Choo-Choo! Riding the rails ROMANIA style


Hey do you remember that old Guns n’ Roses song where Axl sings, “You know where you are? You’re in the jungle, baby! You’re gonna diiiiieeee……..”?

Well that used to be Romanian railroads, also known as Căile Ferate Române and for short CFR (pronounced chay-fay-ray).

Digression: CFR (the railways) have literally nothing to do with CFR the soccer/football team. Which you’ve probably never heard of either of them so I’m getting you more confused LOL

Ok where were we? Ah yes, CFR aka “The Jungle”. Romanian railways! It really was some kind of nightmare even for regular Romanians and just compounded by the fact I was a clueless foreigner who didn’t even speak the language. I’ll let Wikipedia kick it off with their delightfully wry prose:

After the 1989 revolution…. Romania was left with one of the largest, most dense and most frequently-used railway networks in Europe; but at the same time having relatively outdated infrastructure.

LOL “relatively outdated”. Yes. That’s like going to your friend and saying to him, “Hey, I’ve got this nifty new MP3 song on my iPad, want to listen to it?” and he curtly informs you all he’s got is his great grandmother’s phonograph and no, it does NOT have a “docking station”. And if you begin to berate him he will again curtly inform you that his musical listening apparatus is only “relatively outdated”.

The good news is that there was (still is?) a gigantic factory in the city of Craiova which made the longest-lasting and most durable train engines on the face of the planet – virtually indestructible. So no matter what, the actual thing, you know, pulling the train was always going to run.

The bad news was that the “cars”, all the other train modules (another digression here – I’m not a “train guy” so forgive me if the terminology is wrong LOL) where the people sit were all apparently dug out of the rubble after a World War 2 “fire bombing” and given one extremely thin coat of blue paint and shutta ya face, you will ride it and you will LIKE it!

So now, for your amusement, a brief re-cap of my very first train ride in Romania:

I got to the main Bucharest station, called Bucuresti Nord.

Brief digression: Just about every big city in Romania has a whole bunch of different train stations, differentiated by a direction on the compass, ex, north, east, west, south. For some unknown reason the main train station (aka the one YOU want to take) is always the north one (nord in Romanian). Always. Even if that train station is actually in the western part of the city. For example, in Timisoara, it’s Timisoara Nord even though it’s about 3km WEST of the damn city! Look it up on a map if you don’t believe me GRRR.

Anyway, where were we? Ah yes.

So I get to the main Bucharest train station somehow (don’t ask me – it’s lost in the fog of memory), which is Bucuresti Nord.

Which by the way, the train station is some kind of Axl Rose “you’re gonna diiiieeee” situation unto itself. It’s huge, it’s full of gypsies and a million people shouting and lounging around in leather jackets and spitting sunflower seeds and overhead bing-bong announcements and whatnot.

True story: Somehow, some way (hand to Jesus this is true) I ended up meeting some undercover police officer, who was standing around watching endless streams of people get off the trains and he told me he was watching Arabs in particular although he couldn’t tell me exactly why (he was undercover).

Digression from the digression: this wasn’t quite as weird as it sounds. During the Communist days the Arab countries (minus Egypt) were all super buddies and BFF so there were a lot of exchange students from Arab countries coming to Romania. Still are by the way.

So where was I? Oh yeah, the train station.

Somewhere in this maze there’s an open “hall of tickets” which looks like the world’s largest, crappiest bank because there are 312 “teller windows” (I counted them) and a surly CFR lady (always a lady) behind each one, encased in a super thick layer of bulletproof glass. And each “teller window” has a number and a little sign with some impossible to understand instructions on how she only sells SUPER DUPER specialized tickets to some place you’re not going and only if it’s on a Sunday and a leap year and both raining and the sun shining outside.

So you just pick a window at random and step up to the tiny “mouth hole” and shout where you want to go. And she gives you a surly look like you just deflowered her virgin daughter and then says a long sentence to you, which of course you can never hear. Never. So you just shout your destination again because quite frankly you don’t know what else to say.

You also can’t hear the motherf##!!*&%#ing price so you keep sliding money under the window until her scowl lessens slightly.

She shrugs and then begins writing and scribbling all over certain kinds of papers in a notebook and then there’s this gigantic metal machine with levers and dials and she does her little deal and little chunks of cardboard shoot out. And then she scribbles on the cardboard bits. Then she tears certain papers in half and finally give you your change and a small pile of cardboard bits and papers with scribbles on them.

