USA TODAY reporter Kim Hjelmgaard has been following migrants as they make the arduous 1,500-mile journey from Greece to Germany. Below are his reports on the challenges facing both migrants and European authorities trying to cope with the biggest flood of refugees since World War II.
To read the latest dispatch, click on the "chapters" icon to pick which day you want to view.
ATHENS — This is my first post in what will be a series of diary-form entries, stories, observations, interviews, audio, video, tweets and more that we will be running over the next 10 days or so as I make my way from Lesbos, Greece, back to Berlin. This is the route that hundreds of thousands of displaced migrants and refugees — many of them fleeing war and persecution in Syria and other conflict zones around the world — have been taking for months.
This page will serve as the landing spot for many of my thoughts and stories. You can also keep up with my journey on Facebook, Twitter and other social media spots. If you send me an email, I will do my best to reply.
LESBOS, Greece — I arrived just before sunrise on this island about 6 miles off the coast of Turkey where 4,500 people a day have been washing up in life jackets and rubber dinghies. It's their first port of call on European territory as they go in search of a new life on a more peaceful continent. I'll be filing more from Lesbos later today, but wanted to drop some reflections on the picture of the crisis now.
Images define every conflict. They depict intense difficulty, tough decisions, suffering, confusion and more. Already, Europe's refugee and migrant crisis has yielded many.
There was Laith Majid, the weeping Iraqi father who almost drowned with his wife and children on the way to the Greek island Kos. (Majid and his family are now safe in Berlin.)
We recoiled at the delicate, lifeless body of Aylan Kurdi, the drowned Syrian child whose body washed up on a beach in Turkey. For many, Kurdi gave a face and a name to the unfolding humanitarian tragedy.
Back in April, an off-duty Greek military officer singlehandedly saved 20 migrants whose ship was breaking up off the coast of Rhodes, Greece. Sgt. Antonis Deligiorgis was a hero that day even if the awkwardly framed photos of his actions didn't fully capture it.
But to Deligiorgis' moral zenith we have also witnessed Petra Laszlo's ethical nadir. The Hungarian journalist was caught on video sticking her leg out to trip and kick people fleeing authorities.
For me, the picture that caught my attention more than any other was taken by Andrew Byrne, a Financial Times journalist.
It shows a group of about a dozen young Syrian refugees sitting cross-legged on the floor absolutely beaming with pleasure as they watch Tom and Jerry cartoons outside Budapest's main train station in Hungary. Volunteers had set up the cartoon on a projector, perhaps sensing that these children needed to be children again.
It's a simple, domestic snapshot that many of us who are parents can relate to. Byrne probably took it on his phone.
In those faces there is exuberance and joy, mixed with the misery of dislocation and terror as well as some boredom held briefly at bay. When I think of the migrant crisis I often think of this photo because of the drama it shows. It's neither tragedy nor comedy but something else.
LESBOS, Greece — "Mamma, mamma, younan!"
Two sisters, in their early 20s at most, borrowed my phone and shouted into it. Their giddy voices were filled with a mixture of happiness, excitement and fear.
"Greece!" they told their mother waiting nervously back home in Syria. "We made it to Greece!"
Then they abruptly hung up and vanished into a throng of new arrivals, joining the several thousand dislocated, persecuted and impoverished migrants who landed on beaches here Saturday and were marching off to an unknown future.
Moments earlier, the sisters had half-crashed ashore this Greek island in a mostly deflated dinghy after setting off from Turkey.
There was a boy with them, too. He smiled. Safe for now.
On the way down to the beach, from high up on Lesbos' parched, olive-tree-rich hills, I could see the boats dotting the horizon like a small disorderly pearl necklace, only deep orange instead of white.
Thousands of refugees and migrants are landing on the Greek island of Lesbos each day. USA Today reporter Kim Hjelmgaard witnessed some of them.
The Aegean Sea was merciful on this specific patch of coastline Saturday afternoon. Earlier in the day, a 5-year-old girl drowned. Fourteen others on her sunken boat were missing.
But even on a calm day, there was real terror on display. The angular cries of toddlers and elderly women rose above the din of the lapping waves. The men cried more.
Greece's highly fragrant wild pine trees bore no aromatherapeutic remedy.
The sisters' phone hadn't survived the 6-mile crossing from Turkey's western coast. But after confirming to their mother they were alive, they did not linger, keen to push on toward a new life somewhere in Europe. Germany or Sweden, perhaps — anywhere but war-torn Syria.
To get there, the migrants who land here must walk a winding, scorched road with no shade for 40 miles to Lesbos' port. Eventually, they take a Greek government-sponsored ferry to the mainland.
