We’re off to Lille as a family group. We’re travelling by train the length of England from the Bad Lands to the White Cliffs of Dover.
And, dear reader, if you will allow me to wallow in self congratulation for a moment, I must say, while patting myself on the back, I still have my socks and shoes on.
There are many mildly dangerous social embarrassments that can linger in a travelling gentleman’s psyche, for reason I know not. The gunfire in the tropics, the mujahedeen on the streets of Karachi, the communal showers in the YMCA in New Orleans, are minor traumas eventually forgotten and recalled subsequently in humour. But for many years I couldn’t not take my shoes and socks off when travelling. An embarrassing incident on the Orient Express lingers to this day. May I beg, dear reader, as part of my ongoing therapy, to burden you with the following tale?
As you know there’s a tourist train called the Venice Simplon Orient Express (VSOE) which previously ran from London to the channel, with Pullman cars, where passengers passed by ferry in their own lounge, to France and from there on to Venice using Wagon Lit carriages. When it was first revived it went via the Simplon tunnel and Milan but subsequently via Innsbruck which is where I came across it one night. The kitchen carriage doors were open allowing the sights and smells of the coke ovens, as well as a blast of their heat, on a cold Tyrol night.
At one time the Orient Express was a service train running from Paris to Istanbul albeit via different routes at different times.
By the time of our tale the service train of the Orient Express had not only decayed into a sorry version if its former glory but had been discontinued all together without much fanfare. After failing to leave the stage to thunderous applause, just past it’s peak, it left to an embarrassing silence, with it consisting of, one passenger carriage on the end of a freight train on approaching Istanbul.
However the name lived on with the few long distance international through trains running east of Budapest, Bucharest or Belgrade, unable to resist the temptation of calling themselves the ‘The Orient Express’. A wag might say it had become Balkanised.
Now your author will wager that many of will have heard of ports and oil facilities at places like Shatt al Arab and Abadan up at the top of the Gulf where the Euphrates marshes and canals reach the sea and ominously where Iraq meets Iran. Three decades ago, during the Iran Iraq war, these were easy to disrupt or even flatten completely. Even if they had remained intact there were oil and arms embargoes in place as the strictly neutral Great Powers pressurised Sadam Hussein and the Ayatollah Khomeini to cease fire.
But I would bet folding money that few at the time, or even now, would know that there was a more discreet port and oil terminal at Mersin where Turkey meets the easternmost part of the Mediterranean Sea, with pipelines, road and railway running from northern Iraq. Not that Her Majesty’s Government would ever think of such a thing, but Mersin was a much more discreet way of breaking an arms and oil embargo than running materials through the straights of Hormuz and right up the middle of the Gulf in big boxes with Union Jacks painted on the side.
It’s fair to say that Mersin was one end of an important ‘rat run’.
It’s also fair to say that it wasn’t the easiest of places for a chap to creep up to unnoticed, if the trade winds took a travelling gentleman in that direction. Getting it wrong, combined with a slight misunderstanding, might result in twenty years free accommodation in the ‘Midnight Express’ franchise at Iskenderun.
Ceausescu’s Romania was difficult territory, even in transit. It was pointless for the local ruffians to steal money, as there was nothing to spend it on. Visitors were beaten and worse, for a worn razor blade (better than none at all), soap, (smells nicer than goat fat they say), and toothpaste (unheard of). Fools like your author thought Communism would last a thousand years and were stunned by events in 1990 when, within hasty hours of being booed, Ceausescu was before a firing squad in a long forgotten squire’s country courtyard. A few years earlier much wiser council than I prevailed, and steered me around that particular people’s paradise, which meant I found myself in Yugoslavia, billeted in the Hotel Balkan, in Belgrade waiting for passage by train to Istanbul on one of those Orient Expresses.
I had arrived there via Subotica having travelled overnight from Budapest. I’d had an excellent night’s sleep as I was in the habit (dear tax payer) of buying six tickets and having a compartment to myself while old ladies, pregnant woman and little children stood in the corridor all night.
One anecdote and then we must move on. My landlady, in a courtyard apartment block on one of the grand but crumbling boulevards of Budapest VII was of a certain age, very hard of hearing and wore giant thick spectacles that she couldn’t see through anyway. She had decided, at our first meeting that I was German and spoke suspiciously good German to me continually. She spent most her free time in a shabby front room, with bare floor and faded carpets on the walls, watching the biggest black and white television in the Warsaw Pact, with her nose pressed against the screen. I swear that it had given her a sun tan.
And she could be bribed.
For a bottle of reasonable wine from the hills on the temperate side of Lake Balaton, she would go beyond her usual land ladies duties. Behave. I mean she would run an errand, perhaps stand in a queue, certainly wash and iron clothes. And towards the end of the day, under the influence of the wine, she would talk and want to dance.
