An old dissident
Another train in Romania, this time I am on my way to Brasov, Transylvania. This is a dream-like moment for me, I have harboured desires to visit this region since I was a twelve year old. Then, a travelling circus act had visited my primary school, and amongst the troupe was a boy my age, the son of one of the performers. He was the most exotic looking creature we had ever seen, his skin translucent white, almost see through!, and black black black midnight hair, accentuating the bluest eyes – I can still clearly see his face after more than thirty years. During the performance he was sent to mingle with all us, a school of rowdy, dusty, wild children from Darwin. To my amazement, and giving me huge kudos, he was sitting next to me! His English was jerky and broken, and for most of the performance he tried to slither past me and sidle up to the Aboriginal kids, sitting on my other side. I recall distinctly his hands reaching out to touch very black skin.
After the performance he was sent to our class for the remainder of the day! What excitement! A lesson in geography with a child’s face and voice… as it transpired, his family was from Transylvania and had only been in Australia a very brief time. Our blank faces must have been a shock, not a single child in my class had any clue where this was, for all we knew it could have been outer-space, and he sure was white enough to be an alien. In frustration he shouted “you know the place, it is the place of Dracula!!” This frustrated comment was enough to set alight a slow burning curiosity… what kind of landscape could produce such white-skinned people? So Dracula really was REAL! And how was it that people from the place of Dracula ended up being circus performers one million miles from home?
So, here I am years later… on my way to the place of Dracula. Sitting across from me is a man in who looks to be in his 70’s or so. As soon as the train leaves the station he nods off. And suddenly, the most extraordinary thing happens. His snores rattle the windows and shake the carriage… as he sucks breath in it is like a vacuum has been created, only to be blasted out with snores and grunts that I am sure can be heard in London. I snigger under my breath, it is taking enormous self-control to not laugh hysterically… but as I look around at the other passengers not a single person is showing any signs AT ALL that this din is occurring. Can’t they hear the rivets in the roof carriage shudder and moan with each enormous snort? It’s too much for me, and I have to bury my face in a jumper.
Luckily, after what feels like an eon trying to restrain my uncontrollable laughter, his chin jerks up from his chest where it has been resting, and his eyes fling open. They are those blue blue blue variety, but red-rimmed and wild. He peers very intently at me, suddenly demanding loudly “AMERICAN OR ENGLISH??” “Er, um I am actually Australian” I mutter. “HURUMPHHH! OK THEN, IT IS OK” he shouts. “I AM ROMANIAN, BUT I DON’T LIVE IN THIS CRAZY COUNTRY. I LIVE IN FRANCE FOR MORE THAN 40 YEARS”. Politely I ask what he is doing here then, and apparently he is on his way to a reunion of his university, from which he had graduated more than 50 years ago.
He tells me that he was “a dissident” and had made his escape from Romania after ongoing persecution from the Communist Party. After graduating from university he had, he said, been very successful in some business matter and it was enough to cause bitter resentment and suspicion. So, packing a small bag one day, he left his home, his family, his life, and made his way by foot and by sneaking onto trains to France. Knowing this would place his friends and family in peril, he tells me, he knew in his darkest heart that he “must go”. And was consequently unable to have contact with anyone he knew, including his family, for more than a decade. Luckily, he said, the regime fell apart before his mother died, and he was finally able to visit her before she departed from this world. This is his first trip back since burying her. “BAH” he exclaims “I HAVE NO REASON TO COME HERE. ROMANIANS ARE THE MOST STUPDILY OPTIMISTIC, AND MOST EASILY DISTRACTED PEOPLE ON THE PLANET. THEY CHANGE THEIR MINDS EVERY DAY! THIS MAKES THEM DANGEROUS. WHY WOULD I WANT TO COME BACK HERE??”
Not having any idea how to respond to this, what seems to me an extraordinary outburst on a train full of Romanians, I give a small smile and shrug. Perhaps in part he shouts in this way simply because he now can without fear of reprisals. But mostly the whole experience throws my mind back to the young Romanian boy and the circumstances of his family… and not for the first time, I reflect on how little we know of the world as 12 year old Australians, or possibly any aged Australians.
