There’s a certain kind of person who’s attracted to train stations, these places of arrival and departure. They’re drawn to them like thread in the wind. They feed off movement and impermanence. They see a rusted old train with broken windows and spray-painted sides, not as debris but rather as homage, as a memorial to movement. They breathe in the acidic air of diesel fumes and the slightly acrid scent of tension and adrenaline.
Josip was one of these people who have thrown in their lot â€” such slight baggage as they possess â€” with displacement. They absorb the exhalations of excitement, anticipation, desire and fear. For along with the excitement, isn’t there always some fear in travelling? It can rise at connecting points, or the interface between the lives of strangers and your own â€” the not-knowing, the uncertainty, some saltiness of the tongue or the imagination, that slips through the body like a coating, adhering to the heart’s passages like an apple pip â€” small, but potentially dangerous.
Josip could smell out that uncertainty that comes with arriving in a strange place, when you do not know which way to turn, when you leave the comforting enclosure of the train station and step out into an unfamiliar city. Yet in Zagreb he had picked one of the most welcoming of cities, which in some ways must have worked to his advantage. Too much uncertainty and people close up, like clams.
Zagreb station is clean and gleaming, polished and well-lit. Outside the station, the trams stop, just a few meters from the entrance. You pick your way across the curved metal tramways, with cobbles in between. Beyond the elegant gliding trams a tree-lined avenue with rosy globes of light stir memories of Viennese fairy-tales.
Contrast this with the train station in Belgrade. It is dimly-lit, with dark brown painted walls. A bleak corridor takes you to the trains which are grimed and shabby and almost empty. An official wants to see my ticket, before I go onto the platform. I cannot think why anyone would go onto the platform unless forced by the necessity of walking the short distance, to climb the steep steps onto the train. There would be no trade here for people like Josip; within half an hour they would be reduced to misery or begging, or both.
Train stations can draw all kinds of people, hook fantasies you can’t fulfil, fears you’d barely recognize and desires linked with stealth and concealment so that the mind splits and what is seen is not always faithful to its appearance but can reverse itself, just as a mirror does. And Belgrade station, with its unlit corners, its shadows, its dull and grimy colors, its atmosphere of buried apprehension, held memories within its walls. I did not know what they were, but I could feel them. I was in a hurry to get out.
With no clear signs to reveal the drab, grey-sided train’s destination, I asked two men standing on the platform if this was the train to Zagreb.
“Minshen,” they replied and nodded.
To reach Germany felt about as likely an event as touching one’s own reflection or entering the dream world without falling asleep. But a train had brought me here, or a dream of one. Perhaps I could re-enter that dream by climbing the steep iron steps onto this silent train with no destination indicated on the front.
Rain had turned the city into a hunched and hooded place.
Time has a different feel to it, in the mirror world. Oh, not just time, but a quality of the air as well, a fluid, insubstantial quality, a wrinkle on the cloth screen the images are projected on, a faint whisper of wind rippling something unsettling through you. When I first arrived in Belgrade, the sunlight made the air incandescent, filled with tiny points of light. The light and the air became one and it cut passages between high buildings.
On Knez Mihailova, the cobbled pedestrian street, blades of light fall through the side streets. Pedestrians flash into gold, then merge into the shadow of the tall buildings. Stalls selling jewellery, shoes, leather goods, scarves, plastic hair clips, cards and postcards line the centre of the street.
The Kalemegdan Fortress is the highest point of Belgrade. The city is built on a hill and it writhes down to the water, like a snake. Its head has gleaming domes and shiny reflections of new glass buildings. Off Knez Mihailova stands St Peter’s church, with its green and golden crest, part onion dome, part spire, with curves and folds at the bottom, spiking the sky at the top. Not far from it is a quiet, cobbled square and after that, a sheer drop down to the river Sava, about to meet the Danube.
“Over there, on the other bank, now Novi Beograd,” I was told, “that was the old Austro-Hungarian Empire. Here on this side, the Ottoman Empire. When the Turks were finally defeated and left, we tore down all the mosques.”
Further down the hill, old buildings are cracking and crumbling, there’s an air of dilapidation and neglect.
I loved this city immediately, as you do a fairytale. Mysterious, unpredictable, haunting, it has its own life and no need of you. Like a force of nature, it could turn on you, not from malevolence, but from following its own dream and desires like a rising flood or a tornado. Acts of propitiation are demeaning, at such times. Action is called for.
When it turned its other face to me, I left. The sky brooded and spat rain.
