Train to Budapest
My first sleeper train and I’m quite excited. I don’t care that it’s old rolling stock and pokey or that the bed is really just a long seat with a sheet, duvet and pillow on it. I have a cabin to myself and it has a sink in it.
The tinier the things that make you happy in life, the happier you’ll be… or so I keep telling myself.
Staring out of the darkening windows as the blackening landscape rushes past, the glare of a pair of headlights shines out as a car noses around a corner near the train tracks. A single star hangs in the indigo sky. We’re still very much in Romania, but I am thrust back to the very start of my trip, to El Saltador and Claudia as we move the table that Melanie had been using to write at outside her room. As we carried it back inside, around the side of the cortijo, a single pair of car headlights had nosed their way down the sharp mountain hairpins. “That will be them,” said Claudia. “They will be lost and panicking.”
I am looking at Romania, but my heart sees Spain, Andalusían desert, German kindness and a dry sense of humour.
Suddenly, inexplicably, I am in tears. Here, at the end of the trip, this is probably the first chance I have had to think back over everything I’ve done since September. Images flash unbidden through my head. Picking olives, laughing with Roberto, Amy, Jana, Laura. Sitting in the hot springs with Krystyna, Amy and Eva – Hey, Manchester, says the man. The comfortable companions I found at the Berlin hostel, my dizzy delight at finding my flat there. A laughing group of Bulgarian teenagers in a classroom. Elly telling me about mole crickets – You’d know if you’d seen one. Passing encounters with strangers, shared glances, shared smiles, my hand affectionately clasped in that of a gypsy woman.
Who is the person who experienced all that? Who did all that? Surely not me. The me that was packing up my flat in Manchester all those nine months ago but just yesterday surely would never do any of that. She’d hide, watching and wishing she could join in. That me back then was having anxiety attacks about buying a ladder in a hardware shop.
Everything that has happened since then has just now sunk in, all at once, all in one glorious go, and it’s as much as I can do to hang onto the mast and not drown.
Life is absolutely, without doubt, uncategorically fantastic. It’s also just what you make it, more or less. Don’t waste it in fear.
My eyelids start to droop. The blind won’t stay down. I try everything I can think of – pulling it down slowly, pulling it down sharply, fiddling with the knobs on the bar that is threaded through the bottom of it. Whatever I try, the blind springs sharply back up with annoying regularity.
I sit back on the seat and think.
String! String is wonderful stuff. I fish my small ball of it out of my bag, do a bit of knitting around the knobs and tie it to my backpack, which is heavy enough (and then some) to stop the tight springs in the blind doing their thing.
What would a normal first class passenger have done in these circumstances? Complain loudly and get moved I guess. String. Always travel with string.
I am woken at 4.30 (Hungarian time) or 5.30 (Romanian time) by Romanian border police knocking loudly at cabin doors. I stumble blearily out of bed, open the door and get blinded by the sun, which is rising and blazing through the window. I vaguely register the silhouette of a border guard as I duck back into the dim cabin, shielding my eyes with a “woah…”
He laughs, eyes twinkling. “Good morning,” he grins. He seems to enjoy his job.
I pull my passport out of my bag and sit on the bed. He tries to undo my string on the blind but, thankfully, fails. I’m good at knots, me. He looks at my photograph and then at me. “Victoria…” he says. I nod. He looks at me again. “Beautiful…” he says, shaking his head earnestly.
He’s clearly deranged. I know how I look first thing in the morning and it’s anything but beautiful.
I’m only wearing pyjama bottoms and a vest top. I’m in a tiny cabin on my own. I smile a thin smile, waiting for him to hand my passport back. He stares at me some more with slightly shining eyes. I start to feel uncomfortable and reach for my cardigan. He gets the hint, hands over my passport and leaves.
After that, sleep seems pointless – I have to stay awake for the Hungarian border guards in any case. I get dressed.
The flat Hungarian plains are out there, covered in poppies. I stay nose to the window for the next couple of hours.
I’m meeting two friends in Budapest for a long weekend. We’ve rented an apartment in central Pest; an apartment in a grand, crumbly, four-storey building with a narrow balcony overlooking a busy road. It has a wide, sweeping central staircase and wrought iron gates, with tumbling plants spilling out of window boxes and planters.
