After three months of riding trains through, Berlin, Kraków, Kiev, Moscow, Yekaterinburg, Irkutsk, Ulaanbaatar, Beijing, Hong Kong, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Philadelphia, all cities begin to dissolve into one place. This new place, made from all places, has a train station. Inside is a small cafeteria filled with men playing cards. On the arrival platform, women and children sell hot coffee in small, white plastic cups. Others sell herbs and fruits brought in from the countryside. They smile at you with golden teeth. In front of the crumbling facade of the station, you can hail any car for a ride. Any citizen will accommodate you.
The similarities between cities crystallize as their differences become starker. You are overwhelmed by the number of people. Surrounded by so many human lives that have nothing to do with your own, you now know that your rules don’t matter, and that your comfort doesn’t matter. You are far from home and you’ve forgotten everything that was happening there. They have also forgotten you. You can see more clearly and you now know, at least a little more, what matters, and what might not.
We travelled over 18,000 miles.
Fette and I walked through Berlin together. I met her on Kurfürstendamm Strasse and we went to the original Einstein cafe, where the waitstaff in dress-white stack Viennese cakes as high as your eyeballs. We had coffee and caught up a bit before heading out into the street. Standing on a corner outside of a clothing store, Fette snapped a photo of an older man with glasses, a scarf, and short-brimmed hat. His wife accosted us. “Warum hast du mein Mann fotografiert?” We said sorry, that we meant no harm, and stared blankly at her. “Ich rufe die Polizei an!” she yelled. We crossed over to the other side of the street, pulling our hoods up to protect us from the rain.
This is the old Nova Huta steelworks, currently in use as a power plant.
Originally designed and implemented by the Communist regime, the repurposed and renamed facilities represent a major turning point for the people of Poland during the Solidarność movement.
Just around the corner Mischa and I found a small bar, if you could call it that, inside the courtyard of a large auto garage next to the steel works. The dimly lit room was big enough for only seven or eight people.
A curtained window let light in from the far edge of the room. Three men were inside. A woman, who appeared to be the owner, stood behind the bar. They were surprised by the sudden appearance of a young American and German, but after awkward introductions, they bought beers for us and asked us to sit down. They all worked at the plant, but it was clear they had been drinking for at least a few hours. The leader of the crew was Zbigniew, a rotund man with a friendly face, short black hair, and a strong Slavic laugh. Through my limited Polish and his limited English, we talked about World War II, his children, and his hopes for the future of Poland. He was concerned with the current PiS (Prawo i Sprawiedliwość, or Law and Justice) political party and the strong national turn to the right. He repeated over and over that we must all be friends, that it is the only way to survive.
I had reconnected with my family in Poland the year before, and I wanted to visit them again, especially because it was more or less on the way to Ukraine. My Polish had gotten slightly better, but it was still hard to have a real conversation.
When we arrived, the meat was already on the fire and beers and vodka were poured into waiting glasses, mixing easily with apple juice. Within moments, all anxiety dissipated and language barriers were broken down by the splash of alcohol. Amelia played piano, and Anna showed us her drawings and paintings. I spoke drunkenly with Szymon on the phone. He was at work in Denmark. Mischa, Stanislaw, and I drank long into the night.
After three days, it was time for us to continue our journey. Although the fighting at the Russian border with Ukraine was much further east, the train connection between Poland and Ukraine had been discontinued. Amelia and Stanislaw took us to the bus station in Rzeszów, just a short ride from Widełka. We bought Amelia sunflowers as a goodbye gift.
I managed enough Polish to purchase the tickets from Rzeszów to Lviv. We boarded the bus five minutes before it departed.
There was a group of Polish men in their early 20s on the bus who were travelling to Lviv for a bachelor party. They told us the beer was cheaper in Lviv. What was supposed to be a two-hour ride between the two cities turned into four and a half. Having been spoiled by Schengen borders for the past month, I forgot what it was like to have to go through a real checkpoint. We waited in long lines of old Russian Ladas, reminiscent of Soviet times. The long wait times that would cause a riot at any checkpoint in the US were par for the course here. No one was upset or impatient. Everyone waited listlessly, most people standing outside of their vehicles, jumping in occasionally to inch themselves forward. An older man and his wife stood next to their East German MZ BK 350, complete with sidecar. It was laden with goods from Poland.
Our documents were checked leaving the European Union, and again entering Ukraine. A stern-faced young female officer boarded the bus and scolded the group of boys in the stag party for laughing too much during the passport inspection.
READ PART 2 OF THE WORLD BY TRAIN
This is an excerpt from my book The World by Train. Send me a message if you are interested in buying a copy.