One winter, I undertook a train journey from London to Greece – London (UK) – Paris(France) – Stuttgart(Germany) – Munich(Germany) – Zagreb(Croatia) – Belgrade(Serbia) – Thessaloniki(Greece).
It was a trip I had contemplated for a while. Travel by train is perhaps one of the experiences I extract the greatest pleasure from and I wanted to recreate my experiences as a teenager inter-railing through Western Europe. What better way, than to make a long journey by train to a country I had dreamt about for so long – Greece.
Inauguration Coffee and Breakfast
Six. I counted the number again. I would need to take six trains from London to get to Thessaloniki in Greece, then another train to Athens and a flight to Chania in Crete where I would finish my trip after travelling through five countries. The anticipation of my journey was overwhelming, and I smiled at everyone, including the French border police. I got nothing in return.
The girl at the café, multitasker extraordinaire, smiled back.
‘What time do you start work?’ I asked, a little surprised at her positivity.
‘Four. Before dawn break. I work six days a week.’
‘And when do you finish?’
‘Two in the afternoon. I sleep for a bit and then have the evening to myself.’ She pushed my coffee towards me with a firmness. Nice conversation, but it must end, to cater to the many customers in the queue behind me.
In the train, the attendant had a cart with trays of hot breakfast and fresh orange juice. I wondered who they would be for. Then I realized she was offering one to me. I took the tray with no question. When I had finished, I noticed my ticket included breakfast. The last time I did such a journey, I was a teenager. Now, more than a decade later, I reminded myself of the joys of adulthood, though they can be hard to recount in daily life.
A South Indian lunch in Paris
Paris received me subdued in fog and layers of drizzle. I walked to Sacre Coeur avoiding the crowds. There was a quietness in the back streets and I found myself in a South Indian restaurant eating dosas as Sanskrit chants played in the back and a Tamil waiter had a long conversation in French with an old lady sitting in front of me.
The ticket inspector on the train to Stuttgart, gave me a splattering of instruction in German. I didn’t understand the words, but I managed to get the context. We were to change the train at a certain time to go to Munich. An Australian couple asked me for details assuming I spoke German and I let this lie live on forever in their minds.
In the train from Stuttgart to Munich, our coach had six seats. I spent the ride talking to a Canadian-Austrian couple about Canada, languages and more.
Ladybugs for Luck
Munich was cold and swept by spells of rain, but I stood clutching my umbrella in the Marienplatz, taking in the details of the Gothic architecture. How much of this had been destroyed by the war?
At dinner, the owner of the restaurant talked to me about my trip and gave me a little ladybug for luck.
The night train from Munich to Zagreb seemed to be divided up into sections, each of which would break up and go to a different country. After a long walk, I found the right coach and a Croatian lady helped me talk to the ticket attendant.
I slept well and woke up as the sun rose, lighting up the hills of Slovenia. The attendant brought us breakfast and then we arrived in Zagreb.
I stood in queue as a lady exchanged Euros to Kuna, with no sense of urgency. This was also someone’s job. I had but a few hours, but hunger spurred me on. I ran to the bakery and then the market, to buy bright red paprika, bread, cheese, nuts and fruits.
The sun lit up the square, its crowds, the cathedral and I stood a while watching the blue trams snake past it all, pleased by a tiny glimpse into this old city.
At the station, I met a girl who had been cycling from London and was on her way to Greece. We puzzled together over why all the signs seemed to state departure time from the previous station, but not the time at which the trains were expected to arrive in Belgrade.
On to Belgrade
The train to Belgrade arrived slow and late. I sat at a seat clutching a large book about the Balkans. So far, I had managed a few pages each time, filled as they were with back to back wars. This time, it helped initiate a conversation with two Macedonians from Slovenia and two Hong Kong-Filipinos from London. The five-hour train ride was very pleasant, enhanced by our conversations. The train stopped for visa checks. The border police came and took just my passport. This had the attention of the entire carriage as I waited at the edge of my seat for it to be returned. The police came back many moments later and gave me my passport. I was a little unsettled, but the episode was forgotten after the coffee two Serbian grandmas bought me and a large slab of dark chocolate that a Serbian man decided to give us as a welcome present. The hospitality and kindness that travel seems to bring out in us never ceases to amaze me and I aspire to bring that attitude back to my daily life.
Belgrade station was dark and deserted. I bid goodbye to all my train companions and made my way fighting the wind to my hotel room, dreaming of a shower.
My spirits were lifted by the morning sun and a Serbian breakfast. I sang to myself as I walked to Saint Sava cathedral. I stopped from time to time to look at bullet holes in communist blocs.
In the cathedral, they were attempting to install a mosaic in the dome, a task of gargantuan proportions. The crypt was golden and everyone walked around kissing the statues and portraits without saying a word.
I spent a few hours in the national library, looking at an exhibition of the Cyrillic script if it were re-imagined. I walked past shelves upon shelves of books about ‘Yugoslavia’ and sat in different spaces to see what the students there were studying. Finally, when I was sat by a mathematician, the librarian came and shooed me out, insisting I needed a pass to be there.
The streets were full of children singing Serbian Christmas songs. I stopped a few times, till I realized some of the songs were recorded. I watched the sun set over the Sava river in Kalemegdan, the Belgrade fortress, thinking about the number of sieges, wars and deaths it had seen over the last thousands of years.
Everyone in Belgrade seemed to smoke indoors, and so did my train companions. To my surprise, the attendant decided to put them all together in one cabin and give me one to myself. In the morning, the mountains of Macedonia towered all around. Scenes from the film, Before the Rain played in my mind. I was moved to realize I was passing through these lands that had seemed very distant some years ago.
Arriving in Greece
We took a bus to cross the border into Greece, the roads and signs changing, until finally, Thessaloniki greeted us. I walked in the heat, grinning hard, past temples and the old town to arrive at my hostel, surrounded by a sunny residential calm. The staff of the hostel were the friendliest I ever met. They welcomed me with a frappe and a slice of homemade carrot cake for Christmas eve.
Expecting a quiet and dead place, I was taken aback by what seemed like an entire city-party, people spilling into the streets, drinking, having barbecues and chatting. I met a colleague from London and she laughed as she explained that everyone in Thessaloniki came out to party on Christmas eve.
The sea glittered, its blue dazzling against a bright sun. I walked along this sea, till my legs tired, unable to leave its grasp, till I decided it would be appropriate to visit an orthodox church. Several grandma and young priests seemed to have had the same idea. A grandma gave me a piece of bread and some wine. The priests sang in an ancient tongue, a deep and rich harmony that reverberated through the walls of the church.
The power of religion baffles me. On one hand, it may lead to a fanaticism that can be dangerous. On the other, it may lead to an appreciation of some power greater than us, around us, but also within us.
The power of those Greek chants in a musty church on Christmas eve in Thessaloniki, thousands of miles from my adopted home in London, and several thousands more from my birth home in India, led me to a contentment and a sense of awe. I was in awe of human beings who undertook long journeys, like the girl who cycled from London to Greece, the brothers who took the train like me but to Bulgaria, and the countless people in the centuries gone who made these trips without the luxuries we now have at hand. What could possibly compel us to do these things, but a curiosity for the unknown and of the vastness of the world, the search for difference in order for the similarities to become apparent. What could compel us, but some greater power within us.