The trip starts in typical Balkan style: late. The 12-minute train delay notice is predictable but discouraging after I had just almost run from the grocery store trying to make sure I wouldn’t go hungry on the train ride from Ljubljana to Belgrade, Serbia. The conductor is plenty confident that all passengers are at the station by the time he rolls in though, as only about three minutes pass before the engine starts churning again.
The interior of the train was obviously designed by someone who fancied cloudy days and neutral colors. I sit in one of the main striped blue-and-gray seats and peer out the window (and through a few layers of dust). A swoop of graffiti paint forms an arch in the lower right corner of the window. I seriously doubt a single train exists around here with the original paint color peering through the bottom.
A jovial mood permeates the cabin, brought on by the ticket master and his apparent two acquaintances. The man must know them since he spends most of the train ride seated with and telling jokes to the two ladies seated a few rows in front me. At every train station we pass a train employee is standing in the archway entrance to the platform. Each railway employee is clad in a dark teal uniform and accompanying red cap.
I am overcome by a sense of vertigo as the train winds its way through the valleys and rivers of Slovenia. The fog is so thick here that a glance out the window appears more like the view over a cliff than into the mist two meters off the ground. It is as though our train follows the edge of the earth, our vehicle somehow traveling in balance beside a great drop or drift into endless clouded sky.
We arrive to the Croatian border in under two hours. The Croatian train crew is fitted with stellar uniforms which rival those of top airlines. The folks awaiting rides on the station platform are mostly wearing track pants. I soon spot skyscrapers in the distance and realize we are approaching Zagreb, the Croatian capital. The city shows signs of urban sprawl. It is continuously expanding and trying to find a way to adapt to its newest inhabitants. This is an odd reality after coming from a city where one basically reaches rural land by driving just 15 minutes in any direction from the center of the city.
The train is slowing to a stop again, a movement I’ve come to expect on this ride from Ljubljana to Belgrade. We have finally reached the Croatia-Serbia border. A train employee is outside walking the length of the train with a long hammer in one hand. I can only speculate as to why he might need that. The girl in the seat across from me has been working on her mother’s makeup for the past thirty minutes. Both have raven dark hair, black shoes and striped shirts. I am beginning to think I did not dress well to blend in, though that was never the point anyways. Two weeks on the road means that fleece sweaters and running pants will always win. The Serbian border police board the train and begin asking everyone for their documentation. My passport must not be such a common sight at this crossing. The officer is curious: Where am I going? How long am I here? Do I speak Serbian? Where do I go next? What’s in the bag? Satisfied with my answers, he adds a faint stamp to the middle of my passport book, says to have a nice day, and continues onto the next passenger. I put my cyrillic into use for the first time: Србије…meaning Serbije, part of the name Republic of Serbia.
I detect the scent of cigarette smoke. I can’t be sure at this point if people are actually lighting up inside the car or if our newest passengers just can’t get the smell off of their clothes. After two weeks in this country though, I wouldn’t doubt the latter. I sit and unwillingly breathe it in as folks enter the car and take their seats. By now, the train has been stopped at least 25 minutes at this station.
When the train starts rolling again, the sun is beginning its descent behind us. I suppose it’s just as well: northern Serbia, and most of northern Croatia for that matter, is a great expanse of flat farm fields, spanning an eternity from the train tracks to the nearest road. These giant fields stand in start contrast to what I have come to know in Slovenia. No longer are the crops grown on small and varied plots sitting below mountains or along rolling hills. They resemble more what I see back home: larger than life cropland which continues as far as the eye can see.
We finally approach Belgrade, a city of lights winding around the Danube. Written station names seem irrelevant around here, but the woman in front of me is kind enough to let me know once we’ve reached the glaven kolodor. It is not like I could have gone further anyways; Beograd is the end of the line for train EN415. I do a double check for all of the belongings, swing on the backpack, and follow the rest of the passengers out the door. The crowd of people moves away from the train towards the exit to the station. On the other side of the peeling yellow building stand storefronts, apartments, five lanes of traffic, and neon street signs looming in the dark night. Here, I have reached Beograd.