On the Road, Part I: The Night Train to Berlin

It seems like a good idea this October of 1989 to two Americans as yet unacclimated to East Bloc gray: use a long weekend to visit old friends in West Berlin. Take an overnight train from Warsaw on a Thursday, return Monday (also on an overnight train) in plenty of time to meet the first class of the week. Tickets will be cheap if we disembark in East Berlin and cross on foot to the West, and the visit will mean good food, good friends, and the chance to buy sugar, coffee, drinking glasses and a low wattage 220/110 transformers.

Tickets are indeed cheap: $2.50 for two round-trip, second-class seats for the ten-hour ride from Warsaw to Berlin. They are also surprisingly easy to purchase: I walk naively up to the foreign travel window at Łódź Fabryczna station, whence no trains depart for foreign cities, write on a sheet of paper “Warsaw —> Berlin X. 19. 22:05 Berlin —> Warsaw X. 23. 19:00 2 Klasse” and hand the paper to the clerk, smiling my most ingratiating American smile. She studies the sheet of paper, asks something of her colleague (I catch only the word Amerykanin), and agrees to sell the Americans two tickets for the train in question. I hand her two American passports, and she writes out two train tickets (by hand, as international tickets are produced in Poland), and by golly, we have our tickets to Berlin.

“They sold you those tickets at Fabryczna?” asks Krzysztof Andrzejczak incredulously. “Are they valid?”

I show him the tickets and, by golly, they are just fine. “Nothing to it,” I boast, unaware that never again will I be able to purchase an international train ticket in the city of Łódź.

“But you also need reservations. Did she give you reservation cards?”

There is the rub. At this late date, reservations can be had only in Warsaw. So Warszawa Centralna it is, two hours up, two hours back, four hours waiting at foreign reservations windows 17 to 21 (only two windows open at any given time, sometimes only one, what with clerks taking half-hour tea breaks and lunch breaks and break breaks), each reservation requiring at least fifteen minutes as the clerk behind the window telephones some central office, in which sits another clerk with a telephone in one hand and a car-by-car, compartment-by-compartment, train-by-train chart of everything leaving Poland during the next thirty days, and your clerk talks to the other clerk, who looks through the charts of the train you have requested for an empty box among the second-class seats, and if she finds one she tells your clerk “yes, we have a seat,” and writes your name and ticket number into that formerly empty box while your clerk writes a corresponding name, car and seat number on a 1” by 2” piece of cardboard, which she hands to you to keep with your tickets, and of course with clerks all over Poland dialing into this same office, it takes ten minutes just to get connected, and welcome to the East Bloc, although it serves you Amerykanskis right for refusing Poland the computers that might make this nonsense a memory of the buried past.

By the time I reach window 17, I’ve had plenty of time to write on another small scrap of paper the symbol for sleeping car and a question mark. The woman in window 17 places a telephone call, waits several moments for an answer, says something I do not understand into the receiver, and then, to me, something I do understand: “Nie ma.”

No sleeping car berths.

“How about just a reservation?” I ask.

Tak, tak,” she answers. Of course, of course. She writes out two cardboard reservation cards (1,000 złotych each), bearing date, time, car, and seat number. “Thank you very much.” “You’re welcome very much, sir.” Make return reservations in Berlin, sir. Thanks for eight hours of your time, sir. Next?

A second full day in Warsaw produces two round-trip transit visas through the Deutsche Demokratische Republik at a price, payable in hard currency only, slightly more than double the price of the train tickets. I phone Gabriele in Berlin to announce our arrival, another major accomplishment, since international lines to Berlin are scarce as 20-groszy coins, and everyone wants to use them. “Dialing for Deutschers” this game is called, and you can play it for hours.

“I hope they let you through,” Gabriele says, after I’ve finally gotten lucky. “Americans should have no problem, but the East Germans are angry now with Poles. Poles come to East Berlin and buy up all the food, then sell it in West Berlin, where Easterners cannot go, at a big profit. Making a big mess on the way. Besides, so many East Germans have escaped to the West through Poland and Czechoslovakia and Hungary. Last week Gorbachev was here, and he was not very reassuring. People have trouble…” The line goes dead, and I’m too tired to invest another couple of hours in dialing.

