The only journey I make on Polish trains with any kind of frequency is the trip from Krakow to Warsaw. Despite their rarity I’ve come to dread these expeditions. Number one on my hate list is the compartment carriage. Some people seem to like those six-seat cubicles, chiefly because you get to say “Dzień dobry” to the other occupants when you sit down. I agree, there is something pleasingly sophisticated about this, but it’s a short-lived thrill: the other two hours and fifty nine minutes are largely taken up with unpleasant knee contact and finding an infinity of excuses to gaze out of the window rather than directly into the face of the complete stranger sitting an arm’s reach in front of you.
Even assuming you know these people, how comfortable can this be?
Maybe there was a time when fellow travellers blithely chatted away the 97 hours it takes to get anywhere on Polish rail, but that time is gone. I’m not prepared to start a conversation with random Jacek opposite until I’m absolutely confident of my ability to bail out of there in the next 10 minutes. Especially without access to beer. No matter how rigid your stare discipline you inevitably make eye contact with your fellow sufferers every ten minutes or so. I have no idea how to react. Social behaviour patterns born from twenty years of city living tell me this chance sucker should be gone and out of sight in a fraction of a second, but he’s still there three hours later; it’s the ultimate slow-motion nightmare.
The perils of talking to fellow passengers:
There are a few potential escape strategies:
No part of catching a Polish train fits with my natural sleep pattern, especially since my natural sleep pattern includes keeping my eyes closed for as long as humanly possible after sunrise. If you want to be in Warsaw in time to do anything other than drink, you have to get up at an ungodly hour. Admittedly, my definition of ‘ungodly hour’ differs from anybody who has children or an office job. Fortunately I gave up believing in early-riser propaganda long ago: you may think that getting up at 6 am everyday is a remarkable and healthy achievement but, as far as I’m concerned, organising your life so that you don’t have to get up at 6 am is a considerably greater and healthier one.
The long and the short of it is that I’m always bleary from sleep deprivation when I get on the train to Warsaw. Theoretically this is a good thing, because it means I can snooze rather than play gaze-avoidance with chummy opposite. In practice it means I get to snore, drool and flop around in an embarrassing way in a tiny room full of other people. I wouldn’t mind so much, but sometimes they take pictures.
This is the obvious and most promising sanity preserver, unfortunately there is very little to look at, unless you have a thing about coniferous trees. Travelling from Krakow to Warsaw makes you realise just how empty Poland is. There isn’t a single big town, let alone a city, along the entire 300-km route. In the UK you can’t travel 30 km without coming across an urban centre. Weirdly, the closer to Warsaw you get, the wilder and more empty the country becomes. Leave Krakow and there are occasional villages and train stations for 45 minutes or so, before you go through the only tunnel on the line and enter the Jurassic Era. There’s nothing out there but forests. Very occasionally you see a field with a building near it and a guy scratching his head in a skeptical manner.
I hope you like trees…
I made the trip a few weeks ago and a lot of the countryside was on fire. Spring bonfires are one of the things that still confuse me in Poland. Where I come from, you burn the leaves and the dead bracken in autumn; bonfire smoke is very definitely an autumn thing. In Poland the fallen leaves are almost immediately covered by nine feet of snow, making them tricky to burn. The incineration of last-year’s foliage takes place in spring, which is all very natural and sensible but gives me severe season dizziness.
Standing in the corridor
The one advantage of compartment carriages is that they have corridors where you can stretch your legs and peer out at the identical emptiness on the other side of the train. I’m a huge proponent of hanging around in Polish train corridors and leaning out of the window; there’s something satisfyingly timeless about it: I imagine myself a Wehrmacht conscript on my way to the Eastern Front, a partisan flitting between the trees, and a Solidarność activist with a forged travel pass in my pocket all at the same time. The only problem with these romantic imaginings accompanied by the rushing wind is that you never hear the wide-load babcie looming behind you with the sharp umbrella.
The train corridor is the place to be