International Writers Magazine:
Closely Observed Trains:
Hell (sort of) and back
"Theres no space left in the sleeper compartments- all
we have are regular seats but only in first class. The price is
"OK. First class it is then"
So began my first experience of the "luxuries" of first-class
travel, where else but in the salubrious surroundings of Kraków
main station, the starting point for my 14 hour overnight trip to
Koszalin on the Baltic coast.
Sitting in the bar on peron (platform, sort of) 5 an hour
ahead of time with my decidedly un-first-class looking luggage of; a
supermarket carrier bag full of food and drink, and a ketchup stained
holdall, the aim was to write about the weeks earlier adventure-
to Warsaw- over a strength boosting cappuccino and mineral water. However,
inspiration on one side far outweighed the other- Warsaw already seems
like an element of someone elses distant past now that the next
expedition has so soon been undertaken.
One undeniably brilliant element of my spur of the moment decision to
catch this train is that today, being Friday, and the time, being around
5pm, mean that I am travelling at the worst possible time of the entire
week. A close second is Sunday afternoon, when, obviously, Ill
be travelling back down the way Im about to go. This was, of course,
the cause of my enforced dabble into first-class travel.
Even aside from the awaiting reunion with Polands finest looking
woman- whoever told me that the further north in Poland you go, the
more beautiful the woman get was certainly not wrong- Im rather
looking forward to seeing the much heralded Polish seaside. The end
of the journey will be something to look forward in and of itself but
throw in these two extra motivating factors and tomorrow is shaping
to be a joyous morning indeed. Whatever happens, it can only be a vast
improvement on the expected hellish journey and the farcical events
at the ticket desk.
Yes, in the opening to this piece it sounds like the purchase of my
first first-class ticket was carried out in a suave, confident, take-everything-in
my-stride kind of manner. Once the whole story is known, however, a
very different picture is painted. The full exchange between me and
the lady serving me at the ticket desk was something like this:
I was soon to discover the error in my thinking here. Friday evening
has nothing on Sunday
2 or 3 minutes of my server pressing buttons on her computer
at a speed almost invisible to the naked eye- not unlike trying to follow
the puck in a game of ice hockey on TV- in a doomed attempt to solve
some sort of problem for a colleague. Eventually, she noticed the line
of 5 or 6 people waiting for her, of which the first was me.
LADY: Yes, please?
ME: Koszalin please, at 18.12
ME (slightly confused): Er, yes
LADY: Are you paying by card or cash?
I hand over my card, she gives me in return a ticket to Warsaw Central
ME: Hold on, not to Warsaw, to Koszalin
LADY (annoyed): Koszalin?
ME: Yes, Koszalin (thankfully I refrained from adding like I said
before- I probably wouldnt have survived)
LADY (still annoyed): Your payment was cancelled, heres the receipt.
LADY: So Koszalin. Sleeper?
ME (praying for spaces): Yes
LADY: There are no spaces left. Youll have to have just a regular
ME (looking for convenient exits back to my comfy bed): OK
LADY: There are only spaces left in first class though. First class
(last part very clearly and slowly in an incredible imitation of an
English person trying to speak to a foreigner). 105z
ME: OK, no problem
I hand over my card again, this time getting a ticket to Koszalin in
LADY: Denied. Your payment was denied.
ME: Try this one
I hand over UK card, which receives a thorough and extremely suspicious
LADY: Sign this
She hands me a receipt to sign, ands looks at me begrudgingly as I do
so. Why do so many people here look at you as if youve forced
them into the job they clearly hate? Its not my fault!!
LADY: Thank you
ME: Thank you, goodbye
By this time a sizeable queue had built up behind me, looking anything
but impressed by my performance. This queue was rendered even more impressive
by the fact that it was composed of precisely none of the people who
had been in the queue when I begun the conversation about the ticket
with my lady at desk number 1. Luckily for all concerned, its number
one of many.
