Saturday, August 14, 2010

The Hollow Tooth Diaries: Beyond Riga: Zachodni Station


If you're going to write about minor travelling inconveniences in a former Eastern Bloc country in an overly-melodramatic manner, you could do worse than have them occur at a place called Zachodni Station.

I mean, just look at that name. You've got the fairly-menacing "z" and "dn", you've got a letter at the end that pretty much never ends English words, and you have the inherent feelings of terrified uncertainty that accompanies the letter combination "ch" in any language from east of the Rhine. And then you to all that the officious blank signifier of "Station". Anything can happen at a station! What kind of station?

Commentors, feel free to encourage me to tone down the melodrama.

As you'll recall, I stepped into this land of linguistic menace at about 2 or 3am (I had no watch, and no clocks were forthcoming) after a 16-hour bus ride. The station was closed, save for a few outlying fast-food shacks. Friend Krzysztof was nowhere to be found, but I expected that. I had no money, no proficiency at Polish, and no idea what to do.

I staggered around the outskirts of the station for a bit (probably around an hour - this part's a little hazy) thinking that maybe Friend Krzysztof had just decided to pop out for a snack and would be right back, or was hiding behind the homeless guys sleeping on benches. Failing that, I'd settle for one of those pay-for-Internet kiosks they have at airports. No luck.

Part of the station was a little more open. The lobby for Zachodni Hostel (which doesn't sound any nicer) was open, and several backpackers were trying to sleep sitting in uncomfortable chairs while an invisible TV blared nearby. Just through the hostel was a bar that promised WiFi for a few zloty, but a) I didn't have any zloty; b) The bartender spoke no English, and I was too exhausted and/or proud to do Touristspeak; and c) I didn't have a computer anyway.

I did another round of the station, thinking maybe at 3:30 my buddy would decide to swing back and check to see if I'd arrived yet. After an indeterminate length of time standing completetly still and staring incoherently at the parking lot, I decided to head back to the hostel lobby and get some shuteye, figuring everything would be clearer in the morning.

I draped myself with my heavy raincoat that I'd been cursing as dead weight since I left the house, left my bags over my shoulders and my hat on, and drifted off to...


First off, I guess whoever was watching the TV in the adjacent heavily-secured room wanted to make sure all the backpacker bums could hear, so he turned it up about as far as it would go. Second, have you ever tried to sleep sitting up without a headrest in a hard, bus-station chair in your sweaty travelling clothes while wearing a couple of bags, and you're right next to the door that springs open with a menacing whir every couple of minutes, and you have no idea if your present situation will get any better in the light of day, and what if you never find Friend Krzysztof? What then? Do you randomly take public transit around the town trying to find the interesting bits, dragging all this junk with you until finally you collapse from dehydration because there are no ATMs in this scenario and even if there were, you're too afraid to talk to anyone because they'll all know you're a stupid tourist and/or cultural imperialist, despite that thing you heard where Poles like Americans even though you're not American, you could probably pass off as one, but we all know that you'd just freeze up, who are you kidding, remember Brussels?

The other thought going through my mind was how great a blog post this was going to be.

During this time, I made a brief inventory of the different approaches to sleeping in bus stations that I observed. The lucky bastards that got there first stretched out across several seats, though they weren't long enough, so they either elevated their knees, tried to balance on the narrow benches in the fetal position, or twisted their bodies and left their feet on the floor. The lucky ones used altruistic significant others as pillows; the rest used bags or nothing at all. Most tried to sleep sitting up, bags around one leg or, among the more trusting, nearby. The chairs were too far from the wall for them to have much success, as they had to basically lift themselves out of the chair to get any head support. As a result they tried just lolling them back, or to the side, or forward (my first failed technique).

After a few interruptions, I did another fruitless tour of the bus station, and strode back to the hostel lobby, determined to snooze. I packed my comfiest suitcase (not very comfy) under my head and stretched out across the seats. My particular resolution to the Legs Question was to elevate one knee and wedge the other leg in horizontally between the raised leg and the armrest. It is exactly as comfortable as it sounds.

There were a few more obstacles to a good hour's rest. First, let's return to that TV. I was too tired to care at this point, but I did manage to determine that the Polish dubbing industry favours the technique of "letting the original soundtrack run in the background while one stern-sounding man does every character's part" (a movie on the bus ride back did this in Russian, so this might have been Russian too). Anyway, it was an interesting diversion and I grinned beneath the hat on my face. And I was certainly glad when the movie ended and the TV switched off. I was less glad when it started up again playing the test-pattern sine wave frequency. My immediate thoughts were I'll never get to sleep like this. Well, actually I'll probably forget it's there soon enough.

Aside from that, and the police barging in a couple of times and opening alarmed doors to the sudden shock of everyone in the room, there were no more obstacles to a nice, peaceful sleep.

At 5am, the guard office burst open (with the sine wave still playing) and we were told in no uncertain terms to get lost, you goddamn bums (Amazing! I learned Polish in my sleep!), as the station was opening. We could sleep on their benches. The two tough-looking young men that had tried to sleep sitting up had ended up with their heads on each other's shoulders. How cute. I blinked at the grey almost-dawn and staggered over to the awakening bus station.

NEXT TIME: Escape From Zachodni Station!

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