Night train to Bucharest

Thursday, September 13th 2007

After a couple of days I'd pretty much covered Chişinău, and so I walked down to the station and bought a ticket for the night train to Bucharest. The train was quiet and I thought I might get a compartment to myself, but a few minutes before the train left someone joined me. When the train left at ten past five, I spent a while looking out of the windows at the beautiful Moldovan countryside rolling by in the evening sun, and then I got talking to my travelling companion.

He was called Cristi, and luckily he spoke quite a lot of English. He was Romanian but married to a Moldovan, and he said he thought Moldovans were friendlier and more honest than Romanians. It turned out that he was on the first stage of a journey to Italy, where he was planning to work for at least a year. Romania had been a member of the EU for nine months and he was taking advantage of the free movement of labour that this brought. He was leaving behind his wife, and didn't know when he would see her again. As we approached the border with Romania, he said he was just starting to realise how much he would miss Moldova. Like the currency man, Cristi was bemused that I'd come to Moldova as a tourist, and particularly that I'd been to Tiraspol.

At nightfall we reached the border with Romania at Ungheni. We were leaving the broad tracks of the former USSR for the narrower ones of the rest of Europe, and our train was shunted into a yard where each carriage was raised, and the wheels changed. My passport was taken away by the first person to check it, and after an hour or so when the wheels of the train were back on it still hadn't reappeared. Cristi went to ask the train attendants what was going on and they said that it was nothing, and we'd be getting checked again by immigration shortly. And soon enough another border guard appeared. He wanted to know why I didn't have a Moldovan entry stamp, and it was really lucky for me that Cristi was such a friendly guy and spoke English. They had a conversation in Romanian, the approximate gist of which was "So, how come he doesn't have a stamp?" "Because he came via Tiraspol." "Why did he do that?" "Oh, he's a tourist." "Really? Get away!" "No, he really is."

And with that I was into Romania. Cristi shared a colossal bag of Romanian chocolates with me to celebrate his return to his homeland, and I felt terrible that I had nothing to share with him to thank him for his help. He asked me if I could name any famous Romanians. I managed Dracula, the Cheeky Girls and Ilie Nastase - the last one made up a bit for the first two. In return, he named most of the royal family. His knowledge of Britain definitely beat my knowledge of Romania, but surely in a few days time I would know more.

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