‘Mickey Mouse popped out of my mind onto a drawing pad 20 years ago on a train ride from Manhattan to Hollywood at a time when business fortunes of my brother Roy and myself were at lowest ebb and disaster seemed right around the corner’.
There is something mysterious about trains. Old steam-engines make impressive museum pieces. Train rides have served writers and film directors as a perfect background for magic tricks, kidnaps, robberies and building relationships. Basia, the orphaned girl from a beautiful novel for children ‘Awantura o Basię’, written by Kornel Makuszyński, starts her new life on the train station. The main character of the classic Polish novel ‘Lalka’ (the key aspects of which resemble The Great Gatsby written by Scott Fitzgerald 38 years later) discovers the real personality of his beloved lady on the train. The key events of some of the movies of Andrzej Wajda also take place on a train. What is more, the development of the rail transport is impressive, with such speed titans as Maglev and bullet trains. Admiration for trains has been coupled with the fear of train rides. Trains have been associated with accidents, robberies and love stories from the beginning of their existence.
Although the management of PKP (Polish National Railway) is constantly working on improvements, due to the lack of funding, upgrading the Polish train system is very slow and inconsistent. Many of the trains travelling between major Polish cities are old. Charging a phone or hearing a speaker that would inform the passengers where the train is stopping cannot be taken for granted. Some of the regional railway companies still use the trains built in the 70’s. Also many stations do not have electronic boards.
English is rarely spoken by ticket controllers and sellers and the tickets do not have English words. The issues above can make a train journey very confusing for a foreigner. Many people are also warned about robberies which sometimes do happen on Polish trains. There might be a problem with seats- a train ticket sold on the train does not guarantee a seat while the one sold at the station USUALLY does. As a regular passenger I saw people who got furious because despite of paying the full price for the ticket, they had to give up their seat a few times during the ride because people with reservations kept getting on the train. This problem could be solved by upgrading the reservation system; however, again the issue here is the cost of such an upgrade and constant changes inside the train companies.
Despite all the negative sides there are two major advantages of using trains: time and money. Express trains between the main cities travel faster than cars. Moreover, they are cheaper. Poor quality of roads and high prices of gas make trains an attractive option, especially for people who travel quite often. The result is visible- trains are usually packed with passengers. This is perceptible especially in second class compartment cars which do not have much legroom or luggage room.
Fortunately, the number of new trains is constantly increasing. It is worth remembering that the prices of trains vary significantly. For example, a train from Warsaw to Katowice in the second class car may cost 60 PLN or 120 PLN (depending on the company). What is interesting and difficult to understand, is that this price difference is not always reflected in the quality of a journey. However, this may change with time. Many of the large stations in big cities have been upgraded recently and all the information is displayed electronically. There is also an electronic reservation system available in different languages where prices and timetables can be found ( http://www.rozklad-pkp.pl/bin/query.exe/pn? ).
When it comes to safety, the police monitor international trains. Policemen get on a train at the first station within the Polish border, get off at the last station (usually Warsaw or Krakow) and then go back to the border station again. Obviously it is impossible for them to monitor everything that happens on trains. Therefore, basic safety precautions are advisable. Keeping wallets out of the reach and sight of others, locking suitcases, avoiding deep sleeping and getting to know other passengers in your compartment are of the key importance.
Social exchange inspired by a train compartment
As a regular passenger, frequently travelling between Kraków, Warsaw and the Polish-Czech border station Zebrzydowice for almost two years, I became instinctively involved in this special social exchange. I treasure the time when people from different walks of life met in one train compartment travelling in the same direction for different reasons. Not everyone was always open and not every journey was rich in conversations. But there were times when everyone in the compartment participated in multithreaded conversations that lasted for a few hours.
This pretty lady attracted everyone’s attention. She was tall and slim and had leg-long curly blond hair. As she was very open we found out the secret of her beauty. She was a professional dancer and a dance coach. She was on the way back from the performance in Mazury to her Czech hometown Havirov. She spoke Polish thanks to her Polish mother who proudly kept Polish traditions in their Czech house. Familiarity with the Polish language and culture allowed the dancer to expand her workshops outside the Czech Republic. She frequently travelled to Poland to coach young girls to dance and to help prepare choreography for children performances and shows. She also told us about her issues with her teenage students. She believed that the only way to be a good dancer is by hours of practicing. She felt that they expected immediate results without much work and she condemned this attitude a lot. She proudly talked about her greatest achievements: ‘I went to Hong Kong to perform in a Chinese New Year’s show with one of my dance groups. My little girls were dressed as rabbits.’ She was also opened about her problems with relationships: ‘Most of men cannot accept my life style. I do not sit at home and I do not cook and clean. I spend weeks outside of home dressing in short skirts and dancing in front of hundreds of people. My ex-boyfriend was Czech. We were in a relationship for too long. He tried to stop me from pursuing my passion for dancing. I needed time to recover after that relationship. My new boyfriend is Polish. He is different. It seems that he respects my profession and does not try to stop me. But now I am jealous about him. Polish men are different. They stare at pretty girls when their girlfriends are around and they openly talk about women and their beauty, no matter if they are single or not. Czech men go to bars and they are only interested in drinking beer and watching football games.’ She expressed her admiration for Poland multiple times. ‘I like all the religious Polish traditions. They are beautiful. Czech people do not believe in anything. Fortunately, recently more and more people are getting baptized, including myself. I will confess for the first time next week. I am very excited. The good thing is that if someone is religious in the Czech Republic, they are passionate about it. I think in Poland it is more automatic and traditional. People do not appreciate it. Polish people need to start appreciating their country. You have beautiful nature, lakes, the sea… we do not have much compared to you.’ She also talked about the Czech government, elections and Czech citizens’ aversion to foreign rule. I was very happy to discover some aspects of life again, but this time in a different light.
