The Orient Express In Austria-Hungary – Romancing The East: An Initial Journey Into Exoticism

In the autumn of 1883 a romance began that would continue for the next one-hundred and twenty-five years in a wide variety of forms. This romantic endeavor crisscrossed large swathes of Europe several times a week.  It started in the cultural and artistic wonderland of Europe at that time -Belle epoque Paris – and ended in the exotic east, within sight of the Sea of Marmara, skirting the shadows cast by mosques and minarets in Ottoman-era Constantinople. This romance was none other than the Orient Express. Thousands of passengers took part in the journey, authors waxed poetic about it and the refined elegance it represented became the stuff of legend. Orient and Express were two words bound together by creativity and innovation. They expressed all anyone needed to know about the route. “Orient” symbolized the eastern frontiers of Europe. “Express” a technological wonder that could defeat space and time to make a novel approach into the near east.

Orient Express - Advertising Poster

Orient Express – Advertising Poster (Credit: Jules Cheret)

From Dreams To Reality – All Aboard
The train would pull Europe and its eastern hinterlands closer together in a matter of days. The route made travel possible to places most people had only dreamed of. When the Orient Express first departed, those dreams were on the verge of becoming reality. Many of the stops along the line were much less exotic than Constantinople, but each was glamorous in its own way. Budapest and Bucharest, Vienna and Sofia, with their own unique allure. None of these were as exotic as Constantinople, but each offered a window into a wider world that Parisians or Londoners, aristocrats and journalists scarcely knew. Along the route, the world of Austria-Hungary was to be crossed. A multi-ethnic empire filled with people speaking a multitude of strange languages and adhering to antiquated folk customs. For the Orient Express ran right through the heart of the empire, the railway acting as an arrow piercing the heartland of both Austria and Hungary. The train’s passengers would be witness to an empire that was rapidly changing.

The inaugural journey of the Orient Express took place on October 4, 1883. There was a chill in the air as it pulled out of the Gare de L’est (East Station) in Paris. By the time dawn broke the next morning it was approaching Strasbourg, 300 miles to the east. The Express had entered the mighty German Empire, a land of progress that was fast leaving the rest of continental Europe behind. The explosive growth of the German economy was making it a world power. The Express made its way through Bavaria, with a stop at Munich on its first full day. Soon it would be crossing the border into the Austrian portion of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. At this point the train had been traveling for thirty hours. It was in the early morning hours of Saturday, October 6th that the Orient Express came gliding through the Austrian border town of Branau am Inn, passing not far from the residence of Alois Hitler, a customs officer. Five and a half years later a son would be born to Alois and his third wife Clara. That son would be named Adolf and change the world for the worse.

The first run of the Orient Express in 1883

The first run of the Orient Express in 1883 (Credit: Jürgen Franzke)

Advancing Into The Modern Age – Antecedents In Asia & The West
The Orient Express was now gliding along the 270 miles of railway that stretched between Munich and Vienna. By the late afternoon, it was pulling into the central station at Vienna where its passengers were feted by music from the Imperial Guards. The national anthems of France, Germany, Austria, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria and Turkey were played by the band, paying homage to each country the train would pass through on this inaugural journey. A huge dinner with champagne and wine was served for the passengers at the station’s restaurant. They were then invited to visit an electric lighting exhibition that had been kept open well past its closing time, just for them. Many of the passengers were too exhausted to attend, which was something of a shame. The exhibition was a showcase for how Austria-Hungary was advancing into the modern age. Trains, railroads and electric lighting were certainly notable achievements, but the stagnant political system which limited the rights of all its disparate nationalities – with the notable exception of a thin veneer of  Austrians and Hungarians – constantly threatened to derail the empire.

Slowly the Orient Express chugged further eastward through the night, making an obligatory stop at Poszony (present day Bratislava, Slovakia) to take on water and fuel. It was now in the Kingdom of Hungary, a land that no less a political figure than the Austrian, Prince Klemens Von Metternich, had once referred to as part of the Orient. The passengers onboard the Express were keen to see Budapest for the first time. The city had experienced explosive growth ever since Buda, Pest and Obuda (Old Buda) had been unified as a single entity a decade earlier. This was no Asiatic city, but a fast growing European metropolis. The railway station at Pest had antecedents in the west, specifically Paris, as it had been designed by the Eiffel Company.  The train’s arrival at mid-morning was greeted by a military band. This was followed by some Hungarian folk music topped off with a buffet that favored Magyar cuisine, specifically goulash.

The Early Years - Routes of the Orient Express 1883 - 1914

The Early Years – Routes of the Orient Express 1883 – 1914 (Credit: Alphthon)

All But The Memory – Ghost Of An Empire
From Budapest it was onto Szeged, a city where the damage from a catastrophic flood four years earlier was still visible. After the Orient Express pulled into the ramshackle station, a gypsy orchestra was sited coming toward the train. Their performance had been prearranged. They were invited to board the train, riding the Express to Temesvar (present-day Timisoara, Romania), where they were already slated to perform a concert that evening. It was a memorable two hour trip, with the strains of Roma music wafting through the restaurant car. The Orient had never sounded so close until that moment. Exoticism, mystery and mystique permeated the air. Once the gypsy orchestra departed, the train headed further east toward the Romanian border and out of Austria-Hungary. It was a memorable first journey through an empire that was not to last nearly as long as the rail route which now ran across the length of it. The Orient Express would still be running long after the Austro-Hungarian Empire had disappeared from all but the memory. All romances eventually end, but some last longer than others.

A Passion For Public Consumption – Austria-Hungary’s Picture Postcards: The Zempleni Museum Collection

One of the great joys of my youth was collecting sports cards. There was nothing quite like going to the convenience store and seeing that a new box of football, baseball or basketball cards had arrived. I spent most of my meager savings trying to collect the cards of favorite teams and players. My careless treatment of these prized possessions ended up rendering them worthless. Then again, I was not in it for the money. Like many avid collectors, my joy came from the pursuit and discovery of the cards I lacked. The search for these rarities consumed much of my youth. I gave up sports card collecting long ago, but vividly recalled this youthful passion when I stumbled upon a unique exhibit at the Zempleni Museum in Szerencs, a small city in northeastern Hungary.

Before entering, I assumed the Zempleni Museum to be replete with exhibits and artifacts from Ferenc Rackozi’s War of Independence (1703 – 1711). The war dominates history in the area and the museum is not surprisingly housed in a wing of the Rackozi Castle in Szerencs. I also imagined the museum would display peasant costumes indigenous to the Zemplen Hills, a small mountain range tucked up tight against the Hungarian border with Slovakia. I was correct about the Rackozi exhibit, but fortunately I did not have to suffer through another of those ubiquitous peasant fashion shows that inhabit almost every other regional museum in Hungary. Instead one of the rooms was a revelation that ignited my long-lost interest in collecting.