I am the first to arrive. All this space, these high ceilings and large, airy rooms are something of a revelation after months of hostels and tiny hotel rooms. I have almost a whole day to myself before my friends arrive in the evening.
Do I go and explore? Well, a little. I look at the Danube, anyway, on my way to finding a supermarket, which I raid with happiness, carrying back my loot to the apartment, where I spend the rest of the day reading in the sunny living room, light pouring through the high windows, and preparing risotto for when my friends arrive.
I’ve been exploring for the past nine months. Staying at home and cooking a meal for friends is contentment incarnate.
Holidaying with friends is vastly different to travelling alone. Both are wonderful. Travelling alone is total freedom to explore, to learn, to think, to relax. Holidaying with friends is laughter and light. After so much time spent without friends, the weekend is magical… and leaves absolutely no time for pondering over the things I would normally ponder on, or writing the things I would usually write.
I’m too busy talking, laughing and sharing a bottle of wine or three.
Budapest is a beautiful city with so much to see and do that you need more than three days. There are cathedrals, castles, churches, synagogues, museums, thermal baths, shops, ruined bars, parks… not to mention the Danube.
It’s a cliché to say it, but I cannot believe how quickly these past nine months have passed. It’s all a little blurred and when I stop to think of where I’ve been, what I’ve done and what I’ve seen, I am ever-so-slightly awestruck. It doesn’t really seem real.
For these past nine months I have been – probably for the first time in my life – almost completely living in the present, with only a toe in the immediate future as I plan the next part of my trip and no time to look back. I’ve been living day by day, not thinking much about where I’m going next other than to make sure I’ll be able to get there and have somewhere to sleep when I do. There has been so much to see and do and so many different people to meet and talk to in the present that I haven’t had much chance to look back. For someone used to analysing and thinking over the things I have done on a fairly regular basis, this is somewhat of a revelation.
Let the remembering come when the unpacking is done. Then I can re-live and enjoy the trip all over again from the comfort of an armchair in England.
Travelling is probably not everyone’s cup of tea. There have been times over the past nine months when I’ve not been entirely sure that it is mine. Very brief and short-lived times, I grant you, but there have been moments when a night in watching television would have been the most wonderful thing in the world. Times when all I wanted to do was to cook in my own kitchen, listening to Radio 4. Moments where I ached for the familiarity of my own country when taking that last wrong turn was one wrong turn too many.
Then I would step outside the hostel or turn a corner in the street and realise that I was seeing something I had never seen before, that I was standing somewhere I would never stand again, that there was something totally unexpected down that road, and all thoughts of I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue and From Our Own Correspondent would fade out of my mind. I was my own correspondent, wherever I wanted to be.
It was one hell of a challenge; deep down I always knew it would be, but I couldn’t let myself think of that before I left the UK. Instead I planned and meticulously prepared for every eventuality I could think of, from scanning documents I’d never need, to carrying around a hard drive with my whole life on it; from making a backup drive in case the one I had with me broke (which it did) to learning basic German and qualifying to teach English.
I had a rough plan of the countries I wanted to see. Half a plan, shall we say. Half a plan that disintegrated half way through, resulting in me visiting places I never ever planned on coming to. All that planning and preparing wasn’t wasted, though. If I hadn’t done it, I’d never have found the courage to leave the UK.
Only when I got deep in the thick of it did I realise how many little worries and niggles I had. Too shy to go into a shop and ask for something when I couldn’t speak the language; that was the first hurdle – and one soon overcome by necessity. If all else fails, point and smile. Learn to say please and thank you in the local language, if you can say nothing else. A thank you and a smile goes a long way. Mime if need be. I’ve mimed blisters on my feet in order to obtain plasters. I’ve mimed sunburn to get suncream. I’ve pointed at delicious looking things to get lunch, only to discover they are apple strudel and not some savoury-mince filled pastry. I’ve mimed forks in order to be able to eat a kebab without getting it all round my face and been mimed back to by kebab sellers telling me I have to use my hands because they have no forks.
I was too scared of what people might think to eat alone in restaurants. It may never be my favourite thing to do, but sitting in a nice restaurant eating nice food and drinking nice wine whilst reading a book isn’t a bad way to spend a couple of hours.
