Romanians say when you enter their country, you have to put your watch back 50 years.
Bernard O’Shea finds it hard to synchronise.
I came in from the west, on a train from Budapest bound for Bucharest. I don’t know how much you have to put your watches back when you are in Hungary but they do rewind – we were at least half an hour late when we crossed over the border and pulled into the station at Arad for our 2.33pm connection to Timisoara. The next connection was not due until 4.10pm instead. Sixty minutes at Arad station is about 40 minutes too many but there are worse places to kill time. At least it had a cafeteria that was open and bathrooms that were clean.
The departure information board in the main hall of the station said the train for Timisoara would leave from platform 3, but whether these were today’s departure times or yesterday’s or the departure times 50 years ago, I had no idea. So I thought I’d better check with a local. I found one who looked like he wouldn’t mind being accosted by me temporarily. I’m used to accosting men but they don’t always appreciate it, so you have to pick your victims carefully. “Timisoara, platorm three?” I said, pointing at the departure info and giving him a three-fingered salute (luckily it wasn’t platform 2). Yes, yes, he nodded, platform three, definitely platform three.
We – I had my 80-year-old father with me – had coffee and sandwiches in the cafe. We were the only customers there, apart from a couple of workmen and a young man who was playing pinball at a machine in the corner. We made our way out onto the platform in good time – I did not want to miss this connection! Soon a man in the railways uniform appeared. I accosted him too and flashed our tickets at him. Timisoara, platform 3? He shook his head. No, no, platform 2. So we lugged our suitcases over the tracks to platform 2. There was a small train alongside the platform but nobody was allowed to get on it yet. It had a 50-year-old look about it.
Other people arrived in dribs and drabs. The sight of fellow passengers, locals with local knowledge, was comforting. Everybody seemed to think platform 2 was the place to be, despite what the signboard in the main hall said.
Suddenly there was activity on the tracks – another train was being shunted in from a siding alongside platform 2 as well. This made me nervous. Which was the train to Timisoara? The front one or the back? Perhaps the front one would head east towards Sibiu and Brasov, and the back one would head south to Timisaoara. I checked with a young woman standing nearby. “That one, I think” she said, pointing to the front one. She was Romanian and spoke good English; she was off to embark on her university studies in Timisoara and was excited about it. I thanked her and wished her luck.
The crowd started to build up. I could tell there was going to be competition for seats, and I wanted to make sure we were in a good position to scramble aboard when the time came. So did everyone else. We all huddled together like marathon runners at the starting line, waiting for someone to come along and start the race. But there wasn’t an official in sight.
Eventually another fellow a railway uniform came along. He must have indicated the Timisoara train wasn’t the front one because the crowd surged to the other end of the platform. “Quick, Dad,” I yelled, “get a good spot.” All the runners elbowed each other and jostled for a good position alongside the back train, but there was no getting on board just yet.
Then, mysteriously, there was a commotion and everyone made a beeline for the front train again. The young university woman grabbed my arm. “Quick, it’s not this one, it’s that one,” she said. “Hurry!” The 4.10pm train to Timisoara was about to leave and was in no mood to wait. Run, everybody, run!
Running is not usually in my repertoire, but when a man’s gotta go, a man’s gotta go. We made it on board – just. We managed to get seats too. Our Romanian adventure was in full swing and it was kind of fun.
The quirks of the local railway system don’t end there. When we got to Timisoara we discovered that although its station is called Timisoara-Nord (North) it’s in the west, actually, and more south-west than north. Go figure. TTW
Bernard O’Shea jostled on the platforms at his own expense. Photo © Bernard O’Shea. Illustration © Zora Regulic. To find out how the rest of the journey went, read The Temptations of Timisoara.
Postscript: Since this article was written, Arad railway station been refurbished and now has a footbridge, lifts, escalators and electronic boards on each platform. You don’t have to turn your watch back anymore! It’s a pretty city, worth exploring. More information: romaniatourism.com.