The story of my journey to Koszalin in the north of Poland last year so it sort of doesn’t break the ‘last post of the year’ rule I set myself.
“There’s no space left in the sleeper compartments- all we have are regular seats but only in first class. The price is 105zł”
“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.
WAITING, WAITING, WAITING
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 go1. This was, of course, the cause of my enforced dabble into first-class travel. Whatever happens while I’m there, it can only be a vast improvement on the expected hellish journey and the farcical events at the ticket desk.
Yes, I made it sound 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 told, a very different picture is painted. The full exchange between me and the lady serving me at the ticket desk was something like this:
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
1 I was soon to discover the error in my thinking here. Friday evening has nothing on Sunday….
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
LADY (still annoyed): Your payment was cancelled, here’s the receipt. See? Cancelled
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). 105zł
ME: OK, no problem
I hand over my card again, this time getting a ticket to Koszalin in exchange
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
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
TOO MUCH WAITING CAUSES THE MIND TO WANDER
Only 53 minutes left until departure now, and the usual worries experienced when travelling on the Polish railways are surfacing again. The main points of concern are always two, and they are “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. me, are seemingly the principal targets of the equally complex 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. No help at all from the impenetrable announcements spouting from the public address, serving the sole purpose of raising the general level of ignorance as to what is going around us.
NOT THE BEGINNING OF THE END, JUST THE BEGINNING OF THE BEGINNING
Today, not for the first time, I almost fell victim to the national administrational quirk of simply writing over pieces of the timetable, by hand, when the time or peron of a train changes. After waiting patiently on peron 5 for the arrival of the 18.12 to Kołobrzeg (which, interestingly means ‘Circle’s edge’. Shame I won’t make it quite that far to find out more, though to be honest ‘Edge’. Brzeg near Wrocław 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. A close shave indeed.
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 that’s about it. Oh no, wait, not only is the seat red and slightly larger, 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.
OUR FIRST STOP
No idea where though, again a common situation here in Poland. Except for the very biggest stations in the major cities, any given station will have a maximum of one sign telling you where you are.
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 4 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.
No sooner had the train pulled out of my starting point of Białogard, 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.
We got chatting, as guys do when sharing a bottle of vodka and a view of a filthy 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 Śląsk- 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 INTERNATIONAL 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 2 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.
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- Jędrusz- who was much less drunk 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 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 friend 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, the 3 of them became increasingly difficult to understand. Grzegorz in particular was an almost impossible conversation partner and Przemek was mostly 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 Jędrusz, 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 Śląsk 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, as ‘you’.
I had been starting to get a little uneasy in their company by the time we reached Jastrowie, 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 Jastrowie, 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.
The whole time I’d had in my head the plan to use the stop at Poznan, where, as expected, most passengers got off, to give these guys the slip and breathe some fresh air (no smoking signs held no fear for them). Unfortunately,they’d had the same idea so 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. To be fair to all concerned, the incident was swiftly forgotten and, with the dog acting as a focus for everyone’s affection, we all got on much better until Jędrusz, the old couple and the other lady got off in Wrocław.
By then it was past dark and Grzegorz and Przemek (travelling all the way to Katowice with me- what luck I have!) have since been sound asleep, along with the students who joined us. Seemingly the adventures have come to an end for today.
AN EMOTIONAL FAREWELL
Almost half way through my 2 hour pit stop in Katowice and all is surprisingly quiet so far. 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.
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 drunks on board as entertainment. Hopefully the man sat next to me here in the station with the smelly breakfast of smoked fish and bread won’t be anywhere near me though.