Monday, July 13, 2015

A day in the train

Foreword: This is a description of the people my brother (Mihai Bondarescu) met in one of his many trips in various trains. I thought he wrote it well. So, I am posting it. It is in his words with some minor modifications. He has always had a talent to attract interesting company, and I am of the opinion he should write down more of his experiences.

I have just crossed into the Czech Republic. Two men joined me in the train compartment. So far I have had all the 6 seats to myself.  One wears a T-shirt marked “The Big Cat Beat Department Presents The 2001 Johnny Be Good Tour". He does not speak English. He lacks a few teeth and the rest are not in any order. 

The other man is more interesting. His eyes speak of power — he is not a nobody. He likely changed his world in some way. I try to speak to him. No English, no French, no Italian, no Spanish or Romanian. He offers a few words in German, but at first he does not appear to speak enough to have a conversation. He does however speak Russian, Bulgarian, Polish and Czech — specifies he can speak the languages in both their Standard form and with Slovakian accent. He is a short, stubby person with grey hair. He appears to be somewhere between 60 and 70. He wears a suit and a tie with a dark-brown shirt — all specially cut and carefully styled to embrace his unusual body. He has very short arms and legs. His hands are thick with very, very short stubby fingers. He is cleanly shaved and has stylish glasses to accommodate his age (they appear to have +2/+3-dioptre — not very strong). Yet his hands show signs of wear and tear. He may have a few chicken and a garden. He must like doing his own housework. I am sure he is comfortable with an axe and would not ever think of it as a weapon if he suddenly noticed one in my backpack. His face boasts beautiful features  — his unusual body is not enough to make him ugly. His cheeks are slightly red, with a patch of superficial varicose veins that turn blue from time to time. He must have high blood pressure, probably linked to a diet rich in steak and good wine, which his prominent position in the bureaucratic apparatus must afford. He has a mouth full of white teeth, which is somewhat unusual for his age in this part of the world. He must have a good dentist.

He likely started life in a Communist Czech Republic, probably somewhere close to where he boarded the train, near the East German border.  He likely rose through the ranks of the Communist Party and, after the collapse of Communism, continued his career under the European Union. Both regimes worked with many of the same people. He may have even gone to University in the process — probably to study Scientific Socialism/political science mixed with some sort of mathematics. He may have studied abroad in places as exotic as Poland or as far as Russia.

He must be a man who understands that there is a time to steal, a time to be honest and a time to show respect to people who appear 'worthy' of it. Today, I’m such a person. I speak English and I have a Mac, which I use to type this. I look busy and important.

He reads the newspaper - world news about the war in Ukraine, the situation in Egypt, Obama and Putin. I cannot understand the words, but I might have picked the same paper.  

It is remarkable how both Communism and Capitalism promote the same type of people. Smart and Subdued. Hard-working people who are able to be honest and reliable and at the same time thieves. People who just function as part of an Apparatus without judging it— they play their role in society no matter what that may be. 

I decide to test my assessments of the man opposite to me and start a conversation. Since I do not speak the other languages he speaks, we settle for German.

I ask him what he does in Prague. Is it work?
— No, he says, I’m retired. I’m 56 years old.

He smiles. His smile reveals pieces of shiny metal in his mouth — hooks that attach his beautiful fake teeth to the few remaining form his younger years. No visible tooth displays original enamel, but are all easy on the eye.

Where do you live?
— Half in Czech Republic, half in Bulgaria. 8 Months here, 4 months there.

I press him to tell me more about his work. Is it politics?
— Half politics, says the man. Not central.

He appears worried that he is not a high-profile politician. He is suddenly humble. He says he is very low-class. He only does local politics. No decisions.

I tell him a bit about my work and travel - Martinique, volcanoes, Los Angeles, and about my mixed family.  He shows appreciation for China. I show him my Romanian ID card and brag about being able to go all the way to South America (French Guyana) with it. He and the other man opposite to me immediately reciprocate by showing me their Czech identity cards and, yes, theirs are better. They can enter America without a passport.

The man then tells me more about his international lifestyle and interesting past. He worked two years in Libya for Gaddafi. He was an electronics engineer — part of an exchange program for technology transfer between Libyans and Czech communists. Due to this sort of programs and men like him, Libya was one of the best places to be if you wanted to go to Africa in the golden years of Gaddafi’s rule. He was there in 1985. He tells me about the Libya he saw then— clean hospitals, beautiful cities, safe streets, organized society — all kept together by Gaddafi’s KGB-style political rule.

Gaddafi is known to the west as a terrorist — a terrible man — someone who loved power so much that it did not matter how much blood he spilled. Yet he was someone who created an order that upheld his law in the middle of a lawless continent. This order was kept by an army of men like the one I speak to — intelligent, powerful and obedient. Libya thus became a predictable society — a place that could attract foreign brain and investment from fellow dictators from communist countries like the Czech republic — an alternative to the American Way.

