Today should have been a breeze – well timed connections marked my passage through Poland. My coach arrived half an hour early, so it wasn’t even a rush to the station for the first train to Bratislava. I hopped on board – oh wow! It was one of those old fashioned ‘The-Lady-Vanishes’-type trains where you sit in sealed off compartments facing three strangers. Yey!
Only I had two strangers, Iva and Monica, and they were the best kind of stranger – ie. Bubbly, lively ones with nice eyes who laugh at my jokes. Iva was from Croatia, but living in Vienna and Monica was from Poland. So I sat with my captive audience and entertained each other as we passed effortlessly through the Czech Republic on the way to Slovakia. I had just finished reading ‘White Tiger’, the winner of last years Man Booker prize (damn those judges have a bone for Indian novelists) – and I have to say, a damning and accurate portrayal of modern India – you know, that place where 500,000,000 people have to use the streets for a toilet and the horrifically corrupt government, instead of building sewers, spends money on nuclear weapons it can never use.
DON’T GET ME STARTED.
Anyway, a good book, given to me by Toby, the Aussie Chef I met in Halifax and now in the safe hands of the delightful Monica.
Incidentally, I remember when the Czech Republic and Slovakia were one country. BUT THERE ARE PEOPLE BEING SERVED IN BARS NOW WHO WERE NOT EVEN BORN THEN.
That’s a bit scary isn’t it? Crazy days.
Once I arrived in Bratislava, the capital of
Slovenia Slovakia (whoops! sorry Tery!), I bid my fond farewells to the lovely Iva (Monica got off a little earlier) I then had a few hours to sit, have a coffee and read up where I go next. Which turned out to be Budapest, the capital of Hungary.
Wow – I’m tearing through Europe like a man possessed.
So on to the 14:33 to Pest and Buda (they are two separate towns, like Manchester and Salford). I threw my bag into the luggage rack in my second class compartment and then bribed the guard a couple of Euro to let me sit in first class so I could make use of the electrical socket and charge my laptop/camera/mobile phone.
Very soon we started pulling into Budapest station – I tried to get back into second class, but my way was barred by the restaurant car which was now closed. No biggie – I waited until we stopped, got off the train and then back on again on the far side of the restaurant car.
Er, where’s my bag gone?
Frantic, I searched up and down the coaches – nothing, nada, zip. It had GONE.
My clothes.My sleeping bag.
Oh **** – my spare GLASSES. They cost a fortu… Oh holy mother of monkey – THE ODYSSEY TAPES FOR THE LAST THREE WEEKS!!!
Vanished. Into the ether.
To make matters worse, my connecting train to Bucharest left in less than 20 minutes. And the next one was not for two days.
Actually, the word ‘frantic’ is much too mild to describe my mental state.
I asked the Hungarians working on the train. They were about as much use as Anne Frank’s drum kit. I then went to the ticket booth. They told me to go to the station manager. I went to the station manager. The station manager told me to go to the police. I went to the police. They told me to go to information. I went to information. They told me to go to left luggage. I went to left luggage. They told me that they couldn’t help. By now, it was just minutes until may train left from the very far platform of the station.
So far, the Odyssey has been one difficult decision after another – some work out (the two-minute connection) some don’t (Cuba), but this was crunch time – I had only seconds to work out the permutations.
Somebody wouldn’t have stolen it. There were no valuables in there (it’s got a toilet seat strapped to it, for heaven’s sake!). So that left me with two options – somebody took it by mistake (it’s got a toilet seat strapped to it, for heaven’s sake!) or that the conductor of the train had picked it up, maybe everyone else in the compartment got off early and he saw a lonely bag sitting up in the luggage rack and thought somebody had left it.
Either way, I would have to stay in Budapest to get it back. And that would mean losing two days.
However, if it did show up – and it’s got a stack of my Odyssey Cards in it so I shouldn’t be too hard to contact – I could always swing back into Budapest on my way from Slovenia to Liechtenstein.
I ran for the train.
I sat down, my face bright red and sweating like a politician on Hampstead Heath at 2 in the morning, in a compartment opposite a Hungarian woman called Delia. I then had an animated discussion with my dad on the phone about ringing the railway station in Budapest and finding somebody who speaks English and sorting this mess out.
The conductor came and wanted to see my reservation – I hadn’t had time to make one. My throat was dry and I was so hungry I would have eaten a cold Pot Noodle. From the bin. I didn’t have enough change to pay for the reservation – I only had a hundred Euro note that the cash machine had unhelpfully spat out at me.