I wake up that morning with a feeling of unaccountable apprehension as if some dream-gate is slowly closing and if I want to make it through in time, I will have to move fast. As if the Mirror City is turning dark and on the point of vanishing. The train-tracks and the bridges are softening, like St Peter’s semi-onion spire. The day itself is dark with shoddy rain and the street-grime is turning soft, eroding edges, turning stone into unpredictable emotion and a growl of passion.
My mind jumps, like someone crossing a foaming river, searching for stepping stones. I have to do this, then that, and there is little time.
I take a taxi to the train station and ask the driver to wait. I find out the time of the next train to Zagreb, and buy a ticket. I decide to leave my rucksack at the left luggage, so I can move around more quickly and easily. This will save time, so I think. I follow a sign round the back of the station. It looks like the back yard of a restaurant, where rubbish is put out, not a place to linger or pass the time of day.
In a stony area there is a building with a careless, makeshift look to it. The front is made of rusting metal panels. One of them might just possibly be a door. I push it and it opens. In front of me is a dark passageway with a glimmer of light at the end. I head towards it and find two men there, who eye me suspiciously. I point to my rucksack. At first they seem disinclined to do anything, then one comes round slowly and points to a shelf where three or four items of luggage are placed. I put my rucksack next to them and the man smiles, gestures and begins to talk to me.
I shake my head, reply in English. He shrugs and gestures and says cafa, cafa. Sorry, I don’t have time I say. He then asks for my passport. I hand it over with the feeling that I no longer have anything to bargain with. The day drips outside. He reads out my name, slowly, the way people do when they’re pronouncing something in a language they are unfamiliar with. Of course, reading my name this way forms a bridge between us, more than that, an unbreakable bond. Zeljko he says, pointing to himself. I nod. His smile now reflects the supreme advantage that he knows he has. He can do anything. He puts some soft brown substance on the end of a stick and holds it out to me. I don’t know if I’m supposed to sniff it or taste it but I have just enough strength left to shake my head. I wonder if it is some kind of sealing-wax, my mind full of images of seals and stamps, soft wax that hardens, used to seal important letters to kings and royal envoys. I feel it would only draw me further into this fairy tale, and I didn’t have the magic word to get me out.
Zeljko sits down at the table and thumbs through a book of tickets. He moves unbelievably slowly. He picks up a stamp, inks it, then presses it three times onto the paper, in different areas. He then folds the paper back and does it again, three times, on the next page. I watch in disbelief. With careful precision he tears off the top page and attaches it with a piece of string, dipped in the soft brown stuff, to my bag. He then hands me the duplicate as if it was a visa for the gates of heaven, granted only to a select few, every century. I crumple it and stuff it in my purse. Although I try to do this as quickly as possible, he still has time to move out from behind the desk, come round the partition and stand beside me. He puts his hand on my arm, smiling, repeating cafa, cafa, my passport in his hand, half proffered, half retained.
I take my passport, extricate myself, walk back through the gloomy corridor of empty shelves and exit. The metal door bangs shut behind me. But the taxi driver, a guardian figure to steer me through a day that’s turning soft and slippery as wax, is still waiting at the station entrance.
We climb back up the hill, into the city centre. I tell the driver I want to go to an internet cafe to email a friend. I’d tried to phone him the night before and again this morning but I could not get through. Ah yes, says the driver, referring to the phone problems â€” that is our reality.
He drops me outside the internet cafe. The entrance is narrow, and you immediately go down steep wooden stairs. At the end of the stairs is a dimly-lit basement. It’s like a seedy night club or a front for some drug smuggling enterprise. The air is stale and smoky. After my eyes have adjusted to the dark, I make out a desk with a young man standing behind it. He puts down his cigarette to print me out a receipt for 60 dinars.
I send the email, climb back up the stairs into daylight, and head for the train station. I remove my rucksack and myself from the embrace of the baggage guardian and get on the train to Munchen.
As it moves through Novi Beograd, the concrete blocks recede and next to the train tracks makeshift houses appear. They are put together with wood, cardboard, tin and a grey kind of sacking or insulation. Black circles of old tyres lie on the roofs, holding down the sacking. They’re surrounded by colourful heaps of rubbish and rusting car parts. One of these wood and cardboard houses has an open porch, also covered by the grey insulating cloth. A child’s bike is propped just inside it, against one of the two wooden poles.
At the Croatian border immigration officials look through people’s luggage. One of them has a long-handled mirror and he holds it underneath the carriage of the train. Outside, the fields, with a thin skin of green on them, stretch into the distance. Brown earth, brown trees and a thick and surly sky. I shift a little in my seat and hope that they won’t find all my smuggled thoughts.
