Day 88 Friday 11 May
Well, I had to stay there, really, now didn’t I???
Day 87 Thursday 10 May
Interesting that Google maps says the distance is 237 kms and estimates the driving time at 2 hours 40 minutes, yet it took six sweaty, tedious, grisly hours on the train.
I left my suitcase and backpack at the Hotel Slavija when I checked out, and had a last stroll through Belgrade, up to the cathedral and back down to Republic Square, then ended up with a lemonade at the pavement café of the Hotel Moskva. I didn’t have a notebook with me, having left it in the backpack at the Slavija, so as my thoughts were particularly buzzing I went into a bookshop and found a lovely one with a sepia picture of Belgrade on the cover It was only after I sat down with my drink that I noticed that the building in the picture was the front of the Hotel Moskva itself, so it all felt very appropriate.
I walked back to the Slavija for my bags and the receptionists called for a taxi to the railway station.
It’s fortunate that Nis is one station name I know the Cyrillic characters for, so I was able to pick it out on the departure board, although actually one slightly worrying thing is that I don’t know which is departures and which arrivals, I have to work that out by what time I’m expecting the train to be leaving, but that’s another matter.
I noticed (and wrote in my notebook) that although the big international railway stations – St Pancras, Brussels Midi, Paris Gare du Nord, Rome Termini – are shopping malls, the main station at Belgrade, when you go through to the platforms, seems to be a pavement café.
I found a bench in the shade and I knew I had plenty of time to spare. But I couldn’t tell which platform the train would be leaving from – there was no indication on the departures board or on my ticket.
Did I mention that the station announcer at Zagreb sounded as though she was reciting Russian elegiac poetry, or reading out the names of the glorious and heroic dead? The announcer at Belgrade was marginally more cheerful (though not much) but I still couldn’t understand a word she said. But when she spoke, there was a sudden movement of people drifting towards a platform on the far side of the station, rather like Night of the Living Dead.
I followed suit, and before we reached the train, I managed to get the attention of the liveliest looking zombie and ask her whether this was the train for Nis – which indeed it was.
The process of heaving the Wardrobe up into the train was as fraught as ever, but it’s getting to be routine. Then came the palaver of dragging it down the corridor to find a compartment. The first one I went into had a middle aged, middle class looking man and woman sitting in the window seats.
I pulled the Wardrobe into the compartment. Turned parallel to the sides of the train, it takes up just about the whole of the space between the sets of seats on either side. The woman looked at it, looked at me, said something and looked at it again.
‘Don’t understand’ I said. Sometimes it’s all you can do. ‘English’. I dropped the backpack onto one of the four free seats.
She spoke again in Serbo Croat. I shrugged.
‘Well I don’t understand what you’re saying’ I said, not rudely, because she clearly couldn’t understand what I was saying either, and I kept my tone pleasant and even, ‘so I don’t know whether you’re saying it’s OK or not OK for me to come in here’.
The man, this time, very carefully and deliberately, with a nasty expression on his face, shook his head and wagged his finger from side to side.
I dragged the Wardrobe back out into the corridor, where a queue was building up behind me, though later on reflection I wondered what they thought gave them the right to refuse to share ‘their’ compartment with me. After all, I’d bought my ticket just like they had, in fact if anyone had asked me, I would happily have paid another 784 dinar (about €7) for another ticket for the Wardrobe.
Anyway, I had wimped out, and was dragging down the corridor again. At the space between carriages I paused, and the people behind me started to surge past, till I realised that this was just reducing my chances of finding a carriage still further.
So I started again, and found a carriage with one middle aged man sitting by the window and with his bags on the opposite window seat. He didn’t seem too bothered by me or the Wardrobe, so I put the backpack on the middle seat on the side facing him, pulled out the bits and pieces I wanted for the journey, and then put the backpack up on the rack, leaving my tote bag on the middle seat on my side and the Wardrobe in the space between that and the facing seat, sitting down myself in the seat by the door.
Next an elderly woman got in, and took great exception to the Wardrobe, but started berating the man rather than me, presumably because he replied to her. I moved my tote bag off the middle seat, and she prevailed on the man to slide the Wardrobe down between the two window seats and at right angles to the window, so that he spent the journey with his leg room reduced by about half because it was in front of the seat opposite. I did feel very guilty about that, but he didn’t complain or make any sort of fuss. After some continued grumbling, the old lady settled herself into the seat next to me, and in fact we ended up at one point in the journey with five people sitting in the compartment, so nobody had much leg room.
Gradually the train emptied as people left at various stops, and darkness fell. The lamp in our compartment wasn’t working, and although it didn’t bother me much because I was reading my Kindle and there’s a reading light built into the cover, after a toilet trip I moved my stuff into an empty compartment with a functioning light.
When I was beginning to feel I was the last person left alive on the train, if not in the whole country, at a station in the middle of nowhere an entire extended family appeared, with tots on trikes, buggies being wheeled up and down the corridor, at least four different generations, loud music blaring, possibly even a couple of accordions being carried in cases. I’m not sure exactly how far from Nis we were when they got on board, but I don’t believe they settled at all in the whole of the rest of the journey, just kept moving up and down the corridors.
I started to get that panicky – will I know the station, is it really the terminus, can we have passed it already and me not know? – feeling, when we crawled again into a town of some size, over a river bridge, and limped into a gloomy station, where everybody got off and piled down a flight of stairs into a gloomy tunnel under the lines and back up the other side to the station entrance.
I dragged the Wardrobe up the last few steps and out through the bleakest station buildings I’ve ever seen to a forecourt that seemed even bleaker. It was only nine o’clock, but if it been the stroke of midnight on Halloween I don’t think I would have felt more apprehensive and crushed.
I had the address and phone number of the hostel written in my note book. I couldn’t see anything that resembled a taxi rank, but along a road and past a piece of scrubby waste ground was what could be a bus shelter. If I walked that way, maybe I would find my way to the road, and if there were no taxis around (which seemed more than likely) at least I could ring the hostel and see what they could suggest.
By some miracle, when I got there, there was a taxi, a bright yellow one with a taxi sign on top, and a driver. I showed him the street address, he nodded and opened the boot for the Wardrobe. I climbed in the back seat with a mixture of relief and renewed apprehension, as he drove away from the station, over a river bridge and down a road that seemed to be leading out into the suburbs.
‘What’s the number?’ he asked.
I checked in my notebook.
We were both looking at the buildings, when I spotted it on the other side of the road, a neon side with ‘Linda’ on it, how could I not?
He pulled in and got the Wardrobe out of the back. I paid him, and as I walked towards the entrance of the building, was met by a vision, a minor Greek deity, obviously a little bored with Olympus and decided to move north for a while and slum it in provincial Serbia.
In the small office/reception, he took my passport, checked out my particulars (oh I wish!), lifted the Wardrobe with one finger and floated me up the stairs to the second floor and my room. He showed me the bathroom, the light switches, the air conditioning, the TV remote, the spare blankets, explained to me about the breakfast… at least, I assume that’s what he was telling me – it’s not that his English wasn’t perfectly good, you understand, it’s just that my concentration was away somewhere with him in the mountains.
‘Any more questions, just ask me. I’ll be downstairs where you found me.’
‘Oh – oh yes…’
‘About the… the wifi? The password?’
He smiled, a deep, deific smile.
‘No password is necessary. The wifi is just there’.
Before I could coherently utter my thanks, he was gone.