Crikey reader Jenny Kaldor writes: Travelling on a 12-hour train from Zurich to Budapest last week, I experienced the EU’s free movement of people at extreme close quarters.
My partner Robbie and I boarded the Zurich-Budapest train late last Friday night. Having just had a week in Switzerland, we were high on the Swiss vision of rail travel. Every train we had been on had been a microcosm of Switzerland itself: pristine, orderly and spacious, with stunning mountain views and good coffee at every turn. On the Swiss trains, people frowned (though politely) if you pointed and gasped too loudly at an Alpine vista. Immediately upon boarding a train, they busied themselves with maps and books, and even the punks were clean. As for the precision! All clichés aside, these trains ran like clockwork. Our tightest connection, four minutes, involved picking up our bags, strolling across the platform to the obliging second train, finding a seat, and waiting two-and-a-half minutes for the train to leave.
For all these reasons, as well as a pinch of adventurousness, we decided to eschew not only a flight to Budapest, but also a sleeper carriage. We are expat Australians, after all, accustomed to regular 24-hour economy flights. A mere twelve hours on a train would be a dreeeeeeam, maaaate.
As we ate dinner in Zurich (Thai, to cleanse ourselves ahead of the upcoming goulash onslaught) before finding our train, our main topic of speculation was along the lines of “what kind of person — aside from ourselves –catches an overnight train for 12 hours, when the air travel is so cheap?”. Looking back on our innocence at this point, I think we both secretly harboured a Romance Of Rail-style fantasy of trench-coats and dining cars, hatboxes and demure chat, the countryside wooshing by outside in a blur of unexperienced life. It did not help that on this particular journey my reading of choice was The Portrait of a Lady. If anyone is going to give you inflated ideas about travelling around Europe, Henry James is your man.
Boarding the train at 22:30, the first thing we noticed was the smell of people in close confinement — something like pyjamas in need of a good wash. The second thing we noticed was the chaos. We were in carriage 17, and there were still many more behind us, with large groups of people walking the full length of the train (inside and out) towing massive amounts of luggage and haggling over seats. The third thing we noticed was that it was not like a Swiss train. In fact it was nothing like a Swiss train. Instead of orderly, well-spaced seats all facing the same direction, the carriage was broken down into those Hogwarts Express compartments, each slightly larger than a dining-room table with its own sliding door, and featuring six seats in two rows facing each other. The fourth thing we noticed was that almost everyone but us was speaking Hungarian. The fifth thing we noticed was that the floor was sticky.
We had seats 41 and 42 in Carriage 17. Upon finding our compartment, however, we also found that it already had five inhabitants. The two occupying our seats were two surly-looking young women, one obese and wearing a leopard-print all-in-one and a bum-bag, the other waifish in that way that Eastern European women manage to make so unattractive until set upon by decadent French designers, dressed in a denim crop-top and matching jeans. They were extremely put-out to find us questioning their right to these seats, but after some rudimentary cross-lingual conversation, and much pointing at tickets by us, they picked up their massive luggages and moved on, sighing and pouting.
We sat down in our seats and surveyed the other passengers: two guys in their mid-twenties (a few years younger than us), travelling together, and an older man, alone. All speaking fluent and alternating Hungarian and German to each other. One of the young guys was dressed like an early-90s raver, including a dummy on a chain round his neck, a wad of jingling silver jewellery, a peroxide-blonde faux-hawk, and head-to-toe Ed Hardy gear. The other guy was slightly younger, and dressed much more boringly in shorts and a t-shirt. They both had wide, hyperactive smiles on their faces, like puppies in the park, and reeked of cigarettes. The older guy was wearing a resplendent auburn toupée, braces and a massive ring on each hand. As we waited for the train to pull off, this latter character kept addressing remarks to us in at last three different languages that we did not understand. Perhaps if we had been able to understand, we would have considered ourselves fairly warned of the hours ahea.
Instead, that was when we noticed the final feature of this train-compartment: house music blazing from a battery-powered boom-box located in the luggage-rack about the raver’s head.
Shortly before the train left, a sixth passenger joined us — a youngish woman, Hungarian but with some English, with a conservative look and a grumpy face. She opened a book of Sudoku and began intensely attacking the puzzles as the train left the station.
Given our departure time of 22:40, we had — not unreasonably, we thought — expected that most of this journey would be spent asleep. However it soon became clear that sleep was not an immediate priority for Raver and Friend, as they cracked out cans of Heineken from a well-stocked esky, turned their music up, and came as close as possible to dancing in their seats. Once we’d exhausted the limits of our cross-lingual small-talk — though not, as it will be seen, the limits of their English altogether–– we took out our novel, furiously willing ourselves to concentrate on them and ignore our surroundings.
After about an hour of this, Robbie swallowed his pride and asked the Raver whether he could possibly turn off the music, as perhaps it was time for sleep (universal language of sleepytime: hands in horizontal praying position, head inclined and eyes closed). The Raver first tried to pretend that he couldn’t understand what we were asking, then expressed shock that we did not want to make party— after all, he said, “it is Friday night!” Somehow put in the position of seeming the unreasonable ones, we shrugged our shoulders, making a pathetic mea culpa moue at our inexplicable desire to sleep during the night, but did not back down. Eventually the Raver reluctantly agreed that he could turn the music off, indicating his friend and explaining “We are DJs!”. (Actually, we decided later on that the friend was more likely his little brother, 2IC and roadie, judging from their similar features and the way they acted towards each other. The Raver gave instructions, while the younger guy cracked out the beers, cigarettes, juice-boxes and salami sandwiches on demand. It was easy to imagine how this translated to the stage.) They’d been playing at the Rave Mansion, and were now headed eastwards for more action. “It’s Festival Season!”, the DJ explained.