The man in the same compartment had also boarded the train in Belgrade. For the first part of the journey he seemed absorbed in his own thoughts. But now he speaks to me.
He begins to talk about himself. He was in Belgrade visiting a friend who he had not seen for fourteen years. The railway was closed, he tells me, for thirteen years, because of the war. It only opened last year. He said that while he was in Belgrade with his friend, he felt anxious and afraid. He tells me this was because of the terrible things that were done to each other in the war â€” by Serbs and Croats. I knew, he said, that I just needed to say one sentence and people would know from my accent that I am from Croatia. My friend who I was visiting, he said to me not to worry, he would be my bodyguard, he made a joke of it but it did not take away this feeling of fear. All that happened in the war is still in our memories, he said, the horrors and atrocities of it, we cannot forget. We can forgive, but it is still with us. The next generation, they will not think about it, it will not be part of their consciousness, but for us â€” he gestures with his hands, palms outwards â€”
“Arkimed, you know him, Arkimed, you’ve heard of him?”
I’m sitting on a bench in Zagreb’s train station. It’s warm, and the light has a feeling of incipient spring. Josip has a thatch of hair, not the slightest sign of it receding, but it is peppered with grey. He wears a leather jacket, creased with age, and worn and baggy trousers. His face too, has creases, smiling ones, welcoming ones.
I’m looking for some memory of Arkimed, who it seems, I must surely know, or have heard of. Then I make a connection. Oh Archimedes! I say. Yes, yes, Arkimed, says Josip. He defeated a Roman army at Syracuse, you know? I didn’t know. My only mental image of Arkimed is of him leaping naked out of his bath, shouting Eureka! as he realized he had cracked the law of displacement or rather discovered it, as he sat down and noticed the water level going up the sides of the bath. I don’t remember the details, just the jubilant shout as the insight burst into his consciousness and in his excitement he shouted Eureka! which I suppose roughly translates as I’ve found it, I’ve got it!
But it seems that Archimedes did other things as well.
Do you know how he defeated the Roman army Josip asks. I shake my head. He used a magnifying
glass, says Josip. He held the magnifying glass at an angle to catch the sun’s rays. He knew all about angles and geometry, you see. He held it at such an angle that the sun’s rays were deflected onto the Roman ships anchored in the water, the sparkling sea just beyond Syracuse. And these deflected rays set the Roman ships on fire. And so a whole army was defeated by just one man.
And this brings to me a vivid memory of my father demonstrating this, when I was small. My father was an engineer, I suppose that’s how he knew about such things. He held a magnifying glass, angled in a certain way, in front of a newspaper. Watch he said. I watched a spot on the newspaper turning faintly yellow, then growing darker, through burnt orange to brown then deep brown and as I watched in fascination, a wisp of smoke came from the paper, then a sudden burst of flame, which my father quickly doused. I was fascinated by this creation of fire. My father then let me try, holding the magnifying glass. Power flowed through me and my mother complained it was dangerous. Danger grew two faces for me. One prohibited, the other beckoned. The beckoning one had to be kept a secret.
Now Josip is telling me that Archimedes had done the same thing. He changes in my imagination, from someone a little eccentric, rushing wet and naked through his house, to tell his family (I presumed) of his discovery â€” to someone younger, leaner, and more powerful. In my mind he dons a wizard’s hat and the two faces of risk draw closer, blur, then fold into each other and turn into mastery.
I relax on my bench in Zagreb train station, in the delicious noon sunlight, and smile at Josip. He’s a little wistful, a little weary, a little worn. Easily evokes a smile. More than easily, it would feel unnatural not to smile at him. To me it would. He tells me he is from Bosnia, but he cannot get work there. He works here, as a porter. He has a wife and two children, back in Bosnia. He goes back there, when he can. He is like one of those trailing plants, going in the direction of whatever river, waterflow, flood or trickle there is. He holds onto life not with a grip but with something more flexible, both uncertain and uneven, with a recognition that his fingers touch life lightly only, cannot grasp at it, but sometimes can caress it, as it surges past, like river water, like the intermittent crowds disgorged from one train from Budapest, another heading to Rumelia, another from Belgrade.
Marco Polo, says Josip. I nod. Everyone thinks he was Italian, yes? I nod. But he was not. He was born on the Croatian coast, Marco Polo was Croatian.
