Skopje’s got some huge statuary. There are tons of lion’s manes, arm musculature and sheathes of wheat all over the city, but most of the statues seem congregated around the river that separates the old and new town.
We didn’t stay anywhere near this attractive part of town, but rather found ourselves exiled to some crumbling post-communist block apartment about an hour’s walk from the center. The staircase of the building was open and cold. Our room looked like the type of place you would’ve found yourself getting wasted in at 17. The pasticine wood paneling, the greenish yellow carpet and the florescent lights all conspired to produce a scene of overflowing ashtrays, numerous cheap vodka bottles 1/16th full and that particular kind of tepid sunlight unique to post-debauch scenes. Luckily, I didn’t succumb to the pressure to recreate this particular tableau, although the apartment seemed to cry out for it.
Rather than suffer our drunken apartment, we spent most of our time wandering around the mainly Turkish and Albanian old town that looked like a neigborhood that had fallen down around the pilings of its own minarets; even in Pristina, I didn’t see so many mosques.
The teahouses were completely Turkish. Those nearest the mosques, full of old men holding cards or leaning over backgammon boards with smoke running from their nostrils.
From Skopje, we went down to Thessaloniki. We arrived late and woke up our host who lived alone in a small rooftop apartment. After some tea we rolled out our sleeping bags on the linoleum floor. The apartment was only one room, and not even a very big room, so after we turned out the lights the post-lights out sleepover laughter began in an incredulous adult tittering that soon broke out into complete hilarity.
The next day, the town was closed to celebrate Epiphany. Finding only cafés open, we wandered around drinking coffee and walking by the sea, while incredibly cold winds blew off the waters through the concrete-colored city. I kept myself wrapped up, but began to feel the cold spreading at the bottom of my lungs when I breathed in. My sinuses began to feel acidic and my eyes watered senselessly. I was getting sick, but I ignored the feeling and continued with my coffee and cigarette diet that had been sustaining me throughout the trip.
That evening, we went to a squat that was nothing like any of the squats I’ve ever seen in the US. The place was more like a bar or an alternative club. Attractive young people were swing dancing on a clean parquet floor. The bar was well-tended and the raki and homemade beer were cheap.
After we ordered our drinks, we sat down at a table and began discussing Europe, the US and culture. I drank a few rakis, as they seemed to sooth my burgeoning cold and started on my tirade against modern US culture, decrying social media, television and Embassies that aren’t available for the citizenry. As sometimes happens, I was seduced by my own words and argued more fervently, thinking that if I kept talking I might make some kind of breakthrough, might actually move myself to action. But, after a few hours, I was tired and just wanted to go back to the rooftop apartment, get in my sleeping bag and snicker in the dark—which we did, but only after getting completely lost on the way home.
We left Greece the next morning for the only train headed to Skopje which left at 6 am, or was scheduled to leave at 6 am. After rising in the dark, braving the cold and waiting around the station, we went out to the platform and paced up and down trying to stay warm while we waited until after 7 for the train. Because the train could’ve come any time, we didn’t leave the platform, but it was so cold, it was almost impossible to not cry out in agony at the injustice. I started cursing without even being aware of it.
When we got on the train, we settled into our compartment and were immediately joined by four other people, thus packing the compartment to capacity. “Damn,” I thought. “Where did these people come from? I didn’t see them waiting on the platform.” Because there weren’t too many others waiting for the Sofia, Bulgaria train, I hadn’t expected to be in such a crowded cabin and was annoyed to find that I wasn’t even going to be able to stretch out a little.
I’d like to write about the Greek landscapes we passed through on the way to Bulgaria, but I didn’t notice them. After the conductor came for our tickets, he told everyone else in our compartment that they were on the wrong car and, thankfully, they left. I went out to use the bathroom after finding my path clear of bags and legs. It was then that I realized our car was almost completely empty. Our former cabin mates had just plunked down in the first place they came to without even checking to see if the other cabins were occupied. When I got back from the bathroom, I pulled the curtains closed behind me and promptly passed out until the Bulgarian border, which is the only EU border
I’ve been to where documents are checked with such fervor.
We were stamped out of Greece and stamped into Bulgaria. Neither Montenegro, nor Albania, nor Kosovo is in the EU, but passing between these countries, our documents we only glanced at and handed back to us. No stamps. But between Greece, Bulgaria and Romania—all EU countries—they took our passports, compared us to our pictures and stamped us in and out like we were passing from Afghanistan to Tajikistan.
After the border, I fell back asleep and didn’t wake up again until we pulled into Sofia.
