The train started off from Vienna with such purpose and gumption. Miles evaporated beneath our wheels. I began to think that we’d finish the six-hour trip early. Since departure was precisely 6:59, I might have more than a short afternoon to explore Zagreb. Then the stops stopped us cold. Veterans of the run left their cabins for a cigarette on the platform. The train waited while the stationmaster tried to drum up some village customers for the onward journey. Passengers lit a second cigarette. Someone popped in on the non-smokers and decided to check passports and to scribble a note no one would ever read on the back of our tickets.
After some hours the coffee and sandwich trolley had made no appearance, so I decided to forage on my own. I visited all the cars to the left and right of mine; no buffy bar, as the Brits call it. During this stroll, the train stopped at yet another station, a tiny station, a one-horse town station, a one-employee station.
Still, for a moment, the platform looked like Grand Central as all the smokers and some salami and cheese on a Kaiser roll eaters descended at once. And the police officers boarded.
I was at the tail end of the train staring enviously at everyone else’s carried-on vittles, so I didn’t see the border police begin inspecting papers and the passengers’ shifty expressions. I began making my way forward, struggling a little too much, in my opinion, with the pneumatic doors between carriages. Finally, two cars before my own, I came to a door I could not open. The worker installing the red iron bar over the entrance to the next car was no use to me, but something was up—the flooring between the cars had been removed. Fast deductions told me I was about to be abandoned on this siding while my passport, computer, two cameras, meds, iPad, phone were going traveling alone.
An easy fix: the smokers had time for two or three more cigarettes, and I returned to my cabin relieved but hungry.
The first sign of urban life as we approached Zagreb was the billboard announcing that the Elvis Presley Museum, apparently all of it, will visit Split this autumn. Straight from Graceland.
Second sign of urban life: the station restaurant, which was staffed by (was her name Peggy Wood?) the actress on childhood’s first weekly drama, I Remember Mama. But one stern Mama. I pointed to the Pasta with Broccoli. “Neh. Spaghetti Carbonara, Spaghetti Bolognese, Pizza.” My unspoken rejoinder was apparently written along my brow: “But the menu is twelve pages long, with pictures.” “Neh,” she said, flicking a stray breadcrumb from my place. “Spaghetti Carbonara, Spaghetti Bolognese, Pizza.” I went with the Carbonara, largely because I was intrigued by the description that listed sour cream and cottage cheese as constituents with the shards of bacon. Two shards, it turned out.
Cleverly, I asked if she would accept Euros. “Neh.” Dollars? “Neh.” Credit cards? “Neh. Ah-tay-mmmm,” she said, pointing down the immensely long hall to the machine I had passed coming in to the station’s waiting room. So I got money from a machine that is partial to dispensing 200 Kuna notes. I returned to find her still guarding my bags. But she couldn’t make change for the 200, so she trotted off to the tobacconist down the way along the lover’s path she must have worn smooth over the years.
Through all this, the station loudspeaker played Sonny and Cher’s “I Got You, Babe.” At the moment, I was certain it was Peaches and Herb singing a duet very much in the same vein. It has that very catchy little guitar riff after each chorus? Right? Sonny and Cher? Peaches and Herb? Spaghetti Carbornara with a riff of bacon?