I begin to think that time here is not a measurement of hours and minutes, it is however long it takes to tell a story. It is “once upon a time,” a portal. The kind of time you can step into. Perhaps that’s what people like Josip are drawn to, in railway stations. Such places can sometimes leave these doors ajar and if you’re lucky you can sense this and slip through. In trains, people are neither here nor there.
I know all the trains that come here he says. The next one that comes to this platform is the Budapest train. After that is the one you want, the train to Trieste. I have been to Trieste, yes. I can tell you a good place to stay, very nice, not expensive. Once I met a Czech woman and her little boy Marko, I met them here, in this station. This was three maybe four years ago. She spent the night at the Hotel Central â€” and I too â€” and then I went with her to Trieste. And we stayed in this small hotel near the railway station, Hotel Alabarda. When you leave the train station, go straight ahead, past Hotel Roma, down the via Roma. The post office is on your right.
I give him a piece of paper and he draws a tiny map. Then, you turn left, not the first left, but the second left and you’ll find it â€” Hotel Alabarda, very nice, a family business, you tell them Josip sent you, he was here three or four years ago with a Czech lady and her son, little Marko.
He remembers every detail, every street.
Your girlfriend? I ask. He smiles, a little wistful.
Oh, it was not for long â€” she had a husband â€” but you know â€” he touches me on the arm â€” you live only once, you must take what life offers you, take what is good for you, you live only once â€” you know?
Josip goes away, says he will be back in a few minutes. He returns with a man he introduces to me as Morani, a business man from Italy. When the train comes in, we say our farewells to Josip and Morani and I share the same compartment.
The train wanders slowly through the breathtaking beauty of the tree-clad mountains of Slovenia. At times the train goes so close to the river that you feel you could almost reach out and touch it. The river, Morani tells me, is the Sava, the same one that joins the Danube below the Old Fortress, in Belgrade. That’s when I realise that it’s rivers that carry stories and rivers that mark boundaries between one country and another and between one world and another.
Morani lives securely in the world of measured time. Ancora quattro ore he groans, looking at his watch. He claims he could have driven the distance in about half the time. You could get there quicker if you went a piede he sighs.
I look out of the window at the mountains and the steep-roofed houses and their guardian churches. And the wide river, green as thick soup. A heron stands, unmoving, on a stone. I point it out to him. Ah pescatore, he says. The grey fisher bird is motionless as rock. The river has a skin of light on it.
Morani is a man heureux dans son peau. He fills every millimetre of it. He is a gentleman, helps me put my rucksack on the high luggage rack, pulls out the seat for me to put my feet up. He is utterly himself. He does not shift colour like a chameleon, he does not flicker in and out, does not trail or bunch or wrap, distort or accelerate his energy as storytellers or journey lovers do. He stands tall, and sits up straight. He likes numbers. He tells me that the number of the seat he’s sitting in â€” settanta dueâ€”is his age. The one next to him â€” settanta quattro â€” he says, if he turns it round â€” quaranta sette â€” is the age of his son.
I am still haunted by the Mirror City, there is still something howling in the distance, something too close to me is in anguish and I do not know why or what it is.
It is only when the train makes its long approach into Trieste that the anguish subsides, fades into background. Morani says goodbye, I take out Josip’s tiny map and I discover the energy that runs along its seams. You cannot buy this, not from a tourist information counter or a colourful and glossy map. It is a gift.
I head for Hotel Roma, go down via Roma, pass the Post Office and take the second turning on the left â€” via Valdirivo â€” and find the Hotel Alabarda.
The Mirror City vanishes. I dream of it that night, becoming curved, then liquid, losing firmness and definition. Something in me snaps shut like a closing door. And when I wake up, I find that I am once more in a solid world. I am glad of this, for I rely on this solidity, I enjoy firm contours I can curl my fingers round.
I explore the old streets of Trieste, the church of San Spiridone, with its gallery of burning candles, and feel their brilliance invade me like an army greedy for possession. Later that day on the TV in my hotel room I see pictures of the Mirror City on the news. When I hear thereâ€™s been another political assassination, that anguished part of me that I thought had vanished catches fire like a lit taper. The two fires meet in me, convulse. They illuminate the past few days so that I can see every detail. The slow train to Munich and the search at the Croatian border. The man who had not seen his friend for fourteen years, and who felt afraid. But Josip is the clearest of them all, standing on the platform of the station at Zagreb, with his worn clothes and his ready smile, like a guardian at the Mirror Gates, welcoming arrivals and handing out directions to those who are about to leave.