Dirty, wet and tired, the sisters readily accept such an undignified entrance to this region that doesn't know what to do with them.
But not everyone was coping.
One husband thought his wife was dying as she lay exhausted in a chair, her knuckles scraping the ground. Her eyes had that slow-roll look.
I pressed on.
Then, out of the blue, my phone rang. It was a third sister. She wanted to know if her siblings were OK.
This sister wouldn't say where she was from or where she was, but she shared her siblings' names then quickly hung up: Enas and Ranya.
The boy was called Ayad.
THESSALONIKI, Greece — USA TODAY has been reporting on Europe's migrant and refugee crisis for months. We have done big-picture policy stories that look at the political arguments, sobering accounts of the steadily rising death toll (at sea and on land) and also more intimate items from the ground that (we hope) have provided some insight, specifically about the people we are talking about.
And they are all different people, a point easily lost in our various heated debate chambers — individuals from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Eritrea, Gambia and Pakistan.
Many are even from within touching distance of the Europe's broader community: Serbs, Albanians, Moldovans. I've met Russians, Ukrainians and Egyptians. Over the last 24 hours, I've passed by hundreds of people on the road bearing the unmistakeable influence of the Asian Steppe.
Later this month, we expect to publish a special report that examines the migration crisis from a global perspective.
Europe is undoubtedly the story of the moment, but people across our planet are on the move like never before. They're leaving their homelands for all kinds of reasons ranging from war and political conflict to economic hopelessness.
I encourage you to look out for it.
I am still in the infancy of my journey back to Germany. Later today, I will cross into the Former Yugoslavian Republic of Macedonia. But already it's been fascinating to witness firsthand a rolling wave of mass movement that appears to have no foreseeable end.
That unwieldy trajectory — gravity-like, from relative darkness to relative light — is not particularly new or novel.
GEVGELIJA, Macedonia — "Two-by-two, two-by-two," the police guard, a sturdily built disciplinarian, shouted.
Then: "Run, run, run."
The military-school method seemed a bit unnecessary. The migrants and refugees standing in an orderly line on the other side of the UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) transit camp weren't behaving like naughty recruits or bickering schoolchildren.
They wanted a meal, a few supplies and a seat on a waiting train that would whisk them north to Tabanovce, a village less than a half-mile from Serbia.
Most said nothing. A few, allowed over the camp's threshold after several hours of waiting, playfully skipped or shared a joke.
Gevgelija, the Turkish name of this border town with Greece ordinarily known for its gambling dens and tourist trade, is a welcoming word that means "come again."
There was some of that sense of solidarity Sunday for the up to 7,000 people who, after entering the camp, were herded onto the train by Macedonian security personnel.
Jasmin Redzepi, who runs Legis, an aid group that supports migrants passing through Macedonia, said many of the people who travel through here just want to be treated with dignity.
"They have stories they want to tell and to be heard, not only want to be fed," he said.
I spent about an hour with Redzepi. His phone never stopped ringing and he never stopped answering.
USA TODAY journalist Kim Hjelmgaard reports from the migrants trail in Macedonia.
Someone who shares Redzepi's view is a woman who for the past several months has been referred to by migrants and refugees at this camp as the "Macedonian angel."
Gabriela Andreevska is a hugger and an extreme welcomer who has won the hearts of many, including Aram Hamo, from Syria.
"One afternoon an angel appeared and started flying like a butterfly (among us)," he said in a Facebook post dated Sept. 1.
"People are afraid of what they don't know," Andreevska, reached by phone, said Sunday. "They're not the Islamic State, they're not terrorists," she said.
Macedonia, known officially as the Former Yugoslavian Republic of Macedonia, has lurched toward authoritarianism in recent years. Rights groups, including the Helsinki Committee for Human Rights, regularly accuse it of using excessive and even brutal force against minority groups.
This crisis does not sit well against that background. Late last month police tear-gassed a couple thousand migrants who were trying to force their way over the border.
"Without discipline there is stampede," a policeman here insisted Sunday. Another has been nicknamed the "boxer."
Thankfully, I didn't get the opportunity to meet him.
It was time to go. Dark, brooding clouds that would later bring lightning were gathering over the hills to the west. About a half-dozen stray dogs suddenly appeared out of the growing darkness. And I wasn't completely certain of the way back to where I was staying for the night.
GEVGELIJA, Macedonia — Head down, backpack on, blend in.
I was trying to catch a train to Serbia that authorities here had chartered Monday for migrants and refugees moving north, part of a never-ending column of the dispossessed.
