One year ago, I packed my bags and left my apartment in Ljubljana, Slovenia, headed for the train station. I’d been living in Ljubljana for nearly five months, and with the exception of a few brief days in the U.S. for Christmas, and handful of daytrips, I hadn’t left the country.
That might sound a bit odd to phrase it that way, but when you are living in a foreign country the size of the state of New Jersey with the population of its biggest city hovering around 300,000, it seems more odd to have not taken a bus or train for the equivalent of $15 to another country (say, Italy) that is a mere hour or two away.
But that day last year, I was headed on a train to Budapest, Hungary—a train that was to take nearly 10 hours, though the drive from Ljubljana was less than half that. The idea of trains taking you anywhere quickly in the Balkans and in some parts of Central Europeis somewhat of a joke, though the fares are cheap and the coaches safe and clean. The train called the Balkan Express is an oxymoron of sorts, or at least pretty ironic.
In any case, I thought about the train toBudapestlast weekend, as I boarded the bus from Kennedy Plaza in Providence to the Times Square area in New York City. Last year, and on many of my European travels, I’d been alone. This time, I was with my mother.
That is the benefit of living back home: being able to travel with someone you know and love, I thought, as I closed my eyes and fell asleep under the soft darkness of a rainy 6 a.m. sky. While I missed having the ability to walk up to the train station with my student status and take a train nearly anywhere in Europe for $15 – $50, my adventures didn’t have to be cut short just because I was no longer living in Europe. The U.S. is a big country, with much to explore, and it’s beautiful and exciting in different ways than Europe is.
New York: here I come! I thought. Right after this peaceful nap.
But as I closed my eyes, I was again reminded of the train ride toBudapest.
The sounds of a woman’s voice drifted toward me. It is not possible to shut one’s ears the way it is to shut one’s eyes, though I often wish that were a possibility. Right then, in fact, I wished it was a possibility. The rhythm of the woman’s music was thumping irregularly against my seat back, as uneven sounds at various volumes were emitted from an iPod-like device that I couldn’t see. At sporadic moments, and in half-phrases or pairs of words, the woman was singing along in high volume.
So much for the nap.
A year ago, on the train ride toBudapest, I’d shut myself up in my compartment on the train. There were six seats, three on each side, facing each other, and a small accordion door that separated the seats from the narrow passageway on the coach, Harry Potter-style.
I awoke with a start when the sound of two giggling girls and their English-language pop music began attacking my ability to stay asleep in the puddle of Hungarian sun I’d found on one side of my cabin.
That time, instead of closing my eyes and trying to fall back to sleep, I jumped up and put my ear to my cabin door.
English voices! Not just foreigners speaking English, which I heard, though rarely inSlovenia: but girls from England, singing along at full volume to a terrible pop song with a strong downbeat that I knew and loved from back home.
I pulled my backpack from the shelf above my seat, abandoned my spot of sun, and practically sprinted out of my cabin.
“Hello!” I said, as I entered their cabin. “Where are you from?”
Immediately, we found the bond that forms between native speakers of the same language in a foreign country. It also helped that we were nearly the same age: all three of us in our mid-20s.
They had just quit their jobs inEnglandto travel Europe, and had passed throughLjubljanaafter visitingItalyand hoped to spend some quality time inBudapest. The idea was crazy, they knew, but they said that when they realized how crazy it actually was to quit their jobs, especially in this economy, they just knew they had to do it. Now was the time, they said, to do crazy things—before they got older and lost their nerve.
I was translating fiction on a grant inLjubljana, I said, and using my designated free days to meet a friend from college inBudapest, where we planned to stay for only three days before taking trains to Slovakia, the Czech Republic, and Austria, where we’d spend one day each before heading back to Slovenia.
“Want to play cards?” the girls asked, as they pulled out cut up pieces of notebook paper. They were on a budget, they said, and they’d cut and numbered scrap paper, replacing the traditional suits with hand-drawn images of sheep and other farm animals. The pop music continued to blare out of their iPods.
And so it went on the train ride toBudapest, all ten hours of it.
As it did last weekend, on the train ride toNew York: it wasn’t until we’d nearly reached the outskirts of New York City when the singing wonder behind me stopped and stared out the window.
Some things, regardless of country or continent, will just always be the same.
This was published last week by the Stonebridge Press and Villager Newspapers.