Obsessive Propulsive – Still Running: 2 A.M. Through The Streets Of Sofia (Travels In Eastern Europe #40)

Running is a ritual and an obsession for me. No matter where I am at, no matter how far from home, no matter what my schedule, a daily run has been a necessity in my life for well over a decade. Some might call my daily runs, a jog or even a trot. That is because I do not aim for speed, just to keep going for one hour. I have been told – quite correctly – that if I would take a day or two off every week my runs would be much better. That is heresy to me. If I can get in in an hour running each day, then I am satisfied. Life would not seem normal without the daily run. Trying to maintain such a rigid standard can be difficult, nowhere more so than while traveling.

Sofia

Sofia

Dogged Persistence – An Exercise In Cultural Understanding
I have been a lucky man when it comes to running during my travels, specifically in Eastern Europe. I have run along the Danube in Bratislava, Budapest and Belgrade, across the Stari Most in Mostar, the Charles Bridge in Prague and the Latin Bridge in Sarajevo, dodged traffic in Transylvania and cut corners across Krakow. Most of my runs have not been in or around famous sites, but in neighborhoods or other run of the mill places such as a sports club in Kispest and farm fields on the outskirts of Debrecen.  These places I recall just as fondly as the old cities of Vienna or Vilnius. The runs helped me familiarize myself with local areas and life, especially in Hungary. By running I have learned that many Hungarians have large ferocious dogs guarding their yards. I cannot count the times that I have been startled by a massive dog suddenly smashing their snout up against a fence, snarling and salivating at me. Anyone who would consider robbing a house in Hungary better be prepared for a fight to the death from an oversized rover ready to have them for brunch. Hungarian dogs have helped keep me aware of my surroundings.

I have also learned about the stoicism and reserve of Eastern Europeans on these runs. A smile is at best met with a shrug, greetings are ignored. The people I have met along these runs are not the superficial, perpetually smiling American types. Friendliness seems to be forbidden, they take a “do not talk to strangers” attitude seriously. I can see this in their look away avoidance, a willful attempt to ignore my existence. This left me with a rather lonely feeling, making me feel more foreign than I already was. Nevertheless, I would not trade my experience jogging down the cracked sidewalks and unkempt parks found in every former Eastern Bloc country. I have gotten to see so much that I otherwise would have missed. The drunks passed out in the woods in Warsaw’s Saxon Park , the Romanian soldiers slouching while standing guard in the early morning hours at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Bucharest, the empty serpentine streets of Sibiu just after dawn. My daily run may be an obsession, but in eastern Europe it has also enhanced my passion for travel and given me unforgettable experiences. My favorite run was also the toughest, one that coincidentally happened in the earliest hours of the morning, when I could see next to nothing and the experience devolved into a dream.

The Final Destination –Running To Stand Still
I crawled out of the bed in Sofia at 2 a.m. on a Monday morning, knocked back a cold cup of coffee and grabbed my IPod. It was time to go for a morning run, a very early morning run. This would be the earliest I had ever went running before. Why was I going for a run in a strange city, where I could not speak a word of the language or even read the alphabet at such an early hour? The only reasonable explanation – as though anyone going running at 2 a.m. can provide a reasonable answer – was that I had a 6 a.m. flight from Sofia to Paris. This would be followed by two more flights to get back home. If everything went according to plan I would not arrive in my final destination of Billings, Montana, until 10:00 p.m. This meant that it would be especially difficult for me to get in my daily run unless I did it in Sofia. I had barely slept during that short night. Even so I did not feel that tired. I was in a wired state of sleep deprivation, shaking slightly with a fast forward like motion sickness.

My nerves were on edge. I was kept awake for most of the night with worried thoughts of impending danger. What if I ran into a crowd of drunks or a gang of young males looking to kick the ass of a stupidly dressed stranger in sweats, a hoody and trainers on a street in Sofia during the wee hours of the morning? What if some corrupt police officer noticed me? I imagined being dragged away to the police station for questioning then missing my flight while trying to explain away this daily run madness. As I walked outside into the chill morning air, I noticed that the streets were deserted. There was scarcely any traffic except for the random taxi. I began to run down one of the main streets, a moving target in super slow self-propulsion. I quickly formulated a plan to safeguard my existence and remain anonymous. I would find a quiet, mostly dark side street, then repetitively run back and forth along it. This would be quite tedious, but the goal was to complete the daily run, not try for speed or stimulation. It was not long before I found such a street. For the next half hour I did little more than jog 400 meters one way and then do the same again in the opposite direction.

Isolation Chamber – Passing Thoughts
Boredom got the better of me halfway through the run. I found another street, rather well lighted where I could do the same thing. It was not much better, but at least it was different. With music blasting in my ears I lost track of everything. I was in another world, beyond Bulgaria. It was like being in an isolation chamber, alone with just my thoughts. This must be what it is like just before dying. Then suddenly I was frightened into reality. I found myself suddenly upon the heels of two people who were walking up the street in front of me. I almost ran into the back of them. They were startled, said something which I could not hear, then parted so I could pass. I accelerated out of fear and did not look back until several minutes later. When I did glance behind me, they were nowhere to be seen. I realized that they were probably more scared of me, than I was of them. It was not long thereafter that the run was finished. I was relieved to be done with it. My daily run goal for the day was attained. I could live another day in contentment. Now all I had to do was spend the next 24 hours traveling. I was not worried about the flights or the waits or the lack of sleep. My only worry was about tomorrow and the next daily run.