“What harm can come of trying?” I ask Michelle, turn out the light, and fall into a fitful sleep.

“The overnight to Berlin?” asks a friend, hearing of my adventure. “People call that the Peddlers’ Express. Poles need no visa for West Berlin, you know. They buy crystal, chocolate, vodka in shops here or in East Berlin, and sell it in West Berlin, cheap by German standards, but for a big profit. Then they bring back electronic equipment. I once saw a man get off the train from West Berlin with five VCR’s. It’s quite a business these days. Hope you have reservations.”

Thursday evening, 10:05 p.m. finds Michelle and me on platform 2 at Warsaw Central lost in a herd of Polish peddlers, each with several vinyl suitcases stuffed to bursting with chocolate, vodka, and crystal. The train’s arrival precipitates a mad rush for seats, although nobody is supposed to board this train without a reservation. One trader leaps through the door of the still-moving train to claim two empty seats, then collects boxes and suitcases passed through a window by his accomplice. As we board, a gang of particularly low-life types crowds into the aisle from either end of the car, separating me from Michelle, and diverting my attention momentarily. Two stout men block the aisle, engaging in idiotic conversation, as she disappears into the distance. They wave cigarettes and push bellies at each other, and I have my suitcase and they don’t understand my English “Pardon” and “excuse me.” People press in behind, crushing against me. Michelle, nearly to the end of the car and intent on finding our compartment and seats, does not hear me calling. I’m losing my cool, anxious about losing Michelle. Then a light clicks on in my brain, and I’m prepared when a hand not my own reaches inside my jacket toward my shirt pocket and my passport. Grabbing it, I confront its owner, telling him in my ugliest American English to get his fucking hand out of my fucking pocket before I rearrange his fucking face. This he understands well enough: the bigbellies disappear, and Michelle and I struggle toward seats 35 and 36 in car number 17.

When we find them, they are occupied… by people holding reservation cards identical to ours: same train, same date, same car, same seats. Consulting his reservation chart—the same chart kept prior to departure by the clerk in that mysterious office and delivered to him half an hour before departure—the conductor informs us that these seats have apparently been double booked. “Your reservations are shit,” he says in German.

An experienced traveler would have slipped the man $5, and he would have found a completely empty compartment in the first class, with all manner of apologies, but I am not at this point an experienced East Bloc traveler. “Shit yourself,” I answer. “My reservation are ten hours in Warsaw Central.”

Grumbling, he consults his chart again, then leads us to another car, another compartment, in which are two empty seats. “Take those seats,” he indicates, writing something on our tickets and in his book.

But alas, these seats also have been double-booked, we learn when more travelers board the train in Kutno, claiming our seats.

Possibly they have been triple-booked we realize when, in Poznań at 1:30 a.m. great tides of humanity flood onto the train, including two more claimants to our seats. We hold our own, supported by others in the compartment… none of whom, it later proves, have reservations themselves. “The conductor put these people here. Look at their tickets. These are their seats. They are Americans.” “Americans”—the word echoes and re-echoes like a totem. The newcomers grumble, looking at the crowded aisle, people taking up every square foot of space, some sitting atop their suitcases and boxes, half a dozen in the entrance at either end of the car, more on the platform trying to push their way aboard. Inside the compartment we squeeze together, folding back the arms between our seats so that five can sit on benches designed to hold four uncomfortably. Children sit on parents’ laps. Passengers stand in the middle of the compartment (they will stand all night, and we are still seven hours from Berlin). Suitcases and boxes piled two and three high rock precariously on the racks above our heads. Cigarette smoke, the smell of vodka and snatches of old Polish folksongs drift into the compartment from the aisle outside as the train stutters its way west out of Poznań. Giddy girlish talk, the nervous laughter of students embarked on an adventure, the steady earnest drone of traders passing information, the angry quarrels over territory, the soft “przepraszam” of individuals tunneling down the aisle to or from the toilets. The clink of glass as vodka is mixed with mineral water or muddy East Bloc Pepsi Cola. The unwrapping of paper from around sandwiches. The opening of tins of Mazowiecki paté. And then an attempt at sleep, which comes only in short snatches as the train rattles toward East Germany a hundred miles away.

