The very last train I boarded was from Belgrade to Sofia circa 2015. At the time I was trying to get over a girl called Sofia. I am now once again on a train to Sofia – only this time not trying to get over a girl – but rather trying to be in the same country as one. Just a small matter of being some 8,355 kilometers in the opposite direction.
Alex and Margot had departed for the US – one of them, unfortunately, being confined to a cage and lightly sedated. After an initial anxiety attack and a few tears, they managed to make it safely home to start preparing for a new life in the States. There was a brief but telling reverse culture shock by all accounts – when Alex was reminded just how much stuff is available in US supermarkets. It’s something I’ve experienced myself whenever I’ve dipped a toe back home – you can get entire aisles dedicated to over twenty different types of a single product. It can be overwhelming.
Living now for so long in less affluent countries has resulted in a palatable jarring of the system upon returning to such comparative decadence. Consumerism at its worst. However, I guess it is somewhat hypocritical to say I’m looking forward to being able to get all the ingredients I need in one store. Dare I even dream of a butcher that sells haggis? (I very much doubt it – haggis has been banned for sale in the US since 1971. Remind me again why I’m moving there?) What about getting proper bacon? Will I find a shop that sells Marmite? Bisto Gravy Granules? Yorkshire Tea? Hope is a dangerous thing.
There is still some way to go, dear readers. Meanwhile, I was left to my own devices in the Balkans and as I said, I’m currently sitting on an 11-hour train to the Bulgarian capital. I left Zagreb just over a week ago – stretching my legs until I’m allowed to organise my US visa interview back in Croatia. The ball is well and truly rolling however, as all we’re waiting on is my replacement birth certificate from the UK registry office. Once that is in my hands (due sometime mid-August) I can then arrange a visit to the US embassy in Z-town.
I’ve had my medical, filled out a multitude of forms, thrown a small fortune at the process and gathered all the proof that Alex and I are actually together and we’re not trying to pull a fast one. I’m also white and British. By all accounts, providing I don’t royally fuck up the interview, I should get my K-1 fiancee visa sometime early September. Now we simply play the waiting game.
So, what to do with all this “spare” time? Well, you might recall that I enjoyed a long stint of continuous travel from 2011 onwards (with the occasional hiatus en route) until giving up the hitchhike to India in 2017. By and large, the entire trip was paid for with my inheritance – money from the sale of our family home. For many a year, I wasn’t so much travelling on a budget as throwing caution and cash to the wind in order to have the best experience possible. As to that I very much succeeded, but in the interim of hopefully obtaining my US visa and finally putting down some long-needed, deep roots; I thought I’d give this digital nomad thing a proper bash.
Now, while my blog itself has never been monetised (I never had the patience nor the wherewithal to try) I am actually doing rather well as a freelance writer. As a result, I have pleasantly surprised myself because, for the first time in my travelling life, I’m really making this balance work.
It’s not my parent’s money – it’s mine. I’m travelling on my own money. There’s a certain relief and a smattering of pride that comes with knowing that. Although I managed to travel for so long and see and do so many awesome things, a pang of nagging guilt always remained. Well, that is now no more. For a few weeks at least, I am a successful digital nomad.
And while I won’t be doing another six years on the road (which I doubt I’ll ever have the stomach for again), it’s nice to be on a temporary wander, seeing the old haunts and saying goodbye to my beloved Europe in the process. It’s funny to think that when I had loads of money I hitchhiked everywhere – and now I’m on a budget I’m taking trains! Oh, the irony.
And so I woke early to make it to Topčider train station in Belgrade, from which a 09.12 departure would take me all the way to Sofia. (Information gathered from my new travel bible The Man in Seat 61. I am so, so sorry Hitchwiki – please forgive me.) I had only stayed a short time in the Serbian capital at a familiar and friendly locale. Nonetheless, as with all things, change had happened and it wasn’t quite the same as I fondly remember it.
Nor was the city itself, where the waterfront is currently a veritable building site. Controversial new-builds and renovations are taking their own sweet time; by-words for money laundering and government corruption. The Serbian capital is apparently getting a facelift, but quite where that money is going is anybody’s guess.
It was the third and most likely final time that I shall return to the black hole of Belgrade. I do still love it there, but as I’ve considerably cleaned up my act, I’m on a strict budget and partying with Serbs (and people married to Serbs) is very dangerous – it was time to move on.
But I’ve digressed long enough – Belgrade to Sofia is the tale that needs to be told.
The last time I did this route it was at night, but as forementioned the powers that be have decided to permanently close Belgrade’s beautiful, historic (1884) and perfectly located train station (once frequently used by the Orient Express). Confusion and chaos reigned as someone had forgotten to inform all tourists and visitors who were considerably inconvenienced in the process.
