True Tales of Riding the Rails in Romania

Sadly, as I detailed at length here, riding the rails here in Romania ain’t quite what it used to be.

Simply put, for me riding CFR, especially in those “heady days of yore” was quite often akin to Teddy Roosevelt sailing off to Africa in search of adrenaline. It was quite an adventure for me, especially since I started out at almost zero knowledge of Romania, Romanians, Romanian language or anything useful at all :P

Consider these akin to “fish stories” if you will, they’re here for the record.

Gypsies and Pigeons

While jiggling along in the open-air compartment on a Personal train, we stop for a moment at what is literally a wide patch of grass in the middle of a field.

Bom! Up hops five to six gypsies, each one clutching a pigeon in their arm. Closer inspection shows they’re all using an identical kind of “sleeper grip” on the pigeons, their head pushed down under their wing, making them quite somnolent.

Sweatbox Fight Club

Earlier this year, The Woman and I went to Felix. Our return train home, however was right in the middle of a surprisingly hot afternoon and it had heated up like an oven even before we got on board. There was no A/C and for some bizarre reason, the windows were impossible to open.

As the six of us made our way into the compartment, we all immediately felt our bodies sheeting with sweat. It was clearly sauna level of both heat and humidity, as we were parked in a glass-lined giant rusty steel box.

Despite our collective group mind trying to find a solution, none was to be found – and yet tempers were rising and armpits were oozing. Every bottle of water removed from a bag caused jealous attention.

Even the conductor couldn’t open the windows even with his special tool. I knew he was trying his best because throughout the journey he kept returning to flirt with a girl in our compartment – although, side note, he failed miserably :P

The Big Muddy

Ok not on a train itself, but inside the main Bucharest train station. Hey, sometimes you got to go and this time my unlucky ticket was “punched”.

You have to head down some dank, echoing stairs that reek of urine and are often quite wet and slick. At the bottom is the tollbooth from hell, a miserable stinking little tile “ticket booth” where a troll-like man (sometimes woman) sits underneath the flickering lights and charges you 1 leu (10,000 old lei) to use the fine facilities.

He mutters as he hands over filthy wads of wrinkled change and about three squares of brown toilet paper, looking and feeling basically like ironed out tree bark. At this point you notice there is actually several inches of watery sewage on the floor that you have to wade through.

Ok, so far that’s just your nose and the bottom of your shoes that have been violated. But you’re at the Bucharest train station because you’re going somewhere so you have a large, heavy backpack with you.

Once you slosh your way into some kind of lockable stall, it’s basically a ceramic fountain of human excrement. Then you have to simultaneously keep halfway bent and yet still support your luggage so you touch absolutely nothing. For me, both of my legs were literally shaking from the violent effort of not letting anything get wet.


Peace Corps Newbies

Pulling into the fine, fine city of Ploiesti, my previously empty compartment was quickly filled by five bubbly, fresh-faced youths. Their eager jabbering in English was easily identifiable as being pure USAmerican. After a few moments of me unabashedly checking them out, I piped up and began talking.

I quickly found out that they were literally fresh off the boat from the United States and in the Peace Corps, about to head out into the field somewhere in Romania. My eyes widened in horror as I realized these gentle lambs were being sent out in such a state.

At this point, we had about 30 minutes until we arrived in Bucharest (see story above!) and so I immediately turned into something akin to a sports coach and they my optimistic bunch of rookies and I gave them a crash course in how to survive here.

The Scrabble Nerd

A few years ago, I took a very long (13 hour) train trip to the seaside/beach with a friend of mine. In our compartment was a young man and we struck up a conversation with him. He was a pale, thin man with a somewhat serious countenance.

He informed us he was going to the seaside to engage in a national Scrabble tournament. To prepare for it, he had an enormous number of books, which he showed us. When we got to our final destination, we wished the nerd well at his competition.

A few days later, as we headed back to Cluj, suntanned and tired, we chanced to come upon the same fellow who coincidentally was once again in our compartment. He was sullen and downcast, having not done very well at his tournament. He was notably still as white as when we had last seen him, and upon further inquiry, he acknowledged he had spent the entire weekend indoors.

Defecate in a Bag

I was in a compartment with a few people, including a rather suntanned woman with a young child, perhaps 1 to 2 years of age. At some point, the mother asked the child if it needed to defecate and it squealed its reply in the affirmative.

The mother got out a cheap plastic bag and unfurled it with a snap of her wrist. I imagined that the bag was to be employed in the bathroom as some kind of cleanliness aid, which I heartily would have endorsed, had that been the case.

Instead, the mother walks two paces into the hallway and sets the plastic bag, opened, on the floor. She then yanks down the kid’s pants and lifts him up and over the bag for him to defecate in.

Just then, the train screeched into a station. The woman continued to hold the kid, still defecating, in the hallway as new passengers filed onto the train.