Not confident enough in my own ability to negotiate local transport systems. If in doubt, ask someone for clarification. Failing that, sit on a bus and hope. If it goes the right way and you get off at the right stop, it’s a triumph. If not, you get to see somewhere you never expected to… and you can always catch a bus back to where you started.
Too scared to trust strangers or ask for help, even directions, when I can’t speak their language. If anyone else out there has the same fear, it’s the most delightful one to get rid of. People, once they realise you need help, will generally go out of their way to assist. They will offer to walk with you to where you are trying to get to. They will interpret for you at bus stations and train stations. They will make sure you are okay. The more you talk to more people, the more you trust people. The more you trust people, the more you realise that people are, in fact, quite wonderful. If nothing else will make you happy in life, that thought should.
I have been helped by so many kind people in every country I have visited. All have done their best to understand me and make themselves understood in return. It has been humbling. I think that, in general, we are not at all welcoming in the UK or helpful to people we don’t understand. “How dare you not speak my language,” we think. When someone comes up to us and needs help but doesn’t have the words to ask politely, we think they are being rude or stupid.
I have learned from experience that if all people can say is “Bus? Lancaster?” or “Toilet?” they aren’t being rude, they just don’t know the word for please, or how, or where. They just need help and don’t know how to ask for it in any other way. They’re not stupid, they just don’t speak English. I’m not stupid, but I’ve no idea how to say “Where do I catch the bus to Brasov?” in Romanian. Or indeed, “Where is the toilet?” On many an occasion over the past nine months, I have gone up to people and I have really just said, “Toilet?” to them. The vast majority have smiled and pointed, without batting an eyelid.
I don’t think I am a different person to the one that landed in Spain all those months ago. Perhaps I am more confident. Perhaps I trust people more readily. Perhaps I am more able and willing to chat to people I don’t know. I also hope that I will be much more helpful to people that need it, regardless of how they ask for help. I hope I will be much less grudging when I give that help.
I know I’m a lot less stressed, but I suspect that will change when I get a job and once more join the rat race. That said, I don’t plan on racing. Money enough to pay my bills and my mortgage, have a few beers at the weekend and save a little each month will do me fine. I don’t need much.
Less money, less stress, more happy.
I don’t care about a career path. I just want to be good at what I do and happy doing it. It could be admin work, it could be shop work, it could be bar work, it could be library work, it could be information work… I don’t know.
Just don’t keep shoving personal development plans at me and don’t force me to make up pretend goals so I feel fulfilled at work – they’ll just stress me out and make me feel like you think I’m not doing my job. If I like what I do and the people I do it with, I’ll do it to the best of my ability and will be fulfilled enough, thank you.
Where was I? That was a mammoth tangent…
Ah yes. Travelling. It may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but I really do believe that absolutely everyone would benefit from doing it. Not only from a confidence-boosting point of view, or from an understanding-of-your-fellow-man point of view, but also to increase your understanding of the world you live in.
You live in the world; be a part of it. Know it.
Banish a few stereotypes, rectify a little ignorance, change a few perceptions for the better. Reinforce the positives you already suspect.
I already suspected that people the world over are pretty much the same. I think I said as much in my first blog entry. We all laugh, we all cry, we all love, we all hate. We all crave things we cannot have. We all get stuck in ruts, we all get frustrated, we all play, we all sulk. We all do what we feel we have to do to get by. We are all beautiful, we are all boring, we are all capable of evil, we are all capable of good.
Why make differences between us? We’re the same. All of us. If you want a stereotype, then we are all stereotypically human. The only way to stop atrocities happening around the world is to focus on the common ground, not the differences.
We all hold stereotypes. We all have inaccurate perceptions of certain things and certain peoples. We all are spoon fed by the press, no matter what our political bias, me included.
The Balkans was a part of the world I never actually intended on visiting – it was a massive detour to escape a Berlin winter and restlessness caused by unemployment (my own fault for not looking for work hard enough). After exploring Germany, I’d intended on cutting a path through the Czech Republic and Slovakia and into Ukraine, possibly nipping into Croatia and Bulgaria if I could swing it. The Balkan peninsular as a whole never came into it.
As such, all I knew about the Balkans was what I’d picked up from the media over the years.
- Croatia – War. Destruction. Blue berets.
