Wednesday 22 April 2015

Prisoner of my past

At Victoria Station, alongside platform announcements for Chatham and Orpington, there used to be the international routes. In the 60s, I’d board the train for Dover, ferry to Belgium and on to Cologne, Munich, Salzburg, Ljubljana and Zagreb.
At Ostend, I always hoped to be the only passenger in my 3rd class couchette—not because I wanted to be alone—but because it meant that the train would fill up in Germany with Turkish gastarbeiters, setting out on their annual holidays.
They would always have two suitcases, one for clothes and the other filled with food and drink which they generously shared with strangers. There were kebabis, spinach and cheese borek, hummus, pitta bread, dates and honeyed cakes. We would drink raki through the night.
After a short sleep, I would wake up as the train travelled through the Karamanka Alps into Yugoslavia. The Austrian customs officers in their smart, blue uniforms were replaced by the Yugoslavs in their drab brown when they came on board at Jesenice; the only other colour, the red stars on their caps. 
30 hours after leaving Victoria Station the train arrived in Zagreb. All cities have their unique characteristics; defined by their architecture, climate and their people. What is rarely referred to are their smells. Zagreb’s was the coal burned in the steam engines: lignite from Breza in Bosnia, a soft brown fuel somewhere between coal and peat. This smell characterised the Croatian capital until steam engines were replaced with electric and diesel.
I would take the No 4 tram. The blue cars clanked and screeched their way over the bumpy rails, the driver hunched over a lever which was both accelerator and brake. Pedestrians ran when they heard the tram’s bell, a double dang-dang. It was like being on the set of The Third Man.
Today I return to London from Barcelona and because of my brain op it's not a two hour EasyJet flight, but eight on TGV via Paris. Plenty of time to read a book. It will be Carlos Ruiz Zafón's The Prisoner of Heaven - set in this city. I struggled with his The Shadow of the Wind but my writer-wife Anne tells me this one is much better. I will let her know if I agree when I see her again – she is returning on Easyjet tomorrow.

Read more about train journeys at 'Left Field'

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