Zempleni Museum at Rackozi Var in Szerencs

Zempleni Museum at Rackozi Var in Szerencs

Artifacts of A Vanished Age –From Beyond The Empire’s Grave
The museum had an excellent display of historic picture postcards focusing on the Austro-Hungarian Emperor Franz Josef and his wife Queen Elisabeth, otherwise known as Sisi, who was beloved by all Hungarians, then and now. The postcards spanned nearly all of Queen Elisabeth’s life and sadly her tragic death. There was a particularly poignant postcard showing her coffin, following her murder at the hands of an Italian anarchist in 1898. The postcards of Franz Josef extended across his long and eventful reign. One of the most arresting showed the grizzled emperor with his head bowed and hands clasped, deep in prayer for the empire’s soldiers fighting in World War I. Just a couple of years after that postcard was manufactured, both the emperor and empire would be dead. This also meant the end of postcards from Austria-Hungary, but collecting of them would continue right up until today.

The history of postcards in Austria-Hungary was told in fascinating detail by the exhibit. These were artifacts of a vanished age. For those intoxicated by a whiff of nostalgia, the fin de siècle era represented on the postcards was redolent of the life of Austria-Hungary, which lasted from 1867 – 1918. That time frame also spanned the rise and resulting golden age for picture postcards. This age lived again through what I encountered at the Zempleni Museum. There were a couple of hundred postcards on display. These were just a tiny proportion of its massive historic postcard holdings. The museum is the repository for the third largest postcard collection in the world, approximately one million in all. This was the life’s work of a local physician, Dr. Laszlo Petrikovits, part of whose passion was now prominently displayed for public consumption. Providing insights into both Austria-Hungary and a form of mass communication that joined the empire ever closer together until the First World War tore it apart. The inception of postcards sent by mail tracks the empire’s formation and development.

Bringing an empire back to life - Dr. Laszlo Petrikovits

Bringing an empire back to life – Dr. Laszlo Petrikovits (Credit: Zempleni Museum)

Symbols of Affection – Bringing People Closer Together
The predecessor of the picture postcard was first produced in Austria-Hungary just two years after the empire was formally created. During the autumn of 1869, the Austro-Hungarian Postal Service produced an open postcard on which could be written short messages, the brainchild of Dr. Emmanuel Hermann. His idea was transformed and then soared in popularity. Just four years after its inception, six and a half million of these postcards were delivered by the Hungarian Postal Service. Over that same period artists in Prussia and France began to illustrate one side of the card, giving birth to the picture postcard. In 1874 another breakthrough occurred when the Universal Postal Union made the crucial decision that postcards would only cost half the price of sealed letters. Then in 1878, the picture postcard was accepted as an official postal matter at an International Conference in Paris. In the space of less than a decade the picture postcard had been conceived, developed and formalized. Soon tens of millions of these postcards were being produced and began to crisscross Austria-Hungary, a physical symbol of affection among family members and friends.

The postcards for Hungary were produced outside its borders, in either the Austrian part of the empire or Germany. That began to change in 1896 with the Millennium Celebration, commemorating the thousand-year anniversary of the Hungarian conquest of the Carpathian Basin. The Hungarian Mail Service created a series of 32 postcards that showed various scenes from the celebration. In addition, there were landscapes and historical scenes from around Hungary. The series proved extremely popular. These postcards inaugurated a thirty-year period that can rightly be called the “Belle Epoque” of Hungarian picture postcards. Every type of Hungarian historical and contemporary scene imaginable was portrayed. They became a favored form of communication for those travelling both inside Hungary and abroad.  Families began to collect the postcards as keepsakes that brought back fond memories of time spent together on vacation. When friends would visit, they would often be shown an album of these postcards. For many the photos on the postcards familiarized them with far off places on the empire’s frontiers in Erdely (Transylvania) and Felvidek (Upper Hungary/present-day Slovakia). Others who lived out on these frontiers saw the sights of Budapest represented on these cards. The picture postcard was a form of connection, threading the masses of Austria-Hungary closer together.

Historic picture postcard of the Gazdasgi Bank in Kiskunhalas, Austria-Hungary

Historic picture postcard of the Gazdasgi Bank in Kiskunhalas, Austria-Hungary (Credit: Zempleni Museum)

The Empire Dies – The Empire Lives
Connection is one of the main reasons that people still collect these picture postcards today and why I found the collection at the Zempleni Museum so fascinating. The old photos brought a bygone era back to life for me. An age when women still wore long dresses and strolled beneath parasols as they locked arms with their husbands and strolled along promenades in Budapest and Becs, Kassa and Kolozsvar. An age when the entire Hungarian nation fell under the spell of Queen Elisabeth’s entrancing beauty. An age when an Emperor prayed for the preservation of his soldiers and the empire they fought valiantly to save. An empire that would soon crumble, but still lives on today in the picture postcard collection that can be found at the Zempleni Museum in Szerencs.

A Mysterious Paradox – The Jews Of Vizsoly: From Indifference To Reverence (Part Two)

Jews did not arrive in Vizsoly until the mid-19th century, around the time of the Hungarian War of Independence. That war gave them their first experience of emancipation. It would take another eighteen years until they were fully free with full civil liberties. Allowed to settle wherever they liked, several Jewish families came to Vizsoly. The community was never large, numbering no more than fifty at its peak. Nonetheless, they opened a synagogue, a photo of which still survives today. It was a small building, perhaps a home that had been converted specifically for worship. This was likely all the community could afford at the time. There was also a kosher butcher, who met the dietary needs of the community as well as those of other nearby villages such as Gonc. The most famous Jew to hail from Vizsony was the artist and writer Auerbach Lipot (Acs Lipot), who was born and completed some of his primary schooling in the town. He would eventually move away to study in Budapest, Vienna and Venice. Lipot opened and taught at Applied Art schools in Hungary. His paintings and publications focused on Hungarian folk art.

Headstone in the Jewish Cemetery of Vizsoly

Headstone in the Jewish Cemetery of Vizsoly

The Little That Is Known – A Survivor & Four Families
Those Jews in Vizsoly with ambition and talent who were looking to get ahead would have had to follow Lipot’s lead and move to larger urban areas. The Jewish population of Vizsoly reached its highest peak in 1930. English language information on the Jews of Vizsoly is scant, even for those who suffered in the Holocaust. At least one Hungarian Jew born in Vizoly managed to survive. Erszebet Bretter was born in Vizsoly in 1906. She was thirty-eight years old when the Holocaust struck Hungary. She would end up surviving Bergen-Belsen Concentration Camp, living in the west until her death in 1977. Whether she was in Vizsoly at the time of the Holocaust is unclear. Probably not, because she was deported to a different camp than the unfortunate Jews of Vizsoly.

