It is an oppressively hot afternoon in August of 1990, nearly a year after the collapse of the Berlin Wall, and I am on the Budapest-Warsaw train heading for Crakow, Poland. I am sitting alone in one of the trains compartments, staring out the window at the passing smokestacks that line the Eastern European skyline like burnt conifers, about to light what I think is a Hungarian cigarette -- or it may be Czechoslovakian or Romanian -- when a bee flies into my compartment through the partially opened window and lands on my left hand, the very one in which I am holding the cigarette, just at the precise moment I flick my emerald Bic Lighter. Startled by the sudden flame, or perhaps simply out of malice, the bee sinks the bottom portion of its abdomen into the fleshy ridge between my thumb and index finger before falling to the compartment floor near my left foot. As the prostrate bee convulses in a spasm of spent potency, I crush it with my shoe. Its body makes a moist, crackling sound that sends an instant surge of nausea up to the back of my throat. Although my hand feels no immediate pain from the sting, it swells into something resembling not so much a hand as a puffy, pink oven mitt.
I return to meditating on the passing industrial landscape, wondering if we have crossed the Czechoslovakian border yet, rubbing the inflicted hand in syncopation with the trains wheels as they click in measured intervals along the tracks. The train has been traveling now for close to eight hours. I have been awake for the last 28 and am feeling extremely uncomfortable and dislocated. My mind, unable to make connections between things, transposes with machine-like efficiency the various images of the smokestacks, my swollen hand, and the remnants of the bee that now stain the compartment floor. Soon a more distinct feeling kicks in as the sharp, rising pain from the bee sting crescendos with all the subtlety of a high school brass ensemble.
We arrive in the Southern Czechoslovakian city of Brataslava at about midnight, where a large crowd of people boards the train and disperses in a mad rush to find empty compartments. I am surprised that so many people are waiting to get on the train this time of night. Now I am no longer alone, but surrounded by a group of people who all seem to know one another. There are five of them in the compartment with me -- three men and two women. All are speaking Polish. I do not speak Polish, but have become accustomed to hearing its
tongue-contorting consonants and roller-coaster rhythms through overheard bits of dialogue between members of the trains crew. Four of the people in the compartment look to be about my age, maybe 19 or 20, while one of the women appears to be much older, perhaps 50 or so. This may be an unreliable assumption, as I have met other Eastern European women whom I thought to be the same age, but who were, in fact, 20 years younger.
All of these newly arrived passengers are smiling and laughing cheerfully, even the older woman, although her laughter seems somewhat more subdued, perhaps a result of the image she strikes as she chain-smokes cigarettes and stares into the darkness outside the compartment window. One of the men, a tall youth with bright red hair, shoves a long, green army-style duffle bag beneath the seat where I am sitting I am forced to lift my feet from the floor to allow him to do this -- as the others place their bags on the shelves overhead. As the group settles into their respective seats, they continue with a conversation they were having as they boarded the train.
The youths appear to be making fun of the older woman. The older woman does not look offended, and even laughs along with them from time to time. Every now and then she glances demurely at the others and interjects a word or two, then returns to staring out the window. I cannot tell if she is lost in thought or merely transfixed by the lights that pass outside the trains window. As the conversation lulls, I work up the nerve to say something in English, prompting a surprised look from the others who stare self-consciously at one another. Eventually, it is the tall youth who, with a modest smile, responds in English.
"You are American?" he asks.
"Yes," I tell him.
"What is your name?" he asks.
I tell him. He tells me his name is Piotr.
"Where are you from?" he asks.
I tell him I am from New York. I do not know why I lie to him.
"Why do you come to Poland?" he asks.
"It was on my itinerary," I explain.
"Its where I had planned to go after Hungary."
He seems satisfied by this.
"You will like Poland much more than Hungary," he says with confidence, slapping me on the shoulder, a little too hard for comradeship.
I find his remark rather presumptuous, but do not say anything. The others in the compartment watch us and smile expectantly as we converse. None of the others seems to know English and Piotr does not bother to translate for them.
"You know Polish?" Piotr asks me.
"No, Im afraid not, " I confess.
He seems to take offense at this remark, the corners of his mouth turning slightly downward, as if he has just bitten into a bitter almond. His expression creates a comical effect, prompting the others in the compartment to laugh. I laugh along with them. As we all sit there laughing like a bunch of idiots, a server passes by our compartment, glances in with a bemused look on his face, then thinks better of entering, choosing instead to move on to a saner compartment. Just as quickly as it had begun, the laughter tapers off and its echo dies in the halo of smoke that hangs just above our heads. Now everyone is silent, lost along with the older woman in the redundant images that pass outside the train as we catapult through the darkness toward the Czech-Polish border.