No one could say for sure whether I was allowed to be on the train. Not strictly forbidden, not expressly permitted.
Similar, it could be argued, to Europe's undulating migration policy in recent weeks: Let them in. Don't let them in. Let some in.
But make them walk, run, ride, sit, wait.
So I joined the line anyway and stood amid the mounting piles of discarded Coke cans, baked goods, odd socks and crumpled, shiny-red packets of chips.
Lots of shiny-red packets of chips.
Ahead of me in the line at the United Nations transit camp was Najoud Danwi, a civil engineer from Syria. Her son Kinan, 2, was balanced on her hip in that way overburdened mothers often do.
"Selfie, Kinan; Kinan, selfie," she cooed to him in an attempt to rouse him for my camera lens. He wouldn't take the bait, though, so Kinan and I spent a few minutes playing duck-duck-goose around his mother's shoulders. Point, Kinan.
"Do they hate us more in Denmark or in Germany?" Danwi asked me a few minutes later in a tentative voice.
She wanted advice on where she stood the best chance of leading a normal life.
USA Today journalist Kim Hjelmgaard reports from a migrants train from Macedonia on its way to Serbia.
I told her that some people hate you in Denmark and some people hate you in Germany, but a lot more people love you than hate you. I hope that is true.
After about an hour of standing around, we started moving forward, heading toward the train. I glanced to my right at the side of the tent we were sheltering under: streaks of vomit. To my left: soiled diapers and abandoned surgical gloves.
And then suddenly we were inside the train and barreling deeper into the heart of the Balkans, a politically fractious region still burdened by its series of wars throughout the 1990s.
At first, I wasn't sure where to sit or stand. Then it became obvious: anywhere and everywhere. We'd each paid about $28 to utterly invade each other's space.
For most of the four-hour trip, a man's head rested near my foot. All of us were jungle gyms for kids on the move.
Within minutes, I was speaking with Abdullah Mohammad, 23, from Yemen. He caught my eye because he was holding a young child who was crying. "What's his name?" I asked. "I don't know," came the reply.
"Where are his parents?"
"I don't know," he said.
He was just helping out. The mother or father would be back soon. Everyone on this train was helping each other, Mohammad said.
"There is no other way to get through this," he added. He had a tenderness about him.
Good English, good with kids. He wants to study accounting or work in sales. That's Mohammad's dream.
Eventually, someone shouted from a few rows away that the child's name was Said, and that he was 1½. He slept for most of the journey, nestled comfortably on his stranger-friend's lap.
Many others slept as well, although not a young girl, who was maybe 8. From Syria.
While her parents and brother dozed, I observed her for about an hour quietly brushing her doll's hair and endlessly reordering and changing its clothes.
Purple rain boots were swapped for light blues ones. A purple crown was on, then off, then on again. After some searching in a plastic grocery bag holding her toys, a pink-striped dress with flowers emerged.
As did another toy, some kind of half-deflated balloon — but more robust — with an alien's face. She twisted and twisted it into innumerable shapes and sizes.
Isra, this little girl from Syria was called. Her doll didn't have a name. Everyone in our train car seemed to know that.
PRESEVO, Serbia — I met Mohammad Helani during a dispute about money.
It was late. Approaching midnight. His father had rushed back to the room to wake him so that he could act as a translator.
The owner of the hostel where we were staying in this overwhelmingly Albanian-speaking part of Serbia wanted 40, not 30, euros for Mohammad, his 8-year-old brother Essam, the children's parents, and an uncle — who would sleep, I later saw, on a sofa in the TV room with one un-blanketed foot hovering just inches above the floor — to stay the night. The uncle had long toenails.
Somewhere along the way the Syrian family had either misunderstood or the hotelier had simply decided — like other impromptu entrepreneurial types in this region who have rapidly sprung up as they have discerned a market for migrants' necessities — that he wanted, or could get, more. For beds, cigarettes, SIM cards, currency.
It wasn't entirely clear.
And so here was Mohammad in his plaid-bottomed pajamas and a dark blue T-shirt with crudely drawn stars on it stoically wiping away the night from his eyes.
Mohammad is 12.
He was the only one in his family who speaks enough English to try to diffuse the situation. He would negotiate.
But the proprietor's English was limited.
And he was big guy with a forceful demeanor and a Balkan man's puffed-out-chest manner of imposing himself.
"I am boss here," he said after a few tense exchanges that didn't go anywhere.
Mohammad glanced over at his father as if to ask what was his best strategy here.
"What is it you would like?" he finally said, carefully enunciating each word.
From across the room it sounded like Mohammad had let a full second lapse between each word.
The Helanis paid more and went to bed.
