How Our Romantic Night on the Train to Budapest Almost Went Off the Rails
The lesson? Never ignore that nagging little voice in the back of your mind.
This is a repost of an article from last year. But we have so many more subscribers now, we decided people might enjoy reading it.
“It looks like the best way to get from Sibiu to Budapest might be by taking the night train,” said Brent. “We can even get a private sleeper. How romantic does that sound?”
I imagined a train rumbling through the Romanian countryside, Brent and I sitting in our compartment watching ancient villages and verdant fields of corn rolling past.
We could bring some wine, and a fresh baguette with dried fruit and olives. Later, we’d fall asleep to the sound of the wheels clacking away as the train swayed back and forth in the dark.
“Soooo romantic,” I said. “We have to do it.”
The next day, we walked down to the train station to purchase our tickets. Given Covid, and Romania’s low vaccination rate, we definitely wanted a private compartment.
Naturally, I envisioned a train like the Orient Express with Hercule Poirot aboard solving dastardly murders.
The ticket agent didn’t speak English, but a colleague popped over to help her, and five minutes later we had our tickets. The first leg was a Romanian train to Medias, about an hour away. Once there, we’d catch a Hungarian train to Budapest.
Easy peasy! I thought, tucking the tickets into my backpack.
After four years of living as digital nomads, Brent and I aren’t particularly fretful about travel. However, we’re pretty detail-oriented, because the consequences of getting something wrong can be extreme. And expensive.
But occasionally a detail might get past me.
And sometimes when that happens a little voice has whispered in my ear, Hey, Michael, something somewhere isn’t quite right.
Which is exactly what happened a few days later while I was taking pictures of the eyes of Sibiu.
Yo, Michael, there’s a problem with your tickets to Budapest.
There is? I thought, frowning. But what?
Had the agent made a mistake? As soon as I got home, I checked the tickets to make sure the date and destination and date were right. They were.
Did it have something to do with Covid restrictions into Hungary? I’d tried to keep close watch on them. I knew that Americans couldn’t fly into Budapest at all. But anyone entering by road or rail from surrounding countries could enter Hungary without any restrictions.
I double-checked to make sure the policies hadn’t changed, because things were in a constant state of flux. Nope, nothing.
So apparently the little voice in my head was wrong. It wasn’t the first time. Let’s just say the little voice can be a bit of a worrywart. Like the time it insisted the bad headache I had was a brain tumor.
Except, a few days later, I heard the voice in my head again.
Psst, Michael. Something’s still wrong.
Can you be a little more specific? I said.
But the little voice stayed maddeningly silent. Apparently I had to figure this out on my own.
So I checked Google, and — AHA! — the online travel schedule it showed didn’t match up with our tickets. That’s what the little voice had noticed!
Well, what are you waiting for? the voice said. Go check it out.
Let’s just say the little voice can by a little pushy at times.
So I walked to the train station — only twenty-five minutes away.
When I approached the window, the agent was staring at her smartphone, bored.
She didn’t speak English either, but I used Google translate to explain I was worried our tickets were wrong.
She pecked away at her keyboard, then said, “Tickets good.”
“So the schedule hasn’t changed?” I asked, thinking once more how it didn’t jive with what Google was telling me.
“Tickets good,” she said again. The conversation was over.
I stepped back from the window. It’s true that, thanks to Covid, a lot of information Google showed was wrong. We’d frequently gone to a restaurant or store that it showed as open, only to find it closed. Or out of business.
Something’s still wr-r-r-r-ong, insisted the voice in my head.
Who am I supposed to believe? I thought. Google or an actual person working at the actual train station?
The little voice didn’t answer. I’d finally shut it up.
The last few days in Sibiu flew by, and I didn’t hear the voice again. But it didn’t quite leave completely — I could still feel its presence, like a judgmental cat curled up at my feet. Definitely not purring.
Before I knew it, it was the day of our departure arrived. Fortunately, our train didn’t leave until 5:00 PM, so we didn’t have to worry about oversleeping or feeling rushed in getting to the station.
I like to get a head start on packing, much to the annoyance of Brent. (Perhaps I am a little neurotic about getting my packing done early.)
By noon, I was packed. We decided to take a final stroll around town, then head back so Brent could pack, and we could both shower and tidy up the Airbnb a bit.
While Brent started to pack, I hopped in the shower. We still had about an hour before we planned on leaving, two hours before our train left. Plenty of time.
As I soaped up, the little voice in my head said, Hey, Michael! I’m b-a-a-a-c-k.
Oh, God, I thought. Now what?
Maybe you should check what time you arrive in Medias and compare it to what time your train from there leaves for Budapest.
Annoyed, I thought, You couldn’t have been THIS specific BEFORE?
Listen, Bub, I’m not your travel agent!
I was sorely tempted to ignore the nagging. I had literally had the woman at the train station check our tickets!
I hopped out of the shower and checked the tickets.
These tickets weren’t exactly straightforward. For starters, they were in Romanian, naturally. Then there were two sets of tickets, one for each leg, each set laid out in completely different formats with dates, train, carriage numbers, and other information scattered about as randomly as possible.
Plus, the tickets used the 24-hour clock, like most countries in Europe. By now, we’re used to it, but it still doesn’t feel completely natural.
