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The International Writers Magazine: European Travel - From Our Archives

Round Trip to Hel
Anita Sheard

I can honestly and truly say that I have been to Hel, and back. I went by train; an old black steam train to be precise. As you can imagine, it was a pretty surreal experience, but despite its reputation, Hel wasn’t such a bad place at all. I couldn’t stay long because the train service there was very limited and, unless I wanted to stay at least one night, I had to catch the same train back to real life.
I had no place to be in Hel, nor a place to stay and, feeling that I had been transported there, I wished to remain in control of my destiny and destination.

Hel was hot; that much I can confirm. I travelled through fog, sunshine and lumpy clouds to get there and it was an arduous journey. I was alone for most of the journey and had time to wonder at the isolation I was travelling through and to. I wrote notes about the journey because it was so affective. I remember the strange shifts between colour, the yellow fields, and the blindness created by the fog that surrounded the train at times, giving the impression that I was drifting in clouds.

I said that the journey was arduous and that was because there was no comfort offered along the way, despite travelling 1st class. It was a trip lasting many hours, but there was no buffet, let alone restaurant car and 1st class was more like 3rd class in a restored railway carriage on a preserved line in England. Additionally, despite the romance of steam trains, they are definitely less comfortable than modern trains on modern seamless tracks. There’s the jerky take-off from the station and of course the smutty flecks such as the one which encountered Celia Johnson’s eye at a station somewhere-in-England and started a whole illicit love story.

Anyway, back to Hel (and back). Once arrived, the sun was shining brilliantly, and it was this that made the place extremely hot, not the biblical flames as we are read to believe. In fact they even sold ice cream, which was a most welcome surprise. I can’t remember the name now, but I’m sure I would have remembered if it had been "Lucifer’s Maid" or "Mr Beelzebub".

The return trip was less memorable. Perhaps I fell asleep after my little adventure. Perhaps it was just the way that return journeys always seem to be quicker than the outward part. Perhaps it was because I knew where I was going and returning to "real life" did not hold the same intense excitement as a trip into the unknown.

So, if the question of Heaven and Hel concern you, I would recommend a trip to this little seaside resort on a promontory in Poland. Of course, I can never return, because my fantasy would be shattered. Perhaps it isn’t so little now. In those days there was no real commercialism there; it was the dark, grim days of Communism in 1988. Perhaps now, a smooth modern train runs there, or even no train at all. So send me a postcard from Hel and tell me all about it. Just don’t write "Wish you were here".

© Anita Sheard December 18th 2007

*For those who want to spend next summer in Hel, book early it is a favoured resort for artists, writers and all Poles who love a good beach.

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