by Agnes Krup

Judging from the look of her face, my friend Judy must have thought I was insane when I told her that I was going to spend a week in Romania.

She has lived in Budapest for more than 30 years and has never set foot there. When I visited with her for a few days, I had to show her the websites of the places where I’d be staying, as well as validate the trip by bringing up some of Transylvania’s history and pictures of its medieval churches on Wikipedia.

Even though Judy had kindly arranged for my ticket, she still seemed very nervous about my taking the night train from Budapest to my first destination, Sighisoara.

I admit that her apprehension of a woman traveling alone by overnight train rubbed off on me a little bit. I have been traveling by myself more often than not since I was 17, but somehow it doesn’t get easier.

I had booked a whole first class sleeping compartment for myself; having to share with someone — in a part of the world where the concept of shared sleeping compartments for women only was probably not practiced — was completely out of the question.

I was looking forward to this part of my trip, as I hadn’t spent the night on a train for some 15 years or so. And yet I wondered whether it was a good idea to pick up this old habit in a part of Europe where I had never before traveled.

The Dacia, the nightly express train connecting Budapest to Bucharest takes its time. It leaves Vienna around 8 p.m. and doesn’t arrive at its final destination until early afternoon the next day. I had clearly underestimated the size of Romania and overestimated the speed of trains.

The Dacia arrives at Budapest Keleti Stiation shortly before 11 p.m., and here it sheds some passengers and regular cars together with the locomotive of the Federal Austrian Train authorities that has brought it this far. Keleti is a head station, so a different locomotive is hitched to the remainder of the train from the other side to pull it back out of the station half an hour later.

Keleti is Budapest’s main train station for all destinations east. Hence Judy’s worries: Here, apparently, Eastern Europe begins in earnest. I have stowed away my passport, money and credit cards in so many different pockets and parts of my luggage that I was not sure I would find them all ever again. And I had convinced Judy to stay at home and let me take a taxi to the station by myself, especially since she had to get up early for work the next morning.

Keleti station is, in theory, a beautiful early 20th century hall, dimly lit by mismatched neon lamps. It is in the process of being fixed up. The taxi driver dropped me at a small side entrance, easy to miss between big wooden construction walls.

Inside the station, a single customer entertained the tired woman behind the restaurant bar, and a young man waited for his last customers behind a counter displaying plastic containers filled with dubious-looking chopped carrots and cabbages. In the main hall, passengers waited at the head of the platforms for the tracks of the night’s final trains to be announced. There were a few women, alone, like me. Most of the men smoked.

Once the Dacia had pulled into track 8, I found sleeping car #919 without a problem. A young porter in an ill-fitting uniform checked my ticket and reservation; he put both documents away for the night, which made me a bit uneasy. Then he indicated with his hand that I was to leave my suitcase to him. He carried it to my compartment, nimbly moving down the narrow aisle with a slight limp.

“Romani only,” he said apologetically to define his communication skills. “No English.”

Once at my door, he pointed to a couple of bolts on the inside, indicating that I was to lock them at all times. “Hungaria problem,” he said. Ah, so Hungary was the problem.

I inquired about a passport control and he lifted four fingers: “Four ora custom,” he said.

Four in the morning? I had hoped for a good night’s sleep and I had also counted on putting on pajamas, especially since we wouldn’t be arriving in Sighisoara until 9 a.m. I also realized that I didn’t quite know whether he really meant 4 — was he on Hungarian or Romanian time? The clock would have to be set an hour ahead at the border.

I dutifully locked the door and checked the sign above the emergency break, which was in Romanian and German. The small compartment reeked of smoke, despite the non-smoking sign on the wall.

Just minutes after we pulled out of Kelety Station, we left Budapest behind us. There were no satellite towns, no suburbs to speak off. Outside the window, the darkness was interrupted only rarely by some low-wattage flickering streetlights from a village or small town in the distance. Still, it was eerily illuminated by the silvery glow of an exceptionally bright full moon. I put the pillow toward the window and lay with my feet pointing toward the door so that I could watch the moon travel with the train.

The display on my cell phone read 2:37 a.m. when there were shouts outside for “passport control” and a knock on the door. As I had planned out before I went to sleep, I threw on my knee-length coat and reached for my passport before unbolting the door.

In the narrow aisle stood a young woman, in her early 20s perhaps, with a round pale face and long blond hair falling over the shoulders of her uniform jacket. She threw the door wide open and without hesitation flicked on the overhead light, screening the two empty beds above mine. Then she turned the pages of my passport, halting at the entry for my daughter’s name.

Though the question she asked was in Hungarian, I understood anyway and felt a bit of a sting near my heart as I answered. No, she was not with me just now. The blond officer turned and walked further down the aisle without bothering to close the compartment door.

For several minutes, the train slowly rumbled alongside what seemed to be rows and rows of empty freight cars, wobbling over one switch after another. Then it stopped again. At 3:05, there was the next knock on the door. This young woman looked just like the first one, except that she was a brunette and wearing a blue uniform pullover with the insignia of the Romanian border control stitched onto the sleeve.

She didn’t ask any questions but gave me a small smile as she looked at my bare legs sticking out from under my coat. She closed the door gently as she went on.

It had been many years since I had had to show my passport at any inner-European border, especially in the middle of the night. I crawled back under my blanket and wondered if the two young officers knew each other or of each other: working the graveyard shift on a Sunday night on the Hungro-Romanian border, with nothing but a couple of miles and hundreds of empty freight cars between them.

Did they get to go home after our train had passed, or would they have to stick around until morning? Had they grown up in nearby villages, or had they been stationed in this godforsaken place from towns far away? Did they meet up sometimes in the local pub, on this or that side of the border? Would they even be able to understand each other’s languages?

Outside, the Puszta stretched out as before and the moon was still shining on what seemed by now an endless dark plane in the middle of nowhere. Not before morning would the landscape change.

Agnes Krup grew up in Hamburg, Germany, and has called New York City her home since 1994. She is a literary scout, working for a select group of publishers and literary agencies in Europe, Asia and Latin America. She lives in Brooklyn Heights with her daughter.

Start the conversation

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.