Trained for trains – the article

10 05 2009

It is an article I have been thinking of writing for a long time. Somehow I kept putting it off in the hope that like wine, it will keep getting better from the mere time spent in the cellar of my consciosness. However, the topic defiantly refused to lose its vivid freshness and I will have to merely retell it as it was.

Photos are courtesy of the finest train connoisseur I know - Georgi Kokotanekov.

Photos are courtesy of the finest train connoisseur I know - Georgi Kokotanekov.

Sofia, 3rd April. After getting through the jungle of the traffic jam just in time to barely catch the train, nervous, gasping, ticket in mouth, I was in for one of those charming little adventures in life which make it so… alive. Those things usually sound boring, mayhaps insipid when retold but their main value lies not in the ability to make a fun table story but rather in the subtle feeling you are consciously living a piece of your other side. Funnily enough, I speak of trains here.

But mind you, trains on the Balkans are unlike trains anywhere else in Europe! On the Balkans they are slow, dirty, full of strange people with (possibly) criminal intent, noisy, old, and unattended. The poor machines desperately gasp even when they move on a perfectly flat surface, and breathe a deep sign of relief whenever a small dingy station make them stop. It is not only the peculiarities of the machine though, I believe, there is more to it. The trains have as many untold stories as the eldest people in the little forsaken villages they pass year after year, and are maybe as old. Those metal caterpillars have roamed the land probably since WWII, or at least the golden ages of communism and have carried a heavy burden of enthusiasm, dissillusionment, poverty, romance, and people. And their burden is still there even if the wagons are completely empty. I would not call it sad, though. It’s only special.

The journey, too, is a landmark of itself. You go in, only to find the stuffed compartments out of places and are only too happy to find a little seat next to two pensioners, a gypsy, and some rather too lighly dressed 53-year old village belle. A casual conversation on the mishaps of the country ensues for an hour or so. Throughout this time your ticket is diligently checked at least 5 times by the very same conductor with an unwavering suspicion that you might not be the same person whose ticket was checked a mere 5 minutes ago.

After the formalities are well taken care of, and the little fight over communism is over, comes my favorite part of the journey. I stand up, and like most passengers, go into the corridor, open the window, and completely disregarding all rules, stick my whole upper body out. A river usually runs next to the line and jumps and meanders along with the metal machine. The sun is shining bright as ever, the wind runs through my hair, head and mind, and the smell of fresh land, of labor, and of simple life embraces me tenderly.

I feel the train trying to move ever faster in an attempt to outrun the wind, and the machine starts gasping even more intensely in its futile attempt, but I am there and enjoy the rapidly changing pictures of trees, people, little villages, green hilltops, the river on the one side, and the road on the other. I am just there, a small piece of soul getting lost but also blending with the experience of life and travel as it can only be felt around here…

The conductor suddenly comes and sees me leaning out of the window. He takes a step towards me, then changes his mind and disregarding all regulations and safety concerns, just leaves me be. Maybe he undestands, maybe he has seen this picture all too often. Maybe he just doesn’t care.

And so it continues, with the passenger savoring every moment of little glory and being a different person, if at all, for an eternity condensed in less that 60 minutes. Unforgettable. Every time.

(c) G. Kokotanekov

(c) G. Kokotanekov

Then it comes arrival with all the boring formalities you go through – mind your luggage, and your wallet, prepare your passport if you have crossed borders, check the time, keep track of connecting trains, call people to pick you up. Even though you seemingly do it in a stride you are still on that train and will be there for the next couple of days. And it is beautiful.

Oh, I so much hate travelling by cars or buses…

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