.
O

n the overnight train from Zurich to Zagreb, the Bosnian man says he can get me coffee.

There’s no restaurant car. No potable water. Despite my earplugs and airline eye mask, I’d been unable to sleep. Now, with the sun shining, and standing in the aisle in yesterday’s clothes, I ask with all the hopefulness and optimism of a first-term politician, “Coffee?”

“You are in Yugoslavia!” he booms. “Of course there is coffee.”

I smile politely, not inclined to enter into a political discussion, and try to recall which country’s terrain we’re now on. “Slovenia?” I wonder aloud. A few more hours to Zagreb, then. We’re supposed to arrive at 10:44.

“Yugoslavia,” he corrects me. “Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia, Montenegro. Of all this is Yugoslavia. Tito, God rest his soul, he knew this.”

He could have told me we were on Mars. Chattered away in Serbo-Croatian with an Irish brogue. Insisted we were (clap, clap, clap, clap) deep in the heart of Texas. Because suddenly he vanished into a side door I hadn’t seen when I boarded the train last night and moments later, appeared with a steaming cup of a frothy brew that vaguely resembled caffeine.

And in that moment, he was my hero.

It's 2014. I've just spent a few weeks in Switzerland, and am returning to Croatia where I'd spent the past several summers covering the country's transition into the European Union. I'll be returning to the same apartment, the same friends, the same work. So, I thought I'd at least mix up the journey.

When I had boarded the train in Zurich, my friend had asked skeptically, “You’re taking the train?” This questioning of my adventurousness came from an odd source, as this was the man who years earlier, had lent me his VW van to sleep in on the streets of Zurich. “Prepare yourself,” he told me.

“Prepare myself for what?” I asked.

“Just...prepare yourself,” he repeated.

“But, for what?” I asked again. “Families? Drunks? College students? Lack of sleep? No food?” After all, how can I prepare if I don’t know what I’m about to face?

“I don’t know, maybe,” he said. “I’ve never taken the overnight train.”

So, I’d packed enough food to feed a survivalist for a weekend following an apocalypse, a few bottles of water, and a small box of Luxemburgerli macaroons (because I have priorities). But even as my friend carried my small suitcase onto the train in Zurich, and hugged me goodbye, he uttered again, “Good luck.”

Zurich's HB (main station), where the author’s train journey to Zagreb begins. Photo by Molly McCluskey.

That my Swiss friends viewed Croatia as some sort of Wild, Wild West of Europe had been clear, and their inability to figure out why I, a seemingly rational American, would willingly choose to spend time there, baffled them. I insisted that I loved it, and I received the same looks as though I’d told them I’d willingly married a drunk with a gambling addiction.

Over the years that I'd spent extended periods of time living in Europe, I learned that this distain tends to flow from west to east on the continent: the UK’s  debate about leaving the EU showcased some of that with its stance on immigration from Central and Eastern European countries; the large countries in the west decried financial bailouts in the south and central; the wariness in which the collective Balkans are viewed; how Slovenia, the first former Yugoslav country to join the EU seems to view itself as slightly higher than its neighbors, the way in which Croatia attempts to distance itself from Serbia and Bosnia and Herzegovina; and how, among many, Europeans, Bulgaria and Romania are spoken of as hotbeds of corruption, child- trafficking, and general immorality.

“They would murder their child if it meant getting ahead,” the blonde woman sitting on the bunk next to me said of Romanians as she sipped her beer. Slovenian, she has been living in Switzerland for six years, working in a shop. Shortly after boarding, when we were still the sole occupants in our respective cabins, (six sleepers each), she had joined me, offered me a beer and taken a seat on the beds that were still configured as couches. She had what my mother would have called dishwater blonde hair, and her age could have been late twenties or early forties. Her boyfriend, also living in Switzerland, is Croatian, and so she says she’s equally comfortable in Croatia or in Slovenia, Switzerland, and in Italy, where they vacation in St. Moritz. She speaks with an odd mixture of pride for the Balkans, but a sort of distance, as though she had escaped it all, and gone to live a far better life.

It’s the same sense I get from the Bosnian man who brings me coffee in the morning. He’d gone to Switzerland to work odd construction jobs. “For Bosnian man, there is no need for visas!” he said. “Bosnian men find ways for everything!” He’s come back carrying several large duffel bags, which he said are filled with aid for his family who suffered in the cyclone-induced floods that had just decimated parts of Serbia and Bosnia. Cleaning supplies, mostly, and some food.

“Russia has been very good to us since the floods,” he says. “So, they have a problem in Ukraine. They have no problem with us.” His accent is so thick, it’s nearly guttural.

Other travelers are emerging from the cabins into the aisle so narrow passing from one end to the other requires intimacy with strangers. The blonde Slovenian woman is still sleeping in the cabin on the right, but from the cabin to my left emerge two Americans, Alaskans both, one who has just graduated college, and one who has just graduated high school. Brother and sister, they’re traveling through Europe before she starts work at her new job in Israel. We chat, and I duck into their cabin with them, and sit on the flipped-up bunk. We’re followed by the Bosnian. It’s his cabin, as well.

