In 2008, when I was 21, I came up with the idea of booking an Interrail ticket and touring Europe for a month. I decided travel to Paris, Madrid, Granada, Barcelona, Venice, Rome, Athens, Istanbul and Vienna. And I felt the strong urge to do this tour alone.
Day 26 to 28 – Balkan
On Sep 24th, 2008, I started the last long leg of my journey. A collection of trains was to take me across the Balkan from Istanbul (Turkey) to Vienna (Austria) as my final stop. I shared my initial sleeping compartment on the train to Sofia (Bulgaria) with a young lady from Bulgaria who spoke impeccable English, the second with an older gentleman from Hungary on his way to Budapest (Hungary). Both were very agreeable travel companions and after a little bit of conversations we resorted to catching some sleep.
The conductor who tended to my Hungarian bunk mate and me from Sofia (Bulgaria) was very serious when he told us to keep our door locked with the designated chain latch. I was surprised by his forcefulness when he instructed us but did not question it and locked the door after he had checked our tickets.
Sometime in the early morning hours, I was startled by the compartment door sliding open with a bang. The conductor was standing in the door frame and quite aggravated that he had been able to open the door. My travel companion had disembarked in Budapest and decided to let me sleep, therefor leaving the door unlocked. The conductor asked me to secure the latch, which I complied with drowsily. And in hindsight, I am grateful that he did ensure that I did.
Trigger Warning: Sexual Harassment.
Please proceed with caution or skip ahead to the next section.
I went back to sleep, but about 30 min later, my compartment door slammed open as far as the latch would allow. I sat upright, startled. A grey haired heavyset bearded man was standing in front of the door. At first I thought that he got the wrong compartment. He asked me a question in Hungarian, which I did not understand. When I told him that I only spoke English, he gestured whether I had some food, which I negated. He proceeded to gesture for a cigarette, which I did not have either. I could not figure out why, but something made me very nervous, even scared. I was very relieved when he slid the door shut and left.
I thought that that was going to be the end of it. But he returned a couple of minutes later. Same procedure: He gestured whether I had some food, which I negated. He proceeded to gesture for a cigarette, which I negated as well. Again, he shut the door and left. At that point, I felt aggravated and was on high alert. This did not make sense to me. The whole situation was off.
While I was still pondering whether I was being paranoid and too harsh, the door slid open again. I was shocked to see the same man peeking in, undressed down to his underpants, a white linen blanket around his shoulders. All my aggravation gave way to sheer panic. What was going on? I felt like I was in a bad dream. I yelled at him to get away, but to no avail. He did his same skit, gesturing for food and a cigarette. I yelled at him “no” and to get out. He remained calm though and to my horror stuck his hand through the gap and tried to unlock the latch.
Instinctively, I pushed his hand back and slammed the door shut, almost jamming his fingers. I was terrified and held the door shut. I could hear him move away from the door. My heart and mind were racing, trying to figure out what to do. I felt trapped and defenseless alone in that sleeping compartment. After a quick run through of my options, I decided to look for help. I got dressed as quickly as possible, gathered my things and took my pepper spray in hand.
Before I headed out, I listened closely for any movement. My biggest fear was to run into him with no one else around but I did not know what direction he had headed to. I gathered all my courage and headed to my right. I was terrified and had to force my legs to move. I passed a couple of sleeping compartments but did not dare to knock on any doors. Instead I proceeded down the corridor until I reached the first seating compartment.
I was looking for the conductor, but instead I ran into a male and a female Hungarian police officer who where checking ID. I was so relieved. As soon as I addressed the female police officer and explained to her what had happened, I burst into tears. I was simply overwhelmed with the whole situation. Luckily, she spoke very good English and did a quick translation for her colleague. They accompanied me back to my compartment and he went on to look for the man in question. She stayed with me and tried to comfort me.
The police officer returned shortly after and asked us both to come along. He had found the man one carriage up and wanted me to confirm that he had found the right person with my description. He had. The man was still draped in a sheet and was smoking a cigarette in the corridor. After I confirmed in tears, the police officer proceeded to yell angrily at the intruder, who stayed surprisingly calm and displayed a startling air of innocence. Fortunately, the police officers did believe me. They ordered the man to get dressed and made him leave the train at the next stop.
I was very relieved, but still shocked by the whole story. In hindsight, I am grateful for my guardian angel. Things might have taken a dark turn, but I was lucky enough that the conductor had reminded me to secure the door latch, that I was able to scare the man away long enough to leave the compartment, that I made the right call to head in the opposite travel direction and to run into the two police officers. All in all, it ended up being a bad travel experience without any serious consequences.
I have only told a couple of people about this incident so far and it triggers me every time. Logically, I know that it is just a distant memory and that I am in no danger now. I was very afraid that day of not being able to get myself out of a bad situation. I felt very alone and trapped until I found the officers. And remembering always takes me back to that exact feeling. My heart starts to race and I am torn between flight and freeze mode.
For those reasons, I felt anxious and postponed writing this post for a good bit. But as much as we like to share our beautiful travel memories, I believe it is also important to talk about the ugly from time to time… to help others on their journeys and to maybe also help each other understand that we are not alone in our experiences.
Sometimes travel can turn sour, even if just for a bit. And I pray that all of your experiences turn out okay in the end and that you find help along the way. If travel has taught me anything, it is that there are more good than bad people out there. And if you ask for it, most will help you readily and without question. Just stay on the lookout for them. You are not alone. And you will be okay.
Cover picture was taken in Istanbul (Turkey) in Sep 2008
Missing the beginning of this story?
Around Europe in 30 days #1: Forming a plan