Delia, bless you Delia, sorted me out. She paid the two Euro reservation fee (yes the world is a silly place I know) and then she gave me a carton of juice and some chocolate eggs to eat.
What an angel.
It’s times like this I remind myself how bloody wonderful people really are.
Unless they are being paid to be helpful, and then they tend to be anything but. Go ask a ‘porter’ at a British railway station – you’ll be lucky if he doesn’t spit in your face. Funny old world, innit?
Thank you Delia!!
I then took my laptop into the next carriage and fired up the Internet. There was an e-mail for me from a chap called Ors.
Subject: I have your luggage!
No, it wasn’t a ransom demand. This guy had picked up my bag, thinking it had been left on the train by accident, tried to give it to the police, the police refused to take it (the unhelpful idiots) so he had taken it home thinking that I could come meet him and pick it up.
Only I was now a good fifty miles away from Budapest heading into Romania.
I guess I’ll be returning to Budapest this weekend. But not before Moldova, Ukraine, Bulgaria, Greece, Macedonia, Kosovo, Serbia, Montenegro, Albania, Croatia, Bosnia and Slovenia!
Christ, my pants are going to smell.
After all the excitement of yesterday, I slept like a baby. By that, I mean that I woke up every two hours and started screaming. Although my laptop and camcorder were safely by my side on the train to Budapest, the charger for my camcorder and my spare battery were not. And I had about 20 minutes left of power. This would not last until next Sunday.
It would not last until the end of today.
I arrived in Bucharest around lunchtime and headed to the coach station. A political rally was taking place in the park between – I gave it a wide berth. I’ve never been one for mob mentality; I prefer to operate under the radar, subverting people’s opinions by means of stealth, cunning and outright ridicule. The bus took me to the town of Galati on the border of Moldova and Ukraine. If my timing was right, I could hop across (no visa required!) in about an hour and then head back to Bucharest in time for the 20:03 to Sofia in Bulgaria.
Eastern Europeans man, they are a breed apart. First up, I couldn’t cross the border unless I was in a car, so I had to get in a car. To be fair, the border guards were quite helpful in this matter and put in me a car. Whether the driver wanted me in the car or not was another matter.
Then I had to get out of Romania. There was NOBODY else at the border. It took over an hour. Quite what they were doing with my poor old passport, I’ll never know. I just had to sit on the concrete and wait it out.
Then I had to get in to Moldova. Again, it took about an hour. They scanned my passport with UV, IR, REM and OMD – seemingly convinced it was a fake (seemingly convinced they wanted a ‘hurry-the-hell-up’ bribe, more like) even though it’s been stamped on more times than a western journalist in a Turkish prison.
Maybe the cunning Moldovans would spot something that the Americans and the Chinese missed…
THE FACT THAT I’M CARLOS THE JACKAL!
Anyway, there’s about two kilometres of Moldova before you hit the Ukraine, so I walked over to border number two. They liked to keep me waiting half an hour as well. Maybe they were just bored. Once into the territory of the Ukraine, I tried to get a stamp, just to make things extra official. Got shouted at by a grumpy Ukrainian border guard as though I was wasting his time. The fact that there was NOBODY else at the border didn’t seem to phase him. Perhaps he was in the middle of particularly tricky Sudoku.
Oh well, no stamp, but at least I got my GPS reading. That’s Ukraine off the list. By the time I got back to Galati, it was dark. I had spent a whopping FOUR hours getting over the borders. I had missed the last train back to Bucharest, so I settled down for the night in a big old concrete hotel, built in the 1970s. I was the only one there.
The girl on reception was nice though. She made me sandwiches.
I’ll tell you what was funny – on the bus up to Galati, there was a guy who crossed himself three times every time we passed a church. As there are a LOT of churches in Romania, he was doing it pretty much constantly – although what cracked me up was after each time he had done his little routine, he would sniff his fingers.
I guess you had to be there…
The last two blogs aren’t true. I just made them up.
Sorry, it would have ruined the surprise.
Here’s what really happened…
When I was in Cyprus last Tuesday, I discovered that it would take two weeks from the date of application for my visa for my next country (Libya) to come through. I had not been made aware of this earlier (annoyingly enough) – I thought I was just going to pick it up at the border. This meant that no matter what I did in the next couple of weeks, I couldn’t continue with my journey. I might as well pick up the visas for Libya, Algeria and Central Asia from London myself.
I might as well…
Why the hell not, eh? It’s still part of the journey, it’s still in the spirit of The Odyssey; I can’t enter the kingdom of the nightwatchers without first gaining the magic amulet of visa. If I’m going to live my life as though I’m in a 1980s text adventure game, I might as well go the whole hog.
