It felt like a romantic idea, taking a night train between Budapest and Dresden. I’d seen these sleeper cars in the movies, Murder on the Orient Express and such. What it really became was an eye opener to the story of migrants moving into and travelling across Europe.
For weeks before we left Hungary via the Budapest Central Train Station (Keleti), we had been listening to conversations in Hungary about the migrants. Some call them economic immigrants: people moving to another country to gain a better quality of life; others call them refugees: people seeking asylum from the atrocities within their home countries; and many, many, many in Hungary ultimately called them a problem.
Well over a thousand migrants a day are appearing in the country. Around dinner tables and along street cafes, everyone is discussing what they read in the papers or have seen on TV. Many of the comments are the same:
How are these migrants to be processed, supported, housed and moved? Hungary is not a rich country, and even if it was – in this a country by country crisis, or does it need EU wide policy and support?
Some migrants arrive looking, according to the newspaper which in turn becomes people’s opinions, too clean and polished for trust (though this documentary from Vice has a few words shared on that, plus having a nice shirt doesn’t mean you still don’t stink from weeks upon months of sleeping rough).
There are fear mongering campaigns from the government about how these migrants will take all jobs, steal all chickens, and bring disease; (unfortunately most of this is typical political crap to buy votes at the cost of a group’s core humanity).
And of course the words ‘religion’ and ‘culture’ are upon many, many lips. More fear, more uncertainty.
But still, I didn’t actually see any migrants as I swam in Lake Balaton. I didn’t pass any groups of displaced individuals as we walked through Pecs’s downtown square. So, it really wasn’t until the night train to Dresden that I finally caught my first glimpse of those searching for something better…
After an emotional goodbye to Anna and Laszlo, which is always so heartbreaking, Zsolt’s sister and brother in law took us to the train station, Keleti. They helped us carry our luggage to the sleeper train. In doing so, we entered this massive hall within the station – it looked like a huge old church, except without any seating. I looked around, checking for the migrants. But at first, I couldn’t see them. There were people of all colours, all traveling, all looking plain knackered as they waited for their trains to arrive.
I asked Zsolt, Nitti and Berci – do you see any migrants? They shook their heads, uncertain too. But then, while waiting for the train to arrive, we began to see them. Or rather, we began to notice them. Many of the women wear headscarves. Many of the younger men seem single, and rest together in groups. Many of the children cling to their parents. And the teenagers seem to do exactly what teenagers will do – float to the side, a bit away from their families . . . but not so far that you think they’re all alone. Like us, they were waiting. No one was begging, which actually surprised me.
Finally our train arrived, and Berci and Nitti help us take the luggage into our cabin. Yes we splurged on a two bed cabin. I figure, if you’re doing a sleeper train – do it right. The cabin was this incredibly narrow bit of a room, with bunk beds. After much puzzle-like arrangement of bodies and suitcases, we settled into the room. Zsolt’s sister and brother-in-law waited on the platform for us to leave. We waited in the doorway of the car. Everything was delayed.
Walking up and down the platform were the migrants. This train that we were on was going to Germany. They wanted to go to Germany. According to a friend of ours who works for immigration, Germany is their Shangri-La – the migrants hear the benefits are great. This actually reminds me of how many Hungarian Romas were arriving to Canada after hearing Canada had some excellent benefits. The Canadian government literally took out billboard ads and placed them in Roma populated cities in Hungary that basically said: We have changed our immigration laws. You will be immediately sent back if you come. Don’t bother trying.
Anyhow, these folks wanted to get to Germany, that’s where their hopes lay. The means, our train, was right in front of them, and yet it wasn’t possible to reach. What struck me most were the groups of families. Big groups, milling about on the platform together . . . walking here and then there, scanning the train together with children held in their arms, children held by the hands, and those teenagers finally paying attention and hovering closer to the herd. But how can an entire family stow away upon a train? They can’t.
Finally we began to move. We waved goodbye to Nitti and Berci, and returned to our cabin. Even as the train left the station, one off the conductors came walking through the corridor with a migrant in front of him. “This way” the fellow was asking the conductor, “that way,” the conductor – more or less- instructed. And so they walked together through our train car, towards the back of the train.
Half an hour later, we are in our cabin. I’m sitting on the only available floor space, eating from a bag of chips. There’s a very hard knock on the cabin door. “Immigration!”
I’m like, “one second,” and try to push myself up to open the door – it’s tiny and crowded, so this takes a couple tries.
“Immigration!” Rap, rap, rap!
I try to open the door, but one of the bottom locks confuses me – so it opens, but then jams. The men on the other side try to open the door too. Obviously it’s still locked, it opens and jams again.
“Hold on,” I call again. They try the door again.
Finally Zsolt manages to lean around me and untwist the bottom lock.
The door is swung open.
“Immigration! Passports!” There is a security guy and a police guy. I lean against the doorway eating my chips as Zsolt fishes out the passports. For some reason, I laugh to myself. Probably become immigration guy number two looks a bit like a cartoon character, and I can’t help finding this situation both disturbing and ridiculous. The guy who kept calling ‘immigration’ passes back our documents one after the other, take a quick peek into our cabin, and then, they move on – pounding on the next cabin door.
Eventually the train arrives to its next stop in Hungary, and we see through the window a group of migrant men being herded down the platform. They got onto the train, but they didn’t get much further.
One, then two security officers pass by – large muscular men with tiny flashlights, shining here and there.
“You know, in many ways we are very lucky,” I say to Zsolt.
“I know,” he replies.
I can’t even begin to imagine what will happen to these thousand plus people a day who are crossing into Hungary and beyond. Where will they go, who will take them, what will happen next? It’s all beyond me. The only thing I know is what I saw on that train platform in Budapest. I saw a mother feeding her child baby formula from a big can with a kitten on it. I saw awkward teenagers with faded jeans. I saw groups rushing down the platforms. I saw young men sitting together and waiting for who knows what. I saw weathered old men holding the hands of toddlers.
I saw them watching us, and certainly they saw us watching them.
Eventually Zsolt and I give up looking from the sleeping cabin window and lower the blind. As the train rocks, creeks and charges forward, we tuck into bed. I can’t help but wonder whether anyone has managed to make it out of the country, and whether they’ll actually reach Germany. It feels unlikely.
This is the night train to Dresden. It is not so romantic.