They’re building a shopping mall next door. Sounds of drilling rip open the suburban evening. The sun is setting out the window to my left. It’s so strange to be still.
It took me seven days to get from Istanbul to Poznan. No flights. One overnight bus, three sleeper trains and a delirious 3 hour journey from Warsaw right at the end. A nun scuttled up and down the carriage like a pompous black beetle, imploring someone to give up their seat.
The quiet old lady next me must have taken pity on my travel weary frame and reached into her bag for a bar of chocolate. When I at first politely refused she cried “nie!” and pressed the dark block into my hand.
The journey could have taken a couple of hours by plane, but I wanted to feel the distance. Plane travel erases the accomplishment of the journey. On land you can sense the gradual undulations of a changing landscape. Different worlds blend into each other like day into night, spring into summer.
At the border between Turkey and Bulgaria signs switched to cyrillic. Girls faces became lighter and their frames slimmer but their hair just as dark. The locals rolled their eyes at their country and looked to the west, but they were warm and friendly, without the cynicism towards outsiders brought on by excessive tourism. At the bars they bought me beers and warned me to be wary of unfriendly strangers.
Walking home just before dawn across Sofia’s famed ‘yellow brick road.’ The golden bricks near the city centre are smooth to walk on and reflect the streetlights and shimmer of the moon. Back on the tarmac transvestites strode purposefully between the shadows.
And then to Belgrade. The train station at Sofia was a crumbling catastrophe. Unlit underground passages. Rubbish piled in corners. In a patch of dim light a group of dark faced figures ceased their conversation to stare at me – drinks in hand – until I had wheeled my suitcase past. The seats inside the station proper were made of wire, but the woman who sold me the ticket was kind and guarded my bag with maternal vigilance.
The train to Serbia was filthy but a hangover from Sofia lulled me into easy sleep. I shared a cabin with a young German wanderer. Two Swiss nurses next door were reading a book about Patrick Leigh Fermor. “Read his books” I said, “and you’ll never be able to stay still for more than a month.”
In Belgrade the locals reminisced about the days of Yugoslavia. They described a time of abundance, friends with all the great powers and the envy of Europe. They were barely thirty years old and must have been retelling the fond memories of their parents. “Now our country is fucked. And we can’t go anywhere.”
The people were even friendlier than in Sofia. A waitress in a night club was thrilled to meet a New Zealander and gave me an exuberant hug as she undercharged me for the preposterously cheap beer.
It had rained the day I arrived and I’d wandered the streets in search of an umbrella, and was met with a ubiquitous “nyet” and that gloriously indulgent Eastern European shrug wherever I asked. Wandering through the rain I stumbled upon an outdoor market where small old lady’s – some with impressive facial hair – haggled over the price of radishes.
The old fortress with stunning views of the river below. A sign in cyrillic and English near the old walls read “Walking In This Area You Risk Your Life” in screaming capitals, white paint on black metal.
Another station. Glowering police officers and an impossible labyrinth of closed doors. The night sleeper to Budapest. I had been warned about this train. The police will extort you if you lose your Serbian residence card. The Hungarians will rob you. I shared a cabin with a Ukrainian journalist. The journey passed without incident.
Back to Budapest and familiar faces and familiar bars. And then home to Poland. And suburban stillness. The indulgences and recklessness of the road waiting in the background whilst I do my best to contend with the heaviness of real life; growling emails and roaring alarm clocks, unwashed dishes and comfortable beds.
And the road is still there. Waiting around some quiet corner. The trains still run without you on them. The cities won’t shed a tear for the absent wanderer. But there is travel to be had at home. And in each challenge a hidden adventure. It may not be enough to silence the howl of the road, but it will keep it at bay. For a year. Or a month. Or a week.