“You want more coffee?” he asks.

Oh, God, yes. After eleven hours of riding a jostling train, on a bunk so narrow and short I suffered bodily injury with each toss and turn, I wanted coffee more than I wanted anything else, except, perhaps to get off the train. So, I say yes. Moments later, the conductor, a dark-haired, blue-eyed Croatian with an impossible smile, brings me a second cup. It’s from his private stash, in a cabin kept for staff. I chat with him briefly in the little bit of Croatian I remember, and hope the lines on my face from my eye mask have receded.

“See? I am a Yugoslavian!” the Bosnian interrupts our flirting. “I know where all the good things are on this train!”

Apparently, all the good things are with the conductor, but I simply sip my coffee. Later, I’ll pop down the aisle and give the conductor a bag of trail mix I’ve brought with me from Switzerland, unopened, as a thank you. He’s surprised, which makes me wonder just how many passengers have taken advantage of his generosity.

Eventually, the other three people emerge from my cabin; two older Croatian women and one middle-aged Croatian man who I had met the night before. In the cabin past the Alaskans, three European backpackers emerge, blinking into the light. They had originally been assigned to share the blonde Slovenian’s cabin, but she had proclaimed so loudly and repeatedly, “I have to share my cabin with boys! I can’t believe there are three boys in my cabin. Oh, look. Here’s another one. What will I tell my boyfriend?” that the conductor had approached them with a cabin that had magically become available, and asked if they’d like to move. I never heard them utter a word, not while she was protesting about them while standing so close a mini jostle of the train would have thrown them into an embrace, or the next morning, as we all stood in the aisle, next to the single window that opened, staring into the passing fields.

By the time we arrived in Zagreb, I had a raging headache, but whether it was from caffeine withdrawal from the weak coffee, the hours of discussing Tito, the war, and Yugoslavian unity, or the lack of sleep, even years later, I couldn't say. Regardless, I was happy to bid adieu to my fellow motley travelers, with a vow to next time, take a plane instead.

The iconic Croatian National Theatre in Zagreb, one of the author’s favorite places in the city. Photo by Molly McCluskey.

A previous version of this article originally appeared on Beacon Reader.
About
Molly McCluskey
:
Molly McCluskey is an international investigative journalist and Editor-at-Large of Diplomatic Courier. Follow her on Twitter @MollyEMcCluskey.
The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.

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No One Ever Wrote a Country Song About the Overnight Train to Zagreb

Photo by David Boca via Unsplash.

July 10, 2020

After eleven hours of riding a jostling train from Zurich to Zagreb, on a bunk so narrow and short I suffered bodily injury with each toss and turn, subjected to lessons in revisionist history from a mad Bosnian, I want coffee more than I want anything else, except, perhaps to get off the train.

O

n the overnight train from Zurich to Zagreb, the Bosnian man says he can get me coffee.

There’s no restaurant car. No potable water. Despite my earplugs and airline eye mask, I’d been unable to sleep. Now, with the sun shining, and standing in the aisle in yesterday’s clothes, I ask with all the hopefulness and optimism of a first-term politician, “Coffee?”

“You are in Yugoslavia!” he booms. “Of course there is coffee.”

I smile politely, not inclined to enter into a political discussion, and try to recall which country’s terrain we’re now on. “Slovenia?” I wonder aloud. A few more hours to Zagreb, then. We’re supposed to arrive at 10:44.

“Yugoslavia,” he corrects me. “Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia, Montenegro. Of all this is Yugoslavia. Tito, God rest his soul, he knew this.”

He could have told me we were on Mars. Chattered away in Serbo-Croatian with an Irish brogue. Insisted we were (clap, clap, clap, clap) deep in the heart of Texas. Because suddenly he vanished into a side door I hadn’t seen when I boarded the train last night and moments later, appeared with a steaming cup of a frothy brew that vaguely resembled caffeine.

And in that moment, he was my hero.

It's 2014. I've just spent a few weeks in Switzerland, and am returning to Croatia where I'd spent the past several summers covering the country's transition into the European Union. I'll be returning to the same apartment, the same friends, the same work. So, I thought I'd at least mix up the journey.

When I had boarded the train in Zurich, my friend had asked skeptically, “You’re taking the train?” This questioning of my adventurousness came from an odd source, as this was the man who years earlier, had lent me his VW van to sleep in on the streets of Zurich. “Prepare yourself,” he told me.

“Prepare myself for what?” I asked.

“Just...prepare yourself,” he repeated.

“But, for what?” I asked again. “Families? Drunks? College students? Lack of sleep? No food?” After all, how can I prepare if I don’t know what I’m about to face?

“I don’t know, maybe,” he said. “I’ve never taken the overnight train.”

So, I’d packed enough food to feed a survivalist for a weekend following an apocalypse, a few bottles of water, and a small box of Luxemburgerli macaroons (because I have priorities). But even as my friend carried my small suitcase onto the train in Zurich, and hugged me goodbye, he uttered again, “Good luck.”

Zurich's HB (main station), where the author’s train journey to Zagreb begins. Photo by Molly McCluskey.