In the morning Mohammad was waiting for me at the hostel's breakfast table.
He was alone. It was 6 a.m. I had gotten up early to plan the route for the day ahead.
We decided to whisper so as not to wake anyone.
His story came out slowly, in shuffle mode and larger than life (which of course it was).
In the inflatable-dinghy ride from Turkey to Greece, the water in the boat was up to their knees. People were throwing everything overboard to shed weight: bags, mobile phones, even the kids' teddy bears.
He missed his friends and school. He liked math "a little bit." He wanted to be a pilot.
"I have been on many planes and to be a pilot you must have English. That is why I have English," he said.
An uncle in Syria had been murdered and a body never materialized. Abducted and killed on his way to the supermarket to buy milk.
They sought help at first in countries closer to home: Jordan, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia.
No help arrived.
A year in South Sudan initially suited them and they all wanted to stay, but there was no work and so no money and so ultimately no South Sudan.
He said his family might try to make it to Sweden, where "the houses are like that."
As he said the word "that" Mohammad raised his hands and pressed the tips of his fingers together to form a pointed roof.
"In Syria we have flat houses," he said.
He wanted me to make sure that I said in this story that he believed that many of the people trying to reach Europe were not Syrian. That they were just pretending and that this was making it more difficult for families like his to get the help they urgently need. Families fleeing conflict and death and not just seeking better opportunities.
Mohammad, buddy, if you are reading this I am saying it because I promised you I would.
But I can't endorse it, not because I know it to be false but because I don't know it to be accurate. And even if it was, I don't know what the moral implication is for those fleeing war in Yemen, persecution in Eritrea, destitution and terror in Afghanistan or Iraq.
After Mohammad and I talked for about 30 minutes, Essam, his brother, tumbled out of the bedroom all dark curls and mischief.
Games. He wanted to play games.
So I opened my laptop but the Internet was down. Instead, we made face after face in Apple's Photo Booth software.
Our heads swirled and eyes bulged and we turned ourselves inside and out and from ultra-violet to dark noir and Mohammad did not need to translate.
ILOK, Croatia — "Driver! Driver! Open door! Open! Driver!"
They wanted out. We all wanted out.
But one woman, upstairs in the back, appeared to be in distress in the bus' deepest recesses.
She needed to get out.
I don't know who the man shouting was — husband, friend, concerned stranger — but he clearly understood that.
It would become more obvious when I saw the woman a few minutes later lying on a nearby grassy verge. She was surrounded by aid workers who were elevating her legs. Pale. Floppy. I couldn't really tell how bad.
I'd seen several versions of this scenario play out since starting my trip on the island of Lesbos, Greece, last week.
It typically involved a woman, often a young mother. Often, it seemed to me, incongruously dressed for a southeastern European winter that has not yet arrived.
A few times I wondered if some of these women were genuinely cold in 85-degree heat or were simply putting on as many clothes as they could to avoid carrying them.
That sounds dramatic and final but that's what this particular incident looked like.
Eight hours previously our bus had left a small Serbian town temporarily transformed into a makeshift market bazaar for migrants looking to transit north.
I had a hard time at first settling on which one to take, but opted for a double-decker headed to Croatia. A new path to Austria via Slovenia had recently opened up there, and I wanted to see how Croatia was handling it. Shambolic was a word I had heard used.
More flies buzzing around the interior than there really ought to be. That's the first thing I noticed after I purchased my 35-euro ($39) ticket and sat down.
Showers, clean clothes, the necessary time and privacy for basic hygiene — these things are in short supply along this route.
The less directly said about that the better.
In the seat behind me, at least four kids were piled on top of each other like a batch of newly born sleeping puppies. Tangled.
Cute, I thought.
That turned out to be a spectacular ruse. They kicked and prodded and poked me and my seat mate for most of the journey.
Occasionally, a woman in the aisle opposite let fly a stern word in Arabic while looking completely straight ahead.
Kick. Prod. Poke. Eight hours.
And then suddenly we arrived and there was a woman whimpering and the driver wouldn't open the door for a reason not apparent and a man at the back started yelling: "Driver! Driver! Open door! Open! Driver!"
But when he did and we all streamed out I lost my bearings only to be caught in a strong current of people willing themselves across a cornfield to a border crossing that did not look like a border crossing.
Kim Hjelmgaard reports from the Serbian-Croatian border.
Which is when I realized that I had walked illegally into Croatia and there was no turning back and the only way out was a 7-mile hike down an impossibly dark country road.
Fortunately, the police when they caught up with me saw it that way too.
As did the dozens of 4-, 5- and 6-year-olds doing the same walk to my left and right, in front of me and behind.
