Whoever said “it’s the journey that matters, not the destination” probably never took a 15.5 hour train ride through Greece, Macedonia & Serbia.
Let me preface this by saying that I had started my day with a 4 hour ferry ride followed by a 3 hour bus ride & a terrifying taxi ride through the back roads of Thessaloniki.
I made it to the Thessaloniki train station just in time and walked over to the international line to buy my ticket. This may have been the slowest-moving line I have ever stood in. Sweat trickled down my back as I eyed my surroundings for somewhere safe to set my backpack down, which was feeling significantly heavier than its 22 lbs. Suddenly the 1 hour window I had given myself didn’t seem long enough.
Person after person argued with the poor ticket girl in Greek far above my inadequate comprehension. What could possibly take this long to issue tickets? How could it be this difficult?
Then, finally, I reached the counter. Oh. The tickets were 7 pages each and handwritten.
“I don’t suppose I can pay with a credit…” I trailed off weakly and gave a little laugh. No matter what the little stickers in the window say, don’t expect to use your credit card in Greece for anything. Silly me.
My train riding experience thus far had been limited to the L around Chicago, so I wasn’t sure exactly what to expect from a long-distance ride. I envisioned something akin to the Hogwarts Express. I’d be lying if I said a tiny part of me didn’t hope for chocolate frogs.
There were no chocolate frogs. There was no ginger-headed boy with which to forge a lifelong friendship with. And there was definitely nowhere to stretch my legs out or recline in the slightest. Apparently sleep wasn’t on the agenda for this all-nighter.
There was, however an electrical outlet, which meant I could read & write to my heart’s content.
And…my compartment was full of Australians. WIN. I don’t know if I’ve ever mentioned this, but I have a not-so-secret wish to be Australian. I’ve never met an Aussie I didn’t like.
Unfortunately they were only going to Skopje, about 4 hours away. I wouldn’t have them the whole trip, but at least we were together when we went over the Macedonian border. Which is when I had my first panic attack.
For those of us who suffer from frequent unnecessary bouts of anxiety (what if my 4 different alarms don’t wake me up & I miss my flight? what if no one understands my English and I end up on the wrong bus? what if I say something stupid? what if I get lost? what if I get mugged?) it’s healthy to get a dose of GENUINE terror every now and then to keep things in perspective.
I expected people to ask for my passport along the way. I did not expect them to glance at it and disappear into a building with it for 25 minutes without saying a word. I didn’t expect to peek out of the train and meet an armed guard glaring angrily at me.
My brain went into panic overdrive. What if I don’t get my passport back? What if they decide I’m a terrorist? I’m totally not a terrorist. Why would they think that? What if I get stuck in this really scary town? What if they send me back to Greece without my passport and I’m stuck there FOREVER?
Just when I had started formulating elaborate exit strategies in my mind, the guard came back through the train handing out passports. WHEW.
I later found out that this is a completely normal practice. As is stopping the train every half hour for no apparent reason.
No one else seemed overly agitated about these ridiculously frequent breaks but I realized after the first 2 hours that I probably could have rented a horse and made it to Belgrade before this particular train. No wonder it was only €30.
After Skopje the train thinned out considerably. The Aussies departed and I was left with an entire compartment to myself. I could stretch out! I could read! I could get some uninterrupted work done! I could eat Oreos for dinner without anyone judging me! Such bliss.
Such short-lived bliss. Our Skopje stop lasted about 30 minutes (20 more than I considered necessary) but there were still people running back to jump onto the train as it pulled out of the station. With armfuls of booze. Apparently there is a duty-free shop a couple blocks from the station and they had made out like bandits.
Someone passing by my nearly empty compartment glanced inside and wordlessly tossed me a huge can of beer. I felt it was only polite to thank my benefactor, so I poked my head into the clearly-established ‘party compartment.’ I was immediately pulled into an empty seat.
Okay, sure I had plans to read peacefully & get some sleep, but when life hands you a train compartment full of cute Swiss guys, artsy Greek girls, & one rogue English teacher with a stash of beer, you have to go with that right?
Andre, the Greek English teacher, his long hair pulled back into a pony-tail in an attempt to disguise the thinning top, raised his beer and asked us if we were members of the Buffalo Club.
Now, I can’t tell you what the Buffalo Club is as I was sworn to secrecy upon my induction.
Luckily I was completely sober and managed not to violate the one and only rule of Buffalo Club, which meant that I did not, at any point, have to chug an entire can of beer. This is a game that 22 year-old Mandie would have loved. 33 year-old Mandie? She was wistfully longing for her empty compartment with a half-finished book and 2 leftover Oreos.
Then everyone started smoking. Technically this was a non-smoking train, but rules like that are entirely disregarded in Mediterranean and Balkan countries. Everyone smokes everywhere.
Not only am I a non-smoker, but I find the smell of cigarettes unbearable. It gives me such a headache, and I could feel my temples starting to pound as my new friends lit up smoke after smoke. And then the compartment door closed.
I was having serious difficulty contributing to the conversation at this point, likely due to the fact that I was holding my hand over my mouth so as to not accidentally vomit.
“So, what do you think about 9/11? Was it a conspiracy?” one of the Swiss guys asked me.
“Um…” I offered. I felt my face turning green.
“You guys, I’m really sorry, but I have to go get some work done,” I squeaked out. I made my escape amongst half-hearted protests. A 33-year old woman who only managed one warm beer in two hours and couldn’t name a single German DJ probably wasn’t their idea of good company anyway.
I realized something as I sank gratefully back into my empty compartment. Some point when I stopped paying attention, I grew up. And I am 100% okay with that.
There is nothing wrong with festival-hopping through Europe, experimenting with mind-expanding drugs & bonding with fellow travelers by getting wasted on night trains to Belgrade. Hell, there was a time when that would have sounded like the best summer I could imagine.
But now I have aged like a fine wine (which, incidentally, I find much preferable to cheap beer at this stage of my life). Give me a nice glass of red, some caramel-sea salt gelato & the latest Game of Thrones episode and I can’t imagine a better way to spend a Saturday night. Yep, I am super lame.
I popped my last 2 remaining Advil (remind me to pick up a few more of those) and sort of dozed off before my quiet little compartment was invaded by 3 new arrivals to the train.
They appraised me with friendly smiles and asked if I minded if they smoked.
My face must have turned ashen because they very considerately stepped into the hallway. They turned out to be perfectly nice travel companions who even shared their pizza & cookies with me. They also walked me to the bus station once the train (finally) arrived in Belgrade, only 2 hours late.
I learned several important lessons on the night train.
One, if anyone ever invites you to be a member of the Buffalo Club, politely decline.
Two, my younger self might have been ashamed at me for not partying my brains out, but I regret nothing. Going 42 hours without sleep is bad enough without adding a massive hangover.
And three, cookies are a perfectly acceptable dinner.
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