You then say THANK YOU and bow your head three times Japanese-style and slowly back away from the window respectfully because it could’ve been much worse. Much worse!

Another digression: Seriously those were the “tickets”, little bits of cardboard with scribbles on them and incomprehensible symbols and holes and little other bits of paper with different scribbles. Not one place anywhere does it say, for instance, the name of the town you’re GOING to or anything. Or what time you’ll get there. Nothing!

Bucharest has about 15 different platforms and you hopefully guess which one is yours. Now you’ve got to find your “car” and seat on that car. Well each train has about 482 cars on it and the only difference is a tiny, super old metal sign on it that has the car number. So you trudge down the platform and double and triple check it’s the right car (meanwhile a million people are asking YOU if this is car 7 or whatever) and then swing yourself up.

Congratulations, you’ve passed the first hurdle. You are now ON a Romanian train! Break out the champagne.

At the end of the car is the bathroom, which you don’t need a sign to identify because the reek of fresh urine tells you all you need to know (and there’s no sign ANYWAY so neener neener). The rest of the car is a long, skinny hallway off to one side and the compartments taking up the rest of the space.

Which btw, even though the hallway is SUPER skinny and basically about as wide as one human person, there are always 52 people “lounging” in the hallway and you’ve got to suck in your gut and SQUEEEEZE past them. Almost all the hall loungers are guys so you end up rubbing up against a lot of asses and guts. Just saying.

So you squint at your fistful of cardboard and look for your seat assignment. If you’re riding in the “cheap seats” (which I almost always do) there’s between six and eight “seats” in each compartment. But in reality it’s a long bench with 3-4 people on a side and (hopefully) a little number above each “seat”.

BTW another digression here:If you have a “good seat” aka one by the window (and not in the middle of the bench) there’s always a fat guy with his portly wife sprawled out in YOUR seat with his little crossword puzzle out and bags of snacks all everywhere and he looks at you with woeful orphan eyes and goes “oh am I in your seat?” and you’ve got to be firm and waggle your finger at him and he’ll grunt and groan BUT he’ll move out from your place and then you get to sit on his pre-warmed indentation and then for the next 8 or 9 or 10 hours be the guy who “stole” his seat.

Finally the train whistles and chugs out of the station (on time – CFR is good about that USUALLY) and you sit there and watch the ugliest, crappiest neighborhoods of that town slide by your window. Then the speed picks up and the train is rocking and rolling and shaking and wind is whistling through windows and other unintentional openings and then begins Phase One of your CFR Adventure – Battle of the Drafts.

Romanians have a deathly fear of moving air aka “drafts” (draughts I guess for some of you) because they are known to carry the cold virus, tuberculosis, AIDS and cancer. So unless it’s literally Sahara desert hot outside, someone in your compartment is going to get all antsy about the drafts and begin closing windows and doors and making sure not one atom of moving air circulates.

This means if it’s NOT the coldest day of the year in deepest, darkest winter, you’re (probably) going to begin to sweat. DO NOT COMPLAIN! There is nothing you can do about it. Nothing I say, nothing! Just think of it as a “complimentary sauna” and CFR is a rolling health club and you’re “sweating out the toxins” so it’s a good thing. Ahhh…

Which another digression here, if it IS winter then you have unwittingly enrolled yourself in the lottery known as Too Much Heat or No Heat At All. Every compartment either has a completely broken heater or else one pumping out 40,000 BTUs of heat that will cook a raw chicken that you’re carrying in your suitcase as a present for your daughter’s cousin’s aunt’s wedding.

Another digression: in case you think I’m kidding about the NO HEAT AT ALL I one time rode in an unheated car in the winter time where snow was literally blowing in through a crack in the window and covering the passengers. No joke.

Then begins Phase Two of your adventure: The Conductor.

I have no idea what his or her name is in English but in Romanian they call him/her the “conductor”. This is a man or a woman in a navy blue CFR jacket, jaunty hat and a faded, worn out leather strap to hold his/her super magical device: the ticket puncher. After about 10 to 30 minutes into your journey, he or she will BAM slam open the door to your compartment and come in to inspect the tickets.

Since you are a tourist and an honest person, you of course have paid full price for your ticket so you hand over your fistful of cardboard and paper and he/she grunts and punches them and hands them back to you. But inevitably, someone in the compartment will either have no ticket at all or some kind of problem with their ticket and The Conductor and this person will get into a long argument and debate about Keynsian economics and Platonic ideals and the state of the Japanese yen and other sundry items.

