Click the link to follow the journey in the series, Train Of Thought
The train to Warsaw was nothing like the ones was I was used to in Europe; it took me back to the British Rail trains of the 1980s, complete with the deafening sound. My second-class seat was in a tight-fitting cabin for six, with our knees almost touching those of the passenger opposite: over a five-and-a-half-hour crush.
Frank Schell, managing director of an organic textile company, was taking his daughter Jana to Mazury in Poland, close to the Russian border, where his wife comes from. She had earlier taken their three younger children there for the school holidays while Frank waited for Jana to finish school. There were also two young children anxiously standing by the window, eager to be reunited with their father in Poland. Like most Germans, Frank speaks good English; we talked at length about organic textiles, a subject that interested me after my exposure to organic cotton in Turkey.
As we neared Warsaw, my concern about loneliness because of communication problems increased. The desolate landscape of the remote parts of the former East Germany, where neo-Nazis abound, did not help. I felt this worry would follow me all the way to Vietnam, my first South-East Asian stop, where I would feel comforted by our cultural similarities.
But I was wrong. At least in Warsaw. Most of the staff at the Top Floor Hostel spoke English. My room, overlooking the Marshal Edward Rydz-Smiglego Central Park of Culture, was comfortable and there was a kitchen on every floor. On closer scrutiny, I noted with horror how dilapidated the building was, with bits of mortar missing and balcony railings in a state of decay. My huge window opened completely, with no safety catch. Despite their membership within the European Union, health and safety concerns seem lacking in Poland.
Walking through the city, I came across a statue of a man holding a compass and an armillary (model of celestial objects) sphere. It was Mikolajowi Kopernikowi aka Nicolaus Copernicus whose book Revolutions Of The Celestial Spheres was condemned by the Catholic Church in 1616. When the statue was unveiled in 1830, the clergy boycotted the ceremony.
I carried on with my mission – to find Chopin’s heart. Composer Fryderyk Chopin was born in Poland in 1810. He started playing the piano at the age of six and wrote his first composition at seven. He moved to Vienna in 1830 and soon after, he settled in Paris. He died at the age of 39 from tuberculosis and was buried in the Pere Lachaise cemetery in Paris. His last request was to have his heart removed. His sister Ludwika did so, and took it to Warsaw. It was preserved in a jar filled with alcohol, and buried in one of the pillars of the Church of the Holy Cross. Using the excuse of checking to ensure the alcohol in the jar had not evaporated, scientists exhumed his heart in 2014 to try to determine the real cause of his death.
On the subject of music, I met a talented young Serbian at the hostel. Ilija Babic, 19, travels all over Europe, playing the percussion with assorted pots and pans. He agreed to let me watch him play in the town square. It soon became clear to me that Ilija led an unorthodox life. He took me on the bus but did not tell me we had to get tickets before boarding. I tried to pay the driver but he could not take cash but let us stay on the bus. It was stressful for me thinking of the bus inspector giving us a fine.
Ilija said “I don’t believe in paying for these things.”
“If only life were that easy,” I thought.
He told me that, on a good day, he could make €100 (RM470) just drumming for a couple of hours. A true gentleman, he wouldn’t let me pay for my coffee or buy him one, and offered to give me some money when he heard about the state of my own finances. Fortunately for him, I had my principles, and refused.
Over the course of the afternoon, I learned a lot about Ilija and much of it frightened me. He had left high school without sitting for his examinations, even though he was a bright student. What was worse, he got involved in drugs; taking and later, dealing. At 19, he was already into the excesses of “wine, women and song” and his easy earnings from busking are making it easy for him to feed his alcohol addiction.
He seemed to have invited all the adult problems at such a tender age. It is as though he had a death wish; to get all of life’s problems over and done with before he touched 40. I admired this young man for his talent but, at the end of the outing, I felt as though the weight of the world was on my shoulders.
Throughout my odyssey, one of the things that caused me much stress was repacking after three nights at each stop, so I was grateful for some distraction. I learned that the hostel receptionist Michal Szymko, a journalism student, was also a keen travel blogger so we spent the evening chatting.
For a sensitive man, Michal seemed to take pleasure in scaring me. He warned me that not many people speak English in Russia and, worse, that I would be sharing my third-class compartment on the Trans-Siberian train with Russian men who would make me drink vodka with them. Michal left me with the biggest nightmare – an image from his blog, taken in the Russian train to Kazakhstan, of an overweight, half-naked Kazakh professor on the top bunk of the plaskart open carriage getting ready for bed. Will I have to sleep with 52 people like him on the Trans-Siberian train?
In a fortnight, we will find out what awaits the traveller on her next stop in Moscow.