The Things That Cannot Be Explained – Love & Humanity In The Debrecen Train Station

I have been asked many times what was the most impressive thing I have seen while traveling in Eastern Europe? Depending on the person questioning me I almost always give one of two answers. If I feel like the person has little knowledge of the region, I usually answer that the section of Budapest astride the Danube is a stunning sight. If I know the person has traveled in the region I will usually say the Old Town of Lviv. If I answer the former, my inquisitor usually says something to the effect that they will be sure to visit Budapest in the near future. If I answer the latter, it usually elicits a look of befuddlement. The conversation will then turn to more familiar subjects. My answers have always avoided what I really wanted to say. I keep the truth to myself for reasons of intimacy and vulnerability.

The most impressive sight I ever witnessed in Eastern Europe did not come in Budapest or Lviv. It did not come at any of the most heavily trafficked tourist sites or famous places. It cannot be found by using a guidebook or any other piece of tourist literature. No one has written a word about it, until now. I actually saw it in the eastern Hungarian city of Debrecen. And it had nothing do with that city’s Great Church, the Deri Museum’s famous collections or any of the sights along that most famous of streets, Piac Utca. The most impressive thing I ever saw in Eastern Europe took place on a random weekday in late October, inside the waiting area of the Debrecen Train Station, that old cavernous, concrete pile. If you go there, I seriously doubt you will get to see what I did. That is because the actual location can only be discovered in one place, the heart.

Just another ordinary day - the waiting hall at Debrecen Train Station

Just another ordinary day – the waiting hall at Debrecen Train Station

Just Another Ordinary Day – Watching People Watch The Clock
When a person feels vulnerable they become receptive to emotions they keep hidden away inside themselves. Suddenly something they see, hear or sense can trigger a wave of emotion unlike anything they have ever felt before. Some psychologists call this a significant emotional moment. This is not what I was expecting when I walked into the Debrecen train station on a mid-autumn day. The sun was out, the leaves were turning and the station was slumbering. The morning traffic had left long ago. Voices were barely above a murmur. I was half an hour early for the train to Lviv. I had arrived much too early as has so often been my habit. My logic was that only one train was headed for western Ukraine and I did not want to miss it. This left me time to hang out, perhaps grab something to eat and watch people watching the clock.

The atmosphere in the station was emotionless. One of those places where it seems like time has stopped. I began to wander around, first going from the ticket purchase counter to the magazine shop with countless Hungarian language titles for sale that I would unfathomable. Then it was on to look at the food, which from the meager selection on offer, looked as though communism had never left the building.  I did not find the idea of a soggy sandwich, lukewarm cup of coffee or day old pastry appetizing. By this time, I had made my way over to the waiting hall, a large high ceilinged room that smelled of mildew and disinfectant. The most notable feature of this area was a large communist era mural. It showed workers, both agrarian and industrial in a unity that never existed, except in the mind of state propagandists.

The Moment That Comes To Mean Everything – Life & Love
It was also in the waiting hall where I noticed the usual selection of popular novels and hard backed picture books for sale, cheap and easy reads that usually garner mild interest. One of those picture books caught my eye, but it was not located on the for sale table. Instead, it was in the hands of a father sitting with what I assumed to be his son. The two sat side by side on a hard backed bench while the father read aloud, the boy looked to be in his later teenage years. The boy looked at the photos attentively, studying each one closely as the father read to him slowly and carefully.

The boy was fascinated by each photo, staring at them with the curiosity of a small child. I noticed that he had Down’s Syndrome. How much he understood was open to question. From time to time, he would rear his head from one side to the other, than his father’s soft voice would call his curiosity back to the page. I wondered what he might have been thinking as he looked at all those majestic photos of Erdelyi Varak (Transylvania Castles), the book his father read to him with such loving care.  To see a father patiently and quietly taking the time to sit with his son and explain these photos made me want to explode into tears. There was magnificent beauty on those pages, but no castle could compare to what I witnessed in that moment. This was a reminder to me of what it means to be human.

On The Inside – A Sense Of Humanity
Amid that musty waiting hall, in an ugly old train station that looked to be several decades past its prime, I felt an incredible sense of love and humanity. It materialized before my very eyes. I suddenly realized how unexpectedly beautiful life can be. I understood what it really meant to love a child, to do everything you can for them no matter the situation. It took everything I had to hold back tears. Finally, after many minutes I pulled myself away from this scene. On the inside I was shaking, what I had seen disturbed and enlightened me in the most profound way possible. Since then it has never left my mind. It was the most impressive thing I have seen in Eastern Europe. Why was that? I really have no idea. There are certain things in life that cannot be explained, love is one of them.