OPATOVAC, Croatia — The mass displacement of people is something the Balkans is familiar with.
This is a place whose inhabitants have been forced across neighboring borders for centuries.
For this post I am giving a guest spot to Jack Davies, a British journalist based in the region. Jack's a good guy with a deep knowledge of the topic.
If you want to ask him any questions related to this post or have something to say about it you can find him on Twitter: @jackoozell
This is a neglected corner of Europe with a turbulent history.
The Ottoman Empire (one of the most powerful empires in the 15th and 16th centuries) occupied this area for over 500 years. During this time, it fought multiple wars with the nearby Austro-Hungarian Empire creating regular flows of refugees.
Later, being at the heart of two world wars complicated the dynamic.
The Yugoslav conflicts of the 1990s left two million people across Serbia, Bosnia, Croatia, Slovenia, Macedonia and Kosovo as either refugees or internally displaced persons.
Now, 14 years after the last conflict in the region ended, communities that once fled are helping others to flee.
"This is the road I walked on to Macedonia from Presevo, when I was a refugee," Agon Ajeti, 28, a volunteer from Serbia who was waiting in August heat to guide refugees along the dusty road from Macedonia, told me recently.
Ajeti's efforts are not unique. At the end of the road he is talking about, there are many local volunteers just like him.
This year, nearly half a million migrants from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and Yemen have traveled thousands of miles in search of safe harbor in Western Europe.
For most, taking the Balkan land route through Greece and the former Yugoslav nations Macedonia, Serbia and Croatia is their only hope of reaching those ports in places such as Germany and Sweden.
In Belgrade, one student is reported to be buying 100 meat pies each morning on his way to school to feed some of the thousands sleeping outside in the park near the city’s bus station.
In Croatia, people stay up all night to greet people with hot tea and sandwiches as they make the 6-mile hike from the country’s border with Serbia to the nearest camp.
While the generosity of spirit displayed by the citizens of these countries echoes events of previous decades, sadly so does the response of their governments. When Slovenian police pepper-sprayed people Friday as they tried to walk across their border with Croatia, it was reminiscent of Slovenia’s initial refusal to accept refugees from the Bosnian war in 1992.
A friend of mine from Kosovo told me that as a young boy 16 years ago he had to wait for days without shelter before being granted admittance to Macedonia. Today's migrants report similar treatment in places.
On Tuesday, after weeks of squabbling, the European Union finally reached an agreement on a plan to equitably distribute 120,000 people across the political bloc.
That's about a quarter of the number of people who have passed through the Balkans this year.
ZAKANY, Hungary — I went looking for a wall but instead I found Robert and Naomi.
I sat next to Robert for most of Thursday as his car zigzagged around small-town Hungary in search of new additions to Prime Minister Viktor Orban's controversial barrier to keep out migrants.
Naomi, his girlfriend, wasn't in the car in the usual sense, but Robert spoke of her constantly and we were in frequent contact with her by phone, Facebook Messenger and text message.
He told me the "very beautiful" Naomi — she's 19 and he's 23 — was studying to be a physical therapist, and that she wanted to one day own a "big, big" house and possess extremely expensive things.
In Sweden or New Zealand, if Naomi gets her way. But Robert likes the beach, hot weather and motorcycles. He'd prefer Malta.
Initially, there were objections from Naomi's police-chief father. There was a problematic age difference, for example. They hid the relationship for a year, then smoothed things over after Robert moved in with the family. I wasn't prying. He just wanted to talk.
Robert and Naomi are both Hungarian.
Earlier in the day I'd called him to ask if (for a fee) he could drive me for part of my leg north because authorities here had clamped down on my attempts to join the migrant buses and trains going to Austria.
Plus, I wanted to see whether I could find any traces of extensions to Orban's wall.
The Hungarian leader has already erected a 15 foot high rampart along the nation's entire 110-mile southern border with Serbia. Now, he was starting work on a fence to close the 25-mile patch of land it shares with Croatia.
On my way up here this week from Greece, I had been told by several people not to mess with the Hungarian police. They are prone to violence, they said. Last week, several journalists said they were beaten and detained for speaking to migrants. (An allegation rejected by Hungarian officials.)
So it was Robert (and Naomi) or go straight to the Austrian border town of Nickelsdorf, and I didn't want to do that.
The wall in Hungary has been a flashpoint in the crisis, and if there were new, potentially combustible vapors in the air I wanted to see what they looked or smelled like.
