What Happens on a Train Bound for Hungary at 2 am

Something from the Vault: Volume 1

A Note to Readers: I’ve been curious about what it will mean for me to dig back into my travels of long ago and tell tales of old adventures.  Thus far, all fifty-one of my posts have focused on stories that occurred quite recently, within a day or a week of the writing. But I’m intrigued by playing with different themes and content, hence the five-part series on “Thanksgiving Travel” and the more recent “Different Modes of Exploration” series.

I’m still actively traveling and wandering through the world (though the distances and means might vary), but I think there’s some fun to be had in revisiting those memories that caused me to love traveling so very much. Occasionally, I’ll throw you “Something from the Vault.”  Maybe the tale happened years ago, but the writing is fresh.  Here’s the 1st installment, a story that I think about often . . .


“Passports, tickets!”  The commanding Eastern European accent jerks me from my slumber.  The Slovenian border guard and conductor shines a bright light in my eyes. “Passports, tickets!” I’m not moving fast enough. Where am I? I ask in my sleep-deprived delusion. Oh yeah:

We wanted to make the most of our final long weekend before our study abroad adventure comes to a close, so we left Venice early on a Thursday afternoon.  How far can we get in a four-day weekend?  16 hours east to Budapest seems like the perfect plan.  We have two stamps left on our Student Eurail Pass and enough money to stay in a cheap hostel and eat delicious food fit for a college traveler’s budget.

After walking through the length of the train, we find one berth of six seats that remains empty, right in the middle.  We place our bags on the overhead shelf, pull out our books and picnic bag, and start hoping that we keep the whole compartment to ourselves . . . not a guaranteed task when riding second class, but certainly a safer and more comfortable way to travel.

Riding European trains, and Italian trains specifically, have become a familiar pass-time.  In the previous four months, we traveled the length of Italy, up to Prague and Vienna, and west toward Switzerland, England and Ireland (with a little help from some planes). We’re accustomed to the lingering smell of cigarettes from other passengers leaning out the smoke-free windows, the clicking and crackling of the engines pulling steep hills, and the world passing by in all its wonder at 30 mph, or 60, if we’re lucky.

The train leaves the station on time, about twenty minutes late, and we settle in for a lovely ride across the somewhat forgotten stretch of Italy’s northeast territory. As we roll into Trieste, we enjoy the last light of the day over the northern waters of the Adriatic Sea and the Italian countryside.  The train spends a long time here. Delayed? Part of the trip?  We’ve learned not to give it much thought; we’ll never find out the answer.

Instead, we pull out a two-liter plastic bottle filled with homemade wine from the shop near our apartment and pair it with fresh sliced prosciutto, mozzarella, and bread still warm from an Italian baker’s oven.  There’s nothing better in life. We raise a toast in honor of the journey, and I wish Lindsay a Happy 21st Birthday.  She can imagine many less enjoyable ways to celebrate the milestone. We are living the dream.

We cross the Italian-Slovenian border around midnight. The Italian border guard stamps our passports quickly and slams the door to our compartment shut with a disgruntled thud.  A typical gesture good-bye. No one joins our picnic, so we slide the seats into their reclining positions, unroll our sleep sacks, and slip into napping mode.

I know it’s generally fruitless on an all-night train, but I’m eager to find some rest so that tomorrow’s adventure in Budapest can be enjoyed.  The interior lights of the train car flicker with every swaying motion of the tracks, someone paces up and down the aisle, and I obviously feel like I’m in a horror film right near the bloody twist. In that state between consciousness and sleep, I slip into a terrified slumber.


“Passports, tickets!”  The commanding Eastern European accent jerks me from my slumber.  The Slovenian border guard and conductor shines a bright light in my eyes. “Passports, tickets!” I’m still not moving fast enough.

I nudge Lindsay, she’s slipped off to sleep as well, “Where’s your passport?” She hands me her money belt and I hand-over our passports to the guard.

“Tickets!” He commands, now annoyed that I’ve made him ask again. This is always a nerve-racking moment.  What if this guy is wearing a borrowed uniform?  What would we do if he ran down the aisle and jumped off the train into the Ljubljana night?  What would happen to our bodies? Isn’t Slovenia home to the great OV? (Original Vampire)

I hand the guard our Eurail passes.  He looks at the tickets suspiciously and finishes stamping the passports, which he hangs onto as he examines the tickets again.  My chest tightens, something’s not right.

“These are no good.”  He holds up the tickets.

“What do you mean?”

“These are no good.”  He hands me the tickets and passports.  At least they’re back in my possession. “Tickets!”



I hand him the Eurail passes back, thinking maybe this is a poorly played comedy sketch, and I’m in the part of the idiot. He shakes his head.  This could go on for a while.

“Those are our tickets.” Lindsay chimes in from behind me. He shakes his head again.

I hold up my arms.  “This is all we have.”

He shakes his head.  I’m hoping he does something else. “This is problem.” He finally responds.  “Big problem.”

“But these are good.”  I wave the Eurail passes into the air, completely dumbfounded at what else to do.

He knows exactly what to do. He shakes his head. “No.  Not Slovenian.”

Lindsay and I look at the tickets, “But we’re going to Hungary.”  We point at the box on the ticket that we’ve checked and clearly written-in our destination, Budapest, as directed.

“You are in Slovenia.”  I gathered that. He shakes his head. “You must pay.”


“Yes,” he shakes his head the other direction, up and down this time.  We might be getting somewhere. “For tickets.”

Dare I ask?  “How much?”


“Seventy-five?” Seventy-five what? U.S. Dollars? Brittish pounds? Cambodian Riel?

He senses my uncertainty. “Seventy-five U.S.  Each.”

“Each? No way.”  I defy. Like it will help.  He shakes his head.  I turn to Lindsay, “Do you have any money?”  I know her response.  We carry emergency U.S. cash with us every trip we take, but this isn’t necessarily the emergency we expected.  We plead with the guard.  “We don’t have any money.” “It’s her birthday.”  “You don’t want to do this on her 21st birthday.”  (We place emphasis on the 21st element, as if it will really throw him into a fit of compassion.) “Please, help us out.” “Don’t our Eurail passes count for something?”

He shakes his head and steps back into the aisle.  He looks down the train car.  “Uh-oh.”


“Boss is coming.  He’s a big problem.  Very big problem.”

That seventy-five might quickly quadruple. “But we really don’t have the money.”

He looks back down the aisle. “Really big problem.”

Lindsay quietly hands me the cash that she’s removed from our secret stash. After months of travel, we’re able to use low-whispers and body language to communicate that we’ve both realized the cold reality.  “You know its her birthday?” I make one last desperate attempt and then I hand him the cash.

He pockets the money.

“Receipt? Tickets?”  I gesture towards the cash.

He shakes his head. “No more problem.  No more guards.”  He slams the door to our compartment shut and I hear his boots clank down the train.

And he was right.  No more problems.  We roll on into Budapest for a glorious Hungarian weekend. And what happens on a train bound for Hungary at 2 am? A frightening little adventure that just the process of retelling makes me crave the great world of wandering.

About mlgray

Heading out on adventures, building community, eating delicious cuisines, supporting the local food movement and enjoying walks in the wild . . . grateful to be wandering in the world with you.
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