It was a cold blustery evening in Bucharest's main station. I stood with my teeth chattering, waiting for Zug 383 to arrive from Moscow and take me to Sofia. The station was dark, damp and dirty, but nothing so terrible that I regretted my decision to take the train instead of flying. The nice warm pizza was rapidly transforming into solid ice. An American lady was making a loud noise, making inquiries from all about the train and punctuating her demands by repeating again and again, "Do you speak English?" The locals uneasily edged away. She declared she didn't have a reservation. Why was that necessary for an overnight berth, for heaven's sake.
The train arrived, more or less on time, and I found my rather nice compartment. It seemed from another very practical Russian era, with plenty of niches to put my luggage. It was warm and cosy in my coupe. I waited for my fellow passenger.
The door opened. An old Japanese gentleman – Oku-san – came in. It was quite a surprise to meet such a person in Romania of all places (he must have thought the same about me). Anyway, we got chatting and swapped tales about Japan, Romania and Bulgaria, his experiences, the writer Yukio Mishima ("very sensational, he die") and so on. I spoke in my broken Japanese. All went well.
We settled in our berths, with warm clean blankets thoughtfully provided by the railways. The train moved quite noiselessly and swiftly. A few berths away, the American lady was loudly asking the polite ticket collector if she needed to pay for the berth and so on.
The train stopped at some remote Romanian outpost. It was foggy and chilly outside, from what I could see. Two gendarmes clambered aboard and knocked hard on each door. One of them pushed aside the door.
He grabbed my proffered passport and looked at me carefully.
"Where you go?" he asked roughly.
"Sofia" I said, in my best East European accent.
He took our passports away and disappeared, leaving us quaking. But he was back in ten minutes with our passports stamped.
We drifted off to sleep again.
Once again, the train came to a halt – we must have crossed the Danube into Ruse, the city via which the great General Alexander Nevski came through to liberate Bulgaria from the Ottoman Turks in 1878. It was pitch dark outside and very cold. A new set of gendarmes clambered on board. The same set of actions happened – the Bulgarian guy who opened the door could have had a Romanian twin.
"Where you go?" he asked roughly.
"Sofia" I said, in my best Bulgarian accent.
It obviously wasn't good enough, because he rattled off my passport number on the walkie talkie and waited for someone to say something. After a few minutes I heard my name pronounced on the walkie talkie and the words "Bootsnall".
The gendarme's face fell, he stamped my passport quickly, saluted and retreated. His face was unnaturally pale. I smiled a gentle smile. They disappeared in the fog and I heard muffled yells and scuffles and perhaps a shot or two. An ominous silence descended on the cold night. Soon, the train whistled and started chugging.
Oku-san watched me, amazed. He had not realized how powerful and influential I was. He retreated to a corner. I clambered up to my bed and fell asleep.
Sofia arrived. Oku-san had vanished. I shrugged. First impression was really nice – an old world train station. It was very difficult getting my Euros changed to Bulgarian Leva, but I managed.
I was ripped off immediately by the taxi guy, but the rest of the day was pleasant