I was surprised during the Hungarian train journey that the plants and scenery slipping by were so very like Indiana. The terrain, the season, the crops in the fields (I thought I'd bid corn plants goodbye!). I suppose I had expected it to be more "foreign," somehow, though I don't know what that would even mean. I couldn't shake the feeling that I might almost be on a train tracing the route we drive each week between Indianapolis and Lafayette. We passed cars, fields, wildflowers, cows, barns...and barns, I guess, are barns, 'for a'that.'
Of course, the houses and cities were dead giveaways that, flora and fauna notwithstanding, this was not home. The stations in particular were all very grim. There seemed to be several older, abandoned-looking buildings at each stop, and it bugged me that they would be so close to the station building and yet be abandoned. Maybe they weren't; even the buildings that were in use seemed to have little care or maintenance given them. I wondered whether it was a lack of time, a lack of money, a lack of concern, or something else that kept things in such disrepair.
After a while, my traveling companions fell asleep, leaving Cédric and I to chat or sit in quiet contemplation. We had a good time talking, comparing and contrasting different aspects of life in America and Europe. His command of English was far better than mine of French. We found common ground in our amusement and bemusement over the arrival announcements on the train. They would be introduced with a jingle of music that was just on the edge of being too loud, but then the announcements themselves would be so quiet as to be almost indistinguishable amid the noise of talking and the humming of the train on the tracks.
When Cédric and I tired of trying to suss out my complete memory of French regular and irregular verbs, we amused ourselves by trying to sound out the names of the stations we passed through. Neither of us possessing a knowledge of Hungarian, I'm sure we were off by miles, and would have been the subject of much derision for any native speakers...fortunately, the few other passengers in our car all were speaking in Russian or Ukrainian.
One aspect of the scenery that enchanted me was that many or most of the houses we saw were stucco and painted in bright colors. Not brights, I amend, as one might see in the tropics--no neon greens or flaming reds. Instead, these were vivid pastel tones: buttery yellow, lilac, coral pink, orange, robin's-egg blue. They were more vivid than I tend to picture as outside colors, and yet they were pleasing to the eye, set back from the tracks behind orderly gardens and fences.
Later in the afternoon, everyone else woke up and I finally dozed off and on, for about forty-five minutes, while the Kubiks played Scrabble.
At long last, we reached the last stop in Hungary. A man came around and checked our passports. I hadn't realized that they had to riffle through all the pages to check for previous stamps; as the man was approaching, I kept hearing a slight rushing sound, and I was amazed to discover it was the whisper of the pages being pushed incredibly rapidly past beneath his thumb. It was, in retrospect, just the sound one hears in the cartoons, when the passing of time is marked by pages flying off a calendar.
This act completed, the men left the car and moments later we heard the loud THUNK of our train car being decoupled from the rest. It was a very final sound, and a little scary, even though I knew it was nothing unusual. Another man came through the car, checking our tickets. He said nothing to any of us except Cédric; upon checking his ticket, though, the man rattled something off in Ukrainian. Clearly not comprehending, Cédric murmured, "Oui, oui." Once the man had passed, without further comment, Cédric shrugged his shoulders in amusement and repeated, "Oui, oui."
The train moved along slowly and we crossed the Tisa River, and I caught my first sight of Ukraine. It wasn't pretty. A cemetery lay on one side of the tracks, and no matter how prettily decorated graves are, they aren't a necessarily welcoming sight. This wasn't the only foreboding thing, though. The light poles along the tracks were badly rusted and the whole trainyard area was ill-kempt, more so even than the Hungarian stations. At least one set of lights was burned out, and looked as though it had been for some time.
Still, foreboding or not, this was where our train trip ended, and so we prepared to disembark. Once again we did battle with the train doors. I do not know what the story was with them, but they closed on me as I was leaving. Fortunately, I didn't have an arm or anything in the way, and I just waited a moment and they reopened.
I know that this is not a politically correct statement. But seriously, as I gazed upon my new (thankfully temporary) surroundings and prepared to enter the customs building, I was reminded of every Cold War-era movie about the Soviet Union that I have ever seen a snippet of. The sidewalk was cracked and had weeds growing through it; the building was a featureless, undecorated block of sandy-colored stone. The guards looked suspicious and grim, though I expect they were just tired and wanted to go home. Still, getting the eye from them made me feel as though I had
smuggled something in my suitcase.
The outside was off-putting enough, but the inside was even less prepossessing. It was the scariest building I had ever (to that point) been in. The ceilings were very high, with broken tiles that had been broken for a while. The whole building encompassed but one room, divided roughly in half by a trio of cubicles with walkways between them. I have seen better-constructed cubicles and more efficient crowd-control measures in cheap amusement parks. The only lights in the room seemed to come from these cubicles; in the gathering dusk of evening, it seemed to grow spookier by the minute.
The floor was plain cement, and the walls were undecorated. The only sign was one that warned about all the things one was to declare--including corrupting values (would anyone really declare that they had those?) and running on down through firearms and drugs to the mysterious "precursors." I have no idea what that meant, and I hadn't time to ask Victor, as we were already moving through the line.
When we got up to the lady in the cubicle, we were told we had to fill out forms, so naturally we had to leave the line and take our forms over to fill them out. And then, of course, we filled them out partially, when we were supposed to fill them out in duplicate. Argh! Kassie, being under 18, was able to waltz right through, and watched as we zig-zagged between the line and the little ledge along the wall where we filled out the forms. Although 'Chop' certainly wasn't hanging out the welcome banner and playing brass bands to welcome visitors, at least the lady in the cubicle was nice enough and even managed to smile--a welcome sight, indeed.
As I waited to be cleared to enter the country, I glanced at a female customs officer, waiting on the other side of the cubicles. Her stance was what I noticed: upright, her arms behind her back, an officious and slightly threatening pose. I know that there are only so many ways to stand, and that customs officials are trained to look for problems and suspicious things. And to them, we're not tourists or visitors, but just work. But still, the whole mien of the customs officials was very scary to me.
As it turned out, I needn't have been. While none of the customs officers were cordial, the experience was not as worrisome as I had imagined. In fact, the officer who spoke with us only asked Bev to open one bag; when she had, the only question he asked was whether the items in it were her personal clothes. When she said that they were, he nodded and waved us all past without looking at any of our other luggage. We stepped through the doorway and officially entered Ukraine.