Day 106, Monday 29 May
Timisoara, Romania – Budapest, Hungary 330 kms/205 miles Cumulative total: 12,183 kms/7,570 miles
Hungarian passport control. I wasn’t really expecting it. After all, Romania is in the EU now and there has never been any inspection at any other of the internal borders.
Still, the inspectors seem by far the most charming I’ve come across. The young man who takes my passport gazes deep into my eyes, and I gaze back into his, before he looks away and checks my appearance against the photo.
I’d just been thinking about Romania, how in a way I’m relieved to be leaving it, but despite what I’ve said, I really hope to come back. I want to return in about five years to see what has been done with the buildings in Constanta, I want to get out to the end of the delta (and I want to do that Black Sea cruise and get to Odessa and the Crimea and find out why Jan Morris calls the Sea of Azov ‘awful’ – or maybe I don’t). But I’d really like to go back to Timisoara, which is a sweet little place, though sadly too far from the coast to think of living there.
But going to Budpaest almost feels like going home, partly no doubt because I’ve been there before and know some of what to expect, but mostly of course because I’ll be staying with Gabriella. It’s five weeks today since I left Ilze in Turin, and the longest time I’ve been dependent on the kindness of strangers. It’s not that I’m getting tired of my own company, but I know it will be so good to kick back in a proper home again, not to be thinking about check-ins and check-outs and taxis and train routes and where to go for dinner, just for a few days at least, and to sit over a bottle or two and reminisce and swap stories and catch up…
As all these thoughts were going through my head, the charming young inspector was working back up the carriage. I heard him speaking to the two French girls in the next seat, something about ‘vos baggages’, and them denying that they had anything other than what they were carrying with them.
And I started to panic.
Now, catching the train was a relief in itself. I had to change at Arad, with 13 minutes to make the connection. The train from Timisoara to Arad was great, with the filthiest toilet I’ve ever seen, and when I went to the toilet, the outside door next to it was wide open – maybe someone had opened it to get rid of the smell, or at least to cool down the carriage a bit. I’d had to leave the Wardrobe by itself in a luggage compartment, so ten minutes before we were due in I went to stand with it so I could get it out OK.
A young man came up the corridor and said something to me about Budapest.
‘Budapest, yes’ I said enthusiastically.
‘Do you know which platform it goes from?’ he asked.
‘No’ I admitted ‘I need to know that too’.
We both stood near the open door as the train pulled into the station, and bravely, he gave it a kick to open it wider before we’d come to a stop.
‘You go first’ I said, starting to lift the Wardrobe. ‘You’ve got a smaller bag’.
He jumped down then gallantly took one end of the Wardrobe and helped it down. There were people milling around waiting to get on, including one very unhelpful lady who didn’t budge even when I almost pushed into her.
I could see a bloke in a peaked cap leaning against the top of the steps, so I dragged it over to him and said ‘Budapest? Budapest?’ several times before I got his attention. He pointed to a train on the opposite platform. I dragged the Wardrobe down a step at a time, through the tunnel and up the other side. The young German man was there before me and finding the carriage. I pulled my ticket out of the backpack and another bloke in a peaked cap, standing by the train, took it from me, read the number and pointed down the platform.
I’ve learnt from experience that it’s best not to try dragging the Wardrobe between carriages actually inside a train, so I walked briskly down the platform till I was level with it and pressed the automatic button to open the door, then climbed the steps, put the backpack down on the floor of the compartment, and hoisted the Wardrobe up behind me.
When I tried to move it, I found that somehow the wheel had got caught up with the strap of the backpack, so I stood just inside the train disentangling it, then looked at the size of the luggage compartment.
The floor area was about the same size as the cross section of the Wardrobe standing on its end, but the height was nowhere near enough to clear it standing that way round. Still, the top of the frame is now so bent and broken out of shape that I made a good effort at squashing it under.
I walked down the train looking for my seat number, 96. It was at a table opposite a silver haired lady in slacks and a jumper who looked about my age and smiled at me and said something about the Wardrobe, which I interpreted from her expression and gestures to mean ‘Don’t worry, bring it down here, there’s plenty of room, it’ll be fine’.
I plonked the backpack down on the seat opposite her and gave her a grateful smile. This train was a very different kettle of fish from the previous one. Across the aisle there was another pair of double seats with a table in between, and a sign showing that there were power sockets for use with laptops and phones. A civilised train!
As my new friend was pointing out, there were plenty of empty tables and seats along the train, so I probably really didn’t need to worry. I went back to the wardrobe, extracted it from its hole and pulled it down the aisle. But I couldn’t squeeze it between the empty seat and the table, whichever way I turned it. I thought about trying to heave it up onto one of the double seats, but that seemed a bit too much.
I carried on to the other end of the carriage, where there was another set of luggage shelves, and facing them a single seat. I wedged it in between this and the shelves, and it looked quite snug and safe. It occurred to me then that anyone who sees it probably thinks I’m carrying the spring and summer collection of some Milan or Paris fashion house with me, rather than the few scuzzy and stained selection of well-worn garments I’ve actually got to wear.
So, now we get back to the charming passport inspector.
Oh god, I thought, he’s seen it all the way up there on its own and he wants to know what’s inside it. The thought of having to open it for searching filled me with horror, not to say shame.
He was speaking now to the lady opposite.
‘It’s mine!’ I piped up. ‘The big case?’ Might as well face up to it. I held up my arms like a proud fisherman.
‘Black?’ he asked. I concurred, and he gave me a wonderful smile.
‘Ah, it’s yours? Then there’s no problem!’
And sadly, he didn’t seem to think a body search was necessary.
There was a sequel though. Evidently, that was Romanian passport control, because about ten minutes after we moved off again, the train stopped again and Hungarian police passed through the train with a lot less finesse. The police woman who studied my photograph didn’t smile once. I watched them as they walked down to the end of the train and past the Wardrobe in its nook, without taking any notice of it. But they were followed by an officer carrying a stepladder which was a tad disturbing. The silver haired lady and I exchanged conspiratorial grins across the aisle (I’d taken occupation of the table opposite and set up my laptop, with no objections from anybody) but they left the train without further incident.