Those living in Vizsoly during the spring of 1944 did not pose a threat to anyone, not the Hungarian state nor the German occupied one that imposed its will on the country beginning in the middle of March 1944. What was clear though, is that every Jew in provincial Hungary was to be rounded up and deported, the majority of whom would end up inside the lethal confines of Auschwitz. How large or small the community did not matter. Case in point Vizsoly, where only four Jewish families lived at the time. It is deeply unsettling to think how pervasive the prejudice must have been against Jews. Deportation was so widespread that it consumed the lives of a minority community in a small, out of the way town in one of Hungary’s most rural areas.

The Vizsoly Synagogue

The Vizsoly Synagogue

Doing The Dirty Work – Genocide & The Gendarmerie
It is almost certain that the Hungarian gendarmerie did the dirty work of arresting Vizsoly’s tiny Jewish community for the Nazis. Their job was to gather and deport Jews. Everyone in Vizsoly would have known who was a Jew in the town. Did any gentile raise their voice in protest? Silence would have been futile, in this case it was also deadly. The gendarmes would have told those four families to gather a small amount of their belongings in a matter of hours. They were headed to Kassa (present-day Kosice, Slovakia), a little more than an hour to the north. The Vizsoly Jews would then be grouped together with other Jews from nearby communities. Were they unsuspecting or did they assume the worst when arrested? We can only imagine.

Once in Kassa they were likely taken to a local brickyard which was transformed into a ghetto. It was there that the thousands of Jews deported from rural areas were gathered. Treatment by the Hungarian gendarmes who policed these collection points was harsh. Beatings and torture were a regular occurrence. Hard labor was not so much punishment, as a fact of existence. Word of mouth in the ghetto, the poor living conditions and pervasive ultraviolence would have then made clear to the Jews from Vizsoly what fate likely awaited them at their last destination. From Kassa, which was a major railway junction, it was just a matter of time before they were taken onto Auschwitz.

The Brutal Finale – Deportation, Desperation & Death
Beginning in mid-May this is exactly what happened. Between May 19th and June 4th five transports, each carrying thousands of Jews including those from Vizsoly, were sent to Auschwitz. This was how 15,770 Jews were liquidated from German occupied Hungarian territory in a little over two and a half weeks. The breathtaking speed and brutality with which these deportations were carried out gave these Jews no time to organize any real resistance. Most would have been murdered soon after arrival at Auschwitz, some may have been selected for labor duty, but this was just a slower death sentence. Vizsoly’s Jewish community died in southern Poland, far away from the snow covered Zemplen Hills they had been forced to leave behind.

Time was of the essence throughout this murderous process. Consider that in a matter of three months those four Jewish families from the rural backwater of Vizsoly had been forced out of their homes, moved to a brickyard/ghetto in the closest city, then transported to a death camp in another country. Both their lives and property were liquidated during this time with extreme prejudice. Three months is little in the span of a normal human life, in the case of provincial Hungarian Jews it was a matter of life and death. In Vizsoly the belongings and property of the town’s Jewish inhabitants was either taken by the gendarmes who rounded them up or offered to the locals. Material items came to be the property of people who a few weeks earlier had been their neighbors and acquaintances.

Jewish Cemetery in Vizsoly

Jewish Cemetery in Vizsoly

The Unrecovered Memory – Forgetting To Remember
Most traces of the Jews in Hungary vanished, but in Vizsoly no one touched the Jewish cemetery. Whether it was left intact out of shame, respect or even fear, there is no way of knowing. Its continued existence a sign of reverence and indifference, one of many paradoxes that sums up the legacy of its small population of Jews. Standing in that cemetery on a cold winter day, looking at a handful of headstones whose engravings were covered by moss and weathered yellow by time, I could not help but feel that this little cemetery was a symptom of something larger that stalked the memory of Hungarians when it came to the Holocaust. It is something they do not care to remember, but it is something they can never forget.

Click here for: Last Rites – The Vizsoly Jewish Cemetery: Zsidok In The Zemplen (Part One)


Last Rites – The Vizsoly Jewish Cemetery: Zsidok In The Zemplen (Part One)

I was speeding through the undulating foothills of the Zemplen range in northeastern Hungary on my way to Vizsoly, a small village on the fringes of more mountainous terrain. The sky was colored a slate grey, the trees were leafless and the dark fields of turned up earth were lightly covered with a dirty snow. It was December, less than a week before Christmas and the landscape was just as dead as the towns. The road was filled with holes large and small, that could be dodged by driving in the middle of the road. Traffic was light and scattered. The small, covered rural bus stops were deserted. At times when the sun threatened to peek through, the mist, fog and cloud cover blended together into a blinding light that made the eyes ache. Despite a good night’s sleep, I almost dozed off a few kilometers out of Boldogkovaralja. No amount of coffee could make a person truly alert in this pervasive and permanent gloom. It was easy to see why there was no traffic, except for a few locals this time of year. The entire region looked as though it was asleep. The people and landscape were in winter hibernation.

All that remains - Headstone in the Vizsoly Jewish Cemetery

All that remains – Headstone in the Vizsoly Jewish Cemetery

Getting Religion – A Visit To Vizsoly
I was traveling to Vizsoly for one reason only, to see where the first Hungarian language translation of the Bible had taken place in the late 16th century. This seemingly out of the way village had once been a hot bed of Protestantism, bequeathing it an outsized role in Hungarian literary and religious history that was well beyond the scale of contemporary Vizoly, which was little more than a small village. Yet Vizoly’s history in the service of Protestantism, the Hungarian language and book printing was magnetic. It drew me to the village out of curiosity. This out of the way town had once been the hub for a printing operation that helped change Hungary I soon caught sight of the town’s outskirts, beginning to search the roadside for any sign of the museum and adjacent Calvinist church that contained remnants of medieval frescoes. Just as I was beginning to enter the village, my attention turned to something else.

Just off the roadside I caught a glimpse of several stone markers and a few larger stone monuments in a small field surrounded by a thin wire fence with a gated entrance. The gate was half open. The stone markers looked like ones I had seen in a photo the night before. The photo was in a Hungarian language tourist atlas of the Zemplen Hills provided by my accommodation. That photo had shown a Jewish cemetery in Mad, which was a large town further down the valley. I made a mental note to stop and look at these markers on my way out of Vizsoly after I had visited the Bible Museum. It was hard to believe that a small place would have a Jewish cemetery, let alone an intact one. Then again, the place was remote enough that there was a chance that it had survived the Holocaust, unlike the Jewish population who once inhabited the town.

