First of six parts
Light from a full moon washed the mountain peaks that towered above our train as it wound its way through southern Austria toward my homeland. We had boarded the Balkan Express in Frankfurt, in company with hordes of foreign workers, who were briefly returning to their homes in the south. Unabashedly, they had thrown boxes of consumer goods through the open windows, stacking them to the ceiling. The aroma of Persil, a laundry detergent, soon pervaded our compartment.
As the train approached the tunnel through the Karavanke Mountains the scenery suddenly disappeared in a fog bank. The abrupt transition triggered memories of my departure as a small boy, 27 years earlier. It was late on a mid-August night when I rushed to the train window for a last wave at my grandmother, who seemed so alone on the Celje station platform. Huge clouds of steam drifted back from the engine as it strained to pick up speed, and in an instant she was gone. Most likely mother and I would never see her again.
The train slowed down as it passed the international border in the middle of the tunnel, and came to a stop as it emerged in Jesenice. A Yugoslav official appeared to check our tickets and passports. The ticket caught his attention.
“Zidani Most? That is a very dangerous location to leave the train. It is located at a railway junction, situated in a narrow gorge between a mine and the Sava River. This is an express train, and it will only stop for a few minutes. The worst of it is, it may have to stop outside of the station and you will need to disembark on the tracks. There are twin tracks, but they see a lot of traffic. Watch for trains, and keep out of their way.”
Needless to say, I could not rest for the remainder of the night after that worrying information. So I kept an eye out on our progress as we followed the Sava into the lowlands of Ljubljana, where daylight caught up with us.
The Sava valley got progressively tighter as we followed it toward Zagreb. I had the window open so I could watch ahead. If the train could not pull into the station, how would I know its name? There were no announcements. I was gratified to see farmers at work on their fields and pasture meadows adjacent to the railway. When I saw a man swinging his scythe through the dew-laden grass my youth rushed back and I could smell the scent of freshly-mown hay, which had pervaded the firefly-laden summer nights of my childhood.
When I could, I shouted questions about Zidani Most at the workers. In reply, they just waved me on. So our journey continued until I was given to understand that our station was coming up, and sure enough, our train started to slow. And then it stopped … I stuck my head out the window so I could see ahead, and there was the station, some 200 meters distant.
We grabbed our luggage and rushed for the coach exit. As soon as we stepped on the ground and turned to retrieve our luggage, which we had left by the inner door, the train started to move. Mother, always a fighter, yelled at the crew, grasped the stairway handrail and dug her heels into the ground to bring it to a stop. It did not work, of course, and she had to let go. But her heroic act evoked an act of sympathy from the wiser passengers still aboard, and they threw our luggage out the door.
We collected our wits and the luggage and then looked after the departing train. It coasted in to the station and stopped beside the platform. Dozens of passengers got off, to be replaced by others as the train lingered in the station. After some ten minutes it departed, mercifully taking the laughter with it.
Suddenly we were startled by a racket coming from around the bend in the tracks. Which track was the approaching train on? We were caught between cliffs on one side and a precipice above the river on the other. No train appeared, however, and the sound gradually faded away. It had been a mining truck on the road above, invisible to us.
We picked up our luggage and started to walk toward the station. A tiny figure detached itself from the building in the distance and approached us. We met halfway. Dragec Čater, who was to drive us to Celje, embraced us and bade us welcome. He had the dignity not to bring up the unorthodox method of our arrival, and I had put it out of my mind, as my thoughts had turned to my grandmother.