Wednesday, 13 May 2009

The Friendship Train to Moldova

Having nabbed a Romanian SIM card we then head for the Railway station for a bite to eat and to buy a ticket. "What ticket do you want?" "No idea mate, rather depends what ticket they have." At this point I am SO grateful for someone who can speak the language and sort it out, the deal is this... it's an overnight train so you can share with 4 people in 2nd class whose gender will be assorted or 1st class where you an specify gender.

Now call me an old fashioned lesbian but I do not fancy sharing sleeping space with strange chaps so I opt for 1st class. Now first class in the poorest country in Europe turns out to put the British variety to shame! Wow! Better before I even reach it a woman starts talking to me in ENGLISH so this is even more promising as my Russian is rusty and my Romanian amounts to about 3 words.

As I said this train is known as the "Prietenia" the Friendship Express and I cannot think of a bettr way of describing this amazing journey. Of course this woman was curious about why any Brit would recognise the country Moldova let alone visit it. I reply vaguely thinking I dont want to be dobbed in on the border, which is now pre-occupying me rather.

Anyhow, we have a lovely chat and in the end she has repeated her question so many times that I dont feel I can avoid it any longer and tell her I am heading to Moldova PRIDE... and she is delighted! A little later I get bored and start writing my "contribution" to the Moldova PRIDE conference and I ask her if she would help me play a joke on the other delegates and translate my "speech" into Russian and a little Romanian. She is even more delighted so there we are hurtling for an external EU border her translating into and me practising my Russian! The idea is to start in English and then lapse into Russian albeit very rusty and badly pronounced Russian! She reckons my pronunciation is good enough to be understood and that the effort will be appreciated and I get to learn a single sentence of Romanian, which is OK if you imagine you are Italian and start gesticulating wildly. In fact the uniforms of the Police in Bucharest reminded me very much of italian uniforms.

Muggins thought the border came at midnight, well it didn't but I am so nervous about it I didn't sleep but I am looking forward to the wheel changing but disappointed it must happen in the complete dark so you can't appreciate it WRONG!
In fact we dont cross the border til about 2am and of course you have to leave Romanian first, one set of checks, a nice friendly Romanian woman and just as I feel relieved I realise it was only the Romanian exit checks and I am now feeling so nervous that any self respecting border guard will imagine me to be an extremely doubtful character. The chap who comes is very stern looking and in a rather Soviet looking uniform but he examines my papers perfectly correctly and satisfies himself and that ordeal is over which is then rewarded by a wonderful treat, the sun has come up and we are heading over the actual border a wide river, over the actual land border of the former Soviet Union, which feels moderately significant and then into the train sidings to have aour wheels changed. I kid you not, I have even got the vid to prove it only I cant get it off the camera. We are shunted into special sidings where we are pneumatically lifted off the Romanian wheels which are slid out so that Moldovan ones can be slid in. It is *so* clever and takes about an hour to do all the carriages. One chap was a bit gruff about phots but apparently another said the Romanian or Russian equivalent of "Dont be such a miserable sod, why shouldn't she take a few photos, she's only a tourist." (overheard by my helpful as ever travelling companion).
And on this 13 hour journey there is no restuarant car! You have to bring your own but the guard will make you tea from his urn built into the carriage.
It's light so not much sleep possible now as we head through the Moldovan countryside and I fin mysefl just imagining what life is like and was like under the Soviet era and the Nazis sweeping by and the Red Army sweeping back and we approach Chisinau, the capital of Moldova and my destination.
Once again the "kindness of strangers" this woman must be very tired herself but won't leave until she is sure I am safely on my way and of course after the PRIDE Opening Ceremony, my Gender Doc contact is a little worse for wear and a fraction late so we are in fact wandering round the station missing each other. Once again my phone doesn't work, once again I am lent a phone to join the dots and suddenly my contact appears and all is well and I say farewell to this amazing travelling companion.

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