I was heading out of Romania, to Serbia, with some apprehension, a little upset after two weeks mostly enjoying Romania. There was still so much I hadn’t seen: the Danube Delta, the Black Sea, Maramureş…
The train hurtles at a scary 30mph along the valley. The carriages mostly still have cabins for six or eight people, and there’s always a slight concern who will be sharing it with you. Today a middle aged couple with stern faces came in to join me. He was wearing a black leather waistcoat, a white shirt with flowers embroidered on it and was carrying a bag full of wood carvings. It occurred to me that he must have been a wood carver from the open air museum. His wife seemed like a Romanian Rula Lenska, orange from fake tan with metallic coloured hair piled high on her head. After realising I didn’t speak Romanian, they decided they didn’t like me, and stared at me angrily for the next two hours. I pressed my nose to the window, watching the dogs chasing the train, the storks and eagles flying above the cornfields, and the shepherds with their felt hats leading herds through pasture. Every so often I would see a cow being taken for a walk, on a rope held by an old man or woman, chewing grass by the side of the line or a road we’d cross.
Half way to Timişoara and I was joined by a Romanian man who seemed to have been created by Paul Whitehouse. He wore purple trousers, black shoes with white socks and a ‘Mandela’ shirt of green and mauve and grey shapes. He had a handlebar moustache, of course, and sat down with his two sons, both about nine, who excitedly said hello and looked out of the window, pointing at every goose or tree or fisherman along the banks of the huge Mureş river. They offered me sunflower seeds, which they ate tidily, unlike anyone in the rest of Central Europe, collecting the husks in a bag not spitting them on the floor.
The boys discussed in Romanian where I might be from. English? No, for some reason. American perhaps? No, Australian, said their dad. I kept my harrumph to myself. They prodded each other to think of something English to say to me, whispering in each others’ ear and giggling. Dad said haven’t you learnt anything? They kept thinking and sneaking glances at me, while I pretended not to notice.
Eventually one plucked up courage to try out his English, perhaps for the first time ever with someone who actually spoke it as a first language. Timidly he looked over at me and said, “Fuck your mother, fuck your brother.” Dad, oblivious to what he had actually said, gazed on proudly as I smiled and nodded in understanding.
Timişoara is the ancient capital of the area in the west of Romania, the Banat, which once covered much of Serbia, Croatia and Hungary too, the borderlands populated by Germans, Ruthenians, Serbs, Jews, Vlachs, Romanians, even Spaniards, as a buffer between the Austrian and Ottoman empires. Although I had to be up at 5am and only had a few hours to sleep, I wanted to get a quick feel for the city. I got a slow tram in the rain that went the long way round into the centre of town, but eventually booked into a hotel for a few hours. I wandered round the centre for a while, wanting to savour my last few hours in Romania.
I decided to get one last Romanian meal, maybe my favourite ciorba de fasole and a beer of the famous Timişoareana brand, brewed since 1717. I should have realised that the restaurant I chose was actually a Serbian one – the fact that the waitress came to my table within a couple of minutes rather than leaving me to linger for 20 minutes; the spicy food on the menu; the people in the restaurant all being a foot taller and a foot wider and frankly like a bouncers’ convention; and not least the fact that the name of the resturant was ‘Serbian Restaurant’. No matter, the mutton sausage was cheap and good and quick, and I got my local beer.
I was alone in my cabin on the train to Belgrade the next day, due to take just three or four hours. At some point just before the border, the train halted. There was suddenly a lot of activity, as men ran along the side of the train. Just below my window, a man pulled open a tank or something. He then ran back and picked up a box, whish he stuffed into the tank. Then he got another, and another. I strained to see what the boxes were of, without wanting to draw attention to myself. They were duvet covers, dozens and dozens of duvet covers.
When the train started up again, Romanian customs officers and policemen checked passports and pulled the seats apart looking for smuggled goods. I wasn’t about to blow the cover on the international duvet cover smuggling cartel, so I smiled and handed my documents over. Then the Serbian guards came too, and went through all the same motions. A little while later we pulled into Pančevo on the Danube, and then we were a frenzy of activity again. Even more people appeared, with carts and wheelbarrows. Duvet covers seemed to appear from every place, piled high and wheeled off into the backstreets of the town.
Once the frenzy had died down, the train went on. It wasn’t long before we crossed the Danube and pulled into Belgrade, then over the Sava into Novi Beograd, through the gypsy slums with houses made of carpet and corrugated iron, and into Belgrade Central station across the Sava again. It was hot and I was eager to explore the city about which much has been said, but little to tell me what experience I would have.