Crashing Into A Truck

One time while on board a train in the summer, there was a tremendous shudder and the train came to an immediate halt. A flying piece of debris WHACKED on the glass, starring it severely but luckily not breaking it.

As dense black, oily fumes began pouring in through the windows, we clambered out the doors to see what had happened. Farther up the road, we saw flames and dense black smoke billowing out of a TIR, a large truck/lorry that the train had struck.

After an hour or so, we resumed our travels. The oily smoke however had covered every surface, including our skins, with a greasy black layer. We looked like coal miners. Everything from the seats to the windows to our clothes were covered and it happened nearly instantly, so a lot of people had touched or sat on things covered in the oily residue.

There was a line to the bathroom and everyone scrubbed as best as they could but I completely lost a (white) shirt to the incident. Unbelievably, the guy driving the truck, while injured, wasn’t killed.

The Pickpocket

On my way back to Cluj, I left my compartment and headed down toward the exit to stand by the door. In the hallway was a large man of considerable girth and I had to brush by quite closely over his front, which was weird enough to make me question what was going on.

A few moments later, he comes to where I am and suddenly has an urgent need to use the bathroom. Again he squeezes by me just barely and then goes into the bathroom for just a moment. As he slides past me (now a third time) I begin to wonder what is going on.

I check my pockets and realize my mobile phone is missing. I hadn’t felt a thing but I knew instantly that the large guy was a pickpocket and had lifted my phone when he brushed by me. It was a completely professional job.

As the train was pulling into Cluj, I knew there was only one thing I could do. I walked back down the hallway to where the large guy was standing, looking around non-chalantly. I saw his enormous, meaty left hand was clenched shut and intuition told me he had my phone there.

Instead of talking, I just reached over and grabbed his left hand, prying open the fingers easily as I had caught him off guard. “Hey, this is mine,” I said. Being caught in the act must have disarmed him as his reply was a weak, “Oh this is yours?”.

Snatching it out of his sweaty paw, I thrust my phone into my pocket and headed immediately to the door and descended the stairs, as we had arrived. I had, in essence, pickpocketed the pickpocket!

Mr. 50 Bags

Now becoming rarer, it used to be a kind of mandatory occurrence that at least one person in any given train car (Rom: vagon) had an enormous amount of luggage.

Mr. 50 Bags is usually quite country in appearance and dress, clothes made largely of wool. His various bags and bundles are usually made of strong, woven plastic material, filled to bulging with all sorts of things ranging from potatoes to clothes.

He will strain and struggle and huff and puff as he quickly hoists all his luggage on board before the train leaves his little town. He will mop his brow and say, “Doamne” quite often. Because he has so many bags, they can’t all fit on the shelves and racks and so he will clog up the hall and often even the room for your feet on the floor.

Sometimes Mr. 50 Bags (Rom: Domnul Cin-Zeci de Saci) comes in the female variety, old Mrs. 50 Bags (Rom: Doamna Cin-Zeci de Saci).

The Moldovan Gun Salesman

Due to a small misunderstanding, I was jumped upon in the streets one fine summer day and violently assaulted by a group of youths. As I suffered some rather colorful facial trauma, I was quite a sight to behold as I rode the train home.

In my compartment was an eager young man who spoke both Romanian and Russian and identified himself as coming from the Republic of Moldova. Upon hearing my version of what had happened, he calmly proposed selling a gun to me.

Simply out of curiosity, I asked as to the make, model, origin and price of the gun. I am quite satisfied by his answers that he at least knew what he was talking about when it came to guns, something quite rare in Romania.

The Screaming Hungarians

I was alone in a compartment when in came an entire family en masse, two parents and three children, ranging in ages from about 2 to 8 years. It only took me a moment to identify them as Hungarians by their language.

As the journey continued, the restless, inquisitive, clambering, squealing children constantly disobeyed the parents’ incessant shouted orders, the entire thing sounding like jibberish to me (sorry) as I couldn’t understand a thing. Between the toddler squealing, the mother shouting, the middle child whining and the father’s terse barks, I couldn’t take it anymore and I went and moved somewhere else.

Sleeping like a Hobo

Certain trains that ran through the middle of the night would often have tickets with no assigned seat. Therefore the custom was to board the train and find yourself either a completely or mostly empty compartment.

In those days, the compartment was composed of two long benches made out of brown vinyl. With a pillow (a shirt, a jacket or perhaps even a bag), you could stretch full out on the bench and have a semi-decent place to sleep.

While rarely did the train fill up enough so I had to sit up and share “my” bench with anyone, it was fairly common for one other person to come in and sleep on the opposite bench.

Often these people would rise and leave throughout the middle of the night, and I’d drift to the surface of consciousness, see one person and then later crack one eye and see it was someone else.

In this sense, I’ve slept with hundreds of people, with not a word spoken between us, just two strangers shaking and jostling on the vinyl benches as the train chugs through the night.


More stories another time perhaps! :D

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