“Ugh, Sofia,” I said to Gina as the train pulled into the station. “I guarantee we’re going to be stuck here for a while. I swear they arrange the trains so that you have to spend a day here.” I said this because that’s what happened to me about six years ago coming from Turkey and heading to Serbia and that was summer. Coming back into the city, I remembered the last visit well, how we walked around, had a few beers and watched a basketball game. But now, the sky was grey and there were scags of black and grey ice frozen to the sidewalk and the gutters.
When I got off the train I found an official-looking man waiting to help me. He had a badge and a vest with the same logo as the badge. As I stepped down from the train, he stretched out his hands to me like a waiting family member. I wasn’t sure what he wanted, but, experience has taught me never to trust anyone at a train station, especially anyone who wants to help a traveler, when the typical situation is the total opposite. I strode intentionally past the man.
“Train, international!” The official man said holding a pointing finger into the air like he’d just guessed my weight at the county fair. I told him ‘no’ and tried to walk past him. He caught up with me. “Pa russki?” he asked. “Choot choot,”I said. I don’t know why, because any kind of affirmative response is enough for these people to badger you until the ends of the earth. “Hostel, taxi, change money,” he began to sing out the litany of the train station scammer.
Mr. Official followed us off the platform, skipping around me and my steamer trunk-backpack like a kid who’s eaten too much sugar. “Change? English? Hostel?” he intoned in an impressive tattoo, making it impossible for me to communicate with Gina. Everywhere I turned, his jowled face swung before me like a demented moon. We passed a kiosk that advertised coffee. I managed to indicate to Gina that we should go in and get a cup of coffee to get this boob to leave us alone. I reasoned that if we stopped moving, this would-be guide wouldn’t want to hang around waiting for us all day. It almost worked. He hung back while I ordered coffees successfully in Russian with the babushka working behind the counter. I was feeling pretty good about my ruse and my ability to communicate in a Slavic lingua franca with this woman until I tried to pay and she looked at my five euro bill in abject horror. ‘Euro nyet,’ she told me. At this exact moment, Mr. Official came bounding up from where he’d been waiting by the bags of chips. “Change money!” he gloated. “Dammit, man don’t you have anyone else to bother or are we just the stupidest people here?” I wanted to punch him and I was so annoyed I may have if Gina hadn’t stepped between us and asked him to go away. I don’t know what it was, I guess a woman’s voice had a little more currency with him, or maybe he just finally realized how annoying he was being. He left and I stood there with the woman now scowling at me from behind the counter. She’d already made the coffees. I held up a finger, “moment,” I said and dashed out to find someone to make change.
The train to Bucharest wasn’t leaving until the next morning; the bus was leaving at midnight. The beginnings of my cold in Greece had swollen into full-blown congestion and fever chills. Sick as I was, I considered getting a room and taking the train in the morning, but, no, that would be too easy. I had been reading about the Mujahidin in the Soviet-Afghan war and their imposed austerity. I felt weak and whiney enough as it was compared to them. I wasn’t going to let a cold cheat me into paying for a room when I could take an overnight bus, even if we were going to have to wander around Sofia for 11 hours in the freezing cold. I told Gina what our options were and then bought two bus tickets. I’m lucky to have her, any other girl would’ve left my unreasonable ass a long time ago.
Luckily, Sofia was more gracious to us than I had expected. Everything was cheaper than I had remembered. There was some great food and a nice hidden bar in which to pass the cold evening. Away from the bus station, the town actually looked good in its winter arraignment.
We got into Romania the next morning after 10 hours of terrible movies on the sleepless bus ride and spent the morning stumbling around a maze of communist apartment blocs with incredibly confusing addresses such as B-1, M-4, 44-88. (That’s just one building, by the way, the one next to it was Z-104, B-4, 9). It was already dark when we woke up from the nap our host forced us to take after seeing how haggard we looked once we finally found his apt.
We had bought tickets on an all-night train, second class, no sleeper. Our seats were out in the open, but initially, the train had been quiet as it rocked out of the station. We stayed awake talking, eating and sharing a bulbous plastic bottle of beer. Around midnight, we attempted sleep, rolling our sleeping bags out on the seats and laying down. I read for a while and let my eyelids get heavy before rolling over in my seat to sleep.
I slept fitfully for an hour or two. The train ground evenly along the tracks. Now and then, there would be a ringing and the train would ease under a station awning. When I opened my eyes, there was never anything to see, a few lights in the distance and caps of snow covering bushes and trees the color and shape of spilled ink.
There were a few other people on the train. An old woman next to us coughed quietly and once in a while, someone a few cars over seemed to groan. There was no talking and very few people on the train.
The car was too warm and the air was furnace-heat dry. I was sweating in my sleeping bag and I continually pulled it back from my face and feet to feel what little fresh air there was when the train pulled into a station and the doors briefly opened.
