Budapest to the Black Sea

Budapest to the Black Sea

Sunday, 8 June 2008

Strangers on a Train

This coming weekend I am off to Holland to visit Megacarta, billed as the ‘Biggest Dutch Postcard Fair Ever’ with more than 100 dealers. Not everyone’s idea of a racy weekend I’m sure but as we say in Basingstoke “It certainly rocks my ring road”. I could have gone on a cheapo flight to Schipol or Utrecht but I love trains, I love travelling on trains, I love dining on trains and I particularly love sleeping on trains. So on Friday (in fact by the time you read this I will have gone and come back) I am going by Eurostar, which has, inconveniently for me, shifted from Waterloo to St Pancras, to Brussels where I can visit the smattering of postcard and stamp dealers round the corner from the Gare du Midi, have a decent lunch and then catch the ‘Thalys’ (a Belgian version of the TGV) to Amsterdam and from there a commuter train to Utrecht and an uncongenial night in an Ibis hotel. After a long day buying stock to sell on ebay I will do the reverse and come back.
The thing about train travel apart from the trains themselves is the opportunity for random conversations to be had with total strangers and, yes, I am one of those people who irritatingly start off with “Turned out nice again” or “Going far?” and before I know it I am deep in conversation with a man who thinks that ‘Chip & Pin’ is a product of Satanism or with a woman worried about her mother who retired to the Isle of Wight and has never been heard of since.

Some years ago a dance company, who were planning a European tour, approached me to recce a handful of venues but were agonising over the cost of the flights. I stunned them by saying “No problem. I’ll go by train”. It also meant that I could visit my girl friend in Switzerland on the way. I bought the requisite rail-pass which in those days covered the whole of Europe and caught the boat train from Liverpool St to Harwich and after an overheated night’s sleep in a tiny cabin I was deposited at the Hook of Holland at 5.30 on a bitter February morning. This meant that I was at my first target venue in Utrecht before the cleaners, but after a quick measure up and a few photos I was on schedule to pick up the Copenhagen Express at Amersfoort. Whenever I go to Copenhagen I am always struck by how little traffic there is and I think “Damn I’ve arrived on a public holiday and everything will be shut” but no it’s just a very quiet place to visit. The Cannon theatre was a tin shed fringe venue and there was a rehearsal going on when I arrived. This being Denmark the rehearsal consisted of an entirely naked couple simulating sex to some rather nasty electronic music in a pool of light centre stage. The local technical manager said “This chap’s come from London. OK if he takes some measurements?” The couple cheerfully waved me on and I scuttled hastily around the stage with my tape measure feeling rather provincial.
There was time for dinner and a stroll round the city centre before catching an overnight sleeper (the Ostsee Express) to Berlin. In the buffet car I fell in with a bumptious young Englishman on a sales tour of Europe. He was based in Tokyo and was employed by a Japanese corporation, a position arranged by his father who had been at university with the corporation’s CEO. He was the very worst of British, talking fluent business bollocks, in the 21st century he would have found himself in Sir Alan Sugar’s Boardroom getting fired.
“How long have you been on the road?” I asked.
“Three months”. He replied and as he said it he blinked a couple of times and I saw his confidence falter.
“What are you selling?”
“This” and from his briefcase he pulled out samples of some very uninteresting plastic netting, the sort of thing that is used to clad scaffolding on building sites.
“Have you sold much?” I asked.
“No” he said looking rather pained “the problem is that with the current exchange rate it’s very expensive”. I could see his difficulty, at that point in the nineties the yen was sky high against any European currency. Suddenly it all became clear to me, this young man’s entire being was completely at odds with Japanese business life and his co-workers had gone to their boss and said “Either he goes or we go”. In the circumstances dismissal would have been out of the question and so he had been despatched on an impossible mission to Europe. The poor lad was like a latter day Flying Dutchman doomed to wander across Europe seeking salvation but unlike the Dutchman, who gained redemption from the love of a good woman, he just had to sell some of his absurdly expensive plastic netting. I wished him luck and went to bed.

At 7.30 am we arrived at Berlin Lichtenfels and I made a lighting change of train to the Budapest Express. I shared a compartment as far as Dresden with a jolly East German lady pensioner. She immediately insisted that I eat all her sandwiches and her banana and then told me that she had been touring West Germany by train. She explained that in the communist days in the east, pensioners had free rail passes. The Bonn authorities had agreed to honour these for the initial 6 months after unification and the West’s railways were awash with ex-communist OAPs seeing the sights. My companion had bought a postcard from every place that she had visited and she proudly flourished a wad of cards 4” thick. When I told her that my girl friend (now my wife) was Polish she promptly stood up and sang a well known number from an operetta the gist of which was that “Polish girls were the prettiest girls in all the world”.
As we approached Dresden she recounted her experiences during the great bombing raid and how she and her schoolmates had watched the tarmac boil outside the main station. Sadly she left the train at Dresden but her absence was made up for me by a sight at one of Dresden’s suburban stations where every platform was packed with thousands of Soviet soldiers. All dressed in khaki greatcoats with red shoulder flashes, black boots and grey fur hats, they looked magnificent. Apparently they were the last Russian troops in East Germany and they were waiting for trains to take them home. The rest of the run down to Budapest’s Nyugati station was uneventful though the station itself was vast and splendidly Hapsburg. After a night in a revolting hotel I found the Budapest venue, which was a pleasant hall in the middle of one of the city’s parks. The local crew were enthusiastic and particularly so when I described one of the key scenes in the show which involved a nude 65 year old woman getting trapped in a phone box which slowly fills up with water. After an afternoon admiring the bullet holes around the city that bear witness to the 1956 uprising I caught the night train to Zurich. At some point between Budapest and Vienna I was joined by a very drunk American back-packer called Simon who with 3 companions was on his way to Venice. He decided that we were the best of friends but this excess of affection led him to forget that the train divided at Vienna, the section we were in headed west towards Innsbruck while the section he had been sitting in, and where his friends were sitting, turned off south to Italy. As the train was divided it clanked and shuddered which alerted Simon to his danger and he hurtled off down the corridor towards his friends, luggage and passport. The train was already divided and the train staff had not yet closed the door between the two sections. Simon lurched towards the opening aiming to make a despairing leap for the vanishing Venice carriages. Luckily for him both I and the guard grabbed him by the belt and hauled him back to safety before he fell onto the tracks below. We dumped him in a compartment by himself and he passed out to wake up in Switzerland with a hangover and a lot of problems.
As we pulled out of Vienna it started to snow heavily and the train inched its way through the Alps. By dawn we had only got as far as Innsbruck but there the snow stopped and the sun rose on a pristine new world. I had what remained of the weekend to indulge in sensual pleasures in Bern. You may well say “Switzerland and sensual pleasures? Surely a contradiction in terms”, but let’s not dwell on it.

On Monday morning I took the direct TGV from Bern to Paris. At Pontarlier, the Swiss/French border, two French police or customs men, both with guns on their hip, boarded the train and started to question a young man sitting eight seats from me. As the train accelerated into France they searched his bags and after a while they took him away, perhaps to the Guard’s compartment to subject him to a more intimate search. After some time one of them came back with a screwdriver and started to prise fascias off the interior of the train near where the young man had been sitting. Presumably they never found what they were looking for and the young man, looking a little smug returned to his seat. I arrived in Paris in time to fit in a visit that day at our proposed venue which was tiny and staffed by incompetent and rude Frenchmen. Finally I made the boat-train and was back in London that night.

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Cycling Down the Danube

Cycling Down the Danube
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