“The government always lies. It’s all corrupt. Today, the thermometer in my garden shattered, yet they tell us it’s 32°c. That’s just how it is here. Biscuit?”
We declined; he was well into his second pack of ‘Serbia’s finest’ without our help. We’d hoped they might slow him down, but he simply ploughed through the mouthful.
“They lie so that we work. In higher temperatures, it’s too dangerous, so we have to stay at home. They can’t let that happen, so they lie.”
This voluble biscuiteer was one of our three bedfellows for the night. We were an hour into what already felt like the longest journey ever – an overnight train from Belgrade to Skopje.
Aside from the company, the train was the same as all the others in Eastern Europe; a Hitchcock throwback with individual compartments, sliding windows and an overwhelming sense of brown. For the first five minutes, we’d thought we had the compartment all to ourselves – a precious six-seat commodity on a sleeper train with no sleepers. It was not to be however: in walked a Serbian, a Bosnian and a Croatian. We’d unwittingly entered the opening line of a joke.
We had visited Bosnia only two days before, and it was clear that the spectre of war still hung around the beautiful bullet-ridden cities. I was three at the war’s outbreak; even so, I knew enough to know citizens of each party involved were now sat in close quarters for the next twelve hours. For the two English people, there was a large, bellicose elephant in the carriage.
As it turned out, any potential quarrels between the petite Croatian and handsome Bosnian were marital, not military. Despite looking more like an Australian surfer, the Bosnian was a newly ordained priest, and they were honeymooning before he got posted “anywhere in Eastern Europe” – a scary possibility for his wife, who’d never left Zagreb.
This disclosure had set our Serbian friend off, and he hadn’t stopped since. The ridiculousness of religion and the priesthood, corrupt governments and politics were discussed at length. At 8pm, he’s seemed charmingly unrefined. By 2am, he had become insultingly brash through bloodshot eyes – none more so than the Croatian’s, who was unfortunately sat next to the lout. A few pointed looks to her new husband began a strange portrayal of wartime relations. The Bosnian and Croatian were united in countering the Serbian assault, until she could take no more, and then the Bosnian was left fighting alone. Sensing her mounting frustration, he repeatedly rescued us by taking the man out for cigarettes – it must have been love. The plumes of smoke didn’t exactly improve the atmosphere, but was better than the Serbian’s endless cycle of hocking, scratching his groin, baring his belly, and of course, non-stop talking.
3am was when the train hunkered to an unexpected stop, and a loud cry from the conductor told us we had broken down. We quickly piled onto an overstuffed replacement coach – some of the lucky few who actually got on – thinking the cramped seating and standing arrangement would stop the Serbian’s monologue. However, he happily gave up his seat to come find us again. When we eventually reached a second and final train, we sprinted off to find a carriage on our own. The only one left had broken seats and large, worrying holes in the outside wall, but was all-importantly silent. No sooner had we sat down, however, than the Serbian reappeared, dragging the distressed looking couple behind. I can safely say misery does indeed love company.
As we finally pulled into Skopje in the early hours of the morning, with four exhausted passengers disembarking the train, the steadfast Serbian wanted all our phone numbers, in case we should like to meet up again. Incredulous and sleep-deprived, we all handed them over, as he ended with the following insight:
“We’re expected to hate each other. That’s what we’re taught to do. But that gets us nowhere. It just continues the hate. If we had followed our parents wishes, we wouldn’t have even been able to have this conversation.”
The poor Bosnian and Croatian did not appreciate such a conclusion. But as we slipped our own separate ways into Skopje, wishing enormously that we had a hotel to go to and no more trains to catch that afternoon, we decided it couldn't have been wholly bad. After all, talking about war gets us far further than silence ever did – 270 miles to be exact.