After an abortive attempt at romance in Paris, I left suddenly for Greece. For as long as my travel memory, I’d wanted to go there. It would be an affair with place. The train departed near midnight. I had a backpack, a sandwich, two oranges, and a small bottle of water, but no seat reservation.
The corridors were already crowded. I staked out a corner on the floor. The scheduled journey would take days, longer as the train ran late. At a daylight mountain stop, the floor passengers had reached their limit. Men barricaded the car’s doors with a pile of heavy suitcases. In a blurry memory, would-be passengers forced windows down. A pitchfork waved like an angry flag. A suitcase and packages were tossed inside. A baby followed and was caught like a ball. The barricades came down and the winners entered.
Squeezed in and squeezed again. I was losing weight. My food was long gone. The water too. Could I care? The bathroom was stuffed up and stinking. Dehydration seemed a better fate. The assumed dining car was unreachable. At every station, cars were added, moved, and rerouted. I would have needed a map and a retinue to find a meal.
Our inter-car communications resembled the party game Telephone- garbled, sometimes funny. It was rumored that the next stop would be the Yugoslav-Greek border. Customs would take a long time. A good moment to look for cleaner toilets. At the stop, I stepped out. It looked like a rural outpost. There were only shacks. It looked wrong. Still I stayed outside. My mind was increasingly confused from lack of water and sleep. I walked toward the shacks and found a primitive outhouse. At least, it didn’t have a putrid smell.
When I emerged, the train was moving. Creeping, but moving. An official waved frantically. I ran toward a door and leaped. An outstretched hand helped secure me. Then, I found myself inside among unfamiliar faces. At the real border, a few minutes later, customs officials entered. My documents, luggage, and purse were with my train buddy in the original car.
When they reached me, there was an awkward silence. Eventually, we developed a linguistic volley. English passed through French to Italian to Serbo-Croatian and back. Sometimes it seemed like a continuation of “Telephone” with higher stakes. The officials looked fierce first, then incredulous, disgusted next, and finally fed up. One man threw up his hands, “Get off, and find your car.”
I left, but scarcely knew where to look. Surely, it was up ahead somewhere, but where? I had no number or other identifying insignia to follow. The train stretched on and on. I ran back and forth looking for the familiar. The movement only added to my rattled state of mind. Exhausted, I stopped. Deport me I thought. I’m so tired. Send me home. Then, I had my first existential travel thought. Without documents, deport me where? Who was I? Would officials accept my claims without evidence?
“Psst, America! Psst.” At first I thought I was imagining the sound in a mental melodrama. Then, I heard the call again. Looking around, I saw a man’s head sticking out a window. He was waving. I recognized him. He was in my car. I returned there to find chaos and stares. The customs officials were adding to the corridor mayhem- spilling luggage contents- gilt Eiffel Towers, sweetheart gifts, cheap, manufactured souvenirs. They rolled their eyes when I appeared and snorted at my story.
Eventually, they left. A while later, the train rolled on, crossed another border, and entered
Greece. Was I whole and intact again? Who was I? The answer was never simple and permanent. Rather, a process of temporary identity making began every time that I wrote down observations in my journal. Selfhood can be fragile or durable. A luxury or a necessity. Even another flimsy souvenir.
After the disruptive entry into Greece, the train stopped for a while in Salonika. Café tables stretched along pebbles nearly to the doors. We disembarked and the returning Greeks bought Turkish coffee for everyone who lacked the currency. A glass of water, the tiny sweet Turkish coffee. From Salonika to Athens, I had a comfortable window seat. Although, I wanted to watch landscape, I slept in fits and starts. After a nightmarish beginning, I entered Greece amidst hospitality and new dreams.