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The Grand Adventure In Eastern Europe
I was basically "winging it"; I hadn't prepared an itinerary beyond the first week and literally had a whole continent at my disposal. I made it to Gdansk before the Polish train strike seriously bit, although in Poznan the previous day I only made it to the central station at midnight thanks to a horrendous, British-style two-hour train delay. This was compounded on the way to Gdansk by writing the wrong date on my inter-rail ticket, and when the guard let off a long stream of virtually incomprehensible Polish, it took two more guards and another passenger to translate what exactly I had done wrong. It was just my luck that another passenger entered the crowded compartment further on down the line and offered to put my bag up on the rack so she could sit on the seat in front. I could understand what she was saying because of her gestures and because she said one word "gora," which means up and that, along with the word for "sorry", I had (inexplicably) memorised from the increasingly useless phrasebook I borrowed off my aunt. But of course, the woman who had translated my earlier conversation was pissed off enough to grumble one word -- "Angielska" ("English") -- that had the other passenger nod indulgently. She let me keep my bag down though!
Luckily I had planned three days in Gdansk, so by the time Monday came around I was planning my next move. I am not a big fan of sleeping on trains (I never do, and I end up wasting a day at the other end crashed out on my hotel bed; this happened in both Berlin and Prague) so I planned to get up exceedingly early to go east some 200km (c 150 miles) to a town called Bialystok, about 70km/40 miles from the Belarussian border, which I had no visa to cross.
I arrived with plenty of time to spare at the station, and left around 6:00 a.m., but even then spent part of the seven-hour journey squashed between a party of schoolchildren bound for the Polish lakeland Mazuria. Thankfully my destination was way beyond theirs, although with my traveling gear one of the other passengers mistook me for a member of the school party and started to heave down my belongings from the rack when they all piled off the train. I settled myself down by the window seat when this was sorted out, thankfully requiring nothing but a few grunts, since my Polish is non-existent despite having close links with the country. I got out my map and worked out from passing towns where exactly we were and where we were headed. Then I got a nasty surprise.
I must mention at this juncture that Polish timetables are even worse than British ones (sorry, I don't know much about the standard of the U.S. railways but ours are so bad we are having to get *Romanian* engineers in to solve the recent problems!). After scouring the platforms at Gdansk to try and find corroboration that my train to Bialystok was in fact the right one to board (I noticed a small sign with the trains to B listed, but I needed convincing since I couldn't for the life of me find out how to check at the desk that this was the right train), I gave up: The timetables listed the train's start and end points, plus a few stops in between but on the train listed as going to B the timetable was curiously silent on what time or if at all we stopped there. The only place listed was the terminus, "Kuznica Bialostocka." So I looked at the map to try and find K-B, but again, no such luck. But around B itself I found a lot of places called "XXX-Bialostocka" so I assumed that was it! K-B was merely the name of the Bialystok station.
So when I was looking at the map on the train and found out, at my leisure, that K-B was 70km away on the Belarussian border, I was mortified. Again I reckoned that a train to such a little place "near" the big city of B might well stop at B itself, but because of not being able to communicate with one's fellow passengers, I was lost until I could work out which railway lines we were using on the map, where precisely we were at any given moment. This produced the delightful side-effect of seeing Mazuria in all its unspoiled -- for a former Communist country, anyway -- beauty. Some of the resorts looked like they hadn't been repaired since the '60s; in the middle of summer the place was verdant, the lakes were bright blue, and the people were all on their holidays or returning from them). At Elk, the last major town, I managed to work out that if we changed direction we were OK, but if we carried on in the same direction I was making a definitely unplanned journey to Belarus -- one of the last dictatorships this side of the Mediterranean. Luckily, we slid out of Elk in the direction from which we had just come, and I was able to concentrate on the scenery properly.
Of course, all this trouble meant that I was looking forward to Bialystok and my subsequent connection to Lublin. Now what my "Rough Guide" -- very rough, if you ask me -- neglected to mention was that Bialystok, despite being a former Russian and Jewish enclave, had been turned after WWII into a Polish industrial heartland. The tourist industry was therefore significantly underwhelming, and the only youth hostel -- the only affordable accommodation -- had closed for good. I was looking lost around the town centre and just about to go and get a train to Warsaw and reconsider my itinerary there (the connection to Lublin described in the guidebook was also non-existent, so I missed out on seeing the cradle of the Polish "revolution" of the late '40s) when an English-speaking architectural student (who had lived for some months in Brixton, South London, of all places) saved my bacon and invited me home. After looking at and photographing the non-descript churches and houses that actually survived the Nazi and Soviet occupations, and seeing a newly built and consecrated Orthodox church with a wonderfully informed guide, Ania, I and her bloody gorgeous cousin Jurek went out. I sincerely believe I would have made a move on Jurek if he had spoken more English than "Do you want to eat something?" Even now I might be living out there and have seriously gone native. I wish!
Anyway, Ania had family in Warsaw, and to avoid the same thing happening again she suggested if I got lost or turned up in the capital too late to find a hotel, that I give them a ring. I made my way to Warsaw the next afternoon (after sleeping too late -- catching up with a roaring, but pleasantly acquired, hangover -- to do anything very much before the daily train out of B) to meet a friend from Lodz who had promised to show me around the next afternoon. I made it to Warsaw and to a hotel with little difficulty (except as regards figuring out bus routes to the suburbs) but only hit the streets at around 8:30 p.m. to look for a meal. I ended up walking the whole length of the main street only to end up in a Pizza Hut halfway back to where I'd got off the tram. By the time I got out it was gone 10 o'clock, and I caught a tram back to the point where I'd had to change. But unluckily, that was the last tram out to Praga and I was completely screwed. I waited two hours alone on the streets of a foreign city, missing the hourly night-bus and with little to read while I waited; at last I hailed a taxi.
But the problem then was: How on earth do I pronounce the street where my hotel was? I knew how it sounded but my confidence was shot to pieces by this time, so I asked for the adjacent road, Aleja Solidarnosci. Of course, this just happens to run right across the city from west to east. There was a church near where I was staying, and earlier on I had made a mental note to remember its name as well, but of course in the general agitation and the advancing rainstorm it had slipped my mind ... I don't know how I made it home, but from then on I kept strictly to the beaten track! Apart from the journey back from Oswiecim to Krakow and being flashed en route, that was the last "grand adventure" I had on my summer inter-railing. Needless to say I'm going back next year!
Now, compare this story to how Americans travel through Europe.