At the same time, the Sofia night train became the day train, a three carriage engine known as The Balkan. It has no couchette or dining car – so I had to stock up on food, water, and snacks before departure. It is from there that I now write, just two long hours in, having stopped more times than a dodgy watch.
At first, the Balkan is comfortable enough. In spite of not booking in advance, I simply turned up early and bought a ticket for just over 20 euro at a tiny, overcrowded kiosk. The Belgrade to Sofia train is largely empty at this point, however, and the bags that are hanging from the overhead storage shelves are predominantly traveller’s backpacks.
A West Highland White Terrier barks occasionally, startling the living daylights out of the girl across the aisle from me who is trying to snooze. I take out my current read – Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari. Out of the corner of my eye, I catch her wry smile. She responds by revealing a large tome (clearly some heavy study material) and all I can make out is the author is someone called Nazim Hikmet. I feel somehow I’m being silently judged.
There’s no air con, wifi, sockets, or anything you would find on a train in western Europe. When the Balkan stops (which is often) it gets stiflingly hot. Outside, it’s one of those days where you know the earth is being scorched. You can feel the pain of the grass and the emotion memory of trying to draw breath in the strangling heat. Outside of the farmland, the Serbian countryside is unkempt and overgrown, peppered with dandelion, nettle, and Santa Maria Feverfew. Alive with a million insects all sweltering in a relentless August sun. I take a gulp of rapidly warming water and close the laptop. I will await a change of scene.
It is 2.36 pm. I believe we are just about to arrive in Nis, Serbia’s third-largest city on a journey so far that should have only taken a couple of hours. Passengers are already getting restless and the train has steadily filled up to the point where nobody can sit alone. Thank Christ there are no screaming babies (or babies of any kind for that matter). When we do actually move it is at a snail’s pace, screeching along the tracks and intermittently blasting the horn for good measure. Water is scarce and I have rationed poorly. Send help.
Almost every single one of my fellow travellers either has a fan of some kind or has fashioned anything they can get their hands on into one. A gentleman opposite me is using an empty box of chocolate biscuits. Hands are a blur, furiously attempting to wave even the slightest cool breeze on shiny, sweaty faces. Every time the diesel engine shunts a few feet forward, there is a sudden rush of air followed by audible gasps of relief. But it is short-lived, and we instantly return to our purgatory.
When we eventually pull through all the industry, towns, and cities and into the countryside, the journey becomes tolerable, especially while leaning out the window and basking in the breeze. Everyone wants a turn though, and it becomes a challenge to find a position furthest away from the toilets, which – due to the current climate and our chariot’s stagnation – have duly decided to waft the aroma of the Shawshank Redemption escape tunnel around the carriage. In an effort to force time to pass, I regularly return to my seat to try and sleep some hours off, only to wake and find my very soul destroyed upon discovering I’ve only managed but a few minutes.
A bright mind has opened all the doors on the train to improve air circulation. A young man is requesting someone takes a picture of him hanging out off the side. This request is declined, with obvious concern that he could fall out. He maintains that he would still be able to catch up, to which I offer – “you’d get to Sofia much faster anyway.” This prompts agreeable laughter, and they’re the only words I was to speak for the entire journey.
After what seems like an eternity, we arrive at the Bulgarian border. Night has fallen and a quick calculation indicates that we are over two hours late on our Belgrade to Sofia slog, still with some distance to go on the other side. You would have thought this might not be the most opportune moment to keep us sitting in no man’s land for approximately an hour.
And with all the windows open throughout the day in a vain attempt to regulate the heat, our carriage has now become a mosquito mobile catering unit. A bug the size of a golf ball lands by the shoulder of the young teenager across from me, but he – engrossed in his book – is blissfully unaware and I haven’t the heart to warn him. Besides, I was more concerned with running out of water some considerable time ago. Yogurt is a poor substitute.
It’s 11.30 pm when we finally pull in to Sofia’s central train station. We’re over three hours late, and as I have failed to ascertain if my new hostel has a 24-hour reception, I decided to walk some 30 minutes to old, familiar digs. Hostel Mostel – one of the finest and genuinely friendliest places I have ever had the pleasure of calling home. And while I do not intend to once again become embroiled in the hedonism and debauchery of that long-lost summer, it was rather nice to pay it a little visit, even if its outdoor benches are haunted with the ghosts of absent friends.
Please, allow me to advise caution should you wish to attempt a similar journey from Belgrade to Sofia. Certainly for my next leg to Bucharest – I think a return to hitchhiking awaits.
Oh yeah, and my sister has bought a snake.