It was all I could taste, despite not having touched the stuff for hours. It has a way of lingering, parsley, and I could feel it in the roof of my mouth, at the back of my throat, and in the strange unsettling warmth in my gut. This, despite the smells: the splashed urine by the grey metal toilet bowl, the beer from the Germans in the next compartment and the musk of old woollen blankets on that ancient Soviet train. It was dark, sometime in the early morning, although I’d had so much cold and flu medication—and Bulgarian cold and flu medication is much more potent than the stuff at home—plus Vitamin C, beer and, of course, the parsley tea, that I had lost any sense of time and place. I knew we were halted somewhere a few hours from Plovdiv, that men in uniforms had gathered under a single bleary yellow light outside the window and spoke in raised Eastern-bloc tones, and that all I wanted to do was lock myself in the tiny bathroom, remove the burning parsley pessary I’d inserted at the hotel an hour or so before my journey began, and check to see if it had worked. Because if it hadn’t, I would stand to lose so much of what I’d gained.
I was in Bulgaria—and Hungary and Greece and Albania and the whole of the southern coast of the continent before that—to shuck an old skin. I’d split with my fiancé just two months before. Eight years is a long time when you’re 25, and the pebble coast of the Mediterranean had welcomed me warmly. I hadn’t been restoring broken fragments of myself so much as unearthing long buried ones through an accumulation of little victories during the last six weeks. I had leapt from cliff-faces into green grottos, climbed volcanos in Havaianas and stared spell-bound at the turret-littered hillside of the Albanian ‘Riviera’. Solo travel was a revelation. I had backpacked in western Europe two years earlier with my best friend and a Eurail pass, but this was different. I wasn’t single then, simply sans partner, and I remained cautious and restrained. But this time I threw myself into the azure of that coast with caution newly abandoned and perhaps it was the thick saltiness of the waters of Capri and Pag, Dermi and Kotor, but I felt myself buoyed up each time, rising to a new and invigorated sense of myself.
I met Tim in a hostel bar in Novalja. He was a sunburned Aussie in a Celtics singlet and we played flip-cup on a ping-pong table under a string of fairy lights and drank cheap shots of raki. I was new to deciphering sideways glances but his was evident by our first loss to a team of Canadians, and I found myself revelling in the possibility that he might like me. We boarded a bus for the nightclubs, and though I’m told that it was a long, crowded and sweaty ride, I felt as though it passed in a heartbeat. The club was open-air and on the water, hectic with glare and throbbing music. I was pulled onto the dance floor by an insistent sexagenarian who made my skin crawl but I hadn’t figured out how to remove myself from such situations yet, so when Tim stepped between us it was as a knight in green armour. I was dizzy with neon and spirits and the press of bare and sticky skin, but he personified a steadiness that pulled me in.
I didn’t think of him much in the month after that, but his image emerged then, reflected between smudges on the dirty window. Where was he now? Somewhere in Greece, probably. I’d been in Santorini two weeks before and a friend told me they’d crossed paths a few days after I’d left, but I doubt he’d thought of me at all since then. He was on route to London with friends. They were going to get a flat in Hampstead (good luck, I’d thought) and take on relief work as PE teachers. I considered the Facebook message I might compose to him: ‘sorry to ruin your trip, but …’ and then what? What words could possibly follow to properly express this? This momentous, life-altering, plan-ruining thing.
And still that pessary burned. There was a throbbing that I imagined to be my womb contracting, as the internet said it would, but it didn’t feel anything like period pain. I watched the men gathered on the tracks, smoking, texting, but not doing anything useful. Why? I thought, hurry up! There’s a very simple rule about stationary trains, especially when the toilet bowl looks straight down onto the tracks: do not use. So I was forced to endure, at least for the time being. I was travelling with a group but they were new friends and I was reluctant to reveal myself. It had been awkward enough when we’d stopped at the supermarket in Sofia to snack up before leaving for the station. I’d lingered by the produce section, waving them off, ‘I’ll catch you up!’ But they wouldn’t go. I feigned indecision. Told them again and again, ‘no really, go on,’ but they were too nice. I paced by rows of bundles wrapped in crinkly cellophane like little green infants. My pulse thumped as though I was doing something illicit. Perhaps I was.
Part of me—my rational brain—was convinced I was worried for nothing. Last time I backpacked I didn’t get my period for four months: I figured my body just knew. I’d confided in Caitlin, a mortician from London who was as supportive as a recently acquired backpacker buddy can be, and though she told me that my rational brain was probably right, I just couldn’t shake the fear. It’s terrifying to realise that your body, this strange self-determining creature, can go so against your wishes.
