Night Train to Germany

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.

emigration migrants

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.

Going back to Canada

We are on our way back. After two amazing months here in Hungary, the working-holiday has come to its end. I’m both sad to be leaving Zsolt’s incredible family, anxious for the next set of scans, and massively excited for an upcoming opportunity I’ll tell you more about in September. So, let’s just say, I’m a big jumble of emotions. This is resulting in many naps today and a total lack of appetite. The packing needs to be finished, the room needs to be cleaned, and all I really want to do is sleep . . .

Sleep and share some pictures with you. 🙂 This are from my instagram account.

As Zsolt says, it’s like we are starting all over again from scratch – for the third time. I would actually count it at four, considering England, but there you go. This time I have some wonderful things to look forward towards, as does Big Z, but it’s still hard. Leaving is always hard.


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#NickArt #Pecs

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Not happy to be leaving #Balaton.

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#Balaton in Hungary

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Digital age artist! And tea drinker, of course. 😉

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#Pecs #Hungary

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An effort of three generations to pick these peaches! 🙂

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Love that in Balaton, every bod is a bikini bod.

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Night train to Balaton Lake

It’s evening here in Balaton. After a sweaty day of sunshine and heat, we are clustered on the screened outdoor terrace trying to enjoy the hint of nighttime coolness. I have been reading Jane Eyre on my e-reader, and I think it’s effecting my writing. I’m feeling somewhat reflective.

Here is what is happening: there are massive spiders in the corner of this terrace – massive, as in, huge, as in, several centimeters wide. The terrace feels like a lit-up stage, with the rest of the world, including the nearby train line all in the darkness outside – almost as if they don’t even exist. Almost. Mosquitoes hum but can’t reach us. The standing fan whirs as it gently blows the air. My skin is sticky with sweat. Everyone is on their laptops, phones or tablets.

And, to boot, I’m enjoying a glass of wine. I think tonight will be quiet. The heat has done us all in. We couldn’t even bring ourselves to make dinner as planned. It was leftovers from the fridge instead.

Zsolt’s family’s cottage in Balaton is very, very close to the train line. In fact, the train tracks are just across the street from the cottage itself. So we are neighbours with the rumbling engines and their screaming carts.

And when I say screaming, I mean screaming. For minutes before their arrival, we can hear the rumble of approaching freight trains. The air carries a growling noise and by the time the trains are finally blasting by and shaking the little stone cottage, the sound of their wheels and carts and chains and power are erupting into my ears and skull and mind. I used to describe it as a waking nightmare where for a few seconds, the world sounds like chaos. Now I just cover my ears instead.

But not all trains are the same. Some sound aggressive, and that is all I can make of them from the bright terrace as I look out into the night beyond the screened wall. Others though, others trains are a slice of magic…

balaton lake

The train is coming, rumbling but not screaming. It’s not a freight this time; it’s a passenger train carrying the holiday crowd from Budapest to the local Lake Balaton stations for this hot weekend. It a slower train, but not slow. It’s a smaller train, but not small. What I love about the passenger trains of Budapest, particularly at night, is that while they can see us perfectly in our glowing terrace while they are driving by, I can also see them – the passengers – perfectly in their lit up cabins.

Many are standing with elbows resting on the window ledge and their heads out into the fresh air. They are watching the windows of the cottages, like I am watching the windows of their train. Others are sitting in their seats, some are walking through the aisle. I spot one couple kissing by the doors. And as the train passes, with only the windows glowing, it’s as though I’m witnessing many separate moments – separate cabins, different people, and because of the windows they are like flickers of channels on the television, glimpses of stories and lives.

I love watching trains for their passenger windows. The long and screaming freights are not to my taste; I’m still negotiating a fear that they will jump off the tracks and come roaring into this little Balaton village of Fonyod by the lake. But the passenger trains don’t scare me at all. Instead, they absorb me.

Sometimes I wave, and sometimes I feel too grown up to wave. But in any case, I always watch. I always smile. I’m always glad for those glimpse of stories as the train hurries by.

And that is Balaton at the night, as we are here on the terrace, feeling rested and warm and waiting to cool.

The end.