From Zurich to Vršac - The Adventure Handbook

I’m moving, leaving the United States to try to understand the country across the pond where my mother comes from. She grew up in Vršac, a small town in Serbia, one of the former republics of Yugoslavia not far north from Greece. I’d stopped over in Zurich to see my sister and do some skiing in Chamonix, but it was time to leave Switzerland’s antiseptic streets for Belgrade’s fervor.

The only way to get to Belgrade from Zurich by train without making any connections is by the the sleeper train which leaves Zurich’s central station at 8:40 p.m. It goes south after embarking, passes by the Walensee, cuts north to cross through Liechtenstein (which you’ll miss if you look away to adjust your pillow), and then beats east through Austria. By a castle, along a river, between two dark forests, the train pulls into Scwarzach, doubles back, and turns south. It bears east shortly after crossing into Carinthia, the southernmost state in Austria, and continues southeast until it slips into Slovenia under cover of darkness.

The train follows a southeasterly path through Slovenia, then through Croatia, and at one point comes so close to Bosnia-Herzegovina that if I threw a stone out the window it would land in that wild country. The train crosses into Serbia at Šid and then continues to Belgrade. In essence, it travels the breadth of the former Yugoslavia, stopping in some of the major cities of the now former republics. It takes about twenty hours rather than the hour and forty minutes it takes if you fly, but there are sleeper cars for the first thirteen hours, and I love to see countryside by train.

I leave for the station with my sister and her husband a minute past 8:15 p.m. They live in a loft apartment about ten minutes from the station. My brother-in-law drives fast enough to make up that minute and some, but we can’t find parking near the station. 

Despite how many times I’ve been to Switzerland, it’s always a bit surprising to experience problems there because the general idea is that Switzerland is perfect. They have lots of money, lots of well-made watches they set by their trains, and lots of views that make you want to set to work on that little mountain shack where you’ll live a simple life with a few cows and drink in the natural beauty forever and ever, amen. What forgets to be mentioned, however, is that while all of that may be true, it doesn’t negate the fact that in Zurich, around 8:27 in the evening, it’s nigh impossible to find parking near the Hauptbahnhof.

I hug my sister and shoulder my backpack, which is heavy, and my shoulder bag, which is also heavy, and leave my suitcase for my brother because – no jokes here – it’s the heaviest bag I’ve ever traveled with. Heavier than the bikes I traveled with, heavier than my snowboard bag with all my gear, heavier then my bag when I moved to Maui for a month. Alright, all I had in there was swimsuits and some flip flops, but without trying, I’ve packed the kitchen sink in that hard-sided beast. 

My brother-in-law walks me to my train, and we hug goodbye before I go to load on. At the door to the train, a conductor asks for my ticket. I dig through my handbag, sure I put it in there somewhere, and sweating a little – half because of my bags (wasn’t joking about those being heavy) and half because I’m wearing a hat, flannel shirt, wool sweater, and a fur lined overcoat that wouldn’t fit into my bags (wasn’t joking about the kitchen sink either).

I find my ticket tucked into my Serbian-English dictionary, and hand it, smiling, to the conductor. He takes it without looking at me. He’s about 5’9” (180cm), approaching sixty, and I get the feeling the main reason he’s working as a conductor is because he gets to wear a sharp little uniform. I can’t quite make out his full features because he’s got his chin tucked into his chest, and he’s wearing some round, silver spectacles. So I just stand there for twenty seconds or so as he checks my ticket, feeling very much like a child with a hall pass, wondering whether I remembered to get it signed. 

“And where are you going?” he asks me in German, lifting his chin a little and looking at me through the gap between his pronounced, bushy eyebrows and the tops of his spectacles, wedged on the end of his nose.

I glance at my ticket and try “Belgrade,” now sure I’m going to get some sort of detention. I swear I remember handing it to the teacher though… I can’t be sure. Am I going to Belgrade?