Two hours later we reach the Oder River, the Polish-German border.

And wait.

After ninety minutes, Polish border guards enter, stamp passports, pocket the papers—with photographs—we had used to apply for Polish visas. “These papers are very important,” we had been told at the U.S. Embassy when first we arrived in Poland. “Do not lose these papers. Always keep them with your passports.” We object when the guard takes them, of course, but he insists: “You will receive new papers when you return,” he promises.

“How about the photos?” Each visa requires a passport photo, and we have brought no additional photos.

“Not necessary,” he claims; “new procedures.”

Next comes a customs agent, clambering through the crowd, inspecting bags and suitcases and demanding the currency declarations we filled out upon entering Poland. “These declarations are very important,” we had been told. “Keep them with your passports. Do not lose your currency declarations.” The agent pockets our declarations, announcing new procedures, promising new forms when we return.

An East German agent arrives, removes one page of our East German transit visa, stamps our passports, and turns in obvious hostility on the Poles. Carefully, he searches one of the suitcases, finds nothing forbidden, realizes he made a bad choice, grumbles something about only eight persons per compartment, stumbles backwards in exiting the compartment over a leg or a suitcase in the aisle, swears, disappears. (“In Rumania,” a student has told me, “they go through your things and keep whatever they like—it’s your customs payment.”) Another East German enters to check beneath the seat cushion for concealed goods or concealed people. He finds nothing, none. The night grows longer. The train sits in the station at Frankfurt am Oder, not 100 kilometers from Berlin, ten of us sitting, two standing in this compartment designed for eight, more standing in the aisle, untold masses huddled inside and surly guards outside and in… and we wait. East German guards inspect everything: the train’s roof, its underside, and—with dogs and flashlights—every possible hiding place. Finally in the breaking dawn, we lurch forward two hundred meters.

And halt.

And lurch backwards, slowly backwards, gradually backwards down a siding, backwards toward Poland and a pile of coal or cobblestones in the distance.

The train stops. In the dawn, the sound of windows opening. The train moves forward past a switch or two. Then backwards. Heads crane from windows to see what’s going on. Another stop. More noise. Forward past some switches. Stop. Back. Shouts of yard workers, the clanking of two cars conjoining. Motion. Looking out the window, I see travelers boiling from both ends of a single discarded car stranded on a now-distant siding, wrestling their luggage across several sets of tracks toward our train. A Pole says something in German to a worker, who barks angrily, “faulty brakes. This train goes through Berlin to the West. Your Polish brakes are not up to Western standards.”

A woman complains in a Berlin accent, “You might have warned the people inside. Look, the old ones…”

The worker shrugs and walks away.

“Saxon swine,” she shouts.

He does not respond.

Our train somehow absorbs these refugees, lurches forward and out of Frankfurt. The East Germans have committed a perfect crime: in the interest of safety, they have delayed us nearly four hours—us and everyone else down the line. They have asserted the superiority of German standards over Polish. The PKP, not the DDR, will be blamed for the delay. And somewhere in West Berlin, people holding reservations in that now missing car on this long-delayed train will be pissed out of their precise German skulls when their seats are nowhere to be found.

I curl myself around Michelle, trying for another hour or two of sleep.

