Through War Torn Europe: An official trip after WWI told in the words of James Gordon Steese
Number Twenty
Hotel Excelsior, Bucuresti,
Sunday, August 31st, 1919.
At a civilized hotel again in a real city! Irvin Cobb once wrote a very funny story for the "Saturday Evening Post" entitled, "Through Europe In Quest of a Hard-Boiled Egg”, or something like that. Were I equally gifted, I would write about "Baths I have had and Bathe I have Missed!" I hope I have not bored you by harping too much on some of the practical difficulties of traveling in Southeastern Europe, the Near East, or the Balkans, as you choose.

But everything is rosy again. I got into the fifth hotel I tried and I have a berth in the sleeping car clear back to Triesto.

By the way, one of my follow travelers on the train the other day, upon looking at my Italian map of “La Guerra Europea nei Balkani”, said there is no such district in a serious sense. He said the term “Balkans" is used over here in about the same may as our term "Wild West". It is a descriptive epithet and not the name of a definite geographical district. At least, he spoke Roumanian French, and I spoke American French, and that was the sense I made out of his remarks. I must remember to ask about that again.

As soon as I got off the train, I looked up the wagon lit man, who, of course, said: "See the City Office." After I got a hotel I asked directions and was told the office was closed on Sundays and anyway it was necessary to get reservations at least four days ahead. I leave tomorrow morning at 7:30, so I insisted: "But I asked you where the office is." So, in despair, he told me it was No. 1 President Wilson Street, opposite the Royal Palaces I found the Royal Palace alright, but no President Wilson Street, nor anyone who bad ever heard of such a street. Upon asking for the Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-Lits, I found it at Strada Sf. Voivoci No. 1. Officially, I afterwards learned, the name has been changed to President Wilson Street. It is a fine street.

The office was closed sure enough, but I pounded upon the window and the manager himself let me in. Without any argument, he produced a ticket for a berth. The price was 142 francs, not unreasonable for two days, and he was so courteous that I did not see the joker until he demanded French money. I had only a five franc note I had overlooked when changing my money in Italy. He refused my 300 lei. in Roumanian money - the equivalent. Then I offered 700 kronen In Jugo-Slav money, which I know was no good here. I did not wait for his refusal. I had spent all my Serbian dinar, so I took a chance with a five pound Bank of England note. He said it was likewise no good, only French money could be used, but that he would accept it personally and fix it with the Company. He then gave me 150 francs for it, which means about a 17 franc rakeoff for him above the proper exchanges. However, I would gladly have given him a bonus of 100 francs, as I had not then had a bath and did have very vivid recollections of those two, or possibly three, days back across Roumania, Hungary, Jugo-Slavia and Italy.

We crossed the Roumanian Frontier about 7 this morning at a very picturesque Alpine town which had been badly damaged by German shell fire. All the town's "Best" boarded the dining car to have coffee while riding to the next station where they put off the diner. Having sat up all night, I was naturally out early in the morning. As soon as I caught onto the game, I slid into the last seat at a table with two Roumanian officers and the very pretty and quite young wife of one of them. They all spoke French so we made a jolly party. Soon the wagon-lit people were awakened by the custom's inspection, came around for their coffee, but all had to wait till we pulled into Bucarest about 11:15.

The ride across the Hungarian Plain the evening before had gotten quite monotonous before we struck the foothills of the Transylvanian Alps with their ruined castles. From then on, the country grew more and more rugged. By dark we were well into the mountains. Early this morning we were in the high Alps among steep peaks and deep canyons. It was very picturesque nearly all the way down. About 9:00 we passed through a big petroleum development.

Late last evening a Roumanian officer got on at a way station with his sister and asked me to give her a seat, which I did, as conditions by that time were pretty bad in the corridor. He got off at the next station. As we had no lights in addition to our other troubles, I caught only a glimpse of her profile now and then in the fitful glare of the station lamps as we passed through. German was the newest I could got to her and I know very little German. My Roumanian merchant talked to her all night in a horrible jargon, which did not sound pretty even from her though she had a very pleasant voice. In the morning she turned out to be about 25 and quite pretty.