He hands me back my ticket and clears his throat which I figure is his way of saying “Welcome aboard.” He points to my suitcase and tells me to leave it on the floor of my cabin, that it can’t go up above. He’s making motions like I should slide it under the bed, and I’m nodding and agreeing, trying to make it seem like I understand. I’m really only half-listening because I’m still not seeing Belgrade as my final destination. Where the hell am I going?

“Did you hear me?” he asks. Honestly, I didn’t. I’d just realized I have two tickets, the second taking me to Belgrade, and I was too relieved to think of anything else. But since I’m in agree mode I tell him “Of course. I heard you. I understand. “I’m so mixed up though that I tell him all this in Serbian and only realize my mistake when he responds to me in kind.

“You speak Serbian!” I say, smiling.

“No,” he says. “Croatian.” And then my smile drops. I go to apologize, but before I can, he shrugs and tells me they’re the same. We talk a bit more – why does he live here, why am I going to Belgrade – and by the end of it I realize that his face hasn’t changed expressions, at all. He has that flabby type of face some men have which, like bull dogs, hides any but the most basic of emotions from showing. I realize, as I’m heaving my bags on the train, that it is his small, silver, spectacles on the end of his nose, that one touch of daintiness, that completes the effect. 

The train has rooms ranging from six- to single-person rooms with the lowest price being ninety Euros or so and the most expensive being about 250 Euros. I went with a three-person which was about 190 Euros. That’s fifty more than the average plane ticket between the two cities, but I figure I’m saving money because I don’t have to pay the fee for my suitcase being overweight. That is, if they would have let it on at all. 

A man is reading in the bottom bunk when I come in the room. He gets up to greet me, and we shake hands.

“So, we go together,” he says in German.

“Looks like,” I say. 

He’s middle-aged, trim, and has curly gray hair. He speaks kindly and has a friendly face, so I’m imagining all things good. The room is decently sized as far as traveling compartments go, but it looks inspired by an airline bathroom with hard-plastic and metal making the walls and most of the fixtures. Bunks are on the right with a ladder to get to the top bunk, a small sink and mirror are on the left, and level with the third bunk are some shelves where luggage can be stored. The bottom bunk, however, is about half-a-foot off the floor. How exactly did the conductor expect me to fit my bag under there?

I tell the man, whose name I find out later is Kurt, that the conductor told me to keep my bag on the floor. He motions to a ledge between the ladder and the window that I could stash it. We shuffle around to try this, and as I’m trying unsuccessfully, the conductor comes in and asks which bed I’m sleeping in. 

“This one,” I say, pointing the top one. He points to the middle one where I discarded my shoulder bag and tells me I need to move it.

“This bed must stay clear,” he says with that same dog-like expression on his face. I don’t know if I responded in Serbian, German, or English, but I know I made sure he saw me throw my shoulder bag quite rudely onto my bunk.

I’m getting frustrated with myself because I hate being an inconvenience while I’m traveling – to others, but also to myself. More so, I’m getting anxious because I really don’t know what I’m going to with my bag. And this is drawn in sharp relief because I’ve got this conductor staring over my shoulder ready to correct me which, in my mind, feels like a solid rap on the knuckles.

I’m looking around the room and notice that one of the luggage shelves extends behind the head of my bunk. My bag is too wide to fit on just the shelf, but if I can slide it so most of it rests on my bunk, I’ll probably have enough room.

I take a second to communicate this to Kurt and he steps out to give me room. Then I take another second to cuss the fact that this massive bag has to go on the very top bunk. I bend my knees, breathe in deep, and snatch the into the space. It fits surprisingly well, only a small overhang cutting into the space where my head should go. I’ll have to sit propped up in bed, but the way I have it figured I won’t be sleeping much anyways. 

