A train journey to Bulgaria

That summer of 1974 was very special for Hania. Her mum organized a trip to Bulgaria where they were going to meet up with some friends. Hania loved her annual summer holidays by the Baltic Sea. But swimming in the Black sea this summer, she will not end up shivering from cold. They were going to enjoy the promised golden sands, hot weather, and warm sea.

But it wasn’t just the warm Black Sea that filled her with excitement.  She loved the idea of going to another country, especially one that was hot! In her mind, hot countries where water melons and palm trees grow meant something exotic and luxurious. Few of her friends have ever been abroad, and she had already been to Czechoslovakia. Foreign countries sounded exciting and mysterious where one could see nice toys and clothes. Three years before, her mum had brought her a small toy car, and a train set from East Germany, which were much better than the toys she saw in Polish shops. She also had a pretty long haired doll from Czechoslovakia. 

This time she was especially excited because the train trip to Bulgaria involved a short distance across the Soviet Union, and even though they would not be allowed to get off there, Hania would be able to tell her friends that she had now visited three foreign countries! For her, travel was something special, that not many people did, whilst her childhood imagination was populated by lots of countries, not just from school geography lessons and the news stories but also because she liked to look at maps, she had a plastic globe and liked to imagine long journeys. At that time, her special interest was Africa.

Early that July she and her mother boarded a train in Warsaw and headed for Bulgaria. The journey was long, about 24 hours, and involved sleeping in compartments with couchettes. When they arrived at the Soviet border the undercarriage of the train had to be changed as the Soviet tracks were wider. That meant that the stop was long and gave the border officials a much longer time for various checks. A lot of Poles going abroad would at that time take small items to sell on the black market, and return with other goods, unavailable in Poland. Those could have been nylon thighs, coffee, products from Turkey, such as textiles and denim jeans. Hania knew about this, and she also knew that her mother was not smuggling anything, and so had nothing to worry about. 

There was something very scary and unnerving about the way in which both Polish and Soviet border control was conducted. The officers came into each compartment, stood in the doorway towering above the passengers and demanded to see the documents, tickets, visas and then inside the luggage. Outside the train, soldiers with guns and dogs walked along the tracks. There were loud noises, metal banging, and the train jolted and moved noisily every now and then as the undercarriage was replaced. The officials’ stern, suspicious glances, the way they demanded the documents, and how they ordered the passengers to open their suitcases for them, the way  they put their hands and looked inside people’s private things, and how they questioned people filled Hania with a sense of fear. The officials seemed like people with power and they did not seem nice. She felt scared that perhaps they would be stopped and would get into trouble. That fear was not dissimilar in kind from the fear of adults who had power, like the headteacher whose stern voice could often be heard in school; but it was more intense. Finally, the ordeal ended, and they were all given their documents back, packed their suitcases again and finally, the train moved on. The journey to Bulgaria continued.