Finally, four hours behind schedule, we arrive in East-shabby Berlin Hauptbahnhof, explode onto the U-bahn, which takes us to Friederichstrasse and the throng at Checkpoint Charlie: another interminable line stretching 300 yards outside the building. Nobody knows that in less than a month this place will be swept down the river of history by the forces we have just experienced. All we can do is hope for a friendly guard and wait, wait, wait another hour and a half, inching ourselves and suitcases along the sidewalk toward the low frame shed, down the packed corridors, toward the several gates, the freedom of the West looming easy and spacious beyond. More inspection of papers, more stamping of passports by DDR guards. I am too tired to notice that their questions are routine, their inspections perfunctory. All my attention is focused on that long, low corridor beyond the gates, that long gray corridor to freedom, empty, because no inspectors impede refugees on the West German side. That long, low corridor to open space. These sweaty, desperate masses in the East.

And then we are through.

Tired, hungry, irritable, we have arrived, Michelle and I, in the West. The end of the road—or the beginning: a festival of food, friends, freedom: good wurst, good beer, live jazz at the Eierschalle. We buy our transformers, and sugar and drinking glasses. We meet Gabriele’s new boyfriend and her old friends, architects Wolfgang and Brigitte Bleick. With her son Timm we take in a real American football game at the American high school: the Berlin Bears versus some team from an army base in West Germany. Homecoming, no less, with a real American homecoming queen, real American cheerleaders, real American hamburgers and real Pepsi. We hit Brandenburger Tor. We hit the museums. We hit the Ku-damm.

Warsaw Central Station, 1990

We do not hit the Polish market where 10,000 Poles have come this weekend by car, train, and bus to make their illegal fortunes.

All 10,000 have apparently left before Monday. Our return to Warsaw is as quiet as anyone could wish. Yes, we receive new papers; no, we don’t need photographs. Yes, we fill out new currency forms. Re-entering Poland takes all of about fifteen minutes. The only unpleasantry comes when a Polish custom agent hassles a student from Gdańsk about the VCR he is bringing home, demanding 360,000 złotych in customs. “Polish law forbids me from taking more than 10,000 złotych out of the country,” he objects. “Where would I get 360,000?”

Both know the student is carrying probably $100 in hard or soft currency. Neither really cares.

“That’s your problem,” she answers, writing up an invoice both know he will never pay. He smiles as he pockets the assessment.

My heart lifts just a little as I re-enter Poland. Gone is the anxiety of our first landing behind the Iron Curtain, that first view out of the window at the gray East, The Great Unknown, The Evil Empire. I feel instead an emotion which will grow every subsequent re-entry, a sense of coming home, a sense of lifting, a sense of joy.

“You can tell we’re in Poland now,” Michelle observes discreetly, pointing to other passengers in our compartment. She is right: west of Oder all was correct silence and decorum; east of Oder, it’s more kinetic: quick open the food, pop a drink, and chat, chat, chat. The change from gloom to sunlight is almost instantaneous, a reflex relaxing of abdominal muscles.

Wednesday, Michelle and I recount our adventure at the Institute of English Philology. “You were lucky,” says a student whose friends traveled by bus this past week to Berlin. “His group waited nine hours at the border. Customs agents went through everything, taking or destroying whatever they considered illegal or over the limit. Then the bus went on to Berlin, where East Berlin guards stopped it. They told people they could either turn around and go home, or go into Berlin without their luggage, which would be burned.”

Sławek Wiesławski drove to Berlin. “We waited eight hours at the East German border, another seven hours at Berlin. It was the same coming back. Guards went through everything in the car and charged duty on everything. I ran out of gas 100 meters past the border, in my own country.”

Listening to their stories, remembering our emotions upon leaving and re-entering Poland, I nod in sympathy. Genetics and training incline me toward the Germans: Father always said his family was from Berlin. Through high school and college, I studied German, not Polish. My sister, father, and brother also speak German. Ann teaches high school German in Pennsylvania Dutch country. All of them have all spent months, years in Germany. I worked, lived in West Germany; I have friends all over the Bundesrepublik. Despite two world wars, my instinctive reaction—which I share with many Americans—is to see things German.

But I am beginning to see history in a new light, and on this one at least I think I’ll go with the Poles.

Chimneysweep, Toruń, 1990