I assume that, like airplanes, it’s optional whether you sleep or not. I, for one, will stay up all night like I do on red-eye flights and enjoy that odd feeling of cramped isolation when everyone is asleep and I am roaming the aisles, using every bathroom at my leisure. Except here, it won’t just be an aisle and a few washroom closets but a whole train. I’ll walk the hallways and stop in a few boisterous cabins with a bottle of rakija in rotation, and after a few passes when we’ve all invited each other over for coffee and more rakija, I’ll take a table by the window in the dining car, read, drink coffee spiked with the whiskey my brother gave me, eat something small but very good, and watch the lights of Switzerland, and then Austria, and then Slovenia go by me on the black plane rushing by.

Kurt, however, is concerned. He wonders if I will be able to sleep with my head propped at such an angle. He gestures to the place between the window again. I try to wave him off, but he’s insistent, in a kind way, and as often happens when I feel like I don’t know enough of the language to express myself, I just agree with him because it’s easier than being incoherent.

I climb down, slide my bag out, and put it by the window and this time wedge the ladder against it. Surprisingly, it seems sturdy. Home at last. 

Kurt and I fall into conversation as I’m about half-way up the ladder. It’s too narrow to sit down on one of the rungs, and standing feels odd because then I’m looking down at the top of Kurt’s head. I settle for a half-lean sort of deal, and I think I end up looking like I’m trying to pose in a bad travel advertisement – the kind where everyone is supposed to be enjoying the luxurious comfort, but really they just look tense.

Kurt tells me he’s a veterinarian and was in Zurich for a conference. His ticket only cost him seventy-four francs, but he’s getting off just before the Slovenian border. I mistakenly tell him I’m twenty-one instead of twenty-two and am too embarrassed to correct myself. I don’t feel confident enough to tell him the whole story behind why I’m going to Serbian, so I settle by saying I’m young and that I want to see more. Thinking about it though, that’s basically the full truth and nothing but. 

The train lurches, and I see the station start to move move through a window and get a giddy feeling, wholly different than the small amount of dread that swings against my spine as a plane jets down the runway – that feeling of something to be endured, the idea that you’ve “just got to get there.” Here on the train I can’t help but feel that this will, in some way, be fun.

My conversation with Kurt tapers and then stops. I situate my backpack, jacket, sweater, and shoulder bag, and slide into my berth. If I were claustrophobic, I would probably be uncomfortable. I have enough room to roll and shift comfortably, but I can touch the ceiling without stretching my arm. However, I can also straighten my legs and just barely bump the other side of the cabin. At 6’3” (190cm), I’m surprised.

Shortly after we’ve embarked, the conductor comes by and asks for our tickets. Kurt and I give them to him, and I watch him check them, waiting for him to say something about my suitcase. He doesn’t, just stamps them and exits. Kurt looks up at my as I’m tucking my ticket back in my jacket and says “He’s not so friendly, is he?” Vindicated, I give a vigorous nod, and say “Yes, yes. It certainly seems so.” We give each other understanding glances.

All the lights are on, and I’m near the end parts of Moby Dick, so I figure I’ll read a bit while I’m here. As we pick up speed, the train sways from side to side, clattering over ties like an old rocking chair on uneven boards. I feel the pressure rise in my ears as we swoosh into a tunnel, and tucked in my narrow berth, I can’t help but feel like I’m being swaddled. Just outside the window, I can make out the Peoqed making wake, the sky gray and overcast overhead, and the carpenter’s workbench fast against the try-works, covered in a white dust as he carves out a new leg for Ahab from the bone of those they hunt.

I hear Kurt start to snore, and I’m thinking perhaps I won’t spend the night reading in the dining car. The train’s noise is calming, it feels good to stretch out my legs, and Melville, for all his greatness, never ceases to make me sleepy. But at one point, the train has stopped for what seems longer than the usual time necessary at a station, and without the rocking and the clattering, I am not so sleepy any more. The blinds are drawn in the room, so I don’t know where we are, and the more we wait, the more curious I get about the situation of the train, its passengers, and my flask of whiskey. I resolve to go to the bathroom and then take a stroll to see the dining cart. Just to see it. It would be sad to come all this way and not even look, right?