Only 53 minutes left until departure now, and the usual worries experienced
when travelling on the Polish railways are surfacing again. Of course,
the chief among them is "The timetable says the arrival time is
X, but when will we actually get there?" That aside, the main points
of concern are always right up to the point when (a) I get on the train,
or (b) I have my ticket checked, as appropriate. The two questions weighing
on the mind were "Am I waiting on the right platform?"-not
helped by the unnecessarily arcane system whereby, instead of platform
numbers, there are peron numbers and (seemingly random)
tor numbers- and "Have I got the right ticket?"
Unprepared overseas types, i.e. people like me, are seemingly the principal
targets of the equally arcane world of different train types, routes
etc., and their associated prices.
Confidence boosted by the fact that the price I paid matched that given
on the website when I looked up the train earlier, Im sitting
here on peron 5 as per the timetable, waiting to see which tor my train
will pull in at; number 10 on my left, or number 12 on the right. Inexplicably
tor 11 is on peron 3 and I think there is a tor somewhere in the station.
How they come up with these arrangements is mystery as impenetrable
as the announcements spouting from the public address, serving the sole
purpose of raising the general level of ignorance as to what is going
One truly unique aspect of train travel in Poland that I have neglected
to touch upon so far is the state of flux in which the timetables appear
to exist. As the times and/or perons of trains change from time to time,
an update of the timetables on display in the station becomes necessary.
In any civilised society, and even in the UK, this would involve reprinting
the relevant sections and, ideally, making as many of these changes
at once as possible as a bit of a doff of the cap to the gods of efficiency.
As is their way, the Poles dont have much truck with efficiency
of avoiding needless confusion and are content to simply write, by hand,
the new information onto a bit of space on the timetable as these changes
Presumably there is a kind of saturation point, at which the timetable
is reprinted including all these annotations but what this point is
I couldnt say as the norm is for some amount of red pen to be
visible at all times. In Warszawa Centralna, probably one of Polands
biggest stations, it was actually in pencil rather than red pen. Welcome
to the 21st century.
Today, not for the first time, I almost fell victim to this national
administrational quirk. After waiting patiently on peron 5 for the arrival
of the 18.12 to Kobrzeg (which, interestingly means Circles
edge. Shame I wont make it quite that far to find out more,
though to be honest edge or Brzeg was pretty underwhelming),
I consulted the timetable once more for some reassurance that I was
in the right place. Only now, on this casual additional glance, did
I notice the red biro numeral I next to the V in the peron column telling
me I should be on peron 4 not 5! Had I not checked I would now be on
a train to Warsaw wishing Id taken the first ticket I was given
at the desk. A close shave indeed and, now, keen as they are to make
sure nobody gets so much as a minute of unpaid for first class time,
Ive already had my ticket checked- were not even beyond
the city limits- and discovered both my big worries can now be forgotten
and I can relax and enjoy the journey.
As expected, first class on the PKP network is not much of a step up
from second class. In return for the additional 50% you pay on top of
the standard price you get the following: a red seat, instead of the
blue/green efforts that the mere mortals seem content with in second
class and, er, thats about it. Oh no, wait, not only is the seat
red but its also the train seat equivalent of a detached house
to the terraces in the green carriages. It also has a lever on the right
hand side that a person could be forgiven for thinking would cause their
seat to recline somewhat. Said person would probably be slightly miffed
at the 1mm (max) of movement in seat position resulting from pulling
their lever. Not quite the opulence I was hoping for but, lets
face it, no surprise.
As Im made of sterner stuff than those who would allow their spirits
to be dampened by such trifling disappointment, Ive already got
over it and moved on to crossing my fingers for less delays than on
my last journey along this stretch between Kraków and Warsaw.
Our first stop. No idea where though, again a common situation here
in Poland. Except for the very biggest station in the major cities,
any given station will have a maximum of one sign telling you where
you are (Kozów apparently).
Back in second class today, and with something of a bang- not only did
I miss out on a red seat, I spent the first four hours of the journey
without any form of seat, with only the toilet opposite me for company.
Or so I thought.