Robert warmed to the theme pretty quickly after collecting me and asked if he should drive "fast" or "slow" in search of these fledgling stockades. I mumbled something non-committal and a few minutes later, when we were bumpily cutting across a cornfield, I thought he was trying to make up time but it turned out his navigation system had simply gone awry. "GPS no good," he said after he caught me pulling a map up on my phone.
That's when I asked him if he thought it was good for Hungary to be trying to completely seal its borders when so many people were intent on getting through anyway.
Robert said he didn't have an opinion either way. And so I asked what about Naomi, what does she think, this policeman's daughter?
And of course Naomi had an opinion, I could hear that by the way her voice was spilling out over the edges of Robert's cellphone.
"What did she say?" I asked as he hung up.
"She said she thinks the wall is a good idea, that she hopes the police are able to find any terrorists hiding among the refugees and that she also understands why the people are leaving their countries," Robert said.
"And Sweden?" I asked. "Was there any contradiction in her wanting to go there for the 'big, big' house and people wanting to come to Europe for a house?"
He didn't know. I didn't either.
Later, after a few false starts, we found what we were looking for. It didn't look like much: a large cascading roll of barbed-wire snaking off in two directions like an enormous Slinky.
Only, not a toy and able to perform just a single trick.
NICKELSDORF, Austria — Abdullah and I had been playing a form of migrants tag since Monday.
I first met him on a train we were traveling on from Serbia to Macedonia. He was trying to stop a small child called Said from crying by bouncing him on his knee.
Abdullah, who is 23 and from Yemen, is not Said's father or brother or cousin. Abdullah didn't even know the child's name when I asked. Hearing us talk, someone shouted "Said, Said" down the train's crammed aisle. That person — the shouter — did not know anything about the toddler either, although he knew his name.
When we got off the train that day, Abdullah was immediately absorbed into a swirl of people who were trudging, head down against wind and horizontal rain, the last few miles across a muddy field to Serbia.
I held onto his number but I did not think I would ever see him again. He was hoping to make it to Finland. I am not often in Finland.
It was in Hungary that we were reunited for a second time even if we did not meet on the same terms as the first. Abdullah was on a train headed for Austria that military police, quite a lot of them, would not let me get on.
I was standing near the track thinking it was just as well because it looked really unpleasant in there. As I leaned forward to talk to someone who had stuck a head out of the window a powerful urine odor wafted out. Several people asked me if I had any food or water to give them. I did not.
They repeated the question.
Reporter Kim Hjelmgaard reports from outside a migrant processing camp in Nickelsdorf, Austria, on Sept. 25, 2015.
I didn't notice Abdullah at first.
In fact, if he hadn't hollered "My friend!" as the train got underway I probably would have missed him entirely. Which, in a way, I did because it took me a few moments to process who he was and what he was saying, this friend of mine.
On Monday, Abdullah and I were on a first-name basis as we talked about his ambitions to study and start a family. By Thursday, it seemed to me that neither of us were completely certain, in the confusion of coming and going, who the other was.
And when he left me that second time I definitely thought that was the end of it.But as it turned out, Austria actually had something else in store for us as well.
Early Friday, I arrived amid the threat of rain to a government-run transit camp for migrants in the town of Nickelsdorf. The town is literally a stone's throw from Hungary to the south — there are stones to mark the short distance — and about 200 miles to Germany's easternmost border.
The entrance to the camp was fronted by a long, single-file line of taxis. Hundreds of taxis, many of them Mercedes and other expensive German car brands waiting, for about 170 euros (about $190), to whisk migrants to Vienna. From there, they would fan out for destinations farther afield in Austria and Germany: the migrant Shangri-La.
It was cold and blustery and I wasn't really sure what Nickelsdorf would deliver in terms of being able to interact with migrants or their sometimes-unpredictable handlers.
Give it a few hours, I thought, then make speed for Germany.
Yet before I even crossed its threshold, Nickelsdorf promptly delivered Abdullah.
I had stopped to ask one of the taxi drivers what people were being charged for the 50-minute ride up to Vienna when I found myself looking directly at him. He was looking directly back. "My friend!" he said.
Abdullah was on his way back to the camp after sneaking out to buy cigarettes. But first, he had stopped to gather some intel about the passage north from a sympathetic taxi driver.
Abdullah didn't seem at all surprised to see me. As if I, too, had just snuck out to buy cigarettes and was now returning.
"Did he know where Said was?" I asked. He did not.
"Was he still set on Finland?" He was.
Abdullah, the best English speaker I have encountered on this trip so far, was keen to speak of his experiences in Serbia, where we had left one another that first time.
He had slept on the street for two days. The authorities there were unnecessarily "tough," although he was full of praise for the regular Serbians he met, particularly the majority-Albanian residents in the area.
