Night from a railroad car window

Night from a railroad car window
Is a great, dark, soft thing
Broken across with slashes of light.

“Window” by Carl Sandburg, American poet

Indeed, it was. Props to Carl Sandburg, a fellow Midwesterner and former Chicago resident.

However, I found overnight train travel to be far from completely as romantic as it’s sold to me in films. It wasn’t the worst thing in the world, of course, and I think everyone should do it (at least once). I just felt like I was on a metal ship on rocky seas all night.

Let’s back up to the process of overnight train-ing.

First of all, you board into the correct car on your ticket. Each car, at least on this one, was marked with a particular destination. So, if you were bound for Krakow, Warsaw, Budapest, Prague, Berlin – you were in that sleeper.

The “car master” tastes your tickets for you to get stamped so you needn’t be bothered until it’s time to get up. I settled into my sleeper with my stuff, which had a plug for charging my phone, and tried to fall asleep.

First off, it is rather loud in there. Secondly, there’s at least some kind of light that will remain on all night. So, I recommend both ear plugs and an eye mask if you need relative quiet and darkness to sleep.

The bed was as comfortable as one could expect – I’ve slept on worse Chinese beds, hard as granite – and it came with a cozy blanket and pillow. I rolled onto the bottom bunk after rinsing up in the small sink and tried to fall asleep.

I never really truly fell asleep. Just as I started to, the train would come to a screechy, rocky stop at a station. Then, if someone boarded, it was guaranteed that they’d come galumping down the hallway rather loudly. My car picked up some very loud gents around 3 AM, and it took them a bit to get settled.

So, yeah, there was no way I was going to sleep unless medication was involved.

But, it was something new to try, something to say I’ve done. Of course, it was way cheaper than flying from city to city, and I figured I may as well give it a go. I would do it again, should it be the best way to get from Point A to Point B, but I think I’d rather do an eight hour trip in the daytime if I could. I like reading and listening to podcasts, so that might be an easier ride for me.

The sleeper, blessedly, was just for me. I wasn’t going to have any other guests in there. Admittedly, the curiosity if I would kept me up a bit as well, expecting a rap on the door to let them in.

Cozy space
Cozy space

However, trains are completely safe ways to travel for a woman on her own. There are two locks on the inside, so no one can get in from the hall. There’s a button to call the car master should something come up. Nobody really was there to bother me. And, the sleepers are booked all female or all male, unless you buy the lot, as I understand.

In the morning, I was happy to sit on my bed and look out the window at the mysteriously foggy morning landscape of Poland. It was actually pretty neat to be seeing the homeland of my great-ancestors. My surname is a Polish one, but I’m only 25% Polish, and no, I don’t have any grasp on the Polish language. My grandfather was born in the U.S., to a farming family, and we’ve got quite a popular name in Poland at present. Not so much in the U.S. Current events there are not so good.

About a half hour to twenty minutes before the stop, the car master comes by, knocks at the door to make sure you’re awake (much gentler than the bright lights flipping on in airplanes and pissing you off), and returns your stamped tickets. He also helped me with my fat suitcase to the door so I was ready to get off the train in Krakow.

Overall, the process of an overnight train was relatively pain-free (minus the couchette vs. sleeper debacle at the Bratislava train station) and easy to sort out. I don’t regret doing it, and I am happy that I did it and had a tale to tell afterwards. Again, I used (German rail site) and Slovak Rail (Slovakia’s rail site) to plan my trip. Both are accessible in English. You can’t book on the German rail site, and I was having issues trying to sort out a ticket on Slovak Rail.

I recommend getting one at the station – and it’s helpful to have the website available or a print-out of what train you’re wanting, in case of a lost-in-translation moment. It also helps too, because if you’re a native English speaker, and you speak quickly and with an accent, that can be difficult to understand. I know how I am with Mandarin when it’s too fast – things I’d normally understand in a class are way over my head when a cabbie starts going off about something.

The train station in Krakow is a nicely-laid out one with ATMs, cafes, restaurants, a pharmacy, local shops, and a giant shopping mall (Galeria) attached to it and the gateway to Old Town. It was buzzing with activity already at a little after 7 AM.

I recommend the cozy coffee shop there. The staff were friendly in my tired and were kind about my “death-warmed-over/zombie-back-from-the-dead” state. I asked for the most caffeine they could muster (I hadn’t slept all night), and I ended up with a monster coffee that had hints of honey to it. Also, I told him I wanted the tastiest pastry they had, and I was accommodated with a delicious, orange-bit glazed paczki. Think of it as a fat, jolly, jelly-filled (or cream-filled) doughnut. Perfect.

The only way to shake off the night …

The taxis are available on either side of the station, and look for an official insignia on the door and a sign in the back window with the price per km. These are the legit taxis, I learned from a local when I looked confused about taxis. You can order one ahead of time on a website, but there were plenty when I arrived.

So begins my first day exploring Krakow. And it was a hell of an early morning.

Here I leave you with another one of my favorite poets, the indomitable Edna St. Vincent Millay, whom I read widely in university and instantly loved her poetry.

The railroad track is miles away,
And the day is loud with voices speaking,
Yet there isn’t a train goes by all day
But I hear its whistle shrieking.

All night there isn’t a train goes by,
Though the night is still for sleep and dreaming,
But I see its cinders red on the sky,
And hear its engine steaming.

My heart is warm with friends I make,
And better friends I’ll not be knowing;
Yet there isn’t a train I wouldn’t take,
No matter where it’s going.

“Travel” by Edna St. Vincent MillayAmerican poet

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