Feeling rather accomplished I pull a long draw from that dark bottle, then reposition myself for a pretentious gaze around the near-empty dining car all the while hoping the train wouldn’t reach Budapest too soon.

More than 50 hours of trusting my luck on the highways of west Europe had left me exhausted and wondering — like how in the hell do I make it back to Gatwick in time for the flight out? “Don’t worry, Larry,” Sandor said reassuringly as I walked away from our flat in Boston. “You’re gonna get rides dere for damn sure. Everyone hitches in Europe.”

He was right, it turns out, but trying to make time thumbing it through here, the U.S. or anywhere else is not a very clever idea. I should have remembered that from years back when Doc and I hurdled and jerked our way across the American Midwest and South. It wasn’t for nothing that he coined what became our iron mantra: “Any ride is a good ride.” Presently I find myself on a decent train, in one piece and surprisingly ready nearly a week before the funeral. I’d start worrying about the trip back to London afterwards. For now, the open road is mercifully no longer a necessary option.

This dining car in fact offers me the first opportunity for a good buzz since the plane landed Friday morning. My headset tuned in “Purple Haze” by Hendrix for the descent, a thoroughly appropriate greeting for the first Maushard to re-cross the Atlantic in four generations. Great-Grandpa Joseph’s family had wisely spirited him out of Alsace-Lorraine in the 1870’s a few steps ahead of whatever jackboot murderous shitstorm then threatened the Continent. Now here I am returning the family presence in order to experience a legacy from another one of Europe’s more debilitating maelstroms.

My destination is Socialist Hungary. In mid-1989 it seems on the verge of finally breaking with the postwar Soviet-imposed communist order. Many Magyar men and women had first attempted to pry their nation out of that realm in 1956 when then Prime Minister Nagy Imre briefly led Hungary out of the Warsaw Pact and into a self-proclaimed and ultimately doomed neutrality. The Soviets naturally would have nothing to do with this innovative bit of political re-grouping and sent in Russian tank crews to crush any ideas of bloc breaking. Hungary’s stance as a strong German ally in both WWI and The Great Patriots War also invested Moscow with no great restraint in dealing with the Magyar rebels. Thousands of Hungarian casualties were inflicted in the capital Budapest alone, the epicenter of the ’56 revolution. Inevitably the actual fighting was brief and completely one-sided.

Now after three decades, Hungary, Poland and maybe Czechoslovakia are attempting a final and new type of uprising. Calmer people appear to be involved and armed conflict seems to be on no one’s agenda. Other than the Anglo-Irish Troubles, Europe has finally learned to get beyond intensive street fights. Those kinds of Neanderthal scenarios in population centers are driven further and further into the historical ash heap as a result of Mikahil Gorbachev’s perestroika and glasnost. Or at least their promise. If the Soviets are lifting the lid on their own people in Mother Russia, then the rest of occupied East Europe would find a way out.

Still, there was no guarantee yet of lasting change — the most important East bloc nation, East Germany, in fact remains off limits to all but the most scrutinized western outsiders. And the headlong rush of GDR girls and boys trying awfully hard to leave their homeland shows they probably have good reasons. The upcoming June 16 ceremony for Hungary’s unsuccessful rebels of ’56 — organized by the opposition movement and tolerated by the government — therefore represents a large push for nationwide divestiture of Soviet control. If that ultimately occurs, then the rest of the East bloc would be ripe for huge changes.

Through my flatmate in Boston I had been able to set up a great connection in mid-town Budapest. Working the mailroom at Project Software in Cambridge sure wasn’t earning me a wage commensurate with 4-star hotel fare so I needed to pinch every penny in sight. Sandor has an old friend, this student rocker from their early years in Dunaujvaros, a neo-Stalinist industrial theme park of sorts located about an hour south of the capital. Kiss Endre, Ande for short, currently lives with his grandmother in an apartment at 54 Rozsa Ferenc. Sandor said since Ande knew no English and I knew no Hungarian that we’d probably get along fine. “But watch out for Ande’s guitar,” came my only warning. “Sometimes he’ll go on for two or three hours.”

So if things work out, Ande might help me understand how he and his society feel about the Nagy Imre funeral and what it really means. Their feelings are the real story, not any government reactions, east or west. And I wasn’t worried about how the Hungarians might treat me. The few I knew were always generous and inviting, and my visa had not been a problem. Any gringo’s apparently welcome. Even George Herbert Walker Bush had scheduled a visit to Budapest in the next few weeks. This place certainly was no East Berlin. Friendliness aside, this train will nonetheless shortly plunk me down inside the still living and breathing Cold War Communist East bloc. I could get into some real trouble.

