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Night Train to Sofia With Love
Armed with a sense of humour and a chocolate bar!


Krista Semotiuk is a twenty-three year old travelling woman who completed a solo four month trip through Eastern Europe and Turkey. In true networking style, it was her mother who introduced her to Journeywoman before she left on this adventure.

The train between Brasov and Bucharest went by without problems but the night train from Bucharest to Sofia was quite another story!

It was about midnight. The train cars weren't marked. Luckily, I noticed a #475, written by finger, in the dust of one of the cars. I jumped on minutes before the train was scheduled to leave and made my way to my couchette. It was empty except for a few leering Bulgarian men who were into their booze.

No beds available...
Car No Good

No sooner did I get myself comfortable in my couchette when there was a knock on the door. A conductor explained that I had to move; the car I was in "was no good" (whatever that meant). He grabbed my backpack and I quickly grabbed my other possessions and followed.

As I entered the new car, the conductor shook his head and shrugged his shoulders. It seemed that there were no more beds available. But, the car was empty! I certainly couldn't believe him! I explained in choppy French that I had paid for a couchette all the way to Sofia--the entire trip--not only until midnight, as he was trying to tell me. He refused to relent and I refused to get too irritated.

Than, just as the train was about to pull away, I realized that I had left my mailing tube in the last compartment. This tube contained 15 posters that I had collected and carried for the first two months of my trip. Determined to recover it, I ran to the conductor and motioned that I had left something behind. He, in turn, motioned for me to quickly run off and get it.

Only in his undershirt...

The doors to the last car were locked but my flailing arms and bad French were attracting attention. Clad only in his undershirt, a cigarette in his mouth, the conductor in the car that was destined to stay behind, handed me my precious package. "Merci, merci, merci!", I called to him. By this time about 20 people were watching the entertainment and laughing, repeating, "Merci, merci!". I joined in with their laughter, gesturing at my absentmindedness. Posters in hand, I happily returned to my designated car and we quickly departed.

He wanted more money!...
No Money, No Bed!

Now the new conductor tried to explain that I had to pay him more if I wanted a couchette. Keeping a smiling face, I shook my head and explained back that I had no money, that I understood my ticket, I had a reservation, and that I wasn't stupid.

All the time that this was going on, one of the Bulgarian men from the previous car was trying to help me. But after a while, I realized that he just wanted to keep passing me in the corridor. It was a tight fit and he kept brushing up against different parts of my body each time he went by. The creep! I gave him a piece of my mind and he disappeared!

I shrugged my shoulders and contemplated how I was going to be able to stand for the next six hours. The conductor went back to his compartment. I stood outside, not intending to annoy, but singing and humming to myself.

Love conquers all...
Au revoir!

Suddenly he reappeared and, without a word, opened a couchette for me. All full, huh? Nonetheless, I smiled gratefully, thankful that I hadn't given in, shouted, or stopped smiling during our previous negotiations.

After unpacking, I brought the conductor a chocolate bar which he happily accepted. Now, I had a conductor friend for the duration of the trip. Coming into Sofia, he made sure that I was awake and he helped me with my bags including all of my precious posters.

And, I swear, I'm absolutely positive that there was a tear in his eye when we said, "Au revoir" at the station.

Ed. note: In a letter to Journeywoman, Krista explained that travel in Eastern Europe can be difficult for a woman travelling solo. She was pleased that she had taken a friend's advice and packed extra doses of flexibility, patience, humour and, of course, lots of chocolate bars.

Which car, please?...
Travel 101

Never assume that by boarding the right train you'll end up where you want to go. It's the right car that's critical! Each car has an identification panel on its side, showing on top the name of the city where it originated and on the bottom, the name of its final destination, with the names of the most important stops en route in-between. But...don't be fooled. If you intend to get off the train at a small town not noted on the side panel, you have to find out before hand from the conductor which car you should be on.

Ed.note: For anything else you need to know about train travel but are afraid to ask, go to The RailEurope site is loaded with excellent information on fares as well as schedules. Bonus: You can book your railpasses and tickets right on the net.

Guys talk trains...

The only way to be sure of catching a train is to miss the one before it.
(C.K. Chesterton, quoted in Vacances a Tous Prix, 1958)

Just being in a train and rushing on to somewhere is extraordinarily nerve-soothing.
(Frank Tatchell, The Happy Traveller, 1923)

Going by railroad I do not consider as travelling at all; it is merely being 'sent' to a place, and very little different from becomin a parcel.
(John Ruskin (1819-1900), Modern Painters.)

(Source: Flinging Monkeys at the Coconuts -- edited by Trevor Cralle)

Travel Gods Smiled on my Train...

Since I always travel solo, I make it my business to journey early in the day. I like to arrive at my destination long before hotels, hostels and B&B's fill up.

One day while travelling in Britain, circumstances didn't allow for an early arrival and I found myself getting into the city of Bath quite late. I mused about this to my seat-mate, a lovely older gentleman who lived in the city and knew it well. My concern, I explained, was that the more moderate accommodation in town would all be gone and I would be stuck with a huge hotel bill.

He listened and then directed me to a friend who was the manager of a tiny gem of a hotel within walking distance of the train station. "Tell him I sent you and ask his advice," he said.

The hotel manager listened, smiled and asked what my "per night" budget was.

"Thirty dollars, I replied rather sheepishly.

"Welcome," he said with a smile.

I was shown to a room filled with wonderful antique furniture. An inviting handsome old bathtub (on legs) stood over to one corner. Absolutely charming! It was immediately evident that the rate for this room was probably three times my "per night" budget. The Travel Gods were smiling down on me. Clearly I was being given a very, very nice present.

I must confess. I hardly slept that night. A lot of time was spent simply soaking in that big, deep tub ruminating about the joys of being on the road. And then, I wrote to all my friends telling them what a terrific time I was having!

(Source -- a retelling based on one of Evelyn Hannon's travel journal entries)

I Hope Things Have Changed On Trains
...but just in case

After reading "Love on the Train", British journeywoman Paula Bardell sent us her memory of an unsettling train trip in the mid 80's.

When travelling from Athens in Greece to Dusseldorf in Germany via the Hellas Express during the mid 1980s, my female travelling companion and I had a rather unfortunate experience with a train guard.

We reached Yugoslavia (as it was still known in those days) at about 1 o'clock in the morning and went through the usual rigmarole with border control checking our passports. We were about to settle down in our seats for a couple of hours shut-eye, when the said guard -short, fat, drunk, and stubbly-faced - came stumbling into our carriage. He stood leering at us and began to talk away. We didn't understand the words but ..... At this point we both became aware of the large revolver hooked into his belt and smiled nervously, realising that he was inviting us back to the guards room for a drink.

Although my friend and I were unmarried, we had been advised by friends to always wear rings on our wedding fingers. We laughed at the time but this useful piece of advice probably got us out of a potentially unpleasant situation.

Thankfully the guard spoke a little German, and my friend had a school girl's understanding of the language. She pointed to her ring and told him that we were married woman with children, and we were meeting our husbands in Austria. Luckily her ploy worked and the guard staggered off muttering under his breath.

And the morel of this story? If you're going to visit countries where the male population view women who travel alone as morally loose, be sure to have your story ready and always wear a wedding ring.

(Source -- Journeywoman reader report 1998)





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