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In Europe, forced to take the long way home

The lucky ones find tickets — and seats — for an uncomfortable train trip home.

In the media, in open-air cafes, in late-night beer bars, and even in the waters of Budapest’s thermal baths, Hungarians were passionately discussing the recent surge of their national populists and the far right, and the implications for democracy in their country.

It was at one of these smoky, late-night locales in the old Jewish quarter that I had been involved in just such a heated political discussion about 24 hours earlier. At some point, the topic switched to how I was going to get home to Berlin. Suggestions ranged from hitchhiking, to sailing up the Danube to Bavaria and then renting a motorcycle. Someone proposed hotwiring a Trabant, which are still on the roads in Hungary and wouldn’t be missed too much by the rightful owner.

Then one loyal friend said he’d go with me — at 3 in the morning — to Budapest’s infamous Keleti Station, the most run-down, derelict-infested public space in the city. The ticket windows are open 24 hours a day and the thought was that maybe the lines would be manageable in the middle of the night. A taxi-ride later we peeked into Keleti’s cavernous, Hapsburgesque main hall, which was surprisingly bereft of both derelicts and stranded tourists. It took the ticket seller about 30 minutes to find the Vienna connection and then to hand-write me a ticket (that included about 12 small sheets of paper, just like in the communist days).

Out the window now it is still pitch black, but I think we’ll be approaching Prague soon. Budapest to Vienna, Vienna to Prague, Prague to Dresden, and then Berlin. Though running on empty, I feel damn lucky to be moving in the right direction: home.