en route to Bucharest: September 1, 1991...
t was an all-day ride from Timisoara to Bucharest and I remained for most of it inside the compartment, where I had for once a window seat looking out on some of the loveliest verdant mountain country I had yet come through. Then down along a barren stretch of the Danube - that river heartline that strings the fabled cities of east-central Europe like a necklace of classic pearls. Yugoslavia on the opposite shore. Upstream a hundred miles or so was Belgrade . . . and beyond lay Budapest, Bratislava, Vienna and Regensburg, where I had walked over it on an 850-year-old stone bridge, ages ago - three weeks earlier.
My $2.50 passage was first class, a somewhat fictional distinction on this train, but one that held for me as long as I remained in my compartment, which was filled with an unusually genteel assortment of fellow travelers including what appeared to be a ranking military officer. I was even deluded into thinking there might be a dining car worthy of the name, and broke the spell of the compartment when I went in search of it. I quite shattered the spell, for it was never regained after that.
Bucharest! . . . another of the great European cities . . . one whose very name prompts images of romantic intrigue - though it looked very ordinary as the artery of rails took us slowly into its heart. Georghe had suggested a particular host here, and the connection was made easily with a one-cent phonecall. I didn't have to figure out bus routes this time; with Romanian lei to throw away, taxis had become an affordable convenience. Several turned me down, however, before I found a cabbie willing to drive out to the residential sector. He took time out on the long ride for a stop where his girlfriend lived, so he could call my host for precise directions. The trip came to $1.50 after adding a generous tip.
I found Violette and Lucia, my mother-and-daughter hosts, living in a modest apartment in a concrete-block complex agreeably set back from the ceaseless roar of city traffic. With little Sabina on hand, it was a household three generations deep. Georghe had psyched me out on this one, for I felt here the most congenial 'American flavor' of all my hosts in eastern Europe, though I cannot say what accounted for it. Violette was a biologist and a university professor with an impressive grasp of world affairs. Lucia, with a short haircut that could have come right out of Seattle, was equally alive to the times, especially their personal potential for her - though for now she was entirely being a mother, indulgently attentive to her five-year-old: a future beauty queen already aware that she could trade on it for almost anything.
I spent Monday at large in mid-city Bucharest, rewarded by a topsy-turvy mix of impressions, from pot-holed and cobblestone streets, to grandiose architecture quite as spectacular as any I had seen elsewhere. Broad boulevards intersecting in great traffic circles gave the city a continental magnificence undiminished by the startling contrast of an occasional horse-drawn wagon clopping alongside the motorized traffic - not carriaging tourists, but doing actual drayage work in the heart of the city . . . directly above a modern subway system. But it was a subway strange to Western sensibilities. It was not only free of advertising, but almost dreamlike in its severely subdued lighting. Very nearly depressive, in fact. But a lot could be forgiven, for it cost one cent to ride!
The incredibly low cost of things in Bucharest had its usual head-bending effect on me. Finding shelter in an "antiquariat" bookstore from another of those sudden heaven-shattering downpours that were beginning to seem indigenous to Romania, I turned up a pair of irresistible art books costing all of thirty-five cents. There was no provision for having them mailed home; I was told to find a "paper store" to get wrapping paper, and then take care of it at the post office.
At the paper store - the Romanian outlet for anything from note pads to toilet tissue - the most enticing prospect I saw for my purpose was a large calendar poster of a dark-haired, somewhat immodestly clothed young lady, whose full-color charm had a plain white backing suitable for wrapping and addressing. But the shop was crowded with mid-day trade and too few sales clerks to handle it. Watching the action, I could see that each customer first paid a central cashier, gaining a receipt with which to claim their purchase.
I looked for a price on the poster and saw what I took to be 150 lei - seventy-five cents, and twice what the books had cost. But I had 'lei to waste' and really liked the poster, so I stood five minutes in the cashier's line, then spent five more minutes to catch a clerk's eye. Giving her my receipt, I pointed to the poster I wanted; but she had a problem with it. Nothing came across to me until she found a pad and carefully pencilled: 152. A tax increment, perhaps. I tried to give her a two-lei piece, but she insisted I go back to the cashier. So for the sake of another penny to pay, I stood in line five more minutes. When I handed over the new receipt, she opened the showcase and drew out for me . . . seven copies of the poster!
