A few years ago, when I was travelling across India with Molly, we both lost track of the day, and ended up boarding the train a day earlier than planned – the the great chagrin of the ticket taker. Rather than be punted off the train in the middle of northern India, quick thinking (i.e., a bribe) helped smooth things out and ensure that we made it to Delhi safely. A similar thing happened to me in Poland, only this time, it was not entirely my fault. I went to the train station and asked for a ticket from Warsaw to Krakow for a day in the future. The ticket agent, however, printed the ticket as being for a two day journey, starting on June 3rd and concluding on June 4th. Since the train ride between those two cities lasts for only a few hours, a two-day journey didn’t make sense. So, half-way into the journey, when I presented my ticket to the agent, she told me that the ticket was wrong and that I’d have to come with her and speak with the chief of the train – at least that’s what I think she said. You see, the ticket agent adopted that most abrasive of customs. When dealing with a foreigner, to have them understand your language, need only yell at them. Of course, everyone can understand English (or Polish) if you glare menacingly and yell in their face. The problem is never comprehension, it’s merely that they can’t hear you. Awesome.
To my absolute delight, sitting nearby were two women who spoke decent English. One of the women – a lawyer – accompanied me to see the chief of the train, who insisted that I purchase a new ticket and then write a letter to the station in Warsaw asking for a refund. I objected on the grounds that:
- I did actually pay for a ticket that appeared to include travel on that day
- The train wasn’t full, so I wasn’t reducing revenue
The chief contemplated this for a moment, made a few phone calls (thank you ubiquitous mobile phone coverage) and agreed that it was ok, with one caveat: in order to make my ticket appear legitimate, I was to tell anyone else who asked that I started my journey a day earlier at some small village, whose name I forgot. Thankfully the next ticket agent didn’t seem to care.
When I arrived in Krakow, it was dark. After a couple of misadventures, I made my way to the hostel, enjoyed my welcome drink (vodka shots, naturally) and then chatted with the staff to learn about the city. During the next few days, I wandered through old town many times, tried more beer and yogurt-like things, enjoyed a nice run along the river and, most depressing of all, visited Auschwitz-Birkenau. Learning about the camp in school, and standing atop the guard tower under which passed countless trains carrying people to their death are two very different things. It’s hard to appreciate the scale of the killing machine that was the camp without standing amidst the hundreds of crumbing chimneys that mark the former bunk houses, corralled by kilometres of electrified barbed wire. Reading about what took place in each building and seeing the names of former prisoners desperately scrawled onto bunks or etched into brick was heartbreaking. Although much of the scrawl was obscured by thick layers of paint (applied by subsequent prisoners at the direction of the SS), many names were visible. For so many, those faint scratches are all that remains of their existence – nearly everything else preceded them into the giant furnaces of death. So. Devastatingly. Tragic.
I’m glad that, along with the sadness of Auschwitz, I met some really nice people, learned more about Polish history and shared a fascinating discussion with one of the women at the hostel about sexual and reproductive health in Polish schools. Abstinence only. No condoms. Get married to someone of the opposite sex and have lots of kids, seems to be the prevailing mantra.