Alexandre the metal fan
Alexandre sits next to me on the last leg of the train trip back from Tulcea. He lives in a small town near Constanta, which is a tourist resort town on the Black Sea coast. I guess he is in his 20’s, he is very polite, but very friendly, and clearly wants to have a conversation. He has lots of tattoos, mostly depicting death metal images, and he is wearing a t-shirt with a heavy metal band logo. He also has a goatee, and I think I would find it very easy to assume he was a Palmy boy if he lived in Darwin.
He is on his way to Bucharest to catch up with friends for the weekend, and to go to some long-awaited metal concert. He works as a graphic designer for a small company, and he tells me business is not going well. He is not sure how long his employer can afford to keep him, in spite of the very small wage he is paid, and this will be a major problem in his family as at the moment he is the only one with a job. There is a chance his brother will finally, after months of looking for work, have a paying job in a restaurant soon, after he has worked for nothing to prove himself for a week or two. Alexandre tells me the trip to Bucharest is really a luxury that he can’t afford, but he has been so stressed and tired that his mother insisted he go.
These small snippets are in such contrast to the stereo-type his physical appearance creates. He is charming, and curious about what I am doing, and wanting to know everything about my life in Australia. He is overwhelmed by the idea that my son, who is only 21, could possibly have a job that would allow him to save enough money to go on a vacation of months or even more than a year’s duration. Alexandre’s longest vacation was a week staying with friends somewhere on a Black Sea beach, camping.
As we are pulling into Bucharest Alexandre turns to me and says “I have the best idea… why don’t you come to the concert with me? You will love it, you can meet my friends, and they can talk to you too!” I smile and say I am only in Bucharest this time for one night, and the concert is not until tomorrow night… and secretly being very pleased about that as my desire to see Romanian metal bands is, well, somewhat limited. “Ok ok, maybe we meet again another time” he says, “but let me help you with your bag”. And with that he grabbed my backpack and politely escorted me off the train. As we are saying goodbye he shook my hand and held it a bit longer than might be usual, and exclaimed a little sadly “It is so good to know that there are countries where life is a little easier for young people. I hope one day to experience this.” I hope he does too.
An international moment
Imagine a hot steamy day, temperature at least 35C and high high humidity. Now put yourself on an un-air-conditioned, ancient [1950’s vintage] train. Where only some of the windows will open. And with the sun blazing through the windows… because the curtains barely cover their width. On the way from Pecs [Hungary], to Sarajevo [Bosnia], a journey of at least next nine hours. But this is determined by the vehicle traffic on the road en route, as for the most part it’s actually the train that stops at level crossings, not the cars.
These are your travelling companions:
A Bosnian woman from Sarajevo, who works as a lawyer at the World Bank in Istanbul, Turkey who is overwhelmed and excited as she is on her way home to visit family after being away for eight months. This is the longest she has ever been away from home.
A Dutch born guy, who actually identifies himself as Turkish, as his parents are Turkish and now live in Istanbul not Holland. His name is Ali, his appearance is totally Turkish, and he has been to Iran and Syria and Israel in recent months. In spite of having a Dutch passport he is given grief the four times that we need to hand them over on various border crossings. He works as a geography teacher, and he’s on his way to learn first-hand about the war, and also to explore remnants of the Ottoman Empire. He believes the history bits of his geography lessons need to be authentic for his students, and how can they be if he himself hasn’t visited the places he wants to teach about?
A Swedish student from Stockholm who is living and studying in Budapest, Hungary. She is doing a Masters of Nationalism and the topic for her Master’s thesis is based on how arts and film influence the reconciliation process in post conflict situations. The basis of her research is in Bosnia, where she has been travelling and researching for the past year. She is returning to Sarajevo for the final bits of research that she’ll need to do, and working as an intern at the internationally renown Bosnian Film Festival in July. She speaks fluent Bosnian, much to the delight of the Bosnian lawyer, and all the Bosnians that come and go from our compartment.
In spite of the heat, and the sweat, we all laugh at the amazing international oddity that our compartment represents. We joke that we could easily make up a brand new country with perfect customs and cultures, combining the best bits from our vastly different backgrounds. It truly was an enlightening, lively and wonderful moment in life.