To top it off, this working-class, son-of-a-John-Reed-inspired-wish-I-was-back-in-Managua kind of misfit finds himself being delivered to the godless Euro Commies aboard the freaking Orient Express. It certainly is not the fabled passenger train of Continental myth and intrigue: the only point of distinction among this cattle-trap group of cars is the dining coach. And it’s nothing very special, just curtain windows over tables of matching white pseudo-linen and plastic globe-topped reading lights. Apparently any train on the Vienna to Istanbul line gets the storied nameplates I noticed at the car doorways. But I am more than willing to go along for the ride, literally and otherwise. After the waiter delivers my beer, I look over my passport to once more check out the two European visas circumstances dictated I secure, one from the West and one from the East.

France required a visa…for Americans! But the requirement ends in a month or so. In other words, my $20 to the Republique Francaise is a waste of cash. Like I have it to burn. And you know there was no good reason for the visa in the first place. No one even checked my passport in Calais, let alone the visa. Why are the French pissed off at us this time? They sure didn’t need the money. Anyway, the pastel green and blue spirals dancing across my very formal gateway to Gaul gave me some evidence of their self-professed claim to a higher aesthetic. But not much.

A visa for Hungary I can understand. In addition to the obvious, they probably haven’t forgotten those empty promises of support on the Voice of America radiowaves from back when it counted in the dark days of ’56. Still, for only $15 this visa is a standout piece of bureaucratic art. This bright violet rectangle had been plastered over nearly the entire passport page back at the New York Fokonzula. Private Vizum No. 115548 from the Magyar Nepkoztarsasag entitled me to a egyszeri beutazasra, single entry, good for 30 napi until November 24. Moreover, the violet vizum came with a separate document as final resting place for the pair of photos they required in the original application. According to this thing it is necessary that I register at a police station within 48 hours of entering the country, among other valuable tidbits. Jesus, that smacks of high melodrama and worse. I hope I’m not going to have to deal with the Hungarian police. Who knows what I may be carrying by then. Anyway, the national seal (I’m guessing) on the visa is surrounded by intricately woven patterns of the kind usually reserved for currency designs. Hungarians apparently placed a serious intent on these government documents. Or was I just thinking too much?

Looking up from the table, I spot an attractive brunette across the car seated quite alone. Reading through papers, she handles a glass of what looks like white wine. Fortunately I had changed to my best travel attire in Linz prior to boarding. Opening lines fly through my head. I can deal with this: clean, alert and my insecurities gone south for the moment. The beer swirls audibly through my head. Food had not been a high priority of late. Choosing the direct route, I go straight over and inquire about the time to Vienna. She glances up from her papers, whereupon I receive a pleasant smile and a reply in Olde World English.

“I should think about 30 minutes.”

“Thank you. Say, would you mind if I joined you for a moment? I think it’s much better to, ah, share a ride like this. I love the look of this car, and I’ve never been on the Orient Express.”

“I know what you mean. I do enjoy the train more so than flying. So much more romantic in the Victorian sense. It’s just brilliant. Of course it’s a bit more economic, too.”

“I’ll say.”

Her dark, thickly textured hair has a vitality I can feel from a distance. Her black dress has a touch of refinement, and her expressive face radiates a feminine strength youth alone is unable to account for.

“My name is Lawrence. I’m a writer going to Budapest. There’s a big public ceremony in a few days for the people killed in the 1956 revolt.”

“I’m Esther. Esther Linley. Primarily I’m a dancer, and I live in Wein. So you are a writer? And you are working for . . .?”

“Well, I’m on my own — a freelancer. But I have friends in Boston, where I live, with a magazine called Quimby. So I think for now my story will be an article-size piece.”

“I’m also freelance,” she notes with evident pride. “After a week or two of preparation I’m off for a flight to Brazil for a motion picture. A producer friend of mine has been shooting for almost a month. And recently I received a call that he has an acting part, a small one, which may suit me.”

“Sounds fantastic, Esther. I imagine your flight and expenses will be paid for?” I couldn’t help asking.

“Yes, of course. I could not afford a flight to South America, Lawrence. As I said, I don’t have a steady position just now.”

“Have you been to Brazil?”

“No. The nearest was Costa Rica years ago?”

“Really? I was in Nicaragua in ’87. I did a story on conditions under the Sandinistas. The U.S. has a large and pretty horrible involvement there, like other places, and I wanted to see things for myself.”

“What did you find?”

“Lots of poverty, mostly. Those folks haven’t had it easy under anyone.”

I only wanted to drop a name, not talk details. For a while, though, the conversation stayed on politics, and I could tell we were probably of similar minds on many issues. And I discovered that Esther originally hailed from England and had lived in Vienna for the last five years.

