3 August, 2005

Warsaw seems to be in a perpetual state of busyness. For some reason cars also seem to screech their tires here more than anywhere.

And they have these damn cows everywhere.


The Palace of Science and Culture, widely known as the ugliest building in Warsaw. It was a "gift" from the Soviet Union which no Iron Curtain city in its right mind would have turned down. The local joke is that the best view in the city can be found at the top of the building, mostly because you can't see the building from there.

Warszawa Centralna station, where confusion was invented.

And here is one small bit of it. Of the first three columns, only the middle one applies to the station that we're in. The other two are the neighboring stations. Next is the name and number of the train which tends to change from country to country and sometimes even within Poland. It's hardly worth the effort to even know this. After that are the all important designations of what's available on the train, followed by a list of some of the stations the train is going to or coming from as well as the times of such events. Along with the lack of many actual train destinations, the whole purpose of these sheets is to let passengers know what track to go to. That info isn't here at all. And the roman numerals at the beginning seem to be days of the week since they go up to seven and this is how it's done in Russia. But it's unclear (to me anyway) why the day of the week seems to change between stations that normally connect to each other. (Note: this picture is a little blurry because I only took one due to the hostile looking cops in the vicinity.)

This is what my ticket looks like. It's been stamped by a conductor on each leg and shows the start and finish points of the voyage.

This is what a typical reservation looks like. You normally need a reservation for each train that you take. On this part your car and seat assignment are displayed, along with the beginning and end times of the journey. The reservation is only stamped by the one conductor for that particular leg.

Some of the new buildings that have gone up around the train station. A couple of years ago, it was a vacant lot.

3 August, 2005

Day 18. I really hate being sick. But being sick in a foreign city is even worse. Not only do you feel completely isolated but the sense of lost time and opportunity is ever pervasive. Fortunately I got to hang out in this city two years ago so spending most of my time indoors wasn't a total loss. And the last time I stayed here, I heard about the massive blackout affecting New York City and a bunch of other places. Missing that was probably more frustrating than missing a day of walking around Warsaw.

Not that I didn't walk around. In fact, I'll bet I walked around more while sick than I do when well back home. But I also spent a lot of time just vegetating in front of Polish TV. There are three state channels that don't have commercials and show all kinds of things from poorly produced soap operas to old American television programs. The dubbing is especially funny since most of the time it's just a solitary guy reading all the lines without any emotion whatsoever. You can hear the original voices in the background most of the time. This kind of dubbing seems to get popular from the Polish border eastward. I saw what may have been the worst TV show ever. It was a sitcom that took place in London called "Extr@" and it basically made "Three's Company" look intellectual. Bad acting, bad writing, bad set design... it was all there. I figured out midway through that this was actually some kind of English lesson program which explained why it wasn't being dubbed. As it turned out, it was made by Italians but I guess it could work in any country where English wasn't a primary language. I can't imagine why anyone would still be interested in learning the language after seeing what can be done with it.

But most of the time I spent reading and writing. Since I actually got up early enough for the free breakfast that came with the room, I went downstairs and stocked up on fruit and tea. I think I'll be able to drive the demons out fairly soon. I really don't want to be sick in Belarus.

Let me tell you a thing or two about Belarus. This former Soviet republic is widely known as the home of Europe's last dictator: Alexander Lukashenko. They never actually let go of the Soviet way of doing things. A week ago, Lukashenko sent his thugs to the headquarters of an ethnic Polish association and arrested several of its leaders. Poles comprise about half a million of the population, particularly near the border. It's turning into a bit of an international incident, with Poland puling its ambassador out of Minsk and Lukashenko accusing the Poles of trying to overthrow him. He rules with an iron fist and has all of Parliament under his control. (There was an uprising in Parliament back in the 90s which resulted in all of them being thrown out.) He wants Belarus to reunite with Russia which doesn't exactly thrill Vladimir Putin. They even still have the KGB in Belarus! Anyway, I'm saying all this while still in Poland since it's probably illegal to type these kinds of allegations in Belarus. It ought to be interesting to keep an eye on Belarus in the months and years ahead. Maybe even in the next couple of days.

So I walked all the way back to Warszawa Centralna station to make damn sure I knew where to catch my train tomorrow morning. And am I ever glad I did. Whatever good sense exists in Germany with regard to trains goes right out the window in Poland. I have never seen such a confusing and illogical system. I knew there was going to be a problem when I wound up in the main terminal where trains are listed with magnetic plates like the kind people put on their refrigerators to make funny sentences. There was nothing funny about this much bigger version though. And the yellow sheets of paper on the wall that announced departures were no help at all. My train wasn't even on there and the trains that were had all kinds of useless information, such as the time the train left a distant station instead of something useful like a track number. So I went to the information booth where the woman behind the glass just ignored me for about five minutes before simply walking away. I knew things like this would start happening as soon as I crossed the Polish border but it still throws me for a loop whenever I encounter such blatant rudeness. Anyway, I moved to a better window, one that claimed to be for international information. They told me there was a train at 6 in the morning and one at 10 but not one at 9. So I pulled my ticket out and asked why it said there was a 9 o'clock train to Minsk from this very station. Oh, well that's the train from Brussels, they said, as if that somehow explained why it wasn't listed or spoken about. I would have to "listen carefully" to the announcements tomorrow morning (in Polish, wish me luck) but it would probably be on Number 2. I never should have walked away without further clarification but I had already taken up a lot of time and gotten them angry by forcing them to admit the existence of this train. When I walked over to Track 2, I noticed big signs everywhere that said "3." At first I thought it was Track 3 which maybe was more popular than Track 2 across the platform. But no, Track 4 was on the other side. I was thoroughly confused now. Track 2, Track 4, and signs everywhere that said 3. That's when I realized that they also believe in numbering the platforms. Platform 3 was for Track 2 and Track 4 while Platform 2 was for Track 1 and Track 3. Got it? So when they told me to go to Number 2 tomorrow morning, I have no idea what the fuck I'm supposed to do. I mean, what possible good can come out of numbering the platforms as well as the tracks? If you have to even keep track of them, why not have mercy on us and use letters instead of the same damn numbers that are used for the tracks? I honestly don't know how a human mind could have concocted such a scheme nor how people keep from overthrowing the train station. Perhaps this explains the large number of menacing cops I saw milling around.

So tomorrow ought to be interesting as I try to put my various theories into practice. The last time I was here I left by bus so I didn't get to experience the train system to its fullest. (I recall transferring to a Krakow bound train in Warsaw on my way back which also was pretty confusing even with the help of a Warsaw native.) Supposedly only one car of this train goes where I want to go. Hopefully I'll find it or at least some fellow travelers who are equally confused. All of this to get into a dictatorship.

Since I was here last, Poland has become a member of the European Union. You still can't spend euros here however. Hopefully by the time you can, this country will have reduced the amount of unnecessary frustrations it subjects its citizens and visitors to.

I realized that this is my last night in a country with a Roman alphabet until I get back to the States. I shudder to think how much more confusing things can get when I don't even know the characters. From here on in, things have the potential to get very unsettling and delightfully strange.