The train journey out of Yugoslavia was interesting in its own right even though it lacked the drama of my train journey into that country just a few days earlier. As I boarded the train at the Zagreb station at eleven at night, I had used up almost all my local currency earlier. I was quite hungry as I had not eaten since morning but with the last of my local currency I bought a bottle of water as I decided thirst was even harder to ignore than hunger pangs.
When finally the train pulled out of the station on its way to Austria, I found myself alone with an attractive Aussie backpacker in the train compartment. Strange as it may seem, I was however, more distracted by the sight and smell of the doner kebab that she was eating. We exchanged pleasantries and I learned that her name was Kate. After a short conversation during which she had made no offer of sharing the doner kebab with me, I decided to excuse myself and to try to put the gnawing hunger out of my mind by catching some shut-eye. Not an easy task as visions of food danced before me.
Not long after, a uniformed soldier with a rifle came into the compartment and sat next to me. As I did not have a pleasant experience with soldiers on my way into Yugoslavia, you will forgive me if I was a little alarmed at his presence. However, he seemed friendly enough, flashing a smile at both Kate and I. He had stored his kit bag away so it seemed he would be our companion for the journey.
He said something to Kate in what must have been Serbian. Kate just shrugged her shoulders to indicate that she didn’t understand and went back to her book that she was reading. The soldier tried a few times but got nowhere with Kate.
The compartment settled down to some quiet with only the sound of the train on the tracks and the passing wind to be heard. I was actually about to nod off when suddenly I felt the soldier prodding me. I open my eyes to see a smiling face but I couldn’t comprehend what was happening.
He said something to me in Serbian. I shrugged. He pointed at my backpack. I followed his gaze and realised that he was pointing at a little white book that I had in my backpack’s side pocket. It was in fact a small travelers’ phase book for the Balkans which had English, Serbian and Italian phrases alongside one another.
I took it out of the pocket and showed it to him. He was delighted. His eyes lit up as he opened the book. He scrutinised it for awhile and then he pointed to the book.
I looked and his finger was showing me the phrase, “Hello. My name is…” and then he said “Josef”. Okay, I got the idea and so using the phrase book, we had the rudimentary tool for communication, although we were stuck with phrases like “where are you going?”, “where did you come from?” and such. We seemed to have made a connection.
This went on until, he found the phrase “this is home-made”. He took out a bottle from his kit bag opened it and offered it to me. “Slivovitz”, he pointed out in the book which in the English translation read, “plum brandy”. At his insistence, I took a swig from the bottle. How should I describe it? Liquid fire comes close. It did have a kick and I felt instantly warmed from the inside.
He then produced an apple and gave it to me. I was overwhelmed by his friendliness and generosity. As I bit into the apple, he reached over and took the phrase book. He looked something up and then he went over and sat next to Kate and showed her some phrase. Kate nodded in response. Then they both got up and made their way out of the compartment. As she walked past, she winked at me and mischievously said, “He’s invited me out for a smoke. Don’t wait up for us though.”
Then, suddenly I was alone in the compartment. As I finished off my apple, I suddenly realised that the soldier was a real smooth operator and that he had been after the phrase book all the time so that he could make a move on Kate. I felt used. Still, I reasoned, I was hungry now I am fed and besides, I had a bottle of liquid fire to dull the sense of humiliation. I wouldn’t see either of them again for at least a couple of hours and when I did, they were both positively giggly. I did get my phrase book back eventually but it had become dog-eared from recent use.
Post-script:- After we ditched the soldier at the border, Kate and I got to know each other better and we were to spend the next few days as traveling companions in Vienna, Austria.