I board the train during the unexpected spring heat of Ankara, in anticipation of a busy itinerary for the weekend. Ankara-Istanbul-Sofia and back again the same way in two days. Riding trains, getting a stamp approved, pounding pavements, staring at unfamiliar lives lived in familiar patterns.
Being used to roaming the skies can make travel by train feel, well, snail-paced. But more incongruously a couchette can put the fussy traveler through fits of claustrophobia, even though the bed provides three times the space and comfort of an economy class seat. I am swathed in the romanticism of a long train ride alone … the slower pace, the intimacy of feeling the vibrations of each yard on my entire body, the ability to crack open my window and smell the crisp forest air, traveling through passages where no car can pass.
In the train car the conductor is at home. He is, it seems, running a tiny hotel on creaky wheels. He is the old man you encounter behind the reception desk of a highway motel. He is one of those guys whose life is so unfamiliar to you that you occasionally have to wonder: What does he do behind that door, in his little nook? What are his ambitions? His fears? Does he have a “proper” home? This time I get a glimpse, if not into his life, at least into his express shelter.
His space is the size of an average bathroom of a New York grad student apartment. The room has pleasant orange glow that hides more than it reveals. His bed is like an abridged text, a bed in appearance, but accommodating only the most placid of sleepers. A table that substitutes as a chair when he is inclined to sit by his window; incidentally, the table also covers a small sink. Perhaps this is a natural sacrifice, spaciousness for mobility.
On the table sits a little radio, which sings the local folk songs of wherever he is passing in his mobile hotel. What kind of songs move this old man’s heart, and in what direction? Does he pull out photographs of an old lover or his child when he gets melancholic on the windy tracks to Bulgaria? I do not see a single photograph around.
Two idols stand guard on the side of his bed next to a pile of books. Have they been there for months, years, untouched? Or does he chew through them like a voracious bear after hibernation?
On the right, Saint John of Rila, the first Bulgarian hermit, the light of Bulgaria, a man who according to legend was surrounded by wild animals that freely came up to him and birds that landed in his hands. Does he feel an ineluctable affinity to him, hiding in his alcove?
On the left, Saint Clement of Orhid, the Enlightener of Bulgaria, hands folded, head slightly bowed to the right with divine forbearance—always attentive in case he needs comfort for his solace.
I want to believe that the conductor has attained peace of mind in his little world, not out of cheap pity but rather an inexplicable need to feel that we do not need more than a tiny little room to call our own, a new perspective brought about by movement, and faith—in something I have yet to figure out.