The conversation started when I was asleep. When I woke up I realized that everyone in the compartment has already made friends with each other. I did not hesitate to join this fascinating conversation where people of different professions exchanged their experiences. But the stories of the two young fire fighters got stuck in my memory for a long time. It turned out that one of them had a master’s degree in Mathematics. He admitted that the main result from his studies was that he started noticing how illogical people are. Asked why he and his friend decided to become firefighters they admitted that it was their childhood dream- to save people. They were employed in a local fire station in the region of Silesia and on weekends they attended one of the universities in Warsaw which offered a rare post graduate degree course in firefighting. Although they were reluctant to talk about their job in detail, they had to open up as everyone was curious about their jobs. They were convinced that their job is the ‘dirtiest’ one as they are the first ones called when there is an accident. Therefore, they are the first ones to see separated body parts and people who are dying, panicking and are trapped in different nerve wrecking situations. ‘How do you cope with that?’ everyone was curious. ‘The main thing that keeps us going is our teamwork and mutual support. We would not be able to work successfully without it or to cope mentally with the images we have in our heads after some actions. Of course, there are some funny and strange situations. For example, one time we got a call form an older lady that she did not feel well. We asked her what was wrong and she responded that she saw a ghost. Or another time an old man called us and we actually had to go with the truck to take down his cat from the tree’. Asked if they had to go to the grad school to be firefighters they said: ‘We do not. But it is tough to live for 2 thousand zloty per month. The only way to make more money is to get the degree and be brought to a higher rank.’ Most of us were surprised that firefighters earn so little. ‘We know that the budget is tight and some people think that we do nothing because fires are not that common. But many people do not realize that there are so many accidents on roads and many other non fire related accidents that we deal with, and that our job’s major part is the direct responsibility for people’s lives. Sometimes we have to make extremely important decisions on our feet and then live with the results of those decisions. But we still love our jobs. We just wish we were paid properly. We know that even our neighbors- the Czech fire fighters- are paid twice as much as we are. Sometimes we are thinking of learning another language and going to work in a different country where our work would be rewarded.’
It was a young, slim and a tall girl. At the first sight she did not seem to have any outstanding facial features, but when she said she was a model I could easily see why. She had a perfect figure to present clothes and a perfect face for a creative make up. At the age of 18 she had already travelled around Europe and the USA and met well known celebrities. At the same time she was a modest girl in a grey outfit who still attended high school in a small town near Katowice and was preparing for her high school final exams. ‘What would you like to do in the future?’ ‘After graduating from high school I would like to take time off from school and go to Japan for a year. I was offered a very attractive contract deal there and I am also curious about the Asian culture. I like mathematics, but when I come back I would like to study foreign languages, probably English. She said that she is aware that her modeling career will not last forever, but for the moment it is a very easy way of making money. ‘Sometimes I feel bad that models make so much money for doing literally nothing, while other people, who really deserve a real reward for their jobs, earn pennies’.
It was a very slim lady in her 50-ties, dressed in black. She immediately caught my attention for her beautiful voice and naturally sophisticated language. She looked for conversations with other passengers in our compartment. She was interested in many issues: cooking, family relations, books and travels. She had a lot to say and the way she constructed her very long sentences was outstanding. It reflected a complex thought process that was taking place in her mind during her conversation with the passengers who were sitting near her. At some point she started talking about her stay in a nunnery in Warsaw, where she went to visit her cousin who was a nun. One could easily see that she was full of new energy, similar to that of people who come back from a great journey. She talked about the prayers and the good time that she had in the nunnery with plenty of enthusiasm. Then she took out a small bag full of Holy Medals, and with the sparks in her eyes, she informed everyone that these were The Miraculous Medals of St. Catherine Labourne. Then she told the story about the St. Mary’s manifestation to Catherine Labourne, a twenty four year old novice in the Motherhouse of the Sisters of Charity in France. She explained the symbols that were engraved in the medallions and asked each passenger if they would like one. Two of the passengers did not take the medallions and the others did. However, the contrast between the woman who was full of enthusiasm and passion, and all the reserved young people (who were not interested in continuing the conversation with her after she handed out the medallions) became visible. Probably she did not feel understood as she left the compartment soon after, even though it took another 30 minutes before the train stopped at the next station.
When I came down the escalators onto the platform by which the train going from Warsaw to Prague, Budapest and Vienna (the cars get separated after crossing the Polish border) was supposed to stop, a group of originally looking people caught my attention. They did not look local. First of all they were laud, they wore very colorful clothes, some of them were mixed raced and most importantly, at least 4 of them were operating professional filming equipment. The group turned out to consist of at least 20 people. They were walking around the station, talking to the cameras and singing. One of the girls approached the electronic board to figure out which car they should get into, but she either could not understand it or did not want to. So she stopped a young student and asked him to help her figure out how the trains work, while one of her friends was filming this conversation. From her accent I guessed that they were American and I also overheard that they were travelling to Prague. Who knows… maybe one day someone will watch the train station in Warsaw in an American documentary!
Voice of Poland