I am sat with Jerry in the sleeper compartment of an impossibly long Romanian train, transporting us overnight out of Bucharest and up into Transylvania. He has demanded silence whilst he proves that he can complete a killer Sudoku in less than 45 minutes. So I quietly write my diary.
I recalled learning the capital countries of Europe as a boy, careful to know which of Budapest and Bucharest was Romania and which was Hungary. In those childhood philately days, I had favoured the colourful Magyar Posta stamps. I have no memory of Romanian stamps, but no doubt they were austere and functional.
We had landed in Bucharest airport that afternoon. Being the son of a signed-up member of the communist party, I expected to have a man in uniform with a gun sidle up to me and whisper to me in an engaging but slightly menacing Romanian accent, “Mr Bottomley, the snow is settling on the banks of the Danube, welcome to the east, please step this way”. Instead, we inched tortuously through passport control into Bucharest. Jerry acquired the prize of a stamp on his passport and I did not. I asked for one, but just got a shake of the head. So no further progress with my Bucharest stamp collection.
We found a cash machine. Struggling with the language and the conversion rate, Jerry almost extracted 380,000 RON rather than 380. I would have been impressed had he had the funds. Stepping outside to find our bus, we were immediately accosted by a very large man offering us a taxi. He started at about £20. We said “no” and walked on. He persisted. We resisted. Five minutes later we were in his cab, driving at breakneck speed through the city.
He helpfully pointed out the local landmarks – a newspaper office (the free press is alive and well in Romania) and a large church (freedom of religion – also in good health). Unimpressed, all we could see were oppressive grey buildings and the car in front which we were about to become rather too closely acquainted with. Either side of the road loomed endless rows of the notorious concrete communist blocks. Ceauşescu’s legacy – the crumbling symbols of the glorious system where all are equal, but some were more equal than others.
The taxi driver also helpfully provided a currency exchange service, although his rate was scandalous. So we declined. As we climbed out, we were glad to escape with our money, our wits, our lives and our luggage.
Deposited at the railway station, we bought our tickets, successfully negotiating the confusing language and random queuing protocol. An overly friendly man with a thick Romanian accent announced flatly “I am travelling from London too”. We deduced he was a spy or a weirdo, and besides we had travelled from Luton, so we ignored him.
Keen to sample the favourite local cuisine, we bought our Big Mac Meals and utilised their uni-sex toilets – way below the usual standard of cleanliness. With plenty of time, we wandered up to our platform. A couple of beggars approached us who didn’t look in particular need.
Bucharest station is a throw-back to another age. Everything is old and dark about 50% bigger than it should be. Like when we were kids and mixed different toys, oblivious to the minor mismatches in scale. Polly Pocket meets Playmobile. I am thinking of my daughter’s toys, of course, not mine.
The platform was packed with huddles of people in brown and grey clothes. Some seemed more resident than transient. Many appeared drugged or depressed or both. We weaved in and out of them, the cold air thick with dampness and survival.
Then our monster of a train rolled in like some enormous snake on wheels, edging along the platform, 50% bigger than it should be, with endless long carriages. By the time we had walked to the front, we were at least half way to Transylvania.
Climbing into our carriage was like scaling the side of a mountain. The conductor was equally mountainous, kindly suggesting, in broken English, that we might transfer to a sleeper compartment. So we followed him back off the train and into the sleeper coach. Sliding the a door back, we found a small, dark compartment, smelling of a mixture of wood, smoke and old age. The space was dominated by bunk beds against the left-hand wall. After some thought and considerable effort, we managed to reconstruct these into a seat, hoping we would not get told off.
The obese conductor returned. He didn’t mention the seats but he did want 50 RON – about £10 – for the upgrade. Being men of principle we declined, not wanting to be fleeced under false pretenses. Being English, we like to see the price before we buy, not afterwards. This wasn’t the dentist. Besides, we indignantly pretended that we had expected a free upgrade, courtesy of the Transylvanian tourist board.
His broken English was hard to argue with. Our Romanian of course was not so much broken as awaiting manufacture. We declined to pay, using the international gesture for “you have to be kidding”, which consists of exposing our palms whilst shrugging our shoulders. We were quite happy to slum it back in 1st class and sleep in our seats. We grabbed our bags and followed him back the way we had come.
As we did so, a well-dressed young woman suddenly appeared out of another carriage. She would have been more at home on the 15.20 from Paddington than on this grim train to Transylvania. Maybe she was one of the undead. Maybe she was a friend of Buffy’s. But she could understand Romanian and speak perfect English – a magical power indeed. So we listened to her as she explained how it was. First class was swarming with thieves and vagabonds, who would rob us – and maybe kill us – in our sleep and then jump off with our suitcases. In a sleeper carriage we could lock ourselves in. And we might be less vulnerable to vampires, so long as we kept the window closed…
So we thanked her, back-tracked and paid up. Our friendly guard could not give us a receipt, but he could offer us a range of on-board beverages. This time we asked for the price first. The bottle of Stella retailed at a smooth 100RON which by some remarkable co-incidence was the exact denomination of the note displayed in Jerry’s wallet. A mere £20 at a reasonable exchange rate.
I wondered what the Romanian was for gullible. The repetitive rattle and shudder of the train as it hauled itself out of the station was already starting to annoy us. The thought of a beer or two to soften the irritation and to celebrate our adventure was attractive. But no, we were English and we simply do not pay more than £3 for a pint. We thanked him politely and declined. We would rather die of thirst.
45 minutes into his Sudoku and Jerry is scratching his head. By this time I have written my diary and read the first 8 chapters of the Kite Runner. I have also taken a photo out of our small window of every station. There have been many. We roll in to Brasov. Very few people get off or on and we don’t see anyone obviously stealing luggage We are in deepest Romania and have entered Transylvania. The guard waving his flag has a look of Christopher Lee as he flashes his teeth. It must be his dark cloak. I casually check for Jerry’s shadow, and, just for laughs, my own.
Soon it is midnight and time for bed. Reconstructing the bunk beds proved an even greater challenge than deconstructing them. We examined the clever and complicated series of hinges and levers and eventually tried brute force. We deduced that we needed the guards key to pull out the lower bed, and also deduced this would attract a fee. So Jerry elected to sleep below across the three seats as they were.
After further huffing and puffing we managed to pull out the upper bed and tentatively secure it with some rather precarious hooks. I climbed up. It felt anything but stable. Should it collapse, I would be propelled unceremoniously onto the floor and Jerry would be killed outright. Needless to say neither of us slept more than a wink. The top bunk had no rail, so even if it stayed horizontal there was every chance of me dropping off the edge. I had some history here, having once rolled off the bed settee at my great uncles bungalow. Forty years ago, but once bitten.
Added to this double anxiety of injury; with our heads in contact with the fabric of the train, the sound of the wheels on the track was like a metal bar easing in and out of our skull. The hiss of the engine echoed loudly in our ears. The mattress was hard and the carriages of the train swayed like drunks in a congo dance.
To be honest, the fear of a hungry vampire nibbling our necks was the furthest thing from our minds. Besides, when did you ever see Count Dracula on a train? Transylvania? Midnight? I closed the window tightly and grabbed my Bible. It was getting a little cold outside.
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