The “Citadella” to Ljubljana

Dec. 30 – Ljubljana, Slovenia

At noon I left from Budapest’s third-best train station, a drab block with none of city’s charm. The wagons themselves were extravagantly graffitied on the outside, though the compartments were clean and comfortable. The rollout from the city was uninspiring – spray-painted scrawls on neglected buildings, piles of scrap metal, railway ties, broken concrete. We saw the Danube once, grey green water drifting past a steam-belching refinery.

The train’s progress was as ponderous as its nickname, and it made frequent two-minute stops at small regional stations along the way. Progressively, the view improved as it passed through tidy towns with backyard garden plots, broad plowed plains of dark soil, farmers with horses and donkeys. I shared my compartment with two Hungarian women, frequently chatting on cell phones. The language remained a rich phonetic smear too slippery to grasp. The names of some of the stops – Boba, Hodoš – were like the utterances of infants. Other stations – Székesfehérvár, Zalaegerszeg – sounded like the curses of condemned witches.

It was dark when the train crossed into Slovenia and stopped. Passengers took out cigarettes and smoked on the platform. A boisterous family of Slovenes took the compartment next to mine. Passport control was casual, “a formality” explained the officer in German. For three hours, rolling westwards, intercom announcements were made first in Slovene, then in Slavic-tinged German, increasingly slurred. The train rolled into Ljubljana to isolated fireworks, a day early it appears.

I’m with friends here, heartily welcomed in Slovene fashion with blueberry schnapps, and will tell you more about this small alpine country tomorrow.

Four Countries, Three Trains, One Hangover

Dec. 27 – Budapest, Hungary

Not that I expect any sympathy but yesterday I finally bore the full brunt of Slavic hospitality. After a trying day at Auschwitz – Birkenau, I retreated to Krakow with my new acquaintances for a last night in the old town. A friendly group of Poles deployed their country’s full alcoholic arsenal (flavourful beer, flavourfuller fruit liqueurs, flavourfullest “sweet bitter” vodka) on a Canadian whose best drinking days ended long ago. In an English-Polish-Slovak-Russian mashup, we earnestly discussed Polish history and politics, relatives in Mississauga, and general consensus that “Ukrainian border guards are bastards”. Feeling generous, I did some German-English translating for a Swiss father and son who bellied up to the bar.

It had been many moons since I had combined alcohols so recklessly, and my hangover started even as I headed back to the hostel from the last pub. I sat down, blunt-brained, to write on the most sensitive of topics, then turned in for three hours’ sleep. I awoke to one of those “I’ll never do that again” mornings that I was certain were part of my past, packed up and headed to the train station.

Vicious and persistent, the headache conducted guerrilla strikes against different parts of my skull as the first train ambled through the Polish lowlands to the scruffy town of Katowice, and then as the second shook its way into the Czech city of Ostrava. Waiting for the final train connection in Ostrava, desperate for cranial relief, I ate one of those pitiful sandwiches you can only get at a railway station, and a whole bag of potato chips. This helped, but I still cringed a little when the stout, mustachioed old lady asked for assistance carrying her bags (apparently lead-filled) onto the train to Budapest. Rolling into Slovakia, a pungent, mouth-breathing family trio lumbered into the wagon and sat behind me. I buried myself in a book, but their blather distracted me still, as did the last hits of headache. It was only once the train reached cavernous Keleti station, nearly empty, that my 17-hour hangover finally vanished.

Tired but no longer mentally incapacitated, I will start exploring Budapest tomorrow.