I guess 36 years is proof that I haven’t gotten over it. I was a college student on my first great adventure. After orientation in Vermont, my group of 12 maybe not quite as naive as I was and one slightly more mature leader had been bused to New York, flown overnight (my first flight) to Brussels, given one night to catch up with the time zones, boarded a train to cross northern Europe through another night, and scurried two cars down the railyard in Berlin to continue on east on the railroad of the other Germany.
Our ultimate destination was Kiev, now capital of an independent Ukraine, but then of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic. Later we would be going on to Moscow, Leningrad, and Novgorod in Russia proper. My own Grandmother had moaned, “Oh Barbara, why do you want to go there?” I wanted to go because I could. I’d been studying Russian for two years, as required for this program. And I figured, if I was going to travel with a group, why not go somewhere I’d be unlikely to travel on my own? On that East German train, I began to wonder whether I was up to it, and whether Grandmother had a point.
I’d been the last one of our group on the train in Berlin, and by the time I struggled aboard there had been no seats left in the plush-looking near end of the car. I’d made my way through swinging doors and counted myself lucky to find a single seat in one of the stark compartments farther down. There were 10 seats here, basically undivided from each other. I thought I’d seen no more than six armchair-looking seats in each of the other compartments. I didn’t care. I was on. I could go visit my group later and figure things out.
Six plump women in flowered cotton frocks nodded to me in a cautiously friendly way. One little girl sitting among them eyed me with unabashed curiosity. Young adults in the window seats gave me a more critical once-over and turned back to the view outside. My sigh contained relief, frustration, unease, and menstrual cramps. But I could see that the corridor outside was packed with standees, and not all of them seemed to look kindly on my having a seat.
As the train cleared Berlin and began to pick up speed, the grandmas around me settled in for the next leg of their journey. I could recognize their conversation as the easy chatter of women of a certain age in accidental intimacy, but couldn’t quite eavesdrop. I guessed they were speaking Polish; this train’s final destination was Warsaw. The problem was that their conversation sounded as though I should understand it. It had all the same phonemes as Russian, but they didn’t quite go together in anything comprehensible. The woman to my left took two huge oranges from the bag between her feet. She offered one across the compartment to the little girl, who checked with the woman beside her, and when she received the nod, grinned and managed to skip across that narrow space, curtsy, and accept the orange with an enthusiastic “Djinkuye.” Indeed, Polish.
My neighbor was now deftly peeling the second orange, and she and the girl’s grandma fairly cackled, licking juice off their fingers and in no time releasing dripping sections to be passed along both sides of the compartment. Just the smell was intoxicating in the stifling box. We had brought food from Brussels for the 24-hour journey to Warsaw, but most of our bottles of juice had been broken somewhere in France, and the rest were in the possession of group members in that other world beyond the swinging door. When the orange came back in my direction, I dutifully passed it to the sixth woman, who declined, and I didn’t make the first woman insist more than once, by gesture, that I take a section, and another. It was heavenly.
It also broke the silence between us. “A-mair-a-kun?” she asked.
“Mm,” I indicated through my juicy lips. I was loath to swallow, but relented to add “New Jersey.”
That apparently was hilarious. The people by the window glanced my way, I swear rolled their eyes, and returned to their own world and their own food. The little girl ventured across the compartment with wrapped candies.
My savior asked me something else that I took to be an exploration for a common language. I traded her a “Russky?” Some of the others allowed themselves scowls. The little girl looked a bit frightened, but her grandma reassured her with a hug.
The orange grandma asked again, “Parlez-vous Francais?” I had to say no, but the question had roused the interest of the window people. I could pick up (I had studied Latin) that they were from Paris. At least four of the Polish women engaged in an animated and friendly, if brief, conversation with the Parisians, which I could not catch. I enjoyed my second orange section and the break from trying to understand Polish, and laid my head back against the unpadded seat back.
We were clipping along now. I decided it was a good time to look for a bathroom, or at least to stand up a while to relieve my cramps. But the moment my head peeked out the door, shouts rained on me from the far end of the car. “Go back! Sit down! You’re the only one with a seat. Don’t lose it!” My group seemed to be crowded into the vestibule at the end of the car. I wanted to trade with them, but they wouldn’t hear of it. I went back and sat down.
The conductor came through. While he was sorting out the standees in the corridor, my seatmates all rummaged anxiously in their bags. My ticket was in my group leader’s pocket, down there at the end of the car. When the conductor came in and gathered up the other nine tickets, I was able to understand what he wanted from me, but of course not to explain where my ticket was. All of the grandmas tried to help. The Parisians looked on with what felt like disdain. Finally the orange grandma asked me “Deutsch?” By sharing “Bisschens,” she seemed to be able to tell the conductor where my ticket was, but that didn’t seem to please him. I tried again to head for the door, but the conductor barked me back into my seat in a voice that needed no translation. At least he left.
It wasn’t long, though, before we came to the East German/Polish border. That meant another official visit, and a very serious one, from a quartet of border police who sucked the last remaining oxygen out of the room. Of course, my passport was in the same place as my ticket. My grandma understood that, and with only a couple of clarifications, in a mix of German and improvised sign, she won me scowls, mutterings, but apparently an agreement to ask the other Americans to provide my documentation.
Less than a half hour beyond the border inspection, the train began to slow, and every Polish person in sight set to gathering up their assorted bags and baggage. Orange grandma offered me another whole fruit, but it had seemed such a treat to the others that I declined and thanked her as profusely as I could, in our mishmosh, for all her help. She smiled and patted my arm. She still smelled of oranges.
The moment the train stopped, to me apparently in the middle of nowhere, the grandmas leapt to their feet and began passing their belongings out the window. I looked to see whether folks in the hall were passing their stuff through our compartment, but there was a similar flurry directed out the corridor windows. Just as I looked back, the little girl was handed out our window, and she waved to me. The grandmas, all smiles, bustled out the door, each one taking an opportunity to nod to me, touch my hand, smile.
I breathed. There was no one in sight but the Parisians. Could that have been Warsaw? Was I now lost somewhere in Poland without documents? I bolted for the door and found my whole group advancing my way, with their suitcases in hand. “You wouldn’t believe how lucky you were!” they variously shouted to me. It seemed they had all tried to sit in first class on second-class tickets. It seemed the conductor had tried to throw them off the train. It seemed they had been allowed to huddle in the vestibule only by paying a hefty “surcharge” in cash, West German marks.
I didn’t care. I wanted to stand up and feel the breeze from the window in the corridor. As one of my group moved into my compartment, I heard her address the Parisians: “Hi! You speak English?”
“But of course!” they greeted her.
I thought it might be time to throw up.