“At Least It’s Not Szolnok” – Excitement In The Worst Way Possible: A Tragedy On The Great Hungarian Plain

Not that long ago I was having a conversation with an in-law about the dullness of Debrecen, Hungary’s second largest city. I am always astonished at how static and boring the city seems. Though it has a population of over 200,000 and includes one of the largest universities in Hungary, there is little nightlife and a palpable sense of malaise. Outside of the city’s main thoroughfare, Piac Utca, there is little to see and even less to do. The energy level in the city is extremely low. Street life and café culture are benign. The largest crowd I have witnessed during multiple trips to the city was at the mall, a nice, but hardly memorable shopping complex. Debrecen reminds me of suburbia in the United States, fairly prosperous, with cleanly swept streets and people going about their business in a dutiful manner. It could be called the most American of European cities. My in-law, who grew up in Debrecen, agreed with me about the city’s subdued demeanor and stultifying dullness. He then added, “It could be worse, at least it’s not Szolnok.” I replied with nervous laughter. Our conversation soon moved on to other subjects, but his remark about Szolnok stuck with me.

Szolnok Railway Station

The Szolnok Railway Station – the 1970’s all over again (Credit: NordestOnTour )

Pass Through Place – Szolnok From A Window
I am always proud to tell people, for no reason in particular, that I have been to every one of Hungary’s 19 counties. It is a sort of trivial badge of travel honor. Who else can say that? Then again, who else would want to say that? The remark usually elicits puzzled looks. Yet for all my travels in Hungary I have never really been to Szolnok. I say “never really” because stopping at the train station countless times does not count to me as a visit. In the same way that the Midwest is flyover country in America, Szolnok is a pass through place in Hungary. It is the kind of city that one goes through very briefly on the way to somewhere else. When I have asked Hungarians what they think of Szolnok the reply can be summed up as a blank stare, followed by “I have never been there” or “went through there on a train many times.” Ask if there is anything to see in Szolnok and the stock answer is always the same, “well the Tisza goes through there.”

The city’s setting at the confluence of the Tisza with the Zagyva River made it a point of transit as well as contention for centuries. Szolnok must hold some sort of record for sieges in a Hungarian city, as it has been the setting for no less than 68 of them. With these came the usual pillage, destruction and rebuilding. The Tisza River is certainly Szolnok’s most memorable landmark that can be seen from a train window. Almost invariably there will be a few fishermen standing on its banks, staring stoically at their lines. Everything else is reminiscent of the Iron Curtain decades, concrete apartment blocks and a large, functionalist style train station that looks as though it came straight out of a 1960’s era Central Party Planning unit.

Former Szolnok Train Station

Former Szolnok Train Station (fortepan.hu)

Trains, Planes & Tragedy – A Crossroads In The Crossfire
Trains have played an outsized role in the history of modern Szolnok, for both good and ill. Just over a year after the first railroad was built in Hungary a one hundred kilometer stretch of track was constructed between Szolnok and Cegled to the west. The city soon became a major railway junction for trains headed in every direction across the Great Hungarian Plain. Transport links brought economic development and prosperity as well as tragedy to Szolnok. During the 20th century the city suffered grave damage in the aftermath of World War I and during the latter part of the Second World War. As a key transit point it was targeted by invaders from below and above.  The Hungarian Red Army battled Romanian forces along the Tisza at Szolnok for two and a half months in 1919. During this fighting, the railroad bridge over the Tisza was destroyed. Twenty-five years later, Allied bombers rained destruction down on the city, specifically targeting the rail yard and station. By the end of the war, Szolnok had lost close to 90% of its population. The city was rebuilt, but most of its aesthetically pleasing architecture was gone forever.

The railroad helped Szolnok prosper in the post-war period, but it also led to several terrible train crashes. One of the few things Hungarians mentioned to me when I asked about Szolnok concerned these disasters. This is shocking, but not surprising since the city is home to one of the largest rail switchyards in Hungary. On Christmas Eve 1963, 45 people were killed and dozens more injured when a passenger train slammed into a standing freight train. The crash was caused by an engineer failing to notice a red warning signal light. Then in 1994 a train at Szajol (on the eastern outskirts of Szolnok) blew past a false switch while traveling at 110 kilometers per hour, hurtling into a station building, killing 29 people and injuring 52. There have been a couple of other rail accidents at Szolnok that have led to deaths since then. It seems that Szolnok has had its fair share of excitement, but not the kind that would make anyone want to visit.

Tisza River at Szolnok, Hungary

Tisza River at Szolnok, Hungary (Credit: Derzsi Elekes Andor)

It Could Be Worse – The Appeal of Dullness
Is there anything interesting besides train crashes and the Tisza when it comes to Szolnok? I cannot say from personal experience since I have never actually set foot in the city proper. Furthermore, I have yet to meet any Hungarians who have traveled to the city for a reason other than to visit family. Because of its tragic past, I am sure normality to the point of anonymity suits the inhabitants of Szolnok. This is a place where history is a dark and dirty word. The future, like the present might be dull, but that is a vast improvement over much worse times. After learning about the city’s history, the phrase “it could be worse, at least it’s not Szolnok” has taken on a whole new meaning.