- Bosnia – War. Siege. Destruction. Blue berets.
- Montenegro – I admit it… I’m not sure I even knew it was in Europe. I think I thought, if I thought about it at all, that it was either in Africa or South America. Or perhaps the Caribbean. Yes, probably the Caribbean.
- Macedonia – I was aware that an ancient region existed with this name, you know, back when they wore togas. I’m not entirely sure I knew it was now a small country. I certainly never knew it had been part of Yugoslavia.
- Albania – Sex traffickers, Sex slaves, Sex workers. Dodgy, sleazy blokes that you need to keep an eye on. Very poor people, most of whom are miserable and desperate to leave.
- Bulgaria – Womble of an avuncular type. Okay, I knew it was a country and I knew roughly where it is; I have a friend from Bulgaria now living in England. I didn’t know much else about it, though, other than it being Eastern European.
- Romania – Appalling orphanages, Ceauşescu, harsh communist regime, poverty, bent old women with swollen hands wearing head scarves.
…and the places I’ve not visited:
- Slovenia – I always thought it neighboured Slovakia. It doesn’t.
- Serbia – War. Destruction. Blue berets. War crimes. Atrocities. Apparently, Belgrade is a wonderfully vibrant city, full of culture.
- Kosovo (I went through it on a bus, but I didn’t get off) – War. Destruction. Blue berets. I hear Pristina is a fascinating city packed with wonderful people.
I now know that I was mostly wrong about everywhere.
- Croatia – beautiful cities, beautiful seas, sophisticated, friendly, fun loving.
- Bosnia – heartbroken, beautiful, hopeful, open, giving, kind, funky, spirited.
- Montenegro – it’s in Europe. In the European Union. It even has the euro for its currency. It loves concrete, has darn good coffee shops and a stunning coastline.
- Macedonia – It’s a small country trying to carve out a place for itself. It’s young, it’s free-spirited, it’s optimistic. Mother Teresa was from here. Yes, it has tried to claim Alexander the Great for itself, along with Philip the Great too, which the Greeks aren’t happy about, but never mind.
- Albania – wild and beautiful and relatively untouched. Generous and welcoming and helpful and kind. Open and giving. Intensely curious about everyone and everything. Happy.
- Bulgaria – kind and generous and hard working. Beautiful from mountain to pasture to sea. Simple life in the countryside, sophisticated in the cities. Helpful and open beyond belief.
- Romania – The Danube is more brown than blue, but oh, so wide and beautiful. Flat, wide pastures bursting with wheat gently waving in the wind. Wide, gigantic skies. Spirited and sophisticated cities with a mildly rebellious streak; quaint cities and towns with turrets and twisty streets.
The UK press has recently been caught up in a furore about Romanians and Bulgarians descending on the country to steal its jobs, wealth and benefits, which is fuelling mostly unfounded fears and causing prejudices among people who had never bothered to think much about these two countries before.
A lot of people would struggle even to point to Romania and Bulgaria on a map.
God forbid we have more people in our country willing to do actual work. God forbid we have more taxpayers.
The figures that Farage has bandied around in his scare campaigns equate to the entire population of both Romania and Bulgaria upping sticks and landing on our shores.
Unlikely, I think, Nige.
Some will come, sure. Some – a lot actually – love their own countries and are quite happy there, thank you very much. I know, because they told me.
Some (whisper it) are even sceptical about joining the EU. They think it will steal from them, they think it will make them less independent, too reliant on other countries. They think the money they gain from grants will be swallowed up by corrupt governments. They think they will see little benefit.
Not so different from fears expressed by a lot of people in the UK, eh? See? I told you people were the same the world over.
The UK likes to think that the only reason people want to come to us is to steal our benefits and malinger on the NHS.
Most want to come to work – our wages are higher than anything they can hope for in their own countries.
The reason a lot choose the UK over other countries in the EU is that we speak English, a language they have learnt since childhood for the most part. Many other countries in the EU have generous benefit systems (perhaps even more generous than our own in some respects), but far fewer people speak German or French than those who speak English. Not knowing the language makes the extremely hard task of relocating to a strange country to find work almost impossible.
In fact, given a choice, many would prefer to go to the States or Canada than the UK.
We have such a high opinion of ourselves, we who come from such a tiny rock. We think that just because people can come here, they’d be mad not to.
