Saturday, May 8, 2010

Into the Countryside

I set off the first day from Warsaw to Jankowo, Poland. My great-great-great-grandmother had reported her birthplace as Jankowo on the ship registry documents. I planned to walk around, take a lot of pictures and hoped I might find the cemetery and possibly the graves of some of my ancestors or other extended family members.

When the train stopped in Jankowo, I stepped off the train into a field. There was one house about 50 yards down the track. After the train left, I could see that there was a small station on the other side of the tracks and 3 houses just behind it. The station was actually just an empty waiting room of sorts. The lighted sign that should have read “Jankowo” had been broken out. There wasn’t a soul around anywhere. There was a single, unpaved road that ran perpendicular to the railroad track and I didn’t see anything that looked like a town as far as I could see along either end of the road.

I started walking along the road behind the train station. After a couple hundred yards or so I still could see only the road curving to the left and some birch trees. I went back and tried the other direction. After a few hundred yards, I saw a small lake and some marshy areas. There were a couple of houses – or at least buildings of some sort – near the marsh. It looked like there could have been a small town on the far side of the lake. As the crow flies, it might have been 1 ½ miles away, but the road curved around the lake and I was not sure how far it really was to walk. The train trip from Warsaw had taken nearly 5 hours, so it was already near 4 pm. If I missed the last train out of Jankowo I might have to spend the night in the deserted train station! Not a pleasant prospect.

When I looked back toward the train station I saw a woman standing near what served as the platform. Realizing that she must know the train schedule, I decided I would have to abandon visiting Jankowo. The train arrived no more than 10 minutes later; I boarded to return to the small city that was one stop away, Gdniesno.

There was still plenty of daylight so I took advantage of it and walked around Gdiesno. Maybe my ggg-grandmother came to this “big city” with her family for shopping excursions or for special religious services in one of the old and richly decorated churches

As the light started to fade, I decided I better get in a taxi and find my hotel. I had used to book a room in a hotel that seemed to be in a nearby town. The name of the hotel and the town were printed out on my itinerary. I showed it to the taxi driver and he seemed very confused. He pointed to the ground and said what I took to be “Gdniesno”. Yes, I nodded, this is Gdniesno, but I pointed to the paper again and indicated that this was the address I wanted to go to. We went through this round of pantomime at least three times, before the driver finally shrugged and nodded, indicating that he would take me there if that was what I wanted. I handed him some paper and a pen and asked “How much?” He wrote 2,100 Zl (Polish Zloty), or about $700! What?

What to do now? The hotel room in Gdansk was guaranteed; it was far too late to cancel and get a refund. And what little I’d seen of Gdniesno made me doubt that there would be much on offer in the way of a good hotel. As a woman traveling alone, I didn’t want to be in a sketchy hotel in a sketchy neighborhood.

So it was back to the train station, but first I had to engage in another pantomime for “train station”. I’m embarrassed at the thought, but I even resorted at one point to making “choo-choo” sounds, but this apparently doesn’t translate in Polish. I finally went back to the pad of paper and pen and drew some railroad tracks. Yes, understanding at last.

I bought a ticket to Gdansk but when I sat down in the lobby and looked at it, it seemed to be dated for the next day. I went back to the ticket booth, and, again, in a combination of pantomime and a few words of English she understood, I asked if the train left today? Yes, she assured me and pointed to the date at the left side of the ticket. I later figured out that the date on the right side meant I was arriving after midnight – Gdansk was 5 hours away by train. No wonder the taxi driver thought I was crazy.
I was one bedraggled traveler when I finally got to the hotel. Amazingly, there was someone there to check me in, and even more amazingly, a young man all got up in full bellhop livery appeared to carry my bags to my room.

This had been my first full day in Poland, full of frustration, mix-ups and misadventure. I hoped that this would not set the pattern for what followed.