Home… a hot bath, fresh new clothes, a Full English and a roast meal… my family, my friends. It’s just too tempting.
I cooked up a scheme which would see a bunch of my mates teaming up at the Fact cinema in Liverpool on Saturday night and my family gathering around the table for a Sunday roast – I told nobody I was coming home – and hit the road.
I did honestly go to Istanbul on the overnight coach on Tuesday night, but that’s about as far I went without telling fibs. From there, I went to Bucharest, the capital of Romania (€50), and on Thursday night I headed over to Budapest, Hungary on another night train (€50).
Budapest was a bit of a headache, I arrived yesterday morning to find that the Eurolines bus to London was full and so I had to concoct some kind of plan B that wasn’t going to cost the Earth. If I got the train to Paris via Munich and Metz it would cost me in excess of €250, which is way out of my budget. Damnit – the days of buying a through-ticket from Istanbul to London are OVER. Nice to know that Europe had a better grasp of logistics back when Victoria was sitting on the throne and we all hated each other.
I headed over to the bus station to see if I could blag my way onto the London bus… no way, Jose. But there was a Paris bus that had a few seats left. That’d do – as long as I got to London before 6pm, I could get back to Liverpool in time. I got online and tried to buy myself a ticket on the Eurostar from Paris to London. Simple, eh?
It took me longer to buy the ticket than it takes to actually get from Paris to London on the damn train. Sitting on the floor of the skanky Budapest bus terminal, I came close to HULK SMASH levels of frustration. WHY DOES IT TAKE 10 DIFFERENT SCREENS TO GET YOUR DAMN TICKETS? Not everybody in the world has super-duper, fast fibre-optic asymmetrical data lines. Is there a low data-rate version for us poor souls hacking into someone else’s lousy wi-fi? Is there buggery.
I got to the final payment screen on 4 separate occasions only to be told there was a problem with the blah blah blah. I was in Budapest, it was covered in snow – I wanted to go out for a walk, see the place, do some filming, but no, the Eurostar website wouldn’t let me. It’s easier to get Glastonbury tickets.
In the end, I had to call the man of the hour, Stan Standryt, in London, blow my cover and get him to book my ticket for me (what a guy!). Eurostar, YOU SUCK. Hope you go bankrupt and the Channel Tunnel gets turned into a very long art gallery with moving walkways. Or, even better, a ROAD.
Well, my day in Budapest well and truly wasted. I scampered onto the bus to Paris and shut my eyes, hoping to open them in the land of red and white stripy shirts, black berets, old bicycles and garlic necklaces.
But the bus driver had other ideas… is it an EU regulation that buses have to stop every two hours and wake everybody up? Ha! Man, the buses in Turkey ROCK MY WORLD and the buses in the world’s two biggest economic superpowers – the US and the EU – SUCK! It’s a sad fact that public transport in Europe, while not as bad as Africa, is not much better. Having said that, at least in Africa you get what you pay for. Why does it seem to cost more to operate a European train or coach than it does an airplane?
So we stopped and started all the way through Austria, Germany and then through Strasbourg into France. By 9am on Saturday, we were passing Metz and well on our way to Paris.
The coach got in a whopping 20 minutes early (nice!) and so I had time to do a couple of things… one of which was to get a shot of me standing in front of the Eiffel Tower. It took a good hour negotiating the Metropolitan to get there, and once I did the top was covered in cloud! Bah!
Oh well, I got the shot I wanted and then legged it to Gare du Nord, the railway station for the Eurostar, hoping against hope that they would have a shower there – after 6 days on the road and no shower, I was beginning to smell worse than a Gregg’s pasty that’s been in a tramp’s pocket for three weeks. Nice!
Luckily for me, indeed there is a shower in Gare du Nord, unluckily for me it cost €7 and (being French) it smells of effluent. What’s that joke about French plumbers again? But any port in a storm – I don’t want to be turning up in Liverpool after all these months (and two spells in jail) smelling anything less than utterly delightful..
Attention Eurostar trains: not only is your website PAINFULLY difficult to use, your trains are dirty. Clean them. If they can keep my Merseyrail carriages sparkly clean when I’m only paying £1.50 to use them for an hour, then you can totally afford to scrub your rolling stock down once in a while? Got that? Good. I wanted to film out of the window, but it would look murkier than a Mike Leigh movie and I don’t want to depress the hell out of anyone today, thanks.
