This is how it starts, every time.
I get out my rucksack and go through a mental checklist of everything I need to take.
Got it all?
Maybe. I get halfway through the list and something distracts me.
I go out and lock the door
Place names, then the shapes outside the window, hollows and hillocks, towns and cities, roads, rivers, yellow, green, blue, brown, grey…
In a book about trains I found this quote by someone. In a nutshell, he said that the best way to understand a country is to cross it by train, because you travel through the spaces between the towns, where the country is naked.
Then there are the passengers, with their very special geography, traced in the lines on a face, the colour of their skin, the marks on their hands, the sound of an unknown dialect or language. From the silences, clothes and conversations about the blessed weather, which is never as it should be, wherever you may be, at whatever latitude.
CHAPTER ONE: THE BALKAN ROUTE
Along the almost four thousand kilometres I travel, I come across, in no particular order, the Latin, Cyrillic and Greek alphabets. In the few square metres of a railway carriage I meet Slav and Mediterranean faces. Cold, hard and sharp the former; warm, dark and salty the latter.
Meanwhile the clatter of the train drowns out the noises of the countryside and the chanting of the muezzins. An odour of cigarettes and dirty upholstery, bored eyes staring into nothing. Blue smoke against the light that filters through the carriage windows. Sticky hands.
Beyond the glass, Ljubljana, Zagreb, Sarajevo, Podgorica, Belgrade, Skopje, Sofia, Istanbul and Athens rush past.
And snow, fire, mountains, confused shapes looming out of the fog, men and stray dogs.
The official on duty stamps my passport, once, twice, three, four, nine times.
This is where the furthest strips of Europe and the Middle East knot together, in a relentless turmoil of faces, history and unsolved questions.