[NetBehaviour] Overland: Necessary improvisation-> brilliant interlude

Ruth Catlow ruth.catlow at furtherfield.org
Sun Sep 13 21:17:47 CEST 2009

Back-blogging Friday 11th September
(or read with links here http://blog.furtherfield.org/?q=node/307 )

On Thursday morning I'm gutted that (due to the extra time taken by my
overland travel plans) that I can't stay for the whole of /ETC which
ends on Sunday. I'm also nervous about making the solo trip home. When I
arrive at Haymatlos I am told that last night's storms have damaged the
international rail lines out of Turkey so badly that trains are not
expected to run for at least the next 15 days. So I am super grateful
when Begum quickly finds and books me a cheap, alternative route to
Sophia by bus that will allow me to catch my reserved train connection
in Bucharest. I am still unnerved though. I was starting to get the hang
of the trains and it's the endless unfamiliarity that is especially

I (rather naughtily) leave Aileen to run the Drupal workshop in the
morning, in order to brunch with Rob. His good gossip and a plate of
excellent food cheers me up no end. When he hears that I now have a 4
hour gap in Sophia between my bus arriving and my train leaving he also
puts me in touch with a Bulgarian artist Petko Dourmana at a media arts
agency there called Inter-space.

The day is over in a flash. The feedback I receive for my presentation
on Zero Dollar Laptop (a project that we have been developing in
partnership with Access Space) was serious, tough and very helpful. I
give my presentation, have a great discussion and then it's time for me
to go. I hug Aileen (who I will miss like mad) and others good bye and
they all go off to a nearby private view as part of the Biennial. I am
left feeling momentarily abandoned, abject and mad with anxiety as I
gather my effects.

I trail to the local bus station but it turns out that the service bus
to the main coach station won't leave for another hour so I attempt to
ease my nerves with banana and chocolate pancakes. It
works!...temporarily. When we reach the main station I feel very
self-conspicuous. Most passengers seem like locals and I cannot spot
either any women traveling on their own or any tourists. I'm not sure I
would have chosen tea drinking as my technique for remaining
inconspicuous if I had known that there would not be a toilet on the
coach. Agonising about what I would do when my bladder reached bursting
point when thankfully we stopped at services. This ride across the
country to the Bulgarian border appears to cross miles of
almost-wilderness. I see very view lights or electricity pylons but
humanity is evident every ten seconds in the billboards for 'Merilyn'
cigarettes (with a picture of Marilyn Munroe) or vodka endorsed by Bruce
Willis or some such.

Apparently coaches present the least environmentally harmful mode of
long distance public transport. However from this passenger's
perspective this ride was only tolerable because I was one of the very
lucky few to have two seats to myself and so could lie down (in a twisty
kind of way) and get some kip.

We arrive in Sophia at about 8am and I get a bit of a fright. It appears
that I have missed the only train to Bucharest which left at 7.45. I try
a different tack with the (English speaking) woman at the information
desk. Looking at the map I notice that the Bucharest route is rather a
long way round and ask if I can go direct to Budapest and pick up my
next train connection from there instead. She shakes her head
sympathetically but I persist and ask if there is no way for me to go
through Belgrade instead. Bingo! She has assumed for some reason that I
would not want to cross the Serbian border. I don't know why, but it is
intriguing- something to find out about. Anyway it is all sorted and she
seems amused by my delight at not having to stay a night in Sophia. But
my train is at 11.55 and the reservation costs about €11.

With Petko I enjoy a brilliant interlude and am rescued from more
undisciplined eating and introspection. He takes me on a tour of scenic
Sophia, buys me an espresso coffee and purveys more local and National
Bulgarian history than I can absorb. He tells me that the remarkable
thing about Bulgaria today is that it "has no enemies". Petko has also
returned recently from a 3 day each-way, overland trek to Dublin for
ISEA. He travelled with family in a car that he has reconditioned to be
fueled by recycled vegetable oil. This lowers its carbon emissions and
reduces to zero other harmful exhaust fumes. He says the traveling was
'awful'. We share a common fascination with post-apocalypse fiction:
McCarthy's The Road, Wyndam's Day of the Triffids etc. At ISEA he was
showing an installation called Post Global Warming Survival Kit which
drew on post apocalyptic scenarios of human survival after a nuclear
winter. It takes a dark (but to my mind plausible) view of contemporary
politics of the state and the corporation. The audience experience the
film landscapes that surround them in the installation through night
vision glasses.
I have to rush to catch my train but am left with a very pleasant
impression of Sophia and its people.

During the train ride back through Bulgaria, from Turkey to Serbia, we
travel through wide valleys ranged by distant hills and I am reminded by
Rob's anecdote about the artist Christo, to think about why, from the
perspective of a rail traveler, there may appear to be no wilderness in
Western Europe and very little in Eastern Europe. Apparently Christo's
large scale land works were inspired by the summers he spent in his
youth, arranging bails of hay on either side of the railway track to
create an impression of productivity and abundance in Communist
Bulgaria. Of course; people and the landscape will be changed in all
manner of ways in response to the presence of the railway line.

Boarding the train a young woman is so disturbed by the prospect of
sharing a carriage with me to Belgrade that she pays the conductor the
equivalent of £25. All she says to me is "its so stressful", and looks
really stressed, so I say I understand, try not to take it personally
and build myself a nest on the lower bunk with blankets and pillows.

Can Autumn have really arrived in the 5 days since I was last traveling
this way? Occasional brown-leaf trees that I didn't notice before. I
want to soak up the surroundings as we travel through Serbia but I'm
tired and a bit lonesome and so instead I stretch out on my bed, finish
my novel, Alan Garner's Thursbitch and dream of a sentient landscape in
which the leaves of trees are reaching down like hands. While I sleep we
travel through Belgrade, where the carriages and engine are reconfigured
with mechanical crunches and violent jolts. I am unsettled by Serbian
soldiers hanging out and inadvertently bumping and kicking the door of
my sleeper- I can't interpret the tone of their laughing and joking.

We Won't Fly For Art!

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