The train reaches Prague. This brings our brief conversation to an end. The two men leave. Two other men join me and take their place. They seem young. Maybe students. One has a Mac with a label — “GoodData”. His arms are sunburned. I ask him why. He says he enjoys rock climbing in Brno. He works as a computer scientist somewhere.

The other young man is tall and slim. He seems excessively slim, but also full of life. He works for a McKinsey off-shoot. He is structuring and restructuring the world of mobile phones. He worked 18 months in Singapore. We have an interesting discussion about life there — the country with the lowest birth rate in the world and with only 5 square meters of land for each of its citizens. This statistics must have popped into my mind from the days when I was selling land — I think the 5 square meters is agricultural land per capita.  Singaporeans earn a lot of money, which buys them awfully little. Each car requires a certificate that costs $50 000. That is what I would have had to pay to drive my $40 Super-Car around town. They often work hard, and own no car, no house, and have no family, but live pretty well otherwise.

The consultant is so distracted by our discussion that he almost misses his station — Bratislava. He realizes he has to go only after the train has stopped. He quickly grabs his bags and leaves. He also leaves behind a copy of the Economist which I enjoy.

In Bratislava a man and a woman join me. The woman is tall and pretty - really tall, very slim and outstandingly pretty. The man is from Ukraine. He is heading to Budapest to take a flight home. He is thinking about his family and about potentially having to join the war effort. Men between 18 and 25 have already been called to join military refreshments camps, which remind them how to use a gun and how to fight a war without one. He is 32 and currently still able to go in and out of the country as he pleases - today - maybe not tomorrow because once he is called to join the army, he cannot cross the border anymore. I ask him why he is spending the money to go to Ukraine instead of spending it to get out of the country and stay out. He tells me he loves his country, and is ready to fight. 

When I think of Ukraine, Yulia Tymoshenko comes to mind. She was freed from jail as soon as the president who jailed her fled the country for Russia.  Yanukovych himself was jailed twice for theft. He also escaped 'clean' from poisoning his rival — Viktor Yushchenko, who, even after facing death and being terribly desfigurated by dioxin, beat him in one election (but not in the next). It is interesting how war, corruption and death makes the population so much more patriotic than a healthy economy.

I get off in Budapest. I try to buy a ticket for the next train, but they refuse to sell me one. They stop selling sleeping supplements one hour before departure. Why? The train is empty, but the rule is the rule unless you can find a way to go around the rule. Emptiness is not a cause for exception. The empty train is waiting for me in the station. It waits for a long 30 min before departure, which appears excessive. I ask one of the train attendants about supplements. He is happy to sell me one for 16.5 Euro. He places me in a train compartment with a young man who is also going to Arad. We speak in Romanian. He just finished university in Innsbruck  and is heading home. He wants to be free, not a “robot” as he calls western workers. His parents have a car shop — detailing, washing and performing small repairs. He sees it as an opportunity to start something that can grow exponentially. He may succeed. Romania is unstable enough to have lots of vacancies in its rich and very rich classes. 

He is also a high-caliber cyclist. He has been in Deutsche Bundesliga. He tells me about sports and drugs. Apparently, the most recent thing to do is put your blood in the fridge and inject it back just before the competition. It boosts oxygen transport and gives you the extra bit of energy needed to cross the finish line a fraction of a second sooner. 

We both get off in Arad. He is impressed by the train station — relatively clean with very few homeless people. An unofficial taxi driver accosts us. He wants to take us to Timisoara for 100 Lei. The train is only 18. I tell him that I am sorry, but I will not buy such services 20 minutes before the train departs.

A few minutes later, an older man comes near. He asks for permission to sit on the radiator next to us. He has been sleeping in the station. He tells us he came from Timisoara with the cheap train last night to visit an aunt who may or may not give him 20 lei. The aunt must be in her eighties. He is 61, but he will only get his pension at 62. His wife divorced him and now he has no home. He lives in a free retirement house (old people asylum) and occasionally takes a day off to sleep in his favourite train station. I did not give him money and I feel sorry about it. He would have really liked a glass of Vodka. I will be as old as him in 27 years and, if I go bankrupt, I may become a professional train traveler. The guards do not do much to people who stink enough to make it clear they cannot pay — they may ask them to get off the train once in a while, but there is always another train…

I board the train from Arad to Timisoara. It is impressive. It has more ticket inspectors than passengers. They are there to police each other and instil fear in passengers. The Romanian train looks just like the S-bahn from Germany. It must be German: either bought new with European money or imported for free by the Romanians after its German-life ran out. Either way, it does not make much difference. The windows were probably broken in Romania — what a thrill to break a $1000 piece of glass. Even if they sell the offender's car they will not get their money back! Some windows have visible signs of stone impact, while others are just cracked all the way across.

On one window, there is an ad telling people to buy tickets and travel comfortably as opposed to paying bribes. The ad covers broken glass, but the part explaining the scary consequences of traveling without a ticket is covered in a piece of sticky plastic. Why scare people ?

No ticket check all the way to Timisoara - yet so many ticket inspectors for company.

Timisoara. Home at last.

No comments:

Post a Comment