Bucharest was my farthest eastward penetration of Europe, though I may have been a bit closer to the Russian border in Warsaw. It was close enough, however, that I thought about making a one-day sprint up to the new country of Moldavia. I went to check out the possibility at the American Embassy, only to find it closed for the Labor Day holiday - which seemed a bit absurd in Romania. It helps maintain the fiction, I suppose, that the Embassy is a tiny bit of America adrift in an alien world. So was I, in a sense, but more intent on establishing bonds, here, than preserving cultural barriers. At any rate, I had to let the urge go and turn back to my southward journey.
ON TO SOFIA! But only as far as the border in one hop. I would carefully avoid the trans-national rail rates. Giurgiu, a river town on the Danube, was the crossover point - forty miles and only sixty-seven cents from Bucharest . . . yet it somehow took me all day to get there. I left Violette's apartment early, with plenty of time to catch an 11:30 train, but a hassle erupted at the post office when I tried to send my pair of books by surface mail. The clerk insisted it was "less problem, less problem" to send it airmail - the problem being the task of plastering the package with dozens of stamps because she didn't have the proper denomination. I finally found a clerk who understood English, and had my way; but it cost me the morning train.
Had I caught that train, I would have been out of Bucharest before noon and at the Danube within an hour, possibly changing the whole course of the next couple of days' events. Instead, I had to wait four hours for a local taking a roundabout route that wouldn't get me to Giurgiu until six in the evening.
For consolation, I had an absorbing afternoon spectacle in the parade of peasant life on the outdoor rail platform. There were entire families en route to somewhere, going shoeless often as not with immense sacks and bundles of heaven-knows-what - possibly their entire range of belongings. There were old men stoically proper in tattered old suits under the hot summer sun. There were peddlers who doled out handfuls of seed to chew, barefoot kids foraging for whatever the day might provide, and at one point two under-teen ragamuffins flushed by a brakeman from the hidden reaches of a coach sitting 'empty.' There were Gypsies, too, though not 'working the crowd' here, as they do at the tourist-frequented depots. These are the saddest enigmas of Europe - everybody despises them and it's easy to see why, when confronted by their infuriatingly persistent begging. It does no good at all to try and satisfy them with a coin or two, which merely intensifies their effort and draws in hoards more, like pigeons flocking to a park bench handout.
I watched in amazement, too, at the way people piled into/onto/over and around trains that pulled in to load for departure. Some would actually clamber in through open windows to outwit the crowds packing the more usual avenues of access. I was glad for awhile that I had purchased first-class seating. But the illusion died as soon as my train arrived, for it had no first-class cars. I had to settle for what I could get, in the mad rush that the afternoon's show had at least prepared me for. I managed a side-bench seat in an oddly designed double-deck rear car filled with smokers and other swarthies who kept shutting the window I tried to keep open. Wafting odors from an overflowing water closet that grated even the country-tempered nostrils of those around me finally quelled the resistance to my open window and its small satisfaction.
The ordeal ended with our eventual arrival at Giurgiu, a rather sizable border town. It was too late in the day to head directly for the bridge, which I could see to the east of town. I walked instead toward the central area, passing through a lot of street life on the way, even barbecues cooking on curbside grills. There were no GN hosts in this small town, but perhaps a better prospect: my first affordable hotel room in all of Europe - a reasonable consolation for the day's frustrations. It looked that way in prospect, anyhow.
I am occasionally hooked by the notion that whatever can be had for free, like the rides I get on the open road, or the Good Neighbors accommodations, must ergo be inferior to things that cost money. Isn't there, after all, a piece of folk wisdom that says you get what you pay for? Be it known, once and for all, that the old adage is just another fable. I spent the first hour in my hotel room jousting with mosquitoes scattered on the walls, after shutting the window that was thoughtfully left open for them. I used the second hour piecing together some decent lighting from among the seven partly operational fixtures and two working bulbs in the room. I had hoped to salvage the third hour relaxing in a tub - already stripped down for it - when I discovered there was no hot water in the tap. At $2.50, of course, some might say I was getting what I paid for.
