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The International Writers Magazine: Closely Observed Trains:

To Hell (sort of) and back
Andrew Hodgson

Friday 15.36
"There’s no space left in the sleeper compartments- all we have are regular seats but only in first class. The price is 105z"
"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 week’s 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 else’s 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, I’ll be travelling back down the way I’m about to go. This was, of course, the cause of my enforced dabble into first-class travel.

Even aside from the awaiting reunion with Poland’s finest looking woman- whoever told me that the further north in Poland you go, the more beautiful the woman get was certainly not wrong- I’m 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
LADY: 18.00?
ME (slightly confused): Er, yes
LADY: Are you paying by card or cash?
ME: Card
LADY: 95z
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 wouldn’t have survived)
LADY (still annoyed): Your payment was cancelled, here’s the receipt. See? Cancelled
ME:OK, thanks
LADY: So Koszalin. Sleeper?
ME (praying for spaces): Yes
LADY: There are no spaces left. You’ll have to have just a regular seat.
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 exchange
LADY: Denied
ME: Sorry?
LADY: Denied. Your payment was denied.
ME: Try this one
I hand over UK card, which receives a thorough and extremely suspicious examination
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 you’ve forced them into the job they clearly hate? It’s not my fault!!
LADY: Thank you
Returns card
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, I’m 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 around us.
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 don’t 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 arise.

Presumably there is a kind of saturation point, at which the timetable is reprinted including all these annotations but what this point is I couldn’t say as the norm is for some amount of red pen to be visible at all times. In Warszawa Centralna, probably one of Poland’s 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 ‘Circle’s edge’. Shame I won’t 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 I’d 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, I’ve already had my ticket checked- we’re 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, that’s about it. Oh no, wait, not only is the seat red but it’s 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, let’s face it, no surprise.

As I’m made of sterner stuff than those who would allow their spirits to be dampened by such trifling disappointment, I’ve 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 weren’t usually people sitting where I currently was is because it’s 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 Grzegorz’s 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 he’d 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 wouldn’t 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 I’d been talking to.

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 I’m not sure about but, around an hour earlier, Grzegorz had given him his ID as he didn’t 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 Grzegorz’s pocket and the train rolled on.

Eventually even J´drusz became difficult to understand, especially over the noise of the train, so I’m not exactly sure what kind if arrangement I agreed to with regards to his daughter’s 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 number.

The whole time I’d 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 weren’t as happy sitting by the toilet as I’d 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 wasn’t. 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 everyone’s 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 wasn’t 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; it’s quite annoying that I can almost get a decent amount of sleep but am stranded here until 1.30 and don’t 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? Let’s 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 I’ve just got sleep on the brain too much. Now that I’m here and just waiting, unable to sleep for fear of missing the train, I find myself starting to need it more and more. Typical.

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 I’ll 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 won’t be anywhere near me though. Only time will tell.

© Andrew Hodgson

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