While planning a trip around Lithuania and Poland for July 2009, I came across a comment on a website that it was possible to travel from Vilnius to Warsaw by train. The details given were sparse but the reviewer said that it was an interesting journey, you got to travel on a narrow gauge track from Vilnius to the border station at Sestokai and then change onto a standard gauge track through Poland. For non-train buffs, this means you start off on one of those big old fashioned steam and oil run trains they show on old Soviet films and then transfer on to something newer and sleeker (a bit more East German looking).
Being a bit of a train buff as well as a travel buff, I thought that an 8 hour train trip through Lithuania and Poland would be just the ticket. It would also be an interesting link between the two parts of the trip and round it off properly. So, when I booked my flight to Kaunas in Lithuania, I made it a one-way ticket. I then booked hotels in Kaunas, Klaipeda, Warsaw and Krakow. That was the easy bit as it was all in English.
I have always believed that if you have a smattering of a few languages – something Slavonic, something Germanic and something Romance – you can get yourself around the whole of Europe without too much trouble. All you need to do to make the mix work is to pick up some key vocabulary from the country you have pitched up in and then add it to the mix. Appalling as I believe my secondary school education to have been, I did manage to learn some French and German. A decade in the Czech and Slovak Republics added the Slavic element.
To be fair to my theory, this has served me well for most of western Europe and a fair bit of Eastern Europe as well. I discovered that if you speak bad Czech, as I do fearlessly, you can operate fairly well in places like Croatia, Greece, Macedonia and Slovenia. The theory had a wobble in Hungary but after a few visits I came to the conclusion that the Hungarians wanted people to think their language was hard. If, like me, you can’t walk past a wall plaque or monument without stopping to try and decipher it you soon build up a little vocabulary. If you have a bit of the lingo-mix mentioned above, you can easily fit a bit of Hungarian in there. It is not that hard. Goulash is guláš is gulyás is guljašš.
I was confident that my ability to pick up essential bits of vocabulary and mesh them to my all-purpose internal Slavonic grammar dictionary would see me through the booking process for the trip. Which is why I didn’t book the train tickets in London. After all, I had already had great experience of getting around Eastern Europe based on a somewhat incomplete knowledge of Czech and German grammar together with an extensive beer and food vocabulary in French, Italian, Spanish and Polish. I counted on my experience the previous summer, of getting myself from Tallinn to Riga and Majola (in Latvia) which had been successful. This was do-able.
I had a jolly, if sometimes stressful time, taking buses and trains around Lithuania. Looking at my photographs, I amazed at how many places I managed to get into bearing in mind that it was only in Vilnius that I encountered travel guides, menus and someone who could actually speak English. It was the year that Vilnius was one of the European cities of culture, so I think they had been practising.
Kaunas was the old capital of Lithuania during World War Two, but had been under Soviet influence ever since. They clearly had not been promoting the English language during that time. I offer this up as an explanation. The receptionist in the hotel spoke English but everywhere else I had to fend for myself. I ended up buying a guide book in Italian (!) at one point. Kaunas apparently has Europe’s largest shopping boulevard, several museums devoted to exciting things like the history of school teaching, some odd monuments from the Soviet Era, a genuine mediaeval castle and lots of traditional wooden buildings. The old seat of government is now a town museum and has probably acquired signs in English by now should you wish to visit it.
I was there for two weeks, so I worked on my language skills. The main form of transport around town were mini-minibuses. You had to flag them down and, if they had space, they would stop and pick you up. Before you got in, you had to ask the driver where they were headed, work out if it was in your general direction and then hand over the fare. I survived by writing down the names of places I needed to go to in my notebook: castle (Old Town Square was too hard and the castle was nearby), bus station, railway station, shopping centre and stop. I shouted these words at taxi drivers in my general Slavonic accent and got myself all over the city.
I was quite a disappointment when I went to Klaipeda, the seaside resort in the north west of the country, to find that a lot more English and German was spoken. It took some of the challenge out of the trip. For two weeks I actually knew what I was going to eat before it arrived. I even acquired a map in English from the tourist information office. Despite this I did manage to end up drinking some rye beer in Palanga (a rather nice seaside resort with the air of Southend-on-Sea about it) which turned out to be beer made from rye bread and was vile and undrinkable (yes, there are some beers that even I can’t drink.)
The only real linguistic challenge in Klaipeda came at the city railway station. Klaipeda railway station is situated some way out of town in an area which, at that time, was under construction. The station itself is a modern looking building which rather resembles a cross between a town hall and a 1970s shopping centre at the front with Austro-Hungarian Empire-style grandeur at the back. The front has a clock tower with some kind of sheet tin top in an A-shape and a corrugated metal effect in brick fronting the main station. It’s quite effective if you forget that it is meant to be a railway station or “Klaipėdos geležinkelio stotis” as they say out there.
I clearly went to buy a ticket for my journey Klaipeda > Vilnius > Warsaw in a bad year. I had worked out from looking at the departure board that all was not going to go well with this trip. There was a train leaving at 6 in the morning, which agreed with the large print timetables on the walls, but it did not appear to go to Vilnius. I did a bit of map consulting and, yes, I need to go to Vilnius main station to pick up the train to Sestokai and then to Warsaw.
The entrance to the railway station is pretty large and cavernous but lacks (or lacked) much in the way of ticket windows. One room appeared to be an information office so I tapped on the door. The station mistress was very helpful but no one in the railway station spoke English or German. They could do me a bit of Russian, which turned out not to be as close to Czech as I had always thought. She got a large map of the country’s railway routes and several post it notes. I looked for the route I needed on the map and then wrote on the post it’s the four main stations I needed to go through – Klaipeda > Vilnius > Sestokai > Warsaw.
There was a bit of finger waving and she crossed out Vilnius. Instead she wrote Kaišiadorys. Apparently, there was no train from Vilnius to the boarder and the Vilnius Express was only going to Kaišiadorys. At Kaišiadorys I had to wait and catch the train going to Sestokai. The Train left at 6 in the morning every morning. That was it. Miss the train and wait till the next day. All that became clear by pointing to the calendar, watch and timetable. Got it. Next I needed a ticket. There was no such thing as a ticket machine. No. Passengers went to the next office, gave the ticket issuer the destination and she wrote out the ticket, including all the changes. Luckily, the station mistress did the talking. There was much hand shaking and I got my tickets to Sestokai and then Warsaw International. The next day my linguistic adventures in Lithuania ended because the hostess on the superfast train spoke English.