The Train to Budapest (The Travelogue Series – 2007)
Posted by intellisg on April 17, 2007
The Wednesday train from Istanbul to Budapest was far from full, and when I finally settled into my cabin. The carriage had begun its slow lurch out of Serkeri station. It was half past one – a full 30 and a bit late, but who was keeping time these days? Certainly not the dark suited men with their strange hats boarding that afternoon – or even the conductor who seemed to be more interested to sell me the latest maps of Budapest – I had all the time in the world.
Finally a cabin all to my own to miss nothing but also to do nothing, a silence surrounded by noise, a rattle here, a kebab, a beer, a giggle, a dream of the past for those who have a shrug for the future. I said to myself as I settled into a sort of comfortable trance starring out at the blurred scenes.
By mid afternoon the train had begun to snake its way through first tracks of the Romanian mountains – we were finally leaving the Islamic world to the Christian from the Ottoman to the Austro-Hungarian. It is a slow shift, like the passage of amber hardly perceptible unless one really makes an effort to register how minarets and domes have given way to the odd church spire or ruin battlements, so little by little one begins to be saturated by history, so immersed even to hardly noticed a young woman in a dark dress had entered the cabin, probably Hungarian (cant really be sure these days).
She looked beautiful as she raised her bare arms gracefully to tie back her hair checking her reflection in the half –open window of the carriage – suddenly her eyes met mine. For her instance she held the gaze then it waned as she rested an elbow on the table confidently, as if she were at home. In fact, she moved as if it were part of her living room; and in a way it was, or had I misjudged her territorial instincts?
“Do you like the view” she asked.
“Very much,” I replied, wondering if she could guess my thoughts.
“It’s very old,” she picked a cigarette with pincer like fingers. I obliged my offering a light.
“The past and the present live here quite happily side by side. The rest of Europe say we Romanians are old and wise. We accept anything, and anything’s possible.” She glanced briefly out of the window and blew out of a trail of smoke absent mindedly. Then intoned,
“I take it you are traveling to Budapest?”
“Yes, and you madam”
‘Please call me Anna,” she purred her parted lips showing her white teeth. She inhaled slowly, with the serenity of a woman who is beautiful and knows it. Her expression was searching even as if she’d expected something else – what was it – then her eyes met my crucifix and she turned abruptly towards the window – I felt relief.
The fragrance of jasmine, blended with the smell of tobacco, reached out.
“Did you know there was once a prince who ruled these mountains, legend has it he once fought the moors….even turned back the great Ottoman army.”
“And how did he do that?”
She lit another cigarette and waited for the lighter to cool then tucked it back under her bra strap, there was no joy her voice as she leaned forward.
“By impaling them…a battle against time and oblivion.”
She spoke so quietly that I could hardly make out her words,
“We,…or shall I say I belong to breed that’s dying out, and I’am fully aware of it. It’s lucky, really, because there’s no longer a place for people like me or for memories like mine…Or for beautiful, tragic stories like that of the prince who once rode this hills.”
With these words she bowed her head, and that gesture seemed an omen or threat, I remained unsure.
A muffled knock sounded and the waiter stepped in asking us whether a table in the dinning carriage would be required. Anna nodded and eyed the table before us. The waiter seemed to understand, it must be local thing I said.
“I hope you don’t mind, dinning carriages are so noisy this time of the year, it best if we simply had our dinner here.”
The evening light cast a red glow on her face. Gradually it turned amber and receded until it too faded completely –shadows and a mysterious woman, I thought to myself, recounting her comments – and yet she was different from all of them. She was neither quite Western, nor Eastern like Istanbul, nor, for all her insistence even remotes Eastern European. You see most modern day Europeans live in transition, to experience identity not as automatic but as something achieved through a series of willful accommodations. As if they are perpetually in motion. A Singaporean watching all this might say, they’re going around in circles. But the secret of European identity lies in this oscillation of truths, a movement to and fro. Like a train running in both directions: bridging distance, hyphenating difference, yet when seen at one end it all comes magically together, with these thoughts we settled comfortably into the three course dinner.
When the main dish was served, I noticed a slight hint of mischief on one corner of her smile, it said,
“Please don’t mention goulash, if you say Hungarian food that’s what everyone always says!”
I straightened my back marshaling my arguments for the rebuttal to come. It didn’t she only intoned,
“We call these crescent shaped pasties, hortobagyi palacsinta.”
“Is it Hungarian?” I asked.
“No telling the story will spoil your appetite really it would.” Anna looked up.
“Please do tell.” I ladled another spoonful in my mouth.
“OK but I shan’t be responsible for whatever happens after that.” She cleared her throat took a sip of Palinka and unabashedly leaned forward.
“Well it goes like this, the Moorish invader, Suleyman once dispatched an emissary of the Ottoman court to reason with this Prince which had been causing his generals a lot of trouble in these very parts (she pointed out of the window). So the prince held an banquet in honor of the visiting Vizier, and the same dish was served, that’s why its crescent shaped like the croissant in honor of the Ottoman flag……the Vizier after polishing the three or four of those pasties insisted upon the recipe…the prince being a man of few words, refused of course saying it wouldn’t do his honored guest justice, but after a period of cajoling, he finally agreed and leaned over to the Vizier and whispered the vital ingredient of the dish to his guest.”
“And….” I placed my fork and knife down.
A long pause ensued long enough to suggest I was going to regret asking.
“You see unbeknown to the Vizier, the Prince had slain his guard and cooked them.”
It would be a mistake my dear perceptive reader to convey the impression that we simply ate. For the most part, I remembered, while I was very busy absorbing both the food and the information. Anna had hardly touched her food; perhaps she was finally savoring victory as her eyes began to soften glistening even as she removed her scarf, only to reveal two faded puncture marks.
The lights in the carriage had begun to flicker – the young woman lit another cigarette, it seem a good time as any to throw out the question.
“What was the name of this Prince?”
“Oh didn’t I mention earlier…. In this parts he is simply known as Vlykoras….but in the west of course, they call him Dracula.”
“You hardly touched your food Anna.” I retorted while straightening my back.
Another round of flickering ensued, this time the lights waned almost completely for such a very long time casting shadows in darkness.
“But I will…. Very shortly….I simply must.” The voice in the dark rushed out in a whispering hush.
I leaned back knowing that the conversation was over the train barreled into the night, the cabin suffused in a half twilight. I turned to the window searching the blur of the moonlit countryside, trying my best to decipher the terrible secret of the cruel night, in the company of a ghost searching the horizon for the slightest sign of light.
The night I thought was still young and fresh.
(By Darkness / horror stories / the travelogue series – Budapest / adapted from EP9029282 – revised and updated 2007 / EP99029207 – 2007 – The Brotherhood Press 2007)
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