In which train politics are complex

Between programs in Italy, I took a while to tour eastern Europe on a EuroRail pass. This was primarily with the motive of leaving the European Union since my attempts to get a permesso di sogiorno with a multi-colored ink letter had failed. Thus, I needed to let my tourist visa connected to the US passport kick in. The touring gave me the great skill of touring cities in 45 minutes, but my secondary goal was to go to Romania to see if any of the self-taught Romanian was useful or accurate. Two robberies and extensive asking for directions and shawarmas later, it proved indeed to be travel-friendly vocabulary and grammar. The week in Romania both destroyed and then re-built my faith in humanity, and it was time to move along.

A neat lady I had met in the hostel was traveling to Greece via Bulgaria the same time as I was, so we decided to travel together. We dutifully went to the train station together a few days early. We purchased tickets for the train to Thessaloniki, and I said at least five times that we were traveling together. To the ticket salesman, this obviously meant that we would be traveling on the same train together but in no way would we want to actually sit near each other or even interact in the same train compartment. Maybe he was protecting her from the mountain man…or something. Needless to say, he placed us in compartments on opposite sides of the train car. At least we ended up not having to pull an action movie train stunt to get into the next car via the least practical routes imaginable.

Leaving the hostel was a slight hold up because I had lost my locker key, so I wouldn’t be able to get my deposit back. I had had it that morning and spent precious moments unpacking my bag entirely to try to find the $5 dollar key (tragic loss of funds, I know). At last, I had to admit defeat or risk missing the train. We were already cutting it close.

We shouldered our backpackers’ standard packs and waddled off to the bus stop. The bus was a little late, but there should be no problem unless there was a freak traffic jam or something.

There was a freak traffic jam.

We arrived at the station 3.5 minutes before the train was scheduled to depart. We dashed into the station and tried to get through the security/passport check as quickly as possible. I was first through and the race was on. Running a 200 meter dash to the train with a full backpack is more difficult than you imagine. No…more difficult even than that. I arrived at the compartment of the train exactly at departure time, and my traveling companion was a way back having taken more time to get through the security. I slumped out of the backpack and pretended to be having trouble with it as though I hadn’t just sprinted up wearing it; however, there was no way that I was going to be the reason my friend missed the train.

Fortunately, in Romania, train times were more of suggestions rather than hard fast rules, and they spend on average 100 minutes per station, or at least that is how the 10-20 minute stops feel. It is just long enough to wonder if the train has broken down or if we are waiting for any random grandparent to have the sudden inspiration for a spontaneous trip to Bucharest. This worked very much in our favor, and my friend made the train.

We parted ways and investigated the luxury sleeper cabins that the train had to offer. Climbing into the top bunk is an adventure, and there is a certain amount of lemur-climbing that involves bouncing back and forth from one side of the cabin to the other to either ascend to or descend from your bunk. Still, the experience is a rather fun one. Having a top bunk means you are also saved the awkward experience of having your bed function as everyone else’s seat during daylight hours and/or as landing platform as your cabin-mates do their own acrobatics to get into bed.

The train wandered slowly through the Romanian countryside and into Bulgaria without much incident. An officer came by to check passports, and we went into the picturesque fields and valleys of Bulgaria in the Spring. My friend and I spend several hours playing card games and otherwise playing the role of tourists getting in the way and using everything for purposes other than their intended ones. Seat for a table? Check. Corridor for seats? Check. Let me just stash my pack here for some comfort for me and a hurdle for any passerby. Have you ever played a game called Canasta? Mao?

Eventually night fell, we parted ways, and I was lured to sleep by the swaying of the train. At about two O’clock in the morning, I was woken by the second international crossing officer. He was in the middle of an argument with the guy in the bunk below me. With my very spotty Romanian, the conversation apparently went something like this.

“…No, I need to see a valid passport.”

“This is my valid passport.”

“This is a Romanian passport. Where were you born?”

“In Bulgaria, but I have a Romanian passport.”

“How do you have a Romanian passport.”

“Well, I was born in Bulgaria, but I live in Romania now.”

“So you’re Bulgarian but have a Romanian passport…This passport won’t be valid for another month! Do you have a Bulgarian passport?”

“No, this is my Romanian passport. I was just born in Bulgaria”

“But it isn’t valid yet. You need to have a Bulgarian passport if you were born there.”

“But this will be my Romanian passport.”

At this point we begin to wonder what the Bulgarian with a not-yet-valid Romanian passport is doing trying to get into Greece.

The argument continued for a while before the passport officer finally gave in with a clear admonition that the Bulgaro-Romanian would need a valid passport the next time. There may have been some money exchanged, and the passport officer almost certainly gave up out of exasperation. I can’t be sure because it was dark, I was three-quarters asleep and only spoke about a tenth of the language.

He looked at my passport just long enough to recognize that it was a United States passport and had a picture in it. He didn’t even look at me. Score for powerful passports!

We made it to Thessaloniki at five in the morning where I took my 45-minute tour of that city. The soon-to-be Romanian apparently went on his merry way in Greece, and my friend and I parted ways as my train to Mount Olympus was a few hours earlier than hers to Athens. Evidently, she got kicked off that train for having the wrong kind of pass, just not the wrong kind of passport.