Friday, March 24, 2006

Choo choo boo boo

Imagine seeing the first steam engine in 1804. What power! What speed! The great big iron horse coming from places unseen to take you off to new adventures. How exciting! Thoreau viewed the railroad as a turning point in human history.
When I meet the engine with its train of cars moving off with planetary motion... it seems as if the earth had got a race now worthy to inhabit it. If all were as it seems, and men made the elements their servants for noble ends!
Granted he didn't use it much, but he recognized its importance.

I take the train at least once a week, usually twice. I've taken all kinds of trains here in Poland, from the lowly osobowy to the chic Intercity and I've discovered that no matter how much you pay for passage, we all leave our manners in third class

Case 1: The Osobowy

The osobowy train is the budget train here in Poland. This untranslatable little word means something like "the people mover." That's what it does--with brutal efficiency. If you've ever wondered what a sardine feels like when he's in the middle, then the osobowy train is for you. The benches are assumed to sit two people, but when there are four people packed in and facing each other (especially when said passengers have brought luggage), you begin to wonder whether we are getting larger as the years go by.

Under such brutal conditions, you'd expect people to work together to find solutions to our common problems. Maybe by, say, putting luggage somewhere out of the way. As in not in the aisle, which is only about a foot and a half wide, anyway. Perhaps you'd scoot yourself near to the window to indicate that the seat next to you is empty.

Of course, none of us do this. We leave our junk in the aisle and we sit ourselves right in the middle and kind of lean forward in an effort to occupy all four seats at once. We feel like we deserve it. We paid for our ticket and we demand our comfort and space.

Case 2: The Pospieszny

This train, often called "the fast train" in the tourist books, is the bread and butter of Polish transport. These little guys will zip you anywhere you want to go, stopping every 30 minutes or so. No reserved seats, just like the osobowy trains.

The adventure starts on the platform. Everyone stands about, spending their last few minutes with the boyfriends or girlfriends. The brave peek their heads out and look in both directions to see if the train is coming. The persistent peek their heads out and look in both directions to see if the train is coming--every three minutes. Some poor folks are so lost that they don't even know on which side of the platform the train will arrive, so they do the peeking ritual on both sides.

The lights!! The cars!! It's coming!! When the train first turns the corner and is coming towards the platform, everybody suddenly starts walking towards where they think the front of the train will be. That is, if the train is going from Szczecin to Warsaw, you'll suddenly find yourself in the middle of an eastward bound stampede. Why we do this, nobody knows. Why not just space out on the platform and wait til the train stops before aiming for a door? I just don't know.

Then the doors open. Large packs form at each one. The ones in the back start to push in. The poor folks on the train trying to get off have to push their way through the eager soon-to-be passengers. And yes, that little old lady DOES have six pieces of buggage and no she can't lift ANY of them and yes YOU must help her.

Once you make it through the bottleneck (I usually just wait for the end. Someone's gotta be last) it's time to find a seat. But wait!! We are human beings! When we enter the train, we do not just take the first available seat. In accordance with the electrons we are made of, we desire to be equidistant. We simply must wander up and down the aisle and look for the compartment with the fewest people. Nevermind that the compartment will be filled up anyway, we need to be first.

That is, unless we can prevent the compartment from filling up. Here's a little trick that dupes the amateur rider every time. Someone goes into an empty compartment, turns off the lights, and closes the curtains, giving the outside world an image of impenetrability. In a country where most people aren't taught to question authority, a red fabric curtain might as well be a brick wall. And when an intrusive foreigner dares open the door and ask for a free seat, he's greeted with pressed lips and quiet aggression.

The ride is decent unless you happen to share a compartment with someone's dog. Yes, it happens.

Case 3 : The rest

I lump the remaining trains into the same category. Not because they are so similar to each other, just that in comparison to cases 1 and 2, they might as well be airplanes.

There are actually three classes of trains in this category: the express, the Eurocity, and the Intercity. The express is nothing special. It's a pospieszny with seat reservations and one or two fewer stops. But sometimes the seats are a bit more comfortable and these trains are never as crowded. The Intercity train, as the name implies, goes from major city to major city, with no stops in between. It's the Benzo of the trains. I think I've been on it once. The upstart business men like to order their Intercity train ticket by name, "Yes, I'll have the Lech to Warsaw Central tomorrow morning." And those types always get a faktura VAT (fancy receipt for tax reimbursement) that takes an extra 10 minutes.

Then there's the Eurocity. It's the Eurocity across the German border. The most popular one in Poland is the Berlin-Warsaw express. I take this train once a week to Konin. Every week I'm exposed to raw human depravity.

The cars on this train don't have compartments. They've got an aisle down the middle with two seats on each side, like an airplane. You might think that this train would be well-organized. You'd be sorely mistaken. Reading the seat numbers on one side, walking from the back of the car to the front, might go something like this: 1,3,5,9,12,23,15 and so on. And no, I'm not kidding (much).

Such a non-linear numbering method doesn't help people find the right seat. And of course once we get on the train we look for our seat and find someone in it. OK. No big deal. Just find another seat. There are about 150 of them. But the second you sit down (I bet you can guess it) there's someone looking at you and trying to conspicuously look at the seat number above you. They won't say anything, they'll just insinuate. So you get up and find another seat. Repeat two or three times. Eventually, you're in a seat and the train moves on.

I'm just as guilty as anyone else. With this post I just wanted to shed some light on how little we've progressed since Thoreau saw the big iron horse carrying humanity off to the next level. Our technology has advanced, but we're stuck on the Titanic.


At 3/24/2006 11:19:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great comments about my country. You are very observat-I'm impressed.Iwona

At 3/26/2006 02:43:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I love trains. Have you discovered yet that one can travel by trains for two, sometimes 3 days all over Poland for as much as 60 PLZ? This deal starts on Friday 6 PM and is over by Sunday 10 pm and also works fine on long weekends when you have some extra day or two. The ticket's called TURYSTYCZNY and your name is printed on the ticket (so you wouldn't resell it- they say). Aghh, you're probably not interested since you're all loaded, you western foreginers - :)
Anyway, if you want to start your journey before 6 PM on Friday you may buy your ticket to the destination your train would reach by 6 PM and continue on TURYSTYCZNY. I have done that, it works fine. AND TURYSTYCZNY does work on all POSPIESZNYs and OSOBOWYs but not on INTERCITIEs or EXPRESSSs.
AGAIN: trains are very cool in PL and I wish they had more money to invest into infrastructure.

At 4/08/2006 12:43:00 AM, Blogger Bialynia said...

I used to love riding the train in Poland, you could get anywhere. But now the services to smaller locales have been cut severly, my hometown of Milicz doesn't have a quick connection to Wroclaw anymore. It used to have 3 or 4 a day.

Great post BTW.

At 5/16/2006 05:36:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

You obviously travel on the trains often. My wife and I will be taking a train from Warsaw to Konin to meet a cousin whom we have never met before, in Lichen Stary. We are arriving at 14:30 June 9th by air. Can you suggest a web site for train schedules from Warsaw to Konin? Also which Warsaw station should we use? Thanks.



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