Notes from a Polish Train

The sky is already dark and the train is full when it struggles into Warsaw on a November afternoon. A familiar anxiety rises in my chest as I clamber aboard. Is this the right train? Where will I sit? I know the answers are on my ticket, printed in purple ink, but I cannot decipher any of the Polish words, crammed with consonants. And so each journey begins, with a small leap of faith.


The car is overcrowded, and passengers linger in the hallway, hanging their heads out the window for fresh air. I find a compartment with a seat and betray myself by asking in English, “may I sit here?” No news is good news, so I plant myself between an older man who wears a suit and occupies twice the space he should, and the belongings of a young woman who stands in the aisle, smiling carefully and adjusting her hair. Everyone has stowed a suitcase, so my backpack remains on the floor in the space meant for my legs. As the train groans away from the platform and into the dark network of tracks beneath the city, my knees are already protesting their confinement.


At the first stop, more people pack themselves onto the train and one seat becomes two with no small effort. I know I should expect additional passengers on the way out of town, but rarely remember to, and the newcomers have forgotten this rule of train travel as well, looking distressed by the crowding in our compartment. Suddenly, two women decide to seek their fortunes elsewhere on the train. The giant man who just arrived can now sit opposite me and I can breath deeply again. I reach into my pocket for my iPod with newfound elbow room as I appraise him out of the corner of my eye. He wears a checkerboard flannel shirt, yellow and black, and smells faintly of labor and sweat. He is graying reluctantly and his face is deeply lined, topography that speaks silently of years. He sits restlessly, eyes closed with his head in his hands, hunched under some invisible load. My imagination casts him as a woodcutter, returning home from some unknown errand. He answers two phone calls. He helps a girl with her suitcase. He wears no wedding band. I cannot guess his business on this foggy night.


Our train is slow, slow enough to examine the graffiti at each dingy station we pass, lit by unfaithful fluorescent lights. But none of these platforms is the right one and the journey drags on, further east than I have ever been with each passing kilometer. There are three students in my compartment. One diligently reads a chemistry book in the corner, fixated and unmoving, except to turn pages. Another writes steadily, page after page of Polish script. The other listens to electronic music loud enough for all of us to hear while browsing a magazine. She wears a tank top with sequins and periodically pulls mysterious things from her purse. I always feel a vague kinship with anonymous travel companions as we find ourselves sharing space and a destination. But I never express this, instead I make up stories and personalities for the people I find on trains, crammed in a 6 by 4 compartment, and planes, somehow brought together at 35,000 feet. It’s a fleeting connection, a weak spell that is broken upon safe arrival. Finally, the chemist stops reading, the introverted writer puts away her journal, the fashionista packs up her bag, and the woodcutter snaps awake and rises to his full height. We have arrived. The doors of the train open with a hiss and like a horde of ants, its passengers emerge, streaming into the orange glow of street lamps and mist without looking back.

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