In the morning, I realized it was pointless to walk to the bridge while I still had lei in my pocket - almost 1500, which would be absolutely worthless as soon as I set foot on the other side of the river. So I found a taxi and told the driver to take me as far as he could toward Ruse, the town on the opposite shore. He set off west, instead of east toward the bridge, and I hastily called a halt, took out my map and put the matter to him as clearly as I possibly could, given that we had no common language. I figured he was another sharp taxi driver, counting on the naiveté of an American tourist. Then he put it as clearly as he possibly could that he was taking me to a ferry, just up ahead. It was brilliant, as the British would say. The ferry, for a dollar, plowed the Danube upstream far enough to reach the center of Ruse. Had I insisted on the bridge, I could have been faced with a walk of six or eight miles on the other side.
By dint of hard, extravagant effort - including four taxi rides, one hotel room, and first-class passage all the way (paid for, if not always received) - I had managed to spend 6880 of my 8000 lei, during my six days in Romania . . . the great sum of $34.40. Of course, the remainder was useless. Or so I thought, but I'd get a bit of further value from it down the line.
Ruse was a surprisingly pleasant town with little evidence of the economic deprivation I was by now accustomed to seeing, and a summer-morning ambience very much like that of Dresden's older neighborhoods. But I was now in Cyrillic alphabet territory, the journey's deepest plunge so far, into communicative insecurity. It was a fearsome shock, at the first glimpse of street signs and posters, but it quickly became an interesting game to see how well I could 'decode' it. The word, XOTNL (the N reversed), for instance, identified a hotel. That gave me three letters that were the same in the Latin alphabet and two that were different, and I began a chart that accounted for most of the new phonetics in the short time I was there.
My strongest impression of Ruse, however, was the remarkably friendly, outgoing attitude of its people. A passing stranger directed me to one of the local hotels for my cash exchange, and he even offered to drive me to it. The woman there, who gave me Bulgarian leva for my 100-schilling note, not only told me how to reach the train station, but she phoned to check the price of a ticket to Sofia, without any prod from me. Others actually initiated conversation on the street, an unusual occurrence. And when I asked a bus driver if he was going to the Bahnhof - a more familiar term here than railroad - two passengers who heard the exchange took the initiative to point me on the right way when the bus eventually veered off in another direction. From these first instances of friendly outreach in Ruse, Bulgaria claimed my heart as I would never have imagined it could.
Waiting for the early afternoon train to Sofia, I compared the prices encountered in Ruse with those of Romania, to assure myself that I really had enough in cash to get through the country. The eight-hour train ride ahead of me cost fifty leva - just three dollars! It left me with a bit more than $7.50 in overall liquidity to stave off the use of a travelers check. Sofia would be two-thirds of the way to the Greek border, so I could certainly afford five dollars, there, for cheap lodging - twice as much as it had cost me in Giurgiu. I had checked the room rate in Ruse, and found it was in the same range as the Giurgiu hotel. I would have preferred a GN host, of course, but the scheduled arrival at nine in Sofia pretty well eliminated any hope of hospitality there. But it was okay, for nothing at all gave me reason to think I might not make it with my $7.50.
Tight figuring, yes, but time was crowding me and I had no reason to stay more than one night in Sofia, nor anything but a hasty meal or two to purchase there. A week or two earlier I might have wanted to linger . . . but now, Bulgaria was just a route of passage. I was anxious to begin my island-hopping search for a place to spend the winter. September's chill was in the evening air, and the journey's accumulating strains had already begun to make it more of a chore than an adventure.
Time was the factor in another way, too: it was now Wednesday, and I had to be in Thessaloniki by Friday to pick up my mail or I'd be stuck the whole weekend waiting for it. And in Thessaloniki, of course, Visa money would once more flow, and all the tightness of this passage would be behind me. I could even go hungry until then, if need be.
That's the way it all seemed to shape up as I quenched on a soft drink and waited for the train in Ruse. The calculating mind has a peculiar kind of innocence all its own. It can see everything . . . except the way things are going to happen.
