I boarded the train and searched for my reserved seat. It was taken by someone with a sleeping baby. I looked around and saw people sprawled out on the seats and even on the floor. Everyone was speaking a language I didn’t recognize, and the women had their heads and necks covered. They didn’t have much luggage, but most had smartphones. It dawned on me that I was on a train with refugees.
When I was in Serbia with my friend Kati and her family, I drove down with her, but took the train back to Budapest. It was mid August.
I had a seat reservation, but sensed that most didn’t. I’m not even sure that people had tickets. After the Serbian conductor walked by without checking, two people high-fived.
I didn’t want to disturb the person with the baby, but I also wanted to sit for my 6+ hour ride. While I assessed the situation, some of the people pointed to a cluster of four empty seats where a young man was sleeping on the floor. Uncomfortable with the notion of sitting over someone, I gestured to the sleeping man and shook my head.
They ended up waking him, and he moved to a different seat in the train. But I wasn’t sitting alone for long. Within two minutes, three young men sat in the empty seats around me. Then two young women sat on the arm rests in the aisle across from me. Everyone stared. One spoke to me in what seemed to be Arabic. I replied in English, “I’m sorry—I don’t understand.”
Everyone continued to watch me, so I decided to make myself as boring as possible. I took out my book and read.
It took about 20 minutes but finally I was no longer a source of potential entertainment or interest. After an hour, they all got off the train—at the last Serbian town before the Hungarian border.
But that was just the beginning.
During the last week of August, I had to go to Vienna for the day for a meeting at the French consulate. Twice. By train, it’s about a three hour trip from Budapest, leaving from the Keleti train station. By now Keleti is famous—or infamous—because of all the news reports showing refugees’ attempts to move through Hungary to get to Austria and then onto Germany. The situation highlights Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s disdain for anything—or anyone—not Hungarian.
I arrived at a busier than normal Keleti station. For both trips, my train’s final destination was Munich. For the first time ever, I had to show my ticket just to get onto the platform. Police were everywhere throughout the station and on my train. During the first trip, they randomly checked passports—not typical because of the Schengen area agreement. My passport was not checked. At one Hungarian stop, I saw police escort someone off the train. Each time I returned to Budapest, the station and its surrounds were teeming with people.
I had to make one more day trip to Vienna—on September 3. In Hungary, you can’t buy international train tickets online, but there is a small office for the train system in the city center that most people don’t know about, so there’s hardly ever a line. On September 1, I went to the office and purchased my roundtrip ticket. About 10 minutes later, I stopped by a friend’s office to say hello, and she told me that Hungarian authorities had just shut down the Keleti station. Indefinitely. No trains were leaving or arriving.
I didn’t know what to do. I had to get to Vienna on the 3rd for a final meeting at the French consulate before I was scheduled to leave Hungary permanently on September 5th. Another friend suggested the bus. I searched online for schedules and found two different options. I debated. Surely they couldn’t keep the train station closed for long. But I couldn’t gamble. I had to get to Vienna, so I bought a ticket.
Later that day, they reopened Keleti, but weren’t allowing refugees on international trains, even if they had tickets. The stand off at Keleti continued on September 2, and Keleti was likened to a refugee camp. I returned my train ticket to the city center office and was reimbursed for most of the cost.
That week, things seemed to change by the hour. Orbán claimed the refugee crisis was Germany’s problem, as Hungary continued to build its fence along the Serbian border and tricked hundreds of refugees into getting on a train they thought was going to Austria, when it was really going to a Hungarian refugee camp. The borders with Serbia and Austria were a mess.
On the morning of September 3, I took the metro to the bus station unsure as to what I would find. When I arrived at 6:30 am, I found something totally unexpected: business as usual. If there were any refugees there, I couldn’t tell. The only hint of the crisis came when boarding the bus: I was asked for my passport. Throughout the drive, I kept waiting for the traffic that news reports announced and friends had experienced. We drove across the border without a care. It seemed surreal.
I arrived at a subdued Vienna bus station and headed into the city center to meet my friend Christine for lunch. I was early, so I checked e-mails and read news reports that Hungary had stopped all trains heading to Western Europe that morning. I attended my 2:10 pm appointment at the French consulate and returned to the bus station. Similar to the morning, the ride to Budapest was uneventful.
The whole time, I was torn. I was glad I could get to Vienna, but felt guilty for any stress related to it. While important, my trip certainly did not involve a life or death situation. Far different for the thousands and thousands of refugees trying to make the same journey.
The next day, the crisis worsened. It continued to do so. On September 5, I left Budapest for France to begin a new phase of my life. So many refugees are still looking for that same opportunity.