The seeds of my second trip to Eastern Europe were planted on the first one. While talking with Tim, a travel companion I first met at a hostel in Bulgaria, he mentioned his future European travel plans. He could hardly wait to visit Krakow, as it would be at the same time as the beatification of Pope John Paul II. From there he would travel onward to Ukraine. That caught my attention. Ukraine had been part of the Soviet Union, a place I had never been, but was interested in visiting. “Ukraine? Where are you going in Ukraine?” He said to the city of Lviv, not far from the Polish border. It would be an opportunity for him to see a bit of Ukraine and visit one of the most historic cities in the country. Plus, American citizens did not require a visa to visit Ukraine. At that point, I began to formulate my own plans for a trip to both Krakow and Lviv. Flights to either city from the United States required multiple stops, in addition to a couple thousand dollars. My best bet was to fly into Warsaw, then travel south and east from there.
Voices Carry – A Transcontinental Nightmare
My excitement about this trip was tempered by the thought of starting in Warsaw. A Polish acquaintance from Poznan, in western Poland, had told me how much they hated Warsaw. They said it was a confusing mess that was not worth the bother. According to them, Krakow was the place to go. Others I talked to were of the same opinion. Warsaw might be the official capital of Poland, but Krakow was the real capital. I was also told to visit Gdansk, Torun, Wroclaw, but never Warsaw. My foreknowledge of the city was that it had been almost totally destroyed during World War II. The rebuilding had taken place under a communist government. The outskirts of Belgrade and Bucharest began to loom in my imagination, horizons covered with concrete apartment blocks. I was not looking forward to visiting Warsaw, but nonetheless I scheduled an entire day believing that it would still be worth seeing.
The trip required three flights and twenty hours of travel time for me to travel from the western United States to Warsaw. My final flight would leave from Amsterdam. This one would be the most grueling. I cannot sleep while sitting up, unless at the point of collapse. Nodding off is about the best I can do. Even when I am able to catch five or ten minutes of sleep, I awake drenched in sweat. I was at this point somewhere over Central Europe that a booming, thunderous voice in Polish came from a couple of rows back. A middle aged man in a business suit began to converse in the loudest manner possible. His verbal bellicosity was jarring. For minutes at a time he would pontificate at near ear splitting levels. Several times I turned all the way around in my seat just to glower at him. This did no good.
I began to wonder if I was really awake or if this was some sort of strange transcontinental nightmare. Almost as unbelievable as the volume level of the man’s voice, was the fact that not a single person around him seemed to take notice. The man he talked with sat rapt with attention. Everyone else slept, read or listened to music. Warsaw could not come soon enough. As the plane landed, the man stopped talking. I was shaking from a combination of anger and exhaustion. Like many of the people in life who have driven me close to the point of madness, my two-hour torturer turned out to be inconsequential. He deplaned in good spirits, while I was totally relieved just to arrive. Now that I was half out of my mind, it was time for me to collect my belongings and travel to the Oki-Doki Hostel in the city center. This was not going to be easy, since I decided to take the bus from the airport. That would put me right where I always want to be when entering a foreign country, on edge.
Moment of Clarity – Extra Baggage
My tension and fear were induced by the following sentence from the Wikitravel Warsaw webpage: “ (Bus) Number 175, which runs from the airport to city center, is reportedly infamous for pickpockets and sometimes snatch-and-run thefts.” Of course, I chose to take this bus. I could just as easily have booked a taxi in advance, but I was too cheap. My ulterior motive was more self-serving, some might even say self-flagellating. I was magnetically attracted by potential danger. In the weeks prior to departure I had spent countless hours reading and rereading that sentence, doing ridiculous researches about bus crime in Warsaw. Obsessing over the possibility of becoming a robbery victim made my arrival in Warsaw more interesting.
A logical person would have just taken a cab, but obsessions are never logical. They are grinding, gnawing and all consuming. Warsaw was a city I had little interest in visiting, but I did have an intense interest in seeing whether I could ride bus #175 from Warsaw airport to the city center without getting robbed. Of course, I was exaggerating the threat, but that was precisely the point. The tension I felt when boarding the bus was real. I was in survival mode due to a self-perpetuated delusion. My fear and paranoia were real.
The imagined threat, turned out to be just that. Bus #175 was half empty. The passengers were either tourists like me or locals getting an affordable lift to the city center. Everyone and everything looked to be totally normal. No one was eyeing my bags or sizing me up, for that matter no one was sitting closer than a couple of rows from me. Still I kept clutching my luggage as though any moment a life or death struggle would ensue. I knew better, but obsessing over a crime that would never happen satisfied a deep seated fear. That fear did not repel me, it actually attracted me. This was my moment of clarity. Fear was what brought me to Warsaw and I would carry it with me to the frontiers of Eastern Europe.