Sunday, October 11, 2009

The Sign of the Shoe

Several years ago two of our girls, my wife and I visited Vienna and surrounds. Frau Magister arranged for us to go from Budapest to Prague via night train, traveling across Slovakia and/or Slovenia in the process. Our train was scheduled to leave Budapest about 10 PM, but didn’t leave until after midnight. The reason? The train was coming from Romania and was held up while the Romanian police searched it for stolen Romanian antiquities. Finally it showed up, we got on and claimed a compartment that could hold six but by spreading out we discouraged anyone from joining us. There were upper bunks which the girls took; my wife and I claimed the lower ones. A Hungarian conductor came by and told us to be sure and lock the doors.

Locking the doors was easier said than done. The locking mechanism consisted of a chain with a spring loaded catch on one end. It was attached to one sliding door and you closed the doors, wrapped it around the other door and put the catch in its own chain thus “locking” the door. This device was brand new and there was no way it would fit. My wife suggested that I take a shoelace out of one of my shoes and tie the doors together with that. I thought “Why take the lace out of the shoe? Much easier to tie the doors together with the lace in the shoe.” So that’s what I did. Soon the doors were tied together and the shoe was dangling about three feet off the floor. These doors were the sliding, see through variety.

This train was an old commie pinko variety without air conditioning. Being as how this was the middle of summer, it was plenty hot. There was a top window that we opened for awhile but it was too noisy to sleep. My wife and I decided that the only thing to do was strip down to our underwear. We were just sleeping nicely when the train crossed a border and a passport police person from the new country came on board and insisted on checking all passports. He pounded bang! bang!, grabbed the doors and tried to throw them open. They parted about one inch; the knot held and was made so tight that there was no way to get it untied without an ice pick or similar instrument or an act of God, neither of which was forthcoming.

I found my passport okay and the girls handed me theirs which I gave him through the crack in the door. My wife, however, couldn’t find hers because it had fallen on the floor. Picture this: two adults in their unawares scrounging around on the floor, a shoe dangling from the door, two girls staring down from above. The policeman looked up, caught the girls’ eyes and rolled his eyes as if to say “You poor girls, stuck with a pair of incompetent old farts like these two. My deepest sympathies.” About then we found the fourth passport, he checked them all and gave them back through the crack in the door. The visions of the Slovenian slammer that had been dancing in my head slowly faded away. I let the shoe dangle until just before Prague. I had a helluva time getting it undone.

Next time you’re on an international night train, look for the sign of the shoe. You might find yourself in the middle of an international spy case, but I doubt it; it’s probably just me.


  1. A memorable retelling of a memorable experience. I wonder if that Hungarian guard remembers?

  2. I always thought that the guard's look at us (the daughters) was more of a conspiritorial grin of the eyes as if to say: "Don't worry; I won't be carting them off. They're so entertaining in their disrobed, frantic state, aren't they? And what's with the shoe?"