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Down with the outcasts on a Polish train


“There’s no space left in the sleeper compartments- all we have are regular seats but only in first class. The price is 105z³”

“OK. First class it is then”

So began my first experience of the “luxuries” of first-class travel, where else but in the salubrious surroundings of Kraków main station, the starting point for my 14 hour overnight trip to Koszalin on the Baltic coast.

WAITING, WAITING, WAITING

Sitting in the ‘bar’ on peron (platform, sort of) 5 an hour ahead of time with my decidedly un- first-class looking luggage of; a supermarket carrier bag full of food and drink, and a ketchup stained holdall, the aim was to write about the week’s earlier adventure- to Warsaw- over a strength boosting cappuccino and mineral water. However, inspiration on one side far outweighed the other- Warsaw already seems like an element of someone else’s distant past now that the next expedition has so soon been undertaken.

One undeniably brilliant element of my spur of the moment decision to catch this train is that today, being Friday, and the time, being around 5pm, mean that I am travelling at the worst possible time of the entire week. A close second is Sunday afternoon, when, obviously, I’ll be travelling back down the way I’m about to go1. This was, of course, the cause of my enforced dabble into first-class travel. Whatever happens while I’m there, it can only be a vast improvement on the expected hellish journey and the farcical events at the ticket desk.

Yes, I made it sound like the purchase of my first first-class ticket was carried out in a suave, confident, take-everything-in my-stride kind of manner. Once the whole story is known, however, a very different picture is painted. The full exchange between me and the lady serving me at the ticket desk was something like this:

2 or 3 minutes of my ‘server’ pressing buttons on her computer at a speed almost invisible to the naked eye- not unlike trying to follow the puck in a game of ice hockey on TV- in a doomed attempt to solve some sort of problem for a colleague. Eventually, she noticed the line of 5 or 6 people waiting for her, of which the first was me.

LADY: Yes, please?
ME: Koszalin please, at 18.12
LADY: 18.00?

1 I was soon to discover the error in my thinking here. Friday evening has nothing on Sunday….
 

ME (slightly confused): Er, yes
LADY: Are you paying by card or cash?
ME: Card
LADY: 95z³

I hand over my card, she gives me in return a ticket to Warsaw Central

ME: Hold on, not to Warsaw, to Koszalin
LADY (annoyed): Koszalin?
ME: Yes, Koszalin
LADY (still annoyed): Your payment was cancelled, here’s the receipt. See? Cancelled
ME:OK, thanks
LADY: So Koszalin. Sleeper?
ME (praying for spaces): Yes
LADY: There are no spaces left. You’ll have to have just a regular seat.
ME (looking for convenient exits back to my comfy bed): OK
LADY: There are only spaces left in first class though. First class (last part very clearly and slowly in an incredible imitation of an English person trying to speak to a foreigner). 105z³
ME: OK, no problem

I hand over my card again, this time getting a ticket to Koszalin in exchange

LADY: Denied
ME: Sorry?
LADY: Denied. Your payment was denied.
ME: Try this one

I hand over UK card, which receives a thorough and extremely suspicious examination

LADY: Sign this

She hands me a receipt to sign, ands looks at me begrudgingly as I do so. Why do so many people here look at you as if you’ve forced them into the job they clearly hate? It’s not my fault!!

LADY: Thank you

Returns card

ME: Thank you, goodbye

By this time a sizeable queue had built up behind me, looking anything but impressed by my performance. This queue was rendered even more impressive by the fact that it was composed of precisely none of the people who had been in the queue when I begun the conversation about the ticket with my lady at desk number 1

TOO MUCH WAITING CAUSES THE MIND TO WANDER

Only 53 minutes left until departure now, and the usual worries experienced when travelling on the Polish railways are surfacing again. The main points of concern are always two, and they are “Am I waiting on the right platform?”-not helped by the unnecessarily arcane system whereby, instead of platform numbers, there are ‘peron’ numbers and (seemingly random) ‘tor’ numbers- and “Have I got the right ticket?” Unprepared overseas types, i.e. me, are seemingly the principal targets of the equally complex world of different train types, routes etc., and their associated prices.

Confidence boosted by the fact that the price I paid matched that given on the website when I looked up the train earlier, I’m sitting here on peron 5 as per the timetable, waiting to see which tor my train will pull in at. No help at all from the impenetrable announcements spouting from the public address, serving the sole purpose of raising the general level of ignorance as to what is going around us.

NOT THE BEGINNING OF THE END, JUST THE BEGINNING OF THE BEGINNING

Today, not for the first time, I almost fell victim to the national administrational quirk of simply writing over pieces of the timetable, by hand, when the time or peron of a train changes. After waiting patiently on peron 5 for the arrival of the 18.12 to Ko³obrzeg (which, interestingly means ‘Circle’s edge’. Shame I won’t make it quite that far to find out more, though to be honest ‘Edge’. Brzeg near Wroc³aw was pretty underwhelming), I consulted the timetable once more for some reassurance that I was in the right place. Only now, on this casual additional glance, did I notice the red biro numeral I next to the V in the peron column telling me I should be on peron 4 not 5! Had I not checked I would now be on a train to Warsaw wishing I’d taken the first ticket I was given. A close shave indeed.

As expected, first class on the PKP network is not much of a step up from second class. In return for the additional 50% you pay on top of the standard price you get the following: a red seat, instead of the blue/green efforts that the mere mortals seem content with in second class and that’s about it. Oh no, wait, not only is the seat red and slightly larger, it also has a lever on the right hand side that a person could be forgiven for thinking would cause their seat to recline somewhat. Said person would probably be slightly miffed at the 1mm (max) of movement in seat position resulting from pulling their lever. Not quite the opulence I was hoping for but, let’s face it, no surprise.

OUR FIRST STOP

No idea where though, again a common situation here in Poland. Except for the very biggest stations in the major cities, any given station will have a maximum of one sign telling you where you are.

HOMEWARD BOUND

Back in second class today, and with something of a bang- not only did I miss out on a red seat, I spent the first 4 hours of the journey without any form of seat, with only the toilet opposite me for company. Or so I thought.

During this time sat on the floor of the carriage, which was, I must admit, a very similar shade of red to that normally signifies first class seats, I found myself in the company of Przemek and Grzegorz. They were are an odd pair- Przemek was probably late 20s, had blond hair, increasingly red skin on the face and an earring in one ear and Grzegorz must have been 25 years older with that classic symbol of trustworthiness in Poland, a big bushy moustache. They were both very much on the scruffy side of unkempt and I had no trouble spotting them for the heavy drinkers they soon transpired to be.

No sooner had the train pulled out of my starting point of Bia³ogard, when the vodka came out. At first I decided against taking a swig of the bottle when they offered- I had stuff to do that required a reasonable level of concentration- but I soon came to the dawning realisation that the reason there weren’t usually people sitting where I currently was is because it’s not very comfortable, despite its redness. A bit of alcohol would definitely make the journey go smoother.

We got chatting, as guys do when sharing a bottle of vodka and a view of a filthy  train toilet, mostly about England as it was important to steer clear of any subjects that might raise the ire of Grzegorz. Alas, this included virtually everything, given his intense dislike of pretty much anyone born outside of Œl¹sk- at one point I had to hastily retract a statement about the ugliness of Katowice compared to Kraków. To be honest Katowice even makes most other industrial wastelands look good but Grzegorz was having none of that.

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