|A modern photo of refugees|
on a Macedonian train -- but
it shows how we felt!
After publication of my last blog entry, two days ago, crazed fans have been begging me to expand on my reference to my 1961 trip, via "Balkan Express," from Belgrade to Athens.
By "crazed fans," I refer to my sister. I thought she would know all about the experience, just from absorbing our family's oral traditions. But I'll refresh her recollection. Memories do fade over 55 years, however, especially when not reinforced by any written letters or journal entries that I can locate.
As I mentioned earlier, three friends and I, left to our own devices in Belgrade, decided to take the train to Athens. In those days, few people bothered with reservations. You simply bought a ticket and hopped on the next train. Like riding the subway, and -- as with the subway -- if there weren't enough seats by the time you scrambled aboard, you stood.
At the time, all European passenger cars consisted of a series of compartments, each seating eight passengers (in second class), with a corridor running along one side of the car. When there were no seats, you stood in the corridor. The train stopped frequently. The passengers were not, for the most part, Western tourists -- they were Yugoslavian country folk and poor workers. Tito's Yugoslavia was no doubt a socialist paradise, but not quite yet a developed country.
The train reached Skopje, in present day Macedonia, and stopped. A train today covers the route from Belgrade to Skopje in ten hours. It was certainly longer in 1961. Our train not only stopped in Skopje, but stayed stopped. No explanations were given. No encouraging words were provided. The train's toilet facilities were not available while stopped in the station, for reasons left to your imagination. The station WC consisted of a room with a large concrete floor. At the far side of the room was a hole in the floor. Many, many people had used the facility. Few of them had bothered to make it to the hole.
We still had no seats. When not using the WC, we stood in the coach aisle or, most of the time, sat on the aisle's filthy floor with our knees tucked under our chins. We four were not, by any means, the only occupants of the aisle.
We remained stopped in Skopje for at least twelve hours, anywhere up to 24 hours as I recall. My subconscious has repressed some of the details. But eventually, the fabled Orient Express pulled into Skopje, and we were transferred to that train. The Orient Express had sadly declined since its fabled days of Agatha Christie fame. But it had seats -- every one of us had his very own seat. Padded seats. And the only repulsive odors in the cars of the Orient Express were the ones we brought with us on our own clothing.
The Orient Express proceeded to Thessaloniki, across the Greek border, whence the majority of the carriages continued east to Istanbul, and the rest of them -- we students included -- went by separate engine to Athens. I don't even recall crossing into Greece -- I think I slept most of the way to Athens, where we arrived early in the morning. How many mornings after leaving Belgrade? I have no idea.
On arrival, we quickly found a cheap hotel and then immediately headed on foot to the Acropolis. As I noted in a letter home, it's great to be young.
Train fans may be interested to know that a modern "Balkan Express" operates today between Belgrade and Istanbul, with sleeping facilities and dining car. This train follows a route through Bulgaria, stopping in Sofia, rather than south through Skopje. From the on-line photos, any resemblance between it and the Balkan Nightmare Express of my memories is limited to the fact that both operated on rails. There is also a Belgrade to Athens route -- temporarily suspended for track maintenance -- that requires a change of trains in Thessaloniki.
And finally -- a marvel undreamed of in 1961 -- within the next two years, a high speed train running at 200 km/h (125 mph) will begin service from Thessaloniki to Athens.