Reverence, Neglect, Indifference – Preservation Of An Existence
The scope and scale of the evil perpetrated by the Nazis and their allies during the Holocaust in Hungary can be understood in two numbers, both horrifying in the extreme. 596,000 – the number of Hungarian Jews murdered. 90% – the chance that a Jew in rural Hungary would be murdered. The first figure is built upon the second one which is often overlooked. The sheer thoroughness of the Holocaust in rural and provincial Hungary is just as witheringly catastrophic as the total number killed. I began to understand the scope of this murderous rampage when I stopped on my way back out of Vizsoly.  What I had assumed earlier, that the stones I spotted from the road were part of a small Jewish cemetery, turned out to be true. The headstones were in various states of disarray, while there were a couple of larger monuments that had been erected for individuals who were buried there. The cemetery was not exactly well kept, though it did have green grass. The fence surrounding it was constructed out of thin wire and was intact. The gate was open for anyone who cared to visit. That made me wonder just who visited this place.

The cemetery was remote, even by Hungarian standards. It stood on the margins of the town, much like the town’s Jewish community. It was a part of Vizsoly, but apart from it, separate and distinct. I doubted those who lived in Vizsoly gave it much thought, other than the fact that by allowing it to remain they were honoring history and memory. That was more than could be said for many old sites of Jewish presence in Eastern Europe. As for Jews who might come to visit, one thing was for certain, they would not be from Vizsoly. Its small Jewish community was now but a memory and this cemetery was all that was left. The last Jews to inhabit Vizsoly were not buried here, they had lost their lives far away from their hometown. No one knows of Vizsoly, everyone knows about Auschwitz. A little less than a century of Jewish life in Vizsoly died during the Holocaust.

A Poignant Sadness – A Legacy Written In Stone
The only remnants left of the town’s Jewish inhabitants were to be found in the cemetery. Not its most recent ones, who had perished in a concentration camp, but their ancestors. Sadly, they had been lucky in death. To die before the war meant a legacy preserved with a stone marker in this cemetery. These traces of Hungarian Jewish history were poignantly sad, if not to say tragic. Despite the continued existence of the cemetery, it was a place more about absence than presence. A reminder of a lost world and a place that raised more questions than answers. Why was it left untouched? Out of reverence, neglect or indifference. The insidious passions of World War II had long since subsided, but the Jewish legacy of Vizsoly lived on or at least that is what I wanted to believe.

Click here for: A Mysterious Paradox – The Jews of Vizsoly: From Indifference To Reverence (Part Two)

Wide Awake & Half-Asleep – To the Point Of Exhaustion: Brussels To Budapest (Part 3)

The wait to board our Wizz Air flight from South Charleroi to Budapest finally came to an end. For no discernible reason the delay had lasted nearly an hour after the first call had been made to line up. Everyone around the gate gave a sigh of relief that we would finally be able to start boarding. Surely the plane was ready, and we would be Budapest bound in a matter of minutes. I had never done priority boarding in my life, but it felt good walking by the Hungarian toughs fiercely guarding their position at the front of the line for other passengers. After scanning our boarding cards, the attendant wished us a nice flight.  Speaking of flights, we went down a flight of stairs where the line suddenly stopped. Standing at the bottom of this stairwell we could see the tarmac with a Wizz Air jet sitting there waiting for our arrival. The problem was another attendant stood in front of the glass door that exited out onto the flight deck. Surely, the delay would not be long.

From the outside in - Wizz Air airplane

From the outside in – Wizz Air airplane (Credit: Guillaume Speurt)

The Ultimate Wake Up Call – A Portal To Another World
Seconds of waiting soon turned to minutes. The bottom of the stairwell was little more than a frigid concrete corridor. Everyone stood in place shivering while staring out at the object of desire. No one seemed particularly upset by this latest inconvenience. Most of the passengers were Hungarians, whose faces were frozen, if not by the chill air than by a stoic reserve developed through decades of living in a less than comfortable country. The corridor soon turned into standing room only. It was not an appealing place to wait unless one was looking to suffer frostbite. Here was discomfort only a sadist or a Soviet could imagine. I could see my breath and feel the heat off everyone else’s. The only good thing about waiting in this forsaken corridor was that it woke us up. Fifteen minutes passed before we were finally released from the arctic incubator onto the tarmac where an icy wind wafted through me like a lost soul. The sky was spitting what felt like rain and looked like tiny flakes of snow. This walk across the tarmac was the ultimate wake-up call.

Approaching the plane, I noticed that there were two sets of stairs. These were setup at the front and rear of the aircraft for boarding. Whatever else might be said about Wizz Air’s boarding process, this was the one thing they had right. It was much quicker in getting everyone onboard, to stow their luggage and get seated by having them board at two separate places. Or should I say it would have been quicker, but after getting to the top of the stairs we were stopped once again. For some unexplainable reason, perhaps the same one which had led to the multiple delays so far, we were not allowed to enter the plane just yet. This delay was only a couple of minutes long, compared to the other delays it was nothing, but standing in hypothermia inducing weather it only served to exacerbate my irritation. The plane was turning into our forbidden fruit. Then suddenly we were allowed entry. Stepping into the plane was like entering a whole new world, a portal of warmth and comfort.

Distraction & Attraction - The Wizz Air Trench Coat

Distraction & Attraction – The Wizz Air Trench Coat

Distraction & Attraction – The Wizz Air Way
The stewardesses were beaming from ear to ear as though everything was going according to plan. They were elegant, attractive and gracious, Wizz Air’s answer to conflict resolution was to distract passengers with these stewardesses. Color therapy was also used. Wizz Air’s colors are pink and purple. The stewardesses wore enchanting pink overcoats. It is difficult, if not impossible, to lose one’s temper when confronted by pink. It is a color expressive of warmth and openness. I doubt many of the passengers were paying attention, at least on a conscious level. They were just glad to be aboard and I assumed, heading home to Hungary. Of all the flights Wizz Air ran out of South Charleroi, its twice daily service to Budapest was by far the busiest. In 2016 over 300,000 passengers flew between the two airports on a Wizz Air aircraft. It had also become the de facto national carrier for Hungary since Malev (Hungarian Airlines) folded due to bankruptcy in 2012.

The closure of Malev was one of the reasons there were no longer direct connections between the United States and Hungary. At the time of its downfall, Malev had over 2,500 employees and accounted for nearly half of all the flight traffic in and out of Budapest. I had once flown Malev from Bucharest to Sarajevo via Budapest. The service was good, the planes were clean, and it seemed like a well-run airline. While that may have been true, competing against the new budget airlines that popped up across Europe proved impossible. The Hungarian government subsidies that had kept Malev afloat for several years was deemed illegal by the European Union in 2012, this sounded its death knell. It was a blow to Hungarian national pride, but nationalism is one thing, capitalism quite another. Wizz Air proved a salve to heal the wounded pride of Hungarian egos. It may get knocked for bare bones service and ancillary charges, but the Wizz Air’s prices can hardly be beat. Air fares as low as ten Euros afford those with even limited incomes the opportunity to fly all over Europe.