Because of my fatigue and my unwillingness to look strangers in the eye while I lie sprawled across three seats with my bare feet sticking out of my wrinkled sleeping bag, I kept my eyes shut at the stations, although, after 2 am, I was completely awake and could hear everything happening around me with the clarity of someone intently eavesdropping on a conversation.
The stations got noisier as the night wore on. Whereas the first few stations had only brought a few scuffling steps and maybe a whispered conversation, the latter stations were full of energetic passengers who boarded the train with slapping heels, loud conversation and laughter.
For a while, there was a great cacophony of snores, both the wet and the dry, rattling varieties. There were conversations held around piles of sunflower seeds that could be heard spilling onto the little tables and down onto the floors. Someone’s scream tumbled down into laughter. At every station, the cold and cigarette smoke blew into the car. At least eight different people were coughing almost constantly.
It became increasingly difficult to even pretend to sleep. The comforting rhythm of the train hitting the seams between the tracks could hardly be discerned over the noise being made within the car. The sounds of people sleeping and people awake, people who had drank raki and people who hadn’t, old women babbling in the indistinct tones of Romanian; There were popping sounds issuing from deep in people’s throats and bowels could be heard groaning under the weight of a bolted, pre-journey meal. Someone kept whistling.
I stubbornly held onto the idea of sleep and kept my eyes squeezed tight, despite my desire to open them and observe this obstreperous, rolling world around me. I wanted to see who kept making the groaning sound. What did the old woman whose voice had that odd liquid quality look like? How many people were sitting around us? Were any of the windows cracked?
When we pulled into a station, I could not resist the temptation and opened my eyes quick enough to see that we had reached Beclean, a town that marked the half-way point of our journey. But what I saw wearied me. The station had the same patches of snow and florescent light that they had all possessed. The old woman with the liquid voice had a white scarf tied around her head and was sitting very still two seats away and talking to her neighbor. A few young men were walking quickly through the train, their heads turning rapidly trying to be the first to espy an empty seat. The coughing started again. I closed my eyes and rolled over irritably.
I don’t think I slept, but I wasn’t entirely conscious. I felt like my head was smothered in cotton. My limbs felt unused and vague like they weren’t completely attached to me. My fingers were too short and seemed to strain against the skin under my fingernails. I felt the train stop and the usual, by now tiresome, sounds began.
First there were those in a hurry—their heels slapping loudly over the metal plates between cars and opening the doors with a quick woosh. A girl was quietly coughing and the difference between her and the guy at the end of the car was astounding. Her cough was apologetic. It seemed to say, ‘sorry for disturbing you,’ but his cough was like the horn of a semi-truck. BWWWWHAAAK! After the people in a hurry, the moderate crowd boarded, most of them tired-sounding, like they’d only dragged themselves out of bed a few minutes ago for this horrendously early train. These people tended to drop their bags rather than set them down.
I didn’t know where we were, but judging by how long I had been awake since Beclean, I assumed that we had reached the region of Maramures, the northern-most Romanian province and, according to the Lonely Planet guide “one of the last places where rural European medieval life remains intact.” I lie there listening, straining to detect something more rustic about the sounds I was now hearing.
The station must’ve been small, because the noise quieted to a trickle almost immediately. A few people shifted in their seats, someone spat out some sunflower seeds on the floor and then I heard it.
I don’t know exactly how to describe the sound I heard, except to say that sounded like a monster groaning in the basement of a castle dungeon, groaning or perhaps laughing. The sound was hollow but heavy, like a heavy length of chain falling to the floor in an empty room. It seemed to echo in a flat way, as if the sound dampened itself. I assumed it was the train straining over ice or something and turned back over and tried to get comfortable on the seats.
But the monster sound didn’t stop, rather it rose, it gained, it approached. As the groan/growl grew louder, I noticed that it was wrapped around the sliding bump of heavy footsteps. Like in a movie: Wiiiish, dum! Wiiiiiiish, dum! Uuuuaaghhhh! I heard the door to our car open, the groaning grew louder, the sliding footsteps drew closer. UUUUUGHP! Wiiiiiiiiish, dum! I wanted to turn around and open my eyes, but I felt too tired to investigate and I remained still until I heard the door at the other end of the car open and close.
I listened for a while as the sound crossed the train, sliding and growling, each door slapping closed behind it. I thought I heard a yell far down the train and slowly lifted myself up from the seats. Was I imagining things? The train car suddenly bucked, like a waterskier after the slack on the rope had run out. I looked out the window and in the florescent porch of the station, I thought I saw something hulking and grey at the edge of the light, but as I leaned closer to the window the train began to roll away on the tracks and the only thing outside the window was a white blanket of light resting on the snow. In the next car, someone began coughing.