Then we parted for a third time.
It turned out to be a day of unusual encounters and re-encounters.
From Nickelsdorf, I caught a regular Austrian railways train to Vienna.
The main train station was not the gleamingly ordered place I had last seen when I was in the city late last year.
I had expected, naively perhaps, to leave behind some of the humanitarian-crisis feel when arriving in this bastion of European high culture from Nickelsdorf, a rural town with an outpost's flavor to it.
Instead, I found families sprawled on dirty blankets, improvised and hectic hunting and gathering amid the bakeries and fast-food restaurants and a heavily policed line for travelers (certain travelers) to purchase train tickets to Munich, Frankfurt, Cologne.
Everywhere, mobile phones were being charged. In this crisis, mobile phones are always being charged. It is axiomatic.
An hour later, I was boarding a mixed-use train for the 5-hour ride to Munich with a few hundred migrants, about a dozen Austrian children on their way home from school and three or four separate groups of tourists.
One, a threesome from Japan, started buying beer before the train left the station and never stopped. They broke into song just as we crossed the border into Germany.
Earlier, as the train sat on the platform ready to depart my phone lit up. A message on WhatsApp from another new, old friend.
Those of you who have been following my dispatches for the past week may recall 12-year-old Mohammad. I met him and his family in a hostel shortly after we both crossed into Serbia from Macedonia.
The Helanis had made it to Austria, and Mohammad wanted to let me know. Because he knew I was also making the trip as a journalist documenting names, faces and families, such as his, he also wanted to know where I was in my journey.
Before I had a chance to reply he sent me another message a few seconds later, this time with a map of his location.
They were in Vienna in a hotel less than a 1,000 feet from the train I was sitting on.
I knew this because I frantically started checking the map on my phone. I realized I could get off. We could meet up again and talk more about him wanting to be a pilot.
But by the time I was certain where the Helanis were the train had left the station.
MUNICH, Germany — Something told me to pack the checkered, gingham shirt. Now I know why.
For over a week, I'd been carrying a heavy backpack as I traveled by bus, train and foot to look at migrant camps and observe and talk to men, women and children as they trekked north from Greece to Germany.
Throughout, this shirt, which I like but isn't particularly comfortable to work in — journalism can be a surprisingly physically demanding undertaking at times — sat untouched gathering grime and creases in the bottom of my bag.
Yet as soon as I arrived at a Munich train station late Friday, I realized that this semi-stowaway I'd grudgingly tolerated for the best part of 10 days, for a reason I couldn't quite explain, would have a walk-on role to play in my adventure yet.
Munich, a wealthy city in Germany's south, is in the middle of its annual Oktoberfest celebrations, a raucous beer festival and fun-fair that’s a draw for thousands of revelers from the nation and around the world.
Women wear the dirndl, a long dress with a low-cut top section that is, well, enhancing. A typical outfit for men consists of leather Lederhosen shorts with suspenders, an Alpine hat and some sturdy-looking shoes.
And a checkered, gingham shirt.
I wouldn't be in Munich for long. I had to get back to Berlin, but I was determined to fit in by wearing my shirt.
On the train ride up to Munich from Austria I saw something that I had seen in small, mostly insignificant doses as I have negotiated geographies, transport links and nervous security forces during my trip.
I saw prejudice.
When I got to Croatia, I noticed that the policemen and bus drivers, anyone with any kind of contact with migrants in an official or semi-official capacity were, in fact, wearing surgical masks. It was the same in Hungary, where I also saw authorities, not just doctors or aid workers tending to the sick, with disposable gloves.
Apart from specific medical or emergency scenarios, I had not noticed this in Greece, Macedonia or Serbia. In Austria, a soldier had told me that if I went into a certain part of the camp he would not be able to "guarantee my life," but when I got inside the building he was referring to all I saw was a few exhausted parents letting their kids run around.
One guy, sitting next to a sink, was drying his sneakers under a wall-mounted blow dryer. His look said: I do this all the time.
But in Germany I saw something a little more forthrightly pernicious. On the ride up from Vienna, about a third of our train's passengers were migrants.
The rest were commuters, tourists, shoppers -- anyone else who had a reason to leave Vienna on a Friday in the early evening.
After a few hours of speeding past featureless agricultural fields and watching the expectant faces of the Syrians, Iraqis, Eritreans and others gathered in the train's vestibule — for many, Germany is where they hope to settle -- we stopped at a station I did not recognize. A few people got off, a few more got on. It was crowded, not suffocatingly so, but enough to want the experience to be over with soon.
