Somewhere in the Balkans – 2009

“Drink. It is absolutely necessary that you drink.”

Yanni, the Hungarian train guard, is laughing as I stand atop a sticky formica table, trying to surf the queasily rocking train as it storms through some deep, wooded corner of the Balkans. His accent has become curiously less thick over the course of 3 bottles of harsh red wine and the restaurant car is empty but for us and an old Finnish couple who have been tossing back shots of homebrew rocket-fuel poured from a plastic iced tea bottle. I tried to engage them in conversation halfway through the second bottle, but they stayed stoney in the face of my opening gambit – a piece of trivia about cranberries learned from a Snapple cap.

I learned all I know from Snapple caps & reruns of the Simpsons. We owe a great debt of gratitude to the good men & women of the Snapple Research Institute

It’s 3am in limbo and I can’t sleep. The bunks on this Soviet-era locomoting hulk are barely big enough for a child, let alone my elongated frame. I was smoking a bootlegged Malboro out of the window when Yanni introduced himself. Smoking at 100mph in the Balkan penumbra is a queer experience as the thick plumes of oily smoke are snatched from rapidly numbing lips. He told me not to bother exhaling out of the window.

“I’m in charge. They only give me the night shift so I don’t scare the Americans.”

He’s undeniably disconcerting. Patchily shaved, he leers at every woman who passes the open door with unabashed lecherous intent. In the interests of preserving my drunkeness I say nothing but cringe inwardly at every inappropriate comment or glance. Dilute the distaste with more of that “rustic” red.

Yanni shared his lunchbox with me. Tupperwared macaroni swam in a salted white cheese sauce punctuated by crisp chunks of pig fat and skin. “Is this a Hungarian delicacy?” “Fuck Hungarian food. This is pure Italian.” I have my doubts, but hold my tongue. Admittedly, culinary Budapest had been less than inspiring – with the notable exception of astonishing golden tokaj served with dried strips of aromatic wild boar.

The train shudders to a halt and I tumble from my vantage point. Luckily my fall’s broken by Yanni who shouts something in Hungarian & gives me a look like murder.

“Are we here?”
“Bastard.”
“Sorry. Doesn’t answer my question though.”
“We’re not there yet. This is the border. Go get your passport.”

I nod and extricate myself from the tangle of limbs and overcoats. As I walk back to the cabin, furiously concentrating on avoiding the walls and windows, I can hear doors banging open behind me and boots clattering down linoleum corridors, a fact which injects some previously absent urgency and sobriety into the situation.  I hurry on past the window where Yanni and I had first made acquaintance and duck into our cramped cabin. Digging through my bags, I find my passport stuffed inside a shoe which has, in turn, become wedged in a skinny trouser leg. Ignoring the obvious questions, I turn and brandish it as the dull grey muzzle of a border patrol rifle pushes the sliding door open.

The border guard’s face is in shadow, but he’s enormous – at least my height, but twice as broad shouldered and swelling out of his sleeves as he pushes a mass of dark hair out of his eyes. He grunts “passport” and takes mine in a leathery paw. Slinging the rifle over his shoulder, he unholsters a torch from his hip at the same time and shines it into my face. I reel back a little and trip arse over elbow.

Sprawled on the cramped bunk, legs akimbo, I smile meekly up at him. He nods and tosses my passport into my lap.

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