Finally, The Conductor will relent and shrug and give the Bad Passenger a stern talking to with much finger waggling and the whole thing is over. The Conductor will then storm out of your compartment and go to the next one. And all the other passengers in your compartment will cluck their tongues and say “what is the world coming to?” and generally commiserate with the Bad Passenger.

Meanwhile you, the ignorant tourist, are enjoying gulps of fresh air entering into the compartment by The Conductor’s departure and failure to close the door. And then some passenger will notice again the evil drafts are entering and slam the door shut again.

Note: Sometimes the Bad Passenger is actually negotiating a bribe to pay The Conductor. Aha!

Phase Three – Battle of the Beggars

This begins after The Conductor has finished doing all their “conducting”. The order of appearance is not fixed but it always involves the same people.

Legless Man – He is dirty and slides around on his bottom with no kind of wheelchair or skateboard or orthopedic device of any kind. And he literally has no legs. He opens the door of your compartment and has a prepared speech about how bad life is and you are really some kind of dirty low-down heel if you don’t give him some money. Jeez he has no legs!

Mother and Small Child – Mom comes in with a small child in her arms and she has a sad face and tells you a long story about how she just wants to buy “a piece of bread” and can’t you help her out? And the little kid sucks on his/her thumb and both Mom and Child are inevitably quite filthy and dirty. Note: this part is played by Gypsies only.

Ragamuffin Kid – Not featured in every train ride but still quite popular is the Ragamuffin Kid, perhaps 6 to 9 years old, sometimes female, sometimes male. He or she is dressed in scrawny, filthy clothes with holes in them and often has a food stain on their face and/or clothes. Again, for Gypsies only.

For a bonus, peep your head out of the compartment and look at the end of the hallway. The Ragamuffin Kid’s parent will be lurking there, waiting to collect the money so he can buy himself another fine leather Gypsy hat.

Religious Playing Card Salesman – Usually a young man, he pops opens the door to your compartment, doesn’t say a word but lays a little “playing card” down on the seat next to you. On one side is a picture of an Orthodox saint. Cool, free card eh? NOT SO FAST! On the other side is the price.

Ten minutes later the RPCS will come back and if the card is in your hands, you must give him money for it. If you DON’T want the card, just leave it on the seat and he’ll give you a dirty look and scoop it back up and go try to peddle it in another compartment. Then you’ll burn in hell forever and ever because you were too much of a cheap bastard to buy a lucky saint’s religious trading card, sinner!

Deaf/Mute Salesman – This guy will come in with a big backpack and whip out a bunch of cheap Chinese doo-dads and geegaws and knick-knacks and place them on your seats. Some of the doo-dads will have flashing lights or make sounds. Sometimes you get toys, sometimes you get pens, sometimes something else. It’s a total crapshoot! One time I saw a passport protector.

If you’re male – scowl at the items but do not touch them and resume whatever you were doing.

If you’re female – it’s a law, you MUST pick up the items and examine each and every one of them. If you like it, the price is clearly marked and you get your money ready.

About 10 minutes later the Deaf/Mute guy will come back and scoop up any unclaimed doodads and geegaws and then take the money for his stuff. He will not thank you or say one word because he is allegedly deaf/mute, duh!

Note: there’s a variant of the Deaf/Mute Guy, which is instead of doodads and geegaws, he just puts a little square of paper on your seat which says “Help, I’m deaf/mute” and you’re just supposed to donate money when he comes back. You can’t keep the paper no matter what!

Meanwhile in the hallway there’s a secondary show going on, known as Rolling Vendors. These are people who roam up and down the hallways, selling items.

Gypsy Ladies – Usually they sell either perfume or gigantic Rambo knives. Or both. Why those two things, nobody knows.

Reading Material Guy – Sells magazines and newspapers. The newspapers are almost always “sports newspapers”, meaning 8 pages and full of soccer players and nothing else. The magazines are all strictly for women, either about celebrities or fashion or both.

He also always ALWAYS sells crossword puzzles and “word jumbles”. Romanians for some reason freaking love these things and no train ride is complete without doing a few crossword puzzles and word jumbles.

Drink Seller – Can be a man or a woman, carries around a big thermos of coffee (warning: it’s instant and HEAVILY sugared) and cold beers and sodas and basically… well drinks, duh. I used to be a stupid American prude but now I know hey, drinking a few brewskies on a long ride really DOES make it go faster.

Snack Seller – Peanuts, some kind of American candy bars (usually Snickers), perhaps sunflower seeds, pretzels (the little hard kind) and the like. If you’ve bought it in a vending machine before, likely this man or woman has it.