Then, just as we were about to depart, a glamorous woman -- blond, well-dressed, mid-40s would be my guess -- stormed onto the train with an umbrella in one hand and suitcase in the other. She motioned toward the foreign mass of people standing, sitting or otherwise lounging in awkward configurations in the train's hallway.
"Away, away, get away," this woman said.
She was German.
The implication was clear: Not welcome.
And worse: Not fit to touch or talk to or even share breathing space with.
"Away," she said, as if shooing flies.
She stormed off down the aisle.
We wouldn't see her again.
When the train finally arrived in Munich some hours later I was expecting celebratory fanfare. Clapping, perhaps. Some flags and warm pasta. I had seen video footage of just such heart-warming scenes taking place in Munich only a few weeks ago.
Ordinary Germans who came out to welcome their ambulatory visitors with candy and hugs. Small children tearing down walls, languages and policy disagreements by looking friendly and sweet standing next to each other.
Instead, we got Oktoberfest.
Actually, we got the dregs of a full day and half a night of Oktoberfest. It was 11 p.m.
A thousand checkered, gingham shirts and enhanced low-cut top sections were oompah oompahing to their own beats.
After exiting the train, I noticed what appeared to be special types of German police guards who had quietly sequestered migrants to either side of the platform so that they could be given some information about where to stay the night and what to do next in terms of checking in with the authorities.
One of the guards told me that Munich has about 10 migrant camps in the metropolitan greater area. He also said Munich "is full."
I wasn't certain if he meant full in a strict sense — it really can't take any more people, despite the pledges of Chancellor Angela Merkel — or if it was just that he personally didn't want more because it seems full. I decided not to press the distinction.
Munich's mayor has made similar statements in recent weeks, warning the city is at capacity for taking in more people.
That could be why I noticed just a trickle of a few hundred, not the thousands-a-day of late August and early September.
Still, the next morning, I decided that rather than try to see a German version of what I had witnessed from Greece to Austria — the camps — I would instead studiously follow the great clanking of Munich's beer bottles to their logical conclusion.
After all, I had the checkered, gingham shirt.
So at about noon Saturday I joined a massive flow of people pouring out one side of Munich's train station toward points unknown (to me).
The only thing I assumed was that whatever happened it would end in beer (for them, not me. I can't drink and do journalism, sadly.)
It was an amusement park.
But on the grandest scale I have ever seen. I have not been to Tianammen Square, but it was perhaps like four of those -- at least as seen on TV. And it was filed with rides, dirndl's, crazy-long sausages, beer and of course checkered, gingham shirts.
Even my checkered, gingham shirt.
I walked wide-eyed around this Bavariana for about 90 minutes before heading back toward the station where I hoped I might meet some talkative migrants on my train ride to Berlin.
We were now just a single ride away from the German capital.
BERLIN — I'm home.
I arrived last night on a direct train from Munich.
This last leg of my journey was mostly efficient and ultimately anti-climatic.
I spent at least an hour of it calling and being called by NPR from California. We were going to talk about the trip, but cell phone coverage was really bad, and we kept on getting interrupted.
I spent another hour trying to decode the bar-room banter of half a dozen German high school students.
"Berlin?" two young men from Afghanistan, asked me as the train finally coasted into the German capital's main station — the impressively steel-and-glass raftered Hauptbahnhof — about seven hours later.
"Yes!" came the reply.
I threw a glance up and down the platform.
These two, looking a little overwhelmed and diminutive amid the big city that awaited them, were the only migrants I could see.
The flood of people I had witnessed landing on Greece's nearest point to Turkey eight days ago in grossly inadequate inflatable dinghies had become a trickle.
On this night, getting off this train, at this place, there was no migrant crisis.
I knew, however, that Berlin's main center for registering migrants was less than a half-mile away from where we were standing.
When I visited it in late August, it was teeming with new arrivals.
As I watched the two Afghanis recede into the station's light-filled interior I thought: That's your tomorrow and beyond.
Most of the people I have been traveling with for the past 1½ weeks will be searching for home for some time.
Many may never find it, not in Europe anyway.
They come because of wars, because of the threat of death, because of economic deprivation that is a kind of death, because they need and want more, because, for now, they can.
Twenty minutes after I climbed the five flights of stairs to our apartment in central Berlin, I received another message from Mohammad Helani, a 12-year-old from Syria.
I had last seen him and his family in Serbia, then we came close to reuniting in Vienna. We had been keeping in touch since on WhatsApp.
He told me they would be leaving Austria on Monday. Because the Helanis are still searching for a home, I don't want to say more than that right now.
"Haw are u," Mohammad wrote, "I miss you so mush."