I should have known by now. My most vivid memories of long train journeys rarely have anything to do with the scenery or sights along the way. Instead, it is always the strangers I meet who remain most familiar to me. There was the train attendant on the Lviv to Budapest express who asked for a bribe to give me my own compartment, only to later buy me bubble gum while we waited for a rail gauge change at the border crossing into Hungary. He had a pleasant smile that defeated his hopeless attempts at petty corruption, a paradox in human form. Another favorite was the Croatian train attendant who told me not to put my leg up on the seat across from me. This bit of unsolicited advice was given to me despite the badly torn leather seat in terrible disrepair. This attendant taught me a sense of manners and etiquette no matter the conditions. Pride triumphed over poverty.
Then there was the Bulgarian berth mate on the night train from Belgrade to Sofia. The young man’s feet emitted a smell not unlike rotten eggs. He apologized to me for the profuse odor, then followed that up by asking if he could use my blanket for warmth, even though it was over 80 degrees in our compartment. All of this while his beautiful girlfriend looked on smiling. And how could I forget the Ukrainian man on the Budapest to Brasov night train who was so drunk that passport control was barely able to rouse him. When they did manage to awaken him, the man could hardly speak. Passport control officials yelled at him, “you don’t come into Romania drunk.” He was already in Romania and he was very drunk. All these people remain deeply embedded in my memory. As do the two Serbian men that sat across from me on the latter half of my Bar to Belgrade railway journey.
Back To School – Student Life
One was very tall, the other just a little shorter but well built. Both young men were Serbian, university students studying in Belgrade. They were headed back to school, traveling from their hometown of Priboj to Belgrade. Our conversation started while the train made several futile attempts to move forward in the Goles Tunnel. It looked like we might be stuck here for at least an hour or two so all previous social inhibitions fell away. One of my initial questions was why they did not take a bus to Belgrade rather than this notoriously slow train. The taller of the two told me the bus took longer. I instantly understood why they chanced a journey on this train despite having experienced many delays in the past.
Almost anything was better than a bus, even a train that might or might not complete the journey. Being stuck in the tunnel was irritating, whereas being stuck on a bus would be exhausting. The two young men seemed to be old hands at sitting through delays. Neither looked particularly worried about our plight. I asked them what they thought would happen with the train. They did not know, but neither looked concerned. Their indifference was impressive and gave me confidence that everything would be fine. I asked the two why they were traveling on Christmas Day in the Orthodox world. The shorter of the two shrugged and said, “we have school tomorrow.”
Talking with them, I understood that Belgrade was integral to both their studies and future career prospects. Provincial Priboj would always be home, but Belgrade offered the best future career prospects. Meeting these two university students gave me a better appreciation of life for those Serbs who do not go abroad. Serbia is not in the European Union and will not be gaining entry anytime soon. Young and upwardly mobile Serbs have a stark choice, either apply for a visa to work abroad or try their luck at home, usually by relocating to Belgrade. Fortunately, sanctions on the Serbian economy have long since been lifted. Though the economic situation has improved dramatically, it could certainly be better.
Future Prospects – Engineering Hope
My new acquaintances, Matija and Svetozar, were both engineering students. From what they told me, their job prospects after graduation would be good. Every nation needs more engineers, Serbia was no different in this regard. The train we were stuck on certainly could have used the talent of these two engineering students to extract us from the tunnel and get through the mountains. After a good half hour wait the train finally began to pick up speed. By the time we left the tunnel it was almost dark outside. The sightseeing was now over. I would spend the rest of the evening in conversation with Matija and Svetozar. When I asked if either of them liked sports, I unexpectedly discovered their real passion was not for engineering, but basketball.
Somewhere deep in my past I faintly recalled Yugoslavia as a powerhouse in international basketball. My earliest awareness of this was from the 1976 Summer Olympics in Montreal. The Yugoslav team upset the Soviet Union before losing in the final to the United States. In the 1980 Moscow Olympics, with the United States boycotting those games, Yugoslavia won the gold medal. Then in a sort of last hurrah, the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (Serbia and Montenegro) took home a silver medal at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. The Balkans were still basketball mad after all these years. Yugoslavia may have disappeared from the map, but basketball was one of the most popular sports in the successor states. A tie that still binds all those countries together.
A Transcendent Topic – Following The Bouncing Ball
Matija and Svetozar were fanatical in their love for the game. They began to talk in-depth about both the professional and college games in the United States. Svetozar mentioned the Slovenian Luka Doncic, who is now one of the top stars in the National Basketball Association. When I mentioned that my favorite college team was the University of North Carolina, Svetozar began to name players both past and present on the team. One of those players now starred for a Serbian professional team in the city of Nis. The two young Serb’s knowledge of American basketball players astonished me.
Sport flows across borders, a shared favorite team or player can spark an instant kinship. Basketball turned out to be a transcendent topic in our conversation. Matija and Svetozar were strangers to me when they boarded. I was a foreigner to them. Now we were speaking the same language, it may have sounded like English, but it was really basketball. Our separate national identities hardly mattered. Sport had a way of defeating all resistance and creating memories that would last a lifetime.
Click here for: Off The Grid – A Balkan Back of Beyond: The Bar to Belgrade Railway (A Balkan Affair #25)