Soon enough, I was whisked through the Chunnel and arrived at the rather spankingly refurbished St. Pancras station although once again was impressed that the Victorians (bless their cotton socks) saw fit to use beautiful arching cast iron and plate glass to constitute a roof whereas the lazy drunken hacks that pass for architects these days opted for what looks a lot like plastic.
At St Pancras, I met up with Dan Martin, an old chum of mine from back in the day.. He writes for the NME and has been blagging me into gigs and festivals for free for most of the past decade, the top bloke that he is. After a couple of beers and catch-ups, I went to the Euston Station concourse to play the Euston Station Concourse Game. This is where a bunch of hapless commuters stand for the best part of an hour looking up at the information board which will… at any given moment… tell them what platform to run to with all their bags.
The platform used is allocated by ERNIE, the random number generating computer from the 1950s that they used for the football pools. The platform will be allocated 5-10 minutes after the train is due to depart and will only be valid for approximately 90 seconds, after which time the train will depart leaving behind the less athletic members of the great unwashed and anyone who got bored waiting and stupidly went to WHSmith to buy a paper.
This is the Euston Station Concourse Game and it gets even more fun EVERY TIME YOU PLAY IT!
Being somewhat of a public transportation expert these days, I did manage to cadge a place on the big empty train (well, with 99% of the population priced out of this glorious British institution, what do you expect?) and in just a jiff and a jaff, I was back in my beloved Liverpool. Cyprus to Liverpool in four days – without flying. In your FACE, Palin!!
I hurried through the crisp scouse night to the Fact cinema, a architectural carbunkle in the centre of my hometown, but the wi-fi is free and the bar is always empty (perhaps because it is about as aesthetically pleasing as a concrete box) so it was a good place to spring the surprise.
I took the lift to the top floor, took out my laptop and hooked myself up to Skype. There, I got in touch with Anna, my top mate who teaches girls how to pole dance (I only hang in Bohemian circles, darling). I had told everyone that I was in Italy, but we were going to have a virtual night out with me via the internet and Anna’s webcam – the idea being that a bunch of my mates would take the laptop out with them to the streets and bars of Liverpool. Of course, I was really in Liverpool – one floor above them… giggidy…
About thirty of my wonderful mates had turned up, but Anna’s tinny little Mac speakers were not up to the task of broadcasting to so many people, so I suggested they might hear me better if I came down stairs..
It was awesome. HELLO LIVERPOOL!!
So after many, many hugs and beers, we all set out into the night in search of magic and adventure. The Merseyside Derby (that’s when Everton plays Liverpool to you Johnny Foreigners) had taken place that afternoon and so the town centre was more jam-packed than usual with drunken scousers and by Jove, I had forgotten how much I missed this place. We managed to get chucked out of the Heebie-Jeebies, went to the swanky new Studio 2 in Parr Street, got into a fight with the bouncers at Magnet and ended up in a utter dive called Ko Samui wondering where the hell we were.
Well, the answer was simple – I was home.
December 25, 2011 by Graham
Filed under Albania, Belgium, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Croatia, England, Featured, France, Hungary, Kosovo, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, Macedonia, Montenegro, Romania, Serbia, Slovenia, Switzerland, The Netherlands
In the summer of 2007, myself and Stanley “Stan” Stanrydt, two grown men with the mentality of 13 year olds, set out on an epic journey across the heart of Europe in search of music, beer, broads and a decent sausage.
In a Mazda sportscar we christened ‘Traci Lords’ (she was underage but could still squeeze us both in), we shot through France, Belgium, Luxembourg, Germany, Switzerland, Liechtenstein, Slovenia and Croatia in order to arrive in Novi Sad, Serbia, for the rather epic Exit Music Festival, held in an ancient fort on the Danube river. There we watched the likes of the Beastie Boys and many other bands that I vaguely don’t remember.
After four days of drunken debauchery, we sobered up and decided to take the long way round back to the UK. So we went to Sarajevo and Mostar in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Dubrovnik in Croatia, rattled through Montenegro, got scared by the scary road in Albania, opted to take Traci out for a spin around the streets of Pristina, the capital of Kosovo, before dripping our toes in Macedonia, skirting the city of Sofia in Bulgaria and crossed back over the Danube into Romania.
After a spooky trip around Bran castle in Transylvania (where Dracula was supposed to have lived), we thundered hell for leather back to Liverpool via Hungary, Germany, The Netherlands, Belgium and France. A music festival and about twenty countries visited for no good reason other than we could? Now that’s MY idea of a holiday!!