Yay! So now everyone has their snack of choice, some fine reading material, your ticket is punched, you’ve given some money to someone else and all the drafts are blocked off and you’re on your way.

Now begins Phase Four – The Stop At The Tiny Town That’s Not Your Destination.

With a tremendous screeching of the brakes, the train lurches into a town. What town? Good question! Each train station in Romania is identified only by a tiny, microscopic hand-lettered sign that’s impossible to view from 99% of the train cars. Therefore, all the men and some of the women will slide open the compartment doors, open the windows, lean out and all squint and ask their neighbor “Hey, where are we?”

Answer: a town you’ve never heard of and will never go to and since almost nobody is getting off or on the train, you’ve got to ask yourself why in the world are we even stopping there?

And despite the fact that all YOU can see is a weedy, overgrown set of train tracks and a super rusty line of freight cars across from you, it is required you hang your elbows out the window and spit and crack open a beer and light up a smoke and just talk about nothing in particular with your neighbor.

Uh oh! Then a man in a dignified grey CFR uniform will stand alongside the track and hold up a little rusty stick with a green circle on the end of it and the train will whistle an ear-splitting blast and chug, chug, chug the train will get rolling again.

Then you, the ignorant and sweaty tourist, will get a few magical moments of fresh air coursing through the train from all the various open windows until the Draft Police realize what’s going on and begin sealing up your compartment hermetically tight once more.

Phase Five – Stopping at a Big Town That’s Not Your Destination.

Romanians, who generally are not the most punctual people in the world, know when they’re getting close to their destination so they begin to pack up all their 52 suitcases and bags and head for the exit doors. They don’t do this a few minutes before the train arrives, hell no! They do it anywhere from 20 to 30 and sometimes FORTY-FIVE minutes beforehand. They all get their belongings together and cram into the end of the train (blocking off the bathrooms) and stand there jam-packed together.

If you, the ignorant tourist, are 100% sure the next stop is not your stop, you get tearful goodbyes from your fellow compartment buddies and then stretch out your legs and enjoy the extra space and perhaps even open the window if you’re the last one in there and defy the evil Draft Police and cackle at your own craftiness.

BUT if you’re not 100% sure it’s not your stop or perhaps maybe it IS your stop, you see everyone piling out into the hallway with all their bags and begin to panic and think oh jeez, I TOO must go stand in the line. Resist this thought! The train will be at any large station a LONG TIME and there’s always PLENTY OF TIME to get off. Romanians don’t believe it but yet it’s still true.

So the train finally screeches to a halt at some unknown Bigger Town that’s not your destination and then it takes 20 minutes for the jam at the end of the hallway to disembark and then you get to now assume the position of Hall Lounging Guy and open the windows and spit and drink a beer and clog up the hallway. Then you laugh like an evil clown as the New Passengers climb on board with their 50 suitcases and have to squeeze past YOUR gut now and find their way to their seats and of course now YOU have stolen the good seat “by accident” and only if they waggle their finger at you do you reluctantly slide your things over and let them sit on the spot that YOUR ass has pre-warmed.

Then the train chugs out of the station and The Conductor comes by and since he or she has memorized the faces of all 4,812 passengers whose tickets he/she already punched you can just ignore The Conductor and it’s fine – you never have to show your ticket again. Now YOU are the wily veteran and you can cackle at the Bad Passenger as they get scolded by The Conductor. Life is good! You’ve got a cold beer in your hand and a flashy doo-dad to play with and they’re all sweaty and thirsty and have nothing to occupy their time.

Phase Six – Yay! You Made It To Your Destination

By now you are an honorary member of CFR, you can’t remember a time when the world wasn’t a shaking, rattling compartment with brown vinyl seats. Your whole life is composed of staring out the window and watching the countryside go by. You’ve got many fine word jumbles all circled and completed and you’ve sat in every conceivable angle in your seat. You’ve lost 3 kilos of weight by sweating it out and are now trim and in shape, ready to conquer the world!

You’ve also lost track of time (despite your phone and watch and other devices) and are perhaps not 10000% sure that you’re approaching your destination. You see the scrum of Romanians piling up at the ends of the car and so you ask one of them if this is indeed your destination and they all nod vigorously because they’ve taken this train a million times and know every landmark. So now YOU get to haul your bags down off the rack and say tearful goodbyes to your fellow passengers and bunch up in the line.

