Train from Budapest to Prague.
After concluding our first trip to Hungary in the mid-1980s, my wife and I continued our travels by taking a Czech train from Budapest to Prague—a magnificent city, of course, but just the train ride there was notable in several ways.
We had lunch in the dining car on that train. I ordered a beer and, when the waiter brought it, he set it on our table with a flourish and announced, “This is the REAL Budweiser.” It was a Budweiser, all right, but it was a beer that had been produced in the Czech town of Budweis since 1795 and it was therefore, and quite naturally, called Budweiser.
While the train was not what we would now consider to be a high-speed train, I do remember that we accelerated very rapidly upon leaving the Budapest station and, while it’s certainly possible that I was wrong, I remember guessing at the time that we had to be traveling close to 100 miles-an-hour before even clearing the rail yard.
About an hour into the ride, without a word of warning, the train entered a tunnel and, since there was no lighting in the car—and I mean none whatsoever—we found ourselves in total darkness. We literally could not see our hand in front of our face. It’s hard to remember, but I think it’s safe to say we were in that tunnel for at least 8 to 10 minutes. After only the first few minutes, it became quite claustrophobic and I am not ashamed to admit that I had to work hard to suppress a feeling of panic. I also wondered at the time about people who happened to be walking between cars when we entered that tunnel.
Next, I remember noticing that all the signage inside the train—that smoking was prohibited or which handle to pull in an emergency, for instance—all of those signs were in five languages: Hungarian, Czech, Russian, German and French. No English.
Prague, as everyone knows, is a magnificent city and is, in fact, the only major city in Europe that emerged undamaged from World War Two. Before our trip began, I had established contact with a delightful man living in Prague and we contacted him on our first morning there. In his 70s at the time, Mirek spoke excellent English and insisted on taking us on a walking tour of the city. Turning a corner at one point, we came upon a group of uniformed Russian tourists. “And here,” muttered Mirek very quietly, his tone dripping sarcasm, “you can see a number of our great protectors.”
Later, over sandwiches and a couple of beers, Mirek said as much as he resented the Russians, the Germans had been much worse. That’s when we learned that during World War Two, he had been a slave laborer for more than two years in a munitions factory. “Unfortunately,” he said, “I’m afraid our work was very shoddy.” And he winked.
Well, not only in Eastern Europe, as late as the early 90-ies, the automatic announcements for international trains in Liège-Guillemins in Belgium were in French (of course), Dutch (second national language), German (third language and the destination of most of those trains), and… Italian. No English. English was no working language of the UIC and CER, the international (mainly European) railway organisation, in the beginning. Now it is, of course.