I would move the modest furniture to the sides of the front room and she would find the gramophone and records and before an open window or under dim artificial light, if there was electricity, we would dance. I can’t dance but I can shuffle alongside an old lady who doesn’t realise she can no longer dance either. She reminded me that she had once been young. She recalled the handsome young men in their smart uniforms and the war time dance nights at the Hotel Majestic.
As her tongue loosened she would repeat the unsayable stories from the war and the timeless hatreds that the occupying Soviets and sobriety otherwise suppressed, and conjured the monstrous shadows cast by a Hungary that hadn’t quite known which side it was supposed to be on.
Back in Belgrade at the Hotel Balkan it was service with a grimace. My room was minute with the windows warped shut meaning it was boiling hot through the day. There was no heating making it freezing cold at night. The sheets were filthy and removing them revealed a mattress filthier still. Breakfast was one slice of meat, possibly ham, so thin you could, and this isn’t an exaggeration, read the newspaper through it. I was very tempted to put a brick through a window somewhere and upgrade my accommodations to a cell in one if Tito’s prisons but the permissions fell into place and I was able to escape (check out).
Leaving Belgrade Main, trains head south at a snail’s pace, compartments packed with families heading home to southern Yugoslavia, after working in West German car factories or having followed the harvests around southern France.
As night falls I remove my socks and shoes and prepare to make myself comfortable but can’t help but notice a bit of an embarrassing pong. So I put them back on.
Hygiene wasn’t a strong point, with giant queues for the toilet, no water in the wash basins and not only no water in the toilet bowl, but no toilet bowl, just a hole in the floor with an advisory footprint painted each side if it. Attempts to use it by standing up were fraught and squatting down resulted in a bare bottom embedded with gravel thrown up from the track below.
Light relief was supplied by having a circus travelling on the train, complete with a lion in the guards van, in a cage next to a troop of terrified performing chickens. As the train emptied of Slav migrant workers it filled up with other peoples who tended to board the train, first by throwing their baggage though the open windows, then clambering through themselves. There was a bit of trade back and foreword with odd things having higher value across borders. Digital watches were the big fashion item further east and heading west, believe it or not, authentic human bones for medical students. Silly prices would be paid to a gentleman with a little space in his blue Berghaus.
We crawled across the Balkans watched by oxen pulling carts and stork chicks standing in wagon wheel sized nests on top of whitewashed farm cottages.
Days later we had arrived at the Turkish border. The train had been shuffled about and was now that one passenger carriage attached to a freight train. Fortunately the lion had been put on one of the freight wagons but ominously my un-removable shoes had now turned white.
At this point the train was declared ‘kaput’ and a bus took us to Istanbul, arrival in the middle of the night, a waiting room was opened at Sirkeci where I slept with one eye open between armed guards, until first light when I crept out for my first sight of Asia across the Bosporus.
Eulogising about the view had to wait. First priority was to find the perfect cheap, small hotel for a wash and change. I found it on a corner in the back streets, next to a mosque. The chap behind the chipboard reception wore a fez, took my three pounds and dispatched me upstairs with a boy called Ahmet who showed me a filthy, bad room, where nothing worked for which Ahmet made bad excuses, and which was just as filthy after he’d cleaned it as before.
Looking underneath the bed, eyes stared back at me. Nothing in the bathroom worked but it was possible to syphon water from a very slow filling toilet into a bone dry basin.
After hours it was full enough. With a smirk of triumph I undid my bleached leather shoes, kicked them off and prepared to air and wash my feet for the first time in a week.
But around my ankle there was just a cuff of frayed material. The rest of the socks had dissolved, all my flesh had mushed together revealing one giant toe on each foot, all covered in blisters. I washed as best I could, jammed my newly discovered trench foot stumps back into my shoes and set off to explore.
Salvation came at the Grand Bazaar where, deliberately or otherwise, the locals kept on stamping on my feet and bursting blisters.
In the passages of the bazaar, as well as carpets and gold galore, there were shoeshine boys, one of whom restored my shoes to shiny black, as good as new, for a pound and then, for an extra fifty pence (while I bit on a handkerchief and looked the other way) separated all my toes from each other with a pen knife.
If you ever see, dear reader, a fellow traveller, sitting with their socks and shoes off you know where they’ve been and what’s happened to them. It’s a kind of secret signal, almost a plea for attention. Promise me this. Sidle up to them, make them feel useful, smile and nod inquisitively and ask them, for a friend, the best way to get gravel out of a sore bottom.
To be continued….
© Always Worth Saying 2019