The Path to Budapest - Wizz Air Airbus A320-200

The Path to Budapest – Wizz Air Airbus A320-200 (Credit: Kudak)

Getting Grounded  – Arrival At Ferihegy
Wizz Air was just like any other airline at 20,000 feet. A smooth flight and arriving alive were of the utmost importance. We landed in Budapest, the home of Wizz Air, an hour and 55 minutes after we took off from South Charleroi. The four flights odyssey had come to an end. We had left Denver at 1:00 p.m. MST on a Saturday afternoon and arrived on Sunday evening in Budapest at 11:00 p.m. CET (3:00 p.m. in Denver). An entire day plus two hours had passed. At journey’s end I was wide awake and half asleep, wired and exhausted. Fortunately, passport control and customs were a breeze at Budapest Ferihegy Airport. One journey had ended, another was beginning. I was looking forward to two weeks’ worth of travel around Hungary, especially since none of it would take place on an airplane.

Fight or Flight Response – Waiting Games: Flying To Budapest Via Brussels (Part Two)

I have this belief that if you expect something bad to happen, it rarely does. The check-in process for Wizz Air at South Charleroi Airport was not the nightmare I anticipated. On the contrary, It was surprisingly easy. Despite already having downloaded digital boarding passes to our phones, the desk attendant printed boarding cards for us free of charge. Perhaps this was a perk of the “priority” membership which I had purchased along with the flight. For a nominal fee, priority membership allowed us to avoid some of the more onerous charges such as fees for printing boarding passes and an extra luggage allowance which we needed. I had flown Wizz Air before and was wary of being nickeled and dimed to death, but I did appreciate the fact that they had to make their money somehow. Flight tickets were so cheap that add-ons were the main driver of profits. I was cautiously optimistic that Wizz Air was going to be better than I expected. Of course, I had lowered my expectations to such a low level that it was not hard for them to be exceeded. Unfortunately, security at the airport did manage to jangle our nerves.

Shuttle Diplomacy – Bringing Europe Back Together
Imagine a seething mass of temperamental foreigners all packed together in an overcrowded hall. There was no line, only mobs of people standing shoulder to shoulder. When we got near the scanners, a line was forced to form, which resulted in a near melee. This would not have been so bad, but being jostled back and forth for over an hour was a test of patience and reserve. Nevertheless, we made it into the waiting area a good three and a half hours before our evening flight was due to depart. All we could do was hang out in a  food court that brought to mind a bad school cafeteria without janitorial services. From time to time I got up to check the departures board. This allowed me to study the range of destinations Wizz Air flew to from South Charleroi. Eastern Europe could not have been better served.

In addition to Budapest, Wizz Air flew to four cities in Romania as well as the capitals of Poland, Slovenia, Bulgaria and Macedonia. I started imagining what it would be like to fly to Skopje, a city I had never visited or take a return trip to Ljubljana which I had visited six years before. All sorts of strange travel odysseys began to materialize in my mind. Best of all, these destinations were easily affordable. A whole new world of possibilities was just a few Euros away.  Studying the departures board made me see Wizz Air in a whole new light. They made travel affordable to Western Europe for millions of Eastern Europeans. This was also true in reverse. Wizz Air made Eastern Europe accessible to millions of Western Europeans. Wizz Air was doing as much or more than anyone to bring Eastern and Western Europe back together from the artificial geopolitical divide caused by the Cold War. Borders may have existed in the skies, but passengers could not see them. Borders may exist in the mind, but the departures board carried them away. Eastern Europe had arrived on the wings of Wizz Air.

Wizz Air - Connecting Eastern and Western Europe

Wizz Air – Connecting Eastern and Western Europe (Credit: Thomas Romer)

Boarding Calls – A Delayed Response
Wizz Air and Eastern Europe had something else in common, they were both rough around the edges. Case in point was the boarding process, which left much to be desired. We were in priority boarding and had paid a little bit extra for our seats. This allowed us to queue in a separate line from the mob that was gathering close to the gate. A desk clerk notified everyone that boarding was going to begin any moment. This turned out not to be true. The clerk should have said that the waiting was about to begin. We stood there for over half an hour waiting to board. Nothing had happened that would provide a plausible reason for delay. While standing there stiff from exhaustion, I suddenly recalled how the same thing happened last time we flew Wizz Air from Istanbul to Budapest a few years ago. In that case, the wait after the initial call to board was over an hour for no discernible reason.  We were in the exact same situation all over again. It was incredibly pointless and served to irritate the growing non-priority mob that was queueing close to the gate.

Because Wizz Air does not assign seats except to those who have purchased a specific seating assignment in advance, the non-priority passengers were preparing themselves for a stampede to get the best possible seat when boarding was finally allowed. Several Hungarian men that looked as though they enjoyed street fights on a regular basis headed up the line. No one dared go around them for fear of being grounded, not by Wizz Air personnel, but fisticuffs. The most maddening aspect of the entire process was seeing the three attendants at the gate stand around seemingly unaware that anything was amiss. They were taking the delay in stride, it must have been a common occurrence. I imagined working for Wizz Air would cause a person to develop the stoicism of Seneca. This would have been the only way to ignore the beseeching eyes of passengers, begging with their every expression to be allowed on board the plane.

Grounded - Playing the waiting game at South Charleroi

Grounded – Playing the waiting game at South Charleroi

Pity Party – Waves Of Anger & Desperation
I felt waves of anger followed by desperation as the wait continued. Anger at myself for such a foolhardy plan. How could I have thought four flights in a row was a good idea, with the final one on Wizz Air. Then desperation would take hold. I would stare at one of the attendants for prolonged periods with an expression of sadness, hoping they would take pity on me. I had reached the point of seeking someone else’s pity just to board a plane. This is what happens when you get one hour of sleep in a 30-hour period. Flying to Hungary had never been easy, but I made this trip particularly hard. In the end, I knew all this irritation would be worth it. At least that was what I kept telling myself.

A Fool & His Sanity Are Soon Parted – Bound For Exhaustion: Flying To Budapest via America (Part One)

Flying to Hungary from the United States is not easy. This because there are no direct flights to Budapest. The last ones were discontinued by Delta and American Airlines in 2011, but an announcement was recently made that LOT Polish Airlines would start nonstop service to Budapest from both New York and Chicago beginning in the spring of 2018. Flying to Hungary from anywhere other than the largest American cities means at least two transfers before arriving in Budapest. Since I live far away from a major international airport – the nearest is in Denver five hours by car – a trip to Hungary usually takes anywhere from thirty to thirty-six hours. This can mean up to four flights in a single day. Factoring in the exorbitant cost of a ticket for the trip, this is like paying a small fortune to take part in a travel endurance experiment that leads to days of jet lag. That has never stopped me from going, but I always closely scrutinize what flights to take for both price and relative comfort in a vain effort to mitigate travel exhaustion.