We’d eaten the snacks and drank most of the beer, and so Marco, a lanky Dutchman who had lived for years in a tiny Romanian village, suggested that we disembark to seek out replenishments. He was a regular on this route from Sofia to Istanbul and being as accustomed as he now was to the efficiency of Eastern European railways, he seemed confident that we wouldn’t be left behind. The night was sensual in its warmth and I ran my fingers along a chain-link fence, feeling for the velvet of creeping foliage. There was a tunnel lit by a caged yellow bulb, illuminating enough of the walls for us to make out layers of posters and Cyrillic graffiti under bright orange netting. I wondered why the plastic net was necessary. Structural damage perhaps, or for the thick bundles of exposed wires that hung from cracks near the ceiling. I’d become used to the chaos of wiring, of the damp in cracks and that soft, mildew smell.
I’d fallen in love with ruined cities, their flakes of peeling paint and exposed, crumbling brick. With streets that sink in the middle, the colourful surprises of art down alleyways, on power boxes and across churchyard walls. If the south was where I went to shake loose the layers of insecurity that had bound me to one person for too many years, then the east was where I’d stepped fully into my new skin. I was at the peak of the Llogara Pass three weeks before, 1000 metres above sea level where tumbling grey peaks fixed the sky to the sea, when I watched a mule clamber over rocks by the shell of a house and realised that I never had to stop doing this. That the life I didn’t want—the house, the husband, the suburbs—was as distant to me as I now felt from the world. Because I was there, in the middle of Albania and I was the happiest I’d ever been.
The road beyond the tunnel was hazy—I was still dizzy with pseudoephedrine, alcohol and denial—but I trailed Marco and the others towards a single window lit up in the dark. I couldn’t see much of the town but I could tell it was tiny, yet, despite the absurd time of night, the convenience store was open. We walked into a marijuana cloud. A sole shaggy-haired man stood at the counter and nodded to us as Marco found the beer. The smell was too much for my already heightened senses, so I retreated outside with Caitlin. A car skidded and a man leapt from its open passenger door before it screeched to a halt. He stumbled and smiled with crooked teeth. So immediately foreign were we that he asked, in English, where we were from. I answered, on behalf of us both, Australia.
‘Kangaroo, kangaroo!’ he cried. He wore a black two-piece tracksuit and had bleary red eyes.
‘Yes,’ I laughed, ‘kangaroo, kangaroo.’
On the walk back to the train I felt lighter. The encounter reminded me of that mule on the roadside, so ordinary and yet so inexplicably remarkable. That young man, with his cropped hair and gold chain, looked every part the former Soviet bloc youth I’d imagined, but he wasn’t really so different from me. He was home, living a life as normal to him as mine was back in Adelaide. And I’d be back there soon, just two more weeks, which was plenty of time to deal with any problems that might need attending to.
I stepped up onto the train and could hardly bear the thought of more of that cold, bitter tea. Marco laughed from the compartment doorway, his lanky Dutch legs too long for the compartment bed. His teeth were crooked, his hair limp over his bleary eyes, but he smiled widely. It was hard to imagine that a body like that, so tall and lithe, could be anything but obedient. He crushed a can in his big hands and reached for another.
I crouched under the folded out top bunk, curled my legs and wedged a beer between my knees. I felt a sharp jab from the inside and gasped, resettled myself. I could have laughed. I swished saliva in my mouth and tasted it again. Fucking parsley. Then I did laugh. Maybe it was the alcohol and the strangeness of the night, but I was overwhelmed suddenly with peace. I looked at Caitlin, at Marco and all the rest. These stranger friends. I was stuck on a train in Bulgaria, but I wasn’t alone. My fear was as common as a two-piece tracksuit. I was going to be fine.
The laughter of stoned Germans drifted down the corridor. ‘Fucking hurry up!’ one of them yelled out the window. They were drying damp socks on the sill, a line of them like shrivelled worms. Then the crush of a beer can. Laughter and shouts. That bleary seeping yellow. This would all become another memory among a string of others, something to laugh at later with a flushed and wearied awkwardness. Vitamin C and parsley. My friends would chuckle, shake their heads. But we know, like all girls do, that sometimes we do strange things to wrangle something like control over ourselves, our bodies. We’re without it most of the time. But we don’t need to be. And that, I realised, was all that parsley was: an attempt at control.
I stood as the train jolted. A cheer rose up. Heads poked out of their compartments. A slow chug, a whistle. Quietly I retreated to the tiny bathroom with its cold metal toilet opening onto passing tracks. I squatted and, with a finger and thumb, removed the pessary. It would deteriorate here, somewhere in Bulgaria, a strange surprise for a passer-by.
Back in the corridor, Marco stood by the open window. I joined him and watched the dark trees blur beneath the stable sky. I pulled down the glass and let my fingers rest on the edge. They tapped impatiently, wanting. I lifted myself onto my toes and stuck my head and shoulders outside. The wind was cold and fresh. If I reached, I could graze the sharp edges of the leaves. I opened my palm and let them tickle. My hair blew wildly, my dress made waves. I let my head fall back and in the exhilaration of movement, I was in bliss. •