I think I wake Kurt as I’m stepping out because I can’t figure out which way and how many times I need to turn the locks on the door, and it makes a racket. The hallway is quiet. We’re at a station, but it seems like we’ve pulled up with the platform on the other side of the train. The bathroom is left at the end of the car and when I get there, I find out were also the caboose to this train. I’m looking out the back window, mostly looking for a sign so I know where we are but also just looking around. And then, I think I see a woman in a train uniform notice me and start walking briskly toward the train, and just like that, I am absolutely positive I have just done something wrong.

I feel foolish for being so afraid sometimes, but unless you have experienced it, you can’t understand how unnerving it is to have done something wrong in a foreign country and have someone discover it. It must be how dogs feel when we find they’ve pooped in the house. Something accosts you roughly from across the room, usually by shouting, and usually wearing a uniform (which in a dog’s world is probably any daily get up, but for me is usually something with a badge or cap). They proceed to yell at you, again roughly, but this time from much less than across the room, and you have no earthly idea what they’re going on about beyond the most general idea that it was something that you may have had something to do with in the past, perhaps? Invariably, your face adopts that look of sheer dread that we have seen on all dogs but is done best by Chihuahuas, and at that point the uniformed person feels compelled to drag you over to a sign that, for all you are concerned, says “DO WHATEVER YOU WANT” because they chose to write it in Wingdings (italicized Wingdings if you are in France) and depending on how well you are able to make your face look like a very frightened and apologetic Chihuahua, they may or may not actually rub your face in it. 

And this does not end with saying you don’t speak the language or that you don’t understand. Admitting that is like handing over a golden tablet that says “Make this person knoweth their sins.” If they are intelligent, they’ll use hand gestures, pen and paper, charades, and other forms of nonverbal, but odd-looking communication. If they are not intelligent, they will just keep talking, and no matter what you say they will not understand that you don’t understand. The only ways to escape are to run away or bring out your wallet. Nothing else.

In this case, I run away. I duck into the bathroom, thinking very hard about the last few minutes, wondering if I missed some sign saying “NO LOOKING OUT OF WINDOWS.” Then, of course, we start moving, and I collide into the hard, plastic walls and almost pee all over everything. But because this fear has been built into me from years of traveling, I continue to wonder what the woman is going to say to me when she finds me and don’t realize she was hurrying to catch the train until, oh, I just wrote that sentence there. 

When I leave the cabin, I find that the woman is not waiting for me and feel safe enough to stop again at the back window. The tracks slide away in the darkness. The train goes clack, clack, calack  as we hit switches and lurch into turns. I find it beautiful – the motion, the noise, watching the two silver lines stretch away over black ties and fade, like two glimmering beams in deep space, into the black night. I am going someplace, and I am held by the deep reverie of motion. I am stealing it. This window is a frame, and the picture is for me to have and to take with me no matter where I go or what I do. However infrequently I look at it, it is there. I have it, and others don’t.

I turn and on the door to enter the hallway, I notice a sign that has headphones and a phone with the universally understandable red line through them. I start to doubt how lively this train ride is going to be, and as I walk up the quiet hallway, I see light spilling out of the conductor’s open door and hear a shuffling of newspapers. The fear of confrontation in a foreign tongue rises, and I resolve to go back to my room, read a bit more, and let the train rock me to sleep. But I’ll be  damned if I won’t listen to some music through some headphones…


I wake up the next morning with the conductor’s voice rising over the sounds of the train. 

“Good morning,” he says. “Good morning!” 

Still tangled in my sheets, eyes half open, I poke my head over the edge of the bed. 

“Good morning,” I say. “What is it?”

“I am coming with breakfast soon,” he says, same expression, same uniform, same spectacles. “You need to get up.” Same attitude too. 

“Ok,” I say, somehow speaking German through the morning fog. “I will.”

“Do you want anything in your coffee?” he says, looking up at me again over the tops of his spectacles. I pause, not understanding momentarily. “Milk? Sugar?”