The Ultimate Goal - Budapest Ferihegy Airport

The Ultimate Goal – Budapest Ferihegy Airport

For Some Strange Reason – Making Connections
My wife and I decided to travel to Hungary this past holiday season to visit family, but there was a limit on the days we could fly out and back due to work. When flexibility is limited, searching for a less expensive ticket becomes a crap shoot. I found myself searching for the cheapest tickets possible while trying to avoid 46 hour layovers, super tight connections and bizarre transfers. These three possible problems were not mutually exclusive. This was easier said than done. A ticket on any of America’s legacy carriers or their alliance partners flying from Denver to Budapest with a couple of transfers was $1,800 and up. I viewed such prices as extortionate and not worth the cost. This sent me searching for flights to other airports in nearby countries. Vienna was just as expensive, Munich a bit cheaper, but not enough to make a difference and that was about it. Then I hit upon an idea. Why not try finding the cheapest airfare to a major city in Europe on a legacy carrier, then take one of those ultra-cheap European budget airlines to Budapest. This idea was how I ended up with a cheaper total ticket cost, but also on an exhausting journey by train, metro, bus and taxi in addition to four flights, all just to arrive in Budapest. There is a famous saying, “a fool and his money are soon parted.” In this case, the fool (me) was not parted from his money, but nearly lost his sanity.

The first flight I selected would take us from Denver to Brussels on American Airlines/British Airways via Chicago & London. Then we would take another airline, the budget carrier Wizz Air, from Brussels to Budapest. At first glance the plan looked simple, but it was not. The last flight on our first tickets was from London to Brussels. It would land at Brussels Zaventem. This is the city’s main airport, located in the Flanders region of Belgium. While the Brussels to Budapest flight on our second tickets was not really from Brussels at all, but from an airport known as Brussels South Charleroi. Charleroi is not very close to Brussels, unless the distance is judged by the standards of tiny Belgium. The airport is in Wallonia, an entirely different region of the country. For some strange reason it was listed as Brussels South Charleroi. Perhaps it was an attempt to get foolish passengers such as myself to try connecting through an airport that was “only” seventy kilometers away from Zaventem.

Voices In My Head Screaming No – Irritation beyond Belief
Why walk to another terminal at the same airport when you can ride every type of public transport imaginable in a single afternoon just to arrive at a different airport? The only person this plan made sense to was me. I ignored the obvious factor that we were bound to be exhausted by the time our first set of flights was over. Thus, we found ourselves bleary eyed, but arriving on time just after noon at a rainy and cold Brussels Zaventem Airport. Our transfer from Zaventem to South Charleroi was nothing less than head spinning. First, we had to catch a train from Zaventem to Brussels Central Train Station. The train showed up late, generating an insane amount of confusion. Even the locals wondered whether they were boarding the correct train. This was because the correct train showed up late at the exact same time another train was due to arrive. Fortunately, this did turn out to be the right train, it just never felt like it. At the Central Station we had to find the metro which would take us to Midi Station. This turned into a series of mad errors, involving a ticket machine that refused to take anything other than Euro coins and listless wandering in, out, back in and back out and finally in the correct metro access.

At Midi Station we walked through a steady drizzle to a bus that would take us to South Charleroi. We had been told earlier that payment for the bus was only by credit or debit card. Of course, the driver demanded cash only. From here it was a swerving ride in and out of traffic to South Charleroi. At this point I was questioning my sanity, caused both by the trip and the thought that I inflicted this maddening journey on me and my wife just to save a few dollars. Getting to Budapest this way made little sense, irritated me beyond belief and looked like the kind of itinerary only a chintzy madman would attempt. When I booked the trip, I told anyone who would listen – including the voices in my head screaming no – that it would be an adventure. That turned out to be a self-fulfilling prophecy.

In Transit - Brussels-South Charleroi Airport

In Transit – Brussels-South Charleroi Airport

Cost Savings – A Different Type Of Fare
Arriving at South Charleroi, I shuttered to think what else might happen. The dreaded Wizz Air flight was next on the itinerary. Wizz Air was known for ultra-cheap fares, charging for every little thing and setting up shop in out of the way airports that were either on the fringes of major European metropolises or in provincial cities that only the locals knew existed. South Charleroi Airport looked to be a little bit of both. It was crowded, dingy and ugly. The terminal felt retro, like the 70’s on steroids. I humored myself with the thought of the money I was supposedly saving. Unfortunately, I was having to pay for every bit of it.


A Library Brought Back To Life By A Single Book – Eleanor Perenyi At Szollos (Part Two)

It will be many months or years before I am able to visit Szollos Castle in Vynohradiv, Ukraine. I cannot go there at this time due to the simple fact that I am sitting thousands of miles and an entire ocean away from the castle. The only guide I have for now is Eleanor Perenyi’s memoir, More Was Lost, it will have to suffice as a substitute. That might just be good enough, because Perenyi’s writing offers a vivid description of the castle during those final years just before World War II descended on the castle and its inhabitants, altering the course of its history and destroying those that had given it such life. Fortunately, Perenyi keeps memory of the castle alive through the written word. It is a pleasant irony that she recovers some of what was lost at Szollos with her book. Ironic because books helped her learn about the Castle’s past while living there in the late 1930’s. She was one of the last to enjoy an incredible library that would be scattered to the winds just a few years later.

Aristocratic families in Hungary had libraries consisting of hundreds or thousands of volumes

Aristocratic families in Hungary had libraries consisting of hundreds or thousands of volumes

Man Of Reason – A Legacy Of Learning
Many of the great aristocratic families in Hungary had libraries consisting of hundreds or thousands of volumes collected over many centuries. These same libraries also could contain letters that told of everyday life for the nobility. The Perenyi family had one such library. It was discovered by Eleanor Perenyi not long after she arrived at Szollos. She found the library in a downstairs room tucked behind accessories used to run the castle’s wine business. The books were still locked away in glass cases. It turned out that there was much more locked in those cases, including decades of correspondence between family members and friends. The ultimate trove were the old books, some of these dusty tomes had sheepskin bindings and covers. Much of the collection came from a family forebear by the name of Alexei Perenyi who had inhabited the castle a century and a half earlier.

Alexei’s prized books reflected the influence and popularity of French thinkers during this time. Alexei Perenyi had come of age during the Enlightenment, thus the library’s greatest works were the product of men such as Rousseau and Voltaire. Latin and German works were also well represented. The purpose of reading during the 18th century in Hungary was to educate rather than entertain. Reading expanded the world and connected Hungary with a Europe enthralled by the Enlightenment. What influence these books had upon Hungarian political thought and discourse can only be imagined. The latter half of the 18th century was a time of relative peace and prosperity for Hungarian nobles. The Ottoman Turkish occupation was growing more distant with each passing decade, by comparison Habsburg rule were relatively benign. The Kingdom of Hungary was by no means independent or autonomous, but Hungarian consent in imperial affairs was often sought by the Habsburgs. Alexei Perenyi may have been in a European backwater, but his books showed that he was connected to a much larger and changing world.

