After being warned that an evening as a lone traveller on the night train from Budapest to Sofia was inadvisable I had been sure to book a private cabin. I was craving solitude after spending the previous nights in crowded dorms and couchettes en route to Istanbul.
I was glad of doing so after spending the long four hours leading up to midnight in Keleti station whose police presence did little to diminish my uneasiness at spending the remaining hours of a Friday evening there.
I initially intended to settle myself in the station bar for the long wait but it seemed to be chock full of an assortment of undesirable characters, intoxicated and bedraggled. Looking around I seemed to be the only foreigner in the station. I regretted not making the trip by day and mentally noted that I would not be repeating this journey.
I parked myself on a bench in front of the departures board, zipped up my hoody to ward off the chill of a cool summer evening, and tried to avoid making eye contact as I sipped the Arany Ászok I had concealed under the bench.
After boarding, I settled myself down with another beer and a makeshift dinner of macaroons, a kilo of cherries and some kolbász purchased earlier that day in Budapest’s Great Market Hall as I contemplated the landscape under the burnt out sunlight.
The carriage was a second-hand German sleeper that had seen far better days. It was permeated with a musty odour and most of the metal in the cabin had rusted. It wasn’t quite up to the standard of the Paris to Munich sleeper but at least I had it to myself.
There was a knock. Presuming it to be the conductor I opened the door to see an elderly lady with a walking stick and two heavily made-up middle aged women with an abundance of luggage ready to storm my cabin.
I explained patiently that I had paid extra to have a cabin to myself, a difficult task given my non-existent knowledge of Hungarian and rudimentary knowledge of French, the only other tongue they were capable of speaking.
After ten minutes of arguing in Hungarian, English and French, and an impromptu game of charades, sleep deprived and under the effect of two cans of Hungarian lager I weighed up my options.
As one of the women seemingly decided to dismiss me completely and rush the cabin, I snapped, slamming the door and bolting it in one swift motion.
I exhaled, relieved, but ashamed I had denied an elderly lady with a walking stick a bed in my cabin. I slept fitfully, desperate to go to the bathroom yet certain that if I left the cabin I would return to find it
furnished with new occupants.
I waited for daylight, leaning out of the window quietly smoking, meeting the eyes and returning the waves of the curious huddles on station platforms, watching the passing terrain of an unfamiliar Europe.