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na wschód młody człowiek 05/08/2010

Posted by brendan in Avions, Trains et Voitures.
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A Little History

I needed beer and coffee, preferably in that order. This was the only thought to occupy my already sodden and battered brain which had begun to suffer at six in the morning several countries away. What kind of beer? Whatever’s written on this huge umbrella. Is it rude to point at the word and make drinking motions? I let Janice handle the ordering.

Where are we? So far as I could tell several hundred years in the past. We sat on a collection of lawn furniture scattered outside the Hybyrda, crown jewel of Rynek. There were a couple other midday drinkers jabbering in foreign tongues or silently running their eyes over the cobblestones of Tarnów’s old town center. A hundred feet away workers pieced together a stage; chairs had been arranged to receive whatever dignitaries wished to witness the approaching grandeur. Periodic bursts of artillery rattled windows and my eardrums. Men staggered across the plaza wearing silly clothes and carrying swords.

What’s this church doing in the middle of the square? It used to be town hall, sometime before the city expanded into the surrounding hills under Soviet supervision. What the hell are those explosions? Armored police vans and families licking ice-cream cones walked past the hidden source of this terrible din exhibiting no interest. A man dressed up like an extra from Monty Python’s Holy Grail slowly dragged a cannon down the sidewalk.

Poland is a very strange place. I knew this trip was going to be difficult, that between the language and a legacy of poverty there would be a thin line for me to walk. A steward on the plane caught me taking his picture while illustrating the correct usage of oxygen masks and made a point to wave his finger and hiss at me, returning to my seat after the safety dance to gripe about the photography policy. I asked him for a whiskey.

Kraków Glówny

Krakow International Airport relies on shuttles to get from the tarmac into the terminal. After stumbling through empty customs gates I referred to the bundle of notes and maps and unintelligible phrases Janice had mailed to prepare me. She wrote I should take the bus to the tram. There’s a bus waiting out front and the signs scream FREE like it’s a promotional deal. We rumble off, take a left, take a right, here’s the tram. What was the point of sitting down?

The tram is not FREE, but I don’t see any automatic ticket kiosks my notes describe. A team of uniformed women swoop in from the corners to begin taking people’s money. The tourist across from me struggles to communicate when his turn comes, and I watch the tortured transaction for clues on the correct procedure. Then a Polish girl, then my turn. The conductor scribbles out a pass, punches the pass, hands me the pass and my change. There’s no stops between the airport and the train station– why the tickets and scribbling and punches?

It had been decided I would not be able to actually buy a ticket. There are no automatic kiosks, just a subterranean bunker behind a thick pane of plexiglass that with a hole cut at about waist height. There was a lot of arguing going on, entire families of people had strewn bags throughout the narrow concrete corridor and were taking turns yelling through the little hole. No one seemed to be buying any tickets but everyone seemed upset. My notes did not cover how to understand being told the trains weren’t running.

What my notes did contain was a script. I smiled. The woman looked a little uncomfortable but filled out on the madlibs Janice and Ania had prepared. This line for the time of the train, this line for the amount I was paying, this line for the platform. It took less than three minutes and no one had to yell.

Kraków

The first word I read on the schedule is Tarnów. A narrow corridor thick with a stench of grease ran alongside little booths. I chose the first empty compartment and reviewed my notes. How can I set on the left side of the train when that’s the corridor? I sat as far away from where I am supposed to be sitting.

Two teenagers join me. They are loud, joking and drinking soda. I assumed that at some point in their ceaseless stream of prattle I have been addressed but nothing is going to tear my gaze away from the window. The train begins rolling, the kids settle into seats across from me, Krakow begins to slip past the window. Tall brick buildings, peeling paint, stained concrete, a river. A girl joined us at a suburban station. She ignored the teenagers too, or at least the bigger one who can’t seem to control his enthusiasm for conversation.

At some point I notice that I have been left alone. The girl disappeared, the two boys lurk in the doorway, people choke the corridor. A train conductor walks through punching tickets, but nearly eats his mustache when he sees mine. There’s a furious torrent of Polish which I attempt to repel by waving my train station ticket buying note in his face, finger indicating the line about how I don’t speak Polish. He reached out into the hall to grab the girl who had been sitting next to me.

She explained I am sitting in a first class seat with a second class ticket and I am expected to pay the difference. Oh, I’m sorry, I’ll just leave. No, he wants you to pay the difference because you’ve been sitting in first class for so long. That’s stupid, and she agrees. The conductor’s mustache was trembling with fury and I stood up to grab my bag. He’s about shoulder height and stared up at me while she explained I didn’t want to pay. Some hand-waving, angry Polish, but he cleared out and I thank the girl.

Then It Got Weird

Then there’s Janice, and we’re walking through a park and it’s really hot today but look at this this towering red-brick church. Polish traffic, Polish police, we walk up a Polish street and stop at a Polish bank. All of this builds up to our drinking Polish beer at a Polish cafe. A troop of teenaged Polish girls wearing a variety of uniforms parade past, hooking around the lawn furniture and descending on the stage where they stand at attention. No one on the patio has any idea what the stage is for but they’re determined to wait all day and see. We drink our Polish coffee, pay with some Polish money, and head out to Janice’s Polish apartment leaving the cannon bursts behind.

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