June 4, 2016 § 4 Comments

Mid-December 1990 I went on a long train trip through Europe, using the Interrail Pass which is one of the greatest things Europe has ever invented for young people. For a fixed affordable price you could, and still can, travel all over Europe using, well almost, any train. The only trouble those days –and unfortunately very much coming in fashion again in many European countries these days– was the still existing borders and, in some cases, visa requirements. Those were pre-Schengen times and although Perestroika had happened and the bigger walls were torn down, most of the Eastern Bloc and other communist countries were still there, even if barely functional, very confused and in political decay.

In the summer before my trip I had earned quite a sum of money working at a resort in Chalkidiki in northern Greece, so I borrowed a good map from a young man who was in the same Amnesty International group as I was, and off I went to join the queue in front of the Yugoslavian embassy in Athens and wait for my turn to apply for a visa. I was warned to take my sleeping bag with me because 48 hours waiting time would be normal. Things weren’t going well in Yugoslavia at that time, to put it mildly. (Now, I read that, completely different to that memory, a visa was not required for foreign visitors ever since 1967 in Yugoslavia, as the country always pursued a policy of neutrality during the Cold War, but I’ll continue writing this story as the unreliable narrator I am.)

My A.I. friend had travelled around Europe with the Interrail Pass the year before and he had marked his routes on that map that was therefore very dear to him. He only handed it out to me with the certainty that he’d get it back, as I was considered trustful and reliable, and with the hope that something more than friendship could develop between us after my return. He was, with both of his assumptions, wrong.

I won’t go into detail about the trip except that instead of visiting ten countries as I had planed, I spent most of my time in Germany after falling in love with a German. At some point in January 1991, though, I had to return to Athens because my semester at the university would start. I had used the Italian route to sail off to Central Europe and I would use the Yugoslavian route to go back to Greece. After all I had my precious visa, didn’t I?

I was glad that in Munich another young Greek woman on her way back to Athens boarded the same compartment with me. The trip would not be so boring, I thought. I used to like talking to strangers on trains and buses those days. (I don’t anymore. I now appreciate train trips to be the time I can dive into my own thoughts and books the most, and care about others the least.) I don’t remember anything about that girl, not even her name, although we talked together all our way through Bavaria and Austria. She talked a lot, but it was all about stuff I was not interested in. The only thing that now remains with me is her big suitcase and the fact that her brother would pick her up at the station in Athens.

The landscape in Austria was magical. We were travelling through it at night. It had snowed a lot and the snow erased parts of the night like a rubber. The villages and provincial train stations looked like the fatherland of winter. When we approached the Austrian-Yugoslavian border I took out my passport for the border control that would take place in the train. It was late in the evening, maybe 10 pm or 11 pm. I asked my companion how long she had to wait in the queue for her visa and I was stunned to hear she hadn’t got any. I really don’t remember what her explanation for it was because I was so surprised she’d risked the trip without it. Everybody knew how complicated things could get with border controls. I told her so and in sudden panic she got off the train just before we entered Yugoslavia and asked the Austrian border controlers who told her it would be wise if she would go back to, I think, Graz, where the next Yugoslavian consulate was. She came back into the train that had to go on in minutes and she was crying telling me she had little money, just enough to make it to Graz. She asked me if she could leave her suitcase with me. It would make things so much easier for her if she didn’t have to carry it around with her while solving this problem. From Graz she’d call her brother in Athens (remember, these were pre-mobile phone times too) and tell him to be at the station to pick the suitcase from me. She told me her brother’s name and wrote down my name and address in Athens. I felt so sorry about her that I immediately said yes. Good luck. Goodbye. I never saw this woman again.

In my compartment came now five men, Kosovo Albanians as I found out later, who were working in Italy and Switzerland. Only the oldest of the five could speak a few broken English words, and those days I could only speak a few broken German. So a very broken communication took place just between the two of us.

We entered the Social Republic of Slovenia which was the first Yugoslavian State on our way. (The Social Republics of Slovenia and Croatia were the first two States to breakup from Yugoslavia shortly after that same year.) It was only after the Slovenian border controlers entered the train and asked each one of us which suitcases we owned that occurred to me I actually knew nothing about the content of the girl’s suitcase I was now responsible for. What if she had illegal stuff inside? What if she had bought some hashish in Amsterdam to sell in Greece? How foolish and careless I had been. Luckily only one or two of the Albanians were asked to open their suitcases and not me.

Crossing Yugoslavia on that train proved to be one of the most stressful moments of my then still young life. We were controlled by Social Republic Slovenians, Social Republic Croatians, Social Republic Serbians and Social Republic Macedonians, only that nothing felt like a Social Republic between them. They all stamped our passport when entering their state and then again when we left it. There was a lot of yelling and aggression between them in languages I didn’t understand and the Kosovo Albanians were alerted all through the journey, but unfortunately couldn’t also keep their hands off when near to me. I think I owe it to that older guy who in a crucial moment made clear to them that I wanted my peace and quietness and a security distance too. I spent the night while crossing Yugoslavia awake nevertheless. The best thing on that train was the Yugoslavian restaurant compartment which had just long benches and tables covered with well ironed white linen tablecloths. There was little choice in the menu compared to today trains, but the goulash soup I chose to eat was the best I’ve eaten ever since.

At the train station in Athens nobody waited for the extra suitcase I had managed to bring through that sad country preparing for war. I waited for a while until I was the only woman standing there after most of the train passengers had left. Then I took the bus home currying two heavy suitcases with me. I didn’t have enough money to take a cab.

The next morning I was still sleeping, exhausted by the adventurous trip, when someone intensively rang my doorbell. It was the girl’s brother who indirectly accused me I had left the station too early. Had he dared to think I wanted to steal the bloody suitcase? He coldly thanked me and left.

When I was working at the hotel resort in Chalkidiki the summer before my Interrail trip, I met a young couple from Yugoslavia who were slightly older than I was and in Greece on their honeymoon. They had both just finished their law studies and spoke excellent English. He was a Serb and she was Croatian. We talked about the tensions in Yugoslavia but they were confident that everything would be sorted out peacefully in the end. We also talked about our studies, parents, music, loves.

I hope that young couple survived the war and it’s still together.

I wish I had opened that suitcase to see what was inside it before the girl’s brother picked it up.

But I’m still indecisive if I should deliver this map I found the other day to its legal owner the next time I am in Greece. So much of my history is inside it now too.


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