This is my long-winded explanation for why I hadn’t yet checked something so obvious as making sure our first train arrived at our connecting station before our second train left.
You know, like the FREAKING AGENT SHOULD HAVE DONE WHEN I ASKED HER TO CHECK.
Now I checked. And saw we arrived into Medias at 7:12 PM.
But our train to Budapest left Medias at 6:30 PM, forty-two minutes before we arrived in Medias.
That can’t be right! I thought, panic starting to snake through me. A station agent had sold us these tickets! And then — later — another agent had checked them to make sure they were right.
But it sure looked to me like we were going to miss our train.
“Oh, Brent?” I said nervously, knowing I was about to drop a neutron stress bomb into the middle of our day. “I think we have a problem.”
Which I tried repeatedly to tell you, said the little voice.
Oh, just shut up.
I explained to Brent how I thought we needed to catch the train leaving at 2:50, not 5:00. Which meant we now had exactly forty-four minutes to get to the station
“What?” he half-shouted. He’d barely started packing. “But we literally had the agent check it!”
I didn’t have the heart to tell Brent that if we missed the earlier train, we’d almost certainly be sleeping in the train station — not the romantic sleeper car.
“That can’t be right,” he went on. “Go ask a neighbor! Someone who reads Romanian!”
I was pretty sure this wouldn’t make any difference, but I agreed to give it a try.
Not surprisingly, our entire neighborhood was suddenly completely deserted.
But I found a trendy boutique that looked like it would employ someone who spoke English, and I asked the clerk.
After studying our tickets for a minute, she said, “No, this will not work. You will miss your train.”
“Thankyouverymuch,” I said, racing outside.
Back in the apartment, I said, “We’re screwed!”
But to my surprise, Brent had somehow finished packing, and also even showered — in about five minutes flat.
“How long before that other train leaves?”
I checked my phone. “Thirty-five minutes. Do you think we can get a cab?”
“We better hope so!”
Naturally, in addition to being no people in our neighborhood, there were also no cabs. This, despite the fact that we literally lived within a half-block of two different taxi stands.
“What do we do?” I said frantically.
“We have to run for the train station!”
Brent’s right, said the little voice. Run or else.
Bite me! I replied. This is all your fault!
You do know I am YOU, right?
Oh, shut up.
So we ran — despite the fact we both carried forty-pound packs on our backs, and 15-pound day-packs on our fronts.
“How…long…do…we have?” wheezed Brent four blocks later, when we stopped at a very long traffic light.
I checked my phone. “Twenty-two minutes,” I said, sweat running down my face.
“I don’t think we’re going to have time to change the tickets.”
“Then we just get on the right train and let the conductor figure it out. This is their freaking mistake!”
The light changed, and we took off running.
We staggered into the train station with twelve minutes to go.
Not bad for two middle-aged guys, said the little voice.
Get stuffed, I thought.
Annnnnd, of course, there was a line at the window for international departures.
I ran to the domestic ticket window, which had another agent staring at her phone.
Who also didn’t speak English.
I frantically typed out our situation on Google translate, noting that the train we needed left in less than ten minutes.
“HELP US, PLEASE!” I added at the end.
Her brow furrowed.
Then she took our tickets and disappeared.
“Well?” said Brent.
“I think she’s helping us.”
Two minutes later the international agent waved us over.
“These right tickets now,” she said, sounding appropriately sheepish. “I very sorry.”
We had our tickets!
The train was already waiting on the platform. We clambered on board, found our seats, and collapsed.
“I can’t believe we made it,” said Brent. “I have to say I’m pretty impressed with ourselves.”
I nodded. “But so much for our romantic night train to Budapest. My stress level is twelve on a scale of one to ten.”
Brent smirked. “Well, technically this is just the train to catch the romantic night train to Budapest.”
Later, as our train rumbled along the countryside, I said to the little voice in my head, Sorry I got mad at you earlier. Thanks for warning me.
You’re welcome, it said.
I closed my eyes and settled into my seat, the last of the adrenaline fizzing through my blood dissipating.
Hey, Michael? said the little voice.
Yeah? I thought.
I think there might be a problem with your hotel reservation in Budapest.
Sometimes I really hate that little voice in my head.
Michael Jensen is a novelist and editor. For more about Michael, visit him at MichaelJensen.com.
Dear Michael: I'm so glad I read your account of your travels in this article. It brought back memories of my last cross country trip from California to Florida and back again 3 years ago. There were many blood pressure rising events from this trip. A few were not finding luggage for 3 days, an engine malfunction in between Tucson and Lordsburg, NM, our bus being used for passengers who were left behind in Mobile, AL by the bus they should have been on, the driver calling the Texas DPS officers on a passenger, finding out we had no bus scheduled from San Antonio to El Paso, and so on and so forth. When I got home, I wrote a summary of my trip and sent it to my closest loved ones and wrote a 2 hour review of the trip to Greyhound. Needless to say, I'm never making another cross country trip by bus. (I've made 4 in my lifetime). Also, my inner voice told me to "try the train" next time. Hmmm.
This made me laugh. My husband just shows up and asks me where we are going. I have the little voice in my head 24/7. Now I need to doublecheck our romantic overnight train connections from L’Hospitelet Andorre to Frankfurt. Via Bordeaux. Thanks a lot!