During this time sat on the floor of the carriage, which was, I must
admit, a very similar shade of red to that normally signifies first
class seats, I found myself in the company of Przemek and Grzegorz.
They were are an odd pair- Przemek was probably late 20s, had blond
hair, increasingly red skin on the face and an earring in one ear and
Grzegorz must have been 25 years older with that classic symbol of trustworthiness
in Poland, a big bushy moustache. They were both very much on the scruffy
side of unkempt and I had no trouble spotting them for the heavy drinkers
they soon transpired to be. A sort of latter day Polish Steptoe and
son. No sooner had the train pulled out of my starting point of Biaogard,
when the vodka came out. At first I decided against taking a swig of
the bottle when they offered- I had stuff to do that required a reasonable
level of concentration- but I soon came to the dawning realisation that
the reason there werent usually people sitting where I currently
was is because its not very comfortable, despite its redness.
A bit of alcohol would definitely make the journey go smoother. Whilst
doing so I adopted the fairly paradoxical, but at the same time not
uncommon, view that any potential germ sharing could be ignored because
the strong booze would kill them off, then poured the same killer
vodka down my neck.
We got chatting, as guys do when sharing a bottle of vodka and a view
of a manky train toilet, mostly about England as it was important to
steer clear of any subjects that might raise the ire of Grzegorz. Alas,
this included virtually everything, given his intense dislike of pretty
much anyone born outside of Âlàsk- at one point I had to
hastily retract a statement about the ugliness of Katowice compared
to Kraków. To be honest Katowice even makes most other industrial
wastelands look good, but Grzegorz was having none of that. The safest
topics were London, where Grzegorzs son has lived for the past
10 years, and, when they discovered that I was English, their knowledge
of the English language.
As one spoiled by constant exposure to Poles who speak English better
than some natives, I was initially amazed by the fact that Grzegorz
knew only two words: tomorrow and left (apparently
he always has to tell taxi drivers to go left in London) - a bizarre
combination, but he was none the less proud for that. Przemek was also
very limited, with vocabulary extended to of course and
no. As we were drinking, I did teach them water
but must concede that it was swiftly forgotten. Przemek also tried to
get the fact hed seen Clockwork Orange added
in to his linguistic CV but, come on
Just as the bottle was nearing its end and I was hoping there wouldnt
be a second (mercifully, there never was), a third musketeer arrived-
J´drusz- who was much less drunk than these original two and equally
more pleased to hear about my Englishness, especially when the news
that I was an English teacher came out again. He was very keen for his
daughter to improve her English and, to her no doubt immense annoyance,
proceeded to call her at regular intervals over the time we were together
and demanded we speak to each other in English so she could practice.
He was actually a really nice guy, showed me loads of pictures of his
children- my new mate Aneta included naturally- and even sent me his
favourite one of said daughter so I could see who Id been talking
As the vodka, and then beer, was going down amongst the boys, but no
longer me, the three of them became increasingly difficult to understand.
Grzegorz in particular was an almost impossible conversation partner
and Przemek was largely asleep after we polished off the vodka (he and
Grzegorz did by far the bulk of the work) so I spent a lot of time talking
to J´drusz, a much more cheerful fellow, who found it impossible
to contain his immense amusement at the state the other two had got
themselves into. He also explained to me that people from Âlàsk
are not real Poles, that they speak a different language and are basically
Germans. He even jokingly told Grzegorz not to talk about Poles as we
or us but, as Grzegorz himself was not one, to refer to
Poles as you.
I had been starting to get a little uneasy in their company by the time
we reached Jarowice, so when it looked as if Grzegorz might be kicked
of the train there, I was full of guilty hopes of freedom. Exactly what
went on between him and the conductor Im not sure about but, around
an hour earlier, Grzegorz had given him his ID as he didnt have
a ticket. Here in Jarowice, the conductor came back with forms for Grzegorz
and Przemek to sign. As he was about to continue along the train, Grzegorz
started shouting and swearing about his ID, which he claimed had not
been returned After a few minutes of this and a second conductor stepping
in to assist, the ID was eventually found- in Grzegorzs pocket
and the train rolled on.