For the past two days the railroads have been full of troop trains. I found I was on the edge of Bolscheviki country at SZEGED. The French and Jugo-Slavs are fighting the Bolscheviki in Hungary, the Serbs and Roumanians are on the verge of War north-west of here, and they all boast that they are going over to whip the Italians an soon as the Peace Treaty to settled. 

******, my companion on the trip to Belgrade, had a passport viseed by the representative of the Republic of Jugo-Slavia; mine bears the stamp of the Kingdom of the Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes. It is a little difficult to keep up with the shifting political situation down in these unsettled parts of the world. As near an I can determine, at present, Jugo-Slavia, or the country of the Southern Slavs, represents the Union of about twelve million people living in Serbia, Montenegro, Bosnia, Herzegovina, Croatia, Slavonia, Carniola, Backa, Banat, Istria, Styria, Gorizia, and Dalmatia. I had heard of the Sonjack of Banat, and now I have seen its capital, Temesvar.

There are many difficult problems of politics and administration to worry the rulers of Jugo-Slavia; the Italian claims on Fiume and Dalmatia; the dispute with Roumania over the rich agricultural districts inherited from Hungary on the breakup of the old Empire; the envious and hostile attitude of Hungary; Bulgaria's resentment over the rectification of Serbia's eastern frontier; and finally the question of the control of Macedonia. Meanwhile, Roumania is looting Hungary and collecting her indemnity in kind and at once.

This is quite a live town; races every Sunday. I tried a new drink, called tuisa, though it sounded something like oztuitcha, tasted something like kirschwasser, but had practically no kick. It cost about four cents, whereas regular drinks and everything also are very expensive. It cost me 70 lei, or about 35 francs an hour, for an automobile. The language here is called Roman, and sounds as harsh as Serbian; but, as they use Roman letters, it does not look so bad. At that, neither as spoken or written,, in there a single word or syllable that is recognizable to a Latin or to an Anglo-Saxon. Even a newspaper, therefore, is absolutely useless.

I am sorry I have not time to go on to Constanza and then by boat to Constantinople. As it is, I'll got back to Venice a day late at least. I am due there at noon, September 2nd. I am told that my train back will be sure to miss the connection at Vincovtso, which means a day's wait there. There are two reasons. If this train is the least bit late, the Serbian train from Belgrade will not wait, thereby putting Roumania at a day's disadvantage commercially. In addition, the station agent at Vincovtsi owns a hotel and has an arrangement with the engineer of the train whereby the latter gets a rake-off on the business he gives the hotel by missing the connection. The only way to beat that game, I had been told, is to give the engineer a bigger bonus.

Then I boarded the Bucarest train at Vincovtsi, two trains were there from Bucarest awaiting the Trieste connection. One of them, of course, was 24 hours late. Apparently I have an even chance of making the connection as I could not find out the relative bonuses paid the two engineers.

I think I’ll turn in early tonight, as it is only my second bed in the last nine nights. Three of these nights I sat up. Besides, I must be at a railway station on the other side of town at 7:30, though the train actually will probably leave about nine, unless I am late.

I had a very stupid chauffeur today. He had a companion with him, but neither of them could understand my polyglot conversation. However, I have made even Germans understand by signs and a drive around town is the obvious desire of the average traveler. They drove me out to Calea Victoriei and then to the coursing park along the Chausse Kisselev, a very beautiful boulevard, almost as handsome as the Chapultepec drive in Mexico City. I tried to have them come back a different way, but without success. Maybe there is no other way. Then they turned around and tried to do it all over again. My most frantic signs to take a circuit around only produced more confusion. Finally, I hailed a group on the street and found a man who claimed to understand French. After I explained that I wanted to drive all over town to see the handsome buildings, parks, etc., he translated. I was careful to emphasize that I was to be landed at the hotel one hour later. Then he drove me out through the slums, into the country, over a poor road. So I directed an immediate return. He overran his time ten minutes and then had the effrontery to claim 15 lei extra for it. But I had him there. I positively could not understand a word he said, paid the proper amount, turned on my heel and walked into the hotel.

End Notes and Bibliography