Telling Tales – The Life Of A Family
These books were so inviting to look at and delicious to read that Eleanor Perenyi had them relocated to a room closest to where she slept. The true power of those volumes was not only in the ideas they transmitted, but the fact that she was following in the footsteps of a Perenyi forebear who also craved the written word. This continued a tradition of self-education that was central to the lives of Alexei and Eleanor Perenyi, a connection that stretched across a century and a half. It is hard to imagine the value of the Perenyi library during the 18th century. This has little to do with money. The books of Alexei Perenyi also acted as a sort of news of the day, filled with new ideas and information. It is hard to imagine just how remote Perenyi Castle was back then from the centers of political power in Vienna and Pozsony (present day Bratislava, Slovakia). The books Eleanor found were a lifeline to the outside world for Alexei Perenyi. And this world did not speak a word of English, since there was not one English language book to be found in the entire library.

And it was not just books that Eleanor discovered, she also delved deeply into an archive of family correspondence. Unlike the books that were filled with ideas and information, these personal letters were rich in narrative. They told of the everyday lives led by several generations of Perenyi’s and their friends during the heyday of Austria-Hungary. This was a time when the Adriatic was almost as much a Hungarian Sea as Lake Balaton. Trips to the seaside of what is today Croatia and northeastern Italy were a rite of passage. Governesses and archduchesses were as much a part of life as horse riding and hunting. This world had not quite been lost, but irreparably altered by the Great War. Viewed through the prism of personal letters it was both real and fantastical. Eleanor read love letters quaint yet romantic in their formality. I am quite sure that she was able to put herself in place of the author, imagining how she would have reacted or felt in similar circumstances. Time must have ticked backwards for her as she read the letters and relived the lives of people whose footsteps she was now following. In this sense, the library spoke volumes.

More Was Lost - A Memoir by Eleanor Perenyi

More Was Lost – A Memoir by Eleanor Perenyi

Reimagined & Recovered – The Glory Of Dusty Volumes
Then another cataclysm – World War II – executed the final death sentence for Perenyi Castle and the nobility at Szollos. Among the victims was their library. We can only imagine how the books and letters were either stolen or destroyed, scattered in a hundred directions or cast into the rubbish bin. The terrible birth of Stalinism in the Subcarpathians required this loss of lifeblood. An avenging Red Army set in motion a merciless destruction of the Perenyi’s past. For the Soviets had to destroy the past, so they could control the future. Eleanor Perenyi was the last in the family line to experience that wonderful library as it had existed for centuries. It had been a great gift for her and she paid it the ultimate respect, by recreating it in her memoir. Each sentence a shelve, every word a book or letter to be reimagined and recovered by future generations such as myself. Left to marvel at the glory of those dusty volumes and the woman who brought a library back to life through a single book.

In The Shadow Of The Carpathians -Eleanor Perenyi at Szollos: Finding What Was Lost (Part One)

I was looking to kill an hour before meeting friends for dinner in Budapest. I was already out and about in the city, so I chose one of my favorite activities to pass the time, looking in bookstores for English language books. This is how I ended up at the Libri bookstore across from Nyugati (Western) Train Station on a mid-winter’s afternoon. I had been in this bookstore many times before, always finding their selection of English language books in disarray. The fiction was interspersed with the non-fiction, making it difficult to differentiate between the two. Tourist guidebooks could be found in more than one section, as could the oversized picture books that are so popular with tourists. The arrangement made little sense and was haphazard at best. This left me at the mercy of serendipity.

While picking my way through the stacks I noticed a paperback with a deep red spine. At first I thought the book was fiction, perhaps a short novel. The author had a Hungarian surname which piqued my interest. I had never heard of Eleanor Perenyi or the book, entitled More Was Lost: A Memoir. The cover displayed a painting called An Autumn Landscape. In that painting the trees are colored a deep orangish-red, in the background hills tinged with a violet hue are set against a yellow sky. The painting evokes a world almost on fire. This was definitely an autumn landscape, but where? I soon found the place it was meant to evoke.

The Castle at Szollos - during the 1930s

The Castle at Szollos – during the 1930s

Teetering On The Edge – The Waning Days Of Nobility
A short description of the author and her memoir were written neatly across the back cover. I was surprised to learn that Eleanor Perenyi was an American who “falls in love with a poor Hungarian baron and in short order acquires both a title and a struggling country estate at the edge of the Carpathians.” That last word hooked me. Carpathians conjured images of dark forests, remote frontier and a mysterious land. The other grabber was, “observing the invisible order of the Czech rule, the resentment of the native Ruthenians and the haughtiness of the dispossessed Hungarians”. Perenyi had lived in an area where borders collided. That pre-World War II world where disparate peoples lived side by side, each with their own languages, cultures, customs and  political aspirations. I had traveled by train on a couple of occasions through this area known as the sub-Carpathians, which in the 20th century had been part of Greater Hungary, then Czechoslovakia, back to Hungary, the Soviet Union and finally Ukraine.

This was a region at a time in history – the late 1930’s -of which relatively little was written in the English language. Perenyi was one of the few Americans who had witnessed the waning days of Hungarian nobility as it teetered on the edge of destruction. I flipped through the pages, looking for place names. On page 33 I found a grainy black and white photo of a Baroque palace labeled Szollos. The photo drew me in like a magnet, I needed this place, not only in the past of this memoir, but in the future for my life. I impulsively made the decision to purchase the book. The purchase was an affirmation that I would plan on visiting Szollos. That is if it still existed.

Eleanor Perenyi - Author of More Was Lost: A Memoir

Eleanor Perenyi – Author of More Was Lost: A Memoir

Heirs To A Noble Heritage –  The Perenyi’s Place In The World
Immediately I read through the book’s introduction which gave an overview of Eleanor Perenyi’s life. I discovered she came from a wealthy family in the northeastern United States. She had been traveling with her mother in Europe, when she went to dinner one night in Budapest. That was where the young Eleanor, who was only of high school age at the time, met Zsiga Perenyi. It was not long thereafter that the couple was married in Venice. Zsiga was heir to a noble heritage, but at this point in history the Perenyi family was nearly impoverished. They did own a palace and small estate which had ended up in the Subcarpathia region of Czechoslovakia due to the post-World War One Treaty Of Trianon which had dismembered Greater Hungary. This was problematic. When they had first met, Zsiga did not have the right to live at his ancestral family home, only visit. The land reform following Czechoslovakia’s takeover of the region had led to shrinkage of the Perenyi estate. Despite this, there was still the palace, orchards, a garden and forests that might somehow be renovated into a viable estate. Zsiga obtained the proper permission to resettle there along with his new American wife. This was as far as I got into the book during my first reading.

