Sunday, March 02, 2008

Red Star, Black Mountain: Welcome to Slovenia (Part 2).

A continuing series. See also: Red Stars, Black Mountains: Roger in Yugoslavia ’87 (Part 1) and Red Stars, Black Mountains: Roger in Yugoslavia ’87 (Introduction).


Returning to the Trieste train station in early evening with a slight glow from restrained dinnertime libations, I suffered the first gentle lancing of my sanguine mood. Rounding the corner to the side platform, I saw the waiting, rusted, elemental, purely functional Yugoslav train with only three passenger cars; sans frills, one might say, and far older than the trains I'd been riding in Italy, Switzerland and Austria.

It was far dirtier, too, and I dreaded that first peek inside the all-important WCs (restrooms). Even on the most modern trains of the time, with the possible exception of the French TGVs, there was a direct path between commode and the tracks over which one was traveling – making for an interesting experience when flushing in cold weather. Clean loos were more tolerable under the overall circumstances, but as I would soon learn, hygiene was about to become variable, although in fairness to the Slovenes, it was a phenomenon that grew in proportion to southward travel in Yugoslavia.

Given that my only previous trip into the East Bloc had been made aboard a sleek Finnish tour bus, this opening glimpse of a Yugoslav train very much set the tone for what lay ahead in terms of transport. Eastern Europe was going to be a bit different.

People began arriving to board this so-called "express," and many of them were encumbered with bags, bundles and boxes. Trieste is a port town, and a border town, and the city's final geographical resting place was much in dispute just after World War II ground down. Eventually matters coalesced, the powers that be bartered around remote conference tables, Yugoslavia's leader Marshall Tito (Josip Broz, a Croat by birth) backed away, and Trieste remained Italian, whence it had become only after being forcibly detached from the defunct Austro-Hungarian Empire at the First World War's close.

Consequently, a sizeable population of ethnic Slovenes became Italian citizens, most living in the Trieste's suburbs and hinterlands. Ethnic Slovenes like these appeared to be the outbound weekend riders on the train to Ljubljana, and it was easy to surmise that most were visiting relatives on the other side. Little Italian was spoken apart from one conductor, who did not pass through the border check.

It was as though the dilapidated Trieste rail siding was actually an extension of Yugoslav territory without the intervening kilometers. More people got on the train than got off as we rumbled slowly east, into the trademark blackened mountains for which the Balkans are celebrated and feared, these being oddly brightened by the sun setting behind us.

For me, the border crossing itself was cursory, and my passport merited little more than a glance. The visa inside it was duly stamped by the youthful, uniformed guard with the rifle slung over his shoulder, and yet it wasn't threatening. It all seemed unusually relaxed, a condition seldom to be repeated in the remainder of the Bloc that summer. The locals aboard had it somewhat harder, and their packages were inspected rather closely, but there were no incidents. Quite a few of them debarked at numerous stops following the border passage.

In the end, it took three hours to make the trip, and finally, just shy of 22:30, the train shuddered to a halt at Ljubljana's central station. Excited, I bounded down the steps into a warm and humid night, hoisted my pack, turned to follow the crowd, and was greeted by what might have been the outskirts of the Woodstock gathering, circa 1969, minus Yasgur’s farm.

In fact, a major league bacchanal was in progress.

Chorus lines of drunken young men were chugging bottled beer, the liquid streaming down their faces as they weaved across the rails singing verses of unknown songs, with nary a woman in sight. To my right, a group of them were merrily urinating on a rail yard wall. Some were half-heartedly wrestling with each other while others cheered. Others were projectile vomiting.

By contrast, the train station personnel, although obviously harried by the mayhem, seemed to look upon it with remarkably blank faces, as though it was a weekly performance they'd seen many times before. The scene was destined to remain a mystery for a few days, until I was on the train from Ljubljana to Zagreb, at which point my seatmate and new acquaintance, Rady, explained that the party I'd witnessed was in fact a regular occurrence. The revelers were the new class of military draftees, celebrating their final night of freedom before shipping out to serve the Motherland for two years.

But I didn't know this yet. Standing on the platform and watching the crazy party prompted a question.

Why the hell had I come here?

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