
“Ah, your accent is your passport,” said one of the French guys.
At first, I didn’t know what to make of it, and then I understood.
They didn’t ask me any further questions.
They never do.
As soon as I open my mouth, they leave me alone.
The witch lookalike wasn’t so lucky.
A woman officer looked at her plastic bag, likely carting her belongings, and emptied it on the seat, taking out each article of clothing, one-by-one.
After immigration, we stopped at the border, a train stop where, inside and in our car, people were being penned until the inspector gave the all-clear.
One girl ran off the train and into the arms of her beloved, embracing, kissing, loving.
Outside, families waited expectantly for people they knew to disembark from the train.
I wanted someone to be waiting on that platform for me.
Instead, I just sat and watched, marveling at the interaction of people, and how it doesn’t change based on what country someone is in. Yeah, that love thing is universal.
I kept my head out of the train window for a long time, watching people, listening to the crickets, trying to let sleep take over my body.
By the time we left the border, so had the older women in my car.
The two French guys had made friends with someone in another couchette.
I had the car to myself.
I kicked my flips off and stretched out on the soft and dirty seats and threw my caridgan over my torso and eyes.
Come on, sleep. Let’s do this.
I laid there for a few minutes and thought to myself.
Music would help.
I dug through my purse for my iPod. It wasn’t there.
I dug through my messenger bag.
It wasn’t there.
Oh, shitty shit shit.
I looked through my purse again, dumping its contents on the seat.
Wallet. Knee brace. Tickets. Food. Camera. Phone.
No damn iPod.
Now, normal D would have freaked. Cried. My music!
But, the only thought running thorugh my head was “Thank God I still have my laptop.” Now, losing that would be catastrophic.
So, I came to grips quickly that my soundtrack for my trip would now solely be the one in my head, and again closed my eyes.
This time I slept.
At some point in the night, a girl came into the couchette and took court across the seats from me. And then, later, around 3:30 a.m., an older gentleman came in, slapping my naked ankle to get me to move my feet so he could sit down.
Three hours later, we arrived to Belgrade.
Leg One of my 26-hour journey from Veliko Tarnovo, Bulgaria to Budva, Montenegro: Complete.