And then the train screeches horribly and finally comes to a stop and the guy “manning” the door always, always opens it up while it’s still rolling so he can be sure to jump off literally the second the train stops moving. And then the old lady and the crying kid and all of your other fine passengers going to the Same Town hand down their luggage to their tearfully awaiting relatives and friends and you glance out the door and breathe deep the air of Your Destination and smile and then try to climb down the super steep stairs and then find one square centimeter of open space on the platform. But you do it!

You have arrived! Congratulations!

Or something like that LOL. My first CFR ride ever was from Bucharest to Cluj and since I had no watch OR phone (I know, I know, I’m an idiot) I was forced to ask the guy in my compartment if this was indeed Cluj. He didn’t speak English whatsoever so I just said, “Cluj?” with a question mark in my voice.

And that bastard waggled his fingers and said, “Nu! Cluj-Napoca” and I instantly panicked thinking that there were 20 or 30 different cities in Romania with “Cluj” in their name and that “Cluj-Napoca” was somehow a different “Cluj” than the town I wanted to go to, which was named “Cluj” (or so I thought). Actually though it’s the same freaking town since there’s only one. Gave me a heart attack though LOL

If you’ve enjoyed my sea captain style of storytelling and are thinking of coming to Romania so that YOU TOO can enjoy the adventures of CFR, I have some bad news for you. It’s almost all very modern now.

The tickets are all printed out by a computer and are legible and show you what TIME you arrive. There’s no more mysterious squiggles and cardboard bits. The cars are almost all modern and new with real “chairs” instead of vinyl benches and heck, even the bathrooms are generally usable now. Quite sad, really. Might as well just go ride a train in Germany or France or something.

THOSE DAYS ARE LONG GONE, MY FRIEND!

PS – True story – back in the “good old days” I was riding on the train and it was boiling hot outside and so the Draft Police let down their guard and all the windows were open. We were passing through some area just north of Brasov where apparently the local folks pile up gravel or dirt in enormous piles and so choking clouds of dust were circulating throughout the train.

I was standing at the end of the car and the freaking train door was wide open and the train was jiggling and shaking and it was incredibly easy for a person to make one slip and bam, out the door you go to your untimely and messy death.

So I’m just standing there at the end of the train car with the wide-open door and clouds of dust whirling around and the little door between the cars opens up and a guy comes into “my” car. And he was clearly American (by his “accent”) and asks me in English if this is car number 7 and I just shrugged and said “No” because it wasn’t. And the guy just pauses and looks at the open door and asks me (in English again LOL), “Hey, why is the door open?”

I slowly turned my head and looked at him and didn’t say anything for a few moments and then I stated in my best deadpan voice, “First time in Romania, eh?” LOL!!!

True story ;)

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48 Responses »

  1. Take me down to Stalin City
    where the grass is concrete (concrete)
    and Steagul Rosu girls are gritty…

    Oh, man, takes me back, takes me back…the color of those vinyl seats was indeed the color of s**t–what a capital idea. Love the typologies.

    As Homer would say: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8DYje57V_BY

    “It’s funny ’cause it’s true”

    Glad to have stumbled upon (if terribly belatedly) this awesome site!

  2. that cluj-napoca business is stupid. nationalistic communists put the ”napoca” in there in the 70s as it’s the name of the old roman town that stood there. logical, right? the same with drobeta in drobeta turnu severin. as if turnu severin wasn’t long enough. idiots.

  3. Have you ever attempted Righteous Scolding on The Conductor? I did that once, because it was 11AM in the middle of summer, it was getting quite hot and the heating was still running (it had been a chilly morning… 4 hours earlier). It was on one of the new Blue Arrow trains… turns out the heating was on because some guy on the other end of the train car had a cold and he asked for the heating to be turned on that morning. Jeez. Never scold The Conductor…

  4. Tip #3: Drinking eight to ten glasses of water each day because
    it also flushes out nasty toxins as well. The tea promotes
    burning of fat for energy. I finished my first triathlon.
    Remember, maintaining a Weight Loss Workout Plan plan for
    you. The actress and singer welcomed her first child, Luca,
    with husband Mike Comrie in March and it’s been paying off. Only see their before and after weight loss workout plan success. Cauliflower is low in fat.

  5. I LOVE it but then I AM the one who made your father grow one! So go fugire. If you shave your head and keep the beard, you’d have to do that whole Chinese kungfufighter kind of look and that would be well so ethnic. I love it -but since when does my vote carry any weight?

  6. Congrats, probably you best story! Excellent writing.

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