For close to ten minutes now not a word has been spoken in the compartment. I have been listening to the click-clack of the trains wheels and staring out the window, trying to make out the now barely discernible smokestacks in the darkness. Then, quite unexpectedly, the young Polish woman, the one sitting next to Piotr, begins to sing out loudly in English:
Ill send an S.O.S. to the world
Ill send an S.O.S. to the world
The other youths smile and join her:
I hope that someone gets my
I hope that someone gets my
I hope that someone gets my
Message in a bot-tle!
The youths break out in uproarious laughter and glance shyly across at me. I laugh along with them. The older woman smiles as she continues staring out the window. As the laughter in the compartment subsides again, I ask Piotr:
"Do you like the Police?"
"Yes, we like American music very much," he replies proudly.
"Oh, yes?" I respond. "But I think the Police are British."
"British?" he repeats, looking somewhat confused at first, then disappointed.
Piotrs friends pick up on his disappointment, uncertain as to its source, but sensing that communication has reached some sort of impasse. They look dejectedly at one another. The sudden excitement of the moment flickers out and, just as quickly as it had arisen, leaves behind a sullen mood in the compartment. I realize too late that I am partly wrong. Although Sting is British, I think Stuart Copeland and maybe even Andy Summers are American, but I do not mention this. Now everyone is staring out the window again. The trains wheels continue their interminable clicking. Perhaps a half hour passes until, slowly, one by one, we all drift off to sleep.
At the Czech-Polish border, we awake to the voices of the Polish border inspectors. Piotr is leaning against my shoulder, his legs stretching halfway across the compartment, and I notice that the older woman is still smoking and staring out the window. I nudge Piotr and point to her, but he just shrugs and says, "Romanian," as if that one word was meant to put an end to all speculations about her.
Two men enter our compartment wearing navy-blue uniforms, one of them tall, fair-haired, and slender and the other short, dark-haired, and stocky. The tall one has a moustache that resembles a used shoe brush. The ends of it are dark, while the roots are lighter. The two men remind me of an old vaudeville act. The tall one begins barking out orders in Polish as the short one thoroughly searches the compartment. As we each pull out our passports for the tall inspector, the short one stoops down to peek beneath the compartment seat where Piotr and I were sleeping. Piotr makes an involuntary motion to try and stop him, but the tall inspector grabs Piotrs elbow and shouts at him angrily in Polish, his shoe brush nearly touching the tip of Piotrs nose. The short inspector pulls the duffle bag out into the middle of the floor and with a single, swift motion unzips it, revealing its contents. There is a brief moment of silence as all eyes lock onto the bag, each of us looking as if we expected from its hidden contents some sort of trembling revelation. Instead, the bag contains about 20 bottles of Hungarian vodka packed very tightly, surrounded on all sides by socks and underwear. The tall inspector gasps, his mouth hanging open as if he has just been insulted. He then proceeds to severely berate Piotr, grabbing him by the elbow once again and leading him out of the compartment. The short inspector follows them, quickly zipping up the duffle bag and hefting it over his shoulder like a dead compatriot. Piotrs friends follow too, except for the Romanian woman who remains seated, smoking and staring out the window. I notice she is no longer smiling. As the train pulls out of the station, I see Piotr and his friends on the platform arguing with some railway officials. Piotr is holding up two bottles of vodka, as if trying to reach some sort of compromise.
Once the train leaves the station, I take out a cigarette, which causes the Romanian woman to suddenly take notice of me. She scrutinizes my every movement with intense interest as I remove the cigarette from its pack, tap it lightly against a paperback book, place it between my lips, and light it with the emerald Bic. I stare blankly back at her as I inhale deeply and blow a thick plume of smoke into the gulf between us.
"Cigarette?" I offer, tilting the pack in her direction. She nods mechanically and reaches over to take one. She leans forward as I light the cigarette for her, then slowly settles back to take a long, deep drag. Suddenly, violently, she begins to cough.
"Hungarian?" she asks in a choked voice, her eyes practically jumping from their sockets.
