In Europe, forced to take the long way home

SOMEWHERE IN THE CZECH REPUBLIC — It’s 2:30 in the morning as I write these words, my Berlin-bound train rattling through the darkness of the southern reaches of the Czech Republic. I take it we’ve just crossed the Austrian-Czech border because a no-nonsense conductor in a red-trimmed blue uniform just yanked open the door of our compartment, flipped on a blinding overhead light and demanded our tickets in Slavic-accented German.

Of the six passengers in this cramped, stuffy space, only one of the Russian men really seems to have been sleeping. Everyone else, including myself, has been twisting and turning in their seats since the train left Vienna five hours ago. 

But at least we have seats — unlike about two dozen student-age young people, mostly Germans and Kazaks I think, who are standing in the car’s corridor or slumped on its floors. Not having slept a wink for days they look horribly uncomfortable — and we’re not even halfway there. Hopefully they brought more food and liquids than I did as there’s not a thing to buy on this train.

But at least we’re travelling, which is something to be thankful for, unlike the crowds we all saw in the Vienna-West station, either camped out in grungy corners or lined up in thick ticket lines that snaked through the bahnhof’s dim halls. Everybody in this train, I imagine, knows that every train and bus leaving Vienna’s terminals is sold-out. My Budapest-Berlin flight was canceled twice along with all flights from Hungary, and direct trains from Budapest to Germany were booked solid for days to come.

Admittedly, there are worse places to be stranded than Budapest in the spring. In Hungary’s resplendent capital on the Danube, there was no evidence whatsoever of the gray plumes of volcanic ash that the BBC claimed were blanketing northern Europe. On the contrary, the heavens had bestowed upon us the warmest sunshine of the year, lovely T-shirt weather that was chasing away the blues of a very long winter, the tragic deaths of Poland’s leadership, and ongoing elections in Hungary.

In fact, in a way I hadn’t experienced since the first post-communist elections in spring 1990, all of Hungary was absolutely buzzing with politics.

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.