Having obligingly turned the music off, the DJ continued to move about in his seat as much as possible. If you can picture someone dancing while sitting down, you have a fair idea. If you can picture someone dancing while sitting down, knee-to-knee in a space smaller than the average Australian spare bathroom, you have an even better idea. Eventually the silence was too much for the guys, and so to fill the void they began the loudest and most animated conversation, in Hungarian and German, with everyone in the carriage but us. Every now and then, the DJ’s brother would turn and address us sagely in his only phrase of English, which apparently came from the graffiti-inspired design of the luggage above his head: “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.” We nodded, smiled and continued to read our books. Henry James had never been so involving.
The only respite from the wall of sound and movement was when the DJ and his brother would leave the carriage to go goodness-knew-where and have a smoke. On the plus side, this meant that they would be gone for around 15 minutes and the travel would reach “just bearable” status. On the minus side, when they returned, smelling of new cigarette smoke and closing the compartment door behind them, we would be plunged afresh into a sensory seventh ring of Hell. We began to dread the jingle-jingle of the returning DJ’s silver pendants the way a prisoner in the exercise yard dreads the clank of the gaoler’s keys.
I decided to try and sleep at around two in the morning. Throwing humiliation to the wind, I got out one of my Qantas eye-masks against the fluorescent lighting — each time the compartment lights dimmed into “sleep” mode, the DJ and his brother would reactivate the brightest setting, for fear of losing the party vibe.
With the eye-mask, I did what I do on long flights and other uncomfortable travel, and shifted my whole body into neutral gear. Neither eating nor drinking, so as not to have to visit the only-imagined toilet, nor moving too much out of the marginally tolerable shapes that I’ve twisted my body into, I pretend to be asleep, and frequently succeed in fooling my own brain. It’s the cheap and not very consistent alternative to sleeping pills — but on this occasion, it magically worked, and I got about one hour of sleep at this point.
At 3:00 I was awoken by a towering aural inferno: what sounded like about 20 guys, two compartments down, singing Austro-Hungarian drinking songs repeatedly and at the top of their lungs. Once awake, though still under cover of the eye-mask, I was then also free to listen to the DJ telling Robbie about how he’d got all his Ed Hardy gear — which, as well as his hoodie and raver pants, also included two fluffy blankets and two pillows embroidered with “Love Dies Slowly” — from a man in the market for 3 Euros. I kept forcing the sleep. The Austro-Hungarian jamboree continued unabated for several more hours.
All the while, we sped through Switzerland and into Austria, stopping about 4 or 5 times along the way to take on various bands of night travellers, including several group of pan-European teenage boys, who boarded the train with more massive luggages and then spent the following hours hunting a seat. Among this motley crew of wanderers we also frequently spotted our would-be carriage-companions in leopard-print and denim, cruising the carriages and presumably looking for someone else’s seat to sit in. Each time the train stopped, I would wake up from my shallow sleep and peel back the eye-mask to survey the new passengers, each of whom to my fevered, house-music-abused and sleep-deprived eye looked more grotesque than the last. At about 4:00 in the morning we reached the nadir of this phenomenon, when four guys stepped on straight out of a Hieronymus Bosch painting. The last one of these was carrying an unidentified animal in a plastic cage. I put the eye-mask back on and willed myself to sleep.
It has been explained to us since that the bulk of our travel companions are likely to have been Gastarbeiter or “guest workers”, returned home for the weekend from low-paid jobs in Germany. It being a Friday night, we had simply lucked out and were looking for sleep in all the wrong places.
Apparently I did actually get some sleep though, because at this point my tale becomes a second-one for a few hours. Robbie didn’t catch more than 15 minutes of sleep, and instead experienced hours more of the above, plus the revival of the boom-box, this last apparently accompanying the DJ dancing in the corridor outside our compartment with an unlit cigarette in his mouth. There was also more singing and more crowds marauding up and down the carriage. Suddenly, at around 4 or 5 in the morning, the DJ’s younger brother returned to the compartment after a long period of absence in what appeared to be a drug-induced state of high anxiety – sweating and sighing and looking generally as if he needed medical attention. (Number of carriages: 17+. Odds of finding a doctor awake in any of them at five in the morning: slim to none. Drug-induced coma halfway between Vienna and Budapest: priceless). The DJ then also returned to the carriage, kissed and mopped his brother’s brow, patted him down, offered him a salami sandwich and then exited again to return to the party. Reassured, the brother fell asleep. Some time later, the DJ returned to the carriage, and, indicating a blonde lady in the corridor, informed Robbie in his best English that “I’ve been having fun with that blonde bitch, and I’ve just had the best fuck of my life”. And I slept through all of this.
When at last I woke up, the DJ had considerately switched to chill-out house, and was sitting opposite me and rolling the biggest spliff I’ve ever seen. He then took this accoutrement, along with the boom-box, out into the corridor to dance on a chair and watch the sun rise over the Austro-Hungarian badlands. As the older gent in the toupée awoke, he once again started up his tri-lingual patter of observations to me and Robbie. All I could catch at this juncture were the words “Kate Moss” and “Pamela Anderson”.
We got off the train, stinking and traumatised by the DJ’s swan-song, a house remix of The Cure’s A Forest, at 10:40 am. Our view of life had been irreparably changed, and our vision of Budapest did not quite recover until our Hungarian host met us at Keleti station, plied us with pear liqueur, paprikás and sauerkraut, and conveyed us directly to the hot mineral baths at Szechenyi. Thus deposited, we allowed the water and steam to stretch and revive us, opening our pores and restoring our tarnished souls. The story of those baths, and the rest of our time in Budapest, is probably a story for another day…