Chemical warfare in a Serbian Sleeper car was not exactly what I had in mind when I decided to travel the Belgrade to Sofia stretch of the old Simplon-Orient Express route. The smell of Bulgarian sock feet was enough to wrinkle noses, if not skin. The kindhearted Bulgarian culprit admitted to his crime, stating “my socks smell terrible. I have been wearing them the entire trip.” This was doubly scary, since he had just visited Venice. The noxious fumes pervading the compartment could compete with the worst odors emanating from Venetian canals. I reeled from the smell, which was so thick that it seemed to give the air texture.
What made the situation unbearable was that the compartment’s windows would not open and the heat was turned up to broiling level. There was no way to adjust it. To make matters much worse, my berth had a heavy blanket as one of several layers of covers. The bedding would have done for a Siberian winter rather than a Serbian autumn. I announced aloud that the compartment was sweltering. Incredibly, my new Bulgar friend, mister stinky sock feet, asked if he could borrow my blanket because he was freezing. I thought about offering not only the blanket, but the entire bedding plus my clothes. I was sweating profusely and the trip had hardly begun. I gladly handed over my blanket, which not only relieved me of possible heat stroke, but had the added benefit of providing a cover for the reeking stench of my Bulgarian friend’s feet. He proceeded to procure a couple of other spare blankets to keep warm. This was quite amazing. He had at least four blankets in a train compartment where the temperature was 85 and rising. The heat was definitely on.
Bibi – A Fabulous, Frivolous Mystery
Meanwhile his “friend” Bibi took an odd interest in our conversation. So much so that while she occupied the berth directly above me, this did not stop her from hanging over the edge of her bunk to listen and watch. She was basically upside down and hovering partially over me for minutes at a time. She had stripped down to a tank top. Obviously the heat affected her in a different way than it did her friend. So while mister stinky feet and I engaged in polite conversation, Bibi in all of her dark, exotic beauty hung over my bed with her breasts dangling in the air. When there were pauses in the conversation Bibi would disappear, but as soon as we started talking again, she would reappear with her bright, vivacious smile. Her behavior was a mystery to me, but not the kind I imagined would be found on the Orient Express. Mystery and intrigue rarely come with a rambunctious grin.
While I sweated out the journey’s start, I noticed that the stranger across from me was reading a novel in English. At first I thought he was Serbian, but upon further study I began to wonder if he might be a Brit or an American. Thus far he had failed to utter a word. That changed when the ticket inspector appeared. He suspiciously reviewed the stranger’s Eurail Pass and then told him that it was no good for this journey or any travel on Serbian railways. The stranger acted dumbfounded and mumbled in feigned confusion. The ticket inspector stood his ground, repeating what he had just said. Finally the stranger coughed up the fare. After the inspector left the stranger looked at me and said, “well I tried.” By his accent I could tell he was American. We struck up a conversation that Bibi also took an interest in, hovering above us at times.
Escape Routes – Travel & Uncomfortable Truths
The American was the manager of a Pizza restaurant in Florida. He was looking to get away from work and routine by spending several months traveling across Europe. At the end of his journey, he would go back to the same job. My heart sank. His story depressed me. I could not think of anything worse than restaurant management. The only job I ever walked out of in my entire life was one as the back cook in a restaurant. The late nights, constant stress and bad schedules had put me off it. Why anyone would consider going back to that after the excitement and depravity of travel in the farther reaches of the Balkans was beyond me. My career in restaurant work had been short and unhappy. It was during a bad period in my life when I was rudderless, on the verge of making a career out of mediocrity. The man I was talking to reminded me of myself twenty years ago. There was hope though. Obviously he had his doubts or he would not have taken such a sabbatical. He did not offer much more about his life or career. I wondered if he was trying to escape something. When it comes to travel everyone is trying to escape something. Whether it be domesticity, work, boredom or a relationship gone bad. Travel offers the ultimate escape and somewhere along the way we rediscover uncomfortable truths about ourselves.
At the moment I was contemplating escape in the most immediate sense of the word. Escape from the compartment. While the rancid smell of the Bulgar’s feet had been sequestered under a bedding of blankets, the temperature seemed to be nearing 90 degrees. How was I going to sleep? Desperation set in. I began to take off clothes at an alarming rate, my self-consciousness was melting. I got down to just boxers and the thinnest of t-shirts. I turned the one cover left on the bed into a towel, using it to wipe away the rapid buildup of condensation all over my body. The lights were turned out, Bibi disappeared and her friend somehow fell into slumber, though I wondered if he would suffocate beneath his self-imposed inferno of covers. The American stranger was silent, disappearing into indifference. My first overnight train trip was going to be an exercise in survival. As the train raced into southern Serbia the romance of the Simplon-Orient Express was all but gone, drowned in feverish pools of sweat.