We think that just because we have so many benefit cheats, everyone else out there must want to do the same. Okay, some will try it on, just like some British people cheat the system (people are the same everywhere – have I said that before?) but don’t punish everyone else or tar everyone with the same brush.
We still think we are that ‘great’ country that conquered half the world half a world ago… and if we don’t, there are many who think we should be.
I call it small man syndrome.
Live with who we are now, today. It’s the only way we’ll stop judging every other bugger out there. It’s the only way we’ll ever be content.
I love my country. Fiercely, believe it or not.
I love its fields and it cities and its coastline. I love its hills. I love its bricks. I love the freedoms I have. I love the rights I have. There are things I take for granted in my country that elsewhere would be considered luxuries. Rights I take for granted that some can only dream of. I love my country’s diversity, its wonderfully grumpy, dour and sarcastic people. Their sharp wit, their creativity.
I love the fact that I can call several cities home. I love that in a lot of UK cities you can experience cultures from every corner of the world. The best curries are in Bradford, East London, Manchester, Glasgow, Birmingham. There’s a reason for that. You can buy wonderful jerk chicken in Leeds, London, Manchester… there are Caribbean restaurants near where I used to work in Leeds that make your mouth water just walking past them. There’s a reason for that too. You can buy saris in the same street as bikinis. There are mosques sitting next to churches. The music that comes from our small island is influenced by Jamaica, Romania, Russia, Spain, France, Africa, South America, you name it. There’s a reason for that as well. You can hear English, Urdu, Hindi, Polish, Jamaican patois, all in the same town, which to me is wonderful. Our language is the way it is because we have had so many different nationalities come to our shores, either to trade with us or to conquer us. It is ever-evolving because it has had to be due to all those incomers and that’s what makes it so versatile, so frustrating, so idiosyncratic, so wonderful.
We are a mongrel nation, when you boil it down. If we weren’t, we’d probably all still be painted blue and worshipping trees … although worshipping trees makes more sense than worshipping a lot of other things, I suppose.
There is a hell of a lot right with the United Kingdom and a lot of that comes from the people who traded with us, conquered us or came on ships when we called for help during labour shortages… and we have a hell of a lot we can share. We also have a hell of a lot we can learn, if we’d only accept the people who can teach us.
As for what I’ve achieved on this trip, what I set out to do…
Well, I’ve met people from all countries and all walks of life, many doing marvellous things such as walking the length of Europe, or exploring the entire Danube piece by piece, or cycling from South Africa back to England, or tracing their ancestral roots. Many others have been doing what I’ve been doing. Touring. Being a tourist. Exploring.
I’ve visited most of the places I wanted to visit, although some got cut short and one or two got missed out as plans changed, or as political situations developed.
I think the only thing I haven’t done that I’d have really loved to have done is visit Ukraine. Ukraine was pretty pivotal for the whole trip, actually. I had planned on staying in Kiev for at least a month and on spending my 40th birthday hiding from the date on a beach in the Crimea.
I’ve been watching the political situation unfold over there with a worried (and increasingly frustrated) eye since December. It is so sad, what is happening over there. Propaganda from both sides is tearing the country to pieces. It reminds me of what Hassan said in Sarajevo, that the war in Bosnia had been the politicians’ war, not the people’s. For whatever reason, (gas, business opportunities and paranoia, probably), politicians both east and west are sticking their oar in something they have no business being involved in and, to my eyes, making a volatile situation worse than ever.
Do you know what? I think I can almost sort of say I’ve been there. Almost. Whilst on the river trip in the Danube Delta, my mobile beeped as a text message dropped in. “Welcome to Ukraine,” it said. “Calls cost…” I may not have crossed the border but I got close enough to switch mobile networks. The smile that spread over my face was far disproportionate to the words in the text. That last, seemingly unachievable thing (well, achievable but unwise), almost achieved.
I have lived in the only true desert in Europe. I have worked on an olive farm in Tuscany. I have lived in Berlin. I have taught English. I have seen the Danube. I have been to Ukraine… nearly. I think that might be pretty much all of the Trip Wish List achieved… and that’s not even to mention meeting all the wonderful people I’ve met along the way.
I can go home smiling.
For Budapest photographs, click here.