Eventually even J´drusz became difficult to understand, especially
over the noise of the train, so Im not exactly sure what kind
if arrangement I agreed to with regards to his daughters English
teaching, but he gave me her number and I gave him mine. I would have
given him a fake one just in case it was some sort of elaborate trick
to steal all my money and kill me but, curse modern technology; he had
his mobile ready to check it worked and, in the process, give me his
The whole time Id had in my head the plan to use the stop at Poznan,
where, as expected, most of those taking up the space in the compartments
got off, to give these guys the slip and breathe some fresh air (no
smoking signs held no fear for them). Unfortunately, it turned out that
they werent as happy sitting by the toilet as Id thought
and had all had the very same idea except in their version I stayed
with them and, seeing no way for my version to win out without causing
massive unnecessary offence, off we trooped to find a compartment together.
The disappointment on the faces of the old couple in the compartment
we chose was almost amusing. Almost, but I preferred to keep quiet and
let them concentrate their passive-aggressive disapproval on Grzegorz,
the smelliest of the four of us.
Another enforced phone call to Aneta put paid to that- civilised old
couples with cute Dachshunds as company are apparently not as impressed
by Englishmen and the English language as drunkards are- and we sat
in uncomfortable silence until another lady bravely joined us and took
the seat next to Grzegorz. A mistake she was soon to regret. He seemed
to think it might be a brilliant idea to put his arm around her in one
of his short spells of wakefulness. It definitely wasnt. She started
crying once Przemek and J´drusz had persuaded Grzegorz to keep
his hands to himself and go back to sleep, then she surreptitiously
swapped places with the old man. To be fair to all concerned, the incident
was swiftly forgotten and, with the dog acting as a focus for everyones
affection and positivity, we all got on much better until J´drusz,
the old couple and the other lady got off in Wrocaw.
By then it was past dark and Grzegorz and Przemek (travelling all the
way to Katowice with me- what luck I have!) have been sound asleep for
a while, along with the students who joined us in Wrocaw. Seemingly
the adventures have come to an end for today.
Almost half way through my two hour pit stop in Katowice and all is
surprisingly quiet so far, especially compared to the journey down here.
Grzegorz and Przemek were either unimpressed with my return to the books
once we got to the compartment or simply too drunk/tired/both to remember
me as, when we arrived and got off the train there wasnt so much
as a word of parting said between us. As the usual custom here between
those sharing a compartment on a train is to say hello to everyone when
you get on the train and enter the compartment and then goodbye when
you are leaving them, my money is on the first option.
The lesson tomorrow morning is really looming large now; its quite
annoying that I can almost get a decent amount of sleep but am stranded
here until 1.30 and dont get to Kraków until 3am. Really,
why would they schedule a train to arrive at such a time? Surely they
must realise how awkward it is for me! Still, three hours sleep is better
than nothing and is a good amount, being made up as it is of two full
90 minute cycles as recommended by the sleep experts. How does a person
become a sleep expert? How do they measure how well someone
has slept? What does sleeping well even mean? Do people sleep better
as they get older? Lets face it, any new mother will tell you
that babies are rubbish at it- no discipline- and the elderly seem much
more proficient. Can it really be true that everybody has this same
90 minute REM cycle? Perhaps Ive just got sleep on the brain too
much. Now that Im here and just waiting, unable to sleep for fear
of missing the train, I find myself starting to need it more and more.
Being afflicted with an inability to sleep anywhere unless provided
with a decent, horizontal, preferably comfortable and bed-like, surface
to lie on, including in any form of vehicle Ill be awake for the
last leg of the journey too and am half hoping for a couple more pijaks
on board as entertainment. Hopefully the man sat next to me here in
the station with the smelly smoked fish and bread breakfast wont
be anywhere near me though. Only time will tell.
© Andrew Hodgson
all rights reserved - all comments are the writers' own responsibility
- no liability accepted by hackwriters.com or affiliates.