Sunday, 17 February 2008

Balkan Trains

I enjoy all trains, but particularly Balkan ones. Twice I've taken the Venezia Express, the first time all the way through what was then Yugoslavia, to Thessaloniki in Greece. And from there, to Istanbul, and across Asia, in a series of slow trains and rattling old buses. I remember very little of that first journey through Yugoslavia, decades ago. I did keep a journal of sorts, but all the pages, except one, got eaten in India, by a holy cow. But that's another story.

I remember young men, soldiers, getting on somewhere, perhaps Belgrade. They were on their way to Skopje, and that was the only word I could understand, of their conversation. I heard dobra, dobra, repeatedly (which I now know means good, good) and they laughed a lot, these young men, they were cheerful and happy, showing an energy that was unfamiliar, to me. They had broad faces, clear eyes, prominent jawlines. I liked the look of them, and peered at them from time to time, as I looked up from my book. I had only two books with me, so it must have been either The Bhagavad Gita or Basho's Narrow Road to the Deep North.

The second time I took the Venezia Express, only a few years ago, I got on at Trieste, late at night, around 11.30. The two books I had with me this time were Slavenka Drakulic's Balkan Express and Ivo Andric's Bridge Over the Drina. I was waiting in the Trieste train station, where a few homeless or seeming homeless souls had gathered, along with a handful of others, waiting, I presumed, for the same train. A slightly inebriated man sat down beside me, and wanted to talk. My Italian is very basic and when communication in that language failed, he turned to German. Like so many displaced people from the Balkans, he had spent time in Germany and learned the language. His name was Marko, he was from Bosnia, middle-aged, well-built, with a shock of greying hair. His words were slurred and often difficult to make out and because of this and the sometimes obscure associations of his thinking, conversation was a little halting. He asked for a cigarette and I gave him one. He asked where I was going, and I told him I was going to Belgrade. I'd just begun reading The Bridge Over the Drina, and he asked what I was reading. I told him. His eyes lit up, he was of course familiar with that book, probably the best known classic of the Bosnian writer. This time his words were quite clear. Messer im Herz! he declaimed loudly, and laughed to himself, then repeated the phrase, as if he was calling out to someone on the street. I looked around me. There was a family with two small children, lying on a pile of bags and suitcases, sleeping. A couple of men in worn baggy trousers and scuffed leather jackets, acquaintances of Marko, who also looked as though they were fighting off sleep. The scene did not look threatening in any way. Why Marko had shouted out – a knife in the heart!, was not then clear to me. He explained that it had to do with the book I had just started reading.

When the Venezia express came into the station, Marko came with me, made sure that I was settled in a carriage, sat down beside me for a few minutes, talked to the young man, the only other passenger in the compartment, explained that he was not getting the train himself, he and I had just met in the station, he was simply keeping me company. The young man smiled and a sense of rapport, almost an intimacy, installed itself immediately, a tangible, comforting presence, one that I have only ever felt in the Balkans. When Marko stood up, he swayed a little on his feet, took hold of my hand and clasped it to him, wishing me well on my journey. Eventually he released it and I heard him greeting other passengers as he moved slowly down the corridor, and got off the train.
The train groaned a little as it started up, heading off into the darkness. The night journey had begun.

You can read the story of part of this journey, in Mirror City, at the following link