Friday, 19 August 2011
On my last day in Krakow, my overnight train to Dresden didn’t leave until 11 PM or so. So I had some time to wander around a bit, and have a last look around the main square set to music, thanks to my earbuds. And accompanied by a waffle with chocolate sauce. But I’d need more substantial fare for dinner, so I went to a nearby Polish restaurant and ordered a pork flambé (traditional Cracovian fare, I was assured by the menu) and a vodka sampler.
Normally my alcohol tolerance is low, and I didn’t plan on finishing all those vodkas – drunkenly staggering to my train that evening with my 500-pound suitcase just didn’t seem like a very good idea. But by the end of the evening all the vodka was gone, and while I was pleasantly buzzed, I could walk in a straight line and seemed in control of all my faculties. Which was a good thing, because I had a 500-pound suitcase to carry to the train, and I didn’t want to be late for my very important date.
Nevertheless I almost was. I staggered aboard the train in a very un-drunk-like way, bathed in sweat, relieved that I was able to find it in time – all thanks to the help of a very kind late-night constable who may have surmised the content of my speech by the manic panic with which I uttered it. I should say that my difficulty in finding the train had nothing to do with the liquor inside me; it had everything to do with the foolishness and stupidity with which Polish train stations are constructed. The tracks are not directly connected with the main building, and the main building houses the display board which tells you which track your train is at. So if you’re on a train, and you need to connect to another train, you may have to walk several hundred meters (I’m quite serious) to learn that the track you sought was right next to you. What do you do then? You walk back again. This caused me a great deal of frustration in my clear-headed state.
“Methinks he doth protest too much,” you might say. But you’d be wrong.
The train was an over-nighter and, as always, I set my alarm some time ahead of our expected arrival so that I could make sure I got off at the right station. I had to make a connection in Wroclaw and I was at least a little disappointed that I couldn’t spend more time there. I first heard about the city when I was four or five, and I’d lay awake at night, transfixed and mesmerized by the dream of one day seeing all the curbs, electric metering trucks, and hot water heaters there. One day, I thought. One day.
But when I pulled into the station – at around 5:40 in the morning (right on time, I thought with some satisfaction) – I couldn’t read the sign saying what station we were at. This had nothing to do with my vivid lucidity and clear-headedness (“Methinks he doth protest too much”) or the glasses I was squinting through; the angle was simply awful. I was in the last car, and it was a long train – you try reading a sign from an 8-degree angle. But I didn’t have time to dither; the whistle sounded (little more than a minute after the train arrived) and the train started to move. I had my 600-pound bag in one hand and I was in harness with my backpack, standing on the bottom step, inches above the platform that slid by with increasing speed. I was ready to get off, but I wanted to wait to see if, as I got closer to the sign and a proper 90-degree viewing angle, I’d be able to read it. But the train reached an unsafe speed long before I could. I had to make a decision, and I stepped off.
Naturally, dragging my suitcase by both its tusks, I made my way over to the station sign. “Brzeg,” it said.
I said some impolite and impolitic things. The sign was phlegmatically unmoved.
Fortunately, there was another train, which arrived at 6:30 am, which could take me the rest of the way to Wroclaw. The scheduled travel time was 40 minutes, and my connecting train left Wroclaw at 7:30 am, so I’d be in good shape if it arrived on time. It didn’t. It ran late, just like my original train. It ran 20 minutes late precisely, in fact. As it pulled into the Wroclaw station I tensed my body like a panther, ready to lunge when the doors were opened. They did and I lunged and, storming past an elderly woman close enough to send her spectacles and cane clattering to the sidewalk, I looked with fantastic panic for the departures sign, which would have the track information I needed for the other train. It wasn’t there, nor anywhere. By the time I cornered a station conductor, about two minutes later, to pantingly ask, “Dresden?” the response I received is, “Dresden is…go.”
This necessitated a trip to the main station building, and, head bowed under the 700-pound weight of my suitcase, I carried it there like its proper slave. The international departures line was long, and the attendant spoke no English (only Polish, German, and a host of other languages of no use to me), but I was able to secure a spot on the next train – which left at 1:30 PM, or about 5 hours. So I had five hours to kill – five whole hours with which to explore the curbs, electric metering trucks, and water heaters I had dreamed of in my youth.
But I couldn’t do so while I served as my own luggage slave. Fortunately there were lockers, and while these weren’t free – they cost the equivalent of about $3 in Polish zlotys – I had barely enough Polish currency left. One of the ticket lines extended flush against the face of the lockers, so I waited in line until I could approach one without eliciting any angry Polish elbows. I read what instructions there were thoroughly, but while I learned that there were no refunds – this seemed to be an important point – I could not find where the key was. Apparently, it emerged from a little hole in the bottom, so I put in my money and received no key.
Sighing, I left the line to withdraw some more money from the ATM, and then convert some of this into coins with the purchase of a doughnut. These coins I then inserted into another locker, after spending the requisite time waiting in line, and no key emerged.
“Something’s wrong with these lockers,” I thought. So I stepped back to apply some lucid, clear-headed thought to the problem (“He doth protest too much”). I put the money in, and no key emerged. Both lockers must be broken, I decided. As I thought about the problem, I continued to advance in line, until I realized, with a start, that the lockers right next to the ticket window had keys protruding. “Ahhh,” I thought, marveling at my own insight. These were the lockers I had to use.
Since I’d used up all my coins, I made another trip for another doughnut, returned, stood in line, advanced, and placed my luggage in the locker. Money went in, the key came out, and all was as it should be.
Wroclaw was a mess of sleeting rain, which dribbled down my face and beneath my clothes. I had no umbrella – it was in my luggage in the locker – but I had a long sleeve shirt which served the important purpose of capturing the rain and holding it close against my skin. I found it difficult to see; I wiped my glasses against my wet shirt, smearing the moisture around, but this did little to improve my vision. Eventually I despaired; a hot water heater could be right in front of me and I’d be unable to see it. My childhood dream was in ruins.
Eventually, I took shelter from the rain in a Polish mall – yes, the Poles have sprawly malls too – where I sat down with my computer to surf the web and marinate in my mustiness. And reflect on what kind of ad might most effectively sell electronic cigarettes. It should have an apple, I decided, to imply health. And a topless lady, I added quickly. Because electronic cigarettes and topless ladies have so much in common.
The train to Dresden was German, spotless, and a model of efficiency. In fact throughout my time in Germany I was amazed by how reliably the trains ran on time. Before arriving in Germany I wouldn’t have expected that. But more about German trains in a bit.