Two uniformed police officers slouch at the other end of an empty first-class carriage, diligently tapping screens and half-listening to four Hungarian ticket officers telling stories of ticket-touts and stowaways. They all laugh politely at yet another joke told by a mildly overweight aging male inspector, his glasses propped on the end of his nose as if waiting for the green-light to jump. Everything is calm. Five hours into a twenty-hour journey on the CFR operated train running overnight from Vienna to Bucharest, this is the Romanian Red Eye.
With twenty hours to go, we board the overnight train from Vienna to Bucharest, except the Austrian operated OEBB train has broken down somewhere up the line. Instead, Romanian operated CFR step in and send up one of their iconic specimens from the 1980s, but the sleeper carriage hasn’t arrived and a fight ensues on the platform between irate ticket guard and angry grandma. I place a bet on Grandma and duly find a seat in the first-class carriage. Upgrades are all well and good, but I’d have preferred a bed.
Twenty hours sitting stationary in an air-conditioned first-class carriage sounds fairly nice when it’s hitting the mid-thirties outside, but we’re dressed for a hot night in an economy sleeper, and within thirty minutes start shaking from the icy air permeating the ruby-red interior of the empty carriage.
Midnight passes and our carriage, having stopped at Budapest to take on a small contingent of misfits looking to head east, now resembles a no-mans-land of strewn bodies trying to make the best of a missing sleeper. To find the toilet is to play pick-a-stick with lifeless limbs as you tiptoe across a zombie wasteland. The occasional snore causes a monumental shift in limb positions, requiring toilet-goers to find a different route each time. We go easy on the water.
1 am approaches and a man sits down behind me, he must have gotten on at the border. His face reflects in the black mirror of our shared window, the forlorn and slightly deranged stare out into oblivion silently betraying his acute drunkenness.
As the night deepens a new sense of panic resonates through the trundling three-carriage train; mobile devices have started to run out of juice, but there’s only one carriage with electricity. Bags of dead devices are soon being smuggled in from other carriages in a time-tested movement of ‘lost people looking for the toilet’. Once plugged in the devices diligently alert the general public that they have indeed been plugged in and are thankful for the top-up. The charging points are temperamental with cut-outs every few minutes, the phones, however, are keen to reiterate their thanks as the power returns. It’s an endless, sleepless night.
As 3 am chimes, a woman staggers through from second class, no bag of dead devices this time. She momentarily becomes the focus of the entire carriage as the sliding doors clatter closed, waking everyone up from their awkward slumber. Covered in a heavy layer of sweat, shirt saturated, hair strands pasted across her face, she poses under an a/c unit shaking her hair in a subtly sultry manner, evidently cooling down from the lack of a/c elsewhere on the train. The scene briefly looks like a cheap beer commercial from time past, just without the beer. Chuckling, I return to staring at my reflection in the window, contemplating cold beer and comfy beds.