Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. You’re tired, weighed down by a year’s supply of equipment strapped to your back, and you’re standing in what appears to be a queue for train tickets but seems suspiciously like a bread line. At some point, you resign yourself to growing old, possibly dying while waiting here. Against the odd, like Sisyphus topping the hill, you reach the window to be greeted (read: grunted at) by the model of terrifying Eastern European femininity.
It is at this moment that your mythic boulder rolls back down the hill as the Greek gods laugh at you. This Herculean mountain of a woman begrudgingly gives you one of the following answers:
- The train is sold out (but you haven’t yet told her which one you want?)
- The train does not go there
- There is no train (sounds like Neo of Matrix but you really do believe in the train)
- She shuts the window in your face, despite the long line formed behind you.
This is, sadly, Polish customer service at its best. We are a one-half Polish team, love the tender kindness and openness of the vast majority of the Polish who hold their heads high with the pride of their people, but even they will hang their heads and cry when confronted with the immovable object that is Eastern European bureaucracy.
This experience is not limited to Poland but is an Eastern European disorder. A dark leftover from the days of Communism when bribery and trade were the paths to success in life. Modern consumerism has improved most customer service, and increased awareness of corruption has reduced its presence, but the surly, middle aged roadblock between you and your train or bus tickets has not exactly stayed with the times. It took us three different tellers and over two hours to get a ticket on the train from Budapest to Krakow, which turned out to have plenty of seats and take exactly the route we suspected — to the city we wanted.
The reality is, in even the few years since we have been coming here, Post-Eastern Block has improved. Younger, fresher faces are appearing with an appetite for good will and many locals will go out of their way to help. The difficult yet surmountable (with patience and a little crying) has become rarer and can now be viewed more as one of the last authentic Iron Curtain cultural experiences.
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