“Oh. No,” I say. “Nothing.”

He nods and closes the door. I could sleep more if I laid back in bed, but surprisingly I feel well-rested, so I climb down. Kurt is gone, the window shade is up, and low, wooded mountains are going by outside. My watch says 8:45, and we haven’t passed any border controls, so my guess is were in Slovenia. I try to check the maps on my phone, but nothing comes up.

I run down to the bathroom, splash some water on my face, and stop at the back window again to watch the tracks. We are still the caboose, but I don’t feel the way I did last night. It’s light out, and even though I can’t see them, I know people are awake. It doesn’t feel like my secret anymore.

Breakfast is waiting for me when I return, although ‘breakfast’ is a strong word for it. There is a small piece of chewy bread, a stick of butter, a tin of jam, and a cup of coffee that is, I’ll acquiesce, not half-empty, but half-full. That’s it.

Since Kurt is gone, I take over the bottom bunk to eat by the window. We are following a green river through low, rounded mountains covered with bare trees. Small cottages and mountain houses are scattered on the hillsides and in heavier concentrations at the base of the mountains. They slide by, blocked from time to time by a tunnel or a station building. 

After I’ve eaten the bread, I lay back and prop my feet up on my suitcase to drink my coffee. We are still following the river, curving around bumpy, graceless peaks. The way the mountains swell up from the ground and how their peaks bump along up above reminds me of the Appalachian landscapes in Georgia I used to watch rise up through the windows of my father’s station wagon.

We went to the mountains on Sundays, sometimes just my father and I but often with my mother and sister. We’d hike parts of the Appalachian Trail, fly kites near the top of Brasstown Bald, or find somewhere less popular and walk together on a small trail in those rolling foothills. Even when I was teenager and family days seemed a chore rather than an event, I would stare out the window as we drove, watching the landscape change. I was happy then, or content to be going on a hike in the mountains with my family, no different than the Sunday before and the Sunday before that.

I feel these memories swell up inside me, not in a sad way but in a way that makes me realize how halcyon it is to be up early, riding through these rounded peaks, drinking coffee. It is a good feeling, and I should be happy, or content, because I am somewhere foreign and seeing something new, but as happens from time to time, the longer I look at the world going by outside, the more unsettled I feel. I see leafless trees. I see a red-tiled roof over a house. I see a car making its way down a road. But I see past all that. Between those trees, I see trails I will never walk. In that house, I see people I will never know. I see the car making it’s way toward a town, and I realize people live there, and I will never know how. 

I used to imagine that traveling made the world smaller. I used to think that in the romance and in the adventure found during forays into foreign lands there was a contraction in the world stage, but I know now that I was mistaken. I come back from somewhere with one list of items checked off and another list – ten-, fifteen-times longer – with things unchecked, saying to my friends “Look at all the things I didn’t see or didn’t do. Let’s count, with grains of sand, the people I didn’t meet.” Here is the world getting bigger before my eyes. Here it is swelling in my viewfinder. Where is my father’s wagon? When did I fall off?

I want to see everything, and I want to go everywhere, but I wish I didn’t. I wish I could sit by the window, drink coffee, and be content to be going at all. I am quite sure that being twenty-two and ambitious is somehow to blame for these things, but I am at a loss to do anything about it. I feel as I feel, and I am one of mixed, mashed, and frequently foolish emotions.

But the train beats on. It turns us around the bend, and the conductor comes in to tell me I need to move to another train car.

“10:15 at the latest,” he says, pointing to his watch. I nod. He exits, and I check my watch. It’s 9:45. I finish off my coffee and brush my teeth with the small toiletries kit they provide. My sweater and jacket come back on, but I manage to stuff my hat in my backpack before shouldering it. My suitcase comes out from behind the ladder, and pushing it, with my backpack and shoulder bag on, out of the room, I feel very much like my own pack mule.