I nod mechanically. She looks at me is if I were insane, then tosses the cigarette out of the compartment window. My eyes follow it as it passes out of view in a trail of sparks. The woman then takes out one of her own cigarettes, a Romanian brand I am guessing, and offers one to me. I take it, put out my own cigarette, then light both of the Romanian ones. The Romanian cigarette tastes exactly the same to me, but I pretend it is much better, nodding my head agreeably as if I were deeply impressed. A look of pride beams from the womans face as she settles back to stare out the window and finish her smoke. Every once in a while she glances over at me with a self-satisfied smile. I smile back and raise the cigarette in commendation. By the time I finish it, my throat is on fire. She offers me another one, but I refuse it with a gentle wave of the hand. She looks at me a little suspiciously, then returns to the scene outside her window. I pick up my paperback and begin reading, but I fall asleep long before finishing the first page.
As the conductor calls out "Crakow," I awake and look blurrily around the compartment. The Romanian woman is gone. I reach for my cigarettes, but they too are missing. The conductor stops in front of my compartment, looks directly at me without smiling and calls out "Crakow" again, so I quickly gather my belongings and head for the trains exit. Emerging from the train with a throng of people, I glance around the station to get my bearings. I search my pockets for the travel book I brought along from the United States, the one that lists where the various hotels and hostels are located in Eastern Europe, but I am unable to find it. I check my backpack, but it is not there either. Then I suddenly remember having taken it out to look at it just as I left Budapest. With a sense of impending doom, I realize I must have left it on the train, but as I run back to the platform the train is already pulling out of the station, heading for Warsaw. I curse after it, raising my fist as if the machine were an arch-enemy getting away yet again, then turn and look confusedly around the station like a lost puppy. I notice a Crakow city map on a far wall near the information booth and cross over to consult it.
The map of Crakow is in Polish, of course, and I am unable to remember the Polish word for "hostel." There are no obvious symbols on the map that denote one. I stand in a long line at the information booth, hoping the woman inside speaks English and can tell me where I can find the nearest hostel, but when I finally make it to the front of the line some 20 minutes later, she does not understand me, convinced instead that I am asking for a hotel. Frustrated, I look around the station again and spot a kindly-looking old woman standing by a magazine stand, holding an umbrella, although there is not a cloud in the Crakow sky. I walk up to her and ask if she speaks English. Her eyes expand with sudden fright, as she turns and runs off in the opposite direction. As I watch the old woman scuttle to the other side of the station, I am surprised to hear a voice from behind addressing me in English.
"You are perhaps looking for accommodations?" the voice asks.
I turn to find a short, slight, middle-aged man standing there and smiling up at me, dressed very sharply in a light brown checkered suit and canary vest and holding a gold-tipped walking stick beneath his left arm. His temples are streaked gray, and his teeth are unnaturally white, as if they have been capped. His tanned face causes the glossy teeth to stand out from his jaw, as if the teeth were about to jump out of his head and grab hold of me. I notice the mans accent sounds more German than Polish.
"Im looking for the youth hostel," I answer.
"Oh young man, you dont want to stay in one of those filthy places, rubbing shoulders with all those foreigners (he somehow speaks the word as if it were in italics). Now I, on the other hand, can offer you very clean accommodations for the night, quite reasonable."
"But I am a foreigner," I point out stupidly, as if it were not readily apparent.
He gives me a wry smile. "You know what I mean."
I am not sure what he means, but pretend as if I am.
"You are American?" he asks when I do not respond.
"Oh, how delightful!" he says with enthusiasm, a broad smile crossing his face and eerily exposing the mouthful of long, white teeth. I think it odd that this well-dressed and rather eccentric man is hanging around a Polish train station offering accommodations to wayward young travelers, but am mindful of offending him. I do not refuse his offer right away.
"How much?" I ask.
"Oh, not very much at all. No, not much at all. But we can discuss that later." He sounds less collected now, a hint of excitement creeping into his voice. "Please wait here while I run and get my friend Albierto. He is just on the other side of the station."
I watch the man glide in even strides across the station, exuberantly clicking his gold-tipped walking stick along the station floor. I am worried. The man seems far too eager to be a good host, I think to myself. He flags down his friend with a wave of the arm and approaches him, pointing energetically in my direction. His friend is a tall young man, about half the older mans age, with a long flowing mane of black hair. As the friend looks in my direction, I smile and wave, then immediately feel like a fool. While they are talking, I start to panic, unsure of what their real intentions might be, and pick a moment when they are not looking in my direction to flee. I head toward the stations exit, walking rather than running so as not to draw attention to myself. Just as I reach the exit I hear a voice call out after me, "Oh young man! Wait!! Young man!"