Very aware that the kilometers to the Austrian capital drew short, I chose to simply sit and listen, enjoying the moment with all possible relish. Other than my Budapest story, this kind of encounter is exactly what I had hoped to find in Europe. Unfortunately, it’s becoming a struggle to focus my concentration just now. The sway of the train, the effects of the brew, and my mental well-being created the perception I usually associate with a late-night party. I could not detect any discomfort or obvious recognition on Esther’s part as to my altered state.

“We’re coming into Wein, Lawrence. I hope you find your story in Budapest.”

“Me, too. Esther, I’ll be coming into Wein on the way back. Maybe we can get together for a coffee or drink?”

“Yes, maybe we can.”

We exchange the necessary information and Esther leaves the car. From the window we shared briefly I see her walk off down the platform with all deliberate speed.

“Damn!” My bags and camera and other stuff have been unattended way too long back in the compartment. I do not need the crisis of being picked off in the middle of Vienna. I had only a couple hundred dollars and the return plane ticket. If anything happens to them or my passport, I am in worse than bad trouble. And if anything happens to Steven’s camera I’ll likewise catch some serious shit.

All is in order when I return, though three new passengers hold court on the wide bench seats. Two young women on one side turn out to be university students on summer vacation. The other passenger is a middle-age dandy seemingly dressed for business and sporting a flamboyant red, green and white checkered vest. All Americans.

“I’m studying architecture at Johns Hopkins. We’re both traveling to famous sites for on-hand surveys in 13 countries,” this twentysomething clad in L.L. Bean announced all too confidently.

Conversation immediately follows, and I start to read her as one of those very above average sociopaths from a very above average school system forever wallowing in myriad nondescript suburbs outside of Tulsa or Cincinnati or Boulder City. Always letting the rest of us know how intelligent and worldly they are despite the drawback of absolutely no connections to any place or institution the majority of the nation might find interesting or important. Insecure types, actually, who end up permanently trying to prove themselves in places like the C.I.A., State Department or a Fortune 500.

The architect and Mr. Vest eventually get into a game of psuedo-intellectual one-upsmanship. The other girl doesn’t utter a word and neither do I.

“Leaky attributed that discovery to a break from earlier paleontological theories due to Lucy’s exaggerated browline and a smaller cranial capacity.”

“Yes, but the divergence also has been explained by the direct lineage from Ramapithecus to Homo Erectus. And that begs the question…”

I can’t stop cringing.

KNOCK KNOCK!! “Passports, please!!”

Hello Hungary.

Military men in green uniforms let us know we had just reached the border — the fucking Iron Curtain. Well, it had been once. I remembered the photo in The New York Times of Hungarian soldiers rolling up wire fencing earlier in the year at the Austrian border near Hegyeshalom. They weren’t keeping anyone inside now.

For the moment, the customs police walk off down the car. I then search a little too earnestly for my passport, right in my pocket, and maintain a double-hard stare on it and the photo-document, which are again in my now rigid, motionless hand. I had not lost or damaged them, to my everlasting relief.

I have been extremely wary of national frontiers ever since Guatemalan border police a few years back demanded an extra $25 for no good reason while this fellow traveler by my side inquired, “Did you see that body at the side of the guard booth?” This was my first potentially serious experience with European customs. “I’m collecting entry-exit stamps,” my favorite architect suddenly blurts out as she casually flings around her open passport. I cringe all over again.

“Passport!” came the accented request from a 30ish Magyar officer who just as suddenly reappears. Staring at my grip of papers, I hand over the documents, he gazes at the photos and me, keeps the picture page, stamps the passport and hands it back. “Thank you,” he offers in a manner of recent practice. The guy was quick, professional and disarming. I am put completely at ease.

I decide to once again visit the dining car, this time with the two students who are likewise thirsty and restless. But before we go, Ms. Architect has customs man stamp her passport three or four times in a bizarre display of he-doesn’t-mind-and-I-think-these-multiple-stamps-are-cool. Some kinda freak.

We talk at the dining car table, but all I can focus on is each of my drinking partners in various stages of undress. When I run out of pocket change, Ms. Architect buys me a beer.

“Hey, thank you very much.”

“We have to go back to the car, Lawrence. I do hope you find a publisher.”

Straight for my soft spot. She was evil incarnate. Or was my indifference to her pattering that transparent? Before excusing herself, the other woman had only sat there drinking fruit juice and saying nothing.

By the time I return to the car, Mr. Vest is there alone. Feeling woozy I sit back and try to make conversation with as little eye contact as possible. In my next conscious moment I lay in a fetal position aware only that the train is slowing hard.

“Oh, man. Are we in Budapest?” I ask bleary and crumpled. Rising off the bench, I realize two new people are seated alongside my carmate in bunched, uncomfortable positions. I had taken up the whole seat while they had to all huddle on the opposite side.

I look at no one while straightening up, trying to collect my thoughts and purpose. Outside the window lies a vast, grimy rail yard.

November 1990.