I go down the hallway and cross into the other cars. Most of the doors are closed, but in some there are glass doors and I can see six beds stacked on either side of the cabin. Mostly I see Slavic folks in their forties and fifties, but I catch one college-aged guy sleeping on a row of chairs.

The fourth car is a regular passenger car, and they have luggage racks at the entrance. I consider dropping to the floor to praise all gods past, present, and future before stowing my suitcase and my backpack. I didn’t, but I was thankful.

The train is mostly empty. There’s a college-aged group in the middle rows, and a few single riders. I take the row behind the college kids. I try to listen to their conversation, but I can’t understand any of it, so I assume they’re speaking Slovenian. I eat some dried fruit and look out the window. At 10:15 we stop at a town called Dobova. Border officers come on the train, but they don’t stamp my passport, so I’m not sure if I’m arriving in Croatia or Slovenia. The train jerks a few times and the passenger car fills up, so I assume we’ve lost the sleeper cars.

It isn’t until a few hours later when we’re pulling into Zagreb that I find out we are in fact in Croatia. The twenty-somethings disembark, new people pile on, and the train fills up with the sharp, hard sounds of Serbian or Croatian or Bosnian, whichever it is. I look out the window at the people going by but am distracted because I’m in the last stretches of Moby Dick. I finish it off not long after we pull away and start on Brett Easton Ellis’s Less Than Zero, but I’m not entranced, and there are long stretches where I look out the window.

We pass by mountains with wide, flat spaces between them and small woods of thin, bare trees. I try to look through them but they flit by so quickly it makes me nervous and my head hurt. Eventually, things begin to settle out. I used to watch this happen as a boy, perhaps on the same rails as I am now, when my mother would take my sister and I to visit our family in Vršac. I would sit by the window with my sister, sip Rivella through a straw, and eat the bread and cheese  my mother had brought for us. And after we had eaten that, and if we had been good she might give us a Mohrenkopff, and we would bite the chocolates with sweet cream inside. After that, we would ride along, my sister and I, reading, just as I’ve been doing now, and my mother would sleep, sometimes. 

At some point along the way, the mountains, the trees, the houses, everything would be replaced by vast fields stretching far, far, far away into the horizon. Because it would be summer, sunflowers or corn would be in crop. I would look over them, but it would be the same thing as far as I could see, flatness compounded by flatness. Despite how vast it is, being here feels nothing like being out under the big skies in Colorado or Wyoming where I feel as if I need only  some boots and some salt in my skin to make my own way. Here I just feel small and insignificant. Yet seeing it on this train, now, I have the peculiar feeling of arriving home.

My passport is checked again when we cross into Serbia. New conductors come on and check our tickets, and we get a new group of passengers that take the seats emptied on our way from Zagreb. A short man with a big pot belly and thick, black eyebrows comes by holding a serving platter offering coffee, rakija, juice, beer, and water. For the most part, I read, and let the train take me along without thinking of it much. 

I disembark in New Belgrade, across the river from downtown, around 5:30 p.m. and visit my cousin before catching the train back to Vršac. It is mostly empty, and I finish Less Than Zero shortly before we arrive at 11:30 p.m. A young man meets a girl at the station in Vršac, and they stop to kiss long and hard in front of me. They get into a red Yugo waiting for them outside the station. I shoulder my bags and push my suitcase along to my house. My aunt lets me in.

“Welcome back,” she says in Serbian.

“Good to be be back,” I say. She helps me with my bags and tells me they’re very heavy. I tell her I know.

“How long did it take?” she asks.

“I left at 8:30 yesterday,” I say, looking at my watch. “And it’s midnight now.” She stops and counts.

“Twenty-seven hours?” she says, gasping and bringing a hand over her mouth. I say it wasn’t so bad and that I liked to see everything. She asks if I’m hungry. I say yes, and we go and eat something, and then I go up to my room, drop my bags, and lay in bed. I should shower, but I just stare at the ceiling, and before long, fall asleep.