I FOUND A VACANT COMPARTMENT for myself as quickly as I could get on the train. I'd hardly settled into it by the window, before I was joined by two men, one of them carrying a rather large drum - an oil drum, not an orchestra drum - that effectively kept anyone else out of the compartment. It contained something smelling strongly like turpentine and the window had to be kept open for the mere sake of breathable air. It was too late, by the time all this had transpired, to find any other windowside seating.
He was perhaps my own age, the fellow with the drum - a taciturn guy, not the least bit friendly, not even very talkative with the one who came in with him. The only real communication I got from him was at a midway station where we stopped for an engine change. I was sure of that much because our engine had gone off without us. It seemed safe enough, in fact, to step out on the platform and get a soft drink at one of the kiosks alongside. I was standing there, bottle in hand, waiting for change from the twenty-leva bill I'd handed the woman, but she turned momentarily to take care of another customer. And then all of a sudden, in the side of my vision, I saw MY TRAIN - the one without an engine - moving! It was going backwards . . . and sure enough, there was an engine at the other end that had coupled while I had my eye on the empty front part.
I yelled for my change - having, at the same instant, an urge to drop the bottle and run for the train while I still could. But she was counting out my money now . . . "three leva, four leva, five leva, six . . ." In frozen, fascinated, confused horror, I stood there while everything I owned was slowly picking up speed. I couldn't bolt for it. Those leva bills going into my palm in slow motion were too important and held me rooted to the spot. The train was not yet going too fast to grab it and swing aboard . . . if she would just get the money all in my hand!
She fumbled on her count and babbled something, with a slight laugh. Good God. Surely she couldn't mistake the anguish in my face! The last car was going by, now, and she was still counting . . .
My legs were paralyzed as the moment stretched, like a time-lapse film - until it had stretched beyond the edge of choice. I saw puzzled faces looking back at me from the receding train. But the kiosk woman was trying to tell me something, pointing to another track . . . and from others I got a nodding hand-motion, that universal signal: "there, there, take it easy . . ." until it finally registered that my train had pulled out of the station only to change tracks and return, to link with another string of cars nearby.
Only then, when I pulled myself back on board with drained-energy relief, did the turpentine drum fellow let himself go: he laughed and laughed and laughed. His words went over my head, but I'm sure it was something like, "Boy, if you could have seen your face . . . !"
By early dusk we were rolling through some of the most spectacular mountain scenery of anywhere I'd been - rock formations rivaling any in the western U.S. for grandeur; picturesque, classic Alpine settings, with goats being herded along meadowed roads - all of it the lovelier for its plain, non-tourist, non-exploited naturalness. No billboards, no motels, not a single franchised encroachment on the pristine beauty. I stayed at the window with it for more than an hour, my eyes dry and burning from the wind, until it was too dark to see any longer.
IT WAS WELL AFTER NINE by the time we reached Sofia, and my entire sense of the place was a city already in bed. I wanted to, myself, for I was exhausted. But I needed to find a place. There had to be cheap hotels near the railway station, but the area was dark and discouraging, offering no hint of which way to go. The line of taxis outside was tempting, and I recalled being taken halfway across Bucharest for hardly more than a dollar. Surely these guys would know where a really cheap nearby hotel was.
The driver I picked spoke enough English, and he seemed to understand what I wanted. He took me on a zig-zag route that was certainly less than a mile, to a rather seedy looking place above a tavern . . . just about what I was looking for. But when he asked for his fare I couldn't believe I had heard him right.
"Forty leva," he said it again. $2.40! It was more than half the leva I had, and almost a third of my total liquidity.
My shocked reaction and immediate reference to prices in Ruse could leave no doubt that I was seriously outraged. I let him know how little I had and how tight on funds I was - not so much thinking he'd back down, as to vent my sudden panic.
He responded with some explanation about fares going up after nine p.m., but it hardly registered. I had miscalculated badly, and my entire speculative structure was crumbling as I stood there.
Wanting a moment to turn this sudden development over in my head, I said I'd have to go inside and see if I could cash a travelers check.
Inside, came the second shock. I was told that a room here, in this little dive, would cost 120 leva. And, no, they could not handle a travelers check! I suppose they would have taken my schillings, but there was no point in asking. Between the hotel and the cabbie, I couldn't make it - not without using a travelers check, which could only be done, now, by checking-in at a larger hotel. I was wiped out. Busted.