I could hardly wait to do research on Szollos, to learn some of its history and locate it on a map. The place Eleanor Perenyi refers to as Szollos is actually Vynohradiv (Nagyszolos in Hungarian) in extreme southwestern Ukraine today. I had already learned from the book’s introduction that the castle still existed, albeit in a much different state from when the newlywed Perenyi’s lived there. The exterior looked much the same as it did before the war broke out. The interior was an entirely different story. From what I could see it had been greatly modified. Ironically the Soviets had made a museum out of it, but then Ukraine transformed it into an administration building for the local schools. This was nothing new for old aristocratic palaces and manor houses in Eastern Europe. Since the mid-20th century they have been valued as much for utilitarian purposes as for their history. Zakarpattia Oblast, the Ukrainian administrative district where the former Perenyi residence is located today, happens to be one of the poorest places in the country. Since the castle was such a well-built structure it has been used for a multitude of enterprises. Ukraine is not a member of the European Union, thus it is much harder to procure development funds for reconstruction. History is not number one on the list of priorities for a place struggling to survive.

Perenyi Castle

Perenyi Castle (Credit: ibulyah)

Haunted Castle  – The Ghosts of Love
From what I discovered  in my initial research the past is a different country in Szollos, lost in time, but not to memory because More Was Lost manages to capture the past. Perenyi’s love for that period of her life was so great that she could not fathom a return, the hurt went too deep. She was aware of how much had changed at the castle, it was one of the reasons she never went back, not once after writing her memoir, even though she lived until 2009. The couple’s only child, a son named Peter, visited in 2001. He brought back pictures which caused his mother to recoil in horror. The castle was a far cry from the way it looked in her day or for that matter today. It was on the verge of becoming, like her long ago love, a ruin. Since that time enough work has been done to make it look respectable and worth a visit, if no longer for the Perenyi family, then at least for me.

Coming soon: A Library Brought Back To Life By A Single Book – Eleanor Perenyi At Szollos (Part Two)



The Theft Of Innocence – An Attendant Mystery: Krakow To Budapest (Part Four)

Frantic, nervous and beside myself with a mixture of fear, worry and anger I found the attendant, a young man from Polish Railways who could not have been more than thirty years old. In extremely bad English he asked if we locked the door. I shook my head. He twisted the lock open and shut several times showing me how it worked. He finally left it at open and said, “Public.” What he meant was that if the door was not locked the compartment was open to the public. He was spot on. I felt angry for being so stupid. The attendant left. We continued to search, but less frantically. Our hope of finding the wallet was waning. Then the attendant suddenly reappeared and asked me to follow him to the area at the end of the corridor. This was where it led into the next train car. On the floor was my friend’s wallet, as though it had been tossed there by the thief. The money was gone (between $200 and $300), but his driver’s license and credit cards were still there. We both felt another wave of relief, at least all had not been lost. The money was not that big a deal compared to finding the wallet. Unfortunately, the incident marred the unexpectedly pleasant overnight train trip.

Compartmentalized - Sleeper Train Corridor 

Compartmentalized – Sleeper Train Corridor

Who Done It – Casting For Blame
It was only later after the initial shock wore off that we began to try and figure out what exactly had happened. In the absence of any other suspects, our suspicion fell on the attendant in our train car. This may not have been fair, but we had no one else to blame other than ourselves. The attendant had been the one who found the wallet, but that raised the question of if he was the one who also took it. His compartment was next to ours. He would have heard us coming and going to the bathroom throughout the night. One time during the early morning hours I glanced into his compartment. At the time he looked to be resting. That could have been a ruse or reality. He would have woken up long before us. What if he saw us sound asleep or knew when my friend was using the restroom and I was in a deep sleep. This would have been the most advantageous time to make a move for the wallet. Especially if he heard the door fly open.

If I would have woke up while the theft was taking place, he could have said that he was closing the door. How would I have known any better? There was also the fact that he discovered the wallet. It was lying in the open on the floor just outside of the bathroom. Close to where the entrance was into the next train car. Had it really been in that same place all morning? Many people woke up before us. Surely someone would have seen it and either taken the wallet or turned it in. The chance that it was lying there for an indeterminate amount of time, untouched less the cash, seemed slimmer than the attendant placing it there himself. Quite conveniently, as soon as the attendant came to get me and then led me to the wallet, attention was distracted away from him.

Strangers On A Train – Opportunistic & Ominous
The relief we felt when finding the wallet made us forget all about the attendant’s potential culpability until we got off the train. There was a moment of mild euphoria. Only after we exited the train at Keleti Station in Budapest did we begin to cast our suspicions towards the attendant’s role. There was not much we could have done, even if we were pretty sure it was him. He spoke broken English at best. We only spoke English. Neither of us spoke Polish or Hungarian. We were now in Hungary not Poland. The only way we would have been able to find out whether the attendant was guilty would have been for the police to search his belongings. There was not enough evidence for that to be done. Plus, there was an insurmountable language barrier. And what if it was not him? The thought was chilling.

There was a distinct possibility that someone came into our compartment. An opportunistic thief who made his way from one of the other train cars or was sleeping in the same car. This was more frightening because it would have been someone we would not have known and never would know. A total stranger. When getting off the train at Keleti I wondered if the culprit might be walking among us. No matter who did it, we had to live with the losses. In the overall scheme of our trip it was a violation, but relatively benign compared to what might have happened. My friend had his wallet back. His credit cards were all there. He could use them at any ATM and soon did. I had my wallet and our passports were safe. In sum, we had been lucky. It was a hard lesson learned.

The Mystery Never Ends - Keleti Station in Budapest

The Mystery Never Ends – Keleti Station in Budapest (Credit: Dwight79)

For All The Wrong Reasons – Out On The Edge
Now I knew that night trains were more than noise, nuisances and sleeplessness. The compartment was not isolated from the darker aspects of society. Safety and security were illusions that could easily be stripped away just as fast as my friend’s wallet. There are thieves everywhere and nowhere. People steal for a variety of reasons including to get by or top up their wages. In Eastern Europe, many people with professional jobs live on the edge economically. Several hundred dollars can last someone more than a month. For them it was worth the risk. The crime was likely committed not out of malevolence, but need or at worst greed. As Americans we were targets. Seen as cash machines and tourists. I would never consider myself or my friend as wealthy, but someone saw us as that, sometime late in the night or early morning. Our misgivings about the return trip turned out to be true. We were able to sleep, but we also got robbed. Our overnight train journeys from Budapest to Krakow and Krakow to Budapest had been memorable, but for all the wrong reasons.

Click here for: The Whole of the Moon – Stolen Hours: Krakow to Budapest (Part Three)