That my Swiss friends viewed Croatia as some sort of Wild, Wild West of Europe had been clear, and their inability to figure out why I, a seemingly rational American, would willingly choose to spend time there, baffled them. I insisted that I loved it, and I received the same looks as though I’d told them I’d willingly married a drunk with a gambling addiction.

Over the years that I'd spent extended periods of time living in Europe, I learned that this distain tends to flow from west to east on the continent: the UK’s  debate about leaving the EU showcased some of that with its stance on immigration from Central and Eastern European countries; the large countries in the west decried financial bailouts in the south and central; the wariness in which the collective Balkans are viewed; how Slovenia, the first former Yugoslav country to join the EU seems to view itself as slightly higher than its neighbors, the way in which Croatia attempts to distance itself from Serbia and Bosnia and Herzegovina; and how, among many, Europeans, Bulgaria and Romania are spoken of as hotbeds of corruption, child- trafficking, and general immorality.

“They would murder their child if it meant getting ahead,” the blonde woman sitting on the bunk next to me said of Romanians as she sipped her beer. Slovenian, she has been living in Switzerland for six years, working in a shop. Shortly after boarding, when we were still the sole occupants in our respective cabins, (six sleepers each), she had joined me, offered me a beer and taken a seat on the beds that were still configured as couches. She had what my mother would have called dishwater blonde hair, and her age could have been late twenties or early forties. Her boyfriend, also living in Switzerland, is Croatian, and so she says she’s equally comfortable in Croatia or in Slovenia, Switzerland, and in Italy, where they vacation in St. Moritz. She speaks with an odd mixture of pride for the Balkans, but a sort of distance, as though she had escaped it all, and gone to live a far better life.

It’s the same sense I get from the Bosnian man who brings me coffee in the morning. He’d gone to Switzerland to work odd construction jobs. “For Bosnian man, there is no need for visas!” he said. “Bosnian men find ways for everything!” He’s come back carrying several large duffel bags, which he said are filled with aid for his family who suffered in the cyclone-induced floods that had just decimated parts of Serbia and Bosnia. Cleaning supplies, mostly, and some food.

“Russia has been very good to us since the floods,” he says. “So, they have a problem in Ukraine. They have no problem with us.” His accent is so thick, it’s nearly guttural.

Other travelers are emerging from the cabins into the aisle so narrow passing from one end to the other requires intimacy with strangers. The blonde Slovenian woman is still sleeping in the cabin on the right, but from the cabin to my left emerge two Americans, Alaskans both, one who has just graduated college, and one who has just graduated high school. Brother and sister, they’re traveling through Europe before she starts work at her new job in Israel. We chat, and I duck into their cabin with them, and sit on the flipped-up bunk. We’re followed by the Bosnian. It’s his cabin, as well.

“You want more coffee?” he asks.

Oh, God, yes. After eleven hours of riding a jostling train, on a bunk so narrow and short I suffered bodily injury with each toss and turn, I wanted coffee more than I wanted anything else, except, perhaps to get off the train. So, I say yes. Moments later, the conductor, a dark-haired, blue-eyed Croatian with an impossible smile, brings me a second cup. It’s from his private stash, in a cabin kept for staff. I chat with him briefly in the little bit of Croatian I remember, and hope the lines on my face from my eye mask have receded.

“See? I am a Yugoslavian!” the Bosnian interrupts our flirting. “I know where all the good things are on this train!”

Apparently, all the good things are with the conductor, but I simply sip my coffee. Later, I’ll pop down the aisle and give the conductor a bag of trail mix I’ve brought with me from Switzerland, unopened, as a thank you. He’s surprised, which makes me wonder just how many passengers have taken advantage of his generosity.

Eventually, the other three people emerge from my cabin; two older Croatian women and one middle-aged Croatian man who I had met the night before. In the cabin past the Alaskans, three European backpackers emerge, blinking into the light. They had originally been assigned to share the blonde Slovenian’s cabin, but she had proclaimed so loudly and repeatedly, “I have to share my cabin with boys! I can’t believe there are three boys in my cabin. Oh, look. Here’s another one. What will I tell my boyfriend?” that the conductor had approached them with a cabin that had magically become available, and asked if they’d like to move. I never heard them utter a word, not while she was protesting about them while standing so close a mini jostle of the train would have thrown them into an embrace, or the next morning, as we all stood in the aisle, next to the single window that opened, staring into the passing fields.

By the time we arrived in Zagreb, I had a raging headache, but whether it was from caffeine withdrawal from the weak coffee, the hours of discussing Tito, the war, and Yugoslavian unity, or the lack of sleep, even years later, I couldn't say. Regardless, I was happy to bid adieu to my fellow motley travelers, with a vow to next time, take a plane instead.

The iconic Croatian National Theatre in Zagreb, one of the author’s favorite places in the city. Photo by Molly McCluskey.

A previous version of this article originally appeared on Beacon Reader.
About
Molly McCluskey
:
Molly McCluskey is an international investigative journalist and Editor-at-Large of Diplomatic Courier. Follow her on Twitter @MollyEMcCluskey.
The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.