My unfortunate journey from Athens to Bulgaria
I wanted to take a bus to Bulgaria, but somehow - this continues to mystify me - I ended up gawking at the Athens train station instead. Damn. My previous experiences with trains - particularly those involving Bulgaria - have been tremendously unpleasant. Cross my fingers and hope (not) to die? Or be stranded somewhere completely random? or miss my stop? or lose all my possessions? or find myself victim of a cigarette raid??? I wanted out of sprawling, stressful Athens, so I took my chances.
Indian-style, I fought my way onto my car as a throng of over-eagers mobbed the doors. The hot outdoor athens air was suddenly cool - I'd just boarded a big aluminum baked potato. Within the first twenty minutes, I was soaked completely and suffering from prickly-heat. Luckily, I only had 15 more hours to go.
The air - aside from being impossibly oppressive - was ripe with body odor and mutiny. We were packed solid, and no one was happy about it, so the unfortunate steward was accosted by a slew of old women and macho men regarding the non-functional air-con. When he appeared to admit his impotence, arguments erupted between passengers - babies were screaming, teenagers teasing, old ladies hollering at their seatmates. I tossed a toy at some children to keep them from pestering me. Instead, i was sighted as a sucker and they swooped down upon me...a baby nearby even slobbered all over my newly-purchased Greek worry beads. To keep from looking revolted (I'm no good with children!!), I watched the teenagers next to me downing rakia and whiskey. They were irritatingly good-natured, but I had to laugh as they belted out boy-band tunes...NSYNC's "Bye Bye Bye", and Backstreet Boys' "I want it that way" really never sounded so good. As a complement, a Tanzanian nearby taught them a little bit of Sinatra. At least, I thought, there's entertainment in hell.
My seatmate was somehow intrigued by me, and we began to chat about my work. "Not many people are willing to do what you do," he said, "you are performing the work of God - have you been saved?" Oh dear. I was sitting next to a Greek Jehovah's Witness. No joke. We chatted for a while about why I'm going to hell for being unsaved - though he was much kinder than I thought he would be - until I decided to feign sleep instead of screaming.
My fake slumber seemed to dull him, as he disappeared when the train broke down shortly after. I had two hours to suck in fresh air while we waited...by some merciful miracle, the air conditioning worked when we re-boarded. The cool air enlivened the car, and a middle-aged albanian (capable of the most noxious odors) even took to groping my leg. (but not before spilling his whiskey all over my lap.) I nearly cried in relief when we arrived in Thessaloniki - three hours late. Then, I nearly cried again when I found I missed my connection to Bulgaria and had to sleep in the station until the next train in the morning. And then, I did manage to squeeze out a tear when the station guards tried to kick us stranded few to the street. "You can't sleep here! Station closed!" It was two in the morning. "But where are we supposed to go! We can't just wander the streets!" We said, it was if the last fiber of our patience and stamina had been swiftly severed. "It is not our problem!" they retorted. But it was a big problem for a solo American female.
In the end, they allowed us to be locked in a small downstairs waiting room. "Eat, bathroom now. We open door at 6 am." They didn't want us to steal anything. Steal what? I don't know. I probably would have done it though, out of spite. I squeezed in a few hours of sleep before being herded back to the surface of the world and catching my train to Bulgaria. I'd decided to stay in Sandanski - a city close to the border - and find a bus from there. Due to complete exhaustion, I stayed the night - arriving in Sofia three days after leaving Athens. I was filthy and smelly enough rival the albanian, but completely thrilled to be back to the familiar. Oh Bulgaria, how I missed you. Oh Bulgaria, I'll never take a train to/from/around or near you ever, ever again.