What to do?
There was only one thing I could possibly do. I went out and silently paid the cabbie off, grabbed my pack, ignored his puzzled look and started walking. It made no particular difference which direction I walked or what corners I turned, and I made no effort to keep track. Somewhere, I'd find a place to lay my sleeping bag; and I offered a silent word of thanks for the tough-guy that emerges from some hidden corner of me when I need him.
Finding a bivouac spot after dark in the congested center of a big city is a risky challenge even where things are familiar. But Sofia, a city of dim lights and brooding shadows, turned cool nerve to chills. The streets were virtually empty, the lighting an eerie yellow glow of street lamps, so shallow that I might as well have been in a thick fog, and the footing an uncertain process of sidestepping holes in the sidewalk, open ditches in the street. It was a kind of nightmare alley that didn't change, appreciably, block upon block. Quiet . . . mysterious . . . threatening in its very sense of isolation - yet a darkness one could feel hidden in, for all its unknown dangers. Foot-falls echoed sharply in the hollow silence of empty streets, and I made an effort to pad my steps as softly as I could, searching like an animal with only instinct for guidance, looking this way and that . . . into shadow tinted by street lamp, into shadow that was pure black.
I came at last to a large school yard, fenced but open in a couple places. Crossing the street to it, I went in quietly to search for a proper spot and thought I had found it, when some young boys came through from an opposite corner, laughing over some private thing - a jarring contrast to the deserted streets I had come through and the mood they had set. The boys were merely on a shortcut and went on, but it was enough to dissuade me from any idea of staying there. As I was leaving, however, I spotted what could be a perfect situation across the street, one that I might easily have walked right by. The school yard gave me a larger view, sufficient to notice a rise of brush and weeds behind a high fence along the walk.
Sure enough, a little side-passage gave access that took me around some rubble and up onto a knoll quite invisible from the street. I had only to be careful of nearby householders, revealed in silhouette by the light of their second and third floor windows. Here and there, while I laid out my gear, one would emerge onto a porch and I'd have to freeze for a moment to offer no eye-catching motion. But it worked. I could even see a span of stars overhead. It was the perfect spot for a night's sleep, all things considered.
Sometime after I had drifted off to sleep, a sudden urgency pulled me back into the world. Something had gotten to me, intestinally, and I had to crawl out and away from my sleeping bag: diarrhea! Twice that night I had to make my peace with nature, shivering in the chill air, wondering why it couldn't rather have happened the night before in the Giurgiu hotel room.
Bleary, barely energized by the night's half-sleep, I was up and out of there just before daybreak - trying now to judge by its earliest light toward which direction the train station might lay. The easiest solution was to follow other early-morning risers, assuming they were headed toward transit facilities. It took me to a main arterial with perhaps a dozen people waiting in the early dawn for trams. Recalling that the French term, "gare," meant rail station here, I put the one-word question to a young woman. Perceiving my limits of language, she raised seven fingers. I waited for a tram number seven, paid nothing to ride it, and was soon at the depot renewing body and spirit with a sixteen-cent cup of hot coffee. After which, at precisely seven o'clock, the insanely frustrating exercise of trying to purchase passage to Greece with my remaining cash got underway.
At the International ticket window I was told in English what I already suspected - the railfare to Thessaloniki was out of my range, at $30.54. I was told, also, that the portion of that applying to Bulgarian mileage was $19.05; but having come twice as far, from Ruse, for three dollars, I knew it wasn't the domestic rate. For that, she pointed me across to the Information window.
The woman at Information spoke no English. I used my map, indicating the border, and she shook her head in the negative, pointing back to the International window. I clearly needed the name of a station. I asked for it at the International window, and was told I could only get that information at the Information window.
Puzzling over this strange dilemma, looking at the various 'boards' for some clue, I encountered a Bulgarian teen-ager who spoke some English, and I asked if she could get me the name of the last Bulgarian station on the route to Thessaloniki. She came back with the name of Svilengrad. I thanked her profusely and went back to the Information window for a price figure. The woman looked at me a bit weirdly, now, but gave me an appropriately low figure - long-since forgotten, for I soon discovered, from the schedule board, that Svilengrad was on the way to Istanbul, not Thessaloniki.
