Wednesday, 26 July 2017

An Incomparable Inertia: Skopje to Saloniki by Rail

Text and photographs by Christopher Deliso   
Unless you take the other one, in the dead of night, the train arrives in late afternoon and by that time you just want to sit down and sleep against the window. But usually the press of people, all pushing and clamouring to board (grandmothers with glass jars and double-wrapped boxes can be surprisingly fierce) forestalls this luxury.

Meanwhile, the cleverer young guys have already jumped down into the gravel and skipped across the worn steel rails, ripping open the opposite door like a ripe orange and bounding up the narrow stair first.

So you stand in the corner of the entranceway, with somebody else’s luggage piled up besides you, and gaze out the window at the melancholy concrete of Platform 4, with its disappearing stairs and benches and satisfied policemen and orange soda and snacks for sale.

By the time the train arrives in Skopje it has already swept up many stories in its wake. And, with great triumph, it has also negated others. Its very arrival means that this time there was no strike or technical failure or bomb placed on the track in the wilds of the Albanian north. The positive stories include transnational heartbreaks in waiting, family reunions rewarded with blocks of cheese or fiery rakija. There are the elderly without a car and the young without a care. In summer, there is the happy chatter of Belgrade students bound for vacation in Greece. In winter too there are pretzels and Coke and chocolate passed around, but the smoke lingers in lazy circles longer then, because the frosty windows are kept closed. This bothers no one save the odd lost American who is already launching indignations about the rough-handed border police and is vowing to never come back to Macedonia once he can escape it for good and all.

Very few have come all the way from Ljubljana, where the lumbering Yugoslav-era train originates two times a day, every day of the year. The trip might last less than twenty-four hours, but in reality it is a million years from smug Balkan émigré Slovenia, perched on the doorstep of Central Europe, to the humble (yet happy) Macedonia, in the heart of the Balkans.

Having left Slovenia and Croatia behind, the train must also have crossed the length of Serbia, with stops in every hamlet of crumbling houses and smoke curling up from the rooftops. This is the part that really kills travellers. The wiser ones (there are inevitably only a few; it is always dearer to display wisdom) have already occupied the more expensive sleeper cars. They are left alone. The others just darken the cabin and close the grimy curtains and brace the sliding door in an attempt to keep out the Skopje rabble.

The cars must be at least thirty-five years old. When the clock face of the Skopje train station froze at the moment of the 1963 earthquake, they were no doubt top-of-the-line. But that was another time and another station across the town, where the clock is still frozen above what is now the city museum. The taxi men who prey on ignorant villagers and foreigners have their own dreams and they know as well as anyone the difference between the old and new train stations, as they are still known; at the former you might find old pictures of new train cars, while at the new station you will just find old train cars.

But now it is loaded up and the blue-coated old man on the platform has waved his hand and with a warning whistle you’re off. But still you can’t see inside the cabins. There is only the dirt beaten into the parchment-coloured floor sometimes visible, the narrow hall thronged with standing people, the cardboard boxes and black trash bags and nylon sacks brimming with forgettable items stacked high and their ostensible minders cracking cans of beer and carrying on amongst themselves.

Most of the people usually get off at Veles, some 45 minutes later, and then you can sit. But first there is the conductor. He pushes through the throng, displaying a heavy shop-worn coat attesting to former authority, with a beaten leather bag slung across the shoulder and over the chest, little ticket-book and change in hand, and then it’s dobre vecer… billet?

At this point the occasional gypsies, but not only them, will try to negotiate free or discounted passage, especially if the train is so full and you are in the last car and Veles is practically a fait accompli. But it’s debatable whether one’s chances of success at mild corruption are better when the train is full or when it is empty. When the train is full and there are many people and also the train is classed medjunarodna (international), it seems more unlikely that the trainman will have any sympathy for pocketing a few multicolored ten-denar notes in exchange for not giving you a ticket. That’s something more likely on the meditative 10:35 PM Kumanovo-Skopje local which not many take - and then, only if he likes you.

If you are not from Macedonia and you are going to Thessaloniki then you have already bought the long white stapled ticket with blue letters and the destinations scrawled across the inside of it by one of the ladies behind the glass downstairs. But this is a mistake. It is a better idea, because you will save enough euros to buy a beer or a phone card upon arriving in Thessaloniki, to buy a ticket to Gevgelija, the last town on Macedonia’s southern border. Then you can just stay on board as the train silently crosses the border and buy another ticket, a tiny cardstock chip with the price still inscribed in drachmas, at the border crossing. But that is not for a few hours and you don’t need to worry about that now. Still, it is better not to forget to do so, because the price for buying on the train (the Greeks always think you are trying to trick them) is steep.

So to make sure you’ll remember, you can write the word ticket in whatever language you wish on the back of your hand with a pen someone lends you. And don’t forget to be nice to them, because you will need the pen back when filling out the white card for the policemen at the border. But again we are getting ahead of ourselves.

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