Still at square one after an hour of futility, I decided I'd have to find out myself, on a decent map, and headed back into town on the quest. It took another hour, but I finally found it at an automobile club - a fine highway map, given to me free, which indicated a border town named Kulata. Back once more to the Information window. I ignored the withering look reserved for Americans who can't decide where they are going, and requested the fare to Kulata.
She shook her head vigorously, No! With the help of another clerk who spoke a bit of English, I was told that Kulata was just a switching yard, not a station. Having at last someone I could actually discuss it with, I learned which station I really wanted. Just a few miles back from Kulata; it was called General Todorov, and the fare to it was $1.40 - narrowly within the few leva that I still possessed. I'd neither need schillings for it nor a travelers check. Success at last, beyond my wildest earlier-trashed hopes!
But the day was not yet done. Not nearly.
It was ten a.m. It had taken three hours to get a ticket to the border. I had two hours until train time, but this land of pitfalls and quagmires was not going to tempt me any further. I headed directly for the platform, making double-sure I had the right one by questioning a railroad worker who spoke some English. He pointed up ahead on the track to a train sitting at the far end of the platform, and then cheerfully walked out to it with me. I had told him I wanted the Thessaloniki train, merely to make sure I was on the right platform, and now he took me past all the rear cars, up to the one at the very front, which he assured me was the Thessaloniki car. The rest, he said, were only going as far as General Todorov, where they'd be shunted to the junction track. As it turned out, this happenstance development, two hours before train time, was a stroke of pure innocent fortune, and this man clad in overalls was clearly an angel.
He was also a bit of a lush, for he now said something about going for a bottle of Scotch, to celebrate. I didn't know what he was celebrating, nor why I was a party to it, but finding myself already lodged in a border-bound coach was good enough reason to contribute, so I gave him the smallest reasonable thing I had to give: one of my two twenty-schilling notes. He disappeared down the track with it and never came back.
I picked a choice compartment and settled-in for the two-hour wait . . . just in time to receive another railroad functionary - this one in a conductor's dark uniform - who stopped by for a bit of semi-conversation in his somewhat tenuous English. I soon realized he only wanted to exchange some cash, thinking that an American must have loose dollars. I assured him I had none, laying out for his inspection my leftover Romanian lei and schilling note. And then I realized he might be able to put the lei to use, whereas I certainly couldn't. So I simply gave them to him - $5.60 in Romanian currency. After a moment's surprise at my generosity he seemed to realize that I hadn't any Bulgarian leva with me for journey refreshment, so he gave me a ten-leva note - which would serve me in an unexpected way, down the line. In fact, all these chance events were like bit players coming in to set up the scenario that lay ahead.
And it continued with the arrival of bit players, as passengers boarded just before departure. Amazingly, two men who spoke fairly good English sat down in my compartment. The one alongside of me, whose name was Marchal as I presently learned, said very little. He was only interested in listening to my conversation with Peter, the other, who sat directly across from me. Peter was engaging and articulate, though he had the underlying motive of trying to make a Christian of me. But he was nevertheless quite enjoyable. In fact, we jousted repeatedly over his efforts.
He insisted, for example, on telling me of places along my route where I could get "help for my problems," even as I kept replying that I had none.
"Sure you have problems," he'd say, quite confidently.
"I don't know. You go see these people, and they tell you your problems."
It was great sport. He'd smile at my heresies and seemed to enjoy the exchange as much as I. When he said something about "those no-good Gypsies," I challenged him on it, asking how he, a good Christian, could say that Gypsies were no good. He forthrightly insisted that the Bible upholds honest labor, and Gypsies refuse to work.
Marchal just sat there, almost deadpan, taking it in. But when the conductor came through to check tickets, Marchal came through for me with a masterful job of translation. The conductor, seeing my ticket was for General Todorov, wanted me to vacate the compartment and move into one of the back cars. But I wanted to go all the way to Kulata if I could - right on the border, even if it wasn't a true station - and since a ten-leva note was now in my pocket, I grandly said I would pay the difference. That was good enough for the conductor; but he said to pay it when the time came. He let me remain in the Thessaloniki car.
Marchal left the stage shortly after that. Peter remained just long enough until another conductor came through, checking tickets once more. For some reason, he took Peter's fluent assurance that ours had been checked already, and went on without an actual inspection. He must have been the one who would have taken my further fare, for no one came through again before we reached General Todorov, where the rear cars were disengaged and I remained aboard. As we rolled on toward the border, the compartment on this Thessaloniki-bound coach was in my sole possession.
I'M NOT SURE at what point I was struck by the playful thought that I might just sit tight and see how far this continuity of lucky breaks would take me. I do know it was only a larkish idea at first . . . except that this was barren and hot country at four in the afternoon and I wasn't very anxious to release my shadyside, air-cooled comfort.
We were at the switching yard of Kulata, now, the border stop. Three separate Bulgarian officials came through to check passport and baggage, but none asked to see my passage. Finally, a conductor I hadn't seen before looked in at me and asked in fairly good English, "You're going to . . . ?"
"Thessaloniki," I responded, as a mere statement of fact, and he went right on through the car. I then realized I had committed myself to the bluff, almost without intending it. Could it be that simple? Was the Greek style so casual that I merely had to be on the coach coming through from Sofia?
For the next hour or more the train chugged back and forth in the yard, linking to various cars, changing an engine - and being boarded in the midst of it by border officers from Greece, but still with no request to see my ticket. I argued with myself to take my small gain and leave while I was ahead . . . but Kulata was such an isolated and lonely outpost, the highway nearby virtually empty of traffic, and there was no place here to get the next rail ticket. In the end, I just stayed with the game.
We finally moved off to the Greek border station, not very far distant, and here at last, the conductor came by to check my ticket - the same fellow to whom I lightly had said, "Thessaloniki." I at once started searching for the supposed ticket . . . trying to look as convincingly puzzled as I could, in my failure to locate it.
He left me to the search while he moved on through the compartments. My foot was all the way into it, now, and I had no option left but to play the bluff through.
I was still looking when he returned, and as distraught as I could possibly make it appear. I told him I'd looked everywhere and could only imagine I had accidentally thrown it away. He suggested I'd better at least buy passage from here, so that he could keep his own records straight.
This was perfect - exactly what I'd wanted to do in the first place!
But in the next few moments my victory vanished in the dry, hot summer air. This little station could not cope with either Austrian schillings or travelers checks. I was referred to the bank in the nearby village . . . but also told that it had closed for the day, several hours earlier.
That spelled the end of it. It would have made little difference had the bank been open, for the train was ready to roll now, and there was no way I could delay it. Playing out my little drama, in fact, had already delayed it. I had simply lost the game, and would have to lose an entire day waiting for the next evening's train.
I wearily hauled my backpack and gear off the coach, to the puzzled unconcern of fellow passengers watching it all unfold from their train windows - whatever they might make of it. I had no cause for complaint, having come all the way through the country on ten dollars, but it seemed just a bit sad to stumble on the last gamble. I sat down beside the station to contemplate the wages of my humbuggery and watch the train leave me in the lurch.
But the conductor had gone forward for a brief conference with his engineer. He returned for another with the station-master, and then came to tell me that they had agreed to let me back on . . . taking my word - my extravagantly theatrical word - for the 'lost ticket!'
As we chugged off for Thessaloniki I experienced a wave of guilt, for it had just been a game, with no intent to cheat the Greek railway system. But it had all started with those gouging international rail rates:fifteen times the cost of domestic fares for the same passage . . . and before long, laughter overcame remorse. Old tunes, rascally tunes, harmonized with the clickety-click on rails, as we rolled and swayed along the eastern Macedonian highland, down toward the Aegean Sea.
"...taken three hours..." It would have made little difference to me at the time, but I recently found this quote from the Lonely Planet Guide to Eastern Europe (on a shoestring) - their 1991 edition: "If you're travelling from Bulgaria to Greece, don't take the train! Trying to get a railway ticket across the Bulgarian border is a nightmare..."
"...wiped out." From what I later learned about Bulgaria, they charge Americans a premium rate for rooms. But worse than that, they are street-sharp in Sofia, in dealing with tourists. I've no doubt at all, now, that I was being had by the cabbie, but quoted a standard American rate by the hotel.
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